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In The Pyramid of Mud, the newest paperback Montalbano mystery to be released in English, it takes only to page 34 to find the intrepid Sicilian police detective regaling himself with one of his favorite things to eat: “a glorious pasta ‘ncasciata” that his housekeeper Adelina had made and left for his dinner. That dish appears in many of the 22 books in the series, always eagerly greeted and blissfully consumed by our hero.
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A few years ago I wrote here about my attempt to make that fabulous pasta ‘ncasciata, using the recipe in the cookbook I segreti della tavola di Montalbano: Le ricette di Andrea Camilleri. My version was a bit of a disappointment – a decent baked pasta dish, but not extraordinary.

I knew that there’s no single, canonical version of pasta ‘ncasciata, but they all should be good. Encountering it again in the new Montalbano story, I felt I should really give the recipe another chance.

I had ideas for changes I wanted to try, some because of guesses I’d made about vague recipe directions, and others to liven up the dish I’d made – about which, in my original post, I said “All the ingredients and textures blended too much. You didn’t get the symphony of individual flavors that a forkful of a truly great baked pasta dish provides. The eggplant was barely noticeable, the salami and eggs indistinguishable.”

Ingredients that are available in this country for Sicilian recipes aren’t always identical to the same-named items grown and made on their home turf. Thanks to American agribusiness, ours are often blander, more processed, less flavorful, and less fresh. I’d want to make allowances for that, while still keeping to the spirit of the book’s recipe. (Also, this time I was going to be extremely careful not to overcook the pasta.)

An occasion for my attempt soon presented itself: We’d invited a few good friends for a casual “family” dinner. These were adventurous eaters who wouldn’t mind being experimented on – at least, not if we also gave them lots of good wine! So I set to work.

To start, I peeled, sliced, salted, and fried two one-pound eggplants in olive oil. That was more eggplant, more thickly sliced, than I used last time, but the recipe merely says four eggplants, no size or slice thickness given. We like eggplant a lot.

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Next was to make a tomato-meat sauce. To perk it up, this time I infused garlic and peperoncino in the olive oil for browning my half pound of chopped sirloin. Then I stirred in a pint of my own light tomato sauce, salt, and pepper; and simmered for 25 minutes, until it thickened. That was more tomato and longer cooking than the recipe seems to call for, but its instructions on that point aren’t very clear, and I wanted more tomato richness. Having no fresh basil, I used parsley.

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I boiled a pound of imported Italian penne until they were not quite done, drained them and sprayed them with cold water to stop the cooking. The other ingredients to prepare were two hardboiled eggs, two ounces of mortadella or salame, and two cheeses: caciocavallo and pecorino. Last time I’d used a mild salame; this time I bought a livelier one: hot soppressata.
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My cheeses were the biggest accommodation to ingredient differences. The recipe calls for 7 ounces of tuma or young caciocavallo, plus 3½ ounces of grated pecorino. The only caciocavallo available here is somewhat aged – not soft and fresh, like Sicilian tuma, which isn’t here at all. The first time around, I hadn’t realized how much difference the age would make. The large amount of strong, dry cheese dominated and sort of flattened the flavors of the other ingredients. I didn’t want that to happen again.

Since caciocavallo is in the same broad cheese family as mozzarella (I’ve seen it called “mozzarella on steroids”), I decided to substitute mozzarella for some of the caciocavallo. The cheese in the picture above is 4 ounces of chopped mozzarella mixed with 2 ounces of grated caciocavallo.

I took a broad, shallow baking dish to assemble the ‘ncasciata, making layers of pasta, meat sauce, eggplant, sliced eggs, diced soppressata, and the cheese mixture. The recipe called for grated pecorino on each layer too, but I left it out this time.
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The top layer was eggplant, dabs of sauce, the cheese mixture, and just a light sprinkling of grated pecorino.
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The dish baked for 25 minutes in a 425° oven, sending out a very tempting aroma. Hopes (mine) and expectations (everyone else’s) were high as I brought it to the table. It looked and smelled so good that I began to serve before even remembering to take a photo of it – as you can see by the missing piece at the bottom right, below. (Thanks, Steven, for reminding me!)
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Well, this pasta ‘ncasciata was a definite success. All the flavors stood out as themselves and companioned beautifully with each other. The eggplant was luscious. The two cheeses balanced each other in taste and texture. The amount of tomato seemed just right: it was mostly absorbed by the other ingredients, providing flavor and moisture but no loose liquid. The soppressata tidbits were tiny sparks on the palate. The penne in the center were properly soft, and those at the edges nicely crunchy.

All in all, this was a dish I’d be bold enough to serve to Montalbano himself – at least if Adelina wasn’t around.

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Though it hasn’t yet been a terribly cold winter here, there have been enough harsh winds, wetness, and dark, dreary skies to have me reaching for solid, rib-sticking recipes to counteract the chill. One especially comforting dish of that kind is fagioli con la cotica: white beans stewed with pork skin.

Pig skin is probably most familiar to Americans as the cover of a football, but pork skin is also relished as the crunchy crackling on a well-roasted fresh ham, and next as an ingredient in cassoulet, where its natural gelatins add body and succulence to that long-cooked dish of beans and meats. It does the same for this simpler preparation with beans and a small tomato sauce that I first encountered in a trattoria in Rome’s Trastevere district long ago.

For my fagioli con cotica, I more or less follow a recipe in the Cucina Romana volume of the del Riccio series of regional Italian cookbooks. In my early years of visiting bookstores in Rome, I acquired 14 of these small paperbacks at $3 or $4 each. I’ve found their recipes very reliable, though like many cookbooks written in Italian they’re sometimes vague about quantities of ingredients – whence comes the more-or-less-ness of my following the recipes.

Overall, fagioli con cotica takes quite a long time to prepare, but the beans, the pork skin, and the sauce can all be done separately well in advance, and then combined for a final cooking of less than half an hour.

For a portion for two, I use a quarter-pound of dry white beans: marrows, if I can get them; otherwise great Northern. I soak them overnight, and the next day drain them, cover them with fresh water, and gently boil them, along with a sprig of rosemary, until almost done.
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The skin of a pig starts out very tough. There’s a reason they cover footballs with it! Several months ago my friend Michele shared with me a large sheet of it that she’d acquired, which goes in and out of my freezer as I need to take pieces off.
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This day I needed about four ounces’ worth. While that size piece was whole I dropped it in boiling water for 10 minutes, which softened it enough to be further cut up into short strips. Tom, my ever-expert knife man, did that for me, using a sharp, heavy butcher knife to intimidate the pork skin. Then the little pieces cooked in water again until they were tender. This took about an hour. The time can vary greatly with different skins, but it requires little attention other than checking from time to time on its tenderness.
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I started the sauce by sauteeing chopped onion, parsley, and basil in olive oil. (Rendered prosciutto fat would have been better than olive oil, but I didn’t have any.) In my mini food processor I pulsed a scant cup of my own preserved San Marzano plum tomatoes, stirred the puree into the pan with some salt and pepper, and cooked for 15 minutes.
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Then I drained the cooked beans, saving some of their liquid, and added them to the sauce, along with the cooked pieces of pork skin.
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The mixture simmered, uncovered, for about 20 minutes. The beans happily absorbed sauce, so to keep it all appropriately moist – just short of soupy – I stirred in a few spoonsful of the bean cooking liquid. The beans held their shape, the cotica softened a little more, and the dish was ready to eat.
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Homely in the best sense of the word, this is delicious, heartening food that warms the stomach and the spirit in equal measure. You can tell from its simplicity that it was born on the farm, and it still carries that kind of country pleasure. A bowl of these beans, some good crusty bread, and a glass of hearty red wine: just what we need in the dead of winter.

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On the occasional evening when Tom isn’t dining at home, I like to make a nice little dinner just for myself. I almost always choose chicken as my main dish, since he doesn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I do. One such opportunity came up just recently.

The recipes I chose for my meal, though interesting to read, gave me some concerns. Oh well, I thought; trying a new dish always involves some risk. In La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E. Saint-Ange I’d found a recipe for Poulet à la Casserole and also one for Endives à la Façon Flamande that I thought would go well with chicken. Acquiring the components was easy, because the only ingredients were the bird, two Belgian endives, and butter. The butter I already had.

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Madame is very particular about the size of her poultry, calling for two-pound young chickens in all her casserole-cooked recipes. We rarely see chickens that small here, but I found a fresh Cornish hen of the right weight.

The cooking method is ridiculously simple, but I wondered if it would work. It said to melt butter in a casserole dish. Once the dish was warm, put in the chicken, cover immediately, and let it cook untouched, on moderate heat, until the chicken was tender; about an hour. Then uncover the dish and “color” the bird in its butter.

Here’s the hen just going onto the stove.

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Two things worried me here. The butter was not supposed to brown at all during the cooking. I couldn’t imagine how it wouldn’t, in all that time on direct heat. And with no turning of the bird, why wouldn’t it become seriously stuck to the bottom of the casserole? But I did as directed, nervously looking in every 15 minutes, lightly nudging the bird, and turning the heat down or up a little, in my uncertainty.

Here’s the hen when I decided it was done, after an hour and a quarter.

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Indeed, the butter hadn’t burned, only turned more golden. But in the last several minutes, the hen had given out a lot of liquid (hardly visible in the photo), which I had to boil off before I could do any final browning. And when I tried to turn it over to start browning, it had – as I’d feared – stuck. Pitiful.
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Furthermore, and totally unexpectedly, the dratted thing would not brown. I tried long enough to be afraid it would just fall apart in the pan if I kept turning it, so out it came, almost as pale as it went in.

Next I was to “lift off the light crust” from the bottom of the casserole with a little water, stirring to make a simple pan gravy. Mine wasn’t exactly a light crust – it was mostly a mess of bits of chicken skin, but I did it.
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Meanwhile, I had been making the Flemish endive dish. For that I had to cut up the endives, wash and dry them thoroughly, pack them into a heavily buttered ovenproof pan, put a round of heavily buttered parchment paper on top, add a tight cover, and cook them in “a gentle oven” for two whole hours. No liquid at all.
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I started the dish at 325° but soon turned it lower, because I could already smell the endives cooking, and that didn’t seem right. At the end of two hours, they were supposed to have gathered together into a compact mass that, turned over onto a plate, would be a lightly golden cake. Mine wasn’t. The pieces were still totally loose, some brown and crisp, others pale and soft.
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Obviously, neither of these dishes could be considered a successful execution of a recipe from a classic, authoritative cookbook. But they were what I had to eat for my dinner, so I sat down dubiously to the ugliest chicken I had ever prepared and one of the least prepossessing vegetables.
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And yet . . . and yet . . . there’s a happy ending to this story.

My ugly little hen was absolutely delicious. As promised by the recipe, in its long cooking the butter had diffused through its flesh, enhancing its natural flavor. The light bitterness of my faux-sauteed endives was a good foil for the rich, buttery chicken; and the simple little pan gravy beautifully moistened both bird and vegetable. A light sprinkling of salt was all they needed.

So: two dishes far from pretty, but both very tasty. Could’ve been worse. I doubt I’ll ever make either of these recipes again, especially not for anyone other than myself, but I’m pleased that they provided me with a good dinner after all.

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Earlier this week Tom attended a professionals’ wine tasting and truffle dinner given by a major Piedmontese winemaker. How I envied him that invitation! Then, to my joy, he came home that night with a “leftover” white truffle. The host, Michele Chiarlo, had given it to him, saying “I can’t take it back to Italy.”
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White truffles are a big deal, gastronomically. Their season is essentially over now, but their prices this year were sky-high. Those that are still available online are selling for $325 to $465 per ounce. So this 2-inch long, 0.7-ounce truffle, conservatively speaking, might have cost $225. Obviously, we do not eat white truffles every day.

We tenderly transferred the precious thing to a small, tightly closed glass jar, and by the next morning, its heavenly scent wafted out whenever the refrigerator door was opened. Immediately we changed our dinner plans for that evening.

We turned to our own first cookbook, La Tavola Italiana, which has a recipe for Carne Cruda all’Albese – a delicious veal tartare that, in its native Alba region, at the right season, is topped with a shower of thinly shaved white truffle. Our more domesticated version is very good with only plain white cultivated mushrooms, but here was our chance to have the real thing.

The very best carne cruda is made with the leg cut of veal, but good-quality shoulder meat works well too, and our recipe calls for that. With this truffle, we decided to go with the best veal: half a pound of lovely lean cutlets. We pulsed them to a fine tartare consistency in the food processor, which gives a more pleasing texture than does a meat grinder.
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We minced a few white mushrooms, squeezed the fragments in a kitchen towel to wring out all their juices, and mixed them into the veal, along with a pressed clove of garlic, a little grated parmigiano, some olive oil, salt, and pepper.
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Then we mounded the tartare on two plates and shaved the entire truffle over the top. This was a simplification of our recipe to better showcase the truffle. When using only mushrooms, we slice them very thin for the topping and add shavings of parmigiano, plus lemon quarters to squeeze over the dish at table. With the truffle, those adornments weren’t needed.

Just so the balance of nature and the universe could be preserved, the razor blade in our truffle slicer exacted payment in blood from us both – nothing serious, just the few drops that the gods always require as the price of any favor they do. If that’s what a white truffle costs, we thought, so be it. We happily dined with bandaged thumbs.
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Notwithstanding that carnage, the truffled tartare was wonderful. The veal rich, fresh, and delicate, with the mushroom duxelles and parmigiano providing a bit of lightness; the truffle shavings crowning it all with their unmistakable, unduplicatable woodsy-earthy-nutty-mossy-essence. Definitely worth bleeding for!

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P.S. You can see Tom’s writeup of that wine tasting and truffle dinner here.

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‘Tis the season for gastronomical indulgences large and small. One seasonal treat that’s small in size but large in the amount of pleasure it provides is fresh porcini mushrooms. When these fabulous fungi are available in one of my local markets I have to have some, despite their stratospheric prices, because they give distinction to the simplest dinner.
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The specimens above are practically infants. In late fall, restaurants in Italy often display bowlfuls of porcini with caps typically about five inches across. But even the little ones have the species’ depth of unmatchable flavor, so a few almost always follow me home.
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With this batch, Beloved Spouse stepped into the chef’s role. Some 30 years ago, when he was on a wine writers’ trip in Genoa, he was served a magnificent dish of a huge porcino cap reposing on a bed of thinly sliced potatoes, both slathered with excellent olive oil, apparently oven-roasted and finished briefly under a broiler. He remembers it as ambrosia, and from his description, I’d envied him that experience for a very long time. So, with porcini at hand and his reputation for reliable memory at stake, this week he set about making something like it for us at home.

First he thinly sliced all-purpose potatoes, parboiled them for a few minutes, and drained them.  While they were cooling and drying, he briefly seethed a sliced clove of garlic in about two-thirds of a cup of olive oil, not letting it color. Then he removed the garlic, spread a little of the oil in a gratin dish, and laid out the potato slices, adding salt and pepper.
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On top he placed the sliced porcini stems and whole caps, brushing everything generously with the garlic-scented olive oil and pouring the rest of the oil around the potatoes.
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The dish went into a 375° degree oven for about 20 minutes, followed by a few minutes under the broiler for browning.
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The caps had shrunk somewhat, which slightly marred their appearance, but not at all their flavor. The aroma of the dish was as captivating as its taste. The potatoes loved the porcini, and vice versa. You couldn’t taste the garlic as itself, only as a subtle enlivening of the other flavors.  The porcini were transcendent – rich and meaty, a bit suggestive of sweetbreads.

This may not have been the legendary dish of that Genoese restaurant, but Beloved Spouse thought it very close, and it turned a simple meal of grilled skirt steak and broiled eggplant into a thoroughly satisfying little feast.
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I’m encouraging him to keep on experimenting, if he thinks he can improve it any further!

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Culinary serendipity takes many forms, not the least of which is sparking ideas for using small amounts of leftovers. On a recent day, my refrigerator and freezer produced a 7-ounce raw filet of John Dory, 3 ounces of raw shrimp, and 4 ounces of mushrooms.

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With an open container of heavy cream also available, inspiration for dinner was easy: something classically French. Julia Child to the rescue, with her poached fish recipes in the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. From the book’s five major recipes, five variations, and five suggested shellfish garnitures, I chose almost the simplest, Filets de Poisson Bercy aux Champignons.

Scaling down the recipe to serve two instead of six required some adjustments. I also took a few shortcuts for further simplicity, hoping that Julia wouldn’t disapprove. For example, the shrimp for the garnish were to be first boiled for five minutes in a stock made from wine, water, onion, carrot, celery, parsley, bay leaf, thyme, tarragon, and peppercorns; then tossed in a pan with butter, seasonings, and wine.

I couldn’t see doing all that for my eight little shrimp. I just boiled them for two minutes in salted water, then sauteed them briefly in butter with minced shallots and thyme. I sliced the mushrooms and also sauteed them in butter for a few minutes.

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The fish filet was to be poached in a 350° oven. I strewed minced shallots in a shallow baking dish; laid in the fish filet topped with salt, pepper, and more shallots; poured in enough wine and water to cover the filet; and dotted butter over all.

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Now I was supposed to bring the dish to a simmer on top of the stove before covering it with a sheet of buttered wax paper and putting it in the oven. But I couldn’t: my only baking dish small enough not to surround the filet with too much liquid couldn’t take a direct flame. So the poaching took quite a bit longer than the recipe expected. I worried a bit, but gentle cooking rarely harms a fish, and eventually a fork could pierce the flesh easily, which meant the fish was done.

At that point I realized I had another problem. The poaching instructions that I’d followed had been in a separate master recipe, which didn’t have mushrooms. When I returned to my Bercy recipe, I saw that I ought to have included the mushrooms in the poaching. Oops! Oh, well – it was a pity that my mushrooms couldn’t exchange flavors with the poaching liquid, but they’d just have to join the dish later.

I gently removed the fish to a plate, poured its liquid into a small pot, and boiled it down to about half a cup’s worth. I stirred in a flour-and-butter paste and then heavy cream. Brought the sauce to a boil, seasoned it with salt, pepper, and lemon juice, and folded in the shrimps and mushrooms.

Back into its baking dish went the fish filet, and all the sauce and garnishes over and around it. The recipe also called for more dots of butter, but since the dish had already received almost a stick of butter and half a cup of cream (!), I decided to skip that.
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All this was done in the afternoon. In the evening I sprinkled grated parmigiano (instead of gruyere) over the fish in its sauce and reheated the dish under the broiler. Again, because I couldn’t first reheat it on top of the stove, it took a longer time in the broiler – about 10 minutes to warm it through. It hadn’t browned as much as it should, but I was afraid to overcook the fish, so I took it out and served it.
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It was wonderful – even after my shortcuts and alterations. The John Dory was excellent, as always. The mushrooms had – amazingly, given their short time in the sauce – absorbed all the goodness of fish, shrimp, and cream. The sauce itself was silk and velvet on the tongue, and it tasted like the sweet-salt soul of the sea.

Being something of a partisan of Italian cooking approaches, I hardly ever make classic French dishes any more, but this one reminded me of what I’d been missing. Maybe it’s time to revisit them occasionally.
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Incidentally, Beloved Spouse poured a relatively simple white Burgundy with this dish – a Côte de Nuits Villages – and the combination was delightful.

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When I was growing up, my mother never cooked cauliflower. What we knew of it, we didn’t like. When I’d encountered it at other people’s homes, it was boiled long enough to bring out the sulfur smell and was drenched with a sauce of Velveeta cheese. It took many years for me to realize cauliflower didn’t have to be like that.

It was when I started doing some Indian cooking, and discovered the many interesting ways that cuisine uses cauliflower, that I became curious about the vegetable. I now know that, when not overcooked, it has a wonderful ability to bond with all kinds of other flavors. I still don’t serve it often, because an average-sized whole cauliflower is a lot for a two-person household to get through. But I do choose it occasionally. Here are the simple ways I dealt with the head that I brought home this week.

 

Day 1: Warm cauliflower salad

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I took about a third of the florets off the head, steamed them for seven minutes, until they were just tender. I also chopped ½ cup of celery, ¼ cup of onion, and ⅛ cup of Tuscan pickled peppers.
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While the florets were still warm, I tossed them gently in a bowl with the chopped vegetables, extra-virgin olive oil, my own wine vinegar, salt, and pepper. I had to be careful with the vinegar because my Tuscan peppers were very strongly pickled.
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The mixture made a pleasant, light vegetable starter for a weekday dinner. In spring or summer, I also add a few thinly sliced radishes and some of their tiny leaves to this salad; but I never buy radishes in November.

 

Day 2: Cavolfiore fritto

In principle, I follow Marcella Hazan’s recipe for breaded and fried cauliflower, though it’s such an easy process that it hardly needs a recipe. This evening I took off half the remaining florets from my head of cauliflower, steamed them for only five minutes (since they’d be getting more cooking later), and let them cool. I dipped them first in an egg beaten with salt, then in dry breadcrumbs.
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Beloved Spouse then stepped up and fried them for me, in half an inch of very hot olive oil. It took only about a minute on each side for them to turn richly golden.
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While the steaming and breading can be done an hour or more in advance, once the florets are fried, they need to be eaten right away to be at their best.
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This time they were, as always, crisp, crunchy, and delicious – an excellent accompaniment to broiled lamb chops. Actually, they would work well with almost any un-sauced meat or fowl.

 

Day 3: Cauliflower soup

I dedicated the rest of my cauliflower to a favorite soup. The original recipe is from Alfred Portale’s Twelve Seasons Cookbook. There it’s called a vichyssoise, to be served cold. I make just the basic soup, leaving out several of the recipe’s garnishes, and I like to serve it hot.

To make a small enough soup for the amount of cauliflower florets I had left this week, I chopped ¼ cup of onions and thinly sliced ⅓ cup of leeks.
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I sauteed those two vegetables in a tablespoon of olive oil, then added the florets and a cup of chicken broth from a bouillon cube.
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This cooked, covered, for 20 minutes, until the florets were tender. Then I pureed everything in a blender. I tasted and added salt and pepper, and the soup was ready to reheat at dinner time.
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This simple soup is just amazingly good. In a blind tasting, you probably wouldn’t guess it was cauliflower; you’d distinguish only a generic vegetal sweetness. And it’s such a rich puree you’d think it must be at least half butter and cream. I’m sure the dressed-up version – with sauteed cauliflower slices, a dose of olive oil, and a sprinkling of chopped chives – would be excellent too, but I’ve never felt the need to try it.

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There’s nothing complex in these cauliflower dishes, especially compared to those in typical Indian recipes, but each is very tasty, and together they show the versatility of the vegetable I once disliked. We live and learn, eh?

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