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Archive for the ‘Main dishes’ Category

Once again, the year-ending holiday overeating season is upon us. Brisk, chilly weather tends to make us think of rib-sticking edibles, but even so, when one festive dinner party follows another within a day or two, it can be a kindness to guests – and to herself – if a hostess includes one fairly light dish in a multi-course menu.

I have a few of those in my repertoire, and I’ve just added an interesting new one, an appropriate appetizer course for fall or winter. It’s from Alfred Portale’s book Simple Pleasures, and the recipe’s full name is Shaved Fennel, Green Apple, and Pecorino Romano Salad. The dish is indeed simple in composition: for four portions, two Granny Smith apples, two medium fennel bulbs, a lemon, and pecorino Romano cheese. (Here, I used a young pecorino Sardo.)
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However, preparing the ingredients is another story. Portale almost literally means “shaved” to apply to them all, which can be a problem to do without a specialized cutter. Here’s the book’s picture of the dish:
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See how thin the slices are? Tom is a willing and very experienced knife man, but I’d never ask him to try cutting apples and fennel that thin by hand. He’d lose either a finger or his mind.

Happily, I have a neat little vertical mandoline slicer that’s a godsend for this kind of job. I’ve sung its praises here before. It works like a tiny guillotine, and your fingers never come anywhere near the wickedly sharp blade. I forgot to take a photo of it slicing the apples and fennel, but here’s a picture from the earlier use:
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I put all the slices into a big bowl and used a microplane to grate in the zest of a lemon. With a vegetable peeler, I added a flurry of pecorino flakes, and stirred it all together, along with a big dose of a good Sorrento extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt, and freshly ground Tellicherry pepper.
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It all came to a huge amount of salad stuff! When I chose the recipe, it hadn’t seemed as if half an apple and half a fennel bulb per person would be too much for an appetizer course, but cut that thin, they seemed to make a bushelful. I put the bowl in the refrigerator until dinnertime, then served out moderate portions, topping each plateful with more of the olive oil and some chopped feathery fennel fronds.
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It made a pretty plate, and a very tasty dish too. This was an inspired combination: crisp, tart green apple, crunchy, anisey fennel, and smooth, sharp cheese, all “married” together by the light, fruity olive oil and tangy lemon zest. We managed to eat quite a lot of it.

 

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Here’s an ingenious pasta creation: fresh spinach cooked in an aglie e olio technique and tossed with freshly cooked linguine and grated Pecorino Romano cheese; all finished with a broiled breadcrumb topping. I came across the recipe in my copy of the old Union Square Café Cookbook, liked it immediately, and made it for dinner the very next day.

BTW, this cookbook is very readable. Danny Meyer’s warm personal voice, Michael Romano’s Italian family traditions, the precise instructions, the strong support for fresh produce from the nearby Union Square Greenmarket, and my own recollections of the great restaurant in its original Greenwich Village location (mere blocks from my home) make it still a star of my cookbook collection.

I easily assembled the ingredients for the dish. The only thing I had to buy was spinach – not local, at this time of year, alas.
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Without the resources of a restaurant to draw on, I found the recipe somewhat more complicated than the simple dish of pasta aglie e olio I usually make, but it could be prepared in stages until almost the very end. Stage One was to assemble the topping. In a little dish I stirred together plain dry breadcrumbs, grated pecorino, chopped parsley, salt, pepper, and olive oil.
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Stage Two was to prepare the spinach, starting by rinsing, drying, and chopping it. I slivered three garlic cloves and simmered them over very low heat in three tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.
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When they had turned a very light golden color, I scooped them out of the pan, sprinkled in half a teaspoon of dried red pepper flakes, and began adding the spinach.
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I tossed and stirred the spinach in the flavored oil until it was limp, then turned off the heat and let it rest. As always, the spinach was vastly reduced in volume.
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Having prepared both spinach and crumb topping in advance, I had no more to do until dinnertime. Then, things had to start moving faster.

I boiled the linguine as usual. Just before draining it, I had to scoop out half a cup of its water, stir it into the spinach, and turn the heat back on under its pan. Then I dumped the drained pasta on top of the spinach and instantly sprinkled on two tablespoons of grated pecorino. (I’m not sure why the bare pasta needed to get the cheese so quickly, but that’s what the recipe wanted.)
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Then I had to mix the pasta thoroughly with the spinach, transfer the entire contents of the pan to a gratin dish, spread on the topping, put the dish under a preheated broiler just long enough to brown the breadcrumbs – about two minutes – and “serve immediately.”

I did all that as quickly as I could, but without the speed and discipline of professional kitchen work, my linguine was no longer piping hot by the time it made it to our plates.
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Even so, it was an excellent dish. The spinach was tender and flavorful, the garlic subdued but pervasive. The breadcrumbs provided a tiny crunch, the grated cheese a slight savory undertone, the red pepper flakes a hint of piquancy. The fruity olive oil combined all the other flavors into a luscious dressing for my good imported linguine.

With all due respect to Danny and Michael, however, I might try a few tiny changes the next time I make this dish:

  • Add a little salt to the final mixture (there was none at all but a speck in the crumb topping and a spoonful in the pasta water)
  • Heat the pan longer on the stove before the transfer to the broiler (maybe draining the pasta a bit sooner, so it finishes its cooking in the pan)
  • Just for good measure, go a bit heavier on the extra virgin olive oil.

Finally, I will say that, just as it was, the small amount of the pasta that we couldn’t finish made a very nice little frittata for a first course at dinner the next evening.

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For our two days in Bordeaux after our recent cruise, we had, weeks earlier, scanned the city’s restaurant websites, searching for one local specialty we hadn’t tasted for 40 years: lamprey à la bordelaise. It’s an ancient dish of the region, impossible to get in the USA and available almost nowhere else even in France. We finally found it listed at Brasserie Bordelaise, which appeared to be a handsome update on traditional French eating places of centuries past.
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The restaurant’s entire online menu looked so interesting, I immediately made dinner reservations for both of our evenings in the city. It was a very good decision.

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On the first evening we were given a nice little window table, located almost at the viewpoint of the photo above. Tom and I could speak enough French to be taken as serious clients, and our waiter could speak enough English to make everything comfortable. Both languages were helpful when the bottle of Château Lafon-Rochet Saint-Estèphe we’d ordered turned out to be corked. (Tom’s blog has that story.) No matter, we wound up with a fine bottle of Domaine de la Solitude Pessac-Léognan, with relief and good will all around.

To start, we shared a generous plate of charcuterie, with five kinds of cured meats, local butter, good bread, and wicked little hot peppers. The peppers surprised us: The French don’t often go in for hot spices. But their flavor worked very well with the essentially rustic flavors of the charcuterie.
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For our main course – naturellement – we both ordered the lamproie à la bordelaise. Lamprey is not food for the faint-hearted. It is an ugly, eel-shaped, boneless, parasitic fish, which migrates from the sea into the Garonne and Dordogne rivers to spawn. Our only previous encounter with the dish was in 1981, in the city of Saint-Emilion. In my notes on that dinner I called it “astonishing and wonderful. A whole different form of protein, not like eel at all and not like anything else. It came with logs of leek in a dense, dark sauce of red wine.”

Now at last, 40 years later, we had it again. It came with a similar wine-rich sauce (thickened with blood, as we learned), the traditional garnish of chunks of leek, and slices of toasted country bread. The lamprey itself was just amazingly good, and still a unique flavor for us. It came with a salad of several lettuces and excellent mashed potatoes.
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This was a truly sumptuous meal. We crowned it by sharing a small dessert, all we had room for: a sort of deconstructed profiterole.
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Our second day’s dinner at Brasserie Bordelaise wasn’t quite as significant an occasion as the first, there being no other long-looked-for, rare regional specialty on the menu. But we ate very well that evening too. Evidently we’d become clients, because we were presented with complimentary glasses of champagne when we arrived.

This time we decided to forgo a starter, to save our appetites for a selection from the good-looking cheese cart we’d noticed at the side of the room. I chose a main course of roasted chicken: a large, succulent breast-and-wing quarter au jus, with crisp browned skin and a square of stuffing. With it were fried potatoes and the same good salad as yesterday’s.
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Tom’s main course was, like the lamprey, listed on the “local dishes” section of the menu: joue de bœuf confite au vin de Bordeaux. Normally, calling a food confit means it has been preserved for storage by lengthy cooking submerged in fat. This beef cheek was preserved by cooking in the red wine of the region – for hours, apparently, until it was meltingly tender. It was served with roasted carrots and mashed potatoes.
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It was another remarkable dish. The cheek’s flavor was an immediately pleasing blend of meat sweetness and slight gaminess. Both elements merged beautifully with the wine-rich sauce, which cried out to be sopped up with mashed potatoes and country bread. I knew at once that I’d have to try making it at home. Fortunately, beef cheek is not as impossible to find in New York as lamprey, and I already have a cheek in my freezer, waiting for a suitable day.

The fine Château de Pez Saint-Estèphe we’d been enjoying with our main courses ratcheted itself up another level as we moved on to a plate of cheeses: brie, chèvre, tomme de savoie, and cantal.
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This was a splendid final meal in Bordeaux, and after glasses of old Armagnac and fond farewells to the restaurant staff, two very happy people strolled back to their hotel for a peaceful night’s sleep, with blissful memories of that fabulous lamprey dish.
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Once again, I’ve been tempted to try a recipe I saw in the New York Times. Owing to problems I’ve had with the newspaper’s culinary offerings, I mostly avoid them. But I was intrigued by this concept of cut-up chicken roasted on a bed of apples, bulb fennel, and onions. Interesting combination: would it work?

Not to keep you in suspense, it did – beautifully. But only after substantial adaptations to the recipe.

A friend would be coming to dinner the evening I decided to try the dish. Just in case it wasn’t going to work, I made sure to have enough other good things to eat at the meal. With aperitifs, I set out some mortadella rolls (wrapped around roasted red pepper strips and cornichons) and a spicy chipotle crabmeat spread (purchased) to heap on baguette toast rounds.
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For a first course at the table, I made an old favorite, mozzarella in carozza. It’s slices of bread and mozzarella, separately dipped in egg beaten with grated parmigiano, then clapped together and fried in olive oil. Delicious, and quite filling. Tom makes a nice little anchovy-and-cream sauce for it.
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The main course, and star of the show – I hoped! – would be the chicken. Let me back up now and describe the recipe as it was given in the “Here to Help” section of the newspaper, and the dish as I actually made it.

For 4 to 6 servings, the recipe called for 2½ to 3 pounds of chicken thighs. That seemed reasonable, so I’d bought half that amount for 3 of us. But quantities of the other main ingredients were ridiculously stingy. Imagine, to feed 6 people:

  • 1½ cups of thinly sliced onions – that’s 2 ounces per person or about 3 tablespoons after roasting
  • 1 cup of thinly sliced fennel – less than 1½ ounces per person
  • 1 thickly sliced apple – about 2 slices per person

That would be more like a modest condiment than a full-plate vegetable accompaniment. Even for my half quantity of chicken, I doubled the full-recipe quantities of these three ingredients.

There was one interesting seasoning: toasted and ground fennel seeds. I toasted 2 teaspoons of them in a tiny, dry cast-iron frying pan, then ground them in mortar and pestle. I’d never done that with fennel seeds before, and this aromatic little trick may turn out to have other uses.

I tossed half of the toasted fennel with the chicken thighs, along with salt, pepper, and a little olive oil, and the rest with the sliced fennel, onion, and apple, along with salt and more olive oil. (I used more fennel seed and olive oil than the recipe wanted: no surprise there.)

In late afternoon, I spread the vegetables on a sheet pan, laid on the thighs, and topped each with a little sprig of rosemary.
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Covered with foil, the pan sat peacefully on the kitchen counter until cooking time, when it was to go into a 425-degree oven for 25 to 30 minutes. All three of us had looked at that instruction and said No way! Indeed, after 30 minutes the chicken was barely colored, and the vegetables were still totally hard.

We all trooped back to the table and continued enjoying our mozzarella in carozza and glasses of white wine for an additional 20 minutes, when we checked again and declared the dish done.
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It was splendid. I was charmed by the way the flavors made a virtual culinary concerto. With the chicken as the lead instrument, I imagined the tangy Mutsu apple as a violin, the tenderly spicy fennel as an oboe, and the smoothly understated onion as a cello. I’ll admit that my table companions weren’t as rhapsodical about the dish as I was, but they agreed it was very good. And we had no trouble getting through most of the apple, fennel, and onion.

For dessert, I’d made another old favorite: a polenta berry cake. It was very good too.

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I’ve done very little sheet-pan cooking, but I can see how its ease and simplicity make it a versatile approach for either family or company dinners. Clearly, if you hit upon an inspired combination of flavors, you have a real winner.

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The recipe for today’s dish is from one of a series of cheerful little spiral-bound Italian cookbooks I used to buy in Rome for about $3, back in the 1980s.

This volume’s title, L’Insolita Fettina, translates as “the unusual slice.” It’s devoted to small cuts of meat and poultry – scallops, medallions, chops, cutlets – with recipes attributed to the famed 20th century chef, gastronome, and cookbook author Luigi Carnacina.

Not all the book’s recipes are Italian, and many are nothing we’d consider unusual today. This one, however, Costolette di vitello alla casalinga, struck me as very unusual: thin veal cutlets cooked in butter with carrots, tomato sauce, and Madeira wine. Hmm: two strong sweetnesses from carrot and wine, two doses of acidity from wine and tomato. How would they get along with each other and with the mild, gentle veal? I had to find out.
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The first thing to do was acquire cutlets. As is the case with many recipes in Italian, the instructions gave no inkling of the desired size or weight. At a guess, then, for two portions (half the recipe), I asked the butcher for two ¼-inch thick slices of veal cutlet. At six ounces apiece, they were long and narrow, so I cut them in half for ease of handling.
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I’d also bought a bunch of freshly dug carrots from my Greenmarket. I washed, peeled, and thinly sliced four ounces worth.
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The carrot rounds went into a large pan with two tablespoons of butter and stewed very gently, covered, for half an hour, until they were tender. A tiny sample of the buttery little nuggets made me want to gobble them up then and there! But I refrained.
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I lifted the carrots out of the pan with a slotted spoon, leaving all the butter; added two more tablespoons of butter and a dribble of olive oil to the pan; raised the heat; and browned my floured, salted, and peppered cutlets in the carrot-flavored butter.
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The next step was to add the Madeira, a bottle of which we’ve long had in our wine closet. In a way, I hated having to open it, because it’s a very fine one: a ten-year-old H&H Verdelho – really too good for cooking. But the recipe needed only ¼ cup, and even opened, it’s said to keep “indefinitely” in a cool place. So I poured the Madeira over the cutlets and cooked until the wine had almost completely evaporated, enjoying the rich aroma as the wine reduced.
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Then in went ¼ cup of simple tomato sauce (with me worrying whether that was a sacrilege against the Madeira).
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In a minute or two I returned the carrots to the pan, cooked everything gently again for a few more minutes to heat it through and blend the flavors. Then, the crucial test: serve the dish and taste.
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So, was it a success? Sadly, it was not.

All those ingredients, each so good in itself, clashed in the cooked dish. The sweet carrot and Madeira flavors had permeated the butter but didn’t do anything for each other. They nearly smothered the delicate veal. The tomato bravely tried to pull everything together, but its acidity just got lost in the sweetness. Maybe someone with a strong sweet tooth would enjoy cutlets done this way, but we found it almost cloying.

I really don’t know how anyone could call this awkward combination “home-style.” Too bad: this was the first disappointment I’ve had from the entire series of little books. I haven’t cooked much else from this volume, and now I’m wondering if the eminent Carnacina gave it anything more than his name.

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I’ve never thought of eggplant as a vegetable that, all by itself, could serve as an appetizer course at dinner. Now I know that it can. Browsing through my current favorite Indian cookbook, At Home with Madhur Jaffrey, I was struck by the headnote of an eggplant recipe making that claim. Jaffrey even suggests having it with a slice of French bread and a glass of Pinot grigio. That sounded so un-Indian! I was skeptical, but curious enough about the dish to try it.

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The eggplant in the recipe isn’t totally bare-naked, of course. It has a small supporting cast of condiments that go to make a sauce for it. Here they are:
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That’s a one-pound eggplant, surrounded by salt, sugar, cayenne, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, sliced onions, and tomato puree.

Though it took a bit of time, this was a really easy recipe to make. I cut the unpeeled eggplant lengthwise into three slabs, and the slabs into chunks.
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I heated olive oil in a large pan, put in the eggplant chunks, onions, fennel and cumin seeds, and sauteed it all over fairly high heat for five minutes.
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Next, I added the tomato puree, salt, sugar, cayenne, and some water.
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The pan – brought to a boil, reduced to a simmer, and covered – then cooked gently until the eggplant was very tender. I stirred and turned over the chunks several times during the cooking, and my fresh, young eggplant was ready in 20 minutes. (The recipe had thought it would take 30 to 35 minutes; always good to check early!) I uncovered the pan, reduced the sauce just a bit, and the dish was ready to eat.
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The cooked eggplant didn’t look like a lot, considering it was to serve four to six, and we were only two. But each chunk made a nice mouthful, subtly flavored with the fennel and cumin. Except for a small mishap: I must not have sprinkled on the cayenne evenly, because a few of the chunks were eye-wateringly hot! The others were only judiciously spicy, and very pleasing.

The dish as a whole was quite filling. Crusty bread was definitely wanted for sopping up the sauce. And, in place of Jaffrey’s Pinot grigio, we found the eggplant went very well with a chilled Lugana, a crisply mineral white wine from Italy’s Lake Garda region.

In fact, we couldn’t finish all the eggplant, but when I reheated what was left for my lunch the next day, I think it was even better!

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“You have to have grown up in Jersey City to understand veal and peppers.” So says my husband, semiseriously (I think!) – who did and does. Heaps of ripe peppers on our favorite Greenmarket farmstand this week reminded Tom that it had been a while since he’d made his long-loved Italian-American dish for us. There was no objection from me!
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Normally, the meat he uses is veal shoulder. In the freezer we had two pounds of boneless veal breast: extras trimmed off a large piece that I’d recently stuffed and roasted for a small dinner party. Would those do? The answer was yes.

“I never knew what cut they used for veal and peppers at the stevedores’ bar where I always ate lunch, that summer when I worked the loading platforms in Port Newark, but it was always delicious. I see no reason our veal breast shouldn’t do just as well.”
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The thin slabs of meat had a large amount of fat, fell, and connective tissue. In long roasting, such excrescences soften or melt on their own. Here, they’d have to be painstakingly stripped away. But Tom has admirable patience for close, delicate work like this, and he managed to produce a bit more than a pound of relatively clean strips of veal.
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He set the pieces to brown in a pan with olive oil, softened some chopped onion with it for five minutes, then added fresh sage leaves, dried oregano, salt, and pepper.
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After stirring everything together for a few minutes he poured in a cup of his homemade mixed-meat-and-vegetable broth and a generous quarter cup of red wine. At that point he’d usually add a few tablespoons of tomato sauce too, but this day he decided to substitute a chopped San Marzano plum tomato, since we had some nice ripe ones on hand.
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Covered, the pan simmered for about two hours. I was deputized to stir it occasionally, to make sure it wasn’t cooking too fast or not at all. Meanwhile, Tom cleaned and cut up three big frying peppers. He likes red ones when they’re available, because they’re sweeter and less acidic than the greens. But greens can be OK too.

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Once the peppers were in the pan, it had a final half hour of simmering and sending out tantalizing aromas. By then, both the veal and the peppers were meltingly tender, and our dinner was ready.
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The only other thing we needed at the table was a big crusty loaf of bread, to sop up the delicious sauce. And wine, of course: Tom chose a 2020 Lacrima Christi from Mastroberardino, the red version rather than the white, for parallel-to-the-peppers reasons: The soft fruit of the red Piedirosso grapes would match the dish better than the acidity of white grapes would have – though he admits that on another day, or if he had used more green peppers, his choice might have gone the other way. “Both wines, red and white, are great with simple, savory dishes like veal and peppers,” he says.

The evening’s dish, by the way, was great, and we did full justice to it. The delicate flavors of the veal and the vegetal sweetness of the peppers came together beautifully from their long simmering in broth, tomato, and red wine. I – who didn’t grow up in New Jersey – was just as happy with it as Tom was.

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Just enough left for a hero sandwich for the next day’s lunch

 

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In my younger, overweight years, when I obsessively counted calories, I considered avocados temptations of the devil, a dietary death trap. Might as well eat a stick of butter, I’d say to myself. Not true, of course. Avocados are rich with vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. Even knowing that now, enjoying a luscious avocado still feels sneakily sinful.

I do it, though. Mostly as guacamole, or in nachos, from recipes in my Mexican cookbooks. This week I tried something different from an unlikely source: Elizabeth Schneider’s Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini. Unlikely because avocados are not a vegetable but a fruit (botanically, actually a berry), but in the culinary context they do occupy much the same ecological niche as vegetables.

Schneider presents her avocado “mayonnaise” enthusiastically:

A satiny sauce, the color of pistachio cream, to dress chilled salmon, shrimp, or white fish fillets. Or spoon dollops over asparagus, snap beans, or even corn on the cob – messy but yummy. Or garnish chilled soups with the pretty topping. . . . Scoop into a pita and add sprouts. Offer as a dip on a vegetable platter.

All that sounded great, so I put together the ingredients for a small batch. In the rear of the photo below, half a cup of buttermilk, sugar, lime juice, and salt; in front, an avocado (a little squished because it didn’t want to let go of its pit), a scallion (my substitution for chives), and a few leaves of basil.
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I chunked the avocado, minced the herbs, and stirred sugar, salt, and pepper into two tablespoons of lime juice.
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All the ingredients were to be pureed in a food processor, which was something of a problem in this case. My mini food processor was too small to handle that quantity, and my full-size processor would have merely pasted the ingredients around the sides of the bowl. I settled for a blender. Even that needed a lot of persuasion to produce a puree, but eventually it did.
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Its taste was interesting. While the basil and scallion weren’t really noticeable, the sweet acidity of the lime juice and the light sourness of the buttermilk had given an intriguing tang to the rich, buttery avocado flesh. The texture was indeed mayonnaise-y. I was eager to see how it would work with different foods.
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My first experiment was to smear dollops of avocado mayonnaise onto corn on the cob.

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Messy to eat it certainly was – especially for Tom, a man with a mustache: a few bites and he looked rabid. Yummy? I’d have to say, not so much. That is, the fresh, sweet corn was excellent in itself, and the avocado sauce was – just itself. The two components didn’t say much to each other; in a way, they clashed a bit.

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Still hopeful, the next day I tried the sauce with a few chilled, boiled shrimp for a small appetizer.

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That was a much better marriage of flavors. The shrimps sort of blossomed under the sauce, rather than just coexisting with it, as the corn did. I could see enjoying this combination again some time.

Still, this sauce isn’t a condiment I’d want often: from what I’ve seen so far, the insistence of its presence tries to override whatever else it’s served with. Avocado is delicious in itself, and it welcomes the strong, spicy flavors of Latin American cooking. I could probably be content staying with treats of that kind.

But Elizabeth Schneider has planted a seed, and other possible uses for her mayonnaise keep popping into my head. I wonder if that tree where Eve met the serpent might not have been an apple but an avocado.

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Even with the mercy of air conditioning, this summer’s heat wave has strongly curbed my enthusiasm for spending very much time at the stove and oven. Still, the appetite needs to be piqued and the animal needs to be fed. So: “light, simple, and tasty” is my current mantra.

I found an appealing recipe for a Tuscan dish of white beans and shrimp in Faith Willinger’s cookbook Red, White & Greens. All it calls for, in addition to the two named items, are tomatoes, basil, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Praising it highly when made with the freshest ingredients, Willinger says it can also work with canned beans and frozen shrimp, for convenience.

Tempting as that was, I couldn’t bring myself to take the entirely easiest route: I like to cook dried beans myself. However, the only white beans I had in the pantry – marrow beans, which I really love – were getting pretty old, and I feared they’d have lost too much flavor to shine in so simple a preparation.

So I chopped a little carrot, onion, and parsley, and softened the mixture in olive oil. As soon as the beans had finished boiling, I drained them, folded them into that vegetable soffrito, and left it all to insaporate for a few hours. (That’s not an English word, I know. The Italian word insaporire is such an apt description of how flavors blend, I’ve taken it as my own.)
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The rest of the preparation was of the simplest. I washed a handful of cherry tomatoes, from my Greenmarket, and a few basil leaves, from the herb planter I keep on my building’s roof. I briefly boiled a quarter pound of shrimp – from my freezer, as permitted.
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I chopped the tomatoes and basil, cut up the shrimp, and tossed them together with the beans, olive oil, salt, and pepper. It always surprises me how well white beans partner with seafood – not just shrimp, as here, but also in the Tuscan classic bean-and-tuna combination and even, as I’ve written about once – in a stew with clams.
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This hearty salad was excellent as a first course for our dinner and would have made a very nice lunch on its own. We ate it at room temperature, but we could see it would be equally good with both shrimp and beans still warm.

I was sorry that my marrow beans were past their best. The insaporation did help them, but I discarded the ones still left in my pantry. When I make this again I’ll be sure to use newer beans and the freshest shrimps I can lay my hands on. Exactly because the dish is so “light, simple, and tasty,” it really deserves the best components. It almost – almost – made me appreciate the heat wave.

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I haven’t yet resumed ambitious cooking after returning from my recent trip to France, because both Tom and I almost immediately came down with breakthrough Covid. Mild cases, but fatiguing. So, instead of a cooking tale for this post, I’ll write about two seafood lunches we enjoyed while on the latter part of the trip.

After our three days in Paris, we had a week’s cruise on the Seine, meandering through bucolic Normandy to the river’s estuary at Honfleur and back, on the MS Seine Princess.

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It was a very pleasant trip, but like previous river cruises we’ve taken with the Croisieurope line – on the Loire and Rhône – the dining was not a particular highlight for us. Only one menu is ever served for each three-course lunch and four-course dinner, and the style is international hotel standard, with few nods to seasonal or regional dishes.

Tom and I are not fond of large meals in midday, so when the ship spent two days docked in the charming town of Honfleur, we took the opportunity to skip the set lunches and check out the many little seafood eateries right at the port. Promptly at noon, we settled ourselves at the enclosed porch of La Grenouille.
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First Lunch

The enticing menu had a wealth of shellfish choices. This sumptuous assiette de fruits de mer – oysters, scallops, shrimps, whelks, periwinkles, and dog cockles – made Tom a very happy man.
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I’d been told by friends that, in Honfleur, you absolutely have to try moules frites, the local specialty of mussels marinière with French fries. I did, and received a huge pot of them and some of the best fried potatoes I’ve ever eaten. The mussels were smaller than those we usually get at home, with a different sort of salt-spiciness. Very nice.
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With this light but satisfying lunch we drank half a bottle of a crisp, fresh Muscadet – plus one extra glass, just for the pleasure of it.
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And then strolled back to our ship for a post-prandial nap.  It’s very stressful, being a tourist.

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Second Lunch

Our second day’s objective at La Grenouille was oysters. We’ve always considered American oysters much better than European varieties, and here was a perfect chance to give that preference another test. We ordered the plateau d’huîtres, which has six each of three kinds of oysters: Claire, Isigny, and St. Vaast.
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All very large, they looked similar, but our waiter carefully explained the arrangement on the plate. (Interesting that they were served opened, but the top shells still attached.) Almost sparkling with freshness, they were the best we’d ever had on the eastern side of the Atlantic.

Least pleasing were the St. Vaasts – a little too sharply salt-watery for our taste. It was hard to choose between the other two, the Isignys more strongly flavored – not brinier, but more shellfishy than the more elegant Claires. All three kinds were enhanced by mignonette sauce, which we don’t like at all on American oysters, and excellent brown bread and butter.

Bottom line: We still like our own oysters better – they’re more richly flavored and far more varied – but (in Michelin’s terms) these Norman bivalves certainly vaut un détour, if not an entire voyage.

Our gastronomic researches were lubricated by a full bottle of the same classic Muscadet we’d had the day before. It tasted even better with the oysters. Then we needed something small and sweet to round out the meal. Tom declared his floating island, with pistachio cream, the best he’d ever had, and I loved my pretty apple tart.

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There’s much about Honfleur I’ll remember with pleasure: its 15th century all-wooden church, the largest one in France; its cobbled streets of colorful half-timbered houses around the old port; its huge ferris wheel and old-time carousel; its short, flat car bridge that swings open like a gate, for boats to pass through the harbor; the small marsh just past the bridge, where we watched lapwings playing (all told, 30 species of birds seen on the trip!). And, by no means least, these two lovely lunches at La Grenouille.

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