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Archive for the ‘Main dishes’ Category

Octopus, which used to be a culinary curiosity in this country, is increasingly coming into the mainstream of locally available seafood. Three different fish stores within half a mile of my home now carry it regularly, both raw and cooked. I’ve had very good results from a few Spanish and Italian octopus recipes and am always interested in new ones. The two latest ones I’ve made are from Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain, by Penelope Casas.

My copy is an attractive large paperback, with more than 300 recipes. Those I’d tried had all been successful, so when I came across two for octopus tapas that I hadn’t much noticed before, I read them with interest. Both have you start by simply boiling the octopus, so for the sake of convenience I bought a pound of cooked tentacles – enough for half recipes of each tapa.
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The first dish I made was Pulpo con Patatas, Octopus with Red Peppers and Potatoes. The full recipe is said to serve four, but I could see that even the half would be plenty for a main dish for the two of us. Along with the cut-up octopus, it calls for chopped onion, cubed potatoes, Spanish smoked paprika, skinned and chopped sweet red pepper, minced garlic, and bay leaf.
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Once Beloved Spouse had done all the knife work for me, the rest of the preparation was easy enough. Boil the potatoes until tender, drain them, and save some of the cooking water. In an ovenproof dish sauté the onion, pepper, and garlic in olive oil. Add the octopus and sauté for a minute or two. Stir in the paprika, bay leaf, potatoes, salt, and a little of the potato water.
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Bring the liquid to a boil and bake the dish, uncovered, in a moderate oven for 15 minutes. It came out of the oven looking much as it did going in, but the flavors had blended a bit and intensified each other, making a rich, filling combination.
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This was a good, satisfying dish, but I don’t see it as becoming a regular in my repertoire: Though billed as a tapa, it would have been very heavy as an appetizer; and as a main course it wasn’t quite as satisfying as a few other octopus dishes I’ve made – here and here.  For us, those are the upper echelon of octopus cookery.

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A few days later, I made the second tapa recipe, Pulpo a la Leonesa, Octopus Stewed in Onions. With my pre-cooked octopus, it was the essence of simplicity: aside from the eponymous octopus and onions, the only ingredients are olive oil, vinegar, wine, and salt.

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I softened the onions in the oil, covered the pan and cooked them gently until tender. I added one-inch pieces of octopus, salt, and tiny amounts of white wine and my own red wine vinegar; cooked it all gently, covered, for 15 minutes; and served with slices of crusty bread.
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This dish wasn’t quite as successful as the previous one. Mostly my fault, I think: The recipe strongly recommended using tiny octopi, which would have benefited more from the condiments than my larger chunks did. Also, there was a little too much sameness to each dense, rich mouthful. It would have shown better in an assortment of several tapas, with varying textures and flavors to contrast, than it did as our only appetizer. The onions were extremely tasty, though – we’d have liked more of them.

The next time I get an urge for octopus, I might buy the tiny ones, cook them myself, and try this dish again to see what difference they make. And I’ll probably increase the quantity of onions.

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In the later twentieth-century culinary world, Patience Gray was the epitome of the eccentric Englishwoman. Her adventurous and impoverished years of living in remote parts of the Mediterranean region are memorably captured in her cookbook Honey From a Weed: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia – which I acquired only recently.

It’s a fascinating book, though to me really more for reading than for cooking from. It’s filled with history, admonitions, anecdotes and folklore about seemingly every vegetable, every herb, every land and sea creature Ms. Gray ever encountered in her many primitive dwelling places.

The first dish I’ve tried from the book is called Guinea Fowl My Way. Now, I like guinea hens: they’re leaner than chickens, with darker, denser flesh, richly flavored and just a bit gamy. But this recipe had an additional attraction for me because of this remark in her headnote: “I propose the following anarchic method; carry it out before protesting.” I couldn’t resist the challenge!

So, off to the butcher shop for a bird. I had to order it, and the one I received was over three pounds, half again as big as the recipe called for.
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The anarchic character of the recipe showed at the start: The first thing I had to do was make a grog. This involved boiling up lemon juice, lemon zest, sugar, black pepper, and water, then stirring in a hefty dose of grappa. Gray goes on: “if you are anticipating a cold – I am writing this in winter – drink some of it hot. Leave what remains to infuse.” I did.
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Next was to brown the guinea hen in olive oil in a frying pan with garlic cloves. Since I’d be making the dish just for two, I cut my bird in half and froze one half for another time.
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The shape of the half hen made it reluctant to brown very well, but I did what I could, then transferred it to a casserole in which it fit snugly. Since it had no body cavity to hold a required rosemary sprig, pine nuts, and more garlic, I just added them to the pot. Then I deglazed the frying pan with red wine and poured that over the bird.
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Finally, before covering the pot and letting it cook gently until the hen was done, I was to “heat and add what is left of the grog.” There was a lot left, but after one more sip, in it all went. (I’m happy to say those sips warded off any cold I might have been anticipating.)

My half bird took about an hour to cook, longer than the recipe said for a whole bird, probably because mine was older and with firmer flesh. A few bastings with the pan juices kept it moist, and it came out looking quite nice, if you allow for a guinea hen’s rather splotchy-looking skin.
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We were very interested in those wine- and grog-redolent pan juices, so I made a batch of fresh egg noodles to serve along with the bird. (The other vegetable on the plate is sauteed eggplant.)
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It all made a good meal, though not noticeably anarchic. The guinea hen was very flavorful, the light gravy excellent on both the meat and the noodles. Its alcohol had all cooked away, of course. I don’t know that I’d go the whole grog route again if I make the dish another time, but a slow braise like this is clearly a good way to handle guinea hen.

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I never considered myself the kind of person who’d spend almost a whole day in the kitchen making borscht. I didn’t even like beet soup. But that’s what I’ve just done, and I loved it.
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My change of heart came about, improbably, because I attended a pierogi making event for the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, held at Veselka, a venerable and venerated local Ukrainian restaurant. In its basement, more than 3,000 of these traditional stuffed dumplings are made by hand every day. Early one evening, 20 GVSHP members trooped downstairs, watched a demonstration, and then were invited to make some pierogi ourselves. That’s me in the purple sweater.

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After our lesson, we all climbed back up to the dining room and sat down to what turned out to be almost a full meal: cups of the restaurant’s signature borscht, its homemade bread, three kinds of pierogi – potato and farmer cheese, goat cheese and arugula, and beef short rib – plus sour cream, applesauce, and fried onions.

Everything was good, but what blew Tom and me away was the borscht. It was brilliant: rich and meaty, thick with vegetables, and with an intriguing interplay of beet sweetness and vinegar sourness. Like no borscht either of us had ever tasted before.

As we left the restaurant, everyone received a copy of The Veselka Cookbook, of which the dust-jacket picture and very first recipe was that borscht. I had to try making it.

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When, out of curiosity, I compared Veselka’s borscht recipe to others, it was clear that this was the borscht to end all borschts. The soup is made in two major stages, each with multiple preparation steps. Here are the components of the first stage:

  • On the left, 2 pounds of beets to be shredded and simmered in 10 cups of vinegared water for 2 hours to produce what Veselka calls “beet water.”
  • In the middle, 1 pound of beets to be boiled whole in plain water until tender-firm.
  • On the right, 2 pounds of boneless fresh pork butt, to be simmered in 8 cups of beef stock, 1 tablespoon of peppercorns, 1 teaspoon of allspice berries, and 1 bay leaf, for 2 hours or until the meat is beginning to fall apart.
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When all that was done and everything cooled down, the second stage began with more preparation of ingredients:
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  • In the rear 1 pound of shredded green cabbage, 4 cups of strained beef and pork stock, 3 large celery stalks, sliced, and 3 large carrots, sliced.
  • In the middle, 1 can of lima beans, rinsed and drained, and 2 russet potatoes, cubed.
  • In the front, 4 cups of beet water, the whole boiled beets, peeled and grated, and the pork butt, shredded.

All those ingredients began to come together in a single stockpot: first the carrots and celery, simmered in the broth for 8 minutes; next the cabbage and potatoes, stirred in and simmered for 20 minutes; then the lima beans, for 5 minutes more. Finally I had to taste the soup and add up to 7 tablespoons of white vinegar.
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At this point I was able to set the soup aside and start washing the many pots and dishes I’d used! As dinner time approached, I stirred the beet water, grated beets, and shredded pork into the soup and heated it all together. It certainly made a lurid concoction.
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But it was a truly delicious one, as we discovered when we sat down to our bowlfuls. The meaty broth and shredded pork gave heft and depth to the soup, the flavor of each tender vegetable could just be distinguished in the medley, and it had the same overall tangy sweetness – or sweet tanginess – that we’d marveled at in the restaurant’s version.
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(I didn’t top my borscht with sour cream and bits of fresh herbs, as is shown in the picture on the cookbook’s cover. Those were apparently a food stylist’s trick – they aren’t in the recipe.)

By the way, the recipe says it makes “about two quarts” of soup. Something went wrong there, because I measured my quantity at four quarts. But I’m not complaining, because my freezer  now has containers of luscious borscht to carry us through the ragged end of winter and the damp chills of early spring. Thank you, GVSHP and Veselka!

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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, which 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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