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Veal Francese

The Italian dish vitello alla francese came to America with the great wave of immigration from southern Italy that started in the late 1880s. As “Veal Francese,” it became a staple of the rapidly growing New York City Italian restaurant culture, and it’s still found – in varying degrees of quality – on almost every southern-Italian-style restaurant menu in the US.

Tom, who grew up just across the river in Jersey City, remembers it well from those days:

Veal francese was a standard dish – although one of the more expensive ones – of every Italian-American restaurant I ever frequented. Veal in all sorts of preparations was a lot more common than beef, and a restaurant of any ambitions had to offer several. I remember veal francese fondly as one of simplest and most elegant of them: no tomatoes, no peppers, no onions, just a modest sauce and a thin, tender, delicious, golden slice of meat.

Yielding to Tom’s nostalgia, we made veal francese together for a dinner this week, using a pair of large, well-pounded veal scallops from our butcher shop (owned by an Italian-American family).
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I’d done some recipe checking and found that, to start, the veal is typically dipped in egg and coated with flour, but Tom recalls the New Jersey version always using breadcrumbs instead of flour for a lighter casing. We did it that way.
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While the breaded scallops were firming up in the refrigerator, we took advantage of an unexpected trove of morel mushrooms we’d seen that morning at Eataly.
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Where in this country the store had found morels in August is a mystery – they’re spring mushrooms, and I don’t think they’ve ever been successfully cultivated. But even at their outlandish price, we grabbed some. And sautéed them in butter to accompany the veal.
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We then sautéed the veal in butter with a little olive oil – quickly, to retain all its juiciness. Butter may not be authentic to the Jersey City style: Tom’s memory is hazy on that point.
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The cooked veal waited in a warming oven while we deglazed the pan with white wine, stirred in a few big spoonsful of broth, added salt and pepper, and reduced the liquid until it was almost syrupy. There was just enough sauce to moisten the pieces of veal on their serving platter. Veal francese should never be awash in sauce: On that point Tom’s memory is solid.
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The dish was brilliant. And the morels alongside were a match made in heaven. The interplay of flavors from the veal, the sauce, the mushrooms, and even a plain baked potato was intricate and harmonious, the wild earthy notes of the mushrooms counterpointing the meat-sweetness of the veal and its delicate sauce.
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Glorious as it was, this veal francese is obviously a dish of great simplicity. For that very reason, it’s imperative to have ingredients of absolute top quality. Thus, our veal was thinly cut slices, fresh from the butcher; the breadcrumbs were homemade, as was the broth; and the cooking medium was Kerrygold, a fine Irish butter.

It’s regrettable that in some restaurants veal francese has become a tired, boring, last-choice menu item. That’s almost certainly due to cost-cutting practices like mediocre meat and old, stale cooking oil, as well as careless handling – meat cut badly, coating too heavy, cooking time too long, too much too-gloppy sauce. Treatment like that is what has given Italian-American cooking a bad name, which it definitely doesn’t deserve.
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Good to the last bite!

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BTW, should anyone be interested in more information about Italian-American cooking, here’s a link to an article Tom and I wrote some years ago for The Journal of Gastronomy, called “Italian-Americans in New York: a Bicultural Cuisine.”

 

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Planning for a casual dinner party last week, I turned to the summer section of TSOTIK (rhymes with exotic), our family name for Tom’s and my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. There I found recipes for several perfect-for-hot-weather dishes that I hadn’t made in a long time, so I built the evening’s menu around them.

 

Insalata Caprese – Zucchini a Scapece

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Insalata caprese
hardly needs a recipe at all: just pair the best available mozzarella with the best available tomatoes, and offer salt, pepper, and olive oil for diners to dress their own portions. The great white puffball you see above is a very fresh 1½-pound buffalo milk mozzarella, and the red cartwheels around it are local heirloom tomatoes. The combination is always wonderful.

Zucchini a scapece is a classic Neapolitan antipasto that I’ve written about before. For it I lightly floured rounds of zucchini, fried them in olive oil, and marinated them overnight in a simmered mixture of vinegar, water, garlic, and chopped mint leaves. The dish is best when made, as here, with the costata romanesco variety of zucchini, the prince of the summer squash family.

 

Fettuccine all’Abruzzese

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If you think this bowl of pasta looks as if there’s barely any sauce on it, you’re right. There isn’t much. But this simple peasant dish always surprises people by how unexpectedly delicious it is. The sauce is just a sauté of finely chopped pancetta and onion; chopped basil and parsley, salt, and pepper; with a little broth stirred in and nearly evaporated. The fettuccine – homemade, and rolled very thin: that’s essential – are tossed first with grated pecorino cheese and then with the sauce. The pasta readily absorbs the sauce, and the diners just as readily absorb the pasta.

 

Abbacchio in Umido – Ciambotta

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For the book I translated this meat recipe as “Summertime Lamb Stew” because, in Italian, in umido means stew, but there are no substantial vegetables in it, as there are in most cold-weather stews. It’s simply chunks of boneless lamb shoulder braised in tomato sauce, with seasonings of chopped pancetta, onion, carrot, celery, parsley, and marjoram. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get really young lamb these days, so the dish can take much longer to cook than the recipe suggests. Not a problem, though: just start early – even a day in advance – simmer however long it takes until the lamb is tender, and reheat it when needed. This is a reliable dish: It’ll be fine.

To accompany the vegetable-less lamb stew, I made a big sauté of summer vegetables from the greenmarket: eggplant, celery, onions, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini. We also had plenty of crusty bread available to soak up the delicious juices they generated, along with the equally good sauce from the lamb.

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The dinner wasn’t confined to these three courses. We also had a few hors d’oeuvres before coming to table, a cheese platter after the lamb, and a simple dessert of homemade lemon ice with cookies. Altogether, a very relaxed and comfortable summer repast. And Tom had picked out five wines from his collection to match with the food. He has written about those wines on his own blog.

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Summer hasn’t so far smothered New York City with the kind of punishing heat wave that has afflicted other parts of the country this July, but our temperatures and humidity have been high enough, for long enough, to make the prospect of cooking – especially oven cooking – less attractive than it normally is for me.

Consequently, I’ve been looking into recipes for dishes that can be either cooked in advance and served cool, or made all of raw ingredients, not cooked at all. I found a really nice one of the latter type in Penelope Casas’s Foods and Wines of Spain.

It’s her Ensalada de Champiñon, a mushroom and cured ham salad. I wouldn’t consider it a side salad – that is, something to be served along with a meal’s main course – because it’s so substantial in itself. But it would make an excellent component of a tapas spread, as Casas suggests, and for me it was a delightful appetizer.

For the two main ingredients I sliced fresh white mushrooms and cut julienne strips of Spanish Serrano ham. Though I was halving the recipe, I used the full quantity of ham because I wanted to give it more prominence in the dish. The dressing, from a separate recipe called El Aliño (which my dictionary says simply means “dressing”), is the most elaborate salad dressing I’ve ever made. Here are all the components:

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In addition to the mushrooms and ham, above, there are olive oil, wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, prepared horseradish, Parmesan cheese, garlic, basil, thyme, marjoram, parsley, salt, and pepper. To make the dressing I just dumped its dozen ingredients into my mini food processor and ran it until they combined into a cream.  Now, that’s summer cooking!

At serving time I sprinkled a little lemon juice on the mushroom slices, added the ham strips, and gently tossed everything with some of the dressing. The extra dressing I served in a little bowl for each of us to add more to our portion if we wished.

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Easy as it was to prepare, the salad was surprisingly complex in its flavors. There’s a real affinity between Serrano ham and mushrooms. Casas allows the use of Italian prosciutto in all her cured ham recipes, but the stronger, firmer Spanish ham was perfect here. I’m glad I raised the quantity of it. The dressing drew the dish together in a subtle way, with all the dressing ingredients making their small contributions to the blend. Tom, normally no great fan of salads, only regretted we couldn’t have gotten wild ovoli mushrooms instead of cultivated white ones, which would have raised the dish to even greater heights of enjoyment.

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We celebrated Independence Day this year by having good friends over for an American dinner. This was a bit of a menu challenge, since my palate, my pantry, and my parties mostly tend toward Italian and French. But I dug into my recipe collection and came up with an all-American lineup, while Tom dug into his wine storage for American wines.

We started modestly in the living room with aperitifs of Gruet brut, a champagne-method sparkling wine from New Mexico, with cocktail peanuts, cheese straws, and pickled herring to nibble on. I made the cheese straws with New York State cheddar, and the little tidbits of herring in mustard sauce were from Russ & Daughters on Houston Street, one of Manhattan’s many noted immigrant success stories.
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At table, our first course was a New Orleans favorite, Crabmeat Maison as served in Galatoire’s restaurant. I’ve written here before about making this luscious preparation for Atlantic blue-claw crabmeat. This day it paired beautifully with a 2016 Chenin Blanc from Paumanok Vineyards on Long Island.
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From there we moved to a rolled rib roast of beautifully rare beef, sourced from Ottomanelli’s of Bleecker Street, one more noted Manhattan immigrant success. This delicious centerpiece was accompanied by picnic-style vegetables: first-of-the-summer corn on the cob, new potato salad (I’ve written here about this too), a colorful heirloom tomato salad; and an ever-reliable three-bean salad, with black beans, kidneys, and chickpeas. The corn, potatoes, and tomatoes were from local farmers at my greenmarket. Our wine was a fine 2010 Petite sirah from California’s Ridge Vineyards.
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Even our cheese board held only US cheeses: Leonora, a goat; Harbison, a soft-ripening cow; Grayson, another cow; and one called Simply Sheep. All but the Grayson were new to us, and all were very good. With them we drank another excellent Ridge wine: 2010 Geyserville. (Tom has written about all these wines in his blog.)
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We concluded with small strawberry shortcakes, that quintessentially American summer dessert. Again, I’ve written about this classic recipe from the American Cooking volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series. They were local strawberries, of course. This particular batch came out quite messy looking, but they tasted perfectly good.
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All that definitely made a Glorious Fourth dinner. For the final aspect of the patriotic theme, our evening’s music program was also all-American. The guests arrived to the tune of John Philip Sousa marches, and when they were all played, we listened to quiet jazz by Teddy Wilson, who, in Tom’s opinion, probably has the lightest touch of any jazz pianist ever.

Expressing patriotism is a tricky business these days, but culinary patriotism can win all available hearts, minds, and stomachs.

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During the week in Venice that Tom and I are just back from, we indulged in so much seafood that we could almost feel gills beginning to form on our necks. Most fish and shellfish from the Adriatic Sea and the Venetian lagoon are so unlike anything we get at home that every meal was an adventure. Here are highlights.

 

Antipasti at Giorgione

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Friends who live part of every year in Venice took us to this simple family-run trattoria in their neighborhood. We started with granseola, a kind of spider crab, and cicale di mare, mantis shrimp. Both were simply boiled, chilled, and dressed with olive oil and lemon. Neither flavor resembles those of our blue claw crabs or shrimps of any size, but both were delicious.
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Main courses at
Al Covo

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This is a handsome, chef-owned, Slow Food member restaurant with a mission to “research, appreciate, defend and propose” the products of the territory around the Venetian lagoon. We ate there with our Venetian friends also, who patronize it often.
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My main course, above, was breaded and fried sarde “de alba” (“dawn” sardines: a name for fish caught first thing in the morning and cooked that same day) and canoce (another local name for mantis shrimp).
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These are the two halves of Tom’s main course, a fritto misto dell’Adriatico. It was served that way, in sequence, apparently so that none of the fried things would get cold. They were sole (smaller and sweeter than any variety we get here), anchovies, scallops, squid, shrimp, monkfish, polenta, and several vegetables. Enough food for a hungry boy scout troop..

 

Dinner at Ai Barbicani

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On our first visit to Venice, many years ago, we had two very pleasant dinners at this little restaurant in the city’s medieval section. We were delighted this year to find it still in business, warm, charming, and even better than we remembered. They presented us with welcoming glasses of Prosecco and good-night glasses of grappa.
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We each had this most unusual antipasto of marinated raw seafood. There were shrimps in raspberry sauce; anchovies in vinegar and currants; thin, thin strips of cuttlefish mantle, and nuggets of monkfish. Fascinating flavors and textures, very attractively presented.
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Then we had an extravaganza of mixed grilled seafood: There were two big sweet-fleshed scampi, two even bigger mazzancolle (king prawns), a large sole, a small salmon steak, and chunks of coda di rospo (the ubiquitous monkfish), all perfectly grilled and amazingly fresh and moist. Even the platter on which they were served was almost a work of art.
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Dinner at Osteria da Fiore

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This entire trip to Venice was a gift to ourselves for our 50th wedding anniversary, and on the day itself we dined luxuriously at this Michelin one-starred restaurant. It had what for us is an ideal combination of elegant French ambience and service with the best of lightly modernized traditional Venetian cooking. We adored it.

Our first courses were spaghetti with tartufi di mare (Venus clams) and agnolotti filled with fresh peas in a sauce of astice (spiny lobster) with fresh ginger – the latter a particularly intriguing exotic note.
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Small soft-shell crabs from the Venetian lagoon – moleche in Italian, moeche in Veneziano – are available only briefly in spring and fall. Delighted to find we were there just before the end of the season, we both chose them for our main course. Perfectly deep-fried, they were the best dish we ate in the entire trip.
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We also had our best wine of the trip at Fiore, which Tom talks about in his blog. All in all, a great celebratory trip and a wonderful meal for an important anniversary.

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On our Rhône cruise a few weeks ago, Tom and I took one evening away from the boat to dine at Le Gibolin, a restaurant in Arles about which we’d read many good things. I’m away on a trip again now, so for this week’s post I’ll copy out the entry I made in my travel journal about the perfectly splendid evening we had there. I’ll add that it followed upon an uncomfortably cold, wet day of touring.

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All today’s misery was amply redeemed by the most delightful dinner we have had in almost forever. Le Gibolin, on a tiny street in Arles, to which through a wicked rainstorm we were taken by a very pleasant young taxi driver, is the answer to a dream. Twenty covers, maybe four staff members, décor preponderantly bottles of wine, run by a most formidable but handsome woman, who was first very annoyed with us for arriving 20 minutes too soon, while staff dinner was still happening. (But then, why was the “open” sign on the door?) We were welcomed by the little dog of the house, however, and Madame’s anger didn’t extend to sending us back out into the rain. We were allowed to sit at our table and wait.

In time, Madame relented and placed the big chalkboard menu before us. It looked fabulous: classic Provençal dishes. Two courses for €28, three for €35, with five or six options each for entrée and plat.
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Our choices mollified her a bit, as did our request for her to select us glasses of wines for each course and – as the meal progressed – Tom’s knowledge and appreciation of them.

I had a croustillant de pieds et tête de cochon to start, and Tom had pâté de campagne. Impossible to imagine better of their kind. Even the cornichons were amazingly good. My dish had a green condiment so intriguing I had to know what the herb in it was. Madame seemed pleased to be asked. It was tarragon, but it didn’t at all taste of licorice. How did they do that?!
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The first wine she poured for us was a 2015 Cairanne from Oratoire Saint Martin, made from Mourvèdre, Grenache, and Syrah. (Tom has more to say about the wines in his blog.)

Our main courses were, for Tom, poitrine de veau rôtie aux épices douces, and for me, carré d’agneau de Provence rôti. (€4 extra for the lamb.) Both, again, as lovely as could be imagined.
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Madame asked if we’d like more of the same wine with this course and we said no, a different one, please. So she brought a Côtes du Rhône from the same maker, called Les P’tit Gars, which was a blend that she said had more Mourvèdre. An amazing step up in richness from the first.

As we ate our main course, the petit chien of the house, who had been quietly sitting under the table next to our feet all the while, began gently tapping at our legs to remind us of his patient attendance. We each rewarded him with a few tidbits. Later he sought out other patrons, but came back when we ordered cheese.

We each received a whole little round of a goat called Pelardon – young, fresh, and intensely good. Le petit chien didn’t get any of them.
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With the cheese, we asked for yet another different wine and received an Ardèche Côtes du Rhône, made from old vines and with Alicante as the main component of the blend. Alas, we didn’t catch its maker’s name. It was brighter and more acidic than the previous wines – great with the cheese.

Madame was in full charity with us by now, and when after ordering a marc de bourgogne and an eau de vie de poire that she had declared was extraordinaire, we asked to purchase a bottle of the poire, we were definitely personae gratae. Without that €65 bottle, our bill came to €131, no single cent of which we begrudged. It was a magnificent dinner. Oh, that we could come back another time!

When our faithful taximan returned to pick us up, the rain had finally stopped, and I tried to get a picture of the restaurant. Not much luck – too dark on the street.
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After a short ride through the quiet town, a supremely satisfied couple stumbled up the gangplank to our boat at about 11 p.m.

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Lamb stew is typically a slam-dunk for me: I brown chunks of lamb in a big pot; throw in cut-up onions, carrots, potatoes, and green beans; add broth, salt, and pepper: and cook until done. Good, solid food, but more than a little predictable.

Recently I was led to an interestingly different sort of lamb stew by a chance discovery in my pantry. Way in the back of a shelf I found a small bag holding a pair of dried ñora peppers.
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Cute little things, aren’t they? Turns out I’d bought some for use in a Spanish recipe all of five years ago and afterward completely forgot about the unused ones. Time to do something with them! The index of Penelope Casas’ La Cocina de Mamá sent me to a recipe for caldereta de cordero – a lamb stew in which these sweet (not hot) red peppers play a major role. It sounded simple and good. The only solid ingredients were boneless leg of lamb, potatoes, garlic, and the ñoras.
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To begin, I cored and seeded the peppers and cooked them along with the whole garlic cloves in olive oil for just two minutes.
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I added the lamb pieces, salt and pepper, and sauteed until the meat was lightly browned.
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Then I covered the pot and – with no liquid in it at all – let it cook very gently for half an hour, letting the lamb imbue itself with the other flavors. At that point the ñoras and garlics had to be taken out, mashed to a paste, and stirred back into the pot, along with white wine and broth.
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Finally, in went the potatoes, to cook with the lamb and absorb its seasonings for another half hour.
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In her recipe headnote Casas said to serve a Moorish-style green salad with the stew. So, following her recipe for the salad dressing, I mashed cumin seeds, garlic, Spanish smoked paprika, and salt in a mortar, whisked in olive oil and wine vinegar, and tossed it all with lettuce.

The stew was very good, and very different from the kind of lamb stew I usually make. The ñoras had given warm, earthy, and almost fruity undertones to the meat, potatoes, and sauce. And the spicy dressing on crisp lettuce leaves made an excellent complement to the dish. For its tastiness and ease of preparation,  I can easily see adding this lamb stew to my repertoire.
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