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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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With only four days in Naples on our Italian trip earlier this month, there was no way Beloved Spouse and I could eat as many of the region’s foods and culinary specialties as we’d have liked. So we focused on – and feasted on – the many excellent kinds of fresh fish and shellfish available there. The beautiful Bay of Naples may not be the pristine pool it once was, but the local seafood remains spectacular in variety and flavor. Here are the dishes we enjoyed.

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Crudo

The word crudo means raw. Appetizer plates of raw fish are very popular in Italy. This one consisted of tender, paper-thin slices of baby octopus and salmon, lightly dressed with olive oil, lemon, and salt, and served on a bed of wild arugula. The interplay of the succulent octopus, the silky salmon, and the mildly bitter arugula was superb.
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Impepata di cozze

Years ago we knew cozze impepata as Neapolitan street food. Sidewalk vendors tended huge drums of boiling salt water heavily flavored with black pepper. They’d suspend a big bunch of mussels over the drum in a perforated dipper, pour water over them until they opened, and dump them onto a paper plate to be eaten with the hands. In this day’s restaurant dish, the mussels were steamed in their own broth, with garlic and oil as well as pepper. Each way, the glory of the simple preparation depends on very fresh, sweet, wild-harvested shellfish. And lots of pepper.

 

Spaghetti alle vongole veraci

This version of spaghetti with clam sauce, from the harborside restaurant La Bersagliera, may be my absolute, all-time, life-long favorite dish of pasta. I order it every time I’m there. Those tiny two-tube clams, the vongole veraci, have more luscious flavor and more intense sweetness here than in any other place and any part of Italy that I’ve ever had them. There’s not much else to the dish – olive oil, parsley, garlic, salt, and a touch of hot pepper – but either the clams from this locality or the way this kitchen handles them produces something purely magical.

 

Scialatelli con frutta di mare

Here are those marvelous mussels and clams again, in another kind of presentation. Scialatelli are fresh egg pasta, cut into a shape like thickish spaghetti but with a softer texture and milder flavor.  The lightly cooked pomodorini – cherry tomatoes – added a bright touch of sweet vegetable acidity to the rich shellfish flavors.

 

Mezze paccheri con coccio

It’s a Naples tradition to serve large tubes of paccheri pasta in a sauce made with chunks of the fish locally called coccio. It’s a kind of gurnard: a big-headed, bottom-feeding fish with large side fins like wings, a relative of our Atlantic sea robins. In America, sea robins are usually considered trash fish, but that whole family can be quite delicious, as Neapolitans know.  Another piscine relative is France’s rascasse, considered indispensable to bouillabaisse.

 

Frittura di paranza

The heap of small fishes on this plate included anchovies, tiny mullets and whiting, and possibly a sardine or two. Each was thinly coated in a tasty batter and fried to a perfect crunchiness. Lemon juice and salt brought out the best in them. Absolutely fresh fish and a really good hand at the fryer are what make this dish: It’s not “fishy” at all.

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Grigliata di calamari e gamberi

The big grilled squid mantle you see here was very tender, meat-sweet, and quite rich, its flavor heightened by exposure to the flame. The two shrimp were also excellent; I’d have been glad of a few more of them. The little mixed salad alongside made a nice contrast of texture and flavors.

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Spigoletta al forno in sale

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A spigola is a European sea bass, which can be a very large fish. Our smaller spigoletta probably weighed about two pounds when whole. Baked to perfection in a salt crust, it was a splendid fish: moist, rich, sweet, tender. (I know: I keep using the same words to describe these dishes. That’s because they were all like that – utterly delicious examples of their kind.)
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Looking at these dishes all together, it’s obvious that there’s nothing exotic or complicated in their preparation or presentation. Given the right ingredients, they’d all be easy to turn out from an American home kitchen. But oh, those ingredients! It’s nearly impossible to get fish and shellfish so fresh, so fine, and so flavorful here. The opportunity to indulge in them would, all by itself, have made my trip to Naples worthwhile.

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Regular readers of this blog know what a fan I am of Andrea Camilleri’s series of mysteries featuring Sicilian detective inspector Salvo Montalbano – as much for his devotion to food as for his skill in solving crimes. In every volume our hero lustily consumes traditional Sicilian dishes made for him by his faithful housekeeper Adelina, his favorite restaurateur Enzo, and anyone else he can find to feed him. Except his girlfriend Livia, who is a terrible cook.

The writeups of those dishes are so mouth-watering that I can’t resist making them myself. I’ve already written about them here six times, mostly based on recipes in a cookbook called I segreti della tavola di Montalbano. But that book doesn’t have everything mentioned in the novels, so I’ve had to do a little detective work of my own and go farther afield to find recipes.

The newest Montalbano adventure is called According to Protocol, and it exists not in a printed book but only in the Italian television series available here on DVD. (Naturally I have the whole series, just as I have copies of all the novels.) In this episode, Montalbano is told about Da Filippo, a country restaurant said to make a particularly good version of the octopus dish Polpo alla Luciana. He drives off to find it one afternoon.
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After verifying that the eponymous Filippo makes his octopus dish with Gaeta olives and Pantelleria capers, Montalbano sits down at a table. Just then, two black-hooded gunmen burst in, one of them clearly about to kill our hero. The other one inexplicably knocks out the shooter, fires his gun twice into the walls, and drags his partner out. Filippo responds by going into hysterics, but Montalbano’s principal concern is for his lunch.
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Alas, the video doesn’t show the dish actually being served. I determined to make it anyway, and began looking at recipes. There were none for polpo alla Luciana in my Sicilian cookbooks but several in my Neapolitan ones. I asked a New York-based Sicilian restaurateur about the dish, and he reminded me that in much of the 19th century, Naples was part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, with much comestible, as well as cultural, interchange. He said they of course made that dish in Sicily.

So I proceeded. In six cookbooks I found essentially two versions of the dish: one with the octopus simply boiled, cooled, and dressed like a seafood salad, the other braised in oil, tomato, and other seasonings and served hot. None of the variations included the quintessentially Sicilian olive and caper combination so important to Montalbano, but it would be easy enough to add them. I decided to mostly follow the recipe in Anna Gosetti della Salda’s Le Ricette Regionali Italiane and take a few hints from Ada Boni’s Il Talismano della Felicità, both highly respected Italian culinary classics.


Both recipes were for the braised version of the dish. In my detective persona I deduced that it was more likely to be the one Montalbano had, because if Filippo’s was the seafood-salad type the octopus wasn’t likely to be burning.

That decided, off I went to the fish market for octopus.
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These two, each weighing three quarters of a pound, had already been tenderized by the store. That was a huge convenience, saving me from having to smack them hard for several minutes with a meat pounder, or fling them repeatedly into the (clean) kitchen sink, to soften the rubbery flesh.

Preparing the other components of the dish was quite easy.
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I put the octopi into a heavy pot into which they’d fit snugly. I salted, peppered, and topped them with ½ cup of olive oil, 3 chopped plum tomatoes, a handful of chopped fresh parsley, a whole garlic clove, a small dried hot red pepper, and – for Montalbano’s sake –16 Gaeta olives and 2 tablespoons of drained tiny capers.
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To prevent any of the cooking juices from escaping, I had to lay a piece of parchment over the pot and tie it down with string, before putting on the pot’s own lid.
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The pot then went onto my stove’s lowest burner at its lowest setting and stayed there undisturbed – cooking “insensibilmente” – for two hours.

Ada Boni sternly forbids taking the lid off the pot until the very moment of serving. When you finally do, she says, you’ll see “a kind of big, reddish chrysanthemum, utterly tender, floating in an exquisite broth that the munificent beast has generously provided.” (My translation.)
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When I lifted off the parchment, a lush, savory aroma wafted up. My submarine “chrysanthemums” had shrunk considerably in the course of creating their broth. They were indeed beautifully tender, with a soft, yielding texture a little like that of scallops. They had the characteristic octopus sweetness – rich but delicate, sort of halfway between crabmeat and sole or flounder.
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The broth wasn’t at all a tomato sauce: the chopped tomato remained as toothsome little nuggets, along with the olives and capers. The olive oil had blended with all the other flavors to create an unmistakably Mediterranean essence. This was a very, very good dish, a worthy companion to a fine white wine. No wonder Montalbano loved it!

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 A few coincidences set the stage for a very interesting dinner at home this week.

  • Beloved Spouse, having decided to write a post for his wine blog on a comparison between prosecco and champagne, brought home a representative bottle of each, first for a formal tasting, then to test with dinner foods.
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  • I had just read Fatal Pursuit, a detective novel by Martin Walker that has Perigord police chief/gastronome Bruno Courrèges making blinis of an unusual kind to serve with local caviar – a kind I wanted to try to make.
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  • We had a little jar of American transmontanus caviar in the refrigerator.

Everyone who reads the Bruno books knows that their lavish descriptions of the hero’s cooking are virtually narrative recipes. I’ve written about re-creating some of his dishes here. The blinis in this story are not the traditional Russian ones in several ways. Bruno doesn’t use any buckwheat flour; he adds chopped chives to his batter of flour, milk, egg yolk, and melted butter; and – because he doesn’t have time to raise the blinis with yeast – he beats the egg white into peaks and folds it in. I did the same.
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I dropped the batter by tablespoonsful into very hot butter in a frying pan. (Bruno remarks that this is one of the few places he doesn’t use duck fat!) They cooked quickly and neatly, making 20 fluffy 2-inch pancakes.
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After we’d had the formal tasting of the sparkling wines alone, we opened our caviar and sat down to find out how the champagne and prosecco would go with our dinner dishes. The blinis themselves were fine – light and delicate, an excellent vehicle for the caviar. I think the leftovers, which I froze, may be just as good with smoked salmon or sturgeon.
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We did the same tasting of the two wines along with the dinner’s main course, which was sauteed soft-shell crabs on toast and a summer vegetable mélange of okra, corn, and tomatoes (which I’ve also written about here).
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I’ll leave the detailed results of the wine-wine and wine-food comparisons for Tom’s blog post to report. What I’ll say is simply that Bruno’s blinis were a success, all the food was delicious, both the wines were delightful, and the entire evening sparkled like the wine.

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I just spent a week of bright sunny days cruising the wild, scenic, unspoiled river Loire on the MS Loire Princesse. This handsome paddle-wheel barge-type ship is French-owned, and its 90 passengers were about 60% French, 20% Spanish, and 20% British and Antipodean. Tom and I were the only Americans.

We’d been greatly looking forward to the food on the voyage. As this was a moderately priced cruise, providing good value but not extravagance, only a single three-course menu was available for each lunch and dinner. There was no particular emphasis on the cuisine of the Loire Valley. That was a bit disappointing for us, but the cooking was generally good. Every day several pleasant, simple wines were liberally poured at no cost, and there was a small list of better wines for purchase. (Tom’s blog has more to say about the wines.)
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Lunches

The lunches onboard were far larger than what we’re used to. A few times we’d have been just as happy with only a sandwich or a hamburger. But the chef prepared these menus, and we were on vacation, so we had to try them, didn’t we? Somehow, we managed to get through midday meals like these. (Wine helped, and often a little nap too.)
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Fresh pickled herring, roast veal with chanterelles, tortoni
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Mozzarella and tomato salad, filet of pork with duchesse potatoes, tiramisu
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Black Forest ham, hake filet grenobloise, raspberry cake

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Dinners

Dinners were equally elaborate and varied, with occasionally a small fourth course included. The chef had a real talent with meat and potatoes but offered few fresh seasonal vegetables other than salad greens.
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Duck terrine with sauce gribiche, stuffed filet of chicken with tagliatelle, raspberry torte
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Veal-filled beggar’s purse pasta with cream sauce, confit duck leg, crepes suzette
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Scallop salad, duck breast with port sauce, baked apple on brioche French toast

 

 

Cappuccino of cèpes, vegetables à la grecque, blanquette de veau à l’ancienne, peach melba

 

A word of explanation about the “cappuccino” just above. That’s what it looked like, but it was actually a trompe l’oeil creation: a rich soup of wild mushrooms topped with a veil of cream and a sprinkle of minced mushrooms as faux cinnamon. Quite a delicious frivolity.

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Overall, the cruise’s food was a little too elaborated, too heavily decorated, for our taste. Rather than the panoply of flavors present in most dishes, we’d have preferred having the simple quality of the main ingredients left to shine forth on their own. Also, we really regretted the dearth of local specialties. To be in the Loire Valley and not be offered rillettes or beurre blanc seemed wrong! Likewise, to be in the agricultural heart of France in mid-June and be fed carrots and brussels sprouts. But many individual dishes were excellent.  For instance, the herring in the first lunch above was as sparkling, fresh, and delicious as any I’ve ever had. The many mushroom varieties the chef seemed to love using tasted fine indeed, and he had the best hand with pasta of any French cook we’ve encountered.

After the cruise, we had a few days in the Touraine and the Orléanais on our own, where we took the opportunity to make up some of the deficit of regional dishes – e.g., fabulous white asparagus. And I’ve purchased a little French book of recipes of the châteaux of the Loire, to encourage myself to make them at home.

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One evening in Paris long, long ago, I dined at the Michelin-three-star restaurant Le Grand Véfour. Owner-chef Raymond Oliver was then producing the apotheosis of classic French cuisine, and my meal was a purely blissful experience. This week I made an elaborate dish of that era from Oliver’s cookbook La Cuisine. I’ve had the book for a long time, and its glamour photo of Toast de Crevettes à la Rothschild had always attracted me.

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Now, with still some of the ugly-but-good shrimp I wrote about last week, it seemed like the perfect time to try the recipe, since its shrimp are invisible within their bread case and underneath their sauce.

So I defrosted half a pound of them. It looked like a lot for only two people, but that’s what half the recipe called for.
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The first task was to carve two cases from thick slices of sandwich bread (Joy of Cooking’s ever-reliable White Bread Plus) and fry them in butter until golden.

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Next was to shell the shrimp and “crush the shells in a mortar and pestle until they are almost a paste.” Easy for him to say! Restaurants obviously use kitchen slaveys and hefty professional equipment for such things. In my small mortar and pestle, the shells just slithered around, staying totally intact. So on to the mini food processor, which after much whirling at least broke the shells into fragments. I’d have to live with that.

Then came what is always the most elaborate part of a classic French recipe, making the sauce. I softened chopped carrot, onion, and shallot in butter, added the shell shrapnel, and cooked it for a few minutes.
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Into the pot I stirred tomato paste, white wine, fish broth, parsley, bay leaf, and thyme. It all simmered covered for 20 minutes, after which it had to be strained. That was a tough job, given my too, too solid shells. It might have been easier if I’d had a chinoise, but I don’t. I managed it with about 15 minutes of mashing the stuff around in my finest-mesh sieve.
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After returning the sauce to a pot I was supposed to reduce it to ⅜ cup. I didn’t. It was hardly more than that already, and nicely thick. I just left it there while I briefly sauteed the shrimp in (of course) butter and then added them to the sauce and simmered for another minute.
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I pulled the shrimp out of the pot, scraping as much of the sauce off them as I could, and put them in the prepared bread cases. As I’d expected, there wasn’t enough room to fit them all in, so I just left some on the side. Then I stirred cream and cognac into the sauce, brought it to a boil, and, off heat, dissolved yet more softened butter in it.

At last we were closing in on consumption time. I topped the shrimp toasts with the finished sauce – of which there was just about enough – and sprinkled on grated Gruyere, omitting the recipe’s final extravagance of a big slice of black truffle.
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I browned them quickly under the broiler and served. Of course they looked nothing like the picture in the book. Frankly, I don’t see how anyone could have achieved that appearance by following the recipe’s instructions.
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So how were they? Bite for bite, utterly delicious – but almost excruciatingly rich and heavy. Aside from the whole shrimp, which seemed more like a garnish than a principal ingredient, there wasn’t a fresh, noncomposed flavor in the dish. It was the classic, complex, Paris restaurant food of Oliver’s bygone era, but it’s not the way we eat today, or would want to, more than once in a very long while.

Still, making the dish was an intriguing culinary experience, a tour de force of nostalgia and digestion!

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