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It’s always a happy surprise when new recipes turn out better than I’d expected. The above homey-looking dinner plate holds two excellent dishes from Penelope Casas’s Foods and Wines of Spain. This is the book that first introduced me to Spanish cooking and the one I most often rely on. It has never let me down, and I still continue to discover good new things in it.

This time I was initially struck by a recipe called Higado con Pimientos, which had an uncommon pairing of calf’s liver and green peppers. Liver and onions is a classic combination, but I’d never seen green peppers used in a dish with liver. Casas also recommended a potato dish, Patatas Picantes, as an accompaniment. Curiosity led me to try them.

The ingredients for two portions of both recipes were easily assembled: liver, sliced Bell peppers, sliced onions, minced garlic, a potato parboiled and sliced, and a few condiments.
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The first things to be cooked were the peppers and onions. We have peppers and onions often, but I do them in the Italian manner, which is to say together in one pan. For this dish they were done separately: first the onions, sautéed in olive oil and removed to a dish; then the peppers, briefly sauteed in the same pan, then covered, fully cooked, and removed to the dish. Finally the liver was quickly sauteed in the same pan, with a little more oil.
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Meanwhile, I’d been also cooking the boiled, sliced potatoes – sauteeing them in a different pan until lightly browned and then stirring in minced garlic, crushed red pepper flakes, and pimentòn dulce (Spanish smoked paprika).
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When the liver came out of its pan, I deglazed it with white wine, reduced the liquid, poured that over the liver, and put it in a serving dish in a turned-off oven to keep warm.

The final step was to reheat the peppers and onions in their original pan, season them with salt and pepper, spread them over the liver, and serve.
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These were the simplest procedures, yet they had remarkably subtle effects. Sauteeing the onions and peppers separately, in the same oil, and then finishing them in the remnants of the liver oil and the deglazing sauce, made the vegetables quite different from Italian peppers and onions: they didn’t blend together but each stayed itself, with just overtones of the other components’ flavors. And the liver had taken on the same multi-flavor hints from the vegetables’ sauteeing oil and the deglazing sauce. I was very happily surprised by how the peppers’ natural acidity made them a wonderful foil for the sweetness of calves’ liver and the onions.

The potatoes – with crunchy edges and soft interiors – loved their zingy spices and made an excellent counterpoint to the gentle harmony of peppers, onions, and liver.

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Altogether, a very interesting pair of dishes and a very enjoyable simple meal.

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Egg Foo Yung

I don’t know what put egg foo yung into my mind. I hadn’t given the dish a thought since, as a child, I began discovering “exotic” substances like chop suey at a suburban Chinese restaurant with my family. Chinese food in America has come a long way from the ubiquitous Cantonese-and-MSG style of those days, but many of the old-time flavors are still pleasant.

So, on a day when I was idly thinking about French omelets, Spanish tortillas, and Italian fritattas, egg foo yung popped into my mind. Why not try my hand at those Chinese egg pancakes in a brown sauce? Three of my four Chinese cookbooks had recipes for the dish – some quite elaborate. Remembering the modesty of that long-ago restaurant, I decided to make the simplest version, which was in the Chinese Cooking volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series.

From my experience with the pace of cooking Chinese recipes, I knew I’d have to assemble and measure out all the ingredients before starting. These weren’t very many for half a recipe’s worth: eggs, chicken stock, mushrooms, shrimp, bean sprouts, soy sauce, salt, and cornstarch.
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My shrimp had to be peeled, cut in small pieces, and stir-fried in a lightly oiled wok for just one minute by themselves.
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Before doing anything more, I made up the sauce, starting by dissolving the cornstarch in a bit of the cold chicken stock and mixing the salt and soy into it. Then I was to bring the rest of the stock to a boil, add the cornstarch mixture, and simmer for two minutes until the sauce was thick and clear. It thickened quickly enough, but the soy coloring kept it from being what I’d call clear.
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But it was translucent, though it doesn’t look that way in the picture, so I assume that’s what was meant. I kept the sauce warm at the back of the stove while I assembled the pancake mixture.

Shrimp, mushrooms, and bean sprouts all went into the bowl of beaten eggs. Since the half recipe was to make three pancakes, I took the prudent approach of dividing the mixture evenly in three little bowls rather than trying to estimate quantities on the fly.
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The frying went fast and well in the very hot wok, each pancake taking only about a minute on each side.
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Then plating and saucing, and the recipe was done. I can’t say I had a Proustian recollection of my childhood when I smelled the dish, but the aroma was pleasing.
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The pancakes and their sauce were very good in a mild, homely, old-fashioned way. That sauce was absolutely essential. When I took a bite of the pancake alone, it was bland almost to tastelessness, but the smooth, thick, salty sauce immediately brought up the flavors, as well as the nice textural variety of the crunchy bean sprouts, tender egg custard, and nubbly bits of shrimp and mushroom. So, egg foo yung: a pleasant little walk down Memory Lane.

 

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During the holiday season just past, I served two excellent French-style dinner-party appetizers that I look forward to making again in the coming year. As an aid to memory, I thought I’d start my 2019 blog with an appreciation of the two dishes.

One, asparagus croûtes, was quick, easy, and even tastier than I’d thought it would be from reading the recipe. The other, salade de geziers, was also quick and easy in the assembly and thoroughly delicious in the eating, but the chief component has to be prepared far in advance.

 

Asparagus Croûtes
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This is a plain looking dish, but its simple flavors come together in one of those magical French ways that make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. (Hint: Think butter.) The recipe comes from esteemed chef Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine, which gives it a distinguished culinary pedigree.

For each serving you need one slice of homemade-style white bread, crust cut off and the slice cut in half; and enough spears of asparagus – thick or thin, as you prefer – to top the bread completely. In my version, on each half slice I used the tip ends of four thinnish spears, cut in lengths the size of the bread.

The asparagus gets cooked in boiling salted water until just tender, then sauteed gently in butter for two minutes. The bread is fried in butter and olive oil until golden. In a baking dish you place the bread slices, arrange the asparagus on them, and sprinkle generously with grated Swiss cheese and fine dry breadcrumbs.

Then, you either run the dish under a broiler or else bake it in a 450° oven until the croûtes are golden and bubbly. Doesn’t look like a lot on the plate, but it’s quite filling. Of course, if you’re feeding very hearty eaters, you can always increase the number of croûtes per person.

 

Salade de Geziers
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Geziers are gizzards, an ingredient many Americans consign to cat food – a big mistake. Gizzards can be delicious. While one of them should be included in every bag of giblets tucked inside a purchased chicken, it takes a long time to collect and freeze enough gizzards to do anything significant with, so I buy them separately. And what I do is confit them. Making confit is a time-consuming process, but once it’s done you have the wherewithal for this splendid salad.

Essentially, to confit gizzards you toss them with salt and refrigerate them for a day. Scrape off the salt, put the gizzards in a heavy casserole with melted duck fat to cover, bring it to a simmer, and cook covered in a very low oven for several hours, until they are tender. Drain, cool, and transfer them to a large jar; and pour over enough of the cooled cooking fat to cover them completely. They keep in the refrigerator for months.

For the salad, you want a leafy green that’s at least a little bitter, to contrast with the unctuous gizzards. Frisée is my first choice, but if it’s not available, tender leaves from the heart of escarole do very well. I dress them with a vinaigrette made with walnut oil and my homemade red wine vinegar, then top them with warmed gizzards. It’s an intriguing combination on the palate: crisp and soft, sharp and mellow, bracing and soothing.

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Both these dishes are truly – literally – appetizers. That is, they stimulate your appetite for what will be coming next. Nice.

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Pasta with Lentils

I’ve discovered an excellent new kind of Italian lentils. I’d thought that the small brown Umbrian lentils from Castelluccio were the best there are, but at DiPalo, a specialty food shop in NYC’s Little Italy, I found a brand called Casino di Caprafico. I couldn’t tell much about the lentils, which came in opaque cloth bags, but I trust that store, and I had a craving for pasta with lentils, so I bought a bag.

 

 

Back home, exploration of the company’s website revealed that it’s a biological farm in Abruzzo that grows heirloom varieties of grains and pulses, some made into flours and pastas. The lentils were tiny, plump, and a beautiful light golden brown. Very promising!

 

 

My recipe for pasta with lentils is in Tom’s and my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. It’s a very simple preparation. Its only major components other than lentils and pasta are finely chopped celery, onions, and carrots.

 

 

All lentils have to be picked over to discard any lurking pebbles. These were very clean. Rinsed and drained, they went into a pot with the chopped vegetables, salt, and water to cover.

 

 

It all simmered, covered, until the lentils were tender. They need a lot of water, and I don’t like to drown them right away, so I keep a kettle of water simmering and add more water in small doses as it gets absorbed. Ordinary dried lentils tend to take about an hour to be done. These little guys must have been extremely fresh, because they were ready in little more than half an hour.

At that point, the pasta went into the pot with the lentils. I use bucatini, broken into two-inch pieces. Obviously, other kinds of pasta would work too, but I like the contrast of those shapes with the lentils.

 

 

More hot water from the kettle went in as the pasta cooked, which takes about 20 minutes. It needs that long because the proportion of liquid is so much smaller than if the pasta had been boiled in the usual large quantity of water. The extra time lets the bucatini absorb some of the other flavors.

 

 

Two last essential ingredients should be passed for serving at the table: freshly ground black pepper and the best, fruitiest olive oil available – lots of both. This is one place where I always choose extra virgin olive oil. It gives the perfect finish to the dish. So here it is: humble, hearty, wholesome, and delicious. Especially when made with those lovely lentils.

 

 

(I know, I know — the pasta looks like worms. But delicious worms!)

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It’s being a good year for many local summer vegetables: tomatoes, corn, peppers, and onions. The small early-season onions at my greenmarket were especially mild, moist, and sweet. As they grew bigger, they lost some of that fresh youthful charm, and by now the onions being sold are mostly “cured,” having the paper-thin dry skins of year-round store onions. But one greenmarket stand is still offering nearly fresh small ones.

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My original intention for the box I bought this week was to make a batch of the Italian sweet-and-sour preparation cipolline in agrodolce. But as I browsed recipes ranging from very simple to quite elaborate, none caught my fancy. So I turned from my Italian cookbooks to my Spanish ones. In Penelope Casas’ Tapas I found a recipe called cebollas in adobo, which instantly appealed. Its slightly sweet marinade was unlike any adobo I’d seen before and looked to be very tasty.

Tiny onions are often the devil to peel, but the ones I took to make up the recipe’s ½ pound behaved like angels. A brief dip in boiling water, removal of the root and stem tips, and the delicate skins slid right off, smoothly and evenly.
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To start the cooked marinade I needed small amounts of chopped tomato, onion, garlic, and parsley, plus a bay leaf, some basil, and dried thyme.
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After a brief sauté of the onion, garlic, and tomato, I added the herbs, salt, pepper, and a little water, covered the pan, and simmered for 20 minutes.
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Then I put the onions in a small saucepan with the tomato mixture, 1½ tablespoons of olive oil, ¼ cup of my own red wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons of raisins, 1 tablespoon of sugar, a little more thyme, basil, salt, and pepper, and another ½ cup of water.
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All this was to simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes. By then, my kitchen was scented with the zesty marinade reduction, but my onions still weren’t quite fully tender. They took another 15 minutes of gentle tending, along with a tad more water to keep the sauce from scorching.
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They looked very tempting, just as they were, but the recipe said to cool and refrigerate them, so I didn’t even sneak a taste. Besides, the recipe also said they’d go well with any other sauceless tapa, so I needed time to prepare a companion for them.

From a recipe in the same Casas book I made a tortilla of potato, chorizo, ham, and peas.
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This was also to be served at room temperature, so it was evening when we finally sat to the two tapas.
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It was a good combination, as well balanced as were the flavors of the onion dish itself. That was neither strikingly sweet nor strongly sour, but a pleasing blend of flavors, the lightly enhanced sweetness of the onions counterpointed by the acidity of vinegar and tomato. The tortilla was also very tasty, with its own counterpoint of smoky ham and chorizo poised against the sweet young peas and egg, and with a texture just firm enough to welcome a little moistening with the onions’ excellent adobo. Both tapas went very well with a bottle of 2011 Consejo de la Alta Rioja, highlighting the affinity a region’s dishes always show for the kind of wines they grew up with.

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Despite the excessively hot weather we’re having, summer must be starting to wind down: The first local cauliflower is appearing in my Greenmarket. Unseasonable as that seems, I was glad to see it. There’s a dish I’ve been interested in trying for which I’d need a small cauliflower. This little bronzy-green head just filled the bill.
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The recipe I had in mind, from Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India, is called Cauliflower with Peas. Cauliflower has a strong affinity for Indian spices, as I know from enjoyable meals in Indian restaurants, and this recipe uses a good range of them – mustard seeds, turmeric, chili powder, coriander, and asafetida. (Shameful confession here: In every Indian dish I’ve ever made that calls for a pinch of asafetida, I’ve skipped it. And so I did again this time. I haven’t missed it.)

My one-pound cauliflower produced a generous half pound of florets, which I matched with a third of a cup of green peas. The remaining ingredients, all classically Indian, are a fresh hot green chile, a small tomato, grated fresh ginger, and a little chopped cilantro. Indian cooking moves fast, so I had to slice the chile and chop the tomato before going any farther.
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Once all was ready I heated olive oil in a nonstick skillet and threw in the mustard seeds. As soon as they began to pop I added the chile slices and gave them a few stirs.
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Next in went the tomatoes, salt, turmeric, chili powder, coriander, and ginger, to be stir-fried for a few minutes.

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Finally, the cauliflower and peas, plus a little water.
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This was to simmer, covered, for 10 minutes or until the cauliflower was tender. Well, my cauliflower was not about to be rushed. I had to add three more doses of water and keep things simmering for almost 15 further minutes until the vegetable softened.  Early-season cauliflower are apparently pretty dense.

In an Indian meal the dish would have been ready to serve now, sprinkled with the chopped cilantro. But Jaffrey had offered a very different alternative in her recipe headnote, which I couldn’t resist trying. “I often mix it with cooked penne pasta and some grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese,” she said.

So I slid my covered skillet to the back of the stove, got some water boiling, and cooked up a batch of penne. Ecco! and namaste.
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It was a very pretty, very fragrant dish. It was also somewhat dry, though, with not enough moist sauce to be absorbed by and flavor the pasta. A big splash of olive oil along with the grated cheese on each dish helped, but essentially the two main components didn’t do anything for each other. The cauliflower itself was fine, with a strong kick from the serrano chile. The peas, tomato, and cilantro mostly blended into a spicy pulp that clung nicely to the florets. But the pasta just sat among the vegetables and appreciated the olive oil and Parmigiano.

Well, no harm done, but no kitchen magic in that combination, either. I’d be happy to make the cauliflower preparation again in the context of an Indian meal, where I think it will be excellent, but I won’t try to bridge the two-cultures gap this way again.

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In every book of Martin Walker’s “Mystery of the French Countryside” series, police chief Bruno Courrèges finds time between pursuing criminals and preserving the peace in his Périgord village to make fabulous meals for his friends. When Bruno cooks, readers are right there in the kitchen with him, and for enthusiastic home cooks, the urge to step in and help out is almost irresistible.

A dinner Bruno makes in The Templars’ Last Secret did prove irresistible for Tom, our friend Hope, and me this week. Being all Bruno devotees, we were intrigued by this very unusual menu of his and decided to try making it for ourselves:

Venison Pâté with Haitian Epice
Fish Soup
Blanquette de Veau with Rice
Salad and Cheese
Wine-Poached Pears with Ice Cream

Of course we couldn’t reproduce that meal exactly: Much of what Bruno eats he grows or gathers for himself, or else buys from artisans at his village’s outdoor market. But we came as close as we could.

 

Venison Pâté with Haitian Epice

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Bruno wasn’t originally planning to have this course, but one of his guests, a young Haitian woman from the Ministry of Justice, brings him a jar of épice, her mother’s version of Haiti’s all-purpose spicy green sauce. Bruno opens a can of his homemade venison pâté so everyone can taste Amélie’s gift with it.

We couldn’t find a venison pâté, so we substituted a rabbit terrine and created our own épice with guidance from recipes on the Web. It was very easy to make. We simply pureed small amounts of green and red Bell peppers, two hot Serrano peppers, a tiny red onion, scallions, garlic cloves, lots of parsley, and a little basil in the food processor.

It was a lively sauce, tasting bright and intensely vegetal at first, with a sneaky zing of heat just as you were swallowing. It gave a nice lift to the lushness of the terrine. We could even have taken it a bit hotter – maybe try a Scotch bonnet pepper next time. With this appetizer Bruno served a sparkling Bergerac rosé wine. We drank an Alsace crémant, a regional transgression that nevertheless worked quite nicely.

 

Fish Soup

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One way to tell this must be a Périgord recipe is that it starts by cooking diced potatoes and crushed garlic in a casserole with duck fat. Fish soup made with duck fat! – totally new to us. Fortunately, I had duck fat in the refrigerator, so we were off to an authentic start. Continuing to do as Bruno did but guessing on quantities, most of which aren’t given in the story, we then added cubes of fresh cod, chopped canned tomatoes, stock that we’d made from shrimp shells, and a glass of white Bergerac. All that simmered along until the fish was done, when we adjusted the salt, poured in another glass of the wine, stirred in chopped parsley, and served.

It was unexpectedly rich and hearty for a thin-bodied soup made so simply from cod. We could just detect an undertone of the shrimp-shell stock’s flavor. The wine also made a definite contribution. We were lucky to have found that bottle of Bergerac. It’s uncommon here and was very distinctive: slightly herbal-spicy and only barely not sweet. But there was something more unusual in the soup’s flavor that we struggled to identify. Finally we remembered: the duck fat! It gave the soup an almost meaty essence. We three liked it as much as Bruno’s guests did. And we, like them, happily drank white Bergerac with it.

 

Blanquette de Veau

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Even at first reading, we were each struck by the oddity of serving a soup and a stew at the same meal. We were still dubious about it after deciding to make the full menu, but we put our trust in Bruno and went ahead.

To save some work on the cooking afternoon – and since stews are always better the second day – Hope undertook to prepare the blanquette herself on the preceding day and bring the finished dish to us. This entailed simmering two pounds of cut-up veal with aromatic vegetables, separately sauteeing a pound each of shallots and mushrooms in butter, thickening the veal cooking liquid, and stirring in the veal, shallots, mushrooms, and much heavy cream.

The blanquette was luscious, especially since Hope had used shiitake for half the mushrooms, instead of all small whites. The sauce had perversely not thickened quite as much as it should have, but it made a delicious dipping medium for crusty bread, as well as a sauce for the rice. With this course, Bruno served Pécharmant, a light red Bergerac wine made in Bordeaux-blend style. We had a modest Bordeaux wine of the same grape blend.

 

The Missing Salad and Cheese

We know Bruno intended to have salad and cheese at this meal. Before the guests arrive, he picks and washes salad greens from his garden and takes cheese out of his refrigerator. But that’s the last they’re heard of. As the dinner progresses, Bruno offers second helpings of the blanquette, and in the next paragraph he brings in the dessert. Well, even Homer nods. We had our salad and cheese, but to honor Bruno’s omission, I didn’t take a photo of them.

 

Wine-Poached Pears with Ice Cream

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Bruno poaches his pears in red wine to cover, with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and half a glass of his own vin de noix. We did the same except for the walnut liqueur, which is unattainable here. Also, Bruno seems to have left his pears whole, but we halved and cored ours first, because they’re so much easier to both cook (less wine, less time) and eat (no maneuvering around the cores) that way. We did, however, follow his manner of serving them, with a splash of sparkling wine and a scoop of excellent vanilla ice cream in each bowl. To make up for the absence of vin de noix, we awarded ourselves glasses of Bruno’s favorite dessert wine, Monbazillac.

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We three thoroughly enjoyed each part of this meal, as well as the making of it. But, for all our admiration of Bruno and his creator, we can’t commend the dinner as a whole. For us, the sequence of soup and stew didn’t work. The two dishes were too similar in color, texture, and general character for the palatal contrasts that are part of the pleasure of a truly great meal. Just too much of the same thing – especially with the richness of the duck fat, cream, and butter. We’d had greater success with the harmony of a previous Bruno feast we’d tried.

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