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Archive for the ‘Vegetable’ Category

I keep a lot of dried beans in the pantry, but whenever I consider them in the context of French cooking, all that usually comes to mind is cassoulet. I know the French eat beans in more ways than that, but I have to run through many good bean dishes from Italy, Mexico, and the USA before I can come up with any from France.

To broaden my leguminous education, I turned to the Dried Beans and Grains volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series. There I found several French recipes for beans. I was intrigued by Haricots Blancs au Vin Rouge – white beans in red wine sauce – because the book it’s credited to is The Nouvelle Cuisine of Jean & Pierre Troisgros. I hadn’t thought nouvelle cuisine had been interested in anything as solidly old-fashioned as beans, but there it was.

I quickly saw that the Troisgros brothers’ way of handling beans here was unusual – maybe that would be the nouvelle-ness of the dish? There are two standard ways of starting to work with dried beans: either soak them overnight in cold water, or give them a two-minute boil followed by a two-hour soak in the hot water. Either way, they’ll swell a lot and soften a little. This recipe said just to soak them for two hours in warm water. Really – only that? I did it, with a cup of white beans (the classic French Tarbais type). You can see by the “before” and “after” shots below, the beans hardly changed at all.
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Next, I was to put them and their soaking water in a pot with some carrot, onion, a clove, and a bouquet garni. I tied half a bay leaf, a little pile of parsley, and a sprinkle of dried thyme in a piece of cheesecloth, stuck a clove in a small spring onion, and peeled half a carrot. The beans and their seasonings were then to be brought to a boil, skimmed, and simmered “about one hour, or until tender.”
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It was clear there wasn’t nearly enough water there to last for an hour. I added more, and put a kettle on to boil water for further use. There was also nothing to skim; what could there have been? The recipe didn’t even say to cover the pot for the simmering, which would have dried out the beans well before the hour was up. I covered it.

After the hour and another addition of boiling water, the beans had begun to swell but were still stone-hard.
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Another hour of simmering, more added water – nope, still not done. (These were not old beans, by the way; they were just last season’s crop.) Finally, after 2½ hours, the beans were tender, and I could move on to the next step. Which was, in a separate pot, to sauté a large chopped shallot in butter for two minutes, covered, then add six tablespoons of red wine and boil it down almost to dryness.
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The beans were to be drained and put into that pot, along with a chopped clove of garlic and some black pepper, and be cooked over low heat for 10 minutes. The mixture was so dry, I took it on myself to add some of the beans’ liquid. I also decided this was the time to stir in some much-needed salt, which, though on the recipe’s list of ingredients, was never mentioned anywhere in the instructions.

The semi-final step was to stir 2½ tablespoons of butter into the beans and “sauté” until the butter melted. (An odd choice of verb for a dense pot of beans, I thought.)
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The recipe stated that by then the beans “should bathe lightly in a broth,” and if they didn’t, to now add a few spoonsful of their cooking liquid. Unfortunately, the extra cooking time, both before and after the butter, had put too much stress on my already lengthily simmered beans: they were partially pureeing themselves. More liquid now would have had them not bathing in a broth but wallowing in a mud puddle. (Perhaps some fear of that eventuality prompted the very final instruction: to sprinkle chopped parsley over the beans in their serving bowl.)
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When we ate the beans I was relieved to find that, while the texture was wrong, the taste was fine. Ironically, at first bite, though they were totally meatless, we both thought that they tasted like cassoulet! That was due to their very smooth, complex flavor. You couldn’t identify the component tastes of onion, shallot, garlic, wine, and butter: All had blended into the beans and given them a sophisticated new identity – so French!

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This recipe remains a puzzlement to me, however. I feel sure my beans wouldn’t have taken so very long to cook if I’d I used a standard bean soaking method at the outset, and I can’t understand the purpose of the recipe’s short soak – or the fact that it neither specified enough water to last until the beans were tender nor acknowledged the possible need for extra water. There’s also the oddity of calling for a cover for the two-minute sauté of the shallots but not for the long simmering of the beans or their ten minutes’ cooking with the wine reduction. I can’t help wondering about the accuracy of the recipe’s translation from the original French.

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Tom and I are just back from a week’s birding trip to Eastern Washington. That’s the dry side of the state, protected by the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains. We’d hoped to encounter good Pacific Northwest regional foods there, as well as many bird species that aren’t found in our part of the country.

Overall, we had fine weather, beautiful scenery at several altitudes, a congenial group of fellow birders, and reasonably successful birding. (We missed a few target species, e.g., Golden Eagle, Varied Thrush, Ferruginous Owl.) The food, however, mostly disappointed. Too much of it was anonymous American, inferior Italian, or ubiquitous salmon. Even so, there were some interesting and memorable dishes.

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At one dinner, my appetizer was called Wood Oven Clams. I hadn’t known you could oven-roast clams, so this was a new pleasure for me. They were sweet, tender Manila clams, as moist as if they’d been steamed open but with a bit more depth of flavor from the roasting, and with a refreshing burst of seasoning with butter, herbs, and fresh lime juice.
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Tom’s main course that evening was Cioppino, made with shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari, and some sort of white fish. Obviously not a specialty of this high-altitude area so far from the sea – but it was very good: hearty and delicate at the same time, as fresh and enjoyable a fish stew as one could hope for.
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At another dinner we shared an appetizer of grilled venison bratwurst with hot bacon-cabbage slaw, roasted fingerling potatoes, grainy mustard, and fresh applesauce. The venison may well have come from local mule deer, which were commonly seen in our forest walks. This was a dish for hearty mountain appetites: It could easily have been a main course for one of us.
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From the bratwurst we went on to share an excellent cheese fondue made from a blend of Gruyere, Asiago, and Swiss, with white wine. The dipping ingredients were a heaping plate of grilled sausage, roasted potatoes and carrots, steamed broccolini, bread cubes, grapes, and apple slices. Again, this was meant as an appetizer for two, but it was plenty as a main course for us.
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Finally and quite unexpectedly, for lunch at a cheerful roadside Mexican joint, we enjoyed fish tacos and tacos al carbon, both as lively and good as any we’ve had in the Southwest or elsewhere. A pleasant, spicy change from the milder flavors we’d mostly been experiencing.

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We’re in the height of asparagus season at my Greenmarket, the bright, crisp spears tasting far better than the tired, long-traveled ones that stores carry year-round. It’s hard to imagine how you can ruin a dish of fresh local asparagus. Well, lucky me! – I found a recipe that does.

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I’d been serving my asparagus in simple ways – just boiled, sauteed, or roasted – and I thought it would be interesting to try a different recipe. The Vegetables volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series has several. My eye was caught by the title of one: Minute Asparagus. Was this the word that’s pronounced my-newt, meaning very tiny ones? No, as it turned out; it had to do with the cooking time. I was curious enough to try it. I’ll tell you right away, it is a totally inaccurate description.
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I had to start by peeling a pound of asparagus. I hate peeling asparagus. On the rare occasions when I do it, I’m in constant danger of peeling bits off my fingertips or fingernails. But I did it this time, and it took me many minutes.
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Then Beloved Spouse heroically stepped in to “cut the asparagus into very thin diagonal slices, not more than ¼ thick – thinner if possible.” Doing that with care not to produce a few thin diagonal slices of finger took him a very long time too.
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At last I was ready for the eponymous cooking time. I filled a big pot with boiling water, dropped in the basket of asparagus pieces, and when the water came back to a boil cooked them for just one minute.
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But don’t think that meant I was done. Meanwhile I’d melted butter in a saute pan, so now I turned the asparagus into it, and stirred in 1½ tablespoons of soy sauce, 1½ teaspoons of lemon juice, and several grindings of black pepper. This was to be cooked over medium heat “until the butter has browned and the asparagus is crisp and deliciously flavored.”
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Everything about that instruction was wrong. First, adding soy sauce to melted butter turns it brown immediately. Second, the additional cooking turned the asparagus soft (not to say soggy), not crisp. Third and most damning, in the end there was no asparagus flavor left at all – it tasted of nothing but soy sauce.
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Ruining that batch of lovely, plump asparagus was a big disappointment, but I can’t say it was a total surprise. Time-Life credits the recipe to James Beard’s American Cookery. I’ve never been a Beard fan and I don’t have any of his books. I’d hoped this dish would improve my opinion of him, since he’s such an important culinary icon. Alas, not so for me.

My failure here had one beneficial effect: It reminded me of a Chinese asparagus recipe in the Time-Life Foods of the World series, which I hadn’t made in years. You roll-cut asparagus spears to 1½” lengths; boil them for one minute; toss with sesame seed oil, soy sauce (proportionately much less than Beard’s), and sugar; and chill. I made it with my next batch of Greenmarket asparagus.

This dish really is “crisp and deliciously flavored,” as well as being much quicker and easier to make.

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Mushrooms so often play a supporting role in culinary matters, it’s easy to forget how well they can shine as the star. I just discovered a recipe that, with little more than bread, butter, and mushrooms, produces a dish fit for a king.

(Warning: This photo does not do justice to the dish. My plating and presentation skills leave much to be desired.)
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The recipe, simply called mushroom croûtes, is in Raymond Oliver’s classic French cookbook, La Cuisine. I’d been interested in the dish for some time, and finally gave a try. I expected it to be good, but it was better than good; it was gorgeous. After one taste you could imagine yourself at a mid-20th century Michelin three-star restaurant – say, Grand Véfour, in its great days under Oliver – at a table draped in white damask, set with precious bone china and antique silver cutlery – being ceremonially served with an exquisite dish.

None of that was the case at my house, of course – but that was the feeling we got when we tasted the croûtes. And they were so simple to make!
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I started by slicing two large plain white mushrooms and sautéing them in a little butter. Salted and peppered them and set them aside.
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Next I minced six ounces of the same white mushrooms in the food processor and sauteed them, along with a chopped shallot, in butter in the same pan as the sliced ones. This step was similar to making duxelles, but it didn’t require the painstaking squeezing of the minced mushrooms in a towel to remove their juices. I thought they’d probably give out those juices in the sauté pan, but no – they stayed the same nice dryish, nubbly texture.
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When I judged they were done (they didn’t change much; just shrank some) I took them off the heat, added salt and pepper, and stirred in a few tablespoons of crème fraiche. They absorbed it immediately.

Next I trimmed the crust off two slices of my homemade bread and sauteed them lightly, one at a time – in butter, naturellement. This is a French recipe, after all.
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Now I had to assemble the croûtes: Put the bread slices in a shallow baking dish, spread on the minced mushrooms, arrange the sliced mushrooms over them and top with a little grated gruyère.
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The croûtes went into a 400° oven for about five minutes and came out as you saw above. They were inordinately rich and savory, and not just from the butter: It was that recently discovered fifth taste, umami. Evidently, mushrooms are high in glutamates, which are the source of umami’s delectability. In his day Raymond Oliver wouldn’t have known the chemistry of it, but he certainly knew how to produce it. Just a remarkable piece of culinary wizardry.

Beloved spouse and I were lucky enough, years ago, to dine at Le Grand Véfour during Oliver’s reign. It was an unforgettable experience that has left a large mark on our subsequent kitchen adventures. All these years later, every time I go back to his cookbook and rediscover the magic of his cooking, I’m reminded of how great a culinary genius he was.

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Three Fennel Recipes

I keep forgetting what a versatile vegetable fennel is. I tend to think of it as raw spears nibbled to clean the palate between the main course and the cheese – a position it occupies admirably. But cooked fennel is also an excellent companion to many fish and meat dishes – a fact of which I was reminded recently when turning the pages of Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook.

There I found three recipes for fennel: one roasted, one braised, and one baked. I thought it would be interesting to make them all in a short time, to see how the differences would affect the results.

A bulb of fennel with its long feathery shoots can be a very pretty thing, but on the day I wanted to try the first recipe, the ones in local stores were looking fairly ratty. But fennel is a sturdy vegetable, which doesn’t seem to suffer much from age and handling. A useful characteristic!

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Roasted Fennel with Potatoes and Garlic

Michele’s headnote for this recipe begins “Every time I prepare this, I wish I had made more. Everybody loves it, and it disappears fast.” Now, that’s a lot for a simple dish to live up to, so I was slightly skeptical. We’d see about it.

My faithful knife man cut half of that big fennel bulb into ½-inch slices (I saved the rest for the next recipe), and he also cut a ½-pound Yukon gold potato into ¼-inch slices. I spread them all on an olive-oiled baking pan, brushed them with more oil, and added salt and pepper.
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The pan went into a 425° oven for 20 minutes, after which I took it out, turned over the vegetables, sprinkled on a minced garlic clove, and roasted for 10 more minutes, when the recipe said they’d be tender and browned. Tender they definitely were, but not even remotely as brown and handsome as the book’s photograph showed.
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I wonder if my oven is running too cool. Still, it was dinner time, so out they came. And you know what? They were scrumptious. We both loved them, they disappeared fast, and I wished I had made more.

 

Golden Braised Fennel

A few days later I made the second recipe, which as almost as effortless as the first. The second half of that big fennel bulb, also in ½-inch slices, went into a sauté pan with melted butter.
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I sauteed the pieces for four minutes on each side, until they were just beginning to brown, then poured on a little water, added salt and pepper, covered the pan, and cooked it very gently for 20 minutes. About half-way through, I checked and added a little more water to keep the fennel from frying. Then I sprinkled on two tablespoons of grated parmigiano, covered the pan again, and cooked for another minute, until the cheese melted in.
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This was also a good dish, simple and homey. It tasted mostly of pure fennel – vegetal and lightly liquoricey. It was meltingly soft from the moist cooking, with just a hint of richness from the cheese.

 

Creamy Fennel Gratin

This recipe’s headnote calls it one of Michele’s favorite ways to eat fennel. It’s more elaborate than the others but not at all difficult or time-consuming to make. I was able to get a better-looking bulb of fennel for it than I had for the other recipes. (Too bad I had no use for the attractive feathery fronds!)

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The fennel was to be cut in ½-inch thick wedges and parboiled until almost tender. My wedges came out rather thicker than that, so they took 10 minutes, not the suggested 5.
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Drained, sprayed with cold water, and patted dry, the wedges went into a buttered baking dish; were topped with butter bits, heavy cream, freshly ground black pepper, and grated parmigiano; and baked for 20 minutes at 400°.
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The fennel wedges absorbed almost all the cream, making them plump, lush, and velvety. The light crust of the butter-browned cheese was a good textural contrast. I think this would be an excellent dish to serve at a dinner party, alongside a broiled or roasted meat or chicken.

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Three recipes, all tasting deliciously of fennel, but each sufficiently different to occupy separate flavor and utility niches: Nice!

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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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