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Archive for the ‘Vegetable’ Category

After you’ve been eating high on the hog for some time – and we’re now moving into that season – you need a day or two with a homely dinner of comfort food: something easy, familiar, and unchallenging, to get your overstimulated palate back onto an even keel. Lately what fills that bill for me is a dish of baked Italian sweet sausages, green Bell peppers, Spanish onions, and plain white potatoes.
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Oven baking is key here. Of course, these foods take very well to being sautéed or pan-fried, alone or in combination, but sizzling in hot oil over a direct flame is a harsh sort of treatment. The slower penetration of surrounding heat in an oven softens foods more gently, allows their flavors to blend more, and gives them quite a different effect in the mouth.
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Baking also needs only a fairly minimal effort and very little tending. The four named items do have to be cut up, in more or less equal-sized pieces..
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And the potatoes do have to be parboiled in salted water until they begin to soften enough that they’ll be fully cooked when the other components are. After that, you just put everything in a broad baking dish, slosh on as much olive oil as you like, stir, and add salt and pepper.
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The dish goes into a 400° or 425° oven for 30 to 45 minutes, until all the vegetables are soft. You can give it a stir occasionally if you like, when you’re testing things for doneness. Then just take it to the table and serve it out, sighing comfortably as you consume it..

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Tom wants me to mention that a bottle of young Chianti Classico is the final touch that exalts this homely, delicious fare.

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Baked Cucumbers

Baked cucumbers? That sounded to me like a joke – as who should say, “Have some of this delicious broiled coleslaw.” Yet that cucumber dish does exist: I came across it in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, while looking for a different recipe. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about French cuisine, but I’d never heard of this.

Curious about it, I did a little research in my other classic French cookbooks. I found no fewer than five cooked cucumber recipes in Larousse Gastronomique and similar numbers in both Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine and La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E. de Saint-Ange. By golly, you’re never too old to learn something!

Of course, I had to try Julia Child’s recipe. It was a simple enough procedure. I gathered my ingredients for half a recipe and set to work.
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I’d bought Kirby cukes, the kind we prefer for eating raw and making pickles. The first thing to do here was peel, halve, seed, and cut them up.
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I then tossed the pieces in a bowl with salt, sugar, and red wine vinegar and left them there for about an hour to draw out their excess water. This is an alternative to blanching, which (as I learned) all the other recipes call for. Julia says her way lets them retain more flavor.
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Once drained and dried, my cukes went into a baking dish, to be tossed with melted butter, freshly ground black pepper, a chopped scallion, and chopped fresh dill, all of which sounded appropriate and tasty.
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The baking dish went, uncovered, into a 375° oven for a little over an hour, until the cucumbers were tender but still holding their shape. They didn’t look as attractive coming out as they had going in.
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And I’m sorry to say they didn’t do much for us. You could hardly even tell the vegetables were cucumbers. Mostly they tasted of dill and a light vinegar tang. Not unpleasant, but not at all interesting.
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Possibly Kirbies were the wrong cukes to use? Julia doesn’t specify a kind. In any event, I think I’ll just go on enjoying my cucumbers either pickled or raw.

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One of the great culinary joys of autumn is the appearance of fresh Hatch green chiles. New Mexico chile pepper varieties can carry that name only when grown in that state’s Hatch Valley. It apparently has a terroir that gives the peppers their distinctive, highly prized flavor.

Fresh Hatch chiles aren’t easy to find in Manhattan, but our Indian specialty store Kalustyan carries them for a few weeks in fall, most years. Tom, a devoted fan of all kinds of chile, took a walk there this week just for the Hatches and came home with the two pounds pictured above.

Purchasing them was just the beginning of a serious labor of love on his part. Hatch Chiles have to be roasted, peeled, and seeded before they can be used, and their long slender shape makes them much harder to roast on stove burners than Bell or even poblano peppers.

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I understand some people succeed in roasting peppers in the oven, but these had very thin flesh, and we feared it would turn to mush before the skins blackened, even at 500°.  We probably don’t get the very best New Mexico chiles here, nor are they very fresh-picked by the time they get here, but if you’re a chilehead, you work with what you’ve got. So, painstakingly, a batch at a time, Tom roasted all the chiles on the stovetop and spread them out to cool.
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Then, of course, they had to be peeled and seeded. That inordinately tedious, messy job took almost as much time as the roasting did. I didn’t have the heart to photograph him at it.

At last, he was ready to make a bowl of chile. He knew exactly what kind he wanted. Quite a few years ago, when we were traveling in southeast Arizona, his lunch at a little roadside café somewhere between Sonoita and Cave Creek Canyon was a bowl of smooth green chile, served just with crackers. No beans, no meat, no discernible other vegetables. Hot as blazes, but he loved it. Even I, whose feelings about chile are far milder than his, liked the basic flavor. When we returned home, he recreated it as nearly as he could. I recorded his recipe, which we’ve made a few times since with Hatch chiles whenever they were available. And would again this day, for dinner.

I pureed ½ pound of the chiles in the food processor while Tom softened ¼ cup of chopped onions in olive oil. We added the chiles to the onion pot along with salt, pepper, ½ teaspoon of oregano and ½ teaspoon of ground roasted cumin seeds. After a few minutes, we stirred in a cup of chicken broth and simmered, partially covered, for about 45 minutes, until the puree had reduced to a good density.
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The first taste out of the pot nearly burned a hole in my tongue. These were extremely hot chiles! Even Tom, who likes foods much hotter than I do, was taken aback by the amount of heat that flared in the mouth after the initial good vegetable flavor. Clearly, this was not going to be a dinner dish that we could consume neat, crackers or no crackers. However, we’d been planning to serve rice and beans that evening anyway, so we just added a small sauteed pork cutlet to the menu and took our chances with smallish bowls of the chile.
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That was serendipitous. Even though initially you couldn’t dip up a spoonful and swallow it without pain, that chile made common cause with every bite of the meat, beans, or rice that we took. A few drops of the chile mixed in with any forkful led us to put a bigger dollop on the next forkful. It got better and better, and we ate more and more of it. The chile seemed to be training our palates to appreciate it. And we definitely did.

By the end of the meal, we agreed that those peppers had been worth all the effort they took. Easy for me to say, who did so little of the work! But he was entirely pleased to have done it all. We look forward to experiments with the rest of the roasted Hatch peppers, now frozen for future use, as well as a few improvisations with the small amount of made-up chile that we didn’t finish. For instance, a few days later, some of it quite nicely jazzed up a tasty appetizer dish of nachos.

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Last week Tom and I were away on a birding trip to Grand Manan Island. The birds were great, the food disappointing: The inn where our group took all its meals offered no local seafood and no seasonal produce. Once back home, I immediately stocked up on eggplant, peppers, onions, new potatoes, tomatoes, and zucchini at my greenmarket.
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At last, vegetables! Though I’d intended to start by making a big, luscious, layered ratatouille, I didn’t feel up to so labor-intensive a job that day.

Instead I turned to a much simpler mixed vegetable recipe in Ed Giobbi’s modest little 1971 book Italian Family Cooking. My copy – a first edition, first printing – cost me $8.95 when it first came out, and I’ve now seen it listed online for $60. Makes me feel very canny, that does.

The vegetables for Giobbi’s Verdura Mista #2 do require a fair amount of preparation, for which Tom (my bespoke knife man) and I worked together, me washing and peeling, he slicing and chopping. Giobbi is very relaxed about instructions, not saying how thick to slice things or how small to chop them. He encourages readers to cook with a free hand.

Here are our finished ingredients: one small cubed eggplant, two sliced zucchini, two sliced green peppers, three cups of seeded and chopped tomatoes, and the equivalents of two medium potatoes and two medium onions.
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This was a quantity intended to serve 6 to 8, but, as I said, we were starved for vegetables.

The cooking, from that point, was almost effortless. First, in a very large pot, I warmed four tablespoons of olive oil and let the eggplant and zucchini briefly make its acquaintance. They quickly absorbed it all.
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The next instruction was “Add rest of ingredients.” Which, in addition to the remaining vegetables, were salt, pepper, and several leaves of basil (defrosted, in my case).
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All I had to do then was partially cover the pot and stir everything around occasionally until the potatoes were tender. At first, the vegetables exuded a great deal of liquid, which I thought would have to be boiled down at the end, but after 30 minutes and a few small adjustments to the heat and the pot covering, everything was ready, with just a modicum of liquid remaining.
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Our dinner that evening was a thick, rare lamb chop apiece and great scoops of the vegetables, with chunks of crusty baguette to soak up the juices. The mixture had all the good flavors of ratatouille but with more bright acidity and less of the weight that initial, separate sautéeing of each vegetable would have provided. It was pure ambrosia! Just to complete the summer feel, we drank a simple Beaujolais, which loved the company we put it in.
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We managed to get through more than half the big bowlful of vegetables that evening. The rest were saved to fill individual vegetable tartlets, which I’ve frozen for future first courses. A few months from now, those summery flavors will help appease our mid-winter doldrums.

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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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