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Beloved Spouse was in Italy this past week for a wine writers’ event, so I was making dinners for one. For these occasions I tend to feed myself things that I like much better than he does – which helps keep both sides of the family happy.

This time I had a new recipe that would be perfect for such a meal: Lentil Salad fabrizia-lanzawith Mint and Orange Zest, from Fabrizia Lanza’s Coming Home to Sicily, which I remembered as a dish my friend Hope served at a dinner some months ago, and which I liked very much. However, since Beloved Spouse regards most salads with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, I hadn’t yet found an opportunity to make it at home. But now, for myself alone, I had my double–0 designation!

For six servings, the recipe calls for two cups of green – but not Le Puy – lentils. I had to do some online research to be certain of the kind I needed here. That was a variety known as Laired green lentils – which, as you can see here, are not very green at all.

package

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But they were the right kind, and apparently their color can vary quite a bit. For the half recipe I intended to make, I picked over one cup’s worth of them.
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laired-lentils

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I rinsed them, put them in a pot with two cups of water, and simmered them covered until they were tender. When they had cooled, I found they had quadrupled in volume, yielding far more than my lone self wanted to deal with. So I put half of the half recipe’s worth of lentils in the refrigerator for another use and dressed the rest with a quarter of the recipe’s condiment quantities.

The first one of those was fresh mint. For the whole recipe, that was to be the leaves from “a large bunch” of the herb. I had no idea what a Sicilian cook would consider a large bunch. I do wish recipe writers would give measured amounts of their ingredients! I bought the 25-gram package that was what my local market offered.

mint

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I chopped up about 3 tablespoons of leaves and mixed them into the 2 cups of lentils. The quantity looked about right in comparison to the book’s photo of the dish. (I should know by now not to trust food photography!) I also added a teaspoon of grated orange zest, ½ teaspoon of dried oregano, 1½ teaspoons of olive oil, 1½ teaspoons of lemon juice, and a generous sprinkling of sea salt.
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lentil-salad

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I’d dressed the salad in mid-afternoon, so the flavors would have time to blend, leaving it at room temperature. Come dinnertime, I served myself a meal that, while it looked appealing to me, would have brought no cheer to the man who normally sits across from me at the dinner table: broiled chicken thighs, plain broccoli rape (neither of which he likes much), and the lentil salad.
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dinner-plate

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Quickly I became glad he wasn’t sitting across from me that evening, because the salad was a big disappointment. The mint presence was much too strong, and I couldn’t detect the orange peel and oregano at all. I tried fishing out the visible bits of leaf, but the flavor had permeated the lentils. I don’t know what kind of mint this was; the package label didn’t say. But it was extremely sweet and pungent, as if the lentils had been dressed with melted peppermint candies.

Puzzled by why my dish turned so much less pleasing than Hope’s, I asked her what kind of mint she’d used. Lo and behold, her salad had not been from Lanza’s recipe! Yes, we’d discussed the book that evening, but her lentil salad came from Made in Spain by José Andrés. At the time I hadn’t asked what recipe she’d used, so when I much later found the one in Lanza’s book, I just made the assumption.

Subsequently, I looked up the Andrés recipe on the Web. Aside from the lentils themselves, there isn’t a single ingredient in common between the two recipes. The Spanish one contains shallots, chives, garlic, bay leaves, green and red peppers, and sherry vinegar – all things I like a lot more than I like mint. I may have found my use for those other two cups of cooked lentils.

So we live and learn. Or not.

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A pleasant dish I made this week was an adaptation of one of my own recipes in The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. I hadn’t deliberately planned to do it; it came about because I was looking for a way to enliven a pair of artichokes that had spent too much time off the stalk.

artichokes

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My recipe, Artichokes Stuffed with Tuna, Abruzzo-style, makes a hot antipasto, using four-ounce artichokes. Their petals need to be crisp enough to bend back, snap, and peel down, leaving only the tender parts of the flesh, so that with a little further trimming and removal of the chokes, the entire remaining vegetable is edible. Then their centers are filled with a tuna stuffing, and sort of pan-roasted on top of the stove with just a little water.

These rather elderly artichokes were twice that size and their petals far too limp to snap, so I had to treat them differently. I cut off the sharp tips of the petals, pulled off some of the skinny center ones, scraped out the chokes, and left the artichokes to soak in acidulated water for a while.

Then I mixed up the recipe’s stuffing:

tuna-stuffing

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It’s olive oil-packed tuna and some of its oil, chopped anchovy fillets, capers, chopped parsley, and a pressed clove of garlic. That went into the centers of the artichokes, and I snugged them into a lightly oiled heavy-bottomed pot, with half an inch of water at the bottom and a drizzle more of oil over the veg.
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in-the-pot

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The eight small artichokes of my full recipe take 45 minutes to cook, tightly covered. These two needed an hour and 10 minutes, but they behaved well: didn’t stick, didn’t slump, didn’t fry or dry out. When they were tender and I took them out of the pot, there was enough liquid left to boil down to nicely flavored olive oil to pour over them on the serving plates.
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served

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Unlike the small artichokes, which can be eaten neatly with knife and fork, these had to be eaten by pulling off the petals one by one and dabbing on some of the stuffing. That was a pretty messy process – one set of oily fingers for the petals, and one clean hand with a fork. And a paper towel nearby! But they were tasty; the flavors went very well together. The stuffing was especially good when you got down to the artichoke bottom. So, while this is not a version of the dish I would serve to company, it was OK for a casual family meal, and it certainly livened up those somewhat tired artichokes.
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down-to-the-bottom

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Two Vegetarian Indian Dishes

Readers who are familiar with my blog know that I don’t write only about my successes. If I try a recipe and it doesn’t work, I say so, and go on to consider jaffrey vegetarianwhy it didn’t: Was it my fault or the recipe’s? And what can I learn from the experience? Today’s post is about two such non-successes. Unfortunately, these are recipes from an author I respect and a book of hers with which I’ve previously had very good results: Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India.

It happened that I would be dining alone one recent evening, Beloved Spouse being out for a business dinner, so I could indulge my predilection for chicken. To liven things up a little, I thought I’d accompany my two broiled chicken thighs with a simple Indian vegetable dish and precede them with an Indian appetizer. Here’s how that worked.
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Everyday Carrots and Peas

This recipe looked like an attractive way to spice up humble vegetables. The cooking time seemed extremely brief for carrots, but I wanted to give the recipe a chance. So I defrosted half a cup of good tiny peas, cut a raw carrot into half-inch dice, and proceeded to measure out one-quarter of the indicated seasonings.

The instructions then were to heat olive oil (an approved alternative to ghee) in a frying pan. Sizzle some cumin seeds in the hot oil. Add the peas and carrots, and stir-fry them for 3 minutes. Stir in turmeric, red chile powder, freshly ground coriander, and salt. Lower the heat add a little water, cover the pan and cook “for 3-4 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.”

That last bit was the killer, as I feared it would be. After 4 minutes, the pan was dry, the peas were looking worried, and the carrots were still rock-hard. I kept adding small amounts of water, but it took almost 10 more minutes before the carrots were pierceable with a fork. And by then the peas were pretty mushy.
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peas-carrots

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The dish wasn’t a disaster: The peas and carrots were edible, and tasty enough in themselves. But neither vegetable had a proper texture – one still too firm, the other too soft – and the spices were barely discernible. Maybe they’d have been more prominent in a shorter cooking time, but then I would have had raw carrots. Maybe I should have used a very young, tender carrot, instead of the mature one that I had, but the recipe didn’t specify age – and even so, carrots don’t cook fast.

If I ever try this recipe again – and I might, because I do like the concept – I’ll probably parboil the carrots and double the spices.
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Simple Hard-boiled Egg Curry

This experiment was a total failure. Simple the recipe definitely is, and the book’s photo is quite intriguing:

eggs-in-book

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The only spices involved in the preparation are turmeric, red chile powder, salt, and black pepper – not what I’d thought of as enough to consider a curry. But Jaffrey says the dish is “beloved in the Telangana region of Andrha Pradish,” so who was I to cavil?

Once hard-boiled and peeled, the eggs are to have deep longitudinal slits cut in them – presumably to let the spices sink in. Ghee or butter is heated in a small frying pan; the spices are stirred in; then the eggs, which are to be rolled around “for about a minute, or until they are golden.” Serve right away.

Well, here are my eggs after two minutes:

eggs-2-min

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Not as who should say golden, eh? And here they are after 10 minutes of dutiful rolling around:

eggs-10-min

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Pitiful. At that point I thought I’d better take them off the heat before they turned to leather. When I cut them open, none of the color had seeped in through the slits, nor had any of the spice flavors. Just plain HB eggs, with a toughened outer skin. I ate them for my appetizer anyway, but they weren’t worth even the minor effort they took.

I wonder if the color of the eggs in the book’s picture was due to Photoshop. Either that, or there had to be some drastic errors in copyediting or proofreading the recipe. Those could also apply to the timing given for the peas and carrots, as well as the spice quantities indicated in both recipes. Improbable, but what else could it be? There was the possibility that my spices were too old and had lost their power. But that wasn’t it: When checked afterward, they were fully as aromatic as they ought to be.

Leaving aside why these recipes didn’t work, the lesson I need to learn from this experience is to put more faith my own culinary instincts. (Soft cheers in the background from Tom, who has been telling me this forever.) I knew carrots need longer cooking; I’d been surprised by the tiny quantities of spices called for; and I couldn’t see how flavors could permeate eggs in one minute. I should summon the courage to make my own changes in cases like this. As in every other field, just because something is in print doesn’t mean it’s right.

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Roland Marandino, who blogs at Cooking from Books, did a post recently on how much neater and easier it is to cook sausages and peppers in the oven than in a sauté pan on top of the stove. That sounded to me like a brilliant idea, and I decided to try it, with a few alterations, for a casual dinner party a few nights ago. It was a great success.

For six people I used six individual pork ribs, six sweet Italian sausages, six hot Italian sausages, two very large chicken legs, two Spanish onions, and seven of the last of this season’s locally grown Bell peppers.
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ingredients

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Beloved Spouse did his usual expert knife work on the peppers and onions, and the rest was a slam-dunk. I oiled my biggest roasting pan, laid in all the meats and vegetables, salting and peppering as I went, and drizzled olive oil over the top.
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oven-ready

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Roland’s recipe, which was for a smaller quantity of food, said to keep the sausages in a single layer and roast at 400° for an hour. As you can see, mine was a deeply filled pan. I gave it an extra 10 minutes and stirred the mixture around a few times during the cooking. When the time was up I cut the chicken into smaller pieces and halved some of the sausages. I’d intended to transfer everything to my very largest platter, but since this was such a casual occasion I just served everyone straight from the roasting pan. No one minded.
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roasted

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I’m happy to say that all the meats and vegetables were fully cooked and very tasty. A nice crusty country loaf complemented the simple meats. Everyone ate well, and with the accompaniment of a magnum of 1997 Castello Banfi Poggio alle Mura Brunello, the customary good time was had by all. So thank you, Roland, for providing the idea!

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Ratatouille

I can’t let a summer go by without making ratatouille at least once. Actually, I’d probably make it several times, but Beloved Spouse prefers the Italian style of vegetable mélange – perhaps because he usually ends up slicing, chopping, and mincing all the components. I like the Italian type too, but there’s a ratatouille recipe I love to make: a very complex one from the Cooking of Provincial France volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series.

VergeThis time I let BS off the hook, because I had found a different version of ratatouille that I wanted to try, and I was prepared to do all the knife work for it on a free afternoon while he watched a pre-season football game. The recipe is from Cuisine of the South of France, by Roger Vergé, the legendary chef of the Michelin three-star Moulin de Mougins restaurant in Provence.  So I approached this experience with high expectations, while BS readied himself for another season of dashed hopes.

Vergé calls it La ratatouille niçoise à ma façon and says that while the usual dish of that name “creates itself during a long slow cooking, taking about 2 to 3 hours,” his gives you “the advantage of keeping the freshness and texture of the individual vegetables.” That sounded attractive, even though my Time-Life book’s recipe (by the redoubtable M.F.K. Fisher) doesn’t cook for anything like that much time. So I gathered a half recipe’s worth of Vergé’s ingredients and set to work.
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ingredients

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Vergé is particular about the type of vegetables to use and the way to handle them. Peeling, seeding, and dicing the tomatoes were no problem, nor slicing up the green pepper and onion. Peeling stripes into the zucchini was attractive, and I duly cut them lengthwise and crosswise as indicated. Cutting up the eggplants – he specifies that long, slender type – was a bit of a poser, because he wants them in pieces “the size of your thumb.” For the size my eggplants were, the pieces would have had to be either fatter and flatter than my thumb or much skinnier than it. I went with fat and flat.

cut up ingredients

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First I cooked the tomatoes in olive oil in a very hot skillet for just 2 minutes and moved them to a plate. In another pan I softened the onions and peppers together in oil for 15 minutes and added them to the tomatoes’ plate. In yet another pan, with high heat, I was to brown the eggplant pieces in oil and drain them in a colander set over a bowl to catch the oil they’d give off. That was a problem.

eggplant

Flat on one side and round on the other, my eggplant pieces refused to brown evenly. Also, they absorbed all the oil, needed more, and gave none back. Same shape and same situation with the zucchini, last to be sautéed.

That was all the cooking any of the vegetables got. At dinner time I mixed everything together in a casserole, merely heated it through, and stirred in minced garlic and chopped basil leaves.

ratatouille 2

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It wasn’t bad, this ratatouille. Those vegetables always blend well together – though parts of the zucchini pieces had a faint flavor of char from my difficulty in browning them evenly. But the vegetables didn’t taste any fresher than they do in my preferred recipe. In fact, the flavors were a little muddled. And there wasn’t nearly as much tomato presence as I like.

The Time-Life ratatouille recipe uses twice the amount of tomato, cuts it in big strips, lays them on paper towels to absorb some of their liquid, and doesn’t cook them separately at all. Also, it carefully layers the individual vegetables in their casserole and simmers it covered for 30 minutes. That way, the vegetables exude a lot of liquid, but you keep drawing it off with a bulb baster and, at the end, boil it down to a luscious glaze that you pour over the ratatouille – which makes a dish that’s much prettier on the plate and far more interesting to eat.

So, though I wouldn’t turn up my nose at another dish of Vergé’s ratatouille if I encountered one somewhere, in my own kitchen I’ll stick with the version I love best.

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The very hot weather we’ve been having has sent me paging through my cookbook collection for light, summery, everyday dinner appetizers for two. In three Italian books I found attractive versions of roasted stuffed tomatoes, all similar in some respects but different in the details. I decided to try the three on successive evenings to see how they compared. Here are the books I used:

cookbooks

The experiment was definitely a success. Tomatoes are now at their peak of flavor, all three preparations were very good, and each was sufficiently unlike the others to keep them welcome for the second and third days.

 

Baked Stuffed Tomatoes from La Tavola Italiana

Unashamedly, I started with the recipe from my own first cookbook for the first evening’s dish. (I knew we’d like that one.) I cut a thin slice off the top of two medium-sized round tomatoes, gently squeezed out the seeds and some of the juices, hollowed out the shells with my tomato shark – a very useful little gadget, by the way – and chopped the flesh.

Diane tomatoes

For the stuffing I sauteed some minced onion in olive oil and mixed into it chopped basil leaves, tiny capers, a minced anchovy fillet, quite a lot of grated parmigiano and fine dry breadcrumbs, the chopped tomato flesh, salt, and a generous quantity of black pepper.

diane stuffed

Once filled with this stuffing, the tomatoes got a drizzle of olive oil on top and went into a 350° oven for 20 minutes. I let them come down almost to room temperature before we ate them. The soft filling was very tasty, contrasting nicely with the bright acidity of the tomato cases.

Diane served

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Pomodori al Gratin from Naples at Table

The next day I made the recipe from Arthur Schwartz’s Naples at Table. I cut my two tomatoes in half across the diameter; scooped out the pulp and, without chopping it, put the little chunks in a sieve to drain; and salted the interior of the shells and set them upside down on a rack to drip off some of their moisture.

Arthur tomatoes

Compared to my own recipe’s stuffing, this one is much lighter on breadcrumbs and heavier on capers. It has finely minced garlic, dried oregano, and black pepper. No grated cheese or anchovy. I mixed in the tomato pulp, filled the half shells with it, and topped each with olive oil.

arthur stuffed

These went into a 400° oven for a full hour – “until the tomatoes have collapsed,” Schwartz says. Mine didn’t quite collapse, but they shrank noticeably. The long, hot roasting intensified their natural sweetness, and the modest amount of filling made a pleasant, crunchy contrast. Again, we ate them just slightly above room temperature.

Arthur served

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Roman Rice-Stuffed Tomatoes from The Italian Vegetable Cookbook

Michele Scicolone’s recipe made the most substantial of the three tomato dishes. I hollowed out the tomatoes as usual, but took a deeper cut from the tops, saved the caps, chopped the pulp, and saved its juices. The base ingredient of the stuffing was short-grain Italian rice, which I simply boiled in salted water. Pulp and juice were stirred into the rice, along with a hefty dose of grated pecorino Romano cheese, chopped fresh basil, olive oil, and black pepper.

michele ingredients

That made a lot of filling. I had to tamp it down into the tomato shells and pile it up under the little caps. Fortunately, it all held together for its half hour of baking at 425°.

michele served

Served just warm, this was a milder dish than either of the first two: The well-flavored rice was the star, with the tomatoes serving mainly as an edible container.

michele plated

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Tomatoes can be stuffed with many other ingredients, of course: small pasta, such as orzo or ditalini, are often used, along with diced ham or tuna.  But these three recipes share an authentic southern Italian simplicity and tang that makes them perfect for summer dining. It would be interesting, I think, to serve all three on a major mixed antipasto platter, so the contrasts would be immediate. Making them would be a bit laborious, but since all the roasting can be done well in advance and the tomatoes can be eaten hot, warm, or at room temperature, the timing could be easily accommodated. Maybe some day . . .

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Costata romanesca is a ribbed Roman zucchini variety – one almost never found in stores. Elizabeth Schneider, in her monumental tome Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, says this of it:

SchneiderAlthough more flavorful than the bland commercial zucchini . . . it quickly loses its vigor and savor. When solid and young, it is juicy, refreshing, and summery-sweet, but it quickly turns bland, flabby, and rather bitter. Seek it out at farmers’ markets, where it will be freshest.

Fortunately, I can follow that advice: These zucchini are a regular summer item in my Greenmarket. I buy a few of them from Cherry Lane Farm’s stand just about every week. I don’t know about them turning bland and bitter – mine never stay uneaten long enough to tell.

zucchini

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For my latest batch I browsed Schneider’s pages on zucchini in search of something more elaborate than I usually make. I was intrigued by a brief description of a restaurant chef’s dish called Zucchini Parmigiana. It said he flours and deep-fries lengthwise slices of costata romanesca, layers them with mozzarella, grated parmigiano, basil leaves, and bittersweet chocolate bits, and bakes the dish uncovered, in the manner of eggplant pamigiana.

Chocolate bits! That was a new one on me. I knew that old-style Roman and Campanian cooking does use chocolate in savory dishes, but I was pretty sure it’s always bitter chocolate, and it’s grated into tomato sauce so it dissolves into the sauce. I wasn’t sure how the chocolate bits in the chef’s recipe would behave, but I was willing to give it a try.

Then I had second thoughts. There’s essentially no liquid in the dish: Wouldn’t it just dry out in the oven? Could the word “tomato” have been dropped from the brief recipe description? After all, eggplant parmigiana always contains some tomato. Maybe a few alterations would be prudent.

My book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen has a recipe called Zucchini Bella Napoli that bears a strong family resemblance to that zucchini parmigiana. Other than the chocolate bits, the only differences in the preparation are that mine has no parmigiano but does spread a little fresh tomato sauce, along with the mozzarella, on the layers in the baking dish. I decided to make it that way and just add parmigiano and chocolate bits. (I had some in the freezer, left over from making Christmas cookies.)

So: Beloved Spouse obligingly reduced three costata romanesca zucchini to thin slices for me, which I salted and set in a colander in the sink for half an hour to drain off some of their moisture.

salted

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Then I floured and fried them in olive oil until they were barely colored. I also made a light sauce from fresh San Marzano tomatoes, adding basil and a little chopped onion.

sauce

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And then I started layering. I must say it felt silly to be dotting those chocolate morsels all around the dish.

layering

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After a top layer of tomato and grated parmigiano, the dish went into a moderate oven. It needs to be baked only until the juices are bubbling, so it was ready in 20 minutes. But the chocolate bits had made no concession toward blending with the other ingredients. Each one still sat right where it had been put, barely softened.
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baked

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Now, the Bella Napoli recipe makes a really delightful dish, even with ordinary zucchini, and even if you fry in oil other than olive. It’s good hot, warm, or room temperature, as a first course, a side dish, or a meatless main course. The flavors all enhance and complement each other, just as they do in a good eggplant parmigiana. But this time those flavors had to contend with incompatible gobbets of sweet chocolate, which totally destroyed the harmony.

Not for long, though: After a few experimental bites, we fished out all the chocolate bits and pushed them aside on our plates. Mercifully, they’d left behind no traces, so we enjoyed our zucchini parmigiana very much.

It’s possible that true bitter chocolate, grated and blended into a denser, longer cooked sauce, might make an interesting – and quite different – dish. I may try that one day.

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