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We could have taken our Fourth of July picnic up to a table on our building’s roof garden, but it was still ghastly hot and humid that evening, and since the elevators don’t go up to the roof, we’d have had to shlep food, drink, and all their accouterments up a sweltering stairwell. So our foursome picnicked in the dining room in air-conditioned comfort.

Tom created a dandy little hors d’oeuvre for the occasion – a sort of micro-mini ballpark hot dog. He fried two slices of sandwich bread in butter, spread them with yellow mustard, cut them in one-inch squares, and laid a chunk of frankfurter on each. Half of them received a round of homemade bread-and-butter pickle under the frank, and the other half were topped with a piece of cornichon. Both were very tasty, but we all agreed the bread-and-butter-pickle version had the edge.

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The main event opened rather elegantly with Galatoire’s Crabmeat Maison. A few years ago I wrote a post about making this specialty of the famous New Orleans restaurant. It’s a luscious dish and always a favorite.
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After that came the more traditional picnic-y foods.

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My potato salad, made with the season’s first new potatoes, thinly sliced, a little red onion, olive oil, wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and homemade mayonnaise.
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Tom’s macaroni salad, with bits of celery, bell pepper, red onion, and tomato; dressed with olive oil, wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and the same mayonnaise.
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A broiled flank steak with Tom’s minimal barbecue sauce: his own seasoned ketchup, Worcestershire, and chipotle Cholula. It makes a light coating, penetrating the meat just enough to liven up its own flavor.
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There was also corn on the cob – white corn, first of the season, wonderfully fresh and sweet – chunked heirloom tomatoes, and a crusty baguette; all set out family style and attacked with enthusiasm and old-fashioned boardinghouse reach.
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To finish the meal we had a nectarine cake, which I make from a Joy of Cooking recipe called Plum Cake Cockayne. It’s a regular summer dessert of mine, sweet, easy, and good with any stone fruit. It was consumed with alacrity, even though everyone protested how full they already were. That’s the magic of fruit desserts.
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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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Summer is officially here at last! One happy concomitant of that is the increasing abundance of local fruits and vegetables at my Greenmarket. We’d invited a pair of friends to a dinner to celebrate the season, and when I did the shopping for it, a few days ahead, I went way overboard on my purchases: inescapable rapture of the season.

Not everything shown here was for that one meal, but it all looked so good I couldn’t resist. And good it all was, too.

 

Our Italian-themed dinner party began simply, with a few Castelvetrano olives, cheddar cheese sticks (homemade), and cubes of country terrine (not homemade) to go with glasses of aperitif wine in the living room.

 

At the dinner table, we started with that quintessential summer antipasto, prosciutto and melon. It was pushing the season, but I had managed to find a single cantaloupe in the grocery store’s bin that actually smelled like a melon. Its texture was a little too stiff for full ripeness, but the flavor was right.

 

We went on to a primo of risi e bisi, another seasonal classic. This Venetian dish of rice and peas is a close relative of risotto. My version, from Tom’s and my cookbook The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen, includes pancetta in addition to the usual onion, parsley, broth, butter, and parmesan cheese. Quite a substantial dish, and just lovely with young, sweet English peas.

 

Our secondo, also from that cookbook, featured a dish we call Summertime Lamb Stew. It’s lamb lightly braised with tomatoes, pancetta, and chopped aromatic vegetables. Normally it uses fresh plum tomatoes, but in June all we get are greenhouse-grown, so we made it with canned San Marzanos. Sautéed early zucchini and spring onions, lightly scented with mint, made fresh, flavorful companions to the lamb.

 

After a cheese course (which I failed to photograph), we finished with a dessert of raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries in grappa – a recipe from Tom’s and my first cookbook, La Tavola Italiana – and hazelnut biscotti baked and brought to us by our guest Joan.

This was as light and refreshing as you can imagine – a perfect palate cleanser of a dessert.

 

I can’t conclude this post without mentioning the array of bottles that Tom chose from his wine closet to accompany the meal. Here they are at the end of the evening:

They were:

  • 2015 Paumanok (Long Island) Festival Chardonnay as aperitifs
  • 2016 Abbazia di Novacella Gruner Veltliner with the prosciutto and melon
  • 2016 Pra Soave Classico Otto with the risi e bisi
  • 2001 Tor Calvano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano with the lamb
  • 2004 Villa Cafaggio Chianti Classico Riserva with the cheese
  • 2011 Dogliatti Moscato d’Asti with dessert

I hasten to point out that the four of us did not finish all six wines that evening. In fact, we didn’t finish any of them – just enjoyed the pleasure of tasting the differences from one to the next with each course.  They were still fine the next day, as Tom and I feasted on the leftovers.

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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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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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