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At a mid-autumn dinner at Manhatta, Danny Meyer’s newest New York City restaurant, I had a luscious lobster quenelle – the first I’d ever tasted. Its rich flavors stayed on my mind’s palate for weeks afterward. I just had to try making it at home.

Now, quenelles are not in my skill set. I’d only once made fish quenelles, many years ago, when I acquired my first food processor (the device that took the fantastically complex work out of making them), and all I recall now is that it still seemed like too fussy a dish to pursue. But quenelles with lobster – that’s surely worth another effort! Off to the fish market I went and picked up a good-looking pair of lobster tails.
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The first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking devotes six pages to quenelles, and Julia Child is very encouraging about them. She says they now “take literally minutes and have stepped out of the never-never-land of ultra fancy food into the everyday life of the average home cook.”

Julia, I adore you, but if you were still here among us, I’d tell you that that is an exaggeration.

The first step in the master recipe is to make a pâte à choux. No problem there: I’ve made puff paste for both savory (gougères) and sweet (profiteroles) dishes. I melted butter, salt, pepper, and nutmeg in boiling water; dumped in flour and beat ferociously; off heat, beat in an egg and an extra egg white; then set the entire pot in a bowl of ice water to thoroughly chill the paste.
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Next was to prepare the quenelle mixture. My bespoke knife man obligingly cracked open the lobster tails, extracted the meat, and cut it into one-inch chunks.
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The chilled lobster meat, the choux paste, and some heavy cream went into the food processor.
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If the mixture looked stiff after giving it a very thorough whirling, Julia said to blend in more cream – as much as it would take, which would keep the finished quenelles’ texture light and delicate. Well, it did look pretty stiff . . .
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. . . but I was warned against using too much cream, because the mixture had to be able to hold its shape on a spoon. Mercifully, Julia set up a test for that: Scoop out a bit of the paste, drop it into simmering water, poach it, and taste.
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Next instruction: “Process in more cream if you think it can be absorbed – but better too little than too much!” Worry worry worry. It took three more additions of cream and three more poachings to keep the test pieces from feeling rubbery in the mouth. (As you may have noticed, those Julian minutes were adding up.)

Finally ready to form and poach the quenelles, I filled a roasting pan with three inches of water and brought it to a simmer. Now the idea was to work rapidly, using two wet dessert spoons, to shape the batter into smooth ovals and drop them into the water. Here’s how that process worked for me.
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Pitiful! The batter wouldn’t smooth, it stuck to the wet spoons, and by the time the pieces hit the water, they had knobs and pimples all over. But after about 25 minutes they all duly came to the surface of the water, floated around, allowed themselves to be turned over a few times, and eventually swelled reasonably well.
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I must say it’s hard to understand how my half recipe’s worth of batter, which was supposed to make about 8 quenelles, turned out to make 24. I intended them to be a main course for 3 people, and it was clear we’d never be able to eat that many at a sitting. I selected the 18 least misshapen little lumps, set them in a dish, and left it covered in the refrigerator overnight. (Packaged up the rest separately.)
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Next day came the sauce making. The chopped up lobster shells went into a broth made from a fish bouillon cube and simmered together lengthily to make a concentrated stock. I cooked butter and flour together, beat in equal parts of boiling stock, milk, and white wine to make a very thick sauce, and thinned it out somewhat with heavy cream (cream and butter being the universal solvents of classic French cuisine).
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Finally came the assembly: Spread a thin layer of sauce in a buttered gratin dish, arrange the quenelles in it, pour the rest of the sauce over them, sprinkle on grated gruyere, and add – what else? – dots of butter. At dinner time the dish baked for 15 minutes in a very hot oven.
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It came out looking a bit messy but with an enticing seafood aroma. We could tell the quenelles were going to be very rich, so I put only three on each plate to start.
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They were marvelous! Light, fluffy, melting in the mouth, tasting intensely of lobster, with the sauce a perfect companion. So rich that none of us could eat more than three.

Now I’ve got some terrific leftovers to look forward to. And I’m very glad to have actually achieved this delicious dish. It was well worth all the time and effort.

But, dear Julia: mere minutes? everyday life? average cook? I don’t think so.

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With the annual elaborate eating season well under way, Tom and I are trying to exercise restraint by making some very humble dinners, to balance out the extravaganzas. One of our standbys is a homely plate of franks and beans. Fussbudgets as we are, however, it can’t be just any old franks or any beans. Humble doesn’t have to be boring.

We buy our frankfurters from Julian Baczynsky’s butcher store, which has been a fixture in the East Village’s Ukrainian neighborhood for 48 years.
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The big homemade veal hot dogs come in two sizes: extremely long and slender or moderately long and exceedingly fat. These are the ne plus ultra of hot dogs, tasting of their meat and gentle spices and not simply of salt, as so many commercial dogs do.
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Only the fat ones this day

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To cook either kind, we just drop them into boiling water and simmer until they’re heated through. Of course, they can also be grilled or broiled, but they’re so tasty that we find the simplest handling is best.

Selection of the beans can be a bit more variable. We do sometimes stoop to canned ones, which Tom spices up in his best alchemical style. But mainly we like to use dried beans, heirloom varieties that we buy online from Rancho Gordo and cook fairly plainly.

For this dinner I went a little fancier with the beans because of a recent post on Cooking from Books, a blog that we follow. Titled “Cheesy Bean and Tomato Bake,” it appealed to us both immediately. Author Roland Marandino often puts good twists on the recipes he writes about, and his doing so with this one encouraged me to take a little liberty with his version too.

So, where Roland made his dish with canned cannellini beans and chickpeas, I used dried cranberry beans, letting them soak overnight in cold water, where they plumped up beautifully.
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Next day I sauteed a mince of carrot, onion, and celery, stirred in the beans and their soaking water, and simmered them until they were tender – only about an hour, because Rancho Gordo’s beans are always the newest crop. Then I could pick up the instructions from Roland’s post.

I softened thinly sliced garlic cloves in olive oil; added tomato paste and sauteed that for a few minutes in an ovenproof baking dish;
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then stirred in the beans, salt, pepper, and a little of their reserved soaking water.
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I sprinkled coarsely grated mozzarella over the beans and put the dish in a 475° oven for 15 minutes, until the mozzarella melted.
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Roland suggests a final browning of the cheese under the broiler, but my beans were dryer than his, so I didn’t want to chance that. I served them just with the soft cheese topping.
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The beans were full of good flavor, and they got along just fine with the excellent franks and with a modest red wine: a very young Aglianico from Caparone (one of the few California winemakers Tom really likes). A pleasant, unpretentious little dinner.

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

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

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

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

 

Venison Pâté with Haitian Epice

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

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

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

 

Fish Soup

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

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

 

Blanquette de Veau

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

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

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

 

The Missing Salad and Cheese

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

 

Wine-Poached Pears with Ice Cream

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

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

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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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