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This week I tried twice to reproduce a dish called Potatoes Fused with Cheese and Mushrooms that I’d enjoyed at the Bebedouro tapas bar in Lisbon last month. Both times I achieved what I’ll call successful failures. That is, though neither attempt came anywhere near its target, both results were extremely tasty and quite versatile. I can see either of them gaining a regular place in my repertory.

Here is the dish at the restaurant.
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From its flavors and texture, I thought the potatoes and mushrooms might have been roasted separately before being “fused” together in an oven to melt the cheese, so that’s what I’d do. I found a recipe online that seemed to have useful pointers for my initial foray.

The main challenge was the mushrooms. Black trumpets are the only kind I know that are so thoroughly dark, but the ones occasionally available here are always very small. And, this week, the ones at Eataly (best place locally for wild mushrooms) didn’t look very fresh. I’d have to forgo a color match and try another variety. I chose hedgehogs.
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The potatoes were no problem. A stand at my greenmarket carries German butterballs – a small, dense, waxy heirloom variety that holds its shape well in cooking.

In the afternoon I cut both vegetables in large pieces; tossed them separately with salt, pepper, and the luscious olive oil I’d brought back from my Portugal trip; and put the two pans in a 400° oven.

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The mushrooms took about 15 minutes to get tender; the potatoes about 45. When they were done and cooled, I combined them in two individual gratin dishes, along with more olive oil, and left them covered on the kitchen counter. In the evening I topped the dishes with grated Gruyere before reheating them under the broiler.
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Unfortunately, the cheese didn’t melt very well. And clearly, my dish bore no resemblance whatsoever to the Bebedouro one. But it made a delicious combination of flavors: richly meaty, even though totally vegetable. An excellent first course for our dinner.
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Nothing daunted (or at least not too badly daunted), I determined to try again. Roasting had left the vegetables fairly dry and crisp: nothing wrong with that, but not what I’d been aiming for. Next time, for the initial cooking I would boil the potatoes in their jackets and sauté the mushrooms. Also, I would try a different mushroom – oysters, this time. (Black trumpets still weren’t good.)
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So I did. For the final heating I dressed the veg with enough of that good Portuguese olive oil to make a noticeable puddle in the gratin dish. Instead of grating the cheese for the topping, I took thin shavings with a vegetable peeler. And instead of finishing the dish under the broiler, I baked it at 350° for almost 30 minutes.
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This second version didn’t come out looking anything like Bebedouro’s either. But, like my first, it was very, very good. A softer, moister version than the other, it made a fine dinner companion to a small broiled steak.

I don’t think I’ll venture a third try. Some travel-encountered dishes are best left to fond recollection – she said reluctantly.

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It isn’t officially winter yet, but some days are beginning to feel like it. Raw, damp weather naturally gets me thinking about hearty rib-sticking things to eat. In the vegetable category, winter squashes fill the bill, so on my latest trip to the Greenmarket, I picked up one from the heaps on display at all the stands.
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I almost always choose butternuts, pale and plain-looking as they are, because their thick, straight necks and small seed cavities provide a greater proportion of usable flesh and are easier to peel than the round, ridged varieties. Besides, they’re very tasty.

This day I wanted to try a new recipe I’d found in Elizabeth Schneider’s encyclopedic tome Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini. The author says her Baked Winter Squash and Apple Puree with Nuts is “more flavorful and subtle than you might expect from the few and familiar ingredients.” Hard to resist a come-on like that!

(I was going to be cutting back the recipe significantly. It gives quantities for 12 servings, and I was making it for just 2. Fortunately, its calling for 6 pounds of squash and 6 apples made it easy to scale down.)

It started out easily enough. In mid-afternoon I put the whole, unpeeled squash and a large Rome apple into a 350° oven to bake until they were tender.
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The recipe said to give the apple 45 minutes, but it cooked faster than that: I got it out of the oven just in time to keep it from turning to applesauce. Romes are like that: They’re the quintessential cooking apple.
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The squash took about two hours to soften, as expected. I cut it in half and left it to cool.
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The next step was to puree one cup of the squash flesh in a food mill, along with the peeled and cored flesh of the apple. My two-pound squash had made much more than a cup’s worth, but I was happy to put the rest of it into the freezer for a future “pumpkin” pie.
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Seasoned with salt, pepper, and a tablespoon of melted butter, the puree went into a buttered gratin dish to await its topping.
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While the squash was baking, I’d made the topping by grinding a sixth of a cup each of roughly chopped hazelnuts and dried breadcrumbs in my mini food processor.
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As dinner time approached, I sprinkled the nut mixture over the puree, grated on a little frozen butter, and baked the dish in a 425° oven for half an hour. The topping should have come out evenly browned, but mine didn’t. My frozen butter had stubbornly clung to the grater, had to be detached in little clots, and refused to spread evenly, so the only brown parts were where the butter had landed on the crumbs. But the dish looked pretty good anyway.
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And it tasted very good. From the faint fruit sweetness, you could tell there was something in addition to squash in the dish, but you might not guess it was apple. The effect was indeed subtle, as the headnote said. And the tiny crunch of the nutty crumbs was a nice contrast to the smooth puree. Altogether, this made an excellent companion to the simply roasted duck legs we served for dinner that evening: compatible flavors and very interesting textures.
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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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It’s always a happy surprise when new recipes turn out better than I’d expected. The above homey-looking dinner plate holds two excellent dishes from Penelope Casas’s Foods and Wines of Spain. This is the book that first introduced me to Spanish cooking and the one I most often rely on. It has never let me down, and I still continue to discover good new things in it.

This time I was initially struck by a recipe called Higado con Pimientos, which had an uncommon pairing of calf’s liver and green peppers. Liver and onions is a classic combination, but I’d never seen green peppers used in a dish with liver. Casas also recommended a potato dish, Patatas Picantes, as an accompaniment. Curiosity led me to try them.

The ingredients for two portions of both recipes were easily assembled: liver, sliced Bell peppers, sliced onions, minced garlic, a potato parboiled and sliced, and a few condiments.
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The first things to be cooked were the peppers and onions. We have peppers and onions often, but I do them in the Italian manner, which is to say together in one pan. For this dish they were done separately: first the onions, sautéed in olive oil and removed to a dish; then the peppers, briefly sauteed in the same pan, then covered, fully cooked, and removed to the dish. Finally the liver was quickly sauteed in the same pan, with a little more oil.
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Meanwhile, I’d been also cooking the boiled, sliced potatoes – sauteeing them in a different pan until lightly browned and then stirring in minced garlic, crushed red pepper flakes, and pimentòn dulce (Spanish smoked paprika).
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When the liver came out of its pan, I deglazed it with white wine, reduced the liquid, poured that over the liver, and put it in a serving dish in a turned-off oven to keep warm.

The final step was to reheat the peppers and onions in their original pan, season them with salt and pepper, spread them over the liver, and serve.
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These were the simplest procedures, yet they had remarkably subtle effects. Sauteeing the onions and peppers separately, in the same oil, and then finishing them in the remnants of the liver oil and the deglazing sauce, made the vegetables quite different from Italian peppers and onions: they didn’t blend together but each stayed itself, with just overtones of the other components’ flavors. And the liver had taken on the same multi-flavor hints from the vegetables’ sauteeing oil and the deglazing sauce. I was very happily surprised by how the peppers’ natural acidity made them a wonderful foil for the sweetness of calves’ liver and the onions.

The potatoes – with crunchy edges and soft interiors – loved their zingy spices and made an excellent counterpoint to the gentle harmony of peppers, onions, and liver.

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Altogether, a very interesting pair of dishes and a very enjoyable simple meal.

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I should have been in Spain today.

For months, Tom and I had planned to spend this week in Madrid. Then came the government shutdown. Overstressed air traffic controllers (those who hadn’t called in sick) were working double shifts. TSA screening lines were lengthening. Airplane maintenance crews weren’t working. Flights were being delayed, rerouted, cancelled. Though the shutdown ended (for now), its consequences were still looming. With the addition of potential threats from this winter’s polar vortex, it just seemed that too many things could go wrong with this trip. We’d go to Spain another time.

So here I was at home, thinking of the wonderful Spanish food I’m missing. What else could I do but put together a fine dinner from my Spanish cookbooks as a consolation prize?

For the centerpiece of my dinner menu I chose Lomito de cordero relleno de hongos: a roasted rack of lamb stuffed with mushrooms and scallions, from Penelope Casas’s La Cocina de Mama. The book’s picture of the dish was enticing:

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Happily, I had a small lamb rack in the freezer, just the right size to serve two. When it was defrosted, Tom carefully cut slits in the meat so that when the chops were cut apart each would have a layer of stuffing in the middle.
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He also minced ¾ cup of mushrooms and ¼ cup of scallions for me for the stuffing. I sauteed them in olive oil until the mushrooms were softened; salted and peppered them; poured on 2 tablespoons of Madeira, and cooked until it evaporated. (The recipe actually wanted a sweet sherry, but I had an open bottle of Madeira, which was close enough.)

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I stuffed that filling into the slits in the lamb rack, put it in an oiled baking pan, sprinkled on salt, pepper, and dried thyme, and drizzled olive oil over the meat.
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Meanwhile I was also making two easy vegetable dishes to accompany the meat. These were zarrangolo murciano – zucchini stewed with onion – a recipe from Teresa Barrenechea’s book The Cuisines of Spain, and patatas pobres – poor man’s potatoes – from Penelope Casas’s first cookbook, The Foods and Wines of Spain.

The zucchini dish needed two saute pans: one for slowly softening minced onions and garlic in olive oil, the other for cooking diced zucchini, also in olive oil, until it had rendered up its liquid. That done, the recipe called for draining the zucchini, transferring it to the onion pan, salting, peppering, and cooking everything together for just five minutes. The separate cooking allowed each vegetable to retain its own character, while the final mixing just gently blended the flavors.

The potatoes, sliced very thin, also simmered in olive oil, in a covered pan, being turned often enough to keep them from caking together. I turned up the flame at the end to brown them lightly, then tossed them with minced garlic and parsley. (But I forgot to photograph them: my bad.)

Now back to the lamb. After the stuffed rack had 15 minutes in a 400° oven, I poured a little white wine and lemon juice into the pan and roasted for 10 more minutes. That was all the cooking it needed. I was pleased to see that it came out looking not totally unlike the book’s picture.
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The chops and their stuffing were heavenly together, in both aroma and taste. The meat was still rare enough to please two serious carnivores, and the two vegetables made good flavor contributions, with a lightly sweet allium presence knitting the components together. This combination of recipes made a harmonious plate, hearty and satisfying, but with elegance and complexity.
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Tom gave us a very good Spanish wine from his wine closet – a 12-year-old Prado Enea grand reserve Rioja from Muga – to drink with the meal. It made an excellent companion to the lamb, being elegant and complex in itself, even though El Exigente would have wished it ten years older.

Finally, to complete our consolation-for-Spain meal, after coffee and clean-up we poured snifters of 1866 Gran Reserva Brandy. We discovered this wonderfully intense, aromatic after-dinner drink on a trip to Spain four years ago and brought back a bottle, which we’ve been doling out for special occasions ever since. It isn’t sold in the USA, and the shipping cost from Spain is prohibitive. We’d been counting on buying at least two more bottles in Madrid this week. Alas, it wasn’t to be. One more reason to reschedule that trip!
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