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Police inspector Salvo Montalbano, hero of Andrea Camilleri’s Sicilian mystery novels, is an impassioned consumer of local foods, eating his way through dishes often fully described in the books. The latest volume gives Montalbano a role reversal: he goes undercover as the cook aboard a mega-yacht cruise that will be hosting an international criminal summit.

Readers, please note: If you haven’t read The Cook of the Halcyon but intend to, you might want to skip this post. I won’t be able to avoid spoilers.

Between the yacht’s crew and the guests, Montalbano will have to make meals for 12 people. To prepare for the role, he gathers recipes from his housekeeper, Adelina, and his restaurateur friend, Enzo. And he manages the cooking well, once on the ship – a fact that devoted Montalbano fans may find hard to credit, as he has never before been known to cook anything whatsoever. But so we are told.

On a critical day in the cruise, Montalbano makes a potato gâteau for the dinner’s first course. (In the book’s original Italian, the word may have been gattò.) He uses a big sack of potatoes, a dozen eggs, two kinds of cheese, ham, olives, and one very special item. The combination sounded interesting, so I thought I’d try to create a tiny version. Here are my ingredients.
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In the front are two ounces of chopped Castelvetrano olives, two ounces of chopped fontina cheese, and two ounces of chopped ham. Behind them are one egg white, one whole egg, and some grated Parmigiano. On the right, one pound of potatoes, mashed.

I beat the whole egg into the potatoes, spread half of them in a small buttered casserole dish, laid on the three chopped ingredients, and topped with grated cheese.

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I covered the filling with the remaining potatoes and spread the extra egg white over the top, as Montalbano did. My only divergence from his procedure was omission of the “very special item.” Verb. sap. sat.
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Montalbano baked his gâteau for half an hour, and his egg white topping became a brown glaze. We aren’t given an oven temperature, so I tried 350°. Not hot enough: after an extra 10 minutes, I raised the heat to 400°, and though my gâteau eventually firmed up well and even puffed a little, the glaze had spread unevenly and hardly colored at all.
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Nevertheless, it was a very tasty dish. On the plate, the potatoes and filling made a nicely varied flavor blend – piqued by the excellent Castelvetrano olives. The gâteau could certainly have stood alone as a first course, though it went very well alongside our sauteed fillets of sea bass.
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The only part of it we didn’t care for was the glaze, which was mostly a dry skin. Next time, instead of the egg whites, I’ll dot butter over the top layer of potatoes. This is a versatile dish that I can imagine pairing with almost any dry-cooked fish, fowl, or flesh. One could easily vary the filling ingredients, too.

P.S.  As readers of the book well know, Montalbano’s own gâteau was a truly memorable dish for the guests and crew of the Halcyon.

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If this summer’s Olympics had had an event for Dumb Cooking Mistakes, I’d have gotten a gold. It was by pure luck that I was able to salvage the very promising Italian vegetable dish on which I had committed the idiocy.

But let me tell it from the beginning.

From the collection of summer vegetables I’d written about here last week, there was one left of the small eggplants, still firm, plump, and shiny.
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I’d saved it to use for a recipe simply called Eggplant with Mozzarella, which I’d noticed for the first time while browsing the vegetable section of this little Neapolitan cookbook – another book I’ve had for years, where I can still discover treasures.

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Basically, you fry eggplant slices, sandwich a slice of mozzarella between each pair, and bake them in the oven with tomato sauce, beaten egg, and grated parmigiano for just 15 minutes. Seemed easy enough. I peeled and sliced my eggplant, salted the slices, and left them in a colander for half an hour to drain off some of their liquid.

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Then I pressed them dry in a cloth, floured them, and browned them well in olive oil.
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Here are half the slices, placed in the baking dish, topped with mozzarella, and awaiting the upper halves of the sandwiches. The sauce ingredients are sitting behind them. All well so far.
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But then I made my ridiculous blooper. This is what the recipe says:

Cospargere le melanzane ripiene con due uova battute con sale e pepe, qualche cucchiaiata di salsa di pomodoro e una spolverata di parmigiano grattugiato.

Now, in a well written English recipe, that might be given as “Beat two eggs with salt, pepper, a few tablespoons of tomato sauce and a sprinkling of grated parmigiano. Pour the mixture over the stuffed eggplant.”

But the phrasing of the Italian is, “Spread over the stuffed eggplant two eggs beaten with salt and pepper, a few tablespoons of tomato sauce and a sprinkling of grated parmigiano.” So what I did was add the three things one after the other. I somehow had the idea that they’d all blend together in the oven.
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Anyone with half a brain would have realized that wouldn’t happen. When I looked in after the dish was in the oven for a little while, everything still sat right where I’d put it and the egg was already firming up on its own. Aarrgh!

I pulled out the dish and quickly tried to scrape the tomato sauce and cheese off the eggplant, mix them into the half-scrambled puddle of egg, and spoon some of it back over the eggplant. Didn’t work all that well, but I put the dish back into the oven to finish its 15 minutes of baking.

It came out pretty sad looking.

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But the gods who take care of culinary idiots were on the job that day, because those little “sandwiches” were fabulous. Yes, you could see that the egg and tomato hadn’t come together properly, but in the mouth their flavors blended brilliantly. It was one of those magical “whole is better than the sum of the parts” creations. And it got even better as it cooled.

Tom had initially raised an eyebrow, but then we both scarfed down every bit. I was so relieved!

 

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What would we do without the summer’s bounty of fresh tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants? Alone and in combinations, these vegetables are fundamental to many of the world’s cuisines, and – IMO – none more simple, savory, and ingenious than Italy’s. I’ve been trying some new recipes for that vegetable trinity from my little Italian regional cookbooks. This one, for eggplant-stuffed peppers, is from Rome.
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The filling for these peppers starts in a very traditional way, with garlic, parsley, and anchovy sauteed in a little olive oil.
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Then you add the eggplant, which, in the typical nonchalance of Italian recipe writers, are said to be cut in pezzetti ­– pieces; no size given. My talented knife man has his own views about cutting vegetables, and he patiently created charming little cubes for me.
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I stirred the eggplant long enough to insaporire – i.e., flavor it with the seasoned oil. (Actually, it absorbed the oil so fast I had to add more to keep the cubes from sticking, but only a little: There’s almost no limit to the amount of oil that eggplant will suck up. That’s why, in one version of the famous Turkish eggplant dish legend, the imam fainted.) Then I added chopped tomatoes, capers, salt, and pepper, and cooked it all gently for 20 minutes.
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Next was to prepare the peppers: I washed and halved them lengthwise, cut out the seeds and interior membrane, sprinkled them with salt, and set them in an oiled baking dish. When the eggplant filling was ready, I filled the pepper cases with it.
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The peppers were to bake in a hot oven for about 25 minutes. Mine were quite thick-walled, and I thought they might take longer than that to soften. So I gave each one a little drizzle of extra olive oil in case of need and baked them at 400°. Indeed, they took about 10 minutes more.
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They came out looking a little wizened, but they certainly smelled good. (Next time I’ll brush the cut pepper edges with oil, too.) Knowing that many baked Italian dishes are better if not served immediately out of the oven, I let them cool just a little while. Then we ate them alongside roast duck and a potato gallette.
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They were excellent. The eggplant, now lusciously soft, had taken in and harmonized all the flavors of its accompaniments, while the peppers retained just enough freshness and crunch for a textural and flavor contrast.

The two stuffed pepper halves we didn’t eat that evening held until the next day, when I gratineed them with a topping of mozzarella. They were even better! The eggplant had become as rich as meat; both it and the peppers loved the melted cheese. The combination was good enough to serve as a primary recipe in its own right: It could make a fine lunch or a first course at dinner.

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Though spring is inexorably yielding to summer, local asparagus is still available at the farmstands of my Greenmarket, and Tom and I are still happily consuming it. There’s often a bouquet of asparagus spears in a glass in my refrigerator, like a vase of flowers in bud – which, of course, is exactly what they are.

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I took some of my latest bunch to use in a pasta dish: Maccheroncini alla Saffi, from Marcella Hazan’s More Classic Italian Cooking. It’s a book I’ve had and enjoyed for decades, but I couldn’t remember ever making this recipe for small macaroni with asparagus, ham, and cream. The combination seemed classic, almost familiar: Surely I’ve eaten something like this before. Well, let’s see how this particular version comes out.

Scaling it down for two servings, I started by boiling half a pound of asparagus spears until just tender.
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When they were done and drained, I cut them into short lengths, cut two ounces of boiled ham into small strips, and measured out half a cup of heavy cream. Those were essentially all that was needed for the sauce, which was to come together while the pasta was cooking. So I set them aside until dinner time approached.

Then I dropped six ounces of penne into boiling salted water, melted a tablespoon of butter in the asparagus’s cooking pan, put in the asparagus pieces just long enough to turn them in the butter, added the ham, stirred in the cream, and cooked for about a minute. When the penne were al dente, I drained them and tossed them in the pan with the sauce, off heat.
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For our individual servings we showered on lots of freshly grated parmigiano and freshly ground black pepper. Between the cheese and the ham, no additional salt was needed.
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It was an attractive dish, and pleasant enough to eat. But mildly disappointing. While the asparagus, the ham, the cheese, the cream, and the pasta were all good tastes in themselves, they didn’t do anything for each other: not in the pan, not in the bowl, and not on the palate. A synthesis of flavors in a dish is important to me; if the whole isn’t greater than the sum of its parts, I can’t fall in love with a recipe.

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Late May is high season for local asparagus in New York City. I usually buy a bunch almost every time I visit my Greenmarket. We can be very happy with asparagus simply boiled, served hot or cold, with or without sauce (butter, mayonnaise, mustard, vinaigrette), possibly topped with an egg (fried, poached, hardboiled and sieved). Roasted or sauteed is good too.

This season I’ve added another asparagus preparation: batter-frying. I treated myself to a copy of Eric Ripert’s new cookbook, Vegetable Simple.

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It’s a large-format volume, and the photography is so gorgeous, it’s practically a coffee table book. Every recipe is faced by a full-page color portrait of the featured vegetable.

Ripert says simplicity is key to his goal of showcasing vegetables’ natural flavors and qualities. That’s admirable, but what a Michelin three-star restaurant chef regards as simple isn’t always what we lesser mortals do. Thus, for his asparagus tempura recipe, he:

  • makes the batter with sparkling water and Japanese flour (though he permits all-purpose with the addition of a bit of baking soda);
  • for the frying, adds sesame oil to his preferred rice-bran oil (though again, other vegetable oils are allowed); and
  • serves the dish with a dipping sauce made with soy sauce, mirin, and lime juice.

That’s pretty complex simplicity. My pantry doesn’t run to all those specialties, but I hoped I could achieve a reasonable approximation of the dish. Here’s what it looks like in the book:
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Interesting enough to attempt, at any rate.

With half a pound of my current bunch of asparagus, I immediately diverged from the recipe. Rather than peeling the spears, I just snapped off the tough ends. I sometimes peel really fat asparagus, but these were fairly slender.

I made the batter with (sorry!) all-purpose flour, baking soda, beaten egg, and (at least) ice-cold San Pellegrino sparkling water – leaving it lumpy, as Ripert directs.
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Before embarking on the frying, I made the dipping sauce. That was a big compromise. I had soy sauce, but I’ve never used mirin. This sweet rice wine is sold only in fairly large bottles, and I was going to need only half a tablespoon of it. Online research into substitutes produced the suggestion of sherry, with the addition of some sugar. I did have a bottle of sherry open, so that was what I used. But then I realized that I’d forgotten to buy the necessary lime. Aargh! It was too late to go out for one now, so I settled for lemon juice, also with some sugar.

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I doubt if Ripert would have approved of these makeshifts, but I didn’t know how the sauce was supposed to taste anyway, so it would have to do.

And then, on to the frying – which I did in corn oil (my regular choice when olive oil would be too strong), adding the required two tablespoons of sesame oil. The instructions were to “cook until the asparagus spears have floated to the surface and are no longer bubbling, about 2 minutes. They should be pale in color and very crisp.”

Mine didn’t quite behave that way. They floated immediately, bubbled constantly, and began browning in less than one minute.
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What to do? Preserve the pale crust and possibly undercook the asparagus? Get the asparagus tender and spoil the delicate crust? I needed to decide quickly, so I more or less split the difference. My asparagus spears didn’t come out looking anything like Ripert’s, but they seemed OK.
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And so they were. They were pleasantly al dente, the coating lightly crunchy. The dipping sauce was all right too, though it tasted pretty much like plain soy sauce. We couldn’t pick up any hint of that tiny bit of sesame oil.
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But all in all, it was an interesting experiment, and one that I may well try again. It’s hard to resist fresh local asparagus in its brief season.

 

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This dish of potato gnocchi with a long-cooked sauce of lamb and sweet red peppers – from my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen – has two unusual features: the cut of lamb it used and the way the gnocchi were cooked.

Let’s start with the meat. Its source was the trimmings from a frenched rack of lamb. I always ask for them when the butcher prepares a rack for me. Lambs are running very large these days, so the trimmings from this latest rack came to 1-3/4 pounds.
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Separating bits of meat from those gnarly hunks of fat, fell, and connective tissue is a maddeningly long task, which Tom generously undertakes for me. (He modestly suggests not trying it unless you have the patience of a saint and the knife skills of a samurai.) This time it produced 10 ounces of pure meat.
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You don’t need to go through that much effort for the dish, however. Half-inch pieces of any cut of lamb will do. Salted and peppered, they go into a heavy casserole to be browned in olive oil with two cloves of garlic, two bay leaves, and an optional little peperoncino (dried hot red pepper).
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Once my lamb was browned, I poured in ¼ cup of white wine and cooked until it evaporated. Then it was time to remove the peperoncino and stir in four chopped plum tomatoes – I used canned this time, but fresh are fine too – and two Bell peppers – preferably red, for their sweetness – cut into narrow two-inch strips.
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I covered the casserole and let it simmer gently for two hours, stirring occasionally and checking that the juices weren’t drying up. If they are, adding a little water will keep the solids from frying. The tomatoes dissolve into a sauce, and the peppers become meltingly tender.
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So that was the sauce. And here’s the second unusual feature I promised. The gnocchi I used are cooked right in the sauce – no separate boiling.

When I first saw this imported Italian brand in a store, I was extremely skeptical of its instructions. I’ve made potato gnocchi from scratch for years, and I’d never seen a recipe where they didn’t have to be cooked first in water. That would be like dropping raw spaghetti right into their pot of sauce. But I tried a box of them and cooked them as directed, and it worked! These Mama Emma gnocchi are so good and so easy to work with, I’ve become a fan.

All you do is add a little extra water to your finished sauce – in this case, about half a cup for nine ounces of gnocchi – stir in the little nuggets, and cook until they’re tender, less than five minutes.
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They don’t swell very much (must be partially precooked?), but their final texture is just what it should be. In the long-simmered sauce, the flavors of lamb, tomato, and pepper mellow into an intriguing blend, with just a touch of spice from the peperoncino. A very satisfying down-in-the-country-tasting dish.
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Some heavy dental work a member of my household is undergoing has me thinking about soft, gentle dishes that can soothe an aching jaw. One good candidate is an onion soup from Umbria known as la cipollata. That name is given to many dishes in Italy’s regions, in most of which the onions (cipolle) are served as a vegetable on a plate. The Umbrian version is almost thick enough for that, but it’s definitely a soup.

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This is my own recipe, from The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen, and while it bears a slight family resemblance to classic recipes for French onion soup, it’s much easier to make. It does take several hours’ time, but most of that involves only the soup itself, not the soup maker.

For four portions, you start by thinly slicing a pound’s worth of mild, sweet onions. I recommend Spanish, as less candylike than Vidalias. To prevent copious weeping, do this with a food processor.
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Soak the onions in a big bowl of cold water for two hours, while you go off and do something interesting.
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In a large pot, melt four tablespoons of lard in a tablespoon of olive oil. For authenticity, the lard should be lardo, the Italian cured pork fat; but lardo wasn’t available here when I was developing the recipe. No matter: it’s fine with commercial hydrogenated lard.

Drain the onions and toss them in the melted fats, adding salt, pepper, and a few basil leaves.
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Cover the pot and cook over medium-low heat for 10 minutes. The onions will give off a fair amount of liquid, and they shouldn’t brown.
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Then add two cups of a well-flavored broth (beef, chicken, or mixed; homemade, if you have it) and three-quarters of a cup of drained, canned, Italian-style plum tomatoes, chopped or pulsed in a food processor.
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Stir, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover the pot and cook very gently for an hour. You can occasionally stir the soup if you’re passing through the kitchen during that time.
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At this point you can stop the cooking and let the almost-finished soup sit for several hours, or even overnight in the refrigerator. It’ll only get better as it ripens.

When it’s time to eat, reheat the soup well. Turn off the heat, dump in an egg beaten with three tablespoons of grated parmigiano, and stir well.
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The proper finishing touch is a slice of toasted, crusty, country-style bread set in the bottom of each bowl. I didn’t do that this time, in consideration of the dental depredations. It’s a very comforting soup, just perky enough to be interesting without overly challenging the palate. A “medicinal” glass or two of red wine goes very well with it too.

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P.S.  A few days later, when the jaw was recovering, I served the remaining soup as a gratinata – the Italian equivalent of French onion soup gratinée – just replacing the gruyère cheese with a young Tuscan pecorino. Quite delicious!

 

 

 

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Naples’ church of Santa Chiara is world-famous for its exquisite 18th Century majolica-tiled cloister and garden.

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Dating from the same period, and similarly famous in Italy, is its culinary specialty: il gattò Santa Chiara. This is a savory bread-cake hybrid (gattò is an Italianization of the French gâteau) created by the nuns of the convent..

The yeast-raised dough is enriched with mashed potato, eggs, and lard, then speckled with meats and cheeses – most often cooked ham and mozzarella. There’s a gattò recipe in Tom’s and my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen, but I haven’t been totally satisfied with the results, so this week I tried giving it a few tweaks.

 

On the morning of baking day, even before my coffee was ready, I started a yeast sponge, stirring together two teaspoons of dry yeast, two tablespoons of water, and two tablespoons of flour.

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The little bowl sat on the kitchen counter for two hours, until it was puffed and bubbly. Later in the morning, I prepared the other ingredients you see below: clockwise from top left, half a boiled russet potato, two beaten eggs, an ounce and a half of lard, three ounces of boiled ham, the risen sponge, and four ounces of mozzarella.

I’d increased my recipe’s quantities of all those items except the sponge.

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After beating the potato (mashed), the lard (melted and cooled), and the eggs into the recipe’s specified two cups of flour and teaspoon of salt, I let my heavy-duty mixer knead the dough. It smoothed out very readily, not needing any additional flour. The next step was to work in the ham and cheese, which I did by hand.
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The finished dough went into a greased nine-inch cake pan, which I covered and left on the countertop to rise. In two hours, it was threatening to overflow the shallow pan, so I wrapped it with a collar of aluminum foil before putting it in the oven at 350°.

 

After 40 minutes in the oven, it had turned a nice golden brown, though it hadn’t risen very much more.

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It took some persuasion to get it out of its pan, but eventually it emerged and allowed itself to be set on a rack to cool. It might be wise to use a springform pan next time.

That evening I warmed wedges of the gattò in the toaster oven and served them as our antipasto, along with slices of prosciutto.
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Sometimes gattò is served alongside simple grilled meats. I haven’t tried that, but the combination should be very good.

As a part of our antipasto, this loaf was quite tasty, as the warmth of the toaster oven intensified the ham and cheese flavors. The soft, dense crumb was almost cake-like, and the crust was pleasantly crunchy. I can’t say it was as fine as the loaves made by the nuns of Santa Chiara, but it was definitely an improvement on my previous version. And the next day, toasted and buttered gattò slices were very nice for breakfast.

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It’s always useful to have a few packages of raw shrimp in the freezer. They can lend themselves to any number of quick, easy preparations for a lunch or for a dinner appetizer, as well as combine with other kinds of seafood for more elaborate dishes. I’ve recently added two new shrimp recipes to my repertoire.

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Shrimp in Dill Butter

This recipe from the Grand Central Oyster Bar’s cookbook is so simple it’s almost more of an idea than a recipe: you just sauté shrimp quickly in butter that you’ve flavored with salt, pepper, and dillweed. Never having used dill in combination with shrimp, I thought it would be interesting to try. Preparing two small appetizer portions was the essence of simplicity.
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The result was pleasant enough, as long as you like the taste of dill. Which I do, but the dill and the shrimp didn’t combine to offer the palate anything beyond their individual flavors. It would have been equally pleasant to eat the shrimp simply sauteed in butter. I’d like to try it with a different herb or spice – tarragon, maybe, or toasted cumin.

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Spanish Shrimp Fritters

Penelope Casas’s tortillitas de camarones, from her book The Foods and Wines of Spain, are far more than just pleasant – these little fritters are great! Apparently they’re a very popular tapa in Cadiz, but they were new to me. There isn’t a lot in them, other than the shrimp themselves. But all the flavors combine and complement each other.

The first of these are finely chopped onion and parsley, which are cooked gently in olive oil in a covered pan until the onion is tender. Then they get a dash of pimentón, the intriguing Spanish smoked paprika.
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While the vegetables cook, you mix up a typical fritter batter of flour, baking powder, salt, and water. The raw shrimps then need to be finely chopped, which is a fairly sticky operation. I let my mini food processor do that for me, being careful to process only briefly, to achieve a good mince but not a paste.
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When the shrimp and vegetables are stirred into the batter it’s ready to be turned into fritters, though it can wait several hours if necessary. When ready to cook, put ¼ inch of oil in a sauté pan, get it very hot, and drop in heaping tablespoonsful of batter. When you turn them, flatten them into little pancakes if necessary. As soon as both sides are nicely golden, drain them on paper towels.
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Then eat them right away! They’ll be crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, beautifully shrimp-flavored, and just lightly piquant. Lovely with a glass of white wine. Or two.
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With the annual overeating season finally behind us, I’ve been longing for the gastronomic relief of some fresh, lighter fare. Not too easy at this time of year, but possible. For example, here’s a pleasant little winter salad of celery, dates, and almonds that I make from time to time as a family dinner appetizer – and occasionally even for guests.
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The three main ingredients have a surprising affinity for each other. There are many recipes for salads of them online, with variations in ingredient proportions and dressings. I don’t remember where mine – a years-old typewritten slip pasted in my big recipe binder – originated, but I haven’t seen this exact version anywhere else. Here are the ingredients for two servings.
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Starting with an ounce of almonds in their skins, I blanch them. That is, drop them into boiling water for 20 seconds, drain them, and squeeze off the skins.
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Then I put them in a little skillet with salt, pepper, and a bit of olive oil, and toast them.

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Next comes the knife work, usually performed by my obliging husband. A cup of thinly sliced celery, the almonds coarsely chopped, and the two Medjool dates slivered. The last is the most exasperating task of the lot because of the stickiness of the dates, but he always perseveres, cursing steadily under his breath.
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I toss those ingredients together in a bowl with a tablespoon of olive oil, a teaspoon of lemon juice, and a few drops of wine vinegar . . .
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. . . then distribute the mixture onto plates and shower on shavings of pecorino romano. (All the other recipes I’ve seen call for parmigiano, but we like the sharper sheep cheese here.)
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The result is quite delightful: moist, light, zesty, vegetal, nutty, cheesy, sweet, and crunchy. What more could one ask?

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