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For last week’s post on eating out in Eastern Washington, I featured an excellent dish I’d had called Wood Oven Clams. These were roasted Manila clams, with butter, herbs, and fresh lime juice. I’d never had clams done that way before and immediately knew I’d have to try making them myself. This week I did.

The Manila clams my fish market carries are darker in color and thicker shelled than the Washington ones were – I suppose because of the different habitats they were harvested from. But they have the double siphon that to my eye identifies true manila clams, and they’ve always been good. I bought about 1¼ pounds for 2 servings.

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None of my cookbooks had a recipe like the restaurant’s dish, but a little internet research produced one that I could use as a guideline. It was really a very simple procedure.

I put a shallow terracotta baking dish into the oven and preheated it to 500°. Carefully taking out the hot dish, I put the scrubbed clams into it, strewed over them 3 tablespoons of butter, several thin slices of fresh spring onion, 2 tablespoons of white wine, 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and a pinch of dried thyme.
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To return the dish to the oven, I switched the setting to broil, and repositioned the shelf closer to the heating element. Within 5 minutes, a few clams had begun to open, and in another few minutes all had done so. Out they came, to receive a generous sprinkling of chopped parsley.
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Then I just divided the clams and their unexpectedly ample cooking juices between two bowls and added a quartered lime to squeeze over it all. With some crusty bread to dunk in the juices, they were delicious. We were surprised again, as I’d been in the restaurant, by how well those clams took to the butter. Of course, steamer clams are often served with drawn butter, but I would never have thought of it with hard-shell clams. And the lime’s tart sweetness was a perfect final touch.
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I’ll be making this dish again!

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Tom and I are just back from a week’s birding trip to Eastern Washington. That’s the dry side of the state, protected by the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains. We’d hoped to encounter good Pacific Northwest regional foods there, as well as many bird species that aren’t found in our part of the country.

Overall, we had fine weather, beautiful scenery at several altitudes, a congenial group of fellow birders, and reasonably successful birding. (We missed a few target species, e.g., Golden Eagle, Varied Thrush, Ferruginous Owl.) The food, however, mostly disappointed. Too much of it was anonymous American, inferior Italian, or ubiquitous salmon. Even so, there were some interesting and memorable dishes.

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At one dinner, my appetizer was called Wood Oven Clams. I hadn’t known you could oven-roast clams, so this was a new pleasure for me. They were sweet, tender Manila clams, as moist as if they’d been steamed open but with a bit more depth of flavor from the roasting, and with a refreshing burst of seasoning with butter, herbs, and fresh lime juice.
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Tom’s main course that evening was Cioppino, made with shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari, and some sort of white fish. Obviously not a specialty of this high-altitude area so far from the sea – but it was very good: hearty and delicate at the same time, as fresh and enjoyable a fish stew as one could hope for.
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At another dinner we shared an appetizer of grilled venison bratwurst with hot bacon-cabbage slaw, roasted fingerling potatoes, grainy mustard, and fresh applesauce. The venison may well have come from local mule deer, which were commonly seen in our forest walks. This was a dish for hearty mountain appetites: It could easily have been a main course for one of us.
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From the bratwurst we went on to share an excellent cheese fondue made from a blend of Gruyere, Asiago, and Swiss, with white wine. The dipping ingredients were a heaping plate of grilled sausage, roasted potatoes and carrots, steamed broccolini, bread cubes, grapes, and apple slices. Again, this was meant as an appetizer for two, but it was plenty as a main course for us.
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Finally and quite unexpectedly, for lunch at a cheerful roadside Mexican joint, we enjoyed fish tacos and tacos al carbon, both as lively and good as any we’ve had in the Southwest or elsewhere. A pleasant, spicy change from the milder flavors we’d mostly been experiencing.

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The occasional days of unseasonably hot weather we’ve experienced lately have activated my craving for full-summer vegetables. Of course there are no local ones yet, nor will there be for weeks and weeks. Nevertheless, I just had to eat something with eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes. I settled on a suitably summery dish of Spaghetti alla Siracusana, a Sicilian recipe from my first cookbook, La Tavola Italiana.
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I bought the firmest eggplant and crispest Bell pepper I could find and opened a can of imported San Marzano tomatoes. The seasonings were capers, anchovy, garlic, and parsley (a substitute for fresh basil), along with generous quantities of olive oil and grated pecorino romano cheese.
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Once the ingredients were prepared, making the sauce was a breeze. I sautéed the diced eggplant, whole garlic clove and chopped anchovy in olive oil for about 7 minutes. I stirred in the pepper strips, chopped tomato, capers, and parsley; covered the pan; and simmered, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, until the peppers were tender. It seemed a bit dry toward the end, so I added a little water.
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I took out the garlic, added salt and generous grindings of black pepper, and set the sauce aside until we were ready to eat. When the spaghetti was cooked, I dressed it with the reheated sauce and half the pecorino. The grated cheese disappeared right into the sauce.
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As you can see, the pasta wasn’t heavily coated with sauce. It’s not supposed to be. The tomato doesn’t turn into a puree but remains in soft little pieces, as do the eggplant and peppers, adding their textures to each forkful. The olive oil provides all the moisture the dish requires. The rest of the grated cheese went to the dinner table, for each person to add as desired.
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This was an enjoyable pasta, with sweet vegetable flavors and mild nuttiness from the cheese – but sadly, only a ghost of what Spaghetti alla Siracusana can be with fully ripe, newly picked eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes. Good enough to satisfy my pre-season craving, it was an object lesson in why dishes one gets in Italy are often so much more luscious and vibrant than their counterparts in the US. So it wasn’t all I’d hoped for — but it had to do, as the song says, until the real thing comes along.

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Last week Tom and I made our annual spring birding pilgrimage to Cape May, New Jersey, a hotspot for migratory birds. We stay in an oceanfront motel apartment with a kitchen, so we can alternate dining out and dining in. Not to waste birding time with extensive food preparation, we bring along pre-cooked main dishes in a cooler chest. This year our friend Jennifer was with us, so we were cooking for three.
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The appetizers for our first dinner in the apartment were a specialty of Tom’s, elegantly known as “cheese thingies.” For these he lightly pan-cooks 7” frozen parathas, tops them with cheeses and other items as inspiration suggests, and runs them under the broiler until the cheese melts. We brought all the ingredients for these in the cooler chest.

On the left, a thingy with Isle of Mull, a Scottish cheddar, and Greek-style pickled peppers. In the center, one with Puigpedrós, a Catalonian cow cheese, and Italian corallina salame. On the right, Puigpedrós again with chopped onion and pickled jalapeño peppers. Very eclectic and international, eh?

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Our main course was a stew of chunks of skinless, boneless chicken thighs with potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, green beans, onions, garlic, a few dashes of Cholula hot sauce, white wine, and chicken stock, thickened with flour. I’d made and frozen it several days in advance. It was plain, homey, and tasty.

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The next night we went out for dinner to the Lobster House, a popular dockside restaurant. There we always start with Cape May Salts, an especially succulent local oyster. The three of us happily went through two dozen oysters and then went on to excellent fried soft-shell crabs and fried sea scallops. The menu always offers elaborate creamed seafood concoctions, but we prefer to keep things simple and enjoy the freshness of the prime fish and shellfish.

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At home again the following day, we sat to a mixed antipasto, the components of which also came along with us in the cooler chest: fresh ricotta, mortadella, sweet sopressata, grape tomatoes, a smoked shrimp and crab spread, Venetian-style calf’s liver pâté, and toast triangles.

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The main event was a pan of lasagna that I’d made in advance, baked, and frozen for transport. It was partly a Marcella Hazan-style northern Italian version, with Bolognese meat sauce and béchamel, but with Neapolitan additions of mozzarella and coins of sweet sausage – all between many layers of our thinnest homemade lasagna noodles. Reheating the lasagna in a very hot oven provided nice crunchy end pieces to contrast with the meltingly lush central section.

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.The final dinner of our trip was again at the Lobster House, and again we started with two dozen of our favorite Cape May Salts. We went on to the restaurant’s signature snapper soup (not pictured below), fried flounder and fried calamari. Everything was sparklingly fresh and perfectly cooked.


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Lest you think all we did in Cape May was eat, be assured the birding was fine, even though the weather was a bit dodgy. We got up very early each day and did quite a bit of walking, which was how we worked up appetites for all that food. We logged a total of 93 species of birds over 3½ days.

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Mushrooms so often play a supporting role in culinary matters, it’s easy to forget how well they can shine as the star. I just discovered a recipe that, with little more than bread, butter, and mushrooms, produces a dish fit for a king.

(Warning: This photo does not do justice to the dish. My plating and presentation skills leave much to be desired.)
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The recipe, simply called mushroom croûtes, is in Raymond Oliver’s classic French cookbook, La Cuisine. I’d been interested in the dish for some time, and finally gave a try. I expected it to be good, but it was better than good; it was gorgeous. After one taste you could imagine yourself at a mid-20th century Michelin three-star restaurant – say, Grand Véfour, in its great days under Oliver – at a table draped in white damask, set with precious bone china and antique silver cutlery – being ceremonially served with an exquisite dish.

None of that was the case at my house, of course – but that was the feeling we got when we tasted the croûtes. And they were so simple to make!
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I started by slicing two large plain white mushrooms and sautéing them in a little butter. Salted and peppered them and set them aside.
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Next I minced six ounces of the same white mushrooms in the food processor and sauteed them, along with a chopped shallot, in butter in the same pan as the sliced ones. This step was similar to making duxelles, but it didn’t require the painstaking squeezing of the minced mushrooms in a towel to remove their juices. I thought they’d probably give out those juices in the sauté pan, but no – they stayed the same nice dryish, nubbly texture.
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When I judged they were done (they didn’t change much; just shrank some) I took them off the heat, added salt and pepper, and stirred in a few tablespoons of crème fraiche. They absorbed it immediately.

Next I trimmed the crust off two slices of my homemade bread and sauteed them lightly, one at a time – in butter, naturellement. This is a French recipe, after all.
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Now I had to assemble the croûtes: Put the bread slices in a shallow baking dish, spread on the minced mushrooms, arrange the sliced mushrooms over them and top with a little grated gruyère.
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The croûtes went into a 400° oven for about five minutes and came out as you saw above. They were inordinately rich and savory, and not just from the butter: It was that recently discovered fifth taste, umami. Evidently, mushrooms are high in glutamates, which are the source of umami’s delectability. In his day Raymond Oliver wouldn’t have known the chemistry of it, but he certainly knew how to produce it. Just a remarkable piece of culinary wizardry.

Beloved spouse and I were lucky enough, years ago, to dine at Le Grand Véfour during Oliver’s reign. It was an unforgettable experience that has left a large mark on our subsequent kitchen adventures. All these years later, every time I go back to his cookbook and rediscover the magic of his cooking, I’m reminded of how great a culinary genius he was.

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Earlier this month Tom came home from a sojourn in Naples with a palate primed for ricotta. He’d been there for “Campania Stories,” an annual five-day event showcasing the wines of the region. Several of the meals provided for the attending journalists had included luscious fresh buffalo- or sheep-milk ricotta, and he longed for more of it.

I was happy to indulge him. Fortunately, we can get good fresh ricotta here now, and though it’s usually from cows’ milk, it’s vastly better than commercial brands filled with stabilizers and preservatives. I promptly acquired some.
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While the ricotta was at its freshest, we had it first in an antipasto: on each plate a big scoop of ricotta, paper-thin slices of felino salame, halved grape tomatoes dressed with salt, pepper, oregano, and olive oil, and a few fennel-flavored taralli. This reproduced what had been the ubiquitous Neapolitan antipasto during Tom’s trip, and we both reveled in its flavors – an appetizer in the truest sense.
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Our second use of the ricotta was in a pasta recipe from our own cookbook La Tavola Italiana: Maccheroni with Ricotta and Tomato Sauce. It’s a breeze to make – the simplicity highlights the ricotta itself, so the freshest, most flavorful ricotta is essential.

I opened a jar of my homemade tomato sauce and heated it up. I cooked the pasta, dressed it lightly with the sauce, then tossed in ricotta (brought to room temperature) and mixed all together well. Contrary to what one might expect, the ricotta lightened the dish and made it surprisingly fresh – not the effect that cheese usually has on pasta.
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There was still enough ricotta left to use in a dessert on another day. Also in La Tavola Italiana is a recipe for a Ricotta and Strawberry Parfait. The ricotta is whipped or beaten until smooth and flavored with sugar, egg yolk, and amaretto liqueur. The cream is heaped on berries that have been hulled, rinsed, and tossed with lemon juice. Slivered almonds go on top.

This day the stores’ strawberries didn’t look very good, so I bought big juicy blackberries instead. And for the liqueur, since I didn’t have any amaretto, I used kirsch. The dish was fine with those substitutions. Once again, the ricotta created a sense of lightness, beautifully complementing the berries and making the dessert a pleasing grace note to the meal that preceded it.
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Neapolitans, says Tom, know a thing or two about dining.

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The calendar may say Spring, but both the weather (snow in April!) and the fresh produce in markets still keep sullenly saying Winter. How I yearn for good hot-weather vegetables – especially those that can be made into antipasti for everyday dinners: ripe tomatoes! peppers and zucchini and eggplants from local farms! But they won’t be here for many weeks yet. Casting about for something to tempt our palates, I came upon a recipe in La Tavola Italiana, my own first cookbook, for a tortino di mozzarella; a recipe that I hadn’t made in a few years. Why not now?

In English, “torte” usually means an elaborate layered cake, but in Italy a torta can be a sweet or savory pastry. The diminutive tortino suggests a short-cut version of the breed. This mozzarella torte is a simple baked bread-and-cheese affair, but it really sings if you use excellent fresh mozzarella and good firm bread. Usually I make it with Italian-style bread (as long as the slices aren’t too full of air holes), but I’d just baked a batch of my favorite Joy of Cooking White Bread Plus, so I decided to try that for a change. I also had a large ball of buffalo mozzarella in the refrigerator, which is always a treat.
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The other ingredients are egg yolk, milk, anchovy fillets, fennel seeds, and grated parmigiano – all things I typically have on hand. Here’s the prep work for two portions:

  • Trimming the crusts off four slices of bread and laying them snugly in a buttered baking dish
  • Pureeing four chopped anchovy filets, an egg yolk, and ¼ cup of milk in my mini-food processor
  • Cutting four thick slices of mozzarella
  • Measuring out ½ teaspoon of fennel seeds and 1½ tablespoons of grated parmigiano.
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As dinner time approached, I finished making up the tortino while the oven preheated. The first step was to spoon the egg-milk-anchovy sauce over the bread, letting it absorb all the liquid. Then, to top each slice of bread with a slice of mozzarella. Finally, sprinkle on the fennel seeds and the grated cheese.  No intricacies: a very straightforward procedure.
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The dish went into a 400° oven for 20 minutes, until the cheese was bubbling and just starting to brown on top. Then it had to sit for 5 minutes before serving, so the molten cheese wouldn’t scald our mouths.
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The look and smell of the tortino were very appetizing (which was the point, of course). It tasted rather like a good mozzarella in carrozza but with additional flavor fillips from the fennel seeds and anchovy. A very satisfying cold-weather antipasto that I’ve been ignoring for too long; must make it again soon!

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