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I’m an inveterate list-maker. Besides shopping lists and to-do lists, I keep lists of foods in the freezer and bottles in the wine closet. For dinner parties I list the timing of every step in the final cooking and serving. And tucked into many of my cookbooks are lists of recipes I want to try some day. The day just came for one of those.

Today’s dish is from my list for Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine: gratineed ham crêpes. The filling sounded tasty, the creamy sauce was made with an unusual technique, and the final gratin was also unusual. His separate recipe for making the crêpes themselves didn’t attract me, but I could work with the Julia Child crêpe recipe I’ve always relied on. So on to the attempt.

One day in advance, I put together the crêpe batter – mixing flour, salt, milk, water, eggs, and melted butter in my old blender. Crêpes are about the only things I still use a blender for: I’ve found that the food processor can leave lumps. The batter needs at least two hours of chilling, but it’s perfectly happy to sit in the refrigerator overnight.

Next day, feeling quite professional, I assembled my batterie de cuisine on top of the stove: two crêpe pans, a little dish of oil and a brush to grease them with, a plate to receive the cooked crêpes, the blender jar of batter, a quarter-cup measure to dip it out with, and a little bowl to hold the wet cup. All was set up for fast, efficient cooking of two crêpes at a time.
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Pride goeth before a fall! It had been too long since I’d last used those crêpe pans. They’d lost their seasoning, so when I poured in the first batter it instantly cemented itself to the pans, even though I’d greased them. It had to be scraped off in bits – which didn’t do the pans any good.
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Chastened, I selected the less-bad-looking pan, scrubbed it with salt, oil, and paper towels, re-seasoned it as well as I could at the moment, and resumed cooking my crêpes – slowly and carefully, with just the one pan. They gave no further trouble, thank goodness.
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That taken care of, I could go on to make the sauce, while Tom minced half a cup of good smoked ham, shredded half a cup of gruyère, and beat an egg yolk with two tablespoons of heavy cream.
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The sauce started as essentially a bechamel, but made differently from the way I’m familiar with. First, I had to brown the mixture of butter and flour, rather than letting it foam along without browning. Then the milk to be added had to be lukewarm, not boiling. Third, after additions of nutmeg and cayenne it had to cook for 10 minutes, which is a longer time than I’m used to, before being enriched with the egg yolk-cream mixture.
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I set part of the sauce aside for topping the filled crêpes and mixed all the ham and most of the gruyère into the rest of the sauce. I remembered to lay out the crêpes ugly side up, so when rolled they’d show their better sides. It seemed like very little filling.
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I laid the rolled crêpes in a buttered baking dish and topped them with the remaining sauce, thinned out a little with cream, the rest of the grated gruyère, dots of butter, and – what for me was another unusual feature – fine dry bread crumbs.
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The dish baked for 15 minutes at 400°. It came out looking quite nice, except that the butter had made little puddles rather than spreading out. I guess my dots were too big. No harm, though.
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The crêpes were excellent. Richly flavorful, despite the modest amount of filling; though Tom would have liked a stronger ham presence. The texture of the dish was one of its best features: soft in the center but pleasantly crunchy on top from the breadcrumb gratin. I may adopt that gratin for when I make other kinds of crêpes – which I must do soon. Gotta keep those pans seasoned!
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Every now and then I come across something in the back of a pantry shelf that I’d completely forgotten about. Current case in point: most of a package of imported Italian dried chickpeas. Since they clearly had seniority among my dried beans and pulses, I felt I should make a special effort to use them.

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A timely email newsletter I received from the heirloom bean company Rancho Gordo featured a recipe for a winter salad of garbanzo beans (Rancho G uses the hispanic name) and carrots. So I started by making that.
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I soaked my chickpeas overnight in cold water. Next day I tossed them in a small mince of carrot, onion, and celery sauteed in olive oil, covered them generously with water, simmered until they were tender, drained and let them cool.

The remaining vegetables were raw: grated carrot, thinly sliced shallot, minced garlic, and chopped parsley. All were tossed together with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and ground cumin. I cut back on the recipe’s carrot quantity. It wanted 5 or 6 large ones to a cup of cooked chickpeas, which seemed like much too much.

It made a pretty dish, but it’s definitely one for lovers of the allium family: the amount of shallot and garlic were almost shocking at first taste. But the interplay of that sharpness with the sweetness of the carrot, the savoriness of the chickpeas, and the spiciness of the cumin grew on me. I wouldn’t want it often, but it was an interesting discovery.

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Next I tried a new-to-me chickpea soup. Soupe aux pois chiche is a Languedoc recipe in Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking, a book I usually find very reliable. This dish was not a success.
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Several aspects of the instructions seemed peculiar. To start with, there was an odd initial treatment of the chickpeas. After an overnight soak, there was a one-hour simmer, uncovered, starting with fresh water; then another uncovered simmer, in yet more fresh water, for another hour or more, until the chickpeas were tender. Wouldn’t all that plain water leach out some of the peas’ flavor?

Meanwhile I softened a sliced onion and a big sliced leek in olive oil, added a cut-up tomato, and cooked for a few more minutes. Then I was supposed to drain the chickpeas; return the water to the pot and bring it to a boil; add the sauteed vegetables and half the chickpeas; and cook until they could be crushed easily. The rest of the chickpeas were to be kept for another recipe. What was the point of that?! I just used half the amount of chickpeas to begin with.

I pureed the soup, reheated it and served it with croutons, as directed. It was totally insipid. The chickpeas could have been excelsior, the other vegetables were undetectable, salt was desperately needed, and when it went in, salt was all you could taste. I expect to occasionally come upon recipes I don’t like, even from cooks I respect, but this one was truly dismal.

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After that disappointment, I turned to a tried and true recipe for the rest of my chickpeas: pasta e ceci, from Tom’s and my second cookbook, The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. The dish this simple recipe produces is the sort of thick soup or wet pasta on which generations of Italian peasants gratefully survived winter. Pure southern Italian soul food.
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After the chickpeas are initially reconstituted (the recipe uses the two-minute boil plus two-hour hot-water soak method rather than the overnight cold-water soak; either is fine), they’re drained, returned to the pot, and stewed with canned Italian plum tomatoes, olive oil, salt, and fresh water, absorbing flavor as they go. Needing only an occasional stir, the chickpeas simmer along gently until tender. Since that can be anywhere from two or four hours, depending on their freshness, it’s good to do this in advance.

The pot can sit on the back of the stove until dinner time approaches. Then you bring it to a boil, stir in short pasta, such as shells or ditalini, and cook for about 20 minutes, until the pasta is done. Add an aromatic mince of garlic, basil, and parsley, some olive oil, and lots of freshly ground black pepper, and serve. Ambrosia!

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During the holiday season just past, I served two excellent French-style dinner-party appetizers that I look forward to making again in the coming year. As an aid to memory, I thought I’d start my 2019 blog with an appreciation of the two dishes.

One, asparagus croûtes, was quick, easy, and even tastier than I’d thought it would be from reading the recipe. The other, salade de geziers, was also quick and easy in the assembly and thoroughly delicious in the eating, but the chief component has to be prepared far in advance.

 

Asparagus Croûtes
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This is a plain looking dish, but its simple flavors come together in one of those magical French ways that make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. (Hint: Think butter.) The recipe comes from esteemed chef Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine, which gives it a distinguished culinary pedigree.

For each serving you need one slice of homemade-style white bread, crust cut off and the slice cut in half; and enough spears of asparagus – thick or thin, as you prefer – to top the bread completely. In my version, on each half slice I used the tip ends of four thinnish spears, cut in lengths the size of the bread.

The asparagus gets cooked in boiling salted water until just tender, then sauteed gently in butter for two minutes. The bread is fried in butter and olive oil until golden. In a baking dish you place the bread slices, arrange the asparagus on them, and sprinkle generously with grated Swiss cheese and fine dry breadcrumbs.

Then, you either run the dish under a broiler or else bake it in a 450° oven until the croûtes are golden and bubbly. Doesn’t look like a lot on the plate, but it’s quite filling. Of course, if you’re feeding very hearty eaters, you can always increase the number of croûtes per person.

 

Salade de Geziers
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Geziers are gizzards, an ingredient many Americans consign to cat food – a big mistake. Gizzards can be delicious. While one of them should be included in every bag of giblets tucked inside a purchased chicken, it takes a long time to collect and freeze enough gizzards to do anything significant with, so I buy them separately. And what I do is confit them. Making confit is a time-consuming process, but once it’s done you have the wherewithal for this splendid salad.

Essentially, to confit gizzards you toss them with salt and refrigerate them for a day. Scrape off the salt, put the gizzards in a heavy casserole with melted duck fat to cover, bring it to a simmer, and cook covered in a very low oven for several hours, until they are tender. Drain, cool, and transfer them to a large jar; and pour over enough of the cooled cooking fat to cover them completely. They keep in the refrigerator for months.

For the salad, you want a leafy green that’s at least a little bitter, to contrast with the unctuous gizzards. Frisée is my first choice, but if it’s not available, tender leaves from the heart of escarole do very well. I dress them with a vinaigrette made with walnut oil and my homemade red wine vinegar, then top them with warmed gizzards. It’s an intriguing combination on the palate: crisp and soft, sharp and mellow, bracing and soothing.

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Both these dishes are truly – literally – appetizers. That is, they stimulate your appetite for what will be coming next. Nice.

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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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Back in the 1950s, turkey Tetrazzini was the height of fashionable cuisine, the stereotypical darling of “ladies who lunch.” Sort of a rich man’s chicken à la king, the dish came to mind the other day as I contemplated the generous pile of excellent roasted turkey meat our Thanksgiving hostess had sent us home with.

Browsing my cookbooks and the Internet, I quickly learned there are any number of recipes that call themselves turkey Tetrazzini, none apparently with any greater likelihood of being the one that Escoffier is said to have created and named for the renowned opera singer Luisa Tetrazzini – if indeed there’s any truth at all to that legend. I chose a recipe I found online, from a book called Almost Italian, by Skip Lombardi and Holly Chase.
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I was going to photograph the preparation process as usual, but I was pressed for time that evening and had a lot of steps to take in rapid succession. Also, I wanted a two-person version and had to cut back quantities given for 6 to 8 servings. Being a barely numerate person, I struggle to calculate things like the number of teaspoons there must be in one-third of a quarter of a cup. So the only image I have to show you is my finished dish.
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To make it, I started by cooking short rotini pasta until not quite done. Meanwhile, I cut the turkey into small chunks and thinly sliced several white mushrooms. I sauteed the mushrooms in butter. I made a sort of combination bechamel-velouté sauce with flour, butter, milk, chicken bouillon (from a cube), heavy cream, nutmeg, salt, and pepper.

I should mention that, given the great variability in the Tetrazzini recipes I’d seen, I felt free to change some of the ingredient quantities given in my source. I used less pasta, more mushrooms, and more peas.

In a large bowl I mixed turkey, pasta, mushrooms, sauce, defrosted green peas, and grated parmigiano. Spread it all in a buttered gratin dish, sprinkled on a mix of breadcrumbs and more parmigiano, dotted the top with butter, and baked it in a moderate oven for 40 minutes.

It came out looking nicely golden. How did it taste? Well, it was OK. All those pleasant, mild ingredients coexisted peacefully enough, but there was nothing to give the dish any strong character. I don’t fault the recipe: Most of the other versions I saw would have been essentially the same. I suspect that’s just what unadventurous American taste in the ‘50s liked about turkey Tetrazzini: no palatal challenges.

Just another piece of evidence that you can’t go home again!

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On the trip to Malta that I wrote about last week, we spent one day on Gozo, the country’s second largest island. More rural than the eponymous main island, Gozo has its own full share of marvels, from megalithic to medieval, as well as lovely rolling hills and excellent traditional food. A highlight of the day for Tom and me was lunch made by the noted Gozo chef George Borg – a lunch made not just for us but partly by us.

This was a fun occasion as well as a delicious one. George is a delightful man and a very talented chef, passionate about Maltese culinary traditions, as well as about wine. When we arrived at his studio kitchen, he had work stations and aprons set out for us; and he started us right off at helping to prepare the antipasto course: his own Gozo-style ftira.
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Now, the ftira we had in Valletta, as I showed last week, was on a thick base of bread, hence fairly heavy for an antipasto. George’s version lightens it by using flaky butter pastry. We were intrigued. The topping we made that day was potatoes, onions, tomatoes, olives, capers, garlic, and anchovies. I thinly sliced potatoes, Tom halved grape tomatoes, and George did the rest.

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While the ftira was baking, we moved on to preparing the next course, which was to be stuffed baked pasta shells. For the filling I mashed several little cheeselets – Malta’s ubiquitous fresh sheep cheese – with grated pecorino, chopped parsley, and black pepper.

Then, in the the most unusual way of treating pasta I’ve ever encountered, George gave Tom and me each a pastry tube filled with the cheese mixture and a pile of pasta shells to be filled with it – raw shells.

 

Once stuffed, the shells went into gratin dishes. George poured on milk to come half way up the pasta, sprinkled the dishes generously with grated pecorino, and put them in the oven to bake with the ftira.

 

Next, George brought out the fish that was to be our main course: fillets of lampuki. This autumn-season specialty is Malta’s favorite fish. Elsewhere, it’s called dorado, dolphin fish, or mahi mahi. But the ones caught here are nothing like the huge, bull-headed, pastel-hued creatures we in the US know as mahi mahi. The lampuki we saw in Malta’s fish markets were small, slender, silvery, white-fleshed fish, with no scales.

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The fillets George cut up were no more than a foot long. He said this was the end of the lampukis’ season, and that was as big as they ever got. To give us an authentic Gozo experience, he cooked them in one of the favorite local ways: just floured, shallow-fried, and served with a tomato sauce.

George’s sauce was based on his own sundried purée of tomatoes. (That is, not a purée of sundried tomatoes but a fresh tomato sauce that he’d made, spread out on trays, and left to thicken in the sunshine – much the way it’s done in Sicily.) He stirred salt, sugar, and capers into the purée, then softened chopped garlic in olive oil in a skillet, added the seasoned puree and a good slosh of water, and set it on the stove to simmer.

 

At last we sat to lunch. Our host had opened two local wines for us to choose from: a Vermentino and a Sangiovese. Naturally we tried both! They were very good. Tom has a blog post on Maltese wines that says more about these two.

 

The ftira was delicious – and quite light, thanks to the crisp, buttery flaky crust. It was hard to resist gobbling it all down, but we knew how much more there was to come.

 

Next came the baked stuffed pasta. The parts of the shells that had been in the milk were soft and fully cooked, while their top edges were firm, brown and crunchy. The milk itself had thickened into a lightly cheese-flavored cream. The mix of textures was a bit disconcerting to us – not the way we’re used to dealing with pasta. It tasted fine, but we still haven’t gotten past our sense of its oddness.

 

 

The lampuki was lovely in its simplicity – quite delicate but very flavorful – and the rich tomato sauce made an ideal complement. We relished every bite of the sweet, firm flesh, whose richness was nicely counterpointed by the acidity and brightness of the sauce.

 

George was eager to give us dessert, but after all those good dishes we couldn’t eat another thing. Tiny cups of espresso and glasses of an excellent grappa made a perfect conclusion to this wonderful meal. As we departed, with compliments on all sides, George gave us a copy of one of his cookbooks. I’m very much looking forward to trying some of his recipes!

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I’m just back from a vacation that included four days of exploring Malta. The Maltese islands – mere dots in the Mediterranean between Sicily and Africa – are truly fascinating. Cliffs, caves, and grottoes, Baroque palaces, medieval fortresses, 5,000-year-old megalithic temples, some the oldest stone structures in the world; and on top of all that, interesting, unusual food.

For example, here Tom and I are having a midmorning snack of pastizzi, a popular Maltese pastry resembling Neapolitan sfogliatelle but with savory fillings, usually fresh ricotta or (a relic of British rule?) mushy peas.

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Not surprisingly in an island culture, fish of all kinds were abundant and delicious. The seafood we had at two restaurants, Palazzo Preca in Valletta and Tartarun in Marsaxlokk, was all exceptionally fresh and fine.

We tried both restaurants’ versions of aljotta, Malta’s signature fish soup. Often described (unfairly, in our opinion) as an adaptation of bouillabaisse, this is a rich, dense fish broth harboring small pieces of several kinds of fish, served with fresh lemon for squeezing and crusty bread for dunking.

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Another appetizer was described on its menu as “local octopus, lemon confit, lardo, 10YO condimento, crispy quinoa, olive & mint.” (Condimento, I learned, is a prestigious kind of balsamic vinegar, this one being 10 years old.) The combination was lovely to look at and luscious to eat.

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Our main courses of seafood were equally good:

An enormous mixed fry of various fishes, squid, shrimp, and octopus

Giant prawns sautéed in garlic, white wine, and tomato, served on a bed of rice

A sauté of mussels and four kinds of clams: razor, surf, vongole veraci, and praires

The best, freshest, sweetest, grilled squid Tom has eaten in a lifetime of consuming squid at every opportunity

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We also explored non-seafood dishes, at both a lunch and a dinner at a Valletta restaurant called Nenu the Artisan Baker. It serves only traditional Maltese foods, with locally produced ingredients. Our lunch was two kinds of ftira, the Maltese equivalent of pizza. It consists of a fairly thick base of bread dough with various toppings, baked in a wood oven.

This one is called karmni s-sultana: potatoes, tomatoes, anchovies, onions, caper berries, olives, mint, and fennel seeds.

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And this one is ta’ Nenu: sundried tomatoes, black olives, peppered Maltese goat cheese, onions, Maltese sausages, capers, and thyme.

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These were hefty items, which we couldn’t possibly finish, much less go on to eat anything else for that lunch. The rest of the menu was so interesting, we decided to come back that evening for dinner. We quickly discovered that everything Nenu serves is hefty. Our appetizers would easily have done for main courses.

Here’s fwied tal-fenek: rabbit liver in a sauce of onions, garlic, prunes, anisette, and cream.

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And zalzett malti: Maltese sausage in a spicy tomato sauce with peas.

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Our affable waiter jokingly counseled us not to dip too much of the good crusty bread – the Maltese are rightly proud of their bread – in the sauces, because of the dishes yet to come. And right he was.

Here’s Tom’s kirxa, a curried tripe stew, which was served with pan-fried potatoes and garlic bread. It had several kinds of tripe, not just honeycomb, and a delicious but unusual set of curry spices that we couldn’t identify.

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And here’s my fenek moqli, described as rabbit marinated in garlic and red wine, fried in olive oil, and served in its own juices. (I’d have called it braised, though I later learned that “fried” in Malta can mean either deep-fried or sauteed.) It came with roasted potatoes and steamed vegetables.

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Our waiter delicately informed me that Maltese people eat rabbit with their fingers, because of the many small bones to be navigated around. I believe I became an honorary Maltese citizen that evening, because I ate my rabbit with my fingers too.

With that gargantuan repast, I’ll conclude this post. We had one more, very special, meal in Malta, which deserves a separate post of its own.

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