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Avocados are an extraordinary fruit. Highly caloric – an average-sized Hass avocado runs about 250 calories, 80% of which are from fat – but also chock-full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and the fat is mostly unsaturated. I love avocados, but I’d never made them a regular part of my diet: The only way I prepare them is as guacamole, for Mexican-style meals.

With guacamole vaguely in mind, I picked up a big avocado recently. It sat in my fruit bowl for several days until it fully ripened, and when it was ready I realized I actually wasn’t in the mood for anything Mexican. It was time to try something else with the avocado, and I soon decided what it was to be. In my big recipe binder was an item I’d cut out of a magazine years earlier – a recipe for Floyd Cardoz’s Goan Avocado Salad.

Cardoz was then the owner-chef of Tabla, one of the early restaurants in the Danny Meyer group. Probably thousands of people, including myself, still regret the loss of Tabla and its Bread Bar, which introduced New York to a style of Indian cooking that it had never seen before. The aromas that met you when you entered Tabla were a revelation in themselves.  One of the best loved dishes there was this avocado salad.

The recipe’s preparation is very easy. The avocado, cut in half-inch pieces, is dressed – from left to right in the photo below – with olive oil, onion, tomato, cilantro, cumin, cayenne, and sugar.
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You gently mix everything together in a bowl, press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface to keep the avocado from discoloring, and put the bowl in the refrigerator for two to three hours.
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The recipe calls for serving the salad with chips made from naan, the Indian flatbread. I substituted the pitas I had on hand, cut into triangles and toasted lightly, which could be used either to scoop up the salad or to nibble on the side.
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The salad was excellent. After all this time I can’t recall if it resembled the version served at Tabla, but it was fine in its own right. Though it shares many ingredients with guacamole – avocado, onion, tomato, cilantro – the proportions are different, and the cumin and cayenne spicing, rather than fresh hot chile, give it a whole different character. Also, since the avocado is chunked rather than mashed, the mouthfeel of the dish is quite different from guacamole. It’s pleasant to eat with a fork or spoon, not just as a dip for chips. The toasted pita, by the way, went perfectly well with it.

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Rillettes: A Sad Story

Rillettes are a signature dish of the cuisine of the Loire Valley. Lush and succulent, it’s potted pork: lightly seasoned, lengthily cooked, shredded, and packed in its own fat. I was eager for rillettes on my recent French trip, but nowhere was it offered. Since France wouldn’t cooperate, I determined to make it at home.

Making rillettes looked easy enough, though time-consuming. From Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking I learned that different cities in the area have different versions, some adding rabbit, duck, or goose to the pork. I used Willan’s recipe for the rillettes of Tours, which is only pork. And pork fat: She says you should use at least half as much fat as lean and you can even use equal amounts of both.

I went to a supermarket to buy the pork, and to my surprise found the cuts were quite closely trimmed. I needed more fat. I settled for two loin chops and some fatty chunks of pork belly. (That may have been my first mistake.) I cut them in pieces as directed.
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The meat, fat, and bones went into a heavy pot along with salt, pepper, half a bay leaf, and tiny pinches of nutmeg, allspice, and thyme.
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I added half a cup of water, brought it to a boil, tightly covered the pot, and put it in a 320° oven. The recipe said it would take four to five hours for a much larger quantity than I was making. Every half hour I checked to see if it needed more water to keep the meat from frying. The belly fat was extremely reluctant to melt. Even without rind, there seemed to be something cartilaginous about it. The pot needed a lot more additional water than the recipe implied, and even so the meat was getting awfully crisp. After the full five hours I took it out of the oven.
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Next was to discard the bones and bay leaf, take out the pork, reserve the fat, and shred the meat with two forks. It did not shred easily. The larger chunks of belly had to be cut up with a poultry shear, and even the softer bits of meat were pretty stringy.
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Hoping against hope, I continued with the recipe. I mixed the cooled liquid fat with the meat. There was less fat than seemed right, so I melted down some lard and added it. Then I packed it all into a small crock and faithfully followed Willan’s quaint instruction to cover it with waxed paper and tie the paper in place with string.
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It rested in the refrigerator for two days, during which time I thought perhaps it would all soften. When I took out the crock and tried spreading some of the rillettes on a slice of baguette, it was immediately apparent that it hadn’t.
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The flavor was okay, but the texture was terrible. None of the fat had permeated the tough, dry, bits of meat. We couldn’t bring ourselves to eat it.

The next day I tried to rescue my rillettes by pureeing them through the mini food processor. That didn’t work either. It left me with a semi-smooth base of puree threaded through with stringy bits. Sigh.

So, post mortem: What went wrong here? Various possibilities, starting with the wrong kind of pork and/or too poor a quality of it. Maybe too large a pot, so the meats were too spread out in it and dried before they could tenderize. Probably much too much cooking because of the intransigent belly fat. I don’t think I can blame my recipe for any of this, only myself.

Neverthess, I’m not giving up my determination to make good rillettes. Sometime soon (but not too soon; not until after the trauma fades) I will try again, with better pork, better fat, and more attention to the procedure. It seems such a simple recipe; I should be able to do this.

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I just spent a week of bright sunny days cruising the wild, scenic, unspoiled river Loire on the MS Loire Princesse. This handsome paddle-wheel barge-type ship is French-owned, and its 90 passengers were about 60% French, 20% Spanish, and 20% British and Antipodean. Tom and I were the only Americans.

We’d been greatly looking forward to the food on the voyage. As this was a moderately priced cruise, providing good value but not extravagance, only a single three-course menu was available for each lunch and dinner. There was no particular emphasis on the cuisine of the Loire Valley. That was a bit disappointing for us, but the cooking was generally good. Every day several pleasant, simple wines were liberally poured at no cost, and there was a small list of better wines for purchase. (Tom’s blog has more to say about the wines.)
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Lunches

The lunches onboard were far larger than what we’re used to. A few times we’d have been just as happy with only a sandwich or a hamburger. But the chef prepared these menus, and we were on vacation, so we had to try them, didn’t we? Somehow, we managed to get through midday meals like these. (Wine helped, and often a little nap too.)
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Fresh pickled herring, roast veal with chanterelles, tortoni
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Mozzarella and tomato salad, filet of pork with duchesse potatoes, tiramisu
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Black Forest ham, hake filet grenobloise, raspberry cake

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Dinners

Dinners were equally elaborate and varied, with occasionally a small fourth course included. The chef had a real talent with meat and potatoes but offered few fresh seasonal vegetables other than salad greens.
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Duck terrine with sauce gribiche, stuffed filet of chicken with tagliatelle, raspberry torte
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Veal-filled beggar’s purse pasta with cream sauce, confit duck leg, crepes suzette
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Scallop salad, duck breast with port sauce, baked apple on brioche French toast

 

 

Cappuccino of cèpes, vegetables à la grecque, blanquette de veau à l’ancienne, peach melba

 

A word of explanation about the “cappuccino” just above. That’s what it looked like, but it was actually a trompe l’oeil creation: a rich soup of wild mushrooms topped with a veil of cream and a sprinkle of minced mushrooms as faux cinnamon. Quite a delicious frivolity.

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Overall, the cruise’s food was a little too elaborated, too heavily decorated, for our taste. Rather than the panoply of flavors present in most dishes, we’d have preferred having the simple quality of the main ingredients left to shine forth on their own. Also, we really regretted the dearth of local specialties. To be in the Loire Valley and not be offered rillettes or beurre blanc seemed wrong! Likewise, to be in the agricultural heart of France in mid-June and be fed carrots and brussels sprouts. But many individual dishes were excellent.  For instance, the herring in the first lunch above was as sparkling, fresh, and delicious as any I’ve ever had. The many mushroom varieties the chef seemed to love using tasted fine indeed, and he had the best hand with pasta of any French cook we’ve encountered.

After the cruise, we had a few days in the Touraine and the Orléanais on our own, where we took the opportunity to make up some of the deficit of regional dishes – e.g., fabulous white asparagus. And I’ve purchased a little French book of recipes of the châteaux of the Loire, to encourage myself to make them at home.

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One evening in Paris long, long ago, I dined at the Michelin-three-star restaurant Le Grand Véfour. Owner-chef Raymond Oliver was then producing the apotheosis of classic French cuisine, and my meal was a purely blissful experience. This week I made an elaborate dish of that era from Oliver’s cookbook La Cuisine. I’ve had the book for a long time, and its glamour photo of Toast de Crevettes à la Rothschild had always attracted me.

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Now, with still some of the ugly-but-good shrimp I wrote about last week, it seemed like the perfect time to try the recipe, since its shrimp are invisible within their bread case and underneath their sauce.

So I defrosted half a pound of them. It looked like a lot for only two people, but that’s what half the recipe called for.
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The first task was to carve two cases from thick slices of sandwich bread (Joy of Cooking’s ever-reliable White Bread Plus) and fry them in butter until golden.

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Next was to shell the shrimp and “crush the shells in a mortar and pestle until they are almost a paste.” Easy for him to say! Restaurants obviously use kitchen slaveys and hefty professional equipment for such things. In my small mortar and pestle, the shells just slithered around, staying totally intact. So on to the mini food processor, which after much whirling at least broke the shells into fragments. I’d have to live with that.

Then came what is always the most elaborate part of a classic French recipe, making the sauce. I softened chopped carrot, onion, and shallot in butter, added the shell shrapnel, and cooked it for a few minutes.
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Into the pot I stirred tomato paste, white wine, fish broth, parsley, bay leaf, and thyme. It all simmered covered for 20 minutes, after which it had to be strained. That was a tough job, given my too, too solid shells. It might have been easier if I’d had a chinoise, but I don’t. I managed it with about 15 minutes of mashing the stuff around in my finest-mesh sieve.
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After returning the sauce to a pot I was supposed to reduce it to ⅜ cup. I didn’t. It was hardly more than that already, and nicely thick. I just left it there while I briefly sauteed the shrimp in (of course) butter and then added them to the sauce and simmered for another minute.
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I pulled the shrimp out of the pot, scraping as much of the sauce off them as I could, and put them in the prepared bread cases. As I’d expected, there wasn’t enough room to fit them all in, so I just left some on the side. Then I stirred cream and cognac into the sauce, brought it to a boil, and, off heat, dissolved yet more softened butter in it.

At last we were closing in on consumption time. I topped the shrimp toasts with the finished sauce – of which there was just about enough – and sprinkled on grated Gruyere, omitting the recipe’s final extravagance of a big slice of black truffle.
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I browned them quickly under the broiler and served. Of course they looked nothing like the picture in the book. Frankly, I don’t see how anyone could have achieved that appearance by following the recipe’s instructions.
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So how were they? Bite for bite, utterly delicious – but almost excruciatingly rich and heavy. Aside from the whole shrimp, which seemed more like a garnish than a principal ingredient, there wasn’t a fresh, noncomposed flavor in the dish. It was the classic, complex, Paris restaurant food of Oliver’s bygone era, but it’s not the way we eat today, or would want to, more than once in a very long while.

Still, making the dish was an intriguing culinary experience, a tour de force of nostalgia and digestion!

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While the dishes named in the title above are linked by “and,” I hasten to assure you they weren’t eaten together. I made them as appetizers for two of Beloved Spouse’s culinary specialties, which he’d made within a short span of days: Louisiana shrimp remoulade to eat before gumbo and Mexican melted cheese before chili.

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Tom makes terrific oyster and sausage okra gumbos, one version of which I’ve written admiringly about here. For his latest rendition, it fell to me to prepare a worthy, but not overwhelming, first course. I chose a shrimp remoulade recipe from the Junior League of New Orleans’ Plantation Cookbook. The only shrimp remoulade I’d ever made before was a very elaborate version from Galatoire’s restaurant. This one was simpler: its remoulade sauce has only 9 ingredients, compared to Galatoire’s 12.

All the ingredients went into my mini food processor, which quickly converted chopped onion, chopped scallion, pressed garlic, grainy mustard, olive oil, wine vinegar, salt, cayenne, and paprika into a nubbly sauce. That went into the refrigerator overnight to integrate and develop its flavors. The next evening, to precede our gumbo, I arranged cold boiled shrimp on beds of shredded lettuce and topped them with the sauce.
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The remoulade wasn’t bad, and it complemented the shrimp well enough, but to our taste it wasn’t truly great, either. It was very acidic. That may be my fault, because the recipe called for tarragon vinegar and what I had was my own wine vinegar, which is very concentrated. I probably should have used less of it, or thinned it a little with water. Also, there was a lot more mustard in the mix, compared to Galatoire’s version, where the sharpness of the mustard is tempered by tomato puree and ketchup. So unless and until our palates want a really pungent shrimp remoulade, I guess I’ll revert to Galatoire’s version.

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A few days later, Tom made his Santa Maria Pinquito chili. He’s always tinkering with the details of his recipe, but he always uses those small, flavorful pinquito beans that we get from Rancho Gordo. And since he’s constitutionally incapable of making a small quantity of chili, we had to invite a few chili-loving friends to come and share it with us.

I’d planned to have guacamole and chips with aperitifs in the living room, so I needed something small to serve at the table before bringing on the main attraction. I turned to Rick Bayless’s Authentic Mexican cookbook for his queso fundido con rajas y chorizo, which I’d made successfully before. A dish of melted cheese with strips of roasted poblano pepper and crumbled chorizo is fairly hefty for an appetizer, but I made only very small portions.

Working alongside the chili chef in the kitchen, I made my advance preparations for the cheese dish. I roasted, peeled, seeded, and sliced a poblano chili into strips, which I sauteed along with some sliced onion. Next I peeled, chopped, and separately sauteed Mexican chorizo. And I cut Monterey Jack cheese into ½ inch cubes.

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Near serving time I put a pan of small, empty gratin dishes in a 375° oven. When they were hot, I spread the cheese cubes in them and returned them to the oven for five minutes, until the cheese was just bubbling. I took out the pan, strewed the pepper-onion mixture and the chorizo on the cheese, and put the pan back into oven for a final five minutes.
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Served with warm flour tortillas for scooping up the melted mixture, the queso fundido was a big hit with everyone. The combination of cheese, sausage, and vegetable flavors somehow made the whole greater than the sum of its parts. I must make this simple, satisfying dish more often!
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The calendar says it’s spring, but the weather hasn’t been fully cooperative. What do you do on an unseasonably raw, dark, damp day? Easy: Have friends over for a bollito misto dinner.

In English, a “mixed boil” doesn’t sound overly attractive, but this northern Italian meat extravaganza is truly marvelous. I remember a long-ago winter day in Ferrara when Beloved Spouse and I lurched out of the icy blasts and into the warmth of a restaurant where all the lunchtime patrons were comforting themselves with bollito misto, served from a steaming silver cart that a waiter rolled around to each table. That was our first taste of this now-indispensable bad-weather balm.

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For this occasion, I embellished the bollito with a multi-course menu of dishes from my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. We started with an antipasto of grilled radicchio with smoked mozzarella.

Several red-leaved members of the chicory family are known as radicchio. This dish wants the long, slender Treviso variety. The radicchio heads are halved and pan-grilled with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper; then placed in a baking pan, topped with smoked scamorza or mozzarella (scamorza is better, if you can find it), and baked until the cheese melts. The combination of smoky-lush cheese and savory-bitter radicchio makes a bracing wake-up call to the appetite.

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Next came a first course of passatelli in brodo.

Long, gentle boiling of several kinds of meat – on this day eye of chuck, chicken thighs, and veal tongue – produces a wonderfully rich broth. A bowl of it is purely ambrosial with passatelli. To make these tiny shreds of dumpling, you mix breadcrumbs, grated parmigiano, eggs, parsley, salt, pepper, and nutmeg into a soft paste. Dip out a quantity of broth into a separate pot; bring it to a boil; set a food mill over the pot; and mill the passatelli mixture directly into it. Cook two minutes, let rest two minutes, and serve. This is the soul’s plasma, so be prepared to offer seconds.

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Finally, the main event of the evening: the meats and their condiments.

In addition to the beef, chicken, and tongue, I separately cooked a large, unctuous cotechino sausage. Alongside we had potatoes mashed with parmigiano; salsa rossa (a thick, nubbly sauce that I make from roasted sweet peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and red wine vinegar), and mostarda di Cremona – fruits preserved in a strong mustard syrup (jars of which I bring back from every trip to Italy). All in all, they made richly satisfying platefuls, with the sweet/sharp flavors of the two condiments playing beautifully off the lushness of the meats.

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And to finish the meal, a pizza dolce, or ricotta torte.

The pastry for this looking-toward-Easter dessert is a tender pasta frolla. The ricotta filling is flavored with confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, chopped almonds, and chopped candied citron and orange peel. For this evening’s torte I diverged a bit from my published recipe: I used very fresh sheep’s milk ricotta; orange peel alone, and a combination of almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts. Came out just fine!

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The last week of winter sent us some nasty weather as a parting gift. It has been a peculiar winter hereabouts: many days’ temperature getting up into the 60s, followed by colder spells with lots of wind, then unseasonal warmth again. It had hardly snowed at all until a late nor’easter barreled toward us, threatening Manhattan with 15” or more of snow and wild blustery winds. It was definitely a day to stay home and make soup.

I remembered there were some soup recipes in Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook that I’d been meaning to try for a long time, so I pulled my copy off the shelf and started looking through it. Aha: Celery Rice Soup – the very thing! Beloved Spouse is always eager for dishes involving cooked celery, and I had just bought a large fresh head of it.
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With that incentive, he was more than happy to chop all the vegetables for the soup. He began working on the four biggest stalks of celery, then moved on to a big onion and two potatoes, while I measured out ½ cup of white rice, grated ½ cup of parmigiano, and defrosted 6 cups of homemade broth and 2 tablespoons of minced parsley.
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The cooking process was simple. In a soup pot I briefly softened the onion in olive oil, stirred in the celery and potatoes to coat them with the oil, poured in the broth, and simmered everything for 20 minutes. Then I added the rice and some salt and pepper, simmered it for another 20 minutes, and stirred in the parsley. The rice had absorbed a lot of the liquid, making the soup look almost like a vegetable stew.

For lunch that day we ate big bowls of it, topped with grated parmigiano. It was a perfect consolation for a mean, snowy, sleety day: hearty, homey, and comforting, with a mild and delicate flavor of celery.
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A few cold, windy days later I turned to another recipe from the same book: Pugliese-style Zucchini-Potato Soup. Its ingredients are similar in type but even fewer in number than the previous one’s: potatoes, zucchini, and spaghetti, with condiments of garlic, olive oil, and grated parmigiano.
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The cooking too is even simpler: Bring salted water to a boil, add cut-up potatoes and a minced clove of garlic, cook 10 minutes, until the potatoes are tender. Add cut-up zucchini and broken-up spaghetti; cook 10 more minutes, until the spaghetti is al dente. Stir in olive oil, black pepper, and grated cheese. Serve, passing more olive oil at the table.
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This minimal peasant soup was, once again, just what the weather needed. The final dressing of cheese and olive oil completed and enhanced its simple basic flavors. Beloved Spouse said it struck him as a grandmother’s soup. My only complaint was for the blandness of the out-of-season zucchini: They didn’t contribute all they should have to the mixture.

But the vernal equinox is past, Earth’s northern hemisphere is tilting toward the sun, the days are getting longer, and soon the growing season will be upon us. And if winter delivers any Parthian shots to us, I can retaliate with the rest of my two soups.
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