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Once again, the year-ending holiday overeating season is upon us. Brisk, chilly weather tends to make us think of rib-sticking edibles, but even so, when one festive dinner party follows another within a day or two, it can be a kindness to guests – and to herself – if a hostess includes one fairly light dish in a multi-course menu.

I have a few of those in my repertoire, and I’ve just added an interesting new one, an appropriate appetizer course for fall or winter. It’s from Alfred Portale’s book Simple Pleasures, and the recipe’s full name is Shaved Fennel, Green Apple, and Pecorino Romano Salad. The dish is indeed simple in composition: for four portions, two Granny Smith apples, two medium fennel bulbs, a lemon, and pecorino Romano cheese. (Here, I used a young pecorino Sardo.)
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However, preparing the ingredients is another story. Portale almost literally means “shaved” to apply to them all, which can be a problem to do without a specialized cutter. Here’s the book’s picture of the dish:
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See how thin the slices are? Tom is a willing and very experienced knife man, but I’d never ask him to try cutting apples and fennel that thin by hand. He’d lose either a finger or his mind.

Happily, I have a neat little vertical mandoline slicer that’s a godsend for this kind of job. I’ve sung its praises here before. It works like a tiny guillotine, and your fingers never come anywhere near the wickedly sharp blade. I forgot to take a photo of it slicing the apples and fennel, but here’s a picture from the earlier use:
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I put all the slices into a big bowl and used a microplane to grate in the zest of a lemon. With a vegetable peeler, I added a flurry of pecorino flakes, and stirred it all together, along with a big dose of a good Sorrento extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt, and freshly ground Tellicherry pepper.
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It all came to a huge amount of salad stuff! When I chose the recipe, it hadn’t seemed as if half an apple and half a fennel bulb per person would be too much for an appetizer course, but cut that thin, they seemed to make a bushelful. I put the bowl in the refrigerator until dinnertime, then served out moderate portions, topping each plateful with more of the olive oil and some chopped feathery fennel fronds.
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It made a pretty plate, and a very tasty dish too. This was an inspired combination: crisp, tart green apple, crunchy, anisey fennel, and smooth, sharp cheese, all “married” together by the light, fruity olive oil and tangy lemon zest. We managed to eat quite a lot of it.

 

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Here’s an ingenious pasta creation: fresh spinach cooked in an aglie e olio technique and tossed with freshly cooked linguine and grated Pecorino Romano cheese; all finished with a broiled breadcrumb topping. I came across the recipe in my copy of the old Union Square Café Cookbook, liked it immediately, and made it for dinner the very next day.

BTW, this cookbook is very readable. Danny Meyer’s warm personal voice, Michael Romano’s Italian family traditions, the precise instructions, the strong support for fresh produce from the nearby Union Square Greenmarket, and my own recollections of the great restaurant in its original Greenwich Village location (mere blocks from my home) make it still a star of my cookbook collection.

I easily assembled the ingredients for the dish. The only thing I had to buy was spinach – not local, at this time of year, alas.
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Without the resources of a restaurant to draw on, I found the recipe somewhat more complicated than the simple dish of pasta aglie e olio I usually make, but it could be prepared in stages until almost the very end. Stage One was to assemble the topping. In a little dish I stirred together plain dry breadcrumbs, grated pecorino, chopped parsley, salt, pepper, and olive oil.
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Stage Two was to prepare the spinach, starting by rinsing, drying, and chopping it. I slivered three garlic cloves and simmered them over very low heat in three tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.
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When they had turned a very light golden color, I scooped them out of the pan, sprinkled in half a teaspoon of dried red pepper flakes, and began adding the spinach.
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I tossed and stirred the spinach in the flavored oil until it was limp, then turned off the heat and let it rest. As always, the spinach was vastly reduced in volume.
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Having prepared both spinach and crumb topping in advance, I had no more to do until dinnertime. Then, things had to start moving faster.

I boiled the linguine as usual. Just before draining it, I had to scoop out half a cup of its water, stir it into the spinach, and turn the heat back on under its pan. Then I dumped the drained pasta on top of the spinach and instantly sprinkled on two tablespoons of grated pecorino. (I’m not sure why the bare pasta needed to get the cheese so quickly, but that’s what the recipe wanted.)
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Then I had to mix the pasta thoroughly with the spinach, transfer the entire contents of the pan to a gratin dish, spread on the topping, put the dish under a preheated broiler just long enough to brown the breadcrumbs – about two minutes – and “serve immediately.”

I did all that as quickly as I could, but without the speed and discipline of professional kitchen work, my linguine was no longer piping hot by the time it made it to our plates.
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Even so, it was an excellent dish. The spinach was tender and flavorful, the garlic subdued but pervasive. The breadcrumbs provided a tiny crunch, the grated cheese a slight savory undertone, the red pepper flakes a hint of piquancy. The fruity olive oil combined all the other flavors into a luscious dressing for my good imported linguine.

With all due respect to Danny and Michael, however, I might try a few tiny changes the next time I make this dish:

  • Add a little salt to the final mixture (there was none at all but a speck in the crumb topping and a spoonful in the pasta water)
  • Heat the pan longer on the stove before the transfer to the broiler (maybe draining the pasta a bit sooner, so it finishes its cooking in the pan)
  • Just for good measure, go a bit heavier on the extra virgin olive oil.

Finally, I will say that, just as it was, the small amount of the pasta that we couldn’t finish made a very nice little frittata for a first course at dinner the next evening.

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I’ve never thought of eggplant as a vegetable that, all by itself, could serve as an appetizer course at dinner. Now I know that it can. Browsing through my current favorite Indian cookbook, At Home with Madhur Jaffrey, I was struck by the headnote of an eggplant recipe making that claim. Jaffrey even suggests having it with a slice of French bread and a glass of Pinot grigio. That sounded so un-Indian! I was skeptical, but curious enough about the dish to try it.

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The eggplant in the recipe isn’t totally bare-naked, of course. It has a small supporting cast of condiments that go to make a sauce for it. Here they are:
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That’s a one-pound eggplant, surrounded by salt, sugar, cayenne, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, sliced onions, and tomato puree.

Though it took a bit of time, this was a really easy recipe to make. I cut the unpeeled eggplant lengthwise into three slabs, and the slabs into chunks.
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I heated olive oil in a large pan, put in the eggplant chunks, onions, fennel and cumin seeds, and sauteed it all over fairly high heat for five minutes.
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Next, I added the tomato puree, salt, sugar, cayenne, and some water.
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The pan – brought to a boil, reduced to a simmer, and covered – then cooked gently until the eggplant was very tender. I stirred and turned over the chunks several times during the cooking, and my fresh, young eggplant was ready in 20 minutes. (The recipe had thought it would take 30 to 35 minutes; always good to check early!) I uncovered the pan, reduced the sauce just a bit, and the dish was ready to eat.
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The cooked eggplant didn’t look like a lot, considering it was to serve four to six, and we were only two. But each chunk made a nice mouthful, subtly flavored with the fennel and cumin. Except for a small mishap: I must not have sprinkled on the cayenne evenly, because a few of the chunks were eye-wateringly hot! The others were only judiciously spicy, and very pleasing.

The dish as a whole was quite filling. Crusty bread was definitely wanted for sopping up the sauce. And, in place of Jaffrey’s Pinot grigio, we found the eggplant went very well with a chilled Lugana, a crisply mineral white wine from Italy’s Lake Garda region.

In fact, we couldn’t finish all the eggplant, but when I reheated what was left for my lunch the next day, I think it was even better!

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In my younger, overweight years, when I obsessively counted calories, I considered avocados temptations of the devil, a dietary death trap. Might as well eat a stick of butter, I’d say to myself. Not true, of course. Avocados are rich with vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. Even knowing that now, enjoying a luscious avocado still feels sneakily sinful.

I do it, though. Mostly as guacamole, or in nachos, from recipes in my Mexican cookbooks. This week I tried something different from an unlikely source: Elizabeth Schneider’s Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini. Unlikely because avocados are not a vegetable but a fruit (botanically, actually a berry), but in the culinary context they do occupy much the same ecological niche as vegetables.

Schneider presents her avocado “mayonnaise” enthusiastically:

A satiny sauce, the color of pistachio cream, to dress chilled salmon, shrimp, or white fish fillets. Or spoon dollops over asparagus, snap beans, or even corn on the cob – messy but yummy. Or garnish chilled soups with the pretty topping. . . . Scoop into a pita and add sprouts. Offer as a dip on a vegetable platter.

All that sounded great, so I put together the ingredients for a small batch. In the rear of the photo below, half a cup of buttermilk, sugar, lime juice, and salt; in front, an avocado (a little squished because it didn’t want to let go of its pit), a scallion (my substitution for chives), and a few leaves of basil.
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I chunked the avocado, minced the herbs, and stirred sugar, salt, and pepper into two tablespoons of lime juice.
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All the ingredients were to be pureed in a food processor, which was something of a problem in this case. My mini food processor was too small to handle that quantity, and my full-size processor would have merely pasted the ingredients around the sides of the bowl. I settled for a blender. Even that needed a lot of persuasion to produce a puree, but eventually it did.
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Its taste was interesting. While the basil and scallion weren’t really noticeable, the sweet acidity of the lime juice and the light sourness of the buttermilk had given an intriguing tang to the rich, buttery avocado flesh. The texture was indeed mayonnaise-y. I was eager to see how it would work with different foods.
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My first experiment was to smear dollops of avocado mayonnaise onto corn on the cob.

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Messy to eat it certainly was – especially for Tom, a man with a mustache: a few bites and he looked rabid. Yummy? I’d have to say, not so much. That is, the fresh, sweet corn was excellent in itself, and the avocado sauce was – just itself. The two components didn’t say much to each other; in a way, they clashed a bit.

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Still hopeful, the next day I tried the sauce with a few chilled, boiled shrimp for a small appetizer.

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That was a much better marriage of flavors. The shrimps sort of blossomed under the sauce, rather than just coexisting with it, as the corn did. I could see enjoying this combination again some time.

Still, this sauce isn’t a condiment I’d want often: from what I’ve seen so far, the insistence of its presence tries to override whatever else it’s served with. Avocado is delicious in itself, and it welcomes the strong, spicy flavors of Latin American cooking. I could probably be content staying with treats of that kind.

But Elizabeth Schneider has planted a seed, and other possible uses for her mayonnaise keep popping into my head. I wonder if that tree where Eve met the serpent might not have been an apple but an avocado.

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Seven-P Pasta

No, it’s not a dish made with seven green peas. It’s a dish whose seven main ingredients have names in Italian that start with P. In English, only five are Ps – though I snuck two additional Ps into my dish at the end. It makes a fairly quick, light pasta sauce, nice for warm weather, with what for me is an unusual combination of ingredients. Here they are, in quantities for two portions, downsized from a recipe for six.
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I found the recipe in The Italian Vegetable Book by Michele Scicolone, who tells us she was given it by the cook of the Selvapiana winery in Tuscany while on a visit there. My oenophiliac spouse, who has also visited Selvapiana, thinks very highly of its wines, so he encouraged me to try the dish and, from his wine closet shelves, produced one of its bottles for us to drink with it.
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In a skillet with a little olive oil, I began by gently cooking the first three Ps – pancetta (unsmoked bacon), porro (leek), and peperoncino (crushed red pepper) – until the leek was softened.
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Next, I stirred in the fourth P, the pomodoro: a ripe heirloom tomato that I’d halved and rubbed, cut side down, against a box grater to quickly chop the flesh.
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As soon as the sauce thickened, I poured on the fifth P, panna – heavy cream – and stirred it in. The combination of tomato and cream was something I wasn’t familiar with in Tuscan dishes.
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This made quite a thick sauce already, and there were still two Ps to go. I set the pan aside while I cooked the pasta – the recipe’s requested penne – and saved some of the cooking water.

The seventh P, grated parmesan cheese, then went into the sauce, which really thickened it. I could see why I’d had to save the cooking water, and stirred in a good dose of it, along with all the pasta. Here you see the result, including my first extra English-language P – a little chopped fresh parsley, for a touch of color contrast.

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My second extra P doesn’t show in this photo of the plated pasta, because I didn’t think of it until after tasting the dish. It just cried out for a lashing of freshly ground black pepper.
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These simple ingredients made a very flavorful dish, its rusticity polished a bit by the cream. All in all, a happy combination. The 2004 Selvapiana Fornace that Tom opened was quite unusual and went very well with the dish. He’s done a post about it on his own wine blog.

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I haven’t yet resumed ambitious cooking after returning from my recent trip to France, because both Tom and I almost immediately came down with breakthrough Covid. Mild cases, but fatiguing. So, instead of a cooking tale for this post, I’ll write about two seafood lunches we enjoyed while on the latter part of the trip.

After our three days in Paris, we had a week’s cruise on the Seine, meandering through bucolic Normandy to the river’s estuary at Honfleur and back, on the MS Seine Princess.

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It was a very pleasant trip, but like previous river cruises we’ve taken with the Croisieurope line – on the Loire and Rhône – the dining was not a particular highlight for us. Only one menu is ever served for each three-course lunch and four-course dinner, and the style is international hotel standard, with few nods to seasonal or regional dishes.

Tom and I are not fond of large meals in midday, so when the ship spent two days docked in the charming town of Honfleur, we took the opportunity to skip the set lunches and check out the many little seafood eateries right at the port. Promptly at noon, we settled ourselves at the enclosed porch of La Grenouille.
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First Lunch

The enticing menu had a wealth of shellfish choices. This sumptuous assiette de fruits de mer – oysters, scallops, shrimps, whelks, periwinkles, and dog cockles – made Tom a very happy man.
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I’d been told by friends that, in Honfleur, you absolutely have to try moules frites, the local specialty of mussels marinière with French fries. I did, and received a huge pot of them and some of the best fried potatoes I’ve ever eaten. The mussels were smaller than those we usually get at home, with a different sort of salt-spiciness. Very nice.
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With this light but satisfying lunch we drank half a bottle of a crisp, fresh Muscadet – plus one extra glass, just for the pleasure of it.
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And then strolled back to our ship for a post-prandial nap.  It’s very stressful, being a tourist.

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Second Lunch

Our second day’s objective at La Grenouille was oysters. We’ve always considered American oysters much better than European varieties, and here was a perfect chance to give that preference another test. We ordered the plateau d’huîtres, which has six each of three kinds of oysters: Claire, Isigny, and St. Vaast.
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All very large, they looked similar, but our waiter carefully explained the arrangement on the plate. (Interesting that they were served opened, but the top shells still attached.) Almost sparkling with freshness, they were the best we’d ever had on the eastern side of the Atlantic.

Least pleasing were the St. Vaasts – a little too sharply salt-watery for our taste. It was hard to choose between the other two, the Isignys more strongly flavored – not brinier, but more shellfishy than the more elegant Claires. All three kinds were enhanced by mignonette sauce, which we don’t like at all on American oysters, and excellent brown bread and butter.

Bottom line: We still like our own oysters better – they’re more richly flavored and far more varied – but (in Michelin’s terms) these Norman bivalves certainly vaut un détour, if not an entire voyage.

Our gastronomic researches were lubricated by a full bottle of the same classic Muscadet we’d had the day before. It tasted even better with the oysters. Then we needed something small and sweet to round out the meal. Tom declared his floating island, with pistachio cream, the best he’d ever had, and I loved my pretty apple tart.

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There’s much about Honfleur I’ll remember with pleasure: its 15th century all-wooden church, the largest one in France; its cobbled streets of colorful half-timbered houses around the old port; its huge ferris wheel and old-time carousel; its short, flat car bridge that swings open like a gate, for boats to pass through the harbor; the small marsh just past the bridge, where we watched lapwings playing (all told, 30 species of birds seen on the trip!). And, by no means least, these two lovely lunches at La Grenouille.

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Tom and I are just back from a trip to France. We spent the first three days in Paris, staying in a small hotel on the left bank, near the Sorbonne. I’d made two advance dinner reservations at long-favorite restaurants, and for our first evening we wanted to try finding someplace simple in the neighborhood.

We absolutely lucked in.

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This is Au Père Louis – an old-fashioned (in the best sense) bistrot and wine bar just a block from our hotel, and a little gem. The friendly but properly serious young staff greeted us with courtesy, albeit mild amusement at my so-careful French. Asked for une table tranquille, they gave us a virtually private one in a low balcony room, overlooking the active bar area. Most of the clientele seemed local.
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The menu was everything we’d hoped for, with classically simple traditional fare, at very reasonable prices. We each started with os à moelle – roasted marrow bones topped with fleur de sel sea salt from the Guérande and served with lightly grilled bread. The marrow was so fragrant and luscious that I forgot to take a photo until we’d almost finished our portions.

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Having the bones sawn lengthwise as these were makes extracting the marrow much easier than digging it out of the round hole in a cross-cut section of bone. I was tickled by the menu’s picturesquely calling that technique en gouttière, which means gutter-style.
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My main course was magret de canard grillé, avec purée maison. The large, rare duck breast came with a red wine sauce that had an intriguing hint of cherries, and with very flavorful mashed potatoes.
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Tom had saucisse au couteau d’Auvergne – a hefty piece of spicy pork sausage, served with the same good mashed potatoes. Preparing sausage au couteau means coarsely chopping the meat with a knife, not putting it through a grinder. It’s said to preserve more flavor.
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These were two very rich, filling dishes, so for dessert we shared a slice of a rich, filling (!) apple tarte tatin, which came accompanied by whipped cream so thick it was almost butter.

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Our dinner wine was a 2020 Chinon from Marc Brédif. Here are Tom’s comments on the wine.

Marc Bredif is a century-and-a-quarter old Loire winery, with fabled deep aging cellars – really caves – cut into the hillsides. It was taken over in 1980 by Baron de Ladoucette, one of the most esteemed producers of Loire wines, and has since grown in stature as a specialist in Vouvray and Chinon. Our bottle was a classically lovely Loire red, rich with soft Cabernet franc flavors.

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Finally, for digestifs, Tom had a glass of clear eau de vie distilled from Normandy apple cider, and I a glass of Louis Roque’s La Vieille Prune Reserve, a fine plum brandy. Both were excellent, and both did their digestive work quite efficiently.

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This supremely satisfying meal – pure perfection for a first evening in Paris – cost only €146, which is $154. In Manhattan, it could easily have been twice that, and we’d have been hard put to find a restaurant that actually had a quiet table. When we stopped back two days later for a light lunch, we were recognized and warmly greeted. That’s part of the charm of Paris – not just international éclat but also neighborhood warmth.

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I’m away on a non-cooking vacation just now and wanted to leave something to amuse my readers while I’m gone. Friends have told me that sometimes my posts about recipes that didn’t work are more interesting to read than ones that did. For your culinary schadenfreude, therefore, I proudly present some of Diane’s Greatest Misses.

Not Very Mexican Corn Soup

Here’s a recipe I really had to struggle through, arguing with it all the way. Though it produced something edible in the end, I couldn’t feel it was worth the effort. Hard to tell how it was supposed to turn out.

 

Swordfish Bocconcini

I have to shoulder a lot of the responsibility for this one. I didn’t pay enough attention to the instructions, so I did something foolish. The disappointing result probably served me right. Justice can be cruel.

 

Rillettes: A Sad Story

This failure was entirely due to my not being able to find the right cut of pork for the dish. Not wanting to postpone my culinary experiment, I bought what I hoped would serve just as well. Poor choice: It didn’t.

 

French Irish Stew

This time I blame the famous cookbook author. I followed his recipe faithfully, but this dish, which he highly praised, was totally uninteresting. A notorious egoist, he would have been outraged by my opinion.

 

How Not to Make Wine Jelly

I’m not sure why this one failed. As an experienced jam maker, I thought I certainly should be able to make jelly. The instructions were clear, the procedures straightforward. Unfortunately, there was no jelling.

 

One More Strawberry Dessert

This summer pudding took a pretty elaborate effort to make, and it gave only a very minimal reward. There was nothing wrong with the process or the ingredients. The combination just didn’t sing for me.
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Well, however poorly these culinary experiments turned out, they were interesting – and in most cases educational – for me. Win or lose, cooking is an endlessly fascinating activity. If you dip into these little tales, I hope you’ll find my experiences interesting – and maybe a bit instructive – to read.
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If you mention gougère these days, culinarily inclined people are likely to think of bite-sized cheese puffs. These small, savory cousins of eclairs and profiteroles are charming to serve with aperitifs (and I do), but the real glory of gougère shines forth in a big, golden, shaggy, crunchy, fragrant, deliciously cheesy pastry.

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Gorgeous, isn’t it? And that one is not even quite full-sized. The recipe I use is practically an heirloom. It was given to me decades ago by a friend at work, who would occasionally bring one of his homemade gougères to casual meetings of the junior staff. Andrew was a brilliant, witty guy, and when we finally persuaded him to give us his recipe, it turned out to be a two-page masterpiece of jaunty prose.

Preparing the choux paste base for gougère is often considered complex and tricky, but Andrew’s recipe makes it seem easy – and it has always worked fine for me. Here’s a short version of the procedure.

In a saucepan, melt butter with water, salt and pepper.
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When it comes to a boil, turn off the heat, dump in all the flour at once, and stir rapidly until the mixture turns into a ball of dough and cleans the side of the pan.
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Add eggs, one at a time, stirring vigorously until the egg is thoroughly combined into the mixture.
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Stir in diced cheese; by rough spoonfuls transfer the mixture to a buttered pie dish that has been previously heated in the oven; sprinkle more diced cheese over the surface.
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Bake at 450° for 35 to 45 minutes until, to quote Andrew, “Your eyes and nose will tell you when it’s done.”

And once it’s done, the only problem is holding off long enough to prevent scalding your mouth when you take the first forkful. Ambrosia! Here’s another view of it.

 

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And now, as a special gift to my readers, here’s an image of the ancient, battered, original document from which I’ve been making fabulous gougères for all these many years. Thank you, Andrew, wherever you are!
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I’ve just discovered an attractive new recipe for fresh egg pasta, unlike anything I’ve made before. That was surprise enough, given how many years I’ve been cooking pasta, but the dish has a number of virtues. It’s quick and easy, lush and creamy, lively and cheerful. Quite pretty too, with a springlike light green sauce.

The recipe, called Fettuccine with Ricotta and Crushed Peas, is from The Italian Vegetable Book, by Michele Scicolone. Written to serve eight, the recipe was easy to scale down. I had no fettuccine on hand, so I substituted pappardelle, wider strips of egg pasta: four ounces for two first-course portions. The other ingredients were ¼ cup of fresh ricotta, ¼ cup of green peas, ¼ cup of grated Parmigiano, and 2 tablespoons of chopped scallion.
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The recipe actually specifies frozen peas – nice for when it’s not fresh pea season, though I imagine fresh ones would work just as well. I boiled these small, sweet imported Italian peas for just one minute.
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I scooped them out of the water (which I saved for cooking the pasta), patted them dry, and put them in my mini food processor, along with the scallions.
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The little machine doesn’t have enough power to fully puree the peas, but it crushed them thoroughly enough. Next I added the ricotta, salt, and pepper.
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The combination whipped into a thick, nubbly cream. That was the sauce.
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When we were ready to eat, I brought the pot of water back to a boil and cooked the pappardelle. Saving a little of the water in case it was needed to thin the sauce, I drained the pasta, quickly returned it to the empty pot, and stirred in all the sauce. It did need a bit of extra water to coat the pappardelle smoothly.
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I divided the pasta between two warmed bowls and topped each with the grated Parmigiano and freshly ground black pepper. Delicious!
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