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Winter is barely started, and I’m already pining for summer vegetables. Many of the standard grocery-store vegetables available this season seem to be limp, tired, and nearly tasteless. Pandemic-related supply chain delays, perhaps, but very disappointing. So I was pleased to come across a recipe based on two vegetables, plentiful now, that don’t wilt easily.

The recipe is in a cookbook recently passed along to me by a friend. The Greens Cook Book presents dishes from a “celebrated” San Francisco vegetarian restaurant called Greens. I confess I hadn’t known of it: It didn’t exist in the long-ago years when I lived in California. Several of its recipes interested me, beginning with one for Fennel, Mushroom, and Parmesan Salad, which its headnote calls a good first course for a winter dinner. I proceeded to make half a recipe’s worth.
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My fennel bulb was bright and crisp, with a good spray of feathery leaves. The recipe didn’t specify a kind of mushroom, so I used cremini. The recipe did urge using a very good extra virgin olive oil and a good piece of young parmigiano reggiano cheese, to which I certainly couldn’t object.

The first thing to do was make a vinaigrette. This was quite a production number, involving mincing lemon peel, mashing garlic, and crushing fennel seed. It was also heavily lemony, using a two-to-one proportion of olive oil to lemon juice. My scaled-down quantities made only a scant quarter-cup of dressing, which didn’t look to be anywhere near enough for a whole salad, but I did as directed.

Then I had to slice my mushrooms thin and marinate them in some of the vinaigrette. But how much of it? The whole recipe said a few tablespoons, but even halving that, I’d have to leave enough for two other doses of dressing. I stingily sprinkled the mushrooms with some of it, which was instantly absorbed by the slices that touched it. So I tossed and turned them, hoping to make them share, and added freshly ground black pepper, hoping it might draw out some moisture.

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I left the mushrooms to marinate for a few hours, covered closely with plastic wrap to keep them from browning, and went on to prepare the fennel. It had to be sliced very thinly and dressed with “most of the remaining vinaigrette,” plus chopped fennel greens, chopped parsley, salt, and pepper.
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Now, after sprinkling additional fennel greens and parsley on the mushrooms – which had softened a bit but were still fairly dry – I could compose the salad. The recipe called for layering the ingredients on individual plates, with mushrooms on the bottom, thin shavings of parmigiano next, fennel on top of that, and the remaining vinaigrette spooned over it all.

I didn’t like the way that arrangement would look, with the fennel hiding the mushrooms and the parmigiano flakes squeezed between them. Instead, I tossed the mushrooms and fennel together on a serving plate, shaved the cheese over them, and trickled on the last of the dressing.
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(If you look very closely, you may see the dressing – about two large drops of it.)

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Knowing Tom’s very limited enthusiasm for most salads, I gave us each a small plateful to start.

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I liked it well enough, and I ate quite a bit of it. (Tom not so much.) The three main ingredients all tasted like their own good selves, and they didn’t clash. But neither did they do anything for each other. Nor did the fussy little flavorings in that dressing do anything to pull the dish together.

With all its components and processes, this is clearly a restaurant dish: I would say a characteristically overelaborated California one. (I’m surprised there were no bean sprouts in it!) For me, the salad would have been just as good with a generous dose of plain olive-oil-and-lemon-juice vinaigrette. I may make it that way myself for some future winter appetizer course.

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If you’re going to start a year with leftovers in your refrigerator, caviar is a mighty nice one to have. For some years, Tom’s and my Christmas gifts to each other have not been those that can be wrapped and put under the Tree to await the magical gift opening time. Mostly, we indulge ourselves collectively with special things to eat – like foie gras and caviar.

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Some of this good American transmontanus caviar was left over from our Christmas Eve indulgence. It would’ve been a sin to let it get stale. Months ago, I’d marked a recipe in Faith Willinger’s Red, White, and Green cookbook for Tuscan-style white beans and caviar. She calls it a terrific combination, declaring that beans are “a far better match for caviar than tasteless white bread toast,” and extra virgin olive oil is “a more sophisticated match than butter.” Really? Here was my chance to find out.

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The white beans I currently have in my pantry are alubia blanca, a small, delicate, creamy variety that I get from Rancho Gordo. I gave half a cup of them an overnight soak in cold water. By morning, they’d swelled to triple their bulk, as usual. Following the recipe, I drained them, put them in a pot with three cups of fresh cold water, and added a sage leaf, a piece of bay leaf, and a tiny clove of unpeeled garlic.

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As they came to a boil, I skimmed the white scum that arose, then covered the pot tightly, simmered it until the beans were tender – only about 40 minutes, because they were so fresh – and moved the pot to the back of the stove.

In the evening I reheated the beans, drained them and tossed them gently with salt, pepper, and a good extra virgin olive oil. There were more of them than we’d be able to eat for an antipasto course, but I knew the extras would keep. I distributed modest portions of beans on two small plates and topped them with all the remaining caviar – a couple of big tablespoons each. Tom opened a small bottle of champagne to go with them, as appropriate for caviar and a new year.
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The combination really was very good! I wouldn’t quite call it a far better match – the white bread I make is definitely not tasteless – but an interesting and different one. The beans and caviar set each other off very nicely, making an intriguing blend of homeliness and elegance. This is a dish that I can see gracing many future holiday meals.

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I didn’t have high hopes for the recipe I tried this week. We’d be broiling a handsome fillet of John Dory for dinner, and I felt like making something new with shrimp for an appetizer. Looking through the Shellfish volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series, my eye was caught by a recipe called Shrimp Panned with Corn. An odd pairing, I thought: I’ve never regarded shrimp and corn as having much to say to each other.

But the recipe looked easy and quick. My freezer usually holds a small bag or two of shrimp, and in winter it has several bags of kernels cut from four-minutes-boiled ears of corn, fresh enough to use as if raw. The only other ingredients in the recipe were fridge and pantry staples. I’d take a chance on it. At worst, the shrimp and corn could just ignore each other.

The full recipe called for 1½ pounds of shrimp to serve 4, as a main course. I wanted small appetizer portions for 2, using only 10 medium shrimp.
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I had major scaling down to do for the other components. Lest I confuse myself (easily done!), I first penciled in calculated reductions for each ingredient, right on the book’s page, and got to work. In a sauté pan I cooked half a cup of the defrosted corn in a little butter and olive oil, for about two minutes.
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Then I added the peeled, raw shrimp.
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When the shrimp had firmed a bit and turned pink, about another two minutes, I stirred in a small clove of finely chopped garlic and poured on 1½ tablespoons of white wine and 2 teaspoons of lemon juice. This was supposed to cook for “a few moments” until the liquid bubbled up around the shrimp and glazed them. Actually, they didn’t glaze, even after a few further minutes. Fearing that longer cooking might toughen the shrimp, I just sprinkled them with salt, pepper, and two teaspoons of finely chopped parsley, and stirred it all together.
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Well, to my surprise, it had become quite an interesting little dish. The different sweetnesses of corn and shrimp were made very compatible by the blend of wine, lemon juice, garlic, and parsley, producing a sort of umami savoriness. This was truly a serendipitous find.
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Police inspector Salvo Montalbano, hero of Andrea Camilleri’s Sicilian mystery novels, is an impassioned consumer of local foods, eating his way through dishes often fully described in the books. The latest volume gives Montalbano a role reversal: he goes undercover as the cook aboard a mega-yacht cruise that will be hosting an international criminal summit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But let me tell it from the beginning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It came out pretty sad looking.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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