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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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No, not tennis. Last week I was in Trinidad on a birding trip, enjoying warm weather, lush tropical scenery, over 170 species of gorgeous birds . . . and one terrific culinary specialty: Doubles.

Trinidad’s favorite street food, doubles are gloriously sloppy “sandwiches” made with bara, a kind of fried bread, and channa, curried chickpeas. Roadside stands serve doubles on a sheet of greaseproof paper, to be eaten in the hand, standing up. Here’s part of our group waiting to be served (but also keeping an eye out for any passing birds).
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doubles-stand

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The choices on offer were mild, medium, or hot. I had the medium, and Beloved Spouse of course had the hot. Each doubles (singular and plural both end in “s”) cost $4 Trinidadian, which is about 65ȼ US.
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trini-doubles

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They were amazingly good! The light, puffy bread, the tender, succulent chickpeas, the savory curry spicing, and the fiery hot sauce – together all just sang and danced on the palate. I immediately knew I’d have to try making doubles for myself.

And so I did. We got home from the trip on Thursday evening. Friday morning I studied doubles recipes on the Internet and selected different parts of them to make a version that I thought would work best. That afternoon I took a walk to Kalustyan’s, my local source of nearly every exotic foodstuff under the sun, and acquired a few essentials that my pantry lacked:
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3-ingredients

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Trinidad-style curry powder, which has no hot chiles, is milder than its counterparts in other geographic regions but very aromatic from ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, and allspice, in addition to the usual turmeric, coriander, and cumin. The region’s hot sauce is a real killer, made with the devastatingly hot Scotch bonnet peppers, plus vinegar, mustard, and papayas. The yellow pea flour is not in any of the doubles recipes I found online, but a cookbook I’d looked at in Trinidad and a few people I’d talked to there had told me it’s important for doubles.

So Saturday morning I started making the bara for a lunch of doubles. Not knowing if the pea flour would need different treatment, I cautiously used it only half and half with all-purpose flour. Additional dry seasonings were turmeric, cumin, salt, and black pepper.
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bara-flour-mixture

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When those were thoroughly mixed together, I stirred in yeast, warm water, and a little sugar to make a fairly soft dough, kneaded it, and set it aside to rise.
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bara-dough

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While the dough was rising I prepared the channa. That involved softening sliced onions and minced garlic in oil; adding the curry powder, water, chickpeas (canned and rinsed), cumin, salt, and black pepper; and simmering until the chickpeas were tender, which took about half an hour.
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channa

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Finally came the tricky part: shaping and frying the bara. Here I’m afraid I didn’t do too well. The instruction was to take walnut-sized lumps of dough and flatten them out to four- or five-inch rounds. Stretching them as thin as I could without their ripping apart, I still needed twice as much dough to achieve that size.
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forming-bara-2

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One internet recipe warned that if the rounds weren’t excruciatingly thin, flat, and oily, they wouldn’t come out with the right texture. And, alas, mine didn’t. I might have had the oil too hot, too, because though fried for only eight seconds on a side, they darkened in a way that the ones in Trinidad never did; and to the extent they puffed at all, it was in the middle, not around the sides.
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bara-frying

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The good news is that, while my doubles looked nothing like the ones at that roadside stand, they tasted quite good anyway. The bara were darker, denser, and heavier, perhaps from the pea flour. And too much of the channa’s liquid had cooked off. But a few dashes of the hot sauce added the needed moisture and completed a very lively overall flavor profile.
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my-doubles

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That’s nowhere near the true Trini dish, I fear (especially since it’s on a plate, not a piece of paper), but it was an interesting culinary experiment for me. I may well do it again, trying a few changes to achieve lighter, puffier bara.

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There were Maine shrimp in my fish market last week! They’d been gone for three years, since commercial shrimp fishing in the Gulf of Maine was closed down after a disastrous 2013 season. The moratorium is still in effect, but thanks to an increase in the amounts shrimpers may take for scientific sampling purposes – and then sell – this year, small quantities of these delicious little critters are getting to our area. Hooray!
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maine-shrimp-in-shell

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These bright red shrimps are really tiny. That’s half a pound of them, raw in their shells. Most often I just drop them in boiling water for one minute, then cool, shell, chill, and serve them with a homemade cocktail sauce. They make a lovely shrimp cocktail. This time I was going to use them in a pasta dish, so I shelled them raw. Stripped of their long heads, shells, tails, legs, feelers, and roe, they came to a mere 3½ ounces. Wish I’d bought more!
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maine-shrimp-shelled

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Even though the shrimps were going to combine with pasta, I wanted to keep everything simple: Maine shrimps should shine through their accompaniments. So I chose for the sauce of my pasta dish a basic agli’e olio (It’s not spelled that way, I know; but in this Neapolitan-American household, it’s pronounced that way), the making of which is Beloved Spouse’s specialty. So while our spaghetti was cooking, he minced some cloves of garlic, seethed them in olive oil without allowing them to color, and tossed in chopped parsley, salt, and a pinch of crushed red pepper.
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aglie-olio

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Moments before the spaghetti was done we added the shrimp to the saucepan and stirred them around until they just lost their translucence, about two minutes. All that remained to be done was drain the pasta, put it in bowls, and dress it with the shrimp and sauce.
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pasta-and-shrimp

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So simple, and so scrumptious! Delicate as Maine shrimp are, their sweetness and succulence contribute immensely to any dish they’re invited into. I hope there’ll be enough of them for me to invite into several more meals this winter, before their very short season is over.

For my next batch I’m thinking I might want to see how Maine shrimp would handle the spicy sauce of Galatoire’s Shrimp Remoulade. And if that works, maybe try giving Galatoire’s Crabmeat Maison a Yankee twist by substituting Maine shrimp for crab. If there’s time enough, we shall see.

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A place in my neighborhood, billed as the only 100% Paleo restaurant in the city, puts a chalkboard on the sidewalk listing daily specials. I love to walk by and envision a Neanderthal family sitting in their cave breakfasting on something like No-Yo Matcha Parfait: coconut milk, maple syrup, taro root, almond butter, matcha, banana, and grain-free granola. Where in the world could a group of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers have collected that combination of foodstuffs?!

Such absurdities make it impossible for me to take the Paleo diet seriously. While I’m quite happy to eat meat, vegetables, fruits, and nuts, there’s no way I’d give up all dairy products, grains, bread, pasta, sugar, salt, and coffee. (Not to mention wine.) But leaving aside the pros, cons, and controversies of the Paleo approach, it can be fun on occasion to eat something “primordial” – and there’s nothing more primordial than roasted marrow bones.

Here’s the batch that we had one recent evening:

raw-bones

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They’re perfectly easy to prepare: Place the bones in a roasting pan with the wider side of the marrow openings up. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Put the pan in a 450° oven until the marrow softens and begins to ooze out – about 15 minutes. Serve. Except for the salt and pepper, any Paleolithic cook could have done it.

roasted-bones

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It’s hard to overstate how elementally satisfying the succulence of marrow is at the end of a grey, cold, winter day. However, I destroyed the Paleo purity of the dish by having a loaf of crusty ciabatta bread as its accompaniment.

bread-loaf

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There’s nothing roasted marrow likes better than to be scooped out and spread on a slice of warm toast, there to be blissfully devoured.
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plate-of-bones

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And one more post-Paleolithic touch: Marrow loves a good, soft, round red wine. So do I.

bone-tower

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Beloved Spouse was in Italy this past week for a wine writers’ event, so I was making dinners for one. For these occasions I tend to feed myself things that I like much better than he does – which helps keep both sides of the family happy.

This time I had a new recipe that would be perfect for such a meal: Lentil Salad fabrizia-lanzawith Mint and Orange Zest, from Fabrizia Lanza’s Coming Home to Sicily, which I remembered as a dish my friend Hope served at a dinner some months ago, and which I liked very much. However, since Beloved Spouse regards most salads with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, I hadn’t yet found an opportunity to make it at home. But now, for myself alone, I had my double–0 designation!

For six servings, the recipe calls for two cups of green – but not Le Puy – lentils. I had to do some online research to be certain of the kind I needed here. That was a variety known as Laired green lentils – which, as you can see here, are not very green at all.

package

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But they were the right kind, and apparently their color can vary quite a bit. For the half recipe I intended to make, I picked over one cup’s worth of them.
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laired-lentils

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I rinsed them, put them in a pot with two cups of water, and simmered them covered until they were tender. When they had cooled, I found they had quadrupled in volume, yielding far more than my lone self wanted to deal with. So I put half of the half recipe’s worth of lentils in the refrigerator for another use and dressed the rest with a quarter of the recipe’s condiment quantities.

The first one of those was fresh mint. For the whole recipe, that was to be the leaves from “a large bunch” of the herb. I had no idea what a Sicilian cook would consider a large bunch. I do wish recipe writers would give measured amounts of their ingredients! I bought the 25-gram package that was what my local market offered.

mint

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I chopped up about 3 tablespoons of leaves and mixed them into the 2 cups of lentils. The quantity looked about right in comparison to the book’s photo of the dish. (I should know by now not to trust food photography!) I also added a teaspoon of grated orange zest, ½ teaspoon of dried oregano, 1½ teaspoons of olive oil, 1½ teaspoons of lemon juice, and a generous sprinkling of sea salt.
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lentil-salad

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I’d dressed the salad in mid-afternoon, so the flavors would have time to blend, leaving it at room temperature. Come dinnertime, I served myself a meal that, while it looked appealing to me, would have brought no cheer to the man who normally sits across from me at the dinner table: broiled chicken thighs, plain broccoli rape (neither of which he likes much), and the lentil salad.
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dinner-plate

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Quickly I became glad he wasn’t sitting across from me that evening, because the salad was a big disappointment. The mint presence was much too strong, and I couldn’t detect the orange peel and oregano at all. I tried fishing out the visible bits of leaf, but the flavor had permeated the lentils. I don’t know what kind of mint this was; the package label didn’t say. But it was extremely sweet and pungent, as if the lentils had been dressed with melted peppermint candies.

Puzzled by why my dish turned so much less pleasing than Hope’s, I asked her what kind of mint she’d used. Lo and behold, her salad had not been from Lanza’s recipe! Yes, we’d discussed the book that evening, but her lentil salad came from Made in Spain by José Andrés. At the time I hadn’t asked what recipe she’d used, so when I much later found the one in Lanza’s book, I just made the assumption.

Subsequently, I looked up the Andrés recipe on the Web. Aside from the lentils themselves, there isn’t a single ingredient in common between the two recipes. The Spanish one contains shallots, chives, garlic, bay leaves, green and red peppers, and sherry vinegar – all things I like a lot more than I like mint. I may have found my use for those other two cups of cooked lentils.

So we live and learn. Or not.

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The soufflés I make always start sinking before they even reach the dinner table. It’s irritating, but I’ve gotten used to it. Deflating doesn’t hurt the taste any, only the appearance. I never make them for guests, though – both for the aesthetics and because it’s hard to fit the timing of a soufflé into a dinner-party menu. It’s easier for an everyday dinner for two: the eating can wait for the dish, not vice versa.

Cheese soufflés are what I mostly make, far more often than dessert soufflés. I usually make them with whatever cheeses I have on hand, not just the statutory gruyère. And since I know my soufflés will never sustain a dramatic puff, I never try to extend the height of the mold with a strip of buttered foil. In fact, I often use a larger mold than indicated, to prevent any possible spillovers. Rough and ready, they’re still always good.

mastering-iThe soufflé recipe I use for a guide is the basic one from the first volume of Julia Child’s Mastering. After years of consulting it, I just recently I noticed in that section a recipe for an unmolded one: soufflé démoulé mousseline. Julia says it’s light and delicious, and while it doesn’t rise as high as the standard soufflé, it sinks only a little bit. Well, that sounded good for a change!

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For the past few days we’d been enjoying an interesting cheese called Alex – a Bavarian mountain cow’s milk cheese, related to that region’s emmenthaler, gruyère, and appenzeller. It seemed just the thing for a soufflé, so I coarsely grated a suitable amount of it and sprinkled a little of that all around the inside of a heavily buttered charlotte mold.

souffle-2

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The cooking technique starts in the usual soufflé way: Melt butter, stir in flour, foam together for two minutes. Beat in boiling milk, salt, pepper, and nutmeg; boil for one minute. Off heat, beat in egg yolks.

souffle-1

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A difference here was slightly smaller quantities of butter, milk, and egg yolk than in the usual soufflé of its size. Also, a larger proportion of egg whites: twice as many whites as yolks. My ever-reliable Kitchen Aid mixer whipped them easily, as always.

souffle-3

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I folded the whites into the base mixture, stirred in the grated cheese, and scooped it all into the mold. I set the mold in a large pot and poured in boiling water all around the mold. That’s like the way you treat a baked custard – not at all what you do to a standard soufflé.
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souffle-4

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Everything then went into a 350° oven for 1¼ hours – again, very different from the 30+ minutes at 400° that a standard soufflé takes.

While it was baking, I prepared the sauce that was to be served with it. Julia called for a fairly elaborate tomato sauce, which I approximated by gussying up a jar of my plain homemade sauce. I sauteed a little chopped onion, carrot, and celery; added my sauce and a dollop of strong homemade broth; simmered it until it thickened a bit.

The soufflé rose beautifully in the oven, but then came the anxious part. Would it unmold cleanly? Or would it fall to pieces? Julia gives directions for dislodging it onto a plate, with reassurance that it should unmold perfectly. But in case of blemishes, she calmly advises, just pour the tomato sauce over instead of around it, “and decorate with parsley.”

I’m happy to say that my soufflé did unmold properly but – inevitably, because it was mine – it immediately sank to about half its original height. Curses, foiled again!
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souffle-5

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Nevertheless: If you didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to look like that, you’d think it was just fine. And so it was: light and spongy, with an enticing smell and a rich, savory taste – a little tangy from the Alex cheese. It liked the tomato sauce very much. Despite deflation, a very successful soufflé.

And it has one more virtue: Before unmolding, this soufflé can sit in its little bathtub, in the turned-off oven with door ajar, for up to half an hour without harm. It’s true: I tried it. So one of these days now I can serve a soufflé to guests.

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I like the Italian tradition of eating lentils on the first day of the new year. It’s supposed to bring good luck – and as the world seems to be heading, luck is going to be in great demand in 2017. Moreover, because they look a little like coins, lentils also signify prosperity. We can hope for that too.

lentils

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Most often, the centerpiece of our New Year’s Day dinner is a cotechino sausage on a bed of lentils, a classic dish that I’ve written about before here. We like to use an imported, fully cooked cotechino from Levoni, which has great depth of flavor and a wonderfully gelatinous character. And when we can get them, we use Castelluccio lentils – a special, small, golden brown variety from Umbria.

This year I decided to unbundle the traditional combination, using the cotechino in a small bollito misto for two and the lentils in a soup. I found a soup recipe that I liked in Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cooking. It’s simple; it’s made with reliably flavorful ingredients, and there wasn’t a single one of them that I didn’t already have in pantry or refrigerator. Here they all are (half a recipe’s worth):

ingredients

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To begin, you lightly brown chopped onion in olive oil and butter; add chopped carrots, celery, and pancetta; and sauté those for a few minutes. Next, stir in chopped canned Italian-style tomatoes with their juices.

soup-base

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That mixture simmers, uncovered, for 25 minutes. Then you add the lentils, stirring them around a bit to coat with the soup base. Then salt, pepper, and broth – in our case, Beloved Spouse’s best homemade broth. About 45 more minutes’ cooking, covered, and the soup is done.

A dab of butter and some grated parmigiano garnish each bowl.

lentil-soup

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It was a simple, satisfying soup. The lentils, so tasty in their own right, were gently enriched by the flavors of the other ingredients. A very pleasant prelude to our little new year’s bollito.

bollito

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Incidentally, this post marks the beginning of my eighth year of writing this blog. I’ve very much enjoyed doing it, and I’ve learned a lot about food and cooking. I hope my readers will continue to find my culinary adventures and excursions interesting. Buon Capodanno e buon appetito!

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