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In The Pyramid of Mud, the newest paperback Montalbano mystery to be released in English, it takes only to page 34 to find the intrepid Sicilian police detective regaling himself with one of his favorite things to eat: “a glorious pasta ‘ncasciata” that his housekeeper Adelina had made and left for his dinner. That dish appears in many of the 22 books in the series, always eagerly greeted and blissfully consumed by our hero.
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A few years ago I wrote here about my attempt to make that fabulous pasta ‘ncasciata, using the recipe in the cookbook I segreti della tavola di Montalbano: Le ricette di Andrea Camilleri. My version was a bit of a disappointment – a decent baked pasta dish, but not extraordinary.

I knew that there’s no single, canonical version of pasta ‘ncasciata, but they all should be good. Encountering it again in the new Montalbano story, I felt I should really give the recipe another chance.

I had ideas for changes I wanted to try, some because of guesses I’d made about vague recipe directions, and others to liven up the dish I’d made – about which, in my original post, I said “All the ingredients and textures blended too much. You didn’t get the symphony of individual flavors that a forkful of a truly great baked pasta dish provides. The eggplant was barely noticeable, the salami and eggs indistinguishable.”

Ingredients that are available in this country for Sicilian recipes aren’t always identical to the same-named items grown and made on their home turf. Thanks to American agribusiness, ours are often blander, more processed, less flavorful, and less fresh. I’d want to make allowances for that, while still keeping to the spirit of the book’s recipe. (Also, this time I was going to be extremely careful not to overcook the pasta.)

An occasion for my attempt soon presented itself: We’d invited a few good friends for a casual “family” dinner. These were adventurous eaters who wouldn’t mind being experimented on – at least, not if we also gave them lots of good wine! So I set to work.

To start, I peeled, sliced, salted, and fried two one-pound eggplants in olive oil. That was more eggplant, more thickly sliced, than I used last time, but the recipe merely says four eggplants, no size or slice thickness given. We like eggplant a lot.

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Next was to make a tomato-meat sauce. To perk it up, this time I infused garlic and peperoncino in the olive oil for browning my half pound of chopped sirloin. Then I stirred in a pint of my own light tomato sauce, salt, and pepper; and simmered for 25 minutes, until it thickened. That was more tomato and longer cooking than the recipe seems to call for, but its instructions on that point aren’t very clear, and I wanted more tomato richness. Having no fresh basil, I used parsley.

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I boiled a pound of imported Italian penne until they were not quite done, drained them and sprayed them with cold water to stop the cooking. The other ingredients to prepare were two hardboiled eggs, two ounces of mortadella or salame, and two cheeses: caciocavallo and pecorino. Last time I’d used a mild salame; this time I bought a livelier one: hot soppressata.
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My cheeses were the biggest accommodation to ingredient differences. The recipe calls for 7 ounces of tuma or young caciocavallo, plus 3½ ounces of grated pecorino. The only caciocavallo available here is somewhat aged – not soft and fresh, like Sicilian tuma, which isn’t here at all. The first time around, I hadn’t realized how much difference the age would make. The large amount of strong, dry cheese dominated and sort of flattened the flavors of the other ingredients. I didn’t want that to happen again.

Since caciocavallo is in the same broad cheese family as mozzarella (I’ve seen it called “mozzarella on steroids”), I decided to substitute mozzarella for some of the caciocavallo. The cheese in the picture above is 4 ounces of chopped mozzarella mixed with 2 ounces of grated caciocavallo.

I took a broad, shallow baking dish to assemble the ‘ncasciata, making layers of pasta, meat sauce, eggplant, sliced eggs, diced soppressata, and the cheese mixture. The recipe called for grated pecorino on each layer too, but I left it out this time.
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The top layer was eggplant, dabs of sauce, the cheese mixture, and just a light sprinkling of grated pecorino.
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The dish baked for 25 minutes in a 425° oven, sending out a very tempting aroma. Hopes (mine) and expectations (everyone else’s) were high as I brought it to the table. It looked and smelled so good that I began to serve before even remembering to take a photo of it – as you can see by the missing piece at the bottom right, below. (Thanks, Steven, for reminding me!)
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Well, this pasta ‘ncasciata was a definite success. All the flavors stood out as themselves and companioned beautifully with each other. The eggplant was luscious. The two cheeses balanced each other in taste and texture. The amount of tomato seemed just right: it was mostly absorbed by the other ingredients, providing flavor and moisture but no loose liquid. The soppressata tidbits were tiny sparks on the palate. The penne in the center were properly soft, and those at the edges nicely crunchy.

All in all, this was a dish I’d be bold enough to serve to Montalbano himself – at least if Adelina wasn’t around.

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Earlier this week Tom attended a professionals’ wine tasting and truffle dinner given by a major Piedmontese winemaker. How I envied him that invitation! Then, to my joy, he came home that night with a “leftover” white truffle. The host, Michele Chiarlo, had given it to him, saying “I can’t take it back to Italy.”
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White truffles are a big deal, gastronomically. Their season is essentially over now, but their prices this year were sky-high. Those that are still available online are selling for $325 to $465 per ounce. So this 2-inch long, 0.7-ounce truffle, conservatively speaking, might have cost $225. Obviously, we do not eat white truffles every day.

We tenderly transferred the precious thing to a small, tightly closed glass jar, and by the next morning, its heavenly scent wafted out whenever the refrigerator door was opened. Immediately we changed our dinner plans for that evening.

We turned to our own first cookbook, La Tavola Italiana, which has a recipe for Carne Cruda all’Albese – a delicious veal tartare that, in its native Alba region, at the right season, is topped with a shower of thinly shaved white truffle. Our more domesticated version is very good with only plain white cultivated mushrooms, but here was our chance to have the real thing.

The very best carne cruda is made with the leg cut of veal, but good-quality shoulder meat works well too, and our recipe calls for that. With this truffle, we decided to go with the best veal: half a pound of lovely lean cutlets. We pulsed them to a fine tartare consistency in the food processor, which gives a more pleasing texture than does a meat grinder.
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We minced a few white mushrooms, squeezed the fragments in a kitchen towel to wring out all their juices, and mixed them into the veal, along with a pressed clove of garlic, a little grated parmigiano, some olive oil, salt, and pepper.
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Then we mounded the tartare on two plates and shaved the entire truffle over the top. This was a simplification of our recipe to better showcase the truffle. When using only mushrooms, we slice them very thin for the topping and add shavings of parmigiano, plus lemon quarters to squeeze over the dish at table. With the truffle, those adornments weren’t needed.

Just so the balance of nature and the universe could be preserved, the razor blade in our truffle slicer exacted payment in blood from us both – nothing serious, just the few drops that the gods always require as the price of any favor they do. If that’s what a white truffle costs, we thought, so be it. We happily dined with bandaged thumbs.
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Notwithstanding that carnage, the truffled tartare was wonderful. The veal rich, fresh, and delicate, with the mushroom duxelles and parmigiano providing a bit of lightness; the truffle shavings crowning it all with their unmistakable, unduplicatable woodsy-earthy-nutty-mossy-essence. Definitely worth bleeding for!

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P.S. You can see Tom’s writeup of that wine tasting and truffle dinner here.

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As a first course for my most recent dinner party – on what was predicted to be an extremely cold night – I wanted something warm and savory but not too heavy, to precede a cassoulet: good stick-to-the-ribs fare. I considered a large Alsace onion tart or individual cheese tarts; both very tasty but also things that I make fairly often for dinner guests. The two concepts coalesced in my brain, with a slight variation: Let’s do individual leek tarts!

Leeks are a great winter vegetable, and even though I’d never made or eaten leeks in a tart, I was confident they’d be good that way. None of my cookbooks had recipes for it, but a little online research produced many, all quite similar. As the main difference among them was the relative proportions of the ingredients, I decided this was a do-it-however-you-like deal. So I did.

One of my local grocery stores carries excellent big leeks, sold individually rather than prepacked in bunches. I bought three.
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When Beloved Spouse began cutting them up for me, the white and tender green parts of only two of them filled a four-cup measure, so I stopped him there. (No problem about the extra: leeks never go to waste in my kitchen.) I melted butter and olive oil in a sauté pan and cooked the leeks gently until they were just tender.
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At that point the online recipes variously said to add either heavy cream, light cream, or half-and-half, as well as grated gruyère. Instead I stirred in a cup of mascarpone. When it had fully melted and smoothed out, I added half a cup of gruyère, and the tart filling was ready.
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For my pastry shells I used a pâte brisée recipe from Simone Beck’s Simca’s Cuisine. I like it because the dough is made with a whole egg and white wine, which give it a little flavor boost. Three-ounce balls of dough are just the right amount for my 4½-inch fluted tart pans.
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After filling the shells with the leek mixture I distributed another half cup of gruyère over their tops and baked them at 375° for 30 minutes. They were just beginning to brown when I took them out of the oven.
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All this was done the day before the dinner party. Cooled and covered, the tarts sat overnight in a cold room. At dinner time the next day I put them under the broiler for ten minutes to complete the browning.

Alas, I can’t show you the final result. In the bustle of serving the meal I purely forgot to take a photo of the tarts. But they were a great success, and the guests loved them. The vegetal brightness of the leeks, the lush creaminess of the mascarpone, and the warm, buttery crunch of the pastry played off each other beautifully.

If those little tarts had a fault, it was more richness than was perhaps advisable for diners about to tackle a cassoulet – but we all finished them anyway!

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For the first course of Christmas dinner last week, I turned to a recipe of my own from The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen: a savory pie of ham and mushrooms in a béchamel sauce enriched with parmigiano cheese. It has several advantages in the context of a festive menu for guests: It needs no unusual ingredients, it’s easy to make, and it can be prepared several hours in advance – no last-minute attention required.

In English, “torte” properly means a cake, but in Italian this dish is called a torta. It’s a sort of gentrified pizza rustica, a sleeker modern version of that hearty peasant pie filled with assorted cheeses and cured meats. In any language, it’s very good.

The pastry – an all-butter short crust enriched with an egg yolk – can be made up a day or so ahead and refrigerated until needed. (Or use any good basic pastry recipe.) For the rest, here are the ingredients as I assembled them on Christmas morning.
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Beloved Spouse had obligingly sliced the half pound of cremini mushrooms for me (plain white ones instead are good too), and I sauteed them in butter for about five minutes.
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Then I made the béchamel sauce, using a cup of milk, a tablespoon of flour, and two tablespoons of butter. When it was done I grated in some nutmeg, stirred in 3½ ounces of freshly grated parmigiano, and folded in the mushrooms.
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I rolled out half the pastry, fitted it into a 9½-inch pie dish, and filled it with alternating layers of the thinly sliced boiled ham and the mushroom mixture.
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With the addition of a top crust, the torte baked for about an hour at 350° and sat peaceably on a sideboard all afternoon, to be reheated briefly in the oven at dinner time. It’s always quite plain looking, but the taste makes diners forgive the appearance. The ever-popular combination of ham and cheese, the latter infusing the béchamel, which in turn blends in the mild woodsy flavor of the mushrooms, all make the torte more complex and interesting than the simplicity of the ingredients suggests. It’s an example of the kitchen alchemy that makes a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
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Note to my regular readers:

For eight years now I’ve been doing a post on this blog every week. I’m going to loosen the intervals a bit this year – especially for the rest of this month, when I’ll be concentrating on very plain cooking so I can shed a few extra pounds from the holiday overindulgences. I’ll be back online when I again start exploring recipes that will be interesting for me to write about and, I hope, for you to read about.  Meanwhile, best wishes for 2018.

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When I was growing up, my mother never cooked cauliflower. What we knew of it, we didn’t like. When I’d encountered it at other people’s homes, it was boiled long enough to bring out the sulfur smell and was drenched with a sauce of Velveeta cheese. It took many years for me to realize cauliflower didn’t have to be like that.

It was when I started doing some Indian cooking, and discovered the many interesting ways that cuisine uses cauliflower, that I became curious about the vegetable. I now know that, when not overcooked, it has a wonderful ability to bond with all kinds of other flavors. I still don’t serve it often, because an average-sized whole cauliflower is a lot for a two-person household to get through. But I do choose it occasionally. Here are the simple ways I dealt with the head that I brought home this week.

 

Day 1: Warm cauliflower salad

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I took about a third of the florets off the head, steamed them for seven minutes, until they were just tender. I also chopped ½ cup of celery, ¼ cup of onion, and ⅛ cup of Tuscan pickled peppers.
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While the florets were still warm, I tossed them gently in a bowl with the chopped vegetables, extra-virgin olive oil, my own wine vinegar, salt, and pepper. I had to be careful with the vinegar because my Tuscan peppers were very strongly pickled.
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The mixture made a pleasant, light vegetable starter for a weekday dinner. In spring or summer, I also add a few thinly sliced radishes and some of their tiny leaves to this salad; but I never buy radishes in November.

 

Day 2: Cavolfiore fritto

In principle, I follow Marcella Hazan’s recipe for breaded and fried cauliflower, though it’s such an easy process that it hardly needs a recipe. This evening I took off half the remaining florets from my head of cauliflower, steamed them for only five minutes (since they’d be getting more cooking later), and let them cool. I dipped them first in an egg beaten with salt, then in dry breadcrumbs.
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Beloved Spouse then stepped up and fried them for me, in half an inch of very hot olive oil. It took only about a minute on each side for them to turn richly golden.
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While the steaming and breading can be done an hour or more in advance, once the florets are fried, they need to be eaten right away to be at their best.
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This time they were, as always, crisp, crunchy, and delicious – an excellent accompaniment to broiled lamb chops. Actually, they would work well with almost any un-sauced meat or fowl.

 

Day 3: Cauliflower soup

I dedicated the rest of my cauliflower to a favorite soup. The original recipe is from Alfred Portale’s Twelve Seasons Cookbook. There it’s called a vichyssoise, to be served cold. I make just the basic soup, leaving out several of the recipe’s garnishes, and I like to serve it hot.

To make a small enough soup for the amount of cauliflower florets I had left this week, I chopped ¼ cup of onions and thinly sliced ⅓ cup of leeks.
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I sauteed those two vegetables in a tablespoon of olive oil, then added the florets and a cup of chicken broth from a bouillon cube.
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This cooked, covered, for 20 minutes, until the florets were tender. Then I pureed everything in a blender. I tasted and added salt and pepper, and the soup was ready to reheat at dinner time.
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This simple soup is just amazingly good. In a blind tasting, you probably wouldn’t guess it was cauliflower; you’d distinguish only a generic vegetal sweetness. And it’s such a rich puree you’d think it must be at least half butter and cream. I’m sure the dressed-up version – with sauteed cauliflower slices, a dose of olive oil, and a sprinkling of chopped chives – would be excellent too, but I’ve never felt the need to try it.

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There’s nothing complex in these cauliflower dishes, especially compared to those in typical Indian recipes, but each is very tasty, and together they show the versatility of the vegetable I once disliked. We live and learn, eh?

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With only four days in Naples on our Italian trip earlier this month, there was no way Beloved Spouse and I could eat as many of the region’s foods and culinary specialties as we’d have liked. So we focused on – and feasted on – the many excellent kinds of fresh fish and shellfish available there. The beautiful Bay of Naples may not be the pristine pool it once was, but the local seafood remains spectacular in variety and flavor. Here are the dishes we enjoyed.

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Crudo

The word crudo means raw. Appetizer plates of raw fish are very popular in Italy. This one consisted of tender, paper-thin slices of baby octopus and salmon, lightly dressed with olive oil, lemon, and salt, and served on a bed of wild arugula. The interplay of the succulent octopus, the silky salmon, and the mildly bitter arugula was superb.
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Impepata di cozze

Years ago we knew cozze impepata as Neapolitan street food. Sidewalk vendors tended huge drums of boiling salt water heavily flavored with black pepper. They’d suspend a big bunch of mussels over the drum in a perforated dipper, pour water over them until they opened, and dump them onto a paper plate to be eaten with the hands. In this day’s restaurant dish, the mussels were steamed in their own broth, with garlic and oil as well as pepper. Each way, the glory of the simple preparation depends on very fresh, sweet, wild-harvested shellfish. And lots of pepper.

 

Spaghetti alle vongole veraci

This version of spaghetti with clam sauce, from the harborside restaurant La Bersagliera, may be my absolute, all-time, life-long favorite dish of pasta. I order it every time I’m there. Those tiny two-tube clams, the vongole veraci, have more luscious flavor and more intense sweetness here than in any other place and any part of Italy that I’ve ever had them. There’s not much else to the dish – olive oil, parsley, garlic, salt, and a touch of hot pepper – but either the clams from this locality or the way this kitchen handles them produces something purely magical.

 

Scialatelli con frutta di mare

Here are those marvelous mussels and clams again, in another kind of presentation. Scialatelli are fresh egg pasta, cut into a shape like thickish spaghetti but with a softer texture and milder flavor.  The lightly cooked pomodorini – cherry tomatoes – added a bright touch of sweet vegetable acidity to the rich shellfish flavors.

 

Mezze paccheri con coccio

It’s a Naples tradition to serve large tubes of paccheri pasta in a sauce made with chunks of the fish locally called coccio. It’s a kind of gurnard: a big-headed, bottom-feeding fish with large side fins like wings, a relative of our Atlantic sea robins. In America, sea robins are usually considered trash fish, but that whole family can be quite delicious, as Neapolitans know.  Another piscine relative is France’s rascasse, considered indispensable to bouillabaisse.

 

Frittura di paranza

The heap of small fishes on this plate included anchovies, tiny mullets and whiting, and possibly a sardine or two. Each was thinly coated in a tasty batter and fried to a perfect crunchiness. Lemon juice and salt brought out the best in them. Absolutely fresh fish and a really good hand at the fryer are what make this dish: It’s not “fishy” at all.

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Grigliata di calamari e gamberi

The big grilled squid mantle you see here was very tender, meat-sweet, and quite rich, its flavor heightened by exposure to the flame. The two shrimp were also excellent; I’d have been glad of a few more of them. The little mixed salad alongside made a nice contrast of texture and flavors.

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Spigoletta al forno in sale

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A spigola is a European sea bass, which can be a very large fish. Our smaller spigoletta probably weighed about two pounds when whole. Baked to perfection in a salt crust, it was a splendid fish: moist, rich, sweet, tender. (I know: I keep using the same words to describe these dishes. That’s because they were all like that – utterly delicious examples of their kind.)
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Looking at these dishes all together, it’s obvious that there’s nothing exotic or complicated in their preparation or presentation. Given the right ingredients, they’d all be easy to turn out from an American home kitchen. But oh, those ingredients! It’s nearly impossible to get fish and shellfish so fresh, so fine, and so flavorful here. The opportunity to indulge in them would, all by itself, have made my trip to Naples worthwhile.

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One of the stands at my greenmarket recently had some wild mushrooms of a kind I’d never seen before: wine caps. Big and fleshy, they looked a little like porcini, though with stems not so bulbous and caps with gills, not pores. Assured by the farmer that they tasted like porcini, too, Beloved Spouse and I couldn’t resist trying a few.

The first ones we bought we just sliced and sauteed in butter. They were very good, though milder in flavor and sweeter than porcini. We liked them enough to come back for more the following week.

 

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This time we wanted to try them in a more composed preparation: stuffed and broiled for an appetizer. I looked at several recipes, but they were all fairly elaborate, making the mushrooms themselves mainly cases for richly flavored fillings. We wanted something more delicate, so the wine caps’ own flavor would predominate.

Time to improvise. My faithful knife man chopped the mushroom stems, a small red onion, and a little fresh poblano pepper, while I grated some gruyère.
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We sauteed the chopped vegetables in olive oil until they were just softened . . .
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and mixed them in a bowl with most of the grated cheese. Since that light stuffing was already fully cooked, we needed to give the thick mushroom caps a head start on their own cooking. We brushed them with olive oil, broiled them for three minutes with the tops up, turned them and broiled another two minutes, tops down.

Then we took the pan out of the oven, filled the caps with the stuffing mixture, and sprinkled on more gruyère.
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A few more minutes under the broiler heated everything through, melted the veil of cheese, and lightly crisped the edges of the mushroom caps.
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They were lovely. The flavors had mingled pleasantly, leaving the wine caps themselves the main attraction. Another time – whether with these or another kind of mushroom – we might add a few breadcrumbs to that stuffing to give it a bit more body. We each ate a small cap and half of the large one, and we could easily have devoured twice as many.

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