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Archive for the ‘Hors d'oeuvre’ Category

Octopus, which used to be a culinary curiosity in this country, is increasingly coming into the mainstream of locally available seafood. Three different fish stores within half a mile of my home now carry it regularly, both raw and cooked. I’ve had very good results from a few Spanish and Italian octopus recipes and am always interested in new ones. The two latest ones I’ve made are from Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain, by Penelope Casas.

My copy is an attractive large paperback, with more than 300 recipes. Those I’d tried had all been successful, so when I came across two for octopus tapas that I hadn’t much noticed before, I read them with interest. Both have you start by simply boiling the octopus, so for the sake of convenience I bought a pound of cooked tentacles – enough for half recipes of each tapa.
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The first dish I made was Pulpo con Patatas, Octopus with Red Peppers and Potatoes. The full recipe is said to serve four, but I could see that even the half would be plenty for a main dish for the two of us. Along with the cut-up octopus, it calls for chopped onion, cubed potatoes, Spanish smoked paprika, skinned and chopped sweet red pepper, minced garlic, and bay leaf.
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Once Beloved Spouse had done all the knife work for me, the rest of the preparation was easy enough. Boil the potatoes until tender, drain them, and save some of the cooking water. In an ovenproof dish sauté the onion, pepper, and garlic in olive oil. Add the octopus and sauté for a minute or two. Stir in the paprika, bay leaf, potatoes, salt, and a little of the potato water.
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Bring the liquid to a boil and bake the dish, uncovered, in a moderate oven for 15 minutes. It came out of the oven looking much as it did going in, but the flavors had blended a bit and intensified each other, making a rich, filling combination.
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This was a good, satisfying dish, but I don’t see it as becoming a regular in my repertoire: Though billed as a tapa, it would have been very heavy as an appetizer; and as a main course it wasn’t quite as satisfying as a few other octopus dishes I’ve made – here and here.  For us, those are the upper echelon of octopus cookery.

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A few days later, I made the second tapa recipe, Pulpo a la Leonesa, Octopus Stewed in Onions. With my pre-cooked octopus, it was the essence of simplicity: aside from the eponymous octopus and onions, the only ingredients are olive oil, vinegar, wine, and salt.

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I softened the onions in the oil, covered the pan and cooked them gently until tender. I added one-inch pieces of octopus, salt, and tiny amounts of white wine and my own red wine vinegar; cooked it all gently, covered, for 15 minutes; and served with slices of crusty bread.
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This dish wasn’t quite as successful as the previous one. Mostly my fault, I think: The recipe strongly recommended using tiny octopi, which would have benefited more from the condiments than my larger chunks did. Also, there was a little too much sameness to each dense, rich mouthful. It would have shown better in an assortment of several tapas, with varying textures and flavors to contrast, than it did as our only appetizer. The onions were extremely tasty, though – we’d have liked more of them.

The next time I get an urge for octopus, I might buy the tiny ones, cook them myself, and try this dish again to see what difference they make. And I’ll probably increase the quantity of onions.

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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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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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Rillettes: A Sad Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I was away last week in southern Maine. Beloved Spouse and I rented a cottage near the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, whose forests, marshes, estuaries, and beaches are scattered along 50 miles of the coastline. It was high season for the southbound migration of shorebirds, and we’d hoped to see vast numbers of them during our stay. Alas, we didn’t: There were disappointingly few birds of any kind, though the landscapes and seascapes were quite lovely. Why the birds didn’t appreciate that we can’t imagine. However, we did eat some wonderful seafood, as I’m about to show you.

Or course, there were good chowders: clam, fish, lobster, and mixed seafood. At home we make tomato-based, spicy Manhattan-style chowders, so the New England-style versions were a nice change of pace. Here’s a cup of one of the best we had. It was dense with fresh, tender clams, bathed in extravagant amounts of cream and butter.

clam chowder

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Another excellent appetizer was this bowl of steamers, also sparklingly fresh and briny; served with the traditional clam broth and drawn butter for dunking. From many years back, I remembered the knack of picking up each clam by the neck and grabbing the body with your teeth so it pulls right out of the neck skin, which you then discard.

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We ventured on a few more elaborate starters. Here’s a plate of baby lobster cakes and a dish of mushroom caps stuffed with crabmeat. Actually, they’d both have been better if they’d had somewhat less binder and more crustacean – but they were still pretty good.

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Naturally, lobsters were everywhere. Over the week I think we saw more lobsters, both live and cooked, than we saw tourists – and, in Maine in August, that’s saying something! Since neither of us can readily dismember a whole boiled lobster without stabbing ourselves with a pick or a piece of shell or claw, we both happily ate a dish called Lazy Lobster: all the meat of a 1¼-pound lobster, taken out of the shell in large, neat chunks and presented in a pool of lemon butter.

lazy lobster

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Then there were the fried dishes. Clam strips, whole belly clams, oysters – always with good crunchy coatings and sweet tender flesh. Serving sizes were so generous that we never finished the french fries that always came along on the plate

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Last but not least, there were rolls. For our very first lunch in Maine, enroute to our rented cottage, we stopped at a little restaurant we knew nothing about, and I had the best lobster roll I’ve eaten in my life. It had the whole tail and both large claws of a lobster heaped on a lightly toasted, well flavored, large round roll. Alas, my camera was still packed in the duffle bag, so I couldn’t photograph it. For lunch a few days later, we had crab rolls, served more conventionally on a hot-doggish bun, with a good cole slaw and fried onion nuggets (the small central segments of onion slices whose big rings were used for standard fried onion rings). The crabmeat was finely shredded and dressed with a light tang of malt vinegar. Unusual (or so it semed to us), and very nice.

crab roll

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We probably ate more butter and more fried food during this single week than we usually do in a whole season, but the dreadful fact that neither nutritionists nor dieters nor “healthy eaters” ever want to acknowledge is that, when done well, frying makes all food – but especially ocean-fresh seafood – taste marvelous. So, despite the dearth of birds, our trip to Maine had some powerful consolations.

contentment

 

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Are sun-dried tomatoes back in fashion? I never got into the craze for them that there was in the 70s, and since then I’d never used them in my own cooking or noticed them at dinner parties or on restaurant menus before last month. But twice recently I encountered sun-dried tomatoes at dinners, and both were good enough to induce me to make the dishes for myself.

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The first occasion was at the home of my friends Betty and Livio. With the aperitifs, there was a plate of canapés made from tiny taralli, each topped with a dab of mascarpone and a sun-dried cherry tomato. They made a good savory combination. Afterward, I asked Betty about them. She told me Livio made them, using taralli from Buon Italia, here in the Chelsea market, and dried pomodorini – cherry tomatoes – from Sicily, which he’d softened in olive oil. Important to use those little tomatoes, she said, rather than the more common big ones.

I went off to the market and was able to get all three ingredients there ­– mascarpone, taralli flavored with fennel, and imported sun-dried cherry tomatoes. I duly set up some of the pomodorini in olive oil for a few days and made the canapés for my next dinner party. No complications: just simple stacking of three good ingredients. They were very tasty tidbits; everyone liked them.

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My next encounter with sun-dried tomatoes was in a restaurant, where the pasta of the day was maccheroncini dressed with sun-dried tomato pesto, pancetta, and pistachios. It was a lively, interestingly different sauce. I had more pomodorini already softened in olive oil, and I always have pancetta, so all I had to acquire for this experiment were the pistachios.

To make the pesto I pureed about 5 ounces of the softened pomodorini with ¼ cup of canned Italian-style peeled tomatoes in a blender. I seasoned the paste with grated parmigiano, salt, freshly ground pepper, and a tiny pinch of sugar. Separately I minced ¾ ounce of pancetta and crisped it in a skillet with a little olive oil, then skinned and minced 24 pistachios.

For the pasta I had in the freezer some small tortellini that it was time to use, so I cooked enough for two portions. I tossed them with pesto (they needed less than half of it), all the pancetta and pistachios, and a scoop of the pasta cooking water to loosen the sauce a little.

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That made quite a rich dish, which appreciated generous grindings of black pepper on the plates.

If I make it again, the only thing I’d change is to grind the pistachios rather than chop them. Though small, the nuggets were a little too intrusive in the mouth-feel of the sauce.

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There was a good deal of the pesto still left after that meal, but I wasn’t worried about its fate. Tom is an ingenious contriver of good things to eat from whatever he finds in the kitchen. This evening, he quickly defrosted a paratha in a skillet (we always keep these Indian flatbreads around for simple dinner appetizers), spread it with pesto, topped it with chopped olives, and baked it in the toaster oven. Voilà – a multicultural mock pizza!  The pesto loved the olives, and we enjoyed both.

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