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Archive for the ‘Hors d'oeuvre’ Category

The old saying has it that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but one day recently I thought I’d give it a try. My “sow’s ear” was a bag of three smallish avocados bought for $2 from a usually reliable stand. I’d intended them for guacamole. They were hard as rocks, of course, so I left them out for a few days on a sideboard to ripen.
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They didn’t. After a full week, they were still rock-hard and were developing some squishy dented and flattened spots. Grand! If I wanted them for guacamole, it’d have to be now or never: These bargain avocados were clearly never going to properly ripen. I’d just have to adjust my recipe to cope with whatever would turn out to be edible on them.
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Once I’d peeled the avocados and cut away all the ugly gray-brown parts, I was left with a small quantity of too, too solid flesh.

  • First adjustment: Don’t even try to mash it with a spoon or chop it with a knife. Puree it by machine.
  • Second adjustment (really a choice made earlier): Don’t buy a big bunch of fresh cilantro when you’ll need only a few sprigs. Instead defrost a cube of the cilantro base that you’d made to salvage some of the last big bunch of the herb that you’d bought.

That decided, I could proceed with my usual approach to guacamole: chopping onion, tomato, and a serrano pepper and mixing them, along with salt, into the puree.
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It came out looking pretty good, much like a proper guacamole. Hoping for the best, I set a bowl of it next to a batch of tortilla chips and served it as our dinner appetizer.

 

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But alas, that guacamole was no silk purse. Tom dipped one chip and said he tasted mold in the mixture. It didn’t taste moldy to me, but neither did it taste much of avocado. Tom stopped after the second chip. I ate more of it than that (feeling an obligation), but it was just too uninteresting. Maybe a plastic purse? Regretfully, I let the rest of it go.

I hate it when those old adages turn out to be right.

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Summer hasn’t so far smothered New York City with the kind of punishing heat wave that has afflicted other parts of the country this July, but our temperatures and humidity have been high enough, for long enough, to make the prospect of cooking – especially oven cooking – less attractive than it normally is for me.

Consequently, I’ve been looking into recipes for dishes that can be either cooked in advance and served cool, or made all of raw ingredients, not cooked at all. I found a really nice one of the latter type in Penelope Casas’s Foods and Wines of Spain.

It’s her Ensalada de Champiñon, a mushroom and cured ham salad. I wouldn’t consider it a side salad – that is, something to be served along with a meal’s main course – because it’s so substantial in itself. But it would make an excellent component of a tapas spread, as Casas suggests, and for me it was a delightful appetizer.

For the two main ingredients I sliced fresh white mushrooms and cut julienne strips of Spanish Serrano ham. Though I was halving the recipe, I used the full quantity of ham because I wanted to give it more prominence in the dish. The dressing, from a separate recipe called El Aliño (which my dictionary says simply means “dressing”), is the most elaborate salad dressing I’ve ever made. Here are all the components:

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In addition to the mushrooms and ham, above, there are olive oil, wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, prepared horseradish, Parmesan cheese, garlic, basil, thyme, marjoram, parsley, salt, and pepper. To make the dressing I just dumped its dozen ingredients into my mini food processor and ran it until they combined into a cream.  Now, that’s summer cooking!

At serving time I sprinkled a little lemon juice on the mushroom slices, added the ham strips, and gently tossed everything with some of the dressing. The extra dressing I served in a little bowl for each of us to add more to our portion if we wished.

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Easy as it was to prepare, the salad was surprisingly complex in its flavors. There’s a real affinity between Serrano ham and mushrooms. Casas allows the use of Italian prosciutto in all her cured ham recipes, but the stronger, firmer Spanish ham was perfect here. I’m glad I raised the quantity of it. The dressing drew the dish together in a subtle way, with all the dressing ingredients making their small contributions to the blend. Tom, normally no great fan of salads, only regretted we couldn’t have gotten wild ovoli mushrooms instead of cultivated white ones, which would have raised the dish to even greater heights of enjoyment.

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On our Rhône cruise a few weeks ago, Tom and I took one evening away from the boat to dine at Le Gibolin, a restaurant in Arles about which we’d read many good things. I’m away on a trip again now, so for this week’s post I’ll copy out the entry I made in my travel journal about the perfectly splendid evening we had there. I’ll add that it followed upon an uncomfortably cold, wet day of touring.

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All today’s misery was amply redeemed by the most delightful dinner we have had in almost forever. Le Gibolin, on a tiny street in Arles, to which through a wicked rainstorm we were taken by a very pleasant young taxi driver, is the answer to a dream. Twenty covers, maybe four staff members, décor preponderantly bottles of wine, run by a most formidable but handsome woman, who was first very annoyed with us for arriving 20 minutes too soon, while staff dinner was still happening. (But then, why was the “open” sign on the door?) We were welcomed by the little dog of the house, however, and Madame’s anger didn’t extend to sending us back out into the rain. We were allowed to sit at our table and wait.

In time, Madame relented and placed the big chalkboard menu before us. It looked fabulous: classic Provençal dishes. Two courses for €28, three for €35, with five or six options each for entrée and plat.
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Our choices mollified her a bit, as did our request for her to select us glasses of wines for each course and – as the meal progressed – Tom’s knowledge and appreciation of them.

I had a croustillant de pieds et tête de cochon to start, and Tom had pâté de campagne. Impossible to imagine better of their kind. Even the cornichons were amazingly good. My dish had a green condiment so intriguing I had to know what the herb in it was. Madame seemed pleased to be asked. It was tarragon, but it didn’t at all taste of licorice. How did they do that?!
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The first wine she poured for us was a 2015 Cairanne from Oratoire Saint Martin, made from Mourvèdre, Grenache, and Syrah. (Tom has more to say about the wines in his blog.)

Our main courses were, for Tom, poitrine de veau rôtie aux épices douces, and for me, carré d’agneau de Provence rôti. (€4 extra for the lamb.) Both, again, as lovely as could be imagined.
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Madame asked if we’d like more of the same wine with this course and we said no, a different one, please. So she brought a Côtes du Rhône from the same maker, called Les P’tit Gars, which was a blend that she said had more Mourvèdre. An amazing step up in richness from the first.

As we ate our main course, the petit chien of the house, who had been quietly sitting under the table next to our feet all the while, began gently tapping at our legs to remind us of his patient attendance. We each rewarded him with a few tidbits. Later he sought out other patrons, but came back when we ordered cheese.

We each received a whole little round of a goat called Pelardon – young, fresh, and intensely good. Le petit chien didn’t get any of them.
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With the cheese, we asked for yet another different wine and received an Ardèche Côtes du Rhône, made from old vines and with Alicante as the main component of the blend. Alas, we didn’t catch its maker’s name. It was brighter and more acidic than the previous wines – great with the cheese.

Madame was in full charity with us by now, and when after ordering a marc de bourgogne and an eau de vie de poire that she had declared was extraordinaire, we asked to purchase a bottle of the poire, we were definitely personae gratae. Without that €65 bottle, our bill came to €131, no single cent of which we begrudged. It was a magnificent dinner. Oh, that we could come back another time!

When our faithful taximan returned to pick us up, the rain had finally stopped, and I tried to get a picture of the restaurant. Not much luck – too dark on the street.
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After a short ride through the quiet town, a supremely satisfied couple stumbled up the gangplank to our boat at about 11 p.m.

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As I mentioned in last week’s post, Tom and I had carefully chosen restaurants for the three dinners we’d be having in Lyon after our Rhône cruise. We wanted simple brasseries or bouchons devoted to traditional Lyonnaise cuisine. Our selection was somewhat limited by our days’ including a Sunday and a Monday, when many restaurants there are closed. But we did very well with the ones we found.

 

Brasserie Georges

Brasserie Georges, huge, bustling, and immoderately lively, has been an institution in Lyon since 1836. We discovered it on our first visit to the city in 2008 and have ever since remembered the fabulous first course of roasted marrow bones we ate there. So of course we both had them again this time around.

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The menu called the dish Os à moelle à la croque au sel de Guérande, pain grillé. We called it heaven. The prized crunchy sea salt of the Guerande area gave a special zest to the soft, lush marrow as it melted onto the warm toasted bread. But each portion was enormous: We would have been wiser to split a single order instead of gluttonously plowing through the two.

For our second courses, Tom had steak tartare of Charolais beef, expertly prepared at our table with the condiments of his choice and served with a green salad and fried potatoes. I had tête de veau – calf’s head – with ravigote sauce and steamed vegetables. Both were fine of their kind.
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Needing a break from the multiple-course menus we’d been eating on shipboard, we simply stopped there: Georges’ food was very good, but not quite as magical as memory had painted it. Nonetheless contentedly stuffed, we strolled home and finished our evening with cognacs from the bar at our hotel.

 

Le Petit Léon de Lyon

Though it still calls itself a bistro, Léon de Lyon has become a double restaurant: the original establishment, dating from 1904, now features elegant, upscale cuisine, while a small new adjacent space, dubbed Le Petit Léon de Lyon, offers simpler, traditional fare. The little place was perfect for us.

We both started with the house’s pâté en croûte.
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The thick slices of buttery pastry enclosed a filling made from foie gras, veal sweetbreads, and vin jaune, a sherry-like white wine from France’s Jura region. Not so simple at that! It was marvelous, and so filling we could almost have stopped right there.

But we didn’t. For the main course, we’d both ordered Lyon’s signature tripe dish, gras double à la lyonnaise. Here the Petit Léon surprised us: What we received wasn’t the typical version, where the tripe is essentially stewed in onions and wine, but instead was cooked in a sauce with quite a lot of tomato and then gratinéed for serving. Very good, but not what we were expecting.
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The gras double tripe, so different from the honeycomb tripe that is all we get in the US, was melt-in-the-mouth delicious, but so unutterably rich in its sauce that neither of us could finish our portion. The fresh green salad that came alongside made a welcome brisk counterpoint, but it could only help so far. Once again, we didn’t go on to cheese or dessert.

 

Brasserie Le Nord

In addition to the original Michelin three-star Paul Bocuse restaurant just north of Lyon, there are seven less glittering Paul Bocuse restaurants in the city itself, including four brasseries named for the cardinal points of the compass. Each of those has a different culinary emphasis. Le Nord is devoted to “les grands classiques de la Cuisine de Tradition Lyonnaise.” We dined there on our last night in Lyon.

Our meal was indeed classic, in both simplicity and excellence. We both started with fresh foie gras, among the best we’ve ever had.
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Served with it was a cooked condiment made (I was told) from red onion, apple, pineapple, and celery. It was fascinating – sweet but sharp, a wonderful foil for the goose liver’s richness. I’ve since discovered that similar fruit garnishes are very popular now, and I’m going to try making one like this for the foie gras that we brought home from this trip.

Next, Tom had lamb sweetbreads braised in a velvety brown sauce, and I had a leg of Bresse chicken cooked with cream and mushrooms, both very fine.
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Capable at last of going on to a light dessert, we both had dishes of delicious raspberries and strawberries in crème Chantilly. They were immensely refreshing after the richness of Le Nord’s cuisine.
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Every dish we had this evening was as near to perfection of its kind as I can imagine. The meal was a grandly memorable conclusion to our dining in Lyon.

 

Lest I forget: I should also mention that with each of these three dinners we drank remarkable wines, which you can read about in Tom’s blog.

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Last week Tom and I were in France, cruising the Rhône on the 110-meter MS Camargue. Starting from Lyon, we traveled up the river to Mâcon, then down to Avignon and Arles, and back again to Lyon. It was an interesting trip, though the weather was unseasonably chilly and the notorious Mistral wind blew strongly much of the time. Those conditions encouraged hearty appetites, which the ship’s chef was only too ready to indulge.

There were three or four courses at both lunch and dinner, with modest wines of the region generously poured at no cost and a short list of better wines for purchase. (Tom has written about the wines on his blog.) Here are some of the meals we enjoyed.
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Cured ham.  Baked chicken rolls, potato croquettes, broccoli.  Crepes with orange sorbet.

That chicken should be our first dinner was an auspicious start for me, the poultry lover. Not so much for Tom, but he admitted it was a very flavorful bird.

 

Mozzarella and tomato. Red mullet fillet, spelt risotto, asparagus tips. Cafe Liegeois.

I’ve rarely eaten mullet and never, to my recollection, tasted spelt before. This dish made me want to look for more of both. The sauce was particularly good too.

 

Fresh pea soup. Pork tenderloin with duchesse potatoes, green beans. Cabosse.

St. Germain: a velvety purée of the freshest green peas. A cabosse is a mold of chocolate in the shape of a cacao bean. This one was filled with chocolate mousse.

 

Salade lyonnaise. Roasted rabbit, gnocchi, carrots. Lemon tart.

A poached egg (barely visible here) makes a marvelous dressing for Lyon’s signature entrée salad. The rabbit was one of the best I’ve ever had.

 

At the end of the cruise Tom and I spent three more days on our own in Lyon. That city is a gastronome’s paradise, and we’d carefully chosen the restaurants where we wanted to eat: no modern, elegant, Michelin-starred establishments but the deeply traditional brasseries and bouchons beloved by the Lyonnais. I’ll devote my next post to those dinners.

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I’m an inveterate list-maker. Besides shopping lists and to-do lists, I keep lists of foods in the freezer and bottles in the wine closet. For dinner parties I list the timing of every step in the final cooking and serving. And tucked into many of my cookbooks are lists of recipes I want to try some day. The day just came for one of those.

Today’s dish is from my list for Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine: gratineed ham crêpes. The filling sounded tasty, the creamy sauce was made with an unusual technique, and the final gratin was also unusual. His separate recipe for making the crêpes themselves didn’t attract me, but I could work with the Julia Child crêpe recipe I’ve always relied on. So on to the attempt.

One day in advance, I put together the crêpe batter – mixing flour, salt, milk, water, eggs, and melted butter in my old blender. Crêpes are about the only things I still use a blender for: I’ve found that the food processor can leave lumps. The batter needs at least two hours of chilling, but it’s perfectly happy to sit in the refrigerator overnight.

Next day, feeling quite professional, I assembled my batterie de cuisine on top of the stove: two crêpe pans, a little dish of oil and a brush to grease them with, a plate to receive the cooked crêpes, the blender jar of batter, a quarter-cup measure to dip it out with, and a little bowl to hold the wet cup. All was set up for fast, efficient cooking of two crêpes at a time.
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Pride goeth before a fall! It had been too long since I’d last used those crêpe pans. They’d lost their seasoning, so when I poured in the first batter it instantly cemented itself to the pans, even though I’d greased them. It had to be scraped off in bits – which didn’t do the pans any good.
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Chastened, I selected the less-bad-looking pan, scrubbed it with salt, oil, and paper towels, re-seasoned it as well as I could at the moment, and resumed cooking my crêpes – slowly and carefully, with just the one pan. They gave no further trouble, thank goodness.
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That taken care of, I could go on to make the sauce, while Tom minced half a cup of good smoked ham, shredded half a cup of gruyère, and beat an egg yolk with two tablespoons of heavy cream.
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The sauce started as essentially a bechamel, but made differently from the way I’m familiar with. First, I had to brown the mixture of butter and flour, rather than letting it foam along without browning. Then the milk to be added had to be lukewarm, not boiling. Third, after additions of nutmeg and cayenne it had to cook for 10 minutes, which is a longer time than I’m used to, before being enriched with the egg yolk-cream mixture.
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I set part of the sauce aside for topping the filled crêpes and mixed all the ham and most of the gruyère into the rest of the sauce. I remembered to lay out the crêpes ugly side up, so when rolled they’d show their better sides. It seemed like very little filling.
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I laid the rolled crêpes in a buttered baking dish and topped them with the remaining sauce, thinned out a little with cream, the rest of the grated gruyère, dots of butter, and – what for me was another unusual feature – fine dry bread crumbs.
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The dish baked for 15 minutes at 400°. It came out looking quite nice, except that the butter had made little puddles rather than spreading out. I guess my dots were too big. No harm, though.
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The crêpes were excellent. Richly flavorful, despite the modest amount of filling; though Tom would have liked a stronger ham presence. The texture of the dish was one of its best features: soft in the center but pleasantly crunchy on top from the breadcrumb gratin. I may adopt that gratin for when I make other kinds of crêpes – which I must do soon. Gotta keep those pans seasoned!
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On the trip to Malta that I wrote about last week, we spent one day on Gozo, the country’s second largest island. More rural than the eponymous main island, Gozo has its own full share of marvels, from megalithic to medieval, as well as lovely rolling hills and excellent traditional food. A highlight of the day for Tom and me was lunch made by the noted Gozo chef George Borg – a lunch made not just for us but partly by us.

This was a fun occasion as well as a delicious one. George is a delightful man and a very talented chef, passionate about Maltese culinary traditions, as well as about wine. When we arrived at his studio kitchen, he had work stations and aprons set out for us; and he started us right off at helping to prepare the antipasto course: his own Gozo-style ftira.
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Now, the ftira we had in Valletta, as I showed last week, was on a thick base of bread, hence fairly heavy for an antipasto. George’s version lightens it by using flaky butter pastry. We were intrigued. The topping we made that day was potatoes, onions, tomatoes, olives, capers, garlic, and anchovies. I thinly sliced potatoes, Tom halved grape tomatoes, and George did the rest.

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While the ftira was baking, we moved on to preparing the next course, which was to be stuffed baked pasta shells. For the filling I mashed several little cheeselets – Malta’s ubiquitous fresh sheep cheese – with grated pecorino, chopped parsley, and black pepper.

Then, in the the most unusual way of treating pasta I’ve ever encountered, George gave Tom and me each a pastry tube filled with the cheese mixture and a pile of pasta shells to be filled with it – raw shells.

 

Once stuffed, the shells went into gratin dishes. George poured on milk to come half way up the pasta, sprinkled the dishes generously with grated pecorino, and put them in the oven to bake with the ftira.

 

Next, George brought out the fish that was to be our main course: fillets of lampuki. This autumn-season specialty is Malta’s favorite fish. Elsewhere, it’s called dorado, dolphin fish, or mahi mahi. But the ones caught here are nothing like the huge, bull-headed, pastel-hued creatures we in the US know as mahi mahi. The lampuki we saw in Malta’s fish markets were small, slender, silvery, white-fleshed fish, with no scales.

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The fillets George cut up were no more than a foot long. He said this was the end of the lampukis’ season, and that was as big as they ever got. To give us an authentic Gozo experience, he cooked them in one of the favorite local ways: just floured, shallow-fried, and served with a tomato sauce.

George’s sauce was based on his own sundried purée of tomatoes. (That is, not a purée of sundried tomatoes but a fresh tomato sauce that he’d made, spread out on trays, and left to thicken in the sunshine – much the way it’s done in Sicily.) He stirred salt, sugar, and capers into the purée, then softened chopped garlic in olive oil in a skillet, added the seasoned puree and a good slosh of water, and set it on the stove to simmer.

 

At last we sat to lunch. Our host had opened two local wines for us to choose from: a Vermentino and a Sangiovese. Naturally we tried both! They were very good. Tom has a blog post on Maltese wines that says more about these two.

 

The ftira was delicious – and quite light, thanks to the crisp, buttery flaky crust. It was hard to resist gobbling it all down, but we knew how much more there was to come.

 

Next came the baked stuffed pasta. The parts of the shells that had been in the milk were soft and fully cooked, while their top edges were firm, brown and crunchy. The milk itself had thickened into a lightly cheese-flavored cream. The mix of textures was a bit disconcerting to us – not the way we’re used to dealing with pasta. It tasted fine, but we still haven’t gotten past our sense of its oddness.

 

 

The lampuki was lovely in its simplicity – quite delicate but very flavorful – and the rich tomato sauce made an ideal complement. We relished every bite of the sweet, firm flesh, whose richness was nicely counterpointed by the acidity and brightness of the sauce.

 

George was eager to give us dessert, but after all those good dishes we couldn’t eat another thing. Tiny cups of espresso and glasses of an excellent grappa made a perfect conclusion to this wonderful meal. As we departed, with compliments on all sides, George gave us a copy of one of his cookbooks. I’m very much looking forward to trying some of his recipes!

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