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Archive for the ‘Hors d'oeuvre’ Category

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.

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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

fried things

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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.

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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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At a dinner at Union Square Café last week I had an unusual appetizer: a nettle sformato. Billed as made with La Tur cheese, garnished with tiny morel mushrooms, and topped with a sunnyside-up quail egg, the deep green custard was utterly delicious. I’d hardly ever eaten nettles before and never cooked them, but I knew at once that this was a dish I had to try making.

I knew where to get the nettles, too. The restaurant is just a block from the Union Square Greenmarket and buys much of its seasonal produce there. I’d already seen nettles on the Paffenroth stand at the market this year, but all I knew about nettles had deterred me from considering them. (E.g., there’s red print on the sign that says ** Be careful when handling – can cause ITCHING **)

market nettles

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Before buying any, I had to find out how to treat them, other than not touching them without gloves! Fortunately, Elizabeth Schneider’s Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini has a section on nettles, with handling directions and recipes. I also looked at various savory flan recipes in my cookbooks, to get an idea of the proportions and ingredients I’d need for two servings. Then I went to the market and gingerly carried home a bunch of nettles.

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Wearing plastic gloves, I cut the leaves off the stalks, sloshed the leaves in cold water to clean them, dropped them into boiling water for a minute, drained and plunged them in ice water, drained again and squeezed out the water. The stinging substance was deactivated by that point, so I could remove the gloves.

I had 1½ cups of packed nettle leaves, which Schneider said would “resemble coarse puree.” Mine didn’t. Those greens were considerably tougher than squeezed spinach. I thought if I spun them in my mini food processor they might turn into puree, so I tried that. Nope: They came out looking like wet grass clippings.

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Hm. Well, I continued with the recipe, hoping for the best.

I’d been able to get a round of La Tur, which is a creamy Italian cheese made from a combination of cow, sheep, and goat milk. I heated half a cup of heavy cream in a small pot and added two ounces of the cheese, stirring until it all melted together. I mixed that into the nettle greens, added a beaten egg and some salt, and processed that in a blender until it all finally consented to become something like a puree. Still very fibrous, though; I don’t know what I could have done about that.

I had intended to make only two flans, but there were two cups’ worth of puree, so I buttered four half-cup molds, set them in a bain marie, and baked them at 350° for 25 minutes. I didn’t have quail eggs available to top them with, but I did have a garnish of a few extra morels that I’d sauteed as part of our main course* that evening.

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Alas, my flans were disappointing: fairly bland and very coarsely textured – nothing like the suavity of the Union Square Café version. I will say the morels perked up the nettles’ flavor quite a bit. But in retrospect I see I should have used much more cream and egg to smooth and soften the custard. Or, more practically, have used only half as many nettles for my quantity of cream and egg, and made only two flans. Because I now have to think of some way to salvage the remaining two portions!

* By the way, that main course was a strong consolation for the inferior flans. Sweetbreads and morels à la maréchale, served in puff pastry cases. Recipe from Julia Child’s Mastering. Lush! And another consolation: Both dishes loved the ’82 Prunotto Barbaresco Rabaja we had chosen for this dinner to celebrate our 45th wedding anniversary. We did too.

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Bruno Courrèges, chief of police in a small Dordogne village, belongs to the grand tradition of fictional detectives-cum-gastronomes, like Nero Wolfe and Salvo Montalbano. But there’s one big difference between Bruno and those others: Bruno cooks. While investigating crimes and unmasking criminals, Bruno always finds time to prepare meals featuring dishes of his region for colleagues, neighbors, and lady friends.

Author Martin Walker describes Bruno’s kitchen work so lushly and appealingly (it’s Perigord – think truffles and foie gras) that, reading along, I often feel I’d need no further recipe to make his dishes at home. So Tom and I and our friend Hope did just that for our latest cookathon, our periodic all-afternoon playings in our kitchen, followed by an evening of enjoying the fruits of our labors. Here’s the Bruno-style menu we prepared this time:

Foie-Gras Stuffed Figs
Truffle Omelets
Spit-Roasted Lamb
Sarladaise Potatoes
Asparagus
Perigord Walnut Tart

Lush enough for you? This dinner turned out to be truly caloric megadeath.

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Foie-Gras Stuffed Figs

This isn’t actually one of Bruno’s own dishes, and it’s not in any of the books. The Bruno website, which has a recipe section, tells us that Bruno’s neighbor Pamela (“the mad Englishwoman”) once served them at a cocktail party, which undoubtedly Bruno would have attended.

We steamed dried Turkish figs to soften them a bit, sliced off the stems, poked a hole in each one, filled the cavities with pâté de foie gras, and chilled the figs for several hours. For serving we cut each fig in half. They were, as you’d expect, rich and luscious, though the two flavors remained independent, not combining to create any amazingly new third thing. Still, who can quarrel with figs and foie gras?

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Bruno would have drunk a glass of the local sweet Monbazillac wine with this. I couldn’t find any, so we had a 1989 Sauternes, which comes from the Graves region of Bordeaux, just southwest of the Perigord. In France, this is a time-honored companion to foie gras. It went very well indeed.

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Truffle Omelets

To date, Bruno has made truffle omelets in two of the books, Bruno Chief of Police and The Dark Vineyard. Of course, he uses eggs from his own hens and local truffles. We, alas, had to accept commercial products.

We’d intended to spring for fresh black truffles, but the Urbani company didn’t have any this week, so we had to settle for two ounces of flash-frozen. They were better than the ones that come in jars but not as fully fragrant as fresh ones. We were extravagant with them, though, steeping about half in the beaten eggs for several hours, then slicing the rest over the top of the cooked omelets – cooked in duck fat, in the true Bruno manner. Not at all shabby!

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Since our cellar doesn’t run to Perigord wines, with this course we drank another Bordeaux, a 2008 St. Emilion.

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Spit-Roasted Lamb

Bruno and his friends roast two whole spring lambs over an open fire at an outdoor feast in The Dark Vineyard. It was somewhat perverse of us to choose this recipe, since we have no access to an outdoor grill, and an entire lamb was clearly out of the question for three people. But we didn’t let logic or common sense slow us down. We had half a boned leg of lamb, which we stuffed with bay leaves and rosemary sprigs before rolling, tying, and setting up on my open-hearth electric rotisserie.

In the book, the lambs were basted repeatedly with a mixture of vin de noix, olive oil, and honey. I couldn’t get the actual French fortified walnut wine, but we approximated it closely enough with nocino, the Italian version. We used equal parts of nocino, olive oil, and chestnut honey. To our regret, we also didn’t have a branch of a bay tree to brush it on with, as Bruno did. So there were some compromises in our version of this dish.

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Happily, the lamb came out very well – tender and flavorful, delicately perfumed on the inside from the herbs and sweetly savory on the outside from the intriguing sweet/tart flavors of the baste. Continuing with Bordeaux wine, we drank a 1999 Chateau Gloria St. Julien, which accompanied the lamb beautifully: Cabernet always loves lamb.

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Sarladaise Potatoes, Asparagus

In Black Diamond, Bruno makes venison stew for a dinner in the home of his friend the Baron. Three of the other guests prepare sarladaise potatoes. There’s a complete recipe for the potatoes on the Bruno website, which we mostly followed. We parboiled waxy La Ratte heirloom potatoes, sliced and sauteed them in duck fat until they began to brown, then stirred in minced garlic and parsley for the last few minutes.

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This has not been a great winter for potatoes in our part of the world – most have been almost flavorless – but these were lush from the duck fat and zingy from the garlic. Alongside, we had fresh asparagus spears, just boiled and drizzled with melted butter. Bruno usually dresses his asparagus with hollandaise sauce, but for a meal he makes in The Devil’s Cave he doesn’t – because, he explains, there’d already been eggs in the omelet. So since we’d had our eggs too, we left the asparagus plain. We needed something on our plates that was green and not heart-stoppingly rich!

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Perigord Walnut Tart

In the books Bruno doesn’t make desserts very often, quite understandably given the satiety level of his cooking, so we cast our eyes farther afield. Knowing that walnuts are a prized specialty of the Dordogne, we looked up walnut dessert recipes from Perigord on the Web and chose one that looked not too complex. It’s a tart shell of sweet pastry dough, baked with a custardy filling of eggs, cream, milk, sugar, and lots of chopped walnuts. (One caution if you look at the recipe: I didn’t trust its pâte sucrée technique so I used a different version, one I’d made before and had more confidence in.).

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The tart was very sweet, but also very pleasant: cookielike crust, creamy center, crunchy nuts. I might well make it again – after a simpler dinner! – just cutting back a little on the sugar. With it we enjoyed another glass of the Sauternes, so ending with a liquid reminder of where we began.

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As I said at the beginning, this was a totally over-the-top meal. I don’t know how Bruno and his Perigueux friends can get through so many rich dishes at a sitting. Maybe they do it only once a year? And eat only green salads for a week after? I’m sure that we’ll never attempt to do it all even once again. But it was a heroic and fascinating experiment.

Here are the Bruno books in which the dishes appear:

Bruno books

 

 

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A bluefish spoke to me the other day.

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I was walking through the Greenmarket, thinking only of fruit and vegetables, when I saw the above creature on display at Blue Moon Fish, a stand that sells excellent fresh fish and shellfish caught in the waters off eastern Long Island.

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I stopped. I looked at the bluefish. It looked at me. It murmured of long-ago early-fall days when Tom and I occasionally trolled for its relatives in and around the Shinnecock Inlet, in my parents’ runabout boat. It also reminded me that one thing we did when we caught any (not too often, I confess) was make gravlax of them. Well, for old time’s sake, I decided to do that again.

I bought two ¾ pound fillets and a big bunch of fresh dill, brought them home, and looked up the two recipes on which we’d originally based our technique: one for salmon gravlax from The Cooking of Scandinavia volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series, the other for bluefish from a very old Food & Wine Magazine clipping.

Both recipes wanted fillets that had skin on them. Mine didn’t, but I hoped that wouldn’t make too much difference. I patted a dry mix of salt, sugar, and coarsely ground pepper into both sides of the fillets; sprinkled on a few drops of grappa (as a substitute for aquavit); and sandwiched them together with a heap of dill sprigs.

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I covered their dish with foil, weighted it with a platter and several cans from the pantry . . .

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and put it in the refrigerator for two days. Then I took it out, reversed the position of the two fillets and their greenery, and returned the contraption to the refrigerator for another two days.

When the gravlax was ready to eat I scraped off the seasonings, and Tom gallantly offered to slice it for me. That was not easy: The flesh was very soft but there were some thin sinews that tried to defy the knife. It might have worked better if the fillets had still been on their skin. Many of the slices came out rather ragged, but they eventually capitulated.

As accompaniments, I’d made a mustard-and-dill sauce and a cucumber relish, both recipes from the Scandinavian cookbook, and I’d baked cocktail-sized white bread for toasts.

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These made a very tasty combination. The bluefish had a gentle flavor and a texture halfway between sushi and pickled herring. The mustard sauce spiced up each bite, and the slightly sweet cucumbers made a crisp contrast. Two of us couldn’t eat all the gravlax, of course, so I tucked the rest into the freezer. A few days later, with guests, we had it again on canapés. This time Tom chopped the fish so it would be neater for biting into the toasts, and I made fresh batches of the mustard sauce and cucumber relish. They were quite delicious little nibbles.

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Almost made me want to rent a boat and fishing tackle, to stalk the wily bluefish in its own element again! But, practically speaking, I guess I’ll just keep patronizing Blue Moon.

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