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Archive for the ‘Savory pastry’ Category

I’m just back from a vacation including four days of exploring Malta. The Maltese islands – mere dots in the Mediterranean between Sicily and Africa – are truly fascinating. Cliffs, caves, and grottoes, Baroque palaces, medieval fortresses, 5,000-year-old megalithic temples, some the oldest stone structures in the world; and on top of all that, interesting, unusual food.

For example, here Tom and I are having a midmorning snack of pastizzi, a popular Maltese pastry resembling Neapolitan sfogliatelle but with savory fillings, usually fresh ricotta or (a relic of British rule?) mushy peas.

 

Not surprisingly in an island culture, fish of all kinds were abundant and delicious. The seafood we had at two restaurants, Palazzo Preca in Valletta and Tartarun in Marsaxlokk, was all exceptionally fresh and fine.

We tried both restaurants’ versions of aljotta, Malta’s signature fish soup. Often described (unfairly, in our opinion) as an adaptation of bouillabaisse, this is a rich, dense fish broth harboring small pieces of several kinds of fish, served with fresh lemon for squeezing and crusty bread for dunking.

 

 

Another appetizer was described on its menu as “local octopus, lemon confit, lardo, 10YO condimento, crispy quinoa, olive & mint.” (Condimento, I learned, is a prestigious kind of balsamic vinegar, this one being 10 years old.) The combination was lovely to look at and luscious to eat.

 

Our main courses of seafood were equally good:

An enormous mixed fry of various fishes, squid, shrimp, and octopus

 

Giant prawns sautéed in garlic, white wine, and tomato, served on a bed of rice

 

A sauté of mussels and four kinds of clams: razor, surf, vongole veraci, and praires

 

The best, freshest, sweetest, grilled squid Tom has eaten in a lifetime of consuming squid at every opportunity

 

We also explored non-seafood dishes, at both a lunch and a dinner at a Valletta restaurant called Nenu the Artisan Baker. It serves only traditional Maltese foods, with locally produced ingredients. Our lunch was two kinds of ftira, the Maltese equivalent of pizza. It consists of a fairly thick base of bread dough with various toppings, baked in a wood oven.

This one is called karmni s-sultana: potatoes, tomatoes, anchovies, onions, caper berries, olives, mint, and fennel seeds.

 

And this one is ta’ Nenu: sundried tomatoes, black olives, peppered Maltese goat cheese, onions, Maltese sausages, capers, and thyme.

 

These were hefty items, which we couldn’t possibly finish, much less go on to eat anything else for that lunch. The rest of the menu was so interesting, we decided to come back that evening for dinner. We quickly discovered that everything Nenu serves is hefty. Our appetizers would easily have done for main courses.

Here’s fwied tal-fenek: rabbit liver in a sauce of onions, garlic, prunes, anisette, and cream.

 

And zalzett malti: Maltese sausage in a spicy tomato sauce with peas.

 

Our affable waiter jokingly counseled us not to dip too much of the good crusty bread – the Maltese are rightly proud of their bread – in the sauces, because of the dishes yet to come. And right he was.

Here’s Tom’s kirxa, a curried tripe stew, which was served with pan-fried potatoes and garlic bread. It had several kinds of tripe, not just honeycomb, and a delicious but unusual set of curry spices that we couldn’t identify.

 

And here’s my fenek moqli, described as rabbit marinated in garlic and red wine, fried in olive oil, and served in its own juices. (I’d have called it braised, though I later learned that “fried” in Malta can mean either deep-fried or sauteed.) It came with roasted potatoes and steamed vegetables.

 

Our waiter delicately informed me that Maltese people eat rabbit with their fingers, because of the many small bones to be navigated around. I believe I became an honorary Maltese citizen that evening, because I ate my rabbit with my fingers too.

With that gargantuan repast, I’ll conclude this post. We had one more, very special, meal in Malta, which deserves a separate post of its own. See it next week!

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One of my most reliable first courses for a company dinner is an onion tart in the manner of Alsace. (I won’t call it Alsatian – that’s a breed of dog.) I’ve made it successfully for many years: It’s always delicious and guests always enjoy it. Originally I must have based it on a recipe from somewhere, but now it’s purely mine. I have it written out for five different sizes: 10-inch, 9-inch, 8-inch, and 6-inch round pans, plus 4-inch individual tartlets.

When I have extra pastry dough in the freezer, I sometimes make one just for Beloved Spouse and myself. Though we can’t finish it all at one sitting, it never stays around long enough to lose its charm. Most recently I made us an 8-inch version.

To start, I ran a pound’s worth of Spanish onions through the two-millimeter blade of my food processor. In a large sauté pan in which I’d melted a stick of butter and a tablespoon of olive oil, the onions cooked very gently for 20 minutes, until they were very soft but not at all browned – somewhat like the start of a French onion soup.

 

 

I sprinkled two teaspoons of flour over the onions, stirred them around, and cooked for another minute, then took the pan off the heat and let the onions cool a bit while I shaped the pastry shell. I like to use a pâte brisée for this tart, but any savory pastry will do. For company I usually make a raised decorative rim of pastry, but in this case I had just enough pre-made pastry for a plain shell.

 

 

For the filling I beat 2 jumbo eggs together in a bowl with 2/3 cup each of milk and heavy cream (for company it’s sometimes crème fraiche), plus salt, pepper, and freshly grated nutmeg. I spread the onions and their residual butter in the pastry shell and poured the filling mixture over them.

 

 

The tarts – of any size – bake for 30 to 40 minutes in a 350° oven, until they’re puffed and lightly golden on top.

 

 

They can be served hot, warm, or at room temperature. For company dinners I usually bake the tart in advance and reheat it just a little as serving time approaches.

 

 

Simple as it is, this is a lovely tart – attractive in its presentation, appetizingly light on the tongue but rich, pure, and naturally sweet from both the custard and the onions. It’s delicate because there’s no bacon or cheese, as are used in many other onion tart recipes, to make the filling heavy. This is a dish that fits well into menus for all seasons and just about any US or western European cuisine. It loves a good white wine – not necessarily from Alsace, but one from there never hurts.

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Last week Tom and I made our annual spring birding pilgrimage to Cape May, New Jersey, a hotspot for migratory birds. We stay in an oceanfront motel apartment with a kitchen, so we can alternate dining out and dining in. Not to waste birding time with extensive food preparation, we bring along pre-cooked main dishes in a cooler chest. This year our friend Jennifer was with us, so we were cooking for three.
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The appetizers for our first dinner in the apartment were a specialty of Tom’s, elegantly known as “cheese thingies.” For these he lightly pan-cooks 7” frozen parathas, tops them with cheeses and other items as inspiration suggests, and runs them under the broiler until the cheese melts. We brought all the ingredients for these in the cooler chest.

On the left, a thingy with Isle of Mull, a Scottish cheddar, and Greek-style pickled peppers. In the center, one with Puigpedrós, a Catalonian cow cheese, and Italian corallina salame. On the right, Puigpedrós again with chopped onion and pickled jalapeño peppers. Very eclectic and international, eh?

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Our main course was a stew of chunks of skinless, boneless chicken thighs with potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, green beans, onions, garlic, a few dashes of Cholula hot sauce, white wine, and chicken stock, thickened with flour. I’d made and frozen it several days in advance. It was plain, homey, and tasty.

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The next night we went out for dinner to the Lobster House, a popular dockside restaurant. There we always start with Cape May Salts, an especially succulent local oyster. The three of us happily went through two dozen oysters and then went on to excellent fried soft-shell crabs and fried sea scallops. The menu always offers elaborate creamed seafood concoctions, but we prefer to keep things simple and enjoy the freshness of the prime fish and shellfish.

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At home again the following day, we sat to a mixed antipasto, the components of which also came along with us in the cooler chest: fresh ricotta, mortadella, sweet sopressata, grape tomatoes, a smoked shrimp and crab spread, Venetian-style calf’s liver pâté, and toast triangles.

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The main event was a pan of lasagna that I’d made in advance, baked, and frozen for transport. It was partly a Marcella Hazan-style northern Italian version, with Bolognese meat sauce and béchamel, but with Neapolitan additions of mozzarella and coins of sweet sausage – all between many layers of our thinnest homemade lasagna noodles. Reheating the lasagna in a very hot oven provided nice crunchy end pieces to contrast with the meltingly lush central section.

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.The final dinner of our trip was again at the Lobster House, and again we started with two dozen of our favorite Cape May Salts. We went on to the restaurant’s signature snapper soup (not pictured below), fried flounder and fried calamari. Everything was sparklingly fresh and perfectly cooked.


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Lest you think all we did in Cape May was eat, be assured the birding was fine, even though the weather was a bit dodgy. We got up very early each day and did quite a bit of walking, which was how we worked up appetites for all that food. We logged a total of 93 species of birds over 3½ days.

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Mushrooms so often play a supporting role in culinary matters, it’s easy to forget how well they can shine as the star. I just discovered a recipe that, with little more than bread, butter, and mushrooms, produces a dish fit for a king.

(Warning: This photo does not do justice to the dish. My plating and presentation skills leave much to be desired.)
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The recipe, simply called mushroom croûtes, is in Raymond Oliver’s classic French cookbook, La Cuisine. I’d been interested in the dish for some time, and finally gave a try. I expected it to be good, but it was better than good; it was gorgeous. After one taste you could imagine yourself at a mid-20th century Michelin three-star restaurant – say, Grand Véfour, in its great days under Oliver – at a table draped in white damask, set with precious bone china and antique silver cutlery – being ceremonially served with an exquisite dish.

None of that was the case at my house, of course – but that was the feeling we got when we tasted the croûtes. And they were so simple to make!
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I started by slicing two large plain white mushrooms and sautéing them in a little butter. Salted and peppered them and set them aside.
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Next I minced six ounces of the same white mushrooms in the food processor and sauteed them, along with a chopped shallot, in butter in the same pan as the sliced ones. This step was similar to making duxelles, but it didn’t require the painstaking squeezing of the minced mushrooms in a towel to remove their juices. I thought they’d probably give out those juices in the sauté pan, but no – they stayed the same nice dryish, nubbly texture.
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When I judged they were done (they didn’t change much; just shrank some) I took them off the heat, added salt and pepper, and stirred in a few tablespoons of crème fraiche. They absorbed it immediately.

Next I trimmed the crust off two slices of my homemade bread and sauteed them lightly, one at a time – in butter, naturellement. This is a French recipe, after all.
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Now I had to assemble the croûtes: Put the bread slices in a shallow baking dish, spread on the minced mushrooms, arrange the sliced mushrooms over them and top with a little grated gruyère.
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The croûtes went into a 400° oven for about five minutes and came out as you saw above. They were inordinately rich and savory, and not just from the butter: It was that recently discovered fifth taste, umami. Evidently, mushrooms are high in glutamates, which are the source of umami’s delectability. In his day Raymond Oliver wouldn’t have known the chemistry of it, but he certainly knew how to produce it. Just a remarkable piece of culinary wizardry.

Beloved spouse and I were lucky enough, years ago, to dine at Le Grand Véfour during Oliver’s reign. It was an unforgettable experience that has left a large mark on our subsequent kitchen adventures. All these years later, every time I go back to his cookbook and rediscover the magic of his cooking, I’m reminded of how great a culinary genius he was.

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

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

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

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

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

souffle-1

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

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I folded the whites into the base mixture, stirred in the grated cheese, and scooped it all into the mold. I set the mold in a large pot and poured in boiling water all around the mold. That’s like the way you treat a baked custard – not at all what you do to a standard soufflé.
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Everything then went into a 350° oven for 1¼ hours – again, very different from the 30+ minutes at 400° that a standard soufflé takes.

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

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

I’m happy to say that my soufflé did unmold properly but – inevitably, because it was mine – it immediately sank to about half its original height. Curses, foiled again!
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Nevertheless: If you didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to look like that, you’d think it was just fine. And so it was: light and spongy, with an enticing smell and a rich, savory taste – a little tangy from the Alex cheese. It liked the tomato sauce very much. Despite deflation, a very successful soufflé.

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

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One of my most reliable first-course dishes, whether for family consumption or for guests, is an eggplant quiche. The recipe I use is different from – and to my mind better than – any other I’ve seen, even the one in From Julia Child’s Kitchen. Interestingly, the source of “my” recipe is a former collaborator of Child’s: Simone Beck, the third-listed author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Simca's CuisineBeck published her own book, Simca’s Cuisine, a decade after the two volumes of Mastering appeared. It’s a chatty, personal book, arranged by menus. Her eggplant quiche recipe is in a chapter called “A Carefree Luncheon,” and though I wouldn’t call it exactly a carefree recipe, for me the result is well worth the effort. What mainly makes this version different from other eggplant quiches is a complete absence of milk or cream, a near-absence of cheese, and a presence of tomato puree and bacon.

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The recipe starts by having you make and partially bake a pastry shell, using Simca’s own pâte brisée, which is made with flour, butter, oil, salt, and an egg yolk. It’s a very flavorful pastry, and I use it for many kinds of savory tarts. Before putting the pan in the oven, you brush the bottom with Dijon mustard and sprinkle it with grated Swiss cheese. For my palate, these two ingredients make a major contribution to the finished dish.

pastry shell

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Turning to the main ingredient: You peel a 1½-pound eggplant and cut it into ½-inch cubes. Spread them on paper towels or a cloth; salt them; after 15 minutes toss and salt them again; rinse and pat them dry.

eggplant cubes

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Next steps:

  • Sauté the eggplant cubes in a generous amount of oil (I always use olive), drain, and lightly season them with salt and pepper.
  • In the oil remaining in the pan, fry ¼ pound of bacon until crisp, and crumble it when cool.
  • Beat three eggs in a large bowl and add the eggplant, the bacon, 1½ cups of either Simca’s very elaborate provençal tomato purée or pureed Italian plum tomatoes (my usual choice), and two tablespoons each of chopped parsley and basil.
  • Fill the pastry shell with this mixture, sprinkle the top with more grated Swiss cheese, and bake for about 25 minutes.
  • Serve while warm, or reheat when ready to eat it.

Quite a bit of work there, it must be admitted. But what you get is an unusual and truly delicious treat, which has pleased everyone I’ve served it to.

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eggplant quiche

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Though I opened this post by calling this a first-course dish, Beloved Spouse and I also enjoy it by itself, for lunch or as a light supper.

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