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Archive for the ‘Savory pastry’ Category

Naples’ church of Santa Chiara is world-famous for its exquisite 18th Century majolica-tiled cloister and garden.

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Dating from the same period, and similarly famous in Italy, is its culinary specialty: il gattò Santa Chiara. This is a savory bread-cake hybrid (gattò is an Italianization of the French gâteau) created by the nuns of the convent..

The yeast-raised dough is enriched with mashed potato, eggs, and lard, then speckled with meats and cheeses – most often cooked ham and mozzarella. There’s a gattò recipe in Tom’s and my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen, but I haven’t been totally satisfied with the results, so this week I tried giving it a few tweaks.

 

On the morning of baking day, even before my coffee was ready, I started a yeast sponge, stirring together two teaspoons of dry yeast, two tablespoons of water, and two tablespoons of flour.

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The little bowl sat on the kitchen counter for two hours, until it was puffed and bubbly. Later in the morning, I prepared the other ingredients you see below: clockwise from top left, half a boiled russet potato, two beaten eggs, an ounce and a half of lard, three ounces of boiled ham, the risen sponge, and four ounces of mozzarella.

I’d increased my recipe’s quantities of all those items except the sponge.

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After beating the potato (mashed), the lard (melted and cooled), and the eggs into the recipe’s specified two cups of flour and teaspoon of salt, I let my heavy-duty mixer knead the dough. It smoothed out very readily, not needing any additional flour. The next step was to work in the ham and cheese, which I did by hand.
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The finished dough went into a greased nine-inch cake pan, which I covered and left on the countertop to rise. In two hours, it was threatening to overflow the shallow pan, so I wrapped it with a collar of aluminum foil before putting it in the oven at 350°.

 

After 40 minutes in the oven, it had turned a nice golden brown, though it hadn’t risen very much more.

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It took some persuasion to get it out of its pan, but eventually it emerged and allowed itself to be set on a rack to cool. It might be wise to use a springform pan next time.

That evening I warmed wedges of the gattò in the toaster oven and served them as our antipasto, along with slices of prosciutto.
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Sometimes gattò is served alongside simple grilled meats. I haven’t tried that, but the combination should be very good.

As a part of our antipasto, this loaf was quite tasty, as the warmth of the toaster oven intensified the ham and cheese flavors. The soft, dense crumb was almost cake-like, and the crust was pleasantly crunchy. I can’t say it was as fine as the loaves made by the nuns of Santa Chiara, but it was definitely an improvement on my previous version. And the next day, toasted and buttered gattò slices were very nice for breakfast.

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I’m always on the lookout for new recipes for chicken that I can make to tempt the taste buds of my non-chicken-loving spouse. My latest discovery is a dish that I didn’t quite get right but that offers interesting possibilities for future adaptations: an empanada gallega.

I’ve known empanadas as small, savory turnovers. This one, a specialty of Spain’s Galicia region, is a full-sized pie, filled with a mixture of chicken, peppers, onions, and ham, and baked in a bread crust. Here’s its picture in the Cooking of Spain and Portugal volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series.

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The recipe starts by having you make the bread dough and let it rise fully, before it says anything about preparing the filling. There I almost shot myself in the foot right away, not noticing that there had to be two rises, not one. Happily, I reread the instructions just in time to get started early enough.

As the dough rose, I began working on the filling. For a small half recipe, I put two chicken thighs and several chunks of onion in a pot and poached them in water for 25 minutes.
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As soon as the thighs were cool enough to handle, I skinned, boned, and cut them up. Since my chicken didn’t lend itself to neat ½-inch cubes, as requested, I settled for bite-size chunks.
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Next I had to finely chop about three tablespoons each of onions and prosciutto (an approved substitute for Serrano ham) and a tiny clove of garlic. And to cut the flesh of half a red Bell pepper into ¼-inch squares. The shape of my pepper wasn’t conducive to squareness, either, and I decided somewhat larger pieces would be fine. Every cook is entitled to a little self-expression.
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I sauteed the peppers, onions, and garlic in olive oil for 10 minutes. They started smelling good immediately. I added the ham and ⅓ cup of simple tomato sauce; raised the heat and cooked off most of the moisture; stirred in the chicken pieces, salt, and pepper; and turned off the heat. It all looked good enough to eat, right out of the pan. I resisted; and set the pan aside.
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Returning to the risen bread dough, I deflated it, divided it in two equal pieces, and rolled them out in circles on a floured board. Well, I say “rolled,” but mostly I treated them like pieces of pizza dough, stretching them by hand. The dough was reasonably cooperative.
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I then did something really foolish, which could have been disastrous. I spread the filling on one piece of the dough, laid on and sealed the other piece, and left the pie to rise for a final 20 minutes on the rolling board, not the baking pan.
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I was appalled when I realized what I’d done. How was I going to get that soft, heavy, moisture-filled mound moved onto the baking pan?! I had panicked visions of dinner consisting of a smeary loaf of chicken bread.

It took two of us to do it. With four hands, two large flat spatulas, and a rimless cookie sheet, plus delicate nudging to restore the empanada’s shape once safely on its pan. With a whoof! of relief, I brushed the surface with egg wash.
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In 45 minutes of baking at 375°, my empanada browned nicely and rose into a substantial dome. That surprised me, because I couldn’t imagine the filling would have swelled to raise the crust like that.
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Nor had it. When I cut into the empanada, there was a big air space inside, which somehow had stretched the top crust to eggshell thinness. There was nothing like that in the cookbook’s photo, though a closer look at it suggested the presence of a steam hole at the center – which was not called for in the recipe. That might well have made the difference.
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Despite its peculiar appearance, my empanada was very pleasant to eat. We just crunched our way through the brittle top crust and enjoyed its contrast with the softer crust on the bottom and around the rim.
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And that chicken filling was amazingly good. Even Tom said so. Simple as its condiments were, it had somehow achieved an Iberian flavor, even without Serrano ham. I can easily see myself making chicken this way again, to use as a pot pie filling with a pastry crust, or an oven casserole with a biscuit topping. Even just by itself, with rice or noodles alongside. I can hardly wait!

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Today marks my completion of a decade of writing this blog. The culinary adventures (both successful and not so) about which I’ve told stories each week have given me great pleasure. To celebrate my tenth anniversary, this post will be a retrospective of some of the dishes I’ve most enjoyed making, eating, and writing about – one for each year.

You’ll notice a strong Western European emphasis in the choices here. That’s a reflection of Tom’s and my general eating preferences, but I’ve actually written about dishes from 24 countries in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. I could have featured many of those others among these favorites.

Clicking on an image below will open the full post about the dish.
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2010

Prosciutto-wrapped Broiled Shrimp

My first blogging year was devoted to one new recipe a week from one of the 200+ cookbooks in my collection. This one, from Ada Boni’s classic Il Talismano della Felicità, makes as good an appetizer as it did a main course.

 

2011

Plum Cake Cockaigne

From my second year, I began including posts about recipes I’d previously known and loved. This one, from Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking, has been a late-summer favorite in our household for more years than I can remember.

 

2012

Traditional Paella Valenciana

I found recipes for this relatively simple paella in two cookbooks: Penelope Casas’ Food and Wines of Spain, and Teresa Barrenechea’s Cuisines of Spain. Both looked good, so I drew steps from both recipes.

 

2013

Bluefish Gravlax

 

Here, I adapted a salmon gravlax recipe from the Cooking of Scandinavia volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series for local bluefish. I also made the book’s cucumber relish and mustard-dill sauce.

 

2014

Tripe in Golden Fontina Sauce

This is my own version of trippa alla valdostana, from Tom’s and my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. It makes a remarkably rich, mellow, elegant dish – if I do say so myself.

 

2015

Pheasant Pie with Noodles and Mushrooms

Under this pastry crust is faisan à la vosgienne, made from an Alsace recipe in Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking. Pheasant, noodles, mushrooms, sauce, and pastry were all lavishly endowed with butter.

 

2016

Chickpea and Cuttlefish Stew

Penelope Casas’s book La Cocina di Mama: The Great Home Cooking of Spain provided the recipe for this Andalucian dish intriguingly spiced with hot red pepper, sweet smoked paprika, and garlic.

 

2017

Poulet Marengo

Anyone familiar with my food preferences will know I couldn’t let this retrospective go by without including at least one chicken dish. This is a classic from Robert Courtine’s The Hundred Glories of French Cooking.

 

2018

Veselka’s Borscht

The Ukrainian restaurant Veselka, in NYC’s East Village neighborhood, serves the best borscht I’ve ever tasted or can imagine tasting. Making a batch of it from the place’s own cookbook was a major accomplishment for me.

 

2019

Apple-Stuffed Pork Roast

Apples, bacon, butter, mushrooms, onions, sage, a pinch of sugar, and a touch of wine vinegar made a delightful stuffing for roasted pork. It’s a recipe I clipped from Saveur magazine and pasted in my big recipe binder.

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So:  10 years, 512 posts, recipes from 120 cookbooks, as well as a few from magazines, newspapers, and the internet. I’ve learned a lot about food and cooking from all this. Now I plan to take the month of January off, to think about how I’d like to position my blog for the coming years.

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Tom and I are just back from a week’s cruise on Portugal’s Douro river. We traveled upriver from Porto, on the Atlantic coast, about halfway to the Spanish border and back. The scenery was picturesque: vineyards, forests, vineyards, olive groves, vineyards, villages, and yet more vineyards. Above all, the Douro valley is Port wine country, but it also makes an abundance of red and white table wines.

Our ship, the Infante Don Henrique, carried 86 passengers from 8 countries, of which only we were from the USA. This was our third river cruise with the Croisieurope line. (See the others here and here.) It serves only one menu for each meal: three or four courses, at both lunch and dinner. Happily, this cruise included many Portuguese specialties, peppered among the line’s good standard hotel-style fare.

The wines – both simple ones poured generously for free and an array of better bottles to buy at modest prices – were almost all Portuguese. Accordingly, we ate and drank very interestingly (not to say excessively) throughout the trip. Here are some of the dishes we particularly liked..

Appetizers

The Portuguese influence on the ship’s cuisine was most prominent among the first courses. Here were cured ham from the prized Iberico black pig; sweet, tender melon from the Azores; a flavorful ricotta-like cheese on toasted whole-grain bread; a locally traditional meat-filled puff pastry tart; three kinds of luscious spicy sausages – chouriço, linguiça, and morcela; and a taste of the nation’s excellent olive-oil preserved sardines.
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Presunto ham and Portuguese melon

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Requeijao cheese tartine

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Pastel de Chaves

 

Grilled sausages, sardine toast

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Main Courses

For the principal lunch and dinner dishes, our chef turned mostly to international hotel-style preparations: everything meticulously designed on the plates and perfectly good, if not very exciting. There was one exception to that pattern, which I’m saving for last..
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Filet of sole with spiny lobster

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Chicken breast stuffed with linguiça

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Braised lamb

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Duck leg with fig and port wine sauce

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The Pièce de Résistance: Bacalhau com Nata
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This big dish of salt cod with cream sauce was presented to our five-person dinner table. My heart sank when I saw it. I knew that salt cod – baccalà – was practically the Portuguese national food, but I’d disliked every version of it that I’d ever tasted, in Europe or America. Nevertheless, I had to try it. Wow! It was terrific. Absolutely delicious.

The cod tasted like fresh fish. It was mingled with potatoes and swathed in a rich bechamel, probably seasoned with onions and wine. It went beautifully with the salad of baby greens and black olives. One of the first things I did when I got home was look up recipes for this dish. There are many online, and I’m going to try one very soon. Only, I’ll make it with fresh cod, not baccalà. That can’t hurt, surely? I’ll let you know.

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Before the cruise, we’d spent two days in Lisbon, where we also ate interestingly and very well. My next week’s post will be about that gastronomical adventure. Tom will also be doing a post on his blog about at least some of the wines we drank on the cruise and in Lisbon.

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My recent week in Venice sent me home with a major fruit and vegetable deficit. The many other culinary temptations there diverted me from my normal interest in fresh produce. Happily, the cure is at hand in my Greenmarket, where it seems that summer is finally on the way. I’ve been regaling myself with local strawberries, blueberries, English peas, flat green beans, spring onions, new potatoes, young zucchini, and even heirloom tomatoes (greenhouse-grown).

A good dish for the produce-hungry is a savory vegetable tart. It’s easy to make with any number of ingredient combinations. This week I made one using Greenmarket zucchini, tomatoes, and onions (the onions already roasted from the previous night’s dinner), supplemented with eggplant from my favorite sidewalk vegetable stand.

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For the tart shell I used pâte brisée, which I often keep on hand in the freezer. After rolling it out, I painted the bottom with Dijon mustard – grainy mustard this time, for a change from smooth.
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I sliced and sauteed one of the eggplants and two of the zucchini.
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While they cooled a little, I roughly chopped the onions and sliced and seeded the larger tomato.
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I spread those vegetables in the uncooked pastry shell, sprinkling each layer with salt, pepper, and herbes de Provence.
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The tart baked for 30 minutes in a 375º oven. (As you may notice below, at the last minute I’d decided to sprinkle a little grated parmigiano over it too.)
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You basically can’t go wrong with a tart like this. Use any nonsweet pastry dough. Add another lightly cooked vegetable – peppers are particularly good. Sprinkle on oregano, thyme, or parsley instead of provençal herbs. Beat an egg with a little tomato puree and pour that around the vegetables. Top the tart with a veil of grated Swiss cheese. Just about anything goes.
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Normally, I like wedges of the tart as a lunch dish or a dinner’s first course. This time, what with our Venice-induced vegetable hunger, it was our dinner’s main course. With no trouble at all, we ate the whole thing – and are looking forward to a summer of more.

Oh yes, lest I forget: The grainy mustard was a bit too sweet and forward, so it’s back to regular Dijon next time.

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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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Tripe Espagnole

The day Tom decided that we needed to drink a long-treasured bottle of 1989 Châteauneuf-du-Pape immediately raised the question of what to make for the dinner with it. A good, rare steak or beef roast was always a safe choice, but we thought something more complex might interact more interestingly with that big, important wine.

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We settled on a recipe for Tripes à l’Espagnole from Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine. We both love tripe, not least for its ability to pick up different and interesting flavors and nuances from its varying preparations. This particular espagnole is not the richly complicated “mother” sauce of the classic French cuisine, but an easy, flavorful, concocted-in-the-pot braise. And it actually calls for honeycomb tripe: the least prized of the cow’s four stomachs in almost all French recipes, but the only kind we get in this country.

Because tripe nowadays is sold so thoroughly cleaned and partially cooked, I was able to skip the recipe’s initial step of simmering my one-pound piece in salted water with onions and garlic for six hours. I just blanched it briefly to ease Tom’s knife work of cutting it into bite-size pieces. Separately I blanched two thick slices of bacon, which he also chopped for me.

The tripe and bacon were to be sautéed together in butter and oil in a casserole “until golden.” Recipes are always saying things like that. Tripe never gets golden for me; I’ve given up trying. I just cooked it over a moderate flame for about 10 minutes, until the tripe was well imbued with the butter and oil.
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Next, I sprinkled on a tablespoon of flour, stirred it a bit, and added a tablespoon of tomato paste and a cup of white wine. As soon as the liquid came to a simmer, I stirred in some minced onion and garlic, a small bouquet garni (parsley, bay leaf, and thyme), two tablespoons of cognac, salt, and pepper.
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Oliver’s last direction was to cover the casserole and simmer over low heat for 40 minutes. I knew that wouldn’t be nearly enough time for my tripe, since I hadn’t given it that long initial boil, so I just kept on cooking it gently until the tripe was tender. It took about an hour and a half, with occasional stirring and small additions of water to keep the sauce loose. All in all, this was a pretty painless preparation.

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Dinner started with a first course of individual cheese tarts, which I’d put together earlier in the day. I’ve written about these little savory pastries here before, and I was sure they’d go well with the wine. Having been a bit overgenerous with the cheese filling, I found myself with the choice of letting it spill over the edges of the pans or removing the tarts before they browned as much as usual.
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As you see, I did the latter, and they were fine. The Châteauneuf adored the tarts, and the tarts adored the Châteauneuf. They brilliantly brought out the best of each other. I won’t describe the wine in any detail; for that, see the post about it that Tom has on his blog.

For the main course, I served plain boiled asparagus and boiled potatoes alongside the tripe. Asparagus is not normally a good companion to a red wine, but the very first fresh, young local asparagus had appeared the day before at my greenmarket and I couldn’t resist buying some. The sommelier did not object.
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Neither did the Châteauneuf, which was quite unbothered by the asparagus. However, drinking it alongside the tripe changed its character a bit. The espagnole sauce, flavorful and aromatic, also had noticeable acidity from the white wine that was cooked into it – overall, a good quality to play against the unctuousness of tripe. In this case, that acidity seemed to “slim down” the full, rich roundness of the Châteauneuf, while leaving all its fine depth and complexity intact.

And in fact, after the main course, when we set out a piece of Bellvitano – a half firm, half buttery young Parmigiano-like cheese – to nibble while we finished the wine, all that rich roundness came right back. Altogether, an interesting meal and a fabulous wine.

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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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I’m just back from a vacation that included 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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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