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It has suddenly become high strawberry season at my Greenmarket.

Strawberry stands.

The berries I’ve tasted so far have been very good – plump and sweet. I just hope they’ll still be around when I get back from the trip that I’ll be away on during the week that this post is published, because I haven’t yet made my year’s supply of strawberry jam. What I did make, a few days before we left, was the season’s first strawberry tart.

I make a very simple version, using a recipe from my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. It has only three ingredients: strawberries, sugar, and pastry dough. Well, okay, making the pastry requires other ingredients, but if you have the dough already made up in the freezer, as I often do, it counts as just one. (There’s also an optional fourth item: a beaten egg, to paint a glaze on the pastry before baking, if you feel so inclined.)

For that pastry, I use Italian-style pasta frolla, rolling out the extremely fragile dough between sheets of waxed paper to keep it from breaking apart. Any other kind of sweet pastry dough would also work, of course; even an unsweetened one.

Once the tart pan has been lined with the dough, I fill the shell tightly with fresh strawberries, just hulled, washed, and dried. I like to use small berries so they can stand straight up in the tart. If you’re working with very large ones, you’ll have to quarter them. I sprinkle a few tablespoons of granulated sugar over them – more or less according to how tart or sweet the berries are – and then I roll out the leftover dough and cut strips to make a lattice over the top. With or without an egg glaze, the tart then goes into a moderate oven for about 40 minutes.

tart 1.1

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It has to be cooled before serving, so the berries can absorb back some of their juices that the sugar has drawn out. But that’s one of the virtues of this recipe: you can make it well in advance. The kinds of strawberry tarts that use a pre-baked pastry shell filled with a layer of pastry cream, sweetened ricotta cheese, or fruit preserves under uncooked berries can’t be assembled until very shortly before being served, or they’ll get soggy. Mine gets even better if made early in the day, allowing the flavors and textures of crust and fruit to blend deliciously at dessert time. It’s best to make a tart just big enough to be consumed at one sitting, however, because even this one will get soggy if it sits around for a day or two.

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BTW, this week I’m in Honduras. Tom and I are on a birding trip with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. We’ll be staying for a week at The Lodge at Pico Bonito, a luxurious small eco-resort surrounded by lush tropical rainforest and boasting a myriad of gorgeous birds on its 400-acre property.

The Lodge at Pico Bonito

The lodge’s restaurant seems to be quite notable, so when I return I may do a post about the Mesoamerican specialties I hope to be enjoying there. Wish me many mangoes!

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Too many days have been cold, gray, and wet recently – the kind of dismal December weather that always has me gravitating toward the kitchen, wanting to bake something.

catalog 2Among the many catalogs that appear at this time of year was one from the King Arthur flour company, which attracted me with a recipe for Cheddar Cranberry Soda Bread. The recipe was billed as being “like a giant scone, marrying the sharpness of Vermont cheddar with the tangy sweetness of dried cranberries.” That sounded good, the picture looked good, and I can get excellent loose dried cranberries from Kalustyan’s, in addition to the best dried figs and dates anywhere, so I decided to try it. It was a good choice.

Making the bread was perfectly easy. You mix dry ingredients: flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt – and cheddar cheese powder, a special KA ingredient. This was a new thing to me. Apparently it’s just the cheese, dried out and pulverized, which I must say I wasn’t going to purchase at well over $1 an ounce just for this recipe. Having read elsewhere online that the ratio of fresh cheese to powdered is 3:2, I just took a proportional amount more of fresh cheddar.

Then you work in bits of butter, as for making pastry, and add grated cheddar – lots of it, given my additional dose. I could hardly see the flour for the cheese.

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Once that’s all stirred together well, you add dried cranberries and optional chopped walnuts, then buttermilk and an egg. All that made a large amount of very stiff dough; I had to add more buttermilk to get all the dry bits to adhere. It also seemed like far more than would fit into a standard bread pan, but it did, pressed down and filled up to the very top.

I baked the dough at 375° for a little over an hour. It didn’t rise much, and it came out somewhat darker than the recipe’s picture, but otherwise looked pretty good.

my loaf

Tom and I tasted the loaf as soon as it had cooled, and it was indeed good, though I wouldn’t have called it extraordinary. The cheese flavor predominated, and the crumb was a bit dry.

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However, for breakfast the next morning we toasted some slices and slathered them with butter. What a difference that made!

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The warmth brought out a gentle sweetness from the cranberries (there’s no sugar at all in the recipe) and a nice nuttiness from the walnuts. The cheese flavor was still there, but mostly as an underlying support for the fruit and nuts. As butter penetrated the slices, their texture softened a little (maybe the cheese had loosened up from the heat, too). Altogether, they were quite splendid breakfast breads. And have remained good for several further days.

If you’d like to try the recipe for yourself, it’s given on the King Arthur website. I can highly recommend it for the festive season.

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Dear Readers:

According to WordPress, which hosts my blog, “some” visitors “occasionally” see advertisements on my site. (FYI, I don’t get any revenue from these. WordPress runs them to defray some of the cost of maintaining its free sites.)

If there are ads attached to my posts, they don’t show up for me, so I don’t know what kinds of products they’re for, how frequently they appear, or how annoying they may be. I’d like to know all that, so I can decide whether to purchase a “no-ads” upgrade for the blog.

Therefore, I’d appreciate it if you readers – especially regular ones – would post a comment saying whether you see ads here and if you find them offensive or irritating.

With thanks to all,

Diane

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Texas Vacation

I’m away from my kitchen and cookbooks this week and next. Tom and I are on a birding trip to Big Bend and the Texas hill country. We take these trips with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, whose leaders are as good at finding interesting places to eat as they are at finding interesting birds. So we expect to eat well in the west.

There’ll be a lot of barbecue, no doubt. This photo from the American Cooking: The Great West volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series shows sausage, spareribs, beef brisket, chicken, and beans from a Texas barbecue pit, and we’re likely to have all of those at various times.

TX barbecue

Probably not many green vegetables, judging from my past experience of the region’s food, but I can make up for that when we get home. So here’s to a spate of healthy exercise, hearty eating, and no dishes to wash!

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Once in a blue moon, trying to improve an untrusted recipe can produce a dish amazingly better than you ever expected. It happened to me this week.

Barrenechea 2I intended to make a recipe from Teresa Barrenechea’s The Cuisines of Spain. I’ve had some unsatisfactory experiences with this book, but its many photographs are so luscious-looking, I keep returning to it. This time I wanted to try her sopa de pescado, which is pictured – lusciously – on the cover, as well as in a full-page illustration beside the recipe.

The recipe is billed as a fish soup but it’s mostly shellfish. There are clams, shrimp, and mussels in the cover photo. It’s also given as a first course serving six, but I wanted to make it a main course for two. So while reducing the overall quantities, I intended to use more shellfish. But I found other things about the recipe that I didn’t trust, so I angled off my own way. And achieved something truly wonderful.

Here are the shellfish I used:

shellfish

The clams are Manilas, the mussels are small and very neat, the shrimps are just ordinary, and the last item is cooked lobster meat, which I had in the freezer and decided to use in place of the monkfish called for in the recipe. In many recipes, monkfish can be substituted for more costly lobster: since I already had the lobster, why not, I thought, try the substitution the other way?

I steamed open the clams and mussels and set them aside. Next I made the sauce base. This started with sauteeing a sliced leek, chopped onions, and thin batons of carrot in generous olive oil. That was already interesting to me, because I hadn’t known any fish soup that wanted so much vegetable. It looked good already.

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The next direction was to flour monkfish chunks and add them, along with shrimp, to the pan of sauce, and cook for five minutes. I didn’t like that. First, my lobster was already cooked, so it didn’t need sauteeing, and certainly not with flour. Second, my shrimp were “medium,” which means pretty small, and five minutes would have been far too much – especially since they were supposed to stay in the sauce for all the rest of the time and by the end would have been seriously overcooked; as would the lobster. So I put in only the shrimp, cooked them for about a minute on each side until they turned pink, and removed them to a dish.

Then I continued with the sauce, adding shellfish broth (considerably less than called for, since I wanted a stew, not a soup), white wine, saffron (not, as the recipe said, in threads but pulverized, since saffron won’t dissolve properly unless you crush it), a little plain tomato sauce, and a pinch of crushed red pepper.

After a few minutes’ simmering, I put the shrimp and lobster chunks into the sauce, let them heat through, and then added the clams and mussels, also to heat through. The recipe would have had me put in only the meat, discarding the shells. I didn’t do that, because it would have spoiled the whole appearance of the dish (as well as some of the fun of eating it) – and, anyway, the book’s photo shows the clams and mussels in their shells.

Here’s my finished dish:

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???????????????????????????????Now, let’s look again at that book photo, which appears to be meant for a single portion. You see how bright red the liquid is? The whole recipe, for six servings, calls for only one-third of a cup of tomato sauce. Ridiculous! I used that amount for only the two of us, which just lightly colored the reduced amount of broth I was working with. Where did all that tomato come from? Where is the recipe’s monkfish? Where are all the rest of the clams and mussels? Didn’t anyone suggest to the food stylist that the photo should bear some resemblance to an actual serving of the dish? Foolish questions, I realize: Food styling is an art that has little to do with cooking.

My own version of the dish wasn’t as elegantly picturesque as the book photo, but it turned out simply fabulous. It took us back to long-ago meals on sunny seaside terraces on the Mediterranean – zuppa di pesce in Italy, bouillabaisse in France, zarzuela in Spain. It had a real southern European flavor, which I’d never before managed to get in any seafood soup or stew I’d made at home. I don’t know what to attribute it to. The ingredients weren’t really any different from others I’ve made, although the leek was a new item for me. Somehow that particular set of ingredients came together in a whole that was much greater than the sum of its parts.

We finished the entire generous-sized dish, along with some plain Bomba rice, and were blissfully happy the whole rest of the evening.

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Take that, food stylists!

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My trip to Paris earlier this month included a search-and-acquire mission. Autumn is the season for Coco de Paimpol beans, and I wanted some! On my last trip, in 2007 at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant Benôit, I ate a superb cassoulet made with this prized bean variety grown only in northern Brittany. Ever since, I’d looked for them in vain in the US, so I hoped to find some dried ones this year in the Paris traiteurs.

I had no luck in that regard, but the produce department in the huge, wonderful “gourmet” section of Galeries Lafayette had fresh ones in the pods. This was not really practical, but I couldn’t resist. I bought a kilo. Back in our typically tiny Parisian hotel room, Tom and I shucked them and spread them out to dry for the three days remaining in our trip.

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Every day I put fresh tissues under them to absorb their moisture, and stuffed them in a paper bag for the times when the maid would be in to do the room.

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They dried pretty well, even in the grey and drizzly weather, but I didn’t want to take a chance on the US customs confiscating them as fresh vegetables. I wrapped them as best I could and buried them in my toiletry kit for the flight home. Once back, I gave them a few more days drying on a sunny windowsill and planned the cassoulet I’d make with them.

Now, cassoulet is a great dish, but most serious recipes for it serve 8 to 12 people. My kilo of fresh beans yielded a mere 8 ounces when shucked and dried, so I needed to downsize a recipe to feed just Tom and me. Julia Child’s version in Mastering, volume I, is the recipe I use when making cassoulet for a crowd, so I started there.

Accordingly, the first thing was to cook the beans in water with chopped onion, diced, blanched bacon, an herb bouquet of garlic, parsley, thyme, clove, and bay leaf, and a 6” chunk of fresh kielbasi, which Julia allows as a substitute for saucisson à l’ail.

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The next step was to prepare the principal meats. I stewed half a pound of boneless lamb shoulder as Julia directs, with onions, tomato paste, thyme, bay leaf, white wine, and broth. In place of the recipe’s roast pork I used her alternate suggestion of roast duck: Two nights before we’d had a duck for dinner, whose legs I’d providently saved for the cassoulet.

Then all I had to do was assemble everything in the casserole and put it in the oven for about three quarters of an hour. I skipped the traditional breadcrumb crust topping, since there was ample richness in the dish without it, and just boiled a few potatoes to serve alongside.

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The Coco de Paimpol beans had plumped up beautifully in the cooking and tasted delicious, as I’d hoped – and so did everything else, including the 1998 Domaine de la Solitude Châteauneuf du Pape that Tom produced from his wine closet to accompany our modest two-person cassoulet. A memorable meal, and my Parisian mission accomplished.

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P.S.  While in Paris Tom and I also, happily, had some Coco de Paimpol beans in a restaurant. The plat du jour for our Sunday dinner at Le Petit Celadon was a roasted pork chop served on a bed of the pureed beans and surrounded by braised chanterelles. Not shabby!

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There’ll be no new post from me this week. Being an obsessive/compulsive type, this is making me deeply neurotic. My household is changing internet service providers, which seems to require an unspecified period of time with no Web access. So no matter what I cook, I can’t tell you about it. (This message was set up before we lost connectivity.) If I can’t tell you about it, will I cook at all? I guess I’ll find out soon.

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