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The herbs I planted on my building’s roof garden, which I mentioned in my last post, are doing well.

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Picking them has been perilous for a few weeks, because of a militant mockingbird that attacked anyone who stepped out onto the roof, which he considered his territory. At last, his babies have fledged and left the nest he was guarding up there, and I can tend my tiny herb garden in peace.

The herb that most needs frequent cutting back is the dill, which has been flowering so fast, it’d soon be setting seed and dying off. To help redirect its attention to new shoots, I snipped some of its feathery-leaved flowering stems to use in two recipes I made for the first time this week.
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Dakhini Saag: Spinach with Dill

This dish from Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India is a specialty of Hyderabad, a city in southern India. Jaffrey says it’s “a simple but very flavorful spinach dish.” Given the number of ingredients listed in the recipe, I wasn’t sure I’d regard it as simple, but by the same token I could see it was certainly going to have a lot of flavors. It looked like fun.

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To begin, the spinach had to be wilted in boiling water, drained, cooled, and squeezed. Then I called my bespoke knife man into action, and he gallantly rose to the occasion. Clockwise from lower right, here are the spinach, chopped; sliced fresh spring onion; diced heirloom tomato; sliced Spanish onion; chopped dill; chopped garlic; salt, cumin seeds, turmeric, and red chili powder.
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Actually, once those components were prepared, the dish really was quite simple to make. First, I sauteed the cumin seeds, Spanish onion, and garlic for a few minutes over medium heat.
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Next, I lowered the heat, added the spinach, dill, salt, turmeric, and chili powder, and cooked all that for two minutes.
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Last, I stirred in the diced tomato and spring onion.
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Another two minutes’ cooking made the dish ready to eat.

And very good it was.The very first taste was purely moist, tender spinach, but each forkful opened in the mouth to reveal the flavors of the seasonings – mainly dill, but also subtle accents of spring onion, cumin, and chili. (The tiny cubes of tomato, being of necessity hothouse, served mostly for appearance.) A nice middle choice between plain spinach and a composed dish.
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Jennifer’s Dill Bread

Long ago, my friend Jennifer, with whom I’ve shared many recipes back and forth, gave me her hand-written one for dill bread. It had her small variations on a recipe that a family friend had given her even longer ago. I saved it in my big recipe binder, but this folksy American yeast bread made with cottage cheese never quite caught my interest enough to try. Now, with my dill needing to be used, it seemed to be time.

The recipe directions were simple in the extreme – they started with “Soften yeast in water. Combine all except flour.” The “all” was cottage cheese, sugar, salt, baking soda, minced onion, softened butter, an egg, and dill weed.
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Next was to add “enough flour to form a stiff dough.” Here, I had to go astray. The ingredient list said 2¼ to 2½ cups. In my heavy-duty mixer with the dough hook, 2½ cups of flour produced only a thick, heavy batter. I added more flour. And more. And more. (I think there was too much whey in my cottage cheese.) This is apparently supposed to be a no-knead dough, but mine was thoroughly kneaded by the time I achieved a dough thick enough to hold together in a ball.
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It rose nicely in a gently warmed, turned-off oven, though with all that extra flour, it took longer than the expected one hour to double in bulk.
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I punched the dough down, shaped it into a ball, and was then supposed to put it in an 8-inch round casserole to rise again. I don’t have a dish that size, so I substituted a buttered 8-inch pie tin and prayed that the free-standing loaf would support itself as it rose in the turned-off oven. It did.
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A bit over an hour of baking at a more moderate temperature than I usually use for breads (350°) produced a plump brown loaf. The final touch was to brush the crust with butter and sprinkle it with sea salt.

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Sliced, it revealed a soft, light crumb with a wheaty sweetness and a gentle fragrance of dill. (Might have been dillier if I hadn’t had to add so much extra flour.) It was good as a dinner bread, good for sandwiches, and good for morning toast. Although it will never replace my all-time favorite White Bread Plus from Joy of Cooking, this folksy recipe made a versatile and tasty loaf.
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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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Though potato is the one food named in the title above, it refers only to the casing for a rich baked assortment of meats, mushrooms, herbs, and spices. In Italy’s Piedmont region, La Finanziera is an extravaganza of a stew, involving delicacies such as cockscombs, sweetbreads, and truffles. Applying the approach to more everyday ingredients still makes an excellent dinner dish.

This was the special dish I chose to match with the second of the 12 special wines Tom picked out from his collection to drink, one a month, this year. February’s wine was a 2001 Gaja Costa Russi – also from the Piedmont. I found the recipe on Italian Home Cooking, a blog by Stefano Arturi that I follow. Stefano is a London-based former restaurateur, cookbook author, and cooking teacher. His version of the timbale is an adaptation of one in Il Talismano della Felicità, the great seminal cookbook by Ada Boni. And mine is a slight adaptation of Stefano’s.

I want to show you what the finished dish should look like. (Regular readers may suspect why.) Here’s Stefano’s timballo di patate alla finanziera. The free-standing drum is made of mashed potatoes, with a crust of browned, buttery breadcrumbs. Quite a culinary feat!
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I was making my usual half amount of the recipe, which would still be too much for just two of us, but it wouldn’t have been feasible in a smaller quantity.

I started by preparing the potato. I boiled a big russet potato, mashed it, and mixed in beaten egg, grated parmigiano, ground nutmeg, salt, and pepper.
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My faithful knife man cut up the meats for me. I used luganega sausage, chicken gizzards already prepared in confit, and a small amount of veal sweetbread – not exactly what the recipe calls for, but all things I had on hand.
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In a sauté pan I softened minced onions in butter and olive oil, with bay leaf, sage leaf, ground cloves, cinnamon, crushed juniper berries, grated nutmeg, and black pepper. I added each of the meats in turn, cooking them gently, and ended by deglazing the pan with white wine.
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Earlier, I had soaked, softened, and cut up dried porcini mushrooms and also sliced a few fresh cremini mushrooms. Separately, I sautéed those, also in butter and olive oil, and stirred in the porcini soaking liquid and a little tomato paste.
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When I’d mixed the mushrooms and their juices into the meats, the timbale filling was ready and could be set aside. Now came the tricky part!

A bit intimidated by the prospect of using the recommended tall metal charlotte mold, I chose a broader, shallower Corning ware casserole dish. I slathered the interior heavily with softened butter and coated it with fine, dry, homemade breadcrumbs. On top of that I gingerly poured in some beaten egg, tilted the dish around until the egg covered all the crumbs, and followed with another coat of crumbs.
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Per the recipe directions, I put the mold into the freezer for a while, to make it easier for the potato lining to cling. Which it did, surprisingly easily: With wet fingers, it was just like applying modeling clay.
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In went the filling, with butter dotted on the top. Then a covering of the rest of the potato casing and yet more butter..

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I put the dish in a 350° oven with a sigh of relief. But I was not out of the woods yet. It was supposed to be done in 45 to 60 minutes, when the top was firm and golden. It firmed in about an hour, but it absolutely wouldn’t go golden. I gave it several extra minutes, then took it out anyway and let it rest for the indicated 10 minutes before unmolding.

Disaster! Even after loosening the sides, when I topped the dish with a serving plate and reversed the two, the timbale wouldn’t come out. With repeated shaking, the filling and some of its crust let go and spilled out. The original bottom layer of the crust was stuck to the dish and had to be pried out in chunks, to be laid over the filling.

I refuse to show you what the whole mess looked like. Instead, here’s one of the portions I rescued to put on our dinner plates.
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Despite its total collapse, the timbale was delicious. The meats and mushrooms had retained their individual characteristics, enhanced each other, and picked up more flavor from the gentle medley of spices, herbs, wine, and tomato. The potatoes – even the obviously overcooked layer from the bottom of the dish – had also taken on some of the shared flavors and were delicious too. And it all went perfectly with Tom’s special wine.

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I’d like to add that this dinner was special for us in two further ways. That day, we were celebrating Tom’s birthday, and also, we’d gotten our first Covid vaccine shots. Happiness and relief!

I do wonder why my timbale fell apart, though. Dish the wrong shape or made of the wrong material? Not enough butter or crumbs lining it? Potato layer too thin? Too long in the oven? Or just bad culinary luck?  Stefano, if you’re reading this, I’d be grateful for any thoughts you might have about that!

 

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I’ll have no recipe to write about for this week or next: Beloved Spouse and I are in France. First we’ll be spending a week on the MS Loire Princesse, the only cruise ship capable of navigating on “the last wild river in Europe.” The boat is French-owned, and the food is supposed to be very good.
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After the cruise we’ll have a few days on our own in the countryside, with a stay at the Domaine de Beauvois, a château hotel near Tours, then an overnight in Chartres (hotel with Michelin one-star restaurant) before heading home. That is, assuming the airlines don’t pull another computer meltdown and ruin our trip. Fingers crossed!

A bientôt, mes amis.

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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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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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