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I keep forgetting what a versatile vegetable fennel is. I tend to think of it as raw spears nibbled to clean the palate between the main course and the cheese – a position it occupies admirably. But cooked fennel is also an excellent companion to many fish and meat dishes – a fact of which I was reminded recently when turning the pages of Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook.

There I found three recipes for fennel: one roasted, one braised, and one baked. I thought it would be interesting to make them all in a short time, to see how the differences would affect the results.

A bulb of fennel with its long feathery shoots can be a very pretty thing, but on the day I wanted to try the first recipe, the ones in local stores were looking fairly ratty. But fennel is a sturdy vegetable, which doesn’t seem to suffer much from age and handling. A useful characteristic!

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Roasted Fennel with Potatoes and Garlic

Michele’s headnote for this recipe begins “Every time I prepare this, I wish I had made more. Everybody loves it, and it disappears fast.” Now, that’s a lot for a simple dish to live up to, so I was slightly skeptical. We’d see about it.

My faithful knife man cut half of that big fennel bulb into ½-inch slices (I saved the rest for the next recipe), and he also cut a ½-pound Yukon gold potato into ¼-inch slices. I spread them all on an olive-oiled baking pan, brushed them with more oil, and added salt and pepper.
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The pan went into a 425° oven for 20 minutes, after which I took it out, turned over the vegetables, sprinkled on a minced garlic clove, and roasted for 10 more minutes, when the recipe said they’d be tender and browned. Tender they definitely were, but not even remotely as brown and handsome as the book’s photograph showed.
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I wonder if my oven is running too cool. Still, it was dinner time, so out they came. And you know what? They were scrumptious. We both loved them, they disappeared fast, and I wished I had made more.

 

Golden Braised Fennel

A few days later I made the second recipe, which as almost as effortless as the first. The second half of that big fennel bulb, also in ½-inch slices, went into a sauté pan with melted butter.
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I sauteed the pieces for four minutes on each side, until they were just beginning to brown, then poured on a little water, added salt and pepper, covered the pan, and cooked it very gently for 20 minutes. About half-way through, I checked and added a little more water to keep the fennel from frying. Then I sprinkled on two tablespoons of grated parmigiano, covered the pan again, and cooked for another minute, until the cheese melted in.
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This was also a good dish, simple and homey. It tasted mostly of pure fennel – vegetal and lightly liquoricey. It was meltingly soft from the moist cooking, with just a hint of richness from the cheese.

 

Creamy Fennel Gratin

This recipe’s headnote calls it one of Michele’s favorite ways to eat fennel. It’s more elaborate than the others but not at all difficult or time-consuming to make. I was able to get a better-looking bulb of fennel for it than I had for the other recipes. (Too bad I had no use for the attractive feathery fronds!)

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The fennel was to be cut in ½-inch thick wedges and parboiled until almost tender. My wedges came out rather thicker than that, so they took 10 minutes, not the suggested 5.
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Drained, sprayed with cold water, and patted dry, the wedges went into a buttered baking dish; were topped with butter bits, heavy cream, freshly ground black pepper, and grated parmigiano; and baked for 20 minutes at 400°.
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The fennel wedges absorbed almost all the cream, making them plump, lush, and velvety. The light crust of the butter-browned cheese was a good textural contrast. I think this would be an excellent dish to serve at a dinner party, alongside a broiled or roasted meat or chicken.

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Three recipes, all tasting deliciously of fennel, but each sufficiently different to occupy separate flavor and utility niches: Nice!

Reveling in Ricotta

Earlier this month Tom came home from a sojourn in Naples with a palate primed for ricotta. He’d been there for “Campania Stories,” an annual five-day event showcasing the wines of the region. Several of the meals provided for the attending journalists had included luscious fresh buffalo- or sheep-milk ricotta, and he longed for more of it.

I was happy to indulge him. Fortunately, we can get good fresh ricotta here now, and though it’s usually from cows’ milk, it’s vastly better than commercial brands filled with stabilizers and preservatives. I promptly acquired some.
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While the ricotta was at its freshest, we had it first in an antipasto: on each plate a big scoop of ricotta, paper-thin slices of felino salame, halved grape tomatoes dressed with salt, pepper, oregano, and olive oil, and a few fennel-flavored taralli. This reproduced what had been the ubiquitous Neapolitan antipasto during Tom’s trip, and we both reveled in its flavors – an appetizer in the truest sense.
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Our second use of the ricotta was in a pasta recipe from our own cookbook La Tavola Italiana: Maccheroni with Ricotta and Tomato Sauce. It’s a breeze to make – the simplicity highlights the ricotta itself, so the freshest, most flavorful ricotta is essential.

I opened a jar of my homemade tomato sauce and heated it up. I cooked the pasta, dressed it lightly with the sauce, then tossed in ricotta (brought to room temperature) and mixed all together well. Contrary to what one might expect, the ricotta lightened the dish and made it surprisingly fresh – not the effect that cheese usually has on pasta.
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There was still enough ricotta left to use in a dessert on another day. Also in La Tavola Italiana is a recipe for a Ricotta and Strawberry Parfait. The ricotta is whipped or beaten until smooth and flavored with sugar, egg yolk, and amaretto liqueur. The cream is heaped on berries that have been hulled, rinsed, and tossed with lemon juice. Slivered almonds go on top.

This day the stores’ strawberries didn’t look very good, so I bought big juicy blackberries instead. And for the liqueur, since I didn’t have any amaretto, I used kirsch. The dish was fine with those substitutions. Once again, the ricotta created a sense of lightness, beautifully complementing the berries and making the dessert a pleasing grace note to the meal that preceded it.
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Neapolitans, says Tom, know a thing or two about dining.

All of three years ago, on my return from a trip to Spain, a post that I wrote here about many of the foods I enjoyed there mentioned a dessert called a torrija. Entirely new to me, it seemed to be a sort of structured-chunk-of-bread pudding with a crunchy crème brûlée topping – quite delicious. Here’s the picture I took of it:

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Eager to try making it at home, I began looking for recipes. There were two in my Spanish cookbooks, and I found others on the internet, but they were all essentially French toast: bread slices dipped in a thin custard, some also in beaten egg, and fried to thorough brownness in oil or butter. It was clear from my photo that the one I had in Spain hadn’t been done that way.

The soft white sides of that torrija made me think it couldn’t have been fried at all, so when I attempted to recreate the dish I baked it and ran it under the broiler with a brown sugar topping. Never mind the details; it didn’t work. I never got around to trying again.

But I couldn’t get that torrija out of my mind. Recently I had an idea about it: I searched for the name on Google Images. Among the hundreds of photos that came up, a few looked something like the one I had in Spain. Pursuing those to their sources, I learned that there are two kinds of torrijas. “Mine” was the kind called caramelezada, and it’s cooked in a way different from the French-toast type. Eureka!

But not so fast: the underlying recipes were all in Spanish. The little of that language that I know wasn’t enough to fully grasp the techniques, and Google’s translations were ludicrous. So I had to improvise somewhat. Here, by the way, is the recipe I relied on, to the extent that I could, for my experiment.

Making just a fraction of the recipe’s quantities, I stirred together milk, heavy cream, beaten egg and sugar. I put two thick slabs of my own white bread into this uncooked batter and left them to absorb it, which turned out not to be as simple as it sounds.

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The recipe said they’d need 45 minutes on each side. That seemed like a lot, but fortunately I’d started early enough in the day, because it did take that long, even with occasional pour-overs to expedite the process.

Then came the actual cooking. This was where the Spanish instructions weren’t clear to me. Here’s exactly how Google translated the final words of the recipe:

We go with the marking of the French toast. We light the pan with butter. We pour plenty of sugar on the top and put them in the pan for a while until the sugar is roasted (but be careful not to burn). We do the same for the other side and put them on the plates.

Was I supposed to put the sugar on top of the butter, which was just referred to, or on “them,” the breads? How much sugar is “plenty”? It would also have helped to know how high a heat to use and how long it might take for the sugar to “roast.” ¿Quién sabe?

First I tried putting the sugar in the pan and laying the bread slice on top of the sugar.

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The butter bubbled along merrily, but when I tilted up the bread to see how it was browning, I couldn’t see any effect from the sugar. So just before turning the bread, I put some sugar on top of it.
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The butter was getting pretty dark, and I worried that it, not the sugar, might burn. When the first chunk of bread was well browned, I took it out of the pan. No sugar had caramelized on it, but it was clearly cooked enough. For the second chunk, I added more fresh butter and put sugar both in the pan and on each side of the bread.
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I got basically the same result: The sugar just dissolved, and the bread simply browned in the sweetened butter. I gave up and called them done.
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They weren’t a disaster. Their texture and flavor were very like the torrija I had in Spain. But I’m really sorry I couldn’t get the crunchy topping. Not just for the pleasant mouthfeel: Caramelizing sugar cuts some of its sweetness, and the amounts of sugar each torrija absorbed in my futile attempts to caramelize it gave it a far more intense sweetness than I’d have liked.
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A little blowtorch would probably have done the job, but I don’t own one. Beloved Spouse is voting for a few minutes under the broiler, but that didn’t work when I made my first torrija try. If anyone who reads this post has had success with torrijas caramelezadas, I’d be grateful for any tips you’d care to provide. In English, please: My Spanish is clearly inadequate for this dish.

The calendar may say Spring, but both the weather (snow in April!) and the fresh produce in markets still keep sullenly saying Winter. How I yearn for good hot-weather vegetables – especially those that can be made into antipasti for everyday dinners: ripe tomatoes! peppers and zucchini and eggplants from local farms! But they won’t be here for many weeks yet. Casting about for something to tempt our palates, I came upon a recipe in La Tavola Italiana, my own first cookbook, for a tortino di mozzarella; a recipe that I hadn’t made in a few years. Why not now?

In English, “torte” usually means an elaborate layered cake, but in Italy a torta can be a sweet or savory pastry. The diminutive tortino suggests a short-cut version of the breed. This mozzarella torte is a simple baked bread-and-cheese affair, but it really sings if you use excellent fresh mozzarella and good firm bread. Usually I make it with Italian-style bread (as long as the slices aren’t too full of air holes), but I’d just baked a batch of my favorite Joy of Cooking White Bread Plus, so I decided to try that for a change. I also had a large ball of buffalo mozzarella in the refrigerator, which is always a treat.
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The other ingredients are egg yolk, milk, anchovy fillets, fennel seeds, and grated parmigiano – all things I typically have on hand. Here’s the prep work for two portions:

  • Trimming the crusts off four slices of bread and laying them snugly in a buttered baking dish
  • Pureeing four chopped anchovy filets, an egg yolk, and ¼ cup of milk in my mini-food processor
  • Cutting four thick slices of mozzarella
  • Measuring out ½ teaspoon of fennel seeds and 1½ tablespoons of grated parmigiano.
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As dinner time approached, I finished making up the tortino while the oven preheated. The first step was to spoon the egg-milk-anchovy sauce over the bread, letting it absorb all the liquid. Then, to top each slice of bread with a slice of mozzarella. Finally, sprinkle on the fennel seeds and the grated cheese.  No intricacies: a very straightforward procedure.
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The dish went into a 400° oven for 20 minutes, until the cheese was bubbling and just starting to brown on top. Then it had to sit for 5 minutes before serving, so the molten cheese wouldn’t scald our mouths.
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The look and smell of the tortino were very appetizing (which was the point, of course). It tasted rather like a good mozzarella in carrozza but with additional flavor fillips from the fennel seeds and anchovy. A very satisfying cold-weather antipasto that I’ve been ignoring for too long; must make it again soon!

Two Octopus Tapas

Octopus, which used to be a culinary curiosity in this country, is increasingly coming into the mainstream of locally available seafood. Three different fish stores within half a mile of my home now carry it regularly, both raw and cooked. I’ve had very good results from a few Spanish and Italian octopus recipes and am always interested in new ones. The two latest ones I’ve made are from Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain, by Penelope Casas.

My copy is an attractive large paperback, with more than 300 recipes. Those I’d tried had all been successful, so when I came across two for octopus tapas that I hadn’t much noticed before, I read them with interest. Both have you start by simply boiling the octopus, so for the sake of convenience I bought a pound of cooked tentacles – enough for half recipes of each tapa.
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The first dish I made was Pulpo con Patatas, Octopus with Red Peppers and Potatoes. The full recipe is said to serve four, but I could see that even the half would be plenty for a main dish for the two of us. Along with the cut-up octopus, it calls for chopped onion, cubed potatoes, Spanish smoked paprika, skinned and chopped sweet red pepper, minced garlic, and bay leaf.
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Once Beloved Spouse had done all the knife work for me, the rest of the preparation was easy enough. Boil the potatoes until tender, drain them, and save some of the cooking water. In an ovenproof dish sauté the onion, pepper, and garlic in olive oil. Add the octopus and sauté for a minute or two. Stir in the paprika, bay leaf, potatoes, salt, and a little of the potato water.
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Bring the liquid to a boil and bake the dish, uncovered, in a moderate oven for 15 minutes. It came out of the oven looking much as it did going in, but the flavors had blended a bit and intensified each other, making a rich, filling combination.
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This was a good, satisfying dish, but I don’t see it as becoming a regular in my repertoire: Though billed as a tapa, it would have been very heavy as an appetizer; and as a main course it wasn’t quite as satisfying as a few other octopus dishes I’ve made – here and here.  For us, those are the upper echelon of octopus cookery.

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A few days later, I made the second tapa recipe, Pulpo a la Leonesa, Octopus Stewed in Onions. With my pre-cooked octopus, it was the essence of simplicity: aside from the eponymous octopus and onions, the only ingredients are olive oil, vinegar, wine, and salt.

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I softened the onions in the oil, covered the pan and cooked them gently until tender. I added one-inch pieces of octopus, salt, and tiny amounts of white wine and my own red wine vinegar; cooked it all gently, covered, for 15 minutes; and served with slices of crusty bread.
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This dish wasn’t quite as successful as the previous one. Mostly my fault, I think: The recipe strongly recommended using tiny octopi, which would have benefited more from the condiments than my larger chunks did. Also, there was a little too much sameness to each dense, rich mouthful. It would have shown better in an assortment of several tapas, with varying textures and flavors to contrast, than it did as our only appetizer. The onions were extremely tasty, though – we’d have liked more of them.

The next time I get an urge for octopus, I might buy the tiny ones, cook them myself, and try this dish again to see what difference they make. And I’ll probably increase the quantity of onions.

In the later twentieth-century culinary world, Patience Gray was the epitome of the eccentric Englishwoman. Her adventurous and impoverished years of living in remote parts of the Mediterranean region are memorably captured in her cookbook Honey From a Weed: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia – which I acquired only recently.

It’s a fascinating book, though to me really more for reading than for cooking from. It’s filled with history, admonitions, anecdotes and folklore about seemingly every vegetable, every herb, every land and sea creature Ms. Gray ever encountered in her many primitive dwelling places.

The first dish I’ve tried from the book is called Guinea Fowl My Way. Now, I like guinea hens: they’re leaner than chickens, with darker, denser flesh, richly flavored and just a bit gamy. But this recipe had an additional attraction for me because of this remark in her headnote: “I propose the following anarchic method; carry it out before protesting.” I couldn’t resist the challenge!

So, off to the butcher shop for a bird. I had to order it, and the one I received was over three pounds, half again as big as the recipe called for.
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The anarchic character of the recipe showed at the start: The first thing I had to do was make a grog. This involved boiling up lemon juice, lemon zest, sugar, black pepper, and water, then stirring in a hefty dose of grappa. Gray goes on: “if you are anticipating a cold – I am writing this in winter – drink some of it hot. Leave what remains to infuse.” I did.
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Next was to brown the guinea hen in olive oil in a frying pan with garlic cloves. Since I’d be making the dish just for two, I cut my bird in half and froze one half for another time.
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The shape of the half hen made it reluctant to brown very well, but I did what I could, then transferred it to a casserole in which it fit snugly. Since it had no body cavity to hold a required rosemary sprig, pine nuts, and more garlic, I just added them to the pot. Then I deglazed the frying pan with red wine and poured that over the bird.
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Finally, before covering the pot and letting it cook gently until the hen was done, I was to “heat and add what is left of the grog.” There was a lot left, but after one more sip, in it all went. (I’m happy to say those sips warded off any cold I might have been anticipating.)

My half bird took about an hour to cook, longer than the recipe said for a whole bird, probably because mine was older and with firmer flesh. A few bastings with the pan juices kept it moist, and it came out looking quite nice, if you allow for a guinea hen’s rather splotchy-looking skin.
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We were very interested in those wine- and grog-redolent pan juices, so I made a batch of fresh egg noodles to serve along with the bird. (The other vegetable on the plate is sauteed eggplant.)
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It all made a good meal, though not noticeably anarchic. The guinea hen was very flavorful, the light gravy excellent on both the meat and the noodles. Its alcohol had all cooked away, of course. I don’t know that I’d go the whole grog route again if I make the dish another time, but a slow braise like this is clearly a good way to handle guinea hen.

Have you ever heard of pasta made with flour from burnt wheat? I hadn’t, until the day my friend Livio gave me a bag of dark brown orecchiette, looking for all the world like empty half nutshells. He explained that this was grano arso, an old-time pasta type from Puglia.

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As I’ve learned, grano arso flour was originally made from grains of the scorched wheatstalks left after farmers had burned their fields at the end of the harvest, which the poor were allowed to glean for their own use. It gave a stronger, slightly bitter flavor to the flour and the pasta made from it. Nowadays, grano arso is made from toasted wheat, and the pasta it makes has apparently become fashionable in Italy.

Livio said his elderly aunt, Zia Nina, a formidable lady who lives in Bari and whom Tom and I visited on a trip there many years ago, still makes a delicious dish of grano arso orecchiette – Puglia’s favorite pasta. She serves it in a piquant tomato sauce topped with a lot of grated cacioricotta cheese, and he makes the dish her way too. He also gave me a round of the essential cheese, a firm, dry type made from a mixture of sheep and cow milk, with a recommendation to keep it frozen for easier grating.

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The ordinary cream-colored orecchiette, made from unscorched wheat flour, aren’t among my favorite pastas. They’d always struck me as rather thick and doughy, but I was game to try this unusual variety, as was Tom, who is always open to a new pasta dish. Following Livio’s instructions, I pepped up my own simple tomato sauce with garlic and peperoncino, poured in a good dollop of red wine, and simmered it until it thickened nicely.
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The orecchiette took quite a long time to boil and lost some of their dark color in the water. I finished them for a few minutes in the tomato sauce.
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The only remaining step was to grate the cacioricotta abundantly over each serving. Actually, the amount of cheese shown here wasn’t quite enough. After tasting the pasta, we both grated more into our bowls.
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This was an excellent dish, easily the best orecchiette either of us had eaten. The orecchiette themselves were firmer, more flavorful, and less doughy than the usual ones, and their little hollows served handsomely to collect the zesty sauce and slightly sour cheese: altogether, a happy medley of flavors and textures. I hope Zia Nina would’ve approved.