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 A few coincidences set the stage for a very interesting dinner at home this week.

  • Beloved Spouse, having decided to write a post for his wine blog on a comparison between prosecco and champagne, brought home a representative bottle of each, first for a formal tasting, then to test with dinner foods.
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  • I had just read Fatal Pursuit, a detective novel by Martin Walker that has Perigord police chief/gastronome Bruno Courrèges making blinis of an unusual kind to serve with local caviar – a kind I wanted to try to make.
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  • We had a little jar of American transmontanus caviar in the refrigerator.

Everyone who reads the Bruno books knows that their lavish descriptions of the hero’s cooking are virtually narrative recipes. I’ve written about re-creating some of his dishes here. The blinis in this story are not the traditional Russian ones in several ways. Bruno doesn’t use any buckwheat flour; he adds chopped chives to his batter of flour, milk, egg yolk, and melted butter; and – because he doesn’t have time to raise the blinis with yeast – he beats the egg white into peaks and folds it in. I did the same.
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I dropped the batter by tablespoonsful into very hot butter in a frying pan. (Bruno remarks that this is one of the few places he doesn’t use duck fat!) They cooked quickly and neatly, making 20 fluffy 2-inch pancakes.
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After we’d had the formal tasting of the sparkling wines alone, we opened our caviar and sat down to find out how the champagne and prosecco would go with our dinner dishes. The blinis themselves were fine – light and delicate, an excellent vehicle for the caviar. I think the leftovers, which I froze, may be just as good with smoked salmon or sturgeon.
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We did the same tasting of the two wines along with the dinner’s main course, which was sauteed soft-shell crabs on toast and a summer vegetable mélange of okra, corn, and tomatoes (which I’ve also written about here).
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I’ll leave the detailed results of the wine-wine and wine-food comparisons for Tom’s blog post to report. What I’ll say is simply that Bruno’s blinis were a success, all the food was delicious, both the wines were delightful, and the entire evening sparkled like the wine.

Local corn is finally in at my Greenmarket! Corn season started late this year, and then there were flood washouts from heavy rain in parts of New Jersey that grow the best corn. It’s still not exactly abundant, but I’m doing my best to make up for lost time – as is, I hope, the corn.

After my first joyous indulgences in plain, sweet corn on the cob, I was ready to think about corn recipes. I remembered one I hadn’t gotten around to last year: a salad of roasted fingerling potatoes and corn, dressed with a lively set of flavorings, in Richard Sandoval’s New Latin Flavors. I’ve written here about several of that book’s recipes, and while some came out very well, I’ve learned to approach them with caution. There’s some bad copyediting: For instance, an item on an ingredient list may never show up in the instructions; and quantities given for various ingredients seem disproportionate both to each other and to the stated number of servings.

This potato and corn salad was a case in point. For two of us, I was making half of a recipe said to serve six (I expected some leftovers). It would have wanted a whole pound of fingerling potatoes to a single ear of corn. I bought the pound of potatoes, but when I set them out next to the corn, they looked like far too many.
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I made an executive decision to use just half a pound. That was partly based on my sense of proportion and partly out of awareness of our age-diminished capacities (sigh).

My unpeeled potatoes and the whole cob of corn were to be “tossed” on a rimmed baking sheet with 1½ teaspoons of olive oil – quite a stingy amount, even for my fewer potatoes. Interpreting the tossing metaphorically, I rolled the vegetables around in the oil. Then the corn was to come out, the potatoes to be salted, and the pan to go in a 425° oven.
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After 20 minutes of roasting the potatoes and turning them occasionally, I added the ear of corn to the pan, and kept roasting and turning everything until the vegetables were tender, about 20 minutes more.
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When everything had cooled, I cut the kernels off the corncob, put them in a bowl along with the still-unpeeled potatoes, and dressed them with a tablespoon each of lime juice, minced jalapeño pepper, and chopped parsley, plus about 2½ tablespoons of mayonnaise. When first tasted for salt and pepper, the mixture was entirely dominated by the jalapeño. However, after the bowl sat in the refrigerator for a couple of hours, the seasonings had blended very well, the jalapeno retreating to a pervasive, genial warmth.

In the evening I took the salad out, transferred it to a serving plate, and let it stand at room temperature for half an hour, before serving it alongside grilled sirloin burgers, lettuce, tomatoes, and red onion – classic summer casual dining.
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It was pleasant enough. The flavors were good, though the lime juice was indiscernible. The jalapeño gave the dish a light spicy lift. We would have preferred olive oil instead of mayonnaise, which in this case became slightly gummy, and we would have liked twice as much corn as there was. The potatoes hadn’t taken up many of the seasonings, and their skins were a little tough and not pleasing. (I can’t blame the recipe for that: These were a supermarket’s commercial fingerlings, not local or freshly dug ones, because my Greenmarket didn’t have any this week.) I was very glad I’d cut the potato quantity as I did – it made the right amount for two.

Bottom line: Some time later in the summer I might try adapting the concept of this recipe for a cold dish in a picnic-style meal, but it’s not likely to become a regular in my repertoire.  Just adding roasted corn to a basic potato salad sounds attractive, and I’ve noticed in recent years that in France and Italy, where eating corn on the cob is all but unknown, corn kernels have been turning up in all sorts of dishes, so there’s a lot to explore.

Goan Avocado Salad

Avocados are an extraordinary fruit. Highly caloric – an average-sized Hass avocado runs about 250 calories, 80% of which are from fat – but also chock-full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and the fat is mostly unsaturated. I love avocados, but I’d never made them a regular part of my diet: The only way I prepare them is as guacamole, for Mexican-style meals.

With guacamole vaguely in mind, I picked up a big avocado recently. It sat in my fruit bowl for several days until it fully ripened, and when it was ready I realized I actually wasn’t in the mood for anything Mexican. It was time to try something else with the avocado, and I soon decided what it was to be. In my big recipe binder was an item I’d cut out of a magazine years earlier – a recipe for Floyd Cardoz’s Goan Avocado Salad.

Cardoz was then the owner-chef of Tabla, one of the early restaurants in the Danny Meyer group. Probably thousands of people, including myself, still regret the loss of Tabla and its Bread Bar, which introduced New York to a style of Indian cooking that it had never seen before. The aromas that met you when you entered Tabla were a revelation in themselves.  One of the best loved dishes there was this avocado salad.

The recipe’s preparation is very easy. The avocado, cut in half-inch pieces, is dressed – from left to right in the photo below – with olive oil, onion, tomato, cilantro, cumin, cayenne, and sugar.
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You gently mix everything together in a bowl, press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface to keep the avocado from discoloring, and put the bowl in the refrigerator for two to three hours.
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The recipe calls for serving the salad with chips made from naan, the Indian flatbread. I substituted the pitas I had on hand, cut into triangles and toasted lightly, which could be used either to scoop up the salad or to nibble on the side.
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The salad was excellent. After all this time I can’t recall if it resembled the version served at Tabla, but it was fine in its own right. Though it shares many ingredients with guacamole – avocado, onion, tomato, cilantro – the proportions are different, and the cumin and cayenne spicing, rather than fresh hot chile, give it a whole different character. Also, since the avocado is chunked rather than mashed, the mouthfeel of the dish is quite different from guacamole. It’s pleasant to eat with a fork or spoon, not just as a dip for chips. The toasted pita, by the way, went perfectly well with it.

 A bundle of boneless pork chunks discovered in my freezer this week sent me browsing through cookbooks for a recipe to make with it. A dish we always enjoy is pork long cooked in tomato sauce for pasta, but I wanted something different for a change.

When it’s the unusual I’m looking for, I often turn to Joyce Goldstein’s Kitchen Conversations, a book whose gonzo recipes I’ve written about several times before, making them with various degrees of success; e.g., here and here.

The Hirino me Selino Avgolemono recipe I found there this time – in English, a Greek pork and celery stew – filled the bill for me: I know almost nothing about Greek cooking. The recipe looked straightforward, and I thought the sauce with the avgolemono mixture of egg yolk and lemon juice would be an intriguing taste experience.  And so it was.
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I gathered my ingredients and went to work.

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First was browning the small-cut pieces of pork in olive oil; quickly over high heat, as instructed. Next I took the meat out of the pan and put in the chopped onions. These were to cook 8 to 10 minutes – which, if I’d left the pan over high heat, would have incinerated them. I’ve found Goldstein’s recipes often sloppy about such details. I turned the gas way down and cooked the onions gently.
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The pork then rejoined the onions, along with half a cup of white wine and a cup of water. The recipe also didn’t say to deglaze the pan, but it certainly needed deglazing, so I did – then covered and simmered it for 35 minutes. At that point I added the celery.
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After about 20 more minutes of simmering, both pork and celery were tender. I removed them to a warm platter and quickly reduced the remaining liquid in the pan. Meanwhile I’d beaten an egg yolk with two tablespoons of lemon juice. Into that I stirred small spoonsful of the pan juices to keep the egg from coagulating when it hit the heat, then added the egg-and-lemon mixture to the pan along with some salt and pepper, and poured the finished sauce over the platter of pork and celery.

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It was a good dinner dish – very interesting in the combination of the smooth, sharp avgolemono sauce, the sweet pork, and the astringent celery. It was a bit reminiscent of what in my youth used to be called fricassee, usually made with chicken. I don’t know whether this recipe is an authentic version of the Greek dish (some of Goldstein’s ethnic creations are very idiosyncratic), but it was quite enjoyable.

Oh, and I’ll add that I preceded the stew with an appetizer of my only prior Greek culinary accomplishment: a bowl of homemade tzatziki, to be scooped up with triangles of toasted pita bread.

It’s high season for peas in my Greenmarket, and I’ve been buying them as fast as I can.

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I should mention that for me “peas” means shelling peas, or English peas: My household has no interest in sugar snaps. Standing together at the kitchen counter shelling peas is a pleasant summer tradition for Beloved Spouse and me.

I used to buy peas in quantity, blanch them and freeze them for year-long use, but they always came out tasting like commercially frozen peas, not the tender-crisp sweet vegetable that truly fresh ones are. Now I buy only enough for one or two days’ dinners at a time, so they can be eaten quickly, before the sugars turn to starch.

There’s nothing wrong with plain boiled peas, but when I feel a little more ambitious I turn to Julia Child’s pea recipes in volume 1 of Mastering. The first three are simple enough, and each is designed for peas of a certain quality: very young, sweet, and tender; large but still tender and fresh; and large, mature, end-of-season. The fourth recipe, Petits Pois Frais à la Française, is far more elaborate. Julia calls it “the glory of pea cookery.”

Essentially it’s peas braised with lettuce and onions, in a very particular way. I’ve never gone through the entire procedure, but this season I successfully adapted the recipe for faster, easy preparation. Here are the components for two portions, using one cup of shelled peas:

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The first simplification was the lettuce. Julia calls for quartered heads of Boston lettuce, wound around with string to keep them in shape during the cooking. As you see, I simply shredded leaves of fresh Greenmarket leaf lettuces.

Second was the onions. Julia wants one-inch green onion bulbs or small white onions parboiled for five minutes. I had a larger onion – so fresh it didn’t need peeling – so I quartered it and gave it the parboiling.

The cooking began in Julia’s manner. I brought butter, a little water, sugar, salt, and pepper to a boil in a pot, put in the peas, and stirred them around. Then, instead of burying a bunch of fresh parsley stems tied together with string in the middle of the peas, as she says, I sprinkled on chopped parsley. Instead of arranging lettuce quarters over the peas and basting them with the liquid, I just strewed on the chopped lettuce and followed with the onion quarters (already falling apart, but no matter).
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Next came my major divergence. This is what I didn’t do:

So that the cooking steam will condense and fall back onto the peas, invert a lid over the saucepan and fill it with cold water or ice cubes; or use a soup plate. Bring the peas to the boil and boil slowly for 20 to 30 minutes or until tender. Several times during the period, remove the cover and toss the peas and vegetables to insure even cooking. As the water warms and evaporates in the cover or soup plate, refill with ice cubes or cold water.

I couldn’t see why a snug-fitting normal lid wouldn’t circulate steam as well as that Rube Goldberg contraption, so I just put a low flame under the pot, covered it tightly, and simmered for 20 minutes, checking and stirring once or twice. It worked perfectly well. When the peas were done, most of the liquid was gone, but that’s what the recipe said would happen anyway. So why take all that trouble? I briefly raised the heat to boil down what remained, and transferred everything to a serving dish – skipping an indicated final dose of softened butter. That would’ve been gilding the lily.

 

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The dish isn’t glamorous, but it is absolutely delicious. The flavors blend in a rich harmony. For me this is indeed the glory of pea cookery – and done in the easiest possible way.

After a dinner or two more of peas like this, and while their short season lasts, I may cross over to Italy and turn to another delicious pea dish: risi e bisi. (Background cheers from Beloved Spouse.)

Rillettes are a signature dish of the cuisine of the Loire Valley. Lush and succulent, it’s potted pork: lightly seasoned, lengthily cooked, shredded, and packed in its own fat. I was eager for rillettes on my recent French trip, but nowhere was it offered. Since France wouldn’t cooperate, I determined to make it at home.

Making rillettes looked easy enough, though time-consuming. From Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking I learned that different cities in the area have different versions, some adding rabbit, duck, or goose to the pork. I used Willan’s recipe for the rillettes of Tours, which is only pork. And pork fat: She says you should use at least half as much fat as lean and you can even use equal amounts of both.

I went to a supermarket to buy the pork, and to my surprise found the cuts were quite closely trimmed. I needed more fat. I settled for two loin chops and some fatty chunks of pork belly. (That may have been my first mistake.) I cut them in pieces as directed.
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The meat, fat, and bones went into a heavy pot along with salt, pepper, half a bay leaf, and tiny pinches of nutmeg, allspice, and thyme.
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I added half a cup of water, brought it to a boil, tightly covered the pot, and put it in a 320° oven. The recipe said it would take four to five hours for a much larger quantity than I was making. Every half hour I checked to see if it needed more water to keep the meat from frying. The belly fat was extremely reluctant to melt. Even without rind, there seemed to be something cartilaginous about it. The pot needed a lot more additional water than the recipe implied, and even so the meat was getting awfully crisp. After the full five hours I took it out of the oven.
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Next was to discard the bones and bay leaf, take out the pork, reserve the fat, and shred the meat with two forks. It did not shred easily. The larger chunks of belly had to be cut up with a poultry shear, and even the softer bits of meat were pretty stringy.
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Hoping against hope, I continued with the recipe. I mixed the cooled liquid fat with the meat. There was less fat than seemed right, so I melted down some lard and added it. Then I packed it all into a small crock and faithfully followed Willan’s quaint instruction to cover it with waxed paper and tie the paper in place with string.
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It rested in the refrigerator for two days, during which time I thought perhaps it would all soften. When I took out the crock and tried spreading some of the rillettes on a slice of baguette, it was immediately apparent that it hadn’t.
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The flavor was okay, but the texture was terrible. None of the fat had permeated the tough, dry, bits of meat. We couldn’t bring ourselves to eat it.

The next day I tried to rescue my rillettes by pureeing them through the mini food processor. That didn’t work either. It left me with a semi-smooth base of puree threaded through with stringy bits. Sigh.

So, post mortem: What went wrong here? Various possibilities, starting with the wrong kind of pork and/or too poor a quality of it. Maybe too large a pot, so the meats were too spread out in it and dried before they could tenderize. Probably much too much cooking because of the intransigent belly fat. I don’t think I can blame my recipe for any of this, only myself.

Neverthess, I’m not giving up my determination to make good rillettes. Sometime soon (but not too soon; not until after the trauma fades) I will try again, with better pork, better fat, and more attention to the procedure. It seems such a simple recipe; I should be able to do this.

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I just spent a week of bright sunny days cruising the wild, scenic, unspoiled river Loire on the MS Loire Princesse. This handsome paddle-wheel barge-type ship is French-owned, and its 90 passengers were about 60% French, 20% Spanish, and 20% British and Antipodean. Tom and I were the only Americans.

We’d been greatly looking forward to the food on the voyage. As this was a moderately priced cruise, providing good value but not extravagance, only a single three-course menu was available for each lunch and dinner. There was no particular emphasis on the cuisine of the Loire Valley. That was a bit disappointing for us, but the cooking was generally good. Every day several pleasant, simple wines were liberally poured at no cost, and there was a small list of better wines for purchase. (Tom’s blog has more to say about the wines.)
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Lunches

The lunches onboard were far larger than what we’re used to. A few times we’d have been just as happy with only a sandwich or a hamburger. But the chef prepared these menus, and we were on vacation, so we had to try them, didn’t we? Somehow, we managed to get through midday meals like these. (Wine helped, and often a little nap too.)
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Fresh pickled herring, roast veal with chanterelles, tortoni
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Mozzarella and tomato salad, filet of pork with duchesse potatoes, tiramisu
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Black Forest ham, hake filet grenobloise, raspberry cake

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Dinners

Dinners were equally elaborate and varied, with occasionally a small fourth course included. The chef had a real talent with meat and potatoes but offered few fresh seasonal vegetables other than salad greens.
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Duck terrine with sauce gribiche, stuffed filet of chicken with tagliatelle, raspberry torte
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Veal-filled beggar’s purse pasta with cream sauce, confit duck leg, crepes suzette
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Scallop salad, duck breast with port sauce, baked apple on brioche French toast

 

 

Cappuccino of cèpes, vegetables à la grecque, blanquette de veau à l’ancienne, peach melba

 

A word of explanation about the “cappuccino” just above. That’s what it looked like, but it was actually a trompe l’oeil creation: a rich soup of wild mushrooms topped with a veil of cream and a sprinkle of minced mushrooms as faux cinnamon. Quite a delicious frivolity.

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Overall, the cruise’s food was a little too elaborated, too heavily decorated, for our taste. Rather than the panoply of flavors present in most dishes, we’d have preferred having the simple quality of the main ingredients left to shine forth on their own. Also, we really regretted the dearth of local specialties. To be in the Loire Valley and not be offered rillettes or beurre blanc seemed wrong! Likewise, to be in the agricultural heart of France in mid-June and be fed carrots and brussels sprouts. But many individual dishes were excellent.  For instance, the herring in the first lunch above was as sparkling, fresh, and delicious as any I’ve ever had. The many mushroom varieties the chef seemed to love using tasted fine indeed, and he had the best hand with pasta of any French cook we’ve encountered.

After the cruise, we had a few days in the Touraine and the Orléanais on our own, where we took the opportunity to make up some of the deficit of regional dishes – e.g., fabulous white asparagus. And I’ve purchased a little French book of recipes of the châteaux of the Loire, to encourage myself to make them at home.