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Lamb stew is typically a slam-dunk for me: I brown chunks of lamb in a big pot; throw in cut-up onions, carrots, potatoes, and green beans; add broth, salt, and pepper: and cook until done. Good, solid food, but more than a little predictable.

Recently I was led to an interestingly different sort of lamb stew by a chance discovery in my pantry. Way in the back of a shelf I found a small bag holding a pair of dried ñora peppers.
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Cute little things, aren’t they? Turns out I’d bought some for use in a Spanish recipe all of five years ago and afterward completely forgot about the unused ones. Time to do something with them! The index of Penelope Casas’ La Cocina de Mamá sent me to a recipe for caldereta de cordero – a lamb stew in which these sweet (not hot) red peppers play a major role. It sounded simple and good. The only solid ingredients were boneless leg of lamb, potatoes, garlic, and the ñoras.
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To begin, I cored and seeded the peppers and cooked them along with the whole garlic cloves in olive oil for just two minutes.
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I added the lamb pieces, salt and pepper, and sauteed until the meat was lightly browned.
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Then I covered the pot and – with no liquid in it at all – let it cook very gently for half an hour, letting the lamb imbue itself with the other flavors. At that point the ñoras and garlics had to be taken out, mashed to a paste, and stirred back into the pot, along with white wine and broth.
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Finally, in went the potatoes, to cook with the lamb and absorb its seasonings for another half hour.
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In her recipe headnote Casas said to serve a Moorish-style green salad with the stew. So, following her recipe for the salad dressing, I mashed cumin seeds, garlic, Spanish smoked paprika, and salt in a mortar, whisked in olive oil and wine vinegar, and tossed it all with lettuce.

The stew was very good, and very different from the kind of lamb stew I usually make. The ñoras had given warm, earthy, and almost fruity undertones to the meat, potatoes, and sauce. And the spicy dressing on crisp lettuce leaves made an excellent complement to the dish. For its tastiness and ease of preparation,  I can easily see adding this lamb stew to my repertoire.
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Dining in Lyon

As I mentioned in last week’s post, Tom and I had carefully chosen restaurants for the three dinners we’d be having in Lyon after our Rhône cruise. We wanted simple brasseries or bouchons devoted to traditional Lyonnaise cuisine. Our selection was somewhat limited by our days’ including a Sunday and a Monday, when many restaurants there are closed. But we did very well with the ones we found.

 

Brasserie Georges

Brasserie Georges, huge, bustling, and immoderately lively, has been an institution in Lyon since 1836. We discovered it on our first visit to the city in 2008 and have ever since remembered the fabulous first course of roasted marrow bones we ate there. So of course we both had them again this time around.

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The menu called the dish Os à moelle à la croque au sel de Guérande, pain grillé. We called it heaven. The prized crunchy sea salt of the Guerande area gave a special zest to the soft, lush marrow as it melted onto the warm toasted bread. But each portion was enormous: We would have been wiser to split a single order instead of gluttonously plowing through the two.

For our second courses, Tom had steak tartare of Charolais beef, expertly prepared at our table with the condiments of his choice and served with a green salad and fried potatoes. I had tête de veau – calf’s head – with ravigote sauce and steamed vegetables. Both were fine of their kind.
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Needing a break from the multiple-course menus we’d been eating on shipboard, we simply stopped there: Georges’ food was very good, but not quite as magical as memory had painted it. Nonetheless contentedly stuffed, we strolled home and finished our evening with cognacs from the bar at our hotel.

 

Le Petit Léon de Lyon

Though it still calls itself a bistro, Léon de Lyon has become a double restaurant: the original establishment, dating from 1904, now features elegant, upscale cuisine, while a small new adjacent space, dubbed Le Petit Léon de Lyon, offers simpler, traditional fare. The little place was perfect for us.

We both started with the house’s pâté en croûte.
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The thick slices of buttery pastry enclosed a filling made from foie gras, veal sweetbreads, and vin jaune, a sherry-like white wine from France’s Jura region. Not so simple at that! It was marvelous, and so filling we could almost have stopped right there.

But we didn’t. For the main course, we’d both ordered Lyon’s signature tripe dish, gras double à la lyonnaise. Here the Petit Léon surprised us: What we received wasn’t the typical version, where the tripe is essentially stewed in onions and wine, but instead was cooked in a sauce with quite a lot of tomato and then gratinéed for serving. Very good, but not what we were expecting.
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The gras double tripe, so different from the honeycomb tripe that is all we get in the US, was melt-in-the-mouth delicious, but so unutterably rich in its sauce that neither of us could finish our portion. The fresh green salad that came alongside made a welcome brisk counterpoint, but it could only help so far. Once again, we didn’t go on to cheese or dessert.

 

Brasserie Le Nord

In addition to the original Michelin three-star Paul Bocuse restaurant just north of Lyon, there are seven less glittering Paul Bocuse restaurants in the city itself, including four brasseries named for the cardinal points of the compass. Each of those has a different culinary emphasis. Le Nord is devoted to “les grands classiques de la Cuisine de Tradition Lyonnaise.” We dined there on our last night in Lyon.

Our meal was indeed classic, in both simplicity and excellence. We both started with fresh foie gras, among the best we’ve ever had.
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Served with it was a cooked condiment made (I was told) from red onion, apple, pineapple, and celery. It was fascinating – sweet but sharp, a wonderful foil for the goose liver’s richness. I’ve since discovered that similar fruit garnishes are very popular now, and I’m going to try making one like this for the foie gras that we brought home from this trip.

Next, Tom had lamb sweetbreads braised in a velvety brown sauce, and I had a leg of Bresse chicken cooked with cream and mushrooms, both very fine.
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Capable at last of going on to a light dessert, we both had dishes of delicious raspberries and strawberries in crème Chantilly. They were immensely refreshing after the richness of Le Nord’s cuisine.
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Every dish we had this evening was as near to perfection of its kind as I can imagine. The meal was a grandly memorable conclusion to our dining in Lyon.

 

Lest I forget: I should also mention that with each of these three dinners we drank remarkable wines, which you can read about in Tom’s blog.

 

Last week Tom and I were in France, cruising the Rhône on the 110-meter MS Camargue. Starting from Lyon, we traveled up the river to Mâcon, then down to Avignon and Arles, and back again to Lyon. It was an interesting trip, though the weather was unseasonably chilly and the notorious Mistral wind blew strongly much of the time. Those conditions encouraged hearty appetites, which the ship’s chef was only too ready to indulge.

There were three or four courses at both lunch and dinner, with modest wines of the region generously poured at no cost and a short list of better wines for purchase. (Tom has written about the wines on his blog.) Here are some of the meals we enjoyed.
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Cured ham.  Baked chicken rolls, potato croquettes, broccoli.  Crepes with orange sorbet.

That chicken should be our first dinner was an auspicious start for me, the poultry lover. Not so much for Tom, but he admitted it was a very flavorful bird.

 

Mozzarella and tomato. Red mullet fillet, spelt risotto, asparagus tips. Cafe Liegeois.

I’ve rarely eaten mullet and never, to my recollection, tasted spelt before. This dish made me want to look for more of both. The sauce was particularly good too.

 

Fresh pea soup. Pork tenderloin with duchesse potatoes, green beans. Cabosse.

St. Germain: a velvety purée of the freshest green peas. A cabosse is a mold of chocolate in the shape of a cacao bean. This one was filled with chocolate mousse.

 

Salade lyonnaise. Roasted rabbit, gnocchi, carrots. Lemon tart.

A poached egg (barely visible here) makes a marvelous dressing for Lyon’s signature entrée salad. The rabbit was one of the best I’ve ever had.

 

At the end of the cruise Tom and I spent three more days on our own in Lyon. That city is a gastronome’s paradise, and we’d carefully chosen the restaurants where we wanted to eat: no modern, elegant, Michelin-starred establishments but the deeply traditional brasseries and bouchons beloved by the Lyonnais. I’ll devote my next post to those dinners.

Tripe Espagnole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For all the years that I’ve owned Penelope Casas’s Foods and Wines of Spain, I still can hardly turn that book’s pages without coming upon an intriguing recipe I haven’t made before. My most recent find was her Conejo al Pirineo: a dish of rabbit braised in white wine with herbs, almonds, and pine nuts. That combination seemed inspired.

I hadn’t eaten any rabbit since my trip to Malta last fall, and hadn’t cooked a rabbit at home for several years. It was time to do so again. My butcher provided me with one of d’Artagnan’s “young fryer rabbits.” These are billed as being humanely raised, given no antibiotics or hormones, and fed a vegetarian diet of sweet alfalfa, oats, wheat, and barley. All that sounds as if it should produce a healthy and tasty little Thumper.

On opening its package, I was surprised by how large the rabbit was. Tailbone to chest, it was 16 inches long, and it weighed more than 3 pounds – more Brer Rabbit than Thumper.
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Also surprising was that, despite the reputed leanness of its meat, my rabbit had quite a lot of fat on it, clumped in a number of places. Evidently not a speedy Energizer bunny, this one. I trimmed it all off and cut the rabbit into serving pieces.
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Another attractive aspect of Casas’s recipe: The cooking is extremely simple. To start I floured and browned the rabbit pieces in olive oil, strewed on a lot of coarsely chopped onion, and cooked uncovered until the onion wilted.
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Next I added white wine, parsley, thyme, bay leaf, salt, pepper, minced garlic, two tablespoons of pine nuts, and a quarter cup of slivered blanched almonds.
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Covered, the rabbit and its seasonings simmered along for two hours. I turned the pieces occasionally and kept an eye on the liquid level. No more liquid was needed. The meat stayed very firm until nearly the end, then became extremely tender, ready to fall right off the bones.
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The wonderful aroma that had filled the kitchen all through the cooking time had given Tom and me great expectations for when we sat to the dinner table. Alas, they were not fulfilled. The sauce was indeed delicious, but the rabbit itself was dryish and almost tasteless. It could have been supermarket chicken. Maybe I should have left on the fat?
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Belatedly, I remembered that something similar had happened the previous time I’d cooked a d’Artagnan rabbit. I think this has to be the last time I do. The best free-range chickens cost considerably less than d’Artagnan gets for its rabbits.

We didn’t eat very much of the meat, despite the goodness of the sauce. That left me with a lot of leftovers, which I couldn’t bear to discard. So I put them in the refrigerator, and a few days later I made some into a risotto, coarsely chopping the meat and adding minced onion to the initial sauteeing of the rice. There, the small pieces of rabbit in sauce actually tasted better than they had the first time around.
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The rest of the leftover boned-out rabbit went into my freezer, some of which I’m planning to try using for mayonnaise-y rabbit salad sandwiches. And because that sauce was so good, I definitely want to make the recipe again one day using a flavorful free-range chicken.

I really like baking breakfast breads. I make several kinds of rolls, muffins, scones, sweet breads, brioches . . . . I’ve even tried my hand at crumpets and bagels. Fortunately, I have a husband who’s an enthusiastic abettor of my efforts and consumer of the results. (He’s also the barista for the espressos that are our daily breakfast beverage.)

In baking I normally follow recipes closely, but when a fancy for cranberry-orange muffins struck me recently, I found many different ways of making them, in books and online, but none that truly appealed to me. So I took off mostly on my own and, happily, succeeded quite well.
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For the dry ingredients I took the proportions from Joy of Cooking’s basic buttermilk muffin recipe, using 2 cups cake flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, ½ teaspoon baking soda, 2 tablespoons sugar, and ½ teaspoon salt. That huge orange you see in the picture above gave me ⅓ cup of juice, in which I warmed ½ cup of dried cranberries, to soften them. I grated the orange’s peel and stirred the zest into a cup of buttermilk. Separately, I beat an egg and melted 2 tablespoons of butter.
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All the liquid ingredients went into the dried ones with only perfunctory mixing, to avoid activating the gluten in the flour, which toughens the muffin crumb. I had to add a little more flour because what I had at first was too wet: more like a batter than a dough.
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Then, when the texture looked right, I spooned the dough into a buttered 12-cup muffin pan. (BTW, I’ve found that brushing the cups with melted butter rather than rubbing them with solid butter gives more even coverage and better prevents sticking.)
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After 25 minutes in a 400º oven, the muffins were done. A few minutes’ rest in their cups, and out they came, to finish cooling on a rack.
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And very nice they were. Cranberry and orange are always a good flavor combination, and the balance here seemed about right. Next time I might try going a little heavier on the cranberries and simmering them longer in the orange juice, but that would be just to see if it made the muffins even better. Split while still warm, the first ones eagerly accepted slatherings of butter and made for a very pleasant small breakfast.
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The barista, normally not rapturous about cranberries, thought these muffins delicious.

 

Individual mozzarella soufflés make a nice, light first course for a dinner: simple, elegant, and delicious. True, all soufflés require special efforts, but these are much less trouble to make than large traditional ones. More of the preparation can be done in advance, assembly is easier, baking time is shorter, and the finished dish is not as fragile and quick to deflate as most soufflés are.

For this recipe, from Tom’s and my book La Tavola Italiana, there are two major considerations: having a lot of egg whites available (the recipe doesn’t use any yolks) and having an electric mixer capable of rapidly whipping the whites to stiffness. Those are easy for me, because (a) I often use more yolks than whites, so I keep a container of extra whites in the freezer, and (b) my heavy-duty Kitchen-Aid mixer whomps egg whites in next to no time.

Of course, the better the quality of the mozzarella you use, the better the soufflés will taste. As always with Italian cooking, the prima materia is crucial.

Are you still with me? I hope I haven’t discouraged anyone. What follows is an account of four of these little soufflés that I made the other day for dinner with my brother- and sister-in-law.

In the afternoon, well before dinnertime, I made up the sauce base. This required melting two tablespoons of butter in a pot, stirring in two tablespoons of flour, and cooking over low heat for two minutes, stirring and not letting the flour brown. Off heat, I dribbled in a cup of heavy cream, vigorously stirring to keep the mixture smooth. Then I returned the pan to low heat just long enough to stir in half a cup of grated parmigiano and eight ounces of diced mozzarella.
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This base sat at the back of the stove, uncovered and requiring no attention, for several hours. Also early in the day I defrosted ¾ cup of egg whites (six eggs’ worth) and buttered four 1½ cup ramekins and set them aside. In the evening, all that was left to do was whip the whites and fold them into the sauce base.
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For ease in getting them into and out of the oven all at once, I set the filled molds in a shallow (empty) baking pan.
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After 20 minutes at 375º the soufflés are normally done, but I think my oven needs adjustment; this time I had to give them 10 more minutes. They never do rise as high as conventional soufflés, so you don’t get airy towers of custard. But as I said above, they don’t sink as fast either, so you don’t have to sprint to get them – and your diners – to the table. Even when they do deflate a bit, they still have a lovely soft, pully texture under the thin, crisp crust. They have both intensity and delicacy of taste and texture that you wouldn’t think mozzarella would provide. In short, they’re a very satisfactory dish, well worth the effort required.
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