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One of the great culinary joys of autumn is the appearance of fresh Hatch green chiles. New Mexico chile pepper varieties can carry that name only when grown in that state’s Hatch Valley. It apparently has a terroir that gives the peppers their distinctive, highly prized flavor.

Fresh Hatch chiles aren’t easy to find in Manhattan, but our Indian specialty store Kalustyan carries them for a few weeks in fall, most years. Tom, a devoted fan of all kinds of chile, took a walk there this week just for the Hatches and came home with the two pounds pictured above.

Purchasing them was just the beginning of a serious labor of love on his part. Hatch Chiles have to be roasted, peeled, and seeded before they can be used, and their long slender shape makes them much harder to roast on stove burners than Bell or even poblano peppers.

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I understand some people succeed in roasting peppers in the oven, but these had very thin flesh, and we feared it would turn to mush before the skins blackened, even at 500°.  We probably don’t get the very best New Mexico chiles here, nor are they very fresh-picked by the time they get here, but if you’re a chilehead, you work with what you’ve got. So, painstakingly, a batch at a time, Tom roasted all the chiles on the stovetop and spread them out to cool.
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Then, of course, they had to be peeled and seeded. That inordinately tedious, messy job took almost as much time as the roasting did. I didn’t have the heart to photograph him at it.

At last, he was ready to make a bowl of chile. He knew exactly what kind he wanted. Quite a few years ago, when we were traveling in southeast Arizona, his lunch at a little roadside café somewhere between Sonoita and Cave Creek Canyon was a bowl of smooth green chile, served just with crackers. No beans, no meat, no discernible other vegetables. Hot as blazes, but he loved it. Even I, whose feelings about chile are far milder than his, liked the basic flavor. When we returned home, he recreated it as nearly as he could. I recorded his recipe, which we’ve made a few times since with Hatch chiles whenever they were available. And would again this day, for dinner.

I pureed ½ pound of the chiles in the food processor while Tom softened ¼ cup of chopped onions in olive oil. We added the chiles to the onion pot along with salt, pepper, ½ teaspoon of oregano and ½ teaspoon of ground roasted cumin seeds. After a few minutes, we stirred in a cup of chicken broth and simmered, partially covered, for about 45 minutes, until the puree had reduced to a good density.
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The first taste out of the pot nearly burned a hole in my tongue. These were extremely hot chiles! Even Tom, who likes foods much hotter than I do, was taken aback by the amount of heat that flared in the mouth after the initial good vegetable flavor. Clearly, this was not going to be a dinner dish that we could consume neat, crackers or no crackers. However, we’d been planning to serve rice and beans that evening anyway, so we just added a small sauteed pork cutlet to the menu and took our chances with smallish bowls of the chile.
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That was serendipitous. Even though initially you couldn’t dip up a spoonful and swallow it without pain, that chile made common cause with every bite of the meat, beans, or rice that we took. A few drops of the chile mixed in with any forkful led us to put a bigger dollop on the next forkful. It got better and better, and we ate more and more of it. The chile seemed to be training our palates to appreciate it. And we definitely did.

By the end of the meal, we agreed that those peppers had been worth all the effort they took. Easy for me to say, who did so little of the work! But he was entirely pleased to have done it all. We look forward to experiments with the rest of the roasted Hatch peppers, now frozen for future use, as well as a few improvisations with the small amount of made-up chile that we didn’t finish. For instance, a few days later, some of it quite nicely jazzed up a tasty appetizer dish of nachos.

Last week Tom and I were away on a birding trip to Grand Manan Island. The birds were great, the food disappointing: The inn where our group took all its meals offered no local seafood and no seasonal produce. Once back home, I immediately stocked up on eggplant, peppers, onions, new potatoes, tomatoes, and zucchini at my greenmarket.
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At last, vegetables! Though I’d intended to start by making a big, luscious, layered ratatouille, I didn’t feel up to so labor-intensive a job that day.

Instead I turned to a much simpler mixed vegetable recipe in Ed Giobbi’s modest little 1971 book Italian Family Cooking. My copy – a first edition, first printing – cost me $8.95 when it first came out, and I’ve now seen it listed online for $60. Makes me feel very canny, that does.

The vegetables for Giobbi’s Verdura Mista #2 do require a fair amount of preparation, for which Tom (my bespoke knife man) and I worked together, me washing and peeling, he slicing and chopping. Giobbi is very relaxed about instructions, not saying how thick to slice things or how small to chop them. He encourages readers to cook with a free hand.

Here are our finished ingredients: one small cubed eggplant, two sliced zucchini, two sliced green peppers, three cups of seeded and chopped tomatoes, and the equivalents of two medium potatoes and two medium onions.
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This was a quantity intended to serve 6 to 8, but, as I said, we were starved for vegetables.

The cooking, from that point, was almost effortless. First, in a very large pot, I warmed four tablespoons of olive oil and let the eggplant and zucchini briefly make its acquaintance. They quickly absorbed it all.
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The next instruction was “Add rest of ingredients.” Which, in addition to the remaining vegetables, were salt, pepper, and several leaves of basil (defrosted, in my case).
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All I had to do then was partially cover the pot and stir everything around occasionally until the potatoes were tender. At first, the vegetables exuded a great deal of liquid, which I thought would have to be boiled down at the end, but after 30 minutes and a few small adjustments to the heat and the pot covering, everything was ready, with just a modicum of liquid remaining.
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Our dinner that evening was a thick, rare lamb chop apiece and great scoops of the vegetables, with chunks of crusty baguette to soak up the juices. The mixture had all the good flavors of ratatouille but with more bright acidity and less of the weight that initial, separate sautéeing of each vegetable would have provided. It was pure ambrosia! Just to complete the summer feel, we drank a simple Beaujolais, which loved the company we put it in.
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We managed to get through more than half the big bowlful of vegetables that evening. The rest were saved to fill individual vegetable tartlets, which I’ve frozen for future first courses. A few months from now, those summery flavors will help appease our mid-winter doldrums.

A few weeks ago I wrote about making a very good dish I’d rediscovered while reorganizing my big recipe binder. This week I made another one like that.

I don’t know where or when I found the recipe for Pork Chops with Coriander-Cumin Spice Rub. Though I must have made it once, since I’d made a few notes on the ingredient list of the clipping (which is printed in a font I don’t recognize from any magazine or newspaper), I had no recollection of it. And when I read the recipe carefully, I was dubious about a few things.
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The note saying I’d used fresh butt – i.e., boneless pork shoulder – rather than regular pork chops didn’t surprise me. I’m not good at cooking pork chops: too often they come out dry and tough, so I sometimes replace standard loin chops with equally thick slices of fresh butt. Its interstitial fat melts and dissipates when gently cooked, keeping the loose-textured meat moist and tender.

The rest of the ingredients were simple enough: cumin seeds, coriander seeds, olive oil, garlic, and a lime.
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The first thing I had to do was toast cumin and coriander seeds for the spice rub. From making Indian recipes, I’ve come to love the rich scent of toasting cumin.
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Next was to grind the seeds coarsely, which I did in a mortar and pestle.
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The texture of the ground spices worried me a little, because all that rough fiber would have to be left on the meat right to the end. I feared it might be unpleasant to chew. But I mixed it with olive oil and minced garlic and rubbed it into both sides of the pork, as directed.
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Then came the frying – to be done with just a little oil in a very hot skillet for just 5 to 7 minutes on each side. That worried me too: Would the high heat burn the spices or toughen the meat? Would the brief time be enough to release the meat’s fats and to cook it through?
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Happily, the answers were No, No and Yes, Yes.
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I still thought we’d have to scrape off the spices on our plates, but once the meat was sliced, we found the coating had softened enough to be eaten, and its amount was fine. The pork was tender, succulent, and lightly imbued with the spices. A squeeze of lime juice perfectly finished the blend of flavors. One more recipe not to forget again!
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Sow’s Ear Guacamole

The old saying has it that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but one day recently I thought I’d give it a try. My “sow’s ear” was a bag of three smallish avocados bought for $2 from a usually reliable stand. I’d intended them for guacamole. They were hard as rocks, of course, so I left them out for a few days on a sideboard to ripen.
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They didn’t. After a full week, they were still rock-hard and were developing some squishy dented and flattened spots. Grand! If I wanted them for guacamole, it’d have to be now or never: These bargain avocados were clearly never going to properly ripen. I’d just have to adjust my recipe to cope with whatever would turn out to be edible on them.
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Once I’d peeled the avocados and cut away all the ugly gray-brown parts, I was left with a small quantity of too, too solid flesh.

  • First adjustment: Don’t even try to mash it with a spoon or chop it with a knife. Puree it by machine.
  • Second adjustment (really a choice made earlier): Don’t buy a big bunch of fresh cilantro when you’ll need only a few sprigs. Instead defrost a cube of the cilantro base that you’d made to salvage some of the last big bunch of the herb that you’d bought.

That decided, I could proceed with my usual approach to guacamole: chopping onion, tomato, and a serrano pepper and mixing them, along with salt, into the puree.
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It came out looking pretty good, much like a proper guacamole. Hoping for the best, I set a bowl of it next to a batch of tortilla chips and served it as our dinner appetizer.

 

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But alas, that guacamole was no silk purse. Tom dipped one chip and said he tasted mold in the mixture. It didn’t taste moldy to me, but neither did it taste much of avocado. Tom stopped after the second chip. I ate more of it than that (feeling an obligation), but it was just too uninteresting. Maybe a plastic purse? Regretfully, I let the rest of it go.

I hate it when those old adages turn out to be right.

My big fat three-ring recipe binder had gotten out of hand – again. Its patchwork pasted-up pages, accumulated over many years, its progressively inconsistent arrangement, and its sheer bulk made it hard to find things I knew were in there somewhere. Time to take it all apart, cull the contents, and reorganize it more sensibly. It was quite a job.

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I found recipes I’d completely forgotten about, some of which I couldn’t think why I’d ever saved. I discarded several dozen clippings – many that probably would produce excellent results – that no longer interested me enough to devote the required time or effort. For example:

  • A tripe dish that had to be simmered on top of the stove for “at least 8 hours”
  • A Brazilian feijoada with eight kinds of meats, including pig’s tails, feet, and ears; also oranges, collard greens, rice, and toasted manioc flour
  • A flourless chocolate cake that carried 950 words of instructions

On the positive side, redoing the binder recalled to me some recipes that I’d never gotten around to making but would still like to try, and other recipes for dishes that I’d enjoyed long ago but let slip out of mind. One of the latter is Bavette aux Échalotes, a recipe I’d clipped from 2002 issue of Saveur magazine and at some later date had written “Good” next to the title. It’s a very simple preparation for skirt steak with shallot sauce.
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I had some pieces of skirt steak in the freezer, as well as three plump shallots in the refrigerator, so there were the makings of a meat dish for a weeknight’s dinner for two.
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Tom minced the shallots for me while I salted and peppered the little steaks and sautéed them in butter and olive oil.
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When the steaks were nicely rare, I transferred them to a platter, covered them loosely with foil, put them in a warming oven, and returned to the stove to make the sauce. I stirred the shallots into the fat remaining in the sauté pan and cooked until they were just browned.
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Then, a quarter cup of red wine vinegar stirred into the pan and cooked down to a syrup, a good chunk of butter dropped in and swirled around until it melted, and the sauce was ready to be poured over the steaks for serving.
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The dish was delicious. So easy and yet so sophisticated – so quintessentially French. Skirt steak, like hanger steak, is one of the gamiest-tasting of all the beef cuts, as well as one of the easiest to prepare. This is a treatment for it that I hope never to forget again.

 

Peach Crumble Cake

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It’s high peach season, and my Greenmarket is bursting with the fruits. Though I already have several easy recipes for peach desserts that Tom is always happy to eat on summer evenings (and often for the next day’s breakfast too), I enjoy looking for new ones to try. The recipe I found this week was somewhat misleading and didn’t come out at all the way I expected.

It’s called Peach Crumble Cake, and it’s from Lee Bailey’s book Country Desserts. The name was intriguing to me, because a crumble and a cake are normally quite different things. A cake, of course, is baked from a sweetened batter, and even if fruit is added, it comes out firm and sliceable. For a crumble, the fruit goes into a pan and is topped with a crumbly mixture of flour, sugar, and butter. When baked it’s spooned out for serving.

This particular recipe has a base of cake batter, with peach halves set on top. Okay, I thought, that seems like an easy enough kind of cake; I’ll just have to see how the “crumble factor” enters the picture here.

A glitch appeared as I noted the number of peaches the recipe required. For an 8-inch square pan, it wanted 10 large peaches, cut in halves. That was absurd: Even if each peach were only 2 inches wide, that size pan would hold only 16 halves – and most peaches are much larger than that. In any event, I didn’t have an 8-inch square pan, so I’d be using a 9-inch round one (the same capacity, per the πr2 formula). So I bought six peaches, each easily three inches across. I already had all the other ingredients.
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The preparations went smoothly enough. I creamed butter with brown and white sugar; beat in flour, baking powder, and eggs; and transferred the batter to my buttered cake pan.
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I dropped the peaches briefly into boiling water, drained and peeled them, and cut each one in half.
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From the amount of room they took up on my 11-inch prep board, it was clear that not all those halves were going to fit in my pan. And they didn’t. It took only seven halves, plus tucked-in bits of an eighth. I sprinkled them all with lemon juice and a mix of cinnamon and sugar.
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I expected that the cake batter would rise up and cushion the fruit, though I still couldn’t think how anything would become crumbly. However, the pan was already looking pretty full, so as I put it in a 350° oven, I made sure to set a baking sheet on a shelf just below it, in case the rising batter overflowed the pan. Which it did, in a few places.
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Baking time was a little problematic. The recipe said to bake one hour or until golden. My cake was golden after only 45 minutes, but the cakey part still tested very wet inside. At 10 minutes after the hour, when the crust was starting to darken to brown, my testing skewer finally came out clean. I pulled the cake out of the oven and set it on a rack to cool.
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Obviously, this was not the kind of cake that could be turned out of its pan onto a plate for serving. The recipe had no further handling instructions, so I thought I’d treat it like a pie and take slices straight from the pan.

Nooo, not that either. The missing “crumble factor” kicked in, but not in any way I’d expected: My attempted slices crumbled and fell apart at first touch. Also, the whole interior of the dish was extremely juicy – not to say soggy.

Well, all right: Since the cake had become this very moist crumble, I spooned it into bowls and served it with scoops of ice cream, as the recipe suggested. Texture aside, it tasted fine. It’s hard to hurt ripe peaches and sweet dough.
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But if I’d wanted a simple peach crumble, there are easier ways than this to make one. It was the crumble-cake combo that mainly interested me.  And, aside from the misnomer of calling this a cake, I think something was wrong in the recipe’s proportions: Though I used less than half as many peaches called for, the dish was far too wet. The sugar seems to have drawn so much liquid out of the fruit that the batter couldn’t firm up enough. And the crust would have blackened if I’d baked it longer.

So, for my next peach dessert this summer, I’ll go back to one of my tried and true recipes. The same book has a very good one for a peach cobbler that I’ve written about here before. And I have a recipe of my own for a “proper” peach cake, which I’ve also written about here.

Veal Francese

The Italian dish vitello alla francese came to America with the great wave of immigration from southern Italy that started in the late 1880s. As “Veal Francese,” it became a staple of the rapidly growing New York City Italian restaurant culture, and it’s still found – in varying degrees of quality – on almost every southern-Italian-style restaurant menu in the US.

Tom, who grew up just across the river in Jersey City, remembers it well from those days:

Veal francese was a standard dish – although one of the more expensive ones – of every Italian-American restaurant I ever frequented. Veal in all sorts of preparations was a lot more common than beef, and a restaurant of any ambitions had to offer several. I remember veal francese fondly as one of simplest and most elegant of them: no tomatoes, no peppers, no onions, just a modest sauce and a thin, tender, delicious, golden slice of meat.

Yielding to Tom’s nostalgia, we made veal francese together for a dinner this week, using a pair of large, well-pounded veal scallops from our butcher shop (owned by an Italian-American family).
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I’d done some recipe checking and found that, to start, the veal is typically dipped in egg and coated with flour, but Tom recalls the New Jersey version always using breadcrumbs instead of flour for a lighter casing. We did it that way.
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While the breaded scallops were firming up in the refrigerator, we took advantage of an unexpected trove of morel mushrooms we’d seen that morning at Eataly.
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Where in this country the store had found morels in August is a mystery – they’re spring mushrooms, and I don’t think they’ve ever been successfully cultivated. But even at their outlandish price, we grabbed some. And sautéed them in butter to accompany the veal.
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We then sautéed the veal in butter with a little olive oil – quickly, to retain all its juiciness. Butter may not be authentic to the Jersey City style: Tom’s memory is hazy on that point.
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The cooked veal waited in a warming oven while we deglazed the pan with white wine, stirred in a few big spoonsful of broth, added salt and pepper, and reduced the liquid until it was almost syrupy. There was just enough sauce to moisten the pieces of veal on their serving platter. Veal francese should never be awash in sauce: On that point Tom’s memory is solid.
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The dish was brilliant. And the morels alongside were a match made in heaven. The interplay of flavors from the veal, the sauce, the mushrooms, and even a plain baked potato was intricate and harmonious, the wild earthy notes of the mushrooms counterpointing the meat-sweetness of the veal and its delicate sauce.
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Glorious as it was, this veal francese is obviously a dish of great simplicity. For that very reason, it’s imperative to have ingredients of absolute top quality. Thus, our veal was thinly cut slices, fresh from the butcher; the breadcrumbs were homemade, as was the broth; and the cooking medium was Kerrygold, a fine Irish butter.

It’s regrettable that in some restaurants veal francese has become a tired, boring, last-choice menu item. That’s almost certainly due to cost-cutting practices like mediocre meat and old, stale cooking oil, as well as careless handling – meat cut badly, coating too heavy, cooking time too long, too much too-gloppy sauce. Treatment like that is what has given Italian-American cooking a bad name, which it definitely doesn’t deserve.
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Good to the last bite!

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BTW, should anyone be interested in more information about Italian-American cooking, here’s a link to an article Tom and I wrote some years ago for The Journal of Gastronomy, called “Italian-Americans in New York: a Bicultural Cuisine.”