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One evening in Paris long, long ago, I dined at the Michelin-three-star restaurant Le Grand Véfour. Owner-chef Raymond Oliver was then producing the apotheosis of classic French cuisine, and my meal was a purely blissful experience. This week I made an elaborate dish of that era from Oliver’s cookbook La Cuisine. I’ve had the book for a long time, and its glamour photo of Toast de Crevettes à la Rothschild had always attracted me.

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Now, with still some of the ugly-but-good shrimp I wrote about last week, it seemed like the perfect time to try the recipe, since its shrimp are invisible within their bread case and underneath their sauce.

So I defrosted half a pound of them. It looked like a lot for only two people, but that’s what half the recipe called for.
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The first task was to carve two cases from thick slices of sandwich bread (Joy of Cooking’s ever-reliable White Bread Plus) and fry them in butter until golden.

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Next was to shell the shrimp and “crush the shells in a mortar and pestle until they are almost a paste.” Easy for him to say! Restaurants obviously use kitchen slaveys and hefty professional equipment for such things. In my small mortar and pestle, the shells just slithered around, staying totally intact. So on to the mini food processor, which after much whirling at least broke the shells into fragments. I’d have to live with that.

Then came what is always the most elaborate part of a classic French recipe, making the sauce. I softened chopped carrot, onion, and shallot in butter, added the shell shrapnel, and cooked it for a few minutes.
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Into the pot I stirred tomato paste, white wine, fish broth, parsley, bay leaf, and thyme. It all simmered covered for 20 minutes, after which it had to be strained. That was a tough job, given my too, too solid shells. It might have been easier if I’d had a chinoise, but I don’t. I managed it with about 15 minutes of mashing the stuff around in my finest-mesh sieve.
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After returning the sauce to a pot I was supposed to reduce it to ⅜ cup. I didn’t. It was hardly more than that already, and nicely thick. I just left it there while I briefly sauteed the shrimp in (of course) butter and then added them to the sauce and simmered for another minute.
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I pulled the shrimp out of the pot, scraping as much of the sauce off them as I could, and put them in the prepared bread cases. As I’d expected, there wasn’t enough room to fit them all in, so I just left some on the side. Then I stirred cream and cognac into the sauce, brought it to a boil, and, off heat, dissolved yet more softened butter in it.

At last we were closing in on consumption time. I topped the shrimp toasts with the finished sauce – of which there was just about enough – and sprinkled on grated Gruyere, omitting the recipe’s final extravagance of a big slice of black truffle.
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I browned them quickly under the broiler and served. Of course they looked nothing like the picture in the book. Frankly, I don’t see how anyone could have achieved that appearance by following the recipe’s instructions.
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So how were they? Bite for bite, utterly delicious – but almost excruciatingly rich and heavy. Aside from the whole shrimp, which seemed more like a garnish than a principal ingredient, there wasn’t a fresh, noncomposed flavor in the dish. It was the classic, complex, Paris restaurant food of Oliver’s bygone era, but it’s not the way we eat today, or would want to, more than once in a very long while.

Still, making the dish was an intriguing culinary experience, a tour de force of nostalgia and digestion!

Every spring and fall Tom and I make short trips to Cape May, NJ, a hotspot for finding migratory birds. Perched where Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, Cape May also boasts excellent fish and shellfish. While there, we indulge liberally in that seafood, and often bring some home from the harborside fish market. One of its specialties is fresh, never-frozen shrimp from North Carolina or Florida. Costing half what shrimp does in Manhattan, and tasting twice as good, a few pounds of them are a regular treat for us. Even when frozen at home, as they have to be, they’re very fine shrimp.

A bit disturbingly, the first 10 ounces I took out from our latest batch to cook for dinner were an unattractive color when looked at closely.

Raw shrimp are normally white with pinkish shells. The brownish, yellowish tinge on these made them look as if they were beginning to rot. Even when shelled, the flesh was darkish and dingy.

But they smelled fresh and felt properly firm. To be on the safe side I decided to make them in a slightly spicy preparation, and just for aesthetics, one that wouldn’t call attention to that color.

My ever-obliging knife man sliced up a nice mess of vegetables for me – two cups of onions and two cups of mixed Bell and poblano peppers.

I softened the peppers and onions in olive oil; sprinkled on salt, pepper, and mild New Mexican chili powder; stirred in about ⅓ cup of pureed tomato; covered and cooked it all together for 10 minutes, until the veg were tender. The pan then sat at the back of the stove until called for.

 

As you can see, that mixture vaguely replicated the color tones of my ugly shrimp. So when I reheated it, added the shrimp, and stirred them about until they were just opaque, you really couldn’t tell whether their shade was natural or due to the tomato and chili powder.

Served on a bed of plain boiled rice, the dish was very good. It had a modest touch of warmth from the spicing, and the shrimp were sweet, fresh, and just as flavorful as ever. I’d used basmati rice, because that happened to be the only long-grain rice I had on hand. It and the shrimp didn’t have much to say to each other, but it strongly bonded with the peppers and onions. The shrimp also adored the vegetables, and vice versa. A very successful simple improvisation.

Regifting can be an iffy proposition, but Beloved Spouse and I benefited from a multiple regifting not long ago. Some dear friends had themselves been not-too-thoughtfully regifted with two things they couldn’t use: a cookbook and four bricks of fancy “chocolate for wine.” Knowing our proclivities very well, they gingerly asked if they might re-regift them to us.
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Although Spouse snorted at the pretentious prose on the chocolate box about pairing different wines with different strengths of chocolate, I can find plenty of cooking uses for good chocolate. And I’m always interested in new cookbooks. So we accepted with pleasure, and as an acknowledgment, the next time we had those friends to dinner I made a dessert from their book, using some of their chocolate.

The Italian budino, like its cousin the French pot de crème, is a rich chocolate custard. The photo in the book looked luscious, and I set to the recipe with enthusiasm, the day before the scheduled dinner.

The first step was to finely chop 5½ ounces of the darkest bittersweet chocolate in the box – 70% cacao – and put it in a large bowl. That took a bit of work: Chocolate is none too cooperative about allowing itself to be finely chopped. When I make a chocolate spoon dessert it’s usually a mousse, for which the chocolate is merely melted on the stove; much easier to do.

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That task finally finished, I next brought a mixture of heavy cream, milk, sugar, and salt to a boil, poured it into the bowl, and whisked to melt the chocolate. The recipe is very particular about this, saying “Whisk to combine and then whisk some more. Walk away for five minutes and then whisk again.” I got the message and whisked madly.

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Then I whisked four egg yolks together in another bowl, slowly poured the chocolate mixture on them, whisking constantly again, and added vanilla, still whisking. Finally, I put the whole custard mixture through a fine sieve and poured it into six half-cup ramekins.
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These went into a 275° oven, in a large baking pan half filled with water and covered with foil. They were to be baked until the custard was “just set but still has a slight jiggle in the center, 40 to 50 minutes.” The recipe cautioned to check them frequently to avoid overbaking.

Well, after 50 minutes, my custards were still totally fluid. I kept testing them with a knife blade, but once through the slightly firm surface, it kept coming out covered with wet custard. After 90 minutes I decided they must be done, so I took them out of the oven.
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I put them in the refrigerator overnight, hoping they’d firm up more as they chilled. Fortunately, they weren’t meant to be unmolded, so at the dinner party I could serve them right in their ramekins, covering the knife blade scars with dollops of whipped cream.

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They had indeed set, very delicately, and they made a perfect ending to the meal – light and tender on the tongue but intensely rich in flavor – the essence of darkest chocolate. (And yes, we drank red wine with them, but not the wine pairing recommended for that chocolate.)

I look forward to further exploration of the gastronomical possibilities in these re-regifted gifts.

Although we’re well into spring, I’ve not seen many good seasonal vegetables yet. Stores here all have asparagus, peas, radishes, spinach – but they’re either from far-away agribusiness outfits, hence not really fresh, or outrageously overpriced. After a dispirited walk through the produce area at a local grocery recently, I came home with an acorn squash.

I settled for that because of a recipe called Zucca in Agrodolce in Fabrizia Lanza’s Coming Home to Sicily that I’d been meaning to try all winter but hadn’t gotten around to. Italy’s zucca is a very big pumpkin-like squash, which we rarely see here, but most winter squashes lend themselves to the same kinds of treatment, and I just needed a dinner vegetable for two. Acorn is not one of my preferred varieties, but it was the only small squash on offer.

I halved my raw squash and scraped out the seeds, and cut one half of it into neat ⅓-inch slices. That looked like enough vegetable for the two of us, so I put away the other half for another time. The recipe actually said to peel the squash first and then slice it, but the shape of an acorn squash makes that nearly impossible.
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Once I peeled the slices I was to lay them on an ungreased grill, cook them until grill marks appeared on each side, transfer them to a baking dish, and keep them warm. That was all the cooking they were to get. However, by the time my squash slices were over-blackening they still were hard – nowhere near cooked. They’d shrunken up and looked quite ugly, too. Not a promising beginning, but I soldiered on.

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I did put them in the baking dish, but then covered it and set it in a 350° oven to cook some more while I went on with the recipe, hoping the squash slices would soften.

Next was to thinly slice about a third of a big red onion, soften it in generous olive oil, and add salt and pepper. Finally came the agrodolce: I stirred half a teaspoon of sugar and four teaspoons of red wine vinegar into the onions and cooked for about five minutes, until the vinegar had slightly reduced and the sugar slightly caramelized. My own wine vinegar is so strong I had cautiously thinned it a bit with water.

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I took the finally-fully-cooked squash out of the oven, spooned the onion sauce over it, covered the dish again, and let it sit for 10 minutes before serving so the agrodolce flavors would permeate the squash.
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Somewhat to our surprise, it was delicious! The squash itself was only moderately interesting in flavor, but the onions and the agrodolce did wonders for it. I think using a red onion, rather than my usual big Spanish onion, was an important contributor to the final intriguing flavor of the mélange. I’ve tried making things in agrodolce occasionally in the past, but never with such excellent results. We regretted not having cooked the whole acorn squash.

In fact, I did a reprise of the dish with the other half of the squash a few days later, with one major alteration. Instead of grilling the slices, I just baked them on a nonstick pan at 400° until they were fully cooked. That worked just fine.
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If I’d had a wood fire to grill the squash on, I think it would have been more flavorful, but a dry gas grill seems not to do much more than any other dry cooking does. Still, when summer vegetables come in, I’m going to try the onion-and-agrodolce condiment on grilled eggplants, peppers, and zucchini. I can hardly wait!

I’m very fond of Indian food, but I don’t cook it often. The recipes are usually quite complex, and the flavors seem to want to be matched with others of their kind. Thus, making a full Indian meal is a lengthy, fairly hectic procedure, with many steps to be taken at almost the same time.

In an attempt to break out of that rut, I decided, the other day, to put just one Indian dish on an otherwise-familiar American-style dinner plate: a vegetable to accompany a veal chop. Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India gave me a trove of recipes to choose from, including one that’s the simplest Indian dish I’ve ever seen: Aloo Gobi, or stir-fried cauliflower with potatoes. Granted, it calls for 10 ingredients, but there are really only a few cooking steps. It seemed ideal.

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For my half recipe, I first had to boil a potato. (Jaffrey says day-old leftovers do fine in the dish, but I didn’t have any.) When it had cooled, I cut it into ¾ inch dice. And I cut up half a small head of cauliflower to make a heaping two cups’ worth of florets. Then I stirred up a fragrant spice mixture: ground cumin, coriander, and turmeric; grated fresh ginger root. red chili powder, salt, and water. Those were all the ingredients.

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I heated my ancient, disreputable looking (but well-seasoned) wok on a stove burner, quickly sizzled some whole cumin seeds in oil, and added the cauliflower and potatoes.

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These were to be stir-fried for 10 minutes “or until the vegetables are well browned in spots.” Mine took almost twice that long to brown even minimally. I poured on the spice mixture, kept stir-frying for 1 minute, added some more water, and continued cooking gently. Per the recipe, the vegetables should have absorbed all their liquid and been tender in 2 to 5 minutes. Mine were not. Again, they took about twice that long, and the potato was mushy before the cauliflower was soft. Maybe it was supposed to be that way, since the potato had been fully cooked to begin with?

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Meanwhile I’d also been cooking the veal chops, using a technique that Tom Colicchio, in Think Like a Chef, calls pan-roasting. I browned them slowly in a little butter for 3 minutes on each side, cooked for 5 more minutes on each side; dropped in a big lump of butter and cooked for a final 10 minutes, turning and basting the chops with the butter. Very restaurantish, all that butter!

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The chops then had to sit off the heat at the back of the stove for 10 minutes, to draw their juices back in. That rest period made it easier to finish the vegetables and have them ready to serve when the chops were.

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Then came the taste test: inspired combination or culture clash? More like the latter, I’m sorry to say. The aloo gobi and the chop shared a plate amicably enough, and both were good of their kind, but on the palate they didn’t do anything for each other. The veal wasn’t enhanced by the spiciness of the vegetables, and the aloo gobi hardly seemed to recognize the flavor of the meat. Both would have been more pleasing with accompaniments in their own style. (Jaffrey suggests rice, a dal, and a raita alongside aloo gobi.) Beloved Spouse thinks the vegetables would have worked better with a moist braised meat – say, lamb or goat.

Well, it was a learning experience for me – to save Indian cooking for days when I have a lot of time to spend in the kitchen, and perhaps when I have a few extra helping hands. However, there’s one potential benefit to the experiment: Since we didn’t finish all the aloo gobi, I’m saving the rest of it to try as a samosa filling.

Some cookbooks that I’ve had for decades have been loved and used so much – back when my cookbook collection was much smaller than it is now – that I feel I know them intimately. Yet, when I look into them these days, they can surprise me with recipes I can’t remember even reading, much less making. One such book is Marcella Hazan’s More Classic Italian Cooking, which I’ve had since it came out in 1978, a welcome follow-up to her first volume, from 1973.

With a nice half rack of spareribs to cook for dinner recently, I pulled out the Hazan book to look at a recipe for pork spareribs that I’d rediscovered about a year and a half ago, which I’d written up here. I’d had some thoughts about changes I might try. However, on the facing page I found another sparerib recipe, Costicine di Maiale ai Ferri, that I’d also completely forgotten about. Hazan proposes an unusual way to broil ribs, which she says will make them come out nearly as well as grilling or spit roasting them. I was intrigued.

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The recipe starts out conventionally enough, marinating a sheet of spareribs in olive oil, garlic, rosemary, salt, and pepper; and leaving it at room temperature for at least an hour.

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Then the meat is to be set up on a V-shaped roasting rack – the kind with side wings that adjust to any desired angle. Hazan hails her discovery that positioning ribs within the V lets more air circulate around them, which “quickly drains the fat and crisps the meat, giving it a leaner, fresher taste than other methods of cooking ribs.”

I’ve had one of these racks forever, which I’ve used only for roasting chickens or ducks. This seemed a good opportunity to expand its repertoire. I gave it a try.
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The broiling turned out to be a little tricky. The meat had to be turned over every 6 minutes during a 45-minute cooking time. While my rack of ribs had curved well enough into the V-shaped space at first, it quickly stiffened and wouldn’t bend backwards when turned. After a few turns, it essentially lay flat at the top of the metal rack’s side supports.
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It’s true there was more air circulating around the pork than a conventional broiler pan with a perforated top rack could provide. But I don’t know how much difference that made in the long run. It didn’t render out any more fat than I’d expect to get from normal broiling. And in any event, the ribs weren’t actually grilled: Grilling means cooking over a flame, not under it.
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So, there are my faux-grilled spareribs. They were very nicely flavored from the marinade, and they were well cooked. But they were pretty tough. From this and previous attempts I have to conclude that broiling ribs is not the best way to deal with them – at least, not with American ribs. They prefer long, gentle cooking, ideally in liquid.

This broiled batch tasted fine, but it just didn’t get tender at all. It clenched. We had to struggle to saw the meat off the bones with steak knives, while the meat in properly done ribs just falls off the bone. In fact, this meat tore off the bones pretty easily with the teeth – but I don’t always want to eat my spareribs in my hands. I need at least one hand clean at all times for lifting my wine glass. And Beloved Spouse hates the mess gnawing rib bones makes of his moustache.

 

While the dishes named in the title above are linked by “and,” I hasten to assure you they weren’t eaten together. I made them as appetizers for two of Beloved Spouse’s culinary specialties, which he’d made within a short span of days: Louisiana shrimp remoulade to eat before gumbo and Mexican melted cheese before chili.

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Tom makes terrific oyster and sausage okra gumbos, one version of which I’ve written admiringly about here. For his latest rendition, it fell to me to prepare a worthy, but not overwhelming, first course. I chose a shrimp remoulade recipe from the Junior League of New Orleans’ Plantation Cookbook. The only shrimp remoulade I’d ever made before was a very elaborate version from Galatoire’s restaurant. This one was simpler: its remoulade sauce has only 9 ingredients, compared to Galatoire’s 12.

All the ingredients went into my mini food processor, which quickly converted chopped onion, chopped scallion, pressed garlic, grainy mustard, olive oil, wine vinegar, salt, cayenne, and paprika into a nubbly sauce. That went into the refrigerator overnight to integrate and develop its flavors. The next evening, to precede our gumbo, I arranged cold boiled shrimp on beds of shredded lettuce and topped them with the sauce.
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The remoulade wasn’t bad, and it complemented the shrimp well enough, but to our taste it wasn’t truly great, either. It was very acidic. That may be my fault, because the recipe called for tarragon vinegar and what I had was my own wine vinegar, which is very concentrated. I probably should have used less of it, or thinned it a little with water. Also, there was a lot more mustard in the mix, compared to Galatoire’s version, where the sharpness of the mustard is tempered by tomato puree and ketchup. So unless and until our palates want a really pungent shrimp remoulade, I guess I’ll revert to Galatoire’s version.

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A few days later, Tom made his Santa Maria Pinquito chili. He’s always tinkering with the details of his recipe, but he always uses those small, flavorful pinquito beans that we get from Rancho Gordo. And since he’s constitutionally incapable of making a small quantity of chili, we had to invite a few chili-loving friends to come and share it with us.

I’d planned to have guacamole and chips with aperitifs in the living room, so I needed something small to serve at the table before bringing on the main attraction. I turned to Rick Bayless’s Authentic Mexican cookbook for his queso fundido con rajas y chorizo, which I’d made successfully before. A dish of melted cheese with strips of roasted poblano pepper and crumbled chorizo is fairly hefty for an appetizer, but I made only very small portions.

Working alongside the chili chef in the kitchen, I made my advance preparations for the cheese dish. I roasted, peeled, seeded, and sliced a poblano chili into strips, which I sauteed along with some sliced onion. Next I peeled, chopped, and separately sauteed Mexican chorizo. And I cut Monterey Jack cheese into ½ inch cubes.

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Near serving time I put a pan of small, empty gratin dishes in a 375° oven. When they were hot, I spread the cheese cubes in them and returned them to the oven for five minutes, until the cheese was just bubbling. I took out the pan, strewed the pepper-onion mixture and the chorizo on the cheese, and put the pan back into oven for a final five minutes.
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Served with warm flour tortillas for scooping up the melted mixture, the queso fundido was a big hit with everyone. The combination of cheese, sausage, and vegetable flavors somehow made the whole greater than the sum of its parts. I must make this simple, satisfying dish more often!
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