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During the holiday season just past, I served two excellent French-style dinner-party appetizers that I look forward to making again in the coming year. As an aid to memory, I thought I’d start my 2019 blog with an appreciation of the two dishes.

One, asparagus croûtes, was quick, easy, and even tastier than I’d thought it would be from reading the recipe. The other, salade de geziers, was also quick and easy in the assembly and thoroughly delicious in the eating, but the chief component has to be prepared far in advance.

 

Asparagus Croûtes
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This is a plain looking dish, but its simple flavors come together in one of those magical French ways that make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. (Hint: Think butter.) The recipe comes from esteemed chef Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine, which gives it a distinguished culinary pedigree.

For each serving you need one slice of homemade-style white bread, crust cut off and the slice cut in half; and enough spears of asparagus – thick or thin, as you prefer – to top the bread completely. In my version, on each half slice I used the tip ends of four thinnish spears, cut in lengths the size of the bread.

The asparagus gets cooked in boiling salted water until just tender, then sauteed gently in butter for two minutes. The bread is fried in butter and olive oil until golden. In a baking dish you place the bread slices, arrange the asparagus on them, and sprinkle generously with grated Swiss cheese and fine dry breadcrumbs.

Then, you either run the dish under a broiler or else bake it in a 450° oven until the croûtes are golden and bubbly. Doesn’t look like a lot on the plate, but it’s quite filling. Of course, if you’re feeding very hearty eaters, you can always increase the number of croûtes per person.

 

Salade de Geziers
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Geziers are gizzards, an ingredient many Americans consign to cat food – a big mistake. Gizzards can be delicious. While one of them should be included in every bag of giblets tucked inside a purchased chicken, it takes a long time to collect and freeze enough gizzards to do anything significant with, so I buy them separately. And what I do is confit them. Making confit is a time-consuming process, but once it’s done you have the wherewithal for this splendid salad.

Essentially, to confit gizzards you toss them with salt and refrigerate them for a day. Scrape off the salt, put the gizzards in a heavy casserole with melted duck fat to cover, bring it to a simmer, and cook covered in a very low oven for several hours, until they are tender. Drain, cool, and transfer them to a large jar; and pour over enough of the cooled cooking fat to cover them completely. They keep in the refrigerator for months.

For the salad, you want a leafy green that’s at least a little bitter, to contrast with the unctuous gizzards. Frisée is my first choice, but if it’s not available, tender leaves from the heart of escarole do very well. I dress them with a vinaigrette made with walnut oil and my homemade red wine vinegar, then top them with warmed gizzards. It’s an intriguing combination on the palate: crisp and soft, sharp and mellow, bracing and soothing.

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Both these dishes are truly – literally – appetizers. That is, they stimulate your appetite for what will be coming next. Nice.

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I’m still restricted to simple cooking for a while, until Beloved Spouse recovers from the miseries recently inflicted on him by the medical profession. But Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cooking, by Lidia Bastianich and her daughter Tanya Manuali, which I received as a Christmas gift, has been calling to me, so I finally resolved to try a couple of its simpler recipes.

LidiaPhysically, it’s an unusual book by today’s cookbook standards, as well as in comparison to Lidia’s own previous oeuvre. No glossy paper, no color photographs, occasional purely decorative small line drawings, not even a dust jacket. The first 90 pages are about ingredients, tools, and techniques – hence the subtitle “Everything You Need to Know to Be a Great Italian Cook.” The information is interesting enough and especially useful for a beginning cook, but I find the title’s unavoidable echo of Julia Child’s magnum opus really overweening.

Still, Lidia herself is a great cook, and since I don’t have any of her other books, I was happy to receive this one. In my search for simplicity, I started with vegetable recipes.

Though it hasn’t been a harsh winter yet, I’m already getting a little tired of winter vegetables. I’d picked up some asparagus – now in stores year-round – so I thought that doing something more than just boiling them would help their less-than-total freshness. I tried her Roasted Cheese Asparagus.

The recipe was almost agonizingly detailed. The first instruction is: “Brush a rimmed baking pan large enough to hold all the asparagus flat, without overlapping, with a tablespoon of the olive oil (Or use two pans.)” In other words, “Oil a large baking pan.”

Next it has you both snapping off the woody bottoms of the asparagus stems and peeling the rest of the stems halfway up. I can accept one or the other, but to do both with the specified medium-thick asparagus seems like wearing suspenders and a belt. I just did the snapping.

Then you’re to toss the asparagus with oil and salt in a bowl. Now, really: The shape of asparagus spears does not lend itself to tossing in a round container. Why not just spread them in the baking pan, add oil and salt, and stir them about until coated? You have to lay them out in the pan anyway, to roast them.

Meanwhile, you’ve preheated the oven to 450°. Fair enough. But: You’re to put the asparagus pan on the bottom rack of the oven for 8 to 10 minutes, then pull it out, sprinkle on grated Grana Padano cheese (just parmigiano will never do for this book’s recipes!), and move it to the top rack for another 5 minutes, or until the cheese is browned. Again, this seems like totally unnecessary fussiness. I don’t know this, but I suspect that any temperature differential would depend on whether you’re using a gas or electric oven (heat only from the bottom, vs. from both top and bottom), and the effect would be minimal for the short time involved here.

Well, never mind. I put my asparagus pan on a rack more or less in the middle of the oven, and after the first 10 minutes sprinkled on an amount of cheese (parmigiano) that looked sufficient to me – less than the recipe called for. They came out fine: The topping was a nice delicate crunch, and since I don’t usually match asparagus with cheese, I enjoyed the flavor combination.

Llidias asparagus

I can’t really complain: I wanted a nice simple dish, and I got one. I’m just bemused that the recipe wasn’t presented as simply as it could have been.

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walnut cakeI will say that my next foray into one of the book’s recipes was significantly more rewarding: Its Walnut and Coffee Cake is a sort of pound cake flavored with chopped walnuts, espresso, and brandy – really quite delicious. A rich, sturdy slice of it makes a good treat to give a person deeply disgusted with hospital food. Maybe I’ll write more about it next week, if I haven’t gotten back to more adventurous cooking by then.

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Since I was cooking only for myself this past week (Tom was in Italy on a wine trip), I indulged myself in an extravaganza of dishes using tarragon, an herb that I like a lot and he mostly doesn’t. I did quite a bit of cookbook and online research to decide on the tarragony recipes I’d make for myself, one day after another.

I started, very simply and purely, with tarragon butter, using the recipe from the first volume of Julia Child’s Mastering. A stick of butter, pounded soft, a tablespoon of lemon juice worked in, and three tablespoons of chopped fresh tarragon: These set me up with a base for any number of treats.

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My first tarragon fix was with chicken – a food to which tarragon is a classic companion. I browned two small chicken legs in butter and oil, salted, peppered, and threw in a big sprig of tarragon, covered the pan and cooked gently for half an hour, turning the legs a few times. On my dinner plate, I topped each leg with a generous dollop of the tarragon butter. Heavenly!

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Next, for a breakfast I added chopped tarragon to a pair of eggs for scrambling and, when they were done, again gilded the lily with a nut of tarragon butter to melt over the top. Wickedly good!

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Another day, I had a dinner of sea scallops. I salted, peppered, and sauteed them in olive oil on one side for three minutes, and when I turned them over I dropped a few gobs of tarragon butter into the pan. The scallops’ own juices made a creamy pan sauce with the butter as it melted, and I basted the scallops with it while cooking for three more minutes. They were very rich, and the plain boiled rice I served them over took to the sauce like a long-lost lover.

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For yet another meal, I made asparagus with tarragon, an idea I found on the Internet. I drizzled the raw spears with olive oil; sprinkled on chopped shallots, chopped tarragon, salt and pepper; and roasted them at 400° for 10 minutes. Though I’d used quite a lot of tarragon, its effect on the cooked asparagus was very mild, so of course I enhanced it with a dab of my tarragon butter. That was nice enough, but what was best about the dish was the presence of the shallots – an addition to roasted asparagus that I’ll definitely remember for the future.

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By this time I was carefully checking mirrors to see if the whites of my eyes were turning green or little herb leaves were sprouting in my hair. No, not yet. So I did one more vegetable dish with tarragon. After sauteeing some cremini mushrooms I finished them with – of course – tarragon butter. The shrooms absorbed the butter without hesitation but, like the preceding asparagus, were only mildly affected by it. Maybe I’d have noticed it more at the beginning of the week, rather than here at the end, when I was pretty much inoculated with tarragon.

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So, what’s the bottom line on my Tarragon Time? Well, I still do like tarragon, but it’ll be a long time before I need to have any again. Further, with all the sauteeing these dishes involved I’ve consumed more butter this week than I normally do in a month – no, two months. When Tom’s away on his wine jaunts I usually try to eat very modestly, to knock off a pound or two. This week was just the opposite. But what the heck, it was interesting and fun, and now I’ll never need to do it again! Tarragon at least is non-addictive. I’m not so sure about butter.

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It all started when by mistake I bought too much mascarpone for my holiday cooking. I needed two cups of crème fraiche and one of mascarpone but I switched them around. So I wound up with three-quarters of a pound of leftover mascarpone, which went into the freezer until I could think what to do with it.

After a prolonged holiday binge of cookies and cakes and pies and tarts, I didn’t want to make any more desserts, so that ruled out gazillions of recipes, especially for tiramisù, which seems to be the world’s favorite dessert to make with mascarpone. Savory dishes were what I wanted.

As I browsed numerous recipes in my cookbooks and online, I began to realize that you can put mascarpone into almost any dish that wants a subtle creamy presence. That gave me my double-O designation to start to play with it.

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First, in mashed potatoes. I added about a quarter-cup of mascarpone, rather than butter or milk, as I mashed three Yukon gold potatoes, to accompany a grilled steak for two. The mascarpone instantly disappeared into the potatoes, adding a gentle sweet-sour flavor and a velvety texture. We probably wouldn’t have been able to identify the difference as due to mascarpone if we hadn’t known it was there.

mascarpone mashed potatoes

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Next, in pasta sauce. Even though it was January, I had a hankering for a springlike sort-of-primavera pasta. I sauteed cut-up mushrooms and asparagus in butter and olive oil, tossed in freshly cooked vermicelli, and then stirred in several big dollops of mascarpone. Again, the mascarpone was immediately absorbed – you can’t see it at all in this photo – and again it gave the dish just a faint pleasant tanginess, very slightly different from a sauce made with heavy cream.

mascarpone pasta

The dish didn’t even need to be dressed with grated parmigiano, though it did love freshly ground pepper. It was also very rich. Though I’d used only six ounces of pasta, Tom and I couldn’t come near finishing it all. The leftovers made an excellent – also very rich – fritatta.

mascarpone pasta fritatta

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Then in polenta. We had some veal stew meat in the freezer whose time it was to use. Tom created a tasty brown braise, with fresh sage leaves, dried porcini, a splash of white wine, and a tiny quantity of broth, in a new black Chamba ware pot we’d given ourselves for Christmas. These handmade clay cooking vessels from Colombia are wonderful for stews, sauces, and braises; in my mind, they’re the original slow cooker. When the braise was almost ready I made the polenta, stirring in mascarpone near the end of its cooking.

mascarpone polenta

Another successful dish. The mystery-ingredient mascarpone made for a very creamy polenta, an excellent backdrop for the tender veal and its succulent gravy.

.veal on mascarpone polenta.

Likewise in risotto. I was getting the idea: Any kind of starch dish that likes cream will love mascarpone. I had some asparagus that didn’t get used the other day in the pasta, so I made a risotto with it. This time I didn’t add the mascarpone until the risotto was out of the pot and on the serving dish – you can actually see it in this photo – and that worked very well.

mascarpone risotto

In fact, once stirred in, the mascarpone was more noticeable and interesting here than it was in the three previous dishes. It gave the risotto the lovely dense creaminess that usually comes when you add parmigiano near the end of the cooking, without the good-but-assertive flavor and slight gumminess that grated cheese provides. My version made a perfect accompaniment to some fairly delicate sauteed filets of scrod.

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And . . . After these good meals, I still had a quarter-cup of mascarpone left in the refrigerator. So, determined not to let any mascarpone go to waste, I stirred it into a pair of scrambled eggs that I made as a lunch for myself. Again, a lush texture, only slightly different from using butter or cream. A little indulgence for me, combined with good, housewifely frugality, added up to a simple but tasty lunch: not bad for finishing off an unanticipated leftover.

mascarpone scrambled eggs

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All in all, this was a good learning experience. I now know a lot more about how to use mascarpone than I did before. It hasn’t been an item I buy very often, but given what I’ve found out about its versatility, it may very well show up on my shopping lists more frequently now.

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