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The calendar says it’s spring, but the weather hasn’t been fully cooperative. What do you do on an unseasonably raw, dark, damp day? Easy: Have friends over for a bollito misto dinner.

In English, a “mixed boil” doesn’t sound overly attractive, but this northern Italian meat extravaganza is truly marvelous. I remember a long-ago winter day in Ferrara when Beloved Spouse and I lurched out of the icy blasts and into the warmth of a restaurant where all the lunchtime patrons were comforting themselves with bollito misto, served from a steaming silver cart that a waiter rolled around to each table. That was our first taste of this now-indispensable bad-weather balm.

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For this occasion, I embellished the bollito with a multi-course menu of dishes from my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. We started with an antipasto of grilled radicchio with smoked mozzarella.

Several red-leaved members of the chicory family are known as radicchio. This dish wants the long, slender Treviso variety. The radicchio heads are halved and pan-grilled with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper; then placed in a baking pan, topped with smoked scamorza or mozzarella (scamorza is better, if you can find it), and baked until the cheese melts. The combination of smoky-lush cheese and savory-bitter radicchio makes a bracing wake-up call to the appetite.

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Next came a first course of passatelli in brodo.

Long, gentle boiling of several kinds of meat – on this day eye of chuck, chicken thighs, and veal tongue – produces a wonderfully rich broth. A bowl of it is purely ambrosial with passatelli. To make these tiny shreds of dumpling, you mix breadcrumbs, grated parmigiano, eggs, parsley, salt, pepper, and nutmeg into a soft paste. Dip out a quantity of broth into a separate pot; bring it to a boil; set a food mill over the pot; and mill the passatelli mixture directly into it. Cook two minutes, let rest two minutes, and serve. This is the soul’s plasma, so be prepared to offer seconds.

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Finally, the main event of the evening: the meats and their condiments.

In addition to the beef, chicken, and tongue, I separately cooked a large, unctuous cotechino sausage. Alongside we had potatoes mashed with parmigiano; salsa rossa (a thick, nubbly sauce that I make from roasted sweet peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and red wine vinegar), and mostarda di Cremona – fruits preserved in a strong mustard syrup (jars of which I bring back from every trip to Italy). All in all, they made richly satisfying platefuls, with the sweet/sharp flavors of the two condiments playing beautifully off the lushness of the meats.

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And to finish the meal, a pizza dolce, or ricotta torte.

The pastry for this looking-toward-Easter dessert is a tender pasta frolla. The ricotta filling is flavored with confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, chopped almonds, and chopped candied citron and orange peel. For this evening’s torte I diverged a bit from my published recipe: I used very fresh sheep’s milk ricotta; orange peel alone, and a combination of almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts. Came out just fine!

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A place in my neighborhood, billed as the only 100% Paleo restaurant in the city, puts a chalkboard on the sidewalk listing daily specials. I love to walk by and envision a Neanderthal family sitting in their cave breakfasting on something like No-Yo Matcha Parfait: coconut milk, maple syrup, taro root, almond butter, matcha, banana, and grain-free granola. Where in the world could a group of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers have collected that combination of foodstuffs?!

Such absurdities make it impossible for me to take the Paleo diet seriously. While I’m quite happy to eat meat, vegetables, fruits, and nuts, there’s no way I’d give up all dairy products, grains, bread, pasta, sugar, salt, and coffee. (Not to mention wine.) But leaving aside the pros, cons, and controversies of the Paleo approach, it can be fun on occasion to eat something “primordial” – and there’s nothing more primordial than roasted marrow bones.

Here’s the batch that we had one recent evening:

raw-bones

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They’re perfectly easy to prepare: Place the bones in a roasting pan with the wider side of the marrow openings up. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Put the pan in a 450° oven until the marrow softens and begins to ooze out – about 15 minutes. Serve. Except for the salt and pepper, any Paleolithic cook could have done it.

roasted-bones

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It’s hard to overstate how elementally satisfying the succulence of marrow is at the end of a grey, cold, winter day. However, I destroyed the Paleo purity of the dish by having a loaf of crusty ciabatta bread as its accompaniment.

bread-loaf

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There’s nothing roasted marrow likes better than to be scooped out and spread on a slice of warm toast, there to be blissfully devoured.
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plate-of-bones

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And one more post-Paleolithic touch: Marrow loves a good, soft, round red wine. So do I.

bone-tower

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My trip to Rome earlier this month was, gastronomically, very much of an auld lang syne experience. Beloved Spouse and I dined only at restaurants we’ve known and loved for years, and mostly on dishes that we’ve often eaten there and that are a large part of the reason we love them. Here are what we had on three of the days.

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fortunato-al-pantheon

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Fortunato al Pantheon
is a slightly austere establishment, favored by politicians from the nearby national Parliament. It was a modest trattoria years ago, when we first discovered it, but it has grown in elegance while still retaining its basic honesty.

The moment we walked into the dining room, we smelled truffles. Wow! We hadn’t expected the season to have started yet. We couldn’t resist them, but first we had to have antipasti: a pair of carciofi alla romana and a plate of salume.
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fortunato-1

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Then came the truffles. For Tom, tagliarini topped at tableside with shavings of a single large white truffle; and for me tagliarini already dressed with a sauce of black truffle and porcini mushrooms. By our waiter’s courtesy, I also received the last little bits of Tom’s white truffle.
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tartufi-bianchi

Tagliarini con tartufi bianchi

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tartufi-neri

Tagliarini con tartufi neri e funghi porcini

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These were both stunningly rich dishes, but after them we felt we could manage a little dessert: a dish of fragoline con panna and a small tiramisù.
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fortunato-3

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Walking back to our hotel, we pondered one of the enduring mysteries of Roman dining: How do you get fresh artichokes, wild strawberries, and truffles at the same season?
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checchino

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Another evening found us at Checchino dal 1887. It’s in Testaccio, the epicenter of Rome’s ancient quinto quarto cuisine – i.e., variety meats, or more simply, offal. Testaccio used to be the butcher’s section of the city, and the “fifth quarter” of the animal was what the poor got, after the best cuts went to the aristocracy, the clergy, the bourgeoisie, and the military. Dishes made from those innards, though not for today’s faint-hearted eater, are central to Rome’s traditional cuisine.

Here, Tom always starts with the same pasta dish: rigatoni con pajata. Pajata is the small intestine of milk-fed lamb, still filled with partially digested milk. Tied into little sausages and cooked in tomato sauce, it’s delicious beyond what you would expect. That evening I chose an equally traditional, though meatless, first course: pasta e ceci (chickpeas).
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checchino-1-1

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I made up for that reticence with my second course, padellotto alla macellara. This “butcher’s platter” was a sauté of pajata, liver, sweetbreads, and testicolo. (Yes, testicle). Not your everyday plate of protein. Tom had a bollito misto – mixed boiled meats – including on this occasion beef, calf’s tongue, and a small pig’s foot.
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padelotto.
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I must admit, we couldn’t finish either of these ample plates.
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zi-umberto

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Osteria da Zi’ Umberto
is a small, lively, bustling, casual eating place in Trastevere. Though not strong on atmosphere and looking a little run-down, it turns out very good, mostly rustic food at relatively modest prices. After starting with a few fiori fritti (batter-fried zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese and anchovies), we had first courses of pappardelle with wild boar sauce and fettuccine with porcini mushrooms.
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2-umberto-pastas

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Then Tom had oxtails – coda alla vaccinara – and I had suckling pig – maialino arrosto con patate. Both were beautifully prepared.
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coda

 

maialino-arrosto.

At all these meals we drank wine, of course – mostly wines of Rome’s Lazio region, which aren’t commonly available in New York – and ended with espressos and grappa. Many interesting kinds of grappa. Tom has written a post about the wines for his blog, which you can see here.

Our remaining three dinners in Rome are described in my next post.

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Tuscan Pot Roast

Last Wednesday the featured article in the NY Times food section was about a midwestern restaurant chef’s elaborate pot roast. I found it strange, because in the photos, text, and recipe, the beef was accompanied by an array of root vegetables. When I make a pot roast, the roast is alone in the pot. With vegetables, I’d call the dish a stew or a braise.

My curiosity piqued, I looked up pot roast recipes in several of my cookbooks, as well as online. By golly, they all included vegetables! The sole exception was my copy of the 1937 America’s Cook Book, the only cookbook my mother ever owned. Its recipe for pot roast is the one that graced our family table when I was growing up: just beef, salt, pepper, flour, and rendered suet, with an optional version including some water. Replicating that simple dish kept me happy for many years. Then I discovered a different but also vegetable-less approach in Italy and began making Tuscan Pot Roast, a recipe I developed and published in The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen.

That train of thought a few days later took me to the freezer, where I pulled out a nice two-pound piece of eye of chuck to defrost for dinner the next night. Eye of chuck is our household’s favorite cut of beef for stews, pot roasts, and bollito misto. It’s a loose-textured meat, well marbled and very flavorful, but it requires long, slow cooking to become tender and especially to melt its central tendon to succulence.

raw eye of chuck

This is the same cut the newspaper’s featured chef uses. He calls it paleron; the article says midwestern butchers call it flat iron roast; elsewhere it’s apparently called top blade roast. Hereabouts, it’s eye of chuck.

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For my recipe, I put the beef into a heavy pot with butter, olive oil, two cloves of garlic, four sage leaves, salt and pepper.

first cooking

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Under very low heat it cooks, covered, for an hour, getting turned over every 10 or 15 minutes. Then I uncover it, raise the heat somewhat, pour on half a cup of red wine and boil it briskly until it’s nearly evaporated.

adding wine

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Lower the heat again, cover, and cook until the meat is tender, usually about another half hour. Just before serving I take out the beef and keep it warm while I remove the garlic and sage and deglaze the pan with half a cup of broth. Blended with the meat essences left in the pot, that makes a rich, dense, dark gravy that doesn’t need any other thickener.

slicing

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This pot roast has to be sliced fairly thick so it won’t fall apart. Sometimes it falls apart anyway, it’s so tender. There’s just one more thing I’ll explain about the photo above: As a concession to nutritional “science,” my published recipe says to carefully defat the sauce before pouring it over the meat. When it’s just for Beloved Spouse and myself, I don’t do that. That golden rim of liquid fat makes the gravy even more luscious for spooning over mashed potatoes or mopping up with crusty bread.

All right then, I’ll go to hell.  I understand the company is more interesting there anyhow.

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Slow-Roasted Short Ribs

Trying a very different way of cooking a favorite cut of meat is always a chancy proposition. The result could be a joyful surprise, a total disaster, or anything in between. We love moist-cooked beef short ribs in our house, braised in either brown sauce or tomato sauce. But I remembered how tasty the rib stubs on a standing rib roast of beef are, so I thought I’d like to try roasting some short ribs “dry.” Who knows? They might be a whole new favorite for us.

All the dry-cooking recipes I could find in my books or online started by slathering the ribs with sweet barbecue sauces, which wasn’t the effect I wanted. I finally came upon one featuring a sugarless rub that I thought could work, though the recipe included some bells and whistles that I decided to ignore.

I made up a mixture of Spanish smoked paprikas (both hot and sweet), ground ginger, minced garlic, olive oil, salt, and black pepper, and painted it over the top of my three-rib section. Those seemed like good flavors to match with the succulence of short ribs.

plain and painted

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Once coated, the meat was supposed to be put in a plastic bag and refrigerated overnight, but I didn’t want to overwhelm it with those strong spices, so I merely let it sit out on the kitchen countertop all afternoon – about six hours.

Then there was a double roasting to be done. First I had to set the meat on a rack in a shallow baking pan and put it in a 325° oven for an hour and a half. Then I had to remove the rack, cover the meat with foil, and return it to the oven for two more hours, until tender. Since short ribs make a natural rack by sitting on their own bones, I couldn’t see the purpose of the wire-rack stage at all, but I did it.

on rack and under foil

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According to the recipe, the purpose of the first roasting was to render most of the fat, but it didn’t: My ribs gave off much more fat during the second roasting than the first, but not enough to leave any of the meat touching a puddle of fat.

The final step was to drizzle the ribs with olive oil and put them under the broiler for two minutes a side, “until nicely charred.” Well, by the end of the second roasting, my ribs looked as charred as I would ever want them, so I skipped that part.

whole rack

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I also skipped serving them with lemon wedges and a hazelnut Romesco sauce, as the recipe recommended: That seemed like overkill. I hoped the meat would speak for itself, just sliced and served plain.

sliced

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So where did this experience fall on the rapture-to-regret scale? Sort of in the middle. The ribs weren’t bad – a little more dry than I’d have liked, but not unpleasantly so. One disadvantage of the dry cooking seemed to be that the meat’s internal fat didn’t break down as much as it does with cooking in sauce, so there remained a not entirely delightful juxtaposition of well-cooked beef and still-substantial layers of fat. Also, though the coating was tasty, I felt the need to scrape some of it off, because it was too strong, overriding the meat’s own flavor. Bottom line: not a recipe I’m likely to make again.

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As did more than 100 million other patriotic Americans, Beloved Spouse and I watched the Super Bowl on Sunday. Since the game was going to cut right across our dinner hour, we knew we’d need some frivolous food to sustain us during the long session in front of the TV. I found just the thing in the previous week’s food section of the New York Times.

It had been a long time since I made a recipe from the Times. Several that I’d tried in the past were very unsatisfactory, and few since then have been of any interest to me. But my fancy was caught by an article about super-elaborate Loaded Nachos for Super Bowl snacking. Half a recipe’s worth looked like a full dinner for us.

Loaded the nachos certainly were: The recipe listed 25 ingredients. Happily, I had many of them on hand, so I had to buy only some of the fresh things: tortilla chips, ground beef, one of three cheeses, sour cream, tomatoes, an avocado, and a lime.

ingredients

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We started early in the afternoon by making the meat component. That involved sautéeing diced bacon, removing the bits and softening chopped onion in the bacon fat, then adding the ground beef and a big set of flavorings: garlic, chile powder, ground cumin, smoked paprika, black pepper, salt, brown sugar, cornstarch, and hot red pepper flakes. When all that had simmered together for a while, I stirred in enough water to loosen the mixture and let it sit on the back of the stove until needed.

beef mixture

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Just before the game started, we shredded Romaine lettuce and the three cheeses, Monterey jack, sharp cheddar, and cotija (misspelled in the recipe as cojita); cut up pickled jalapeños, tomatoes, and a lime; and sliced an avocado. (In another blooper, the recipe never again mentioned the bacon bits after they came out of the sauté pan. I assumed they weren’t to be discarded, so I added them to the other ingredients.)

Here we’re ready for the assembly:

assembly ready

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That was a matter of making layers in a baking dish. One-third of the tortilla chips, of the beef mixture, the lettuce, the jalapeños, the bacon, the avocado, the jack and cheddar cheeses. Repeat twice. Sprinkle the cotija over the top. After I’d done all that I discovered I’d skipped the third set of avocado slices, so I arranged them around the sides of the dish. That worked all right.

nachos for baking

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The nachos went into a 400° oven for 10 minutes, just until the cheeses had melted. For serving, I topped the dish with cut-up tomatoes and dabs of sour cream. (The recipe calls for an additional topping of sliced radishes and chopped cilantro, but the amounts were so tiny I’d decided to forgo them.) Everything went together well, and we ate messily but enjoyably in the living room while watching the game.

dinner

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A squeeze of lime juice on each portion was nice, but the hot sauce wasn’t even needed; the beef mixture provided a good lively spiciness. To drink, Beloved Spouse dug into his wine lair to extricate a 10-year-old Pagani Ranch Zinfandel from Ridge Vineyards, which is almost the only California producer he’ll allow in the house. Both robust and elegant, the bottle matched beautifully with the assertive yet complex flavors of the nachos.

Good as these particular nachos were, this is the kind of recipe that can easily be modified for individual tastes. If I make it again – for next year’s Super Bowl? It could become a family tradition – I’m likely to give it a substantial layer of refried beans, less of the meat mixture, more jalapeños, and more cheese. I’d still skip the radishes, but maybe reinstate the cilantro. And maybe next year the Giants will make it all the way to the big game.

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Julia Child says her recipe for a sauté of beef with onions, mushrooms, and way to cookpotatoes has “a certain jazzy style … for a rather important and intimate occasion.” She urges “an informal twosome” to prepare it “while having meaningful conversations and apéritifs together in the kitchen.” Joke it may be, but to me that sounded perfect for a quiet New Year’s Day dinner. Less so to Beloved Spouse, who is only slowly recovering from hip replacement surgery, but he gamely agreed to step – or hobble – into the role.

The recipe fills two large pages in The Way to Cook, giving a very specific order of battle and illustrated with nine color photographs. Julia claims the whole thing can be done by reasonably fast, well-equipped cooks in less than half an hour. We doubted that, especially since nowhere did it say “Have a sip of your apéritifs” – which was a first and recurring step for us.

aperitifs

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Undaunted, we proceeded. I peeled four cipolline (chosen instead of the recipe’s tiny white onions) and stewed them gently with broth, tarragon, and salt while Tom, exercising his renowned knife skills, chopped shallots, quartered mushrooms, and cubed potatoes.

First pair

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Next we jointly sauteed the potatoes in butter and oil in one pan and the mushrooms and shallots in another, engaging in such meaningful conversation as “Do you think that flame is too high?” and “The mushrooms already look done to me.”

Second pair

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Then – with a pause for a sip of Krug – it was back to the cutting board for Tom, to chunk up two thick beef tenderloin steaks while I took the mushrooms out of their pan and melted more butter in it, ready to receive the meat. It seemed a pity to mutilate those lovely steaks, but we did it as directed. The sacrifices one makes for art!

steaks

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After quickly browning and removing the beef, we made a sauce in its pan: more shallots, white vermouth, and broth; the liquid boiled down almost to a syrup; then lightly thickened with cornstarch. We stirred the beef back into the sauce, along with the onions, their remaining juices, and the mushrooms. While they all warmed together, we gave the potatoes, which had been waiting in their pan, a dose of additional butter, salt, parsley, and tarragon, and tossed them quickly over high heat. The final step was to strew the potatoes over the meat – and serve.

full saute

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I’m not sure why Julia regarded this dish as jazzy. It didn’t seem jazzy to us. But it was certainly good. The beef was still rare and beautifully tender, the potatoes crisp and buttery, the onions and mushrooms excellent complements, the sauce subtly flavored with vermouth and tarragon. A very elegant little meal. With it we drank a very elegant 1999 Barbaresco Montestefano from the Produttori di Barbaresco. An auspicious start to our 2016 dining.

P.S. While Tom and I surely qualify as reasonably speedy, well-equipped cooks, preparing that “fast sauté” took us 70 minutes.

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