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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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Though Tom and I were away on a trip last week, we still had a Christmas dinner at home – one day on the week before the actual holiday. It was a full-fledged feast.

It started with a trial of three kinds of caviar, all osetra style: one from California, one from Israel, and one from Italy. We liked the Californian, from American transmontanus sturgeon, best. It was also the most expensive of the three, but still only a fraction of the cost of Caspian Sea caviar from actual osetra sturgeon. This led to reminiscing about the days when “real” caviar was affordable, if expensive, and when occasionally you could find some at a great price: It fell off the truck, no doubt. The Israeli caviar came in second, for both price and preference. The Italian, alas, was the least of them. (I’m putting all this on the record so I’ll remember it for next year.)

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Then we went on to an outrageous indulgence for a two-person dinner: a four-???????????????????????????????pound prime rib of beef – two beautifully trimmed and tied, juicy ribs. Call it the king of all planned-overs. I roasted it in a way entirely new to me. I had just bought myself The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook – a hefty tome of almost 900 pages. The book is full of earnest expositions of why its recipes are best of breed. For “perfect prime rib” it calls for roasting at 200° F, a much lower temperature than I’d ever used before.

Since total slow roasting leaves an unsightly fatty exterior, the book says to brown the entire piece of meat on the stove before putting it in the oven, so that’s what I did. My biggest cast-iron skillet served well for both the browning and the roasting.

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Assuming you want your roast medium rare, the recipe calls for cooking it 30 minutes to the pound, which would have been 2 hours for mine. Since Tom and I like our beef practically still mooing, I gave it an hour and 20 minutes, plus a 25-minute rest before carving. It came out beautifully, and tasted every bit as good as it looked.

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Our vegetable accompaniments were leeks braised in broth with a dab of tomato paste and a dash of Cholula hot sauce; and a puree of Green Mountain potatoes and parsnip, gratineed with cream and an egg. Also in the photo is a 1985 Biondi Santi Brunello – a very special wine, which to our surprise still wasn’t fully ready to drink. It could have taken ten more years of aging, even after the far-from-optimum conditions of our storage. An amazing wine.

Finally, at the back of the table you can see the tiny apple tart I’d made for dessert. Perfectly lovely Christmas fare, all of it, even if it wasn’t enjoyed on December 25 – and it provided luscious leftover beef for another full meal for two, plus sandwiches.

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Devotees of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano detective novels enjoy them almost as much for the hero’s eating habits as for his ingenuity in solving crimes. In every story, the police commissario in southwest Sicily takes time to relish the dishes of his region – most of all, those involving seafood – and the descriptions positively make the reader hungry.

montalbano cookbookThey also make this reader want to cook them. I have a number of Sicilian cookbooks and general Italian cookbooks with Sicilian recipes, but when the Montalbano urge is upon me I turn to Stefanio Campo’s I segreti della tavola di Montalbano: Le ricette di Andrea Camilleri. Twice in the last two years I’ve written about making recipes from that book (here and here), so I was due – overdue, in fact – for another indulgence.

Neither of the earlier experiments with the recipes included any seafood, and I was sure Montalbano would want me to make some of those. So, for a dinner party for Labor Day weekend, I chose this menu:

Alici con cipolle e aceto

Sauté di vongole al pangrattato

Pasta con le sarde

Brusciuluni

Granita di limone

Acquiring the necessary fish was a challenge. Fresh anchovies (alici) and fresh sardines (sarde) are rarely and unpredictably available locally. We haunted our fish store for weeks and almost gave up, but at last came a day when both kinds had just come in.

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We bought them at once. Tom heroically undertook the job of heading, tailing, and boning the little critters – a lengthy and maddening procedure – and we put them in the freezer, crossing our fingers that they would still be okay when defrosted.

Truth to tell, we pretty much had fingers crossed about the entire menu, since we’d never made any of those recipes before and there was a lot of translating, modifying, and quantifying to do. It was a busy cooking day for both of us, but well worth it, as it turned out. The rewards were great, from first bite to last swallow.

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Alici con cipolle e aceto

Montalbano’s housekeeper Adelina leaves him this dish of fresh anchovies in The Terracotta Dog. They’re first “cooked” like a séviche in white wine and vinegar, then drained and layered with thinly sliced cipolline – small, flattish Italian onions – covered with olive oil, and allowed to marinate for a few hours.

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They were gorgeous! Still fresh and sweet, with just the right balance of acidity and oil – perfect to pile on a slice of crusty ciabatta bread. Infinitely better than any prepared ones I’ve bought in this country. Even the cleaner/deboner says they were worth the trouble they took.

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Saute di vongole al pangrattato

Montalbano “gobbled up” this sauté of clams with breadcrumbs one day at a restaurant in Mazàra in The Snack Thief. Small clams – vongole veraci – are steamed open in sparkling wine with some garlic and olive oil. Then they’re dressed with parsley, salt, and pepper; laid in a gratin dish, sprinkled with breadcrumbs and olive oil, and baked for 15 minutes.

We can’t get those Mediterranean clams here, but New Zealand cockles are a reasonable substitute. (Small Manila clams will also do.) There is some Sicilian sparkling wine, but the Montalbano recipe calls for prosecco, so we used that and also served it for the aperitivo.

This too was an excellent dish. The cockles had a lively, briny sweetness that was heightened by the simple condiments, and despite the seemingly long cooking they remained tender and moist.

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Pasta con le sarde

In The Terracotta Dog, Adelina tells Montalbano she’s going to make him pasta with sardines, to be followed by purpi (octopus) alla carretiera. “Exquisite but deadly,” our hero thinks, and gives her a hug.

This classic, rich Sicilian pasta dish really should be made with very feathery wild fennel, but that doesn’t occur here, so we have to substitute bulb fennel, with some crushed fennel seed to boost the flavor. The freshest possible sardines, cut in pieces, are sauteed in olive oil with chopped onions with some mashed salted anchovy. Cooked, chopped fennel is added, and then raisins, pignoli, and saffron. Bucatini, cooked in the water that boiled the fennel, are tossed with the sauce and the dish topped with toasted breadcrumbs.

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I think this was the best version of the dish I’ve ever tasted (though Tom reminds me of a splendid one we had at a famous seafood restaurant in Rome – Carmelo alla Rosetta – some years back). All the flavors married beautifully in each mouthful, yet still retained their individual goodnesses. Fresh sardines are another animal entirely from the canned ones we all know, and they love the warm, gentle flavor of cooked fennel.

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Brusciuluni

Here we departed from our seafood theme. Brusciuluni is Sicilian dialect for braciolone, a large stuffed and rolled piece of beef. In Un mese con Montalbano (a book of short stories that hasn’t been issued in English yet), one of the inspector’s detectives invites him home to dinner. Fazio asks if his chief would prefer fish or meat. Montalbano knows Signora Fazio is an excellent cook, but also that she comes from an inland town where fish is never available, so he shrewdly chooses meat.

The result is this brusciuluni: a butterflied piece of meat (flank steak, in our case) rolled around a stuffing of caciocavallo, salame, hardboiled eggs, raisins, pignoli, and breadcrumbs. It’s braised in a thin tomato sauce, taken out to cool completely, then sliced, laid out on a platter, and topped with the hot sauce for serving.

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It was an attractive presentation, and a rich and filling course. One slice was all anyone could manage. Here the numerous flavors of the meats and cheese, eggs and herbs blended into an earthy, harmonious unity, an entity different from their individual flavors. Humble as the basic ingredients are, the dish derives from the cooking of the monzùs, the French chefs who served Sicily’s great houses in the 18th century.

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Granita di limone

In contrast to that composed meat course, dessert was a matter of utter simplicity. Adelina regularly makes lemon ice for Montalbano. In The Terracotta Dog, we learn that she uses a one-two-four formula: one glass of lemon juice, two of sugar, and four of water. The inspector considers it “a finger-licking delight.”

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We’d also had a cheese course after the brusciuluni, and the bracing granita was the ideal light finale to the meal. I’d made a test batch a few days in advance, and to my amazement, instead of turning into a mini-iceberg, the soft fluffy crystals retained their shape perfectly in the freezer. This is going to be a regular hot-weather dessert for us now, and a frequent reminder of our many debts to Andrea Camilleri.

P.S.  If you’d like to know about the wines Tom chose to accompany each course of the meal, you’ll find his post about them here.

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Paupiettes Paysannes

I came across an ancient artifact in my big recipe binder recently – a recipe for a dish I created many years ago. Paupiettes paysannes are simple stuffed beef rolls, with a fancy French name that I gave them as a joke. The recipe was published in a feature article about a wine tasting party that Tom and I wrote for Long Island Newsday back in 1980.

At that time, food and wine journalism was a far more innocent enterprise than it is now, and we were just fledgling members of the craft. The party was for ten people, none of us very knowledgeable about wine at that time, and it included two bottles each of six California wines. We tasted in two flights, first three Zinfandels, then three Cabernets, taking detailed notes, with pauses for various edibles and discussion between flights and a full dinner at the end to finish the wines with. I’d chosen my beef rolls for the main course because I could make them entirely in advance, to reheat when needed.

My long-ago headnote to the recipe in my binder says that it makes a surprisingly rich-tasting dish with only the kind of ingredients you might have kicking around in the refrigerator. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d made the dish, so I decided to make it again to see if I still agreed with that description.

The “in the refrigerator” part was accurate. For the stuffing I chopped onion, carrot, celery, garlic, mushrooms, and anchovy fillets; sautéed the mixture in butter and oil; added salt, pepper, and enough breadcrumbs to bind. This went onto slices of beef round, which I rolled, tied, and browned in more butter and oil.

I poured on red wine and boiled it briskly to reduce by half, added brown stock, covered the pan, and simmered for an hour, until the rolls were tender. According to my newspaper clipping of the wine tasting party, I served a risotto Milanese with the paupiettes, but for this meal for two I served them on fresh egg fettuccine. There was just enough sauce to moisten the noodles.

It was quite a decent dish. Not world-shaking, and not what I would call rich nowadays, after many more years of cooking experience, but perfectly tasty for a weekday dinner. And it brought back memories of that early culinary and wine tasting adventure – which was a huge success. I’m sorry you can’t read our article: Newsday’s online archives don’t go back very far.

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Brillat-Savarin thought the discovery of a new dish would give humanity more happiness than the discovery of a new star. I can’t speak for stars, but a recent discovery of two new kinds of meat brought great happiness to my house.

I owe that felicity to good friends who own Pasture Prime Family Farm in Florida, who recently sent us samples of their free-range Mangalitsa pork and grass-fed Wagyu beef. Mangalitsa was a brand-new name to me, a breed of pig whose meat I’d never tasted. I now know its pork is even more highly prized than pork from Berkshire pigs, a variety I’ve come to love. I’d never tasted Wagyu beef either, though at least I knew it by name.

Pasture Prime’s Wagyu herd

One of the beef samples was a Flat Iron steak, a totally new cut for me. It’s actually part of the chuck, from the blade muscle in the shoulder of the cow – the green patch on the diagram. Muscle separation butchery, long practiced in Europe, is finally catching on in the USA: hence this new cut. I was interested to notice that the blade lies right near the eye of chuck – the blue patch – which is my absolute favorite cut for beef stews and pot roasts. The steaks cut from the blade muscle are perfectly neat, flat squares – hence the name.

To give the Wagyu a proper taste test, I wanted a fairly simple preparation, but something worthy of this prestigious variety of beef. I chose Bavette aux Échalottes, a recipe for skirt steak that I’d clipped from an old issue of Saveur. It’s a simple sauté, with a pan reduction sauce of shallots and red wine vinegar, finished with a good dollop of butter. (You can find the recipe here, though the online version omits the original French title.)

It was lovely. The only way I can characterize Wagyu is that it’s super-intensely beefy – almost gamy; rich, juicy, and meat-sweet – umami-like, if I understand what that newfound mysterious fifth basic taste is. Despite warnings that, being chuck, flat iron steak benefits from marination, ours was perfectly tender without it. A few evenings later we made hamburgers from a sample of ground Wagyu, and it was equally juicy and flavorful – very different from ordinary American beef. How much of the difference is due to the breed and how much to grass-feeding, I can’t be sure – but the flavor difference is very real.

Now, on to the Mangalitsa – which I find an endearing-looking animal:

One of the pork samples was a picante Italian-style sausage – a new product that the Pasture Prime family is developing. I had a recipe that would be a perfect test for it. I wrote about it here in January: Pappardelle alla Contadina. This recipe from my book La Tavola Italiana depends entirely on the quality of its spicy hot sausage meat, which is cooked with onions, mushrooms, and cream to make a lush dressing for fresh pasta. Having made the dish many times with different kinds of hot sausage, I felt it would give the Mangalitsa a great opportunity to show its breeding.

It certainly did. This was the best version of my dish I can remember ever eating. The meat was richly flavored, piquant and subtle, just hot enough, ground to the right texture and with the right balance of fat and lean. It would be delicious in any recipe calling for spicy Italian sausages.

Tom and I get very superior beef and excellent Berkshire pork from our local butchers, Ottomanelli & Sons of Bleecker Street, but the Wagyu and Mangalitsa from Pasture Prime were real eye-openers. For people like us, who care passionately about meat, these are the kind of stars we’re happiest to discover. Thank you, Nels and Marilyn!

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Just before this year’s second absurdly early heat wave descended on us, I managed to do some oven cooking. There were beef short ribs in my freezer that had been calling out to me, and I wanted to use them. Short ribs are a great meat. They take well to many combinations of flavorful liquids and vegetables. Tom is good at improvising short rib preparations in either a red style (tomatoes, garlic, oregano) or a brown (wine, broth, mushrooms).

But this time I wanted to make an actual recipe – something new.  I found one in the little cookbook Bistro, by Sharon O’Connor. Though it’s subtitled “Favorite Parisian Bistro Recipes,” three of the twenty bistros whose recipes are featured are on this side of the Atlantic. One is Balthazar, the immensely popular New York City place. For more than ten years, apparently, Braised Short Ribs have been one of its weekly plats du jour.

I was interested in the recipe partly for a reason that might seem strange: There’s nothing unusual in it. That is, the ingredients are mostly those that Tom and I use in our own brown-style versions of short ribs. But – as I’ve learned from recreating Italian recipes for my cookbooks – in many dishes, very small differences in procedure can produce big differences in effect. I thought this might happen here.

And it did.

The first step, however, was to defrost the short ribs. I’d forgotten to get them out of the freezer the night before I planned to cook them. So here they are, sitting on a cast-iron two-burner griddle, poised atop my toaster oven to put them closer to the halogen under-cabinet lights illuminating my kitchen counter.

That griddle is a great defroster of things. The same conductivity that makes a superior griddle enables it to just suck coldness out of whatever you lay on it. And halogen bulbs give off quite a lot of heat, which helps too.

Following the recipe, then, I browned the short ribs in olive oil and set them aside. In the same pot I softened chopped celery, carrots, onions, and shallots. (The shallots were a difference – but in themselves not a great departure from onions.) Then I stirred in undiluted tomato paste and cooked it a bit, almost making a roux out of it. (Usually I dissolve tomato paste in water, stock or wine first). Then I sprinkled on the flour. (Usually I flour the meat, before or after it’s browned, not the vegetables.)

The short ribs then went back into the pot, along with a whole head of unpeeled garlic, halved crosswise (I’d never done that before; the pieces were quite pretty), a bouquet garni, red wine, and a small amount of port. (Here’s a confession: I didn’t have the specified ruby port, so I just upped the red wine a bit and added a little sugar. Don’t tell on me!) Once the wine was reduced over high heat, I stirred in some broth, brought it to a boil, covered the pot and put it in the oven.

The recipe wanted the dish to be cooked for three hours at 350°. That seemed an awfully long time for that temperature. When I checked it after two hours, the short ribs seemed almost done and there wasn’t much liquid left. But I was determined to follow the recipe – wrongly, as it turned out: Sometimes you should trust your instincts. I just added some hot water and returned the pot to the oven.

When the three hours were up, the sauce had again almost evaporated. After removing the meat, instead of boiling down the strained cooking juices I had to add more liquid again in order to get the gravy to a reasonable consistency.  Here’s the result:

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Well, the effect of the finished dish was indeed different from any of the ways Tom and I normally cook short ribs. The flavor was excellent and almost stultifyingly rich. We thought it needed some acidity – such as more tomato presence, or maybe a splash of wine vinegar. But, also, the meat was very overcooked. I like short ribs to be meltingly tender but still hold their shape; these had lost all their structural consistency, so they dissolved into shreds at the touch of a knife or fork. I really think the recipe as written wasn’t well tested. When a restaurant cooks a dish like this in great quantity, the relative amounts of certain ingredients and the baking time and temperature might not be the same as for a family-sized dish.

However, for all the overcooking, these short ribs were aggressively good-tasting. Now the question is, is it worth going to Balthazar to see how its version of this dish compares with the one I made?

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