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Posts Tagged ‘celery’

The last week of winter sent us some nasty weather as a parting gift. It has been a peculiar winter hereabouts: many days’ temperature getting up into the 60s, followed by colder spells with lots of wind, then unseasonal warmth again. It had hardly snowed at all until a late nor’easter barreled toward us, threatening Manhattan with 15” or more of snow and wild blustery winds. It was definitely a day to stay home and make soup.

I remembered there were some soup recipes in Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook that I’d been meaning to try for a long time, so I pulled my copy off the shelf and started looking through it. Aha: Celery Rice Soup – the very thing! Beloved Spouse is always eager for dishes involving cooked celery, and I had just bought a large fresh head of it.
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With that incentive, he was more than happy to chop all the vegetables for the soup. He began working on the four biggest stalks of celery, then moved on to a big onion and two potatoes, while I measured out ½ cup of white rice, grated ½ cup of parmigiano, and defrosted 6 cups of homemade broth and 2 tablespoons of minced parsley.
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The cooking process was simple. In a soup pot I briefly softened the onion in olive oil, stirred in the celery and potatoes to coat them with the oil, poured in the broth, and simmered everything for 20 minutes. Then I added the rice and some salt and pepper, simmered it for another 20 minutes, and stirred in the parsley. The rice had absorbed a lot of the liquid, making the soup look almost like a vegetable stew.

For lunch that day we ate big bowls of it, topped with grated parmigiano. It was a perfect consolation for a mean, snowy, sleety day: hearty, homey, and comforting, with a mild and delicate flavor of celery.
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A few cold, windy days later I turned to another recipe from the same book: Pugliese-style Zucchini-Potato Soup. Its ingredients are similar in type but even fewer in number than the previous one’s: potatoes, zucchini, and spaghetti, with condiments of garlic, olive oil, and grated parmigiano.
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The cooking too is even simpler: Bring salted water to a boil, add cut-up potatoes and a minced clove of garlic, cook 10 minutes, until the potatoes are tender. Add cut-up zucchini and broken-up spaghetti; cook 10 more minutes, until the spaghetti is al dente. Stir in olive oil, black pepper, and grated cheese. Serve, passing more olive oil at the table.
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This minimal peasant soup was, once again, just what the weather needed. The final dressing of cheese and olive oil completed and enhanced its simple basic flavors. Beloved Spouse said it struck him as a grandmother’s soup. My only complaint was for the blandness of the out-of-season zucchini: They didn’t contribute all they should have to the mixture.

But the vernal equinox is past, Earth’s northern hemisphere is tilting toward the sun, the days are getting longer, and soon the growing season will be upon us. And if winter delivers any Parthian shots to us, I can retaliate with the rest of my two soups.
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LTIAh, summer! When farmstands are laden with eggplants and tomatoes and peppers, and a happy home cook can revel in the bright flavors, turning out lively, colorful vegetable dishes for hot-weather dining – ratatouille, panzanella, gazpacho, caponata. I made the season’s first caponata this week, using my own recipe from La Tavola Italiana.

I didn’t much like caponata when I first tasted it, long ago. The one I had came out of a can, and my recollection is that it was mostly mud-colored, with an indeterminate flavor and a mushy texture. Much later, my first encounter with a freshly made one was a revelation.

Many good variations on caponata are possible. Ingredients and quantities are very flexible, but to my mind there are some limits – which are not always observed in the recipes I’ve seen. First, caponata is not a spread: it’s chunky. Second, it absolutely has to contain eggplant. (Believe me, some don’t.) Third, the components must be sauteed in olive oil. As you might guess, I like my own version. These are its ingredients:

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Ingredients B

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Those vegetables take a lot of chopping. My gallant knife-wielding husband took on the task for me, as always. (That’s not pure altruism: Tom likes caponata too.) Here they are, awaiting their baptism in the sauté pan.

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chopped stuff

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The first item to go into an inch of hot olive oil was the eggplant, after it had been salted, set in a colander for half an hour to give up some of its moisture, and lightly squeezed dry in a linen cloth. As soon as the eggplant had softened sufficiently and lightly browned in the hot oil, I drained it onto a plate and replaced it with the pieces of green pepper. When they had joined the eggplant on the plate, I drew off most of the olive oil, leaving just enough to soften the onion and celery, and then added the tomato for 10 minutes. In a separate little pot I briefly simmered the vinegar, capers, sugar, salt, and pepper.

The eggplant and peppers went back into the pan, along with the vinegar mixture, the pine nuts, and the olives, and everything simmered together for 10 more minutes. (A word about the olives: I usually buy oil-cured black ones, but this day I had some big green Castelvetranos in the refrigerator, which I pitted and chunked up, and they were beautiful in the mix. I’ll use them again.)

Caponata needs at least a few hours to sit at room temperature before serving, so the flavors have time to blend and harmonize. When they’ve done that, it’s really a delicious concoction, an ideal hot-weather first course or picnic dish.

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my caponata

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Leftovers – when there are any – keep well for a few days in the refrigerator.

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caponataP.S.  There’s one other recipe for caponata that I like as well as my own. It’s the one made by Adelina, Inspector Montalbano’s housekeeper in the Sicilian mystery novels by Andrea Camilleri. It’s unlike any other caponata I’ve encountered. I’ve written about it here.

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It all started with a bunch of cilantro.

I needed some for guacamole, and stores hereabouts sell it only in large ($2) amounts. Cilantro doesn’t keep well, so I’m always looking for ways to finish the herb while it’s still fresh. This time I tried a recipe from the Web for Warm Potato Salad with Cilantro and Toasted Cumin.

The recipe as written annoyed me a little, because it called for “1 bunch cilantro,” as if that were an absolute quantity. This happens often: a recipe will say “one onion,” as if onions didn’t come in a broad range of sizes. I wish recipe writers would give at least approximate measurements – here, something like “¾ cup chopped cilantro leaves.” It’s not that I can’t choose what I think is a good amount for any dish, but as a starting point I like to know what the writer thinks is good. Maybe the dish is supposed to be awash with cilantro, but simply indicating “a bunch” doesn’t tell me that.

Undeterred by imprecision, I chunked up a pound of red potatoes and put them on to boil, meanwhile thinly slicing a shallot and chopping a defiantly unmeasured heap of cilantro that looked right to my eye. When the potatoes were done I drained them, returned them to the pot, and mixed in the cilantro and shallot. In a little skillet I heated olive oil, toasted cumin seeds in it, and added that to the potatoes, along with a squeeze of lemon juice, salt, and pepper.

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The recipe said the dish could be served warm, room temperature, or cold. We ate it warm. The cumin flavor was very strong – which was okay if you like cumin, and we do – but there was hardly any taste of the cilantro. I have a feeling it should have been held back and sprinkled fresh over the dish at serving time. Or maybe the contriver of this recipe really wanted much more cilantro than I used – in which case, s/he should have said so clearly, thus averting my dudgeon.

What we didn’t finish I tasted cold the next day. Still very cuminy, and now also showing a harsh shallot presence, but still barely a ghost of cilantro. Oh, well; not a big winner. You’ll find the recipe here if you’d care to try it.

Coincidentally, a few days later my friend Aileen emailed me a link to a Web article about salads without lettuce, noting that she thought we’d like it since Tom can’t abide lettuce. (Only a tiny exaggeration: He likes it on sandwiches, and wrapped around minced squab in Chinese restaurants.)

I was struck by a recipe for Celery, Blue Cheese, Date, and Hazelnut Salad. Not only do we like all those things, but I happened to have on hand crunchy fresh celery, a good farmhouse Stilton, dried cherries (a permitted substitute for dates), roasted Italian hazelnuts, and a Meyer lemon. I immediately decided to make it.

But it wasn’t long before I was arguing with this recipe too. First, it was billed as serving 4-8. That’s a mighty big range! Second, it called for 2-3 “bunches” of celery. In my grocery stores, a head of celery contains eight or nine big stalks, plus heart, and weighs around two pounds. I don’t know any eight people who would consume six pounds of celery at a sitting, let along any four who could!

Some of the other ingredient proportions looked iffy to me too, but I was sure there was a good concept there, so I just gathered my components and put them together in a size to suit myself. Here’s what I did for two portions:

  • Spread 1 cup of sliced celery (1½ stalks) on a plate
  • Strewed on ¼ cup of dried cherries
  • Topped with 1½ ounces of crumbled Stilton
  • Then ⅓ cup of the hazelnuts, which I’d lightly toasted in butter with a speck of cayenne
  • Finally, drizzled on a vinaigrette made with 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, 2 teaspoons of Meyer lemon juice, and ¼ teaspoon of zest.

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This salad was a standout – quite delicious! I must admit I’d gone a bit too heavy on the hazelnuts; ¼ cup would have been fine. But they were very tasty, especially since I’d saved them from a dreadful fate: After toasting, the recipe wanted them also glazed with maple syrup. Ugh! If you like that idea, you’ll find the technique in the original recipe, here.

One last little quibble. The recipe writer says this salad goes well with roast beef or steak. That didn’t appeal to us – especially not with the maple syrup sweetness. We had my version as an appetizer, and the mélange of flavors was completely satisfying on its own. Indeed, that seems to me the rightful place for elaborate non-leafy salads like this, where they work very well as palate cleansers and appetite sharpeners.

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