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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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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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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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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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December is a killer month for eating. Between dinner parties at home, dinners in friends’ homes, restaurant dinners, and festive business meals, we consume more rich foods and wines in this month than at any time the rest of the year. (Case in point, our Christmas Day dinner, which Tom has written up here for his blog.) When we were young, that was fine – we adored the glorious excess. Now that we’re – let’s say “somewhat” – older, we can’t deal with that level of consumption day after day. We admire and envy our friends who still can, but for us, some intervening days of very simple meals, just by ourselves, are absolutely necessary.

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Here’s a recent one: melted cheese on a paratha, followed by pasta in a prosciutto-tomato sauce and a plain green salad.

dinner 1

This starter might be called an Anglo-Indian dish, except that it’s really nothing at all. For a small first course on a weekday evening, we often take a flaky paratha (purchased frozen from Kalustyan), top it with a good melting cheese (young Asiago is a favorite) – plus, perhaps dollops of something contrasting, sharp or acid or spicy – and grill it in the toaster oven. This evening Tom simply crumbled onto the paratha the remains of a chunk of excellent Colston-Basset Stilton, left over from Christmas dinner. It made a small but very satisfying appetizer.

LTIThe pasta dish is from our cookbook La Tavola Italiana, where it’s called Ziti alla San Giovanni. There are many different southern Italian pasta sauces of that name, and this is one of our favorites. It’s an easy, greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts concoction, getting a lot of flavor mileage from a few ounces of prosciutto (some odd bits of which we almost always have in the freezer).

Chopped prosciutto is sauteed briefly in olive oil, then simmered with chopped tomatoes (in winter I use a jar of light tomato sauce, homemade from summer’s San Marzanos). When the pasta is still underdone I stir it into the sauce, along with shredded basil and a generous amount of grated parmigiano. In a final two minutes of cooking, all the flavors are absorbed into the pasta, producing a succulent effect quite different from just dressing fully cooked pasta with sauce and cheese. It’s a really neat bit of culinary alchemy, easy and unstressful and light on the palate.

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Another evening we had an escarole and rice soup, followed by a plain pork roast and a potato spezzatino.

dinner 2

HazanThis modest, reliable soup is from Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cook Book. We’ve enjoyed it for many years. You simply sauté escarole in butter and onion, add some broth and cook until the escarole is tender, then stir in Italian short-grain rice (e.g., Arborio, but we like Carnaroli) and additional broth. When the rice is done, turn off the heat, mix in grated parmigiano, and serve. It’s not a dish to change your life, but it’s one to make you happy with the life you have.

I roast loins of Berkshire pork, covered, for three hours at 325°. Long, slow cooking brings out the best of that heritage breed, continually moistening the meat with its own delicious melting fat. This time, I forgot to turn off the oven when I’d intended to, so the roast actually cooked longer than that. Happily, it was still perfectly good. And the cracklings were to die for.

pugliaThe potato spezzatino (the word means stew, but it’s not what we think of as a stew) was the only new recipe I tried for these deliberately homely dinners. It’s basically potatoes braised with tomato, which is a combination we like: even the dullest potatoes become tastier when introduced to a tomato. The recipe I used this time is from Maria Pignatelli Ferrante’s Puglia: A Culinary Memoir. You partially cook cut-up potatoes in olive oil, bathe them in white wine and boil it off completely, then add a little tomato, bay leaf, and water to cover; cook uncovered until the liquid has evaporated and the potatoes are very soft. The result was good enough, but Tom makes a potatoes-with-tomato dish that’s better than this. Bless him!

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So those were a couple of our recent relief-from-elaborate-eating evenings as the year winds down. Very much needed, they were, after all the seasonal extravagances. Tonight is New Year’s Eve, so we’ll be back to extravagance once again. Champagne, foie gras, our own egg tagliatelle tossed with melted butter and topped with ample shavings of fresh black truffles . . . . But just before 2013 ends, I wanted to create this post to celebrate some of the simple foods that keep us contented in the interstices of elaborate meals. Happy New Interstices, everyone!

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