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For our two days in Bordeaux after our recent cruise, we had, weeks earlier, scanned the city’s restaurant websites, searching for one local specialty we hadn’t tasted for 40 years: lamprey à la bordelaise. It’s an ancient dish of the region, impossible to get in the USA and available almost nowhere else even in France. We finally found it listed at Brasserie Bordelaise, which appeared to be a handsome update on traditional French eating places of centuries past.
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The restaurant’s entire online menu looked so interesting, I immediately made dinner reservations for both of our evenings in the city. It was a very good decision.

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On the first evening we were given a nice little window table, located almost at the viewpoint of the photo above. Tom and I could speak enough French to be taken as serious clients, and our waiter could speak enough English to make everything comfortable. Both languages were helpful when the bottle of Château Lafon-Rochet Saint-Estèphe we’d ordered turned out to be corked. (Tom’s blog has that story.) No matter, we wound up with a fine bottle of Domaine de la Solitude Pessac-Léognan, with relief and good will all around.

To start, we shared a generous plate of charcuterie, with five kinds of cured meats, local butter, good bread, and wicked little hot peppers. The peppers surprised us: The French don’t often go in for hot spices. But their flavor worked very well with the essentially rustic flavors of the charcuterie.
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For our main course – naturellement – we both ordered the lamproie à la bordelaise. Lamprey is not food for the faint-hearted. It is an ugly, eel-shaped, boneless, parasitic fish, which migrates from the sea into the Garonne and Dordogne rivers to spawn. Our only previous encounter with the dish was in 1981, in the city of Saint-Emilion. In my notes on that dinner I called it “astonishing and wonderful. A whole different form of protein, not like eel at all and not like anything else. It came with logs of leek in a dense, dark sauce of red wine.”

Now at last, 40 years later, we had it again. It came with a similar wine-rich sauce (thickened with blood, as we learned), the traditional garnish of chunks of leek, and slices of toasted country bread. The lamprey itself was just amazingly good, and still a unique flavor for us. It came with a salad of several lettuces and excellent mashed potatoes.
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This was a truly sumptuous meal. We crowned it by sharing a small dessert, all we had room for: a sort of deconstructed profiterole.
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Our second day’s dinner at Brasserie Bordelaise wasn’t quite as significant an occasion as the first, there being no other long-looked-for, rare regional specialty on the menu. But we ate very well that evening too. Evidently we’d become clients, because we were presented with complimentary glasses of champagne when we arrived.

This time we decided to forgo a starter, to save our appetites for a selection from the good-looking cheese cart we’d noticed at the side of the room. I chose a main course of roasted chicken: a large, succulent breast-and-wing quarter au jus, with crisp browned skin and a square of stuffing. With it were fried potatoes and the same good salad as yesterday’s.
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Tom’s main course was, like the lamprey, listed on the “local dishes” section of the menu: joue de bœuf confite au vin de Bordeaux. Normally, calling a food confit means it has been preserved for storage by lengthy cooking submerged in fat. This beef cheek was preserved by cooking in the red wine of the region – for hours, apparently, until it was meltingly tender. It was served with roasted carrots and mashed potatoes.
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It was another remarkable dish. The cheek’s flavor was an immediately pleasing blend of meat sweetness and slight gaminess. Both elements merged beautifully with the wine-rich sauce, which cried out to be sopped up with mashed potatoes and country bread. I knew at once that I’d have to try making it at home. Fortunately, beef cheek is not as impossible to find in New York as lamprey, and I already have a cheek in my freezer, waiting for a suitable day.

The fine Château de Pez Saint-Estèphe we’d been enjoying with our main courses ratcheted itself up another level as we moved on to a plate of cheeses: brie, chèvre, tomme de savoie, and cantal.
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This was a splendid final meal in Bordeaux, and after glasses of old Armagnac and fond farewells to the restaurant staff, two very happy people strolled back to their hotel for a peaceful night’s sleep, with blissful memories of that fabulous lamprey dish.
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Wine Bar Lunches in Bordeaux

I’m recently back from another French river cruise. Regular readers may recall my posts about dining on and off cruises on the Loire, the Rhône, and the Seine. The latest one was on the Garonne, in southwest France, which flows into the Gironde estuary and on to the Atlantic Ocean. Same cruise company, Crosieurope, and a slightly bigger ship, MS Cyrano de Bergerac.
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This time I won’t be writing about shipboard dining, which wasn’t noteworthy, unfortunately. Instead, I’ll focus on two days Tom and I spent on our own in Bordeaux, after the cruise. We were staying in the historic St. Pierre district, rich in opportunities for strolling, sightseeing, eating, and wine drinking. This post will be about our lunches there.

Now, we don’t like to eat big lunches; and at home we almost never drink wine with lunch. When traveling, it can be hard to find small midday meals that are as interesting and pleasurable as we hope for as vacationers. That’s the beauty of wine bars, where we can enjoy tapas-style small food items, with wines that we don’t get at home. And Bordeaux is unquestionably world-class wine country.

We took our first day’s lunch at the wine bar of the city’s official Maison du Vin de Bordeaux. Its spacious, quiet, comfortable Bar à Vin offered 30 wines by the glass from all the Bordeaux appellations, and half a dozen assortments of cheeses, meats, and foie gras. Prices were very reasonable: each food plate €10, wines €5 to €10 a glass. Everything on the menu looked wonderful. And in fact, it all was.

We started with two glasses of a 2018 Les Hautes de Smith red Pessac-Léognan (There’s more about all the wines on Tom’s blog) and a plate of charcuterie: pork terrine, cured ham, smoked duck breast, and a dry sausage.
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Next we chose a wine comparison: one glass of a Médoc, 2011 Château La Cardonne, and one of an Haut Médoc, 2012 Château Larose Perganson. With them we had a plate of duck foie gras served with flakes of a special sea salt infused with Merlot wine.
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Even the breads served along with the small dishes were exceptional, especially the lightly raisined brown breads in the picture above. This was a small but perfectly satisfying lunch, leaving us contented and capable of looking forward with enthusiasm to dinner.

On our second day, remembering the many attractive choices we didn’t make for the previous lunch, we went right back to the Bar à Vin. We started with two glasses of a white Pessac-Leognan: 2019 Château Olivier, accompanied by rillettes of trout. It was surprising to see the rillettes arrive in our own little sealed, labeled jar, but the menu said it was a local product.
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Next, it was was back to red wine: two glasses of 2018 Chateau Tour du Termes St. Estèphe, along with the eponymous Bar à Vin assortment of edibles. The plate had three kinds of cheese – Cantal, Saint Nectaire, and Tomme de Savoie – and two cured meats. One was a Swiss air-dried beef, and the other an Italian salted and dried pork coppa.  Each was a paradigm of its kind.
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With all that, we needed one more glass of wine. A 2018 Pavillon du Haut Rocher Saint-Emilion concluded another thoroughly satisfying lunch.

.My next post will be about the equally fine dinners we enjoyed on those two days in Bordeaux.

 

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Police inspector Salvo Montalbano, hero of Andrea Camilleri’s Sicilian mystery novels, is an impassioned consumer of local foods, eating his way through dishes often fully described in the books. The latest volume gives Montalbano a role reversal: he goes undercover as the cook aboard a mega-yacht cruise that will be hosting an international criminal summit.

Readers, please note: If you haven’t read The Cook of the Halcyon but intend to, you might want to skip this post. I won’t be able to avoid spoilers.

Between the yacht’s crew and the guests, Montalbano will have to make meals for 12 people. To prepare for the role, he gathers recipes from his housekeeper, Adelina, and his restaurateur friend, Enzo. And he manages the cooking well, once on the ship – a fact that devoted Montalbano fans may find hard to credit, as he has never before been known to cook anything whatsoever. But so we are told.

On a critical day in the cruise, Montalbano makes a potato gâteau for the dinner’s first course. (In the book’s original Italian, the word may have been gattò.) He uses a big sack of potatoes, a dozen eggs, two kinds of cheese, ham, olives, and one very special item. The combination sounded interesting, so I thought I’d try to create a tiny version. Here are my ingredients.
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In the front are two ounces of chopped Castelvetrano olives, two ounces of chopped fontina cheese, and two ounces of chopped ham. Behind them are one egg white, one whole egg, and some grated Parmigiano. On the right, one pound of potatoes, mashed.

I beat the whole egg into the potatoes, spread half of them in a small buttered casserole dish, laid on the three chopped ingredients, and topped with grated cheese.

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I covered the filling with the remaining potatoes and spread the extra egg white over the top, as Montalbano did. My only divergence from his procedure was omission of the “very special item.” Verb. sap. sat.
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Montalbano baked his gâteau for half an hour, and his egg white topping became a brown glaze. We aren’t given an oven temperature, so I tried 350°. Not hot enough: after an extra 10 minutes, I raised the heat to 400°, and though my gâteau eventually firmed up well and even puffed a little, the glaze had spread unevenly and hardly colored at all.
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Nevertheless, it was a very tasty dish. On the plate, the potatoes and filling made a nicely varied flavor blend – piqued by the excellent Castelvetrano olives. The gâteau could certainly have stood alone as a first course, though it went very well alongside our sauteed fillets of sea bass.
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The only part of it we didn’t care for was the glaze, which was mostly a dry skin. Next time, instead of the egg whites, I’ll dot butter over the top layer of potatoes. This is a versatile dish that I can imagine pairing with almost any dry-cooked fish, fowl, or flesh. One could easily vary the filling ingredients, too.

P.S.  As readers of the book well know, Montalbano’s own gâteau was a truly memorable dish for the guests and crew of the Halcyon.

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Timbale of Fresh Corn

Local corn season started slowly this year. All through over-heated July, the ears of corn I had from my greenmarket were either underdeveloped or overgrown, and prices were higher than ever: a dollar an ear. (I remember when corn cost a dollar a dozen.) Now prices seem to be edging down, and ripeness is improving.

So, at last I was ready for a corn recipe that I’d wanted to try since last winter, when I’d noticed it in Julia Child & Company: a timbale of fresh corn. That book is organized by complete dinners, and the meal in which this recipe appears is an elegant one, designed to impress an important guest. Nevertheless, I saw no reason not to make it for family: We’re important enough for me.

Julia warns that it’s a lot of work to scrape or grate the kernels off raw ears of corn, and she strongly urges using a specialized corn cutting tool. Since I’d be scaling the recipe way down – making it with 3 ears rather than 12 – I decided I could use a box grater.

I gathered my ingredients and set to work.
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I used the box grater all right, but I’m not showing you a picture of that stage of the work. It was squishy, messy, lengthy, and tiring. It also grated a bit of skin off one of my fingers.

Once that ordeal was over, everything else was easy. I beat an egg in a large bowl and stirred in breadcrumbs, minced onion, minced parsley, grated young Asiago cheese, crème fraiche, salt, black pepper, and hot pepper sauce. (The recipe actually calls for heavy cream and suggests several choices for the cheese. I used what I had in the refrigerator.) It all made a pleasant looking sort of porridge.
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Then I stirred in all the grated corn and poured the mixture into a small souffle dish, which I’d buttered generously and lined on the bottom with a round of buttered wax paper.
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The souffle dish, set in a larger pan partially filled with boiling water, baked for half an hour at 350°, then for a whole hour at 325°. In that time, it was supposed to have risen quite a lot, the top should have cracked open, and a skewer plunged into the center should have come out clean. When mine passed the skewer test, it had risen very little and hadn’t cracked at all. But it was nicely firm and fragrant, so I declared it done. One out of three is good enough.
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I left the dish for 10 minutes in the turned-off oven, door ajar, and then unmolded it. Though quite soft, the timbale held its shape well. It looked very appetizing on the plate.
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And it was delicious. A light, tender custard, laden with nubbly bits of corn, and well-flavored from the mix of other ingredients. I was especially pleased to have used the crème fraiche. It added a little bright tang to contrast with the sweetness of the corn, which regular heavy cream wouldn’t have.

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Maybe I’m going to have to buy one of those special corn graters.

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Tripe Espagnole

The day Tom decided that we needed to drink a long-treasured bottle of 1989 Châteauneuf-du-Pape immediately raised the question of what to make for the dinner with it. A good, rare steak or beef roast was always a safe choice, but we thought something more complex might interact more interestingly with that big, important wine.

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We settled on a recipe for Tripes à l’Espagnole from Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine. We both love tripe, not least for its ability to pick up different and interesting flavors and nuances from its varying preparations. This particular espagnole is not the richly complicated “mother” sauce of the classic French cuisine, but an easy, flavorful, concocted-in-the-pot braise. And it actually calls for honeycomb tripe: the least prized of the cow’s four stomachs in almost all French recipes, but the only kind we get in this country.

Because tripe nowadays is sold so thoroughly cleaned and partially cooked, I was able to skip the recipe’s initial step of simmering my one-pound piece in salted water with onions and garlic for six hours. I just blanched it briefly to ease Tom’s knife work of cutting it into bite-size pieces. Separately I blanched two thick slices of bacon, which he also chopped for me.

The tripe and bacon were to be sautéed together in butter and oil in a casserole “until golden.” Recipes are always saying things like that. Tripe never gets golden for me; I’ve given up trying. I just cooked it over a moderate flame for about 10 minutes, until the tripe was well imbued with the butter and oil.
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Next, I sprinkled on a tablespoon of flour, stirred it a bit, and added a tablespoon of tomato paste and a cup of white wine. As soon as the liquid came to a simmer, I stirred in some minced onion and garlic, a small bouquet garni (parsley, bay leaf, and thyme), two tablespoons of cognac, salt, and pepper.
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Oliver’s last direction was to cover the casserole and simmer over low heat for 40 minutes. I knew that wouldn’t be nearly enough time for my tripe, since I hadn’t given it that long initial boil, so I just kept on cooking it gently until the tripe was tender. It took about an hour and a half, with occasional stirring and small additions of water to keep the sauce loose. All in all, this was a pretty painless preparation.

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Dinner started with a first course of individual cheese tarts, which I’d put together earlier in the day. I’ve written about these little savory pastries here before, and I was sure they’d go well with the wine. Having been a bit overgenerous with the cheese filling, I found myself with the choice of letting it spill over the edges of the pans or removing the tarts before they browned as much as usual.
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As you see, I did the latter, and they were fine. The Châteauneuf adored the tarts, and the tarts adored the Châteauneuf. They brilliantly brought out the best of each other. I won’t describe the wine in any detail; for that, see the post about it that Tom has on his blog.

For the main course, I served plain boiled asparagus and boiled potatoes alongside the tripe. Asparagus is not normally a good companion to a red wine, but the very first fresh, young local asparagus had appeared the day before at my greenmarket and I couldn’t resist buying some. The sommelier did not object.
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Neither did the Châteauneuf, which was quite unbothered by the asparagus. However, drinking it alongside the tripe changed its character a bit. The espagnole sauce, flavorful and aromatic, also had noticeable acidity from the white wine that was cooked into it – overall, a good quality to play against the unctuousness of tripe. In this case, that acidity seemed to “slim down” the full, rich roundness of the Châteauneuf, while leaving all its fine depth and complexity intact.

And in fact, after the main course, when we set out a piece of Bellvitano – a half firm, half buttery young Parmigiano-like cheese – to nibble while we finished the wine, all that rich roundness came right back. Altogether, an interesting meal and a fabulous wine.

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Individual mozzarella soufflés make a nice, light first course for a dinner: simple, elegant, and delicious. True, all soufflés require special efforts, but these are much less trouble to make than large traditional ones. More of the preparation can be done in advance, assembly is easier, baking time is shorter, and the finished dish is not as fragile and quick to deflate as most soufflés are.

For this recipe, from Tom’s and my book La Tavola Italiana, there are two major considerations: having a lot of egg whites available (the recipe doesn’t use any yolks) and having an electric mixer capable of rapidly whipping the whites to stiffness. Those are easy for me, because (a) I often use more yolks than whites, so I keep a container of extra whites in the freezer, and (b) my heavy-duty Kitchen-Aid mixer whomps egg whites in next to no time.

Of course, the better the quality of the mozzarella you use, the better the soufflés will taste. As always with Italian cooking, the prima materia is crucial.

Are you still with me? I hope I haven’t discouraged anyone. What follows is an account of four of these little soufflés that I made the other day for dinner with my brother- and sister-in-law.

In the afternoon, well before dinnertime, I made up the sauce base. This required melting two tablespoons of butter in a pot, stirring in two tablespoons of flour, and cooking over low heat for two minutes, stirring and not letting the flour brown. Off heat, I dribbled in a cup of heavy cream, vigorously stirring to keep the mixture smooth. Then I returned the pan to low heat just long enough to stir in half a cup of grated parmigiano and eight ounces of diced mozzarella.
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This base sat at the back of the stove, uncovered and requiring no attention, for several hours. Also early in the day I defrosted ¾ cup of egg whites (six eggs’ worth) and buttered four 1½ cup ramekins and set them aside. In the evening, all that was left to do was whip the whites and fold them into the sauce base.
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For ease in getting them into and out of the oven all at once, I set the filled molds in a shallow (empty) baking pan.
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After 20 minutes at 375º the soufflés are normally done, but I think my oven needs adjustment; this time I had to give them 10 more minutes. They never do rise as high as conventional soufflés, so you don’t get airy towers of custard. But as I said above, they don’t sink as fast either, so you don’t have to sprint to get them – and your diners – to the table. Even when they do deflate a bit, they still have a lovely soft, pully texture under the thin, crisp crust. They have both intensity and delicacy of taste and texture that you wouldn’t think mozzarella would provide. In short, they’re a very satisfactory dish, well worth the effort required.
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On the trip to Malta that I wrote about last week, we spent one day on Gozo, the country’s second largest island. More rural than the eponymous main island, Gozo has its own full share of marvels, from megalithic to medieval, as well as lovely rolling hills and excellent traditional food. A highlight of the day for Tom and me was lunch made by the noted Gozo chef George Borg – a lunch made not just for us but partly by us.

This was a fun occasion as well as a delicious one. George is a delightful man and a very talented chef, passionate about Maltese culinary traditions, as well as about wine. When we arrived at his studio kitchen, he had work stations and aprons set out for us; and he started us right off at helping to prepare the antipasto course: his own Gozo-style ftira.
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Now, the ftira we had in Valletta, as I showed last week, was on a thick base of bread, hence fairly heavy for an antipasto. George’s version lightens it by using flaky butter pastry. We were intrigued. The topping we made that day was potatoes, onions, tomatoes, olives, capers, garlic, and anchovies. I thinly sliced potatoes, Tom halved grape tomatoes, and George did the rest.

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While the ftira was baking, we moved on to preparing the next course, which was to be stuffed baked pasta shells. For the filling I mashed several little cheeselets – Malta’s ubiquitous fresh sheep cheese – with grated pecorino, chopped parsley, and black pepper.

Then, in the the most unusual way of treating pasta I’ve ever encountered, George gave Tom and me each a pastry tube filled with the cheese mixture and a pile of pasta shells to be filled with it – raw shells.

 

Once stuffed, the shells went into gratin dishes. George poured on milk to come half way up the pasta, sprinkled the dishes generously with grated pecorino, and put them in the oven to bake with the ftira.

 

Next, George brought out the fish that was to be our main course: fillets of lampuki. This autumn-season specialty is Malta’s favorite fish. Elsewhere, it’s called dorado, dolphin fish, or mahi mahi. But the ones caught here are nothing like the huge, bull-headed, pastel-hued creatures we in the US know as mahi mahi. The lampuki we saw in Malta’s fish markets were small, slender, silvery, white-fleshed fish, with no scales.

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The fillets George cut up were no more than a foot long. He said this was the end of the lampukis’ season, and that was as big as they ever got. To give us an authentic Gozo experience, he cooked them in one of the favorite local ways: just floured, shallow-fried, and served with a tomato sauce.

George’s sauce was based on his own sundried purée of tomatoes. (That is, not a purée of sundried tomatoes but a fresh tomato sauce that he’d made, spread out on trays, and left to thicken in the sunshine – much the way it’s done in Sicily.) He stirred salt, sugar, and capers into the purée, then softened chopped garlic in olive oil in a skillet, added the seasoned puree and a good slosh of water, and set it on the stove to simmer.

 

At last we sat to lunch. Our host had opened two local wines for us to choose from: a Vermentino and a Sangiovese. Naturally we tried both! They were very good. Tom has a blog post on Maltese wines that says more about these two.

 

The ftira was delicious – and quite light, thanks to the crisp, buttery flaky crust. It was hard to resist gobbling it all down, but we knew how much more there was to come.

 

Next came the baked stuffed pasta. The parts of the shells that had been in the milk were soft and fully cooked, while their top edges were firm, brown and crunchy. The milk itself had thickened into a lightly cheese-flavored cream. The mix of textures was a bit disconcerting to us – not the way we’re used to dealing with pasta. It tasted fine, but we still haven’t gotten past our sense of its oddness.

 

 

The lampuki was lovely in its simplicity – quite delicate but very flavorful – and the rich tomato sauce made an ideal complement. We relished every bite of the sweet, firm flesh, whose richness was nicely counterpointed by the acidity and brightness of the sauce.

 

George was eager to give us dessert, but after all those good dishes we couldn’t eat another thing. Tiny cups of espresso and glasses of an excellent grappa made a perfect conclusion to this wonderful meal. As we departed, with compliments on all sides, George gave us a copy of one of his cookbooks. I’m very much looking forward to trying some of his recipes!

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The calendar may say Spring, but both the weather (snow in April!) and the fresh produce in markets still keep sullenly saying Winter. How I yearn for good hot-weather vegetables – especially those that can be made into antipasti for everyday dinners: ripe tomatoes! peppers and zucchini and eggplants from local farms! But they won’t be here for many weeks yet. Casting about for something to tempt our palates, I came upon a recipe in La Tavola Italiana, my own first cookbook, for a tortino di mozzarella; a recipe that I hadn’t made in a few years. Why not now?

In English, “torte” usually means an elaborate layered cake, but in Italy a torta can be a sweet or savory pastry. The diminutive tortino suggests a short-cut version of the breed. This mozzarella torte is a simple baked bread-and-cheese affair, but it really sings if you use excellent fresh mozzarella and good firm bread. Usually I make it with Italian-style bread (as long as the slices aren’t too full of air holes), but I’d just baked a batch of my favorite Joy of Cooking White Bread Plus, so I decided to try that for a change. I also had a large ball of buffalo mozzarella in the refrigerator, which is always a treat.
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The other ingredients are egg yolk, milk, anchovy fillets, fennel seeds, and grated parmigiano – all things I typically have on hand. Here’s the prep work for two portions:

  • Trimming the crusts off four slices of bread and laying them snugly in a buttered baking dish
  • Pureeing four chopped anchovy filets, an egg yolk, and ¼ cup of milk in my mini-food processor
  • Cutting four thick slices of mozzarella
  • Measuring out ½ teaspoon of fennel seeds and 1½ tablespoons of grated parmigiano.
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As dinner time approached, I finished making up the tortino while the oven preheated. The first step was to spoon the egg-milk-anchovy sauce over the bread, letting it absorb all the liquid. Then, to top each slice of bread with a slice of mozzarella. Finally, sprinkle on the fennel seeds and the grated cheese.  No intricacies: a very straightforward procedure.
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The dish went into a 400° oven for 20 minutes, until the cheese was bubbling and just starting to brown on top. Then it had to sit for 5 minutes before serving, so the molten cheese wouldn’t scald our mouths.
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The look and smell of the tortino were very appetizing (which was the point, of course). It tasted rather like a good mozzarella in carrozza but with additional flavor fillips from the fennel seeds and anchovy. A very satisfying cold-weather antipasto that I’ve been ignoring for too long; must make it again soon!

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In The Pyramid of Mud, the newest paperback Montalbano mystery to be released in English, it takes only to page 34 to find the intrepid Sicilian police detective regaling himself with one of his favorite things to eat: “a glorious pasta ‘ncasciata” that his housekeeper Adelina had made and left for his dinner. That dish appears in many of the 22 books in the series, always eagerly greeted and blissfully consumed by our hero.
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A few years ago I wrote here about my attempt to make that fabulous pasta ‘ncasciata, using the recipe in the cookbook I segreti della tavola di Montalbano: Le ricette di Andrea Camilleri. My version was a bit of a disappointment – a decent baked pasta dish, but not extraordinary.

I knew that there’s no single, canonical version of pasta ‘ncasciata, but they all should be good. Encountering it again in the new Montalbano story, I felt I should really give the recipe another chance.

I had ideas for changes I wanted to try, some because of guesses I’d made about vague recipe directions, and others to liven up the dish I’d made – about which, in my original post, I said “All the ingredients and textures blended too much. You didn’t get the symphony of individual flavors that a forkful of a truly great baked pasta dish provides. The eggplant was barely noticeable, the salami and eggs indistinguishable.”

Ingredients that are available in this country for Sicilian recipes aren’t always identical to the same-named items grown and made on their home turf. Thanks to American agribusiness, ours are often blander, more processed, less flavorful, and less fresh. I’d want to make allowances for that, while still keeping to the spirit of the book’s recipe. (Also, this time I was going to be extremely careful not to overcook the pasta.)

An occasion for my attempt soon presented itself: We’d invited a few good friends for a casual “family” dinner. These were adventurous eaters who wouldn’t mind being experimented on – at least, not if we also gave them lots of good wine! So I set to work.

To start, I peeled, sliced, salted, and fried two one-pound eggplants in olive oil. That was more eggplant, more thickly sliced, than I used last time, but the recipe merely says four eggplants, no size or slice thickness given. We like eggplant a lot.

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Next was to make a tomato-meat sauce. To perk it up, this time I infused garlic and peperoncino in the olive oil for browning my half pound of chopped sirloin. Then I stirred in a pint of my own light tomato sauce, salt, and pepper; and simmered for 25 minutes, until it thickened. That was more tomato and longer cooking than the recipe seems to call for, but its instructions on that point aren’t very clear, and I wanted more tomato richness. Having no fresh basil, I used parsley.

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I boiled a pound of imported Italian penne until they were not quite done, drained them and sprayed them with cold water to stop the cooking. The other ingredients to prepare were two hardboiled eggs, two ounces of mortadella or salame, and two cheeses: caciocavallo and pecorino. Last time I’d used a mild salame; this time I bought a livelier one: hot soppressata.
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My cheeses were the biggest accommodation to ingredient differences. The recipe calls for 7 ounces of tuma or young caciocavallo, plus 3½ ounces of grated pecorino. The only caciocavallo available here is somewhat aged – not soft and fresh, like Sicilian tuma, which isn’t here at all. The first time around, I hadn’t realized how much difference the age would make. The large amount of strong, dry cheese dominated and sort of flattened the flavors of the other ingredients. I didn’t want that to happen again.

Since caciocavallo is in the same broad cheese family as mozzarella (I’ve seen it called “mozzarella on steroids”), I decided to substitute mozzarella for some of the caciocavallo. The cheese in the picture above is 4 ounces of chopped mozzarella mixed with 2 ounces of grated caciocavallo.

I took a broad, shallow baking dish to assemble the ‘ncasciata, making layers of pasta, meat sauce, eggplant, sliced eggs, diced soppressata, and the cheese mixture. The recipe called for grated pecorino on each layer too, but I left it out this time.
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The top layer was eggplant, dabs of sauce, the cheese mixture, and just a light sprinkling of grated pecorino.
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The dish baked for 25 minutes in a 425° oven, sending out a very tempting aroma. Hopes (mine) and expectations (everyone else’s) were high as I brought it to the table. It looked and smelled so good that I began to serve before even remembering to take a photo of it – as you can see by the missing piece at the bottom right, below. (Thanks, Steven, for reminding me!)
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Well, this pasta ‘ncasciata was a definite success. All the flavors stood out as themselves and companioned beautifully with each other. The eggplant was luscious. The two cheeses balanced each other in taste and texture. The amount of tomato seemed just right: it was mostly absorbed by the other ingredients, providing flavor and moisture but no loose liquid. The soppressata tidbits were tiny sparks on the palate. The penne in the center were properly soft, and those at the edges nicely crunchy.

All in all, this was a dish I’d be bold enough to serve to Montalbano himself – at least if Adelina wasn’t around.

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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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