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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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Beloved Spouse is the gumbo cook in our household. In summer, when okra is abundant, he gathers his ingredients about him and produces a gumbo that IMHO equals anything a New Orleans chef can do. I’ve written here about his seafood gumbo, and now I’d like to introduce you to another kind that he makes.

Usually, he starts from the gumbo recipes in Richard and Rima Collins’ The New Orleans Cookbook, checks back with the chosen one from time to time to remind himself of details, but then goes on to vary the ingredients and proportions to suit himself. Always using okra: He’s not a filé gumbo person, and he has a decided preference for the kind of flavor an okra gumbo develops.

okra

For this occasion a large boneless chicken breast, two Louisiana andouilles, and a chunk of thick-cut boiled ham provided the protein base. He cut the chicken into chunks, the sausages into coins, and the ham into dice. Continuing the preparatory knife work, he then sliced ¾ pound of okra (Note to the squeamish: If the okra, your knife, and the cutting surface are dry, the okra slime will not be a problem) and chopped up a cup of green pepper, a cup of onions, ¼ cup of scallions, and a large heirloom tomato. Very simple prep work, if a little time consuming.  My only contribution was to set out the other ingredients he’d be needing: olive oil, flour, bay leaf, thyme, garlic, cayenne, salt and black pepper.

gumbo ingredients

After browning the chicken pieces in olive oil and removing them to a plate, he stirred flour into the oil and cooked it about 10 minutes, to a light brown roux. Then the andouille, ham, and all the vegetables except the okra and tomato got added in and stirred. After 10 more minutes, the chicken rejoined the pot, along with all the spices and a little water. This cooked for yet another 10 minutes and then – finally – in went the okra, tomatoes, and a quart of water.

gumbo broth

At this point, the pot got covered and the gumbo cooked gently for an hour, with an occasional stir, after which it was done. I was permitted to check occasionally to be sure it was continuing to simmer and that nothing was sticking. And at dinner time, I cooked the rice.

gumbo plated

This was a terrific gumbo. The andouilles’ own spices had permeated all the ingredients, giving a much needed boost to the bland chicken breast. (The chef wished ardently that we had had some legs and thighs on hand.) All the vegetables merged seamlessly into a stew that tasted purely of New Orleans. And, as always, we wound up eating most of a portion that was supposed to feed four.

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A few weeks ago I wrote about my disappointment with a pasta recipe from Katie Parla’s cookbook Tasting Rome. Even so, it’s an attractive book – with lovely photography by Kristina Gill – so I was still eager to try their versions of other traditional Roman dishes. This next one I made, though decent, wasn’t anything to be excited about.

Pollo alla romana – chicken braised with peppers and tomatoes – is a simple but delicious down-home dish, a standby of every Roman trattoria. It was one of the first recipes I developed for publication in La Tavola Italiana, so as before I was judging Parla’s version of a dish against my own.

For a half recipe to serve two, I used two huge chicken thighs from my freezer. These monsters together weighed a whole pound, which, considering how much was solid meat, I figured could stand in for half a modest-sized chicken.

thighs

The first recipe direction interested me: It calls for salting the chicken pieces 6 to 24 hours in advance; and that’s all the salt there is in the entire dish. I’d never done that before. I tried it, and it was indeed enough salt – though I can’t say I detected the promised “more delicious final product.” The rest of the cooking procedure was also different from mine. Here are the book’s steps:

  • Brown cut-up chicken pieces in olive oil for 8-10 minutes; remove them to a plate.
  • Add sliced onions, sliced bell peppers, and garlic to the pan; cook uncovered 10 minutes, or until the vegetables soften.
  • Pour on white wine; deglaze the pan; stir in canned tomatoes and fresh marjoram.
  • Return the chicken pieces to the pan and add enough water to submerge them halfway.
  • Cook uncovered 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is very thick and the chicken nearly falling off the bone.

And here are mine:

  • Brown chicken pieces in olive oil with garlic.
  • Pour on white wine, deglaze and cook briskly until it evaporates.
  • Stir in chopped canned plum tomatoes, salt, and pepper; simmer 15 minutes.
  • Add cut-up bell peppers; cover and cook gently until peppers are tender, 15-30 minutes.
  • If sauce is too thin, remove chicken and peppers; rapidly boil down sauce.

As you can see, a big difference is the book’s sauteeing the vegetables by themselves – that, and the addition of onions to the dish.

vegetables

That in itself is not a bad idea, but though I sliced the vegetables to the recipe’s specifications, they took much more than 10 minutes to soften.

Then after returning the chicken pieces to the pan with all the other ingredients, I cringed at the requirement to nearly flood the pan with water.

thighs afloat

Why on earth would you do that? It makes it possible – indeed, necessary – to complete the cooking with the pan uncovered, but why would you want to? The part of the chicken pieces exposed to the air is not being imbued with the flavors as it would in the moist atmosphere of a covered pan. I also feel that my version’s deglazing of the pan with wine while the chicken pieces are in it is important to let the chicken absorb some of the wine flavors.

Finally, 30 minutes wasn’t nearly enough for the sauce to have thickened and the chicken to be nearly falling off the bone. I had to cook it quite a bit longer, and the sauce still didn’t thicken very much. The timing problems, along with a few other anomalies in the recipe directions, made me wonder if the authors had ever actually cooked the dish for themselves.

Rather than plop those big thighs whole onto two dinner plates, I took the meat off the bones and combined small pieces of chicken with the peppers and sauce in a serving bowl.

pollo alla romana

The dish tasted all right to me: not unlike what I’d had in some restaurants in Rome. Beloved Spouse was less pleased with it. He said it wasn’t lively enough, the flavors too muted, and the sauce tasted both too sweet and too thin. (Tough critic, that spouse.) I had to agree that my recipe makes a more intensely flavored dish: fresher tasting peppers, more “chickeny” chicken. It’s faster and easier to make, too. So I’ll stick with my version – though I might try experimentally adding a few onions next time I make it. (Beloved Spouse just cocked an eyebrow.)

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Tom and I are back from the birding trip to Costa Rica that I mentioned in my last post. Our very modest expectations for its gastronomical aspects were right on target: The food was fresh and flavorful, but there was a very narrow range of both ingredients and preparations.

Unexpectedly, breakfast was the meal we most enjoyed. At home, our breakfasts tend to be minimal (except on Sundays), but after arising at 5 am to spend the first hours of daylight out looking at birds, the prospect of coming in to a hearty breakfast is mighty attractive. As I said last week, the rice-and-bean dish called gallo pinto is an inescapable part of a Costa Rican breakfast. Here are a few that we had:

Gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, potato cakes, sausages

Gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, potato cakes, sausages

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Fried eggs, gallo pinto, plantains, ham & cheese sandwich, potato cake

Fried eggs, gallo pinto, plantains, ham & cheese sandwich, potato cake

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Gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, bananas, beef with mushrooms

Gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, bananas, beef with mushrooms

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For lunches on the road in rustic country restaurants, we always received casado, the archetypical Costa Rican mixed plate of rice, beans, plantains, and another vegetable or salad, surrounding a piece of protein – usually a choice of fish or chicken. The fish was often trout, sometimes tilapia, both of which are extensively farmed in the fast-running streams of the rain forests. Chicken seems to be the de facto national bird of Costa Rica (which, officially, is the clay-colored thrush). Though it was always good, I came to believe that most Costa Rican chickens were born legless – a disappointment to this dark-meat fancier. Dinners at the lodges where our birding group stayed were buffet-style, with only minor day-to-day variations on the same or similar food choices. (Tom has made me swear not to serve him chicken for at least the next month.) Some examples:

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Trout, beans, rice, plantains, cabocha squash, salad

Trout, beans, rice, plantains, cabocha squash, salad

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Tilapia, rice, beans, plantain, cabocha squash, salad

Tilapia, rice, beans, plantain, cabocha squash, salad

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Chicken berast, plantains, rice, beans, tomatoes, vegetable frittata, tortilla

Chicken breast, plantains, rice, beans, tomato salad, vegetable frittata, arepa

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So, all in all, the food on our trip was sustaining rather than exciting. But exciting the birding definitely was. In one week we saw nearly 200 species, including quetzals, trogons, motmots, toucans, parrots, aracaris, oropendolas, cotingas, manakins, honeycreepers, flower-piercers, and 23 different kinds of hummingbirds. Here we are at the end of an aerial tram ride through the rain forest. Quite a change from our usual urban life!

Aerial tram 1

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Cockaleekie

Cooking chicken and leeks together in a dish makes both taste better than they do on their own. Evidently, it’s a real synergy: The combination creates umami, that mysterious fifth taste discernable to human palates. The chemistry of it seems complicated (ribonucleotides and glutamates) but the effect is simply to make certain ingredient pairings produce unexpected flavor.

T-L BritishThat was definitely the case with the Cockaleekie I made this week. The recipe I used – from the Cooking of the British Isles volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series – is just about the barest version there is of this old Scots soup. Just six components: chicken, leeks, barley, salt, parsley, and water.

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ingredients

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The full recipe (I was making half) called for a stewing fowl. What I had were very large chicken legs from my favorite poultry farm out on Long Island, and I knew such well-grown birds would yield plenty of developed flavor. I dropped the legs into a pot of cold water, brought it to a boil, and skimmed briefly; added the cut-up leeks, barley, and salt; and simmered until the chicken legs were almost ready to fall apart – about an hour and a half. On the face of it, this seemed to be the essence of all the old jokes about British cooking: Whatever it is, boil it to death. I took the legs out, let them cool somewhat, skinned and boned them, and cut the meat into shreds.

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Then all there was left to do was return the meat to the soup pot, heat everything through, and sprinkle on the parsley.

cockaleekie

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I had worried more than a little that the soup might be too austere – as pale in flavor as in appearance. Some cockaleekie recipes buttress the broth with additional ingredients: celery, carrots, butter, thyme, bay leaf, chicken bouillon. A very traditional variation even includes prunes. But I meant this to be a test of the basic recipe, and to my delight this pure, minimal version passed with flying colors. It was subtly rich, warm and welcoming; the quintessence of chicken and leek. I’m not a food chemist, but I guess I achieved umami.

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Greenwich Village CookbookThe Greenwich Village Cookbook is a repository of local culinary and cultural history. Published in 1969, it has nearly 400 recipes from 75 restaurants and coffeehouses then active in the Village, with affectionate profiles of each. Most are long gone now, but several are still in business, though the recipes from those days reflect cooking styles of half a century ago. My friends Frank and Vickie gave me a copy of the book recently, and last weekend I made them a dinner from it.

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We started with The Coach House’s Black Bean Soup Madeira. Before it closed in 1993, the Coach House had been an immensely prestigious (also elegant and expensive) restaurant on Waverley Place for over 40 years, and black bean soup was one of its signature dishes.

This was one of the most time-consuming soups I’ve ever made. I started by cooking black beans in plain water for 1½ hours. At the end of that time, I added a sauté of chopped celery, onion, and parsley lightly thickened with flour; a whole smoked pork knuckle, a hillock of chopped leeks, a bay leaf, salt, and pepper. All that simmered together for 3 hours, after which I discarded the pork knuckle and bay leaf and pureed the soup. Next was to add Madeira (I didn’t happen to have any, so I used an oloroso sherry), reheat the soup, stir in chopped hard-boiled egg, and – finally – float a thin slice of lemon on top of each bowlful.

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It was a terrific soup – subtly spicy, lush and filling.  It made very clear why the Coach House had stood so long as a bastion of fine American cooking.

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Our main course was Chicken al Charro. El Charro Español is one of the surviving restaurants from those days: It still serves traditional Spanish food in its modest basement premises on Charles Street. Tom and I used to eat there in the early ’70s, and I often ordered its chicken, so when I found the recipe in the cookbook I knew I had to try to reproduce it.

Unlike the soup, this was a fairly simple dish to make. I cut up a nice plump chicken, rubbed the pieces with a paste of crushed garlic, ground cumin, paprika, salt, and pepper, and dredged them with flour. I softened a sliced onion in olive oil, added the chicken pieces, browned them briskly, then lowered the heat, covered the pan, and let them cook until tender. Just before serving I sprinkled on some red wine and additional crushed garlic. That, along with the cooking juices in the pan, made a tiny sauce to moisten the chicken pieces.

Chicken al Charro

This was a good, lively dish. It was important to have a really flavorful chicken; I think a bland supermarket bird would’ve been overwhelmed by the spicing. The final garlic addition was fairly pungent, but it was balanced by the other seasonings. My dish didn’t fully equal my recollection of the restaurant’s long-ago version – but the warm glow of memory and nostaglia has probably gilded that particular lily. I could check it out, though: Pollo al Charro is still on the menu.

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For a small fruit dessert, I chose Oranges à l’Arabe, attributed to Casey’s, a long-defunct down-home French-New Orleans-jazz restaurant on West 10th Street. There didn’t seem to be anything very Arabian about the recipe, but it sounded attractive. I peeled four oranges, made slivers of some of the peel, and cooked the slivers in sugar syrup for 30 minutes. When the syrup was cool I stirred in dry curaçao, poured it over the sliced oranges, and put the dish in the refrigerator until needed.

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It was very simple and very refreshing – a pleasant finish for a pleasant meal in the style of the Greenwich Village of our youth.

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montalbano cookbookEvery time I read a new Inspector Montalbano mystery from Andrea Camilleri or look at a DVD in the excellent Italian television series, one of its pleasures is discovering, along with Montalbano, whatever his housekeeper, Adelina, has cooked and left in the kitchen for him. I’ve already written posts about 10 of the Sicilian dishes mentioned in the books, but there are many more to tempt me. So this week, I tried two new-to-me recipes from I Segreti della Tavola di Montalbano.

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Pasta fredda con pomodoro, passuluna, e basilico

Early in The Snack Thief, coming home after an afternoon of investigation, “in the refrigerator Montalbano found a plate of cold pasta with tomatoes, basil, and passuluna olives that gave off an aroma to wake the dead.”

All the other recipes I’ve ever made or seen for pasta with uncooked sauce call for dressing the pasta when it’s hot. So this, which is dressed cold and served cold, is what I’d call a pasta salad. Of course, Adelina finishes her day’s work long before Montalbano gets home, so when she leaves meals for him they’re either something to heat in the oven or something to serve right out of the refrigerator. But this recipe isn’t quite like any other cold pasta salad I know.

The cookbook’s directions are minimal: For four persons, you cook 400 grams of penne rigati and dress them with “fresh tomatoes cut in pieces, as many black olives as you like, abundant basil, a few capers, olive oil, and salt” [my translation]. No quantities are given for any of these: a grand example of the fine Italian culinary phrase quanto basta – i.e., as much as is enough.

I consequently dithered a bit about quantities, but that wasn’t a real problem. The only trouble was the passulune. Apparently these are a variety of extremely ripe Sicilian olives that are purely air- or salt-cured. No vinegar or oil. Not a kind that makes it to New York City, even nowadays. The nearest I could get was oil-cured Moroccan black olives, which I soaked briefly in warm water to remove some of the oil and dried carefully.

So I did all that, making half the amount of pasta (seven ounces) for two, and tossing with the amounts of other ingredients that seemed basta to me:

1⅓ cups cut-up Cherokee tomatoes
⅓ cup black olives
⅓ cup chiffonade of basil
¾ teaspoon drained and rinsed capers
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil (plus a little extra)
½ teaspoons salt

The bowl then had to sit in the refrigerator for several hours. I must admit, when mine came out at dinner time, it didn’t really give off an aroma to wake the dead. Except for the basil, it wasn’t very fragrant at all. Refrigerator too cold? Or only passuluna olives would do? Who knows? Nevertheless, it still made a very nice picnic-style dish, ideal for warm-weather dining.

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pasta fredda

 

While it didn’t achieve a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts, they were all extremely good parts, and all the flavors complemented each other nicely. I’d even say that they worked better with cold pasta than they would have with hot.

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Pollo alla cacciatora

In Rounding the Mark, Montalbano returns from a boat trip feeling “irresistibly hungry, his appetite swelling inside him like a river in spate.” At home he dashes into the kitchen, looks in the oven, and finds “rabbit alla cacciatora, as unexpected as it was ardently desired.” He eats it with his hands – which, if Adelina’s dish even remotely resembled my version, had to be a very messy proposition. Livia would never have approved.

I should of course have made the dish with rabbit. But I’d just cooked a rabbit recently, I had some good chicken in the freezer, and alla cacciatora is a classic preparation for chicken too. So I made the substitution. It came out very well, and different from any other cacciatora recipe I’ve ever had.

Starting early, I began by making what the recipe calls the condimento. I put finely chopped onion, chopped celery, cubed tomatoes, green olives, and capers into a pan and sauteed them in olive oil. It was a huge amount of olives: about 30 of them for only 2 portions (half the recipe). The hunter must have shot his rabbit out of a tree in the middle of an olive grove! I felt sure we’d never eat that many.

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After 15 minutes I stirred in half a cup of broth, brought it to a boil, turned off the heat, covered the pan, and set it aside.

Toward dinner time I slowly sauteed chicken thighs and drumsticks – salted, peppered, and floured – in olive oil in another pan until they were completely cooked. Off heat, I poured on ¼ cup of wine vinegar in which I’d dissolved ½ tablespoon of honey, turning the chicken pieces a few times to let them absorb the flavors.

I brought the condimento back to a simmer, transferred the chicken and all its liquid to the condimento pan, cooked everything gently for another 15 minutes, and served.

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It was brilliant. Rather than a cacciatora, I’d call this dish an agrodolce, because of how the chicken and sauce were intriguingly imbued with the vinegar and honey. While the onions had completely melted into the sauce, the celery stayed pleasantly crunchy. And those olives were wonderful. They’d blended flavors with the other ingredients and become vegetables in their own right. I’ve never eaten so many olives at once in my life, or enjoyed them so much. Brava, Adelina!

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P.S. You can see my other culinary adventures with Montalbano here, here, and here.

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