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A great pleasure of opening any of Martin Walker’s “Mysteries of the French Countryside” books is anticipation of the dishes that Bruno Courrèges, his police-chief detective, will be making for dinner guests in the intervals of solving crimes. Bruno’s kitchen work is described so fully, I’ve been able to recreate several of his recipes for myself – about which I’ve done posts, here and here.

This time Tom and I and the friend who shared those earlier occasions gathered to make a dinner based on two of Bruno’s recipes from The Shooting at Chateau Rock: a main course of chicken and a dessert of cherries. Earlier, I’d written up the book’s information on each dish, so we could make notes on scaling down and quantifying. This we did while having kirs, the aperitif that Bruno served.
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For our appetizer at the dinner table, we couldn’t match Bruno’s homemade pâté de foie gras, but we had a hearty chunk of peppercorn-crusted pâté de campagne, served with cornichons and mustard.
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Our main course was this dish of chicken thighs, which, owing to a peculiar omission in the book, might well have been called a “mystery of the French countryside” itself.
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For all the book’s detailed narrative of chopping shallots, garlic, and tarragon, softening them in butter in a casserole dish, adding wine and stock, bringing it to a simmer, covering and putting it in the oven for 45 minutes, it never said to put the chicken thighs in the pot.

I kid you not. All three of us had read and reread the book’s pages, and once the raw chicken thighs are salted and peppered on the kitchen counter, the next we hear of them is when they come out of the casserole to wait while the sauce is being finished.

Needless to say, we needed an intervention. When would Bruno have put the chicken in the casserole? We opted to brown ours quickly in butter at the beginning, took them out of the pan to wait while we softened the vegetables, and returned them in time for the addition of wine and stock. From there, we were able to return to the book’s “instructions.”

Finally, the pan juices were reduced, and the sauce was finished with crème fraiche and lemon zest. We served the chicken with a very plain rice pilaf, as Bruno did (plus green beans, which he didn’t). The whole dish was excellent, with just a touch of spicy-sweet tarragon in the creamy sauce.
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Bruno’s dessert was cherries (picked from his own tree, of course) lightly stewed with honey and topped with a custard made from crème fraiche and heavy cream. It sounded luscious. Alas, our version didn’t entirely succeed.
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We did take extreme care in the time and temperature for heating the two creams and in the continuous vigorous whisking, both when beating them into the eggs and when finishing the cooking. But our custard first refused to thicken, and then – slowly but inexorably – curdled. Too much heat, I fear. I’ve found custards made with milk much easier to work with, and baked custards are easiest of all. Wish we’d used a double boiler here!

Our dessert wasn’t quite ruined: The cherries were fine, and you could think of the topping as a kind of furry, sweetened ricotta. But it didn’t have the silky texture you expect in a custard. Still, well chilled, and with cherry juice drizzled over the top, it was a pleasant enough ending to the meal.

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And finally: Tom produced three white wines for us to drink in the course of the dinner. A Mâcon-Villages for the kirs, a Condrieu with the pâté, and an older Savennières with the chicken. He’s done a post about them on his blog.
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Exactly one year ago, Tom and I were booked on a flight to Rome, for a week’s stay. We so miss that city! Even if Italy reopens to Americans this summer, we won’t be joining the first wave of post-pandemic visitors. While waiting, we try our best to reproduce the Roman foods that we love, here in our own kitchen.

Pollo alla romana, chicken braised with sweet red peppers, is a homely, comforting dish served in every trattoria in Rome. It was one of the earliest recipes we recreated for our first cookbook, La Tavola Italiana, and is still one of my favorites.

Trouble is, not even the best variety of red Bell peppers grown in the USA can compare with the huge, gorgeous ones available in Rome’s vegetable markets. Still, even domestic peppers can make this a very good dish. And this week, long before there are any local peppers, I found big, good-looking ones from Mexico (we’ve been grateful for Mexican fruits and vegetables all winter) at my best local vegetable stand. Each weighed about 9 ounces and cost all of 50 cents.
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We can’t get chickens as flavorful as those in Italy either (I think Roman birds must lead more interesting lives than American ones), but I try for the best I can.

Scaling down my own recipe, I began browning two cut up chicken legs in olive oil, along with a sliced garlic clove. This didn’t go well. Whatever I had last cooked in that pan had totally unseasoned it, and the chicken pieces persisted in sticking, tearing the skin and pasting it to the bottom of the pan.
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Chicken stickin’

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The pieces also thought it was fun to spatter their olive oil all over the stove every time I struggled to dislodge them, as you can see in the picture. Oy.

When they had gotten as brown as they were going to (not very), I deglazed the pan with white wine and scraped up all the remnants of the tasty skin, leaving them in to contribute whatever they could to the dish. The wine also persuaded the chicken pieces to release their death grip on the pan, so I could comfortably stir in about a cup’s worth of puree made from canned Italian-style tomatoes, plus salt and pepper.
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The chicken simmered along quietly in the liquid for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, I had been peeling and quartering two of my favorite German butterball potatoes and also cutting up one of the big red peppers. I added them to the pan.
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I should admit that potatoes are totally non-canonical in pollo alla romana, but for an occasional variation on the recipe, they’re awfully good. Potatoes love tomatoes, and vice versa.

Covered, the pan simmered along for half an hour, getting an occasional stir that wafted up an increasingly mouth-watering aroma. I don’t know how it happens, but I’d swear there’s some sort of chemical interaction among chicken, peppers, and tomatoes that makes for an unexpectedly rich and luscious dish. My partially mangled chicken pieces even came out looking not too bad.
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And tasting fine too. So, while pollo alla romana in the USA is not as great as it is in Rome, it is a consolation, until we can get back across the ocean for the real thing. Moreover, this is a chicken dish that even Tom likes!

 

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Long-married couples who hope to remain that way have to learn to tolerate each other’s idiosyncrasies, not least those involving food. I loved the new dinner dish I tried a few evenings ago. Tom ate a tiny portion, patiently waited while I finished mine, and made most of his meal on the subsequent cheese course.

When I first suggested trying this Carolina chicken and shrimp pilau from James Villas’ book Country Cooking, Tom was actively interested in the recipe. But it didn’t come out as he’d expected: too heavy on the chicken for him. “Arroz con pollo,” he said, resignedly. I didn’t agree, but even if I had, I also love a good arroz con pollo. (He doesn’t.)

With that little domestic contretemps as background, I’ll tell you about making this unusual poultry-and-seafood dish. The recipe gives quantities to serve eight, and I was cutting it down for just two of us. So my protein ingredients were:

  • Two chicken thighs, simmered in water with celery and peppercorns, then skinned, boned, and the meat shredded
  • Two slices of bacon, crisped in a frying pan and crumbled
  • A dozen medium shrimp, shelled and deveined

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After a recent unhappy encounter with mediocre chicken, this time I made sure to use free-range, vegetable-fed chicken thighs. The bones and skin went back into their boiling pot, to cook with the celery and peppercorns long enough to make a light broth. The bacon’s fat I scraped into a heavy casserole for the initial cooking of the rice.

I chopped half an onion and a tiny garlic clove; briefly sauteed them in the bacon fat; added half a cup of long-grain rice and tossed it to coat with the fat. Next in went ¾ cup of the chicken broth, a little chopped tomato, ½ teaspoon of lemon juice, ½ teaspoon of Worcestershire, several gratings of nutmeg, and a speck of cayenne. (Though Worcestershire sauce is in the ingredient list, it never appears in the recipe instructions. I figured this would be the place for it. No salt or pepper requested yet, either. I gave it some anyway.)
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Stirred, covered, and brought to a boil, the casserole went into a 350° oven for 20 minutes. Though I worried that might be too long for my small quantity, it was OK – just. When I took it out, the rice had absorbed all the liquid and was clearly beginning to think about sticking on the bottom. Quickly I stirred in a little more of the chicken broth and added the chicken, shrimp, and bacon, along with more salt and pepper, though the recipe still didn’t ask for any.
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The casserole went back into the oven for 15 minutes. Again, I was concerned about the time: Would 15 minutes toughen the shrimp? No, fortunately, it didn’t. (And here at last the recipe said to correct for salt and pepper, which I no longer needed to do.)
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As I said above, I loved this dish. The chicken was tender and tasty, the shrimp plump and juicy, the rice gently infused with all the aromatic ingredients. The shrimp and chicken hadn’t actually mingled their flavors, but they neighbored surprisingly well on the plate with each other and with the toothsome rice. I was sorry that Tom didn’t think so too, but for me, the pilau was an excellent new discovery.

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P.S.  That yellow hockey puck you see on the plate above is a sweet potato biscuit. I baked a small batch because Villas calls for them as a good accompaniment to the pilau. They didn’t work for me. Made only with flour, baking powder, Crisco, and a boiled sweet potato, the biscuits hardly tasted of anything. Maybe you had to grow up in the South to appreciate these.

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Pollo in Pepitoria

Do you know what makes a good husband? Here’s one clue: not liking chicken much himself, he’ll say “Diane, isn’t it a long time since we’ve had chicken for dinner?” Gee, what a nice fella!

Thus authorized recently, I spent an enjoyable time browsing through my cookbooks for a new chicken recipe to try. From four finalists in The Cooking of Spain and Portugal volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series, I finally settled on Pollo in Pepitoria. Though its English name is Chicken Braised in White Wine with Almonds and Garlic, the ingredients that intrigued me most were hard-boiled egg yolks and saffron.

The recipe calls for a 4- to 5-pound roasting chicken. From the nearly inaccessible freezer depths of the unsatisfactory new refrigerator I’ve anathematized here before, I excavated half of a very large free-range chicken, just the right size for half a recipe.
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I cut the bird in pieces; salted, peppered, and floured them; browned them quickly in olive oil over high heat, and moved them to a heavy casserole.
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In the frying pan I softened a cup of chopped onions, spread them over the chicken pieces, added chopped parsley, a small bay leaf, half a cup of white wine, and a cup of water. All fairly routine handling so far.
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Now I entered for-me uncharted territory. While the chicken simmered, covered, for 20 minutes, I prepared the remaining flavorings of blanched almonds, saffron threads, garlic, and a hard-boiled egg yolk, to be pounded together in a mortar and pestle.

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It was supposed to become a smooth paste, but I’m not a good pounder. Best I could do was a sort of sticky crumble.
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That was OK, though, because when I added a little of the chicken’s braising liquid, the mixture became pourable. I stirred it into the casserole liquid and simmered for about 15 more minutes, until the chicken was tender. The last step was to remove the chicken pieces to a deep platter and keep them warm while boiling down the liquid to thicken and reduce it by half. Pour the sauce over the chicken and serve.
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This was a very good dish, with an interestingly subtle sauce. The overall effect was creamy, but somehow not in the manner of sauces made with cream or butter. We couldn’t distinguish any individual flavors of egg yolk, garlic, onion, saffron, or almonds: they’d blended into something tasting lightly exotic, an excellent complement for the bird.

The non-chicken-lover across the dinner table from me gallantly declared that he liked it. (Little does he realize there are three more interesting looking chicken recipes from that Spanish cookbook awaiting his next bout of gallantry!)

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Early June brings two important dates for Tom and me, snugged around each side of D-Day. The 5th is my birthday, and the 7th is our wedding anniversary. Last year we celebrated them with a splendid week in Venice; this year, of course, we were confined to home. Accordingly, we indulged ourselves with two elegant dinners for those days.

 

The Birthday Dinner

The main dish at this meal was based on a long-time favorite recipe for casserole-roasted pheasant – Fagiano ai sapori veneziani – from our book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. It has done great things for guinea hen, as well as for pheasant, so I thought I’d see what it would do for a chicken. The “Venetian flavors” here are celery, carrot, onion, pancetta, prosciutto, sage, rosemary, and white wine. The savory combination contributed an intriguing hint of wildness to half an excellent free-range chicken.
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Our first course was two little parmesan cheese custards, sformati di parmigiano. It’s a clipped recipe I’ve had for years and keep forgetting about, then happily rediscovering. It’s rich, easy, and good. Essentially just eggs, grated cheese, and heavy cream, baked briefly in a bain marie, unmolded and served with optional tomato sauce on the side. Makes a lovely light appetizer for company, if one could only have company again!
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The Anniversary Dinner

All through May, the season for fresh morel mushrooms, we searched markets for them, with no success. At last we acquired a single batch of big, beautiful ones.
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After cooking them all and eating half immediately, we froze the rest to save for this celebratory first course: feuilletés aux morilles à la crème. The puff pastry dough was not homemade, but I did cut and shape it into bouchée cases, which became crisp, buttery, flaky containers for the morels.
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Our main course – extravagant, elegant, and utterly simple – was one big, rare, rib of beef, cooked in an open pan on top of the stove in a way that makes it taste like a classic standing rib roast. I’ve written here about this recipe from Roger Vergé’s Cuisine of the South of France. We chose it for this evening specifically to partner with a very special bottle of red wine, which it did to perfection. (See below.) This is a fabulous preparation for the very best beef.
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The Dessert

I saw a luscious-looking raspberry ricotta cake on someone else’s blog and fell in love with it. Google found the recipe for me on the Bon Appétit website, and I made the cake to serve for both our festive dinners. The 1½ cups of fresh ricotta that went into the rich, sweet batter produced a cake as light and cushiony as a cloud. In the mix I substituted fresh raspberries for frozen, which wasn’t entirely wise: fewer fresh berries fill a measuring cup than frozen ones. Fortunately, I had extra berries to serve alongside, with big dollops of whipped crème fraiche. Heavenly! The cake held up perfectly for the second dinner, as well.
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And to Drink . . .

Both days, we started with glasses of Champagne, of course. For my birthday, even though the food was Italianate, it went beautifully with a French wine: a 1990 Faiveley Gevrey Chambertin. The anniversary meal, as I mentioned above, was chosen deliberately to match a wine: one long-cherished bottle of the extraordinary 2006 Ridge California Montebello, which we’d been waiting for just the right special occasion to drink. And, for digestifs both days, snifters of a fine Spanish brandy called 1866.
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Tom has written about the wines in his own blog, for those who’d like to know more about them.

 

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Napoleon Bonaparte apparently had very little time for, or interest in, what he ate. Brillat-Savarin said of him “his household was organized in such a way that no matter where he was or what the hour of the day he had but to speak one word in order to be presented with a chicken, cutlets, and coffee.”

Out of that predilection grew the chicken dish named for Bonaparte’s famous victory at the battle of Marengo on June 14, 1800. As Robert Courtine recounts the story in his fascinating historical cookbook The Hundred Glories of French Cooking, the general’s cooking wagon had gotten lost, and his chef, Durand, had nothing in his own carriage but a drum of oil and a flask of brandy. Durand sent soldiers out to scavenge in the countryside, and they returned with a few chickens, eggs, tomatoes, and garlic. Then:

In the twinkling of an eye the birds are plucked. They are cut up with a saber and set to brown in some oil while the garlic is being crushed between two stones and the tomatoes thrown into the frying pan without even being peeled. A spurt of brandy flavors the sauce. And the victorious general is served as befits a leader … [the dish] attended by a ring of fried eggs and full military honors.

If that legend is true, the combination was a great serendipity.

Courtine’s recipe is the version of Poulet Marengo I like best, and happily it doesn’t insist on either the saber or the stones. Normally I do cut up a whole chicken for it, but this time for a casual supper for three, I used just three chicken legs – thighs and drumsticks. I salted, peppered, floured, and browned them in garlicky olive oil. (Courtine wants the garlic crushed and stirred in raw at the end of the cooking, but we prefer our garlic a bit tamer than that.)
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Next I flamed them with a generous dose of brandy. It would’ve made a lovely campfire!
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As soon as the flames died I added cut-up tomatoes (peeled, I confess), along with a few more “inauthentic” ingredients called for by Courtine: white wine, salt, pepper, bay leaf, thyme, and parsley. This all simmered, covered, for 40 minutes.
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Meanwhile, I prepared another item added by Courtine’s recipe: slices of bread fried in olive oil. (Possibly Durand commandeered bread for Napoleon from the soldiers’ rations?)
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At the last minute I fried the eggs, set them on the fried bread slices, and placed them around the serving dish with the chicken and its sauce. Et voilà, poulet Marengo!
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It really is an excellent dish. The sharpness of the sauce, from the wine and brandy, contrasts beautifully with the lushness of the fried eggs and bread. The chicken just sits there enjoying it all – as we three diners did.

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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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