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A very big birthday – one ending in zero – befell Beloved Spouse this week. We considered declaring it to be fake news and paying it no attention, but in the end we decided to celebrate it. In our house (as should be common knowledge by now), celebration requires dining on excellent food and wine, so that’s what we did – with a menu chosen by Himself.

We made a bold start with caviar and champagne. In addition to the relatively inexpensive American “osetra” that we’ve bought online in the past, the birthday boy snuck in a tiny jar of Russian osetra, for comparison. Alas: It was noticeably better than the domestic one, making it a costly taste to try to avoid acquiring. The champagne was Krug, a gift from a very good friend. And very Krug it was, a big, vigorous, richly flavored companion to the caviar.
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This luscious start, Himself averred, already began to ease the sting of the birthday’s bigness.

For the main course, he had requested saucisson en croûte, a large sausage baked in a pastry crust. I’d never made one before, but with a little help from Julia Child, in Mastering, I set to work. Early in the day I simmered a one-pound cotechino sausage in water until fully cooked and made up a batch of pâte brisée. Later I rolled out an oblong of the pastry dough, brushed the center with mustard, and set the cooled and skinned sausage on it. I encased the sausage in the dough and rolled out another strip to lay over the top, decorated it modestly and brushed it with egg glaze.
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The stuffed pastry baked in a hot oven for 45 minutes.

For a vegetable, the birthday celebrant joined me in the kitchen and washed, parboiled, drained, and sauteed a bunch of fresh Swiss chard in butter with chopped onion. As a condiment we served mostarda di Cremona, fruits poached in mustard syrup, which we bring back from our trips to Italy. The combination was excellent. Though the pastry crust tried to fall apart at the slicing, it was very tasty, seeming to have imbibed some meaty essence from the juicy, spicy sausage.
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In keeping with the developing binational theme of the meal (American and Russian caviar, Italian sausage in French pastry, Italian fruits and Swiss chard) Tom selected two bottles from his wine closet to drink with the main course, one each from Italy and France, both vintage 2004: a Barolo riserva from Giacomo Borgogno and a Nuits-St.-Georges from Drouhin.
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He was curious to see which one would go better with the food. Here he is with the result.

The two wines behaved remarkably similarly with all the elements of the dinner, both feeling soft, even velvety, on the palate, and tasting of earth-and-mineral-inflected dark fruit. Neither wine was anywhere near its peak, but both showed well, enjoyably drinkable and fresh, while hinting of the greater complexity they’d be capable of in the future. The Barolo evidenced a bit more tannin, the Burgundy a bit more acid – but either wine would have served comfortably as the consort of the dishes. Another illustration of why so often Barolo and Burgundy are compared!

(In a rare fit of birthday moderation, we didn’t finish either wine; nor did we finish the champagne.)

To conclude this festive meal we indulged in a pair of purchased chocolate delicacies: a square of opera cake and a chocolate mousse tartlet.
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(We didn’t finish either of them, either.)

And so ended another decade of the culinary and enological adventures of Himself and his adoring spouse. We mustn’t wait too long to have Russian osetra again and another bottle of Krug. After all, who knows how many more decades we have in us?

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Happy New Year! Today starts my second Year in Recipes. In 2010, each of my weekly posts was about trying a new recipe from one of my many cookbooks. This year, I’ll broaden my scope. The time spent making new recipes from old books served its purpose: It got me back into my books and back into kitchen exploration. Now I want to mix things up a bit more – some old favorites, along with new dishes.

I’m starting with my own recipes for lentils and cotechino, a much-loved New Year’s Day dish. In Italy, lentils are traditional for January 1st. The idea is that lentils look like coins, and the more of them you eat on the first day of the year, the more money you’ll have that year. It can’t hurt to try, can it?

There’s a recipe for stewed lentils in the first cookbook that Tom and I published, La Tavola Italiana. That was over 20 years ago, shockingly enough, and I’ve changed a few things since then. I used to soak lentils, the way you do dried beans, but now I find it isn’t necessary. I just pick them over and rinse them. I sauté carrot, onion, celery, garlic, and sage leaves in olive oil; stir in the lentils and sauté briefly; then add broth and cook gently, covered, until the lentils are tender. Cooking time varies greatly, depending on the age and type of lentils used. My favorites are the small brown Castelluccio lentils, from Umbria. Here is my current version of the recipe.

La Tavola Italiana also has a recipe for making cotechino, a big, luscious boiling sausage made from ground pork meat, pork fat, pork skin, and spices. Cotechino is much more readily available in butcher shops nowadays, but if you know the sausage as made in the north of Italy, you’ll find many American versions disappointing – which is why Tom and I developed our own. It’s quite a lot of work to make, albeit fun if you enjoy messing around in the kitchen.

Happily, for the past few years my local Citarella market has carried an imported Italian brand of cotechino, Levoni, that has the true, characteristic unctuousness and zesty flavor. It’s fully cooked, needing only to be heated in boiling water in its aluminum-foil pouch for 20 minutes. That’s a godsend, since to make it from scratch the sausage mixture has to be shaped into a fat cylinder, rolled up in a sheet of caul fat, aged in the refrigerator for 3 days, soaked in cold water for 8 hours, then drained and simmered in fresh water for 2 hours. Not exactly a spur-of-the-moment dish to make.

So for dinner on New Year’s Day I made a Levoni cotechino and my lentil recipe, with which we drank a 1990 Banfi Brunello di Montalcino, and very good they all were, the bracing Sangiovese fruit and acidity of the wine making a lovely foil for the unctuous sausage and earthy lentils.

Now I’m just sitting back and waiting for the lentil-induced money to start pouring in.

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P.S.  Leftover lentils make a nice antipasto or first course, served warm or at room temperature with a drizzle of olive oil and minced onion. So does leftover cotechino, sliced and served with a potato salad dressed with olive oil, wine vinegar, and chopped parsley.

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