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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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Naples’ church of Santa Chiara is world-famous for its exquisite 18th Century majolica-tiled cloister and garden.

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Dating from the same period, and similarly famous in Italy, is its culinary specialty: il gattò Santa Chiara. This is a savory bread-cake hybrid (gattò is an Italianization of the French gâteau) created by the nuns of the convent..

The yeast-raised dough is enriched with mashed potato, eggs, and lard, then speckled with meats and cheeses – most often cooked ham and mozzarella. There’s a gattò recipe in Tom’s and my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen, but I haven’t been totally satisfied with the results, so this week I tried giving it a few tweaks.

 

On the morning of baking day, even before my coffee was ready, I started a yeast sponge, stirring together two teaspoons of dry yeast, two tablespoons of water, and two tablespoons of flour.

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The little bowl sat on the kitchen counter for two hours, until it was puffed and bubbly. Later in the morning, I prepared the other ingredients you see below: clockwise from top left, half a boiled russet potato, two beaten eggs, an ounce and a half of lard, three ounces of boiled ham, the risen sponge, and four ounces of mozzarella.

I’d increased my recipe’s quantities of all those items except the sponge.

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After beating the potato (mashed), the lard (melted and cooled), and the eggs into the recipe’s specified two cups of flour and teaspoon of salt, I let my heavy-duty mixer knead the dough. It smoothed out very readily, not needing any additional flour. The next step was to work in the ham and cheese, which I did by hand.
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The finished dough went into a greased nine-inch cake pan, which I covered and left on the countertop to rise. In two hours, it was threatening to overflow the shallow pan, so I wrapped it with a collar of aluminum foil before putting it in the oven at 350°.

 

After 40 minutes in the oven, it had turned a nice golden brown, though it hadn’t risen very much more.

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It took some persuasion to get it out of its pan, but eventually it emerged and allowed itself to be set on a rack to cool. It might be wise to use a springform pan next time.

That evening I warmed wedges of the gattò in the toaster oven and served them as our antipasto, along with slices of prosciutto.
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Sometimes gattò is served alongside simple grilled meats. I haven’t tried that, but the combination should be very good.

As a part of our antipasto, this loaf was quite tasty, as the warmth of the toaster oven intensified the ham and cheese flavors. The soft, dense crumb was almost cake-like, and the crust was pleasantly crunchy. I can’t say it was as fine as the loaves made by the nuns of Santa Chiara, but it was definitely an improvement on my previous version. And the next day, toasted and buttered gattò slices were very nice for breakfast.

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Champagne. Oysters Rockefeller. Ham Pithiviers. That’s the eccentric dinner I just made to celebrate the eccentric digital publication of an eccentric scholarly book by my admirably eccentric spouse.

Many of my readers know Tom from his wine blog, as well as his wine and food books. He was also a university professor, with four scholarly books published before he retired. His magnum opus on allegory, on which he spent many years, unfortunately never found an academic press. Now, with all the extra time at home that we’ve had during the pandemic, we’ve taken matters into our own hands and created it ourselves as a digital book. Please take a peek at The Strangeness of Allegory.

For a tiny two-person celebration of its publication, we wanted a bottle of champagne and some interesting foods to enjoy it with. After much cookbook research and many tempting items to choose from, we settled on the two mentioned above.
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Oysters Rockefeller

Invented at Antoine’s restaurant in New Orleans in 1889, Oysters Rockefeller is a warhorse of old-style elegance in American cooking, and a dish neither of us happen ever to have tasted. No better time than this! My cookbook collection yielded nine different recipes for it. I chose one of the simpler ones, from The Grand Central Oyster Bar Restaurant Seafood Cookbook.

It calls for raw oysters in their half shells to be covered with a thick green topping made by blending sautéed parsley, shallots, celery, chervil, and spinach with fresh breadcrumbs, softened butter, salt, pepper, cayenne, Worcestershire sauce, and Pernod. Then the oysters are bedded down in hot rock salt on metal pans and briefly baked in a very hot oven.

The topping was easy to put together (though I skipped the chervil and substituted Italian white vermouth for the Pernod). But hot rock salt was beyond my capacity. The closest I could come was to ease my dozen filled Wellfleet oyster shells into the dimples in four escargot tins and give them a longer time in the oven.

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Definitely not as picturesque as a bed of rock salt, but it served just as well. Other recipes call for larger amounts of breadcrumbs, so that the oyster topping turns brown and crisp. This one left them a soft, beautiful intense green, which we found very pleasing. The dish is clearly a close relative of the French escargots à la bourguignonne, but the absence of garlic and the medley of aromatic vegetables made for an unusual and piquant presentation.
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The Wellfleets were beautifully saline and loved their buttery green robes. We slowly savored every one of the rich little creatures, and wiped up their extra sauce with bits of crusty bread. They went very well with the champagne.
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Ham Pithiviers

It was the mouthwatering picture of this pithiviers in Julia Child & Company that induced us to want it as the entire second course of our festivity. Years ago, when I was young and enterprising, I had moderate success with a dessert pithiviers, filled with almond cream, from Julia’s Mastering, II. I even made the puff pastry from scratch. I’m not so ambitious any more, but excellent, buttery, frozen puff pastry is available now in stores, so I bravely ventured again with this savory version.

I’m not going to show you the book’s picture, because it’ll make mine look like a big girl scout cookie, but I have to say I was nevertheless pretty pleased with the way it came out. It was only a little lopsided.
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Impressive looking as the dish is, it’s actually easy to make once you have the dough. The filling is humble, everyday boiled ham gently cooked in butter with shallots, then off heat mixed with egg yolk, heavy cream, Worcestershire sauce, hot pepper sauce, and grated Parmesan cheese.

You put a round of dough onto a dampened baking dish, mound the filling in the center, lay a second round of dough on top, and seal all the edges well. Paint the top with egg glaze twice, and then scratch a decorative pattern into it. (Julia gives detailed directions for patterns.) Bake in a very hot oven for about an hour.

And very tasty indeed it was. The pastry had actually risen as it should (my puff pastries don’t always do so) and was beautifully crisp and flaky. The filling was rich and good, though we felt a little more of it would have made a better balance with all the pastry.
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Still, a definitely worthwhile experiment for an eccentric celebratory meal. The champagne liked it too.

That champagne, by the way, was also slightly eccentric, a Grand Cru Bouzy brut by Baron Dauvergne called Oeil de Perdrix – eye of the partridge, which accurately describes its color.  Bouzy is the Pinot noir capital of the Champagne zone, and this largely Pinot noir wine was big and robust as well as polished and deep, and it played wonderfully well with both the evening’s dishes. Tom considered it a perfect book-launching bottle.

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P.S. Don’t forget to check out the allegory book. There’s a lot to look at on the opening screen.

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For the first course of Christmas dinner last week, I turned to a recipe of my own from The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen: a savory pie of ham and mushrooms in a béchamel sauce enriched with parmigiano cheese. It has several advantages in the context of a festive menu for guests: It needs no unusual ingredients, it’s easy to make, and it can be prepared several hours in advance – no last-minute attention required.

In English, “torte” properly means a cake, but in Italian this dish is called a torta. It’s a sort of gentrified pizza rustica, a sleeker modern version of that hearty peasant pie filled with assorted cheeses and cured meats. In any language, it’s very good.

The pastry – an all-butter short crust enriched with an egg yolk – can be made up a day or so ahead and refrigerated until needed. (Or use any good basic pastry recipe.) For the rest, here are the ingredients as I assembled them on Christmas morning.
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Beloved Spouse had obligingly sliced the half pound of cremini mushrooms for me (plain white ones instead are good too), and I sauteed them in butter for about five minutes.
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Then I made the béchamel sauce, using a cup of milk, a tablespoon of flour, and two tablespoons of butter. When it was done I grated in some nutmeg, stirred in 3½ ounces of freshly grated parmigiano, and folded in the mushrooms.
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I rolled out half the pastry, fitted it into a 9½-inch pie dish, and filled it with alternating layers of the thinly sliced boiled ham and the mushroom mixture.
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With the addition of a top crust, the torte baked for about an hour at 350° and sat peaceably on a sideboard all afternoon, to be reheated briefly in the oven at dinner time. It’s always quite plain looking, but the taste makes diners forgive the appearance. The ever-popular combination of ham and cheese, the latter infusing the béchamel, which in turn blends in the mild woodsy flavor of the mushrooms, all make the torte more complex and interesting than the simplicity of the ingredients suggests. It’s an example of the kitchen alchemy that makes a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
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Note to my regular readers:

For eight years now I’ve been doing a post on this blog every week. I’m going to loosen the intervals a bit this year – especially for the rest of this month, when I’ll be concentrating on very plain cooking so I can shed a few extra pounds from the holiday overindulgences. I’ll be back online when I again start exploring recipes that will be interesting for me to write about and, I hope, for you to read about.  Meanwhile, best wishes for 2018.

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My birding trip in Spain was definitely not focused on gastronomy. All dinners were taken at the simple rural hotels where our group was staying, and lunches were at cafes and other modest eateries in villages along the birding routes. Menus were sometimes limited, with dishes selected in advance for the group by the local leader (and described for us in English, so I never got some of the Spanish names). Nevertheless, we encountered very good food in some of those places, including a few dishes that I hope to be able to recreate at home.

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Lunches were usually a large assortment of tapas for the whole table, ranging from salads to the ubiquitous fried squid. Here are a few of the interesting items. (Click to enlarge the images.)

tapas

Jamón Ibérico, the air-cured Iberian ham at left, is always a treat. The fried cuttlefish were even tastier than their close relatives, squid. Next, potato croquettes – a frequent tapa offering. The medium-sized garden snails, a delicious short-season specialty, appeared to have been cooked with oil, garlic, and smoked paprika. And the last dish on the right is grilled chipirones: very small squid.

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Frequent main courses at dinner included beautifully cooked fresh seafood:

seafood dishes

The tiny fried fish are fresh anchovies. Next, braised octopus. In the middle, a roasted whole choco, or large cuttlefish. More small fried fish, including tiny soles. Last, two tentacles of yet another octopus.

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There were also good, hearty meat and poultry dishes.

3 meat dishes

Left to right, a simple lamb stew with the Basque name Corderico al Txilindron; duck leg confit; and Codillo de cerdo. This last was mystifyingly translated for me as “elbow of pork”; close examination showed it to be a pork shank that had been halved lengthwise through the bone.

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We even came upon some surprisingly elegant and sophisticated preparations. At lunch one day, everyone in our group was served a large, richly eggy crepe filled with wild mushrooms and topped with something like a light Mornay sauce. It was marvelous.

crepe

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Another day, as a dinner appetizer Tom had “ravioli” made with rice papers instead of pasta, filled with a creamy mixture of pears and oveja cheese, topped with pesto, and served on a bed of ratatouille. An improbable combination, it seemed to me, but intriguing and very flavorful.

ravioli

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That same evening, my appetizer was a cake of spicy revolcona potatoes topped with a perfectly poached egg and surrounded by quickly sauteed Ibérico ham. That in itself was almost enough for a dinner!

revolcona

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Finally, the most noteworthy dessert I had in Spain was Torrija. This traditional sweet is a sort of hybrid of French toast and bread pudding, and this version came with a crunchy crème brûlée topping. Quite luscious.

torrija

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These last four dishes are the ones I’m determined to try making at home. If I succeed, you may be meeting them again in future posts.

P.S. Tom’s blog has a post on some of the wines we drank in Spain.

 

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For me, zucchini, corn, and tomatoes are the Holy Trinity of summer vegetables. I never tire of them in season, cooked plain or cooked fancy. This year several stands at my Greenmarket are carrying an heirloom zucchini variety, costata romanesco. Ridged, palely striped, and sometimes unevenly bulbous, it has a tender, nutty sweetness well beyond the common dark green zucchini.

While zucchini are fine just sliced and sautéed – in olive oil with garlic or in butter with onions – they also take very well to stuffing and baking. Most of the recipes I have for stuffed zucchini are Italian (logically enough), but this week I found a French one to try: Courgettes farcies from Roger Vergé’s Cuisine of the South of France.

As any vegetable gardener knows, zucchini are notorious for speedy growth. You walk away in the evening from plants carrying neat, slender six-inchers, and when you come back in the morning they’ve blown up into blimps. The bigger they are, the less concentrated their flavor (it’s mostly water pumping them up), and the firmer their seeds. I always look for small ones in the market, but I couldn’t get the size that Vergé calls for.

To serve two, his recipe wants six three-ounce zucchini. Those wouldn’t be much bigger than my index finger. I don’t think American farmers could bring themselves to harvest anything that small! I had to work with three of twice the size the recipe wanted, the smallest I could find.

I took a thin lengthwise slice off each of them to serve later as a lid and plunged all six pieces into boiling water long enough to get them nearly tender. When they were drained and cooling I started the stuffing, chopping onions, mushrooms, boiled ham, and sage leaves.

While those ingredients were sautéeing in olive oil, I excavated the zucchini bodies, leaving thin shells. That was tricky enough to do with my three medium-sized zucchini; it would have been maddening with six of those tiny ones. Then I chopped the zucchini pulp and added it to the sauté pan, cooking the whole mixture a while longer.

It looked like a huge amount of stuffing for my modest-sized zucchini “boats,” but they accepted it all, with a little squeezing. I topped them with their lids, laid them in a baking dish, brushed them with olive oil, and put them in a hot oven for about 40 minutes.

They looked summery and tasted very good. We had them as a side dish, and they would have done equally well as a stand-alone first course or as a lunch. I can see them too as a nice addition to an elaborate antipasto. I have only one reservation: While the flavors of all the ingredients were there, tasting nicely of themselves, the combination didn’t come together to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Oh, well . . . that culinary magic doesn’t work every time.

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