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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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