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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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‘Tis the season for gastronomical indulgences large and small. One seasonal treat that’s small in size but large in the amount of pleasure it provides is fresh porcini mushrooms. When these fabulous fungi are available in one of my local markets I have to have some, despite their stratospheric prices, because they give distinction to the simplest dinner.
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The specimens above are practically infants. In late fall, restaurants in Italy often display bowlfuls of porcini with caps typically about five inches across. But even the little ones have the species’ depth of unmatchable flavor, so a few almost always follow me home.
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With this batch, Beloved Spouse stepped into the chef’s role. Some 30 years ago, when he was on a wine writers’ trip in Genoa, he was served a magnificent dish of a huge porcino cap reposing on a bed of thinly sliced potatoes, both slathered with excellent olive oil, apparently oven-roasted and finished briefly under a broiler. He remembers it as ambrosia, and from his description, I’d envied him that experience for a very long time. So, with porcini at hand and his reputation for reliable memory at stake, this week he set about making something like it for us at home.

First he thinly sliced all-purpose potatoes, parboiled them for a few minutes, and drained them.  While they were cooling and drying, he briefly seethed a sliced clove of garlic in about two-thirds of a cup of olive oil, not letting it color. Then he removed the garlic, spread a little of the oil in a gratin dish, and laid out the potato slices, adding salt and pepper.
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On top he placed the sliced porcini stems and whole caps, brushing everything generously with the garlic-scented olive oil and pouring the rest of the oil around the potatoes.
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The dish went into a 375° degree oven for about 20 minutes, followed by a few minutes under the broiler for browning.
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The caps had shrunk somewhat, which slightly marred their appearance, but not at all their flavor. The aroma of the dish was as captivating as its taste. The potatoes loved the porcini, and vice versa. You couldn’t taste the garlic as itself, only as a subtle enlivening of the other flavors.  The porcini were transcendent – rich and meaty, a bit suggestive of sweetbreads.

This may not have been the legendary dish of that Genoese restaurant, but Beloved Spouse thought it very close, and it turned a simple meal of grilled skirt steak and broiled eggplant into a thoroughly satisfying little feast.
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I’m encouraging him to keep on experimenting, if he thinks he can improve it any further!

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Culinary serendipity takes many forms, not the least of which is sparking ideas for using small amounts of leftovers. On a recent day, my refrigerator and freezer produced a 7-ounce raw filet of John Dory, 3 ounces of raw shrimp, and 4 ounces of mushrooms.

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With an open container of heavy cream also available, inspiration for dinner was easy: something classically French. Julia Child to the rescue, with her poached fish recipes in the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. From the book’s five major recipes, five variations, and five suggested shellfish garnitures, I chose almost the simplest, Filets de Poisson Bercy aux Champignons.

Scaling down the recipe to serve two instead of six required some adjustments. I also took a few shortcuts for further simplicity, hoping that Julia wouldn’t disapprove. For example, the shrimp for the garnish were to be first boiled for five minutes in a stock made from wine, water, onion, carrot, celery, parsley, bay leaf, thyme, tarragon, and peppercorns; then tossed in a pan with butter, seasonings, and wine.

I couldn’t see doing all that for my eight little shrimp. I just boiled them for two minutes in salted water, then sauteed them briefly in butter with minced shallots and thyme. I sliced the mushrooms and also sauteed them in butter for a few minutes.

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The fish filet was to be poached in a 350° oven. I strewed minced shallots in a shallow baking dish; laid in the fish filet topped with salt, pepper, and more shallots; poured in enough wine and water to cover the filet; and dotted butter over all.

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Now I was supposed to bring the dish to a simmer on top of the stove before covering it with a sheet of buttered wax paper and putting it in the oven. But I couldn’t: my only baking dish small enough not to surround the filet with too much liquid couldn’t take a direct flame. So the poaching took quite a bit longer than the recipe expected. I worried a bit, but gentle cooking rarely harms a fish, and eventually a fork could pierce the flesh easily, which meant the fish was done.

At that point I realized I had another problem. The poaching instructions that I’d followed had been in a separate master recipe, which didn’t have mushrooms. When I returned to my Bercy recipe, I saw that I ought to have included the mushrooms in the poaching. Oops! Oh, well – it was a pity that my mushrooms couldn’t exchange flavors with the poaching liquid, but they’d just have to join the dish later.

I gently removed the fish to a plate, poured its liquid into a small pot, and boiled it down to about half a cup’s worth. I stirred in a flour-and-butter paste and then heavy cream. Brought the sauce to a boil, seasoned it with salt, pepper, and lemon juice, and folded in the shrimps and mushrooms.

Back into its baking dish went the fish filet, and all the sauce and garnishes over and around it. The recipe also called for more dots of butter, but since the dish had already received almost a stick of butter and half a cup of cream (!), I decided to skip that.
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All this was done in the afternoon. In the evening I sprinkled grated parmigiano (instead of gruyere) over the fish in its sauce and reheated the dish under the broiler. Again, because I couldn’t first reheat it on top of the stove, it took a longer time in the broiler – about 10 minutes to warm it through. It hadn’t browned as much as it should, but I was afraid to overcook the fish, so I took it out and served it.
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It was wonderful – even after my shortcuts and alterations. The John Dory was excellent, as always. The mushrooms had – amazingly, given their short time in the sauce – absorbed all the goodness of fish, shrimp, and cream. The sauce itself was silk and velvet on the tongue, and it tasted like the sweet-salt soul of the sea.

Being something of a partisan of Italian cooking approaches, I hardly ever make classic French dishes any more, but this one reminded me of what I’d been missing. Maybe it’s time to revisit them occasionally.
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Incidentally, Beloved Spouse poured a relatively simple white Burgundy with this dish – a Côte de Nuits Villages – and the combination was delightful.

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My trip to Rome earlier this month was, gastronomically, very much of an auld lang syne experience. Beloved Spouse and I dined only at restaurants we’ve known and loved for years, and mostly on dishes that we’ve often eaten there and that are a large part of the reason we love them. Here are what we had on three of the days.

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fortunato-al-pantheon

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Fortunato al Pantheon
is a slightly austere establishment, favored by politicians from the nearby national Parliament. It was a modest trattoria years ago, when we first discovered it, but it has grown in elegance while still retaining its basic honesty.

The moment we walked into the dining room, we smelled truffles. Wow! We hadn’t expected the season to have started yet. We couldn’t resist them, but first we had to have antipasti: a pair of carciofi alla romana and a plate of salume.
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Then came the truffles. For Tom, tagliarini topped at tableside with shavings of a single large white truffle; and for me tagliarini already dressed with a sauce of black truffle and porcini mushrooms. By our waiter’s courtesy, I also received the last little bits of Tom’s white truffle.
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tartufi-bianchi

Tagliarini con tartufi bianchi

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tartufi-neri

Tagliarini con tartufi neri e funghi porcini

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These were both stunningly rich dishes, but after them we felt we could manage a little dessert: a dish of fragoline con panna and a small tiramisù.
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Walking back to our hotel, we pondered one of the enduring mysteries of Roman dining: How do you get fresh artichokes, wild strawberries, and truffles at the same season?
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Another evening found us at Checchino dal 1887. It’s in Testaccio, the epicenter of Rome’s ancient quinto quarto cuisine – i.e., variety meats, or more simply, offal. Testaccio used to be the butcher’s section of the city, and the “fifth quarter” of the animal was what the poor got, after the best cuts went to the aristocracy, the clergy, the bourgeoisie, and the military. Dishes made from those innards, though not for today’s faint-hearted eater, are central to Rome’s traditional cuisine.

Here, Tom always starts with the same pasta dish: rigatoni con pajata. Pajata is the small intestine of milk-fed lamb, still filled with partially digested milk. Tied into little sausages and cooked in tomato sauce, it’s delicious beyond what you would expect. That evening I chose an equally traditional, though meatless, first course: pasta e ceci (chickpeas).
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I made up for that reticence with my second course, padellotto alla macellara. This “butcher’s platter” was a sauté of pajata, liver, sweetbreads, and testicolo. (Yes, testicle). Not your everyday plate of protein. Tom had a bollito misto – mixed boiled meats – including on this occasion beef, calf’s tongue, and a small pig’s foot.
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I must admit, we couldn’t finish either of these ample plates.
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Osteria da Zi’ Umberto
is a small, lively, bustling, casual eating place in Trastevere. Though not strong on atmosphere and looking a little run-down, it turns out very good, mostly rustic food at relatively modest prices. After starting with a few fiori fritti (batter-fried zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese and anchovies), we had first courses of pappardelle with wild boar sauce and fettuccine with porcini mushrooms.
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2-umberto-pastas

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Then Tom had oxtails – coda alla vaccinara – and I had suckling pig – maialino arrosto con patate. Both were beautifully prepared.
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coda

 

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At all these meals we drank wine, of course – mostly wines of Rome’s Lazio region, which aren’t commonly available in New York – and ended with espressos and grappa. Many interesting kinds of grappa. Tom has written a post about the wines for his blog, which you can see here.

Our remaining three dinners in Rome are described in my next post.

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You can’t win them all.

bayless-2I was really looking forward to trying a recipe for pasilla mushroom tacos in Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen. I’d never done anything with pasilla chiles before – didn’t remember even having tasted them. In his headnote Bayless says pasillas have “an unctuous creamlike quality” when pureed and a “magnetism that captures you.” Also, the recipe calls for woodland mushrooms, and Beloved Spouse and I dote on wild mushrooms. It all sounded wonderful.

So I bought a bag of dried pasillas and started by making Bayless’s “Essential Bold Pasilla Seasoning Paste,” which is one of the base preparations that are called for in many of his recipes. This one’s other ingredients are garlic cloves, Mexican oregano, cumin and black pepper. (The greenish leaves in the photo are epazote, which actually comes later in the recipe.)

pasilla-paste-ingredients

I cheated a little on the mushrooms, using half chanterelles and half cremini. Cremini aren’t woodland creatures any more, but in nature they do grow up to become portobellos, which are one of the varieties Bayless suggests.

mushrooms

The rest of the directions I followed scrupulously. I carefully split open the chiles, flattened them out and removed the seeds, and roasted them on a griddle, along with the unpeeled garlic cloves.

roasting-chiles

I soaked the roasted chiles in hot water for half an hour to soften them, then put them into a blender with the peeled garlic, freshly ground cumin seed, oregano, black pepper, and some of the chile soaking liquid. That made a dense puree, which I cooked in a little oil for 5 minutes. I stirred in some chicken broth to loosen it, added the mushrooms and the epazote, and simmered it all for 15 minutes.

mushrooms-added

At dinner time I transferred the pasilla-mushroom mixture to a serving dish and topped it with diced onion and crumbled feta cheese (a Bayless-approved substitute for queso añejo, which none of my stores had, that week). We scooped the mixture into corn tortillas that I’d steamed to softness.

taco-mixture

Alas, there’s no happy ending to this story: The tacos weren’t very good. There was none of the recipe headnote’s promised “rich earthy spice” whose “woodsy flavor complemented the earthiness of the mushrooms.” Beloved Spouse said he found the predominant flavor more like smoked dirt – and I had to agree with him. You almost couldn’t taste the mushrooms at all. We tried brightening the tacos up with smears of salsa and guacamole, which we’d had as an appetizer, but that didn’t do much either. A very sad disappointment, the only one I’ve ever had from a Rick Bayless recipe. I really hated to waste those good chanterelles.

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Millecosedde

The blizzard that engulfed the East Coast a few days ago provided the perfect occasion for me to make millecosedde. This Calabrian “soup of a thousand things” is a classic down-home, depth-of-winter dish, just the kind of comforting food you want when all you can see out your windows is madly swirling snow.

I had on hand all the ingredients called for in my recipe from The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen – fortunately, since I had no intention of venturing out that day. Following my own headnote suggestion, I started by checking the odds and ends of dried beans in the pantry, aiming for color contrasts. The best candidates were Great Northern (white), Rio Zape (red pinto), and Casteluccio lentils (golden brown).

beans soaking

I’d put them on to soak the night before. (The lentils didn’t need it, but it didn’t hurt them.) In the morning I drained them and put them in a big pot with shredded Savoy cabbage; sliced carrots, celery, onions, and mushrooms; and Beloved Spouse’s best homemade broth. After they had simmered together for an hour and a half, I stirred in salt, pepper, and a healthy dose of olive oil, and cooked for another half hour.

soup cooking

The pot then sat on the back of the stove until dinner time approached. The beans had absorbed most of the liquid by then, so I had to add some water to loosen up the soup. Separately, I boiled a batch of ditalini pasta, added that to the soup pot too, and cooked it for five more minutes. Off heat, I stirred in another dose of olive oil – extravirgin, this time – let it sit for a final five minutes, and served, adding freshly ground pepper and grated pecorino cheese to each bowlful.

millecosedde

Wonderfully warming, hearty winter food. Let it snow! (And it sure did: more than two feet in Manhattan.)

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Julia Child says her recipe for a sauté of beef with onions, mushrooms, and way to cookpotatoes has “a certain jazzy style … for a rather important and intimate occasion.” She urges “an informal twosome” to prepare it “while having meaningful conversations and apéritifs together in the kitchen.” Joke it may be, but to me that sounded perfect for a quiet New Year’s Day dinner. Less so to Beloved Spouse, who is only slowly recovering from hip replacement surgery, but he gamely agreed to step – or hobble – into the role.

The recipe fills two large pages in The Way to Cook, giving a very specific order of battle and illustrated with nine color photographs. Julia claims the whole thing can be done by reasonably fast, well-equipped cooks in less than half an hour. We doubted that, especially since nowhere did it say “Have a sip of your apéritifs” – which was a first and recurring step for us.

aperitifs

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Undaunted, we proceeded. I peeled four cipolline (chosen instead of the recipe’s tiny white onions) and stewed them gently with broth, tarragon, and salt while Tom, exercising his renowned knife skills, chopped shallots, quartered mushrooms, and cubed potatoes.

First pair

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Next we jointly sauteed the potatoes in butter and oil in one pan and the mushrooms and shallots in another, engaging in such meaningful conversation as “Do you think that flame is too high?” and “The mushrooms already look done to me.”

Second pair

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Then – with a pause for a sip of Krug – it was back to the cutting board for Tom, to chunk up two thick beef tenderloin steaks while I took the mushrooms out of their pan and melted more butter in it, ready to receive the meat. It seemed a pity to mutilate those lovely steaks, but we did it as directed. The sacrifices one makes for art!

steaks

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After quickly browning and removing the beef, we made a sauce in its pan: more shallots, white vermouth, and broth; the liquid boiled down almost to a syrup; then lightly thickened with cornstarch. We stirred the beef back into the sauce, along with the onions, their remaining juices, and the mushrooms. While they all warmed together, we gave the potatoes, which had been waiting in their pan, a dose of additional butter, salt, parsley, and tarragon, and tossed them quickly over high heat. The final step was to strew the potatoes over the meat – and serve.

full saute

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I’m not sure why Julia regarded this dish as jazzy. It didn’t seem jazzy to us. But it was certainly good. The beef was still rare and beautifully tender, the potatoes crisp and buttery, the onions and mushrooms excellent complements, the sauce subtly flavored with vermouth and tarragon. A very elegant little meal. With it we drank a very elegant 1999 Barbaresco Montestefano from the Produttori di Barbaresco. An auspicious start to our 2016 dining.

P.S. While Tom and I surely qualify as reasonably speedy, well-equipped cooks, preparing that “fast sauté” took us 70 minutes.

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