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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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Sometimes I think cooking is more alchemy than science. One day you take ordinary ingredients, treat them in ordinary ways, and produce a delicious dish that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Another day, it’s just the opposite: equally good ingredients and equally normal treatments turn out what can only be called a bummer. Those must be days when you’ve neglected to activate the philosopher’s stone.

My latest case of the bad magic arose with a little cache of oxtails – four nice pieces that would be just enough for a small main course for two.

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I know several very good ways of preparing oxtails. I’ve written here about an Italian recipe, a Spanish one, and a British one. Now, when I found a French oxtail recipe in the Variety Meats volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series – which, moreover, is credited to Elizabeth David’s classic book French Provincial Cooking – I was eager to try it. It was oxtails cooked with black olives: a new combination to me.

The recipe calls for six pounds of oxtails, so I was scaling it way down. I did take the liberty of ignoring David’s first step, which is soaking the meat in cold water for two hours. The English author might have found that necessary with 1960s British butchery, but I’ve never done it or even seen it in any other oxtail recipe. Certainly, the tails we get here now are very fresh and clean. Other than that, everything about the recipe seemed geared to produce a rich, tasty braise.

I briefly browned my oxtail pieces in olive oil while I made up a little bouquet garni of parsley, thyme, bay leaf, garlic, and orange peel. Then I sprinkled two tablespoons of brandy into the pot, flamed it, tucked the bouquet garni in among the pieces of meat, poured in a quarter cup of white wine and “let it bubble fiercely for a minute or two,” as the recipe advises.
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Next, I added broth and water to reach just to the top of the oxtail pieces, covered the pot, and baked it in a very low oven (290°) for three hours. Twice I looked in to turn the pieces over. At the end, despite the heavy pot lid, the liquid had reduced somewhat. Perhaps the meat had absorbed some as it rendered its fat, of which there was a good layer floating on the surface.

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David offers the option, at this point, of chilling both meat and liquid separately overnight, to solidify the fat and lift it off easily. I chose not to do that, since I wanted the dish for dinner that night. Besides, there was more cooking to be done, so I could draw off the fat later. I stirred in half a cup of pitted ripe olives and simmered the pot on a stove burner for about another hour, until the meat was ready to fall off the bones.
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This dish should have been good. I don’t know why it wasn’t. The sections of those same tails that I’d used for a previous dish were rich with natural flavor. These barely tasted of meat at all. The wine, the brandy, and the spices had clearly done nothing for them, and neither meat nor seasonings did much for the sauce. The only prominent flavor was the olives, and they were unpleasantly strong and acidic. Such a pity – and the dish had looked so handsome!

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Even more’s the pity, Tom had chosen an excellent Rhône wine to accompany our meal that evening: a 2016 Cornas. The interplay of flavors should have been wonderful. Oh, well: At least we could enjoy the wine while forlornly picking at our disappointing oxtails.

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LTIAh, summer! When farmstands are laden with eggplants and tomatoes and peppers, and a happy home cook can revel in the bright flavors, turning out lively, colorful vegetable dishes for hot-weather dining – ratatouille, panzanella, gazpacho, caponata. I made the season’s first caponata this week, using my own recipe from La Tavola Italiana.

I didn’t much like caponata when I first tasted it, long ago. The one I had came out of a can, and my recollection is that it was mostly mud-colored, with an indeterminate flavor and a mushy texture. Much later, my first encounter with a freshly made one was a revelation.

Many good variations on caponata are possible. Ingredients and quantities are very flexible, but to my mind there are some limits – which are not always observed in the recipes I’ve seen. First, caponata is not a spread: it’s chunky. Second, it absolutely has to contain eggplant. (Believe me, some don’t.) Third, the components must be sauteed in olive oil. As you might guess, I like my own version. These are its ingredients:

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Ingredients B

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Those vegetables take a lot of chopping. My gallant knife-wielding husband took on the task for me, as always. (That’s not pure altruism: Tom likes caponata too.) Here they are, awaiting their baptism in the sauté pan.

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chopped stuff

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The first item to go into an inch of hot olive oil was the eggplant, after it had been salted, set in a colander for half an hour to give up some of its moisture, and lightly squeezed dry in a linen cloth. As soon as the eggplant had softened sufficiently and lightly browned in the hot oil, I drained it onto a plate and replaced it with the pieces of green pepper. When they had joined the eggplant on the plate, I drew off most of the olive oil, leaving just enough to soften the onion and celery, and then added the tomato for 10 minutes. In a separate little pot I briefly simmered the vinegar, capers, sugar, salt, and pepper.

The eggplant and peppers went back into the pan, along with the vinegar mixture, the pine nuts, and the olives, and everything simmered together for 10 more minutes. (A word about the olives: I usually buy oil-cured black ones, but this day I had some big green Castelvetranos in the refrigerator, which I pitted and chunked up, and they were beautiful in the mix. I’ll use them again.)

Caponata needs at least a few hours to sit at room temperature before serving, so the flavors have time to blend and harmonize. When they’ve done that, it’s really a delicious concoction, an ideal hot-weather first course or picnic dish.

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my caponata

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Leftovers – when there are any – keep well for a few days in the refrigerator.

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caponataP.S.  There’s one other recipe for caponata that I like as well as my own. It’s the one made by Adelina, Inspector Montalbano’s housekeeper in the Sicilian mystery novels by Andrea Camilleri. It’s unlike any other caponata I’ve encountered. I’ve written about it here.

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montalbano cookbookEvery time I read a new Inspector Montalbano mystery from Andrea Camilleri or look at a DVD in the excellent Italian television series, one of its pleasures is discovering, along with Montalbano, whatever his housekeeper, Adelina, has cooked and left in the kitchen for him. I’ve already written posts about 10 of the Sicilian dishes mentioned in the books, but there are many more to tempt me. So this week, I tried two new-to-me recipes from I Segreti della Tavola di Montalbano.

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Pasta fredda con pomodoro, passuluna, e basilico

Early in The Snack Thief, coming home after an afternoon of investigation, “in the refrigerator Montalbano found a plate of cold pasta with tomatoes, basil, and passuluna olives that gave off an aroma to wake the dead.”

All the other recipes I’ve ever made or seen for pasta with uncooked sauce call for dressing the pasta when it’s hot. So this, which is dressed cold and served cold, is what I’d call a pasta salad. Of course, Adelina finishes her day’s work long before Montalbano gets home, so when she leaves meals for him they’re either something to heat in the oven or something to serve right out of the refrigerator. But this recipe isn’t quite like any other cold pasta salad I know.

The cookbook’s directions are minimal: For four persons, you cook 400 grams of penne rigati and dress them with “fresh tomatoes cut in pieces, as many black olives as you like, abundant basil, a few capers, olive oil, and salt” [my translation]. No quantities are given for any of these: a grand example of the fine Italian culinary phrase quanto basta – i.e., as much as is enough.

I consequently dithered a bit about quantities, but that wasn’t a real problem. The only trouble was the passulune. Apparently these are a variety of extremely ripe Sicilian olives that are purely air- or salt-cured. No vinegar or oil. Not a kind that makes it to New York City, even nowadays. The nearest I could get was oil-cured Moroccan black olives, which I soaked briefly in warm water to remove some of the oil and dried carefully.

So I did all that, making half the amount of pasta (seven ounces) for two, and tossing with the amounts of other ingredients that seemed basta to me:

1⅓ cups cut-up Cherokee tomatoes
⅓ cup black olives
⅓ cup chiffonade of basil
¾ teaspoon drained and rinsed capers
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil (plus a little extra)
½ teaspoons salt

The bowl then had to sit in the refrigerator for several hours. I must admit, when mine came out at dinner time, it didn’t really give off an aroma to wake the dead. Except for the basil, it wasn’t very fragrant at all. Refrigerator too cold? Or only passuluna olives would do? Who knows? Nevertheless, it still made a very nice picnic-style dish, ideal for warm-weather dining.

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pasta fredda

While it didn’t achieve a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts, they were all extremely good parts, and all the flavors complemented each other nicely. I’d even say that they worked better with cold pasta than they would have with hot.

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Pollo alla cacciatora

In Rounding the Mark, Montalbano returns from a boat trip feeling “irresistibly hungry, his appetite swelling inside him like a river in spate.” At home he dashes into the kitchen, looks in the oven, and finds “rabbit alla cacciatora, as unexpected as it was ardently desired.” He eats it with his hands – which, if Adelina’s dish even remotely resembled my version, had to be a very messy proposition. Livia would never have approved.

I should of course have made the dish with rabbit. But I’d just cooked a rabbit recently, I had some good chicken in the freezer, and alla cacciatora is a classic preparation for chicken too. So I made the substitution. It came out very well, and different from any other cacciatora recipe I’ve ever had.

Starting early, I began by making what the recipe calls the condimento. I put finely chopped onion, chopped celery, cubed tomatoes, green olives, and capers into a pan and sauteed them in olive oil. It was a huge amount of olives: about 30 of them for only 2 portions (half the recipe). The hunter must have shot his rabbit from a tree in the middle of an olive grove! I felt sure we’d never eat that many.

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After 15 minutes I stirred in half a cup of broth, brought it to a boil, turned off the heat, covered the pan, and set it aside.

Toward dinner time I slowly sauteed chicken thighs and drumsticks – salted, peppered, and floured – in olive oil in another pan until they were completely cooked. Off heat, I poured on ¼ cup of wine vinegar in which I’d dissolved ½ tablespoon of honey, turning the chicken pieces a few times to let them absorb the flavors.

I brought the condimento back to a simmer, transferred the chicken and all its liquid to the condimento pan, cooked everything gently for another 15 minutes, and served.

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It was brilliant. Rather than a cacciatora, I’d call this dish an agrodolce, because of how the chicken and sauce were intriguingly imbued with the vinegar and honey. While the onions had completely melted into the sauce, the celery stayed pleasantly crunchy. And those olives were wonderful. They’d blended flavors with the other ingredients and become vegetables in their own right. I’ve never eaten so many olives at once in my life, or enjoyed them so much. Brava, Adelina!

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P.S. You can see my other culinary adventures with Montalbano here, here, and here.

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Cookbook authors in Italy approach recipe writing in an entirely literary spirit. They seem to strive for gracefully artistic prose, quite unconcerned with guiding the reader through the culinary process that must be followed. This tendency can really mess you up if you don’t mentally rearrange the instructions before you begin working on the dish. There’s a classic example in my recipe choice for this week, Faraona con i carciofi from Vincenzo Buonassisi’s magisterial Il Cuciniere Italiano.

This is a big, handsome, six-volume set, lavishly illustrated with photos of delicious-looking dishes. But listen to this backward-reeling opening sentence of the instructions for my recipe (I’ve set up my translation as if it were lines of poetry or song lyrics):

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Clean the guinea hen well and cook it in a saucepan
 in which you have previously heated a mixture of oil, butter, and pork fat,
 and in it the finely chopped onion, the mushrooms cut in small pieces,
 several leaves each of sage and bay, salt and pepper.

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If you plunged right into doing what those first two lines said, you’d be up the creek without a paddle when you got to the third line. They always do that to you in Italian recipes!

The recipe’s second sentence, which covers all the rest of what the maestro has to say about cooking the bird, is:

Cottura morbida, pacifica, lunga
            (Soft, gentle, long cooking)

It reads like a Zen koan. Nothing about how much of the three cooking fats to use, how high the flame should be, how long to sauté the vegetables before adding the hen, or whether to cover the pan – all of which an American recipe would carefully specify. Happily, I recognized that this must be a casserole roast, so I checked out how Julia Child does those in Mastering, to refresh my memory.

From there, it all went very well. I had a plump 2½ pound guinea hen from d’Artagnan, which cooked into tenderness in about an hour. Meanwhile, I prepared the artichokes. I did not, alas, start with fresh artichokes. From the picture in the book, below, I decided that frozen artichoke hearts would be a safe shortcut. Which they were – especially in light of the casual directions Buonassisi gave for the labor-intensive task of preparing whole raw fresh ones. (I skip that translation, which makes sense only if you already know how Italians pare down artichokes.)

The picture in the book

I briefly braised the artichoke hearts, added a generous quantity of pitted, halved black olives, and kept them warm. When the guinea hen was done, I cut it into serving pieces, put it in a dish with its cooking sauce, topped it with the artichoke-olive mix, and served.

My guinea hen

As you can see, my bird was not as richly browned as the one pictured in the book (perhaps a food stylist ran that one under a broiler to crisp and darken the skin?), but it was tender and flavorful. The mushrooms, herbs, and onions had become almost a rich nubbly sauce, with which the olives very happily mated. Only the artichokes refused to blend their flavors with the other ingredients – and I felt it probably served me right for being too lazy to start with fresh ones.

Clearly, the recipe could be made just as easily with a chicken. It should still taste good and would cost a fraction of what a guinea hen goes for (currently $23 online at d’Artagnan). But a guinea hen is a lovely indulgence – very lightly gamy, with a flavor that meshes well with the woodsiness of mushrooms, olives, and artichokes. It’s leaner than a chicken, with tastier, meaty breasts. That leanness especially lends itself to this kind of cottura morbida, pacifica, lunga, to keep it tender and moist. Definitely worth an occasional splurge.

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