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In every book of Martin Walker’s “Mystery of the French Countryside” series, police chief Bruno Courrèges finds time between pursuing criminals and preserving the peace in his Périgord village to make fabulous meals for his friends. When Bruno cooks, readers are right there in the kitchen with him, and for enthusiastic home cooks, the urge to step in and help out is almost irresistible.

A dinner Bruno makes in The Templars’ Last Secret did prove irresistible for Tom, our friend Hope, and me this week. Being all Bruno devotees, we were intrigued by this very unusual menu of his and decided to try making it for ourselves:

Venison Pâté with Haitian Epice
Fish Soup
Blanquette de Veau with Rice
Salad and Cheese
Wine-Poached Pears with Ice Cream

Of course we couldn’t reproduce that meal exactly: Much of what Bruno eats he grows or gathers for himself, or else buys from artisans at his village’s outdoor market. But we came as close as we could.

 

Venison Pâté with Haitian Epice

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Bruno wasn’t originally planning to have this course, but one of his guests, a young Haitian woman from the Ministry of Justice, brings him a jar of épice, her mother’s version of Haiti’s all-purpose spicy green sauce. Bruno opens a can of his homemade venison pâté so everyone can taste Amélie’s gift with it.

We couldn’t find a venison pâté, so we substituted a rabbit terrine and created our own épice with guidance from recipes on the Web. It was very easy to make. We simply pureed small amounts of green and red Bell peppers, two hot Serrano peppers, a tiny red onion, scallions, garlic cloves, lots of parsley, and a little basil in the food processor.

It was a lively sauce, tasting bright and intensely vegetal at first, with a sneaky zing of heat just as you were swallowing. It gave a nice lift to the lushness of the terrine. We could even have taken it a bit hotter – maybe try a Scotch bonnet pepper next time. With this appetizer Bruno served a sparkling Bergerac rosé wine. We drank an Alsace crémant, a regional transgression that nevertheless worked quite nicely.

 

Fish Soup

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One way to tell this must be a Périgord recipe is that it starts by cooking diced potatoes and crushed garlic in a casserole with duck fat. Fish soup made with duck fat! – totally new to us. Fortunately, I had duck fat in the refrigerator, so we were off to an authentic start. Continuing to do as Bruno did but guessing on quantities, most of which aren’t given in the story, we then added cubes of fresh cod, chopped canned tomatoes, stock that we’d made from shrimp shells, and a glass of white Bergerac. All that simmered along until the fish was done, when we adjusted the salt, poured in another glass of the wine, stirred in chopped parsley, and served.

It was unexpectedly rich and hearty for a thin-bodied soup made so simply from cod. We could just detect an undertone of the shrimp-shell stock’s flavor. The wine also made a definite contribution. We were lucky to have found that bottle of Bergerac. It’s uncommon here and was very distinctive: slightly herbal-spicy and only barely not sweet. But there was something more unusual in the soup’s flavor that we struggled to identify. Finally we remembered: the duck fat! It gave the soup an almost meaty essence. We three liked it as much as Bruno’s guests did. And we, like them, happily drank white Bergerac with it.

 

Blanquette de Veau

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Even at first reading, we were each struck by the oddity of serving a soup and a stew at the same meal. We were still dubious about it after deciding to make the full menu, but we put our trust in Bruno and went ahead.

To save some work on the cooking afternoon – and since stews are always better the second day – Hope undertook to prepare the blanquette herself on the preceding day and bring the finished dish to us. This entailed simmering two pounds of cut-up veal with aromatic vegetables, separately sauteeing a pound each of shallots and mushrooms in butter, thickening the veal cooking liquid, and stirring in the veal, shallots, mushrooms, and much heavy cream.

The blanquette was luscious, especially since Hope had used shiitake for half the mushrooms, instead of all small whites. The sauce had perversely not thickened quite as much as it should have, but it made a delicious dipping medium for crusty bread, as well as a sauce for the rice. With this course, Bruno served Pécharmant, a light red Bergerac wine made in Bordeaux-blend style. We had a modest Bordeaux wine of the same grape blend.

 

The Missing Salad and Cheese

We know Bruno intended to have salad and cheese at this meal. Before the guests arrive, he picks and washes salad greens from his garden and takes cheese out of his refrigerator. But that’s the last they’re heard of. As the dinner progresses, Bruno offers second helpings of the blanquette, and in the next paragraph he brings in the dessert. Well, even Homer nods. We had our salad and cheese, but to honor Bruno’s omission, I didn’t take a photo of them.

 

Wine-Poached Pears with Ice Cream

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Bruno poaches his pears in red wine to cover, with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and half a glass of his own vin de noix. We did the same except for the walnut liqueur, which is unattainable here. Also, Bruno seems to have left his pears whole, but we halved and cored ours first, because they’re so much easier to both cook (less wine, less time) and eat (no maneuvering around the cores) that way. We did, however, follow his manner of serving them, with a splash of sparkling wine and a scoop of excellent vanilla ice cream in each bowl. To make up for the absence of vin de noix, we awarded ourselves glasses of Bruno’s favorite dessert wine, Monbazillac.

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We three thoroughly enjoyed each part of this meal, as well as the making of it. But, for all our admiration of Bruno and his creator, we can’t commend the dinner as a whole. For us, the sequence of soup and stew didn’t work. The two dishes were too similar in color, texture, and general character for the palatal contrasts that are part of the pleasure of a truly great meal. Just too much of the same thing – especially with the richness of the duck fat, cream, and butter. We’d had greater success with the harmony of a previous Bruno feast we’d tried.

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The occasional days of unseasonably hot weather we’ve experienced lately have activated my craving for full-summer vegetables. Of course there are no local ones yet, nor will there be for weeks and weeks. Nevertheless, I just had to eat something with eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes. I settled on a suitably summery dish of Spaghetti alla Siracusana, a Sicilian recipe from my first cookbook, La Tavola Italiana.
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I bought the firmest eggplant and crispest Bell pepper I could find and opened a can of imported San Marzano tomatoes. The seasonings were capers, anchovy, garlic, and parsley (a substitute for fresh basil), along with generous quantities of olive oil and grated pecorino romano cheese.
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Once the ingredients were prepared, making the sauce was a breeze. I sautéed the diced eggplant, whole garlic clove and chopped anchovy in olive oil for about 7 minutes. I stirred in the pepper strips, chopped tomato, capers, and parsley; covered the pan; and simmered, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, until the peppers were tender. It seemed a bit dry toward the end, so I added a little water.
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I took out the garlic, added salt and generous grindings of black pepper, and set the sauce aside until we were ready to eat. When the spaghetti was cooked, I dressed it with the reheated sauce and half the pecorino. The grated cheese disappeared right into the sauce.
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As you can see, the pasta wasn’t heavily coated with sauce. It’s not supposed to be. The tomato doesn’t turn into a puree but remains in soft little pieces, as do the eggplant and peppers, adding their textures to each forkful. The olive oil provides all the moisture the dish requires. The rest of the grated cheese went to the dinner table, for each person to add as desired.
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This was an enjoyable pasta, with sweet vegetable flavors and mild nuttiness from the cheese – but sadly, only a ghost of what Spaghetti alla Siracusana can be with fully ripe, newly picked eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes. Good enough to satisfy my pre-season craving, it was an object lesson in why dishes one gets in Italy are often so much more luscious and vibrant than their counterparts in the US. So it wasn’t all I’d hoped for — but it had to do, as the song says, until the real thing comes along.

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Octopus, which used to be a culinary curiosity in this country, is increasingly coming into the mainstream of locally available seafood. Three different fish stores within half a mile of my home now carry it regularly, both raw and cooked. I’ve had very good results from a few Spanish and Italian octopus recipes and am always interested in new ones. The two latest ones I’ve made are from Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain, by Penelope Casas.

My copy is an attractive large paperback, with more than 300 recipes. Those I’d tried had all been successful, so when I came across two for octopus tapas that I hadn’t much noticed before, I read them with interest. Both have you start by simply boiling the octopus, so for the sake of convenience I bought a pound of cooked tentacles – enough for half recipes of each tapa.
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The first dish I made was Pulpo con Patatas, Octopus with Red Peppers and Potatoes. The full recipe is said to serve four, but I could see that even the half would be plenty for a main dish for the two of us. Along with the cut-up octopus, it calls for chopped onion, cubed potatoes, Spanish smoked paprika, skinned and chopped sweet red pepper, minced garlic, and bay leaf.
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Once Beloved Spouse had done all the knife work for me, the rest of the preparation was easy enough. Boil the potatoes until tender, drain them, and save some of the cooking water. In an ovenproof dish sauté the onion, pepper, and garlic in olive oil. Add the octopus and sauté for a minute or two. Stir in the paprika, bay leaf, potatoes, salt, and a little of the potato water.
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Bring the liquid to a boil and bake the dish, uncovered, in a moderate oven for 15 minutes. It came out of the oven looking much as it did going in, but the flavors had blended a bit and intensified each other, making a rich, filling combination.
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This was a good, satisfying dish, but I don’t see it as becoming a regular in my repertoire: Though billed as a tapa, it would have been very heavy as an appetizer; and as a main course it wasn’t quite as satisfying as a few other octopus dishes I’ve made – here and here.  For us, those are the upper echelon of octopus cookery.

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A few days later, I made the second tapa recipe, Pulpo a la Leonesa, Octopus Stewed in Onions. With my pre-cooked octopus, it was the essence of simplicity: aside from the eponymous octopus and onions, the only ingredients are olive oil, vinegar, wine, and salt.

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I softened the onions in the oil, covered the pan and cooked them gently until tender. I added one-inch pieces of octopus, salt, and tiny amounts of white wine and my own red wine vinegar; cooked it all gently, covered, for 15 minutes; and served with slices of crusty bread.
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This dish wasn’t quite as successful as the previous one. Mostly my fault, I think: The recipe strongly recommended using tiny octopi, which would have benefited more from the condiments than my larger chunks did. Also, there was a little too much sameness to each dense, rich mouthful. It would have shown better in an assortment of several tapas, with varying textures and flavors to contrast, than it did as our only appetizer. The onions were extremely tasty, though – we’d have liked more of them.

The next time I get an urge for octopus, I might buy the tiny ones, cook them myself, and try this dish again to see what difference they make. And I’ll probably increase the quantity of onions.

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Summer hasn’t quite given up yet, and the principal summer vegetables are still going strong in my greenmarket. To take advantage of this late-season bounty, I turned to James Villas’ Country Cooking, a book that has two recipes for cooked vegetable dishes designed to be served at room temperature, which I’d been meaning to try for a long time.

One is for zucchini and bell peppers, the other for eggplant and onions. These are among our favorite vegetables, but except in very rare circumstances (e.g., zucchini a scapece, eggplant caviar) I only ever serve them hot. Since the book is organized around menus for entertaining, it’s easy to see how useful it is to have substantial vegetable dishes that can be entirely prepared in advance. Even without a party in prospect, I decided to make them both, in reduced quantities.
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Zucchini and Red Peppers Vinaigrette

This is a very lightly cooked dish, finished with a vinaigrette dressing. The ingredients are zucchini cut in sticks, peppers cut in strips, a little chopped onion, and a bit of garlic – staple ingredients of cooking all around the Mediterranean.
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They’re stir-cooked together in butter with salt, pepper, and thyme. The use of butter is a departure for me, as I – and most of the countries around the Med – typically use olive oil for these vegetables. I was curious to see what difference butter would make in the taste.
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As soon as the vegetables had barely softened I transferred them to a dish and, while they were still hot, tossed them with a vinaigrette of olive oil, red wine vinegar, and mustard. Then I covered the dish and refrigerated it for an hour before serving.
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At first taste, the zucchini and peppers seemed rather bland, as if they hadn’t been affected much by either the sautéeing or the dressing. They were quite crunchy, with possibly a faint butteriness detectable under the vinaigrette flavors. As dinner went on, I came to appreciate what a good foil the vegetables made for the braised squab they accompanied, and I wound up liking them very much. Leftovers were just as good the next day.
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Cold Eggplant and Onions

In contrast to the brief cooking time of the previous recipe, this one takes three hours – though there’s no active work in that time. The long cooking, according to Villas, is “what gives the dish its incredibly luscious texture.” It has just a few ingredients: the eggplant, lots of onion, much parsley, a little tomato, a tad of garlic.

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Once the eggplant is sliced, it’s to be salted and set in a colander for an hour to draw out some of the liquid. The recipe didn’t say to peel the eggplant, and mine had fairly tough skin. I wondered if that might cause a problem, but I left it on. (The recipe also didn’t say how to treat the tomatoes. Since there were only the two, I peeled and roughly chopped them.)

After rinsing and drying the eggplant slices, I spread half of them in an ovenproof dish and topped them with half the parsley, all the onion, and all the tomato. I sprinkled on minced garlic, thyme, oregano, salt, pepper, and the rest of the parsley. The rest of the eggplant went on top, along with a modest coating of olive oil.
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Covered, the dish went into a 275° oven and baked undisturbed for two hours. At that point I was supposed to stir the mixture with a fork, cover it again, and return the pan to the oven for a third hour. I wasn’t sure how energetic a stirring was intended, and the top layer of eggplant looked so peaceful, I just nudged things around a little. Everything seemed well cooked already, but I gave it its last hour. Then it had to cool completely before being eaten.
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This was a very mild, mellow dish. “Incredibly luscious texture” isn’t quite the way I’d describe it, though it was pleasant enough. The eggplant (skin included) was ready to melt in the mouth. The dish had a nice onion sweetness, balanced by a slight acidity from the eggplant. A little extra salt helped bring up the flavors. As with the previous vegetable dish, this one proved to be an excellent foil for the dinner meat – in this case, grilled lamb chops.

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So, will I use these recipes for entertainment? I’m not sure. Years ago, when Beloved Spouse and I used to give large parties, they would have been fine. But we really don’t do that anymore. And in style, these dishes don’t fit easily into the kind of small-dinner-party menus we like to put together these days. I’m more likely to make them for ordinary home consumption.

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Every spring and fall Tom and I make short trips to Cape May, NJ, a hotspot for finding migratory birds. Perched where Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, Cape May also boasts excellent fish and shellfish. While there, we indulge liberally in that seafood, and often bring some home from the harborside fish market. One of its specialties is fresh, never-frozen shrimp from North Carolina or Florida. Costing half what shrimp does in Manhattan, and tasting twice as good, a few pounds of them are a regular treat for us. Even when frozen at home, as they have to be, they’re very fine shrimp.

A bit disturbingly, the first 10 ounces I took out from our latest batch to cook for dinner were an unattractive color when looked at closely.

Raw shrimp are normally white with pinkish shells. The brownish, yellowish tinge on these made them look as if they were beginning to rot. Even when shelled, the flesh was darkish and dingy.

But they smelled fresh and felt properly firm. To be on the safe side I decided to make them in a slightly spicy preparation, and just for aesthetics, one that wouldn’t call attention to that color.

My ever-obliging knife man sliced up a nice mess of vegetables for me – two cups of onions and two cups of mixed Bell and poblano peppers.

I softened the peppers and onions in olive oil; sprinkled on salt, pepper, and mild New Mexican chili powder; stirred in about ⅓ cup of pureed tomato; covered and cooked it all together for 10 minutes, until the veg were tender. The pan then sat at the back of the stove until called for.

 

As you can see, that mixture vaguely replicated the color tones of my ugly shrimp. So when I reheated it, added the shrimp, and stirred them about until they were just opaque, you really couldn’t tell whether their shade was natural or due to the tomato and chili powder.

Served on a bed of plain boiled rice, the dish was very good. It had a modest touch of warmth from the spicing, and the shrimp were sweet, fresh, and just as flavorful as ever. I’d used basmati rice, because that happened to be the only long-grain rice I had on hand. It and the shrimp didn’t have much to say to each other, but it strongly bonded with the peppers and onions. The shrimp also adored the vegetables, and vice versa. A very successful simple improvisation.

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Ratatouille

I can’t let a summer go by without making ratatouille at least once. Actually, I’d probably make it several times, but Beloved Spouse prefers the Italian style of vegetable mélange – perhaps because he usually ends up slicing, chopping, and mincing all the components. I like the Italian type too, but there’s a ratatouille recipe I love to make: a very complex one from the Cooking of Provincial France volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series.

VergeThis time I let BS off the hook, because I had found a different version of ratatouille that I wanted to try, and I was prepared to do all the knife work for it on a free afternoon while he watched a pre-season football game. The recipe is from Cuisine of the South of France, by Roger Vergé, the legendary chef of the Michelin three-star Moulin de Mougins restaurant in Provence.  So I approached this experience with high expectations, while BS readied himself for another season of dashed hopes.

Vergé calls it La ratatouille niçoise à ma façon and says that while the usual dish of that name “creates itself during a long slow cooking, taking about 2 to 3 hours,” his gives you “the advantage of keeping the freshness and texture of the individual vegetables.” That sounded attractive, even though my Time-Life book’s recipe (by the redoubtable M.F.K. Fisher) doesn’t cook for anything like that much time. So I gathered a half recipe’s worth of Vergé’s ingredients and set to work.
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ingredients

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Vergé is particular about the type of vegetables to use and the way to handle them. Peeling, seeding, and dicing the tomatoes were no problem, nor slicing up the green pepper and onion. Peeling stripes into the zucchini was attractive, and I duly cut them lengthwise and crosswise as indicated. Cutting up the eggplants – he specifies that long, slender type – was a bit of a poser, because he wants them in pieces “the size of your thumb.” For the size my eggplants were, the pieces would have had to be either fatter and flatter than my thumb or much skinnier than it. I went with fat and flat.

cut up ingredients

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First I cooked the tomatoes in olive oil in a very hot skillet for just 2 minutes and moved them to a plate. In another pan I softened the onions and peppers together in oil for 15 minutes and added them to the tomatoes’ plate. In yet another pan, with high heat, I was to brown the eggplant pieces in oil and drain them in a colander set over a bowl to catch the oil they’d give off. That was a problem.

eggplant

Flat on one side and round on the other, my eggplant pieces refused to brown evenly. Also, they absorbed all the oil, needed more, and gave none back. Same shape and same situation with the zucchini, last to be sautéed.

That was all the cooking any of the vegetables got. At dinner time I mixed everything together in a casserole, merely heated it through, and stirred in minced garlic and chopped basil leaves.

ratatouille 2

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It wasn’t bad, this ratatouille. Those vegetables always blend well together – though parts of the zucchini pieces had a faint flavor of char from my difficulty in browning them evenly. But the vegetables didn’t taste any fresher than they do in my preferred recipe. In fact, the flavors were a little muddled. And there wasn’t nearly as much tomato presence as I like.

The Time-Life ratatouille recipe uses twice the amount of tomato, cuts it in big strips, lays them on paper towels to absorb some of their liquid, and doesn’t cook them separately at all. Also, it carefully layers the individual vegetables in their casserole and simmers it covered for 30 minutes. That way, the vegetables exude a lot of liquid, but you keep drawing it off with a bulb baster and, at the end, boil it down to a luscious glaze that you pour over the ratatouille – which makes a dish that’s much prettier on the plate and far more interesting to eat.

So, though I wouldn’t turn up my nose at another dish of Vergé’s ratatouille if I encountered one somewhere, in my own kitchen I’ll stick with the version I love best.

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A few weeks ago I wrote about my disappointment with a pasta recipe from Katie Parla’s cookbook Tasting Rome. Even so, it’s an attractive book – with lovely photography by Kristina Gill – so I was still eager to try their versions of other traditional Roman dishes. This next one I made, though decent, wasn’t anything to be excited about.

Pollo alla romana – chicken braised with peppers and tomatoes – is a simple but delicious down-home dish, a standby of every Roman trattoria. It was one of the first recipes I developed for publication in La Tavola Italiana, so as before I was judging Parla’s version of a dish against my own.

For a half recipe to serve two, I used two huge chicken thighs from my freezer. These monsters together weighed a whole pound, which, considering how much was solid meat, I figured could stand in for half a modest-sized chicken.

thighs

The first recipe direction interested me: It calls for salting the chicken pieces 6 to 24 hours in advance; and that’s all the salt there is in the entire dish. I’d never done that before. I tried it, and it was indeed enough salt – though I can’t say I detected the promised “more delicious final product.” The rest of the cooking procedure was also different from mine. Here are the book’s steps:

  • Brown cut-up chicken pieces in olive oil for 8-10 minutes; remove them to a plate.
  • Add sliced onions, sliced bell peppers, and garlic to the pan; cook uncovered 10 minutes, or until the vegetables soften.
  • Pour on white wine; deglaze the pan; stir in canned tomatoes and fresh marjoram.
  • Return the chicken pieces to the pan and add enough water to submerge them halfway.
  • Cook uncovered 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is very thick and the chicken nearly falling off the bone.

And here are mine:

  • Brown chicken pieces in olive oil with garlic.
  • Pour on white wine, deglaze and cook briskly until it evaporates.
  • Stir in chopped canned plum tomatoes, salt, and pepper; simmer 15 minutes.
  • Add cut-up bell peppers; cover and cook gently until peppers are tender, 15-30 minutes.
  • If sauce is too thin, remove chicken and peppers; rapidly boil down sauce.

As you can see, a big difference is the book’s sauteeing the vegetables by themselves – that, and the addition of onions to the dish.

vegetables

That in itself is not a bad idea, but though I sliced the vegetables to the recipe’s specifications, they took much more than 10 minutes to soften.

Then after returning the chicken pieces to the pan with all the other ingredients, I cringed at the requirement to nearly flood the pan with water.

thighs afloat

Why on earth would you do that? It makes it possible – indeed, necessary – to complete the cooking with the pan uncovered, but why would you want to? The part of the chicken pieces exposed to the air is not being imbued with the flavors as it would in the moist atmosphere of a covered pan. I also feel that my version’s deglazing of the pan with wine while the chicken pieces are in it is important to let the chicken absorb some of the wine flavors.

Finally, 30 minutes wasn’t nearly enough for the sauce to have thickened and the chicken to be nearly falling off the bone. I had to cook it quite a bit longer, and the sauce still didn’t thicken very much. The timing problems, along with a few other anomalies in the recipe directions, made me wonder if the authors had ever actually cooked the dish for themselves.

Rather than plop those big thighs whole onto two dinner plates, I took the meat off the bones and combined small pieces of chicken with the peppers and sauce in a serving bowl.

pollo alla romana

The dish tasted all right to me: not unlike what I’d had in some restaurants in Rome. Beloved Spouse was less pleased with it. He said it wasn’t lively enough, the flavors too muted, and the sauce tasted both too sweet and too thin. (Tough critic, that spouse.) I had to agree that my recipe makes a more intensely flavored dish: fresher tasting peppers, more “chickeny” chicken. It’s faster and easier to make, too. So I’ll stick with my version – though I might try experimentally adding a few onions next time I make it. (Beloved Spouse just cocked an eyebrow.)

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