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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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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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Some edible items seem to take root in my freezer or pantry. It’s not that I don’t want to use them – I do – but somehow the right moment doesn’t arrive. The Hatch chileslatest one was a large can of Hatch green chiles, which had been sitting in the pantry long enough for its use-by date to be looming. It was absolutely time to make something with it.

Hatch green chiles are a special kind of New Mexico chiles, grown only in that state’s Hatch Valley, along the Rio Grande. My can was the mild variety, though there are hotter ones if you’re lucky enough to find them.

I don’t know a lot about New Mexico cooking, but from a trip in that region some years ago, Tom and I did develop a genuine passion for dishes made with green chiles. Back home, the dish we’ve had our best luck with was a green chile stew recipe I found online. It’s from Central Market in Texas, which probably makes it anathema to all good New Mexicans – but hey, we’re gringos, and it tastes good to us.

When I opened my can of chiles I was surprised at how many it contained: This was a solid pack, and they were firm, clean, fragrant vegetables.

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can contents

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No way I was going to be able to use them all at once, so I deseeded and chopped up about a cup’s worth, carefully wrapped the remaining ones, and put them in the freezer for another day.

The recipe starts with browning cubes of boneless pork in olive oil. I’d defrosted a generous pound of meaty country-style pork ribs, and Tom cut them up for me. Using a little artistic license, I asked him for larger pieces than cubes: That wasn’t canonical, but I wanted to try it. I also decided to use lard instead of olive oil, for a porkier oomph.

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When the meat was browned I added chopped onions and garlic, cooked a few minutes, sprinkled on flour, cooked a little more, stirring. Next came a cup of chopped tomatoes, the chiles, salt, pepper, and a tiny pinch of sugar; finally a big potato cubed and two cups of broth. All that cooked gently, covered, for about two hours, until the pork was tender.

The chiles were indeed mild, but quite authoritative in the stew, providing a distinctive flavor and gentle warmth. I served it with black beans, rice, guacamole, and white corn tortillas, making a fine Southwestern combination.

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Though these Hatch chiles were canned, they were better tasting than either the fresh or the frozen ones we’d occasionally been able to buy here before. So good was their effect that if I make the stew again with the rest of this batch I intend to cut back the amount of tomato, so the chile will be greener. Or perhaps try a totally green chile recipe: We have fond memories of a bowl of what seemed a simple green chile puree that we ravened down in a nondescript diner somewhere near Sonoita, New Mexico.

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Post script: It wasn’t long until the rest of the Hatch chiles got their day in the spotlight. Tom was the instigator, since we’d invited his brother and wife for dinner and he’d had ideas about ways to get that recipe greener and spicier. So out of the freezer came the remaining chiles. This time I became the cook’s assistant, as he proceeded to make the recipe his own.

For starters, he went heavy on the meat: The recipe calls for 2 pounds of pork to serve 6 to 8; Tom used 2½ pounds for the 4 of us. He cut the meat fairly small – not quite the little cubes the recipe indicated, but more normal stewlike chunks than in my earlier version.

pork browning

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He increased the proportion of onion, reduced the tomato by half, used all the remaining Hatch chiles, and added – his secret ingredient ­– three chipotles in adobo, minced.

chipotles

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After that, he more or less followed the original recipe’s ingredients and steps. It produced quite a hefty pot of chile, which scented the kitchen with the spiciness of the chipotles as it simmered along. I envisioned enough leftovers for another meal for Tom and me.

At the dinner table, after a first course of guacamole and chips, we served the chile with black beans, rice, and fresh corn tortillas.

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second stew served

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To our surprise, it was not the fiery dish that we’d expected, much to my brother-in-law’s relief and my sister-in-law’s disappointment. The Hatch chiles provided fine flavor again, but they had lost almost all their heat, compared to the first time around. Also, except for those cooking aromas, we couldn’t discern the chipotles at all. That was a pity but, fortunately, not enough to spoil our enjoyment: The ingredients did blend into a good, harmonious stew. At the end of dinner, there were just three chunks of pork left in the bowl.

 

 

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There’s fresh spinach and asparagus in my Greenmarket now, and I’ve pounced on them with glee as a sign of winter’s end at last. Still, I can’t eat spinach and asparagus every day, so I’ve been looking for new ways to prepare sturdy year-round vegetables in the intervals between meals with spring greenery. I found two promising ones in James Villas’ Country Cooking, one of the books I acquired from the recent Beard House book sale and have been testing out.

???????????????????????????????Villas writes entertainingly about his weekend house in Long Island’s fashionable East Hampton, and the dishes he prepares for what seems like an endless procession of house guests. As with many of the recipes in the book, the two I chose to try can be made mostly in advance and are scalable, making them handy for feeding a crowd and also easy to downsize for just two servings.

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Herbed Potato and Onion Cake

This is essentially a dish of scalloped potatoes, made distinctive by a large amount of onion. I sliced a large Spanish onion and sauteed it in butter for five minutes; sliced a large Russet potato; and spread two layers of each in a baking dish, sprinkling rosemary, thyme, salt, and pepper on the onion layers. Then I poured in ¼ cup of half-and-half and baked the dish in a 350° oven for 40 minutes covered, 10 minutes uncovered.

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It was good: dryer than the way I usually make scalloped potatoes, so truly a cake, as the title indicates, but still sufficiently moist. Using half-and-half instead of milk gave it a nice touch of richness. I fear I had too heavy a hand with the rosemary, though, because its flavor dominated the dish more than we’d have liked. Next time less rosemary, more thyme.

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Sauteed Lentils with Onions and Peppers

To start this dish, I cooked lentils in plain water until tender, drained them, and set them aside. Then I softened chopped bacon in a skillet and added a mince of onions, red bell pepper, and garlic, and cooked until the bacon was crisp. I stirred in the lentils, thyme, salt, and pepper, cooked five minutes to heat everything through, and served – not forgetting (for once!) to sprinkle on parsley.

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This was a pleasant change from the way I usually serve lentils. The mixture of flavors was good, with the tiny nuggets of red pepper especially tasty. Tom likes his lentils more moist than these were, but I was perfectly happy with them. Leftovers made a nice little cold dish too.

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So, while I’ll never have a summer place in East Hampton – I saw a neat little one advertised in a realtor’s brochure this week, priced at a mere $28 million – I guess I can now claim to occasionally eat as the 0.1% does!

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