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On our Rhône cruise a few weeks ago, Tom and I took one evening away from the boat to dine at Le Gibolin, a restaurant in Arles about which we’d read many good things. I’m away on a trip again now, so for this week’s post I’ll copy out the entry I made in my travel journal about the perfectly splendid evening we had there. I’ll add that it followed upon an uncomfortably cold, wet day of touring.

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All today’s misery was amply redeemed by the most delightful dinner we have had in almost forever. Le Gibolin, on a tiny street in Arles, to which through a wicked rainstorm we were taken by a very pleasant young taxi driver, is the answer to a dream. Twenty covers, maybe four staff members, décor preponderantly bottles of wine, run by a most formidable but handsome woman, who was first very annoyed with us for arriving 20 minutes too soon, while staff dinner was still happening. (But then, why was the “open” sign on the door?) We were welcomed by the little dog of the house, however, and Madame’s anger didn’t extend to sending us back out into the rain. We were allowed to sit at our table and wait.

In time, Madame relented and placed the big chalkboard menu before us. It looked fabulous: classic Provençal dishes. Two courses for €28, three for €35, with five or six options each for entrée and plat.
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Our choices mollified her a bit, as did our request for her to select us glasses of wines for each course and – as the meal progressed – Tom’s knowledge and appreciation of them.

I had a croustillant de pieds et tête de cochon to start, and Tom had pâté de campagne. Impossible to imagine better of their kind. Even the cornichons were amazingly good. My dish had a green condiment so intriguing I had to know what the herb in it was. Madame seemed pleased to be asked. It was tarragon, but it didn’t at all taste of licorice. How did they do that?!
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The first wine she poured for us was a 2015 Cairanne from Oratoire Saint Martin, made from Mourvèdre, Grenache, and Syrah. (Tom has more to say about the wines in his blog.)

Our main courses were, for Tom, poitrine de veau rôtie aux épices douces, and for me, carré d’agneau de Provence rôti. (€4 extra for the lamb.) Both, again, as lovely as could be imagined.
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Madame asked if we’d like more of the same wine with this course and we said no, a different one, please. So she brought a Côtes du Rhône from the same maker, called Les P’tit Gars, which was a blend that she said had more Mourvèdre. An amazing step up in richness from the first.

As we ate our main course, the petit chien of the house, who had been quietly sitting under the table next to our feet all the while, began gently tapping at our legs to remind us of his patient attendance. We each rewarded him with a few tidbits. Later he sought out other patrons, but came back when we ordered cheese.

We each received a whole little round of a goat called Pelardon – young, fresh, and intensely good. Le petit chien didn’t get any of them.
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With the cheese, we asked for yet another different wine and received an Ardèche Côtes du Rhône, made from old vines and with Alicante as the main component of the blend. Alas, we didn’t catch its maker’s name. It was brighter and more acidic than the previous wines – great with the cheese.

Madame was in full charity with us by now, and when after ordering a marc de bourgogne and an eau de vie de poire that she had declared was extraordinaire, we asked to purchase a bottle of the poire, we were definitely personae gratae. Without that €65 bottle, our bill came to €131, no single cent of which we begrudged. It was a magnificent dinner. Oh, that we could come back another time!

When our faithful taximan returned to pick us up, the rain had finally stopped, and I tried to get a picture of the restaurant. Not much luck – too dark on the street.
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After a short ride through the quiet town, a supremely satisfied couple stumbled up the gangplank to our boat at about 11 p.m.

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Spareribs, Friuli Style

This dish began with a mistake. Here are some unprepossessing pieces of pork.

 

 

How did I get them? I asked the butcher for country-style spareribs, but I didn’t look closely at what he brought out from the back of the store. What I recalled as country ribs were like regular spareribs but with a much thicker layer of meat. When I got home I saw that I had two big odd-shaped slabs of pork with odd-shaped bones attached to them in odd places. (There are three here because I cut one in half.)

Subsequent research has taught me that country ribs come from the ribs right up against the animal’s shoulder, so they have more shoulder bone on them than rib bone. OK, but shouldn’t they still have been shaped like narrow rectangles – in effect, long bones with meat on them? Not these. One of them even looked like a misshapen loin chop. Clearly, some miscommunication had occurred.

Well, they were what they were, and I’d have to make do with them. But what should I do with them? They didn’t look as if they’d reward broiling or grilling, as normal spareribs do. Long, moist cooking seemed to be what they’d need.

Happily, I found just the thing in Michele Scicolone’s 1,000 Italian Recipes. Spuntature di Maiale alla Friulana, or Spareribs Friuli Style, is a brown braise – not the kind of preparation that immediately springs to mind when thinking of Italian cooking. Friuli is the region at the extreme northeast of Italy, bordering on Austria and Slovenia, as well as the Dolomites and the Adriatic. There are strong German and Slavic influences in its foodways.

Whatever its heritage, I felt sure I was going to like the recipe. Its first step is to flour and brown the ribs in olive oil.

 

 

When the ribs come out, the same oil is used to soften and brown chopped carrot and onion.

 

 

After that, the pan is deglazed with white wine and the ribs go back in, along with some good broth (Tom’s rich brew from mixed bones, meat scraps, and vegetable trimmings, which we always have in the freezer).

 

 

My ribs simmered along in the covered pot for the recipe’s 1½ hours and then needed another 15 minutes to be fully tender. The recipe didn’t say to strain or puree the gravy, and it had thickened nicely by itself so I didn’t mind the remaining soft little bits of carrot and onion.

 

 

Plain boiled Romano beans and mashed potatoes both liked that gravy just as much as the spareribs did. A very tasty, homey, comforting meal, and really quite simple to make.

 

 

Of course, it wasn’t exactly a summery dish, but never mind that. Though we ate it on one of our many ghastly hot, humid days, the level at which Tom keeps the air conditioning in our apartment is perfectly conducive to cold-weather fare. He claims it’s all for my own good: He needs it cool to boil up all that useful broth.

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When you’ve got a good recipe, it can be tempting to try to turn it into another good recipe, just by varying the ingredients. Some of those times, you may wish you’d left well enough alone. Other times you may get a dish that keeps the best of the original and embellishes it with something new. I managed to do that recently.

For an upcoming dinner, I was thinking of a large piece of moist-cooked meat. La Tavola Italiana, my first cookbook, has a very pleasant recipe for braciolone – a rolled stuffed flank steak braised in a small brown sauce – that I hadn’t revisited in years. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of braciolone recipes, owing to the many possible variations on both meat and filling. My filling was a modest one: just small amounts of prosciutto, parsley, grated pecorino, raisins, and pignoli, with bread crumbs and raw egg to bind.

This time, I envisioned my dish as a pork roll braised in tomato sauce. I had a nice 1½ pound piece of butterflied pork shoulder to use for it, which isn’t large as braciolone cuts usually are, but I’d be feeding only three people that evening, and it would be enough. I pounded the meat as thin as it would go.
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Pulling things out of the refrigerator for the stuffing, I was suddenly gobsmacked. I had no raisins or pignoli! How was that possible? I always have raisins and pignoli.

But no, I’d used them up and neglected to replace them. Their sweetness and crunch are important to the dish, and it was too late to dash out to a store. What to do? Well, desperate times require desperate measures: I smeared the surface of the pork with a thin layer of Indian mango chutney.

In case there might be need to mitigate that “uncanonical” flavor, I added some minced mushrooms and onion, softened in olive oil – which I had been considering using anyway – to smaller quantities of the remaining stuffing ingredients. Then I got ready to roll.
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I have to say I’m terrible at rolling and tying meat. If I clumsily try to wind a single piece of string around the cylinder, it never stays closed, so I have to strangle it with individual ties. Nor can I ever manage to fold in the ends of the roll so the stuffing can’t leak out during the cooking. Here I had to sew the ends closed with a darning needle and heavy thread. My braciolone wound up looking like the victim of a bad auto crash.
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Well, it wasn’t pretty, but neither was it the worst-looking roll I’d ever achieved. I tenderly carried it to a casserole and browned it in olive oil. Predictably, some of the stuffing immediately started to escape.
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Once the meat was browned I removed it to a plate, deglazed the pan with white wine, added eight peeled and chopped plum tomatoes and let them soften a bit, then returned the meat.
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My braciole cooked covered, being turned and basted occasionally, until it was perfectly tender – about an hour and a quarter. Long before then it had been perfuming the kitchen with gorgeous aromas. The sauce was pleasantly nubbly from the escaping bits of stuffing that had merged with the tomatoes and meat juices. The meat was pretty messy to slice for serving . . .
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. . . but it was excellent. All the flavors harmonized beautifully. There was a just-detectable hint of the sweet chutney spices, which complemented the natural sweetness of the pork. Really, pork and tomatoes love each other: The pork enriched the sauce and intensified the flavor of the now-melted tomatoes, and the tomatoes drew out even more succulence from that tender, juicy cut of pork. That’s why I always make at least a little more of this dish than we need for dinner: It’s even better the next day.

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Greek Pork and Celery Stew

 A bundle of boneless pork chunks discovered in my freezer this week sent me browsing through cookbooks for a recipe to make with it. A dish we always enjoy is pork long cooked in tomato sauce for pasta, but I wanted something different for a change.

When it’s the unusual I’m looking for, I often turn to Joyce Goldstein’s Kitchen Conversations, a book whose gonzo recipes I’ve written about several times before, making them with various degrees of success; e.g., here and here.

The Hirino me Selino Avgolemono recipe I found there this time – in English, a Greek pork and celery stew – filled the bill for me: I know almost nothing about Greek cooking. The recipe looked straightforward, and I thought the sauce with the avgolemono mixture of egg yolk and lemon juice would be an intriguing taste experience.  And so it was.
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I gathered my ingredients and went to work.

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First was browning the small-cut pieces of pork in olive oil; quickly over high heat, as instructed. Next I took the meat out of the pan and put in the chopped onions. These were to cook 8 to 10 minutes – which, if I’d left the pan over high heat, would have incinerated them. I’ve found Goldstein’s recipes often sloppy about such details. I turned the gas way down and cooked the onions gently.
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The pork then rejoined the onions, along with half a cup of white wine and a cup of water. The recipe also didn’t say to deglaze the pan, but it certainly needed deglazing, so I did – then covered and simmered it for 35 minutes. At that point I added the celery.
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After about 20 more minutes of simmering, both pork and celery were tender. I removed them to a warm platter and quickly reduced the remaining liquid in the pan. Meanwhile I’d beaten an egg yolk with two tablespoons of lemon juice. Into that I stirred small spoonsful of the pan juices to keep the egg from coagulating when it hit the heat, then added the egg-and-lemon mixture to the pan along with some salt and pepper, and poured the finished sauce over the platter of pork and celery.

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It was a good dinner dish – very interesting in the combination of the smooth, sharp avgolemono sauce, the sweet pork, and the astringent celery. It was a bit reminiscent of what in my youth used to be called fricassee, usually made with chicken. I don’t know whether this recipe is an authentic version of the Greek dish (some of Goldstein’s ethnic creations are very idiosyncratic), but it was quite enjoyable.

Oh, and I’ll add that I preceded the stew with an appetizer of my only prior Greek culinary accomplishment: a bowl of homemade tzatziki, to be scooped up with triangles of toasted pita bread.

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Rillettes: A Sad Story

Rillettes are a signature dish of the cuisine of the Loire Valley. Lush and succulent, it’s potted pork: lightly seasoned, lengthily cooked, shredded, and packed in its own fat. I was eager for rillettes on my recent French trip, but nowhere was it offered. Since France wouldn’t cooperate, I determined to make it at home.

Making rillettes looked easy enough, though time-consuming. From Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking I learned that different cities in the area have different versions, some adding rabbit, duck, or goose to the pork. I used Willan’s recipe for the rillettes of Tours, which is only pork. And pork fat: She says you should use at least half as much fat as lean and you can even use equal amounts of both.

I went to a supermarket to buy the pork, and to my surprise found the cuts were quite closely trimmed. I needed more fat. I settled for two loin chops and some fatty chunks of pork belly. (That may have been my first mistake.) I cut them in pieces as directed.
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The meat, fat, and bones went into a heavy pot along with salt, pepper, half a bay leaf, and tiny pinches of nutmeg, allspice, and thyme.
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I added half a cup of water, brought it to a boil, tightly covered the pot, and put it in a 320° oven. The recipe said it would take four to five hours for a much larger quantity than I was making. Every half hour I checked to see if it needed more water to keep the meat from frying. The belly fat was extremely reluctant to melt. Even without rind, there seemed to be something cartilaginous about it. The pot needed a lot more additional water than the recipe implied, and even so the meat was getting awfully crisp. After the full five hours I took it out of the oven.
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Next was to discard the bones and bay leaf, take out the pork, reserve the fat, and shred the meat with two forks. It did not shred easily. The larger chunks of belly had to be cut up with a poultry shear, and even the softer bits of meat were pretty stringy.
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Hoping against hope, I continued with the recipe. I mixed the cooled liquid fat with the meat. There was less fat than seemed right, so I melted down some lard and added it. Then I packed it all into a small crock and faithfully followed Willan’s quaint instruction to cover it with waxed paper and tie the paper in place with string.
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It rested in the refrigerator for two days, during which time I thought perhaps it would all soften. When I took out the crock and tried spreading some of the rillettes on a slice of baguette, it was immediately apparent that it hadn’t.
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The flavor was okay, but the texture was terrible. None of the fat had permeated the tough, dry, bits of meat. We couldn’t bring ourselves to eat it.

The next day I tried to rescue my rillettes by pureeing them through the mini food processor. That didn’t work either. It left me with a semi-smooth base of puree threaded through with stringy bits. Sigh.

So, post mortem: What went wrong here? Various possibilities, starting with the wrong kind of pork and/or too poor a quality of it. Maybe too large a pot, so the meats were too spread out in it and dried before they could tenderize. Probably much too much cooking because of the intransigent belly fat. I don’t think I can blame my recipe for any of this, only myself.

Neverthess, I’m not giving up my determination to make good rillettes. Sometime soon (but not too soon; not until after the trauma fades) I will try again, with better pork, better fat, and more attention to the procedure. It seems such a simple recipe; I should be able to do this.

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Some cookbooks that I’ve had for decades have been loved and used so much – back when my cookbook collection was much smaller than it is now – that I feel I know them intimately. Yet, when I look into them these days, they can surprise me with recipes I can’t remember even reading, much less making. One such book is Marcella Hazan’s More Classic Italian Cooking, which I’ve had since it came out in 1978, a welcome follow-up to her first volume, from 1973.

With a nice half rack of spareribs to cook for dinner recently, I pulled out the Hazan book to look at a recipe for pork spareribs that I’d rediscovered about a year and a half ago, which I’d written up here. I’d had some thoughts about changes I might try. However, on the facing page I found another sparerib recipe, Costicine di Maiale ai Ferri, that I’d also completely forgotten about. Hazan proposes an unusual way to broil ribs, which she says will make them come out nearly as well as grilling or spit roasting them. I was intrigued.

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The recipe starts out conventionally enough, marinating a sheet of spareribs in olive oil, garlic, rosemary, salt, and pepper; and leaving it at room temperature for at least an hour.

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Then the meat is to be set up on a V-shaped roasting rack – the kind with side wings that adjust to any desired angle. Hazan hails her discovery that positioning ribs within the V lets more air circulate around them, which “quickly drains the fat and crisps the meat, giving it a leaner, fresher taste than other methods of cooking ribs.”

I’ve had one of these racks forever, which I’ve used only for roasting chickens or ducks. This seemed a good opportunity to expand its repertoire. I gave it a try.
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The broiling turned out to be a little tricky. The meat had to be turned over every 6 minutes during a 45-minute cooking time. While my rack of ribs had curved well enough into the V-shaped space at first, it quickly stiffened and wouldn’t bend backwards when turned. After a few turns, it essentially lay flat at the top of the metal rack’s side supports.
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It’s true there was more air circulating around the pork than a conventional broiler pan with a perforated top rack could provide. But I don’t know how much difference that made in the long run. It didn’t render out any more fat than I’d expect to get from normal broiling. And in any event, the ribs weren’t actually grilled: Grilling means cooking over a flame, not under it.
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So, there are my faux-grilled spareribs. They were very nicely flavored from the marinade, and they were well cooked. But they were pretty tough. From this and previous attempts I have to conclude that broiling ribs is not the best way to deal with them – at least, not with American ribs. They prefer long, gentle cooking, ideally in liquid.

This broiled batch tasted fine, but it just didn’t get tender at all. It clenched. We had to struggle to saw the meat off the bones with steak knives, while the meat in properly done ribs just falls off the bone. In fact, this meat tore off the bones pretty easily with the teeth – but I don’t always want to eat my spareribs in my hands. I need at least one hand clean at all times for lifting my wine glass. And Beloved Spouse hates the mess gnawing rib bones makes of his moustache.

 

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A few times a year, I get an urge to try cooking pork tenderloin. This is strange, because in the past I’ve hardly ever achieved a successful dish with that cut of meat. I don’t know why; I’ve just assumed it was “not in my skill set,” as a work colleague of mine once said when he was asked to take on a task. But I keep trying, and this time I think I succeeded.

1000 Italian RecipesThe recipe I used was Balsamic-Glazed Pork Tenderloin with Arugula and Parmigiano, from Michele Sciolone’s 1,000 Italian Recipes. I liked the look of it because it had enough other flavorings to be attractive but not so many as to turn the dish into a big production number. And it was extremely easy to prepare.

condimentsThe main – almost the only – effort it took was to stir together a glaze of minced garlic, balsamic vinegar, honey, salt, and black pepper, a combination of tastes that promised interesting results. I happened to have some very fine balsamic and a jar of good acacia honey to use for that.
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I laid the tenderloin in a snug baking dish, brushed the glaze over it, and roasted it in a very hot oven, pouring a little water into the dish after the first 15 minutes. The pork was ready after 20 more minutes, without any basting.
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tenderloin-cooked

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While the tenderloin rested in its pan for 10 more minutes, I tossed a bunch of baby arugula with a balsamic vinaigrette. Then I placed the meat on a platter for slicing, drizzled the pan juices over it, spread the arugula around it, and sprinkled grated parmigiano over the salad.

tenderloin-served

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(Actually, the recipe calls for making cheese shavings with a vegetable peeler, but I didn’t have a chunk of parmigiano available. The grated cheese was fine.)

The result was the excellent medley of flavors I’d hoped for. The meat was only gently imbued with the glaze, but it had created a very nice, light pan sauce. I love arugula even just plain, and dressed as it was here, it made a sparkling foil for the sweet, succulent pork.

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