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The last week of winter sent us some nasty weather as a parting gift. It has been a peculiar winter hereabouts: many days’ temperature getting up into the 60s, followed by colder spells with lots of wind, then unseasonal warmth again. It had hardly snowed at all until a late nor’easter barreled toward us, threatening Manhattan with 15” or more of snow and wild blustery winds. It was definitely a day to stay home and make soup.

I remembered there were some soup recipes in Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook that I’d been meaning to try for a long time, so I pulled my copy off the shelf and started looking through it. Aha: Celery Rice Soup – the very thing! Beloved Spouse is always eager for dishes involving cooked celery, and I had just bought a large fresh head of it.
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With that incentive, he was more than happy to chop all the vegetables for the soup. He began working on the four biggest stalks of celery, then moved on to a big onion and two potatoes, while I measured out ½ cup of white rice, grated ½ cup of parmigiano, and defrosted 6 cups of homemade broth and 2 tablespoons of minced parsley.
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The cooking process was simple. In a soup pot I briefly softened the onion in olive oil, stirred in the celery and potatoes to coat them with the oil, poured in the broth, and simmered everything for 20 minutes. Then I added the rice and some salt and pepper, simmered it for another 20 minutes, and stirred in the parsley. The rice had absorbed a lot of the liquid, making the soup look almost like a vegetable stew.

For lunch that day we ate big bowls of it, topped with grated parmigiano. It was a perfect consolation for a mean, snowy, sleety day: hearty, homey, and comforting, with a mild and delicate flavor of celery.
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A few cold, windy days later I turned to another recipe from the same book: Pugliese-style Zucchini-Potato Soup. Its ingredients are similar in type but even fewer in number than the previous one’s: potatoes, zucchini, and spaghetti, with condiments of garlic, olive oil, and grated parmigiano.
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The cooking too is even simpler: Bring salted water to a boil, add cut-up potatoes and a minced clove of garlic, cook 10 minutes, until the potatoes are tender. Add cut-up zucchini and broken-up spaghetti; cook 10 more minutes, until the spaghetti is al dente. Stir in olive oil, black pepper, and grated cheese. Serve, passing more olive oil at the table.
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This minimal peasant soup was, once again, just what the weather needed. The final dressing of cheese and olive oil completed and enhanced its simple basic flavors. Beloved Spouse said it struck him as a grandmother’s soup. My only complaint was for the blandness of the out-of-season zucchini: They didn’t contribute all they should have to the mixture.

But the vernal equinox is past, Earth’s northern hemisphere is tilting toward the sun, the days are getting longer, and soon the growing season will be upon us. And if winter delivers any Parthian shots to us, I can retaliate with the rest of my two soups.
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Julia Child says her recipe for a sauté of beef with onions, mushrooms, and way to cookpotatoes has “a certain jazzy style … for a rather important and intimate occasion.” She urges “an informal twosome” to prepare it “while having meaningful conversations and apéritifs together in the kitchen.” Joke it may be, but to me that sounded perfect for a quiet New Year’s Day dinner. Less so to Beloved Spouse, who is only slowly recovering from hip replacement surgery, but he gamely agreed to step – or hobble – into the role.

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

aperitifs

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

First pair

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

Second pair

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

steaks

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

full saute

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

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

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An early Christmas gift from my friends Bruce and Joan was Madhur Jaffrey’s jaffrey vegVegetarian India: A Journey Through the Best of Indian Home Cooking. It’s a big handsome book, with gorgeous color photographs. I was immediately drawn to many of the recipes and couldn’t resist trying a few right away. I settled upon two of the simpler ones: a mushroom curry and a dish of peas and potatoes, to be served as a weeknight dinner for two, along with a pair of very un-Indian, un-vegetarian Cajun andouille sausages.

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A quick trip to the great Indian grocery store Kalustyan provided what was lacking in my pantry supplies: not very much, I was pleased to realize. All I absolutely needed for these recipes were the mushrooms and a piece of fresh ginger – though once in the store I picked up several things for use in future recipes. And so home to cook half recipes for two.

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For Peas and Potatoes Cooked in a Bihari Style, I started in the afternoon by boiling, cooling, peeling, and dicing three fingerling potatoes; also defrosting a generous cup of small green peas. Toward dinner time I prepared and measured out all the other ingredients, because from that point the cooking had to proceed quickly.

A little oil in a nonstick frying pan got me started. In it I sizzled whole cumin seeds for a few seconds, then stir-fried half a chopped onion until it was soft. Finely grated fresh ginger, a finely chopped hot green chili (a serrano, but who’s checking?), and ⅛ teaspoon of turmeric went in next, for just one minute.

condiments

Finally, I added the peas, potatoes, salt, and pepper, stirring for just another minute. Then I could turn off the heat, cover the pan, and let it sit at the back of the stove until we were ready to dine. It reheated perfectly well and, gratifyingly, looked very much like the photo in the book. (That doesn’t always happen with gorgeously photographed cookbooks.)

peas & potatoes 2

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Jaffrey’s Simple Kodava Mushroom Curry was indeed comparatively simple to make, as Indian curries go. I started by rubbing salt, turmeric, and chili powder (Mexican, but again, nobody’s checking) into half a pound of white mushrooms – wearing a plastic glove as the author suggests, to keep turmeric stains off my fingers.

shrooms

While the mushrooms sat for a while to absorb the spices, I set up the other ingredients: whole brown mustard seeds, a chopped hot green chili, ¼-inch half rings of onion, and freshly ground coriander seeds. Each of those flavorings went in succession into a little oil in a hot frying pan. Next into the pan came the mushrooms, which I stir-fried for a few minutes, mixed in a little water, covered, and simmered for 10 minutes. That was all: The curry was ready.

mushroom curry 2

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Both the vegetable dishes were highly successful, and both went well with grilled sausages. The peas and potatoes were fairly mild tasting, delicately imbued with their mixture of spices. The mushrooms were more robust, with a lively touch of fire from their different set of spices. Both were nice textural counterpoints to the grilled andouille. Our palates were soon tingling with the flavors of this unusual pre-Christmas dinner. Not our traditional run-up to the holiday, but thoroughly enjoyable.

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I intended a culinary trip down Memory Lane this week, but got detoured onto a side path and was rewarded with an excellent new dinner dish instead.

I’d been thinking about a cut of pork my mother used to cook, long ago, which we knew as fresh butt. It’s not a familiar name nowadays. I couldn’t remember what actual part of the pig it came from, nor exactly what she did with it, but it was a family favorite. At a visit to my butcher, I asked if he had it. Sure, he said, and showed me a neat 1½-pound hunk of boneless pork, which looked just right. Despite the name “butt,” it turns out to be from the shoulder. It wagged its tail at me (metaphorically) so I took it home.

fresh butt

Then the task was to remember how my mother made her fresh butt. I seemed to envision it in slices, in a frying pan, but wouldn’t that toughen meat from the T-L Porkshoulder? I decided to do a little research in the Pork volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series. These are all fascinating books, and by the time I finished poring over this one’s text, pictures, and recipes, I’d found a dish so appealing that I forwent my nostalgic quest. It was Palette de Pork “Pauvre Femme” (braised pork with onion sauce), attributed to the 1978 book The Nouvelle Cuisine of Jean & Pierre Troisgros.

The main ingredients in the recipe, aside from the meat, were copious amounts of sliced onions and potatoes: about 1¼ pounds of each.

onions, potatoes

The dish was very easy to make. I browned the pork – salted, peppered, and with a few slivers of garlic poked into it – in butter in a heavy casserole, while softening the onions in butter in another pan.

browning

Next, I scraped the onions into the pork, added the raw potatoes and a small bouquet garni (parsley, bay leaf, thyme, sage, peppercorns), poured on a cup of boiling milk, stirred it all about, covered the casserole, and baked it at 325° for 1¼ hours, until the pork was very tender. Then I took out the pork and kept it warm while I finished the dish.

The recipe said to skim off the fat and put the rest of the casserole contents through a food mill, “to obtain a light, pureed sauce.” Updating that instruction, I used a food processor – and, wickedly, didn’t skim the fat. What I obtained was not a light sauce but a very thick puree: A big scoop of it held its shape in a spoon almost like mashed potatoes. It smelled and tasted luscious. And there was an ocean of it!

serving dish

I have a feeling the quantification of the ingredients might have gone astray in the translation from French, but we didn’t mind at all because the puree was so good. Along with a few sauteed apples, it was a perfect accompaniment to the sweet, succulent pork.

plated

I wish my mother could have known this way of cooking fresh butt. She would have enjoyed the dish as much as we did.

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Three Roman Soups

???????????????????????????????As a title, “Soups Roman Style” doesn’t have quite the cachet of “Marriage Italian Style” and “Divorce Italian Style,” those two mordantly comic films of the ‘60s, but in fact the Roman style of cooking produces some very interesting soups. I’ve recently made three traditional ones from Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds, Oretta Zanini de Vita’s book of recipes and lore from Rome and Lazio.

All three soups draw an underlying flavor from similar base ingredients, starting with a battuto of pork fat, onion, celery, and parsley, chopped together.

battuto

In each case, after a scoop of battuto is rendered out in the bottom of the soup pot, a small amount of tomato ­– fresh, puree, or paste – is added and cooked briefly. The main liquid is vegetable broth or water. And each soup is finished with a generous dose of grated pecorino cheese, which Rome and points south use much more frequently than they do parmigiano. So much for the similarities: The other ingredients in each one made these soups quite different from one another.

 

Minestra di pasta e patate

Our household really likes a dish of pasta with potatoes. It’s a combination that Americans often think odd – starch and starch! – until they taste it. I’ve enjoyed versions from several regions in Italy and even published one of my own (in my dear departed mini e-cookbook Not the Same Old Spaghetti Sauce). This Roman version is another good one, and very easy to make.

I stirred quarter-inch cubes of russet potato into the battuto-tomato base, added broth and freshly ground pepper, and simmered until the potatoes were just tender. Then I stirred in a batch of mixed odd bits of soup pasta and continued cooking until they were done. Finally I stirred two tablespoons of grated pecorino right into the soup. Between the cheese and the rather salty broth (I had used vegetable bouillon cubes), no extra salt was needed.

pasta and potato soup

This was a hearty, sturdy soup. More so than any other pasta with potatoes recipe I’ve tried, it had something ineffably Italian about it. I guess that’s the effect of the battuto. Everything blended into a comforting single flavor, given palatal interest by the different textures of potatoes and pasta. We enjoyed it very much.

 

Minestra di quadrucci e piselli

In this recipe, fresh peas take the place of the preceding recipe’s potato; small squares of egg noodles are used instead of dry pasta; and the liquid is water, not broth. This being November, I had to use defrosted peas, but they worked quite well. Again, I’d stirred about two tablespoons of pecorino into the soup pot before serving.

peas and quadrucci soup

This was a much more delicate soup than the previous one, with the almost solo voice of the peas sustaining it. The pecorino wasn’t a strong presence in itself, but it nicely moderated the sweetness of the peas. It felt like a springtime soup – as of course it would have been, in Italy.

 

Minestra di riso e cicoria

Here the main ingredients are rice and chicory – curly endive. If that second recipe was a spring soup, this one is definitely fall or winter fare. There was no chicory in any of my local markets this week, but I was able to make it with its nearest relative in the endive family, escarole. The greens had to be boiled, drained, squeezed, and chopped before going into the soup pot for a few minutes’ sauteeing with the battuto and tomato. Then I stirred in the rice and broth and simmered until the rice was tender. This time, the grated pecorino wasn’t to be stirred into the soup as it finished cooking but rather sprinkled on the individual bowls.

scarole and rice soup

This was a pleasant, mildly flavored soup (escarole being less bitter than chicory), but at the same time comforting and filling – good, hearty, chilly-weather food. The rice took up all the broth so quickly that I had to add quite a bit of water to keep the mixture from almost solidifying. I don’t know whether that might have been because I had on hand only American long-grain rice, not the short-grain riso comune, which Italy prefers for soup.

 

Final Thoughts

I also had to reduce the proportions of all the solid ingredients in all three recipes. An Italian minestra can be made to various degrees of thickness, from a truly soupy substance to what is almost a moistly sauced bowl of pasta or risotto. These recipes were heavily weighted toward the vegetables, pasta, rice, and pecorino. I was making half quantities of recipes indicated as serving four persons, and even with those reductions, my soups easily fed the two of us twice. It did make me wonder if the English translator, who claims to have made adjustments for an American readership, had ever actually made these dishes herself.

I may be becoming a crank on this subject, but too many recipes published today seem not to have had either proper editing or proper testing, making them recipes for failure. In the long run, that may make a lot of beginning cooks give up on the task of preparing their own food – and that’s a small but sad crime against humanity.

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Though Tom and I were away on a trip last week, we still had a Christmas dinner at home – one day on the week before the actual holiday. It was a full-fledged feast.

It started with a trial of three kinds of caviar, all osetra style: one from California, one from Israel, and one from Italy. We liked the Californian, from American transmontanus sturgeon, best. It was also the most expensive of the three, but still only a fraction of the cost of Caspian Sea caviar from actual osetra sturgeon. This led to reminiscing about the days when “real” caviar was affordable, if expensive, and when occasionally you could find some at a great price: It fell off the truck, no doubt. The Israeli caviar came in second, for both price and preference. The Italian, alas, was the least of them. (I’m putting all this on the record so I’ll remember it for next year.)

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Then we went on to an outrageous indulgence for a two-person dinner: a four-???????????????????????????????pound prime rib of beef – two beautifully trimmed and tied, juicy ribs. Call it the king of all planned-overs. I roasted it in a way entirely new to me. I had just bought myself The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook – a hefty tome of almost 900 pages. The book is full of earnest expositions of why its recipes are best of breed. For “perfect prime rib” it calls for roasting at 200° F, a much lower temperature than I’d ever used before.

Since total slow roasting leaves an unsightly fatty exterior, the book says to brown the entire piece of meat on the stove before putting it in the oven, so that’s what I did. My biggest cast-iron skillet served well for both the browning and the roasting.

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Assuming you want your roast medium rare, the recipe calls for cooking it 30 minutes to the pound, which would have been 2 hours for mine. Since Tom and I like our beef practically still mooing, I gave it an hour and 20 minutes, plus a 25-minute rest before carving. It came out beautifully, and tasted every bit as good as it looked.

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Our vegetable accompaniments were leeks braised in broth with a dab of tomato paste and a dash of Cholula hot sauce; and a puree of Green Mountain potatoes and parsnip, gratineed with cream and an egg. Also in the photo is a 1985 Biondi Santi Brunello – a very special wine, which to our surprise still wasn’t fully ready to drink. It could have taken ten more years of aging, even after the far-from-optimum conditions of our storage. An amazing wine.

Finally, at the back of the table you can see the tiny apple tart I’d made for dessert. Perfectly lovely Christmas fare, all of it, even if it wasn’t enjoyed on December 25 – and it provided luscious leftover beef for another full meal for two, plus sandwiches.

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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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