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Summer is officially here at last! One happy concomitant of that is the increasing abundance of local fruits and vegetables at my Greenmarket. We’d invited a pair of friends to a dinner to celebrate the season, and when I did the shopping for it, a few days ahead, I went way overboard on my purchases: inescapable rapture of the season.

Not everything shown here was for that one meal, but it all looked so good I couldn’t resist. And good it all was, too.

 

Our Italian-themed dinner party began simply, with a few Castelvetrano olives, cheddar cheese sticks (homemade), and cubes of country terrine (not homemade) to go with glasses of aperitif wine in the living room.

 

At the dinner table, we started with that quintessential summer antipasto, prosciutto and melon. It was pushing the season, but I had managed to find a single cantaloupe in the grocery store’s bin that actually smelled like a melon. Its texture was a little too stiff for full ripeness, but the flavor was right.

 

We went on to a primo of risi e bisi, another seasonal classic. This Venetian dish of rice and peas is a close relative of risotto. My version, from Tom’s and my cookbook The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen, includes pancetta in addition to the usual onion, parsley, broth, butter, and parmesan cheese. Quite a substantial dish, and just lovely with young, sweet English peas.

 

Our secondo, also from that cookbook, featured a dish we call Summertime Lamb Stew. It’s lamb lightly braised with tomatoes, pancetta, and chopped aromatic vegetables. Normally it uses fresh plum tomatoes, but in June all we get are greenhouse-grown, so we made it with canned San Marzanos. Sautéed early zucchini and spring onions, lightly scented with mint, made fresh, flavorful companions to the lamb.

 

After a cheese course (which I failed to photograph), we finished with a dessert of raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries in grappa – a recipe from Tom’s and my first cookbook, La Tavola Italiana – and hazelnut biscotti baked and brought to us by our guest Joan.

This was as light and refreshing as you can imagine – a perfect palate cleanser of a dessert.

 

I can’t conclude this post without mentioning the array of bottles that Tom chose from his wine closet to accompany the meal. Here they are at the end of the evening:

They were:

  • 2015 Paumanok (Long Island) Festival Chardonnay as aperitifs
  • 2016 Abbazia di Novacella Gruner Veltliner with the prosciutto and melon
  • 2016 Pra Soave Classico Otto with the risi e bisi
  • 2001 Tor Calvano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano with the lamb
  • 2004 Villa Cafaggio Chianti Classico Riserva with the cheese
  • 2011 Dogliatti Moscato d’Asti with dessert

I hasten to point out that the four of us did not finish all six wines that evening. In fact, we didn’t finish any of them – just enjoyed the pleasure of tasting the differences from one to the next with each course.  They were still fine the next day, as Tom and I feasted on the leftovers.

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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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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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Risotto Pancakes

When you love to cook, and you’re cooking only for two, it can be hard to reduce recipes to make small enough quantities. So you tend to have a lot of high-quality leftovers in the refrigerator. Risotto is a good case in point. Beloved Spouse and I are fond of risotto, but no matter how hard I try, I usually make more than we can eat at a single meal. Depending on the additional ingredients, most risotti can be reheated, but they can lose much of their original charm. And I really hate to throw away still-usable food.

goldsteinImagine my pleasure, then, when I found Risotto Saltato – a recipe honestly labeled as being for leftover risotto – in Joyce Goldstein’s Kitchen Conversations. The author takes a lot of California-style liberties with classic Mediterranean dishes, but this one looked pretty straightforward, with one exception. The cooking instructions assume that you won’t have already-made risotto on hand, so they start by having you boil raw rice. That is not a true risotto technique, but I thought I’d try it anyway.

I stirred ½ cup of short-grain Italian rice into ¾ cup of salted water and cooked covered until the rice had absorbed all the water – about 10 minutes. Off heat, I stirred in an egg, 3½ tablespoons of grated parmigiano, and ½ cup of finely chopped toasted hazelnuts – the nuts being one of three optional fillings given for the pancakes. I spread that mixture on a platter and put it in the refrigerator to cool.

rice 1

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The next step was to form little pancakes. This wasn’t as easy as the recipe made it seem. My mixture was nice and sticky, but what it mostly wanted to stick to was my hands. I had to keep dipping them in cold water to persuade the rice to let go. Goldstein cautions not to pack them tightly or else the cooked cakes will be leaden; OK, but there’s a fine line between not-too-tight and so-loose-it-falls-apart. I managed it, though I had to leave the cakes pretty thick for their size.

rice 2

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After they had another rest in the refrigerator, I sauteed the pancakes in olive oil. They were still frangible and hard to turn; in fact, one completely fell apart. They also took much longer to brown than I expected, and they did so quite unevenly.

rice 3

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Despite these tribulations, the pancakes were good. They tasted strongly of the hazelnuts – not surprising, since the nuts were almost the only flavoring ingredient. In the future, I’ll make these only when I have actual leftover risotto, both to provide a more interesting palette of flavors and to curtail the cakes’ tendency to fall apart. For the flavors, a previously cooked risotto would have had, at a minimum, sauteed onions, oil or butter, and broth. And for the texture, I’ve read that when short-grain Italian rice is briefly sauteed before the slow addition of liquid, the rice’s starch is activated in a way that just boiling doesn’t do. That’s how you get the creamy texture of a true risotto.

So I look forward to trying these pancakes with a proper risotto. I hope that will add a new item to my culinary repertory and solve a common leftover problem.

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Tom and I are back from the birding trip to Costa Rica that I mentioned in my last post. Our very modest expectations for its gastronomical aspects were right on target: The food was fresh and flavorful, but there was a very narrow range of both ingredients and preparations.

Unexpectedly, breakfast was the meal we most enjoyed. At home, our breakfasts tend to be minimal (except on Sundays), but after arising at 5 am to spend the first hours of daylight out looking at birds, the prospect of coming in to a hearty breakfast is mighty attractive. As I said last week, the rice-and-bean dish called gallo pinto is an inescapable part of a Costa Rican breakfast. Here are a few that we had:

Gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, potato cakes, sausages

Gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, potato cakes, sausages

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Fried eggs, gallo pinto, plantains, ham & cheese sandwich, potato cake

Fried eggs, gallo pinto, plantains, ham & cheese sandwich, potato cake

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Gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, bananas, beef with mushrooms

Gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, bananas, beef with mushrooms

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For lunches on the road in rustic country restaurants, we always received casado, the archetypical Costa Rican mixed plate of rice, beans, plantains, and another vegetable or salad, surrounding a piece of protein – usually a choice of fish or chicken. The fish was often trout, sometimes tilapia, both of which are extensively farmed in the fast-running streams of the rain forests. Chicken seems to be the de facto national bird of Costa Rica (which, officially, is the clay-colored thrush). Though it was always good, I came to believe that most Costa Rican chickens were born legless – a disappointment to this dark-meat fancier. Dinners at the lodges where our birding group stayed were buffet-style, with only minor day-to-day variations on the same or similar food choices. (Tom has made me swear not to serve him chicken for at least the next month.) Some examples:

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Trout, beans, rice, plantains, cabocha squash, salad

Trout, beans, rice, plantains, cabocha squash, salad

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Tilapia, rice, beans, plantain, cabocha squash, salad

Tilapia, rice, beans, plantain, cabocha squash, salad

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Chicken berast, plantains, rice, beans, tomatoes, vegetable frittata, tortilla

Chicken breast, plantains, rice, beans, tomato salad, vegetable frittata, arepa

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So, all in all, the food on our trip was sustaining rather than exciting. But exciting the birding definitely was. In one week we saw nearly 200 species, including quetzals, trogons, motmots, toucans, parrots, aracaris, oropendolas, cotingas, manakins, honeycreepers, flower-piercers, and 23 different kinds of hummingbirds. Here we are at the end of an aerial tram ride through the rain forest. Quite a change from our usual urban life!

Aerial tram 1

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Tico Breakfast

Tom and I are away this week on a birding trip to Costa Rica – a terrific little country that we like very much. Dining isn’t especially a feature on these trips, but we hope to eat some good Tico food at the lodges where our group is staying. A few days before we left home, I thought to get us into the spirit of the local cuisine with a breakfast of gallo pinto with fried eggs and tortillas.

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Tico breakfast

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Virtually the Costa Rican national dish, this tasty mixture of rice and black beans can appear at any meal in that country, morning to night. I’d never made gallo pinto before, and I’m looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with it on its home ground, so I can see how close my dish (from a recipe found on the Web) was to the real thing.

I hope to have some interesting food encounters to tell you about on my return. Pura vida!

 

 

 

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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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