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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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December is a killer month for eating. Between dinner parties at home, dinners in friends’ homes, restaurant dinners, and festive business meals, we consume more rich foods and wines in this month than at any time the rest of the year. (Case in point, our Christmas Day dinner, which Tom has written up here for his blog.) When we were young, that was fine – we adored the glorious excess. Now that we’re – let’s say “somewhat” – older, we can’t deal with that level of consumption day after day. We admire and envy our friends who still can, but for us, some intervening days of very simple meals, just by ourselves, are absolutely necessary.

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Here’s a recent one: melted cheese on a paratha, followed by pasta in a prosciutto-tomato sauce and a plain green salad.

dinner 1

This starter might be called an Anglo-Indian dish, except that it’s really nothing at all. For a small first course on a weekday evening, we often take a flaky paratha (purchased frozen from Kalustyan), top it with a good melting cheese (young Asiago is a favorite) – plus, perhaps dollops of something contrasting, sharp or acid or spicy – and grill it in the toaster oven. This evening Tom simply crumbled onto the paratha the remains of a chunk of excellent Colston-Basset Stilton, left over from Christmas dinner. It made a small but very satisfying appetizer.

LTIThe pasta dish is from our cookbook La Tavola Italiana, where it’s called Ziti alla San Giovanni. There are many different southern Italian pasta sauces of that name, and this is one of our favorites. It’s an easy, greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts concoction, getting a lot of flavor mileage from a few ounces of prosciutto (some odd bits of which we almost always have in the freezer).

Chopped prosciutto is sauteed briefly in olive oil, then simmered with chopped tomatoes (in winter I use a jar of light tomato sauce, homemade from summer’s San Marzanos). When the pasta is still underdone I stir it into the sauce, along with shredded basil and a generous amount of grated parmigiano. In a final two minutes of cooking, all the flavors are absorbed into the pasta, producing a succulent effect quite different from just dressing fully cooked pasta with sauce and cheese. It’s a really neat bit of culinary alchemy, easy and unstressful and light on the palate.

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Another evening we had an escarole and rice soup, followed by a plain pork roast and a potato spezzatino.

dinner 2

HazanThis modest, reliable soup is from Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cook Book. We’ve enjoyed it for many years. You simply sauté escarole in butter and onion, add some broth and cook until the escarole is tender, then stir in Italian short-grain rice (e.g., Arborio, but we like Carnaroli) and additional broth. When the rice is done, turn off the heat, mix in grated parmigiano, and serve. It’s not a dish to change your life, but it’s one to make you happy with the life you have.

I roast loins of Berkshire pork, covered, for three hours at 325°. Long, slow cooking brings out the best of that heritage breed, continually moistening the meat with its own delicious melting fat. This time, I forgot to turn off the oven when I’d intended to, so the roast actually cooked longer than that. Happily, it was still perfectly good. And the cracklings were to die for.

pugliaThe potato spezzatino (the word means stew, but it’s not what we think of as a stew) was the only new recipe I tried for these deliberately homely dinners. It’s basically potatoes braised with tomato, which is a combination we like: even the dullest potatoes become tastier when introduced to a tomato. The recipe I used this time is from Maria Pignatelli Ferrante’s Puglia: A Culinary Memoir. You partially cook cut-up potatoes in olive oil, bathe them in white wine and boil it off completely, then add a little tomato, bay leaf, and water to cover; cook uncovered until the liquid has evaporated and the potatoes are very soft. The result was good enough, but Tom makes a potatoes-with-tomato dish that’s better than this. Bless him!

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So those were a couple of our recent relief-from-elaborate-eating evenings as the year winds down. Very much needed, they were, after all the seasonal extravagances. Tonight is New Year’s Eve, so we’ll be back to extravagance once again. Champagne, foie gras, our own egg tagliatelle tossed with melted butter and topped with ample shavings of fresh black truffles . . . . But just before 2013 ends, I wanted to create this post to celebrate some of the simple foods that keep us contented in the interstices of elaborate meals. Happy New Interstices, everyone!

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Just before we left on our Texas birding trip, Tom and I did another of what we call our cookathons with our friend Hope. These involve many advance days of ethnicity decision, recipe selection, shopping list creation, and ingredient purchasing. On the day itself, Hope arrives at 3 p.m. and we all start cooking. With luck, we manage to sit to dinner around 7, fairly well exhausted from the kitchen work but anticipating a splendid meal.

India was our selected cuisine this time, and the recipes came from three cookbooks: Vineet Bhatia’s Rasoi: New Indian Kitchen, Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking, and the same author’s Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking.

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Here’s the menu we chose.

Crispy Prawns with Red Onion, Cumin, and Turmeric Khichdi
Masala Crab Cakes
Goat Curry
Vegetables Braised in Yogurt and Spices, Patna Style
Pink Lentils with Garlic Butter
Cucumber and Yogurt Salad
Basmati Rice

Shrimps, crab, goat, veg: That didn’t sound too complex. But we sort of forgot how very labor-intensive Indian food is to prepare. From 3 to 5 pm, with only a little time out for a glass of prosecco, the three of us did nothing but chop and grind things. The kitchen counters were totally covered with little dishes of red and white onions, garlic, ginger, green chilies, coriander seeds and leaves, curry leaves, cumin seeds both plain and toasted, and measured amounts of other spices. Only after two hours of that could we start actually cooking.

I won’t give you the play-by-play, because it got very complicated – starting one dish, moving to another while the first simmered, on to a third, back to the first, and so on: Tinker to Evers to Chance for another two hours and more. (Also washing pots and bowls as needed to reuse them.) I’ll just tell you about the principal dishes as we – ultimately – ate them.

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Crispy Prawns with Red Onion, Cumin, and Turmeric Khichdi

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This, from the Rasoi cookbook, was a lovely shrimp preparation, unlike anything Indian I’d ever had before. Because of the amount of work it took, there’s no question this is really a restaurant dish, but we all loved it. The shrimp are dipped in a batter of egg, cornstarch, chopped coriander leaf, and cayenne, and then deep-fried. They’re placed on a cushion of khichdi, which is made as follows.

Heat oil and butter in a pan, sauté cumin seeds, garlic, ginger, chili, and red onion. Add turmeric and basmati rice. In a minute, add vegetable stock and cook until the rice is almost done. Finish with yogurt, butter, salt, and chopped coriander leaf.

We set ring molds on three plates and spooned the khichdi into them. To our pleased surprise, when we removed the rings the rice stayed in neat little cylinders. We topped them with the fried shrimp, added a pool of green coriander chutney (it was supposed to be piped in a decorative ring around the plate, but hey!) and sat to our first food of the evening. It was well worth the wait. The combination of flavors was astonishingly good. And rich. The khichdi was particularly luscious. I think I’ll make that again to serve just on its own.

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Masala Crab Cakes

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The crab cakes, also from Rasoi, were also lovely. To assemble them we had to sauté black mustard seeds in oil, add chopped curry leaves and chopped onion; sauté some more; add chopped garlic, ginger, and green chilies; sauté some more; stir in a paste of cayenne, turmeric, and water; add crab meat and sauté some more; stir in grated parboiled potato, and season with chaat masala.

All that could be done a little while in advance. When ready to serve, we had only (!) to form the mixture into cakes, dip them in egg, coat them with breadcrumbs, and deep-fry them. The mixture was very soft, and we wondered if the cakes would just fall apart in the deep fryer. But no, they behaved very well, coming out as crisp, golden brown 3½-inch balls.

We’d made two cakes apiece, because the recipe seemed to call for so little crab – less than 1½ ounces per cake. But they so were rich and crabby that, knowing how much food there was still to come, we ate only one apiece. We served three chutneys on the side: tamarind, hot mango, and papaya-orange. Store-bought, not fresh made: we had to cut ourselves some slack. All the chutneys went well with the cakes. (The other cakes, reheated, were fine the next day.)

The chaat masala flavoring was new to me, and a welcome discovery. It’s an intriguing mixture of black salt, green-mango powder, cumin, mint, asafoetida, cayenne, nutmeg, black pepper, and regular salt. It’s used in many dishes, and I understand it’s also good just sprinkled on apple slices. I’m going to try that soon.

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Goat Curry

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Ghosht Kari, a recipe from Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking, is an old standby of mine. I’d only ever made it with lamb before, though in India, goat is the meat of choice for this dish. We first browned pieces of goat in oil, removed them and browned onions in the same pan; added garlic and ginger; then cumin, coriander, turmeric, and cayenne; returned the meat to the pan and added a puree of yogurt, tomatoes, garlic, and ginger; added hot water, covered the pan and let it all simmer together, adding chunked potatoes partway through the cooking.

While the lamb version of this curry was always done in two hours, we had to cook the goat quite a lot longer before it got tender. Then the dish needed to rest for a few hours before being reheated and served, sprinkled with ground roasted cumin seeds and chopped coriander leaves.

It was a little disappointing – possibly because the first two dishes were so spectacular, and possibly because we’d made a marketing error here and not gotten the goat from our ever-reliable butcher Ottomanelli’s: It had too much bone and too little flavor. The dish was nice enough, but not as spicy-hot as it had been in the past. We relied on the various chutneys to make it more interesting.

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Vegetables Braised in Yogurt and Spices, Patna Style

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We were trying Patna Korma, a recipe from Sahni’s vegetarian and grain cookbook, for the first time. The vegetables are eggplant, zucchini, carrots, and green beans. The braising medium is yogurt, tomato puree, ground almonds, fried onions, cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne, and black pepper. When the dish is done, it’s sprinkled with garam masala and chopped coriander leaf.

The recipe was supposed to develop a “delicate velvety” sauce, with a “complex but subtle” spicing. Alas, it came out tasting much like the sauce of the goat curry, along with which we served the vegetables, and therefore not the interesting contrast we had hoped for. Also, the instructions for cutting up the vegetables didn’t work. The carrot pieces were too thick to soften even after extra cooking time, while the eggplant and zucchini pieces were ready to fall apart before then. The green beans were the best part of the dish.

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Side dishes: Rice, Dal, and Raita

Alongside the curry and vegetables, we had plain boiled basmati rice, a dal of pink lentils dressed with melted butter and sliced garlic, and a raita of Greek yogurt with slivers of cucumber and tomato.

The latter two are dishes I almost always serve in an Indian meal, but they didn’t contribute much this time. My lentils, which had been sitting in the pantry for some time, must’ve been too old, because they had little flavor, and neither of the two main dishes was so spicy-hot for us to need the usually welcome coolness provided by raita.

However, I learned a great way to handle basmati rice. Indian cookbooks always call for elaborate preparation of this prized rice from the foothills of the Himalayas. Typically you’re told to rinse it in water nine times, soak and drain it, parboil and drain it again, finally steam it carefully over very low heat. Happily, Hope told us that she always cooks basmati as if it were pasta – just dumps the dry rice into boiling water and cooks until it’s al dente. So we did that, and it was perfectly fine.

With this whole meal, we drank Trimbach Gewürztraminer, a wine whose own spicy flavor stands up well to the multiple flavors of Indian dishes. And afterwards, we tamped everything down with – surprise! – a grappa.

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