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Though potato is the one food named in the title above, it refers only to the casing for a rich baked assortment of meats, mushrooms, herbs, and spices. In Italy’s Piedmont region, La Finanziera is an extravaganza of a stew, involving delicacies such as cockscombs, sweetbreads, and truffles. Applying the approach to more everyday ingredients still makes an excellent dinner dish.

This was the special dish I chose to match with the second of the 12 special wines Tom picked out from his collection to drink, one a month, this year. February’s wine was a 2001 Gaja Costa Russi – also from the Piedmont. I found the recipe on Italian Home Cooking, a blog by Stefano Arturi that I follow. Stefano is a London-based former restaurateur, cookbook author, and cooking teacher. His version of the timbale is an adaptation of one in Il Talismano della Felicità, the great seminal cookbook by Ada Boni. And mine is a slight adaptation of Stefano’s.

I want to show you what the finished dish should look like. (Regular readers may suspect why.) Here’s Stefano’s timballo di patate alla finanziera. The free-standing drum is made of mashed potatoes, with a crust of browned, buttery breadcrumbs. Quite a culinary feat!
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I was making my usual half amount of the recipe, which would still be too much for just two of us, but it wouldn’t have been feasible in a smaller quantity.

I started by preparing the potato. I boiled a big russet potato, mashed it, and mixed in beaten egg, grated parmigiano, ground nutmeg, salt, and pepper.
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My faithful knife man cut up the meats for me. I used luganega sausage, chicken gizzards already prepared in confit, and a small amount of veal sweetbread – not exactly what the recipe calls for, but all things I had on hand.
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In a sauté pan I softened minced onions in butter and olive oil, with bay leaf, sage leaf, ground cloves, cinnamon, crushed juniper berries, grated nutmeg, and black pepper. I added each of the meats in turn, cooking them gently, and ended by deglazing the pan with white wine.
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Earlier, I had soaked, softened, and cut up dried porcini mushrooms and also sliced a few fresh cremini mushrooms. Separately, I sautéed those, also in butter and olive oil, and stirred in the porcini soaking liquid and a little tomato paste.
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When I’d mixed the mushrooms and their juices into the meats, the timbale filling was ready and could be set aside. Now came the tricky part!

A bit intimidated by the prospect of using the recommended tall metal charlotte mold, I chose a broader, shallower Corning ware casserole dish. I slathered the interior heavily with softened butter and coated it with fine, dry, homemade breadcrumbs. On top of that I gingerly poured in some beaten egg, tilted the dish around until the egg covered all the crumbs, and followed with another coat of crumbs.
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Per the recipe directions, I put the mold into the freezer for a while, to make it easier for the potato lining to cling. Which it did, surprisingly easily: With wet fingers, it was just like applying modeling clay.
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In went the filling, with butter dotted on the top. Then a covering of the rest of the potato casing and yet more butter..

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I put the dish in a 350° oven with a sigh of relief. But I was not out of the woods yet. It was supposed to be done in 45 to 60 minutes, when the top was firm and golden. It firmed in about an hour, but it absolutely wouldn’t go golden. I gave it several extra minutes, then took it out anyway and let it rest for the indicated 10 minutes before unmolding.

Disaster! Even after loosening the sides, when I topped the dish with a serving plate and reversed the two, the timbale wouldn’t come out. With repeated shaking, the filling and some of its crust let go and spilled out. The original bottom layer of the crust was stuck to the dish and had to be pried out in chunks, to be laid over the filling.

I refuse to show you what the whole mess looked like. Instead, here’s one of the portions I rescued to put on our dinner plates.
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Despite its total collapse, the timbale was delicious. The meats and mushrooms had retained their individual characteristics, enhanced each other, and picked up more flavor from the gentle medley of spices, herbs, wine, and tomato. The potatoes – even the obviously overcooked layer from the bottom of the dish – had also taken on some of the shared flavors and were delicious too. And it all went perfectly with Tom’s special wine.

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I’d like to add that this dinner was special for us in two further ways. That day, we were celebrating Tom’s birthday, and also, we’d gotten our first Covid vaccine shots. Happiness and relief!

I do wonder why my timbale fell apart, though. Dish the wrong shape or made of the wrong material? Not enough butter or crumbs lining it? Potato layer too thin? Too long in the oven? Or just bad culinary luck?  Stefano, if you’re reading this, I’d be grateful for any thoughts you might have about that!

 

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I’m just back from a vacation that included four days of exploring Malta. The Maltese islands – mere dots in the Mediterranean between Sicily and Africa – are truly fascinating. Cliffs, caves, and grottoes, Baroque palaces, medieval fortresses, 5,000-year-old megalithic temples, some the oldest stone structures in the world; and on top of all that, interesting, unusual food.

For example, here Tom and I are having a midmorning snack of pastizzi, a popular Maltese pastry resembling Neapolitan sfogliatelle but with savory fillings, usually fresh ricotta or (a relic of British rule?) mushy peas.

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Not surprisingly in an island culture, fish of all kinds were abundant and delicious. The seafood we had at two restaurants, Palazzo Preca in Valletta and Tartarun in Marsaxlokk, was all exceptionally fresh and fine.

We tried both restaurants’ versions of aljotta, Malta’s signature fish soup. Often described (unfairly, in our opinion) as an adaptation of bouillabaisse, this is a rich, dense fish broth harboring small pieces of several kinds of fish, served with fresh lemon for squeezing and crusty bread for dunking.

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Another appetizer was described on its menu as “local octopus, lemon confit, lardo, 10YO condimento, crispy quinoa, olive & mint.” (Condimento, I learned, is a prestigious kind of balsamic vinegar, this one being 10 years old.) The combination was lovely to look at and luscious to eat.

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Our main courses of seafood were equally good:

An enormous mixed fry of various fishes, squid, shrimp, and octopus

Giant prawns sautéed in garlic, white wine, and tomato, served on a bed of rice

A sauté of mussels and four kinds of clams: razor, surf, vongole veraci, and praires

The best, freshest, sweetest, grilled squid Tom has eaten in a lifetime of consuming squid at every opportunity

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We also explored non-seafood dishes, at both a lunch and a dinner at a Valletta restaurant called Nenu the Artisan Baker. It serves only traditional Maltese foods, with locally produced ingredients. Our lunch was two kinds of ftira, the Maltese equivalent of pizza. It consists of a fairly thick base of bread dough with various toppings, baked in a wood oven.

This one is called karmni s-sultana: potatoes, tomatoes, anchovies, onions, caper berries, olives, mint, and fennel seeds.

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And this one is ta’ Nenu: sundried tomatoes, black olives, peppered Maltese goat cheese, onions, Maltese sausages, capers, and thyme.

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These were hefty items, which we couldn’t possibly finish, much less go on to eat anything else for that lunch. The rest of the menu was so interesting, we decided to come back that evening for dinner. We quickly discovered that everything Nenu serves is hefty. Our appetizers would easily have done for main courses.

Here’s fwied tal-fenek: rabbit liver in a sauce of onions, garlic, prunes, anisette, and cream.

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And zalzett malti: Maltese sausage in a spicy tomato sauce with peas.

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Our affable waiter jokingly counseled us not to dip too much of the good crusty bread – the Maltese are rightly proud of their bread – in the sauces, because of the dishes yet to come. And right he was.

Here’s Tom’s kirxa, a curried tripe stew, which was served with pan-fried potatoes and garlic bread. It had several kinds of tripe, not just honeycomb, and a delicious but unusual set of curry spices that we couldn’t identify.

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And here’s my fenek moqli, described as rabbit marinated in garlic and red wine, fried in olive oil, and served in its own juices. (I’d have called it braised, though I later learned that “fried” in Malta can mean either deep-fried or sauteed.) It came with roasted potatoes and steamed vegetables.

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Our waiter delicately informed me that Maltese people eat rabbit with their fingers, because of the many small bones to be navigated around. I believe I became an honorary Maltese citizen that evening, because I ate my rabbit with my fingers too.

With that gargantuan repast, I’ll conclude this post. We had one more, very special, meal in Malta, which deserves a separate post of its own.

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In The Pyramid of Mud, the newest paperback Montalbano mystery to be released in English, it takes only to page 34 to find the intrepid Sicilian police detective regaling himself with one of his favorite things to eat: “a glorious pasta ‘ncasciata” that his housekeeper Adelina had made and left for his dinner. That dish appears in many of the 22 books in the series, always eagerly greeted and blissfully consumed by our hero.
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A few years ago I wrote here about my attempt to make that fabulous pasta ‘ncasciata, using the recipe in the cookbook I segreti della tavola di Montalbano: Le ricette di Andrea Camilleri. My version was a bit of a disappointment – a decent baked pasta dish, but not extraordinary.

I knew that there’s no single, canonical version of pasta ‘ncasciata, but they all should be good. Encountering it again in the new Montalbano story, I felt I should really give the recipe another chance.

I had ideas for changes I wanted to try, some because of guesses I’d made about vague recipe directions, and others to liven up the dish I’d made – about which, in my original post, I said “All the ingredients and textures blended too much. You didn’t get the symphony of individual flavors that a forkful of a truly great baked pasta dish provides. The eggplant was barely noticeable, the salami and eggs indistinguishable.”

Ingredients that are available in this country for Sicilian recipes aren’t always identical to the same-named items grown and made on their home turf. Thanks to American agribusiness, ours are often blander, more processed, less flavorful, and less fresh. I’d want to make allowances for that, while still keeping to the spirit of the book’s recipe. (Also, this time I was going to be extremely careful not to overcook the pasta.)

An occasion for my attempt soon presented itself: We’d invited a few good friends for a casual “family” dinner. These were adventurous eaters who wouldn’t mind being experimented on – at least, not if we also gave them lots of good wine! So I set to work.

To start, I peeled, sliced, salted, and fried two one-pound eggplants in olive oil. That was more eggplant, more thickly sliced, than I used last time, but the recipe merely says four eggplants, no size or slice thickness given. We like eggplant a lot.

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Next was to make a tomato-meat sauce. To perk it up, this time I infused garlic and peperoncino in the olive oil for browning my half pound of chopped sirloin. Then I stirred in a pint of my own light tomato sauce, salt, and pepper; and simmered for 25 minutes, until it thickened. That was more tomato and longer cooking than the recipe seems to call for, but its instructions on that point aren’t very clear, and I wanted more tomato richness. Having no fresh basil, I used parsley.

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I boiled a pound of imported Italian penne until they were not quite done, drained them and sprayed them with cold water to stop the cooking. The other ingredients to prepare were two hardboiled eggs, two ounces of mortadella or salame, and two cheeses: caciocavallo and pecorino. Last time I’d used a mild salame; this time I bought a livelier one: hot soppressata.
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My cheeses were the biggest accommodation to ingredient differences. The recipe calls for 7 ounces of tuma or young caciocavallo, plus 3½ ounces of grated pecorino. The only caciocavallo available here is somewhat aged – not soft and fresh, like Sicilian tuma, which isn’t here at all. The first time around, I hadn’t realized how much difference the age would make. The large amount of strong, dry cheese dominated and sort of flattened the flavors of the other ingredients. I didn’t want that to happen again.

Since caciocavallo is in the same broad cheese family as mozzarella (I’ve seen it called “mozzarella on steroids”), I decided to substitute mozzarella for some of the caciocavallo. The cheese in the picture above is 4 ounces of chopped mozzarella mixed with 2 ounces of grated caciocavallo.

I took a broad, shallow baking dish to assemble the ‘ncasciata, making layers of pasta, meat sauce, eggplant, sliced eggs, diced soppressata, and the cheese mixture. The recipe called for grated pecorino on each layer too, but I left it out this time.
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The top layer was eggplant, dabs of sauce, the cheese mixture, and just a light sprinkling of grated pecorino.
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The dish baked for 25 minutes in a 425° oven, sending out a very tempting aroma. Hopes (mine) and expectations (everyone else’s) were high as I brought it to the table. It looked and smelled so good that I began to serve before even remembering to take a photo of it – as you can see by the missing piece at the bottom right, below. (Thanks, Steven, for reminding me!)
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Well, this pasta ‘ncasciata was a definite success. All the flavors stood out as themselves and companioned beautifully with each other. The eggplant was luscious. The two cheeses balanced each other in taste and texture. The amount of tomato seemed just right: it was mostly absorbed by the other ingredients, providing flavor and moisture but no loose liquid. The soppressata tidbits were tiny sparks on the palate. The penne in the center were properly soft, and those at the edges nicely crunchy.

All in all, this was a dish I’d be bold enough to serve to Montalbano himself – at least if Adelina wasn’t around.

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The calendar says it’s spring, but the weather hasn’t been fully cooperative. What do you do on an unseasonably raw, dark, damp day? Easy: Have friends over for a bollito misto dinner.

In English, a “mixed boil” doesn’t sound overly attractive, but this northern Italian meat extravaganza is truly marvelous. I remember a long-ago winter day in Ferrara when Beloved Spouse and I lurched out of the icy blasts and into the warmth of a restaurant where all the lunchtime patrons were comforting themselves with bollito misto, served from a steaming silver cart that a waiter rolled around to each table. That was our first taste of this now-indispensable bad-weather balm.

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For this occasion, I embellished the bollito with a multi-course menu of dishes from my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. We started with an antipasto of grilled radicchio with smoked mozzarella.

Several red-leaved members of the chicory family are known as radicchio. This dish wants the long, slender Treviso variety. The radicchio heads are halved and pan-grilled with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper; then placed in a baking pan, topped with smoked scamorza or mozzarella (scamorza is better, if you can find it), and baked until the cheese melts. The combination of smoky-lush cheese and savory-bitter radicchio makes a bracing wake-up call to the appetite.

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Next came a first course of passatelli in brodo.

Long, gentle boiling of several kinds of meat – on this day eye of chuck, chicken thighs, and veal tongue – produces a wonderfully rich broth. A bowl of it is purely ambrosial with passatelli. To make these tiny shreds of dumpling, you mix breadcrumbs, grated parmigiano, eggs, parsley, salt, pepper, and nutmeg into a soft paste. Dip out a quantity of broth into a separate pot; bring it to a boil; set a food mill over the pot; and mill the passatelli mixture directly into it. Cook two minutes, let rest two minutes, and serve. This is the soul’s plasma, so be prepared to offer seconds.

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Finally, the main event of the evening: the meats and their condiments.

In addition to the beef, chicken, and tongue, I separately cooked a large, unctuous cotechino sausage. Alongside we had potatoes mashed with parmigiano; salsa rossa (a thick, nubbly sauce that I make from roasted sweet peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and red wine vinegar), and mostarda di Cremona – fruits preserved in a strong mustard syrup (jars of which I bring back from every trip to Italy). All in all, they made richly satisfying platefuls, with the sweet/sharp flavors of the two condiments playing beautifully off the lushness of the meats.

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And to finish the meal, a pizza dolce, or ricotta torte.

The pastry for this looking-toward-Easter dessert is a tender pasta frolla. The ricotta filling is flavored with confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, chopped almonds, and chopped candied citron and orange peel. For this evening’s torte I diverged a bit from my published recipe: I used very fresh sheep’s milk ricotta; orange peel alone, and a combination of almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts. Came out just fine!

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Yesterday was Epiphany – Three Kings Day, or, as it’s better known in Italy, the feast of La Befana. The Befana is the old witch who fills children’s stockings with gifts if they’ve been good and lumps of coal if not. For several years our friend Lars has given splendid dinner parties to celebrate La Befana. This past weekend Tom and I hosted the feast, with many vinous and culinary contributions from our guests.

Here’s the lineup of wines that awaited the six of us.

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And here are the many good things that we had to eat.

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Sausages with Sweet-Sour Figs

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To nibble with the aperitif of champagne (NV Brut Rosé from small grower/producer André Clouet), I made this tasty combination from Penelope Casas’ Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain. A day ahead, I steamed dried figs to soften them; simmered them in sugar, wine vinegar, cinnamon, cloves, and lemon; and left them in that syrup overnight. Next day I cooked Italian sweet sausages in wine and olive oil; removed them, deglazed the pan with wine, and added a little tomato; and simmered the drained figs and sausages together in the deglazing sauce. Then it was just to cut them up, spear a piece of each on toothpicks, and reheat them in the sauce at serving time. The meat and fruit flavors contrasted nicely, and the substantial, complex Champagne played delightfully with both.

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Seafood Salad

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This dish is one of Tom’s specialties. Each time he makes it he riffs on a recipe from our book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. For this version he briefly sauteed cut up squid, scallops, shrimp, clams, and cod, then cooled them and dressed them with olive oil, lemon juice, chopped celery and onion, and strips of roasted red peppers. We mopped up the juices with chunks of Lars’s crusty country bread and drank a charming 2011 Frascati Luna Mater, Fontana Candida’s top-of-the-line bottling, also brought by Lars.

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Lars’s Timballo

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Lars makes his magnificent timballo every year for the Befana celebration, using the recipe of his aunt Rossana. It’s a specialty of the Lazio region, a sort of lasagna on steroids. The ingredients are homemade egg pasta; a tomato sauce enriched with carrots, celery, onion, rosemary, and sage; grated pecorino romano; and a stuffing mixture of ham, hard-boiled eggs and mozzarella. He brought it to us in a huge 12”x24” pan, which just barely fit into my oven. Delicious as it was, the six of us could eat only about half of it. (Great leftovers for all to take home.) With it we drank a 2000 Torre Ercolana red wine, also from Lazio, that Charles brought especially to match with the timballo. It did, lustily, and Charles lustily proclaimed the virtues of Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot grown in Lazio. No one dissented.

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Roasted Fresh Ham

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We have few enough occasions for as large and celebratory a hunk of meat as a fresh ham, so I wanted my nine-pound shank half to taste only of its own meat sweetness, not to be soaked in sugary brines and painted with cloying glazes, as too many recipes counsel. I found a simple treatment in the Pork volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series. Forgoing the traditional crackling, Tom carefully stripped the whole rind off the ham (not an easy job, but we have use for that rind), and I rubbed it all over with salt, thyme, oregano, and sage. I roasted it briefly at 400°, then lengthily at 325°, basting regularly.

The book said you could give it a rich mahogany sheen with a natural glaze, which looked and sounded good. So I took the pan out of the oven before the ham was entirely done, set it on a platter, deglazed the pan juices with water, transferred the resulting sauce to a bowl, returned the ham to its pan and the oven, and basted every five minutes with the sauce. Well, it didn’t work: My ham remained a light brown color. It was beautifully flavorful, though, and it matched well with a savoyard potato gratin, sauteed apples, and peas with prosciutto and green onions.

The wine with this course and with the cheeses that followed (Bleu d’Auvergne, Chabichou, Idiazabal, and Robiola) was Tuscan and also a beautiful match: a magnum of 1999 Flaccianello from Fontodi. This is a single-vineyard, 100% Sangiovese masterpiece from a great estate in the Chianti Classico zone.

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Meyer Lemon Upside-down Cake

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Dessert was a variation on the clementine upside-down cake recipe in Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook. Made and brought by the author herself, who was one of our guests. The light cake with its lemon topping made a lovely conclusion and was especially well companioned by the dessert wine, a 2007 Pieropan Recioto di Soave. Pieropan is generally acknowledged as the leading producer of the Soave zone, and this elegant bottle showed why.

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So: a brilliant finish to our holiday season. Now to face the rigors of the rest of the winter!  Happily, we’re well provided with delicious leftovers.

P.S. Charles has also written up the dinner, with much more commentary on the wines, on his blog.

 

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My trip to Paris earlier this month included a search-and-acquire mission. Autumn is the season for Coco de Paimpol beans, and I wanted some! On my last trip, in 2007 at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant Benôit, I ate a superb cassoulet made with this prized bean variety grown only in northern Brittany. Ever since, I’d looked for them in vain in the US, so I hoped to find some dried ones this year in the Paris traiteurs.

I had no luck in that regard, but the produce department in the huge, wonderful “gourmet” section of Galeries Lafayette had fresh ones in the pods. This was not really practical, but I couldn’t resist. I bought a kilo. Back in our typically tiny Parisian hotel room, Tom and I shucked them and spread them out to dry for the three days remaining in our trip.

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Every day I put fresh tissues under them to absorb their moisture, and stuffed them in a paper bag for the times when the maid would be in to do the room.

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They dried pretty well, even in the grey and drizzly weather, but I didn’t want to take a chance on the US customs confiscating them as fresh vegetables. I wrapped them as best I could and buried them in my toiletry kit for the flight home. Once back, I gave them a few more days drying on a sunny windowsill and planned the cassoulet I’d make with them.

Now, cassoulet is a great dish, but most serious recipes for it serve 8 to 12 people. My kilo of fresh beans yielded a mere 8 ounces when shucked and dried, so I needed to downsize a recipe to feed just Tom and me. Julia Child’s version in Mastering, volume I, is the recipe I use when making cassoulet for a crowd, so I started there.

Accordingly, the first thing was to cook the beans in water with chopped onion, diced, blanched bacon, an herb bouquet of garlic, parsley, thyme, clove, and bay leaf, and a 6” chunk of fresh kielbasi, which Julia allows as a substitute for saucisson à l’ail.

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The next step was to prepare the principal meats. I stewed half a pound of boneless lamb shoulder as Julia directs, with onions, tomato paste, thyme, bay leaf, white wine, and broth. In place of the recipe’s roast pork I used her alternate suggestion of roast duck: Two nights before we’d had a duck for dinner, whose legs I’d providently saved for the cassoulet.

Then all I had to do was assemble everything in the casserole and put it in the oven for about three quarters of an hour. I skipped the traditional breadcrumb crust topping, since there was ample richness in the dish without it, and just boiled a few potatoes to serve alongside.

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The Coco de Paimpol beans had plumped up beautifully in the cooking and tasted delicious, as I’d hoped – and so did everything else, including the 1998 Domaine de la Solitude Châteauneuf du Pape that Tom produced from his wine closet to accompany our modest two-person cassoulet. A memorable meal, and my Parisian mission accomplished.

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P.S.  While in Paris Tom and I also, happily, had some Coco de Paimpol beans in a restaurant. The plat du jour for our Sunday dinner at Le Petit Celadon was a roasted pork chop served on a bed of the pureed beans and surrounded by braised chanterelles. Not shabby!

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Brillat-Savarin thought the discovery of a new dish would give humanity more happiness than the discovery of a new star. I can’t speak for stars, but a recent discovery of two new kinds of meat brought great happiness to my house.

I owe that felicity to good friends who own Pasture Prime Family Farm in Florida, who recently sent us samples of their free-range Mangalitsa pork and grass-fed Wagyu beef. Mangalitsa was a brand-new name to me, a breed of pig whose meat I’d never tasted. I now know its pork is even more highly prized than pork from Berkshire pigs, a variety I’ve come to love. I’d never tasted Wagyu beef either, though at least I knew it by name.

Pasture Prime’s Wagyu herd

One of the beef samples was a Flat Iron steak, a totally new cut for me. It’s actually part of the chuck, from the blade muscle in the shoulder of the cow – the green patch on the diagram. Muscle separation butchery, long practiced in Europe, is finally catching on in the USA: hence this new cut. I was interested to notice that the blade lies right near the eye of chuck – the blue patch – which is my absolute favorite cut for beef stews and pot roasts. The steaks cut from the blade muscle are perfectly neat, flat squares – hence the name.

To give the Wagyu a proper taste test, I wanted a fairly simple preparation, but something worthy of this prestigious variety of beef. I chose Bavette aux Échalottes, a recipe for skirt steak that I’d clipped from an old issue of Saveur. It’s a simple sauté, with a pan reduction sauce of shallots and red wine vinegar, finished with a good dollop of butter. (You can find the recipe here, though the online version omits the original French title.)

It was lovely. The only way I can characterize Wagyu is that it’s super-intensely beefy – almost gamy; rich, juicy, and meat-sweet – umami-like, if I understand what that newfound mysterious fifth basic taste is. Despite warnings that, being chuck, flat iron steak benefits from marination, ours was perfectly tender without it. A few evenings later we made hamburgers from a sample of ground Wagyu, and it was equally juicy and flavorful – very different from ordinary American beef. How much of the difference is due to the breed and how much to grass-feeding, I can’t be sure – but the flavor difference is very real.

Now, on to the Mangalitsa – which I find an endearing-looking animal:

One of the pork samples was a picante Italian-style sausage – a new product that the Pasture Prime family is developing. I had a recipe that would be a perfect test for it. I wrote about it here in January: Pappardelle alla Contadina. This recipe from my book La Tavola Italiana depends entirely on the quality of its spicy hot sausage meat, which is cooked with onions, mushrooms, and cream to make a lush dressing for fresh pasta. Having made the dish many times with different kinds of hot sausage, I felt it would give the Mangalitsa a great opportunity to show its breeding.

It certainly did. This was the best version of my dish I can remember ever eating. The meat was richly flavored, piquant and subtle, just hot enough, ground to the right texture and with the right balance of fat and lean. It would be delicious in any recipe calling for spicy Italian sausages.

Tom and I get very superior beef and excellent Berkshire pork from our local butchers, Ottomanelli & Sons of Bleecker Street, but the Wagyu and Mangalitsa from Pasture Prime were real eye-openers. For people like us, who care passionately about meat, these are the kind of stars we’re happiest to discover. Thank you, Nels and Marilyn!

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Christmas dinner needs an important dish for a centerpiece. This year Tom and I started cookbook research and planning for the meal weeks in advance. We finally chose an elaborate recipe that we’d never made before from Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine: Pintadeau farci Jean Cocteau, stuffed guinea hen served with boudins blancs, boudins noirs, and sautéed apples.

What did Jean Cocteau have to do with the dish, you ask? We wondered too. It isn’t explained in La Cuisine, but I found out that, five years before it was published, Oliver had produced a very small, elegant printing of another book called Recettes pour un ami, with a preface and many illustrations by Cocteau, for whom three of the dishes were named. That book is a collector’s item now, listed for 375 pounds sterling when last available, so I’m never likely to see it.

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La Cuisine’s photo of the guinea hen looked good; all the ingredients were interesting, and the instructions seemed quite plausible when we read through the recipe. It wasn’t until we actually began to make the dish that we realized how bizarre it was. (I must mention that this was a cooperative cooking adventure; Tom and I prepared the whole dinner together.)

To start with, the recipe’s proportions were Gargantuan. To serve two persons, it called for a two-pound guinea hen, four boudins blanc and four boudins noir (that’s a good pound of sausages per person), eight fried croûtons the size of the sausages, and four apples. I’d like to have seen Cocteau and his ami Oliver eating all that!

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We had a three-pound bird, which we knew would be ample for our four diners in the context of the rest of our menu. Ditto one each of the apples and black and white sausages. In a fit of abstemiousness, we skipped the croûtons.

The stuffing mixture was bread, hard-boiled egg, raw egg, the hen’s giblets, nutmeg, cinnamon, tarragon, chives, and chervil. We made the amount given for a two-pound guinea hen, and it was way too much even for our larger bird. I had to squeeze some of it into the neck cavity and sew it up tightly with a darning needle and thread.

The bird was to be wrapped in pork fat and casserole-roasted on top of the stove, with white wine and a mirepoix of carrots, onions, and garlic. Gargantua struck again here: You were to chop three whole carrots and three whole onions for the mirepoix. Even allowing that vegetables in France 40 years ago were probably smaller than ours are now, that still would’ve been a vast amount. And the whole cup of wine called for would’ve made a very acid gravy. So again we made adjustments.

Now, continuing the impractical instructions (don’t worry; this story has a happy ending): The whole guinea hen, once browned, was supposed to be done in 25 minutes. Have you ever tried to brown a bird that’s wrapped in pork fat? It’s simply not possible. And our larger bird took 45 minutes to tenderize. Then you were supposed to reduce the pan juices and just pour them over the bird for serving. Our mirepoix vegetables, even though chopped fine, and even after the longer cooking time, were still in recognizable bits, so the sauce would have been pretty ugly. We pureed it.

Here’s the dish as we brought it to the table:

Note how different it looks from the mahogany-brown bird in the book’s photo, above. Note too how pure white the book’s boudins blancs are, totally unmarked by sauteeing in butter, and the absence of apples or gravy in that photo. One more fraud perpetrated by the food stylists!

The good news is that the dish was really excellent. Odd as the combination was, the bird, the blood sausages, the mild sausages, the apples, and the gravy all came together felicitously. With them we drank a 2005 Moillard Beaune Grèves Premier Cru, and happy we were.

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A few more words about Cocteau and food. In addition to his serious writings, he did a jesting piece called Petit lettre à la dérive, which creates a litany of the dinner-table imperatives that parents deliver to their children:

Mange ta soupe. Tiens-toi droit. Mange lentement. Ne mange pas si vite. Bois en mangeant. Coupe ta viande en petits morceaux. Tu ne fais que tordre et avaler. Ne joue pas avec ton couteau. Ce n’est pas comme ça qu’on tient sa fourchette. On ne chante pas à table. Vide ton assiette. Ne te balance pas sur ta chaise. Finis ton pain. Pousse ton pain. Mâche. Ne parle pas la bouche pleine. Ne mets pas tes coudes sur la table. Ramasse ta serviette. Ne fais pas de bruit en mangeant. Tu sortiras de table quand on aura fini. Essuie ta bouche avant de m’embrasser.

Cette petite liste réveille une foule de souvenirs, ceux de l’enfance. C’est très longtemps après qu’on arrive à comprendre qu’un dîner peut être un véritable chef-d’oeuvre.

As a New Year’s wish, therefore, may we all, in 2012, eat our soup, sit up straight, not play with our knife, wipe our mouth before kissing anyone, and enjoy many dinners that are veritable chefs d’oeuvre!

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This week’s recipe made a dish that we thoroughly enjoyed eating – but I got really irked by the process of making it. I have to say it’s one of the most carelessly written recipes I’ve ever encountered from an American cooking professional. It was printed in the New York Times nearly two years ago, and I clipped it out because it sounded so good on casual reading.

When I finally got around to giving it a try, I could see it was going to need many changes. I’ll tell you about them toward the end of this post because I don’t want to detract overmuch from what can be a very worthwhile dish.

The concept and its components are all excellent. I love traditional ratatouille, and this recipe’s version of the classic eggplant, zucchini, pepper, onion, and tomato mélange is lighter and more brightly flavored, because the vegetables are either roasted or sautéed, not fried. And the addition of Italian sausage and the baked-on topping of cornmeal biscuits add heartiness and make it a satisfying one-dish meal.

It’s a fair amount of work to make, but then so is any ratatouille. Here’s the basic approach. Prepare a cornmeal biscuit dough. Toss chunked eggplant and zucchini with a little oil and roast them in a hot oven. Crumble and sauté some sausage meat. Saute onions, peppers, and garlic in a little oil; add tomatoes and fresh thyme and cook some more. Mix in the sausages, roasted vegetables, and basil or parsley. Put it all in a baking dish, shape cornmeal biscuits and set them on top, and put the dish in the oven until the biscuits are done.

Here’s my dish coming out of the oven:

If you’d like to try the recipe, it’s available on the Times’s website, here.  But be warned: If you faithfully follow the instructions as written, the result will not be a happy one. Here are the pitfalls to watch out for:

The ingredient list:

  • Don’t leave the eggplant unpeeled unless you know the skin is very tender.
  • Don’t leave the plum tomatoes whole, or when you get to the point in the recipe where they’re called for, you’ll have to stop the entire cooking process while you peel and chunk them.

Roasting the eggplant and zucchini:

  • Don’t leave the pan unoiled. The vegetables will stick.
  • Don’t wait for them to turn “golden”; they won’t.

Sauteeing the sausage meat:

  • Don’t wait for it to turn “golden” either; red meat turns brown.

Sauteeing the remaining vegetables:

  • Don’t use only the tiny bit of oil called for; it won’t be enough to coat all the vegetables.
  • Don’t cook them uncovered; they’ll never soften in the specified 5-7 minutes, and they’ll dry out and harden before they do.
  • Don’t forget to have the tomatoes chunked and ready; and do cover the pan again after adding them or things will dry out and burn.
  • Don’t leave the sprigs of fresh thyme in the dish unless their stems are very tender.

Final baking:

  • Don’t take the name “pot pie” literally: there isn’t enough biscuit mix to make a full piecrust-like topping. Just dot the disks of dough around on the surface.
  • Don’t set a timer for the indicated 25-30 minutes and walk away: I barely saved my biscuits when I checked the dish after 20 minutes. You can see they were much browner than in the published photo.

One final stricture: Don’t believe you can serve six hungry persons with the quantities given, unless you have a lot more on your menu. Two of us polished off half a recipe’s worth easily and would have enjoyed more. So, notwithstanding all the trickiness of the procedure, today’s story does have a happy ending.

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Tom and I and our friend Hope recently held one of our periodic cookathons – a full afternoon in the kitchen, composing dishes from some particular cuisine followed by an evening of eating them. Typically, we overextend ourselves, make far more than we three can eat, and have a grand, messy time.

For this dinner we looked to Spain, choosing four recipes from three cookbooks: Teresa Barrenechea’s The Cuisines of Spain, Penelope Casas’s The Foods and Wines of Spain, and The Cooking of Spain and Portugal from the Time-Life Foods of the World series.

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Coca con Pimientos y Tomates
Crusty Flatbread with Roasted Peppers and Tomatoes

This starter was a real star. It looks like merely a pizza-type crust with a vegetable topping, and technically so it is – but that description doesn’t do it justice. The yeast dough was rich with egg, olive oil, and lard. After a 30-minute rise, we patted it thinly into a pan, topped it with strips of roasted red and yellow peppers, quartered grape tomatoes, and more olive oil, and baked it to a warm golden brown with crisp edges. It was utterly delicious.

With it we drank a sparkling Cava.

Merluza y Almejas en Salsa Verde
Hake Fillets with Clams in Green Sauce

Shopping for the fish dish was a teense iffy. Hake isn’t always available in the markets; could we use halibut? or, if necessary, scrod? Happily, the fish counter at Citarella had beautiful hake fillets that day, as well as perfect little manila clams. In a large pan we sautéed minced garlic and red pepper flakes in olive oil; stirred in flour; added a lot of liquid from steaming open the clams, along with wine and parsley; and simmered until it thickened slightly. The fish fillets went in and cooked for two minutes on each side, then the clams for two minutes, and that was it.As you can see, the sauce was not actually green, but the dish was excellent. (Confession: the recipe also called for a garniture of a few white asparagus spears and hard-boiled eggs, but given everything else we were eating, we decided to skip them.)

The wine for this course was a white Rioja, which actually didn’t work well with it, because it turned out to be a modern-style, heavily oaked one: just plain wrong for the delicate fish flavors.

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Arroz con Pato de Braga
Roast Duck with Sausage-and-Ham-Flavored Rice
Acelgas con Pasas y Piñones
Greens with Raisins and Pine Nuts

This was the easiest roast duck I’ve ever made, and the most complicated rice preparation.

The duck was simply rubbed with garlic, sprinkled with salt and pepper, stuffed with some lemon peel, and roasted undisturbed until done. A combination of high heat followed by lower heat rendered out much of the fat that plagues Pekin ducks.

Meanwhile, the rice. That was a whole other story. We boiled it until almost tender, drained and kept it warm. We put chorizos in a skillet, added cold water to cover, simmered five minutes, drained and sliced them in thin rounds. We melted lard in a very large casserole, cooked the sausage in it briefly, added finely chopped carrot and onion, softened them, added julienne strips of Serrano ham, and finally stirred in the rice, lemon juice, and parsley, cooking just long enough to heat everything through. This could have been a whole dinner in itself.

Here’s the duck, waiting atop the rice while we made a gravy in the roasting pan.

For a “lighter” vegetable to accompany this elaborate concoction, we made Swiss chard with garlic, onion, olive oil, raisins, and pine nuts. Rich as that was, it was indeed lighter than the rest of the course.

With the duck we drank a red Tempranillo, which accompanied it very nicely, the acid of the wine cutting cleanly through the lushness of the duck. Need I say that we were not finishing each bottle of wine with each course? We’d have been pie-eyed by this point if we were. But we did very much enjoy the progression of the different wines – and an opened bottle doesn’t last long in our house.

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Monte Enebro, Garrotxa La Bauma, Amarelo de Beira Baixa, Roncal, Queso de Valdeon
Five Spanish cheeses

You might well wonder how we could go on to cheese after all this. So did we. But the cheeses were fascinating. When you buy from Murray’s cheese shop in Greenwich Village, the wrapper of each cheese includes a label with a description of it. I transcribed those write-ups for us to look at as we tasted, so if you’re curious about those varieties, look here.

With the cheeses we drank a gorgeous 16-year-old Prado Enea, a Rioja wine from the very traditional producer, Muga. In its richness and harmony it can only be described as Burgundian, overworked as that word is. We actually finished that bottle.

After all that, we neither needed nor wanted dessert. Espresso and a good Spanish brandy (Gran Duque d’Alba in this case) finished off the meal – and us – nicely.

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