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The herbs I planted on my building’s roof garden, which I mentioned in my last post, are doing well.

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Picking them has been perilous for a few weeks, because of a militant mockingbird that attacked anyone who stepped out onto the roof, which he considered his territory. At last, his babies have fledged and left the nest he was guarding up there, and I can tend my tiny herb garden in peace.

The herb that most needs frequent cutting back is the dill, which has been flowering so fast, it’d soon be setting seed and dying off. To help redirect its attention to new shoots, I snipped some of its feathery-leaved flowering stems to use in two recipes I made for the first time this week.
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Dakhini Saag: Spinach with Dill

This dish from Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India is a specialty of Hyderabad, a city in southern India. Jaffrey says it’s “a simple but very flavorful spinach dish.” Given the number of ingredients listed in the recipe, I wasn’t sure I’d regard it as simple, but by the same token I could see it was certainly going to have a lot of flavors. It looked like fun.

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To begin, the spinach had to be wilted in boiling water, drained, cooled, and squeezed. Then I called my bespoke knife man into action, and he gallantly rose to the occasion. Clockwise from lower right, here are the spinach, chopped; sliced fresh spring onion; diced heirloom tomato; sliced Spanish onion; chopped dill; chopped garlic; salt, cumin seeds, turmeric, and red chili powder.
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Actually, once those components were prepared, the dish really was quite simple to make. First, I sauteed the cumin seeds, Spanish onion, and garlic for a few minutes over medium heat.
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Next, I lowered the heat, added the spinach, dill, salt, turmeric, and chili powder, and cooked all that for two minutes.
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Last, I stirred in the diced tomato and spring onion.
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Another two minutes’ cooking made the dish ready to eat.

And very good it was.The very first taste was purely moist, tender spinach, but each forkful opened in the mouth to reveal the flavors of the seasonings – mainly dill, but also subtle accents of spring onion, cumin, and chili. (The tiny cubes of tomato, being of necessity hothouse, served mostly for appearance.) A nice middle choice between plain spinach and a composed dish.
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Jennifer’s Dill Bread

Long ago, my friend Jennifer, with whom I’ve shared many recipes back and forth, gave me her hand-written one for dill bread. It had her small variations on a recipe that a family friend had given her even longer ago. I saved it in my big recipe binder, but this folksy American yeast bread made with cottage cheese never quite caught my interest enough to try. Now, with my dill needing to be used, it seemed to be time.

The recipe directions were simple in the extreme – they started with “Soften yeast in water. Combine all except flour.” The “all” was cottage cheese, sugar, salt, baking soda, minced onion, softened butter, an egg, and dill weed.
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Next was to add “enough flour to form a stiff dough.” Here, I had to go astray. The ingredient list said 2¼ to 2½ cups. In my heavy-duty mixer with the dough hook, 2½ cups of flour produced only a thick, heavy batter. I added more flour. And more. And more. (I think there was too much whey in my cottage cheese.) This is apparently supposed to be a no-knead dough, but mine was thoroughly kneaded by the time I achieved a dough thick enough to hold together in a ball.
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It rose nicely in a gently warmed, turned-off oven, though with all that extra flour, it took longer than the expected one hour to double in bulk.
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I punched the dough down, shaped it into a ball, and was then supposed to put it in an 8-inch round casserole to rise again. I don’t have a dish that size, so I substituted a buttered 8-inch pie tin and prayed that the free-standing loaf would support itself as it rose in the turned-off oven. It did.
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A bit over an hour of baking at a more moderate temperature than I usually use for breads (350°) produced a plump brown loaf. The final touch was to brush the crust with butter and sprinkle it with sea salt.

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Sliced, it revealed a soft, light crumb with a wheaty sweetness and a gentle fragrance of dill. (Might have been dillier if I hadn’t had to add so much extra flour.) It was good as a dinner bread, good for sandwiches, and good for morning toast. Although it will never replace my all-time favorite White Bread Plus from Joy of Cooking, this folksy recipe made a versatile and tasty loaf.
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Champagne. Oysters Rockefeller. Ham Pithiviers. That’s the eccentric dinner I just made to celebrate the eccentric digital publication of an eccentric scholarly book by my admirably eccentric spouse.

Many of my readers know Tom from his wine blog, as well as his wine and food books. He was also a university professor, with four scholarly books published before he retired. His magnum opus on allegory, on which he spent many years, unfortunately never found an academic press. Now, with all the extra time at home that we’ve had during the pandemic, we’ve taken matters into our own hands and created it ourselves as a digital book. Please take a peek at The Strangeness of Allegory.

For a tiny two-person celebration of its publication, we wanted a bottle of champagne and some interesting foods to enjoy it with. After much cookbook research and many tempting items to choose from, we settled on the two mentioned above.
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Oysters Rockefeller

Invented at Antoine’s restaurant in New Orleans in 1889, Oysters Rockefeller is a warhorse of old-style elegance in American cooking, and a dish neither of us happen ever to have tasted. No better time than this! My cookbook collection yielded nine different recipes for it. I chose one of the simpler ones, from The Grand Central Oyster Bar Restaurant Seafood Cookbook.

It calls for raw oysters in their half shells to be covered with a thick green topping made by blending sautéed parsley, shallots, celery, chervil, and spinach with fresh breadcrumbs, softened butter, salt, pepper, cayenne, Worcestershire sauce, and Pernod. Then the oysters are bedded down in hot rock salt on metal pans and briefly baked in a very hot oven.

The topping was easy to put together (though I skipped the chervil and substituted Italian white vermouth for the Pernod). But hot rock salt was beyond my capacity. The closest I could come was to ease my dozen filled Wellfleet oyster shells into the dimples in four escargot tins and give them a longer time in the oven.

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Definitely not as picturesque as a bed of rock salt, but it served just as well. Other recipes call for larger amounts of breadcrumbs, so that the oyster topping turns brown and crisp. This one left them a soft, beautiful intense green, which we found very pleasing. The dish is clearly a close relative of the French escargots à la bourguignonne, but the absence of garlic and the medley of aromatic vegetables made for an unusual and piquant presentation.
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The Wellfleets were beautifully saline and loved their buttery green robes. We slowly savored every one of the rich little creatures, and wiped up their extra sauce with bits of crusty bread. They went very well with the champagne.
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Ham Pithiviers

It was the mouthwatering picture of this pithiviers in Julia Child & Company that induced us to want it as the entire second course of our festivity. Years ago, when I was young and enterprising, I had moderate success with a dessert pithiviers, filled with almond cream, from Julia’s Mastering, II. I even made the puff pastry from scratch. I’m not so ambitious any more, but excellent, buttery, frozen puff pastry is available now in stores, so I bravely ventured again with this savory version.

I’m not going to show you the book’s picture, because it’ll make mine look like a big girl scout cookie, but I have to say I was nevertheless pretty pleased with the way it came out. It was only a little lopsided.
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Impressive looking as the dish is, it’s actually easy to make once you have the dough. The filling is humble, everyday boiled ham gently cooked in butter with shallots, then off heat mixed with egg yolk, heavy cream, Worcestershire sauce, hot pepper sauce, and grated Parmesan cheese.

You put a round of dough onto a dampened baking dish, mound the filling in the center, lay a second round of dough on top, and seal all the edges well. Paint the top with egg glaze twice, and then scratch a decorative pattern into it. (Julia gives detailed directions for patterns.) Bake in a very hot oven for about an hour.

And very tasty indeed it was. The pastry had actually risen as it should (my puff pastries don’t always do so) and was beautifully crisp and flaky. The filling was rich and good, though we felt a little more of it would have made a better balance with all the pastry.
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Still, a definitely worthwhile experiment for an eccentric celebratory meal. The champagne liked it too.

That champagne, by the way, was also slightly eccentric, a Grand Cru Bouzy brut by Baron Dauvergne called Oeil de Perdrix – eye of the partridge, which accurately describes its color.  Bouzy is the Pinot noir capital of the Champagne zone, and this largely Pinot noir wine was big and robust as well as polished and deep, and it played wonderfully well with both the evening’s dishes. Tom considered it a perfect book-launching bottle.

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P.S. Don’t forget to check out the allegory book. There’s a lot to look at on the opening screen.

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Yes, spring is just a week away, but winter has not started loosening its grip yet. There are still days that are so raw and cold and windy that I can hardly force myself to get out of the house even for essential errands. When I do, nothing thaws me out and comforts me like coming home to a bowl of hearty homemade soup.

I like trying new soup recipes, as regular readers of this blog should know: I’ve published posts about more than 30 kinds. One of my good sources is Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook. Its soup chapter contains 19 recipes, several of which I’ve made. I wrote about two of them here. This time around, I tried two more.

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First I made a simple Barley and Leek Soup, which the recipe said would serve four. I started by chopping two leeks, a stalk of celery, and a carrot, and sauteeing them in olive oil along with a sprinkling of thyme.
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Next I was to add a cup of barley and 6 cups of broth, bring it to a simmer, and cook for 45 minutes, or until the barley was tender. Tom, who had been looking on with a knife expert’s interest while I chopped the vegetables, totally disbelieved the quantity of barley. “That’s going to absorb all the liquid and swell to triple the amount!” he warned. I knew he was probably right, but I was determined to follow the recipe, and I did.

It was way too much barley. It swelled to about four times its bulk and indeed absorbed all the liquid, ending up as thick as a risotto. The recipe didn’t even say to cover the pot, but I did, given that long cooking time. It did say I could add a little water if it was too thick at the end. A little? I had to stir in two whole cups of water, just to turn it back into a soup.

Diluted down, seasoned generously with salt and pepper, and topped with grated parmigiano, the soup came out well. I would have liked the leek to be more prominent: less barley would have made for a better balance. But the soup’s mild flavor and soft texture were very comforting.
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And it’s a good thing that it was a good soup, because that four-serving recipe made enough for at least eight. Happily, soups freeze well.

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A few days later, with my soup jones still pestering me, I turned to the book’s Lentil, Potato and Spinach Soup. This recipe was to serve 4 to 6. With caution born of the preceding experience, I considered the fact that it called for a whole cup of lentils and decided to make half a recipe’s worth.

This time, I put chopped carrot, celery, and onion, plus rosemary and thyme, into the soup pot with olive oil and cooked for 10 minutes to soften the vegetables.
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I added a minced clove of garlic and continued cooking for a minute; stirred in half a cup of lentils and a tablespoon of tomato paste; and added a diced all-purpose potato, salt, pepper, and three cups of water. As before, I simmered the soup for 45 minutes, stirring often to keep the lentils from sticking to the bottom of the pot. And as before, the lentils behaved just like the barley and absorbed so much water they made a porridge. I had to add another whole cup of water to bring it back to soup.

For the last step, I tore up enough cleaned spinach leaves to pack into a one-cup measure, stirred them into the soup, and continued cooking just long enough to wilt them. At serving time, as the recipe suggested, I drizzled olive oil onto each bowlful.

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This was also a good soup – a little more complex in flavor than the previous one. The lentils were the prominent ingredient, with the spinach and potatoes offering nice color and texture contrasts. And, as I’d suspected it would, the “two-serving” half recipe made four generous bowlfuls.

I have to wonder if there was a copyediting glitch somewhere in that book. But look on the bright side: With people to feed, a recipe that makes too much is better than one that makes too little.

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Recipes are like life. If at first you don’t succeed, it may well be your fault. If, with much more care a second time, you still don’t succeed, you might reasonably begin to think it isn’t you. A new recipe failed on me twice this week, and I’m suspicious. Some days, as Chief Dan George remarked in Little Big Man, the magic doesn’t work: a philosophical position every cook needs to accept; but this seemed more than that. This seemed like – dare I say it – a flawed recipe.

Spinach is a great vegetable. There isn’t much you need to do to cook it. De-stem a great mass of it, wash it, dump it still wet into a large pot, and steam it until what seemed like a portion for six persons has dwindled to barely enough for two. Doesn’t even need anything else but salt, though it’ll accept vast quantities of butter or lacings of olive oil if you want to cook it that way.

I found a recipe for spinach gratin in the Vegetables volume of my usually reliable Time-Life Good Cook series that seemed intriguing. The headnote called it “an infinitely simple preparation that owes its originality to an important detail: the finely chopped spinach is placed raw on a bed of oil.” Well, that didn’t sound too important or original to me, but who knows? I decided to try it.

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Maiden Voyage

The recipe wanted two pounds of untrimmed spinach for four persons. For only two of us, I thought a ten-ounce bag of well-trimmed young spinach would be a fair equivalent for half the recipe. The chopped spinach was to be packed into a large gratin dish, salted and peppered, sprinkled with bread crumbs, drizzled with a quarter-cup of olive oil, and cooked in the oven for 50 minutes. That should have set off a small alarm bell for me: 50 minutes is a mighty long time to cook spinach, which melts in minutes in a pot on the stove.

But first things first. Have you ever tried to pack raw spinach into anything? It’s fluffy: It doesn’t pack down. I had to use a large gratin dish just to contain the half recipe’s worth amount I had. Also, when I halve recipes, I generally have to use more than half the amount of fat, so I was a bit generous with the olive oil, but it didn’t seem like much for the amount of spinach. Here’s the dish, ready for the oven.

And here it is, cooked.If this photo looks like a mess of dry, fallen autumn leaves, rained on and scraped up from the ground, that’s because the dish actually looked like that. I didn’t even give it the full 50 minutes (concerned about my unreliable oven, as I’ve mentioned before), but the outside edges of the spinach were all papery-dry, and the whole dish tasted mildly burnt.

I must’ve done something wrong, no? Surely, it isn’t supposed to be like this. Let’s give it another try.

Round Two

For the same quantity of spinach, I took a pot with a much smaller footprint than my gratin dish. Since it was also deeper, I was able to pile all the spinach into it. I was even more generous with the oil than last time.With the greater depth of spinach, I figured it might need the whole oven time called for in the recipe, but I checked it well ahead of time anyway. Too late!  As soon as I opened the oven door, there came a whiff of burning leaves. And there was that same sad-looking, desiccated wad of greenery in the bottom of the pot.

I gingerly scraped the spinach away from its burned-on margins, and we tried eating it. I guess you could say the preparation was original, as the recipe claimed. The papery parts crunched like dry autumn leaves; the breadcrumbs had spurned the olive oil and remained obdurately gritty, and the still-moist part (where it wasn’t burnt) tasted no different from spinach just steamed and drizzled with oil. Bummer.

How do you account for an experience like this?  I’m not going to blame my oven this time – the temperature felt about right.  Did the heavy enameled cast-iron pot I used the second time hold too much heat and transfer it too rapidly to the spinach? The Time-Life editor credited the recipe to a Provençal cookbook published in Switzerland in 1962 – could it be that the Swiss French cooks of that day normally did such elaborate things with spinach that they regarded this as a daring postmodern way to cook it? Was there a bad translation, or a terrible typo in the recipe, and it should have said cook 15 minutes, not 50?

I don’t know, and I’m not going to try it again. If the magic doesn’t work twice, maybe the gods are telling you to forget it. I’m perfectly happy with spinach cooked in my regular way, so I’ll just stick to it from now on.

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When it comes to soufflés, I’m sort of a heretic. When I first started making them, I would faithfully butter a wide collar of foil and wrap it around the top of the dish to encourage the signature high rise. When my soufflé came out of the oven, there it would be, towering proudly three inches above the rim of the dish. And by the time I got it to table, there it would be, sinking rapidly back into itself. (I still don’t understand how restaurants keep the darn things puffed up until they arrive at your plate – even, in some cases, after you’ve cut into them.)

Although dismayed by my cordon bleu failures, I found my soufflés still tasted awfully good, and so I began to feel more free about making them. My “regulars” are cheese soufflés in the savory category and coffee or vanilla, with strawberry sauce, as desserts. This week I had some good end-of-season fresh spinach in the refrigerator, so I decided to branch out to a spinach soufflé, with a recipe from volume one of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

It’s the classic soufflé technique: Make a sauce base of butter, flour, milk, and seasonings. Beat in egg yolks and the principal flavor ingredient – in this case, spinach sautéed in butter and shallots plus a little boiled ham. Whip egg whites until stiff and fold them in, along with some grated Swiss cheese. Bake in a soufflé mold that has been coated with butter and more grated cheese.

I was making the four-person recipe as a main course for two. It was supposed to be baked in a six-cup mold. I never do that any more: I use my eight-cup mold. I don’t care if the soufflé doesn’t even rise to the top of the mold – the greater width of the dish provides more delicious crunchy brown crust.

In fact, as I’ve read elsewhere and occasionally done, you can make a soufflé in anything, even a shallow gratin dish. It’ll look kind of strange but it’ll still taste fine.

I also did other heretical things with this spinach soufflé, based on what I had in the refrigerator. No whole milk? OK, nonfat dry milk powder, water, and a dash of heavy cream. Only jumbo eggs? That’s fine. No Swiss cheese? Take the Brebis. No boiled ham? Why not the culatello left from yesterday’s antipasto. I think Julia wouldn’t have minded too much. She often suggests variations for her recipes. (Though I fear she would’ve deplored the powdered milk, cream or no cream.) If you’re going to master an art, it’s you who must become the master, n’est-ce pas?

In any event, my low-rise spinach soufflé was very good. Nice texture, full of flavor, and I would venture to say richer for the jumbo egg yolks and more interesting for the uncanonical kinds of cheese and meat. It was also intensely spinachy and very satisfying as a light supper.

One other thing about my soufflés: They always take much longer to cook than the recipe says. If the recipe says bake 30 minutes, I always have to give them at least 40. I don’t know why; it’s not an oven temperature problem — just what happens to me with soufflés. Like their starting to sink the instant I take them out of the oven.

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Just one new recipe tonight: Baked Ricotta and Spinach Tart, from the first Union Square Café Cookbook. We had it for a main course, following a successful little appetizer invention of Tom’s – a pita topped with chopped red pepper, tomato, olives, onion, and corallina (a Roman salami, carried back illicitly by him from an Italian trip), warmed under the broiler. Drank our last Chénas of the season, which was just fine.

The tart was good enough. But, first, its name was sort of PR overkill. How else would you cook a tart except baking it? (NB: It wasn’t that the recipe called for baked ricotta, only for the regular fresh kind.) And second, though I try not to be an Italian culinary chauvinist, really it was just a simplified pizza rustica.

The pastry was pure butter and flour, and the recipe made a rather big deal about the temperature of the butter and the requirement to first chill the dough in the refrigerator and then freeze the tart shell, set in a springform pan. (You were also supposed to mix the dough by hand but I wickedly used the Cuisinart, which took about 15 seconds.) The sequence of steps in the recipe was not how I’d have done them, for logic and efficiency.

The filling was ricotta, spinach, onion, prosciutto, some egg to bind, marjoram and nutmeg.  It would’ve made a nice ravioli filling. The pastry, decent as it was, didn’t do much for it. A truly Italian version would use a sweetened pasta frolla, which would’ve gone better with the filling. In fact, Marcella Hazan’s wonderful pizza rustica would’ve blown this dish out of the water. We used sheep’s milk ricotta and prosciutto di Parma from BuonItalia, and I’m not sure the dish repaid ingredients of that quality. Sorry, Michael Romano – I like many other things in this cookbook, but though this may have been a treasured recipe of your family’s, it’s not going to be one of mine.

However, I learned a useful new trick from this recipe: You can just sauté spinach in a pan with a bit of olive oil. No need to wilt it down in water, which you then have to squeeze out and smash the delicate spinach cells in doing so.  Something to remember!

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