The Staff of Life

It’s a good thing that I’ve always been on good terms with gluten and carbohydrates. So many of my favorite foods come from wheat berries. As I look over the material I have about cooking and the foods for this blog, I am struck by the significance of bread and pasta in the crowd. Fortunately, this is balanced by vegetables, fruit and seafood which we have in abundance. This post illustrates some of the month’s highlights on our tables.

Sourdough Again

Two batards and a good-sized boule came out of baking Tartine-style country loaves again this month.

Toasted or fried, the thin slices of this bread (90% bread flour, 10% whole wheat) have been the basis for breakfasts and lunches regularly. Hummus, smoked salmon, Basque sheep-milk cheeses, just plain unsalted butter — each has graced and enhanced this marvel of the fermentation process.

In the brief period between finishing the last batch of sourdough and the completion of this one, I also baked a couple of small loaves of peasant white bread from Alexandra’s Kitchen.

Marcella’s Genius

I keep re-discovering the meticulous magic of Marcella Hazan’s cooking. Here are two examples, each of which includes pasta or bread neatly integrated into the meal.

Ligurian-Style Pasta.

Over the years I have occasionally made a pasta dish from Liguria, which features zucchini and carrots, usually cut into small julienned pieces. It has been a good dish, but not over-the-top marvelous. This month I was re-reading my Marcella Cucina cookbook (1997), and I found and tried her version.

Her attention to all the little details, including removing the core of each carrot prior to the julienne process and the steps of successive salting in small amounts, made all the difference. The result was clearly superior. I have only one photo, because we gobbled up the rest of the dish with gusto.

Marcella’s Escarole, Sautéed Apulian-Style

Another example of Marcella’s ability to make a simple dish supremely good is this recipe for sautéed escarole. I had purchased a very attractive, large head of escarole at the market, and I was looking for a new way to cook it when I found this recipe. Normally, I would blanch the greens and then sauté with olive oil and garlic. The other usual option was escarole and rice soup. Each of these choices has just a few steps in the instructions and is easy to prepare.

Marcella, on the other hand, takes two pages of detailed instructions to describe a terrific dish, using just escarole, bread, garlic and anchovies. It also turned out to be a great way to finish the remaining loaf of white peasant bread I mentioned earlier.

Simple, rustic, traditional, and delicious. Grazie, Marcella.

I close with this insight from another great chef:

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Talented Lady

My wife has a great many talents. With this short post, I will celebrate two of them:

  1. makes flowers bloom magnificently
  2. cooks with creativity and finesse

FLOWERS

Most of you are probably familiar with Christmas Cactus, a common houseplant. Well, ours are actually Thanksgiving Cacti, and they are in their glory right now. Barbara manages them with great skill. They are placed outside on our deck all Spring and Summer. Then she washes and trims them, brings the plants into the little greenhouse adjacent to our living room, and they pop into bloom in a variety of colors.

She also manages a small crew of helpers, who keep and eye on everything…


FOOD

Five years ago we visited Campania for a week. There were many highlights of the trip. One of them was a simple vegetable soup served at the restaurant in the Hotel Santa Caterina, where we stayed in Amalfi. We enjoyed the soup so much that Barbara duplicated it in our kitchen when we returned, and she’s been serving ever since. Including tonight, which triggered this post.

Sometimes she improvises. Tonight’s surprise — which made it a complete and delicious supper — were perfect biscuits, hot out of the oven. Simple, and superb.

I will save the remaining list of talents for future posts, so as not to overwhelm my readers tonight.

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Little Whale Oyster Bar

Like its sister restaurant, Select Oyster, Little Whale is an attractive, focused eatery with some very fine seafood, and located in Back Bay, Boston. I tried it out this past week — just for variety — and I liked it.

Three small plates of my favorite things were more than enough for dinner: (1) oysters on the half shell (see lineup below), (2) Hamachi Crudo with golden watermelon, vinegar, Aleppo pepper and mint, and (3) Roasted Cauliflower with toasted almonds, golden raisins and harissa labneh. This last was also a generous portion — more than enough.

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Tourlou

As the summer drew to a close with the warm days we had in November, it seemed appropriate to have one more of the wonderful baked vegetable dishes we enjoy with nature’s bounty. This one is called “Tourlou”, and it could be Greek or Turkish in origin. Its principal ingredients are eggplant, zucchini, potatoes, onions, and tomatoes — like so many of the ratatouille-style dishes of the Mediterranean. A large cazuela or tian is the perfect vessel to use, and we had a good one.

You can see that I threw in some sautéed mushrooms too. You can almost smell the warmth of the thinly-sliced onions, swimming in the thick tomato sauce, nicely-browned in the hot oven.

Of course, this calls for a rich, red wine. It was a superb match with a recently-discovered gem from the Rhône valley, a 2019 Terres de Mandrin Syrah by Jeanne Gaillard. Magnifique!

The leftovers the next day went very well with Kent Callaghan’s Arizona wine, a 2015 blend of Grenache, Mourvedre, Petit Verdot, and Tannat (all good friends of mine).

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Porcini-Infused Pasta with Vegetables

Recently, I have had success with my homemade pastas. Some of the more creative ventures involved adding flavors, using porcini powder or unsweetened cocoa to the flour mixture. Here is a short story of the second time I tried the porcini pasta, this version with some of my favorite summer vegetables.

I made two different doughs for small quantities of finished product. One was a simple mix with 75 g. of Double-Zero “00” flour, 17 g. of freshly-milled Durum wheat, and one extra large egg. I let it dry and saved it for a dinner on another day.

For the second batch, I made Porcini Tonarelli, with 88g. of “00” flour, 37 g. of hard Durum flour. 1 extra large whole egg plus one egg yolk, and the magical ingredient — only 5 g. of Porcini powder.

I had already prepared the sauce, containing sautéed eggplant, zucchini, leeks, and tomato, PLUS a few high-quality dried Porcini — reconstituted, chopped and sautéed, including the strained soaking liquid. The dish was delicious, accompanied by a salad of beets with pickled cauliflower and Kalamata olives.

All of this was topped off with one of my favorite Italian white wines, a single-vineyard NovaSerra Greco di Tufo from Mastroberardino.

Buon appetito.

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Autumn Leaves

This has been a particularly beautiful Autumn season. The colors are spectacular and enduring. I just want to share some of it with you, my readers.

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Small Plates

Tapas. Merende. Meze. Merienda. Antipasto.

Whether it be Spain or Portugal, Italy or Greece, France or Turkey — throughout the Mediterranean, these countries have the delightful tradition of small plates and in-between meals. More and more I’m finding that I enjoy eating this way, in contrast to the traditional American dinner plate with the triumvirate of a Protein, a Starch, and a Vegetable. This post shares some examples at home and eating out that illustrate the joy of “small plates”.

Select Oyster Bar, Back Bay, Boston

I often have a small meal now at a restaurant on Monday nights, to avoid the crushing heavy traffic of the drive home. Last week I went to this superb oyster bar in Boston, and I had 3 small plates making a delicious meal. I sat down in a small corner window seat and started with a little antipasto of just 5 raw oysters, accompanied by a glass of a French Chablis. Next, I dove into a plate of a Romanesco Cauliflower with a Toasted Hazelnut Aioli dressing. To complete the evening, I ate a bowl of spicy small clams with Spanish chorizo.

The second glass of Chablis fit well with all the dishes. I also love the trend of the way such restaurants offer excellent boutique wines which complement the food. Many places provide several choices of volume in each glass. This permits trying several different wines in small amounts, and then driving home — still sober.

Barcelona Wine Bar, Cambridge

A similar Monday night story took me to a tapas and wine bar in Cambridge. The first time there I had to small tapas plates, (1) Spinach and Chickpea Cazuela and (2) Grilled Pulpo (octopus) with Cannellini Beans. I ordered 2 different Spanish wines (each 3 oz. pours), so I could match each plate best.

I was back there a week later for two new dishes, Blistered Shishito Peppers and Mushrooms A La Plancha and a glass of red wine from Uruguay — all very good. I especially liked the mushrooms.

Pasta Dishes at Home

We don’t need to go out to enjoy these kinds of meals. Here are two evenings where a pasta dish provided the same satisfaction.

One of the best meals was Pasta alla Norma, a Sicilian eggplant standby which I have made quite often in the past. However, recently I was able to locate this recipe from a chef in Catania. It was featured in an episode of Stanley Tucci’s “Searching for Italy“, and it’s the best I’ve found yet.

Fortunately, I had a bottle of Sicilian Etna Rosso from Quantico, a very good match in both taste and location with Pasta alla Norma.

On another night I was able to make a Baked Pasta dish with cheese, leftover vegetables, and our own dried breadcrumbs, which is always gratifying. It was accompanied by a small salad dish of julienned purple daikon radish, red onion, tomato and fresh basil.

Uncommon Ingredients on Small Plates

Eating at home also offers opportunities to experiment with unusual ingredients. The small scale and privacy enable me to screw up a little meal and not disappoint anyone else. I had two such experiences in October. Fortunately, they both turned out well. The first was with quail eggs, a real novelty. We had read about a local schoolgirl who raised quail and was selling eggs from a stand outside her home. We tried them the first time a month earlier, with positive results. Here was another combination, worth repeating.

This by Tinrocket 1.1 (109) Quail eggs | Mini plum tomatoes | Pickled vegetables | Olives | Beet | Halloumi

Another dish was even more unusual — Burdock Root. I had attempted to use it once before, with little success in texture and flavor. This time was different. I found a recipe online and made a small plate of Burdock Root Jorim, a Korean dish with good flavor and visual appeal.

My only disappointment is that I have no clue what wine to choose with this small plate.

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Warm Cannellini Beans with Radicchio and Pecorino

This is an adaptation of a Ranch Gordo recipe, substituting “Marcella” cannellini beans for the cranberry beans in the original post.

I love cannellini beans, and especially the “Marcella” dry beans from Ranch Gordo, named in honor of Marcella Hazan. I soaked a batch of them last night, and I cooked them today, both for bean dishes and for white bean purée to spread on my sourdough bread later this week.

It’s an easy recipe, and when you have fresh Radicchio di Treviso, it’s a real winner. Here are the photos from today’s lunch.

I was fortunate enough to have a bottle of 2020 Pantaleone Onirocep (that’s Pecorino spelled backwards), imported by my friend, Jan D’Amore.

It was the perfect Sunday afternoon lunch. I especially liked the dressing and its robust Garlic Sherry Vinaigrette. Nothing subtle there. Superb!

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Back in the Groove with Sourdough Breads

Back in mid-July I shared my experience restoring the ability to make sourdough breads with good “oven spring” and appealing crumb structure. You can find the story in my post: Repeat Performances. I’m delighted to report that I just repeated that success a few days ago — a real confidence-builder. I want to shout out my thanks again to The Regular Chef, whose 15-minute YouTube video for Tartine bread is so well-made, detailed, and effective.

I want to note here (mostly for my own recollections) that this batch included four small modifications that seemed to work very well:

  • For whole wheat I used 100 g of Yecora Rojo flour, milled from Breadtopia’s berries of the hard wheat
  • I made three smaller loaves, instead of two larger ones, which had been the norm previously
  • The dough were refrigerated for 6 hours (instead of 4), at the high end of his recommended time
  • The baking time was increased after uncovering my bread pot and Dutch oven, from his suggested 15-20 minutes, to 25 or 26 minutes, which was more fully baked

Here’s what they looked like when done.

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Another Wonderful Risotto – Zucchini and Tomatoes

Rich, flavorful, and easy-to-make vegetarian risotti are not so common. Here is one, and it’s another of the superb recipes from Judith Barrett.

I did not have Fontina cheese available, so I used mozzarella instead. The results were absolutely delicious. A 2021 Rosé from Villa Creek in Paso Robles was an excellent match.

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