Baked Mixed Vegetables a la Marcella (Misto di Verdure al Forno)

As many of you know from my blog, I have been an ardent fan of Marcella Hazan’s cooking for many years.  Tonight, however, my admiration reached new heights, with a relatively simple dish of baked vegetables.  Only Marcella could coax so much flavor and delightful textures with such ease and grace.

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Barbara was with our grandsons tonight, so I had license to make my own stuff.  Today was one of those with breakfast at 11 AM, lunch at 3 PM, and dinner at 8 PM days — totally decadent, but fun.

I started with a salad.  This was a riff on a long-popular Italian dish with white beans and chopped red onions.  However, I happen to adore beets and other pickled vegetables along with the beans, so I raided the refrigerator and put a bunch of these together from available items, mostly homemade.  Here are the ingredients:

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Choosing a lettuce leaf from our season finale from our CSA for background (color and flavor), I ate two plates worth to begin the meal.

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Since we became mostly vegan/vegetarian over 5 years ago, baked and roasted vegetables have held a prominent place in our cooking, especially in Fall and Winter.  I’ve particularly enjoyed a variety of Greek dishes, along with some French and Italian, but nothing was as good as this one.  The main course was the Misto di Verdure al Forno.  Here’s her marvelous recipe from Marcella Cucina, with perfect instructions and insight:

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Interestingly, the title on the page includes Mozzarella, but there was none in the recipe — nor should there be, in my opinion.  I had a superb Pecorino from Calabria, from my last visit to Whole Foods, and that was the perfect cheese for this.  The process was straightforward and absolutely delicious, just enough of each flavor and texture for a perfect balance.  I hope you can almost taste the crispiness of the potatoes.

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For wine I already had a bottle of Lamezia from Calabria open, so it was an easy, and appropriate, choice.  And it looks great next to the cookbook!

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For Want of Some Hellman’s….

You know the old adage about “for want of a nail, etc.”  Today’s post is all about the unintended consequences (mostly good ones) of the fact that Barbara ran out of mayonnaise in the house.  She wanted to make a chicken salad sandwich but was unwilling to go to the store for another jar.  (Stores with mayonnaise are all at least 15 miles round trip from our house.)

What do we do when that happens?  We go to our cookbooks, and make our own, of course.  She found a good recipe and did her usual, very effective job making 2 cups of homemade mayonnaise.  I’m told it was good with the chicken and celery in her sandwich.

Now is where my brain kicks into gear.  I want to make an Aioli sauce with that mayonnaise, and to use it with some vegetables I have in mind for dinner.  Eggplant and beets are the two I’m thinking of, specifically.  I researched Provençal  and Catalan versions, and adjusted by using lightly cooked garlic to save Barbara from indigestion with the raw ingredient.  To that I added some Maras pepper, and I had the flavor and texture I wanted.

Eggplant.  Cut 1/2-inch slices, brush with olive oil, and roast in the oven at 375-400º F. Turn a few times to cook evenly.  Top each slice with Aioli and broil briefly when it starts to color.

Sweet Red Peppers.  Cut in half, remove stem and seeds.  Bake in the oven with breadcrumbs, garlic and olive oil, plus a little vegetable stock — covered for 20 minutes, until tender.  Remove cover and cook until crumbs start to brown.

Beets.  Take one large beet, already steamed or roasted, and slice 1/2-inch thick.  Brush with olive oil, salt, and pepper.  Grill in a pan or over charcoal or gas, ensuring the sides caramelize a bit and have those lovely cross-hatch patterns in them, to show how meticulous you are.  Top with a blob of Aioli.

Carrots, Celery, Leek.  Cut them up, along with 1/4 of a sliced onion, and braise with olive oil and 1/4 cup of stock until tender.  Place in a casserole, add fine bread crumbs and a little olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast until bread crumbs brown a bit.

Plate.  Now use a large chop plate, find a spot for each vegetable, use more Aiolo if you wish, and serve with a bottle of Calabrian wine (in this case Lamezia DOC from Statti, a mix of Gaglioppo, Greco Nero, and Magliocco grapes) — or any red wine you choose.

I don’t think I will buy any more mayonnaise soon.

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Friday Was Bread Day

With classes over for the week, I was able to do errands and house stuff on Thursday and begin to bake bread on Friday.  I’ve been missing my whole grain breads and had used the last one in the freezer a couple of weeks earlier.

The process begins by making a levain from my own bread starter, plus flour and water, at about 10 AM and letting it ferment in the container for about 6 hours.  At that point I decide the mixture of flours I will use, mill or scoop the flours into a large container, mix them together dry, and then add water — stirring it all by hand.  After the autolysed flour sits for about 1/2 hour, I add Kosher salt, a scant 1/2 teaspoon of dry yeast, the specified amount of the developed levain, and mix the wet dough by hand just until it is a mass.  Every half hour, I put a wet hand into the dough and give it a few turns, to build its cohesiveness.  That goes on for about 2-3 hours.

Late in the night (between 11 PM and 1 AM) the dough has developed enough to cut and shape it into two “loaves”.  “Lumps” would be a more accurate representation.  These are dusted with flour, put into wicker bannetons (proofing baskets), placed in plastic bags, and put into the refrigerator to develop slowly for the next 10-13 hours.

So mid-day Saturday I take the baskets out of the refrigerator, drop each loaf into a Dutch oven preheated to 475º F, and then bake it for 30 minutes covered, and the final 15-20 minutes with the cover off.  The process is not glamorous; the fermentation beasties do almost all of the work; and the results are very satisfying.

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By late afternoon I can cut a few fresh slices and serve them with butter or olive oil and a little salt.  Yummm.  All of this is an adaptation from Ken Forkish’s book, Flour Water Salt Yeast, which I started using 3 1/2 years ago.  Most of the time I’m making my own versions of his 75% Whole Wheat Levain (Page 144).  The specific combination THIS time is one of the best so far.  Here is the entry for December 9th in my bread log:

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Perfect Pairing

It was nearly four years ago when I created a dish with baked eggplant, zucchini, tomato and rice.  Tonight I decided to make it again, and to try two different wines with it.  The dish itself came out beautifully:

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My first wine choice was what was left of a marvelous wine from the Monsant region of Spain, Dido La Universal 2014.  I had bought this wine in a store in Barcelona in 2006, and subsequently consumed a case back home of the 2004 vintage.  Much to my delight, a store in New York offered some of the 2014 vintage, so I snapped it up.  It was great with this dish.

With my second helping, however, I needed more wine, so I turned to my son’s 2015 Unsanctioned wine, an Arizona blend of Petite Sirah and Sangiovese.  It went very well, too, much to my delight.

But I was not done yet.  Barbara was out for choir practice tonight, so she could not object to the smell of my cooking peppers.  I cut up three sweet red bell peppers, and I used the same cazuela (or cassola in Catalan dialect) to cook them slowly on the stovetop.

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The peppers were then finished with garlic, sherry vinegar, and Sicilian anchovies.

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Last night I had whipped up some almond milk ricotta (Kite Hill brand), and I also pulled out a jar of Olive Patè Nere (black olive paste) from Puglia.  I toasted a slice of Tuscan Pane (fancy name for white bread with no salt) in olive oil in the same cazuela.  A layer of paté, followed by the ricotta, and topped with the peppers completed the dish.

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Another glass or two of the Unsanctioned wine, and I was transported to another world.  Never had a better match.

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Recent Food Highlights

This is truffle season.  We have a restaurant about 20 minutes away that gets white truffles from Alba this time of year, so I almost always run down there for a meal when possible.  Two weeks ago I had a meeting with a student doing his final presentation on the Capstone Project at the company where he works.  It was only a mile from Tomasso’s, the restaurant, so I went there for a simple lunch of Tagliatelle with Truffles, and a glass of one of my favorite Italian wines, Kajanero, by Vestini Campagnano, from Campania.

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The lunch, and the student’s presentation, were big successes.

Experimenting at Home

In the past few days, I’ve had time to play in the kitchen, to experiment with new techniques as well as return to old standbys.

As vegan/vegetarian/pescatarian eaters (depending on day of the week and month), we virtually never have meat, so there are few reasons to use sous vide techniques.  However, the technology has improved and gotten easier to do, and I could see some use for fish (which I sometimes poach in olive oil in the oven), so I decided to try it.

Barbara was out at a meeting one night, so I pulled out the Joule device I just bought, and gave it a try.  I had some very good carrots and turnips from our CSA; they were a good place to start.  The biggest challenge was finding a deep enough pot in our collection that was not stainless steel-lined, so the magnetic base of the device would adhere to the bottom.   I did find a Le Creuset pot that worked, and 55 minutes later I had perfectly cooked, very flavorful vegetables.  I refrigerated them overnight as served them the next night for dinner, as an appetizer with pan-roasted baby brussels sprouts, before one of our favorite old pasta dishes — Bucatini with Caramelized Onions, Walnuts, and Rosemary.  This recipe was from Molly O’Neill in the NY Times, twenty years ago.  Barbara and I enjoyed both dishes.

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One last indulgence occurred the next night.  Looking for some late nourishment before bed, I went up to the kitchen, looking for a piece of toast with almond milk ricotta cheese.  No such luck.  My dear wife had converted the rest of the Tuscan Pane to croutons.  Next best choice was the Sea Salt flatbread crackers.  I added Pugliese olive oil, salt and pepper to some almond ricotta, then spread it on some crackers, but it needed a little something more.  Cruising through the pantry shelves I discovered a small jar of French Summer Truffles, preserved in olive oil, and thinly sliced.   They must have been there for 5 years, or maybe 10, who know?  Gingerly, i pried off the top.  Smelled fine, albeit subtle.  Tasted one, and decided to proceed, topping the cheese with truffle slices.  But what to drink?

This required serious thought.  Fortunately, I found a fine bottle of a 1985 Bordeaux, Château Chasse-Spleen, and decided that night was the night to open it up.  Good choice.

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Vegetarian Polenta with Butternut Squash and Sage Leaves

Barbara got inspired tonight.  She found a recipe in the Nantucket Inquirer Mirror newspaper and adapted it to her needs.  Usually, I am not thrilled with butternut squash, but WOW, was this ever different and better than I ever had.

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I chose a California Nebbiolo by Bryan Harrington, that went well with my two large helpings.

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Parisian Pot, Italian Chef, Pugliese Olive Oil, Great Fish

This is about last night’s dinner, but first, a story:

Twenty four years ago I was in Paris on a business trip.  My daughter came along with me on this one because she was only 14 and on her Winter Break from high school.  My client, the CEO of a growing French retail clothing chain, had a daughter of similar age and invited mine to stay with them for several days.

As you know I often do foodie things when I travel.  This time it was a visit to Dehilleran, the ne plus ultra cookware store, between the Hotel de Ville and Le Palais Royal part of Paris.  I was in heaven, shopping for pots, pans, and accessories.   One of the items I bought was a very small, relatively heavy (weighs 2.2 lbs.) copper pot with a lid — one which remains one of my favorite pots to this day.

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As an aside, when I went to the store counter to check out, I saw another sales slip in progress, and the name “Patricia Wells” on the slip.  Turning around, I looked and saw her (one of my favorite food writers, even then).  She was with her good friend, Johanne Killeen, co-owner of Al Forno, a great restaurant in Providence, RI, and that is how I met them both.

But I digress.  Last night I took the greatest advantage of this well-made pot to make one of the best fish dishes I ever had.  Barbara had said she wanted fish for dinner last night, so I stopped at The Quarterdeck to buy a small piece for her.  They also had some perfectly lovely small halibut steaks, so I bought 1/3 lb. piece for me.  When I got home, I researched for recipes for poaching halibut in olive oil, and I found this one by Mario Batali:

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Many years ago I had tried a Mark Bittman recipe from the NY Times for poaching a chunk of tuna and aromatic vegetables in olive oil, and it was marvelous — though I hadn’t done it since then.  So last night I sliced a lemon, rinsed and chopped some salted capers, and pulled out my 5-liter tin of virgin olive oil, purchased in Puglia last Spring.  The recipe is amazingly simple, and it only took an hour in a 250º oven.

That provided me plenty of time for the rest of the meal:

  • cut carrots and celery into batons, then poach with sliced onion and parsley until tender
  • thinly slice a large leek in long strips, and cook slowly with olive oil, salt and pepper in a covered copper sautéuse until extremely tender
  • chop and fry Shiitake mushrooms, then added diced onion and garlic, continuing to sauté; add leftover cooked Italian barley and leftover brown rice; cook with some stock until nice and tender
  • spread the mushroom-grain mixture in a gratin pan and bake in the oven, right next to the copper pot with the halibut
  • steam a bunch of golden beets, then clean and peel them
  • finally, take out the salmon fillet, slat and pepper lightly, and braise atop the carrots and celery, in their final stages of cooking.
  • remove the halibut with lemons, capers and parsley, from the pot and plate.  A taste confirmed incredibly delicate, smooth texture and flavors
  • finish the mushroom/grain gratin under the broiler, to crisp it a bit
  • serve the fishes with accompaniments and a glass of Sorriso di Cielo, a Malvasia from Italy — perfetto!

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