Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Pane alla parmigiana: Bread for dinner

I try to be scrupulous about giving credit for recipes – even, when possible, for ideas for recipes. But I cannot for the life of me think where our dinner this evening came from. I know I didn’t make it up. It could have been Bastianich. Or Batali. Or Hazan. Or some regional Italian cookbook. I tried googling, which I’m usually quite good at, but I couldn't find the dish anywhere.

So I apologize. To someone.

This great dinner was bread alla parmigiana: I cut excellent bread (baguette from New York’s Tom Cat Bakery), crust and all, into slices nearly 3/4 inch (2cm) thick, brushed them with olive oil and put them into a 375 degree F (190 C) oven for ten minutes to dry out and get a little toasty. I then used them as I would have used eggplant/aubergine slices for melanzane alla parmigiana: tomato sauce on the bottom of the baking dish; a layer of bread; sauce; mozzarella (not too much); a sprinkling of parmesan; more bread; more sauce. Et cetera, ending with mozzarella. If it had been summer, I’d have added basil.

Thirty-five minutes in that 375 oven, covered; another 10 or 12 minutes uncovered; 10 minutes more out of the oven to cool a little and to come together.

The bread soaks up liquid from the tomatoes and mozzarella and becomes bread-pudding-like – almost soufflé-like, in fact. It is much lighter than eggplant parmigiana, since bread is mostly air and eggplant is mostly eggplant (water, actually, but so is nearly all food).

The amount that half a baguette, half a quart/liter of sauce and half a mozzarella made was perfect as a one-dish supper for Jackie and me. It would have made six or more appetizer portions, and believe me, at some future dinner party it will.

Friday, February 17, 2012

An old friend returns to active kitchen duty

The other night I revived a delicious chicken dish that Jackie and I used to eat a couple of times a year but had completely forgotten about: poulet sauté au vinaigre, which in my version uses a whole cup of vinegar (and lots of other things) for one cut-up chicken. Just as good as I remembered it. Maybe better. I wrote something about it in today’s “Cooking Off the Cuff” over at The Washington Post.

We always used to eat it with a simple rice pilaf. I tried to think of another accompaniment, just for the sake of change, but couldn’t come up with anything better (though couscous or rösti potatoes were plausible candidates). So I reverted to rice, made with butter-sautéed leek, tarragon and dilute chicken stock. As I thought back to the days when we frequently ate chicken with vinegar sauce, I remembered the old brown Le Creuset saucepan in which I always – always – cooked this kind of rice dish. Since then, I’ve moved on to other pans and have gone through a phase of microwave rice-cooking (and still use the microwave from time to time). 

But that heavy, stubby old saucepan worked so well. I knew it was around the apartment somewhere, so I got a flashlight and peered way into the back of two or three closets until I found the pan, sitting atop a little pile of even older steel frying pans – a crêpe pan among them – coated in dusty grease (or was it greasy dust?) but at least not rusted away. The rice pan itself also had a similar … patina, shall we say? A scrubbing pad and some soap got it off in short order – an advantage, no doubt, of the enamel coating.

Gosh, it made a good batch of rice! Welcome back, old friend.

Friday, February 3, 2012

More on Onion-Mushroom Tarts

Today’s Washington Post “Cooking Off the Cuff” (here ) tells of an onion tart that became a mushroom-onion tart. When figuring out how to incorporate the mushrooms into the filling, I’d felt that the most obvious way was to sauté them and combine them with the pre-cooked onions. But because of the particular mushrooms I had (excellent-quality hen-of-the-woods) I took a different route, the one described in “Cooking Off the Cuff”.

A few days later, more guests were coming and I thought I’d repeat the tart as a first course: it had been exceptionally well received the first time around. But the mushroom situation was quite different: it wasn’t a farmers’ market day, and I was feeling too lazy to trek all the way across town to find what I really wanted. One nearby store sometimes has a decent selection of mushrooms, so I strolled over there, to find only cellophane-wrapped hen-of-the-woods (they looked nice) and some good oyster mushrooms. I bought some of each, but when I got home was disappointed at how little fragrance the hen-of-the-woods had – and at how much moisture they’d retained in their sealed package.

Clearly, just laying them atop the onions would be risky: because of the excess moisture they might not get crisp in time, or they might exude too much water. And their lack of aroma suggested that they might not even taste all that good. So I reverted to the more obvious approach, first cooking the hen-of-the-woods in butter alone (so that if they were awful I could throw them away without tainting the oyster mushrooms). In fact, they were fine. They didn’t fill the kitchen with that woodsy aroma of the excellent ones I’d had from other sources, but they tasted mushroomy and pleasing. So I added the oyster mushrooms, which I had torn lengthwise, and continued to cook until they were all done.

For the tart filling, I combined these with more of those pre-cooked onions I mention in the “Cooking Off  the Cuff” post, but to make up for the blander mushrooms I used more sage, more black pepper and a handful of freshly toasted hazelnuts, coarsely chopped. The nuts were a good innovation: their crunch replaced the crisp edges of the mushrooms in the earlier version of the tart, and they were delicious.

The outcome was the same: everybody had seconds, and there wasn’t a crumb left for a bedtime snack.