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Diane Morgan's Gratin of Fennel and Tomato


After a long weekend of excess (crab cakes, scrapple *gasp*, and Hershey kisses at the beach with dear friends; a four-course 30th birthday dinner capped off by chocolate cake from Billy's; croque madame and attitude for Sunday brunch followed by bottles of beer and our first run of Ben's backyard grill on Sunday afternoon... are you feeling ill yet? I know I am), I was in dire need of a healthy meal to reassure me that I wasn't about to die of a coronary at the ripe old age of 28. I scoured my binders for something to fit the bill.

Sometimes a recipe comes along that is just what it seems: straightforward to prepare, reasonably healthy, and tasty to boot. There isn't much to say about recipes like that, and I often ignore them on the blog, in favor of food that packs a bigger punch. But it isn't fair to those simpler recipes, and I often find that people in search of easy cooking are partial to that kind of food anyway. Luckily for me, the recipe I chose to make was all of the above, and just the ticket for dinner.

The LA Times reviewed Diane Morgan's Thanksgiving cookbook several years ago, and excerpted a few of her recipes in the paper, including one for a gratin of fennel and tomatoes. Although this is apparently meant to be a holiday dish, I found it just as delicious in spring (though I do see how perfect it would taste alongside a roasted bird and a few dozen other dishes). It's quite flavorful, but the cooked fennel is creamier and less aggressive than its raw version. Combined with the tomatoes and onions and garlic, it melds into a soothing, yet healthy dish.

One change I'd make is to toast the breadcrumbs in some olive oil or butter so that when the gratin bakes in the oven, the topping crisps up instead of staying dusty and dry. Eating a plateful of this for dinner with a slice of bread made me (and my arteries) feel right as rain.

Gratin of Fennel and Tomato
Serves 10 as a side dish

3/4 cup dried bread crumbs
5 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large onion, halved and cut in 1/4-inch slices
6 fennel bulbs, trimmed of stalks, halved, cored and cut in 1/4-inch slices
1 (28-ounce) can of diced tomatoes, drained
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
3/4 cup (3 ounces) grated Parmigiano
Grated zest of 1 lemon

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Toast the breadcrumbs in an 8-inch skillet over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Set aside to cool.

2. Heat the onion in a very large (16-inch) skillet over medium heat, and swirl to coat the pan. Cook the garlic and onion until soft, but not brown, about 5 to 6 minutes. Add the fennel and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until the fennel has softened and is beginning to brown, about 20 to 25 minutes.

3. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper to taste. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes longer. Transfer to a shallow 3-quart oven-to-table casserole or gratin dish.

4. Combine the breadcrumbs, grated cheese and lemon zest in a bowl and sprinkle evenly over the fennel mixture. The gratin can be made up to this point 6 to 8 hours ahead. Cover and refrigerate, then bring to room temperature before baking.

5. Bake the gratin until heated through and the topping is crisp, about 20 minutes. Serve immediately.

Mark Bittman's Fideua


Ben's sister's boyfriend is a Spanish talent in the kitchen and he was the first one to introduce me to fideua, utter heaven if you love pasta and paella equally and don't know which to make for dinner. When I found a clipping for fideua in my recipe binders last night after work, I wanted nothing more than that for dinner. Little did I know what lay in store for me. For that Mark Bittman is a sneaky, sneaky fellow. I know I swore up and down I wouldn't cook anything of his again. After all, it was easy to go through my newspaper clippings and toss out all the ones headed with "The Minimalist". But I had forgotten about the recipes of his printed out in Word documents and filed in binders. In some cases, I forgot to note who they came from, and there they lurked, biding their time, until I came along and unwittingly snatched one up for suppertime. Curses!

I suppose I could have guessed, half-way through the cooking process last night, that something was amiss. I had short lengths of angel hair pasta scattered all around the recently cleaned kitchen: the floor, the stove, the countertops were covered. My brow was shiny with sweat and I kept snapping at Ben every time he tried to come close and help. The 12-inch pan called for in the recipe, to fit 1 pound of short pasta, was an absolute joke: every time I tried to stir the browning pasta, more of it ended up on unwanted surfaces. I came dangerously close to abandoning the recipe entirely, though in my wild-eyed state of hypoglycemia, I was still lucid enough to realize that might not be the best solution.

Instead, I dumped out a quarter of the pasta, turned my back on the gathering mess around me, and went to work, teeth gritted and all. I added saffron, sweet paprika and minced garlic to the toasted pasta in the pan and attempted to stir this altogether. Though more chaos in the kitchen ensued, I tried to focus on the dulcet tones of the Colbert Report emanating from the living room. I added clams and mussels and some water to the pan, and attempted to stir this. I kept trying to stir and adding more water to keep the pasta from burning for about 10 minutes, until the pasta seemed tender and the mollusks started opening. Then I added shrimps and scallops, and kept the heat on a few minutes longer to cook them through, before stirring in chopped parsley and turning off the stove.

We ate our fideua on the couch, plates balanced on our knees (it was too late for polite dinner conversation at the table), squeezing lemon over the seafood and chewing contentedly in silence. Because you know? It was pretty good. Those Spaniards know what they're doing with the saffron and the seafood and the deliciousness that ensues. If only the recipe transcriber, AHEM, could have done a better job of telling me to use less pasta to fit in the pan. But that's what I'm here for, to pass on my hard-won information to you. Despite throwing out a quarter of the pasta, I kept the seasonings and liquids called for. So if you do make this with the entire pound of pasta, you need to up the amounts of garlic and spices and stock. And be prepared to be on your hands and knees mopping the kitchen floor while you mutter angrily to yourself and your boyfriend wonders, safely in the other room, where his lovely girlfriend disappeared to.

Fideua (Spanish Pasta with Seafood)
Serves 4

4 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound fideo or very thin pasta, in 2-inch lengths or shorter
salt and pepper
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 pound cockles or small clams, well washed
1 pound mussels, well washed
1/2 cup stock or water
8 to 12 large shrimp, shells on
4 to 8 sea scallops, cut in half through their equators
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves
Lemon wedges

1. Put oil in a skillet at least 12 inches across (I used this, which wasn't nearly big enough. I'd say you should use the 14-inch version or else this), and turn heat to medium-high. A minute later add noodles; sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring almost constantly, until they darken. Try to avoid letting more than a few pieces blacken.

2. Add saffron, paprika and garlic, and stir for a minute more. Add clams and mussles and about 1/2 cup water or stock and continue to cook, stirring. Depending on how much liquid the clams and mussels release, you may have to add a little more liquid. Continue to cook and stir until the pasta is nearly tender, about 10 minutes.

3. Add shrimp and scallops and cook about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until cooked through. Stir in parsley, taste and adjust seasoning and serve with lemon wedges

Daniel Young's Garlic Soup with Mussels



Run, don't walk, to your local fishmonger today and buy two pounds of mussels, stat. Because I seem to be on some kind of a roll again here, and we have to take advantage of moments like this, of recipes proffered from newspapers that turn out to be recipes you will love and treasure and make over and over again. With this one, I know I will. It's labeled a soup, but I'd venture to say this is really more a stewy bowl of broth-moistened bread with all sorts of delicious things sloshing around in there. The recipe comes from Daniel Young's new book, The Bistros, Brasseries and Wine Bars of Paris that was reviewed in the LA Times. Although Young's subject is as old as the hills, this recipe alone is worth the price of the book.

I have the good fortune of having the world's best fishmonger working just a few blocks from my office. He's French and knows his metier in the way only a Frenchman can, which, I'm sure I don't need to tell you, is a relief after having stood in front of one too many other fish counters with fishmongers who don't know the difference between halibut and cod. In the 2-pound sack of mussels he gave me, there was only one mussel that didn't open in the cooking process... I'd say that's pretty great quality. And the flavor? Sweet, tender, delicious. Plus, I just get a kick out of him in general: "yes-euh, no problem-euh".

But we were talking about the recipe here: it's easy as pie. You dump your cleaned mussels in a heavy pot (I used my cast-iron one) with a cup of water and a cup of wine and bring it all to a boil to steam open the mussels for a few minutes. You drain off the mussels and save that milky, fragrant liquor. Then you saute a panful of chopped garlic, add the mussel juice and simmer it together before adding in a slurry of beaten egg yolk and vinegar. You layer toasted baguette slices, shucked mussels, and a bit of grated cheese in a bowl before pouring over the frothy broth that softens the bread and melts the cheese and bathes the mussels with gorgeous flavors.

To gild the lily, you could dust piment d'Espelette on top, or do as I did and not. I'd say the recipe makes four dainty servings - it's not a lumberjack's meal. But it's so satisfying that you won't need much more than a sharply dressed salad to follow it for a very successful dinner. I'd rather have this than moules frites any day of the week.

Garlic Soup with Mussels
Serves 4

2 pounds mussels, scrubbed and debearded
1 cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons olive oil
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 baguette, cut into 12 (half-inch) slices
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 cup (4 ounces) grated Gruyere
1 to 2 teaspoons piment d'Espelette or chili powder - optional

1. Place the mussels, wine and 1 cup of cold water in a large saucepan over moderately high heat. Cover and cook until the shells open, 4 to 6 minutes. Strain the mussels into a colander, collecting the juices in a bowl placed below.

2. Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over low heat, add the garlic, and cook, stirring constantly, until pale gold, 3 to 4 minutes. Do not let brown.

3. Add the mussel juice to the garlic, raise the heat to medium and bring to a boil. Cover, lower the heat to very low, and simmer for 10 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, remove the mussels from the shells. Lightly toast the bread.

5. Remove the soup from the heat. Combine the egg yolk, vinegar and a couple tablespoons of the soup in a mixing bowl and beat vigorously with a whisk until the mixture gets foamy. Slowly pour the mixture back into the remaining soup, continuing to beat with a whisk.

6. To serve, place a few baguette slices, 3 to 4 tablespoons of grated cheese and some mussels on the bottom of 4 wide soup bowls, cover with soup and dust with piment d'Espelette.

Russ Parsons' Bruschetta with Burrata and Radicchio Marmalade


It's been a while since I've made a Russ Parsons recipe. Because if all I ever did was write about slam-dunk recipes, you'd all be snoring your way through this blog. Or maybe that'd just be me? Either way, Russ knows his recipes. Whether he's having you puree boiled greens with cooked rice to make a delicate soup, or steam potatoes to serve under an aromatic and earthy hash of mushrooms, Russ brings you Seriously Good Food. So it was no surprise to me that his latest recipe was yet another smash hit.

In last week's LA Times, Russ wrote about burrata - an Apulian knot of mozzarella filled with rags of molten cheese and cream. In Italy, it's difficult to find burrata outside of the small region that produces it (I have some family in a town in that region and have had the most distinct pleasure of eating burrata there. It's quite the gustatory experience, and totally decadent, especially for someone raised by people with more ascetic, Lutheran sensibilities. Have you ever heard of anyone eating cream-filled cheese in northern Europe?), but of course California being California, Russ tracked down an Italian immigrant running a healthy business producing burrata in Los Angeles.

And that is great news for all of us. Because if Russ hadn't tracked down the burrata maker, he wouldn't have printed a recipe for toasted bread with sauteed radicchio topped with a dollop of cream and cheese, and we'd all be the poorer for it. I had friends coming over for dinner on Friday, and figured I'd start our dinner with a tray of these crostini passed around. After all, a weekend that started with these crostini could be a very good weekend, indeed (and it was. Dinner with friends! A Spike Lee Joint! Brooklyn Real Estate Hunting! A Blogger Meet-up!). In New York, it's not too difficult to find burrata - it gets flown in from Italy and is sold at Garden of Eden, Zabar's and Buon Italia, to name a few stores.

The radicchio marmalade was a cinch: nothing more than a hot panful of sliced radicchio cooked down with garlic cloves, oil, salt and balsamic vinegar. While that cooked, I sliced baguette rounds and toasted them. Each round got a spoonful of radicchio and a gently torn-apart piece of burrata, taking care to include both outer layer and filling. I forgot both the oil drizzling and pepper cracking on top, and still my guests and I couldn't stop eating the crostini. Crunchy bread with silky, pungent radicchio, capped with softly unctuous cheese that was fresh and barely sour: this bruschetta was delicious beyond words. And though it was utterly original and different, it tasted just like Italy.

Since I halved the recipe, I had leftover burrata to contend with. It was pretty easy getting rid of it. Some got eaten cold from the fridge with a fork the next day, after I'd spent seven hard hours baking bread with the big league and needed something - anything - to keep me alive. The rest of it I chopped up fine and dumped into a bowl of hot pasta with barely cooked tomatoes in basil oil for lunch today - the residual heat from the pasta and sauce melted the burrata, which in turn coated the spaghetti strands with creamy, wonderful flavor. Not a bad way to start the week off, either.

Bruschetta with Burrata and Radicchio Marmalade

Serves 8

1 pound radicchio, preferably di Treviso
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
5 whole garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 baguette
1/2 pound burrata
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Trim ends, then cut each head of radicchio into lengthwise quarters and then into cross-wise ribbons about 1/4-inch wide. Combine the radicchio in a cold skillet with 3 tablespoons of olive oil, garlic, salt and balsamic vinegar. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the radicchio has softened, about 10 minutes.

2. Reduce the heat to low and cook until the radicchio is quite soft and the bitterness has cooked out, about 5 minutes more. Season to taste with salt and perhaps just a little more balsamic vinegar. Remove from heat and set aside. Remove the garlic before serving.

3. Slice the baguette into half-inch slices and toast until lightly browned on both sides.

4. Spoon a heaping tablespoon of radicchio marmalade onto each slice of bread and top with a similarly sized spoonful of burrata (try to get both the filling and the wrapping in each spoonful). Sprinkle each with a light grinding of black pepper and a drizzle of the remaining olive oil and serve.