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Giambotta, Italian summer vegetable stew

Giambotta ©DPaul Brown

I don't know about you, but I would have thought that a cookbook that was spun off from a foul-mouthed primetime premium cable drama series should be nothing more than a schlocky gimmick, a way to squeeze a few extra bucks out of a fawning audience. So imagine my surprise when my great aunt back in Schenectady said that the recipes in The Sopranos Family Cookbook
were nearly identical to our family's repertory. Knowing I have an interest in documenting our Italian-American culinary heritage, she sent me a copy of the book, with hand-written notes slotted in alongside certain recipes, with an introductory note:

Hope you enjoy this cookbook. I never watched The Sopranos. The recipes are the closest I've ever seen to the peasant meals my mother cooked. She did not use a lot of hot stuff like red pepper or pepperoncini. The red pepper would be on the table along with the grated cheese for all meals.

Love as always,

Aunt Anne

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Burgoo, Classic Kentucky Stew

Burgoo, classic Kentucky stew

Why is it that so many of the world’s tastiest foods are the least photogenic?

I grappled with this when writing about ropa vieja, molha … heck, even those rich-as-the-dickens mini Hot Browns are a tetch hard to make look as appetizing on camera as they are in life. It’s not like I deliberately go out of my way to make my beleaguered, talented photographer husband’s life more difficult. Brown food is good food, I guess.

Case in point: Burgoo. This most quintessentially Kentuckian dish delivers in the delicious department, but boy howdy is it brown.

Burgoo’s Kentucky roots are fairly universally credited to French chef Gus Jaubert of Lexington, KY, who served the stew to General John Hunt Morgan and his Confederate Raiders. Clearly, this is designed to be a dish of great proportions — to be made in quantities literally enough to feed an army. James T. Looney assumed the mantle of “the Burgoo King” and, according to The Kentucky Encyclopedia, had this recipe for 1,200 gallons of the stew:

…Lean meat (not game), fat hens, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, tomato puree, carrots, and corn, seasoned with red pepper and salt and his secret sauce…

That’s a fairly tame estimation of the ingredients. In A Love Affair with Southern Cooking: Recipes and Recollections, Jean Anderson found anecdotal information that Jaubert’s original recipe contained blackbirds; more rustic versions allegedly contained mostly squirrel; and perhaps more alarmingly even heard tell of a “mysterious ingredient” that married the flavors together — a black snake that would fall into the stew during the dark of night.

Living as we do in a major modern metropolis, blackbirds and squirrel (not to mention black snake) are surprisingly difficult to source. Not wanting to disappoint, we resorted to the most readily available locally sourced ingredients we could find. There is, after all, no shortage of pigeons and rats on the streets of San Francisco.

Or, we could buy some chicken and pork.

Fact is, modern versions of burgoo are quite tame indeed. The recipe we used as our base, from Anderson’s book, is nothing more than chicken, pork, peas, corn, beans and salt and pepper. That’s it, though it doesn’t suffer from a dash of hot sauce.

And served with a hot biscuit fresh from the oven and a nice arugula-strawberry salad, it transforms from soldier rations to a satisfying brunch entrée.

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Daiquiri days and tiki nights

Daiquiri

Food and drink bloggers tend to be a merry lot; DPaul and I are certainly not alone in our pursuits of things hedonistic. It generally takes little provocation to get a group of local bloggers to assemble to consume something of interest, in groups large or small.

Last year, Jen organized a come-as-you-are series of outings to case out the various bars and beverages featured in the 2008 edition of Food & Wine Cocktails, 17 of which were from Bay Area locales. A schedule was built, and week after week a cadre of bloggers and booze enthusiasts traipsed to watering holes in San Francisco and beyond in search of these rarefied concoctions. So regular and assiduously attended were these events, they became referred to as our "book club."

Sadly, as it turned out, relatively few of the cocktails in the book were available for the tasting. It stands to reason in an artisanal cocktail center like San Francisco that menus change with the moods and seasons, but some instances were just outright silly. At one location, the cocktail was on the menu, but is apparently never actually served, since they don't stock one key ingredient, a Belgian Trappist ale, that is both perishable and expensive. In one other case, the cocktail was not — and had actually never been — on the menu. Of the comparatively few cocktails featured in the book that were of offer, some were simply disappointing, though often there were superior drinks available at those locations. Ultimately, only a few stood out; my personal favorite was the Tommy Gun at Bar Drake.

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Pommes De Terre Boulangère

Pommes de terre boulangère

Like most people, I love potatoes. There is scarcely any variety or preparation of them I don’t enjoy. But one of my favorites comes from as close to a bible as we have in the kitchen, Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home.

Pommes de terre boulangère is a gratin of thinly sliced potatoes, onion and garlic first parboiled then baked in a flavorful herbed stock. The potatoes release starch into the stock, which in turn thickens and forms an unctuous medium. The top layer browns and crisps, and the rest stays soft and yummy.

This is one of my all-time favorite side dishes; it goes especially well with a nice roast chicken. It is elegant, flavorful and above all else easy. Plus, the thickened stock gives a richness that implies creaminess, yet there is no dairy and practically no fat. This recipe is easily made vegetarian, even vegan, but replacing the chicken stock with vegetable stock or water, and is to the best of my knowledge gluten-free.

The one trick, if you can call it that, is to invest in a mandoline; a cheap Benriner does the job very nicely. You want thin, even slices of everything, and the mandoline accomplishes that with astonishing speed.

Use small, waxy potatoes, like Yukon golds or small white potatoes. I have also mixed up Yukons with fingerlings for some contrast in flavor and texture, and that works very well.

I have found that this is also a recipe that defies precision, so the measurements I give are rough at best. It is most of all about maintaining a balance between the amount of stock versus the potato mixture. Too much, and your gratin will be soupy; too little and it will be dry and tough. On the whole, though, it is better to err on the side of dryness when in doubt.

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