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Thursday, May 30, 2019 12:01 am

Mail order hits and misses

Bagna cauda brings back memories

Once upon a time, in the early years of my life, before downloads and streaming, there were record clubs and book clubs. The now-defunct Columbia House Record Club gave me my first opportunity to screw up my credit rating. Seduced by the offer of eight tapes for only a penny (I’m talking eight-tracks here – it was the late 60s.), I eagerly taped my penny to the order form from the back pages of a magazine and anxiously awaited the arrival of my treasure trove of new music. In so doing, I had unwittingly agreed to purchase more tapes over the next year at a price significantly higher than I would have paid at my local discount store. If I failed to mail in my monthly order form, I’d receive a random offering. If I failed to return unwanted selections by the deadline (which I often forgot to do), I’d be billed for them. My unwanted copy of the soundtrack to Casino Royale represented the first of a lifetime of questionable financial decisions. I can only guess that my collection of eight-track tapes lies buried in some landfill.

On the other hand, my collection of Time-Life’s Foods of the World has remained among my most cherished cooking references. Time-Life recruited some of the world’s best food writers of the 60s and produced a mail-order subscription cookbook series that was 50 years ahead of its time and remains relevant even now. Before we had shows like Netflix’s “Chef’s Table,” the Foods of the World series promoted food and cooking as entertainment.

I vividly remember the cover of Time-Life’s Cooking of Italy. Looking like a Vermeer still life, it pictured a straw-covered bottle of wine, a ball of hard cheese bound up in twine, a cruet of olive oil and two plums. Fascinating narratives accompanied photographs of people savoring regional cuisines. An accompanying spiral-bound companion recipe book gave DIY instructions.

I remember the picture of stocky peasant men and their wives, towels around their necks, sitting around a table, dipping long sticks of celery in a warm butter-oil-anchovy bath known as bagna cauda. At a time in my young life when dip meant mixing Lipton’s Onion Soup with sour cream, bagna cauda was a strange and exotic concept. Bagna cauda is both rustic and elegant – the essence of Italian food.

This time of year, before the summer’s heat sets in, we are blessed with an abundance of beautiful young vegetables: radishes, asparagus, little carrots, young garlics and onions, new cabbage, baby turnips and garlic scapes. For picnics, potlucks or even a light evening meal, I love to take the garden’s bounty and prepare them into a gloriously colorful platter and savor them very simply by dipping into a warm garlicky anchovy bath. Some vegetables, such as garlic scapes, like to be softened a bit by blanching. Others, like carrots and radishes, are best enjoyed raw. To get my protein fix, I like to add soft-boiled eggs, raw or gently steamed oysters, cooked mussels or cold-boiled shrimp.

There are several versions of bagna cauda. My favorite that I learned while working at Montreal’s Restaurant Joe Beef is presented below. I urge anchovy-haters to suspend judgment. The anchovies dissolve into the garlic and oil mixture and create a dip resembling a Caesar salad dressing. A vegetarian version, substituting miso for anchovy, is also presented.

Joe Beef’s Bagna Cauda
Serves 4-6

Ingredients
Vegetable suggestions
Small crisp cucumbers, quartered crosswise and halved
Small carrots, peeled and quartered lengthwise
Celery hearts, split lengthwise
Small ripe tomatoes, quartered
Radishes with leaves attached, halved if you like
Little white Japanese turnips, thinly sliced
Small zucchini, halved lengthwise
Young kohlrabi, peeled and thinly sliced
Small beets, peeled and sliced
Small new potatoes, cooked and chilled
Young sweet peppers, seeded and slivered
Cauliflower florets, blanched for 10 seconds in boiling salted water and refreshed in ice water
Garlic scapes, blanched for 10 seconds in boiling salted water and refreshed in ice water
Dip ingredients
1 cup whipping cream
Two 2-ounce cans anchovy fillets in olive oil
3 or 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 cup olive oil
1 cup unsalted butter, cubed
1 or 2 ice cubes, if needed
Salt and pepper
Garnish ingredients
2 soft-boiled eggs (boiled for 5 minutes)
3 or 4 bread sticks
Boiled shrimp, chilled
Raw or steamed oysters
Cooked mussels, chilled

Preparation

First, figure out how many vegetables you need to serve your guests. Then, for the vegetables, sit down in a garden chair with a bottle of rosé or a cold farmhouse saison, a cutting board on your knees, and a good paring knife. Throw the peels straight into the garden.

To make the dip, in a small saucepan combine the cream and anchovies and simmer over medium-low heat until the cream is reduced by one-third. Bring the heat down to low and, using a hand blender, blend in the garlic and oil. Using a hand whisk, delicately whisk in the butter a few cubes at a time. The mixture may break and split. If it does, add an ice cube and whisk again. Season generously with salt and pepper and serve warm. If the weather is chilly, keep the dip warm on a fondue warmer on the very lowest setting.

Serve the vegetables along with the garnishes of your choice in a nice bowl or arranged on a platter along with the dip.

Serves 4 to 6
Excerpted with permission from The Art of Living According to Joe Beef by David McMillan, Frederic Morin and Meredith Erickson. Ten Speed Press 2011

Vegan Miso Bagna Cauda

Ingredients
1 lemon, seeded and diced (rinsed and unpeeled)
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 1/2 tablespoons red miso (may substitute yellow or white miso)
8 cloves garlic, grated or finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Preparation

Fill a medium saucepan with about 2 inches of water and set it over medium heat. Once the water starts to bubble, reduce the heat to medium-low so that the water is barely bubbling around the edges.

Set a metal bowl so it fits snugly over the saucepan; in it, combine the diced lemon, oil, miso, garlic and crushed red pepper flakes, stirring to incorporate.

Cover the bowl tightly with heavy-duty aluminum foil. Cook for about 45 minutes, checking/maintaining the water level as needed, to form a sauce that looks like it has separated.

Uncover and cool to room temperature. The yield is 2 1/2 cups. 

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