Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Trade Secrets

Tips on dining in and dining out

Required Reading

As Italian food - and travel to Italy - become more popular, a great great number of classic Italian entrees has become familiar to Americans. But Italian side dishes may not be so readily available or familiar.

In Contorni (Chronicle Books; $19.95), Susan Simon introduces a whole book of these delightful and varied side dishes. They are arranged by time of year, since they're based on vegetables that are best in season.

The recipes start with spring dishes, such as fritella, a vegetable medley of artichokes, fava beans and peas; move to height-of-summer specialties, including baked squash blossoms and several things to do with zucchini and eggplant; then autumn dishes, such as Jerusalem artichokes cooked in cream; and winter dishes including crauti freschi, or quick sauerkraut with bacon, from northern Italy near the Austrian border.

Spinaci con passi e pinoli

(Spinach with raisins and pine nuts)

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 rounded tablespoon pine nuts

4 teaspoons raisins

3 pounds spinach, thoroughly rinsed and tough stems removed

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne

In a large, heavy-bottomed skillet or saute pan over medium heat, melt the butter in the oil. Saute the onion until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the pine nuts and raisins and stir to coat with the onion mixture.

Add the spinach, in batches, stirring to combine with the other ingredients. Add the next batch as soon as the preceding batch has wilted, usually in less than 30 seconds. Cook until the spinach is tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the salt and cayenne. Serve immediately. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

From "Contorni"

Timely Tip

Cake recipes often call for alternating liquid and dry ingredients in the process of mixing the batter. It may seem fussy, but it's important for thorough mixing. Does the order matter? Here are some tips from Nick Malgieri's Perfect Cakes on the process:

For pound cakes or any butter cake, always begin and end with the flour.

"Here's why: The buttery base of these batters does not absorb a lot of liquid easily: If the butter is forced to absorb too much liquid (usually eggs), the butter will reach its saturation point, and the result will be a separated batter with unabsorbed liquid in it. If this happens, the cake will be heavy.

"So it's far better to start by adding just some of the liquid to the butter and sugar mixture, then add the rest alternating it with the flour: The flour brings the batter together and prevents separation. For most recipes, these ingredients are incorporated in five additions: flour, liquid, flour, liquid, flour."

What's for lunch

A Vietnamese chicken sandwich from the cafe in the Main Library, downtown.

Vietnamese sandwiches may seem like a cockeyed combination, but when you think about it, they make sense - in any case, they're delicious.

Vietnamese ingredients are layered on a French baguette, a legacy of the many years that the French were the colonial power in Vietnam.

The cafe at the Main Library, 800 Vine St., is open again and called Le's Cafe.

It's run by Hai Bui, a native of Vietnam. He has coffee shop pastries (from Le Cezanne, to complete the French theme), plus sandwiches and salads. But the three Vietnamese sandwiches are what got me over there as soon as I heard about them.

The chicken sandwich is built on a hoagie-style bun, not exactly a baguette, but close. Sliced marinated chicken is tucked in with a lightly dressed shredded carrot and onion salad and lots of fresh cilantro. A packet of soy sauce and a very hot red pepper slice are included, so you can customize.

It adds up to a wonderful combination of Vietnamese and French, exotic and familiar, and salad and sandwich.

There's also a beef version and one called Banh Mi Thit Ngoui, which includes pork sausage, barbecued pork and pate, which is also good. They're all $3.75.

Hours: 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Saturday. 665-3339.

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