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GREAT MARRIAGES : A Spring Wedding

April 29, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

Because I eat in restaurants nearly every night of the week, Sunday suppers at home are a rare pleasure. When I long for simpler dishes, the unmanipulated tastes of the season, these meals provide relief from many complex meals I eat during the week.

Last week, for instance, I built a meal around a beautiful pork loin I found on special, perfect for trying British cookbook author Alastair Little's version of maiale al latte--pork cooked in milk.

The ingredients for the rest of the meal came from an early Sunday morning expedition to the vibrant Hollywood farmers' market. It's particularly exciting this time of the year: Each week something new is just coming into season.

Cherry tomatoes were tasting good, so I bought a basket of juicy red ones and a small bunch of sweet basil to make bruschetta.

I stopped with my fellow shopper and husband at the Zuckerman family stand for new Yukon Gold potatoes, 2 pounds' worth. Halved and tossed in virgin olive oil with sprigs of thyme and roasted cut-side-down in a heavy iron skillet, they get a wonderful golden crust.

I couldn't pass up the bundles of fat asparagus they had either. And when I spotted bundles of pea shoots laid out on a table with baby bok choy and other Asian greens, I decided to use them in a risotto. Actually, I stole the idea from a menu at Campanile, which listed risotto with English peas and pea shoots. I'd substitute the asparagus for the peas.

I hesitated in front of the gorgeous display of onions, garlic and shallots at Throgmorton Farm's stand. Should I get the violet onions the size of Ping-Pong balls or the more expensive cipolline, small, flat onions grown from Italian seeds? "The cipolline," advised the Throgmortons. "They taste a little like hazelnuts when they're roasted."

On the way home, I stopped at La Brea Bakery to pick up some tiny Arbequina olives from Spain and some dark, oil-cured olives from Morocco to serve with the bruschetta. I bought some bread, too, something new--a French baguette that's not a sourdough. So much for shopping.

To make the bruschetta, I toasted half-inch-thick slices of the bread and, while they were still hot, rubbed a peeled, halved clove of garlic over the top. Just before serving, I topped them with quartered cherry tomatoes tossed in extra-virgin olive oil and a chiffonade of basil.

I like a crisp, dry white wine with the acidity of the tomatoes. I still had a bottle of 1996 Ritratti Pinot Grigio and decided to serve that as an aperitif. It's crisp and juicy enough to drink on its own and with the bruschetta.

When deciding on wines for a particular menu, I don't necessarily pair an Italian wine with an Italian dish. I like to mix it up. When I considered the flavors of the asparagus and pea shoot risotto, I thought an Austrian Riesling might be a nice match with the fresh spring tastes. While my husband stirred the risotto, I opened a bottle of Knoll Gruner Veltliner from the Ried Kruetles vineyard.

Made from the indigenous Austrian grape which shows best in the Wachau, a small wine area along the Danube about an hour west of Vienna, Knoll's is fresh, spicy and crisp, a wonderful choice for the risotto, playing off the crunch of the asparagus and the pearly grains of rice bathed in stock, butter and Parmesan. The pea shoots give an extra dimension of green and freshness to the risotto.

The traditional way of cooking pork loin or pork butt in milk reduces the liquid to a mass of brown curds with a delicious nutty flavor. It's a wonderful dish, but definitely would qualify (like the lumpy hazelnut meringue cookies called brutti ma buoni) as ugly but good. I've tried versions that infuse the milk with lemon zest or a heavy dose of herbs such as rosemary or sage, but the flavors don't marry well with the milk.

Little's version is more sophisticated and truer to the original. Basically, he marinates the meat for a couple of hours in white wine and a little cider vinegar before cooking the roast (on the bones) with the marinade and milk. The result is a subtly complex sauce livened with the wine and vinegar's slight acidity. To give it a smooth consistency, he stirs the curds and passes the pale amber sauce through a sieve. The pork couldn't have been more tender or moist.

Cooking in milk is a particularly useful technique since pork these days is leaner and leaner and has a tendency to dry. Nobody had to be encouraged to mop up the juices with the bread. I'm definitely adding this one to my repertory.

I had an idea it would be terrific with the 1994 Voge Cornas, but you never know until you try it. It was. It's a deep, concentrated Syrah with notes of black pepper and ripe plum, atypically soft and lush. And a perfect complement to the mild, sweet pork. Oh, and those cipolline were astonishingly delicious, roasted in their skins with a little good olive oil drizzled over and a scattering of fresh thyme.

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