Sunday, May 22, 2016

Parmesan Pudding (Sformato)

I'm not sure if I first bumped into Parmesan Pudding in Joyce Goldstein's wonderful little book Solo Suppers or in Suzanne Goin's Sunday Suppers at Lucques.  It could have been either one...both books are favorites.  I turn to Goin's book for professional inspiration on a regular basis.  I use Goldstein's as more of a treasure trove for the kinds of things I like to eat when I'm cooking at home. 

Parmesan Pudding, as it happens, is useful in both situations.  I have served it to clients as part of an elegant entrée (with chicken and a medley of spring vegetables, for example)...and we enjoy it at my house as the centerpiece of a light dinner...with a seasonal vegetable ragoût...or a simple salad.  It is a delicious little preparation to have in your repertoire.

You might have encountered Parmesan Pudding under its Italian name: sformato.  It is sometimes described as a savory flan or custard.  In texture however, because it contains flour, it is a bit more substantial than what you might expect from a plain baked custard...making this designation somewhat confusing.  (For a frame of reference, think about the difference between the consistency of a crème anglaise and a pastry cream.  These two have basically the same list of ingredients save one: flour.  The pastry cream contains flour (or cornstarch) and is consequently much more thick and substantial.)   A sformato is also sometimes described as a "less airy" soufflé.  This description makes sense mostly if you think about how a soufflé is constructed:  with a béchamel (white sauce) base, egg yolks and beaten egg whites.  A sformato has the béchamel base...and also includes yolks and whites...but the whites are not whipped—hence a soufflé, but with less air...

With a Salad of Arugula, Sugar Snap Peas, Black Olives & Walnuts.
No matter how you choose to think about it...or what familiar preparation you choose to compare it to...I think you will find it to be delicious.  It is rich, creamy and very savory.  I love it in this plain cheese form, but Goldstein writes that in Italy it is most often made with an addition of a vegetable purée of some kind.  Goin suggests the additions of sliced prosciutto or cooked asparagus or sautéed mushrooms...all of which sound delicious. I can imagine all kinds of possible vegetable additions.

However, I prefer to make it in its plain form...choosing to add other flavor elements as a sauce or garnish.  The medley of mushrooms, peas and spring onions that I am posting is a perfect go-with.  In late summer ratatouille would be good...or a sauté of peppers and prosciutto.  In the fall and winter months a sauté of wild mushrooms (with some white wine...fresh herbs...and maybe some prosciutto) would be just the thing.  And I have to admit that since I love mushrooms combined with winter squash that this would be a great time to make your sformato with the addition of some winter squash purée.  If you want to go with a lighter garnish, sformato is delicious accompanied by some crusty bread and a simple salad (just greens...or greens with a few vegetables and maybe some toasted nuts...and olives...).

With a Salad of Arugula, Roasted Beets, Shaved Asparagus,
Green Olives & Pistachios.
The recipe that I am posting today is Joyce Goldstein's version.  It is for individual-sized puddings...but you can bake the mixture in almost any container you like.  It can be baked in a loaf pan...and then turned out and sliced....or in a shallow gratin, in which case you could turn it out and cut it into wedges, or do as Goin does and simply set the gratin on the table and let everyone help themselves to a big spoonful.  Once you try it, you will definitely want to make it again...and you will, I am certain, come up with lots of delicious ways in which to serve it.   

Parmesan Pudding

2 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
1 c. whole milk
1/2 c. heavy cream
1 1/2 T. unsalted butter
2 T. all-purpose flour
2 1/2 oz. finely grated parmesan (about 1 c.)
Salt, pepper & nutmeg, to taste

Butter individual soufflé molds and line with a round of parchment paper.  Butter the parchment paper.  Set aside.

Place the whole eggs and yolks in a medium sized bowl and whisk until smooth; set aside. 

Prepare a béchamel:  In a medium saucepan, bring the milk and cream to a simmer; keep hot.  In another saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat.  When the foam subsides, whisk in the flour.  Cook stirring constantly for a minute or two—the roux will be bubbly and straw yellow.  Remove from the heat and pour in half of the hot milk/cream, whisking constantly until smooth—it will thicken immediately.  Add the remaining milk/cream.  Return to the heat and stir constantly until the sauce returns to a simmer. 

Whisk the hot béchamel in a thin stream into the eggs.  Whisk in the parmesan.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  If you like, add a pinch of fresh nutmeg. 

Divide the pudding mixture among the prepared molds and place in a baking pan.  Add hot water to the pan to reach half way up the sides of the molds.  

Cover the pan with foil and bake in a 350° oven until a knife inserted in the center of a pudding comes out clean--about 20 to 30 minutes.  Let the puddings rest for 5 minutes.

The puddings may be served immediately or made up to a day ahead.  If making ahead, cool and refrigerate.  Reheat by placing the puddings in a 350° to 375° oven for 15 minutes or so.  To unmold, run a small knife carefully around the sides of each pudding.  Invert the puddings directly onto a serving plate (make sure that the round of parchment is not attached to the pudding).  Serve surrounded by medley of spring vegetables, or other sauce/vegetable medley/salad of your choice.

Serves 4 to 6—depending on the size soufflé mold chosen

(Parmesan Pudding from Solo Suppers by Joyce Goldstein)

  • You may also bake the pudding in one large casserole and either turn it out or serve it from the casserole. If you are not planning on turning it out, it is not necessary to line the mold with parchment. 
  • Joyce Goldstein suggests adding 2/3 cup of a vegetable purée of your choice in with the cheese for a vegetable flavored sformato. 

Spring Medley of Mushrooms & Peas

4 oz. sugar snap peas, string pulled & halved on the diagonal
1 cup (4 oz.) shelling peas
2 T. unsalted butter
3/4 c. thinly sliced spring onion—1/2 c. white and pale green portions plus 1/4 c. dark green
8 oz. white mushrooms, sliced 1/4-inch thick
2 t. minced fresh thyme
1/4 to 1/2 c. water or chicken stock
a handful (half an ounce) stemmed arugula, cut in wide ribbons
1 to 2 T. unsalted butter

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil.  Add the sugar snap peas and cooked until tender-crisp—1 to 2 minutes.  Scoop the peas out and refresh under cold running water or in an ice bath.  Spread on a kitchen towel.  Bring the water back to a boil.  Add the shelling peas and cook until just tender.  Refresh as for the sugar snaps and spread on the towel with them. 

Melt butter in a wide sauté pan set over moderate heat.  Add the spring onions, mushrooms and thyme along with a generous pinch of salt.  Cover and stew gently until the liquid is released from the mushrooms and the mushrooms and spring onions are tender and simmering in a buttery liquid—about 5 to 7 minutes.  Set aside until you are ready to serve.

Return the pan of mushrooms to moderately high heat.  Add a quarter cup of water (you can use the blanching liquid, if you like) or stock.  When the liquid comes to a simmer add the green of the spring onions, the peas and sugar snaps and a tablespoon or so of butter.  Heat through.  If the vegetables seem dry, add a bit more water and butter.  When the vegetables are hot, add the arugula.  Toss to combine. Season to taste with salt & pepper.  Serve immediately.  Serves 4 to 5.

  • If serving the ragout with a roast chicken or roast pork, add the pan drippings to the ragout. 
  • You may use any mix of green spring vegetable you like in place of the peas and sugar snaps. You will need 8 oz. of trimmed/shelled vegetables. Other good options include fava beans, snow peas and asparagus. You may also use artichokes. Slice them so they roughly the same thickness and size as the cooked mushrooms. Add them to the pan with the mushrooms. After everything has been cooking for 5 minutes, add enough liquid to just cover the mushrooms and artichokes and continue to gently simmer until the artichokes are tender—about 20 minutes. 
  • Ragout is also nice with the addition of lemon zest and/or a squeeze of lemon juice.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Revisiting an old Share the Original: Orecchiette with Asparagus, Peas & Pancetta

Recently I have begun to share "on this day" posts on my Facebook page.  I have found that I really enjoy going back to revisit old posts.  Sometimes I have forgotten that I posted something...or I am reminded of how much I love a particular dish...   Seeing it first thing in the morning often inspires me to cook it for dinner that night.

This morning I ran across a post from my first year.  It was for a variation on a spring pasta that has been in my repertoire for years (and is one of our favorites):  Orecchiette with Asparagus, Peas & Pancetta.  In this particular post though, I didn't make it with peas.  Instead, I made it with shell beans that I had frozen the previous summer.  The pasta is delicious this way...and I'm glad I shared it...but as I looked at the post today, I thought it was a shame that I had never shared it the way I make it most of the time...with English peas. 

Furthermore, I realized as I looked at the recipe that over the years I have altered the way I make it.  This has happened so gradually that I didn't think too much about it and I have never even bothered to record the way I make it now...I just do it.  It is of course delicious in its original form, but I discovered that I always wanted more of all the delicious ingredients: more asparagus and peas...more spring onions...more pancetta....   

While I was looking at the recipe this morning, I realized that I had everything in the house that I needed to make it.  Obviously it had to be dinner.  And since it is quick to make, it was just the thing for the end of a long, busy week.  It also provided me with a perfect opportunity to share it in its original form (with peas)...and at the same time record the dish the way that I am making it now. 

Orecchiette with Asparagus, Peas & Pancetta

2 T. olive oil
3 to 4 oz. pancetta, minced
1 to 1 1/4 c. thinly sliced spring onions (all of the white plus some of the green)
1/4 c. finely chopped Italian parsley or 2 T. minced fresh Thyme, optional
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
6 oz. trimmed thin asparagus spears, cut into ¼-inch lengths on the diagonal (about 1 1/2 cup)
1 1/2 c. shelled fresh peas
salt & pepper
1/2 to 2/3 c. chicken stock
1 lb. Orecchiette pasta
2 to 3 T. unsalted butter
1/3 to 1/2 c. freshly grated Parmesan

Place the pancetta in a 12-inch sauté pan set over medium heat along with a tablespoon of olive oil.  Stir and scrape to make sure it cooks evenly.  When the pancetta has rendered its fat and is just beginning to crisp and sizzle actively, add the spring onions, parsley/thyme and garlic and continue to cook until the spring onions are softened and tender, about 3 minutes.  Add more olive oil if the pancetta is very lean and the pan seems dry.  Add the asparagus and the peas, season lightly with salt and pepper and toss to coat with the seasonings.  

Add the broth and bring to a simmer.  Cover and adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer.  Check occasionally to make sure the pan is not dry, adding more water or stock, if necessary—the vegetables shouldn't be soupy—but neither should the pan be devoid of liquid.  Continue to cook until the asparagus and peas are tender—about 6 to 10 minutes total.  Taste and adjust the seasoning.

While the sauce is cooking, bring 6 quarts of water to the boil in a large stock/pasta pot.  Add 2 to 3 Tablespoons of salt.  Add the pasta and cook until the pasta is al dente.  Drain, reserving some of the pasta cooking liquid.

Add the pasta to the sauce, along with the butter.  Stir or toss until the pasta is coated with the sauce and the butter has emulsified into the sauce. 

If the pasta seems dry, add some of the pasta water.  Serve topped with grated cheese, if desired.  Serves 4 to 6.

Printable Recipe

(Recipe inspired by one in Janet Fletcher's Fresh from the Farmers' Market)

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Asparagus Risotto with Prosciutto & Lemon

Earlier this year I taught a class on grains.  I included a recipe for barley "risotto".  Besides the fact that I happen to like this particular dish, I decided to teach it because I thought that traditional risotto (made with Arborio or Carnaroli rice) had become "old hat" to American cooks and I wanted to offer something a little bit different.  But while I was teaching the barley risotto, it became apparent from some of the questions that quite a few people didn't feel comfortable or confident about cooking regular risotto.  I decided after that class that I should teach a traditional risotto in my next new class.

As it happened, my next new class was all about ways to use early spring ingredients....asparagus, radishes, all kinds of peas, spring onions, etc.  To some, this might not seem like the ideal place to tuck in a risotto recipe.  Risotto is, after all, rich...filling....creamy....   basically all the things we want in our food during the fall and winter months.  Risotto is not typically associated with the words light or fresh...which are the kinds of things we tend to crave in the spring.  But I love spring risottos—other than butternut squash or wild mushroom risotto, risottos that feature the tender herbs and green vegetables of early spring are typically what come to my mind when I think of risotto.  The delicate flavor of the rice is a perfect backdrop for these ingredients...and the creamy texture is somehow just the thing at the end of a cool....perhaps rainy....spring day. 

Since I have already fleshed out the basics of how to make risotto in an earlier post, I won't belabor them here.  No matter what ingredients you add, the basics of a properly cooked risotto won't change.  The biggest variation will be in whether you choose to add pre-cooked vegetable additions near the end of the cooking time...or whether you will use raw vegetables, adding them at an appropriate moment during the cooking process so that they will cook with the rice.  The former method produces a risotto with distinct punctuation marks of the vegetable flavors and textures, the latter a risotto that presents itself as a unified and blended whole...rice and vegetable flavors melding together.  The asparagus risotto I'm posting today falls into this latter category, but you could morph it into the former by adding blanched asparagus at the end.  (If you choose to do this, use some of the blanching liquid in place of some of the stock in the risotto itself.)

You can alter this recipe to include all kinds of spring vegetables...alone or in combination.  Cooked artichokes could be added near the end.  Fresh peas...or fava beans...could be added five to ten minutes before the risotto is done.  The lemon and prosciutto will compliment any of these spring vegetables nicely.

In my class I found that the greatest difficulty concerning the preparation of risotto seemed to center around understanding exactly what the final texture and consistency should be.  To answer that question here (since you don't get to taste one that I have made for you) I will quote Paul Bertolli on how to finish a risotto. (As I mentioned in my first post on risotto, his description of the process and the result in the book Chez Panisse Cooking is the best I have ever come across.)
Finishing the rice involves gauging the proper consistency (it should be slightly chewy, never hard in the center), enriching the risotto with butter, correcting the seasoning, and allowing the liquid to reduce until rice and sauce are unified.  The goal is to bring about a marriage of rice and broth.  The rice should be coated and in proportion to the sauce so that it is nearly pourable; the sauce should be reduced to the point that it doesn't separate from the rice.  The challenge in cooking risotto lies in simultaneously bringing about these final refinements—a little more broth, a bit more butter, raising the heat to hasten the reduction, adding a dash of vinegar.  The adjustments can be numerous or few, depending on the state of the risotto near the end. 
There is one point at which risotto is done:  when all elements conspire in a union of flavor, texture, and consistency, a timeless moment in cooking, one that can be shared if you serve the dish immediately. (Chez Panisse Cooking, pp. 156-7)
One of the things I love about his description of making risotto is that it is a beautiful rendering of what it means to truly cook:  to engage your senses and interact with the food and the process in such a way that you are able to achieve your desired result.  Observe....   Touch....  Taste....  Adjust.  Making this asparagus risotto for your table some evening soon would be a great way to practice.

Asparagus Risotto with Prosciutto & Lemon

3 T. unsalted butter
1 medium onion (about 6 oz.), finely diced
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 1/2 c. Arborio or Carnaroli rice
1/2 c. white wine
About 6 c. hot chicken stock
9 oz. (trimmed weight—you will need to start with a 16 to 18 oz. bunch) asparagus, sliced on the diagonal 1/4-inch thick
2 t. minced thyme
1 1/2 oz. thinly sliced prosciutto (3 slices), cut crosswise in 1/4-inch strips
2 to 3 T. butter
2/3 to 3/4 c. grated Parmesan
Juice & zest of half a lemon (you should have about 2 T. juice and 1 1/2 to 2 t. zest)
3 T. minced flat-leaf parsley
Salt & Pepper, to taste
Shaved Parmesan to garnish

Heat the butter in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat.  Add the onion and garlic and sweat until soft, but not brown—5 to 10 minutes.  Add the rice and continue to cook for a minute or two—or until the rice is hot and the grains look pearly white.  Add the wine and cook until the pan is nearly dry.  Begin to add the stock.  Add enough so that the stock is at the same level as the rice in the pan.  Adjust the heat so that the rice cooks at a slow simmer.  When the pan is nearly dry, add more stock and season lightly with salt & pepper.  Continue to stir and cook the rice, adding more stock as each addition is absorbed. 

When the rice is about half cooked (after about 10 minutes of cooking), stir in the asparagus, thyme and prosciutto.  Continue to cook, stir and add stock until the asparagus is tender and the rice is al dente—another 8 to 10 minutes (a total of 18 to 20 minutes from the time of the first addition of liquid).  Remove from the heat and stir in the butter, cheese, parsley, and lemon zest (stirring until the risotto is very creamy).  Add as much lemon juice as you would like (a small amount—1 or 2 t.—will subtly "lift" the flavor...up to 2 T. will put the acidic lemon front and center).  Balance the seasoning and serve immediately.  Serves 4 to 6.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

A Freekeh Pilaf for Spring

During the spring, summer and fall most of the vegetables that appear on our table come from the farmers' market.  It isn't that I don't like the grocery store—some things (artichokes or fava beans, for example) are only available to me where I live (in the Midwestern U.S.) through the grocery store.  It's just that I love the immediacy of the market...not to mention the fact that I get to interact with the people who actually grew the food.  So, throughout the growing season, if I am in town on Saturday morning, I make the trek to Kansas City's City Market and bring home enough vegetables for a week.  It is always a relief and a pleasure when my produce bin begins to fill up with the local bounty of the season. 

It is early in the growing season, so I am not yet at full reliance on the market for the year...but I am well on my way.   Already we have been enjoying radishes, beets, asparagus, greens (especially kale, arugula and beet greens) and spring onions.  Recently I made a freekeh pilaf for our evening meal inspired by...and featuring...some beautiful young Red Russian Kale and the beginnings of the spring onion crop that I picked up at my farmers' market.  I augmented these market finds with fresh shelling peas from the grocery store...and mint from my garden. 

I don't know whether it is most accurate to call this pilaf a variation of the Bulgur pilaf with Spinach and Chickpeas (posted almost exactly five years ago)....or an embellished version of the simple freekah pilaf found in Ottolenghi's Plenty...  Perhaps it would be more accurate to say it is a blending of the two...  Certainly they were both part of the inspiration.  In any case, it was delicious. 

I served it with a dollop of labneh....but a scattering of crumbled goat cheese would be good too. 
If you wanted something more substantial, it would be delicious with a poached egg on top.  As my pilaf's origins suggest, all kinds of variations are possible.  The kale could be replaced with cooked spinach...or beet greens...or chard (this time of year the array of available greens is broad)...and the peas could be replaced with any of the delicious green vegetables at their peak right now.  Asparagus is the first thing that comes to mind, but if you live in an area where artichokes and fava beans flourish, they would be good too.

In general, I find that pilafs make a great backdrop for the vegetables of early spring.  They are light enough to feel appropriate on a warm spring day...and yet still have enough substance to sustain if the weather happens to take a cool turn.  If you haven't incorporated them into your rotation of regular favorites, I encourage you to do so.  But mostly, I encourage you to explore your farmers' market and begin to rely more and more on the bounty of your region to supply your table for as much of the year as you possibly can.   

Freekeh Pilaf with Russian Kale & English Peas


3/4 shelled peas
1 bunch Red Russian Kale, tough ribs removed and washed in several changes of water
4 or 5 medium spring onions, white and equal portion of green, trimmed and thinly sliced (about 3/4 to 1 cup combined)
1 1/2 T. unsalted butter
1 1/2 T. olive oil, extra to finish
2/3 cup (100g) cracked freekeh, rinsed
a generous 1/8 t. ground cinnamon
a generous 1/8 t.. ground allspice
3/4 c. chicken or vegetable stock
1/4 c. golden raisins
3 to 4 T. mint chiffonade
3 T. pine nuts, toasted
3 to 4 T. Labneh
salt and black pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the peas and cook until tender—1 or 2 minutes. Scoop out using and refresh under cold running water. Set aside.

Drop the kale into the same pot of water and cook until just tender. Drain and spread on a baking sheet. When cool enough to handle, squeeze out the excess liquid one handful at a time. Roughly chop and set aside. 

Melt the butter and 1/2 T. of the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot set over medium heat. Add the onions and stir to coat in the fat. Sweat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft and translucent—about 5 minutes. Increase the heat to medium high and add the drained freekeh along with the spices and a generous pinch of salt. Continue to cook for a minute until the grains are coated in the oil and sizzling in the hot oil. Add the stock and bring to a full boil. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and cook, covered until the freekeh is tender—20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the heat and scatter the golden raisins over the surface of the freekeh. Cover and let rest for 5 minutes.

While the freekeh rests, heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a wide sauté pan set over medium heat. Add the garlic and pepper flakes and cook until the garlic begins to sizzle and is fragrant. Add the kale, season with salt and continue to cook and stir until the kale is hot through. 

Transfer the freekeh and raisins to a large bowl. Add the warm kale followed by the mint, peas and pine nuts. Toss until everything is well combined. 

Serve with a dollop of labneh and a drizzle of olive oil if you like. Serves 2 generously as an entrée. 

Note: Recipe is easily multiplied.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

What's in Season?...Asparagus

The featured vegetable on my "Twelve Months of Fresh Food" calendar for the month of April is asparagus.  

Like last month's featured food (arugula) I have done many posts that feature's probably my favorite spring vegetable.  I start buying it as soon as it begins to show up at the market sometime in late March and enjoy it several times a week until the season is over sometime in June.

At my house asparagus appears in pasta (of course), 

Alfredo Sauce with Asparagus & Spring Onions

Cream of Asparagus Soup

Asparagus Tart
mixed vegetable ragouts,

Spring Vegetable Medley of Spring Onions, Artichokes, Asparagus & Peas

grain pilafs 

Bulgur Pilaf with Asparagus & Peas

and salads....
Composed Salad with Asparagus, Beets, Arugula and Egg Salad Crostini..
Even pizza.

Asparagus Pizza with Prosciutto and Three Cheeses

It is a perfect side vegetable--delicious dressed with nothing but butter (and a few herbs)

Salmon with Medley of Buttered Asparagus & Peas

 or olive oil. 

With a Mushroom & Potato Spanish Tortilla
And it has a special affinity for eggs.  

Asparagus, Walnut & Goat Cheese Salad topped with a Fried Egg
It is in this guise—as a simple accompaniment to scrambled eggs—that I wrote about it in a "basics" post a few years ago.  

In that post I went into detail about how to choose to store and clean it...and then shared my favorite cooking method—a simple étuvée. 

Besides eggs, asparagus has many other friends in the food world:  Cured meats, smoked fish, mushrooms, peas, artichokes, arugula, onions, nuts (especially pine nuts, walnuts & hazelnuts), cheese (fresh and aged goat, Gruyère, Parmesan, Pecorino, Gouda, Fontina, mascarpone, ricotta...), salty/briny condiments (olives, capers, anchovies), Dijon mustard, orange, lemon, butter, cream, olive and nut oils and fresh herbs (basil, thyme, tarragon, parsley and mint...).  It is easy to see how you could eat asparagus several times a week for the few weeks of spring and never get bored.

Since I have already written a basics post about asparagus, I thought that for my calendar post this month I would share a preparation that was new to me:  Asparagus Pesto.  I ran across it while working on an upcoming class.  It is from Michael Chiarello's Tra Vigne cookbook...and it is delicious.    

There are no surprise ingredients in this pesto.  It features cooked asparagus puréed with basil, pine nuts, parmesan, garlic and olive oil.  Because of the water content in the asparagus, the resulting pesto is lighter and fluffier than one would expect.  It is wonderful on pasta (which is how I'm sharing it today in Chiarello's recipe  that is reminiscent of a classic Ligurian pasta with basil pesto, green beans and potatoes).  But because of its almost mousse-like texture, it also makes a fine spread for crostini or bruschetta (perfect as an accompaniment to a baked egg....or topped with a poached egg....).

If you have never cooked asparagus before, the recipes in today's post are a perfect place to start.  In both recipes the asparagus is simply cooked in rapidly boiling, salted water—the tenderness to which it is cooked is the main difference between the two.  For the pesto, the asparagus should be cooked until it is soft....five minutes or more.  I would consider this to be too soft for a side dish or garnish, but it is perfect if the goal is a purée.  Don't cook it too long though, or you will lose the bright green color.  Furthermore, since the goal is soft asparagus with a bright green color, the recipe directs you to shock the cooked asparagus in a bowl of ice water or under cold running water which will stop the cooking process and "set" the color.

For the asparagus "garnish" in the pasta dish, the asparagus is cooked for less time.  You want it to be tender...but to still have texture.  The balance between texture and tenderness is up to you.  Somewhere around 2 to 3 minutes should be about right, but the only way to know if it is done to your liking is to fish a piece out of the boiling water and taste it.  This method—boiling just to the point of tenderness—is the one that you will probably use the most often.  It is perfect preparation for asparagus that will be making its way into the many and varied dishes that it will appear in over the next couple of months.

Pasta with Asparagus Pesto & Baby Potatoes

1/2 lb. small potatoes, scrubbed and sliced 1/8- to 1/4-inch thick
Olive oil
4 oz. (trimmed weight) asparagus, cut into 2 to 3 inch lengths at an angle
3/4 lb. Fettuccine, orecchiette or farfalle
1 recipe Asparagus pesto (recipe below)
Toasted pine nuts, for garnish
Freshly grated Parmesan, for garnish

Place the potatoes in a high-sided sauté pan with a lid and add water to just barely cover the potatoes.  Add a drizzle of olive oil and season with salt.  Simmer the potatoes until they are tender; set aside.

Blanch the asparagus in 6 quarts of boiling well salted water until just tender (about 2 to 3 minutes).  Lift the asparagus out of the water and spread on a towel.  Add the pasta to the water and cook until al dente.  Drain, reserving some of the pasta water.

Place the pesto in a large bowl.  Add enough pasta water (about a quarter cup) to the pesto to thin it to a sauce consistency.  Add the drained potatoes, the blanched asparagus and the pasta and toss to coat...adding more pasta water (you may need as much as another quarter cup) and/or a drizzle of olive oil as necessary to obtain a fluid sauce.  

Taste and correct the seasoning.  Serve immediately, garnished with pine nuts and Parmesan and passing freshly grated Parmesan separately.  Serves 4

Note: A one pound bunch of asparagus will yield about 8 oz. of trimmed asparagus.  (Trim by grabbing each spear of asparagus and bending until it snaps—it will naturally snap at the point where the spear transitions from tough and fibrous to tender.  Discard the fibrous ends.)  This is the exact amount needed for the pesto and the finished pasta.  I like to trim the whole bunch of asparagus, cut it all (at an angle) into 2 to 3 inch lengths and then divide into two piles—making sure all the tips are in the pile that will go into the finished pasta.  If the asparagus is very fat, make sure that it is cut on a very sharp angle...and cut the tips in half lengthwise.  Use the water that you use to blanch the stems for the pesto to cook the asparagus and pasta for the finished dish.

(Recipe adapted from The Tra Vigne Cookbook—Seasons in the California Wine Country, Michael Chiarello)

Asparagus Pesto

4 oz. (trimmed weight) asparagus, cut into 2 to 3 inch lengths at an angle
1 small clove of garlic, peeled and smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
1/4 c. lightly toasted pine nuts
1/4 c. packed basil leaves (about 1/4 ounce), washed and dried
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
1/4 c. grated Parmesan (3/4 oz.)
Salt, to taste

In a pot of boiling, well salted water, blanch the asparagus until quite tender—about 5 minutes.  Transfer to a bowl of ice water, or rinse under cold running water, to stop the cooking process. Blot dry.

Place the cooked asparagus, garlic, basil and pine nuts in the food processor and process until the ingredients are finely and evenly chopped and beginning to purée (stop the food processor a couple of times to scrape down the sides).  With the food processor running, add the oil in a thin stream to achieve a sauce that is the consistency of mayonnaise.  If necessary, add a bit more oil.  Scrape down the sides; add the cheese and pulse to combine.  Thin with water if necessary to achieve a thick, saucy pesto.  Add salt to taste.  Makes a scant 1 cup.

Note:  This recipe makes exactly what you will need for 12 oz. of pasta (which will serve 4)...but is easily doubled if you would like to have leftovers for other uses.  It will keep, filmed with oil, in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator for several days.

(Recipe adapted from The Tra Vigne Cookbook—Seasons in the California Wine Country, Michael Chiarello)

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Chocolate Streusel Coffee Cake to Start the Day

A couple of years ago I made a chocolate and browned butter streusel-topped coffee cake for my breakfast stash. (For new visitors, a little background: I always try to keep a supply of portioned coffee cakes, scones, muffins, etc. in my freezer for my daily breakfast treat.)  And although the cake was very good, it needed a bit of tweaking.  I planned to pursue just that...but other things took priority.  This wasn't for a class...and I didn't think chocolate cake for breakfast would find a very wide audience on my blog (sometimes I feel like I'm pushing the outer limits of what most people consider to be acceptable by encouraging the regular consumption of cake for breakfast).  Consequently, the chocolate coffee cake fell off of my radar.  But a few weeks ago, when an article crossed my Facebook feed about a new study touting the benefits of dessert (specifically chocolate cake) for breakfast, I remembered it.

I should probably admit that I tend to take the latest nutrition/ benefits-of-a-certain-food studies with a massive grain of salt.  It is much less complicated...and probably healthier and less stressful in the long ignore the latest thing in diet and nutrition wisdom and just consume a wide variety of foods...emphasizing those that are fresh, home cooked and unprocessed.  But who doesn't love a study that supports what they are already doing?  Besides, this particular study reminded me to go back and finish my recipe for chocolate coffee cake...and at the same time helped me to feel less self-conscious about sharing the recipe (and the fact that I eat chocolate cake for breakfast ) here.   

The coffee cake I came up with is nothing more than one of my favorite sour cream coffee cakes reinvented as a chocolate cake.  To do this I substituted Dutch-processed cocoa for 20% of the flour.  (I have made the cake with regular, American-style—non-alkalized—cocoa and it worked just fine....but the flavor isn't quite as intense.)  I discovered that the cocoa substitution seemed to make the cake a bit dry, so I increased the butter by a small amount.  Not only did this give the cake the added moisture I was looking for, it amplified the chocolate flavor as well.   For the streusel, I used the browned butter streusel that tops a favorite pumpkin cake.  Finally, I added some chocolate chips to the streusel, figuring that if I was going to have chocolate cake for breakfast, I should just go all out. 

Over the past couple of weeks I have derived immense pleasure from my slice of chocolate breakfast cake.   Accompanied by a strong cup of half & half-laced coffee and served with a big bowl of fresh fruit and homemade (full fat) yogurt, it is a happy way to start the day.   But if a chocolate cake seems to be more than you can face first thing in the morning, I still think you should make this cake.  It would be perfect with your mid-morning or afternoon coffee...or tea. And I think it would go over very well at a potluck.  If that potluck happens to be a brunch, so much the better.  It would even make a nice casual dessert...accompanied by a big scoop of ice cream or a blob of whipped cream.  In matter what your occasion...if the occasion calls for a casual chocolate cake, this cake would be an excellent choice (no matter what the nutrition experts have to say...).

Chocolate Coffeecake with Browned Butter Streusel

Browned Butter Streusel:
60 g. (1/2 c.) all-purpose flour
67 g. (1/3 c.) light or golden brown sugar
1/4 t. salt
56 g. (4 T.) unsalted butter, browned (see below) and cooled
1/2 t. vanilla
55 g. (1/2 c.) walnuts, lightly toasted and coarsely broken
115 g. (2/3 c.) bittersweet chocolate chips

Combine the flour, brown sugar, & salt in a medium-sized bowl.  Drizzle the butter over and stir with a fork until the ingredients are combined and have formed clumps.  Stir in the walnuts and chill until ready to use.

When ready to use, crumble the topping up with your hands and stir in the chocolate chips.

160 g. (1 1/3 c.) all-purpose flour
40 g. (a scant 1/2 c.) Dutch-processed cocoa
1/2 t. salt
3/4 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
170 g. (12 T.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
200 g. (1 c.) sugar
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 t. vanilla
160 g. (2/3 c.) sour cream

Combine the flour, cocoa, salt, baking powder and baking soda in a small bowl.  Sift onto a sheet of wax paper (cocoa tends to have clumps) and set aside. 

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Beat in the eggs, one at a time.  Beat in the vanilla.  Fold in the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the sour cream, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. 

Spread the batter in a greased and floured 10-inch round or 9x9-inch square baking pan.  Scatter the streusel evenly over the cake.  

Bake in a 350° oven until golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean—30 to 40 minutes.  Serves 12.

Note:  To “brown” butter, place the butter in a small saucepan set over medium heat. As the butter begins to sputter and pop, whisk occasionally. The butter solids will begin to turn brown. When the solids are a deep golden brown and the butter has a pleasantly nutty aroma, transfer the butter to another container to stop the cooking process.