Sunday, October 19, 2014

Rigatoni al Forno with Ratatouille Vegetables

Even though it is mid-October, I am still bringing home my favorite late summer vegetables from the farmers’ market (eggplant, tomatoes, summer squash and peppers). 

Unfortunately, the weather has cooled to the point that more often than not I’m not in the mood for the dishes I usually prepare with these foods.  Still, because these vegetables are still so beautiful…and because I’m not quite ready to let summer go for the year, I continue to purchase them.  Fortunately, these vegetables also lend themselves to a few treatments more appropriate for the cooler days of early fall   Favorites like ratatouille, moussaka, and eggplant, pepper & chickpea stew are all likely to appear on my table during the cooler days of September and October. 

Most of the aforementioned dishes are a bit time consuming to make…ratatouille (my favorite), in particular.  And, as I mentioned in my last post, my schedule has been pretty busy of late.   Consequently, I haven’t had the time to make a big batch of ratatouille this year.  But this past week I was still able to satisfy my craving for the flavors of ratatouille by making a relatively quick baked pasta that uses the same combination of vegetables.  

To make the pasta, the eggplant, peppers and squash are simply roasted and then combined with pasta, cheese and a quick tomato sauce.  It could hardly be easier.

I should mention that the tomato sauce is quick because it uses canned tomatoes.  I’m still bringing home beautiful vine-ripened tomatoes from the market, but their supply is dwindling to the point that I only want to enjoy them raw since I know it will be many months before I can have them that way again.  Good canned tomatoes (use imported San Marzanos, if you can) make a very nice sauce.  And if you happen to have a couple of cups of homemade summer tomato sauce in your pantry or freezer, you can of course use it in this dish (it would be super delicious).

My baked ratatouille pasta really hit the spot.  It doesn’t have the rich depth of a long simmered ratatouille, but on a cool night—in the midst of a busy week—it tasted oh-so-good…   perfect for my mood….and the season. 

Rigatoni al Forno with Ratatouille Vegetables

2 T. olive oil
1 small to medium onion (6 oz.), minced
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
28 oz. can of whole plum tomatoes in juice (preferably San Marzano)
1 eggplant (2/3 to 3/4 lb.)
2 to 3 zucchini (about 8 oz.)
2 red bell peppers, roasted, peeled and seeded
3/4 lb. rigatoni, or other short sturdy, tubular pasta
6 oz. coarsely grated Fontina
2 oz. freshly grated Parmesan and/or Pecorino

Warm the olive oil in a shallow saucepan set over medium heat.  Add the onions along with a pinch of salt and sweat, stirring occasionally, until softened and golden—about 10 to 20 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant—about 2 minutes.  Pass the tomatoes, along with their juice through a food mill fitted with the coarse disc (or pulse in the food processor or simply break up with your hands).   Add the tomatoes along with salt & freshly ground pepper to taste. Simmer sauce, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until thickened—about 20 to 30 minutes.  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt.   When finished, you should have about 2 cups tomato sauce.

While the sauce cooks, prepare the rest of the vegetables.  Top and tail the eggplant and zucchini.  Cut the eggplant lengthwise into 1/2-inch thick slabs, then crosswise into 1/2-inch sticks.  Slice the zucchini on the diagonal a scant 1/2-inch thick, then slice into strips so that each piece resembles the quill shape of the pasta. Toss the eggplant and zucchini in 2 to 3 T. of olive oil and season with salt & pepper. Spread the vegetables on a rimmed baking sheet (if your baking sheet is too crowded, divided the vegetables between two sheets and rotate the pans from front to back and top to bottom half way through the cooking time).  Roast the vegetables at 425° to 450°. Do not stir the vegetables until they have begun to take on some color—and then do so carefully, using a pancake turner-type spatula to scoop the vegetables off the sheet and turn them over. You should only need to stir once...if at all. The vegetables are done when they are golden and tender—about 20 to 25 minutes total. 

While the vegetables roast, cut the peppers into 1/2-inch strips.  If the strips are very long, cut them in half horizontally.  Set aside.

Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Season well with salt (it should taste salty—you'll want at least 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons per quart of water). Add the rigatoni and cook until almost al dente (pastas that will be baked should be a bit firmer than those that will be sauced and served right away), drain.

In a large bowl, combine the pasta, tomato sauce, eggplant, zucchini and peppers. Stir to combine. Add the Fontina and fold in just until evenly distributed—the cheese does not have to melt. Transfer the mixture to an oiled 2 1/2 quart shallow baking dish. 

Scatter the Parmesan and Pecorino over the top.   

Transfer to a 375° to 400° oven and bake until hot through, tinged with brown on the top and bubbling around the edges—about 20 to 25 minutes.  For even more browning, run the pasta under the broiler after it is hot through.  Serves 5 to 6.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

An Old Favorite....Russian Tea Cakes

Many of my childhood food memories revolve around my maternal grandmother’s kitchen and dining room table.  She was a fine cook and baker…from a long line of fine cooks and bakers.  It is therefore a bit strange that there are really only two cookies that I associate with her:  a soft, cake-y, chocolate drop cookie (with raisins and topped with a smear of chocolate frosting) and Russian Tea Cakes.  The name of the former is lost to me—I’m not sure I ever knew it.  They were just “Grandmom’s cookies” to me.  I have never run across them anywhere other than in her home.  The Russian Tea Cakes, on the other hand, are familiar to most Americans…although the name varies from family to family.  Some know them as Mexican Wedding Cakes….and sometimes you will find them called Pecan Snowballs (or some variant thereof).  I learned to call them Russian Tea Cakes in Junior High Home Ec class.  My grandmother called hers, “Tea Balls.” 

Whatever you call them, they are an addictive and delicious little cookie….tender, buttery, nutty and not too sweet.  I have been hungry for them recently.  I used to make them all the time, but for some reason I haven’t made them in a while.  So yesterday, I made a batch…just for me…just because.  I am sharing the recipe here, not because it is rare or unusual, but because they were what I happened to be baking at home…and because it has been a while since I have posted anything.  (It has been an unusually busy late summer and fall season for me.  Perhaps this accounts in part for my desire to make a cookie that reminds me of a simpler, slower time.)

As I said, this is not an unusual recipe.  The recipe I use is the one I learned to make in Junior High…it’s most likely from Betty Crocker.  (I can’t imagine it’s too different from my grandmother’s recipe.)  Over the years I have made two small changes to it.  Around the time I started cooking/baking professionally, I switched to unsalted butter for all of my baking (and cooking).   I’m sure the original recipe used salted butter.  If you like, you can increase the salt to a half teaspoon to account for this change, but I never have.  I like the pure, butter-y, nutty flavor as it is.

The second change came about one time when I was feeling particularly lazy and instead of chopping the pecans by hand, I threw them into the food processor with all of the flour and processed until the nuts were very finely chopped—much more finely than if I had chopped them by hand.  (Without the presence of the flour you would never be able to process them so fine without turning them into an oily mess.) The resulting cookies were especially moist and tender.  I have prepared them this way ever since. 

The Tea Cakes I made were just the thing…perfectly satisfying my craving for something familiar and special, all at the same time.  New recipes are great, but sometimes an old friend is even better.  If you are feeling a bit nostalgic—and I find that Fall, with the return of school and the coming of the holidays, brings on those kinds of feelings—take a minute to prepare a recipe that is old and well loved.  It just might be the perfect momentary antidote to a too busy schedule, a gray afternoon, or a bad day at work.  And if you have never made a version of these delicious little pecan cookies, you should give this recipe a try.  It’s fast, easy…and I think there’s none better.     


Russian Tea Cakes

1 cup (1/2 lb.) unsalted butter
1/2 cup (2 oz.) powdered sugar
1 t. vanilla
2 1/4 cups (9 oz.) all-purpose flour
1/4 t. salt
3/4 c. (3 oz.) pecans

Briefly cream the butter and sugar.  Beat in the vanilla.  Set aside.

Place the flour and pecans in a food processor and process until the pecans are finely ground—some will have disappeared into the flour, but there should still be small, discernible pieces of pecans.  

Add to the butter mixture with the salt.  Stir to form a soft dough.

Mold into 1-inch balls and bake on an ungreased or parchment-lined baking sheet at 400° until set—about 8 to 10 minutes.  The cookies will have lost their wet look, will have puffed slightly and cracked.  The bottoms of the cookies will be golden brown.  

Remove from the oven and cool for one minute on the baking sheet.  Transfer the cookies to a wire rack and let cool for five minutes. 

While the cookies are still warm (not hot), toss in powdered sugar (be gentle, they break). 

Finish cooling on a wire rack. 

If you like, use a sieve to dredge the cookies lightly with a final coating of powdered sugar.  Store air tight.

Makes 48 cookies.

Note:  The cookies should still be slightly warm when tossed in the powdered sugar so that the sugar will adhere…but they shouldn’t be hot.   If the cookies are too hot, the sugar will melt to a frosting-like coating.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Grilled Cheese with Caramelized Apples, Shallots & Prosciutto

There are a lot of things to like about Jon Favreau's movie "Chef".  Even if you don't love to cook (or eat), the idea that it is possible to (re)discover—and pursue—your passion (and at the same time make a living) is universally appealing.  The movie is also a well-drawn reminder of the value of investing time in the relationships that in the long run are what give our work and our lives meaning.  But even if the movie as a whole didn't make for an enjoyable couple of hours, as a cook, seeing the movie—and the out-take at the end—would be worth it just for the grilled cheese sandwich.  Crisp and buttery on the outside...filled with soft, perfectly melted cheese on the looked (and sounded) amazing.  It would be interesting to know how many people went home and made a grilled cheese sandwich after seeing the movie.

I thought of this sandwich when I was putting together my slate of recipes for a new apple class.  I have taught apple classes in the past—always focusing primarily on the different cooking techniques that can be used with apples.  For this class, I was more interested in flavor partners for apples.  And what goes better with apples than cheese?  So, with the movie fresh in my mind, I added a grilled cheese sandwich with caramelized apples to the syllabus.  I wasn't sure how people would feel about the inclusion of something as ostensibly mundane as a grilled cheese sandwich in a cooking class.  I hoped they would like it.  I was not prepared for it to be the hit of the class.  I guess everyone likes a good grilled cheese sandwich.

As with all simple foods, unfortunately it is easy to make a bad grilled cheese sandwich.  Making a really good one is all about paying attention to the details:  The kind of bread...    the choice of cheese...   butter....  the temperature of the pan....   butter....

The kind of bread is not something I had thought too much about before I had to write and test a recipe for a grilled cheese.  I keep substantial, artisanal-style loaves around (I don't remember the last time we had a loaf of commercial sandwich bread in our kitchen), and as it turns out these are the kinds of breads that make a good grilled cheese.  They have a presence about them.  Consequently, they toast to a tender—yet substantial—crunch.  If your bread happens to be a bit stale, so much the better.  I would even say that it is worth waiting for the bread to stale a bit before making a grilled cheese.  "Older" bread—because it has less moisture—can absorb butter as it cooks without getting soggy, giving a solid surface from crust to crust of golden, crunchy toast as opposed to a grilled cheese that is crisp around the perimeter and a bit soft and squishy towards the center.

As far as the choice of cheese is concerned, choose a good (real please), flavorful cheese that melts well (it should soften, not separate as it's heated).  I like Cheddar, Gruyère, Dubliner, and Gouda-style cheeses.  Cheeses like Fontina, low-moisture Mozzarella and Provolone are also good options, but not my favorite. These latter cheeses tend to become very stretchy as they me the feeling that I might choke on a large impenetrable glob of gooey cheese as I try to eat my sandwich.  I like cheeses that soften nicely—and have a bit of stretch...but not so much that I feel the need to set the sandwich down and use my hands to sever a rope of cheese stretched between the sandwich and my mouth.   But I admit that this is a personal thing...  You should choose the cheese you like best.

While on the subject of cheese, I should mention that I think you can have too much of a good thing.  Just as overly stretchy cheeses seem a bit choke-inducing, so I find that too much cheese causes the same problem.  I have given what I think is a nice range in the recipe below—about 2 to 3 oz. of cheese for a standard to slightly large slice of bread.  Two might seem a bit spare to some and three is on the outside edge of what I think is just right.  Many recipes I have seen recommend four ounces of cheese per sandwich.  This is way too much for me...but if it's what you like, go for it.

Now, for the final detail:  the cooking.  I like to cook my grilled cheese sandwich in a cast iron or French steel pan.  These are both non-stick and because of their weight they also hold a nice uniform temperature.  Warm the pan up over medium to medium-high heat and butter  the side of the sandwich facing you while the pan heats.  Place this buttered side face down in the heated skillet.  You should hear a distinct, but gentle sizzle.  If you don't hear anything, increase the heat.  If the sandwich sizzles loudly and aggressively, turn the heat down.  Slide the sandwich around a bit to spread out the melting butter so the bread is uniformly and evenly coated.  As the sandwich cooks, occasionally move and rotate the sandwich—and the pan—over the heat as necessary to obtain a uniformly golden and crispy slice of fried bread.  If the pan seems dry, add butter in small increments—you don't want a greasy sandwich, but neither do you want one that is austere and dry.  If there isn't enough butter, the bread tends to scorch...or just dry out.

While the first side cooks, butter the side of the sandwich that is now facing you.  When the first side is golden and crisp—after 2 or 3 minutes, carefully flip the sandwich over and continue to cook as for the first side...another 2 to 3 minutes.  When finished, the bread on both sides should be uniformly golden brown and the cheese should be just melted.  Pay attention to the heat.  If it is too low, the cheese will be drippy and gooey—possibly even beginning to separate—before the bread is done.  If the heat is too high, the cheese will not have a chance to melt.  The goal is crisp, golden bread and soft—not liquid/curdled—cheese. 

You may have noticed my assumption that you will use butter in your grilled cheese.  I suppose you could use olive oil...or possibly bacon fat...(both delicious fats), but butter is the taste I want in a grilled cheese.  You will also get better color with butter since the milk solids in the butter brown and caramelize as the sandwich cooks. 

A plain grilled cheese...just bread, butter and a very fine thing.  But cheese is so tasty with so many things, that the desire to shake things up a bit occasionally by adding a flavorful tidbit or two is hard to resist.  I think the key when adding things is to use a light hand.  Just enough to give flavor and compliment the cheese....  The cheese should always be the star of the show.  Also, if you are going to add something, make sure it is arranged in and amongst the grated cheese so the melted cheese can hold the sandwich together.  It is disconcerting to have to hold the sandwich together as you eat because there is a solid sheet of something in the center that prevents the cheese from doing its work.

Since the apple, shallot and prosciutto recipe from my recent class is really the reason for my post, I'm including that recipe.  The salty, tangy, and sweet flavors of all of these ingredients are delicious with the cheese.  A mix of Gruyère and sharp white Cheddar is my favorite choice for this sandwich.

 In the summer, I like to add thinly sliced, vine ripened tomatoes to my grilled cheese sandwich...  A little Dijon, smeared on the inside of the bread, is good with this one.  As is some crisp bacon... or a bit of basil...  or possibly a smear of pesto.....

Earlier this honor of National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day (April 12)....I made one that was filled with Gouda, arugula and prosciutto.  

I didn't know it was grilled cheese sandwich day until right before lunch, so I had to make do with what I had on hand.  But it was, as I'm sure you can imagine, delicious.  If you start poking around your refrigerator...or pantry...I'm certain that you'll find a few items with which to create your own delicious grilled cheese.  Truly the possibilities are endless.

Grilled Cheese with Apples & Prosciutto

4 T. (or more, as needed) soft butter, divided
1 large shallot (about 2 oz.), trimmed, halved and thinly sliced (to make 1/2 cup)
1/2 t. roughly chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 small to medium flavorful apple (Braeburn, Pink Lady, Jonathan, etc.), peeled, cored and thinly (1/8-inch) sliced)
1 1/2 to 2 t. sugar
4 1/2-inch thick 4- by 6-inch slices (or 6 1/2-inch thick 4- by 4-inch slices) of sourdough or other favorite bread (see note)
Dijon mustard
4 to 6 oz. coarsely grated cheese—I like a mix of Gruyère and sharp white Cheddar
2 thin slices (a scant 1/2 oz. each) prosciutto, trimmed of excess fat and torn into large bite-sized pieces

In a large steel, cast iron or other style of non-stick skillet, melt a tablespoon of butter over medium-high heat.  When the foam subsides, add the shallot and thyme with a pinch of salt and sauté until tender and golden—about 3 to 5 minutes.  Remove to a plate.  Add another tablespoon of butter to the pan.  When melted, add the apples and sauté until limp—but still with a bit of texture—and caramelized in spots—about 2 to 3 minutes.  Sprinkle the sugar evenly over the apples and continue to cook and toss/stir until the sugar has melted and the apples are uniformly golden—another minute.  Scrape the apples onto the plate with the shallots and toss to combine.  Let cool.

To build the sandwiches, arrange the slices of bread in pairs on your work surface.  Smear all of the slices with a scant amount of Dijon.  Divide a third of the cheese among half of the slices.  Arrange the prosciutto evenly over the cheese.  

Top with another third of the cheese.  Evenly arrange  the apple-shallot mixture on top of the second layer of cheese.  

Finish with a final layer of cheese.  

Starting and ending the layers of the filling with cheese--and
 including a layer in the middle--is important.
It helps the sandwich stick together!

Top each with a slice of bread (Dijon-side down).  Smear the tops of the sandwiches with half of the remaining butter (making sure to spread the butter all the way out to the edges). 

Heat a steel, cast iron or other non-stick skillet over medium to medium-high heat.  When hot, add the sandwiches buttered side down to the pan.  There should be a faint, but audible, sizzle when the sandwich hits the pan, if not, increase the heat slightly.  Slide the sandwich back and forth to spread the butter out as it melts.  Move and rotate the sandwiches and the pan over the heat as necessary to obtain a uniformly golden and crispy slice of fried bread.  While the first side cooks, smear the remaining butter on the slice of bread that is facing you.  When the first side is golden and crisp—after 2 or 3 minutes, carefully flip the sandwiches over and continue to cook as for the first side...another 2 to 3 minutes.  If at any time the pan seems dry, add more butter in small increments.

When finished, the bread on both sides should be uniformly browned and crisp and the cheese should be just melted.  If the heat is too low, the cheese will be drippy and gooey before the bread is done and if the heat is too high, the cheese will not have a chance to melt.  The goal is crisp, golden bread and soft—not liquid—cheese. 

Cut the sandwiches in halves or quarters.  Recipe makes 2 large or 3 medium-sized sandwiches....serving 2 to 4 people, depending on appetites.

Note:  Choose any bread you prefer.  Because Farm-to-Market is the bread that is most available for me, that is what I use.  Their sliced loaf-style sourdough makes an excellent sandwich, as do their Rosemary Olive Oil and Semolina rounds.

Printable Recipe

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Zaalouk: Moroccan Mashed Eggplant and Tomato Salad

I can't let summer slip into autumn without sharing one of my new favorite summer recipes:  a Moroccan eggplant and tomato salad called Zaalouk.  I included it as part of a meze spread (along with olives, homemade ricotta and crisp, olive oil-drizzled toasts) in a class I taught early in the summer featuring Mediterranean foods. I have intended all summer long to post the recipe....but the summer kind of got away from me this year.  Since autumn will begin tomorrow has to be the day.

The salad is super easy to prepare.  To make it, simply roast whole eggplant and then allow the flesh to drain of as much of the bitter liquid as possible.  While the eggplant cooks and drains, prepare a concentrated, garlic, cumin and paprika spiked tomato sauce.  To finish, mash the eggplant in to the sauce and season with salt and lemon juice.  When the salad is cool, add fresh cilantro and parsley.  That's it.

For such a simple recipe, Zaalouk is loaded with flavor.  But since it is a recipe of few ingredients, good results will depend on high quality ingredients and good technique.  Look for eggplant that are heavy for their size and recently harvested (the stem should look recently cut and the green cap should still be snuggly anchored to the fruit).  The eggplant shouldn't have any soft, sponge-y parts...but neither should it be rock hard.  As far as the tomatoes are concerned, look for dead ripe, vine-ripened tomatoes.       

When it comes to technique, first, take the time to really drain the eggplant well.  Even if the juices aren't bitter (they won't be if the eggplant is super fresh), failure to drain the eggplant thoroughly will result in a watery salad.  

Part of what makes this salad special is the concentrated flavors of the vegetables.  Likewise, the tomato sauce too should be reduced until thick.  When finished, it will have a glossy sheen and a rubber spatula or wooden spoon drawn through the sauce will leave a path.

Like all dishes that involve a chunky purée of roasted eggplant, getting the uninitiated to give it a try can be a bit of a trick (smashed, roasted eggplant isn't the most attractive thing).  However, once people do try this deeply flavorful dish, they can't seem to get enough.  Served salad-style—accompanied by a few olives—it is pretty great.  But my favorite way to enjoy it is on olive oil-drizzled toasts.

Fortunately, even though the calendar tells us that Autumn is upon us, beautiful, local eggplant and tomatoes will still be available for a couple of least through the end of September, and if the weather holds, into October.  Furthermore, unlike the fresh and raw of many of the foods of summer, the rich flavor of roasted eggplant really seems appropriate for the early days of fall.  

So, if you are planning a gathering of your friends in the near future (and right now—while the days are still warm and the evenings are pleasantly cool—really is the perfect moment for entertaining out of doors), this little salad/spread would be a great thing to include in your menu.  But you don't have to have a party to enjoy this special little dish.  You can make it for yourself (and your family...should you feel like sharing).  Then, take a moment to enjoy it on the patio—or the deck—briefly stopping to welcome autumn....and watch summer draw to a close.   

Moroccan Mashed Eggplant & Tomato Salad

1 1/2 lb. eggplant (2 medium)
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 lb. tomatoes, peeled, halved, seeded and diced, juices reserved
1 to 2 t. double concentrated tomato paste, optional
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced (about 1 T.)
1 t. ground cumin
1/2 t. sweet paprika
1/4 t. cayenne (or to taste)
1/2 to 1 T. lemon juice—more if tomatoes are very mild
2 T. minced cilantro
2 T. minced flat leaf parsley
salt to taste

Pierce eggplants in several places with the tip of a knife.  Place on a baking pan and roast in a 475° oven until very soft (test with a knife toward the stem end).  The skin will be wrinkled and the eggplant will be beginning to collapse—about 45 to 55 minutes.  When cool enough to handle, peel and transfer the flesh to a colander placed on a plate or in the sink.  Drain until cool.  Transfer the flesh to a cutting board and roughly chop.  Scrape the eggplant back into the colander and sprinkle with a half tablespoon of lemon juice.  Toss to coat and allow the eggplant to continue to drain—stir and smash occasionally, you want the flesh to be very well drained.

While the eggplant drains, warm 3 T. of olive oil in a medium skillet set over moderate heat. Add the tomatoes along with their reserved juices, the tomato paste (if using), 3/4 t. kosher salt, the garlic, and the spices.  

Cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are reduced to a thick sauce—about 20 minutes.  The sauce should have a glossy sheen and when you draw a path through the pan with the spoon, the path should remain. 

Add the drained eggplant and mash it in.  Taste and correct the seasoning with lemon juice (the amount you will need will depend on the acidity of your tomatoes) and salt.  

Let cool to room temperature.  Stir in the herbs. 

The Zaalouk may be served right away, but it tastes best if made a few hours ahead.  If making more than a few hours ahead (the day before, for example), cover and chill.  Bring to room temperature to serve.  Stir in the remaining 3 to 4 t. of olive oil just before serving. 

Makes about 1 1/2 cup, serving 6 as a side dish...more if being served as part of a Meze platter. 

(Recipe adapted from Arabesque by Claudia Roden and The Food of Morocco by Paula Wolfert

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Fresh a Salad with Escarole, Mint, Grapes and Walnuts

I think that we must be experiencing an especially fine year for fresh figs.  For the past two or three weeks, every time I have entered my local Whole Foods I have been greeted by a large table overflowing with fresh Black Mission Figs.  I buy some almost every time...I can't get enough of them.  Figs that make it all the way to the Midwest haven't always been so great.  But even though these have been shipped in (probably from California) they have been surprisingly good—plump, heavy, relatively unblemished...and if not already perfectly ripe, they are close enough to it that they will be after a day or two on my kitchen counter.  Once ripe (soft...on the verge of squishy), they need to be consumed quickly or they will begin to decay.  But this has not been a problem.  I have been eating them raw for breakfast with yogurt...roasted in a compote...and last night as the centerpiece of a delicious, spur-of-the-moment salad. 

Besides figs my salad included red grapes, walnuts, escarole, arugula, mint and a favorite creamy Dijon vinaigrette.  Like most of the impromptu dishes that end up on our table, the inspiration for this particular combination of ingredients came from a number of different sources...not the least of which was what I happened to have in my pantry.  In any case, trying to untangle all of these sources would probably not be very instructive.  Suffice it to say that I have had fig salads on the brain since I prepared one for a private dinner group this past Saturday night and have been thinking a lot about figs in combination with various greens, styles of vinaigrettes, as well as other fruits and nuts. 

As usual, I have included a recipe at the end of my post, but as with all salads this is a "to taste" affair and you should combine the ingredients in quantities that please you.  To begin, add the escarole to the bowl (torn into bite-sized pieces).  Escarole is a substantial green with a delicate crunch.  It adds a slight bitter flavor that contrasts beautifully with the sweet fruit and its texture gives the salad nice structure.  Next add a few leaves of arugula (torn, if large)...not too much, to me this is a mostly escarole salad—the arugula adds some peppery spice and great color contrast to the pale escarole. 

Next add some mint.  If the leaves are very large, tear them into two or three pieces.  My mint patch has just begun to recover from the summer heat, so the leaves are tender and small.  Add more mint than you think you need.  From references I have found in other cookbooks, it seems it was Richard Olney (in his book Simple French Food) who introduced the combination of figs, mint and cream to the mainstream food world...and it is an inspired combination.  The mint really lights this salad up.

Mint for two salads (half a recipe)

Finally, add fresh figs (halved if small, quartered if large), halved red grapes and toasted walnuts (broken into medium-sized pieces).  Add as much as you think you want to eat...this salad should be a celebration of the wonderful fruits and nuts of early autumn.  

Drizzle some of the dressing over the contents of the bowl and gently and carefully toss (you don't want to squash or tear the soft figs).  Use less than you think you don't want a sodden salad.  If you want more dressing, you can always add more...or drizzle some over the plated salads.

To plate the salad, layer the fruits and greens carefully on a platter or individual plates.  Take the time to tuck the fruits in, under and on top of the greens so that they are shown off to most advantage.  If you are arranging the salads on individual plates, make sure that the figs are divided evenly among the plates.  I freely admit that if I were seated next to someone who got more figs than I did I would resort to polite begging or surreptitious thievery in order to get my fair share of figs. 

The interplay of the sweet (figs, grapes and mint), the bitter (escarole and walnuts) and the spicy (arugula and Dijon) well as the contrasts in soft and crunchy textures...made for a particularly delightful salad.  If I hadn't already had the rest of my dinner ready and waiting on the stove, I would have gotten up from the table and made myself a second salad.  It was that good.  So, in the interests of fair warning: although the recipe states that it makes four salads, this should be understood to be four nice, medium-sized, first-course dinner salads.  If you decide that you want to revel in a special meal of fresh figs and greens, then you will find that there will only be enough for two. 

Autumn Salad of Fresh Figs with Grapes, 
Walnuts, Escarole & Mint

1/4 c. walnuts, plus more for garnish
7 to 8 oz. ripe, fresh figs (about 10), stemmed and halved
1/4 lb. red grapes (about 18 to 20), halved
2 oz. trimmed escarole (see note), torn into bite-sized pieces
a small handful of arugula (a generous half ounce), torn into bite-sized pieces
a handful of mint leaves (about 1/2 cup—measured by dropping the leaves loosely into the cup)
Salt & Pepper
Creamy Dijon Vinaigrette (below)

Preheat the oven to 350­°.  Spread the walnuts in a small pan and toast until fragrant and light golden—about five minutes.  Drizzle sparingly with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.  Set aside to cool.  When cool, break into medium sized pieces. 

Place the escarole, arugula and mint in a large bowl.  Add the figs, grapes and walnuts.  Season with salt and pepper.  Drizzle with a small amount of the vinaigrette and toss carefully.  Everything should be coated in a light film of the dressing. 

Divide the contents of the bowl among four individual plates...tucking the fruits among and around the greens and dividing the figs evenly among the four plates.  (Alternatively, arrange the salad on one large platter.)  If you like, drizzle more of the vinaigrette over the salads.  Serve immediately.  Serves 4.

Note: To prepare the escarole, trim away the bruised outer leaves and the bitter dark green portions.  The prized part of the escarole is the tender, inner, yellow and pale green portion.

Creamy Dijon Vinaigrette:
1 T. champagne (or white wine) vinegar
1 T. Dijon mustard
salt & pepper
1/4 c. olive oil
6 T. whipping cream

Combine the vinegar and mustard in a small bowl and whisk until smooth.  Continue to whisk while slowly drizzling in the oil to form an emulsion.  Whisk in the cream.  Taste and season with salt and pepper.  (The vinaigrette will continue to thicken as it sits.)

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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Southern Pea Succotash...with Pan-Seared Salmon

In John Thorne's book Simple Cooking there is a great little essay (in the chapter "Perfect Pleasures") in which he sings the praises of a well-made succotash.  As a child, Thorne had apparently been regularly subjected to some atrocious (frozen foods) versions of succotash and had consequently carefully avoided all encounters with it until well into his adulthood.   But at some point he discovered that when properly prepared, this humble, late summer dish can be quite delicious.

One of the reasons I love this essay is I am able to relate to it so well.  I too have stories to tell of childhood food aversions that turned into love when I tasted their well-made counterparts as an adult.  (I chronicled one of the first of these experiences a few years ago in my post about ratatouille.)  However, I can say with all honesty that succotash was not one of these dishes.  (It probably would have been if I had ever tasted the childhood versions he describes.)  I'm not sure that I even knew what succotash was until I read Thorne's essay.  I think Sylvester the cat was my only reference point.  But after reading his essay, I had to try it.  And I agree, it really is a delicious dish. 

Classically succotash is simply a combination of well-buttered, freshly-cooked, sweet corn and lima beans.  I have not had access to fresh lima beans in many years (the one grower who had them at my market disappeared several seasons ago), so a few years back I began making my own version of succotash with the summer shell beans I did have access to—pink-eyed, purple hull, Crowder peas.  

I think I like this version even better (the crowder peas are the same size as the corn kernels....making for a much prettier dish).  I'm sure that this dish would be pretty fine when made with whatever shelling bean happens to grow well in your part of the country.

If you've looked ahead to my recipe, you'll notice that I include more than just corn and shell beans in the mix.  As it turns out there are lots of traditional additions to succotash...all of them prolific, late summer foods:  fresh tomatoes, sweet onions, garlic, fresh herbs, summer squash and green beans.  And this is probably a short list—I'm sure there are other regional additions that have not yet crossed my path.  The version I'm posting is the one I most often make.  It is a combination of Thorne's recipe and the one in The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters. 

As for the salmon...this is just my favorite thing to eat with succotash, so I have written the recipe to include it.  But it would be fine served with another fish...   or a pork chop...   or steak...   or even eaten all by itself as a big summer vegetable stew.  The most important thing is to make it when all of the ingredients are fresh and in season.  While I will admit that I occasionally make a very good version of this dish in the winter with corn and shell beans that I have frozen myself (I leave the tomatoes...and summer squash...out of this version), I have to agree with John Thorne that it is the seasonal immediacy of this dish that makes it special.  So now is the time to make it—before the corn and shell beans are gone for the year.  And even if this dish is among those that you would classify as a childhood atrocity, I encourage you to give it a try.  I don't know if I would go so far as Thorne—who calls succotash a delicacy—but I will say that I think you will find that it is very, very good.  

Pan Seared Salmon with Southern Pea Succotash

2 to 3 ears sweet corn
1 lb. southern peas (pink-eyed peas, Crowder peas, lady peas, etc.), shelled—about 1 to 1 1/2 cups peas depending on the variety
Salt & Pepper
Olive oil
1 medium red onion, cut in a 1/4-inch dice (about 1 cup)
2 t. minced fresh thyme
2 to 4 T. unsalted butter
2 medium vine-ripened tomatoes (about 8 oz.), peeled, seeded (juices reserved) and diced 
2 T. or so of minced fresh herbs of your choice (basil, parsley, chives or dill)

4 fillets salmon (4 to 6 oz. each), skin on or off—as you prefer
Salt & Pepper
vegetable or olive oil

Cut the corn from the cobs—you should have about 2 cups. Set aside. Scrape the cobs and reserve the scrapings separately. Cut the cobs in half cross-wise.

Place the peas and corn cobs in a sauce pan and cover the peas with water by 1 1/2 inches. Bring to a simmer and cook until the peas are tender but not mushy—about 30 minutes...more or less, depending on the kind of pea. Add salt to taste about half way through the cooking time. Peas may be cooked ahead. Cool and store in their cooking liquid. Drain just before using, reserving the cooking liquid.

Heat a medium-sized straight-sided sauté pan over medium heat. Add a tablespoon or so of oil. Add the onions along with the thyme and a pinch of salt. Cook until tender and a bit caramelized. Add a tablespoon or so of butter. 

When the butter is melted, add the corn and cook for a minute or two. 

Add the drained peas, the corn scrapings and the reserved tomato juices. If the succotash seems dry, add enough of the bean cooking liquid to moisten (but not so much that the succotash becomes soupy). Simmer gently until the corn is tender while you cook the fish (if the corn is cooked before the fish is done, remove the pan from the heat and finish the succotash while the fish is resting). 

Heat a 12-inch sauté pan over medium-high heat. While the pan is heating, season the fish with salt & pepper. Add the oil to the pan. When the oil is very hot, add the fish. If the skin is intact, put the skin side down; if the salmon has been skinned, place it skinned side up. Cook until nicely browned (skin should be crisp)—about 3 minutes. Turn and cook the fish, until barely opaque in the center—about another 3 minutes (you may need to reduce the heat to medium—regulate the heat to maintain an active sizzle). Remove the fish from the pan and keep warm.

Finish the succotash: Add herbs and the tomatoes and heat through. Swirl 1 or 2 T. of butter into the simmering succotash, adding more bean cooking liquid if necessary to coat the vegetables with a light buttery sauce. Taste and correct the seasoning. Spoon the succotash onto serving plates and top with the salmon.

Serves 4

Optional Additions:
  • One or two small zucchini or summer squash, diced. Add to the pan with the onion when the onion is tender. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes before adding the corn. 
  • 1 or 2 cloves minced garlic. Add with the corn. 

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