Sunday, October 9, 2016

Chef Frank Stitt's Apple Crostata

The first time I tasted a fresh fruit crostata (sometimes called a galette or a free-form tart) was when I was a cook at The American Restaurant.  A chef named Frank Stitt was there as part of a guest chef series.  His menu included an Apple Crostata.  It was nothing more than a sweet pastry crust smeared with homemade apple butter and folded casually up and around Golden Delicious apples that had been dusted with a bit of cinnamon sugar....and to me it was a revelation in simplicity:  It tasted exactly of what it was—sweet, fragrant apples enveloped in one of the most tender crusts I had ever had....  I was hooked for life.

Using Chef Stitt's crust recipe, and his method of reinforcing the flavor of a fresh seasonal fruit by lining the crust with a butter/jam/preserve made out of the same (or a complimentary) fruit, I have been making fresh fruit crostatas ever since.  While I was working in Provence I made one with the figs that grew on the property where I was staying.  The fig jam I used was made from fruit from the early season crop of figs off of the same trees.  Every year when prune plums are in season I make a crostata filled with prune plums and damson jam.  To me crostatas (along with crisps) are the ultimate seasonal desserts.  If you keep rounds of the dough in your freezer, you can make an impromptu crostata with whatever fruit is abundant and at its best any time you want.

As it turns out, the apple crostata is the easiest one of all to make.  Most fruits produce a lot of juices when they are cooked.  The Golden Delicious apples used in this crostata do not, so you don't even need to add any thickener (flour or cornstarch).  Golden Delicious apples are also sweet in their natural they don't need a lot of sugar.  The sugar in the apple butter...and a generous sprinkle over the all that is required.  But if you like more sweetness, you can up the ante sufficiently with the addition of a crumble topping.  (Adding sugar by tossing the apples with even a small amount would draw out the juices...and add the necessity of a small amount of thickener). 

When we made this crostata at The American we made little individual tarts (each using a small round of dough folded up and around half of an apple that had been cut into four fat wedges).  In the years since, I have always just made one large tart.  Instead of slicing the apples, I have just cut them into a large dice before piling them on top of the apple butter and then finishing the whole thing with a generous covering of the aforementioned crumble.  But recently, I decided I wanted to revisit the original style (albeit in one large tart)...without the crumble.  Since the apples aren't covered with a streusel, they need to be cut and arranged attractively.  So, instead of dicing the apples, I cut each half into 1/4- to 1/3-inch thick slices (about 8 to 9 slices per half) on a slight diagonal.  I then arranged these sliced halves compactly, each fanned ever-so-slightly, on top of the apple butter smeared crust.  As in the original version, I scattered a small amount of cinnamon sugar over all.  (Since the crust will soften rapidly at room temperature, you might want to "arrange" the apples in a round shape on your cutting board first and then just transfer them to the prepared crust so that you can work quickly when building the tart.)

I was very pleased with the way this crostata turned out.  It was fast and easy to make—perfectly in keeping with the carefree, spur-of-the-moment feel of a free-form, rustic tart.  But at the same time, I found it to be spectacularly beautiful....just the thing for whatever kind of entertaining that your fall plans might include. 

Apple Crostata

1 recipe Crostata Dough
2 T. sugar
1/8 t. cinnamon
1 1/3 to 1 1/2 lb. Golden Delicious Apples
1/3 to 1/2 c. Apple Butter
2 T. butter, melted
Milk or half & half for brushing
Sugar for sprinkling

On a lightly floured board, roll dough into a 12 to 13-inch round about 1/8” thick.  Transfer the dough to a parchment-lined cookie sheet.  Chill the crust for at least a half hour.

Combine the sugar and cinnamon and set aside.

When ready to make the crostata, peel and core the apples.  Halve lengthwise.  Lay each half cut side down on the cutting board and slice thickly (1/4- to 1/3-inch) crosswise, holding the knife at a slight angle and keeping the slices together so the apple halves are still intact.

Take the crust out of the refrigerator, leaving it on its parchment lined sheet (you will not be able to move the tart once you have assembled it).  Spread the apple butter in a thin layer in the center of the circle of dough, leaving a 2-inch border all around.  

Arrange the apples snuggly and attractively, fanning them slightly and tucking smaller slices in here and there as necessary to achieve a mosaic of tightly packed, overlapping, sliced apples. 

Brush the apples generously with the melted butter 

and sprinkle the cinnamon sugar evenly over all.

Fold the edge of the dough up onto the fruit, pleating it attractively and pressing lightly as you go.  

Brush the edges of the crust with milk and sprinkle with sugar.  Bake the tart at 450º for 20 to 25 minutes—until the crust is golden and cooked on the bottom.  Let cool at least 20 minutes.  The tart is best eaten the day that it is baked.

  • I have always used Golden Delicious apples for this tart. If these are not available to you...or you don't care for may substitute any apple that holds its shape when cooked and has a naturally sweet taste (Granny Smiths, for example, would be a very poor choice since they collapse when they are cooked and they are very tart). 
  • If you have a baking stone and your oven doesn't have strong bottom heat, preheat the oven with the baking stone and place the sheet pan with the tart directly onto the stone for baking. 

Crostata Dough: 
1/2 lb. Unsalted butter, chilled and sliced 1/4-inch thick
2 1/4 c. all-purpose flour (9 oz.)
1/4 c. sugar
1/2 t. salt
1/4 c. ice water

Combine the flour, sugar and the salt in a medium-sized bowl.  Add the butter and rub into the flour mixture until some of the butter is in small pea-sized pieces and the rest of the mixture looks like cornmeal.  (If you prefer, you may rub the butter into the dry ingredients using the food processor, but I think the texture of the final crust is better when this is done by hand.  Turn the dry ingredient/butter mixture into a bowl before continuing.)  Drizzle 2 T. ice water over the flour/butter mixture.  Using your hands, fluff the mixture a time or two.  Drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons of water over the dough and continue to fluff until the dough begins to clump—you should not need any more water.  Divide the clumps into two equal portions and turn each portion onto a piece of plastic wrap and press it into a thick disk.  Chill for 1 hour.  Makes enough for 2 free-form tarts (galette/crostata).

Variation with Streusel Crumb Topping:
1/3 c. flour
1/3 c. packed brown sugar
1/4 t. salt
3 T. unsalted butter, chilled and cut into cubes
1/4 c. oats, sliced almonds, chopped walnuts or chopped pecans

Combine flour, sugar and salt.  Add the butter.  Using your fingers, rub the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture appears crumbly & is homogeneous.  Stir in the oats or nuts.  Use immediately, or chill. 

When building the tart, cut the apples into 8 wedges and cut the wedges crosswise into 3 chunks.  Pile the apple chunks on top of the apple butter in a jumbled, but relatively even, layer.  Cover the apples with the streusel and fold up the edges as directed in the original recipe.  Bake and cool as directed for the style without streusel.  

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Soup for a Cool Autumn Day—Yellow Split Pea with Autumn Squash & Greens

A couple of posts back I wrote about the special foods that can be made during this curious bend in the year when late summer and early autumn produce occupy the same stalls at the farmers' market.  Before that moment is over, I wanted to squeeze in one more post—a simple and delicious soup made with the greens and squashes of autumn...and the tomatoes of summer.

The recipe is from a favorite little cookbook called Fresh from the Farmers' Market (by Janet Fletcher).  For being so small, it is a surprising source of inspiration.  I use it all the time.  Sometimes I use the recipes as a starting point...and other times I follow a recipe exactly.  This soup falls into the latter category.  It is perfect, just as is.

One of the things I love about this soup is it offers the substance and cozy-ness of a bean soup, without the length of time needed to cook a pot of beans.  It is perfect for that time of year when one day it's hot...and the next morning you wake up to gray skies and a chilly drizzle.  The split peas only take about an hour to cook.  No planning for an overnight or quick soak is needed.   

Most importantly, it is delicious.  The sweet split peas and squash contrast nicely with the salty pancetta, bitter greens and tangy tomatoes.  Even if the beautiful golden color didn't lift your spirits, the lively flavors would.  Add a wedge of cheese...and a loaf of crusty bread...and you have a perfect early autumn meal.  

Yellow Split Pea Soup with Autumn Squash & Greens

2 T. olive oil
3 oz. pancetta, minced
1 large onion (10 to 12 oz.), minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 c. dried yellow split peas (14 oz.), picked over for stones and debris
1 sprig rosemary, 4 inches long
4 c. chicken stock or low-salt canned broth
4 c. water
Salt & pepper
2/3 lb. butternut, kabocha or other hard-shelled, orange-fleshed squash—peeled, seeded and cut into a 1/3-inch dice (to make 2 cups)
1/2 lb. tomatoes, peeled, seeded and neatly diced (1/3-inch)
1 bunch kale or chard (1/3 lb.), ribs removed and cut cross-wise in a 1/4-inch chiffonade
Olive oil for drizzling

Warm the olive oil in a large soup pot over moderate heat.  Add the pancetta and cook until most of the fat is rendered and it is beginning to crisp—2 to 3 minutes.  Add the onion and a pinch of salt and sweat until soft and sweet—about 10 minutes (reduce the heat if the onion begins to color).  Add the split peas, rosemary, stock and water.  Bring to a simmer, cover and regulate the heat to maintain a gentle simmer.  Cook until the peas are completely soft—45 minutes to an hour.  Taste occasionally and remove the rosemary sprig when the rosemary flavor is strong enough (it should be subtle).

Season the soup with salt and pepper to taste.  Stir in the squash, tomatoes and greens.  Cover and continue to cook at a simmer until the squash and greens are tender—about 20 minutes.  If the soup is thick, thin with broth or water.  Taste and correct the seasoning.  Serve with a drizzle of olive oil on each bowl, if you like.

Makes 2 quarts, serving 6.

(Recipe from Fresh from the Farmers' Market, Janet Fletcher)

Monday, September 19, 2016

A Primer on making French Custard-style Ice Cream...and a Recipe for Pumpkin Spice Ice Cream

Recently I had an interesting conversation via the comments section on an old post that featured Fresh Peach Ice Cream.  Someone had made the ice cream and as a newcomer to ice cream making had experienced a few difficulties.  She wanted to understand what had happened.  As we conversed I realized that a lot of the questions could have been answered via a "basics" post on ice cream....which I have never done.  Since I love ice cream...and have posted several recipes...this seems like a bit of an oversight.  It occurred to me that I should remedy this as soon as possible (any excuse to make ice cream...). 

Ice cream, in its most basic form, is just a frozen mixture of sugar, cream and/or milk and optional flavorings.  Ice cream recipes have also traditionally included egg yolks.  The properties of the egg yolk produce an ice cream with smaller ice crystals and a smoother, richer texture.  Egg yolks also add fat—which in turn makes for a richer, more decadent result.  It may seem very strange to us—in our era of a salmonella-tainted egg supply—but it was not uncommon at one time to just add raw eggs to the sweetened dairy and then proceed with freezing the whole mixture.  The eggs would never have been cooked.  This isn't something most of us would be comfortable doing today. 

Fortunately, eggs can be incorporated into ice cream in a cooked form—giving all of the benefits, without any of the risks, associated with raw eggs.  To do this, the egg yolks, sugar and dairy are simply made into a stirred custard—also known as crème anglaise—before being frozen.  These kinds of ice creams are often called French ice creams...or custard-style ice creams.  And I think they are fantastic.  To me, they are pretty much the only kind of ice cream. With the exception of my Banana Chocolate Flake Ice Cream, all of the ice creams on my blog are made with a custard base. 

Not only will cooked egg yolks add all of the advantages of eggs as described above in their role as an emulsifier, cooking the egg yolks harnesses the coagulating property of the egg proteins.  Thus, a cooked base is typically thicker and creamier than an uncooked base.  

Even if you have never made a stirred custard, you are probably familiar with baked custards.  For a baked custard, a mixture of eggs and milk/cream (plus sugar for dessert custards) is combined, poured into an oven proof container and then baked at a low temperature until it is "set"—i.e. firm enough to slice or scoop.  Examples of baked custards include crème brulée, pot de crème, and quiche.  As the egg/dairy mixture begins to bake, the protein molecules in the eggs start to unwind.  As the temperature of the custard increases, these unwound proteins begin to grab onto one another and form a mesh of egg protein that holds the liquids in suspension...creating a soft solid.

The process is the same for a stirred custard except that instead of subjecting the egg proteins to the heat of the oven, they are cooked on the stove top.  Instead of sitting undisturbed as the temperature of the custard increases, the mixture is kept constantly moving.  In the finished custard the liquid is still held in suspension in an egg protein mesh...but the stirring action doesn't allow the mixture to set into a solid.  Instead, the result is a thickened liquid.

The only difficulty with making a custard has to do with the fact that the range in which eggs coagulate is fairly narrow.  Eggs begin to set at 160° and are fully coagulated at 180°.  If a custard is heated beyond 180°, the proteins which are tightening their hold on one another as the temperature increases, will harden and release (squeeze out) the liquid you are trying to thicken.  The result is a thin liquid with firm bits of cooked egg floating in it.  In other words, the custard will curdle...or "break". 

The process of making a stirred custard intended for ice cream is very straight forward, but it is designed to help you avoid a curdled or broken custard.  To begin, place half of the dairy into a saucepan.  Sometimes half of the sugar is added to the pan too.  The remaining dairy is put in a bowl that is large enough to hold the finished custard.  This bowl is placed in the refrigerator or in a bowl of ice water so that it will be thoroughly chilled.  The egg yolks are placed in another bowl and whisked until smooth.  At least half...sometimes all...of the sugar is whisked into the yolks. 

The saucepan of milk/cream is brought to a simmer.  Then, while whisking the egg-sugar mixture constantly, some (about a third) of the hot milk/cream is added in a thin stream.  Since the liquid is boiling (212°) it has the capacity to curdle the egg yolks on contact.  Adding the hot liquid in a thin stream while whisking constantly allows the temperature of the yolks to gradually increase.  This step is called "tempering" the egg yolks.  The presence of the sugar in the yolks also helps protect the yolks since it increases the temperature at which the yolks are fully coagulated by a small amount. 

I mentioned that some of the sugar is sometimes added to the saucepan with the milk/cream.  This is the classic method.  Since a small amount of sugar is enough to protect the egg yolks during the tempering process and since adding a large quantity of sugar to the yolks can make them very stiff (and thus make it difficult to smoothly and quickly incorporate the hot milk/cream), adding some of the sugar to the milk/cream where it will dissolve simply makes the mixing process easier.

Once the egg yolks have been tempered, the saucepan of remaining milk/cream is returned to the heat and brought back to the boil.  The temperature under the saucepan is reduced to medium and the tempered yolks are whisked into the hot milk/cream.  Since a substantial amount of your sweetener and thickener are in your bowl of yolks, make sure you scrape the bowl well.  If you have an electric stove (and the heat under your burner doesn't immediately drop to medium) remove the pan from the heat while you whisk in the tempered yolks.  When all the yolk-sugar mixture is in the pan, return the pan to medium heat.

You are now at the stirring point of your stirred custard.  You must constantly and evenly stir in a figure eight—or other motion that efficiently and regularly moves all of the liquid around in the pan (stirring in a circle for  example would leave a possible "hot spot" in the center of the pan).  As you stir, watch the custard for visible signs that it is thickening.  At first, the custard will be very thin and will slosh around as you stir.  There will also be lots of foamy bubbles on the surface.  As the custard thickens, the sloshing will decrease and the foam will dissipate almost entirely...only a few, more substantial bubbles, will remain on the surface.  The classic method for testing the custard is to check to see if it coats (or "naps") the back of a spoon.  I don't use this method because I like to stir with a heatproof spatula which seems to discourage the custard from adhering.  But if you are using a wooden implement, this method works well.  Simply lift the spoon out of the pan and draw your finger across the custard that is adhering to the spoon.  If the custard is finished, the path will remain. 

The fool proof way to monitor your custard when you are still learning the visual cues is to use an instant read thermometer.  Stir with one hand and hold the thermometer with the other (or clamp it to the side of the pan---whatever you do, don't stop stirring).  The final temperature of the custard should be around 170° to 175°—well in excess of the instant kill temperature of salmonella (160°) and under the threshold at which the custard will curdle/break (180°). 

At this point, if you simply pull the pan off of the stove and stop stirring, the residual heat in the pan and the custard will continue to cause the temperature of the custard to go up and the custard will curdle.  This is the reason that part of the dairy was reserved in a chilled bowl.  If, when you are finished cooking the custard, you pour it into the bowl of chilled cream, you will bring down the temperature fast enough and far enough so that the custard will no longer be in any danger of curdling.  (I should mention that I always have a fine sieve resting on top of the bowl of cold cream so that any stray bits of over cooked egg can be strained out as I add the hot mixture to the cold.)

If my bowl of cold cream was not set in a large bowl of ice water (an ice bath) before, I set it in one now so that I can (for food safety reasons) get the temperature of the finished custard down below 70° as soon as possible.  I usually leave it in the ice bath until the temperature is below 50°.  I then transfer it to the refrigerator.  At this point, you want to allow the custard to get as cold as your refrigerator will get it (hopefully below 40°).  I usually let mine chill for 6 to 12 hours.  During this time the flavor of the base will bloom and develop.  Also, the custard will continue to thicken a bit.  Furthermore, if you are using a chilled canister-style of ice cream freezer, you want your base to be as cold as possible before pouring it into the canister.  This will make it so that all the freezing capacity of the canister (acquired from its time spent in the freezer) will go towards freezing the ice cream...not cooling the custard base.

I can't overemphasize this last point.  The pre-chilled canister styles of ice cream freezers make wonderful ice cream...but only if the canister is very cold.  I chill mine in a second freezer in my basement that holds a consistent temperature between -10° and -20°.  On one occasion recently I had trouble getting my ice cream to set and I noticed that my freezer had cycled and the temperature was hovering just above 0°....which is still very cold, but apparently not cold enough.   I actually store my canister in the freezer (so I can make ice cream any time I want)...but if you don't store yours in the freezer you will need to chill it for a full 24 hours before trying to use it.  When we first purchased our ice cream freezer we kept it in our everyday freezer which, because we are in and out of it constantly, maintains a temperature between 0° and 10°.  We were able to make ice cream...but it never got as hard as we thought it should during the churning process.

One final point about the freezing process:  When you churn your ice cream, most ice cream freezers will produce a finished ice cream that is the consistency of "soft serve" ice cream.  This "finished" ice cream should ideally be transferred to a chilled container (I put the container that will receive the ice cream into the freezer when I start to churn the ice cream) and placed in the freezer for a few hours to firm up.  Often the ice cream will become too hard to scoop easily during this time.  If this happens, just set the ice cream in the refrigerator for 20 to 30 minutes before scooping and serving it. 

If you look around at ice cream recipes, you will soon notice that each cook/chef is usually working from a favorite standard recipe that they flavor in various ways to achieve all kinds of different ice creams.  Certainly this is what I do.  My basic recipe follows (more or less) the following formula:  For every cup of dairy (milk/cream) I use 2 egg yolks and 1/4 cup of sugar.  I usually make three or four times this recipe.  Three times will yield almost exactly a quart of ice cream.

I almost always use half milk and half cream.  You might think that an ice cream would be better and more authentic when made with all cream.  But this is actually not the case.  Ice creams with too much cream have an unpleasant tongue-coating texture (comparable to frozen butter...).  Too much butterfat at that temperature will actually mute the flavor of your ice cream too.  Occasionally I will use 2/3 cream...but this is almost always because I have replaced some of the volume of liquid with a purée of some kind (strawberry or peach....or pumpkin...for example).  These kinds of purées contribute no fat, so they can essentially be thought of as part of the milk component. 

As for the eggs, 2 yolks per cup of dairy might seem high...and I admit that the amount I use is higher than most...but a high proportion of yolks yields an ice cream with smaller ice crystals and a smoother, richer mouth feel.   In practice, this means I use 6 yolks for a quart of ice cream.  You can of course reduce this if you like...but I would not go lower than 3 yolks (or 1 yolk per cup of liquid).

You can obviously increase or decrease the amount of sugar to suit your palate as long as you are aware that sugar alters the freezing point of the ice cream.  Less sugar will mean an ice cream that is much harder/firmer.  More sugar will make a softer ice cream.  If you use too much sugar, your ice cream may never really set up beyond "soft serve" consistency.  It is worth pointing out that alcohol is basically sugar...and therefore adding even a small amount can make for a softer ice cream.

While on the subject of sugar, I want to mention that I almost always replace some of the granulated sugar in a recipe with a liquid sugar of some kind—most often honey...sometimes maple syrup.  These liquid sugars (also called invert sugars) contribute to a finer crystalline structure in the ice cream...and therefore a smoother, creamier result.  I also like the flavor that they add.  Be aware though that neither of these can be substituted in a cup for cup manner.  A cup of honey contains almost 40% more sucrose than a cup of granulated sugar.  If you replaced your 3/4 cup of sugar in a quart of ice cream with 3/4 cup of honey the ice cream would be pretty soft...and possibly sweeter than you intend.  (A substitution of 1/3 cup honey for every 1/2 cup of sugar would be closer to the mark.)  Maple syrup on the other hand is slightly less sweet than granulated sugar.  (If you are interested, a handy and informative chart comparing the various forms of sugar can be found here.)

I should also point out that brown sugar is delicious in ice cream....but it should never be added to the portion of milk that is brought to the boil.  The acidity in the brown sugar (from the molasses) will curdle the milk when heated to the boil.  I use brown sugar in my Butter Pecan Ice Cream and learned this lesson the hard way....

Ice creams can of course be flavored in a myriad of ways.  The easiest way is via steeping or infusion.  Simply drop a vanilla bean...  or mint leaves...   or espresso beans...   or citrus zest... etc....  into the milk in the saucepan and bring it to a simmer.  Then, instead of immediately tempering the egg yolks, remove it from the heat, cover it, and let it sit (or steep) for 20 minutes to an hour (or more...depending on the flavor).  After steeping, proceed with making the custard as usual.  Other flavors—as mentioned above—can be made by replacing some of the milk with a purée of some kind.  Crunchy things—like nuts, chocolate bits, toffee, etc.—can be added simply by folding them into the finished softly set ice cream.  Truly the sky is the limit when it comes to making interesting and delicious flavors of ice cream. 

As is almost always the case when I write a basics post, this one has been quite long.  Even so, there is no way I could have covered everything...  But I think this one should go a long way towards answering some of the more common questions about making a custard style ice cream. 

And since I wouldn't want to write such a long post without including a recipe, I am including one.  As I thought about what flavor I wanted to make, it occurred to me that pumpkin season was almost upon us.  So if you have never made ice cream before...and you're in love with all things pumpkin spice, this ice cream will make a great place for you to start.

Pumpkin Spice Ice Cream

3/4 c. pumpkin purée (180 to 190 grams)—see note
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. ground ginger
1/4 t. ground cloves
1/4 t. ground nutmeg
Pinch of salt
1 c. whole milk
1 1/2 c. cold heavy cream, divided
6 egg yolks
1/2 c. sugar
1/3 c. real maple syrup (107 grams)
1 t. vanilla extract

In a small bowl, combine the pumpkin with the spices.  Chill.

Place the milk and 1/2 cup of the cream in a medium-sized, non-reactive saucepan and bring to a boil.  While the milk mixture is heating, pour the cold cream into a medium-sized chilled bowl.  Place a bowl sieve/strainer over the bowl, set aside and keep cold.

In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar until smooth.  When the milk boils, temper the egg yolks by gradually whisking in a third to a half of the hot milk mixture.  Bring the milk/cream mixture back to a boil, remove from the heat and stir the tempered egg mixture back into the saucepan.  Place the pan over medium heat.  Cook, stirring constantly (in a figure-eight motion), until the custard begins to thicken and most of the foamy bubbles on the surface have dissipated.  Other indicators that the custard is done:  a path will form when you draw your finger across the custard-coated back side of the spoon—and an instant-read thermometer will read about 175°.  Immediately strain the custard into the bowl of cold cream. Stir in the pumpkin-spice mixture, the maple syrup and vanilla. Chill the mixture until very cold.  (It works best to set the bowl of custard in a large bowl of ice water.  This brings the temperature of the custard down quickly.)  Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

Freeze the ice cream in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions.  Transfer to a freezer container and freeze until firm before serving.  Makes a quart of ice cream.

Note:  I made my ice cream with freshly roasted and dried pumpkin purée...but you can of course use canned solid pack pumpkin.  If you use canned pumpkin you should strain the finished custard (after adding the pumpkin) through a fine sieve.  Canned pumpkin can be quite fibrous and the texture would be unpleasant in the finished ice cream. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Quinoa Salad with Black Beans, Sweet Potatoes & Corn

The market is in the process of turning the corner from summer into fall.  I can still get local eggplant, tomatoes, peppers...even sweet corn, but the presence of the winter squashes this past weekend could no longer be brushed off as an anomaly. And the truth is, I love this moment in the year...for two or three weeks (sometimes longer), I get to cook with the produce of two seasons.  It makes for some interesting and delicious combinations.  Today's post...a grain salad featuring summer's corn and autumn's sweet a good example of the good food of this moment. 

Corn with sweet potatoes is one of the happiest combinations I know...sweet, reinforced with sweet.  I freeze corn every summer just so I can make a favorite corn and sweet potato chowder as a sunny pick me up during the winter months. When black beans are added to the mix, corn and sweet potatoes become an amazingly satisfying combination.  A few years ago I posted a quick ragout of corn, sweet potatoes and black beans...served with a sweet potato and cornmeal pancake

So when it was time to put together a slate of recipes for a new class dubbed "Simple Suppers for Early Autumn", a dish featuring these two together was high on my list of things to include.  I can't remember now how I came upon the idea of combining them in a quinoa salad with black beans (possibly the memory of the aforementioned ragout...), but I'm glad I did.   It is satisfying...and interesting (with lots of different textures and contrasting flavors)...and delicious.  (It would be a great way to introduce the uninitiated to quinoa...)

First sweet potatoes of the season...
tossed with smoked paprika and ready for the oven....
If, as you look at the recipe, you are feeling a bit daunted by the length of the ingredient list, you shouldn't.  Many of the components can be made ahead.  Certainly the quinoa, roasted corn, vinaigrette and honey glazed pepitas can.  Even the sweet potatoes could be.  In fact, thinking about this salad in terms of its finished components—rather than its individual ingredients—is the best way to look at it.  It is actually a pretty simple salad.

I think this salad makes a fine supper.  But for people who want meat for dinner, it would not be a great option.  Fortunately it makes a fantastic work or school lunch since it is an excellent keeper.  For those who are wondering how the greens hold up, I think they hold up just fine...particularly if you choose kale as your green (in which case the salad probably tastes better after sitting for a while).  Other, less substantial greens can be left out and simply piled on top of the salad in your container. 

Greens on top...ready to be folded in...
At lunch, you can just fold them in right before you dig in.  I also think the keeping qualities of this dish would make it an ideal contribution to an early fall picnic or pot luck. 

We had this salad for dinner just last night.  The day started cool...but turned out to be unusually warm for this time of year.  A room temperature/cool salad was just the thing for dinner.  But beyond that, it turned out to be the perfect introduction to the flavors of fall.  I'm not quite ready to let go of summer's foods...and I wasn't really sure I was in the mood for sweet potatoes.  But when I sat down to dinner...  and sampled the first bite of sweet potato that I have had in several months...I couldn't believe how good they tasted.

 Quinoa Salad with Black Beans, Sweet Potatoes & Corn

1 c. quinoa (preferably white), well rinsed
1 1/4 c. water
Salt & Pepper, to taste
1 1/2 lbs. sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-sized chunks (1/2- by 1- by 1-inch)
2 T. olive oil
1 1/2 t. smoked Spanish paprika (sweet paprika is fine if Pimentón de la Vera is not available)
generous pinch cayenne
2 to 3 ears corn (to make 1 1/2 to 2 c. kernels)
1/4 c. freshly squeezed lime juice
1 fat clove of garlic, smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
1 t. cumin
6 T. olive oil
1 15 oz. can black beans, rinsed
1/2 small red onion, finely diced, rinsed and thoroughly drained on paper towels (to make 1/3 to 1/2 c.)
2 oz. hearty greens (arugula, spinach, baby kale...or any favorite blend)—very coarsely chopped
1 recipe honey glazed pepitas (below) or 1/2 c. plain toasted pepitas

Preheat the oven to 400°.

Place the water and quinoa, along with a generous pinch of salt in a medium sauce pan.  Bring the water to a full rolling boil.  Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook until the quinoa reaches your preferred tenderness and the white coiled germ is visible—anywhere from 15 to 25 minutes. Let rest, covered and off of the heat, for 5 minutes. Taste to check for salt, then spread the quinoa on a sheet pan to cool.

Toss the sweet potatoes with the olive oil, spices and salt and pepper.  Spread on a baking sheet and transfer to the oven.  Roast until tender and lightly caramelized, stirring once—about 25 to 30 minutes. Set aside.

Place the corn, in the husk, in the oven along with the sweet potatoes (on a different rack).  Remove after 20 minutes.  When the corn is cool enough to handle, remove the husks and silks.  Slice the kernels away from the cobs.  Use the back of the knife, or a spoon, to scrape the cobs.  Add the scrapings to the kernels.  Set aside.

While the vegetables and quinoa cook make the vinaigrette:  Place the lime juice and garlic in a small bowl.  Let sit for five to ten minutes.  Add the cumin and salt & pepper to taste.  Add the olive oil in a thin stream while whisking constantly.  Taste for salt.  Set aside.

To make the salad, place the quinoa, sweet potatoes, corn, black beans and red onions in a very large bowl.  Add the vinaigrette.  Carefully toss (to avoid breaking up or smashing the sweet potatoes) until everything is well coated in the vinaigrette.  

Add the greens and toss again.  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt and lime juice.  If the salad seems dry, add more olive oil.  The salad may be served at room temperature or chilled.  (If you are not serving right away, wait to add the greens until just prior to serving.)

To serve, transfer to a large platter or individual plates and scatter the pepitas over all.  Serves 4 very generously as an entrée.

Honey Glazed Pepitas:

Warm a scant 2 teaspoons of olive oil in a medium sauté pan set over medium heat.  Add 1/2 c. raw pumpkin seeds and toss to coat.  

Cook, stirring and tossing until the pumpkin seeds are popping and lightly colored.  

Remove the pan from the heat and drizzle a teaspoon of honey over and toss to coat. 

Spread the nuts on a plate to cool.