Sunday, July 26, 2015

Summer Simplicity



At a lunch with friends recently I was reminded of the beauty and fragility of that oh-so-desirable quality of simplicity.  The restaurant we ate at was by and large a disappointment.  I had looked forward to our visit there with great anticipation because of the buzz surrounding it—a restaurant featuring food touted as nose-to-tail, farm-to-table simple.  Unfortunately the food we were served was for the most part poorly executed...and other items I looked at on the menu seemed a bit ill-conceived—odd combinations of ingredients, too many things on the plate, etc.  All of this reminded me of what Mario calls the elusive nature of simplicity.  His definition of simplicity* is probably the best I have ever read: "pristine ingredients, combined sensibly and cooked properly." It sounds straightforward enough...but in practice it truly is difficult to achieve and to find.  Elusive indeed.  That day, the ingredients on our plates might have been pristine...but as is often the case, the way they had been combined and prepared hid their beauty from us. 


I am happy to say that all of our food was not so disappointing.  Our shared appetizer scored on all points.  It was nothing more than a spare platter of ripe heirloom tomatoes, a scattering of shaved raw summer squash and sweet red onion, some crusty baguette and a few fluffs of microgreens.  The whole platter was seasoned judiciously with crunchy sea salt and freshly ground black pepper and drizzled generously with olive oil and balsamic.  Everything was fresh, at its seasonal peak, combined in a complimentary way, handled minimally and seasoned to advantage—a perfect example of simplicity done right.  It was so good...  I could have licked the plate. 



The good news in all of this is that in the summer, if you shop at a farmers' market or are a member of a CSA, this kind of deliciousness is available to you at home every day.  Even if you just shop at your local grocery store, so many stores are now purchasing at least some of their produce from local sources, you will find that you have access to wonderful, peak of the season ingredients, throughout the growing season in your area.   I have made my own version of that wonderful platter at least three times since for lunch... doing so is just a matter of arranging the ingredients on the plate...and seasoning them well.  For this kind of dish, you don't even need to cook if you don't want to.



Every time I made this dish, I included almost all of the ingredients the restaurant used: beautiful, vine-ripened tomatoes, fresh summer squash, red onions, toasted bread (drizzled with olive oil), coarse salt & pepper, balsamic vinegar and olive oil. For a little extra crunch I added some toasted pine nuts (but they could be left off).  A couple of times—because corn is so delicious with both summer squash and tomatoes—I added a scattering of roasted corn (but raw would be delicious too).  And since each time I was making an entrée (rather than an appetizer), I included a bit of creamy buffalo mozzarella for more substance. 



You probably noticed I didn't mention the microgreens...which I never have...  Instead, I used arugula...for which I have a good local source.  But if you don't, a scattering of torn, fresh basil leaves would be pretty fine in place of the microgreens too.  The arugula is set off to great advantage by lemon, so to finish my platter of summer vegetables, I tossed a small fluff of arugula with a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil and placed it on top.



I mentioned it earlier, but I want make sure I emphasize the role of the salt, pepper, balsamic and olive oil in this dish.  Do not skimp on these items.  The salt and the acidity of the vinegar will make the flavors of your pristine ingredients pop.  The vegetables might seem bland and uninteresting without them (one of the failings of the other items we had at the restaurant was lack of salt).  A nice flakey salt (Maldon's...or Fleur de sel...or even a simple, moderately coarse sea salt) will add even more interest since it will add a pleasant crunch.  Coarsely ground pepper will add a bit of spice and heat...and olive oil will add fruity flavor...and needed moisture.



The interplay of the flavors (tangy, nutty, sweet, hot and salty) and the textures (crunchy, crisp, juicy and creamy) of this dish are a delight to the palate and the senses.  It is a totally satisfying...and simple!...dish.  And since our weather has turned steamy and hot this past week, I have found it to be wonderfully refreshing too....just the thing for a light dinner....or a special lunch.



Of course, the idea of this platter—an artful arrangement of a thoughtful combination of peak of the season produce—can be transferred to all kinds of other ingredients.  Today as I was working on this post, when I took my lunch break, I assembled another platter—this one featuring fruit.  With slabs of fragrant, juicy cantaloupe as my foundation, I added blueberries, toasted pecans and chunks of sheep's milk Feta.  I seasoned it with salt, pepper, a generous squeeze of lime and drizzles of honey and olive oil.  Topped with a little olive oil-dressed arugula (a scattering of fresh mint would have been nice instead), it was another delicious example of the magic of summer simplicity—a well-seasoned mix of complimentary flavors and textures that was greater than the sum of its parts. 




Sunday, July 19, 2015

Chelsea's Delicious Blueberry Cake, the Search for a Good Zucchini Cake...and Some Thoughts on How We (Americans) Measure Flour



I think I have mentioned before that I began my career in foods with the intention of becoming a pastry chef.  It was a surprise to me when I ended up loving the savory side of the kitchen enough to make that my career.  But I still love to bake.  A quick look at the "recipes" page of my blog provides ample evidence of this.  I especially love cake and am forever trying new and varied recipes.  But no matter what I am baking, often the most difficult thing about preparing a new recipe is determining exactly how much flour the recipe calls for.

If you are a professional pastry chef...or a long time, experienced baker...you use a scale when you bake and you were nodding in agreement when you read that last sentence.  If you use volume measurements (cups and spoons), you might have been scratching your head.  A recipe—by definition—with its list of ingredients...and the quantities of those ingredients...will tell you how many cups of flour to use...right?  Unfortunately, even if you know the number of cups of flour in a recipe, you will still only have a general idea of how much flour to use. 

To this day I have a vivid memory of the time my mother showed me how to measure ingredients for a recipe.  I might have been about seven or eight.  I stood next to her at the counter as she explained that when you measure flour you set the dry (as opposed to liquid) measuring cup on the counter, 



spoon flour out of the bag/canister and gently deposit it into the cup (being careful not to pack it down) 



until the flour is mounded up and over the rim.  



Then she took a palette knife and swept it across the measuring cup to level the flour off even with the rim, with a smooth surface that had no dips or gaps.  



That, she said, was a cup of flour, properly measured.  Then, she gently tapped the cup on the counter a few times to demonstrate how just a small amount of tapping, jiggling or shaking would pack the flour down and make more room in the cup...



...pointing out that if I had tapped or jiggled the cup while I was measuring that I would have packed it and ended up including what might have amounted to another 2 (or more) tablespoons of flour...and then my measurement would be inaccurate and whatever I was making might not turn out right.

From that moment on, I was confident that I knew the absolute "correct" way to measure flour.  My opinion was reinforced in high school Home Ec class when our teacher taught us the exact same method (although not quite so eloquently as my mother).  The first inkling I had that there were other skilled bakers out there who might choose to measure flour in a different way was when I got a copy of Rose Levy Beranbaum's Rose's Christmas Cookies.  In her earlier (ground breaking, in my opinion) work, The Cake Bible, she had championed the idea of using a scale to weigh all of your ingredients.  But since most Americans still didn't have scales in their kitchens, she helpfully included volume measurements next to the weights.  All of the flour measurements in that earlier work had specified that the flour was to be sifted directly into the cup before leveling.  In the cookie book though, she specified varying methods of measure...sometimes "lightly spooned and leveled"...but more often than not, "dip and sweep".  I have to admit I was mildly appalled that a baker that I had so much respect for was using what I considered to be the "wrong" way to measure flour.  For those unfamiliar, the "dip and sweep" method refers to dipping the cup measure deeply into the bag of flour and then leveling it with a palette knife.  The fact that Beranbaum took the time to specify method of measure for those who insisted on using volumes rather than weights is a good indication of how different the results of each form of measure can be. 

The next time I ran into the difficulties of measuring flour by the cup was during my first job in a professional pastry kitchen.  Professional kitchens are volatile places.  Things must be done quickly and accurately.  Lots of yelling and abuse goes on in order to whip young cooks...not used to the fast-paced environment...into shape.  The first couple of weeks for me were rather traumatic in that regard.  I had a college degree...had been a professional businesswoman for several years...and was not used to an environment where instructions were not given...but not knowing what the instructions were resulted in being yelled at.  Furthermore, I had been to cooking school.  Consequently, I knew a little...certainly not all that I needed to know to do a job to the specifications of my new boss...but enough so that a small amount of instruction before the fact...as opposed to yelling after the fact....would have been a much better approach. 

After a couple of weeks of this, my boss gave me a recipe I think she thought I couldn't screw up...chocolate chip cookies.  Of course I had made chocolate chip cookies many times, so I thought this was one task that wouldn't result in a put-down.  But...I was wrong.  I had never made a recipe so large before...  It called for 16 cups of flour.  Most of the restaurant's recipes were in weights (which is something I had become familiar with in cooking school in England....where—like the rest of the world—all baking is done by weight)...but still in many American restaurant kitchens, a few recipes remain that are recorded in volumes...just because no one has ever bothered to convert them to weights.  This was one of those recipes.

Armed with the recipe, I began to hunt around for a measuring cup....  When I finally located one I began to carefully spoon, level....and count.  It was at some point during this operation that the pastry chef walked in.  She stopped to absorb what she saw and barked "WHAT are you doing?!"  At a bit of a loss, I replied...."ummm...measuring flour...."  With great disgust, she dumped my flour back into the bin and said "That's not how you measure flour!"  She then grabbed a gallon-sized liquid pitcher, swept it through the flour bin and roughly and vigorously shook it to "level" it off and then banged it down on the counter and said "THAT'S 16 cups of flour!"  As she left the room and I stared at the pitcher of flour I realized that whatever the amount of flour in it happened to be, it was probably not 16 cups...whatever that meant....  It was however what was always used in that particular recipe...and it produced the same results every time.  But if you were to hand that recipe to a dozen different people...they would produce widely varying results...probably none of which would match the cookies that we made at the restaurant.

I share all of this not because I wish to criticize my first boss.  She was a wonderful woman (ultimately we became good friends) and a very talented pastry chef (I learned a ton from her).  Rather, I share it to illustrate my contention that there is no agreed upon standard in this country...where volume measures are the standard...for what actually constitutes a cup of flour.  Unless you know two things—where the recipe came from (i.e. who developed it) and how they measure flour—knowing that a recipe calls for, say, 2 cups of flour, gives you nothing but a starting point. 



I have been thinking about all of this more than usual recently because of an article sent to me by my sister-in-law.  It is a discussion of this difficulty of deciphering what is meant by a cup of flour.  It is a very interesting history and it also includes a list of well-known pastry chefs and cookbook authors and how each of them measures flour.  My sister-in-law—who is an avid baker—was fascinated because she always uses cups and spoons and had never considered getting a scale.  I was pleased to see a pet peeve of mine discussed so well...and interested to see how attached each chef/baker was to their "correct" way of measuring flour.  Mostly I was excited to find a list that revealed the favored method of all of these well-known recipe developers...this is pretty much a gold mine because having this bit of information is the key to executing the recipes of each well.

Perhaps you think the method of measure cannot really make such a great difference.  But I assure you, it can make a very great difference:  the difference between success and failure.   When I measure a cup of flour the way I was taught by my mother all of those years ago (lightly spooned and leveled), I get 4 to 4 1/4 ounces or 115 to 120 grams of flour.  Dipping and sweeping will produce anywhere from 130 to 140 grams...depending on whether I have stirred the flour first to aerate it a bit.  If—as is practiced in some production environments—I sweep the cup through the container and "level" it by pressing it against the side of the flour bin, I will get in excess of 150 grams...possibly as much as 160 grams of flour. 

Now let's suppose that a recipe calls for 2 cups of unbleached all-purpose flour.  This is the type of flour I almost always use and two cups of flour would be a normal amount of flour for a small cake.  If I make that cake in my kitchen (spooning and leveling the flour), I will use 230 grams of flour.  But if a dip and sweeper makes that cake, they will measure out closer to 280 grams of flour.  This 50 gram difference is not insignificant (for a visual, that's anywhere from a third to a scant half of a cup of flour).  If you happen to measure by dipping and pressing against the side (or shaking vigorously as in my chocolate chip example), 2 cups will yield over 300 grams of flour...or thirty percent more flour than I would get spooning and leveling.  And this is just a small recipe.  Imagine the difference it would make for my large chocolate chip cookie recipe.  If the recipe were written by someone who intends 300 grams of flour and I only use 230 grams, my cake will be wet, porous...and probably over-leavened...basically an inedible flop.  If however the recipe were  written by someone who intended 2 cups to be 230 grams...and my method of measure yields 300...the cake will be dry, crumbly, under-leavened and tough.

I am convinced that many baking failures are caused by this one crucial difference in baking habits.  The moral of course is to get a scale....and start weighing your flour.  Convert your recipes (i.e. weigh a cup of flour as YOU measure it and then use that weight whenever you make your old favorites).  Then, seek out recipes that give the ingredients in weights rather than volume.

Unfortunately most cookbooks in this country are still written using volume measures.  So, when you get a new cookbook, look to see if the author defines somewhere how they measure flour (most good bakers and pastry chefs will do this for you in the intro/basics section).  You can then measure out a cup of flour following their method, weigh it and then make a note of whatever that weight is in the front of the book.   In my experience, cookbooks produced by "famous" restaurant chefs, don't always tell you how they measure a cup of flour.   But, like the restaurant I started out in, they tend to use a heavy cup of flour...140 grams per cup or more.

I have been pleased in recent years to see that more and more recipes are found in weights.  I am guessing that this is due to the proliferation of food blogs which tend to have international audiences.  And as I already mentioned in passing, the rest of the baking world uses weights rather than volume measures for baking.  Hopefully someday soon all American cookbooks will list all ingredients by weight.  Until then, a google search or two will often provide the key to how a particular baker measures...or even provide an exact weight per cup equivalent.

One final, technical note...  I should point out that I haven't even begun to touch on the fact that different types of flour (cake, bread, bleached all-purpose...etc) will each yield different weights per cup...even if measured with the same method.  This is of course all the more reason to use a scale.  I can't think of any reason not to use a scale....


I love my scale....

If you have hung in there for my whole post....which is actually a bit of a rant, I admit....thank you!  I actually am going to share a couple of delicious cake recipes...both of which were partly responsible for bringing this issue of the weight of a cup of flour to the forefront of my mind. 

For the first cake I am only going to provide a link since I made no changes to it.  It is a recipe by Gina DePalma (pastry chef at Babbo) for zucchini cake.  I found the recipe on David Lebovitz's site.  His recipe included weights (as they always do).  I had been having a great deal of difficulty finding a zucchini cake (for an upcoming class) that I was happy with.  I knew part of the problem was that I couldn't find a recipe written in weights.  This particular recipe called for "2 cups (280 grams)" of flour.  This told me that Lebovitz (or DePalma) uses a 140 gram cup (dip and sweep)...and I would have produced an inferior cake with my 115 gram cup.  I am happy to report that this is the finest zucchini cake I have ever tasted.  If you like spicy vegetable-based cakes, you should definitely give it a try.

The second cake is a recipe from a local pastry chef.  Long before I went to cooking school I had heard of Chelsea Williams...she was well known around town for her delicious baked goods...which is probably why I had clipped a recipe out of our local paper for one of her cakes.  It was called "Blueberry Morning Cake".  For some reason I never made the cake and the recipe disappeared into my recipe file.

Many years later, after I had been working in the industry for several years, I finally met Chelsea.  We have gradually gotten to know one another better over the years as our paths have continued to cross.  When I happened upon the recipe for her cake in my recipe file, I snapped a photo of it and messaged it to her.  She said it was one of her all time favorite cakes and wanted to know if I had ever made it.  I had not...but since we are in the middle of blueberry season I decided that I would do it now....before it fell off my radar again and slipped into the back of my recipe file once more.



Because Chelsea is a professional baker...and in my experience most restaurant and bake shop pastry chefs use a heavier cup...I decided to ask her how she measured her flour.  I was so glad I did!  First of all, we had a fascinating conversation...pretty much along the lines of the things I have already written.  Secondly, I found out that she is a dip and sweeper (and is just as attached to her method as I am to mine) and that her recipes are scaled to 140 grams per cup.  Had I made her cake the way I scale recipes, I would have used a 115 gram cup.  Her recipe (in its original form...I'm posting a smaller quantity) called for 4 cups of flour....  The difference in my method would have produced a cake that was nothing like hers.  When made with the proper amount of flour, the cake is moist...with a nice fine, even grain...and blueberries that are suspended beautifully throughout.  A substantially smaller amount of flour would have meant a wet, uneven crumb and the blueberries would have gravitated to the bottom of the pan where they would have become a wet glob.....  Not very nice at all.

As I mentioned, Chelsea's original cake was a much larger batch.  It made a large bundt cake and a loaf cake.  Since I only wanted to make a bundt cake, I made just 2/3 of her original recipe...which is how I'm passing it on to you.  If you want to make the bundt and the loaf, simply increase my recipe by 50 percent. 




Finally, since I had just made the zucchini cake...with its delicious "crunchy lemon glaze"...I made a spur of the moment decision while Chelsea's cake was baking to give it the same lemon glaze.  It was very good...but it is not a part of the original recipe and I know the cake will be delicious without it.  With or without the glaze it is a very moist cake...a pound cake of sorts...and like pound cake-style cakes seems to get better (moister, with a more developed flavor) as it sits.  Although...as I reported back to Chelsea...it's so good, I'm not sure it will ever last that long at my house. 





Chelsea's Blueberry Morning Cake

The cake:
370 g. (3 1/4 c.) all-purpose flour
1/2 t. salt
2 t. baking powder
300 g. (21 T. plus 1 t./2/3 lb.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
400 g. (2 c.) sugar
Zest of 1 large or 2 small lemons
4 eggs, at room temperature
160 g. (2/3 c.) plain yogurt or milk (see note)
2 c. blueberries, washed and dried

The optional glaze:
1/4 c. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/3 c. (65g) granulated sugar
1 1/4 c. (140g) confectioner’s sugar




Combine the first three ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.

Cream the butter, sugar and zest until light and fluffy.  Beat in the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the sides after each addition.  Stir in a third of the flour mixture, followed by half of the yogurt.  Repeat with another third of the flour and the remaining yogurt.  Add all but a couple of tablespoons of the remaining dry ingredients and fold in until mostly incorporated.  Toss the blueberries with the reserved few tablespoons of dry ingredients and add to the batter, 



carefully folding until the blueberries are evenly distributed and the dry ingredients are completely incorporated. 

Transfer the batter to a greased and floured 12-cup bundt pan.  Use a spatula to smooth the top.  



Bake the cake in a 350° until golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean—about 55 to 65 minutes. 



If making the glaze, during the last few minutes of baking, whisk together the lemon juice, 1/3 cup (65g) granulated sugar, and powdered sugar.  Let the cake cool for 10 minutes, then carefully invert it onto a cooling rack.



Brush the glaze over the cake with a pastry brush and let the cake cool completely.



Notes:
  • Chelsea's original recipe did not include a glaze and used milk instead of yogurt.
  • The cake may also be baked in two loaf pans.  Chelsea's original recipe was for half again as much batter (1 lb of butter...6 eggs...etc.).  She divided the batter between the bundt pan and one loaf pan.
Printable Recipe


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Zucchini Mousseline...with Pan-Seared Halibut and Summer Vegetables...and with Ricotta in a Summer Spread

This coming week I'm teaching a class featuring ways to use corn and zucchini.  As I was considering what recipes to include in the class, I remembered a preparation that we made when I was at The American Restaurant called Zucchini Mousseline.  Made of nothing more than zucchini and olive oil, it was a favorite of mine—used (among other things) as part of a summer vegetarian plate featuring the ingredients of ratatouille and also as a garnish for a fish entrée.  For some reason I hadn't made it—or even thought of it—in years.  I decided a class would be the perfect time to resurrect this dish. 


Of course, the desire to recreate a recipe is not always matched by the ability to do so.  Unfortunately, as the years have passed, I have found that many things I made so often that I would have been able to make them in my sleep have slipped into vague memories.  Notes that passed for recipes at the time are never as complete as I would like.  I console myself with the knowledge that I am not alone in this...I have heard other long time professional cooks complain about the same thing.

In the case of the zucchini mousseline, recreating something similar to that long ago dish was not too much of a stretch.  My notes were better than I had hoped they would be.  Also, the small number of ingredients...and simplicity of the method...were in my favor.  I can't guarantee that the zucchini mousseline that I am presenting here is identical to the one we made at the restaurant...another line cook or chef might remember it in a slightly different way...but I think it is very close.  And happily, it is just as I remember it:  light, creamy, beautifully green and intensely flavored—just the thing to go with fish...or vegetables...or anything else you think might benefit from the presence of a fluffy mousse of zucchini....


The recipe as I have it written down from my restaurant days is as follows:  Wash, top and tail some zucchini.  


Cut into roughly 4-inch lengths (making it more manageable for standing on end).  Stand the lengths on end and slice sections of the skin off, taking as little of the white flesh as possible.  


Cut these slices of into quarter inch batonnets.  


Sweat in olive oil until tender.  


Place in the blender and purée, adding a little more olive oil if it's too dry.  Season with salt and pepper.

If you are wondering, the centers of the squash were simply discarded.  The reason for doing this is twofold.  First...and most importantly...for large zucchini, the seedy core is watery and coarsely grained.  Including it would make for a watery, thin purée (more of a sauce than a "mousse") with a coarser texture and a much less intense flavor.  (There is no added water used to cook the zucchini for the same reason.)  The second reason—and this is minor, in my opinion—is that the cores are white and including them will give a less deeply colored purée. 

I don't like to waste food, so tossing the cores bothers me a bit.  They could probably be grated and added to a zucchini baked good of some kind...but I don't think I would really want to do that since one of the things I like about zucchini breads and cakes is the pretty flecks of green.

Rather than waste so much product, I have specified in my recipe to seek out small squash (less than 200 grams each, if possible).  If you have very small squash (100 grams or less), you will find that the seed cavity is small, with relatively undeveloped seeds.  At this size too, the flesh is still finely grained and dense (which in addition to having less water, makes for a more velvety purée).  Using all of the squashincluding the interior—when they are this size makes good sense to me.  For squash weighing more than 100 grams I discard the cores...although for squash between 100 and 200 grams the cavity is not quite so developed and the waste will be small.  For large squash, you will just have to live with a larger amount of loss if you wish to maintain the integrity of the recipe and obtain a purée with nice body and a velvety texture. 


In my recipe, I specify that the cooked squash be puréed using an immersion blender.  At the restaurant we used a traditional blender, but it was a very powerful Vitamix blender.  When I tried to use my blender at home, it was impossible to get the squash to "move" in the blender without adding several tablespoons of water.  If you have a Vitamix...or something similar...you will not have the same difficulty.  I would not use a food processor...since it is more adept at mincing than puréeing, it will not produce satisfactory results.

For my class I will be serving the mousseline as an accompaniment to corn fritters.  We sampled it that way at home...and it was delicious.  Unfortunately, I didn't take any pictures.  I did, however take pictures of a couple of the other ways that we enjoyed it. 

I mixed the leftovers of my first batch with some whole milk ricotta, garlic, lemon and thyme.  Topped with a few toasted walnuts...and a drizzle of olive oil...it made a delicious spread—which I enjoyed for lunch.  I'm confident it would also make a fine mezze or appetizer for your next summer dinner party.


Finally, remembering how delicious the mousseline was with fish at the restaurant, I served it for our dinner one evening with some pan-seared halibut and a medley of roasted corn, zucchini, olives and cherry tomatoes. And I have to say, it was very, very good.  Not only that, it was super simple to prepare.  And considering that almost everything can be prepared ahead, it is a perfect candidate for summer entertaining.  (Although I hope you won't wait for a party to make it!)


Once you have experienced zucchini mousseline, I predict you will come up with all kinds of ways to use it...  As I have in a spread...or with fish—or perhaps with lamb...or as a sauce for pasta.  It is surprisingly full flavored...nutty and rich...truly the essence of zucchini—and a delicious and elegant way to use up some of the bounty of this most prolific member of the summer vegetable garden. 


Zucchini Mousseline

1 lb. small to medium zucchini (preferably no bigger than 6 oz. each)
about 3 T. olive oil
Salt & pepper

If your zucchini are very small (weighing less than 3 1/2 oz. each), simply trim the ends, cut them in half lengthwise and slice them thinly (less than a quarter inch thick) cross-wise.  If they are larger (but hopefully, still smaller than 6 oz. each), trim the ends and cut them in half cross-wise.  Stand these segments of squash on end and slice the green and white flesh away from the seedy center.  Discard the "cores" and cut the trimmed strips thinly (less than a quarter inch thick) cross-wise. 

Slices of larger squash with cores removed next to
slices of small squash with cores intact.
In a wide sauté pan, warm a tablespoon or so of olive oil over medium heat.  Add the squash pieces along with a pinch of salt.  Toss/stir to coat the squash in the oil.  The squash should sizzle gently.  Cook (without allowing the squash to color) until it is tender...the white portion of the squash will become slightly translucent and tinged with green...about 12 to 15 minutes. 


Scrape the contents of the sauté pan into a tall narrow container just wide enough to accommodate an immersion blender.  Use your immersion blender to purée the zucchini.  If it doesn't want to purée smoothly, add  another tablespoon or two of olive oil...and maybe a tablespoon of water, but don't add a lot of water, you are creating a fluffy purée with enough body to mound on a spoon...too much water and you will create a sauce (see note).  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt & pepper.


Makes about 1 cup of mousseline

Notes:
  • If you do not wish to discard the seedy cores, you may prepare your mousseline with them, just know that your purée will be thinner (the seedy cores are watery) and a much paler green color. 
  • If you are planning on thinning down the mousseline to a sauce consistency, you may cook the zucchini covered (as for a classic étuvée)—simply add the squash to the pan, toss to coat in the oil, cover and reduce the heat to very low. Covering the pan will conserve the water in the squash...making it easier to purée, and resulting in a thinner, less mousse-like consistency. 
  • If you wish to make the mousseline into a spread with ricotta cheese, you must cook the squash uncovered and discard the seedy cores. 
  • If you have a very powerful blender (like a Vitamix) you may purée the cooked zucchini in the blender. The food processor will yield inferior results, as it will not purée the squash to a fine enough consistency to create a mousse-like texture. 




Creamy Zucchini & Ricotta Spread

1 c. zucchini mousseline
3/4 c. whole milk ricotta (drained if wet)
Zest of 1 lemon
1/2 to 1 t. lemon juice
1/2 t. picked thyme, chopped
Salt & pepper, to taste
Olive oil
Toasted walnuts, coarsely broken

Place the first six ingredients in a bowl and stir until well blended.  Season to taste with salt & pepper...adding more lemon juice, if necessary.

Serve mounded in a bowl, or dolloped onto individual plates, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with walnuts.  Serve crisp toasts or pita chips.

Printable Version





Pan-Seared Halibut with Zucchini Mousseline
& a Summer Medley of Corn, Zucchini, Tomatoes and Olives

1 1/3 c. diced zucchini (1/4- to 1/3-inch dice)
1 T. olive oil, plus more for drizzling and frying the halibut
1 1/3 c. roasted corn kernels (see note)—warm or at room temperature
1 c. cherry tomatoes, quartered
1/3 c. kalamata olives, pitted and halved
1 recipe zucchini mousseline
4 5 oz. portions halibut (skinless)
Salt & Pepper, to taste
1/2 to 1 T. lemon juice, plus more for drizzling



In a skillet large enough to hold the zucchini in a snug single layer, heat a tablespoon of the olive oil. Add the zucchini, a generous pinch of salt and enough water to come half way up the sides of the zucchini.  Cook over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until the zucchini is barely tender and the water has evaporated, about 5 minutes; add a bit more water if the zucchini starts to brown.  Transfer to a plate to cool...or, if using right away, simply set the pan aside off of the heat.


About 15 minutes before you are ready to serve, place the zucchini, corn, cherry tomatoes and olives in a large bowl.  If necessary, warm the zucchini mousseline in a small saucepan over low heat, or warm briefly in the microwave.


Heat a large—preferably non-stick (cast iron or French steel is best)—sauté pan over moderately high to high heat.  While the pan is heating, season the fish with salt and pepper.  Add enough olive oil to coat the pan.  The pan is ready when a wisp of smoke is visible rising from the oil.  Carefully add the fish to the pan, service side down (this is the side that was next to the bones..and the side that will face the diner when the fish is served), gently sliding the pan back and forth as you add each piece to make sure the fish has a film of oil underneath.  (If the fish doesn't move when you slide the pan back and forth, just leave it alone, tilting the pan occasionally to allow the oil to seep underneath the fish...as the surface seals, the fish will release itself from the pan.)  Let the fish cook undisturbed, regulating the heat to maintain and active sizzle, until it is golden brown—anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes.  Carefully flip the fish over and continue to cook on the other side until the fish is cooked to your liking.  Because halibut is a very lean fish, I like it to be a bit underdone, with a thin line of translucence in the center...but you should cook it as you prefer.  If the fish is very thick, you may need to transfer the pan to a 375° to 400° oven to allow it to finish cooking.  Total cooking time (from the time the Halibut hits the sauté pan) will be about 7 or 8 minutes per inch of thickness.  Carefully transfer the fish to a plate and drizzle with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice.

Drizzle a half tablespoon of lemon juice over the vegetables, season with salt and pepper and toss to combine.  If necessary, drizzle with olive oil to moisten.  Taste and correct the seasoning with lemon juice, salt & pepper.

To serve, spread a small round of the mousseline in the center of each plate.   


Top with a couple of spoonfuls of the vegetables, 


then the fish 


and finally another couple of spoonfuls of the vegetables, allowing the vegetables to fall naturally around the plate.

Serve right away.  Serves 4.

Note: To roast corn, place the corn (in the husk) in a preheated 375­° oven.  Roast for 20 minutes.  Remove from the oven and remove the husks as soon as you are able to handle the corn.  Cool and cut the kernels away from the cob.  A large ear of corn will produce about 1 cup of kernels.  I like to roast several ears at a time—then I have it on hand for a quick lunch salad with tomatoes and avocado...or to add to a quick pasta for dinner.



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Monday, June 29, 2015

A Tart Cherry Crisp with Pistachios to Share with Friends

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that the season for tart cherries is fleeting.  People who love tart cherries watch carefully for them at the farmers' market—they usually only make an appearance once...possibly twice...depending on the microclimates of individual growers.  When they do appear you must be ready to use them...or freeze them...right away since they don't keep well at all.  Since June is typically a busy month with work, I almost always freeze them...looking forward to the delicious cakes, pies, tarts, cobblers and/or crisps to come.


There have been years when I have bypassed tart cherries altogether during their brief visit to the market simply because I didn't even feel like I had the time to pit and freeze them....much less pit them and then make something with them.  So it was this year.  I'm not even sure I saw them when they came to the market.  But then, in the midst of a busy week, a friend who has her own cherry trees showed up at the door of the classroom at The Merc in Lawrence with a big (4 lbs!) bag of beautiful tart cherries.  Even though I was tired, you better believe I took the time the very next day to wash, pit and freeze them. 

And I was so glad I did.  Within a day or two of freezing them I found out that there was going to be a potluck dinner in honor of some good friends who were going to be in town for a short visit.  I thought a tart cherry crisp sounded like the perfect dessert...a special treat to share with some very special friends.


If you have never frozen your own cherries, it is easy to do.  First, wash the cherries in a couple of changes of water.  Spread them on towels to dry.  Then, remove the stems and discard any that are mushy or showing signs of decay.  Pit them (I use a hand held cherry/olive pitter), making sure that you get all of the pits (you don't want anyone to break a tooth).  Spread the pitted cherries on a rimmed baking sheet in a single layer.  Place the baking sheet in the freezer.  When the cherries are rock hard, transfer them to freezer bags.  The cherries will keep well for a year...although, as with anything, they will be best if used sooner rather than later. 

The cherries can often be used directly from frozen, but frequently they need to be thawed first.  One of the difficulties with thawing cherries is that they release a lot of their juices as they thaw.  This can be dealt with by collecting the juices and placing them in a saucepan over moderate heat and simmering until thick and syrupy...or simply thickening the simmering juices with cornstarch....depending on the intended use.  The reduced or thickened juices can then be incorporated into whatever it is that you are making. 

I have always thawed my cherries in a bowl.  I noticed though in the recipe that I used as a template for my crisp that they recommended spreading the cherries out on a baking sheet to thaw.  I followed these instructions because I knew they would thaw more quickly when spread out than they would in a big pile in a bowl (I was in a hurry), but I was surprised when the cherries only released about a tablespoon of liquid.  I had even taken the extra step of spreading my cherries on a rack over the rimmed baking sheet in anticipation of all of the liquid they would release.   Despite the fact that it wasn't necessary, I still think it was a good move.  It made them easier to deal with since they weren't wet from sitting in the little liquid that they did produce.  And if they had produced a lot of liquid, no further draining or drying would have been necessary.  

Cherries thawing on a rack over a rimmed sheet pan....

The small amount of  liquid released
 from the thawing cherries onto the sheet pan....
I don't know if the lack of liquid was a result of the fact that the cherries had only been frozen for about three weeks, or the method I used to thaw them...I suspect it was a bit of both.  Either way, I plan on always using this method to thaw cherries in the future—it was fast, clean and there was almost no waste.  Best of all, the cherries behaved very much like freshly pitted cherries when I used them.

The recipe I adapted for my crisp was from Martha Stewart.  I was attracted to her use of pistachios in the topping.  I love pistachios and was curious to see how they would pair with the cherries.  I'm happy to report that they were delicious.  I'm sure you could go with the more traditional choice of almonds, but I highly recommend the pistachios if you can get them (look for raw and unsalted in the bulk section of your grocery store).

The crisp was a big hit with my friends...providing a satisfying end to a fantastic mid-summer meal of grilled meats and market fresh vegetables.  I was so pleased I had the cherries to share.  If you didn't happen to freeze your own cherries this year, you should make a mental note to purchase some to freeze when their season comes around next year.  In the mean time, I'm certain this crisp would still be wonderful with purchased frozen cherries...and a perfect addition to your upcoming Independence Day picnic or barbecue. 



Tart Cherry Crisp with Pistachios

Topping:
1/2 c. light or golden brown sugar (100 g.)
1/4 c. granulated sugar (50 g.)
1 c. all-purpose flour (120 g.)
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. nutmeg
9 T. cold unsalted butter, sliced 1/4-inch thick (125 g.)
3/4 c. pistachios, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped (100 g.)
1/2 c. old-fashioned oats (45 g.)

Combine the sugars, flour, salt and nutmeg in a medium-sized bowl.  Rub in the butter until the ingredients are combined and have a crumbly appearance.  Stir in the pistachios and oats.  Refrigerate until ready to use.


Filling:
2 2/3 lbs. pitted tart cherries, fresh or frozen (about 8 1/2 c.)
1 T. cornstarch (10 g)
3/4 c. sugar (150 g.)
1/4 t. almond extract

Preheat oven to 375°. If using frozen cherries, spread them in a single layer on a rack set over a rimmed baking sheet.  Let stand at room temperature until cherries have thawed almost completely but still hold their shape, about 30 to 45 minutes depending on the temperature of the room.  Place the cherries in a large bowl.  If the cherries have released a lot of liquid, pour the liquid into a small saucepan and reduce over moderate heat until thick.  Cool and add to the cherries.  If the cherries have released only a tablespoon or so of liquid, simply discard (or add to the bowl with the cherries).

In a small bowl, stir together the cornstarch and sugar.  Add this to the bowl of cherries, along with the almond extract.  


Stir until all of the cornstarch-sugar mixture is evenly distributed and moistened.

Turn the cherries into a shallow, buttered 3-qt. glass, ceramic or earthenware baking dish.  


Spread the crumb topping over all. 


Bake until the topping is golden and crisp and the fruit is bubbling (at the edges and near the center)—about 40 to 50 minutes.  


Cool slightly and serve warm with vanilla ice cream or lightly sweetened whipped cream.  Serves 10.

(Recipe adapted from Martha Stewart Living, August 2005)

Notes: 
  • If you prefer a sweeter crisp, add another quarter cup of sugar (white or brown) to the topping mixture. 
  • If you prefer a tighter, thicker fruit mixture in your crisp, increase the cornstarch by 1 to 1 1/2 t. 
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