Saturday, May 11, 2019

Savory Beet Greens & Mushroom Quiche...two ways...

This spring has been for me a season of beet greens.  It started when I saw some beautiful beets at the store and suddenly realized I hadn’t had beets in a while and that I was really hungry for them.  These particular beets had beautiful tops…so I saved them and added them to a pasta (or perhaps a grain pilaf…the exact preparation escapes me now).  Then suddenly I had a couple private dinners in a row that included roasted beet salads.  So I had more beet greens—because when you buy nice beets you almost always get the greens too…which basically makes them free.  So I made more pastas and pilafs…and a fantastic soup (with pasta) that I hadn’t had in a while… 
And still there were more.  So when I came home from a class with a pastry shell left from the demonstration, I decided to make a beet greens tart.  Greens of all kinds make fantastic fillings for tarts, so a tart of nothing but the greens…shrouded in a custard and enhanced with a little onion and garlic…or bacon or sausage…would have been delicious.  But at the time I happened to have some mushrooms on hand.  I remembered a good pasta I made a year or two ago with mushrooms, greens and bread crumbs.  So I decided to turn that pasta into a tart. 

I hadn’t planned on posting the recipe—there are after all, many, many tart recipes on my blog—but this tart was the thing I decided to make again when I ended up with another windfall of beet greens.  Anytime I like something so much that I make it twice in a short span of time, it’s usually a good indication that I should post the recipe—if for no other reason than I know I will be glad I did when at some point down the road I want to make a well-liked dish again and I can’t find my notes.

Aside from selfish reasons, I thought the post would be instructive.  It is the season of greens at the markets…and people are always looking for ways to use this abundance.  This tart is a great way to do this.  Even if you don’t have beet greens:  You can of course replace the beet greens with spinach or chard…even kale (just remember to blanch kale before adding it to the pan with the onions).

The second time I made the tart I didn't really have enough of the beet greens (on the left)...
so I supplemented with a handful of spinach and a few chard leaves... 
Almost any green would be good in this tart.

But beyond the tart being a great place to use some of your greens, I had another reason to post this recipe.  The glut of beet greens continued until I had another leftover tart shell from a class—a tart shell that was a different shape.  The first tart shell was the large, almost flat, pizza style that I tend to favor (it shows off ingredients to great, it has a higher proportion of crust to filling…which I love).  The second was a traditional shell (baked in a removable bottom, 9-inch tart pan).  I have always told people that these two shells (the 12-inch pizza pan crust and the 9-inch standard crust) held the same amount of filling…but I think this is hard for most people to believe.  (They certainly don’t look like they would hold the same amount of filling.)  Posting this recipe is my chance to demonstrate that this is in fact true.  Both the tarts pictured in the post used exactly the same amount of vegetable filling and custard.  You can make it either way.  The traditional style will appeal to people who really think tarts are all about the filling.  The “pizza style” will appeal to those who—like me—always want more crust.

Before I close I want to make a couple of observations about the ingredients.  The first time I made the tart I used red onion and mature garlic.  When I made it the second time I had spring onions and green garlic in my pantry…so of course I used those!  You should use what you have on hand.  I have given instructions for both.   

And while on the subject of ingredients, I want to mention the rosemary.  I normally don’t make a big deal about the addition of particular herbs, because I think they fall into the category of seasoning to your preferences.  But for this recipe, if you have it—and you like it—you should include it.  It is delicious with both mushrooms and greens…and it really adds to the savory and complex flavor of this tart.  I’m sure the tart would be good without it…but it is exceptional with it.

Finally, you may have noticed in the title of the post that I have called this recipe a “quiche”…yet I have referred to it as a “tart” throughout the post.  I was going to call it a tart in the title…because it is a tart:  It’s baked in a tart pan…and the filling is cradled in a flaky pastry crust.    But it is also a quiche—a specific class of tarts in which the filling that goes into the crust is suspended in an egg custard.  I bring this up only because I was asked this very question in a class recently:  Was I making a tart? Or a quiche?  And, what exactly is it that makes something a tart or a quiche?  I then realized I had been using the words interchangeably as I taught the class…because the thing I was making happened to be both.  But of course this is not always the case.  As far as I know, all quiches are tarts.  But it is not true that all tarts are quiches since all tarts (savory or sweet filling baked in a pastry crust) don’t necessarily include custard.  So now you know the difference (if you didn’t before…).  In any case, whatever you choose to call it, I hope you will find it to be as satisfying and delicious to eat as I have.  And I also hope you will find it to be a useful way to use and enjoy the greens that are flooding the markets right now.

Beet Greens & Mushroom Quiche

Olive oil
1/2 medium red onion, finely diced, or 2 or 3 spring onions, finely sliced or minced
1 clove garlic, minced, or one stall green garlic, finely sliced or minced
A small sprig of rosemary, picked and minced (to make about 1/2 to 3/4 t. minced)
1/8 t. hot pepper flakes
5 oz. (trimmed weight—no stems or ribs) beet greens, Swiss chard or kale, rinsed in several changes of water
8 oz. crimini mushrooms, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 12-inch “pizza-style” tart shell or 1 standard 9-inch tart shell, blind baked (see below)
100 gr/3 1/2 oz. Gruyère cheese, finely grated (about a cup)
2 eggs
1 c. heavy cream
1/3 to 1/2 c. coarse, fresh breadcrumbs, tossed with a teaspoon of melted butter
salt & pepper

Film a wide sauté pan set over moderate heat with olive oil. If you using red onions and mature garlic, add the onions along with a pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally until the onions are tender and beginning to become golden at the edges. Add the garlic, rosemary and pepper flakes and cook until fragrant. If using spring onions and green garlic, add the onions and garlic to the pan along with a pinch of salt and cook until tender and translucent. Add the pepper flakes and rosemary and cook until fragrant. The red onion base will probably take about 15 minutes…the spring onion base will take less time—perhaps 5 minutes or so. For both kinds of onions, regulate the heat as necessary to allow the mixtures to sizzle gently, reducing the heat if the onions threaten to scorch. If the pan ever looks dry, drizzle in a bit more oil.

When the onions are cooked, add the greens. If using beet greens or chard, add them a handful at a time, turning with tongs to coat them in the fat and expose them to the heat and adding more as they begin to collapse. If the greens were recently washed, there should be enough water clinging to them to create steam and help them cook…if they were washed ahead (or spun dry) you may need to add a few tablespoons of water to the pan. Cover the pan and cook until the greens are tender. Uncover and continue to cook until any liquid has evaporated. Season to taste with salt and pepper and set aside in a warm spot. 

If using kale, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the kale and cook until tender (about 7 minutes). Lift the kale out and spread on a baking sheet to cool. When cool enough to handle, squeeze out the excess water. Add the cooked kale to the onion mixture and cook gently for a few minutes to infuse the greens with the flavor of the onions. Set aside.

While the greens cook, sauté the mushrooms: Depending on the size of your pan, you may need to sauté in batches—don't overcrowd the pan. Heat a sauté pan (non-stick, if you have one) over high heat. Add oil to coat the pan (a tablespoon or so), then add the mushrooms. Cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the mushrooms are browned, tender and any liquid that they have given off has evaporated. If they seem dry at any time as they cook, drizzle in a bit more oil. Transfer the mushrooms to a plate and season with salt & pepper. When the greens are cooked, add the mushrooms to the greens. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 375°. Place the baked crust on a baking sheet. Scatter about 2/3 of the cheese over the baked crust. Scatter the greens and mushrooms over all. Whisk together the eggs and the cream. Season with salt and pepper—and a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg if you like.

Slowly pour the custard over the vegetables, jiggling the pan a bit so the custard will be evenly distributed and will penetrate the vegetables. Be careful not to let the custard flow over the edge.

If there are any low places in the edge of your crust, you will not be able to use it all. Scatter the remaining cheese over the tart, followed by the buttered breadcrumbs. Bake the tart until the custard is set—about 20 minutes for the pizza-style tart, 25 for the traditional (a knife inserted in the center will come out clean). Slide the tart under the broiler to brown slightly if you like. Serves 6 as an entrée (with a salad or vegetable side), 8 to 10 as a light first course with a fluff of lightly dressed greens.

Pâte Brisée
(Short Crust Pastry)

For a 12- to 13-inch “pizza-style” crust
1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour (200g)
1/2 t. salt
11 T. cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces (150g)
1/4 to 1/3 c. ice water

For a 9- to 10-inch tart shell

1 1/3 c. all-purpose flour (150g)
3/8 t. salt
8 T. cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces (113g)
3 to 4 T. ice water

Combine the flour and the salt in a medium-sized bowl.  Rub the butter into the flour until the butter is in small pea-sized pieces. Drizzle the smaller measure of ice water over the flour/butter mixture.  Using your hands, fluff the mixture until it begins to clump, adding more water if necessary.  Turn the dough out onto a counter and form into a mound.  Using the heel of your hand, gradually push all of the dough away from you in short forward strokes, flattening out the lumps.  Continue until all of the dough is flat.  Using a bench scraper, scrape the dough off the counter, forming it into a single clump as you do.  Form the finished dough into a thick disk.  Chill for at least 30 minutes.

To roll out, let dough warm up for a moment or two.  Butter/spray the a pan and set it aside.  Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface into a circle that is about 1/8- to 1/6–inch thick and with a diameter 2 to 3 inches larger than that of the pan.  Trim any ragged edges.  Brush off the excess flour and fold the dough circle in half.  Transfer it to the prepared pan.  Unfold the dough and ease it into the pan being careful not to stretch it.  Fold the edges to form a ½-inch rim of a double thickness of dough for the pizza-style crust.  For the traditional tart pan, simply press the dough against the sides of the pan (being sure not to stretch the dough) and cut the dough off flush with the edge of the tart pan.  Chill for at least 30 minutes.

To blind bake, line the pastry with aluminum foil or parchment paper, pressing it into the corners and edges.  Add a layer of pie weights or dried beans.  Bake in a 400° to 425° oven for 20 to 25 minutes.  When the pastry begins to color on the edges and is cooked through, remove the foil and weights and continue baking until the pastry dries out and turns a golden brown (another 5 minutes or so).

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Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Traditional Hot Cross Buns

I am quite late with this particular post.  Not only is Good Friday (the day when tradition dictates that Hot Cross Buns appear) past, but Easter has passed as well.  Such is my life at the moment.  Posting anything at all is a bit of a stretch.  Posting something in a timely manner probably isn’t going to happen.  But since Good Friday and Easter will come around next year—and I will be making these every year from now on (they’re that good!)—I’m going to go ahead and post the recipe now.

As a lover of English foods in general, for many years I was a bit mystified by the popularity of the Hot Cross Bun.   I have made them on more than one occasion.  And I’m sure that I probably had a commercial version when I was living in London.  But I don’t ever remember having one (mine, or otherwise) that impressed me too much.  I knew this could only be because I hadn’t been to the right place…or found the right recipe.

Since I wanted to love them, (What’s not to love about the idea of a soft, slightly sweet, slightly spicy, roll—filled with dried and candied fruit?) last year, as the Lenten season drew to a close, I finally decided to do some serious research and try them again.  I turned first to the recipes and writings of Darina Allen (of the Ballymaloe House & Cookery School in Ireland).  I can think of no better living resource for the traditional foods of the British Isles.  Then, while poking around on line, I ran across a recipe (also from Ireland) that looked promising from a place called the Firehouse Bakery. 

The two recipes are not dissimilar, but I liked the method that Patrick Ryan (of Firehouse) used for incorporating the butter.  Somewhat like a brioche, the butter isn’t added until the gluten begins to develop in the kneaded dough (after 5 minutes or so).  This method takes a bit longer—and requires a stand mixer—but ultimately allows for better gluten development (fat is a gluten inhibitor).  I used this method for the pumpkin dinner rolls I posted a few years ago, and I love the light and tender results.   There is a great vimeo available on line of Ryan making his rolls.  It is very instructive. 

In the end my recipe was basically a combination of these two.  My greatest change was to switch to all-purpose flour from the strong/bread flour called for in their recipes.  I may be wrong, but my suspicion is that American all-purpose flour has a protein content that is fairly close to (although not quite as high as) British “strong” flour.  It is always difficult to translate a recipe from one country to another because of the differences in the ingredients.  I thought erring on the side of a lower protein flour (with the all-purpose) would be better than using one that had more protein (American bread flour).  The latter might have made the rolls too hard.  A Hot Cross Bun is supposed to be soft.     

I did look at other British recipes…and a few American ones…mostly to get a feel for the range of butter and sugar and quantity of spice and dried fruits.   There was a fair amount of variation among recipes in this regard.  In the end, I went on the high side with butter, sugar and dried/candied fruit.  These are the things that make them special for the holidays, in my opinion.  My rolls are not too sweet or too rich—but they are definitely not plain.   I can see how they would seem quite decadent—and a welcome treat on Good Friday—after the traditional Lenten fast from dairy-rich foods.

You will find that most American versions of these buns are topped with a piped cross of powdered sugar frosting after they have been baked.  I have never seen a British recipe finished this way.  Traditionally the buns are topped with a couple of strips of crossed pâte brisée/pie dough…or a piped “liquid cross”…prior to baking.  Some recipes slash each proofed roll in a cross (similar to Soda Bread)—but this doesn’t seem to me to be the norm.  I ended up using the Firehouse bakery “liquid cross” …mostly because I was curious about it.  It was like nothing I had ever worked with.  I’m so glad I tried it.  It is very easy to make.  And since it is baked on, it can’t be smeared or smudged off.  It also looks pleasingly neat and precise.

And for Americans who are used to using the term “bun” to refer to something that you fill with a hamburger or a hot dog, according to Elizabeth David (English Bread & Yeast Cookery…among others), in the British Isles a “bun” is a ‘small, soft, plump, sweet, fermented (yeasted) cake.”  There are of course loads of traditional English breads that fall into this category: Chelsea Buns, Currant Buns, Spice Buns…and Hot Cross Buns…to name a few.  So even though Easter is past for the year, you could still make these delicious little rolls.  Just leave the liquid cross off and you’ll have a Spice Bun.  Or make them with all currants and you’ll have a Currant Bun.   Either would be delicious with an afternoon cup of coffee or tea.  Or do as I do and enjoy them with your breakfast (they freeze beautifully).  And then, when Easter rolls around again next year, the making of the buns will be easy and you can focus on learning how to make and pipe the cross. 

Hot Cross Buns

454 g. (4 c.) all-purpose flour  
75 g. (6 T.) sugar
1 t. salt
1 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. ground cloves
1/4 t. nutmeg
1/2 t. allspice
2 T. warm water
7 g. (2 1/4 t.) instant or active dry yeast
1 large egg, beaten
240 g. (1 c.) whole milk, tepid
Zest of one orange
85 g. (6 T.) unsalted butter—cool but malleable, cut into 6 chunks
170 g. (1 c.) mixed dried and candied fruits (see notes)

1 egg beaten with 1 t. of water and a pinch of salt for egg wash

50 g. (1/2 c.) cake flour
50 g. (1/2 c. less 1 T.) all-purpose flour
40 g. (1/3 c.) powdered sugar
60 to 75 g. (4 to 5 T.) whole milk

28 g. (2 T.) water
25 g. (2 T.) sugar

Place the flour, sugar, salt and spices in a medium bowl and whisk to combine.  Set aside.

Place the water in the bowl of a stand mixer.  Sprinkle the yeast over the water.  If using active dry yeast, let it sit for a minute or two to soften.  Add the egg, milk, orange zest, and dry ingredients.  Using the dough hook mix on low speed (no. 2 or 3) until the ingredients are homogenous (a minute or two).  Increase the speed to medium (no. 4) and mix until the dough is just beginning to pull away from the sides—about 5 to 7 minutes.

Add the butter while the mixer is still running and continue to mix for a minute or two, stopping to scrape down the sides a couple of times, until the butter is absorbed.  Continue to knead until the dough is no longer sticking to the sides of the bowl and is smooth, velvety and elastic—about 6 to 8 minutes.  

(The first time you make this, waiting for the dough to come together will be an act of faith.  But eventually—and suddenly—it will.  If your butter is warm...or very will take longer.  Resist the temptation to add more flour.  This is a soft sticky dough.)  Add the dried fruits and continue to mix until distributed throughout the dough.

Lightly butter a large bowl.  Butter your hands.  If the fruit is not well distributed, scrape the dough out of the mixing bowl and onto a lightly floured surface and use a bench scraper to help mix and fold until the fruit is spread uniformly throughout the dough.  Using your (buttered hands) form the dough into a ball by stretching the surface around to the bottom four or five times, rotating the ball of dough after each stretch.  

Place the ball in the buttered bowl and cover the bowl with plastic wrap.  Let the dough rise at a warm room temperature until doubled in bulk—about two hours.  

(At this point you may form the rolls—or chill the dough over night and form the rolls in the morning.  If chilling over night, deflate the dough before covering the bowl with plastic wrap and placing in the refrigerator.)

Scrape the dough out onto the counter and deflate.  Cut dough into 16 equal portions (about 70 g. each).  Round each piece into a smooth ball.  (The dough will be only slightly sticky—and should be very manageable.  You should only need a whisper of flour…if any at all.) 

Place the formed rolls on a parchment-lined baking sheet, spreading them out evenly so that they (hopefully) won’t touch when they bake.  

Cover loosely with sprayed plastic wrap.  Let rise until doubled in size—about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. 

When the rolls are almost fully risen, mix the cake flour, powdered sugar and 4 T. of the milk.  You should have a stiff mixture.  Add a little more milk only if it is too stiff to pipe.  Scrape into a piping bag fitted with a scant 3/16-inch tip.  Carefully brush the rolls with egg wash. 

Pipe crosses on the buns.  

Bake in a preheated 375° oven until golden brown and cooked through—about 15 to 20 minutes.

While the rolls bake, bring the water and sugar to a boil.  When the buns are done, transfer to a wire rack and brush immediately with the simple syrup.  Serve warm…or room temperature…with butter.  Makes 16 large buns.

  • If you have any candied orange peel left from the Christmas holidays, use some in these buns. I like a mix of 1/4 cup each diced candied orange peel, dried currants, golden raisins and dried cranberries.
  • Recipe adapted from the Firehouse Bakery and Darina Allen.
  • I have made the “liquid cross” with 100 percent all purpose flour and with half cake, half all purpose. It is much better when made with half cake flour—less stretchy and easier to pipe. Also, the all all-purpose version becomes a bit hard/crisp when baked—giving it a discernibly different texture from the bun.
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Saturday, April 13, 2019

Changing up my Broccoli Routine…with a Pancake

Most people who cook regularly know that broccoli has a relatively short shelf life.  If you get it from a local grower (soon after harvesting)…or happen to get an unusually fresh head at the grocery store…you might be able to keep it for a week before it starts to turn yellow.  But that’s pretty unusual.  Most of the time it needs to be used up fairly quickly.

I’ve been thinking about this kind of thing as I have begun to adjust my cooking routine to accommodate food for one.  In general, cooking for one starts with smart shopping.  Whenever possible you purchase produce in smaller/one serving quantities.  When that isn’t possible, spreading out the timing and manner of use is the way to keep yourself from feeling like you’re having the same thing every night.  So, for things like root vegetables (or winter squash) that keep well, it is an easy thing to use a small amount of the whole one night and then a few nights later use some more in a different way…and then, if there is still some left, make something else a few nights later.  Unfortunately, things that are not that shelf stable (broccoli…)—AND that generally can’t be purchased in smaller quantities (broccoli…)—present a challenge.

Because I cook for a living—and I love to cook—I have seen this as a challenge that is well within my comfort zone.  It is also beneficial in that it is forcing me to get out of a few of my more well-worn cooking ruts. 

Rigatoni with Broccoli Cooked Two Ways for one with the first of a recent large head of broccoli...

The first thing I tend to make with a head (or crown) of broccoli is of course pasta.  I have two or three favorite recipes that I could happily eat one or the other of every time I purchase broccoli (even if that happens to mean every week).  When I was cooking for two I would take a head of broccoli, make enough pasta for two (plus a bit extra so there would be a little something leftover for someone’s lunch) and if there was any broccoli left after the pasta I would add it to a salad…or grain pilaf…or just use it for a simple vegetable side.  But a couple of weeks ago when I was on my second head of broccoli (maybe I should have purchased something other than broccoli the second time around…but it looked good when I was at the store…) and had made all my usual suspects, I knew I was going to have to come up with some new ideas.   

While poking around on line I had seen a recipe for a large root vegetable pancake for one that I was considering making with some carrots I had on hand.  But of course the carrots will keep and I had broccoli burning a hole in my produce bin.…  But the pancake made me think of the chard fritters I posted last summer.  It occurred to me that broccoli would make a nice fritter too…and that I could easily make the fritter batter into one large pancake.
For the chard fritters, the chard is blanched and squeezed out.  Since blanching broccoli would introduce too much water (you can’t squeeze it out) and make for a gummy pancake, I cooked the grated stems and chopped florets in a little bit of olive oil in a sauté pan instead.  

This softens the broccoli without turning it to mush.  I then folded the cooked broccoli…along with a bit of julienned prosciutto…into a thick egg-rich (for loft), ricotta-based batter.   It made just enough to fill a 6-inch non-stick skillet with a half inch (or so) layer of the batter.  But you could of course make small pancakes (as in the chard fritter recipe), too.  And I should also point out, you can multiply this recipe to make pancakes for any number of diners (just keep them in a low oven while you cook them all).

I served the pancake with a blob of labneh (but thick/Greek yogurt would be fine if that’s what you have) and a roasted beet and arugula salad.  I think any tangy vegetable salad or relish (grated carrot, summer tomato, etc) would be good.

The broccoli pancake was a fantastic way to use the last of my broccoli.  It was light—but had plenty of substance and filled me up.  Best of all, it was delicious.  In fact, I liked my pancake so much I went out and bought another head of broccoli…   True story….

Savory Broccoli Pancake

For each large pancake you will need:

4 oz. trimmed broccoli (florets and stems separated)
1 to 1 1/2 T. olive oil
1 large egg
1 very small clove of garlic, smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt of finely grated using a microplaner
62 g/1/4 c. whole milk ricotta
30 g/2 T. whole milk
20 g/2 thin slices prosciutto, cut crosswise into rough quarter inch strips
20 g/about 3 T. all purpose flour
1/2 t. baking powder
Olive oil for frying
1 t. (or more) butter
Labneh or thick yogurt

Using the large holes of a box grater (or similar) grate the broccoli stems.  Roughly chop the florets, medium fine.  

Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a small sauté pan set over medium to medium-high heat.  Add all of the broccoli along with good pinch of salt and let it sizzle, stirring occasionally until it has cooked down a bit and is just tender—four or five minutes.  If it seems dry at any point, add the remaining half tablespoon of olive oil.  Set aside to cool.

Crack the egg into a bowl and whisk to break up.  Add the garlic, ricotta and milk and whisk until smooth.  Fold in the broccoli and prosciutto.  Combine the flour and baking powder and fold in.  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt. 

Heat a 6-inch non-stick skillet over medium-high heat.  Film the pan with olive oil and add a teaspoon or so of butter.  When the butter melts and the foam subsides, scrape in the batter and use a spatula to spread it out into an even layer (it should be about a half inch thick).  

Regulate the heat as necessary to maintain a gentle sizzle, but don’t allow the pancake to scorch.  When set on the first side (after about 3 minutes), simultaneously tilt the pan and slide a pancake turner/spatula under the pancake.  Carefully turn the pancake over and continue to cook until the pancake is cooked through…another three minutes.  If multiplying the recipe, transfer the pancakes to a platter or baking dish as you make them, keeping them in a warm oven while you finish the remaining pancakes. 

Serve warm with a dollop of labneh/thick yogurt and a salad of spicy greens and/or vegetables. 

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Saturday, March 16, 2019

Creamy Polenta with a Ragû of Italian Sausage & Mushroom…Dinner from Leftovers…and a New Home (....and an Anniversary)

Nine years ago today I started writing a blog. Every year…to mark the date…I have posted a special recipe that includes pistachios.  There is nothing significant about pistachios—other than that I love them…and that I posted a cake featuring them on the first anniversary.  These pistachio recipes have just been a fun way for me to mark the passing of the years.

On this anniversary I don’t have a pistachio recipe.  In fact, I don’t really have a normal blog post.  Three days ago I moved.  I imagine what I am experiencing is pretty normal…but I haven’t moved in almost 30 years and my life is in a bit of an uproar at the moment.  As I have looked for a home and planned for my move I tried to maintain posts to my blog.  But as anyone who has moved (I think that’s everyone!) knows, the chaos peaks with the move and doesn’t really dissipate too much once you are officially residing in the new place.  I hope in the weeks to come that I will be able to post at my normal pace of at least three posts a month…but please know if there isn’t much, I’m not quitting…just busy.  In time I hope to return to my normal pace…or maybe even increase the number of posts I am able to write.

I have been surprised at how difficult it has been to get my bearings in my new kitchen—I cook in other people’s kitchens for a living, so I assumed cooking in my own new kitchen wouldn’t be that difficult.  But somehow it isn’t as easy as I had anticipated.  A lot of my equipment is still packed—and the amount of time I have to spend preparing a meal isn’t that great.  On my first evening, my mother and nephew stopped by.  I decided to make Fettuccine Alfredo for all of us.  When I was ready to put it on the plates I realized I had no silverware!  Dinner service came to grinding halt while I searched for the box and then plowed through it hunting for some forks.

But I have been determined to not succumb to takeout.  So for my first post from my new kitchen (and on the ninth anniversary of my blog) I thought I would share what I have made for my own table for the last three evenings. I think it might be encouraging for anyone experiencing a particularly busy moment in their lives.  My meals have been simple...but delicious.  It is not surprising that on my first night (after the Fettuccine) I made a meal that was almost entirely from my pantry…and I followed two nights in a row with leftovers from that meal. (I love leftovers—they are “prepared food” of the absolute best kind.)

I have actually wanted to post the recipe for my pantry dinner of Creamy Polenta with a Ragû of Italian Sausage and Mushrooms for a long time.  I make it often.  I have never posted it because I make it differently every single time—always according to what I have on hand.  So rather than make up a recipe to type out in the traditional way, I’ll just explain what I do so you will be free to improvise according to what you have on hand too.

To begin, make the polenta.  I have already posted my basic recipe.  You can make any amount you like according to the number of people you are serving.  I think 3 or 4 tablespoons of dry polenta is more than enough for one person.  I always make a little extra so I can spread it out, chill it, and then have the makings of a meal that uses firm polenta (directions are on that same post).  For this dish I like to add a couple of ounces (2/3 cup) of finely grated Parmesan to the basic recipe.

While the polenta cooks, you will have plenty of time to make the ragû (or do other things if you are busy!).  I usually make enough ragû for two (but again, the recipe can be multiplied).  I start by browning a link of Italian sausage (4 to 5 oz.).  Sometimes I brown the link and then slice it.  Sometimes I cut the casing off and crumble the sausage and brown it.  You can sauté the mushrooms (4 to 6 oz. for two—I almost always have crimini on hand) in the pan after the sausage…or in a separate pan—your choice.  Follow the instructions on my basics post for sautéing mushrooms.  You can quarter them or slice them, as you prefer.  If you like, deglaze the mushrooms with a splash of white wine.

If you have some of your own marinara sauce (in the freezer...or canned), bring a cup (or a bit more, if you like a lot of sauce) to a simmer.  Add the sausage and mushrooms and heat through.   In recent years I haven’t been as good about making my own tomato sauce at the end of the growing season.  But canned tomatoes make an excellent sauce.  You can use your own favorite recipe—or the one in the notes at the end of this baked pasta. Sometimes I use just onion—sometimes just garlic.  If you like, you may add some dried oregano…or minced fresh thyme or rosemary.  You may finish the sauce with minced flat leaf parsley.  I imagine basil would be delicious, but I almost never use fresh basil in the winter (which is when I usually make this dish).

This year I froze tomatoes whole and have been thawing them as I need them to make quick sauces.  I think it is one of the best things I have learned how to do recently.  You can thaw exactly what you need.  Just set the quantity of tomatoes you need in a shallow bowl on the counter (or in the microwave) to thaw.  As they thaw, they will exude tons of liquid.  Don’t throw this away—it is delicious and tomato-y (even though it looks like water).  When the tomatoes are thawed, the skin will pull away.  Discard the skins.  Pour the liquid into a container.  Roughly chop the flesh and add to the liquid.  Use this just as you would the canned tomatoes.  A pound of tomatoes (or a 14 oz. can) will make about a cup of sauce.

To serve, place a big spoonful of polenta on each plate.  Make a well in the center and spoon in the ragû, allowing it to overflow.  Shave some Parmesan over if you like, and serve.

Even though I am only cooking for one now, I went ahead and made enough ragû to feed two.  This gave me a head start on my meal the next evening.  Taking my cue from that baked pasta I mentioned above, I tossed the remaining half of the ragû with 3 oz. of penne (cooked very al dente).  I then folded in a generous third cup of coarsely grated Fontina (about 1 1/2 oz.).  Low-moisture Mozzarella would have been good too…I just happened to have some Fontina on hand.  I discovered at this point that I didn’t have any of my regular baking dishes unpacked….  

So I spooned the pasta into a small oven-proof sauté pan, blobbed some ricotta over the surface (maybe 2 oz.) and scattered some finely grated Pecorino over all.  I baked it in a 375° oven until it was hot and bubbly (about 20 minutes).  I would have run it under the broiler to brown it a bit, but I couldn’t figure out how to get my new broiler to work…and I was hungry….

For my second meal of leftovers I cooked the firm polenta as described in the post referenced above that includes the master recipe for soft polenta.  I smeared it with ricotta as described in that post.  To top it I sautéed the rest of my package of crimini mushrooms (just under 4 ounces).  When the mushrooms were done I added a bit more oil, reduced the heat and added a minced green onion.  A little garlic…or some shallot would have been good too.  After about a minute I added a couple of handfuls (about 2 oz.) of very roughly chopped spinach (from this morning’s farmers’ market) and cooked it until it was just wilted.   About the time I added the green onions to the pan I started an egg.  Follow the instructions on this post, covering the pan for the look I got.  If you leave the pan uncovered, your egg will look like the ones in that original post.  Either way is fine.  Place the mushroom and spinach mixture over the ricotta-topped polenta and then top with the egg.


I hope this post will inspire people to feel free to cook without a specific recipe (using basic concepts and techniques instead)…and to cook when they don’t think they have the time.  I know this isn’t always possible…and there is absolutely nothing wrong with take-out—or eating out—when life has become overwhelmingly busy.  But somehow making the effort to feed myself from my own kitchen…and then sit down to enjoy it at my own table…made me feel less frazzled.  Frankly, just writing this post has made life feel a bit more normal….

Hopefully I will be able to keep up a schedule of three or four posts per month, but even if my posts become few and far between for the next few months, I hope regular readers will check back in occasionally to find out what I’m up to.  I can’t wait to put my new kitchen through its paces!

Monday, March 4, 2019

Winter Pasta Salad with Roast Chicken, Carrots & Carrot Top Pesto

Occasionally, in the depths of winter, I teach a salad class.  I know that salad is more of a spring or summer topic, but I find that in the winter—despite the fact that we generally want hearty braises, soups, stews and casseroles—there is a genuine craving for things that are fresh and raw.  A salad is the obvious way to satisfy this craving and there are a surprising number of winter ingredients that can easily fill this niche:  kale, chicories (Belgian endive, frisée, radicchio, and escarole), grated/julienned root vegetables (like carrots, celeriac and beets), cabbages of all kinds…as well as apples, pears and the wide variety of citrus fruits that flood the market every winter.  The aim of the class is to encourage people to think about ways to create fresh, seasonal, winter salads.

But of course “salads” can also be hearty and filling.  I think of roasted vegetable platters, grain salads, barely wilted greens that are doused in vinegar to give them a salad like feel, shell bean salads and pasta salads.  Like salads in general, the latter category is also something that comes to mind mostly in relation to summer.  But a bowl of room temperature pasta, tossed with a savory dressing and roasted or blanched winter vegetables, can be every bit as much of a salad as the summer versions.

For years I taught a pasta salad that included a walnut-parsley pesto and roasted carrots and cauliflower.  It was a fine dish…but it was best when freshly made.  The roasted cauliflower didn’t really hold very well in the fridge.  I really wanted the pasta salad that I did for the class to be one that could hold overnight (or even longer) in the fridge.  So this year, as I was getting ready to teach the class, I decided to look around at what other cooks and chefs were creating with pasta and pesto during the winter months. 

Although I was looking for pesto, I was intrigued by and stopped to take a more in depth look at Deb Perelman’s Pasta salad with roasted carrots and sunflower seed dressing.  I discovered that the sunflower seed dressing was actually a carrot-top pesto!  Since my salad already included carrots, I thought this was perfect.  For my improved winter pasta salad, I jettisoned the roasted cauliflower in my old recipe in favor of shredded roast chicken and decided to use the carrot top pesto that I make with pistachios instead of Perelman’s sunflower seed version. 

I loved the way this salad turned out.  It is balanced and savory…and satisfying without making you feel stuffed (or like you need a long winter’s nap).  Best of all, like all good pasta salads, it is even better the next day.

Winter Pasta Salad with Roasted Chicken, Carrots & Carrot Top Pesto

Carrot Top Pesto:
2 c. (2 oz.) lightly packed carrot tops (Before measuring the carrot tops, trim the feathery fronds away from the thick, ropey stems.  Discard the stems and use the tops only.)
a handful (1 oz.) of arugula
1/2 c. shelled pistachios, lightly toasted
1/2 to 3/4 t. kosher salt
1 large clove of garlic, peeled and smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
2/3 c. olive more if needed to get preferred consistency
1/3 c. (1 oz.) finely grated Parmesan

Place the carrot tops, arugula, pistachios, garlic and 1/2 teaspoon of salt in the food processor and process until everything is finely and uniformly chopped.  With the machine running, drizzle in the olive oil.  Scrape down the sides.  Add the Parmesan and pulse to combine.  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt and lemon juice if necessary.  If the pesto seems too tight, drizzle in a bit more oil.  Store in the refrigerator in a jar with a tight fitting lid and filmed with oil.  Makes 1 1/4 cups pesto.  

1 large (about 12 oz.) split chicken breast
olive oil
Salt & Pepper to taste
2 lb. carrots, topped, tailed and peeled
3/4 lb. gemelli or penne pasta
3/4 c. (200g.) carrot top pesto (about 2/3 of the recipe)
1 T. lemon juice (or to taste)
2 handfuls (about 2 oz.) arugula
Grated Parmesan

Preheat the oven to 475°.

Rub the chicken with a light coating of olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper.  Place the chicken in a baking dish and place in the  oven, roasting until the skin is crisp and golden and an instant read thermometer inserted in the thickest portion reads 150° to 155°—about 25 to 30 minutes.  Remove the chicken from the oven and let sit until cool enough to handle.  Deglaze the baking pan with a couple of tablespoons of water.  Set aside.  When the chicken has cooled, remove the skin and bones and discard.  Shred the meat into long strips about 1/2-inch wide.  You should have about 2 cups shredded chicken.

If you can find them, tri-color carrots are beautiful in this dish.
If carrots are fatter than 3/4-inch in diameter, halve or quarter lengthwise.  Cut the carrots in scant 1/2-inch slices on a diagonal (so that they are roughly the length of the pasta).  Place the carrots in a large bowl.  Season to taste with salt & pepper.  Add enough olive oil to lightly coat the carrots (about 2 T.).  Toss to coat, and spread on a rimmed baking sheet.  Roast in a 475° oven until tender and caramelized/charred in spots, stirring once—about 20 minutes.  Set the vegetables aside until ready to assemble the salad.

Cook the pasta in 6 quarts of rapidly boiling water seasoned with 2 T. salt.  Stir occasionally and cook until the pasta is just al dente.  Drain, reserving some of the pasta cooking water.  Spread the pasta on a rimmed baking sheet and drizzle with a tablespoon or so of olive oil.  Set aside until ready to assemble the salad.

To assemble the salad, place the carrots, chicken and pasta in a large bowl.  Toss to combine.  Place the pesto in a small bowl and thin with 3 or 4 T. of the chicken pan deglazings and pasta water.  Pour over the pasta salad and toss the pasta salad until all the ingredients are evenly dressed with the pesto sauce.  

If the pasta salad seems "tight" add more pasta water or olive oil.  Taste and correct the seasoning with the lemon juice, salt, pepper or more pesto.  Add the arugula and toss again.  Serve at room temperature, garnished with Parmesan.

Serves 4 to 6.