Sunday, October 31, 2010

Pumpkin Pancakes for Dinner—a New Halloween Tradition




When I was growing up, my family gathered at the table together almost every night for a home cooked meal. I know that this is no longer the norm in our culture—for a variety of reasons. And although I do have a lot to say on this subject, much has already been said by others more informed and more eloquent than I...and it really isn't the point of my post. The reason that I bring up the dinner table of my childhood is because it was so unusual for us not to sit down together that I have fairly vivid memories of those rare occasions.

One of those nights was Halloween. I suppose that Halloween in our house was much like what today's parents are dealing with every night. The varying Halloween activities (and the timing of those activities) for a household of four children whose ages spanned nine years made it difficult to arrange a meal time that worked for all of us. I remember that my mother made pancakes for dinner on Halloween several times. Since pancakes come out of the pan in pretty much single serving batches, it was easy for my mother to stand at the stove and cook and feed each kid on an individual, as needed, basis.

I love pancakes....even now I almost always order them when I go out to eat for breakfast. Having them for dinner was a special treat when I was a kid. I know I mentioned in my previous post that my mother kept sugary foods to a minimum in our house, so the fact that we had pancakes for dinner on a night when we were going to gorge on candy is probably another reason I remember this meal so well.

A few years ago, I ran across a recipe for pumpkin pancakes in an issue of Martha Stewart Living and the thought of those Halloween dinners came to mind. As an adult without children, Halloween is not one of my favorite holidays, but I have taken nostalgic pleasure in recent years in making these my new traditional dinner for October 31.


Since I am unable to eat just pancakes and syrup for dinner anymore—even with my sweet tooth, this seems rather unappealing—I serve them with other savory autumnal foods for a comforting and nourishing feast. Pancakes of course bring to mind sausage and bacon, so this dinner always includes one or the other. Apples are another appropriate addition. And it always turns out that I have greens of some kind on hand at this time of year. One year I had some cabbage sprouts from the farmers' market, so we had pumpkin pancakes with shredded cabbage sprouts—braised with red onions and apples and all served alongside some nice Italian Sausage. Another year the cabbage sprouts were replaced by shredded Brussels sprouts. Instead of sausage on the side, I added bacon to the braise along with the apples and onions.

This year I had some spinach on hand and thought a warm spinach salad would be a good accompaniment along with some crispy bacon. To make the salad, I made a sharp vinaigrette with some sherry vinegar and olive oil. I didn't add any maple syrup to this, but in retrospect, a touch of maple syrup in the vinaigrette would have been nice (and maybe some finely diced shallots too). When the pancakes were ready to serve, I returned the pan I had cooked the bacon in to the heat. When the pan was warm, I added a small amount of bacon fat back to the pan and added the spinach, tossing and stirring until it was beginning to wilt. I transferred the warm, half-wilted spinach to a bowl and added some of the vinaigrette, a diced sautéed apple and a few toasted pecans. Of course, even at dinner, I still serve the pancakes with butter and maple syrup. It wouldn't be Halloween without something sweet.




Pumpkin Pancakes

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon each cinnamon, ground ginger, and salt
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
a pinch of ground cloves
1 cup milk
6 tablespoons canned pumpkin purée
2 tablespoons melted butter
1 egg

In a medium-sized bowl, whisk the dry ingredients together. In a separate bowl, stir together the milk, pumpkin, butter and egg. Fold this mixture into dry ingredients.

Melt a small amount of butter in a skillet over medium heat; pour in 1/4 cup batter for each pancake (I use a 1 1/2 oz. cookie scoop). Cook pancakes for about 3 minutes before turning—or until bubbles appear all over the surface of the batter. Flip the pancakes and continue to cook until springy to the touch—another 2 minutes or so. Transfer to a serving platter and keep hot in a low oven (loosely covered with foil) until all the pancakes are cooked.

Serve the pancakes with butter and pure maple syrup. Makes 8 to 10 pancakes.

(Recipe adapted from Martha Stewart Living Magazine, October, 2006)





Thursday, October 28, 2010

Chocolate Gingerbread and Cup Cakes for Halloween



A few days ago, while visiting the blog Cannelle et Vanille, I followed a link to a blog called Cook & Eat. There I found a recent post for chocolate gingerbread. I love gingerbread. I am always happy to try another recipe. Gingerbread is a favorite from my childhood. My mom kept sweets to a minimum in our home, but gingerbread is a favorite of hers and it was one dessert that appeared with some frequency on our table. The gingerbread that she made was spicy and dark with molasses. When I began baking on my own I discovered that there were many other types of gingerbreads. It can run the gamut from light and tender to dark and moist...almost sticky—all pretty wonderful as far as I'm concerned. Should I continue with my blog for many years, gingerbread will probably make several appearances.

When I tried out the chocolate gingerbread, one of the things I really liked about it was that even with (maybe because of) the addition of the chocolate, the molasses flavor really comes through. The cake is soft, sweet and spicy—with the nice surprise of chocolate chips. I can't imagine what there isn't to like.

The recipe is adapted it from a book called Sticky, Chewy, Messy, Gooey: Desserts for the Serious Sweet Tooth. I don't have this book, so I'm not sure what adjustments Lara Ferroni made to the original recipe. When I made it, I didn't stray too far from her adaptation. Her recipe included some optional flaxseed meal. I don't keep this on hand, so I left it out. It also included crystallized ginger. I left this out as well and increased the amount of ground ginger. Finally, I reduced the flour just slightly.

The first time I made the recipe, I doubled it. I loved her use of the small loaf pans. These tiny loaves when sliced make a lovely accompaniment to afternoon tea or coffee.


But I also wanted to see how the recipe would perform in a regular cake pan. Doubling the recipe allowed me to try both. The day I tried the recipe I was going to dinner at a friend's house and wanted to take a dessert. I thought that the round version, with a little chocolate glaze, would be just the thing. Gingerbread is very good plain, but it was really nice with the glaze. My friends agreed.


As I was thinking about how much I liked the recipe, it occurred to me that it would make good cup cakes...and since Halloween is just around the corner I decided to try it right away and frost them with maple cream cheese frosting tinted orange. What can I say?—the recipe makes really good cup cakes. In fact, of all the variations that I made on this recipe, the cup cake was my favorite. I had to put most of them in the freezer to keep from eating too many.


The recipe below is the doubled version. It makes four mini loaves, or 24 cup cakes or 2 8-inch round cakes. I imagine it would also be fine baked in one 9-inch square cake pan. It really is a versatile little cake. When I made it the second time, I made 12 cup cakes and another 8-inch round. There was just enough frosting left over from the cup cakes to frost the top of the large cake...making it look a little like one giant cup cake.


 Chocolate Gingerbread

2 1/4 c. all purpose flour (260 grams)
1 t. baking soda
4 T. natural cocoa powder
2 t. ground cinnamon
1 T. ground ginger
1/8 t. ground nutmeg
1/2 t. salt
8 T. unsalted butter
1 c. packed golden brown sugar
2 eggs
1 c. buttermilk
2/3 c. molasses
1 1/2 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips 


Preheat the oven to 350°. Prepare the pan(s): line muffin pan with paper liners; butter and flour loaf pans; butter, line with parchment, butter the paper and then flour 8-inch round cake pans. Recipe makes 24 cup cakes, or 2 round cake layers or 4 mini loaves (or a combination thereof).

Sift together the flour, baking soda, cocoa powder, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and salt. Set aside.

Cream the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the bowl in after the first addition. Combine the buttermilk and molasses. Add the flour mixture in three additions alternately with the buttermilk-molasses mixture in two additions, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Fold in the chocolate chips with the final addition of the dry ingredients.

Spread the batter in the pans and bake until springy to the touch and a cake tester comes out clean, about 25 to 30 minutes for large pans and loaves. About 20 to 25 minutes for cup cakes. Cool on a wire rack before serving.

Chocolate Honey Glaze (from Cocolat): Place 3 oz. of chopped bittersweet chocolate in a microwave safe bowl along with 2 oz. of unsalted butter (cut into pieces) and 1 T. of honey. Microwave on medium (50% power) until almost melted. Stir gently until completely smooth. Cool until the glaze mounds briefly before disappearing when dropped from a spoon. Pour over cake.

Maple Cream Cheese Frosting (from The Vineyard Kitchen): Place 4 oz. of unsalted butter in the bowl of a stand mixer along with 4 1/2 oz. of confectioners' sugar, 1/8 t. kosher salt and 1/4 t. vanilla. Beat on medium-high until light and fluffy—about 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape down the bowl. Add 8 oz. cream cheese and beat until incorporated—about 20 seconds. Scrape down the bowl and drizzle in 2 T. of pure maple syrup. Beat until smooth—about 15 seconds. Makes more than enough for 12 cup cakes.

Printable Recipe

Monday, October 25, 2010

Rigatoni with Braised Winter Squash & Bacon


 This appears to be the month of the winter squash on my blog. Looking back over my October posts, I see that three of my six posts have been about butternut squash. Since the month has almost come to an end, I see no reason to change course now.  Today's post reflects only a slight shift—I used a Red Kuri squash in my pasta recipe. But I could have easily chosen a butternut squash (or a sugar pumpkin, or a Kabocha squash...) instead. Most of the winter squashes can be used interchangeably. Some have denser, sweeter flesh than others. Some are easier to cut and peel. Some are best halved, seeded and roasted. These are the types of things I consider when choosing a winter squash for a particular preparation. For this dish, I wanted a sweeter squash that was reasonably easy to peel and dice. Normally, I would reach for a butternut squash in such a case, but the Red Kuri squash looked so nice that I purchased that instead.


Since this is also a post about a pasta recipe, I was rather gratified to see that pasta has not appeared on my blog yet this month. I wouldn't want to become too predictable. But I give no guarantees that it won't appear again in the few days remaining in the month. I really do eat a lot of pasta.

This recipe is based on one that appeared in two October issues of Martha Stewart Living (several years apart). Generally when a magazine repeats a recipe—in anniversary type issues, etc.—you can be fairly confident that it is a recipe that works well. This one was no exception. Beyond that, this recipe appealed to me because of its simplicity and because it included bacon...I love bacon with winter squash. The salty bacon is a good foil for the sweet squash. The original recipe also included a bit of heavy cream, which is probably pretty nice, but I left it out because the bacon and broth gave this pasta sauce a hearty and savory quality that I thought would be softened too much by the cream.

The squash is cooked in the style of a braise—first cooked in a bit of fat and then moistened with a liquid (stock, in this case) and then gently simmered until tender. A true braise is cooked covered. But in this recipe, resist the temptation to cover the squash as it cooks. If covered, the liquid in the pan won't reduce and thicken. Also, the squash will get very soft and tend to want to fall apart. Allowing it to cook uncovered allows the liquid in the pan and in the squash itself to evaporate as the squash cooks, making for dense, tender pieces of squash. If the squash cooks to mush and falls apart, you end up with a thick, sticky sauce of puréed squash, instead of a rich broth filled with meaty chunks of squash.

As you cook the squash, keep it at a gentle simmer, stirring it occasionally and adding small amounts of water if the liquid is reducing too quickly or becoming too thick. Don't add more stock, or the dish will be overly rich. The squash will take 25 to 35 minutes to cook.

I hope no one turned to my blog today and thought "Oh no, not another winter squash recipe." But if by chance you did, and you managed to read this far, there is one good thing about the abundance of winter squash recipes that I have shared this month: I have provided lots of uses for diced winter squash. The reality of working with squash is that you almost never find a squash that is exactly the size you need. You will inevitably have some diced squash left over. So, if you make the pasta and you have squash leftover, you should revisit my blog for ideas on uses for roasted, diced winter squash. You'll find ways to add it to a green salad, or toss it in a grain pilaf or combine it with some braised greens and caramelized onions for a nice side dish. Maybe I should write another post this month about winter squash....

Rigatoni with Braised Winter Squash & Bacon

4 to 5 oz. bacon, cut cross-wise in ¼-inch strips
1 medium onion
One 2 lb. Winter squash (see note), peeled, halved, seeded and cut into a rough 3/4-inch dice (about 4 cups diced squash)
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 T. finely minced fresh sage
pinch red pepper flakes
1 3/4 c. chicken stock or low-salt canned broth
1 lb. Rigatoni (or other short, sturdy pasta)
1 to 2 T. unsalted butter (optional)
1/2 c. finely grated parmesan
1/4 c. chopped toasted pecans

Cook the bacon in a large sauté pan over medium to medium-low heat. While the bacon is cooking, quarter the onion lengthwise and then thinly slice the quarters crosswise; set aside.  When the bacon is nearly crisp, transfer it to a plate using a slotted spoon. Return the pan with the bacon fat to the stove and increase the heat slightly (medium to medium high). Add the onions and sauté, stirring frequently, until the onions are wilted and beginning to take on a little bit of color (about 5 minutes). Add the squash and toss to coat in the bacon fat and onions.

Continue to cook, stirring occasionally for another 5 minutes. The squash will begin to caramelize in spots. Add the garlic, pepper flakes and sage and cook, stirring, until fragrant—about 1 minute.

Add the stock along with a light sprinkling of salt.

Gently simmer (uncovered) until the squash is tender and the sauce is beginning to thicken—about 25 minutes. If the pan ever looks dry, add a little water and continue to cook—but be careful, there should only be a small amount of thickened sauce left by the time the squash is tender.

When the squash is almost tender, bring 6 quarts of water to the boil in a large stock/pasta pot. Add 2 to 3 Tablespoons of salt. Add the rigatoni and cook until al dente. Drain. Add the rigatoni to the squash along with a little butter, if you like. Toss to combine. If the pasta seems dry, add a splash of the pasta water. Add the bacon and half the Parmesan and toss again. Correcting the consistency of the sauce with pasta water and the seasoning with black pepper and salt, as necessary. Divide the pasta among shallow pasta/soup bowls and sprinkle with parmesan and pecans. Serves 4 to 6

Note:  For this recipe I prefer a squash in the Cucurbita maxima family—something like a Kabocha, Red Kuri or Buttercup. But a Butternut squash or a Pumpkin of some kind (Cheese, Sugar, etc.) would work well too.

(Recipe adapted from Martha Stewart Living, October 2006)

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Simple Weeknight Pork Chop with Mustard & Apples

Everyone needs a collection of recipes that will allow them to have dinner on the table within 45 minutes or so of walking in the door in the evening. At our house, this usually means pasta...or maybe a salad. But last week I rediscovered an old favorite pork chop recipe that can easily be prepared in the aforementioned time frame.


When I arrived home after my week away with my friends, it was dinner time and this pork chop recipe was already in process in our kitchen. The original recipe (from Simple French Food) instructs you to bake the browned pork on a bed of apples in heavy cream mixed with a little Dijon and reduced white wine. The lack of cream in our kitchen had not been discovered until the dish was already started. So, while the pork chop sizzled away in the pan, I looked around for some alternatives.

We happened to have some fresh pressed apple cider on hand, so I altered the recipe to use the cider. I liked the resulting dish a lot. It is light, the flavors are clean and it is so easy that anyone can make it. And since in the fall we almost always have apples and cider on hand, it's an easy "pantry" dinner that will probably be making regular appearances on our dinner table.

I have shared the recipe as I made it—with just one pork chop. But you could easily adjust the recipe for as many pork chops as you want to cook—just increase the other ingredients accordingly and choose a casserole or gratin that will hold all of the chops comfortably. Depending on your tastes and appetite, one large pork chop will serve one or two. In my house, it serves two.

Since one of the selling points for this recipe is how quick and easy it is to prepare, choose side dishes that can also be easily cooked in the amount of time it takes to prepare the pork and apples. Rice is a good choice, as are mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes. There are many green vegetables that will cook quickly and would make a fine accompaniment...blanched broccoli, green beans, or Brussels sprouts...wilted Swiss Chard or Spinach....


Apple Cider-Baked Pork Chop

1 large or 2 small apples—about 1/2 lb. (I like Jonathon or Golden Delicious, but any flavorful apple that holds its shape when cooked will work)
Unsalted butter
1 8- to 10-oz. boneless pork loin chop—you can also use one on the bone, it will just take longer to cook
Salt & pepper
Dijon Mustard to taste
1/4 to 1/3 cup apples cider

Butter a small casserole (I use a 1 1/4- to 1 1/2-quart shallow gratin). Peel and core the apple(s). Slice 1/4-inch thick and spread in the prepared gratin.

Place in a 400° oven and bake for 15 minutes—the apples should be just beginning to give up some juice.

Season the pork with salt & pepper. While the apples cook, brown the pork in a little butter—about 7 to 8 minutes per side.

When the apples are done, spread a thin film of mustard all over the pork chop and set it on top of the apples. Deglaze the pan the pork was cooked in with the cider, scraping to release the caramelized bits on the bottom of the pan and reducing slightly. Pour the reduced cider over the apples and return the casserole to the oven.

Continue to cook until the pork chop is done to your liking. I cook mine to about 135° to 138°--it will still be juicy if removed at this point. Cooking time will be about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the size and thickness of the pork chop.

Set the pork chop on a plate and allow it to rest for about 5 minutes. While the pork chop rests, scrape the apples into the pan that you used to brown the pork. If the apples have released a lot of liquid, or the cider hasn't reduced sufficiently during the baking process, bring the apples to a simmer to allow the liquid to reduce a bit. Depending on the apples you chose to use, you may end up with a loose compote of apples or a rustic and chunky savory applesauce.  You may not wish to reduce the apple compote at all.  If this is the case, simply reheat when ready to serve the pork.   In any case, don't forget to add the pork resting juices to the apples when you reheat them.

To serve the pork, slice thinly on an angle and fan on one or two serving plates. Serve the apples under, on the side or over the pork (depending on their final consistency and look). If you prefer to serve family style, lay the sliced pork back in the casserole and top with the warmed apples. Serves 1 or 2.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Corn & Sweet Potato Chowder

Corn Chowder is one of my favorite soups. I'm not sure how this particular soup came by its name since a chowder is technically a chunky, stew-like fish and/or shellfish soup. The term chowder comes from the French word chaudière.  A chaudière is the type of pot in which these hearty seafood soups were traditionally prepared. Even though the source of the name is a bit mysterious, everyone seems to know what you mean when you say "corn chowder".  I don't think I'm alone in my affection for it. I freeze sweet corn from the farmers market every summer just so I will have corn on hand to make this soup when the weather turns cold.

We haven't had too much cold weather yet this fall.  But on Tuesday, as I headed to Lawrence to teach my soup class, the sky was a thick blanket of gray and a cold wind was blowing...perfect weather for a soup class. How lucky is that?

In its most basic form, corn chowder includes bacon, onions, potatoes, corn and either milk or cream. It is typically thickened with a roux (flour cooked in a bit of fat—in this case bacon fat and butter). The recipe that I turn to most often is from The New Basics Cookbook. I make it almost exactly as written, only omitting a final garnish of sautéed red pepper (a widely popular addition) and sliced green onions. There is nothing wrong with this garnish—corn and peppers are a great combination—I have just been in the habit of leaving them out.

When you make the soup, make sure that you cook the bacon until it is almost crisp—it will continue to render a bit after the onions are added, but not too much. If the bacon isn't sufficiently rendered, you will have flabby pieces of fatty bacon floating around your soup. Also, make sure you take the time to cook the onions until they are very tender before adding the flour and proceeding with the rest of the recipe. Crunchy bits of onion are unpleasant in a soup full of soft textures.

As you work through the recipe, you'll notice that there is an addition of butter before the onions are added to the pan. If the bacon is very fatty, this butter may not be necessary. On the occasion when the bacon does give off a lot of fat, I add the onions to the bacon and only add butter if the pan appears to be dry. There should be enough fat in the pan so that the onions are gently sizzling in the fat. If they aren't, add some or all of the butter. Before adding the flour, check the pan again to see if more fat is needed. If the onions have absorbed all of the fat, or the bacon was very lean, then you may need to add more butter. There should be enough fat in the pan to form a paste with the flour.

A couple of years ago, when the weather began to cool off and I was in the mood for corn chowder, I had some of the first sweet potatoes of the season in my pantry. I also found that I was short on Idaho potatoes. Not wanting to run to the store, I thought I would substitute sweet potatoes for some of the Idaho potatoes. We loved the resulting "Corn & Sweet Potato Chowder". I almost always make it this way now. It's perfect for this time of year. What surprises me today is that I had never thought of this combination before. Sweet potatoes are great with bacon. Furthermore, I am particularly fond of corn paired with sweet potatoes (or winter squash)....something about the sweetness of these two vegetables together pushes my taste buttons. And if you still have some sage left in your garden (it usually hangs on for a while), try adding some to the onions and bacon as they cook.  It makes a nice accent to the sweet and salty flavors of this autumn variation on traditional corn chowder.


Corn & Sweet Potato Chowder

4 oz. sliced bacon, cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 T. unsalted butter
1 large onion (about 10 to 12 oz.), cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 2 cups)
1 T. minced fresh sage, optional
3 T. flour
6 c. chicken stock or canned low-salt broth
2 Idaho potatoes (about 1 1/2 lb.), peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 4 cups)
2 medium sweet potatoes (about 1 lb.), peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 3 cups)
4 c. fresh or frozen corn
1 c. heavy cream (half & half or milk may be substituted)
Salt & freshly ground pepper, to taste

Cook bacon over medium-low heat in a large soup pot until fat is rendered and bacon is beginning to brown around the edges. Add the butter and melt. Add the onions (and sage, if using) and sweat until tender and translucent—about 10 to 15 minutes.

Add the flour to the cooked onions and continue to cook briefly. Add the stock and Idaho and sweet potatoes. Bring to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are just tender—12 to 15 minutes. Add the corn, cream and some salt & pepper. Bring back to a simmer and cook until the corn is hot through and tender. Add more stock or water if the soup is too thick. Taste and correct the seasoning.  Makes about 3 quarts of soup.

Variation:  To make a more "traditional" corn chowder, omit the sweet potatoes.  Reduce the stock to 4 cups and the flour to 2 T.  Omit the sage, or replace with picked thyme.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Week of Food & Friends and a Butternut Squash Served Three Ways

 
 I just returned from a magical week away at the lake with friends. At one time or another, all of us have cooked professionally, so in addition to long walks and long conversations, we cooked up a storm. Since I was more interested in talking, cooking and eating than in documenting the things we made (I was on vacation after all), I don't have any exact recipes to share. Even if I did have detailed recipes, a post documenting all of the wonderful things we had (fish tacos with Nancy's fresh homemade tortillas, orange and pecan cream scones, herb butter baked salmon, roasted beet salad with goat cheese and walnuts, a chocolate cake called Miette's Tomboy from Rose's Heavenly Cakes...) would be impossibly long. Instead, I thought that today I would write about one humble ingredient that wove its way into three of our meals through the creative impulse of three different cooks...a butternut squash.

The night we arrived in Chicago, before meeting up with the rest of our group the next day and heading on to the lake house, three of us shared a meal at a fun little Italian restaurant in Wicker Park called Francesca's Forno. Inspired by a risotto we had shared there, Molly suggested that we make a main course risotto and a simple salad for one of our evening meals. I suggested one of my favorite combinations of Butternut squash and mushrooms. This was what we tentatively had in our minds as we set off for the Garden Market.

Anyone who cooks knows that your plans often change once you actually start shopping. This is especially true at a produce market. We had picked up our butternut squash and some mushrooms when I spotted some fresh lima beans.

Fresh lima beans are almost never available where most of us live, so we decided to get some thinking they would be a nice addition to our "Autumn Risotto". There were also some lovely first of the season parsnips that we grabbed knowing that we would find some way to use them during the week.

To prepare the squash, I halved it horizontally at the point where the neck begins to widen into the seed cavity. I peeled and diced the neck

 and halved and seeded the cavity end.

My plan was to roast the two cavity halves "whole"

in order to make a coarse purée that could be stirred into the risotto during its early stages and to roast the diced neck pieces so that they could be folded into the risotto at the end (along with the sautéed mushrooms and cooked lima beans).  

As I cooked the risotto, the plan changed. The squash was pretty large—way too much even for the pound of risotto that we were preparing. We didn't weigh the one we purchased, but I have one here at home now that weighs just under two pounds and it is smaller than the one we purchased for our risotto. We decided to roast the diced pieces and put them away for another meal and just use the mashed cavity end of the squash in our risotto.

To prepare our Autumn Risotto, dice a medium onion and mince a fat clove of garlic. Sweat the onion and garlic in 2 to 3 tablespoons of butter along with a pinch of salt and 6 or 7 large sage leaves cut into a fine chiffonade. When the onions are very tender, add a pound of Arborio rice and continue to cook for a few moments until the rice is hot and sizzling in the butter. Add about 3/4 cup of white wine and cook until the wine has been completely reduced and/or absorbed. Begin to add the stock a ladleful or two at a time, waiting for each addition to be absorbed before adding more. The risotto does not have to be stirred constantly, but it should be stirred regularly and frequently. For a more complete description of the risotto process, see my earlier post on risotto. Be sure to continue to salt the risotto with the successive additions of stock, so that the resulting risotto will not be flat or bland. Pay attention to how salty your stock or broth is when adding salt and remember that the final addition of Parmesan will add to the saltiness of the dish.

After three or four additions of stock add the coarsely mashed squash purée and continue to cook.

While the risotto cooks, sauté a half pound of sliced Crimini mushrooms in some olive oil and butter; set aside.

The lima beans should be prepared before you begin to cook the onions since they will take at least 20 to 30 minutes to cook. To cook them, simply simmer them in some lightly salted water until they are soft and tender. Set the lima beans aside; reserving the cooking liquid too. 


We only purchased a quart of broth, so we used the lima bean cooking liquid as part of our cooking liquid for the risotto. Just use as much as you need.

When the risotto is almost finished fold in the drained lima beans and mushrooms with an addition of broth or bean liquid. When the rice is cooked through, but still has texture, remove it from the heat and add 4 tablespoons of butter, a handful or two of Parmesan and a sprinkling of minced flat leaf parsley.  Correct the seasoning with salt and pepper and the consistency with bean liquid—the risotto should be fluid, but not soupy, and very creamy. 
 

We served the risotto with a green salad and a Vouvray. The five of us sat at the table and continued to nibble, so there was only a small amount left, but under ordinary circumstances I think there was easily enough risotto for six entrée portions. To my mind, the unplanned addition of the lima beans was actually what put this risotto into the memorable category. I love lima beans, but have never had them in risotto and the combination of the soft limas with the creamy risotto was a revelation.

The next evening Nancy put some of the roasted cubes of butternut squash into a wonderful salad...sort of a vegetable crouton addition to a green salad.

 She dressed the salad with a sherry-shallot vinaigrette that included a little bit of garlic, Dijon and honey. She also added toasted pecans, thinly sliced red onion and a generous amount of shaved Parmesan to the salad. It was beautiful and tasty—nicely complimented by a roast chicken, mashed potatoes and the parsnips, roasted and then finished with a small amount of maple syrup.

The following day for lunch, Molly turned the remaining diced roasted squash into one of my favorite dishes of the week—a favorite because it was so simple and beautiful, with nothing extra and nothing missing. She warmed the squash, remaining limas (we had cooked all that we purchased and only used a generous cup in the risotto) and leftover slices of maple-roasted parsnips, creating a simple autumnal vegetable medley. The colors and shapes were lovely together. Unfortunately, I didn't get a good picture of it.

As you can probably tell, the food at the lake house was wonderful. We even received another lesson from Bonnie for her special Cardamom Bread (someday I'll convince her to write a guest post).


I will savor the tastes of this week for months to come. But as I look back, it is not just the food and cooking that made it so very special. Rather, it was the laughter, conversation and camaraderie in the kitchen and at the table. And now that I am home, it isn't just one more meal that I crave. How I long to have more time...  for one more walk through the woods...


or along the beach...



in the company of my very dear friends.





Saturday, October 9, 2010

French Apple Tart

Ever since I attended cooking school I have been in love with French-style tarts. I love American pies, but given a choice, I will always choose to make (and eat) a tart. Tarts are so versatile and beautiful. I try to sneak tarts—savory and sweet—into my cooking classes as often as I can.

This past week I taught a class that included several classic French dishes. I ended the class with a Tarte aux Pommes. You can't get much more "classic" than this tart. If you have ever walked in to a French pastry shop, you have seen this tart. It is amazingly beautiful. It is also surprisingly easy to make.


Since we are in the middle of apple season, now is a good time to try your hand at making this tart. The apple traditionally used is the Golden Delicious—it is sweet, apple-y tasting and holds its shape when cooked. But any flavorful apple that reliably holds its shape when cooked could be used. Patricia Wells suggests Jonagold, Gravenstein, Gala or Cortland. I imagine that Braeburn and Jonathan would also be a good choices, but honestly, my favorite is the Golden Delicious. Because it is sweet, it doesn't require lots of sugar. It is also widely available. Apples are very regional—I don't think I have ever seen a Gravenstein, and although I have lived in Cortland country, I don't anymore.  They occasionally make an appearance in the grocery stores where I live now, but I can't count on finding them.

The Tarte aux Pommes consists of two layers of apples. A beautiful sunburst-like spiral of apples is spread over a thin layer of a thick, homemade apple compote. The compote is quite easy to make. The only trick is to make sure that you cook it until it is no longer "wet". When you draw a spoon through the compote in the pan, a path should remain without any liquid bleeding out of the compote.


It should be thick enough to mound on a spoon.


If the compote is too thin, it will make the crust soggy.  Much of my recipe is taken from the one that Patricia Wells includes in her book, Simply French. One of the things I love about her recipe is the inclusion of a vanilla bean in the compote.


You can make the compote without it, but adding it makes the tart extraordinary.

For the decorative spiral of apples on top of the compote, choose apples that are uniform in size. I prefer to thinly slice the apples by hand rather than using a Mandoline-type slicer. If your knife skills aren't the best, slicing by hand will provide good practice. But beyond that, when you slice by hand, all of the slices from each half apple remain next to each other on the cutting board. It is an easy matter to scoop up the sliced apple half and fan it in an arc around the edge of the tart. If you use the mandolin, the slices fall randomly onto the cutting board and it is more of an effort to create a neat looking spiral since you have to take the time to pick and choose slices that "fit" next to each other.


Classically, this tart is finished with a glaze of an apricot jam-like substance called nappage. This gives the finished tart a beautiful sheen. It also helps preserve the tart for longer keeping in a pastry shop case since it protects the fruit from the air. Unless a tart has been prepared well in advance of when it will be served, I find the apricot glaze to be pretty unappealing. Oftentimes the apricot glaze is poorly applied and is thick and gloppy. I prefer the method that Patricia Wells uses: When the tart is hot from the oven, dredge with powdered sugar. Then, run the tart under the broiler until the edges of the apples are browned. Not only does this accentuate the beautiful spiral of apples, it also forms a light glaze over the whole tart as the powdered sugar melts. It tastes great and looks truly elegant.


When you serve this tart, your knife skills will come into play again. Make sure that you choose a sharp knife with a long, thin blade. Be careful to use a gentle sawing motion as you cut. If you press down with the knife (rather than sawing back and forth), you will squash your lovely tart. When sliced properly, the slices of this tart will be beautiful, even if you must slice them into very narrow wedges for a buffet...or tasting portions for a class.


Tarte aux Pommes
(French Apple Tart)

2 Golden Delicious apples (about 7 to 8 oz. each)
1 T. unsalted butter
3 T. sugar
3 T. apple cider or water
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
3 Golden Delicious apples (about 7 to 8 oz. each)
1 partially baked 9- to 10-inch tart shell (Pâte Brisée)
2 T. melted butter
2 T. sugar
powdered sugar

Peel, core and dice the 2 apples. Place in a saucepan with the butter, sugar, cider and the vanilla  bean and seeds. Cover and cook over moderate heat until the apples are tender and beginning to fall apart—10 to 15 minutes. Uncover, increase the heat and continue to cook, stirring and mashing with the back of a spoon or a heat-proof spatula until you have a coarse purée that mounds on a spoon and doesn't "weep" liquid. Let cool.  Remove the vanilla bean.

Peel, halve and core the remaining three apples.


Lay the apples cut side down on the cutting board and using a sharp knife, slice the apples cross-wise as thinly as possible—they should be 1/8-inch thick or less.

Spread the apple compote in the partially baked tart shell. Fan the apple slices, tightly overlapping one another, in two concentric circles—starting with the outside circle and overlapping the inner circle partially over the outer one. (It will be easier to make the inner spiral of apples lie flat if you first use the smaller "end pieces" of the apples to fill in the center of the tart, building it up to the same level as the outer circle of apples.)  Brush the apples with melted butter and sprinkle the granulated sugar evenly over the apples. Place the tart on a baking sheet and bake in a 400° oven until the apples are lightly golden and tender to the tip of a sharp knife—about 30 to 40 minutes. Remove the tart from the oven and sprinkle generously with powdered sugar. Broil the tart until the edges of the apples are a deep golden brown—watch carefully, the tart will burn easily. Cool slightly and serve. Slice using a thin, sharp knife.

(Recipe adapted from Simply French, by Patricia Wells)

Pâte Brisée
(Basic Pastry Dough)

1 1/3 c. all-purpose flour (150g)
scant 1/2 t. salt
8 T. cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces (112g)
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 3 T. ice water over the flour/butter mixture. Using your hands, fluff the mixture until it begins to clump, adding more water if necessary. If, when you squeeze some of the mixture it holds together, the dough is finished. 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. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and press into a thick disk. Chill for at least 30 minutes.

To roll out the crust, let the dough warm up for a moment or two. Butter a 9-to 10-inch removable bottom tart pan and set it aside. Flour the work surface and the rolling pin. Begin rolling from the center of the dough outward. After each stroke, rotate the dough a quarter turn—always making sure that there is sufficient flour to keep the dough from sticking. Keep rolling and turning until you have a round of dough that is about 1/8–inch thick. Brush off the excess flour and fold the dough circle in half. Slide the outspread fingers of both hands under the dough and gently lift it and transfer it to the prepared pan. Unfold the dough and ease it into the pan being careful not to stretch it and making sure to press the dough firmly into the corners and up the sides. Using your palms, gently press the dough against the edge of the pan to cut it off flush with the edge of the tart pan. Chill the tart shell for at least 1/2 hour.

To partially bake the tart shell, 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 425° oven for 10 to 18 minutes. When the pastry begins to color on the edges, remove the foil and weights and continue baking until the pastry dries out and turns a pale golden color. Let cool before filling.