Friday, September 30, 2011

An Impromptu Meal for Early Fall—Sweet Potato Pancakes served with a Medley of Corn, Sweet Potatoes & Black Beans


For the past couple of weeks I have been testing recipes for "savory sweet potato cakes".  When I promised to make some for an upcoming job, I didn't have a specific type of cake in mind.  Consequently, my days have been interspersed with the making and tasting of a variety of versions of sweet potato latkes, sweet potato pancakes and sweet potato fritters/croquettes. You would think I would be tired of sweet potatoes, but I'm not. I love sweet potatoes. The "savory sweet potato cakes" that I will be serving for my event will be a fritter/croquette-type of cake, but I was so pleased with the sweet potato pancakes that I came up with while working on this job that I thought I would share the recipe here.


We had them for dinner this evening topped with a quick sauté of corn and sweet potatoes. My sauté was inspired by a salad I noticed a couple of weeks ago in the deli case at The Community Mercantile in Lawrence. The salad, which also included black beans, appealed to me because of the pairing of corn and sweet potatoes. I think these two vegetables are fantastic together. (Last year I posted a version of Corn Chowder that includes some sweet potatoes in addition to white potatoes.) 

Unfortunately the window during which you can enjoy this combination made with sweet corn that has been freshly cut from the cob is narrow....and it is now. Sweet potatoes have just begun to make their way to the market and the farmers that I buy my corn from told me that last Saturday was their final visit for the year. We have been savoring these final ears all week...and tonight there were only two left. I know I will be able to make this dish in the coming months with frozen corn, but it won't be quite the same.

I don't have a detailed recipe for my corn and sweet potato medley...just a general method—which is really all you need for a dish like this. To begin, cut a medium sized sweet potato into a 1/3-inch dice—you should have about 2 cups of diced sweet potatoes. Sauté the sweet potatoes in some olive oil over moderately high heat until golden and beginning to soften. (Choose a sauté pan that is large enough to hold the sweet potatoes in a snug single layer.) Transfer to a plate and season with salt and pepper.

Return the pan to the heat and add some more oil. Add a medium red onion that has been thinly sliced to the pan and cook over moderate heat until tender and lightly caramelized. When the onion is tender, add a teaspoon or so of cumin and a quarter teaspoon of chipotle chili powder (more or less to taste) along with a pinch of salt. Cook briefly until fragrant. If the pan seems dry, add a bit more oil. Add a couple of cups of sweet corn (if using fresh, add the "scrapings" of the cob as well). Season with salt and continue to cook until the corn begins to sizzle—a minute or two. Add a splash of water and scrape up any brown, caramelized bits sticking to the bottom of the pan. Return the sweet potatoes to the pan along with a can of drained and rinsed black beans. Season with salt, cover and cook over low heat until the corn and sweet potatoes are just tender. Taste and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper.

At this point you may add a variety of different things to the pan to "finish" the dish. I added a scant tablespoon of sherry vinegar and about as much maple syrup. A squeeze of lime juice would have been nice in addition to, or in place of, the sherry vinegar. A finely minced canned chipotle in adobo would be an excellent addition. too.

Set the finished sauté to the side and keep warm while you prepare the pancakes.  Just before serving, add some coarslely chopped flat leaf parsley or cilantro to the vegetables.  I used parsley...which was good...but if I had had any cilantro on hand, that would have been a better choice.

To serve, place three pancakes on each plate and mound some of the corn-sweet potato medley in the center. Finish the plate with a thin drizzle of maple syrup (not too much!--this is a savory dish) and a dollop of crème fraiche. Sour cream would be a perfectly fine substitute for the crème fraiche.

The pancake recipe makes enough for four servings of three cakes each.  The quantities of vegetables that I have given for the corn and sweet potato sauté will make enough to serve four generously with some left over.  Just enough, as it happens, to serve with a cheese quesadilla for a nice weekend lunch....  


Savory Sweet Potato-Cornmeal Pancakes

3/4 c. all-purpose flour (85 grams)
1/2 c. stone ground cornmeal (65 grams)
1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. kosher salt
1 t. sugar
6 T. mashed roasted sweet potatoes (100 grams)
1 egg, beaten
2 T. melted unsalted butter
1 to 1 1/4 c. buttermilk
2 green onions, thinly sliced

Place the dry ingredients in a bowl and mix together. In another bowl, whisk together the sweet potatoes, egg and melted butter. Add 1 cup of the buttermilk and whisk until smooth. Pour the wet ingredients over the dry ingredients and add the green onions. Fold together. The batter will be thick enough to scoop with an ice cream scoop, but if it is too thick, add more of the buttermilk.

Melt some butter in a nonstick or cast iron pan over medium heat. Scoop in the batter, spreading slightly to form 3 inch cakes. Cook until golden (about 2 1/2 minutes on each side). Keep the pancakes warm in a low oven until all of the cakes have been cooked. Makes about 12 pancakes.

(Adapted from Mark Miller's Corn Cakes from the Coyote Café Cookbook)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Ratatouille..... a love story



I have not always loved vegetables. I went to cooking school with the intention of becoming a pastry chef (I have always loved sweets) and it was as much of a surprise to me as it was to anyone who knew me that I ended up working on the savory side of the kitchen. Of course my change of heart towards vegetables was a gradual process that only began during my time in London. But as I look back on my stay there, I can pinpoint two seminal moments in my transformation. One of those moments involved a dish called ratatouille.

Ratatouille is a classic Provençal vegetable stew made of eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers and onions. When I started cooking school it would be fair to say that tomatoes—and onions if they were cooked long enough—were the only vegetables on that list that I liked well enough to prepare for myself. As for the other three, I would say that I tolerated peppers—but they were not something I would have gone out of my way to eat. Eggplant and zucchini on the other hand were not vegetables that I was willing to eat at all.

I believe I only had one experience with eggplant while growing up and it was not a good one. My mother, possibly in an attempt to stretch our food horizons—or maybe to satisfy her own desire to try something new and interesting for dinner—prepared a dish that featured eggplant. I have no memory of the dish other than my reaction. I was revolted. It is quite likely that the dish was pretty good, but for some reason I had a preconceived notion that eggplant was nasty. My thoughts on zucchini were similar....the only difference being that I had more experience of it. I remember that it appeared now and then on our table. And I have to say that there was one dish in particular—a canned concoction of zucchini stewed in tomato sauce—that was pretty awful.

With all of this in mind, imagine my dismay on one particular day at the Cordon Bleu as I looked over the recipes for the upcoming demonstration and saw ratatouille among them. I was old enough at that point to not let out an audible "blecchhh" (I'm sure I thought it). Instead, I quietly resigned myself to having to go out for lunch after class. Of course, this is not how things turned out.

As always, I was seated on the front row. As a person who's last name begins with "V" I had to sit at the back of the classroom all through grade school and high school. So when I got to college and then cooking school—where I got to choose my seat—I was always front and center. This put me in the perfect position, not only to see what was going on on top of the stove and on the cutting board, but also to catch the aromas as they came off of all of the tasty things sizzling and simmering away during class.

The ratatouille the chef was preparing that day was a traditional, rustic version. In this version the vegetables are simply added to the pan in succession as they are cut. First, the oil and onions are set to cook over a gentle heat. Next the eggplant and zucchini are cut, salted, rinsed and dried. These are then added to the pan where they begin to cook and soften while the tomatoes and peppers are cut. The final addition of vegetables is made along with some smashed garlic and a bundle of herbs. With each addition, the lid of the pan is lifted and a wave of fragrant steam comes out of the pan.

On that day, the first time the lid came off after all of the vegetables had been cooking for a while, I about fell out of my chair. I had never smelled anything like it. Since the lid had to come off several more times as the class continued—to give the stew a stir, check its progress and maybe stir in a touch more olive oil—by the time class was over, I couldn't wait to taste that stew. It did not disappoint. It was one of the best things I have ever put in my mouth. Rich with concentrated vegetable flavors and olive oil, it had the consistency of a thick jam. I have been in love with eggplant and zucchini ever since.

To this day, ratatouille is one of my favorite things to eat. From late summer into fall, I always try and take advantage of the season and make at least a batch or two of ratatouille. There is no one method for preparing this dish—it is the combination of ingredients that defines it. It can be prepared as a simple stew, like the one we had at the Cordon Bleu. But it can also be elaborately deconstructed and reconstructed like Thomas Keller's version—the one that was so elegantly animated in the movie Ratatouille. The version I make lies somewhere between these two. From the book Lulu's Provençal Table, it involves cooking each vegetable separately before combining them all for a long slow simmer. This method gives the soft texture and long-stewed, well-amalgamated flavor of the one I first tasted so long ago, but at the same time allows each vegetable to remain visually identifiable in the final dish. It is good on pasta, or with eggs,


as a vegetable side to grilled or roasted meats,


or on a crostini.


It is not glamorous...   or particularly beautiful...    but I love this dish.


Ratatouille

About 2/3 c. olive oil
1 lb. onions, cut into ½-inch dice
1 lb. zucchini, cut into ¾-inch cubes
1 lb. eggplant, unpeeled and cut into ¾-inch cubes
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 lb. tomatoes, peeled, seeded & cut into large chunks, juices reserved
3 large bell peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded (juices reserved) and cut into ½-inch squares
Several sprigs of fresh thyme
Salt & freshly ground pepper

In a large, heavy, wide pan, warm 3 T. of olive oil. Add the onions and cook covered over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are very tender and are simmering in their own juices—this will take about 30 minutes. Uncover, increase the heat slightly, and cook until they begin to take on a light golden color.

While the onions cook, sauté the zucchini in a large frying pan until golden and beginning to be tender.


Set the zucchini aside and season lightly with salt. Repeat this process with the eggplant.


Do not overcrowd the frying pan or the zucchini & eggplant will steam and not caramelize. If necessary, do each vegetable in batches (just large enough to cover the bottom of the pan with a single layer of eggplant or zucchini). It is not necessary to clean the pan between batches—simply add more oil if necessary and then add the next batch. Be careful not to add too much oil—there should be just enough to lightly coat the bottom of the pan. Each batch will take about 5 minutes.

When the onions are ready, season with salt and add the garlic along with the eggplant and the zucchini.


Meanwhile, in the same frying pan used to sauté the eggplant and zucchini, sauté the tomatoes (adding more oil if necessary) over high heat—shaking and tossing constantly until the tomatoes are softened, but not disintegrating, and their liquid has reduced to a syrup.


Remove from the pan and set aside. Add the reserved tomato juices to the same pan and reduce until slightly thickened.  (For late season tomatoes, which may not be as juicy as mid-summer tomatoes, the tomatoes and their juices can all be cooked at once rather than in two steps.)

To the pan of eggplant, zucchini & onions, add the tomatoes and tomato juices along with the peppers and their juices. Immerse the thyme in the vegetables and simmer the vegetables, stirring occasionally and being careful not to break the vegetables up too much, until the vegetables are tender and coated in a reduced, syrupy, vegetal liquid--about an hour to an hour and a half (longer, if the heat is very low).  If at first the stew seems a bit dry, cover the pan until the vegetables begin to give up their juices, then uncover and continue to simmer until the juices are reduced. If the stew has sufficient liquid at the beginning, simply leave the pan uncovered as it simmers.

When the ratatouille is finished, correct the seasoning with salt & pepper. The ratatouille may be served immediately, but it tastes better if allowed to “ripen” overnight. Let cool to room temperature and then cover and refrigerate. Bring the ratatouille back to room temperature or reheat it before serving. In any case, just before serving, stir in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil.  Makes about 5 cups.


(Recipe adapted from  Lulu's Provençal Table, by Richard Olney)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Classic French Pear Tart—Made Two Ways....and a Basic Recipe for Poached Pears

I have a pies and tarts class coming up next week. One of the things I will be teaching is Pear & Frangipane tart. I think I mentioned in my recent Peach & Raspberry Galette post that I think frangipane is one of the finest things to ever come out of the French pastry kitchen. In the galette, the frangipane is somewhat of a background player. In the pear tart it shares the stage equally with the pears. If you have spent any time in France...and you like pears and/or almonds...it is likely you have tasted this tart. A classic for a reason, it is truly wonderful.


My favorite way to make this tart is with pears that I have poached myself. But it is also commonly made with high quality canned pears (packed in syrup). Some recipes for this tart call for fresh pears. I have never made it this way, but it makes sense to me that fresh pears would work just fine since the frangipane would absorb the juices of the pears as they bake. Because I wanted to see if there was enough of a difference between the tart made with fresh and the tart made with poached to warrant poaching the pears, I thought I would give the fresh pear version a try before I taught my class.

Rather than making two tarts for a side by side comparison, I decided to make just one tart with poached pears on one half and fresh on the other. This didn't make a tart as uniformly beautiful as usual, but I really didn't need to eat two whole tarts this week....(not that I really need to eat one whole tart either....)


In the end, I discovered that the tart really is better when made with the poached pears...at least, in my opinion. Every bite seems to be somehow more perfumed with the aromatic flavor of the pears. And since I add a bit of white wine and some clove and citrus zest to my poaching liquid, there is an added dimension of flavor that the fresh pear version lacks. There is nothing wrong with the fresh pear version...it tastes good and it looks beautiful. I would definitely make it and serve it without apology if I were pressed for time. But if you have the time, the tart really is more flavorful and more elegant if the pears are poached. Poaching pears isn't difficult...you just have to plan ahead.
Whether you are poaching an egg, a piece of fish, or some fruit, you can't go wrong if you remember that poaching is a gentle cooking process....sort of the equivalent of a warm bath. For fruit, the goal is fruit that is tender through and is still holding its original shape. To obtain this, the liquid should never boil, or simmer hard. A faint simmer is sufficient.

The poaching liquid for fruit is a sugar syrup. The proportion of sugar needed in the syrup is technically related to the amount of sugar contained in the fruit in question, but for most fruits a syrup made up of half as much sugar by weight as liquid (water or a combination of water and wine) works well. The sugar sweetens the fruit and also helps to firm up the cell structure of the fruit so it will maintains its shape. (To illustrate, Madeleine Kamman points out that when cooked in pure water, an apple disintegrates, becoming applesauce.)


To poach pears for the Pear & Frangipane Tart: Choose a saucepan large enough to hold the pears. For 3 or 4 pears (such as Bartlett, Bosc or Anjou) place 4 cups of water (or half water and half white wine) in the saucepan and add 2 cups of sugar. If you like, you may add any number of flavorings of your choice (a strip or 2 of lemon or orange zest, a cinnamon stick, a couple of whole cloves, or a split and scraped vanilla bean). For the tart pictured, I poached Bartlett pears and used a dry white wine and added a strip of lemon zest and a couple of cloves. Bring this mixture to a boil and simmer for few minutes. Add the peeled, halved and cored pears and lower the heat to maintain a bare simmer.

To keep the pears submerged while they poach, prepare a parchment "lid" (called a cartouche). Cut a round of parchment that is just larger than the surface area of the pan. Cut a hole in the center of it. The hole will allow the steam coming off of the barely simmering liquid to escape. Press the round of parchment to the surface of the poaching liquid.


The pears are done when a small skewer or the tip of a knife will slide in and out of the pears without resistance. Cooking time varies greatly depending on the variety and ripeness of the pears—start checking after 10 minutes for ripe pears.


Cool and store the pears in the refrigerator in their poaching liquid. If made the day before, the pears will continue to absorb the flavors you have added to the poaching liquid and will taste even better in the tart. Drain and dry the pears well (reserving the poaching liquid if you like for other uses) before building the tart.

If you don't have the time to poach the pears (or just don't want to), make sure that the pears you choose are ripe enough to eat. Peel the pears only when you are ready to build the tart. Halve and core the peeled pears and rub all over with lemon juice. Slice and place the pears on the tart exactly as directed to for the poached pears.

Sliced pear halves--fresh (left) and poached (right)
Poached pears fanned on the tart like the spokes of a wheel

Astute regular readers will notice that the recipe for frangipane in this tart is slightly different than the one I gave for my Peach & Raspberry Galette. Classic frangipane is made with equal quantities of almonds, sugar and butter, plus egg and a small amount of flour and almond (or vanilla) extract. The standard recipe that I usually make calls for 4 oz. each of almonds, sugar, flour and butter, 2 eggs plus 2 T. of flour. For the Pear and Frangipane tart, you only need 3/4 of this amount—enough to fill the tart shell half way.


In the recipe below, I have simply given quantities to make 3/4 of a standard recipe—exactly enough for one nine inch tart. To make measuring easier, I called for 1 egg plus 1 egg white instead of one and a half eggs. If it is easier for you, simply use one and one half eggs. Either way, you won't have to worry about what to do with the leftover frangipane.

Although, from my perspective, having leftover frangipane is not a great hardship. It just so happens that after making a full recipe you would have enough frangipane left over to line a fresh fruit galette. Peach season is over, but as noted in my earlier post, frangipane would make an excellent base for a plum or fig galette...both of which are in season now. Of course, if you (like me) don't need to eat two tarts this week, that extra 1/2 cup of frangipane could be packed away and frozen....ready and waiting for the day when you do feel the need to make (and eat) a fresh fruit galette....

Slice with fresh (unpoached) pear


Pear & Frangipane Tart

3 oz. slivered blanched almonds (about 3/4 c.)
3 oz. sugar (about 7 T.)
3 oz. unsalted butter (6 T.), softened
1 whole egg
1 egg white
1/4 t. almond extract
1 1/2 T. flour

6 poached pear halves (recipe below—or can use canned pear halves)

1 unbaked 9-inch tart shell (Sweet Tart Dough/Pâte Sablé)

Make the Frangipane:
Creaming method: Place the almonds and 1 T. of sugar in the food processor and process until the almonds are very fine. Cream the butter with the remaining sugar. Cream in the ground almonds. Beat in the whole egg and the white. Beat in the almond extract and then the flour.

Food processor method: Place the almonds and the sugar in the food processor and process until the almonds are very fine. Add the butter and process until smooth. Scrape down the bowl and add the whole egg and process just to combine. Add the egg white and the extract. Process again just until smooth. Sprinkle the flour over and pulse to combine.

Frangipane may be used right away, but it is easiest to work with if chilled until firm enough to spread. Frangipane may also be made ahead and frozen.

Build the tart: Remove the pears from the poaching liquid and pat dry. Place each half, cut side down, on a cutting board and cut crosswise into thin slices. Press lightly on each sliced pear half to fan it toward the narrow and of the pear. Using an offset spatula, transfer the sliced and fanned pear halves to the frangipane, arranging them around the tart like the spokes of a wheel with the narrow portion of each pear pointing toward the center.


Alternatively, slice the pear halves lengthwise into 5 or 6 slices and arrange the slices in a decorative pattern. Place the tart on a baking sheet and bake at 350° until the frangipane is puffed and golden brown—about 50 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.


When the tart is cool, dredge lightly with powdered sugar. You may also glaze the tart. Reduce 3/4 cup of the poaching liquid to a syrup (3 to 4 T.). When cool, brush the syrup lightly over the surface of the tart. Serves 8.  Chill any leftover portions.


Sweet Tart Dough (Pâte Sablé)

1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter
6 T. granulated sugar
1 egg yolk
1 t. vanilla
1 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1/3 cake flour

Briefly cream the butter and sugar together until smooth. Beat in the egg yolk and the vanilla. Add the flours and mix until well combined—the dough will form clumps and all the flour will have been absorbed. Form the dough into a thick disk. Use immediately, or wrap in plastic and chill or freeze. Let the dough soften before rolling out.

On a lightly floured board (or between 2 sheets of plastic wrap), roll dough out to a thickness of 1/8- to 3/16-inch. Brush off the excess flour and transfer the dough to a greased tart pan. Ease the dough into the pan being careful not to stretch it and pressing it against the sides of the tart pan. Use your hands to gently cut the dough flush with the upper rim of the tart pan.

Note: This amount of dough is enough for 1 1/2 9-inch tarts. I generally make up a double batch and divide it into 3 disks of dough. Freeze the disks that you don’t need. Use within 3 to 4 months.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Eggplant, Pepper & Chickpea Stew


One of the things I love about eggplant, peppers and tomatoes is that they span the "cusp" season from late summer into early fall so very well. No matter what the weather has in store for us this time of year, these vegetables can be turned into appropriate and satisfying fare. On a hot, late summer evening they can be roasted or grilled and tossed with a vinaigrette for a bright and refreshing salad. And if the weather is suddenly cool—with a chill in the air—they can be combined to make a substantial and warming gratin, pasta sauce, or stew. One of my favorite recipes in this latter group is Eggplant, Pepper & Chickpea Stew from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.


Even though I haven't changed this recipe in any significant way from the original, I wanted to go ahead and share it here because I enjoy it so much and I think others will too. I am always struck by how good it tastes. It is substantial without being rich. Eating it reminds me of why food is sometimes called "sustenance"—I always feel sustained and well fed when I eat this stew. Even if you are not sure about eggplant, you should give this recipe a try. You might find you like eggplant when combined with the concentrated taste of the tomatoes, peppers, garlic and paprika.

Another thing I love about this dish is that, like many of the gratins, pasta sauces and stews made with this late summer triumvirate of eggplant, peppers and tomatoes, it freezes well. I always make more than we can eat so that I will have some to put in the freezer. It can be thawed overnight in the refrigerator; but more often than not, I haven't planned ahead and I end up thawing it in a covered saucepan set over very low heat. It's bubbling and hot in about the same amount of time that it takes to make the steamed rice or buttered couscous that I will serve with it. And I have to say, that as enjoyable as this stew is on a cool fall evening, it is even better on a cold and dark winter night, when it is truly a warming ray of summer sunshine on a plate.


Eggplant, Pepper & Chickpea Stew

1 1/2 lbs. eggplant
6 T. olive oil
1 large red onion, diced into 1/2 to 2/3-inch squares
1 large red or yellow bell pepper, diced into 2/3- to 3/4-inch squares
2 t. paprika
2 plump cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
2 T. tomato paste
5 plum tomatoes, peeled, quartered lengthwise and seeded
1 15-oz. can chickpeas, drained & rinsed
salt & pepper
1 c. chicken or vegetable stock or water
1/4 c. minced flat-leaf parsley (optional)



Cut the eggplant lengthwise into 2/3-inch thick slabs, then crosswise into 2/3-inch sticks. Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a large sauté pan over high heat until hazy. Add the eggplant and stir to distribute the oil. Cook—reducing the heat if the eggplant threatens to scorch—turning the pieces every few minutes, until golden, about 10 minutes. If you do not have a large enough pan, do this in 2 batches. Set the eggplant aside.

While the eggplant cooks, heat the remaining 2 T. of oil in a Dutch oven or braiser over medium-high heat. Add the onions and peppers and sauté until the onion is lightly browned around the edges—about 10 minutes.


Add the garlic and paprika during the last few minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for a few minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook for a few minutes more.


Add the eggplant, chickpeas, the stock, a teaspoon of salt (less, if using canned broth) and a few grindings of pepper.


Lower the heat and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are cooked through and the flavors are blended—adding water if the stew seems dry—about 30 minutes. Taste and correct the seasoning. Stir in the parsley if using. Serve with Basmati rice or couscous. Serves 4 to 6.

Note: If quality summer tomatoes are not available, substitute a 14.5 oz. to 16 oz. can of peeled Italian plum tomatoes in heavy purée for the tomatoes and tomato paste.

(Recipe from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison)

Friday, September 9, 2011

Quick Peperonata

The market has been bursting with ripe bell peppers for a couple of weeks now. In the Midwest, September is bell pepper season. Yes, it's true that peppers begin to make their colorful appearance in mid-summer, but they don't really hit their stride until late summer and into fall. I was so excited to see a big pile of them last week that I purchased more than I really needed. But we have been enjoying them all week....most recently in a quick Peperonata.


In its simplest form, Italian Peperonata is a medley of sweet ripe peppers and onions. It frequently includes tomatoes, as well as garlic, vinegar, capers and/or olives. It can be a fast sauté or a soft, thick, slow-cooked stew-like preparation. It makes a wonderful side dish, tastes fabulous folded into an omelet and is an excellent topping for bruschetta or crostini.

This month there was a particularly tempting version of it (courtesy of Chef Nancy Silverton) in Bon Appétit Magazine. In Silverton's version, the onions and peppers are sautéed gently and then combined with a homemade tomato sauce. The resulting mixture is then spread in a shallow baking pan and baked in a moderately hot oven until it is thick and browned in spots. Silverton's Peperonata was mouthwateringly beautiful. She served it with a ricotta-topped crostini. I was inspired.

I wanted to try Silverton's recipe, but on the day that I made my Peperonata, I didn't have the time to cook the peppers on the stove top and make tomato sauce and finish the Peperonata with a long slow bake in the oven. Because I knew that the things that really appealed to me about Silverton's Peperonata—the soft texture and concentrated flavors—could be achieved in other ways, I came up with another (quicker) method.

I began with a hot and fast sauté of the peppers and onions. This jump starts the cooking process and adds some nice caramelization. Next I cooked the tomatoes along with all of their juices in a bit of olive oil in a very hot sauté pan (the same pan the peppers were cooked in). This rapidly reduces the tomatoes to a thick and chunky purée with a nice concentrated flavor. I then combined the sautéed peppers and onions with the cooked tomatoes (along with some olives) in a covered pan and cooked them over very low heat until everything was soft and tender and the flavors were well blended. This quick version took about 45 minutes from start to finish—instead of the hour and a half needed for the oven method.

Someday (when I have planned ahead) I will probably give Silverton's recipe a try. I imagine that the long stint in the oven produces a Peperonata with great depth and sweetness and an unctuous, jam-like consistency—something that would be well worth the time involved. In the mean time, I am very happy with the Peperonata that I made...it was delicious. I hope you will think so too.



Quick Peperonata

2 large (6 or 7 oz. each) ripe bell peppers—red, yellow or orange
1/2 medium onion—preferably red, but yellow is fine too
1 medium tomato (about 6 oz)—it doesn't matter if the tomato is red or yellow as long as it is dead ripe
2 to 3 T. olive oil
1 T. picked thyme
generous pinch hot pepper flakes
Salt 
1 clove of garlic, peeled and minced (optional)
10 Kalamata olives, halved
Balsamic vinegar, to taste


Prepare the vegetables: Cut the peppers in halve lengthwise. Remove the core, seeds and membranes. Slice thinly lengthwise. Set aside. Remove the root from the onion. Slice thinly lengthwise. You should have a generous cup. Set aside with the peppers. Peel the tomato if you like...but it is not necessary. Core the tomato and cut into a rough dice. Set aside.

Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add a tablespoon or so of oil to the pan—it should shimmer. Add the peppers and onions along with the thyme and pepper flakes to the pan. Sauté, tossing regularly, until the peppers and onions are beginning to soften—about 2 minutes.


 Add a pinch of salt and continue to sauté until the vegetables are tender but still have a bit of crunch—about 5 minutes more. Regulate the heat carefully to make sure the peppers cook rapidly, but don't burn. They will begin to brown in spots. If they threaten to burn, reduce the heat slightly. Add the garlic, toss well and transfer the peppers and onions to a plate (making sure there are no bits of garlic left in the pan). Set aside.


Return the pan to the heat and increase the heat to high. Add a scant tablespoon of olive oil. Add the chopped tomato (along with any reserved juice). The tomato will start to cook immediately and it will cook rapidly—the juices reducing and concentrating as fast as they are released. Stir and shake the pan back and forth. After a minute or two there will be a chunky, thick concentrate of tomato in the pan.


Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and add the peppers back to the pan along with the olives. Cover the pan with a tight fitting lid and continue to cook over very low heat until the peppers are completely tender, but not mushy....about 20 to 25 minutes.


Taste the peppers. Season as necessary with salt and pepper. If they taste a bit flat, drizzle with a small amount (teaspoon or so) of balsamic vinegar. Serve hot or tepid as a side dish or a topping for bruschetta along with some ricotta cheese for an appetizer or light lunch.

Makes 1 1/2 cups Peperonata, serving 3 to 4

Note: Recipe easily doubles. But make sure you use a very large pan, or the peppers will steam instead of sauté during the initial cooking. If you do not have a large enough pan, cook the peppers in two batches.




Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Peach, Raspberry & Almond Galette

Missouri peach season is drawing to a close...which makes me very sad. In most cases, by the time a particular vegetable or fruit is nearing the end of its season, I'm beginning to tire of it anyway and am more than ready to move on to the next thing. But this doesn't ever seem to be how I feel when it comes to fresh peaches. I never get tired of them. Because we will still have tree-ripened peaches coming in from Colorado and Idaho for another week or two, I thought I would share one more peach recipe for the year—a peach and raspberry galette.


Technically a galette is a flat, round tart. It can be savory or sweet. The crust is most often made of short crust pastry, but you will also find galettes made with yeast doughs or even a thick batter that produces a "crust" that is more like a rich cake. Most of the time though, when I think of a galette, I think of a rustic, free-form tart—basically the French equivalent of an Italian crostata.

As with a crostata (or any tart made with juicy fruits, for that matter), the most difficult part of making a galette is obtaining a fully baked, crisp bottom crust. One way to insure a nicely crisped crust is to line the unbaked crust with a thin layer of Frangipane. Frangipane—also called almond cream—is one of the wonders of the French pastry kitchen as far as I'm concerned. Made like a cake batter by creaming butter, sugar, finely ground almonds and eggs together, Frangipane is used to fill tarts, cakes and pastries. It bakes into a sweet, rich and tender, cake-like pastry. When spread in a very thin layer over the unbaked crust of a fruit galette it provides complimentary flavor and sweetness. But more than that, as it bakes the frangipane absorbs the juices given off by the fruit, protecting the crust from becoming soggy. The crust of a frangipane-lined galette bakes to a beautiful, crisp golden brown.

When baking a galette or crostata that has not been lined with frangipane (like the Strawberry-rhubarb Crostata I posted last Spring), I always encourage people to set the baking pan directly onto a preheated pizza stone so that the crust will set before the fruit can begin to exude great quantities of juice. Using a stone is not necessary—or, as it turns out, desirable—when baking a galette that has been lined with frangipane. Not only does the frangipane absorb the fruit juices, its inclusion in the tart seems to make it so that the crust bakes more rapidly.  I have discovered that when baked on a baking stone, the bottom of the crust of a frangipane-lined tart will become charred.

This tart is a perfect ending to a late summer menu.  It is beautiful, bursting with fresh fruit flavor and unexpectedly light.  Because I love this tart just the way it is, I have never prepared it with anything other than peaches. But I am fairly certain it would be pretty fine made with pears or figs—both of which are wonderful in combination with almonds and raspberries. So if ripe, summer peaches are already just a memory where you live, you could still try your hand at this tart this year....the seasons for pears and figs are just getting started.



Peach, Raspberry & Almond Galette

1 recipe Galette Dough
1/2 recipe (about 1/2 cup) Frangipane (freeze the other half for later use)
5 medium ripe peaches—1 1/3 to 1 1/2 lbs.
1/2 pint fresh raspberries
Milk or cream for brushing & Sugar for sprinkling

On a lightly floured board, roll dough into a 14-inch round about 1/8-inch thick. Transfer the dough to a parchment-lined, rimless cookie sheet. (Do not use an insulated "CushionAir"-type baking sheet.) Chill the dough. When ready to build the galette, spread the frangipane in a thin (1/8-inch thick) layer in the center of the circle of dough, leaving a 2-inch border. Chill while you prepare the fruit.

Cut a small slit in the skin on the bottom of each peach. Place the peaches in a bowl and pour boiling water over them. Let stand for 30 seconds to loosen the skins; transfer to a towel. Peel, halve, pit and slice the peaches 3/4-inch thick. Reserve pits and peel for the glaze (below).

To build the galette, arrange the peaches in two concentric circles, placing the outer circle of peaches just inside the edge of the frangipane by about a quarter of an inch.




Scatter the raspberries over the peaches.



Carefully fold the edge of the dough up onto the fruit, pleating it attractively and pressing lightly as you go. Pinch the dough to seal any holes—the juices will leak and burn if there are any holes in the dough.  Brush the dough border sparingly with milk and sprinkle generously with sugar.



Bake the galette at 400º for 40 to 50 minutes—until the galette is golden, the frangipane is set and the crust is browned and crisp on the bottom. Rotate the galette after it has been in the oven for 20 minutes. Slide the finished galette, still on the parchment, onto a rack to cool.



Brush the cooled galette with the glaze. This tart is best eaten the day it is made. Chill any leftovers.

Glaze: Bring a 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup water to the boil. Add pits and peels of peaches and simmer until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon—15 to 20 minutes. Strain. If necessary, reheat before using.

(Recipe adapted from Boulettes Larder in San Francisco. Boulettes Larder is a combination gourmet/prepared foods shop and small restaurant located in the Ferry Building. In addition to serving the best in local and seasonal foods, the owners are invested in encouraging people to cook real food at home by providing quality prepared food items that a home cook might not have the time or expertise to prepare—doughs, stocks, condiments, etc.)


Galette Dough

1 stick (4 oz.) unsalted butter, chilled and sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 c. plus 2 T. (4 1/2 oz.) all purpose flour
2 T. sugar
1/4 t. salt
2 T. ice water

Place flour and butter in a food processor and pulse/process until mixture is in little pieces. Turn butter and flour mixture into a large bowl and add the sugar and salt. Toss to combine. Drizzle the ice water over the flour mixture. Using your hands (or a fork), fluff the mixture until it begins to clump. 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. Form the finished dough into a thick disk. Chill for at least 30 minutes.


Frangipane

2 oz. (1/2 c.) blanched almonds
1/4 c. plus 1 T. sugar (2 oz.)
4 T. unsalted butter, softened (2 oz.)
1 egg
1/8 t. almond extract 
1 1/2 T. flour


Ingredients for a double recipe of Frangipane

Creaming method:
Place the almonds and 1 T. of sugar in the food processor and process until the almonds are very fine.


 

Cream the butter with the remaining sugar. Cream in the ground almonds. Beat in the egg. Beat in the almond extract and then the flour.

Food processor method (works best if doubling or tripling the recipe):
Place the almonds and the sugar in the food processor and process until the almonds are very fine. Add the butter and process until smooth. Scrape down the bowl and add the egg and extract. Process again just until smooth. Sprinkle the flour over and pulse to combine.


 

Makes about 1 cup.


Friday, September 2, 2011

Fettuccine with Bell Peppers




Recently while flipping through Janet Fletcher's Four Seasons Pasta, I ran across a recipe for Pasta with Red Bell Peppers and Prosciutto. Because I happened to have those three ingredients in the house and I hadn't yet come up with a plan for dinner, I stopped to take a closer look to see if this pasta might be a good candidate for our evening meal. As I looked at it I realized I was looking at a slight variation of Patricia Wells' Tagliatelle with Tricolor Peppers and Basil from her book Trattoria—a pasta I have been making for years. I have made many variations on this pasta, but for some reason have never thought to add prosciutto. I thought it sounded like an inspired addition.

The Patricia Wells version of this pasta sauce is the essence of simplicity: Bell peppers are cut into quarter inch wide strips, tossed with red pepper flakes and a generous quantity of olive oil and then cooked in a covered pan over the lowest possible heat until they are very tender. The sauce is finished with basil. That's it. If you love bell peppers, you can't help but love this pasta. It is excellent as is, with no alterations or embellishments.

Having said that, I have to tell you that the basic idea of this sauce (peppers étuvéed in olive oil) is the foundation for many, many variations. Besides the pepper flakes, there are quite a number of ingredients that can be added to the olive oil to impart subtle (or even not so subtle) flavor to the final dish. I almost never make it without gently sizzling some finely minced garlic in the oil before adding the peppers. Janet Fletcher adds dried oregano to the garlic and omits the pepper flakes. When I made her version, I used some minced fresh rosemary instead of the oregano...and kept both the pepper flakes and the garlic.


But you shouldn't feel limited to herbs and garlic. I have once or twice added toasted and freshly ground fennel seed to the olive oil with the pepper flakes...the list of possible additions (and combinations of additions) is long.  

Similarly, after making it a time or two, you will discover that you can come up with all kinds of interesting ways to "finish" this sauce. In her original recipe, Patricia Wells adds a handful of basil and suggests an optional dusting of freshly grated Parmesan. Sometimes I serve it with the Parmesan, but just as often I leave the cheese off...or go for a saltier finish with some Pecorino. I have also served it topped with crumbles of Ricotta Salata. The basil can be replaced with other herbs....or left out altogether. Minced Italian parsley is nice. Aromatic marjoram might be another good choice if you happen to have some on hand. I have on occasion added a few capers and olives to the sauce toward the end—allowing them to warm up and gently infuse the peppers with their flavors while the pasta cooks. But be careful not to add so many that they overwhelm the peppers...they should provide only an occasional exclamation point of flavor.

As I mentioned at the start, I'm not sure why it had never occurred to me to finish this pasta with prosciutto. It really is a brilliant addition—adding subtle salt and a mellow richness. Fletcher accentuates this richness by stirring in a bit of unsalted butter at the end. I was amazed at how good it was. Since we are nearing the end of pepper season, I will be making this version again soon.

For simplicity's sake, I am posting the recipe as I made it the day I took the pictures—with all red bell peppers, seasoned with garlic, pepper flakes and rosemary, and finished with prosciutto. If you would like to make Patricia Wells original version, follow the adjustments given in the note at the bottom of the recipe. No matter which version of this pasta you choose to make—or how you vary it to suit your mood and your pantry—keep in mind that the core of the recipe is the slow and gentle cooking of the peppers. Make sure that you keep them over the lowest heat possible. It may seem like there is nothing at all going on in the pan at first, but rest assured that after 30 or 40 minutes, the peppers will be soft, juicy and tender.




Fettuccine with Red Bell Peppers and Prosciutto

5 or 6 red bell peppers
4 T. extra virgin olive oil
2 fat cloves of garlic, peeled and finely minced
1/2 t. crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
1 1/2 t. chopped fresh rosemary
Salt
3 oz. thinly sliced prosciutto, cut cross-wise into 1/4 inch strips
3/4 lb. fettuccine
2 T. unsalted butter


Core and seed the peppers. Cut them into pencil-thin strips. Pour the oil into a covered, deep 12-inch skillet and warm over moderate heat. Add the garlic, crushed red pepper flakes and rosemary. Cook briefly to release the fragrance of the garlic and rosemary. Add the peppers and toss to coat with the oil. Season lightly with salt.


Reduce the heat to very low and cook covered, stirring occasionally, until the peppers are very soft but not mushy—about 30 to 40 minutes. Do not increase the heat to try and speed this process up, the peppers might burn or get tough and dry. You want to retain as much cooking liquid as possible, for an unctuous sauce.

When the peppers are tender, uncover, add the prosciutto and toss to combine. Remove from the heat.


Bring a large pot of well-salted water (at least 6 quarts) to the boil over high heat. Add the fettuccine and cook until al dente. Drain, reserving some of the pasta cooking liquid. Return the pan of peppers to low heat. Add the pasta and toss well. Add the butter and toss until the butter melts—adding as much pasta water as necessary to create a light, fluid sauce that just coats the pasta. Serve immediately. Serves 4.

(Recipe adapted from Trattoria by Patricia Wells and Four Seasons Pasta by Janet Fletcher)

Notes & Variations:

• Wells' original recipe called for three colors of peppers (green, red & yellow). The day I photographed this post, I only had red bell peppers on hand, so that's what I used. Typically I make it with 2 red, 2 yellow and 2 orange bell peppers (I'm not fond of green peppers and if given the choice, don't eat them). When made with multi-colored peppers, the is an exceptionally pretty pasta.

• If not adding the prosciutto, omit the butter and start the peppers in 6 T. olive oil.

• For Patricia Wells' original version make the sauce without the prosciutto and butter, omit the garlic and rosemary, and add 1/4 cup basil chiffonade to the sauce along with the fettuccine.