Monday, August 30, 2010

Gratin of Eggplant & Tomatoes and Some Thoughts on Fresh Bread Crumbs

When I wrote my post for summer tomato sauce, I was working on an upcoming class on late summer foods from the South of France. One of the recipes that I will be teaching in that class is for a Gratin of Eggplant and Tomatoes.

Because there are so few ingredients, the success of this dish is almost wholly dependent on the quality of the ingredients.  Of particular importance is the tomato sauce, which is why I wanted to write the post on summer tomato sauce before I posted this recipe.  You could of course make the gratin with a good quality jarred sauce—and it would be fine—just rather ordinary. The concentrated tomato flavor and garlicky kick of the homemade sauce elevates this simple dish to the level of extraordinary. In addition to the homemade sauce, choose the best eggplant available to you and make sure that all of the other ingredients are of the best and freshest quality.

I think it's worth mentioning that this attention to quality should extend to even the breadcrumbs.  It is so easy to make them and the ones that come in cans, bags and boxes are so very inferior. Please make your own. It would be silly to go to all the trouble to make a wonderful tomato sauce and combine it with farm fresh eggplant, summer basil and good Parmesan only to top it with something that is the equivalent of sawdust.

To make fresh bread crumbs you need slightly stale bread. The best bread crumbs are made from good baguettes and artisanal country French or Italian-style loaves. Since these types of loaves don't have any preservatives, they are generally stale enough to be made into breadcrumbs a couple of days after they have been baked. If you never have odds and ends of bread left over, purchase a loaf, let it get stale and then make crumbs. A whole loaf will make a lot of bread crumbs, but that's not really a problem because they freeze very well. To make the crumbs, cut off the hard crusts and then cut the interior of the bread into chunks. Process the chunks in the food processor until they are as coarse or as fine as you want. For "fine, dry breadcrumbs", I dry the chunks of bread (or coarsely ground crumbs) in a low oven. When they are cool, I grind them until they are fine. These can be frozen, too.

When you look at this recipe you will probably notice that it is a very simple version of Eggplant Parmesan. Many of the traditional dishes of Provence have Italian counterparts. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about French Soupe au Pistou—a soup much like Italian Minestrone. With the Italian version of this gratin in mind, you might think of adding some sliced Mozzarella or Fontina to the first two layers of eggplant and tomato sauce. A little ricotta or some thinly sliced prosciutto would also be nice. Like any gratin, there are lots of possibilities for layers and lots of flavor combinations to play with.

For my part, I love this dish on the simple side. Occasionally I will follow Lulu Peyraud's example and make it with just the tomato sauce, eggplant (she fries hers—but this is a bit too much oil for me) and breadcrumbs. It is quite good even without the Parmesan and the basil.  However you choose to make it, I like it best served as an entrée—with a nice green salad and some good crusty bread.

Gratin of Eggplant & Tomatoes
(Gratin d'Aubergines aux Tomates)

2 eggplant (1 1/2 to 2 lbs.)
3 to 4 T. olive oil
Salt & Pepper
2 to 2 1/2 cups tomato sauce
Several leaves of fresh basil, torn or cut in a wide chiffonade
1/3 to 1/2 c. finely grated Parmesan (1 to 1 1/2 oz.)
3/4 c. fresh coarse bread crumbs
1 to 2 T. olive oil for drizzling

Top and tail the eggplants. Slice each eggplant lengthwise into 1/3-to 1/2-inch thick slices. Spread the eggplant on a baking sheet and brush both sides with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Broil the eggplant until golden brown; turn and broil the other side in a similar manner.

As the eggplant brown, remove from the sheet and stack them on top of one another while they are still hot so that they will continue to steam one another and cook through. Set aside.

While the eggplant cooks, warm the tomato sauce over low heat.

To build the gratin, lightly oil a shallow 1 1/2- to 2-quart gratin or casserole. Arrange 1/3 of the eggplant in a snug layer in the bottom of the gratin. It is fine if the slices overlap slightly. Spread a third of the tomato sauce over the layer of eggplant.

Scatter half of the cheese and half of the basil over the sauce.

Repeat with the eggplant, sauce, cheese and basil. For the final layers, arrange the last third of the eggplant slices as before and cover with the remaining tomato sauce. Scatter the breadcrumbs over all. Drizzle the breadcrumbs with olive oil.

Transfer to a 350° to 375° oven and bake until the breadcrumbs are golden brown and the gratin is bubbling around the edges—about 30 minutes. Serve hot or tepid. Serves 4.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Plum & Raspberry Crisp with Almonds

Ask any of my cooking friends and they will probably be able to tell you that my favorite kind of desserts are fruit desserts. Yes, I know I have said many times in this space that I love cake, but my favorite kinds of cakes are those that include fruit—Rhubarb Cornmeal Cake, Blueberry & Pecan Buttermilk Tea Cake, Apple Crumb Coffeecake, Pear and Ginger Upside Down Cake, Plum Cobbler.... The combinations and variations are endless and so delicious.  And of course I love the fact that a fruit dessert is inherently a reflection of the season.

In terms of return for effort though, my favorite fruit dessert is the crisp. Anybody can make a fruit crisp. One need not possess the ability to turn out a tender or flaky crust as for a pie or a tart. Neither is it necessary to be able to make a light biscuit as for a shortcake or certain kinds of cobbler. You don't even need to know what it means to whip cream to the chantilly stage as for a fool. Just combine some flour, sugar and spices in a bowl and add some cold sliced butter. Stick your (clean and dry) hands in the bowl and begin to grab handfuls of the ingredients and methodically rub your thumbs across your fingers to "rub" the butter into the dry ingredients until you have a crumbly mixture. Add nuts or oatmeal and you're there.

I was reminded recently of how much I like crisps when I saw that my friend Katrina (Baking and Boys) had posted the Apricot and Cherry Crisp that I had demonstrated in a Spring Fruit Desserts Class. It came to mind when I was asked to bring a dessert for a dinner at a friend's home. Plums are in season now, and like apricots (all stone fruits actually) they make a pretty stellar tasting crisp. The tart flavor of the cooked plums stands up well to the sweet topping.

When I make crisps I almost always use more than one kind of fruit. Even if it's just as simple as combining two different varieties of apples, I think using more than one fruit gives necessary added dimension to the final flavor. One of my favorite fruits to combine with plums is raspberries. You could use frozen, but raspberries are also in season right now, so they make a natural partner for the plums. Not only do these two fruits taste great in combination, when they are cooked together, they turn a deep, jewel-like reddish-purple that is mouth watering.

When I went to the store to buy my plums, the pluots looked better, so I got those instead. Like plumcots and apriums, pluots are a cross between plums and apricots. I am not familiar with the intricacies in the differences between these crosses, but since I like both apricots and plums in a crisp, I thought the pluots would be good too. I was amazed at the scarlet-tinged flesh of the pluot since I was expecting the paler interior of a plum or even the orange-colored flesh of an apricot.

a melon baller works very well for pitting plums

Their color when cooked was even better than the plums. As far as the flavor goes, I honestly don't know if I could tell the difference (I haven't had a plum crisp since last year).  But I do know that it tasted very good and I would make it again with either of these stone fruits when they make their annual appearance.

Plum-Raspberry Crisp with Almond Crumb Topping

Topping (from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, by Deborah Madison):
3/4 c. light or golden brown sugar
2/3 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 t. salt
1/2 t. cinnamon (optional)
6 T. cold unsalted butter, cut into 8 to 10 pieces
3/4 c. sliced almonds, lightly toasted

Combine the sugar, flour, salt and cinnamon in a medium-sized bowl. Rub in the butter until the ingredients are combined and have a crumbly appearance. Stir in the almonds and set aside. If you have time, chill the topping.

2 T. all-purpose flour
1/3 c. sugar
1 ½ lbs. plums, halved, pitted & cut into ½-inch slices
1 ½ t. lemon juice
1 t. vanilla
2 c. fresh raspberries (1 ½ boxes)

In a small bowl stir together the flour and sugar; set aside. In a large bowl, toss the plums with the vanilla and lemon juice. Add the dry ingredients and stir until all of the flour-sugar mixture is moistened. Fold in the raspberries.

Turn the fruit mixture into a buttered 2-quart glass or ceramic baking dish—an 8x10-inch rectangular or a 10-inch round will work.

Spread the crumb topping over all.

Bake in a 375° oven until the topping is golden and crisp and the fruit is bubbling—about 35 to 45 minutes.

Cool slightly and serve warm with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.  Serves 6 to 8.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Summer Tomato Sauce

As you walk through the farmers' market or pass a roadside produce stand in August and September you will see tables laden with tomatoes so ripe they are practically turning into sauce in their skins. Of course this abundance is nature's way of encouraging us to preserve the excess so there will be a stash to dip into long after the vines have quit producing for the year. So as long as the glut lasts, I try to purchase extra tomatoes every week. That way, no matter how busy I am, I will be forced to make a batch or two of sauce during the coming week (I couldn't stand to see the tomatoes rotting on the counter...going to waste).

Everyone should have a good recipe for tomato sauce made with summer tomatoes. I use one that I have altered only slightly from a recipe in Lulu's Provençal Table by Richard Olney. Besides the tomatoes, the sauce is made with olive oil, onions cooked until meltingly soft, loads of fresh garlic, and a few sprigs of thyme. That's it. But since I always seem to have something to say, I'll elaborate a bit...

For the tomatoes, I choose plain vine-ripened tomatoes. One farmer at my market always has mountains of spectacular Jet Stars that make a very sunny tasting sauce. I peel them and seed them before making the sauce. If you are going to purée the sauce, you can accomplish the task of peeling and seeding very quickly by passing the cored and quartered tomatoes through a food mill. I like my sauce to have some texture, so I peel and seed by hand. I don't bother with blanching and shocking the tomatoes to get the skin off. I think it makes a big mess and besides, a dead ripe tomato is very easy to peel.

To peel a tomato, first lightly bruise the flesh under the skin in order to loosen it. Holding the tomato in one hand and a paring knife in the other, gently drag the paring knife, held at an angle, from the stem to the blossom end. Do this all the way around the tomato as if you were peeling an apple.

To remove the skin, flip the tomato over and cut a slash in the blossom end. Then, grab the edge of the skin at the slit and with your thumb and the paring knife and pull the skin away. It should all come off in a few pulls. Core the tomato and put it in a bowl while you peel the rest.

To seed the tomatoes, halve them horizontally (through the equator). Working over a sieve set over a bowl, barely squeeze each tomato half (as if juicing an orange) and give it a gentle shake.  If necessary, use the index finger of your free hand to gently prod the seeds out of each cavity. When all the tomatoes are seeded, chop them coarsely and place them in a bowl. Use a spatula or ladle to stir the contents of the sieve, continuing to stir and press against the sieve until all the juice has passed into the bowl and all that remains in the sieve is the seeds. Add the juice to the tomatoes.

After reading this description, you may decide that you prefer a puréed/smooth sauce. But it is much more difficult to describe than it is to do. Furthermore, in the time it takes you to peel and seed your tomatoes your onions will have had plenty of time to cook. And this is important, because sufficiently cooking the onions is, to me at least, one of the secrets of a fine tomato sauce.

When you begin cooking the onions, set them over moderate heat.  This will encourage them to start to give up their juices. If you are using farmers' market onions, they should be fresh and juicy this time of year. I get mine from the same farmer who sells me the tomatoes. After a few minutes the onions will be stewing in their own juices. As they cook the juices will evaporate and the onions will then be cooking in just the oil. The heat should be turned down at this point so the onions can continue to cook slowly without caramelizing. The onions will take on a straw yellow color as they continue to cook, but they should not brown. When the onions are done they will have shrunk quite a bit in volume and they will be very soft. Don't try and shorten this process.  The final sauce shouldn't contain crunchy bits of onion. And the long, gentle cooking process will draw out the inherent sweetness of the onions—a good thing for a tomato sauce.

As for the other flavorings, the original recipe contains an abundance of garlic and I have not changed this. The garlic cooks slowly with the onions and then in the sauce so it mellows considerably by the time the sauce is finished. But you could of course cut down on the garlic to suit your palate.

Winter savory, a frequently-used herb in Provençal cookery, is Lulu Peyraud's herb of choice for the tomato sauce. The book mentions that it grows outside her back door. I too have winter savory growing on my patio, but for some reason I always reach for the thyme instead.

You could also add bay leaf. Other possible herbs include oregano, marjoram or rosemary. I think these last three have a much stronger voice than thyme, so I probably wouldn't use them for a sauce destined for the freezer. You can always add one of these herbs when you thaw the sauce to tailor it to whatever you are making.

When you make your tomato sauce, choose a pan that is wider than it is tall. You want the sauce to be able to reduce as it cooks and a wide surface area will allow it to do this more rapidly. Cook the sauce at a brisk simmer.

When the sauce begins to thicken, reduce the heat a bit so that the sauce won't scorch. Stir the sauce occasionally and use a heat proof spatula to scrape the sides of the pan so that any sauce building up there can be stirred back into the simmering sauce. I also use the spatula to smash the tomatoes against the bottom and sides of the pan as they break down.

The sauce is done when it is as thick as you want it to be. I prefer it when there is no longer any visible tomato liquid. At this point, the sauce will be on the thick side. When it is where I want it I usually have a cup of sauce for every pound of fresh tomatoes.

I package my finished sauce in zip-lock bags in one cup portions. I then lay them flat on a cookie sheet and freeze them. Once frozen, the slim little packets stack nicely into a corner of the freezer where they will provide a sunny touch to our meals in the cooler months ahead.

Tomato Sauce

3 to 4 T. olive oil
2 medium onions, finely diced (about 10 to 12 oz.)
8 to 10 cloves garlic, minced
4 to 5 lbs. vine ripened tomatoes, peeled, seeded (juices reserved) and chopped
Several sprigs of fresh thyme or winter savory, tied with a string

In a wide sauce pan, sweat the onion in the olive oil over medium heat. When the onions begin to soften (after about 10 minutes) add the garlic along with a pinch of salt. Reduce the heat and continue to cook until the onions are meltingly tender and have taken on a pale yellow cast (but are not caramelized). This will take about 30 to 45 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and the thyme. Increase the heat and bring to a brisk simmer. Continue to simmer, stirring occasionally and scraping down the sides of the pan until the sauce is thickened—about an hour. Remove the thyme. Taste and correct the seasoning.

If you like, purée the sauce. An immersion blender is best for this, since it will leave the sauce with some texture. If you don't have an immersion blender, transfer half of the sauce to a blender or food processor to purée and combine this the purée with the sauce still in the pan—again, to achieve a final sauce with a little texture. I think the sauce is nicest when it has not been puréed—the larger pieces of tomato will have broken down during the cooking process and the resulting sauce will have just the right amount of chunkiness. Makes 4 to 5 cups.

The final picture above is of a sauce that was half puréed.  Here is a picture of one that has not been puréed:

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

Friday, August 20, 2010

Dog's Dinner

When I was in cooking school in England and one of the chefs wanted you to know that you had presented them with something that was truly awful, they might have told you that it looked like "dog's dinner" (or maybe it was dog's has been a while....). Of course the kiss of death would have been that it tasted like dog's dinner.

I probably never actually heard one of our chefs say this to someone—we had a pretty nice and encouraging bunch of chefs at school.  The harsh world of the professional restaurant kitchen is a more likely place to come across such a phrase.  When you think about it, comparing the efforts of a budding chef to dog's dinner is a fairly strong insult. I mean, I don't know about your dog, but my dog eats some pretty disgusting things. I happen to have a beagle, and while I do think that beagles are the garbage collectors of the canine world, even a picky dog eats stuff that isn't all that appealing.

Morning walks with my dog are generally a contest between the two of us. Can she grab that half eaten hamburger before I see it? Can I wrestle the abandoned, and now rotten, hard cooked egg out of her jaws?  In the late winter and into spring her snack of choice is acorns. There are so many of them that I end up getting a sore shoulder from pulling on the leash as she races around behind me, snout to the ground like a vacuum cleaner, attempting to eat them all, every day. I recall reading in Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire that acorns are so bitter that they are nearly inedible. She goes after them as if they were ambrosia.

This time of year her food of choice is the locust. (Isn't that cool?—my dog eats seasonally too.)  She is driven to distraction by their buzzing. And since they are pretty large, they make a substantial snack. I think she is gaining weight. She goes after bumble bees too, but there aren't as many of them around. We have had a bumper crop of locusts this year. 

Her desire for these creatures is a mystery to me. Can they really taste that good? Or is it some other sensory kind of pleasure? A good friend of mine says her dog likes them too.  She has conjectured that locusts and bumble bees must be for a dog what a jalapeño popper is for a human. (Although, wanting to eat a jalapeño popper is a bit of a mystery to me too.)

Ever since the locusts have come into season, my dog is so excited to go for a walk. This has made me pretty happy.  She is getting older and I would have expected her to be less inclined to go for walks...and that the walks we went on would be shorter. Instead, as I lace up my shoes, she sits at the front door quivering with anticipation of the banquet to come. All through our recent heat wave, when even a younger dog might have been expected to drag a bit on a long walk, she has impatiently pulled me along, always on the hunt for the next locust. In the evenings she sits at the back door waiting to be let out into the yard to feast some more.

For people who read my blog to find recipes and cooking tips, I hope you don't mind today's post.  I wanted to take a moment to celebrate my dog and share some of the laughter and happiness that is added to my life by the companionship of a very special beagle. I love my dog.

But since this is a cooking blog, and I titled my post "Dog's Dinner", I should state the obvious—when I cook I am always striving to produce something that would never be compared to dog's dinner. But I also have to say that if the food that I prepare gives my family and friends even a fraction of the pleasure that my dog obviously feels when she has gotten a hold of something she considers to be a particular delicacy, then whatever I have prepared will have been a success—because to bring pleasure and joy is the best reason to cook.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Soupe au Pistou

Within 24 hours of my arrival in Provence for my job assisting a cooking teacher I was asked to help prepare a Soupe au Pistou. At the time I was only slightly familiar with this soup that takes its name from the garlicky basil and olive oil paste (pistou) with which it is finished.  Soupe au Pistou is a vegetable soup in much the same style as Italy's minestrone—which is seasoned with pistou's Italian counterpart, basil pesto.  It was an appropriate way for me to begin my stay, preparing this very traditional Provençal soup, since along with aioli, it was one of the things every guest/student returned home having learned how to prepare—we made it every week.

I arrived in France in late summer, and in one respect a hot vegetable soup may seem a strange dish to be preparing in August or September—it is still quite hot in the South of France that time of year. But it really isn't so odd when you consider that the evenings are beginning to cool down a bit and that even if the day is warm, the preparation of the soup doesn't heat up the house—only one burner is required and the soup can quietly simmer as the day winds down.

Furthermore, when you consider the ingredients in Soupe au Pistou, there could hardly be a more appropriate dish to prepare during the final months of summer. Soupe au Pistou can contain the full array of the bounty of the late summer market all in one bowl. Some recipes have only green beans (haricot verts), shell beans (Coco Blancs and/or Coco Rouges) , summer squash and the pistou. But the renditions that I like the best, include much more—potatoes, carrots, tomatoes and the first of the winter squash. Versions like this are truly a celebration of the moment. When I made some this past weekend, every single vegetable in my soup came from my farmers' market or my garden. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that the shell beans I used came from my farmers' market via my freezer. I haven't seen any at the market yet this year and it really isn't Soupe au Pistou without the shell beans.)

I have given very precise measurements for the vegetables in my recipe—I am getting ready to teach this soup and need to have exact quantities so I can make a specific amount to serve—but in practice, this should be a relaxed soup to make. To obtain enough soup for 6 people (about 3 quarts) you will need a total of about 2 cups onions and/or leeks, 6 to 7 cups of vegetables, and 1 to 1 1/2 cups of fresh shell beans (or cooked dried beans). I think that roughly equal quantities of each of the vegetables that you are using is best, but you should use what you have. As I mentioned, to be a true Soupe au Pistou, you should probably make sure that you do include green beans and summer squash.

How you cut the vegetables is also up to you. Some recipes call for diced vegetables. This is my personal preference and I like to calibrate the size of my dice to the size of the shell bean I am using. Alice Waters in Chez Panisse Vegetables suggests using the tip of your little finger as a size guide. Other recipes call for sliced vegetables. The most important thing is for everything to be uniformly sized.

Very traditional recipes for Soupe au Pistou simply direct you to place all of the vegetables in a pot, cover them with water and then simmer until they are all tender. The green vegetables suffer under this treatment, so many recipes tell you to wait to add the green beans and summer squash (and any other green vegetables that you might choose to add) until the last 20 minutes or so of cooking (when the fresh shell beans and root vegetables are just barely cooked). In the finished soup, these vegetables added towards the end will still be fully cooked, but they will also be recognizable.

When I make this soup, I prefer a more modern approach of softening the onions and leeks (and garlic, should you choose to include some in the soup itself) in some olive oil before adding the other vegetables and the water. I think soups that start with this step are always more flavorful since it gives these aromatic vegetables a moment to infuse the fat with their flavor. Since fat carries flavor, this gives the finished soup a greater depth.

I haven't yet mentioned the addition of the pasta at the end, but this too is a traditional addition to Soupe au Pistou. Most often it is elbow macaroni that is used, but occasionally it will be small shells or, my favorite, orzo. The pasta is usually added for the last 10 to 15 minutes of cooking. If the soup is being made a day ahead, cook the pasta separately and add it to the soup when you will be serving it. Pastas left to sit in soups overnight tend to become quite bloated as they continue to absorb liquid.

The final addition of the pistou is of course what really makes this simple vegetable soup stand out. In addition to the basil and garlic, it usually contains Parmesan and sometimes finely diced peeled and seeded tomatoes. Many recipes include tomatoes in the soup itself, adding them with the green beans and summer squash, but they tend to disintegrate and fade into the soup when added this way. I love the bright red flecks and fresh flavor that the tomatoes contribute when they are added as part of the pistou. Most traditionalists will prepare the pistou in a mortar & pestle...but I take the heretical step of preparing mine in the food processor (it is just so much easier).

As for serving the pistou, you could stir it into the whole pot of soup just before serving it, but many people (myself included) prefer to pass the pistou in a small bowl and allow diners to add as much or as little as they like. It is quite strong with garlic. Those unfamiliar with it should be allowed to introduce themselves to it gradually.

That first batch of Soupe au Pistou that I made in France was a bit of a disappointment. As I sat down to eat it I was aware that it was unaccountably bland. It contained wonderful vegetables grown in the soil of Provence, but I had failed to add enough salt as the soup cooked to help them release their full flavor. The pistou also suffered from my timidity with the salt (and possibly the garlic too).  Pistou can handle quite a bit of salt—as much as a teaspoon for the size recipe given below—so, don't be timid when you make your pistou! As for the soup itself, as you make yours, salt with each successive addition of vegetables and liquid, tasting carefully each time—you will probably use less salt when you salt this way and your soup will be anything but disappointing.

Soupe au Pistou
(Recipe adapted from Simple French Food by Richard Olney)

4 T. Olive oil
2 medium leeks, white and tender green parts only, halved lengthwise and cut into a 1/4-inch dice or sliced 1/4-inch thick—about 1 1/2 to 2 cups (make sure that the leeks are well-rinsed)
6 oz. onion (1 medium), diced—about 1 cup
6 oz. carrots (2 medium), diced—about 1 cup
10 oz. butternut squash, diced—about 1 cup
12 oz. potatoes, peeled and diced—about 1 1/2 cups
1 lb. (before shelling) fresh cranberry beans in the pod, shelled to make 1 1/2 cups shelled beans (see note)
Several sprigs of thyme, tied together with a piece of cotton kitchen twine
2 quarts water
6 oz. green beans, topped and tailed and cut into 1/2-inch lengths—about 1 1/2 cups
8 oz. small zucchini, diced—about 1 1/2 cups
1 scant cup small macaroni or a heaped half cup orzo (3 1/2 oz. pasta)
1 recipe pistou
Salt & Pepper, to taste

For the soup, heat 4 T. olive oil in a large stockpot over medium heat. Add the leeks and onions along with a generous pinch of salt. Sweat for 5 minutes or so—until the onions and leeks are wilted and just beginning to turn translucent. Add the carrots, butternut squash, potatoes and fresh shell beans and continue to cook for a minute or two.

Add the bundle of time along with 2 quarts of water. Bring to a boil. Add salt to taste and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the zucchini and the green beans.

If necessary, add more water. Bring the soup back to a simmer. Cook for 10 minutes. Add the pasta (again, adding more water if the soup seems too thick) and cook until the pasta is cooked and the vegetables are all very tender—another 10 minutes or so. Taste the soup and salt as necessary. The soup may be served immediately, or do as some Provençal cooks do and allow the soup to sit off the heat for up to an hour before reheating to serve. The soup may thicken upon standing, so add more water if necessary. The soup should be served hot with the Pistou passed separately so that each diner can swirl it into their soup to suit their taste. Makes 3 quarts, serving 6 to 8.

Note on the Shell Beans: Traditionally Soupe au Pistou is made with fresh Coco Blancs or Coco Rouges (or a combination of the two) shell beans. In the Midwest the closest that I have been able to find to the Coco Rouges are fresh cranberry beans (they may even be the same thing). But any fresh shelling bean from your farmers' market would be fine in this soup. If fresh shell beans are unavailable, you may use a dried bean. White navy beans are similar to Coco Blanc bean (sometimes called French Navy Beans), so that is the dried bean I would choose, but dried Cannellini or Cranberry beans would work too. To use dried beans in the soup, soak half to 2/3 cup of the dried beans of your choice overnight. Drain the beans and rinse. Place in a sauce pan and add water to cover by an inch. Bring to a simmer. Add a tablespoon of olive oil to the water and continue to cook until tender—an hour to an hour and a half, depending on the variety of bean chosen. Add salt to taste when the beans are half cooked. If not using right away, store the beans in the refrigerator in their cooking liquid. To add the beans to the soup, add them along with their cooking liquid, when the green beans and zucchini are added.


4 cloves of garlic (about a tablespoon crushed)
2 cups packed basil leaves (about 2 ounces), washed and dried
½ to ¾ c. extra virgin olive oil
1 cup finely grated parmesan (3 oz.)
8 oz. ripe tomatoes (2 med.), peeled, seeded and finely diced (when seeding the tomato, work over a sieve to collect the tomato juice—add this juice to the soup as it cooks)
Salt, to taste

To make the Pistou, smash the garlic, along with a pinch of salt, to a paste using the flat of a chef's knife or a mortar and pestle. Place this in the food processor with the basil and a small amount of the olive oil. Process until the basil is almost puréed, adding just enough olive oil to facilitate this process. Scrape the basil and garlic purée into a bowl. Stir in the cheese, the tomatoes and the remaining olive oil. Season to taste with salt. Set aside while the soup cooks to allow the flavors to blend.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Judi Rodgers' Pasta with Corn, Pancetta, Butter & Sage

I was recently asked during a cooking class on seasonal foods if I had any "go to" pasta recipes for summer. For someone who eats pasta as much as I do, how could I not?  One I have already posted—Susan Loomis's Penne with Zucchini and Basil.  Today's post is about another.

Part of what makes them fast and easy is that they are both essentially one ingredient pastas. If you have the featured vegetable on hand (and you probably will have corn or zucchini if you are shopping at the farmers' market regularly), grow a few herbs outside your kitchen door (basil, sage, thyme, etc.) and keep a reasonably well-stocked pantry of pasta staples (dried pastas, olive oil, butter, Parmesan, Pancetta/Prosciutto in the freezer...), you should be able to have dinner on the table in about 20 minutes. Everyone needs a few recipes like that.

Several years ago a friend gave me a copy of Judi Rodgers' The Zuni Café Cookbook. I love this cookbook. Judi Rodgers' obsession with the details of the processes of cooking warms my heart. I can always rely on her for detailed explanations of what is going on in the pan or in the oven. She also shares practical and philosophical reasons for her choices of ingredients and methods. Her book is a wonderfully crafted window into the mind of a thoughtful and talented chef. If these kinds of things appeal to you, I cannot recommend her book enough.

One of the first recipes I tried from the book was for her Pasta with Corn, Pancetta, Butter & Sage. I was attracted to it for a number of reasons, but probably the thing that really got me was that this is a recipe that is a celebration of the glories of buttered corn. In July or August, what could be better?

I should warn you up front that there is a lot of butter in this recipe. But don't let the amount of butter given in the list of ingredients scare you off. If you have beautifully fresh corn, then it should be juicy enough that with a judicious addition of pasta water, swirled in along with the butter, you should not need the full amount to obtain a slightly creamy sauce that just coats the pasta and corn. I usually make half a recipe and almost always use only 3 or 4 tablespoons of butter.

Besides the butter, another thing I love about this recipe is how all the ingredients compliment the sweetness of the corn—nothing has been added thoughtlessly. Each ingredient plays a specific role and there doesn't seem to be anything that is just filler. The musty and slightly bitter character of the sage and the saltiness of the pancetta both contrast nicely with the corn. And corn is always better with the addition of a little freshly ground black pepper. Everything comes together perfectly for a simple, fast and flavorful dinner.

Rodgers' suggests variations—prosciutto instead of pancetta or a little cream at the end. She also suggests the addition of a handful of freshly shelled peas. This last addition may be a possibility with some frequency in the Bay Area, but here in Missouri and Kansas we almost never have the kind of growing season that allows corn and peas to overlap. But this year we did—for about one week. So I was able to try this variation. I highly recommend it:

Last night I had a couple of baby yellow squash left at the end of the week. I love squash with corn, so I added it to the pasta (slicing it thinly and cooking it for the last minute or two with the fettuccine as in the Zucchini Pasta mentioned above). I used thyme in place of the sage and a little basil at the end.

This was good too. But most of the time I just follow the original recipe. It's just about perfect as written.

Pasta with Corn, Pancetta, Butter & Sage

2 to 3 oz. pancetta, minced (1/3 to 1/2 c.)
4 to 8 oz. unsalted butter
6 fresh sage leaves, cut chiffonade
Salt & Pepper
1 lb. fettuccine (orecchiette and farfalle also work well)
2 1/2 c. freshly cut corn kernels with their milky juice

Cook the pancetta in a few slices of the butter in a 12-inch skillet over medium-low heat. Stir and scrape to make sure it cooks evenly. When the pancetta has browned slightly on the edges and is starting to sizzle, turn off the heat, add a few drops of water to cool the pan, and stir, then add another few slices of butter, the sage, and a few grinds of black pepper. Swirl the pan, then leave the aromatics to infuse in the melting butter.

Drop the pasta into 6 quarts of rapidly boiling water seasoned with about 2 Tablespoons of salt. Stir and cook until the pasta is al dente.

Meanwhile, turn the heat under the skillet to medium, and add another few tablespoons of sliced butter. Swirl the pan. When the butter is nearly melted, add the corn, stir, and cook until heated through.

If the corn seems dry, add some of the pasta water and/or some more of the butter. Taste for salt. Reduce the heat to low. When the pasta is cooked, drain well, then toss with the corn, taste again for salt and pepper, and serve. Offer freshly grated Parmesan. Serves 4 to 6.

(Recipe from The Zuni Café Cookbook by Judi Rodgers)