Saturday, April 30, 2011

Lemon Curd Tart

To round out my family's Easter dinner this year I served two fruit tarts. The first was a baked raspberry & custard tart similar to one that I posted last July. The second was a lemon tart—the kind of classic Tarte au Citron that one finds in a French pastry shop. If you love lemon, this is probably one of your favorite desserts. I never get tired of this tart...served plain, with whipped cream or topped with meringue. Sprinkled with unadorned fresh berries or accompanied by a juicy berry compote, it is the quintessential early spring dessert.

In its simplest version, the tart is nothing more than a sweet cookie crust filled with lemon curd. It could not be easier to make. Many people think they can't make a tart because they think they can't make a good crust. And it is true that the classic flaky pastry (pâte brisée) that is used for pies and many tarts can require a bit of practice. But the sweet crust for this tart (and the raspberry tart) is quite easy. If you can mix up and roll a batch of sugar cookies, then you can make this crust.

The lemon curd too, is a snap to make. Stirred custards (which is what lemon curd is...a stirred custard of eggs and lemon juice, sweetened with sugar and enriched with butter) are typically considered to be difficult because if they are allowed to get too hot (over 180°F), the thick velvety custard will quickly turn into a mass of watery scrambled eggs. Most recipes for lemon curd direct you to cook the curd over very low heat or even in a double boiler in order to avoid this outcome. In my experience, these (time consuming) precautions aren't necessary. Lemon curd actually seems to be fairly resistant to curdling.

I have tried to locate an explanation of why this is the case, but have been unable to do so. I'm guessing there is something about the acidity of the lemon juice (most stirred custards are milk or cream based) and/or the large quantity of sugar necessary to sweeten the lemon juice that somehow affects the coagulation of the eggs. It is possible that these two things (alone or in conjunction) slow the coagulation process down or raise the temperature at which coagulation occurs. I am sure that if the curd were left on the heat and allowed to boil for any length of time...or to boil hard...that it would indeed scramble. But if when the curd has come just to the point of one or two boils breaking the surface, it is immediately poured out of the hot pan and into another container, it won't scramble.

The hot curd is finished with a process called "monter au buerre" or "mounting with butter". Basically, cold butter is whisked piece by piece into the lemon curd until it has been completely absorbed. Savory sauces are frequently finished this way because the emulsification of the butter into the sauce adds a nice sheen, a fluffier texture, and smoothness on the tongue. It also has the effect of softening strong and/or acidic flavors. And of course it does all of these things for the lemon curd, too. It also serves to cool the curd down fairly rapidly—which may have something to do with the fact that I have never had a curd scramble. If you are using a recipe that adds the butter at the beginning with the rest of the ingredients, follow the method and temperature directions given...or you may end up with scrambled eggs.

In posting this recipe, I realize that it comes too late for your Easter feast this year. But, there is always next year. Furthermore, there are still many events yet to come this Spring (Mothers' Day...a bridal shower...a graduation buffet...) for which a bright lemon tart, accompanied by some berries and softly whipped cream, would make the perfect dessert.

Lemon Curd Tart
(Tarte au Citron)

1 c. sugar
Zest of 3 lemons
2/3 c. strained lemon juice
4 eggs
4 oz. (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces (butter should be cold)
1 blind baked 9-inch tart shell (Pâte Sablé)

Combine the sugar, lemon zest and lemon juice in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. In a medium-sized bowl, whisk the eggs until homogenous. When the lemon syrup boils, whisk it into the eggs in a thin stream.

Return this mixture to the saucepan and place over medium heat. Stir constantly until the mixture is visibly thickened—this will only take about 3 minutes. It's OK if one or two boils breaks the surface. 

Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter, piece by piece. When the butter is fully incorporated, strain the filling into the pre-baked crust. Place on a baking sheet and bake in a 350° oven until just set (it will still be a bit jiggly in the center)—15 to 20 minutes. Let the tart cool completely and chill. Serve with softly whipped cream or crème fraiche and fresh berries, if you like. Serves 8.

• If you are not using the lemon curd immediately, strain the curd into a bowl and press a piece of plastic wrap to the surface. Chill. Makes about 2 1/2 cups.
• If you like the texture of lemon zest in your lemon curd, add the zest to the finished curd rather than at the beginning (since when added at the beginning it is strained out).

Sweet Tart Dough
(Pâte Sablé)

1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, at a cool room temperature
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 just combined. 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.

To blind bake, place the shell on a cookie sheet and bake in a 375° oven until set and golden—10 to 15 minutes. (It is not necessary to fill this crust with pie weights.)

Note: This amount of dough is enough for 1 ½ 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.

Printable Version

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Spinach Salad with Bacon, Mushrooms & Gruyère with a Creamy Vinaigrette

Last January I posted a recipe for a pear salad dressed in a creamy vinaigrette. I stated at the time that this particular dressing was my new favorite vinaigrette. But in point of fact, this dressing isn't really "new" to me at all. I have just been using it with much greater frequency in recent months, as I continue to discover the myriad of taste possibilities it presents.

I first sampled this vinaigrette at Le Cordon Bleu where it was used to dress a salad of Frisée lettuce, cubed Gruyère cheese, bacon and croutons. I'll never forget tasting that salad for the first time. I thought it was the best salad I had ever put in my mouth...the whole effect of creamy, salty, chewy, crunchy and tangy was astonishing. I had no idea that salad could taste that good.

Several years later, while working at the American Restaurant, I thought of this dressing when I was putting together a Celery Root Remoulade-like concoction of apples, celery root, golden raisins and walnuts. Appropriately creamy and mustard-y, but lighter than the traditional mayonnaise-based dressing used for Celery Root Remoulade, not only was it a perfect fit for the celery root, it was wonderful with the sweet golden raisins and tart apples. Last fall, I resurrected this celery root and apple salad for a class. Consequently, the vinaigrette was in the forefront of my mind when I made the fresh pear salad in January. It turned out to be a perfect fit for that salad, too.

Last week as I was putting together the menu for my family's Easter dinner, I was thinking about making a spinach salad...possibly with some bacon...when I remembered how good this vinaigrette was on that Frisée salad with bacon and cheese. I thought it might work a similar magic on Spinach. And it did. Of all the things I prepared, it was the salad that was commented upon the most.

When you make the salad, make sure that the cheese, onions and mushrooms are all thinly sliced. I think this gives a more delicate texture overall and at the same time allows you to experience the combined flavor of all of the ingredients in each bite. To obtain the thin slices, use a vegetable peeler to shave strips of the cheese and a mandoline to slice the onion and mushrooms.

In the recipe I have listed the amounts of all the ingredients that I used, but as with all tossed salads, you should add each ingredient in quantities that please you. I always use a light hand with raw onions in a salad. I enjoy the crunch and sweetness of raw onion—but not the "bite". Rinsing the onion will tame its acidity a bit. Simply place the sliced onion in a sieve and rinse it under cold running water. Shake or blot the onions dry before adding them to the salad. Rick Bayless calls this process "de-flaming" an onion.

When I made this salad for Easter dinner, I knew that I would enjoy it.  What I didn't know was how much my family would like it.  There is just something special about this combination of flavors and textures.  Judging from the reception this salad received at my house, you should try it at yours.  Even those around your table who think they don't like salad will probably be seduced by the charms of this one.

Spinach Salad with Bacon, Mushrooms & Gruyère

1 T. white wine vinegar
1 T. Dijon mustard
¼ c. canola oil
6 T. whipping cream
5 to 6 oz. salad baby spinach, washed and spun dry
6 oz. thick-sliced bacon, cut into ½” strips and cooked until crisp
3 oz. Gruyère cheese, shaved with a vegetable peeler
1/4 a red onion, thinly sliced and rinsed
3 oz. white button mushrooms, thinly sliced
Salt & pepper

To prepare the vinaigrette: combine the vinegar and mustard in a small bowl and whisk until smooth. Continue to whisk while slowly drizzling in the canola oil to form an emulsion. Whisk in the cream. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

Place the spinach in a large bowl and add the bacon, cheese, onion and mushrooms. Season with salt & pepper.

Drizzle some of the vinaigrette over the ingredients in the bowl and toss to combine. Add more vinaigrette as necessary so that the ingredients are thoroughly coated with the vinaigrette. Pour any extra vinaigrette into a small pitcher or cruet and pass at the table. Serves 6 as a first course or side salad.

Friday, April 22, 2011

A Spinach & Artichoke Tart

We had a delicious Spinach & Artichoke Tart for dinner this evening. Inspired by the flavors in spinach-artichoke dip and made up entirely of ingredients that I happened to have in my pantry, the tart gradually took shape in my mind as I went about my work today. It is unlikely that my pantry will ever again contain by chance this exact combination of ingredients, but we enjoyed the tart so much that I would purchase all of these ingredients again, just to make this tart.

I came up with the idea of a spinach tart for dinner in the first place because I still had a large bag of spinach from last week's farmers' market in my refrigerator. Since tomorrow is market day, I really wanted to use it up. And because I always have eggs and cheese on hand, it occurred to me that I could make something quiche-like.

The other reason I thought of a tart is that I knew I had a tart shell in my freezer that was left over from a class demonstration. I always tell people that keeping short crust pastry in the freezer is a great time saver, and tonight's dinner was proof of that. Short crust pastry can be frozen either as a disc of dough to be thawed and then rolled out. Or, if you have enough tart pans, it can be rolled out and frozen in the pan (either raw or baked). If I hadn't had this shell in the freezer, my dinner would more than likely have gone in the direction of a frittata (which would have been good too...).

The particular tart shell that I had on hand had been rolled out in a rather unusual shape. I have a favorite asparagus tart that I make in a pizza pan. The wide flat crust is a perfect vehicle for displaying asparagus arranged like the spokes of a wheel. I had been saving the shell to make that particular tart when the asparagus came into the market, but decided that since it was handy, I would use it today. I'm glad I did, because if I had had an ordinary shell, I would have stopped thinking about dinner once I had decided on spinach quiche and then just made an ordinary quiche.

But I continued to think about it because as I envisioned a wide flat tart of nothing but custard, spinach and cheese, I began to think that it seemed kind of plain and boring. I felt it needed something else to sort of break up the monotony of the surface. As I thought about possible additions, I remembered that I had a couple of artichokes tucked away in the refrigerator. I had purchased them because they were on sale for a dollar a piece and I just couldn't pass them up at that price. As soon as I thought of the artichokes, I began to think about spinach-artichoke dip.

I know that most people make spinach-artichoke dip with just Parmesan cheese, but the recipe that I use includes goat cheese. I don't always keep goat cheese in my pantry, but I happened to have some today because I love goat cheese with artichokes so I bought it when I made my spur of the moment artichoke purchase.

The final "find" in my refrigerator was a partially used container of crème fraiche—something I love but only have around when I have purchased it for a specific use. I had only needed a quarter cup for my original purpose, so I had three-fourths of a cup left over—with no intended use in sight. This seemed to me to be perfect for the amount of custard I needed to fill my flat tart shell. I imagine that heavy cream (which I almost always have in my refrigerator) would have been good too, but the crème fraiche was great because it provided the slight tang that is usually present (from sour cream) in spinach artichoke dip.

I guess I shared the way this tart came together today because for each of us, there are days when the cupboard is "bare" except for an odd, seemingly unrelated, assortment of ingredients. But of course the ingredients aren't really unrelated—they are in our pantry because we like them. So with some careful consideration...and an available blank canvas (pasta, eggs, short crust pastry, pizza dough, salad greens, etc.) is entirely possible to come up with something for dinner that is not only tasty, but memorable—something I would call a definite "keeper".

Spinach & Artichoke Tart

10 oz. stemmed spinach, washed
1 egg plus 1 yolk
3/4 c. crème fraiche
1 clove garlic, smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
pinch of cayenne
1/4 c. Parmesan or Pecorino (or a combination)—about 3/4 oz.
4 oz. goat cheese, crumbled
Salt & freshly ground Pepper
1 12- to 13-inch tart shell, blind baked (see below)

In a large covered pot, cook the spinach in the water clinging to the leaves. When the spinach has collapsed, remove from the heat and spread on a baking sheet to cool. Squeeze out the excess liquid and roughly chop. Set aside.

Lay the artichoke halves cut surface down on a cutting board and slice 1/4-inch thick. Cut any of the slices that are unusually large in half—the goal is uniformly-sized chunks of artichoke.

Place the egg and yolk in a medium-sized bowl and whisk to break up. Add the crème fraiche, garlic, cayenne, parmesan and salt & pepper to taste. Whisk until smooth. Stir in half of the goat cheese along with the spinach. Taste and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper.

Spread the spinach mixture over the pre-baked crust, making sure that it stays within the raised rim of the crust. Scatter the artichoke pieces, followed by the remaining goat cheese crumbles, over the tart.

Bake the tart in a 400° oven until the custard is set—about 20 minutes. If you like, slide the tart briefly under the broiler until the surface of the tart is sizzling and beginning to brown. Place the tart on a rack and let rest for 5 minutes (or cool until just tepid) before serving.

Tart serves 4 to 6 as an entrée, or 8 to 12 as an appetizer with a small salad.

Pâte Brisée (Short Crust Pastry):
1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour (200g)
1/2 t. salt
11 T. cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces (150g)
1/4 to 1/3 c. ice water

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 1/4 c. ice water over the flour/butter mixture. Using your hands, fluff the mixture until it begins to clump, adding more water if necessary. Turn the dough out onto a counter and form into a mound. Using the heel of your hand, gradually push all of the dough away from you in short forward strokes, flattening out the lumps. Continue until all of the dough is flat. Using a bench scraper, scrape the dough off the counter, forming it into a single clump as you do. Form the finished dough into a thick disk. Chill for at least 30 minutes.

To roll out, let dough warm up for a moment or two. Butter a 12- to 13-inch pizza pan and set it aside. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface into a circle that is about 1/8- to 1/6–inch thick and is about 15 inches across. Trim any ragged edges. Brush off the excess flour and fold the dough circle in half. Transfer it to the prepared pan. Unfold the dough and ease it into the pan being careful not to stretch it. Fold the edges to form a ½-inch rim of a double thickness of dough. Chill for 30 minutes.

To blind bake, line the pastry with aluminum foil or parchment paper, pressing it into the corners and edges. Add a layer of pie weights or dried beans. Bake in a 400° 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 golden brown (another 10 minutes or so).

Monday, April 18, 2011

First Visit to the Farmers' Market, Winter's Last Gasp (I hope) and a Meatloaf

I mentioned in a previous post that I didn't make it to the Farmers' Market last Saturday for my first visit of the year...and I felt it all day. It was a sunny, unseasonably warm day—perfect market weather. I consoled myself by looking forward to my first visit this week.

But by Saturday morning the weather had turned (again). When I awoke, it was damp and cold (low-30's)...with a driving wind.... I almost rolled back over for another hour of sleep, but knew I would regret it. So I got up and went. And I was so glad I did. Yes, it was very cold. But I saw faces I haven't seen since late last well as the very beginnings of the new spring crops. No asparagus yet, but I brought home spinach, spring onions, lettuce...and a surprise. Thane Palmberg had sweet potatoes he had over-wintered in his heated cellar from his crop last fall.

Sunday night we enjoyed some of my market purchases in a dinner featuring a meatloaf. I don't usually think of meatloaf as being spring food, but it seemed appropriate for the weather. I substituted spring onions for the yellow onions that I normally put in my meatloaf (once spring onions become available, storage onions pretty much disappear from my kitchen) and added some chopped wilted spinach. Maybe I should dub this "Early Spring Market Meatloaf".

There is nothing particularly unusual about the meatloaf recipe that I use. Cobbled together from several different sources, it changes every time I make it. But it always follows a couple of basic rules. First, I choose a cut of meat that is a bit fatty. If I'm using beef, I use chuck...if chicken or turkey, I use the dark meat...if pork, I try and get some meat from the shoulder. This doesn't fit with the fat-phobic ways or our current food culture, but the meatloaf produced with these fattier cuts is always tastier and moister.

Secondly, I always cook the onions in a little bit of fat before adding them to the mix. I find it unpleasant to encounter discernable bits of crunchy onions in a meatloaf. Cooking them first softens them. It also infuses the fat they have been cooked in with their flavor, which then permeates the whole meatloaf (along with anything else you add to the onions—garlic, herbs, etc).

Since I like the flavor of bacon in a meatloaf, and don't like the effect of raw strips of bacon laid over the top, I render some chopped bacon and then cook the onions in the bacon fat. The bacon then goes into the meatloaf with the onions, rather than in to the trash can (this is inevitably where it goes if it has been put on top since it emerges from the oven looking unappetizingly pale and flabby).

I admit to liking the top of my meatloaf smeared with some ketchup (enhanced with a little Dijon and honey). I actually don't like ketchup very much—I would never ruin a French fry by putting ketchup on it—but it seems to belong on a meatloaf...providing an interesting and sweet tang.

I rounded out our first "market meal" of the season with the sweet potatoes and salad greens. I roasted the sweet potatoes—they were remarkably sweet and tasty—and dressed the salad greens with a creamy vinaigrette. So even though I don't think of meat loaf or sweet potatoes as spring fare, it was a satisfying—and surprisingly seasonal—meal.

Early Spring Market Meatloaf

3 oz. bacon, chopped
1 small onion, diced (about 1 cup)—or substitute 1 cup diced spring onion (2/3 c. white plus 1/3 of green)
1 garlic clove, minced
1 t. minced fresh thyme
5 oz. cleaned and stemmed spinach (it is not necessary to stem baby spinach), finely chopped
1/3 c. quick oats
1/4 c. milk
1 pound ground chuck
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 t. dry mustard
3/4 t. salt
Freshly ground pepper

3 T. Tomato ketchup
1/2 T. Dijon mustard
1/2 t. honey

In a large sauté pan set over moderate heat, render the bacon until beginning to brown and crisp. Add the onion and cook until tender. Add the garlic and thyme (along with the green portion of the onion if using spring onions) and cook until fragrant. Add the spinach and cook until wilted, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer to a plate and let cool.

In a small bowl, pour the milk over the oatmeal and let stand while the onion cools.

In a large bowl, combine the ground chuck, cooled onion mixture, egg, dry mustard, salt, peppers and the oats along with the milk. Using your hands work the mixture just until well blended. Form into a loaf and place in an oiled baking dish or loaf pan.

Combine the ketchup, mustard and honey and slather over the top of the meatloaf. Transfer to a 350° oven and bake for 1 hour—or until an instant read thermometer reads 160°. Let the meatloaf rest for 10 to 15 minutes before cutting. Serves 4.

Printable Version

Of course, the best way to eat meatloaf is thin slices...on a sandwich...

Friday, April 15, 2011

Spaghetti with Asparagus and a Poached Egg

I love the combination of asparagus with eggs—softly scrambled eggs with herbs served on top of buttered asparagus... asparagus tossed with a vinaigrette and garnished with sieved hard-cooked eggs ("mimosa")... asparagus quiche... "knife and fork" bruschetta with asparagus spears and a thin slice of prosciutto, topped with a fried egg.... To me, this is the stuff of early spring.

In the River Café Cookbook there is a recipe that takes advantage of this classic pairing by adding sautéed asparagus to Pasta Carbonara. For those who have not had the pleasure of encountering the original classic, Pasta Carbonara is celebration of eggs and bacon. It is prepared by adding hot pasta, along with chunks of crispy bacon, to beaten eggs. The heat from the pasta cooks the eggs just slightly, creating a creamy sauce. Some recipes add butter or cream with the eggs. Most recipes are finished with Parmesan. The addition of asparagus spears to all of this is brilliant.

In the current issue of Martha Stewart's Everyday Food there is a recipe for Linguine with Asparagus and Egg. It understandably caught my eye. Thin asparagus are halved lengthwise and then added to the cooking pasta for the last minute. The drained noodles and asparagus are simply sauced with pasta water, butter and Parmesan. Each individual serving is crowned with a freshly poached egg.

I had heard of topping pasta with a poached egg, but had never tried it. This recipe seemed like a good place to start. The idea of perching a poached egg on top of a plate of pasta is of course that when the diner cuts into their poached egg, the thickened, barely cooked yolk will coat the noodles, forming a rich sauce with all of the other ingredients in the dish.

Normally when I poach eggs, I cook them for about 4 minutes. This produces a fully set white with a runny yolk. For topping pasta, I think about 3 1/2 minutes is better. The white is set, but fragile and soft, so that it breaks up easily into small pieces. The yolk is nicely liquid so it coats the noodles in a fluid sauce. If you aren't adept at poaching eggs, check out my post from last spring before making this dish.

The recipe in Everyday Food was fine (and quick--it was featured in a "Dinner 1-2-3" column) as written, but it seemed a bit watery. I decided to make the dish again, this time gently stewing thinly sliced asparagus in a bit of fat so that the flavor of the asparagus was concentrated rather than watered down. For those interested in cooking methods, I basically étuvéed the asparagus—that is, I cooked it covered, over low heat, in a small amount of fat with no (or very little) added liquid. For another post on a vegetable cooked using the étuvée method, see my post on Celery Root Mashed Potatoes.

Returning to the idea of the Pasta Carbonara, my fat of choice for the cooking of the asparagus was naturally bacon fat (and a little butter). Asparagus and eggs are a wonderful combination, but asparagus and eggs and bacon are even better. My version of pasta with asparagus and egg does use one more pan than the recipe from Everyday Food...but I think it is definitely worth it.

Spaghetti with Asparagus and a Poached Egg

1/2 lb. Asparagus, trimmed (about 4 oz. trimmed weight)
1 quart water
1 T. vinegar
2 strips bacon (about 1 1/2 to 2 oz.), thinly sliced cross-wise
1 to 2 T. unsalted butter
Freshly ground Black Pepper
6 oz. spaghetti
2 eggs
3 to 4 T. finely grated Parmesan or Pecorino (or a combination of the two)

Slice the tips off of the asparagus at an angle. Split the tips in half lengthwise. Slice the stalks of the asparagus thinly on the diagonal so that they are the same length as the halved tips. Set aside.

Bring a the water to a simmer in a wide saucepan.  Salt to taste and add the vinegar. Set aside and keep warm until you are ready to poach the egg.

In a medium sauté pan set over medium-low heat, render the bacon. Stir and scrape to make sure it cooks evenly. When the bacon is browned and beginning crisp and sizzle,

add a few drops of water to cool the pan. Add a teaspoon or two of butter and a few grinds of black pepper and the asparagus.

Season lightly with salt and toss to coat in the butter and bacon fat. Cover the pan, reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally until the asparagus is just tender—about 7 to 10 minutes. When the asparagus is ready, turn off the heat and keep in a warm spot.

While the asparagus cooks, drop the spaghetti into large pot of rapidly boiling, salted water. Stir to make sure the pasta isn't sticking. Cook until the pasta is al dente.

A couple of minutes before the pasta is ready, start poaching the eggs. For this dish, I like the yolk to be a little more liquid than usual. I poach them for about 3 1/2 minutes each.

Drain the pasta, reserving some of the pasta water. Add the spaghetti to the pan with the asparagus, tossing to coat with the asparagus and bacon. Add a drizzle of pasta water and a few pats of butter and toss again. Set aside while you finish the eggs.

Lift the poached eggs out of the poaching liquid and set on a kitchen towel or several layers of paper towels. Add most of the cheese to the pasta along with a little more pasta water if the pasta seems dry or tight. Taste and correct the seasoning with salt & freshly ground pepper. This dish benefits from a generous amount of pepper.

Divide the hot pasta between two plates and scatter the remaining cheese over. Top each plate of pasta with a poached egg and another grinding or two of pepper. Serve immediately. Serves 2.

Note: Recipe easily doubles to serve 4.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

An Asparagus Pizza for Spring

Spring seems to have crept up on me this year. In glancing at my blog from this time last year, I see that I made my first visit to the Farmers' Market a year ago this weekend. I missed it yesterday. It was a busy week and since I haven't yet formed the habit of the market for the season, it slipped by me. Oh well, the market will have much more to offer next week than it did this week. I will look forward to it—my first market visit of the year! It really should be an occasion of note, and not just a rush in and rush out affair. Perhaps the heat that we have been experiencing for the last couple of days will even mean the arrival of some local asparagus next week.

I have already purchased my first bunch of the season from the grocery store. It has made its way into a pasta (of course) and a pizza. There is an asparagus pizza that I frequently order when I go to a certain restaurant near my house. On the occasions when it is good, it is excellent and I have for some time wanted to replicate this pizza at home. Unfortunately, I don't own a wood-fired pizza oven, so exactly reproducing this pizza is not really a reasonable goal. Instead, I decided to focus on the task of producing an excellent asparagus pizza using the equipment that I possess. And while my crust does not have the char and crunch of wood-fired crust, I think my pizza is very good.

The topping for this flavorful pizza is surprisingly simple and can be pulled together in a matter of minutes—less time even than the oven and pizza stone need to heat up. The topping is a bit unusual in that none of the ingredients need to be cooked ahead. Many of the ingredients commonly used to top a pizza will not cook through in the short amount of time that a pizza is in the oven. Furthermore, even ingredients that cook quickly can release a flood of juices as they cook, creating a soggy or undercooked crust in the process. Since asparagus doesn't release a lot of liquid as it cooks, if the pieces are cut thinly, on a long bias, they will cook perfectly in the 10 minutes or so the pizza is in the oven.

To prepare the topping, first drop the asparagus in some cold water to soak for a few moments so the grit will be released from the tips. While the asparagus soaks, grate the cheeses and julienne the prosciutto. Then, dry the asparagus, snap off the ends and cut it up. When you are ready to top the crust, toss the asparagus with a drizzle of olive oil and some salt and pepper. Toss it together with the cheeses and prosciutto and the topping is finished.

To make this into a truly fast dinner, appropriate for a weeknight meal, plan ahead and make the dough for the crust the night before (or in the morning on the day you plan to make the pizza) and leave it for a long, cool, second rise in the refrigerator. The crust is actually better this way. The flavor is more complex, the crumb more open and the exterior crisp.

One of the things I always try to teach in my classes is that yeast doughs are forgiving—easily fitting into the busiest of schedules. I think that many people who are new to the world of homemade yeast breads think that they need to alter their schedule to be able to make bread. A simple pizza dough is a great place to begin learning by experience that this is truly not the case.

Besides the fact that my pizza was not baked in a wood-fired oven, I have left off a couple of the ingredients that make up the topping of the one I order when I am out. The one at the restaurant includes caramelized onions and white truffle oil. I love the flavor and aroma of truffles, but since not everyone does, and I am going to be teaching this pizza in an upcoming class, I decided to leave it off. I did include the caramelized onions the first time I made the pizza, but I wasn't happy with the result. Even though I used a very small quantity, their concentrated flavor completely drowned out the flavor of the asparagus—possibly because the pizza lacked the counterweight (in terms of flavor) of the truffle oil. The pizza was good, but since I couldn't taste the asparagus, not exactly what I was after. The version without the onions had clean flavors and was well-balanced—rich cheese paired with the mineral-y taste of roasted asparagus and salty tang of prosciutto.

I think the Parmesan-mozzarella-goat cheese combination makes a great background for the flavors of the asparagus and prosciutto on this pizza.  If you prefer, Fontina would make a nice substitute for the mozzarella.  Normally I would suggest the option of substituting pecorino for the Parmesan, but I think in combination with the prosciutto it might be overwhelmingly salty.  If you didn't happen to have prosciutto, and wanted to make this pizza, then pecorino would be just the ticket.  As always, once you start thinking about variations, a world of possibility opens up.  In fact, as I begin to think about trying this simple three cheese pizza with all of the young, green products of the spring market...herbs, arugula, spring onions, green garlic....I can't wait for next week.

Asparagus Pizza with Prosciutto & Three Cheeses

1 ball of pizza dough (see below), rested
4 to 4 1/2 oz. asparagus, trimmed, rinsed and cut thinly—1/8-inch thick or so—on a long bias (about 2 to 2 1/4 oz. trimmed weight)
1/2 t. olive oil
salt & pepper
1 oz. finely grated Parmesan
4 oz. coarsely grated low-moisture mozzarella
2 oz. goat cheese, crumbled
1 oz. (2 thin slices) prosciutto, cut cross-wise in 1/4-inch wide strips

Preheat the oven and pizza stone to 500°F an hour before you plan to bake the pizza. If you made the dough ahead, pull it out of the refrigerator when you turn on the oven.

To build the pizza: On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out into a 12- to 13-inch circle. Transfer the dough to a pizza pan or baking sheet that has been lightly dusted with semolina, fine cornmeal, or flour. Using your fingers, push up the edges of the dough to make a slight rim.

In a medium-sized bowl, drizzle the olive oil over the asparagus and season with salt & pepper. Toss to coat. Add the cheeses and prosciutto and toss to combine. Spread the asparagus-cheese mixture evenly over the crust, leaving a half-inch rim bare.

Place the pizza in its pan on the pizza stone in the pre-heated oven. Bake until the crust is golden brown on the bottom and the cheese is bubbling, about 8 to 10 minutes. To insure a crisp crust, after the crust has set (5 to 6 minutes), slide the pizza off of the pan to finish cooking directly on the pizza stone. When the pizza is done, transfer to a cutting board and cut into wedges and serve.

Pizza Dough

1/2 cup warm water (100º-110º)
1 1/8 t. (1/2 package) active dry yeast
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 T. olive oil
1/2 t. salt

Place the water in a large bowl and add the yeast.  Let soften for a minute or two.  Add 3/4 cup of the flour and whisk until smooth.  Add the oil, salt and another half cup of the flour. Stir with a wooden spoon to form a soft dough that holds its shape. Sprinkle some of the remaining quarter cup of flour on a smooth surface. Scrape the dough out of the bowl and sprinkle with a bit more flour. Knead the dough, adding just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking, until the dough is smooth and springs back when pressed lightly with a finger—about 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise until it has doubled in size—about 1 hour. Punch down the dough. At this point you may use the dough immediately or cover the bowl again with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for 12 to 24 hours. Pull the dough out of the refrigerator. to let it warm up a bit, about an hour before baking the pizza.

When ready to make the pizza, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough into a ball. Cover with a towel and let rest for 20 to 30 minutes. The dough is now ready to be shaped, topped and baked.

(Crust adapted from The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins)