Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Busy Days of May and a recipe for Arugula Pesto

I have been absent from my blog for a little while longer than I would like. Professionally, it has been a busy spring...which is really great for me...but not so great for my blog. Also, my garden is calling. I love spending time there and in recent days, when I have had a choice between the blog and the garden, the garden won.

I have not abandoned the blog...I enjoy it too much... I actually have pictures and a lot of ideas for new posts (I'm always cooking), just no time to write about them. I thought I would write a brief post today so that anyone who might have been wondering would know that I haven't quit.

This has been an unusually good year for greens at the market...we have been so cool and cloudy, and in the past couple of weeks, damp. We have had beautiful chard, spinach, kale and delicate little lettuces like I have never seen before at my market. Particularly lovely this year is the arugula. It is tender and nutty and is only just now acquiring a bit of heat. The season has been long and I have enjoyed it immensely.

A couple of days ago I made some arugula pesto and tossed it with some potato gnocchi and asparagus for a quick lunch.

I made gnocchi in preparation for a class this week and had enough left over to freeze a few servings. I don't have time to go into the details of potato gnocchi today, but it is definitely one of the things I plan on posting about in the near future. Today, I'm just focusing on the arugula pesto.

I think I might even like arugula pesto better than basil pesto—at least when the arugula is as fine as it has been this year. Basil pesto can be quite aromatic and strong—which makes it a great compliment to the vibrant and strong flavors of the summer and early autumn vegetable palate. Asparagus though, can be overwhelmed by it. The arugula pesto, being more nutty than aromatic in character, made a more suitable companion for the asparagus.

For lunch yesterday I used some of the remaining pesto to make an arugula variation of a basil pesto pizza out of a favorite little cookbook by Janet Fletcher called Fresh from the Farmers' Market. I have never made the basil version of this pizza, but I find it hard to believe it would be much better than my arugula variation. It made a great lunch—fast, easy and not too heavy. I think it would make a great appetizer for a party. If you wanted a more substantial pizza, you could add a layer of a few sliced, poached or roasted potatoes or sliced, roasted artichokes. The color of this pizza is beautiful too. I love Fletcher's trick of brushing the pesto on the finished pizza rather than exposing the pesto to the fiery heat of an oven at pizza temperature where it would turn brown.

Last summer I posted a recipe for linguine with basil pesto, new potatoes and green beans—a Ligurian classic. In the past I have made an early summer version of this dish (before the green beans arrive) with sugar snap peas. It occurs to me that there is a brief moment, while the arugula is still mild and the peas and potatoes are just coming into the market, that you could make a late spring version of this dish with arugula pesto. That moment appears to be now. I came home from the market yesterday morning with the first new potatoes of the season and I noticed that a few vendors had peas. In any case, there is not yet any basil to be had for the more traditional version. Our spring which has been so nice for arugula, has not been so great for basil. I overheard one of the growers laugh when someone asked her about basil and say "You need sunshine for that!"

Pesto can of course be made with a myriad of combinations of herbs (or greens), nuts and aged cheeses....and obviously uses for the many incarnations of pesto abound. For a class this past week I prepared a spring, minestrone-style soup (all green vegetables) that I finished with a swirl of pesto made with half arugula and half spinach.

Cutting the arugula with half spinach is a good option for softening the heat of an arugula pesto as the arugula begins to get spicy when the weather warms up. Besides dressing pasta and pizzas and garnishing soups, pesto can be stirred into sauces, added to vegetable purées and sautés, stirred into risotto, brushed/drizzled over grilled or sautéed fish or folded into mayonnaise and then smeared on a sandwich. I could go on. But because the garden...

and work...are calling, I won't.  But if you whip up a fresh batch, you too will soon find all kinds of spring foods that are made even better by a spoonful of arugula pesto.

Arugula Pesto

1 1/2 c. packed arugula leaves (about 1 1/2 ounces), washed and dried
1/3 c. lightly toasted walnuts (or you may use the more traditional pine nuts)
1 small clove of garlic, peeled and smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
1/3 c. extra virgin olive oil
1/3 c. grated Parmesan and/or Pecorino
Salt, to taste

Place the arugula, walnuts and garlic in the food processor and process until the ingredients are finely and evenly chopped (stop the food processor a couple of times to scrape down the sides) to a coarse purée.

With the food processor running, add the oil in a thin stream. Scrape down the sides; add the cheese and pulse to combine. Add salt to taste.  Makes about 3/4 cup. Pesto will keep in the refrigerator about a week, covered with a film of olive oil.

Printable Recipe

Arugula Pesto Pizza

2 oz. of a good melting cheese...low-moisture Mozzarella, Fontina, Monterey jack, Jarlsberg, Gouda, etc...alone or a combination....coarsely shredded
2 oz. goat cheese, crumbled
50 g. (scant quarter cup) Arugula pesto
olive oil for brushing

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-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. Brush the rim lightly with olive oil.

In a medium-sized bowl, toss all of the cheeses together. Spread the 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 minutes. To insure a crisp crust, after the crust has set (4 or 5 minutes), slide the pizza off of the pan to finish cooking directly on the pizza stone.

While the pizza is baking, check the consistency of the pesto. If it is very stiff, let it out with a teaspoon or two of olive oil. When the pizza is done, remove from the oven and immediately brush the surface of the pizza with the pesto—the back of a spoon works well for this. Transfer to a cutting board and cut into wedges and serve. Serves 2.

Potato Gnocchi with Asparagus and Arugula Pesto

For each serving:
2 T. arugula pesto (or to taste)
2 to 3 oz. asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths on the diagonal
4 oz. potato gnocchi
minced toasted walnuts, freshly grated Parmesan and olive oil for garnish

Place the pesto in a large bowl and set aside. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Add the asparagus and cook until tender—about 3 minutes. Lift out and transfer to an oiled plate. Add the gnocchi to the same water and stir to make sure it isn't sticking to the bottom. After the gnocchi float to the top, continue to cook for one minute. Using a mesh skimmer or sieve, transfer the gnocchi to the plate with the asparagus.

Add a few tablespoons of the cooking water to the bowl with the pesto—enough to give the pesto a thin sauce consistency. Add the asparagus and gnocchi and gently toss to coat. Transfer to a plate and garnish with walnuts, cheese and a drizzle of olive oil.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Strawberry-Rhubarb Crostata

One of my favorite dessert flavors is the combination of strawberries and rhubarb. I always look forward to this time of year when both are abundant and I can make strawberry-rhubarb desserts to my heart's content. The combination of these two fruits makes one of the finest crisps imaginable and of course Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie is a classic. Last year I posted a new favorite—Strawberry-Rhubarb Bavarian. This year, I thought I would share my recipe for a Strawberry-Rhubarb Crostata.

A crostata is a flat, "free-form", rustic tart. It is sometimes called a galette. In the world of seasonal desserts, it is hard to imagine a dessert with more charm that can also be pulled together on short notice with a great deal of ease. Less fussy than a double crust fruit pie (a fruit pie has to "set up" for a few hours before it can be consumed, while a crostata only needs to sit for 20 minutes or so) and more elegant than a crisp (a crostata slices beautifully for serving), if you keep rounds of crostata dough in your freezer, you can easily prepare a fresh fruit crostata for an impromptu dessert with whatever fruit you find at the market.  

In theory, if you can make the crust, a crostata is the easiest of desserts to make. Just roll out the crust, fill with fruit that has been sweetened to taste, fold the edges of the crust up and over the fruit and bake in a hot oven. In actual practice, fruit crostatas can be a bit tricky. When made with fruits that tend to be very juicy or that require a lot of sugar, the baking fruit can produce more sugary fruit juices than the casual crust can contain. Crostatas that experience a "blow out" in the oven are quite unattractive.

The main reason a small leak in the crust can create a minor disaster is that traditionally crostatas don't have any added thickener. The idea behind this is that the wide, open surface of the crostata should allow the fruit juices to evaporate and concentrate as the tart cooks, making a thickener unnecessary.   Unfortunately, it doesn't always work this way.  If the unthickened juices begin to escape, there is no stopping the flow.  Because the fruit flavor without thickener is so pure and clean, for years I resisted adding any. But I have finally come to the conclusion that a small amount of cornstarch or flour is not the worst thing in the world. Certainly it is better than having a bottom crust that is soggy and gummy rather than crisp and flaky. It is also better than having all of your beautiful fruit juices flow out of the crust and into the pan (or worse yet, the floor of the oven) where they will burn.

Another less-than-traditional addition to my Strawberry-Rhubarb Crostata is the oatmeal streusel that I scatter over the surface of the fruit. Crostatas are frequently made with large chunks of fruit that maintain their shape as they bake and are beautiful to look at in the finished tart. Strawberries and rhubarb both collapse into a chunky compote as they bake. While not unattractive, it isn't particularly lovely, so covering up the fruit with a sweet and crunchy streusel adds (I especially like rhubarb with streusel) without taking away.

I love the strawberry-rhubarb version of this dessert. If you, or someone you know, loves the combination of strawberries and rhubarb, you should give this recipe a try. Apparently it is so good that it is irresistible. Several years ago while working at a private event facility I made miniature, individual-sized crostatas for a spring event. The party turned out to be smaller than expected and there were several tartlets left over. Since I happened to know that the husband of a friend and co-worker loved strawberry-rhubarb desserts, I sent two tarts home with my friend for the two of them to enjoy.

A week or two later I was having dinner with them when I decided to ask her husband how he had liked his strawberry-rhubarb crostata. My query was met with a puzzled look, accompanied by a "What strawberry-rhubarb crostata?".  As I opened my mouth to reply, I received a sharp kick to the shins under the table. But it was too late. To this day I am occasionally reminded of what a big mouth I have as we laugh about the time my friend was unable to resist the call of the second tart as she drove home from work that day. Since she tells me that "they were so small....hardly big enough for one serving..." you should just make one large crostata. That way everyone will be able to cut as large a slice for themselves as they please.


 Strawberry-Rhubarb Crostata

1 recipe of Crostata/Galette Dough
3/4 lb. rhubarb, trimmed and sliced cross-wise into a 1/2-inch pieces
1 pint strawberries, washed and hulled and halved (quartered if large)
1/4 c. sugar
2 T. cornstarch
1/4 c. Strawberry preserves, well stirred
1 recipe Crumb Topping

On a lightly floured board, roll the dough into a 14-inch round about 1/8-inch thick. Place the round on a parchment lined cookie sheet (preferably without a rim). Chill the round of dough for at least 30 minutes.  

When you are ready to build the crostata, place the fruit in a large bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together the sugar, cornstarch and a pinch of salt. Add the dry ingredients to the rhubarb and strawberries and toss to coat.

Spread the preserves over the chilled round of dough—leave about 3 inches of dough all around.

Top with the fruit mixture. Mound the crumb topping over the fruit.

Fold the edge of the dough up onto the fruit, pleating it attractively and pressing lightly as you go.

Place the crostata in a 450° oven either on the lowest rack or on a pizza stone. Bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 400° and continue to bake until the crust is golden and cooked on the bottom and the fruit is bubbling. Slide the baked crostata (with the parchment) off onto a wire rack to cool—don’t do this if your cookie sheet has a rim. Let cool at least 20 minutes before serving. Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. This Crostata is best served the day it is made. Serves 6 to 8.

Crostata/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.

Crumb Topping:
1/3 c. flour
6 T. packed brown sugar
pinch of salt
3 T. unsalted butter, chilled and cut into cubes
1/4 c. oatmeal

In a medium-sized bowl, combine the flour, sugar and salt. Rub in the butter until the mixture is crumbly. Add the oatmeal and toss to combine.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Creamy Asparagus Soup

In my last post I mentioned that I included a recipe for Asparagus Soup in my all-asparagus class. Since we are in the height of asparagus season—and the weather has turned cold (again)—it seemed like a timely topic for a post. Although it doesn't have to be cold out to enjoy this soup. More than one person who tasted the soup commented that it would make a fine cool or chilled soup for the hottest days of spring. I happen to prefer the soup hot...but no matter what the weather is like...and no matter what temperature you choose to serve the is a perfect recipe for the peak of the asparagus season.

More than anything else I taught in my class, this soup is a pure celebration of asparagus.  There really isn't much in it besides asparagus. A quick scan of recipes on the web, or in your cookbook collection, will show that this tends to be the norm for cream of asparagus soups. Recipes usually include some kind of onion, stock or water, asparagus and a little cream. Occasionally you will find a recipe that uses some flour or adds a potato for thickener. But in my opinion, these things function more as extenders than thickeners. Your soup will have a perfect thickness without them if you use a sufficient quantity of asparagus.

I can't take credit for the recipe that I'm sharing today—and I'm not quite sure of its origin. I learned to make it when I was a line cook at The American Restaurant. At The American, the soup functioned as a way to use up all of the "unusable" tough ends of the asparagus. There was always an asparagus side dish on the menu. No matter how it was presented, it seemed to fly out the door. People love asparagus. So even if there seemed to be nothing in the house to make soup with, there was always an abundant supply of the tough ends of the asparagus that could be turned into this soup.

I have altered the idea of the original recipe only slightly in that I use the tender portion of the asparagus too. Most home cooks won't use enough asparagus to be able to make soup with just the discarded ends. A recipe that uses the entire stalk of asparagus is more practical while still being economical. I mentioned in my last post that the tough ends make up nearly fifty percent of the pre-trim weight of the asparagus. Since a small batch of soup requires two pounds of asparagus, if you were not using the ends, you would need to purchase four pounds of asparagus to make the soup. This would be an expensive soup—and is no doubt the reason that some recipes resort to using flour or potatoes to make the asparagus go further.

When you make a soup that uses the tough ends, you must strain the soup through a fine-meshed sieve before serving it. A simple bowl shaped, fine-meshed sieve will do, but a conical fine-meshed sieve (called a Chinois) is even better. When straining a liquid with lots of little fibrous bits, you must press firmly on the solids (with a ladle, or other suitable implement) in order to extract the maximum amount of liquid. A conical strainer consolidates all of these solids into the tip of the cone, making the pressure you apply more effective. If you do not own a fine-meshed sieve of any kind, or you don't wish to strain the soup, then when you purchase the asparagus for the soup, purchase twice as much as the recipe calls for and discard the tough ends instead of adding them to the soup.

Fibrous solids that remain after passing the soup through a sieve

The other thing that makes the recipe that I use different from other recipes that I have seen is the final color. By the time asparagus is cooked to the point that it is soft enough to purée, it has become a very drab army green. I suppose there is nothing wrong with is after all a natural color...but your soup doesn't have to be such an unattractive color. To produce a beautiful, spring green soup, just add some fresh spinach to the blender as you are puréeing the hot soup. The spinach will purée smoothly in, turning the soup a brighter green in the process.

 Many recipes instruct you to reserve a few of the asparagus tips for garnish. They are blanched separately and then scattered over the surface of the finished soup where they are supposed to float. But they will only float if your soup is pretty thick—too thick, in my opinion. A better way to use the tips is to prepare some little goat cheese crostini—which will float nicely on the surface of the soup—and place an asparagus tip or two on top of the crostini. There they will be visible. The crunchy crostini will soften quickly in the soup and the goat cheese will provide a nice bit of tangy flavor to two or three spoonfuls of each serving.

Goat cheese crostini—with or without the addition of the asparagus tips—are just one idea for garnishing this simple soup. There are many other possibilities. A particularly elegant and seasonal garnish would be a few halved or sliced morels. Simply poach them in a little bit of butter and stock (or water) and add them to each serving. Other simple garnishes include a pat of a favorite compound butter (floated on the hot soup where it will melt and leave a flavorful puddle that each diner can then stir into their soup), a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, or a dollop of crème fraiche. I typically think of this as an elegant, first course type of soup, but it would make a nice lunch soup too...accompanied by a grilled cheese sandwich...or maybe a prosciutto and cheese panini....

In the end, it doesn't really matter how you serve it, as long as you take the time to make it before asparagus season draws to a close. Asparagus may be available year round, but it is at its best and its most abundant right now. In just a few short weeks its season...and the moment for this soup...will have passed.

Cream of Asparagus Soup

2 lbs. asparagus, well-rinsed to remove grit from tips
4 T. unsalted butter
8 oz. shallots (about 4 medium), peeled and thinly sliced
5 c. water (or use half water and half chicken stock)
4 to 5 oz. spinach (several handfuls)
3/4 c. heavy cream
Salt & Pepper, to taste
baguette, sliced 1/4-inch thick
olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled and halved
4 oz. soft goat cheese, crumbled
2 T. minced chives

Prepare the asparagus: Snap off the tough ends. Split lengthwise and then cut roughly crosswise 1/2- to 1-inch thick. Set aside. Slice the tender stalks and tips crosswise 1/2- to 1-inch thick and reserve.

Melt the butter over medium heat. Add the chopped tough ends of the asparagus and the shallots, along with a pinch of salt. Cover the pan and gently sweat until the shallots are beginning to soften—about 5 minutes.

Add half of the liquid to the pan and bring to a simmer. Cover and reduce the heat. Simmer gently until the tough ends are tender—20 to 30 minutes. Add the remaining asparagus along with enough of the remaining liquid to just cover the solids. (You can always add more liquid when you are puréeing the soup, but if you add too much now, the soup will be too thin.)  Salt to taste. Gently simmer until all of the asparagus is quite soft—about 15 to 20 minutes.

While the soup cooks, make the crostini garnish: Distribute the sliced baguette on a baking sheet in a single layer and brush liberally with olive oil. Place under the broiler and broil until the toasts are golden; turn the slices over and broil the second side until golden. Scrub the warm crostini lightly with the cut surface of the garlic. When the crostini are cool, top each with goat cheese crumbles.

Purée the finished soup in batches, adding a handful of spinach to the blender with each batch. Be careful when puréeing hot liquids—don't fill the blender more than 2/3 full and hold the lid down firmly when you turn the blender on. Pass the puréed soup through a fine-meshed sieve, pressing firmly upon the solids with a ladle or spatula in order to extract as much liquid as possible.

Return the soup to the pot. Add the heavy cream and gently heat through.

While the soup heats, run the goat cheese crostini under the broiler briefly to soften the cheese. Sprinkle the warm cheese with minced chives.

Divide the soup among warmed soup bowls and float a goat cheese crostini in the center of each bowl. Sprinkle the soup with more chives and drizzle a bit of olive oil over the soup. Pass extra goat cheese crostini separately.

Makes 2 quarts.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Risotto-Style Farro with Asparagus

Last night I taught one of my favorite kinds of classes—a class devoted entirely to one vegetable. The culinary possibilities of a particular vegetable are shown off to great effect by this type of class format since the participants get to taste the same vegetable cooked in numerous ways and in combination with a variety of other ingredients. Last night's topic was Asparagus. Over the course of the evening, I showed how to turn asparagus into a beautiful spring green soup, how to bake it in parchment with some scallops and compound butter, how to use it raw to top a pizza (already posted about here) and finally, how to combine it with other spring vegetables into a satisfying and flavorful risotto-style farro.

Today I thought I would share the farro recipe. I posted a winter version of this dish in February. The basic cooking method for the two versions is pretty much the same. The difference lies almost entirely in how the vegetable "garnish" is cooked and then added to the final dish.

I first tasted farro a few months ago—in a soup, then in the risotto-style preparation and then in a pilaf. It has become one of my new favorite ingredients. It is simple and relatively quick to prepare. Best of all, it combines well with a wide variety of vegetables and other ingredients...making it a suitable canvas upon which to build a wholesome, satisfying and delicious weeknight meal. If farro is new to you, I have given lots of basic information about it in the two posts referenced above.

Drained, cooked farro

Each time I have prepared a pilaf or risotto-style farro, I have cooked the vegetables first before adding them to the finished farro. The asparagus may be blanched in boiling salted water, sautéed or roasted. I chose to blanch it so that I could show how to extract just a little bit of life out of the tough ends that are usually discarded. Asparagus is expensive and unfortunately it has an edible yield of only about fifty percent. It's nice to know how to turn these tough ends into something besides compost.

Since the farro must be cooked in water or a broth of some sort, I used the tough ends to make a quick asparagus broth. The tender tips of asparagus can then be blanched in this broth to give the broth even more flavor before it is used to cook the farro. If you are using fresh peas in the final dish, they can be blanched in the broth as well.

To make the broth, split the tough ends of the asparagus lengthwise to expose more of their flesh, cover with water and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 30 minutes. Lift the ends out and discard. It is surprising the amount of asparagus flavor that can be obtained in such a short period of time.

If you are in a hurry to get dinner on the table and don't want to take the time to make the broth, you could just use chicken broth in the recipe and roast the asparagus instead of blanching it. This can easily be done while the farro cooks. To roast, just toss the trimmed and cut asparagus in some olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Spread on a baking sheet or in a baking dish and roast in a hot oven (425° or so) until just tender...10 minutes or so. Take it out ever so slightly before you think it is done since it will continue to cook a bit after you remove it from the oven.

Besides asparagus, I added peas and mushrooms to the final dish. Mushrooms are one of my favorite things to combine with asparagus. (If you like pasta, you might be interested in the asparagus and mushroom pasta I posted last spring.) They are also particularly good in grain based dishes so they seemed to me an obvious addition to this dish. The peas, because they are in season at the same time, are a natural partner for the asparagus. Other good seasonal additions could include artichokes or fava beans. To make your own spring vegetable farro, just choose your own favorite seasonal combination, cook them as you prefer and add them at the end with the asparagus.

Creamy Risotto-Style Farro
with Asparagus, Peas & Mushrooms

10 oz. Asparagus (to yield about 5 oz. usable weight)
1/2 c. shelled peas—thawed, if frozen
4 T. olive oil, divided
3 spring onions—including a few inches of the green—thinly sliced
1 T. picked thyme, minced
1 c. semi-pearled farro, rinsed
4 oz. crimini or button mushrooms, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 T. butter
2 to 3 T. minced parsley
1/3 c. finely grated Parmesan

Snap the tough ends off of the asparagus. Split the ends in half lengthwise and add to 4 cups of boiling water. Simmer gently for 20 to 30 minutes to obtain an asparagus broth. Lift out the asparagus ends and discard. (The broth may be made the day before. Cool and refrigerate until ready to use.)

While the broth simmers, cut the remaining asparagus into roughly 2-inch lengths on a short diagonal. You should have about 2 cups of asparagus. Return the asparagus broth to the heat and bring to a boil. Season with salt. Add the asparagus and blanch until just tender. Lift the asparagus out of the cooking liquid and spread on a plate or baking sheet to cool. If using fresh peas, return the broth to a boil, add the peas and cook until just tender. Lift the peas out, rinse with cold water and add to the reserved asparagus. Measure our the cooking liquid. There should be 2 1/2 cups of liquid remaining. If there is more than that, boil to reduce to 2 1/2 cups. If less, add hot water to make 2 1/2 cups.

In a wide saucepan, heat the 3 T. of the olive oil over medium heat. Add the spring onions along with the thyme and a pinch of salt. Cook briefly to wilt. This will only take a minute or two. Add the farro and continue to cook and stir until the farro is well-coated in the fat, lightly toasted and hot through—about 3 minutes.

Add the hot broth, along with some salt (if necessary...taste the asparagus liquid before adding it), and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook, partially covered, until tender but still firm in the center—about 25 to 30 minutes. Let the farro rest, covered, off of the heat for minute or two.

While the farro cooks, sauté the mushrooms: Heat 1 T. of olive oil in a nonstick sauté pan over medium high heat. When the pan is hot, add the mushrooms and sauté until golden and softened and any liquid they release has been reabsorbed. If the mushrooms seem dry, add a bit more oil or some butter. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Drain the cooked farro in a fine mesh sieve or colander, set over a bowl to catch the cooking liquid. Return a half cup of the cooking liquid to the pot along with the asparagus, peas and mushrooms. Heat the vegetables through. Add the drained farro along with a tablespoon of butter. Stir constantly to emulsify the butter with the liquid, continuing until the dish is creamy.

If necessary, add more of the farro cooking liquid. Remove from the heat, season to taste, and stir in the parsley and Parmesan. Serve immediately. Serves 2 to 3 as an entrée; serves 4 to 5 as a side or first course.

Working Ahead: The farro and vegetables may all be prepared ahead. Cook the farro and vegetables as directed. Spread the drained farro on a baking sheet and allow it to cool. Reserve the vegetables, farro and cooking liquid separately in the fridge. The next day, warm the vegetables and farro through as instructed, using the cooking liquid. Finish as directed.

Printable Recipe

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother's Day Breakfast and a Loaf of Stale Bread....

As we were enjoying our annual Mother's Day breakfast, my mother said (as she frequently does) "So, tell me about this dish". So I began to tell her how I had come to the unusual choice of French Toast for her annual breakfast (I don't think I have had homemade French Toast since I was in grade school). She then said "You are going to write a blog post about this, aren't you?" I told her that I really hadn't been planning on it. But she insisted that I should.  So, for my mother...for Mother's it is....

Like last year, I was actually planning on cream scones and fruit salad for breakfast. But yesterday while I was thinking that this seemed sort of boring and all too regular for Mother's Day, I remembered that I was in possession of a stale loaf of Ciabatta...and it occurred to me that it would make good French toast.

French toast is of course our American name for what the French call pain perdu, or lost bread. In keeping with most European food cultures, the French have come up with many ways of using stale bread. Bread pudding, stuffings, and bread crumbs—which are used for all kinds of food preparations—immediately come to mind. With pain perdu, the stale bread that might otherwise be "lost" is soaked in custard (stale bread is much better at absorbing liquid than fresh), fried in a little bit of butter and served with ice cream and fruit for dessert. In America it is of course most often served for breakfast. In its simplest form, it is served with just butter and maple syrup...and maybe a dusting of powdered sugar.

I typically don't have stale loaves of bread hanging around. I usually slice and freeze bread that isn't consumed while it is fresh. But I had purchased a loaf of Ciabatta on Friday while teaching a cooking class with my friend Nancy. We needed some cubed bread to teach our class how to tell if deep frying oil was at the proper temperature if you don't happen to have a thermometer. Normally I would have grabbed a roll or something small, but it was later in the day and we were both hungry. Some bread, with a little cheese and some fruit, seemed like a perfect snack. So I grabbed a big loaf, knowing that there would be quite a bit leftover. When I got home, I was too tired to bother with slicing it for the freezer...I figured I would just suffer the loss.

But this loaf of bread turned out to have quite a bit of life left in it. I have been testing an asparagus soup recipe for an upcoming class and while poking around for something for lunch on Saturday found that there was a serving of it left. Remembering my slightly stale bread, I decided to have the last of the soup with a grilled cheese sandwich. The day old bread made a fine grilled cheese....

It also made a very fine plate of French toast. I sliced it about 3/4 of an inch thick and made a simple custard and let it soak overnight (in the fridge). French toast custard is a bit more egg-rich than a typical custard. A custard that I would use for a quiche, for example, would usually have 2 eggs for every cup of cream (or milk). For my French toast, I used 4 eggs per cup of liquid. Some recipes use almost no milk or cream...but I prefer a French toast that is creamy and custardy rather than egg-y.

For each 2 slices of bread, I used 1 egg, 1/4 cup of milk (you could use cream), 1 T. of pure maple syrup, 1/2 T. of sugar, 1/4 t. of vanilla and a pinch of salt. The bread soaked up almost all of the custard. To serve it, simply melt some butter in a non-stick pan (cast iron is best) over moderate heat. Add the soaked slices of bread—as many as your pan will comfortably hold—and cook on each side until golden brown. Transfer each batch to a warm oven until all of the slices have been fried, and continue to hold it there while you make a quick fruit compote.

I served our French toast with a banana and blueberry compote. To make the compote, bring some orange juice—for 2 slices of French toast, maybe the juice of half an orange—some maple syrup (a tablespoon or so), and some butter (2 or 3 teaspoons) to a boil and cook briefly until syrupy. Add some sliced banana and blueberries and warm through. Finish with a squeeze of lemon juice. Because I didn't plan on blogging about this, I really don't have exact quantities—I have listed my best guess of what I made per person. But really, this is just a quick, to-taste, kind of compote. You might want more sweetness...or a little Grand Marnier...or possibly some cinnamon...maybe some more butter.... Your goal is a warm, flavorful, syrupy liquid to toss the fruit in so that it isn't cold when it is spooned over the hot French toast.

Along with some juice, coffee & tea, and yogurt with strawberries from yesterday's farmers' market, the French toast made a Mother's Day breakfast that was not only tasty, but a nice surprise for Mom (who I think was expecting scones...).

I always like to put a small bouquet of flowers from my garden on the table for Mother's Day. Because we have had a rather cool Spring, many of the late Spring bloomers have been holding off a bit (even though things have been very lush and green). But last night, as I was ending my day with a little much needed yard work, I came upon the patch of Lilies of the Valley—which had been blooming their heads off, unbeknownst to me. I thought they would be just the thing for a little bud vase.

And this morning when I awoke and stepped outside, the beautiful America's Cup Iris had produced three big blooms.  They were too beautiful to cut. But I'm so glad I snapped a picture of one of them—bathed in the morning light—because now I can share its beauty with my a more permanent, on my blog.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom.

Friday, May 6, 2011

"Pecan Sandies"

I was in the mood the other day for Pecan Sandies...those little round pecan shortbread cookies from my childhood...the kind made by the Keebler elves. Rather than going out and buying some to satisfy my craving, I decided I would make them for myself. As I looked around for a recipe, I discovered that there are a lot of recipes out there...apparently I'm not the only one who loves this cookie.  Most of them are rather uninspired variations of Pecan Shortbread. Not that this is surprising.  A Pecan Sandie is, after all, a type of pecan shortbread cookie.  But it has a particular taste and texture all its own.  None of the recipes I happened across inspired me with confidence that the author had figured out what it was that made a Pecan Sandie different.  After trying one of the more promising of the recipes, and being rather dissatisfied with the result, it became obvious that I would have to come up with my own version of a Pecan Sandie--if for no other reason than to discover through my own taste testing what it was that set a Pecan Sandie apart.  

As I worked on my recipe, I felt a bit like Goldilocks...this one was too crunchy, that one too tender, another had the wrong shape, and another was too dry.... Goldilocks only had to try three beds. I made five batches of "Pecan Sandies" before I arrived at the one that I felt I could pronounce "just right."

It will probably not come as a surprise that the recipe I ended up with is basically a variation of my own favorite shortbread. To get to a pecan cookie, I simply substituted pecans for a third of the flour. The next change I made was to substitute a combination of light brown sugar and powdered sugar for the granulated sugar in my original shortbread recipe. The brown sugar contributes a faint butterscotch note that is characteristic of a Pecan Sandie (much like the effect it has on the flavor of Butter Pecan Ice Cream). The powdered sugar makes for a tender and slightly crumbly texture. Finally, to fully achieve the familiar flavor I was looking for, I increased the salt a bit and added a generous amount of vanilla.

Besides my Scottish Shortbread recipe, I want to mention a couple of other recipes that I pulled from to get to my final result. The first recipe that I tried was from Martha Stewart's Everyday Food. This recipe pops up all over the blogosphere and seems to be universally acknowledged to be "as good as, or better than" the original Pecan Sandie. I disagree with this.  I think the recipe contains too much sugar to really qualify as shortbread.  The recipe does make a tasty little cookie, but the higher quantity of sugar, combined with the fact that all of the sugar is brown sugar, results in a cookie that is too dark and too crunchy to be a Pecan Sandie.  I also thought the recipe had a little too much vanilla.  But making this cookie helped me to hone in on how significant brown sugar and vanilla are to obtaining the right flavor.  

The second recipe was Maria Helm Sinskey's Pecan Shortbread Finger recipe from The Vineyard Kitchen. This is an excellent cookie in its own right.  Slender and elegant, it is perfect on a cookie platter or as an accompaniment to pot de crème (which is how she serves it). I make this cookie frequently. Her recipe uses all powdered sugar and has a wonderfully tender crunch. It also uses more salt than one would expect. The flavor with this higher amount of salt is, not surprisingly, fuller. When you taste these cookies, they do taste slightly salty. But since nuts are good with salt, the salt doesn't seem out of place.

I knew the minute I took a bite from the first cookie of my fifth batch that I had achieved success. But if there had been any question, the reaction of others would have confirmed it. I frequently heard the comment "That looks just like a Pecan Sandie!...and it tastes like a Pecan Sandie!" And my mother, who had obligingly served as my taste tester for each successive batch, tasted one from the final batch, looked up and said "That's a good cookie...I want that recipe."

Pecan Sandies

1 stick unsalted butter (4 oz.)
1/3 c. powdered sugar (30 g)
2 T. light brown sugar (25 g)
1 t. vanilla
3/8 t. salt
1 c. plus 2 T. all-purpose flour (130 g)
1/2 c. toasted pecans, chopped medium fine (2 oz.)

Briefly cream the butter and sugars—just until smooth, not until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and salt and stir in. Add the flour and pecans and stir to form a stiff dough.

Scoop the dough using a level 2 teaspoon sized scoop.

Roll into balls and place on a parchment-lined baking sheets (making sure the balls are evenly spaced).

Flatten with the bottom of a glass dipped in flour.

Transfer the baking sheet to a preheated 325° oven and bake until the cookies are just set and barely golden on the edges—about 15 minutes.

Cool the cookies for one minute on the sheets before transferring to wire racks to cool completely.   Store cookies air-tight. Makes about 24 cookies.