Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mediterranean Eggplant Salad with Mint, Pine Nuts & Goat Cheese

For an upcoming class I am slated to teach a "Grilled Eggplant Salad". I had been planning on teaching a salad that featured eggplant in combination with tomatoes and bell peppers. But as I thought about it, I realized that I almost always pair eggplant with one—or both—of these vegetables. A quick review of my four previous posts that feature eggplant will bear this out. Since I don't want to be too predictable, I decided that for this salad I would do something a little bit different (for me at least).

Whenever you cook with eggplant you have to take into account the fact that eggplant is a slightly bitter vegetable. Eggplant sometimes gets a bad rap as being excessively bitter, but this is only the case if it has been on the shelf too long. (Click here for some pointers on how to choose an eggplant). Like many other vegetables (Brussels sprouts, various greens, broccoli, etc.) the slight bitterness can be quite pleasant when the vegetable is prepared properly and paired with the right kinds of flavors. Often bitter foods are combined to great advantage with foods that are inherently sweet and/or acidic. Greens with vinegar is a good example of this. This agreeable pairing of the sweet and the tart with the bitter is the reason that eggplant is so frequently combined with tomatoes and ripe bell peppers. The tomatoes contribute both sweetness and acidity, while the ripe bell pepper contribute sweetness.

The decision not to include tomatoes or bell peppers in my salad meant that I would need to find other ways of taming the natural bitterness of the eggplant—bitterness that would be accentuated by the fact that the eggplant in the salad was to be grilled. In Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, I found a recipe for eggplant that is roasted and then bathed while still warm in a lemony dressing that is loaded with garlic and herbs. Lemon is frequently used to successfully dress eggplant, so I decided that I would use a similar tart lemon and herb vinaigrette as the starting point for my salad.

The rest of the ingredients seemed to fall into place at that point. I love the combination of lemon and mint, so I decided to get the sweetness I was looking for by adding a healthy dose of mint to the dressing. To contribute yet another element of sweetness, I layered the grilled eggplant rounds with some smoky-sweet charred red onions.

I borrowed the idea for the charred onions from Frank Stitt's Bottega Favorita. Apparently these onions show up in various ways all over his restaurant menu....added to salads, pizzas, sandwiches and as the main ingredient in his signature charred onion dip. It's easy to see why:  they are simple to prepare and add loads of flavor. For my salad, besides adding sweetness, the smoky aspect of these onions plays especially well with the eggplant.

Inspired by an eggplant salad I found by Giada De Laurentiis, the salad is finished with a shower of sweet toasted pine nuts and tangy crumbled goat cheese. Feta would make a fine stand in for the goat cheese. Or, you could forgo cheese altogether and add a drizzle of plain yogurt instead. Like the goat cheese it would provide a nice subtle tang to the salad.

The flavors of this salad can only be described as vibrant and refreshing—perfect for the extended heat wave that we have been experiencing. For those pressed for time, it is simple, quick and easy to prepare. It is also quite versatile. It could be served as a side dish for chicken or lamb. It would also make a great salad platter to take to a pot luck, put on a buffet or add to a tapas spread. And since it is best served at room temperature, all of the components can be prepared ahead...making it a perfect dish for summer entertaining.

Mediterranean Grilled Eggplant Salad

4 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 large or 2 small cloves garlic, smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
4 T. minced fresh mint
4 T. minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
pinch hot pepper flakes (to taste)
6 T. olive oil, plus more for brushing
Salt & Pepper
2 medium eggplant (about 2 lbs.)
2 medium or 1 large red onion (about 12 oz.), peeled and sliced crosswise about 1/3-inch thick
about 1 t. Balsamic vinegar
3 to 4 T. pine nuts, lightly toasted
3 to 4 oz. goat cheese, crumbled

Place the lemon juice in a small bowl with the garlic and whisk to combine. Add the herbs, pepper flakes and 6 T. olive oil. Season well with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Top and tail the eggplants. Slice each eggplant crosswise into 1/3- to 1/2-inch thick rounds. 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. Alternatively, grill the eggplant over a charcoal fire or in a cast-iron grill pan. If, when the eggplant are nicely browned, they are not yet fork tender, stack them on top of one another while hot so that they will steam one another and cook through—eggplant should not be served al dente.

While the eggplant are still warm, dress them with one third to one half of the lemon-herb mixture. Let stand at room temperature for up to two hours before serving.

Spread the onion slices on a baking sheet and brush both sides with olive oil. Broil (or grill), turning once, until golden, charred in spots, and tender.

Transfer to a plate, drizzle with a little balsamic vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Toss to break up and distribute the vinegar.

To build the salad, on a large platter arrange the eggplant in one layer of slightly overlapping slices. Top with the onions, a scattering of pine nuts and crumbled goat cheese. Spoon some of the remaining lemon-herb mixture over all and serve. If you don't have a platter large enough to accommodate the eggplant in a single layer, build the salad in multiple layers—eggplant, onions, pine nuts, sauce—topping the final layer with goat cheese.

The marinated eggplant and onions can be made ahead and refrigerated. But the salad is best served at room temperature. Accordingly, if the components have been made ahead, allow all the ingredients to come to a room temperature for an hour or so before building and serving the salad.  Serves 6 to 8.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"Plain Jane Sugar Cookies"

Recently a friend was telling me about some cookies she had enjoyed at an ice cream social. She had been struck by how perfect these little sugar cookies were with the ice cream. As she described them to me I suddenly remembered a sugar cookie that I used to make. I don't think I had thought about them in over 10 years. I couldn't even remember what they were called...but I knew where to find the recipe. I made them the next day. 

The recipe is from Marion Cunningham's The Supper Book and they are called Plain Jane Sugar Cookies. I pass the recipe on to you almost unchanged (I use half as much vanilla as Cunningham) along with Cunningham's comments about the recipe. I can't say it any better:

"A no-frills, all-purpose cookie, Plain Janes take just ten minutes to make and ten minutes to bake. You can eat them with fruit, or just by themselves, and they're good with chocolate ice cream."

Plain Jane Sugar Cookies

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
1 c. sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 t. vanilla
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt

Whisk the flour, baking powder and salt together and set aside.

Beat the butter to smooth out. Cream in the sugar until blended and smooth. Beat in the egg and vanilla. Stir in the dry ingredients.

Drop well-rounded teaspoons of dough onto parchment-lined baking sheets about 2 1/2 inches apart. . Use the bottom of a glass or small cup to flatten the mounds of dough; begin by putting the bottom of the glass in dough to make it sticky and then dip the glass in sugar before pressing down each cookie. Bake in a preheated 350° oven until the edges of the cookies are light golden—about 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from the cookie sheets and cool on racks. Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

Note: For uniformly round cookies, roll the mounds of dough into smooth balls before flattening with the sugar-dipped glass.

(Recipe adapted from The Supper Book by Marion Cunningham)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Impromptu Meals for the Dog Days of Summer...Corn, Zucchini, Tomatoes and Green Beans

This is the time of year when my refrigerator is bursting with fresh, local produce. For these few weeks of mid-summer when the market is at its peak (and it's just too hot to cook too much) it is rare that I pull out a recipe to cook dinner. Summer ingredients cook so rapidly, and tend to go together so well, that meals practically make themselves. With the addition of an egg or a little cheese, I can quickly and easily have a satisfying meal on the table that doesn't involve a trip to the store to pick up some meat or some fish. As hot as we have been (according to the meteorologists we have been under a "heat dome") I'm not in the mood for a lot of animal protein anyway. Today I thought I would share three of the light summer meals that we enjoyed last week in the hopes that they will provide a bit of inspiration for your evening meals during these dog days of summer. If you shop at the farmers' market, you will probably have all of these ingredients on hand already.

We started out the week with salad. If you have ever taken one of my salad classes—summer or winter—you probably know that to me a salad doesn't necessarily mean lettuce. It can of course include lettuce, but I'm much more interested in salads that are loaded with lots of interesting and substantial ingredients—vegetables, fruits, nuts, olives, cheeses, etc. A salad should be about contrasts in textures and tastes. What makes it a "salad" is not the lettuce, but that everything in it is held together by the unifying presence of a flavorful and complimentary vinaigrette or dressing.

This time of year, the fact that I don't need lettuce to make a salad is usually a good thing...local lettuces are pretty much non-existent. But last week I spotted a display of baskets of beautiful tiny shoots of leaf lettuce. I couldn't resist them.

Even though they looked like the delicate lettuces of Spring, in reality they were substantial and full of flavor.  They made a refreshing, almost daily appearance on our table over the course of the week. You can of course purchase lettuce from the grocery store at any time during the year. I'm just not in the habit of buying any produce from the grocery store during the summer, because I usually have more vegetables than I can use just from my weekly trip to the farmers' market.

These beautiful little lettuces made their first appearance in a salad that featured corn and green beans. I roasted the corn and tossed it with some blanched green beans, a few Kalamata olives and a classic vinaigrette of red wine vinegar (1 T.), Dijon mustard (~1 t.), diced shallot (1 small) and olive oil (3 T.). All of this was placed on top of a bed of the lettuces dressed with the same vinaigrette. The presence of the green beans and olives made me think of Salade Niçoise (something that has been on my mind lately anyway) so I finished the plate with vine ripe tomato wedges and some hard cooked eggs. It was delicious!

The corn is abundant and sweet right now. I look forward to corn season every year....and we eat a lot of corn during July and August... so much that I'm surprised that I don't start to look "corn fed". Most of the corn that we eat gets roasted before going into a salad like the one I just described or into a side dish. Last year I wrote a post on how to roast corn and included a recipe for one of my favorite roasted corn and tomato salads (as well as a few variations). By itself, a roasted corn and tomato salad makes a light and refreshing lunch. But, as noted in last year's post, with the addition of a wedge of cheese and some bread or a simple quesadilla, it makes a nice summer dinner.

Not all of the corn we eat this time of year is roasted. Corn is also very good when it is sautéed. We enjoyed the combination of the corn and green beans so much in the salad that a few days later I thought I would use the same combination in a summer sauté. Instead of using olives and vinaigrette to add interest and zip I used a base of caramelized summer onions. (Summer onions are sweet and juicy and add an amazing amount of flavor.) While I was gathering my ingredients I ran into the zucchini in the produce drawer and remembered how nice it was in a very similar sauté that I posted last I decided to add some zucchini to the mix. I served the sauté that I posted last year with some basil butter-baked salmon and roasted cherry tomatoes. The sauté I made last week was accompanied by sliced heirloom tomatoes and the aforementioned cheese quesadillas.

To prepare the sauté: Dice the onions and cook them in a generous amount of olive oil until they are softened and beginning to caramelized. While the onions cook, cut the corn off of the cob (don't forget to scrape the cobs with the back of your knife after the kernels have been cut away—this time of year the corn "scrapings" are abundant), dice up some zucchini, put a pot of water on to boil and trim and cut some green beans into short little half-inch lengths. When the onions are tender and golden, add the zucchini and cook until it is almost tender and beginning to take on some golden color. Add the corn (reserving the scrapings to add toward the end) along with a generous pinch of salt. At the same time, drop the green beans into the boiling salted water. When the corn is tender, add the scrapings and cook a minute or two more. Remove the pan from the heat. When the green beans are cooked the way you like, drain them and add to the pan of sautéed vegetables. Toss everything together, adding more olive oil if the vegetables seem dry. Taste and correct the seasoning with salt and freshly ground pepper (I think sweet corn loves lots of pepper).

The beautiful salad greens from the market made another appearance later in the week alongside a fresh tomato and zucchini pizza. I mentioned earlier that I didn't like plain lettuce salads, but this isn't strictly true. I really do enjoy a small fluff of dressed greens when it is served as an accompaniment to something else. Dressed with the remainder of the mustardy vinaigrette that went into the corn and green bean salad, they were just right with a few slices of pizza.

If it seems odd that I would fire up the oven to make pizza during the hottest stretch of the year so far, I should explain that my oven doesn't seem to heat up the house too much. In this, I realize that I am fortunate. If turning your oven on at a temperature of 500° will heat up your house too much, then this last meal is probably one you will want to wait to make until the weather cools off a bit. There will still be abundant tomatoes and zucchini into September (when it will be much cooler).

I love homemade pizza...almost as much as I love pasta. It is easy to improvise pizza toppings as long as you keep in mind a couple of basic rules. I think I have mentioned these "rules" in every post I have written about pizza, but it doesn't hurt to repeat them: Always remember to use a light hand with the toppings (so you can see the occasional patch of crust—or tomato sauce if you are using tomato sauce—through the toppings).

And only put things on your pizza that are already cooked or that will cook in the 10 to 15 minutes that the pizza will be in the oven without throwing off abundant quantities of moisture. If you remember these two things, you can make pizza with just about anything in your produce bin....even something as surprising as kale and potatoes.

To make a fresh tomato pizza, prepare the tomatoes as described for the rustic tomato tart that I posted a week ago:  Spread the sliced tomatoes on paper towels and sprinkle with salt. After 10 to 20 minutes, blot up the water that has beaded on the surface of the tomatoes. For a 12- to 13-inch pizza you will need about a half pound of tomatoes...maybe slightly less. While the tomatoes sit, slice some zucchini (about half a pound) on a long diagonal in 1/3-inch thick slices. Spread on a baking sheet, brush both sides with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Broil until tender and golden, turning once. If you have a grill, you can grill the zucchini instead of broiling it. Let cool.

To build the pizza, smash a small clove of garlic to a purée with a pinch of salt and add to a tablespoon of olive oil. Roll out the crust, place in a pizza pan dusted with flour, cornmeal or semolina and spread with the olive oil and garlic mixture. Scatter a pinch of hot pepper flakes over the oil. Next add a layer of coarsely grated Fontina (or another good melting cheese like low-moisture Mozzarella, Monterey Jack, or Provolone)—2 to 3 oz. is about right. Top with a layer of the zucchini and then the blotted tomatoes. Scatter another couple of ounces of Fontina mixed with a few tablespoons of Parmesan or Pecorino over all.

Bake on a preheated pizza stone in a preheated 500° oven until the bottom of the crust is browned and the cheese is bubbling and golden—about 12 to 15 minutes. When I bake a pizza, I always slide it off of the pizza pan, directly onto the pizza stone, as soon as the crust is set (after five minutes or so in the oven). This will insure a crisp, well-baked crust. Serve immediately.

Obviously this pizza, like the salad and the sauté, can be varied in accordance with whatever you happen to have in your produce drawer. In about a month, the market will be full of eggplant and ripe bell peppers (in addition to the summer squash and tomatoes). Both of these things would be wonderful on a pizza.  Or in a quick vegetable sauté...    Or in a roasted vegetable salad....

Friday, July 22, 2011

Le Grand Aïoli, Sauce Aïoli and a Technique: How to "smash garlic to a purée with a pinch of salt"

I recently prepared a dinner that featured a Grand Aïoli as the main course. Le Grand Aïoli is a traditional Provençal feast of simply prepared vegetables and fish centered around a very special sauce... Aïoli (eye-oh'-lee). Loaded with as much fat, juicy summer garlic as your guests can stand and—in a perfect world—featuring the golden olive oil of Provence, the aïoli is used as a dip or a spread for everything on the table...including the bread (not for nothing is it called the "butter of Provence"). Featuring the best produce the season has to offer, Le Grand Aïoli is the perfect summer feast. It is best when accompanied by a lightly chilled dry rosé (from Provence, of course) and ideally it should be eaten out of doors in the company of as many of your friends as you can gather around your table. If this sounds like your idea of a perfect summer evening, then all you really need to know is how to make the sauce (poaching/steaming the vegetables and the fish is easy). Since making the sauce requires that you be able to "smash a clove of garlic to a purée with pinch of salt", I thought I would devote today's post to the nuts and bolts of that technique.

This technique is used all the time—not just in the preparation of an aïoli. A random look at the savory recipes I have posted on my blog would probably turn up many recipes that use garlic that has been prepared this way. It is used any time when raw garlic is going into a preparation and the textural presence of discernable bits of minced garlic is not wanted. It is a basic food preparation technique that every cook should have in their repertoire.

To begin, peel the garlic. Sometimes the garlic will have a green germ (the garlic is beginning to sprout) running through the center. Hopefully you won't be making an aïoli with garlic that is sprouting, because this is a sign of age, but any time you will be using garlic raw, and there is a green germ present, you should split the clove and remove the germ. It can be bitter.

Place the peeled clove of garlic on the cutting board and rest the side of your chef's knife on the clove of garlic with the blade pointed away from you and your "non-working" hand. (If you are right handed, the knife blade will be angled away and towards your right.) While still holding the knife with your right hand, with the open palm of your left hand (if you are right usual, all of my instructions will have to be flipped if you are left handed) rap the blade of the knife firmly with the heel of your hand. This will break and flatten the clove of garlic.

Begin mincing the flattened clove of garlic. First break the clove down a bit with a few quick slicing motions across the broken clove.

Then begin to mince. Do this by holding the knife parallel to the edge of the cutting board and rocking the knife back and forth in a see-saw motion—holding the knife handle firmly in your right hand and stabilizing the pointed end of the blade with your left. The fingers of your left hand should be extended flat as you rest them on the back side of the blade near the tip (but far enough in from the end so that your fingers won't slide off).

As you rock the knife back and forth sideways, "walk" the blade forwards and backwards. You will occasionally have to corral the bits of garlic as they spread out over the board so that they are all concentrated in one tight spot under the edge of the knife blade at what would be the fulcrum of your see-saw. Do this just by scraping your knife edge across the board to bring everything together.

Because garlic is sticky, you will also occasionally have to stop mincing so you can wipe the blade free of garlic. Do this by carefully running your finger down both sides of the blade, collecting the sticky bits of garlic on your finger and then using the back side of the knife to scrape the garlic back onto the cutting board.

Continue to mince, corral, wipe, scrape and mince some more until you have uniformly small bits of garlic. At this point you have "minced garlic"—perfect for many recipes.

To make a purée of the garlic, sprinkle a generous pinch of salt over the garlic. Something a bit coarse like a medium-fine sea salt or flaked kosher salt works well, but ordinary table salt will do.

Begin mincing again, this time to work the salt into the garlic. The garlic will continue to break down—due in part to the action of the knife, but mostly because of the presence of the salt which acts as an abrasive and also draws out the moisture in the garlic.

Once the salt has been worked in, turn your knife on its side again (as when you smashed the clove). The knife will not be completely flat on the board, rather it will form an acute angle where the board and the sharp edge of the blade meet. Begin to draw the knife over the garlic a bit at a time, placing pressure on the edge of the blade with your fingertips as you draw the knife to the left.

Tilt the blade up (now forming the acute angle between the back of the knife and the board ) and move it to the right again.

Once again, lay the sharp side down on top of more of the garlic and draw the knife to the left again, applying pressure.

Repeat this back and forth motion, moving from the left side of the pile of garlic to the right side, with each movement to the right pulling more of the garlic under the blade, until you have smashed the whole pile of minced garlic. Repeat this action two or three times. With each repetition, the garlic will have fewer and fewer "bits" and be more of a purée on the board.

If you are only working with a clove or two of garlic, soon it will seem that the garlic has disappeared. But it has not. Use the blade of the knife (placed almost flat) to scrape across the cutting board, moving from right to left. The garlic will appear along the edge of the blade. 

At this point the garlic may need a bit more of the mincing action to break up any stubborn bits of garlic. So go ahead and run the knife through the mincing motion again. Then finish working the garlic to a purée with the flat of the knife again. Scrape the purée of garlic up off of the board and scrape it from the blade (using your finger) into a bowl or receptacle of some kind.

If you are going to prepare an aïoli, deposit the garlic directly into a bowl along with some egg yolks, more salt and a bit of warm water (see the recipe below for quantities) and whisk until smooth. You are now ready to prepare your aïoli.

The aïoli sauce is not difficult to just requires a bit of patience. It is a member of the class of French sauces known as the "cold emulsified" sauces. The most basic—or "Mother"—sauce in this category is mayonnaise. If you can prepare a mayonnaise, you can prepare an aïoli. The principles and techniques are identical.

Mayonnaise is basically a creamy sauce of oil and vinegar (or lemon juice) held in a permanent suspension by the action of an emulsifier (something that naturally holds liquids and fat in a homogenous state). The emulsifier is the egg yolk (actually, the egg yolk contains the emulsifier—lecithin—in addition to some water and fat which are in turn held in a permanent suspension by the lecithin). Without the egg yolk, mayonnaise would simply be a vinaigrette. And like a vinaigrette would need to be re-whisked before each use in order to make it temporarily homogenous.

Unfortunately you can't just throw some liquid, oil and an egg yolk into a bowl and whisk them together and expect them to form a homogenous, emulsified whole. The oil must be very gradually introduced into the already stable emulsion contained within the egg yolk itself. This is achieved by consistent agitation of the egg yolk (via a whisk, a mortar and pestle, a food processor or a blender) as the oil is very gradually incorporated. As the volume of the emulsified sauce increases, the oil can be absorbed into the emulsion in larger quantities and can therefore be added more rapidly.

In recent years the word "aïoli" has unfortunately become a generic term for a flavored mayonnaise (at least in the U.S.). People who recognize the term (because they have eaten a "roasted red pepper aioli" or a "basil aioli" on a sandwich or a serving of fish at their favorite restaurant) may have never tasted a real aïoli. Aïoli is a very specific sauce—and it is not just garlic mayonnaise. Whereas mayonnaise is made with egg yolk, Dijon mustard (although not everyone agrees on this), vinegar or lemon and a neutral vegetable oil, authentic aïoli contains nothing but garlic, egg yolk and olive oil (not a neutral vegetable oil).

Occasionally you will find versions of this sauce that include a squeeze of lemon juice, but this is mostly to tame the bite of out-of-season garlic. I am not an expert on word etymologies, but I believe the word itself is derived from the old Provençal words for garlic and olive oil.

One of the reasons that I have called attention to this misuse of the term aïoli is that I want people to be aware that the terms aïoli  and mayonnaise are not really interchangeable.  The two sauces are distinctly different.  The character of an aïoli is nothing like that of a mayonnaise. Mayonnaise is a friendly, mild mannered sauce that takes well to all kinds of flavor variations and additions. Aïoli, on the other hand is astonishingly bold and robust. If you have had it, you will not have forgotten it. It is not a sauce that people have mild reactions to. I love it. If you were to decide that you wanted to flavor it in some way you would find that the flavor of your additions would be overwhelmed by the presence of the garlic and olive oil. I can only imagine that it became common in this country to call a flavored mayonnaise an aïoli because the term aïoli sounds sexy and chic on a restaurant menu.

If you have made it to this point, I thank you for hanging in there for a rather long post. I have always intended to use this blog as a place to occasionally take the time to write out detailed explanations of cooking techniques. I have found in my classes that this particular technique (smashing garlic to a purée) is of great interest to people. I've been told more than once by someone who went home and tried it and had some difficulty with it that I make it look much easier than it is. This is probably because it is a motion that is executed very rapidly—less than a minute from whole peeled clove to smooth purée. It will have taken longer than that to read my dissection of the process. It is probably difficult to absorb and retain the details of the process in a classroom setting. By writing the minutiae of the process down, I hope to provide some reference notes for people who have struggled to do it at home. With practice the process becomes natural, fluid and easy.

And what better way to practice than to prepare a Grand Aïoli for your friends...

Le Grand Aïoli

The Components (for 8 servings):
4 to 8 eggs
8 small or 4 medium beets (about 1 lb.)
1 lb. green beans, topped and tailed
1 large head cauliflower, cut into large florets (about 1 to 1 1/4 lb. trimmed weight)
1 to 1 1/2 lb. baby carrots, peeled—if baby carrots are not available, cut large carrots on the diagonal into long batonettes
1 to 1 1/2 lb. small new potatoes, scrubbed
2 lbs. skinless, boneless Halibut, Cod or other mild white fish, cut into 8 4- oz. portions
1 or 2 bunches radishes, greens and roots trimmed
Niçoise olives
Crusty French Bread
1 recipe Aïoli

Prepare the Components:
Place the eggs in a small sauce pan and cover with cold water. Bring just to the boil, turn off the heat, cover and let stand for 15 minutes. Refresh under cold water. Peel and halve or quarter.

Trim the beet greens so only a half inch or so of the stems remain. Leave the root intact. Scrub the beets. Place in a baking dish and add a splash of water. Cover with foil and bake in a 375° to 400° oven until tender to the tip of a knife—45 minutes to an hour. Allow the beets to cool. Trim and peel. Cut into halves or quarters.

The remaining vegetables should be cooked in boiling salted water until just tender. Remove the vegetables from the water and spread on towels to cool. Typically the vegetables are served room temperature or while still slightly warm. The green beans will take 5 to 8 minutes, the cauliflower about 4 to 8 minutes, the carrots 12 to 20 minutes—depending on their size and age, and the new potatoes will take 15 to 20 minutes. If you like, halve the new potatoes when they are cool enough to handle.

To prepare the fish, rub each filet lightly with oil and season with salt and pepper. Arrange in an oiled baking dish, add a splash of water (literally a splash—it will not even be enough to cover the bottom of the dish) and cover tightly with foil. Transfer to a preheated 400° oven and bake until just cooked. This will probably be about 10 minutes. The rule of thumb is 10 minutes per inch of thickness of the filets...but it will be slightly longer if you have a very heavy/thick baking dish. Do not overcook...remember that the fish will continue to cook after it is removed from the oven.

To serve:
Arrange the fish, cooked vegetables and eggs on large platters. Place the olives and radishes in bowls. Place several bowls of the aïoli sauce on the table and pass a basket of crusty bread.


6 cloves garlic, peeled
3 egg yolks
2 t. warm water
1 t. kosher salt
1 1/2 c. extra virgin olive oil (French, if possible. Barring that, I have had excellent results with Spanish oils.)

Smash the garlic to a purée with a few pinches of salt. Add half of the garlic to a medium-sized bowl, along with the yolks, warm water and remainder of the salt. Whisk until smooth. Then, very slowly, begin to add the oil in a fine stream, whisking constantly. If you add the oil too quickly, the mixture will not emulsify. As the emulsion begins to take hold, you will be able to add the oil a bit more quickly.

The aïoli will gradually thicken and lighten in color as the oil is added. If it becomes very thick before all of the oil is incorporated, thin with a few drops of water and continue to whisk in the rest of the oil. 

Taste the aïoli for seasoning, add more salt and more garlic—as you please. The aïoli will taste best if it has 30 minutes or so to sit. It is best eaten the day it is made. Refrigerate any leftovers. Makes about 2 cups.


• In Provence the fish of choice is poached salt cod, but any fresh mild white fish, simply cooked (poached, roasted or grilled), is a fine substitute. The vegetables too, are always simply cooked—poached in plain salted water or steamed. I have included vegetables in this recipe that are available at our Midwestern farmers' markets in July. They are typical of what one might find in Provence. Any vegetable that is fresh and in season can be included—fresh artichokes, summer squash, roasted red peppers, etc. Typical too is the inclusion of one or two raw vegetables—radishes, vine ripened tomatoes, sliced fresh fennel, thinly sliced red bell peppers, etc. Often a bowl of cooked chickpeas will be included in the spread. In France the feast will also usually include a platter of freshly cooked snails or stewed octopus.

• Classically there should be at least 6 different items (vegetables—raw and cooked, fish, bread) included in the feast...but frequently there are more. A good rule of thumb is to have, at a minimum, a half pound of (trimmed weight) vegetables per person, in addition to fish and hard cooked eggs. You should prepare enough of the Aïoli sauce to serve 1/4 cup per person.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Jar of Olive Oil-Packed Tuna and a Retro Tuna Salad

I had an interesting experience with a high-end "gourmet" food product last week that I thought might be worth sharing on my blog. It involved imported olive oil-packed canned tuna. Most of the time I don't use canned tuna for anything that would require such a special product. I keep a nice brand of canned solid white albacore (packed in water) on hand for making the occasional tuna salad sandwich. For years I have also used this kind of tuna to make Salade Niçoise. Although many chefs now make their Salade Niçoise with fresh tuna, classically it is made with canned, olive oil-packed Tuna. When I make mine, I simply "doctor" my drained water-packed tuna with olive oil and salt. I have always felt that my Salade Niçoise was very good. But since I am teaching Salade Niçoise in an upcoming class, I thought I should at least try one of the oil-packed imports.

When I went to Dean & Deluca to purchase some there was a large display with numerous brands. I hadn't realized that there would be such a large selection. I ended up purchasing the one recommended by the very helpful guy behind the counter. I have since found out that this was a highly regarded brand, so he obviously steered me in the right direction.

All of the tunas that they had were in roughly the same price category—something in the range of what I would call shockingly expensive. The one I bought was $15 for a 7 oz. jar that contained about 6 oz. of Tuna. This works out to be $45 per pound for canned tuna! I could purchase fresh sushi grade tuna and poach it in olive oil myself and it would be less expensive—even accounting for the added cost of the olive oil. I thought this tuna must be some pretty special stuff for that kind of a price. Something on a level with foie gras, for example. Better in fact, since a quick check over at D'artagnan reveals that I could have purchased a similar sized tin of paté de foie gras with black truffles for less than I paid for the jar of tuna.

When I opened the jar, it was with some anticipation that I tasted it. But I have to say that I was really unimpressed. It was good...but not that good. I decided to enlist another taste tester to do a blind tasting of the expensive import side by side with my reliable grocery store albacore (doctored with olive oil and salt). My taste tester surprised me and said they thought the expensive import had "a bit more flavor". (And this is true, it did.) I then said "Do you think it had EIGHT TIMES more flavor?" Well, of course, they didn't.

I'm not quite sure why I share this, except that I think it is instructive. I would never tell people not to purchase imported olive oil-packed tuna. It was, after all, very good. But what I would say, is that you shouldn't be seduced into purchasing something because it is the latest or hippest gourmet food.  Neither should you break the bank to slavishly replicate a classic dish if a lesser expensive ingredient can be substituted for one of the original ingredients and doing so doesn't compromise the integrity of the dish.  Always buy what you like—particularly if it is a good product that is readily available to you.  I would hazard a guess that this is the reason olive oil packed canned tuna was used in the original Salade Niçoise.  It was a quality, readily available food...and it happened to taste very nice in a green salad with tomatoes, green beans, hard cooked eggs and olives. 

Since after my taste testing experiment I had half a can of tuna left (expensive tuna that I wasn't about to waste), I needed to find a way to use it up. I could probably have looked around for a recipe for a tuna mousse or something, but there wasn't that much tuna left...and I was really more interested in coming up with something simple for dinner. Midway through the day I remembered a salad that my mother used to make on really hot summer days (something we have had a lot of lately). It was a cold pasta salad with tuna, peas and herbs. It was all bound together with a cool mayonnaise-sour cream based dressing. I hadn't had it in years. I thought I would try an updated version of this old favorite to use up my expensive tuna. It turned out to be a delicious trip down memory lane. But with fresh peas, fresh dill and crème fraiche (instead of sour cream), it was even better than I remembered it. It was a perfect dinner for a blisteringly hot day. It is not "gourmet", but it was very good. And it will be every bit as good if you make it with plain old solid white albacore tuna (perhaps doctored with some olive oil and salt...).

Old Fashioned Pasta Salad with Tuna, Peas & Fresh Herbs

1/2 c. crème fraiche (can use sour cream)
1/4 to 1/3 c. mayonnaise
juice of half a small lemon
Salt & pepper to taste
1 1/2 c. peas, blanched in boiling salted water and refreshed in cold water
6 oz. shell pasta, cooked until al dente, refreshed under cold running water and tossed with a little olive oil, salt & pepper
7 oz. can of tuna, drained and flaked (if using water packed, toss with a little olive oil, salt & pepper, if you like)
2 hard cooked eggs, diced
1 med stalk of celery, split lengthwise and thinly sliced (about 1/2 c.)
3 or 4 medium radishes, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise (about 1/3 c.)
half of a small red onion, finely diced and rinsed (about 1/3 c.)
1 T. chopped fresh dill
1 to 2 T. chopped Italian flat leaf parsley

Combine the crème fraiche, mayonnaise, lemon juice and salt & pepper in a small bowl. Whisk to blend. Taste and correct the seasoning. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the remaining ingredients. Fold in the dressing. Chill. Before serving, taste and correct the seasoning with lemon, salt and pepper. If the salad seems dry, add more mayonnaise. Serves 4 to 6

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Summer Tomato Tart

The first of the true vine ripened tomatoes began to hit the farmers' market a couple of weeks ago. There have been locally grown hoop-house and greenhouse tomatoes for several weeks now...and these are good...but they are nothing compared to a tomato that has been allowed to ripen—while still attached to the vine—under the hot summer sun. From now until the crop begins to dwindle in the fall we will bring home as many as we think we can eat each, yellow and orange cherry tomatoes, multicolored heirlooms and reliable jet stars. Most will be consumed raw—in salads or simply sliced, salted and drizzled with olive oil. Some will end up in a quick summer pasta, in a relish or on a BLT. A few will end up on a pizza, in a gratin or in a tart. Just this past week I put some of the first tomatoes of the season into a free-form tomato galette.

A free-form galette is another term for a crostata. The round of dough is placed on a parchment-lined baking sheet, the ingredients are layered in, and the edges are folded up and over the filling and pinched and pressed into place. In theory, nothing could be easier. But since tomatoes release abundant quantities of water as they bake, there are several things to consider when building the tart so you won't end up with a soggy, dough-y mess.  

The first thing to do is salt the tomatoes. This is the same treatment that was given to the squash in my previous post. Slice the tomatoes and spread them on two or three layers of paper towels and sprinkle them evenly and lightly with salt—about as much as you would sprinkle on if you were "seasoning to taste" (since some of the salt will be absorbed, you are in fact also seasoning the tomatoes with this step). The salt will draw some of the water out of the tomatoes—almost immediately liquid will begin to bead on the surfaces of the tomatoes. After 15 to 20 minutes, blot up the liquid with more paper towels. As you blot, you will realize how necessary this step is. The paper towels will be saturated with all of the liquid that would otherwise have come out while the tart was in the oven.

When you layer the tomatoes into the tart, resist temptation to pile in too many. They should be just barely overlapping—just enough to get good coverage so that the visible surface of the tart is a solid layer of tomato slices. Even though a lot of moisture has been drawn off through the salting process, the tomatoes contain still more. This water needs to be able to evaporate as the tart cooks. If the tomatoes are piled on top of one another, the juices coming off of the tomatoes on the bottom layer have no way of escape. For a tart with a diameter of 10 inches, you will only need 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds of tomatoes. I usually make up some of this weight (maybe 4 oz.) with cherry tomatoes. Halved and placed cut side up, the cherry tomatoes will contain their own juices within the little cups formed by their skins.

One other thing you can do to protect the crust from being saturated with tomato juices is to place something between the crust and the tomatoes...something that ideally will act as a barrier, protecting the crust from the liquid and at the same time absorbing some of that liquid. There are several ways to accomplish this. I have seen a couple of recipes that spread a generous layer of Dijon mustard over the raw crust. The mustard is allowed to dry a bit before the tomatoes are added. I haven't tried this particular method. It will certainly add complimentary flavor, but I would worry that some of the tomato juice might still get through. Other recipes add a layer of a good melting cheese (Susan Loomis uses Gruyère, Alice Waters uses Cantal). This is a very effective barrier. Some herbed goat cheese, or ricotta (mixed with a bit of flour and oil as in my Spinach & Spring Onion Tart) would also work well. Alice Waters adds a layer of wilted onions along with the cheese. Not only does this add great flavor (even more if herbs are added to the cooking onions...thyme, rosemary, or summer savory), it provides a layer that will absorb some of the tomato juices. It is this method that I used...a layer of a nice melting cheese on top of a layer of cooked onions. Some cooked leeks instead of the onions would be good too.

Finally, the tart should be baked on the lowest shelf of a hot oven. This will place it close to the heat source so the crust can start to set before the tomatoes begin to cook. If you have a baking or pizza stone, place the stone on the lowest rack (allow it to preheat for at least 20 to 30 minutes) and place the baking sheet with the tart directly on the stone. This will insure a cooked, well-browned crust. When you bake the tart, choose a rimless baking sheet or pizza pan so that you will be able to slide the tart off the pan and onto a wire rack immediately after removing it from the oven. If the tart is left to cool on the sheet pan, the crust will steam and become soggy.

This tart is best served slightly warm or tepid. Even if you want to serve it hot, it should definitely be allowed to sit for 15 or 20 minutes after it comes out of the oven (it can always be briefly reheated before serving). If cut into immediately, the still bubbling tomato juices contained within the crust will flow out all over the cutting board. If the tart sits for a few minutes, the juices will be reabsorbed by the tomatoes, onions and cheese. Not only will the tart slice more attractively if allowed to cool briefly, it will taste better too. And taste is really what this tart is all about...the intense, bright, summery flavor of vine-ripened tomatoes.

Provençal Tomato Tart

1 recipe Pâte Brisée (see below)
2 T. olive oil
2 medium yellow onions (about 12 oz.), halved and thinly sliced lengthwise
1 T. roughly chopped fresh thyme
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 lbs. vine ripened tomatoes (about 3 large)multi-colored heirlooms, if you can get them. If you like, substitute a few cherry tomatoes for some of the weight of the vine ripes.
4 oz. Gruyère, coarsely grated
2 to 3 oz. goat cheese, crumbled or broken into large pieces

Roll out the dough: Allow the dough to sit at room temperature for a moment or two so it will be easier to roll out. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface into a circle that is about 1/8-inch thick and is about 13 inches across. Trim any ragged edges. Brush off the excess flour. Transfer the dough to a parchment lined baking sheet. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and chill for at least 30 minutes.

While the dough rests, warm the olive oil in a sauté pan set over medium heat. Add the onions and the thyme, along with a generous pinch of salt, and cook until the onions are very tender—about 15 to 20 minutes. It's OK if they begin to caramelize, but it isn't necessary for them to do so. Set aside until they are completely cool (you don't want them to melt the butter in the crust). If you are in a hurry, place them in the refrigerator until they are cold.

While the onions cook, wash and core the tomatoes. Slice the tomatoes 1/4-inch thick and spread out on a double thickness of paper towel. If using any cherry tomatoes, halve them and arrange them cut side up on the towels with the vine ripes. Sprinkle the tomatoes evenly with salt and let them sit for about 20 minutes so they can give up some of their liquid. When you are ready to build the tart, blot the tomatoes with paper towels to absorb the excess liquid.

Spread the cooled onions in a circle in the center of the chilled pâte brisée, leaving a 1 1/2-inch border of dough. Scatter the Gruyère over the onions. Arrange the tomatoes on top of the Gruyère, overlapping them slightly. If using cherry tomatoes, arrange them attractively on top of the vine ripes. Arrange the goat cheese over the tomatoes. Pull up the edges of the crust and gently flip them over the filling to form a narrow, rustic edge. Pleat the dough as necessary, pressing lightly into place.

Set the tart on a baking stone positioned on the lowest rack of a preheated 400°. Bake until the tomatoes are bubbling, the cheese is browned and the bottom crust is crisp and browned—about 40 to 50 minutes. Immediately slide the tart off of the baking pan and onto a wire rack.  Let rest for 15 to 20 minutes before serving. 

Drizzle the tart with olive oil if desired.  Tart serves 4 as an entrée, or 8 as an appetizer with a small salad.

Pâte Brisée (Short Crust Pastry):
1 1/3 c. all-purpose flour (150g)
1/2 t. salt
8 T. cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces (114g)
3 to 4 T. ice water

Combine the flour and the salt in a medium-sized bowl. Rub the butter into the flour until the butter is in small pea-sized pieces. Drizzle 3 T. ice water over the flour/butter mixture. Using your hands, fluff the mixture until it begins to clump, adding more water if necessary. 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.