Thursday, June 28, 2012

Ranch Dressing

Over the weekend I found myself with some leftover cornbread. It was not ordinary cornbread... it was an unusual Zucchini Cornbread that I found last year in Bon Appétit magazine. I decided that I wanted to do something with the remains other than simply snacking my way through them. Although, that would not have been a bad idea. Sweeter than most cornbreads—but not nearly as sweet as a typical zucchini bread—this bread is eminently snackable....with a slice of aged cheddar...a smear of ricotta....toasted with butter.... But I'm so glad I didn't do any of these things. Because as it turned out, this little loaf of leftover cornbread brought me around to a renewed appreciation for that old standby, Ranch Dressing.

As I considered what I might do with the bread, I remembered Frank Stitt's delicious recipe for Cornbread Panzanella that ran several years ago in Gourmet Magazine. To make the Panzanella, the cornbread is cubed and toasted and then serves as the "bread" portion of the salad. The cornbread he uses is a typical southern cornbread made with bacon drippings and without sugar. It is also on the dry side...perfect for sopping up the abundant juices of the summer vegetables in the salad. The Zucchini Cornbread I had on hand was really not much like this...sweet and moist and unfortunately without bacon...but I liked the idea of a salad.

This was all in the back of my mind as I was flipping through the current issue of Food & Wine. There, I came across a delicious looking salad of grilled peaches and onions, bacon, and ... Ranch Dressing. I have to admit that I tend to avoid Ranch Dressing.  It is so widely available...and frankly boring in its bottled form.  It is so hard to remember that things often become ubiquitous by virtue of the fact that they were pretty great in their original form.  As I examined the picture of this salad, I could practically taste the dressing. I knew that its cool and creamy presence was the perfect foil for the juicy peaches and salty-smoky bacon. When I skimmed through the recipe I noticed that this Ranch dressing was made with a healthy dose of fresh mint. This is a bit unusual. Typically Ranch Dressing is made with chives and parsley, but mint seemed perfect here. I then remembered that the accompaniment to Stitt's Cornbread Panzanella (and the lamb he served it with) was a pool of mint aioli.

Suddenly my dinner salad came together: A large Zucchini Cornbread "Crouton", nestled in a salad of sliced vine ripened tomatoes, topped with a room temperature medley of corn, bacon, zucchini and cherry tomatoes—with a generous drizzle of mint-spiked Ranch Dressing over all. The dressing really was the perfect touch.

I wish that I could give you an exact recipe, but in practice a recipe for a salad like this would seem a bit constraining. So instead of a recipe, I'll just give the basic idea of what I did. For each person: Roast an ear of sweet corn and cut the kernels from the cob. Cook off a couple of ounces of bacon until crisp. I cut mine into 2 inch lengths and cooked it, but it would probably be easier to cook strips and break them in random chunks. Thinly slice a small amount of red onion (maybe a quarter of a small one per person) and sauté it with a sprinkling of picked thyme in some of the bacon fat until tender and golden. Remove it to a plate and use the same pan to quickly sauté some zucchini. Since I was going after large chunks of vegetables in this salad, I halved the zucchini (maybe about 2 oz. per person) lengthwise and cut each half on a long diagonal into 1/4-inch thick slices. When tender and golden, add the zucchini to the plate with the red onions to cool.

To assemble the salad, slice (or wedge) some vine ripened tomatoes and spread on a plate (about 1 medium tomato per person). Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with the ranch dressing.

For each salad, brush a 3/4-inch thick slab of cornbread with a very light film of soft butter. I loved the sweetness of this particular cornbread with the tangy dressing and salty bacon...but any cornbread that slices nicely will work. Place the slices on a baking sheet and toast in a hot oven (450°)—or broil on both sides—until golden brown.

Place the cornbread croutons on top of the tomatoes (off center so it will be visible after the rest of the ingredients are added). Place the corn, zucchini and onions and some halved cherry tomatoes (5 or 6 per person) in a bowl and season with salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.

Toss to combine. Taste and add a squeeze of lemon or lime if necessary. Pile this mixture on top of the tomatoes and cornbread crouton. Drizzle some of the ranch dressing over all.

I thought this salad was very good....I will definitely make it again. And if I don't happen to have any leftover cornbread, I won't let that stop me. Next time I might add some roasted potatoes (which would be excellent with ranch dressing) to the salad as a stand-in for the cornbread. I love the combination of roasted corn and fresh tomatoes so I'm sure this mix of corn, tomatoes and ranch dressing will show up on my table again and again.

In fact, to finish off this batch of ranch dressing, I made another roasted corn based salad. Besides tomatoes, this one featured some of the meaty Romano beans (about 2 oz. per person) from one of my favorite growers at the market. To prepare them, trim the stem end and cut the beans into 1-inch lengths on the diagonal. Blanch in boiling salted water until tender. Lift out and cool on a towel. Combine the corn and cooled beans with some halved cherry tomatoes, a small amount of very thinly sliced red onion (rinsed and tossed with a splash of sherry vinegar) and a drizzle of olive oil. Build in the same way as the other salad, with a layer of sliced and seasoned vine ripes, a drizzle of dressing and then the roasted corn medley. Drizzle with more dressing.  It was delicious with a cheese quesadilla:

If you haven't ever made ranch dressing (or, if it has been a while), I encourage you to make a batch...the real stuff...from scratch (not a packet). Now is the perfect time. It's cooling effect is just the thing at the end of a hot day.

Ranch Dressing

1/4 c. Buttermilk or plain yogurt 
1/4 c. Sour Cream
1/4 c. Mayonnaise
1 small clove of garlic, smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
3 or 4 T. (or more) minced fresh herbs—chives and Italian flat-leaf parsley are traditional, but mint, basil and dill are all nice additions. I particularly like chives in mine, so I always try to include some chives.
1 1/2 to 2 T. lemon or lime juice
Salt & pepper

Whisk the first three ingredients together in a small bowl until smooth. Add the remaining ingredients, seasoning to taste with salt & pepper. I like my dressing to be pretty tangy, but add citrus to please your palate. Also, don't be shy with the salt—the dressing will be bland and disappointing if it is under salted. Makes a scant cup of dressing.

(Recipe adapted from Food & Wine, July 2012 and The All New Joy of Cooking)

Printable Version

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Two Grain Salads for Early Summer

I have always thought that pizza and pasta are two of the very best blank canvases upon which to improvise fresh, seasonal meals. A quick glance at the recipe page of my blog will bear this out. But if you are a regular reader, you will have also noticed grain based dishes showing up in this space with some frequency. I will always love pizza and pasta, but more and more I am turning to grains—particularly quinoa and farro—when I want to pull together a quick meal. Today I thought I would post two grain based salads—both bursting with the bounty of the late spring and early summer market—that we enjoyed this past week.

On the night I made the quinoa salad, I discovered two containers of roasted beets (one red and one golden) in the refrigerator (it has been a really good year for beets at the market). As I looked at the beets, I remembered the delicious Quinoa Salad with Beets and Avocado that I posted back in March of this year. Thinking of this put me in the mood for the quinoa. Because I didn't have any avocados or oranges on hand, I began to think about other things I did have that would be good with the beets and quinoa. It didn't take me too long to settle on some beautiful yellow wax beans that I had purchased at the market, some walnuts (good with beets and green beans) and some salty-tangy Kalamata olives. I served the salad as a stand-alone entrée with some halved hard-cooked eggs. We found it to be very satisfying, but if as a meal it seems a bit too Spartan for you, this salad would be delicious served as a side to salmon.

The Minted Farro Salad with Peas is one that I taught recently in a class on picnic foods. I found the recipe in Martha Stewart's Whole Living Magazine and I taught it almost exactly as I found it. At the time, it occurred to me that it would be very good with the addition of some sweet corn. So, since we are now in that narrow window of the growing season when both fresh shelling peas and sweet corn are available, I thought I would give the salad a try with the corn. It was fact, I think I like it even better with the addition of the corn. For dinner on the night I made this salad, we ate it as the main course (with some Bing Cherries for dessert). We enjoyed it very much, but I think it would actually be better served as a side dish. It would be great with chicken or pork and I suspect that its cooling presence would be particularly good alongside barbecue.

Both of these salads were perfect summer fare—light, refreshing and filled with the bounty of the season. Even better, they both held up very well under overnight refrigeration. In each case, I had a fine lunch the next day. If you are looking for a slightly unusual side dish for a picnic or a pot luck, either of these will fill the bill nicely. Or, if you are simply looking for a way to change up your same old-same old, I think they might just do the trick for that, too.

Quinoa Salad with Beets, Green Beans & Olives

4 medium-sized beets (about 2- to 2 1/2-inches in diameter), trimmed
Vinegar, to taste (whatever kind you prefer—red wine, white wine, sherry or balsamic)
Salt & pepper, to taste
2 to 3 T. olive oil, divided
1/2 c. walnuts
1 c. diced onion—use what you have, spring onions (with some of the green) or summer onions (that have not yet developed a papery skin)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 t. (scant) cumin seed
1/2 t. fennel seed
1 c. Quinoa, rinsed and drained
1 1/4 c. water
1/2 lb. green beans, trimmed and cut on an angle in 2-inch lengths
1/2 c. pitted Kalamata olive, halved lengthwise
1/4 cup mint, cut in a fine chiffonade
Lemon juice—to taste

Scrub beets and place in a shallow baking dish. Add a quarter inch of water, cover tightly with foil and transfer to a 375° oven. Roast until tender to the tip of a knife—this will be anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and fifteen minutes, depending on the beets. Uncover the beets and let cool. When cool enough to handle, trim the stem and root away. Rub the skin off using a paper towel. Cut the beets into 8 wedges and place in a small bowl. Taste. If the beets aren't very sweet, drizzle a little vinegar over them...this will accentuate their sweetness. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside. (See notes.) When ready to put the salad together, toss the beets with a drizzle of olive oil.

Spread the walnuts in a small baking pan and toast in a 350° oven until golden and fragrant—about 5 minutes. Cool. Break into medium-coarse pieces, drizzle with a small amount of olive oil and toss with some salt. Set aside.

Place the cumin and fennel in a small sauté pan and toast until fragrant over moderate heat. Watch carefully so that the spices don't burn. Transfer to a plate to cool. Grind with a mortar and pestle and set aside.

Warm 2 T. of olive oil in a medium sauce pan set over moderate heat. Add the onion along with a pinch of salt and sweat until onion tender—about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and spices and cook briefly (a minute or two) until fragrant. Add the quinoa and continue to cook and stir until the grain is well-coated with the oil, lightly toasted and hot through—2 or 3 minutes. Add the water, along with some salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and cook, until tender—12 to 15 minutes. Let rest, covered and off of the heat, for 5 minutes. Spread the quinoa on a sheet pan to cool.

While the quinoa cooks, blanch the green beans in a pan of boiling salted water until tender. Lift the beans out of the water and spread on kitchen towels to cool.

When all of the components are done (and cool/cold), place the quinoa, green beans, walnuts, olives, mint and golden beets in a large bowl and toss to combine. Taste and correct the seasoning with salt, pepper and lemon juice, if you like. If the salad seems dry, drizzle with some olive oil and toss again. If you are using red beets, wait to toss these in until just before serving the salad. Because they have been tossed with a bit of olive oil, they will not bleed as badly, but they will still bleed a bit. Adding them at the end, just before serving, will prevent them from coloring the salad too much. Serves 3 or 4 as an entrée; serves 6 as a side.

• The beets can be made ahead and refrigerated. I used both red & gold beets. If you use both, you must roast them in separate pans or the red beet will stain the gold beets.
• If serving as an entrée, add 4 hard cooked eggs, cut into halves or quarters. Or, serve with plain yogurt.

Printable Recipe

Farro Salad with Peas, Mint & Goat Cheese

2 T. Olive oil
1 c. diced onion—use what you have, spring onions (with some of the green) or summer onions (that have not yet developed a papery skin)
1c. semi-pearled farro, rinsed
2 c. water
1 c. peas (from 1 lb. in the pod)
zest of 1 lemon
1 T. lemon juice
2 to 3 t. olive oil
1/4 to 1/3 c. fresh mint—if leaves are small, leave them whole...otherwise cut into a chiffonade
2 to 3 oz. goat cheese, crumbled

Sweat the onion, along with a pinch of salt, in the olive oil until the onion is tender—about 5 minutes. Add the farro and continue to cook and stir until the farro is well-coated with the oil, lightly toasted and hot through—2 or 3 minutes. Add the water, along with some salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and cook, until tender but still firm in the center—about 25 minutes. Let the farro rest, covered, off of the heat for 5 minutes. When the farro is done, drain off the excess liquid and spread the farro on a sheet pan to cool.

Meanwhile, bring a small pot of water to the boil. Salt generously. Add the peas and cook until tender—about 2 minutes. Drain and refresh under cold running water to stop the cooking process.

Place the farro and peas, along with all the remaining ingredients in a large bowl and toss to combine. Serves 6 as a side salad.

(Recipe adapted from Martha Stewart's Whole Living Magazine, May 2011)

Sweet Corn Variation: Add a couple of ears-worth of sweet corn (roasted on the cob). The ears I used produced about 1 1/3 cups of kernels. I increased the farro to 1 1/3 cup (and the water accordingly) and added more olive oil and lemon juice to taste in the final salad.

Note: If you blanch the peas before you cook the farro, you can use 2 cups of the pea blanching liquid to make the farro.

Printable Recipe

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Chicken & Artichoke Paella

This past weekend I prepared a mixed seafood paella for a client. I was still thinking about it on Sunday, so on Monday evening I prepared a small paella for our dinner. A mixed seafood paella can be a bit of a production—especially for a small group and on a weeknight—so for our paella I made a streamlined chicken version using some chicken thighs that I already had on hand. I also had some lovely California artichokes in my fridge and some of the last shelling peas from the farmers' market. It all came together to make a relatively simple and easy dinner...perfect eating for late spring/early summer.

Unfortunately, I have never been to Spain—and I am not an expert on paella—so I'm not going to spend any time on this post going into the details of the method involved in making a good paella—there is actually quite a bit of good information available on the web on this subject...people who are presenting the information much more knowledgeably than I could. Instead, I am offering a relatively detailed recipe that will walk you step by step through exactly what I did. My recipe is a combination of way too many that I have seen to cite them all, but I will say I am indebted to my friend Nancy for doing the trial and error leg work involved in discovering that an All-clad braiser is the perfect sized pan for making a paella for four using 1 1/4 cups rice. (Thanks Nancy!)

Those familiar with traditional paellas will notice my slightly unusual method for preparing and adding the chicken. Typically the chicken would be browned in the pan the paella is made in—the onions and other vegetables would then be added around the chicken, followed by the rice and then the liquid. But since the rice only takes 20 to 25 minutes to cook (plus a 10 minute rest), I have partially cooked the chicken before adding it to the pan with the liquid. Twenty to twenty-five minutes is plenty of time for the chicken to be cooked to a safe temperature...but not, to my way of thinking, enough time to become as tender as chicken thighs should be. So that none of the flavor of the browned chicken is lost, remember to deglaze the pan it is cooked in, then reduce the deglazings and add them to the paella along with the chicken.

For some people, there might not be enough chicken in this recipe. To me, Paella is all about the rice. The meat/seafood is a nice garnish...but what I really want is the flavorful rice. If you are a person who wants more protein with your meal, then you might want to add more chicken thighs. The size pan I used will easily accommodate 2 to 4 more.

Finally, when I made our paella, I only used two artichokes. That was all I had in my fridge. If I were to make this again, I would use three (I love artichokes). If you don't want to turn fresh artichokes to make this dish, you may use jarred or frozen (thaw before adding) artichoke hearts. Add them with the peas. But if I can get in a plug for fresh here, I would encourage you to turn your own fresh ones—they taste so very good...and it's always a good thing to practice turning artichokes.

The leftovers (with the meat pulled off of the bone) made an excellent lunch

Chicken & Artichoke Paella

2 1/2 c. chicken stock or low-salt broth
1/8 t. saffron threads
1 large vine-ripened tomato (6 to 8 oz.)
4 chicken thighs (about 1 1/3 lb.)
salt and pepper
3 to 4 T. extra-virgin olive oil
2 to 3 artichokes, turned and cut into 8 wedges each and tossed with the juice of one lemon
1 small onion (about 5 oz.), minced
2 to 3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 to 4 oz. dry Spanish chorizo, casing removed and cut into 1/4-inch thick slices (if the chorizo is especially fat, halve or quarter it lengthwise before slicing)
1 1/4 t. smoked paprika (sweet paprika is fine if you don't have smoked)
1 bay leaf
1 1/4 c. Arborio or Carnaroli rice
1 c. hot water
1/2 c. shelled peas (use frozen if fresh are not available; thaw before adding)
Minced Italian flat-leaf parsley and lemon wedges

Preheat the oven to 375°. Place the stock in a saucepan. Add the saffron and bring to a simmer. Remove the pan from the heat and cover to keep hot. Halve the tomato cross-wise and coarsely grate the tomatoes into a bowl or onto a plate. Discard the skin and reserve the tomato pulp.

Season chicken with salt & pepper. (It's best if you can do this step the night before, but the dish will still be good if the chicken is seasoned just before it is cooked.) Heat some of the oil in a sauté pan set over moderately high heat. Add the chicken to the pan, skin side down and cook until the skin is rendered and golden brown. Regulate the heat as necessary to maintain an active sizzle. Turn the chicken over and transfer the pan to the oven. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove the chicken to a plate. Pour off the fat from the pan. Deglaze the pan with a bit of water and reserve the deglazings with the chicken.

While the chicken is browning, heat a bit more oil in a wide braiser or paella pan (the diameter of the cooking surface should be 9 to 10 inches) set over moderate heat. Add the artichokes to the pan, leaving the lemon juice behind in the bowl.

Sauté, turning occasionally until browned in spots—about 5 minutes. Add the onion and garlic to the pan along with a generous pinch of salt. If the pan seems dry, add more oil. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are tender. You may need to reduce the heat a bit, but it's ok if the onions begin to turn golden around the edges. (See note on onions below.)

Add the chorizo to the pan. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the chorizo is sizzling—one or two minutes.   Add the paprika and bay and cook until fragrant—another minute or two.

Add the reserved tomato pulp to the pan and cook until reduced and thick.

Add the rice to the pan. Stir to coat in the tomato-onion-spice mixture. Continue to cook for a couple of minutes until hot through and beginning to want to stick to the bottom of the pan.

Add the hot stock to the pan. Stir, scraping the bottom of the pan to make sure the rice isn't sticking and give the pan a gentle shake to distribute the rice in an even layer. Make sure that all the rice is submerged. Taste the broth and add salt if necessary. Add the chicken thighs to the pan skin side up along with any deglazings and resting juices.

Simmer over moderate heat until the liquid is thick and the rice is partially cooked—about 10 minutes. Add the peas and stir in. Give the pan another shake to make sure the rice is in an even layer. Most of the broth should have been absorbed, but the rice will still be a bit soupy and loose in the liquid after stirring in the peas.

If it is not, add hot water until it is. Transfer the pan, uncovered, to the oven. Bake until the rice is tender, but still just slightly al dente—about 10 to 15 minutes. Taste the rice a couple of times while it is baking. If the liquid has evaporated and the rice still seems hard, dribble more hot water, a few tablespoons at a time, over the rice and continue to bake. When the rice is ready, remove the pan from the oven. Cover the pan and let it rest for 5 minutes. Uncover and let stand another 5 minutes (it really does keep getting better as it sits). If you like, garnish with a shower of minced parsley and lemon wedges. Serves 4.

Note: When I made this, I used fresh summer onions from the farmers' market. These kinds of onions have not formed a papery skin, are quite juicy and cook very quickly. If you are making this dish with storage onions, either turn the heat way down and cook them slowly so the artichokes and onions won't get too brown before the onions are tender. Or, lift the artichokes out of the pan, add more oil, and add the onions and garlic to the pan and cook them thoroughly before returning the artichokes to the pan and proceeding with the recipe.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Market Food—an Impromptu Warm Salad of the first Heirloom Tomatoes of the season, Summer Squash & Green Beans

 Just a quick post today. Things have been a bit crazy of late and I haven't had too much time to cook for myself (or post to my blog). But a few nights ago we had such a wonderful quick meal of fresh-from-the- market vegetables that I wanted to share it here.

I came home from the market with the first heirloom tomatoes of the season. They were beautiful and perfectly ripe and I couldn't wait to eat them. They became the foundation of our "Warm salad of Tomatoes, Summer Squash & Green Beans." I wasn't planning on writing a post, so all of the quantities on the ingredients are "after the fact" estimates. I was cooking for two, but you can obviously make a dish like this for as many as you like.

I will be up front and let you know that this dish stands or falls on the quality of the ingredients. If you have insufficiently ripened tomatoes, overly large squash or slightly fibrous green beans, I would not bother with this dish. But, if you have access to a local growers' market of some kind, this dish—and others like it—will be easily within your reach.

To begin, put a small pot of water on to boil. While the water comes to a boil, trim the stems off of a handful (3 to 4 oz.) of green beans. Blanch the beans until just tender. Lift them out and spread them on a towel to cool and steam dry.

While the beans are cooking, top and tail a couple of small (2 oz. each) summer squash. If you have both green and yellow, use one of each. Halve the squashes lengthwise and then cut the halves cross-wise into 1/4-inch thick half moons. Set aside.

Toast a couple of tablespoons of walnuts (350°...about 5 minutes) and let cool. Chop the walnuts so that they are mostly fine with a few larger pieces. Mince a small clove (an inner clove is perfect) of garlic. Pick the leaves from a few sprigs of thyme and coarsely chop.

When the green beans are cool enough to handle, cut them in 1 inch lengths on a slight diagonal—you basically want to match the size of the squash.

Cut up a few tomatoes of varying shapes and sizes and colors. Cut some in slices, some in wedges and halve any cherry tomatoes. I probably used 9 or 10 oz. of tomatoes for two of us. Arrange the tomatoes attractively on two plates. Set aside.

Heat a sauté pan over moderately high heat. When the pan is hot, add some olive oil and the squash. Sauté the squash until it is golden brown in spots and just barely tender—it should still have texture and not be at all mushy—if the heat is high enough, this will only take a minute or two.

Season with salt, reduce the heat and add the thyme and garlic and cook until fragrant—30 seconds or so. Add the green beans and walnuts and more olive oil—enough to coat the vegetables and give them a nice sheen, but not so much that they are swimming in oil. Continue to toss over the heat until the beans are just warm. Season with salt (don't be stingy with the salt) and pepper.  

Season the tomatoes with salt and pepper. Spoon the warm squash mixture over the tomatoes. Crumble some goat cheese (about a half ounce per person) over the plates and serve.


Saturday, June 9, 2012

Apricot Custard Tart with Almonds

I taught a class this week featuring a few of my favorite summer fruit desserts. One of the desserts was an Apricot Custard Tart with Almonds. This tart has been in my repertoire for years, but it had been a while since I made it. I had forgotten how good it is. Soft, creamy custard, perfumed with almond and punctuated with the bright tang of really is an excellent summer tart. I returned home from my class wanting another piece. So, the next day I made a point to go to the store to pick up some apricots.

Unfortunately, the apricots at my grocery store didn't look so great. But right next to the apricots there was a big bin of beautiful "Black Velvet Apricots". If you have never come across this kind of apricot before, they look pretty much like what you would imagine upon hearing the name: the skin is a purple-y black with the velvet feel of an apricot. Since they looked so nice, I thought I would give them a try in the tart.

When you read through the recipe, you will notice something a bit unusual for a pastry recipe. For a couple of the ingredients, the quantity is given as a range rather than a definite amount. This is because the amount of custard is too much for a 9-inch tart—but half a recipe would not be enough. The quantity is actually a better fit for a 10 1/2-inch tart pan...but most people don't have this size (9-inch is the standard size called for in most recipes). So the smaller amounts listed for the fruit and almonds are for a 9-inch tart and the larger amounts are for a 10 1/2-inch (you should have more than enough custard for either size). No matter what size you choose to make, you should be aware that the amount of fruit called for in the recipe is really only a guideline anyway. You may pack the fruit into the shell as tightly or as sparsely as you like—depending on what kind of ratio of custard to fruit you prefer.

Any custard that you have left after building your tart can be used to make a little cook's treat: Fill a buttered ramekin or shallow gratin with a layer of fruit (any berry or stone fruit will work) and pour the custard over. Bake in a 375° oven until puffed, golden and set. Cool slightly, dredge with powdered sugar and enjoy.

When I got home with my Black Velvet Apricots and cut in to one, I realized that what I was looking at was actually a cross between an apricot and a plum.

There are many such crosses on the market...plumcot, aprium, pluot...usually the name reveals that it's a cross. I suppose I should have guessed that this was a cross with a plum just by looking at the color of the skin, but I didn't. The first thing that gave away the Black Velvet Apricot's lineage was the pit. It looked much more like the pit of a plum than an apricot—although it was not as tightly attached to the flesh as it usually is in a plum (one of the nice things about apricots is how easy the pit is to remove). The next thing I noticed was the flesh. Although deep orange like an apricot, it had the slightly translucent quality of a plum. I tasted one. It was quite juicy with sweet flesh and tart skin...just like a plum.

I have never made this particular tart with plums, so I wasn't sure how it would work. Apricots have a drier flesh than plums and I was concerned this apricot-plum cross might be a bit juicier than the custard could handle. Over the years I have made this tart with fruits other than apricots. I have found that it works well with Bing Cherries and with Berries (I posted a version made with raspberries and red currants from the St. Paul farmers' market a couple of years ago). So, since the custard and crust were ready to go....and I really wanted to eat a slice of apricot custard tart...I decided to go ahead and give it a try.

The Black Velvet Apricots made a beautiful tart. Just like plums, their skins turn a jewel tone purple when they cook, so the tart underneath the almond topping is a pretty mosaic of purple, cream and apricot. It tasted good too. But, just as I suspected, the Black Velvet Apricots released a bit more juice during the cooking process than a plain apricot would, making for a much softer and more delicate tart. If I had my choice, I would always make this tart with traditional apricots. But, if Black Velvet were the only ones available, I would use them again. Either way, this is a delicious summer fruit tart.

Apricot Custard Tart with Almonds

2 eggs
1/2 c. sugar
2 T. all-purpose flour
1 c. heavy cream
1/2 t. almond extract

1 9- to 10 1/2-inch blind-baked sweet tart crust (recipe below)

3/4 to 1 lb. ripe apricots, halved, pitted and sliced 3/4-inch thick
2/3 to 3/4 c. sliced almonds
powdered sugar

In a small bowl, whisk the eggs with the sugar. Whisk in the flour. Add the cream and the almond extract and whisk until smooth. Set aside.

Arrange the apricots in concentric circles in the pre-baked tart shell. Carefully pour the custard over, jiggling the pan a bit to help distribute the custard. You may not need all of the custard—there should be just under a quarter inch of space between the top of the custard and the rim of the shell. Scatter the almonds over the surface of the tart.

Place the tart on a baking sheet and bake at 375° until custard is puffed and the tart is golden—about 30 to 40 minutes.

Cool slightly. The tart may be served warm or at room temperature. Sprinkle with powdered sugar before serving. Chill any leftovers (however, the tart is best eaten the day it is made). Serves 8 to 10

(Recipe adapted from Four Star Desserts by Emily Luchetti)

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

Briefly cream the butter and sugar together until smooth. Beat in the egg yolk and the vanilla. Add the flours and mix until well combined. 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 or the rolling pin 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—10-15 minutes. (It is not necessary to fill this crust with pie weights.)

Note: This amount of dough is enough for 1 1/2 9-inch tart pans. 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.


Monday, June 4, 2012

Cherry Tomato & Green Bean Salad

The summer produce arrived at my farmers market a month early this year. I have already written a post about the zucchini that showed up a couple of weeks ago. Last week the new potatoes arrived and this week sweet corn. It's a bit overwhelming. For two weeks in a row now I have brought home some lovely multi-colored cherry tomatoes and young green beans. Today I thought I would share a simple little salad I made with these last two.

Besides the tomatoes and green beans, the only ingredients in the salad are olives and a mustardy vinaigrette. You could add other things—some toasted pine nuts...maybe a few poached or roasted new potatoes...later in the season some cooked, fresh shell beans—basically anything that goes well with tomatoes, green beans and olives and will stand up to the strong mustard kick of the vinaigrette. I have made the vinaigrette with a larger than usual amount of Dijon mustard—without it the salad tastes a bit flat to me. Also, because Dijon is an emulsifier, adding a little extra makes for a thicker vinaigrette that clings more readily to the vegetables.

I am including a recipe, but a recipe really isn't necessary. The salad is basically made up of equal weights of green beans and tomatoes with olives and vinaigrette added to taste. The very simplicity of this recipe makes it a perfect little side (for hamburgers) at a time of year when you might want to spend more time outside enjoying your food than you spend inside preparing it.

Cherry Tomato & Green Bean Salad with Olives and a Mustard Vinaigrette

3/4 lb. green beans, stems trimmed and halved crosswise on a short diagonal
3/4 lb. cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered (depending on their size)
1/2 to 2/3 c. pitted Kalamata olives, quartered
Dijon Vinaigrette (recipe below)

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Drop the beans into the boiling water and cook until just tender. Lift out and spread on some paper or kitchen towels to cool. Cooling the beans by shocking them in cold water will leave a film of water on them that will dilute the vinaigrette. When they are spread out on towels, they will steam dry as they cool.

Place the tomatoes and olives in a bowl large enough to hold all of the vegetables. Drizzle in some of the vinaigrette and toss to combine.

When you are ready to serve, add the green beans and more of the vinaigrette and toss. Taste and correct the seasoning.

Serves 4 to 6.

Note: The green beans are added just before serving because the acidity of the vinaigrette will turn them an army green color. If this doesn't bother you, you may add them at any time. Allowing the vegetables to sit in the vinaigrette for a while will only add to the flavor of the salad.

Dijon Vinaigrette

2 T. red or white wine vinegar
1 shallot, finely diced (about 3 T.)
Salt & pepper
2 T. Dijon mustard
2/3 c. extra virgin olive oil
2 t. minced fresh Tarragon (or instead of adding Tarragon to the vinaigrette, add minced Parsley or Basil chiffonade to the finished salad in a quantity that pleases you)

Place the vinegar and shallots in a small bowl and set aside for a few minutes to let the shallots soften. Season the vinegar and shallots with salt and pepper. Whisk in the mustard until smooth. Gradually whisk in 1/2 to 2/3 cup of the olive oil in a thin stream to form an emulsion. Taste and correct the seasoning, adding more olive oil if the vinaigrette is too sharp for your taste—but remember that it will be considerably milder when eaten with the vegetables. If you are unsure, dip a tomato or green bean into the vinaigrette and judge the balance that way.