Monday, June 29, 2015

A Tart Cherry Crisp with Pistachios to Share with Friends

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that the season for tart cherries is fleeting.  People who love tart cherries watch carefully for them at the farmers' market—they usually only make an appearance once...possibly twice...depending on the microclimates of individual growers.  When they do appear you must be ready to use them...or freeze them...right away since they don't keep well at all.  Since June is typically a busy month with work, I almost always freeze them...looking forward to the delicious cakes, pies, tarts, cobblers and/or crisps to come.

There have been years when I have bypassed tart cherries altogether during their brief visit to the market simply because I didn't even feel like I had the time to pit and freeze them....much less pit them and then make something with them.  So it was this year.  I'm not even sure I saw them when they came to the market.  But then, in the midst of a busy week, a friend who has her own cherry trees showed up at the door of the classroom at The Merc in Lawrence with a big (4 lbs!) bag of beautiful tart cherries.  Even though I was tired, you better believe I took the time the very next day to wash, pit and freeze them. 

And I was so glad I did.  Within a day or two of freezing them I found out that there was going to be a potluck dinner in honor of some good friends who were going to be in town for a short visit.  I thought a tart cherry crisp sounded like the perfect dessert...a special treat to share with some very special friends.

If you have never frozen your own cherries, it is easy to do.  First, wash the cherries in a couple of changes of water.  Spread them on towels to dry.  Then, remove the stems and discard any that are mushy or showing signs of decay.  Pit them (I use a hand held cherry/olive pitter), making sure that you get all of the pits (you don't want anyone to break a tooth).  Spread the pitted cherries on a rimmed baking sheet in a single layer.  Place the baking sheet in the freezer.  When the cherries are rock hard, transfer them to freezer bags.  The cherries will keep well for a year...although, as with anything, they will be best if used sooner rather than later. 

The cherries can often be used directly from frozen, but frequently they need to be thawed first.  One of the difficulties with thawing cherries is that they release a lot of their juices as they thaw.  This can be dealt with by collecting the juices and placing them in a saucepan over moderate heat and simmering until thick and syrupy...or simply thickening the simmering juices with cornstarch....depending on the intended use.  The reduced or thickened juices can then be incorporated into whatever it is that you are making. 

I have always thawed my cherries in a bowl.  I noticed though in the recipe that I used as a template for my crisp that they recommended spreading the cherries out on a baking sheet to thaw.  I followed these instructions because I knew they would thaw more quickly when spread out than they would in a big pile in a bowl (I was in a hurry), but I was surprised when the cherries only released about a tablespoon of liquid.  I had even taken the extra step of spreading my cherries on a rack over the rimmed baking sheet in anticipation of all of the liquid they would release.   Despite the fact that it wasn't necessary, I still think it was a good move.  It made them easier to deal with since they weren't wet from sitting in the little liquid that they did produce.  And if they had produced a lot of liquid, no further draining or drying would have been necessary.  

Cherries thawing on a rack over a rimmed sheet pan....

The small amount of  liquid released
 from the thawing cherries onto the sheet pan....
I don't know if the lack of liquid was a result of the fact that the cherries had only been frozen for about three weeks, or the method I used to thaw them...I suspect it was a bit of both.  Either way, I plan on always using this method to thaw cherries in the future—it was fast, clean and there was almost no waste.  Best of all, the cherries behaved very much like freshly pitted cherries when I used them.

The recipe I adapted for my crisp was from Martha Stewart.  I was attracted to her use of pistachios in the topping.  I love pistachios and was curious to see how they would pair with the cherries.  I'm happy to report that they were delicious.  I'm sure you could go with the more traditional choice of almonds, but I highly recommend the pistachios if you can get them (look for raw and unsalted in the bulk section of your grocery store).

The crisp was a big hit with my friends...providing a satisfying end to a fantastic mid-summer meal of grilled meats and market fresh vegetables.  I was so pleased I had the cherries to share.  If you didn't happen to freeze your own cherries this year, you should make a mental note to purchase some to freeze when their season comes around next year.  In the mean time, I'm certain this crisp would still be wonderful with purchased frozen cherries...and a perfect addition to your upcoming Independence Day picnic or barbecue. 

Tart Cherry Crisp with Pistachios

1/2 c. light or golden brown sugar (100 g.)
1/4 c. granulated sugar (50 g.)
1 c. all-purpose flour (120 g.)
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. nutmeg
9 T. cold unsalted butter, sliced 1/4-inch thick (125 g.)
3/4 c. pistachios, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped (100 g.)
1/2 c. old-fashioned oats (45 g.)

Combine the sugars, flour, salt and nutmeg in a medium-sized bowl.  Rub in the butter until the ingredients are combined and have a crumbly appearance.  Stir in the pistachios and oats.  Refrigerate until ready to use.

2 2/3 lbs. pitted tart cherries, fresh or frozen (about 8 1/2 c.)
1 T. cornstarch (10 g)
3/4 c. sugar (150 g.)
1/4 t. almond extract

Preheat oven to 375°. If using frozen cherries, spread them in a single layer on a rack set over a rimmed baking sheet.  Let stand at room temperature until cherries have thawed almost completely but still hold their shape, about 30 to 45 minutes depending on the temperature of the room.  Place the cherries in a large bowl.  If the cherries have released a lot of liquid, pour the liquid into a small saucepan and reduce over moderate heat until thick.  Cool and add to the cherries.  If the cherries have released only a tablespoon or so of liquid, simply discard (or add to the bowl with the cherries).

In a small bowl, stir together the cornstarch and sugar.  Add this to the bowl of cherries, along with the almond extract.  

Stir until all of the cornstarch-sugar mixture is evenly distributed and moistened.

Turn the cherries into a shallow, buttered 3-qt. glass, ceramic or earthenware baking dish.  

Spread the crumb topping over all. 

Bake until the topping is golden and crisp and the fruit is bubbling (at the edges and near the center)—about 40 to 50 minutes.  

Cool slightly and serve warm with vanilla ice cream or lightly sweetened whipped cream.  Serves 10.

(Recipe adapted from Martha Stewart Living, August 2005)

  • If you prefer a sweeter crisp, add another quarter cup of sugar (white or brown) to the topping mixture. 
  • If you prefer a tighter, thicker fruit mixture in your crisp, increase the cornstarch by 1 to 1 1/2 t. 
Printable Recipe

Monday, June 22, 2015

Simple Food for Everyday...Basmati Pilaf with Mushrooms, Peas and Sage...served with a Pan-seared Pork Chop...

At home I don't very often prepare a traditional "meat-veg-starch" kind of meal ...the kind many of us grew up eating....the kind a friend recently decried as boring as she bemoaned the state of her everyday cooking.  At the time I encouraged her that there is nothing wrong with good, basic fare that has been prepared at home from scratch...  But I think that most of us—no matter what our level of skill in the kitchen—feel as my friend feels at one time or another....  The fact is, we cook things on a daily basis with which we are familiar...things we can execute successfully—without too much effort.  The ability to do this should be viewed as a good thing...not something to apologize for.  Feeding ourselves and our families well is the goal, after all.  Unfortunately, food TV...and blogs...have conditioned us to think that every meal should be new, different, exciting...a photo opportunity.

I thought of my friend as I was preparing my meal on Tuesday evening this past week.  My week was hectic...and I was tired of pasta (it does happen occasionally...) so I grabbed a pork chop at the store while I shopped for clients.  At home I knew I had available starches (all kinds of grains....potatoes....) and a few vegetables from the market....and that with the addition of the pork chop a nice dinner would happen.  And it did.  And because the meat-veg-starch pattern is not my personal norm, it felt kind of special. 

I admit that when I got home I discovered my pantry wasn't as full as I had thought.  I didn't have any potatoes...and none of the vegetables I had were plentiful enough to become a side dish for two.  But I did have rice....and some English peas and spring onions from the well as a few crimini mushrooms.  While gathering my ingredients, I stepped outside to see if I wanted to add some herbs and settled on some sage....traditional (some might say boring) and delicious with pork. 

Pulling all of this together quickly into a tasty meal is simply a matter of timing (thinking through the process before you jump in) and applying basic cooking skills (sweating, sautéing, blanching, pan-searing, roasting, resting...).  If you are a novice, this is a daunting task.  Anyone who has mastered all of this should feel great about it....not inadequate.  Helping people to do this every day is one of the reasons I teach cooking classes and keep a food blog.

I organized this particular meal around the preparation of the pilaf, knowing that the cooking of everything that went into the the cooking and resting of the pork...could be accomplished in the time it would take the pilaf to cook.  The sage I grabbed at the last minute turned out to be a wonderful unifying element...added to the mushrooms at the end of the cooking...and also to the pan with the pork chop (enabling me to drizzle buttery, sage-infused pork drippings over each plate).  I didn't time the meal, but I think it was only about half an hour...maybe a bit more...from the time I picked the sage to the moment when I folded the mushrooms and peas into the finished pilaf and sliced the rested pork. 

So, I wonder, was this meal boring?  Perhaps to some.  But to me, it was just the thing for a busy weeknight:  Quick, simple and absolutely delicious.  Every meal should be so boring.

Basmati Pilaf with Mushrooms, Peas and Sage

2 large spring onions, white and pale green portions diced (you should have about 1/2 cup) and a few inches of the green, thinly sliced cross-wise (to make 3 or 4 T.)
3 T. butter, divided
1/2 c. Basmati rice
a scant cup chicken stock
salt & pepper
4 oz. crimini mushrooms, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1/2 cup shelled peas
3 large sage leaves, cut into a fine chiffonade (about 1 T.)

In a small saucepan with a tight fitting lid, melt half of the butter over medium heat.  Add the white and pale green portions of the onion along with a pinch of salt and sweat until the onions are tender and translucent—about 5 minutes.  While the onions cook, heat the stock to a simmer and keep hot.

When the onions are tender, add the rice and continue to cook for a couple of minutes or until the rice is well-coated with butter and has begun to turn opaque.  

Add the hot stock and a pinch of salt.  Bring the rice to a rapid boil.  Cover reduce the heat to very low (or, transfer to a 375° oven) and cook for 16 minutes.  Remove the pan from the heat (or, the oven).  Scatter the thinly sliced green of the onions over the rice, cover again and let stand for 5 minutes. 

While the rice cooks prepare the mushrooms and peas.  Blanch the peas in boiling salted water until tender.  Drain and shock under cold running water.  (If using frozen peas, simply thaw by rinsing under hot tap water.)  Set aside.  Melt a tablespoon of butter in a medium sauté pan set over moderate heat.  Add the mushrooms, along with a pinch of salt and gently stew the mushrooms, stirring occasionally, until any liquid they have released evaporates and the mushrooms begin to sizzle and brown in the butter.  Taste and correct the seasoning.  Add the sage chiffonade and toss to combine...adding the last of the butter if the pan seems dry.  Remove from the heat and set aside. 

When the pilaf has rested for 5 minutes, fold in the mushrooms and peas.  Taste and correct the seasoning.  Serves 2

Note: Recipe is easily doubled..or tripled.  As you increase the size of the recipe...and therefore the size of the pan...choose pans that are wider than they are tall.

Pan-seared Pork Loin chop with Sage

Place a heavy sauté pan (cast iron or French steel are perfect) that is just large enough to hold the pork over medium-high to high heat.  While the pan heats, pat the surfaces of the pork dry with a paper towel and season the pork chop(s) well with salt and pepper.  Add a thin film of oil to the pan—when the oil ripples and a faint wisp of smoke appears, add the pork to the pan.  Regulate the heat to maintain an active sizzle (you will probably have to reduce the heat slightly).  When the pork is golden brown on the first side (after a couple of minutes), turn it over to brown the other side.  When the second side is golden brown, reduce the heat slightly and if you have thick chops, briefly place the chops on their edges, rotating and moving so that all of the edges are lightly seared. 

Return the pork to their first sides and add some butter to the pan (2 to 3 teaspoons per chop) and allow it to melt and foam.  For each chop add 2 large...or 3 or 4 small...sage leaves (tearing large leaves in halves or thirds) to the butter.  Turn the chops over a couple of time to coat and baste them in the sage and butter.  At this point you may continue to cook them on the stove top...or (and this is my preference) transfer them to a 375° oven to finish the cooking.  Whichever you choose, continue to turn the chops occasionally to baste them with the butter and encourage them to cook evenly. 

You should cook the pork to the doneness that you prefer.  I like mine to be juicy...with a faint touch of pink...which occurs just under 140°, so I remove my pork from the pan/oven when it is somewhere between 130° and 135° (the temperature will continue to increase as the pork rests).  When it has reached the temperature you like, remove the pork from the pan and pour the sage-infused butter and drippings over the pork.  Let rest for 5 to 10 minutes.  Slice (if you like) and serve with the drippings poured over. 

The length of cooking time will depend on the thickness of the pork chops, but for a chop that is around an inch thick, it reaches my desired temperature in about 12 to 15 minutes from the time I put it in the pan. 


Sunday, June 14, 2015

Miniature Chocolate, Cherry & Almond Cakes

Sweet cherry season is here.  It is true that tart cherries are in season as well...but tart cherry season is so brief, so ephemeral, that by the time I finish typing this post, it will be over. Sweet cherries on the other hand have a season that is abundant and long.  I look forward to it with anticipation every year and start purchasing them the minute I see them at the store.  I love them as a snack, but I also love to tuck them into all kinds of preparations, both savory and sweet. 

For several years now I have been teaching a class in June featuring items one might find in a French picnic basket.  I have always known that it is most likely that such a basket would include fresh fruit instead of dessert (sweet cherries would be perfect)...but also that a little bite of a sweet baked good wouldn't be out of place.  Moreover, that little bite of dessert will make all the Americans who take my classes happy.  The chocolate, sweet cherry and almond mini cakes that I have been teaching fill the bill quite well:  They are chocolate, loaded with cherries (right in the middle of cherry season), easy to pick up and eat with your hands...and developed by a French pastry chef (Aran Goyoaga of Cannelle et Vanille) to boot.

Aran Goyoaga's original cake (prepared by me...)
--a delicious...and cute!...little cake...
I like these little cakes a lot, but have always intended to change the recipe just a bit.  Even for my mild chocolate preferences, they are never quite as chocolate-y as I would like.  Furthermore, as cute as the whole cherry is—perched jauntily on top of each cake—it always seems to give people pause as they consider how to go about eating it.   Since I was scheduled to teach this class twice this year, I thought I would take the time during the interim between the two classes to work on a new version.

My altered recipe needed to meet several goals.  First, I wanted to keep all of the things I loved about the original—the method of incorporating the almond paste (more on that later), the use of fresh sweet cherries in combination with chocolate and almond, and the size and nature of the cake (it had to be packable and suitable for eating with your fingers).  Beyond all of this I wanted cakes that were more intensely chocolate (but not so overpowering in this regard so as to lose the flavors of the almonds and cherries) and I wanted them to be decorated in some simple way that advertised the presence of sweet cherries.

The cake I made met all of my goals.  Using more chocolate to get a deeper chocolate flavor was an obvious move.  Then, increasing the butter and adding sugar (the original recipe had no sugar other than what was already present in the chocolate and almond paste) gave a moister, denser texture.  The final cake is a bit like a cherry and almond brownie.  I'm not sure it would meet with French approval....but for Americans who for the most part are in love with fudgy brownies, the new version will probably seem just about right.  As for the garnish, I replaced the whole cherry with a scattering of chopped cherries and a shower of finely minced almonds and Turbinado sugar.

I mentioned that I liked the method Goyoaga used to incorporate the almond paste.  If you have ever baked a cake that used almond paste you have discovered that it can be difficult to work almond paste into the batter smoothly.  For a creaming method cake you can use the power of a stand mixer to beat the paste with the sugar and some cold butter until the almond paste has thinned and smoothed out a bit...thus enabling you to smoothly cream in the remaining butter. But since this cake uses melted butter, you can't use that method.  Instead, a small amount of the egg is worked into the almond paste to let it out.  

Once a smooth, thinner paste is achieved, the remainder of the egg and sugar can be smoothly incorporated.  This egg-sugar-almond paste mixture is then whipped until light and fluffy.  I had never encountered this technique before, and I thought it was pretty great.  You can work the initial almond paste/small amount of egg with the paddle attachment of the mixer...or even by hand with a wooden spoon. 

I was very happy with the way these little cakes turned out.  They taste strongly of chocolate and almond...but the cherry flavor comes through beautifully.  They are good warm from the oven...but are even better at room temperature or cold from the refrigerator.  They really are perfect for a picnic.  And, during the course of my testing, I discovered that the batter bakes up beautifully in an 8-inch square baking pan...producing delicious fudgy-creamy, cherry and almond brownies. So, even if you don't have a set of small ramekins, you can still make these little cakes for your next picnic.

Cherry, Almond and Chocolate Mini Cakes

135 g. unsalted butter (4 3/4 oz., 9 1/2 T.)
170 g. bittersweet (60%) chocolate (6 oz.)
170 g. almond paste (6 oz., 9 T.)
3 large eggs
100 g. sugar (1/2 c.)—see note
30 g. flour (1 oz., 1/4 c.)
1/8 t. salt
100 g. cherries (3 1/2 oz., 3/4 c.), pitted and cut into medium dice

3 T. finely minced almonds (20 g.), lightly toasted
3 T. Turbinado sugar (33 g)

Butter and flour 15 2 oz. ramekins and spread the ramekins on a baking sheet. 

Melt the butter and chocolate over a double boiler or in the microwave, stirring until smooth.  Set aside to cool.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the almond paste with one egg with the paddle attachment. When this becomes a smooth mixture, add the sugar and beat until smooth.  Add the rest of the eggs and switch to the whip attachment. Whip until light and fluffy—about a minute. 

Turn the machine to low and add the melted chocolate and butter. Mix until combined. 

Sift the flour over the egg-chocolate mixture, add the salt and scatter 2/3 of the cherries over the dry ingredients.  Fold everything together.

Using an ice cream scoop, divide the batter among the 15 prepared ramekins (using about 50 grams of batter per cake).  Scatter the remaining cherry pieces over the cakes, dividing evenly.  

Combine the toasted almonds and Turbinado sugar and sprinkle a teaspoon of this mixture over each cake.  

Place the cakes in a 350° oven and bake until a toothpick inserted at the edge comes out clean, but with a few moist crumbs when inserted in the center—depending on your oven somewhere around 20 to 25 minutes.

Remove from the oven and let cool in for five or ten minutes before turning out of the ramekins.  Cool on a wire rack.  (The cakes will sink slightly in the center as they cool.)

The cakes are delicious warm, room temperature, and chilled. 

  • If you do not have any 2 oz. ramekins, you may bake these cakes in a buttered and floured standard-sized muffin pan. You may also bake all of the batter in an 8-inch square baking pan. Butter the pan, line with parchment. Butter the parchment and flour the pan. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool completely before cutting into 16 to 24 bars. To cut, use a thin sharp knife dipped in hot water and wiped dry after each cut. 
  • If you like your chocolate dessert super moist and fudgy, add another 25 grams (2 T.) of sugar to the batter (for a total of 125 g.)
The moist, fudgy version (with 25 grams extra sugar)
...made in an 8-inch square pan

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Étuvéed Baby Potatoes...a New Favorite for Everyday

It has been my intention to share this "new" method for cooking baby potatoes since last fall.  So easy—anyone can do it...and so delicious—producing potatoes with tender, moist, and creamy interiors and skin that is tender in some spots, browned and lightly crisped in others....they have become a part of my regular repertoire.  Once you try them, I predict they'll become a part of yours too.

I first sampled these potatoes while visiting my friend Bonnie.  They are prepared with a simple étuvée—a gentle heat, stove-top cooking procedure that uses a minimum of liquid and a small amount of fat.  I have posted several recipes that use this procedure for a variety of different vegetables (celery root, leeks, asparagus and broccoli)....and I use it regularly...but for some reason I had never applied it to whole, unpeeled baby potatoes.  And I guess I have to say that I have been missing out.

Rather than type up the recipe in the traditional format, I'm just going to give a rough outline of how to proceed.  This is how Bonnie passed the "recipe" on to me...and I think it is best to do it this way to emphasize that it is a flexible procedure that can be done for any quantity of long as you choose the right size pan.  I always use Melissa's Baby Dutch Yellow Potatoes when I make them (and this is what Bonnie used too) because they are of a consistent good quality.  But the method should work with any small, "creamer"-style potato. (I admit that it's a bit ironic that I have finally gotten around to posting this recipe now.  I purchase Melissa's potatoes only during the months when I can't get beautiful, local potatoes...and the first of the local crop came into my market yesterday....) 

With Skillet Asparagus and Basil and Garlic Roast Chicken

To prepare the potatoes:  Rinse them well to remove surface dirt.  Place the potatoes, along with the water from their wash still clinging to them, into  a deep sided sauté pan...or a small sauce pan...that is just large enough to hold the potatoes in a snug—but not tight—single layer.  The pan should have a tight fitting lid.  Add some olive oil...and butter, if you the pan.  

Use just enough so that the fat will film the bottom of the pan once the butter has melted.  Salt the potatoes (in a quantity similar to what you would use if you were going to roast them) with kosher salt.  Place the pan over moderate heat and let the butter melt.  Slide the pan back and forth over the heat so that the potatoes will roll around and coat themselves in the fat.  

Cover and cook until the potatoes begin to sizzle...this will only take a minute or two.  Reduce the heat to very low and cook (covered), shaking the pan now and then, until the potatoes are tender to the tip of a knife and have begun to turn golden in spots.  

Depending on the size of the potato, this will take 20 to 40 minutes.  The potatoes should not aggressively pop and sputter as they cook...rather, they should give off an almost imperceptible sizzle...this is a gentle procedure.  When the potatoes are done, there shouldn't be any water left in the pan.  If there is, let them cook uncovered for a minute or two to allow the water to evaporate.  Give the pan another back and forth slide or two to give the potatoes a final baste.  Then, transfer them to a serving bowl...or individual plates...and serve.  Drizzle any fat remaining in the pan over the potatoes. 

I should note that when Bonnie prepared these, she used all olive oil.  They were delicious this way.  When I make them, I always add some butter because the butter browns a bit as the potatoes cook...and I love the taste of browned butter.  If you use butter, you will need to uncover the potatoes once or twice while they are cooking to make sure the butter isn't burning.  If the butter is threatening to burn, add a tiny splash of water to the pan.

I love the simplicity of these potatoes, but I'm sure they would be delicious with any number of additions.  You could add some whole, peeled cloves of garlic....sliced garlic...sliced or diced shallots...several sprigs of thyme, rosemary or sage.  You could probably cook potatoes this way in bacon fat too.  Simply render some bacon in the pan the potatoes will be cooked in.  Remove it to a plate when crisp, add the potatoes to the rendered bacon fat and cook as with olive oil or butter.  Serve with the crisped bacon crumbled over.  Some minced fresh herbs (parsley...chives...dill) would make a nice finishing touch too (with or without the bacon...).

Another thing I love about these potatoes is that they are easy to incorporate into any meal...big or small...that I might be preparing.  They take up only one oven space...and they hold well for service.  To hold them after they are finished cooking, simply set them aside in a warm spot with the lid ajar.  They will stay hot for some time while you finish the rest of the meal.  All of this is especially nice if you are feeding a crowd and other things (people...other parts of the meal...) are vying for your attention. 

 At the table, I like to crush the potatoes with my fork, mixing the salty skins in with the creamy interior.  It isn't necessary to embellish them further...but a pat of butter ...or drizzle of olive oil...or dollop of herbed sour cream....would probably be pretty nice.  If your entrée happens to come with drippings (from a roast chicken...or pan-seared chop).....or a sauce (salsa verde....aioli....)....these potatoes make a pretty efficient way to swab up every last drop.   They are the perfect potato for everyday.