Monday, September 28, 2015

A Salad of Beets, Pears, Nuts & Cheese...with Bacon & Arugula

I had not planned on posting this salad this week...or ever, actually.  After all, salads with beets and goat cheese...or pears and blue cheese...are ubiquitous.  But as is almost always the case when a recipe persists in popularity over the long haul, there is usually a reason:  the original was—and still can be—truly delicious.   Preparing such a recipe—one that stands up to the original—is always about choosing the best ingredients...and of course, combining them with care.

I was reminded of this as I prepared a salad of roasted beets, pears, cheese, nuts and bacon—a combination of these two aforementioned salads—over the weekend for some dinner clients.  The beets were sweet...the pears were perfectly ripe and juicy....and both were set off to perfection by the spicy-sweet pecans, crispy bacon and pungent blue cheese.  It looked so good to me that I prepared it for dinner at my house the next night.  I didn't happen to have any blue cheese on hand...but I did have some nice goat cheese, which made a more than adequate stand in. 

This particular salad is from Frank Stitt's Southern Table, and his fondness for the ingredients of his native south is on full display.  Where some add olives for a salty counterpoint to the sweetness of the beets, he adds bacon...which also happens to go beautifully with the pears (and blue cheese).  And in lieu of the more commonly chosen walnuts, he uses pecans...all dressed up with sugar and spice.  I find his variations to be inspired.  And judging from my clients' enthusiastic enjoyment, so did they.  I think you will too.  Right now...while beets and pears are in the perfect time to give it a try. 

Autumn Salad of Roasted Beets, Pears,
Blue Cheese & Pecans

1 lb. Beets (trimmed weight), scrubbed & stemmed
Balsamic vinegar, to taste
6 oz. bacon, cut into 1-inch squares
2 large Bartlett pears or 3 small Seckel pears,
6 handfuls of arugula (about 4 to 6 oz.)
Sherry Vinaigrette (see below)
3/4 c. Toasted pecans or Spiced Pecans
4 to 6 oz. Fourme d'Ambert, Roquefort, Gorgonzola or Stilton...crumbled, cubed or sliced; Or, you may use crumbled goat cheese

Preheat the oven to 375°.  Place the beets in a roasting pan and add 1/4-inch of water.  Cover the pan with foil and roast the beets until they are tender all the way through—about an hour, depending on the size and age of the beets.  When the beets are cool enough to handle (although they should still be a bit warm), trim the roots and stems off and gently rub the skins off using a paper towel.  Cut the beets into thin wedges—or halve them and slice them cross-wise—and toss in balsamic vinegar to taste.  Season with salt & pepper and set aside. (The beets can be made ahead.  Chill until ready to serve.)

Render the bacon until crisp...set aside.

When ready to serve the salad, quarter and core the pears.  Cut each quarter into thin wedges (about the same thickness as the beet wedges) and toss with a small amount of the vinaigrette.

In a similar manner, dress the beets with a small amount of the vinaigrette.

Place the arugula in a large bowl, season with salt and pepper and drizzle with just enough of the vinaigrette to lightly coat.  Toss well.  Arrange half to two-thirds of the beets, pears, bacon, pecans and cheese on the plates.  Divide the arugula among the plates.  Arrange the remaining beets, pears, bacon, pecans and cheese attractively over the greens (some on top and some nestled in among the lettuces).  Serves 6.

Sherry Vinaigrette:
2 T. Sherry vinegar
1 small shallot, finely diced
Salt & Pepper
6 T. olive oil

In a small bowl, combine the vinegar and shallot.  Season to taste with salt & pepper and set aside for a few moments to allow the shallot to soften.  Gradually whisk in the oil, adding it in a thin stream.  Taste and correct the seasoning and the vinegar balance.

(Recipe adapted from Frank Stitt's Southern Table)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A Pear & Walnut Torte to Welcome Autumn

I have been making a lot of noise this year about not wanting the summer to end.  I love autumn and autumn foods...and I always look forward to each seasonal shift—along with the accompanying shift in foods—with great anticipation.  My attitude this year has surprised me a bit.  Since I figured my attitude would eventually iron itself out, I have just continued to enjoy the fruits and vegetables of summer with great relish.  But yesterday evening, I was served a delicious kale, butternut squash and mushroom salad at the home of a friend.  What could be more autumnal than that?  And on Sunday—in preparation for a class—I made a pear and walnut torte.  It too was delicious...just what I was hungry for, as it turned out.  Suddenly autumn is looking pretty good.

Since I don't have the recipe for the salad, I will share the recipe for the torte.  I developed the recipe a few years ago for a class that had been advertised as having a dessert featuring fresh figs.  As the class approached, it became apparent that there were not going to be any fresh figs...I had scheduled it too late in the season.  Pears, on the other hand were abundant and delicious. 

And this cake is all about the pears.  When I was working on it, I chose each flavor element because of its natural affinity for pear: a hint of cloves to accentuate the aromatic and subtle spiciness of a good pear, lemon to heighten the flavor and at the same time provide balance to the sweetness of the pears, and finally, slightly bitter walnuts which add a little richness and a nice depth of flavor to what is essentially a pretty light cake.  When you take a bite, you might not be able to identify the tastes of clove or lemon or walnut.  But you will most decidedly be aware of the flavor and fragrance of the pears.     

Since the class was to feature stream-lined, weeknight fare, this cake is necessarily a simple one.  But this is the kind of cake I like to eat best any way.  It is moist, tender and flavorful and doesn't really need adornment of any kind....although, a light sprinkle of powdered sugar, or a dollop of whipped cream wouldn't be a bad thing.  If you happen to have ripe pears on your counter, it is likely your pantry will contain all the other ingredients necessary to make the cake.  You could bake it this afternoon and serve it for dinner tonight....sort of a "Welcome autumn...I'm so happy to see you" kind of treat. 

Fresh Pear & Walnut Torte

2 or 3 ripe pears (about 1 lb.), peeled, quartered cored and cut into scant 1/2-inch thick wedges (see notes)
1/2 T. lemon juice
2 T. sugar

1 c. all-purpose flour (120 grams)
1/4 c. walnuts, lightly toasted and finely ground (30 grams)
1 t. baking powder
1/8 t. ground cloves
3/8 t. salt

8 T. unsalted butter, softened
1/2 c. sugar
1/4 c. golden brown sugar
Zest of 1 small lemon
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/4 c. plain yogurt or buttermilk
1 t. vanilla

1 T. sugar

Grease a 9- by 2-inch round cake pan.  Line with a round of parchment and grease the parchment.  Flour the pan and tap out the excess. 

Place the pears in a medium-sized bowl and toss together with the lemon juice and 2 T. of sugar.  Set aside.

In a small bowl, combine the flour, walnuts, baking powder, cloves and salt.  Set aside.

Cream the butter with the sugars and zest until light and fluffy—3 to 5 minutes.  Beat in the eggs one at a time.  Beat in the vanilla.  Fold in half of the dry ingredients.  If the pears have given up a lot of juice, add this juice, along with the yogurt, to the batter and fold in.  Fold in the remaining dry ingredients. 

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, spreading evenly.  Arrange the pears in a snug spiral on top and sprinkle with the remaining tablespoon of sugar.  

Made with Bartlett pears
Bake the cake in a pre-heated 350° oven until a toothpick inserted in the center (in the cake, not the fruit) comes out clean—about 50 minutes to 1 hour.  Let cool in the pan for ten minutes before removing from the pan.  To remove, run a palette knife around the edge and flip the cake out of the pan.  Flip it back over onto a cooling rack and allow the cake to cool completely before serving.  If you like, dredge sparingly with powdered sugar before serving.  Serve with softly whipped cream or crème fraiche.  Serves 8 to 10.

  • Any ripe (but firm), fragrant pear will work well in this cake.  Bosc pears—because they are narrow with long necks—will look the most attractive.  Wedges of Bartlett or Anjou will leave a gap of plain cake visible in the center of the cake...which still looks very nice. 
Made with Bosc pears
  • I measured the thickness of my pears at the widest point.  If you have 2 pears, you will get about 16 slices per pear...if you have 3, you should get about 12 slices per pear.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Fusilli with Corn, Cherry Tomatoes, Bacon & Arugula

For dinner this past Sunday I made a quick and simple pasta that featured corn, cherry tomatoes, bacon and arugula.  At the time I wasn't thinking about a blog post (I post so many pasta recipes)...I was just thinking about dinner.  But as has occasionally happened before, it was so good I wanted to share it.  I hope everyone will forgive the consequent lack of "in process" photos.

I have posted this particular, spare combination of flavors before (in a salad with corn cakes).  It is a favorite of mine....the interplay of sweet, tart and somehow just right.  The accent of the slightly bitter and mildly hot arugula provides the perfect finishing note.  Because it is made up of ingredients you are likely to have on hand during the summer months (if you shop at your farmers' market...or are a member of a CSA)...and it is fast and easy to's a pasta you can enjoy all summer long.  Unfortunately this summer is now rapidly drawing to a close and the days of sweet corn and sun ripened cherry tomatoes are numbered.  If you love these flavors, you should take the opportunity to sample this dish right now. 

Fusilli with Corn, Cherry Tomatoes, Bacon & Arugula

4 medium ears of corn
4 to 5 strips bacon (about 4 1/2 oz.), cut in 1/2-inch squares
2 to 3 T. unsalted butter
2 c. mixed cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered if large
Salt & Pepper
12 oz. fusilli
3 oz. Arugula, coarsely chopped
2 oz. freshly grated Parmesan

Cut the kernels off of the cob and scrape the cobs with a spoon or the back of a knife to get all the bits of corn that remain after cutting off the kernels.  You should have about three cups of kernels.  Set aside
Render the bacon in a large sauté pan set over medium heat.  When the bacon is crisp, remove to a plate, leaving the rendered fat in the pan.  Add the corn, along with a good pinch of salt, to the pan and sauté until just tender.  If the pan seems dry, add a couple of teaspoons...or more, depending on the fattiness of the bacon...of butter.

When the corn is tender, add the cherry tomatoes to the pan and toss to combine and warm through.  Turn off the heat and keep warm while you cook the pasta. 
Drop the pasta into 6 quarts of rapidly boiling water seasoned with about 2 Tablespoons of salt.  Stir and cook until the pasta is al dente. 

Drain the pasta, reserving some of the pasta water.  Add the pasta to the pan of corn, along with the arugula, a half cup of the pasta water and 2 T. of butter.  Toss until the arugula is wilted and the butter has emulsified into the pasta water, creating a light, fluid sauce.  If the dish seems dry, add more pasta water, and/or butter.  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper.  Toss in the cheese.  Divide the pasta among four plates and top with the reserved bacon.  Serve immediately. Serves 4.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

A Platter of Late Summer Vegetables

Tomorrow is Labor Day...the traditional "end" of summer (even though the calendar says we still have almost three weeks to go). I have lost count of the number of times I have heard this truism affirmed over the past few days.  I know the kids have all gone back to school (in some cases, almost a month ago!), but summer is not over for me.  It is still hot...and will continue to be warm for most of the month.  I will still wear shorts (even white ones!) for many days to come.  And most importantly of all, I will still eat every meal that I can out of doors as I continue to enjoy an array of summer vegetables that will still be available from local sources for at least a couple of more weeks.  Right now is in fact the peak of two of my summer favorites:  eggplant and peppers

I have been enjoying these fruits of the latter days of summer every chance I get—in pastas and pilafs, on pizzas and as the starring elements of late summer stews and ragouts.  This past week, on a particularly hot day, I layered them—along with some still-going-strong cherry tomatoes—into a stunning, room temperature platter.  Along with some crusty bread, it made a delightful late summer meal.  And I am certain it would be a perfect addition to a Labor Day spread.  The flavors are simple, straight forward and strong—making it a delicious partner for grilled steak or lamb...even burgers or brats—and at the same time virtually shouting that summer isn't quite finished yet.  

 Late Summer Vegetable Platter
with Olives, Feta & Herbs

3 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 fat clove of garlic, smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
pinch hot pepper flakes (to taste)
6 T. olive oil, plus more for brushing
2 medium eggplant (about 2 lbs.), topped and tailed and sliced cross-wise 1/2-inch thick
Salt & Pepper
4 sweet bell peppers—mixed colors (red, yellow & orange)—about 1 1/2 lb., roasted, peeled, seeded, cooled and cut into 1/2- inch   wide strips
2 c. cherry tomatoes (multi-colored, if possible)—about 10 oz., halved
4 to 5 T. coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, basil and oregano
1/3 to 1/2 c. mixed black and green olives, pitted and halved
1/4 c. pine nuts, lightly toasted
3 oz. Feta, coarsely crumbled

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

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.

To build the salad, shingle the eggplant onto a platter or individual plates.  Drizzle the eggplant with some of the vinaigrette and scatter some of the herbs over all.  

Place the peppers with their juices in a small bowl.  Season with salt and pepper and add one or two tablespoons of the herbs.  Drizzle with some of the vinaigrette and toss to coat.  Pile the peppers attractively on top of the eggplant.  

Place the tomatoes, olives and another tablespoon or so of the herbs in the bowl used for the peppers.  Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with some of the vinaigrette.  Toss to combine.   Arrange the tomatoes and olives on top of the peppers and eggplant.  

Scatter the pine nuts, cheese and more herbs over all.  

The salad may be served right away, at room temperature...or chilled and served cold.  Serve with warm crusty bread or garlic toasts.

Serves 4 as an entrée, 6 to 8 as a side dish.

Substitution:  Sliced vine ripened tomatoes may be substituted for the cherry tomatoes.  Arrange them on the platter in and among the slices of eggplant, drizzle with vinaigrette, season with salt and pepper and follow with a scattering of the olives and herbs.  Proceed as directed with the rest of the salad, arranging the dressed peppers, crumbled cheese, pine nuts and herbs over all.