Sunday, April 24, 2016

What's in Season?...Asparagus

The featured vegetable on my "Twelve Months of Fresh Food" calendar for the month of April is asparagus.  

Like last month's featured food (arugula) I have done many posts that feature's probably my favorite spring vegetable.  I start buying it as soon as it begins to show up at the market sometime in late March and enjoy it several times a week until the season is over sometime in June.

At my house asparagus appears in pasta (of course), 

Alfredo Sauce with Asparagus & Spring Onions

Cream of Asparagus Soup

Asparagus Tart
mixed vegetable ragouts,

Spring Vegetable Medley of Spring Onions, Artichokes, Asparagus & Peas

grain pilafs 

Bulgur Pilaf with Asparagus & Peas

and salads....
Composed Salad with Asparagus, Beets, Arugula and Egg Salad Crostini..
Even pizza.

Asparagus Pizza with Prosciutto and Three Cheeses

It is a perfect side vegetable--delicious dressed with nothing but butter (and a few herbs)

Salmon with Medley of Buttered Asparagus & Peas

 or olive oil. 

With a Mushroom & Potato Spanish Tortilla
And it has a special affinity for eggs.  

Asparagus, Walnut & Goat Cheese Salad topped with a Fried Egg
It is in this guise—as a simple accompaniment to scrambled eggs—that I wrote about it in a "basics" post a few years ago.  

In that post I went into detail about how to choose to store and clean it...and then shared my favorite cooking method—a simple étuvée. 

Besides eggs, asparagus has many other friends in the food world:  Cured meats, smoked fish, mushrooms, peas, artichokes, arugula, onions, nuts (especially pine nuts, walnuts & hazelnuts), cheese (fresh and aged goat, Gruyère, Parmesan, Pecorino, Gouda, Fontina, mascarpone, ricotta...), salty/briny condiments (olives, capers, anchovies), Dijon mustard, orange, lemon, butter, cream, olive and nut oils and fresh herbs (basil, thyme, tarragon, parsley and mint...).  It is easy to see how you could eat asparagus several times a week for the few weeks of spring and never get bored.

Since I have already written a basics post about asparagus, I thought that for my calendar post this month I would share a preparation that was new to me:  Asparagus Pesto.  I ran across it while working on an upcoming class.  It is from Michael Chiarello's Tra Vigne cookbook...and it is delicious.    

There are no surprise ingredients in this pesto.  It features cooked asparagus puréed with basil, pine nuts, parmesan, garlic and olive oil.  Because of the water content in the asparagus, the resulting pesto is lighter and fluffier than one would expect.  It is wonderful on pasta (which is how I'm sharing it today in Chiarello's recipe  that is reminiscent of a classic Ligurian pasta with basil pesto, green beans and potatoes).  But because of its almost mousse-like texture, it also makes a fine spread for crostini or bruschetta (perfect as an accompaniment to a baked egg....or topped with a poached egg....).

If you have never cooked asparagus before, the recipes in today's post are a perfect place to start.  In both recipes the asparagus is simply cooked in rapidly boiling, salted water—the tenderness to which it is cooked is the main difference between the two.  For the pesto, the asparagus should be cooked until it is soft....five minutes or more.  I would consider this to be too soft for a side dish or garnish, but it is perfect if the goal is a purée.  Don't cook it too long though, or you will lose the bright green color.  Furthermore, since the goal is soft asparagus with a bright green color, the recipe directs you to shock the cooked asparagus in a bowl of ice water or under cold running water which will stop the cooking process and "set" the color.

For the asparagus "garnish" in the pasta dish, the asparagus is cooked for less time.  You want it to be tender...but to still have texture.  The balance between texture and tenderness is up to you.  Somewhere around 2 to 3 minutes should be about right, but the only way to know if it is done to your liking is to fish a piece out of the boiling water and taste it.  This method—boiling just to the point of tenderness—is the one that you will probably use the most often.  It is perfect preparation for asparagus that will be making its way into the many and varied dishes that it will appear in over the next couple of months.

Pasta with Asparagus Pesto & Baby Potatoes

1/2 lb. small potatoes, scrubbed and sliced 1/8- to 1/4-inch thick
Olive oil
4 oz. (trimmed weight) asparagus, cut into 2 to 3 inch lengths at an angle
3/4 lb. Fettuccine, orecchiette or farfalle
1 recipe Asparagus pesto (recipe below)
Toasted pine nuts, for garnish
Freshly grated Parmesan, for garnish

Place the potatoes in a high-sided sauté pan with a lid and add water to just barely cover the potatoes.  Add a drizzle of olive oil and season with salt.  Simmer the potatoes until they are tender; set aside.

Blanch the asparagus in 6 quarts of boiling well salted water until just tender (about 2 to 3 minutes).  Lift the asparagus out of the water and spread on a towel.  Add the pasta to the water and cook until al dente.  Drain, reserving some of the pasta water.

Place the pesto in a large bowl.  Add enough pasta water (about a quarter cup) to the pesto to thin it to a sauce consistency.  Add the drained potatoes, the blanched asparagus and the pasta and toss to coat...adding more pasta water (you may need as much as another quarter cup) and/or a drizzle of olive oil as necessary to obtain a fluid sauce.  

Taste and correct the seasoning.  Serve immediately, garnished with pine nuts and Parmesan and passing freshly grated Parmesan separately.  Serves 4

Note: A one pound bunch of asparagus will yield about 8 oz. of trimmed asparagus.  (Trim by grabbing each spear of asparagus and bending until it snaps—it will naturally snap at the point where the spear transitions from tough and fibrous to tender.  Discard the fibrous ends.)  This is the exact amount needed for the pesto and the finished pasta.  I like to trim the whole bunch of asparagus, cut it all (at an angle) into 2 to 3 inch lengths and then divide into two piles—making sure all the tips are in the pile that will go into the finished pasta.  If the asparagus is very fat, make sure that it is cut on a very sharp angle...and cut the tips in half lengthwise.  Use the water that you use to blanch the stems for the pesto to cook the asparagus and pasta for the finished dish.

(Recipe adapted from The Tra Vigne Cookbook—Seasons in the California Wine Country, Michael Chiarello)

Asparagus Pesto

4 oz. (trimmed weight) asparagus, cut into 2 to 3 inch lengths at an angle
1 small clove of garlic, peeled and smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
1/4 c. lightly toasted pine nuts
1/4 c. packed basil leaves (about 1/4 ounce), washed and dried
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
1/4 c. grated Parmesan (3/4 oz.)
Salt, to taste

In a pot of boiling, well salted water, blanch the asparagus until quite tender—about 5 minutes.  Transfer to a bowl of ice water, or rinse under cold running water, to stop the cooking process. Blot dry.

Place the cooked asparagus, garlic, basil and pine nuts in the food processor and process until the ingredients are finely and evenly chopped and beginning to purée (stop the food processor a couple of times to scrape down the sides).  With the food processor running, add the oil in a thin stream to achieve a sauce that is the consistency of mayonnaise.  If necessary, add a bit more oil.  Scrape down the sides; add the cheese and pulse to combine.  Thin with water if necessary to achieve a thick, saucy pesto.  Add salt to taste.  Makes a scant 1 cup.

Note:  This recipe makes exactly what you will need for 12 oz. of pasta (which will serve 4)...but is easily doubled if you would like to have leftovers for other uses.  It will keep, filmed with oil, in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator for several days.

(Recipe adapted from The Tra Vigne Cookbook—Seasons in the California Wine Country, Michael Chiarello)

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Chocolate Streusel Coffee Cake to Start the Day

A couple of years ago I made a chocolate and browned butter streusel-topped coffee cake for my breakfast stash. (For new visitors, a little background: I always try to keep a supply of portioned coffee cakes, scones, muffins, etc. in my freezer for my daily breakfast treat.)  And although the cake was very good, it needed a bit of tweaking.  I planned to pursue just that...but other things took priority.  This wasn't for a class...and I didn't think chocolate cake for breakfast would find a very wide audience on my blog (sometimes I feel like I'm pushing the outer limits of what most people consider to be acceptable by encouraging the regular consumption of cake for breakfast).  Consequently, the chocolate coffee cake fell off of my radar.  But a few weeks ago, when an article crossed my Facebook feed about a new study touting the benefits of dessert (specifically chocolate cake) for breakfast, I remembered it.

I should probably admit that I tend to take the latest nutrition/ benefits-of-a-certain-food studies with a massive grain of salt.  It is much less complicated...and probably healthier and less stressful in the long ignore the latest thing in diet and nutrition wisdom and just consume a wide variety of foods...emphasizing those that are fresh, home cooked and unprocessed.  But who doesn't love a study that supports what they are already doing?  Besides, this particular study reminded me to go back and finish my recipe for chocolate coffee cake...and at the same time helped me to feel less self-conscious about sharing the recipe (and the fact that I eat chocolate cake for breakfast ) here.   

The coffee cake I came up with is nothing more than one of my favorite sour cream coffee cakes reinvented as a chocolate cake.  To do this I substituted Dutch-processed cocoa for 20% of the flour.  (I have made the cake with regular, American-style—non-alkalized—cocoa and it worked just fine....but the flavor isn't quite as intense.)  I discovered that the cocoa substitution seemed to make the cake a bit dry, so I increased the butter by a small amount.  Not only did this give the cake the added moisture I was looking for, it amplified the chocolate flavor as well.   For the streusel, I used the browned butter streusel that tops a favorite pumpkin cake.  Finally, I added some chocolate chips to the streusel, figuring that if I was going to have chocolate cake for breakfast, I should just go all out. 

Over the past couple of weeks I have derived immense pleasure from my slice of chocolate breakfast cake.   Accompanied by a strong cup of half & half-laced coffee and served with a big bowl of fresh fruit and homemade (full fat) yogurt, it is a happy way to start the day.   But if a chocolate cake seems to be more than you can face first thing in the morning, I still think you should make this cake.  It would be perfect with your mid-morning or afternoon coffee...or tea. And I think it would go over very well at a potluck.  If that potluck happens to be a brunch, so much the better.  It would even make a nice casual dessert...accompanied by a big scoop of ice cream or a blob of whipped cream.  In matter what your occasion...if the occasion calls for a casual chocolate cake, this cake would be an excellent choice (no matter what the nutrition experts have to say...).

Chocolate Coffeecake with Browned Butter Streusel

Browned Butter Streusel:
60 g. (1/2 c.) all-purpose flour
67 g. (1/3 c.) light or golden brown sugar
1/4 t. salt
56 g. (4 T.) unsalted butter, browned (see below) and cooled
1/2 t. vanilla
55 g. (1/2 c.) walnuts, lightly toasted and coarsely broken
115 g. (2/3 c.) bittersweet chocolate chips

Combine the flour, brown sugar, & salt in a medium-sized bowl.   Combine the browned butter and vanilla and drizzle over the dry ingredients; stir with a fork until the ingredients are combined and have formed clumps.  Stir in the walnuts and chill until ready to use.

When ready to use, crumble the topping up with your hands and stir in the chocolate chips.

160 g. (1 1/3 c.) all-purpose flour
40 g. (a scant 1/2 c.) Dutch-processed cocoa
1/2 t. salt
3/4 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
170 g. (12 T.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
200 g. (1 c.) sugar
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 t. vanilla
160 g. (2/3 c.) sour cream

Combine the flour, cocoa, salt, baking powder and baking soda in a small bowl.  Sift onto a sheet of wax paper (cocoa tends to have clumps) and set aside. 

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Beat in the eggs, one at a time.  Beat in the vanilla.  Fold in the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the sour cream, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. 

Spread the batter in a greased and floured 10-inch round or 9x9-inch square baking pan.  Scatter the streusel evenly over the cake.  

Bake in a 350° oven until golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean—30 to 40 minutes.  Serves 12.

Note:  To “brown” butter, place the butter in a small saucepan set over medium heat. As the butter begins to sputter and pop, whisk occasionally. The butter solids will begin to turn brown. When the solids are a deep golden brown and the butter has a pleasantly nutty aroma, transfer the butter to another container to stop the cooking process.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Four Cheese Calzone with Kale & Prosciutto

A calzone falls into a category of foods that I like to call blank canvases.....foods that can be used as a foundation for endless variation and improvisation according to the foods that are in season and the contents of your pantry.  Pasta falls into this does pizza, frittata/Spanish tortilla, grain pilaf, short pastry crust, and salad greens...just to name a few. 

Calzones are, after all, very similar to a pizza....the filling is simply enclosed in the folded dough instead of being spread over a flat round of dough.  And of course you can fill it with a wide variety of delicious cooked meats and vegetables, cheeses, etc...just like pizza.  I do occasionally use the idea of the calzone as a blank canvas.  I posted a particularly delicious improvised calzone filled with winter squash, mushrooms and apples a little over a years ago

But to be honest, this was a bit unusual.  When I think of a calzone, I usually think of only one type of filling:  a big mass of cheeses—mixed with wilted greens (preferably kale) and bits of prosciutto.  It has always been my intention to post the recipe for this, my "go to" calzone, but for some reason I have never gotten around to it....until today.

I am calling this a "Four Cheese" calzone because it almost always ends up that I make it with four kinds of cheese...but I imagine you could limit yourself to just one...or two.  The ricotta is the main event for this filling.  Make sure you purchase a good quality, whole milk ricotta.  (It should contain nothing but milk, vinegar and salt.  If it seems a bit wet, let it drain in strainer for a half hour or so before you mix it with the other cheeses.)  If I happen to have some goat cheese—or think about it while I'm at the store—I like to include that too.  It has a texture that is similar to the ricotta, but has the advantage of adding a nice tang to the filling.  I also like to add a well-flavored melting Fontina or Provolone.  Low Moisture mozzarella is nice too...even though it doesn't pack the flavor punch of those other two.   And finally, I like to round out the flavor by adding just a bit of a hard grating cheese like Parmesan or Pecorino.

As I mentioned, my preferred green is kale.  I particularly like Tuscan kale (a.k.a Lacinato kale...or dinosaur kale...or Cavolo Nero).  Kale has more of a presence—both in texture and flavor—than other greens.  But I have used Chard too, with good results.  I have never used spinach, but I imagine it would work just fine.

I love the sweetness the caramelized red onions add to the filling.  But in the spring I tend to use spring onions.  I don't caramelize these...I just cook them until they are tender.  Thinly slice 3 or 4—depending on their size—and include a quantity of the pale and dark green to equal the volume of the white.  You could also wilt some scallions....or caramelize a yellow onion. 

You can of course vary the cooked vegetable that you add to the cheese filling.  The volume of the cooked kale and onion is about one cup, so it could be replaced with once cup of some other favorite cooked vegetable—sautéed mushrooms, for example.  If you really like cheese, you could omit the vegetables entirely and have an all cheese calzone (use a total of 11 to 12 oz of cheese).  In fact, my recipe is a variation on an all cheese version I found many years ago in Alice Waters' book Chez Panisse Pasta Pizza & Calzone.  It is worth noting that in a cookbook that contains many, many pasta and pizza recipes, there is only one recipe for calzone.  Apparently it is not that uncommon for someone to become attached to one particular version of calzone.

Four Cheese Calzone with Tuscan Kale & Prosciutto

1/2 c. (115 g) warm water (100º-110º)
1 1/8 t. active dry yeast
165 g. (about 1 1/3 c.) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 t. salt
1 T. olive oil

2 T. olive oil
1 medium red onion (about 7 oz.), finely diced
1 fat clove garlic, minced
Pinch of hot pepper flakes
Salt & pepper
1 bunch Tuscan Kale, stems stripped (about 5 oz, trimmed)—rinsed well to remove all grit
3 oz. Whole milk ricotta (1/3 c.)
2 oz. goat cheese, crumbled
2 oz.  Fontina, coarsely shredded
1/2 oz. finely grated Pecorino
1 1/2 oz. (3 thin slices) prosciutto, cut in 1/4-inch strips

Make the dough:  Place the water in a small bowl, sprinkle the yeast over and whisk in.  Let sit until the yeast has dissolved.  Place the flour and salt in the food processor fitted with the metal blade and pulse to blend.  Add the oil and yeast/water mixture and pulse until the dough is homogenous.  Begin to run the mixture in long pulses until the dough is smooth and elastic—about 15 to 30 seconds total processing time.  If the dough seems wet and sticky, sprinkle in a bit more flour, a tablespoon at a time, pulsing after each addition.  Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and give it a few kneads by hand. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl and cover the bowl with plastic wrap.  Let the dough rise until it has doubled in size—about 1 hour.  Punch down the dough and turn it onto a lightly floured surface and form into a ball.  Cover with a towel and let rest for 15 to 20 minutes.  The dough is now ready to be formed into calzones.

While the dough is rising, prepare the filling:  Warm 2 T. olive oil in a medium sauté pan set over medium heat.  Add the onion along with a pinch of salt and cook until very tender and lightly caramelized—about 10 to 15 minutes.  Add the garlic and pepper flakes and cook until fragrant.  Remove the pan from the heat.

While the onions cook, cook the kale in a large pot of boiling salted water.  When tender (after about 7 to 10 minutes), scoop the greens out of the water and place them in a colander to allow most of the excess water to drain.  Spread the drained greens on a baking sheet and allow them to cool.  When cool, pick up small handfuls of the greens and squeeze out most of the water.   Roughly chop and add to the pan of cooked onion and garlic.  Toss to combine.  Taste and season with salt & pepper.

In a large bowl combine the cheeses, prosciutto and kale/onion mixture.  Taste and season with salt, pepper & a pinch of nutmeg.

Build the calzone:  On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out into a large (13- to 14-inch) round.  Transfer the round to a peel that has been dusted with semolina flour.  Place the filling on one side of the round or dough, leaving a half to one inch border at the edge.

Lightly brush the bare edge with a bit of water, fold the other half of the dough over so that the edges meet.  Roll and pinch the seam to form sort of a running crimped edge that is well-sealed.  Slash the top with a sharp knife three or four times.

Slide the calzone onto a preheated stone in a 500° oven.  Bake until well browned and the filling is bubbling through the slashes—about 12 to 15 minutes.  Transfer to a wire rack and brush the surface with olive oil.  Let the calzone rest for a few minutes before serving (so the filling can firm up and so it won't be quite so molten hot when it is served....).

The calzone may be served immediately or cooled and reheated.  To reheat, heat the baking stone in a 350° to 400° oven and place the baked calzone directly on the stone until hot through—5 to 10 minutes. 

Serves 2 to 4.  

Notes & Variations:
  • You many use any mixture of cheeses that appeals to you. I think at least 3 to 5 oz. of something soft—like ricotta and/or goat cheese is a good base. A good melting cheese like Fontina, low-moisture Mozzarella or Provolone is also a nice component—but you could also just increase your quantity of ricotta or goat cheese. And then a touch of an aged grating cheese like Parmesan or Pecorino to round out the flavor is good too. Aim for a total of 7 to 8 oz. cheese. 
  • You may substitute chard, beet greens or spinach for the kale.  Use about 5 oz. of trimmed greens.  These greens don't have to be blanched, they may simply be added to the cooked onions a handful at a time (you may need to add a bit more oil)--adding more as the previous handful begins to collapse--and then cooking until tender and any water released has evaporated.  The greens should just be beginning to sizzle in the oil.  (If the water evaporates before the greens are tender, simply reduce the heat to very low, cover and continue to cook until the greens are tender.)
  • The cooked greens and onions measure about one cup. If you like, you could create another style of "Four Cheese Calzone" by replacing them with the same quantity of another cooked vegetable (sautéed sliced mushrooms, for example). 
  • The number of people this calzone will feed will depend on appetites...and the other things being served. I like to serve my calzone with a salad (tossed green...grated carrot or roasted beet salad...etc.). With a salad and our lighter appetites, this serves four. If you have a large appetite...and don't serve a salad (or dessert) this will serve 2. The recipe is easily doubled to make two calzones. 
  • If you like, you may make 3 small calzones. Divide the dough into three balls after the first rise. Roll each ball into an 8-inch round. Divide the filling evenly between the three. Form and bake as for the large one. 
Three smaller individual serving calzone.