Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Simple & Spontaneous Dinner from the Early Spring Farmers' Market

April has been a blur.  If I didn't know it from the backlog of paperwork on my desk...or the view out my windows of an unkempt jumble of verdant growth, dead leaves and rampant weeds that is my garden...the fact that it is the last day of the month and I only have two blog posts to show for the month would make it abundantly clear.  Since it has been pouring rain for the past couple of days (making yard work pretty much impossible)...and paperwork isn't really my favorite thing to do (to put it mildly)...I thought I would take a moment today to remedy the last situation and post to my blog.  After isn't as if I haven't been eating or cooking for a month.

I have in fact been doing a lot of cooking.  My business...hence my of course all about cooking.  Furthermore, April marks the opening of the farmers' of my favorite moments during the year.  Despite my hectic schedule, I have made sure not to miss a market...and as my Instagram feed will attest, I have been busy cooking the spontaneous and simple foods of the early days of spring for my own table. 

One of the things that I try to teach in my classes...and here on my mastery of basic methods and building block recipes.  That way, when you are busy...or come across some fantastically beautiful ingredients that you really want to use, you don't have to stop and look for a recipe—or struggle to follow a new recipe—you can just cook.  The meal we had last night is a perfect example of this.

At yesterday's market I brought home some beautiful young carrots that still had a shock of pristine tops attached.  It seemed such a waste to cut them off and throw them into the compost pile.  As I looked at them, I remembered my friend Nancy had told me about a wonderful dish of roasted carrots and carrot top pesto that she had made last summer.  I looked up the recipe I thought she had used...but, I didn't really need to.  I know how to make pesto...  So I did. 

I had also brought home the first arugula of the I added some of that to the pesto.  And remembering how much I loved pistachios with the carrots in a raw carrot salad I posted in February, I decided to use pistachios instead of the more common walnuts or pine nuts.  You could of course use basil instead of arugula...or the walnuts or pine nuts...  All of these things would produce pestos with different flavors.  But if made with the proper method...and seasoned well...they would all be delicious—and perfect with roasted carrots.

If you don't know how to make a basic pesto, take a minute to compare the recipes I have posted over the years—basil pesto, arugula pesto, spring herb pesto and kale pesto.  You will notice that they are very similar...and the method is always the same.  To begin, place the greens/herbs of choice in the food processor with the garlic (smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt or finely grated on a microplane zester), the nuts and some salt.  Process everything until finely minced (doing this before you start adding oil will give you a more finely and uniformly minced final pesto...if you like a roughly chopped, chunky pesto, it isn't so crucial).  Then, drizzle in the oil while the machine is running and pulse in the cheese.  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt.  Sometimes pesto needs a splash of lemon juice to lift the flavor...and you can add it at the end.  When I was making my carrot top pesto yesterday, I had it in my head that it would need lemon...and had the lemon out and ready...and then it didn't need any.  It was fantastic:  savory, nutty and rich.  I will be making carrot top pesto again.

So many uses for pesto...
here it is in a grilled cheese the next day at lunch...
The rest of our meal was also comprised of basic building block recipes:  a simple roasted chicken breast and a pile of roasted carrots (of course!) and baby potatoes.   If you don't know how to roast a chicken breast, check out the basics post I wrote a few years ago.  It is a useful thing to add to your repertoire (and it isn't nearly as tricky as roasting a whole bird).  The roasting method I used for the young vegetables is from John Ash's From the Earth to the Table.  I ran across it many years ago and I use it all the time for young root vegetables.   

I don't know if I have ever posted about this method for the vegetables or not.  It is very easy.  Simply toss them with salt & pepper, bruised/crushed cloves of garlic, thyme sprigs and a liberal splash of olive oil and then spread in a snug single layer in a baking dish or rimmed sheet pan.  Cover tightly  with foil and roast in a moderately hot oven (375° to 400°) for 20 minutes.  Then, uncover them, give them a shake (or turn the vegetables over with a spatula/pancake turner) and continue to roast until they are tender and lightly caramelized—another 20 minutes or so.   This method conserves the moisture of young vegetables (and perfumes them with garlic and thyme)...but still allows them to caramelize a bit. 

I used the pesto to tie the vegetables and chicken together:  I tossed the vegetables with a small amount of the pesto.  Then, to make the pesto into a sauce I could easily drizzle and dollop over the whole plate, I deglazed the chicken pan (another great, basic technique!) with a splash of water and used the result to thin a few tablespoons of the pesto.   Everything came together very nicely, making for a reasonably quick, spontaneous and simple, seasonal meal.  

Pan Roasted Chicken with Carrots, Potatoes & Carrot Top Pesto

Purchase split breasts (on the bone...with the skin).  I think a 12 ounce breast feeds two people adequately...but you should purchase the amount that works for you.  If you have time, season the chicken the day before with 1/2 to 3/4 t. kosher salt per pound of meat.  Cover loosely and chill overnight.  Pull the chicken out of the fridge and uncover about an hour before you want to cook it. 

Prepare the vegetables as directed (below) while the oven heats.  Transfer the vegetables to the oven and start the chicken.

Prepare the chicken:  Set an oven proof sauté pan that is large enough to accommodate all of your chicken over moderately high heat.  Season the chicken with freshly ground pepper.  When the pan is hot, add enough olive oil to lightly film the pan and add the chicken skin side down.   When the skin is browned and crisp, add some butter (about a teaspoon per breast) to the pan along with a few sprigs of thyme or a scattering of thyme leaves.  When the butter has melted, turn the chicken over—making sure you swipe the skin through the melted butter and thyme as you do and transfer to the oven with the vegetables.  Roast until an instant read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of each breast reads 150° to 155°--about 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a plate and let rest for 10 minutes or so—the internal temperature will continue to rise as the chicken rests and will easily reach the safe temperature of 160°.  Meanwhile, pour any excess fat off of the pan and return the pan to the heat.  Add a few tablespoons of water to the pan and bring to a simmer, scraping the pan with a flat wooden spoon to release all of the caramelized bits.  Set aside.

Prepare the pesto while the chicken and vegetables roast.  You will need 2 to 3 tablespoons of pesto per person.  The rest may be saved (covered, in the refrigerator) for another use.

When the vegetables are almost done, use your hands to pull the bones away from the breasts, starting at the point where the breast was attached to the wing.  Add any resting juices from the plate of resting chicken to the pan of deglazings. 

To serve:  add some pesto (a half tablespoon or so per person—more or less, to taste) to the pan of roasted vegetables and carefully fold in with a rubber spatula.    Thin the remaining 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 T. pesto per person with as much of the deglazings as you like to obtain a drizzling/dolloping consistency.  (You may also thin with olive oil...or even water...if you like.  If you use olive oil or water, recheck the seasoning after doing so.)  Slice the breasts at an angle, across the grain.  Arrange the vegetables on a large serving platter or individual plates and fan the meat on top.  Drizzle/dollop the platter/plates with pesto, serving any of the pesto that has been mixed with pan deglazings on the side, passing at the table. 

Roasted Young Carrots and Creamer Potatoes with Garlic & Thyme

For each person you will need:
5 to 6 oz. fingerling or creamer potatoes
5 to 6 oz. young carrots, peeled
2 to 3 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed/bruised
1 or 2 sprigs of thyme
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 375° to 400°.  Scrub the potatoes.  If they are more than an inch in diameter, halve them.  If the carrots are small, leave a half inch or so of the green.  If they are fatter than an inch in diameter, halve them lengthwise.  If they are long, simply cut them into 1 inch pieces.  In a large bowl, combine the potatoes, carrots, garlic and thyme and drizzle liberally with olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper.  Arrange the vegetables in a baking dish, roasting pan or rimmed sheet pan that is just large enough to hold the vegetables in a snug single layer.  

Cover the pan with foil and roast until the vegetables are tender and lightly caramelized—removing the foil after about 20 minutes and giving the pan a shake to redistribute the vegetables—total cooking time will be about 40 minutes. 

Carrot Top Pesto

Before measuring the carrot tops, trim the feathery fronds away from the thick, ropey stems.  Discard the stems and use the tops only.

2 c. (2 oz.) lightly packed carrot tops 
a handful (1 oz.) of arugula
1/2 c. shelled pistachios, lightly toasted
1/2 to 3/4 t. kosher salt
1 large clove of garlic, peeled and smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
2/3 c. olive more if needed to get preferred consistency
1/3 c. (1 oz.) finely grated Parmesan
Freshly squeezed lemon juice, to taste, if necessary

Place the carrot tops, arugula, pistachios, garlic and 1/2 teaspoon of salt in the food processor and process until everything is finely and uniformly chopped.  With the machine running, drizzle in the olive oil.  Scrape down the sides.  Add the Parmesan and pulse to combine.  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt and lemon juice if necessary.  If the pesto seems too tight, drizzle in a bit more oil.  Makes 1 1/4 cups pesto.  Store in the refrigerator in a jar with a tight fitting lid and filmed with oil.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Rhubarb & Browned Butter Bars

I wish I had the story...or at least a small share about how today's recipe came to be, but the truth is most of the details are lost to me now.  I developed these bars for a class that I taught a year ago, and although I usually make detailed notes about the progression of a recipe, I have discovered that with this recipe, either I didn't make very good notes...or I have somehow misplaced them...   What I found in my files was pretty cursory.  This is really rather unfortunate because I do know from the notes that I have—and my memory of the process—that I made no less than four versions of these bars before finally landing on the one I liked best. 

What I can tell you is that I started out with the Rhubarb Browned Butter Bars from The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook.  The rhubarb jam from this original recipe is outstanding...and I used it unchanged.   Instead of just cooking the rhubarb with the sugar to a thick compote, this recipe directs you to reduce orange juice with the sugar to a caramel before adding the rhubarb.  

This method produces a concentrated and intensely flavorful jam.  If you are able to get the blood oranges called for, the color of the jam will be spectacular....although Cara cara oranges produce a beautiful result too.  

But even if you can only get plain old Navel oranges, this jam is worth making while rhubarb is in season—just to have on hand to spread on toast...or scones...  or stir into your breakfast yogurt. 

I also love the use of browned butter in the original recipe.  If you have never experienced browned butter, you are in for a treat.  It is also a "stand alone" kind of preparation—delicious with fish...and pasta (particularly filled pastas and gnocchi)...or drizzled over vegetables (especially asparagus). I sometimes slip it into desserts and baked goods where it adds a nutty, complex undertone.  I used it in my Butter Pecan Ice Cream.  If you haven't made browned butter before, I included a picture and a few pointers for making it in that post. 

The recipe I ultimately used for sandwiching the jam was adapted from Gale Gand's Hungarian Shortbread Bars (from Baking with Julia).  Besides substituting chilled browned butter for the whole butter called for in her recipe, I reduced the total quantity of dough by a quarter.  The shortbread portion of these bars is delicious...but I didn't want it to overwhelm that special rhubarb jam.  Furthermore, I opted for pre-baking the bottom crust since this produced a bar that was slightly firmer and more stable for picking up and eating with your hands.  But make no mistake, this is not a firm or a crisp bar is soft, tender and cake-like. In fact, if you were so inclined, you could cut larger squares and serve them topped with scoops of ice cream for a more substantial, eat-with-a-fork kind of dessert.

This will be the third jam/fruit compote-filled crumble bar recipe that I have posted (I love these kinds of cookies).  In general, I think of this style of bar as quick and easy to make—and certainly the first two that I posted fit this description.  This bar fits the mold in that it is fairly easy to make.  Unlike the others though, it is not particularly quick since you have to make it in several separate steps.  I find that it works best to make the jam and the browned butter the day before you want to bake and serve the bars.  You could get away with making these two components in the morning before baking in the afternoon—but the process will feel more calm and leisurely if you take a two day approach.  Either way, these bars are delicious.  And if you love the bright, tangy flavor of rhubarb, I think you will find the extra time involved to be totally worth it.

Rhubarb & Browned Butter Bars

3/4 lb. (3 sticks) unsalted butter
3 1/2 c. (420 grams) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 t. baking powder
3/4 t. salt
1 1/4 c. (250 grams) granulated sugar
3 egg yolks
1/4 c. ice water
1 1/2 t. vanilla
1 1/2 c. rhubarb jam (see below)

Place the butter in a wide pan 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, immediately transfer to a shallow heat-proof container (a 9- by 9-inch baking pan or casserole works well).  Chill or freeze until solid.

When ready to bake the bars, butter a 13- by 9-inch baking pan—concentrating most of the butter on the sides.  Line the bottom of the pan with a square of parchment (it is not necessary to butter the parchment).  Set aside.

Place the flour, baking powder salt and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer.  With the paddle attachment, mix on low just until homogenous.  Cut the cold, browned butter into cubes and add to the bowl. 

Mix on low to medium-low until the mixture looks like damp cornmeal...there shouldn't be any large clumps of butter visible.  This will take anywhere from two to five minutes, depending on the temperature of your room.  

Whisk the yolks, water and vanilla together and drizzle in with the machine running.  Mix until the dough comes together in clumps. 

Transfer half of the clumps (540 grams/19 oz.) into the bottom of the prepared pan.  

Bake in a 350° oven until pale golden around the edges—about 15 to 18 minutes.  

Cool the crust to room temperature before proceeding.

While the bottom crust bakes, gather the remaining half of the dough and knead briefly to bring together.  Press into a flat disk (about 1 inch thick), wrap in plastic wrap and place in the freezer until firm—about 30 to 45 minutes.  (If you freeze it for longer than this and it becomes rock hard, let it sit out for a few minutes before attempting to grate it.)

To build the bars, spread the cold rhubarb jam in an even layer over the cooled crust, spreading to within 1/4- to 1/2-inch of the edges of the pan.  

Using the coarse holes of a box grater (or, you may use the grating disc of the food processor), grate the chilled dough evenly over the jam (or grate onto parchment and use the parchment to transfer and scatter the dough over the jam).  

Do not press down—just make sure the bits of dough are spread in a reasonably even layer.  Transfer to a 350° oven and bake until golden and springy to the touch in the center—about 35 to 40 minutes.  

Place the pan on a wire rack and immediately dredge thickly with powdered sugar.  Cool completely before cutting.

Makes 32 to 48 bar cookies...or 12 large dessert squares.

Rhubarb Jam:
Juice and zest of 2 oranges (see note)
1 c. (200 grams) sugar
1 lb. rhubarb (4 to 6 stalks), trimmed, rinsed well and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (you should have 3 1/2 to 3 3/4 c.—350 to 375 grams—prepared rhubarb)

Place the juice, zest and sugar in a medium saucepan.  Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high to high heat.  Continue to cook until the syrup begins to turn a pale caramel color around the edges of the pot.  Add the rhubarb.  Continue to cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the rhubarb becomes a thick, smooth and glossy jam—about 10 minutes.  Transfer to a clean container and chill.  You should have 1 1/2 cups—or 1 lb.—of jam.

Note:  The original recipe called for Blood oranges.  I have made this with Blood, Cara cara and plain old Navel oranges.  It is good no matter which kind you choose.  It is especially beautiful...and a bit sweeter...if made with blood oranges.  I imagine Valencia oranges would be exceptional.  You should get 1/2 to 3/4 c. strained juice from 2 oranges.

(Rhubarb Jam from The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook)

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Tarte Flambée (Alsatian Bacon & Onion Tart)

Every time I teach the class in my rotation that includes Tarte Flambée, I tell myself that I really do need to share the recipe on my blog.  But since I usually teach this class in late spring, my attention is always quickly diverted to the wonderful spring vegetables and fruits that are filling the markets ...and I forget.... 

But this year, even though the produce departments are brimming with artichokes, peas of all kinds, asparagus, greens, strawberries and rhubarb, I have been too busy to think very much about anything other than work.  Of course work for me means I'm cooking...but I haven't had much time to record what I'm doing...much less take a lot of pictures (I've just been racing to get dinner on the table before I move on to the next thing....).  Fortunately, since I have always wanted to do a post on Tarte Flambée, I already have pictures....  So it seems that the moment for featuring this classic from France has finally arrived.

If you have never encountered Tarte Flambée, it is somewhat like a white pizza...with bacon.  In fact, it is often referred to as the pizza of Alsace.  I have always heard that the origins of this tart lie in the village bread ovens of Alsace.  Once a week, when the ovens were fired up for bake day, the local workers and farmers would take advantage of the intense heat of the freshly fired oven—which would have still been too hot to bake bread—to make a quick lunch.  The ingredients—a scrap of yeast dough, fresh cheese, bacon and onions—would have been readily available, so it would have been the simple, sensible and delicious thing to do. 

I'm not sure where and when I first encountered this delicious tart.  I know that I had it once many years ago at a home in Normandy.  I was totally enamored by it, but unfortunately didn't get the recipe.  I also remember watching Andre Soltner make his restaurant version (on puff pastry instead of a simple yeast dough) many years ago.  The video for this version is still available on line and is well worth watching.    When I make it now, it is Soltner's topping that I use on a traditional yeast dough crust.

Apparently in its original guise the bacon and onions would have been placed raw onto the cheese smeared round of dough.  In the wood fired oven, the flames—attracted to the rendering fat—would have reached up and over the tart, singeing the edges of the tart and the tips of the bacon and onions.  The name—Tarte Flambée (in French) or Flammekueche (in the dialect of Alsace)—is a reference to this:  the tart is 'cooked in the flames'.  In most home settings, Soltner's method of rendering the bacon a bit first is a great idea since it avoids a flood of bacon grease in the oven.

Not surprisingly, there are many, many recipes for Tarte Flambée available on line (it is one of the most famous dishes from Alsace).  If you have never tried it, I hope you will give my recipe—or one of the others—a try.  I am of course partial to mine, but most recipes are similar and I would only encourage you to avoid recipes that use a heavier hand with the topping.  As delicious as it is, adding more doesn't make it more delicious, it just makes it soggy and greasy.  There are some great variations out there—a scattering of Gruyère for a finishing touch...a few sautéed mushrooms added to the mix...even a dessert version with apples and cinnamon sugar (instead of bacon and onions)....  But I admit... I have never tried one of these.  Maybe someday.  For now, I think it's perfectly delicious in its original (and simplest) form.

 Tarte Flambée
(Alsatian Bacon & Onion Tart)

For the Crust:
3/4 c. warm water (105° to 115°)
1 1/2 t. active dry yeast
2 to 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 t. Salt
2 T. unsalted butter, softened

Combine the water, yeast, and 1 1/4 cups of the flour in a large bowl.  Whisk until smooth.  Add the butter and salt and beat until the butter is incorporated.  Begin stirring in the remaining flour, adding just enough flour to form a soft dough that holds its shape.  Sprinkle some of the remaining flour on a smooth surface.  Scrape the dough out of the bowl and sprinkle with a bit more flour.  Knead the dough, adding just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking, until the dough is smooth and springs back when pressed lightly with a finger—about 10 minutes.  Transfer the dough to a lightly buttered bowl and cover the bowl with plastic wrap.  Let the dough rise until it has doubled in size—about 1 hour. 

Note:  Originally, Tarte Flambée was a snack made with extra dough in the community bread baking oven while the oven was still too hot to bake bread.  Any simple dough will work.  Use a half pound of dough per tart.

Building and Baking the Tarte:
6 oz. thick-sliced bacon, cut crosswise into 1/2" wide strips
1 medium white onion, very thinly sliced (about 9 to 10 oz.)—see note
1/2 c. cottage cheese
1/2 c. crème fraîche*
1 T. vegetable oil
2 t. flour
Salt & Pepper

 Preheat oven to 500°F.  If you have a baking stone, place it in the oven while the oven is heating.

In a large sauté pan, set over medium low heat, cook the bacon until most of the fat is rendered and the bacon is beginning to color—it does not need to be crisp.  

Drain off the excess fat and increase the heat to medium. 

Add the onions and sweat until just wilted—they should still have a bit of crunch.  If you removed too much of the bacon fat...or the onions look dry, you may add back some of the bacon fat that you poured off.  

Remove from the heat and season generously with freshly ground black pepper.  Set aside.

 While the bacon and onions cook, place the cottage cheese in the food processor and process until smooth.  Add the crème fraîche, oil & flour and process in.  Season to taste with salt and pepper and set aside. 

Punch down the dough and divide it in half and form each half into a ball.  Place the balls on a flour dusted counter and cover the balls of dough with a towel and let rest for 10 to 15 minutes.  Working with one ball of dough at a time, stretch or roll the dough out (with lightly floured hands or on a lightly floured surface) to make a thin circle that is about 10-inches across. Transfer the dough to a semolina dusted peel or pizza pan/baking sheet.   

Spread half of the crème fraîche mixture over the crust, leaving a half-inch border. Scatter half of the onion and bacon mixture over the cream.  

If using a pizza pan or baking sheet, place the tart in the pan on a pre-heated pizza stone in a pre-heated 500° oven.  To insure a crisp crust, slide the pizza off of the pan and directly onto the pizza stone as soon as the crust is set (after 4 or 5 minutes). If using a peel, slide the pizza directly onto the preheated baking stone. 

Bake the tart until the edge of the crust is crisp and brown, the cream is bubbling and golden and some of the tips of the onions are beginning to caramelize, about 8 to 15 minutes (time depends greatly on your oven).  Quickly build and bake the second tart while you enjoy the first.  If you happen to have two stones, build and bake both the tarts at the same time.  Makes 2 tarts, serving 8 as a first course or 4 as an entrée.

  • I have no recollection now of where I heard this, but I remember being told once that the white onion—which is sweeter than a yellow onion—is the best choice for this tart. Since it makes a delicious tart, I have never been inclined to make it with anything else.
  • Sold at most supermarkets. If unavailable, heat 1 cup whipping cream to lukewarm (85° F). Remove from heat and mix in 2 T. buttermilk. Cover and let stand in warm, draft-free area until slightly thickened, 24 to 48 hours, depending on temperature of room. Refrigerate until ready to use.
(Topping adapted from Andre Soltner)