Friday, September 18, 2009

Spaghetti with Tomato Vinaigrette and Breadcrumbs

I'm in love. With dry farmed early girl tomatoes. And not just any dry farmed early girl will do. I'm in love with dry farmed early girl tomatoes from Dirty Girl Produce. Dirty Girl Produce sells at the the Farmer's Market in Berkeley on Tuesdays and the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market in S.F. on Saturdays. I discovered their dry farmed early girls a few years ago and have been a faithful follower ever since.

Maybe it is because they were my first, but other dry farmed early girls just don't seem to have the same exquisite balance of bright acidity and intense sweetness. Yes, all of the heirloom varieties can be quite beguiling with their rainbow of colors, but now my heart belongs to the simple red early girls. I think they are the most perfect tomatoes on the planet. Even when my own garden is producing lovely red, orange and yellow globes, I can't resist buying some of Dirty Girl's early girls.

Ella and I made this pasta for dinner last week. We both loved it. "This is belicious" is how Ella described it. Aside from being belicious, it is also really easy and comes together in the time it takes to boil the water and pasta.

You chop the tomatoes and toss them with some olive oil, red wine vinegar and salt and let them marinade while you boil the water and pasta. They will release some of their juices to the sauce and soften slightly. Toss the hot pasta with the the marinated tomatoes and sprinkle with toasted breadcrumbs and basil. The heat from the pasta releases wafts of vinegar which make you salivate before the first bite enters your mouth. It also opens your senses to the sweetness from the tomatoes. The basil brings an almost peppery quality. An earthiness that lingers at the back of your throat. And the breadcrumbs, please don't forget the breadcrumbs. The combination of soft pasta and crunchy breadcrumbs is rather addicting.

Spaghetti with Tomato Vinaigrette and Breadcrumbs

The quality this pasta depends on the excellence of the tomatoes, so use the best you can find. Cherry tomatoes also work well here.

5 cups of chopped tomatoes
about 1 cup of olive oil
about 1/3 cup red wine vinegar
Kosher salt and pepper
1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs
a handful of fresh basil leaves (about 1/4 cup chopped)
1 pound of spaghetti (This is my favorite)

Chop the tomatoes and marinate them in olive oil, red wine vinegar to taste, and salt and pepper. The amounts here are really to taste. I pour in a few good glugs of olive oil, maybe 1/2 cup and a couple of glugs of red wine vinegar, about 1/3 cup. You want the marinade to be nice and bright because the flavors will become muted when you add the pasta.

Toss the breadcrumbs with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and toast in a 350F oven until dry and golden brown, 5-10 minutes.

Cut the basil leaves into ribbons, chiffonade. I do this by laying all of the leaves on top of each other, rolling them into a log and making thin slices across the log.

Boil the pasta in salted water until al dente, drain and add to the bowl with the tomatoes. Toss in half of the basil. Garnish with the remaining basil and breadcrumbs.

Serves 4-6

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Chocolate Fleur de Sel Cupcakes with Dulce de Leche

Last Friday was a colleague's last day at work. I wanted to give him a sweet sendoff. So I made cupcakes.

Actually it wasn't completely altruistic of me. It was an opportunity to make something that I would never make for just the three of us at home. Even though cupcakes and chocolate are two of Ella's favorite things.

When I got home on Thursday, Louis was in the kitchen and Ella was playing in the living room. I went into the kitchen and told Louis that I was going to make cupcakes. Ella came running in from the other room, "Cupcakes!! Where?!" That girl seriously has selective hearing. Occasionally, when she isn't paying attention to me or answering me when I ask her something, I say "Do you want some ice cream?" And then I have her attention!

So for the cupcakes, I wanted to do some variation of chocolate and caramel. I've made chocolate cupcakes with salted caramel cream cheese frosting, and those are amazing. But I was inspired by this picture, so I decided that I was going to do a ganache frosting. I usually find ganache frosting to be too much. It is often too dense and rich for me. Like a giant truffle on top of cake. I decided to whip the ganache to produce a lighter texture. It was so good! It was light and airy and melted instantly, coating your tongue in rich dark chocolate. The final taste sensation came from the fleur de sel crystals which yielded a slight crunch and intensified the chocolate flavor.

I also decided to fill the cupcakes with dulce de leche. I love filled things. Turnovers, ravioli, empanadas. They are little packages. Each one like a gift with a surprise hiding inside. The dulce de leche became sort of melty and seeped into the cake creating a supermoist chocolate caramel cake all topped with whipped ganache and fleur de sel.

Everyone at work lucky enough to get one raved. One guy came up to me and said it was a taste revelation. He said he had to take a moment to be in his own world, hypnotized. Now that's a complement, and one of the things that keeps me in the kitchen. Giving people new experiences, revelations, is so satisfying. It is what I am addicted to.

Devil's Food Cupcakes
adapted from Michael Recchiuti

2 cups all purpose four
2/3 cup unsweetened natural cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup espresso (or 2 tablespoons espresso powder in 1 cup boiling water)
1/2 cup canola oil
1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups sugar
2 extra large eggs (I used 2 large eggs)

Preheat the oven to 375F. Line cupcake pans with 24 cupcake liners.

Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and sugar together into a medium bowl. Whisk in the salt (the salt grains are usually too large to sift).

Whisk the eggs. Then combine with the milk, oil, vanilla, and espresso. Whisk until well mixed. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and whisk to combine. The batter is pretty thin, pourable.

Divide the batter evenly among the muffin cups, filling them about half full. Place the pans in the oven and decrease the oven temperature to 325F.

Bake for about 15-20 minutes, until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Let cool completely in the pan on a wire rack.

makes 24 cupcakes.

Dulce de Leche

1 14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk

Place the can in a pot large enough to cover the can with about 2 inches of water. Bring the pot to a boil, lower to a simmer. Simmer the pot uncovered for 3 hours. Make sure that the can remains covered in water by 2 inches. You will need to periodically add additional boiling water to the pan. Remove the can from the water and let cool before opening.

Chocolate Ganache Frosting
adapted from

1 1/2 cups heavy cream
12 ounces bittersweet chocolate chopped
4 tablespoons butter

Heat the cream until bubbles start to form around the edges. Place the chocolate in a medium sized bowl. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate. Let the mixture sit about 30 seconds. Then whisk until smooth. Add the butter in pieces and whisk to combine.

Set aside and whisk occasionally until cool and thickened. Beat mixture with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. The color of the chocolate will change from dark to a more milk chocolate color.

Assembling the cupcakes:

Use a small paring knife to cut a cone shaped hole about the size of a tablespoon in the center of the cupcakes. Flip the top over and cut off the cone.

Fill each cavity with the dulce de leche.

Replace the top of the cone. Covering the hole.

Pipe or spread the frosting over the cupcakes.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Roquefort Tart

A few weeks ago I bought the book A Table in the Tarn. It is the chronicle of two British guys who decide to quit corporate life in London to start an inn in the South of France. It is really a lovely book about their endeavor to remodel an old manoir and create a place that is both modern and quintessentially French. These guys are living my dream. I dream of someday having an inn where I can cook for my guests.

For breakfast I would serve bowls of the freshest fruit available. Right now it would be, maybe, a peach and blackberry compote with homemade granola and thick plain yogurt. I would serve brioche and homemade jam from the trees in my orchard because my inn would have an orchard. Peach, cherry, apricot, apple, pear, and oh I can't forget a fig. But then there is also citrus. Lemon, meyer lemon, orange, blood orange, grapefruit. Is that too much?

Lunch would be a lazy affair. Served out in the garden or under the trees in the orchard. I imagine serving something like this Roquefort tart with a salad of pickled beets and arugula. When I saw the photo of this tart in the book, I knew it would be one of the first recipes I would try. It made for a perfectly lovey late summer lunch. And with a cold glass of rose on a warm Sunday afternoon. Does life really get any better?

The shortcrust pastry gets a bit of added texture from semolina flour. It is a nice contrast to the creamy filling. The filling was actually quite light in texture despite being full of cheese, cream and eggs. Deceptively light in fact. Consider that a fair warning. I did make a couple of substitutions to the original recipe which probably resulted in the lighter quality. I didn't have any mascarpone, so I used Greek yogurt. I also didn't have any creme fraiche, so I used regular cream. I figured the tang from the yogurt would compensate for not using creme fraiche. I was right! The texture of the filling was somewhere between a cheesecake and a souffle. The Roquefort is mellowed by the cream and eggs but is still piquant enough to be interesting and pair beautifully with pickled beets.

Although opening my inn is a quite a way down the road, I think I'll be able to busy myself with perfecting the dishes I might make. I don't think my friends will mind being guinea pigs.

Roquefort and Chive Tart
adapted from A Table in the Tarn

1 1/4 cups all purpose flour: replace 1-2 tablespoons with semolina
salt, pepper, pinch of cayenne
6 tablespoons unsalted butter

good handful of chives and parsley, roughly chopped, save a pinch of chives for garnishing
1 cup mascarpone (or Greek yogurt)
7 tablespoons Roquefort
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
3 eggs
1 cup creme fraiche

Make the pastry by processing the dry ingredients. Add the butter and process until the mixture resembles cornmeal. Add just enough water, 2-3 tablespoons, so the pastry just begins to form a ball. Form the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for an hour. Roll out the dough to about 1/8 inch thickness and press into a 9 inch (1 1/4 inch deep) tart pan. Save the scraps for patching cracks. Freeze the pastry case for at least 10 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375F (350F convection). Crumple up a big sheet of parchment paper then uncrumple it and lay it over the pastry. Cover with dried beans or pie weights and bake for 20 minutes till firm. Remove paper and beans and continue baking for 10-20 minutes, until the crust is golden brown. Remove the pastry and patch any cracks with the pastry scraps.

Make the filling by whizzing the herbs, mascarpone, Roquefort and butter in a food processor until smooth. Add the eggs, process well, then the cream and seasoning: pepper and a pinch of cayenne (no salt). Pour into the hot pastry case and immediately put in the oven for 25 minutes, until golden, slightly puffed and just set in the center. Serve at room temperature.

Serves 6

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Gone Camping

We will be camping for the next week! I'll be spending my days swimming is the cool, clear river, foraging for wild blackberries, reading and eating.

See you next week...

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Summer Squash Gratin

Our friend Andy was in town a few weeks ago. We became friends with him several years ago when he started playing guitar with Louis, but 5 years ago he moved away to finish up his Ph.D in Astrophysics. Andy is smart and funny. He's a really good friend, much more like family really. I would describe Andy as a lifelong friend. The kind of person who remains your friend through distance and long absences.

Is there really any better way to catch up with an old friend than to sit out side with the grill going and a glass of wine in your hand? I think not.
Dinner with Andy July 21st

Heirloom Tomato Salad with Croutons and Homemade Mozzarella
Grilled Lamb Chops with Summer Squash Gratin and Salsa Verde
Fried Figs with Wild Blackberry Honey Ice Cream

I wanted to make a tomato and burrata salad, but all of the local cheese shops were out. It seems that they all use the same supplier, and the new shipment wasn't arriving for another couple of days. Well, I decided, homemade mozzarella is probably just as soft and supple as burrata. Not quite, but pretty darn close. I can't say that I've ever had a more satisfying cheese experience. The silky mozzarella ball, sliced while still warm, drizzled with olive oil and flaky sea salt. Hel-lo lover...

But for me, the star of the evening was the summer squash gratin. I could seriously just make a meal of the gratin, and I could probably polish off the entire thing myself. The squash are sliced thinly, mixed with garlic, shallots, salsa verde and Gruyere and topped with bread crumbs moistened with brown butter. The squash become tender but not mushy. There is some brightness from the salsa verde and richness from the Gruyere. There is so much going on flavor and texture wise that it is hard to stop yourself from going back for spoonful after spoonful.

Summer Squash Gratin
adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques

2 pounds summer squash
1 1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup sliced shallots
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
1/2 cup salsa verde (recipe follows)
1 cup grated Gruyere cheese
Salt and Pepper

Preheat the oven to 400F.

Cut the squash into 1/8 inch thick slices. If you have a mandoline, this is the time to use it. Toss the slices in a large bowl with 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and let sit 10 minutes.

Place the breadcrumbs in a bowl. Heat a small saute pan over medium heat for 1 minute. Swirl in the butter and cook a few minutes, until it browns and smells nutty. Pour the brown butter over the breadcrumbs making sure to scrape all of the brown bits in as well. Toss well.

Drain the squash and transfer to a large mixing bowl. Add the shallots, garlic, thyme, salsa verde, and some pepper. Toss to combine, and add the cheese and half of the butter coated breadcrumbs. Toss again, and taste for seasoning.

Place the squash in a 9x9 inch or equivalent baking dish. Scatter the remaining breadcrumbs over the top, and bake 35-40 minutes, until the squash is tender and the top is crisp.

Serves 6.

Salsa Verde

This makes more than you will need for the gratin. Enough to spoon over some grilled Lamb. Salsa verde is more of a template than actual recipe. You can add any mix of herbs that suit your fancy. The key is for it to be bright and ever so slightly pungent. If you are vegetarian, you can leave out the anchovy. Otherwise the garlic, anchovy and capers should stay in, but the mix of herbs can change.

1 teaspoon marjoram or oregano leaves
1/4 cup coarsely chopped mint
1 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 small garlic clove
1 salt packed anchovy, rinsed, bones removed
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and drained
1/2 lemon, for juicing
Salt and Pepper

Pound the garlic and anchovy to a paste in a mortar and pestle. Put these into a food processor with the herbs and a bit of the olive oil. Process adding more oil. Transfer the herb mixture to a bowl.

Gently pound the capers in the mortar and pestle until they are partially crushed, and add them to the herbs. Stir in the remaining oil, a pinch of black pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice. Taste for balance and seasoning.

makes 1 1/2cups.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sweet Corn Soup

I don't know about you, but during the Summer I cannot get enough of fresh corn and tomatoes in all of their guises. They are absolutely my staples during the few months that they are available. I really love eating seasonally. It is such a natural process. I end up binging and by the time the peaches and tomatoes are winding down, I'm ready to move on to apples and kabocha squash.

A few days ago I was looking around the kitchen trying to figure out what to make for lunch. I did of course have corn and tomatoes, but there really wasn't much else. So I decided to make corn soup. I love corn soup and corn chowder! One of my favorite recipes is in The Greens Cookbook. It is spicy with roasted poblano chilies and tomatillos. But I didn't have poblano chilies or tomatillos. I was forced to keep it simple. And I'm so glad I did.

This soup comes together in under an hour. You chop an onion and saute it in some butter. Add in some corn kernels cut from the cob. Cover with water or stock. And here is the secret. You simmer the corn cobs along with the kernels. The corn cobs intensify the corn flavor and have some thickening power.

After simmering for 25 minutes, you remove the cobs and puree the soup in a blender. I kept about a cup of corn on the side to add back to the puree. I love the creamy soup with a few bits of whole kernels. Contrasting textures are a good thing.

And for more contrasts, garnish the soup with some chopped tomatoes and basil. The contrast of the warm creamy soup with the cool tomatoes is so good. The tomato garnish is really not optional. The corn soup is sooo sweet. Like candy sweet. So you really need the brightness from the tomatoes to bring it all together.

Sweet Corn Soup

This recipe makes quite a lot, probably enough for 6 or more people. I actually like making more than I need. I've been bringing this with me to work all week to have for lunch.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large yellow onion, diced
6 cups of corn kernels cut from about 7 ears of corn (reserve 4 cobs, broken in half)
4 cups water or stock
Salt and pepper

creme fraiche
chopped basil
diced tomatoes

Warm the butter in a soup pot until melted. Add the diced onion and a teaspoon of salt and cook for about 5 minutes until translucent. Add the corn kernels and stir to coat. Add about 3 cups of the water or stock, enough to just cover the corn. Add the reserved corn cobs. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to simmer gently for about 25 minutes. Skim off the brownish foam forming on the surface during the first 5 minutes of simmering.

Remove the pot from the heat. Remove and discard the corn cobs. Ladle the soup into a blender and blend for at least 1 minute. You will probably need to do this in batches. You may or may not want to reserve a ladle full of corn to add back to the pureed soup.

Season the soup with more salt and pepper. Add more water or stock to achieve the consistency that you like. You can add a touch of cream, but I prefer to add a spoonful of creme fraiche to each bowl. Garnish the soup with the diced tomato and chopped basil.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Rustic Plum Tart

Last Thursday was Louis' birthday, so earlier in the week I was browsing through some cookbooks for birthday meal ideas. I saw a recipe for a Rustic Plum Tart in Alice Medrich's Pure Dessert. It had two things that immediately got my attention. It used plums which I happened to have. And it sounded really simple which is exactly what I wanted for a weeknight. I also knew that Louis would like it because, let's just be frank here, he's not very picky, and he has a habit of calling every dessert "his favorite". Really, I think it's just an excuse for him to go back for seconds or thirds.

Rustic is a nice description for this tart, down right homely is another. But beneath those horribly wrinkled skins sit soft, juicy plums anchored in a dough that is somewhere between a tart and a cake. Not only is this a breeze to put together, it is delicious. The texture is really much more like a cookie, soft and a bit chewy in the middle with a crunchy, nubbly edge.

The recipe calls for plums, but I think you could use any fruit that is a bit tart. The dough is quite sweet, so the fruit needs some tartness to balance everything out. I think apricots would be perfect. And tart apples, like Granny Smith, would be great. In fact, this recipe is nearly identical to this one that I made several months back.

I would categorize this recipe under nearly perfect. It is adaptable to any season. It comes together in less than 15 minutes (not including baking), and it gets better with age. Well, it was better on the second day than on the first. I can't attest to the third or fourth days because let's be honest here, baked goods don't last long in my house. Unless I hide them...

Rustic Plum Tart
adapted from Pure Dessert

1 cup all purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons firm but not hard unsalted butter cut into pieces
4-6 juicy, flavorful plums or pluots

Preheat the oven to 375F and position a rack in the lower third of the oven.

Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to mix. Add the egg and butter, and pulse just until the mixture resembles damp yellow sand and is beginning to clump around the blade.

Press the dough evenly over the bottom but not up the sides of a 9 in fluted tart pan. A cake pan would also work.

If the plums are no bigger than 2 inches in diameter, cut them in half and remove the pits. Cut larger plums into quarters or sixths, removing the pits. Leaving a margin of 1/2 inch around the edge of the pan, arrange halved plums cut side up over the dough,with a little space between each one. Arrange wedges skin side up, pressing them slightly into the dough so that they will not turn onto their sides while baking.

Bake until the pastry is puffed, deep golden brown at the edges, and nicely golden brown in the center between the plums, 50-55 minutes. Set the tart on a rack to cool for 10 minutes, and then loosen the rim of the tart pan before cooling further. Serve warm or at room temperature.

serves 8