Monday, April 14, 2014

Spring Vegetable Minestrone

I like to think of this soup as a transitional dish; still warming and satisfying on a chilly day, but light and full of the first green vegetables of the spring season.  This easy to make version of minestrone is garnished with a little Parmesan cheese and a drizzle of olive oil.  You could add some chopped, fresh soft herbs as well to enhance the green character of the soup.  The beans are cooked completely and added to the soup with the chopped vegetables.  I didn't include pasta in my minestrone (which may raise questions of authenticity), but you certainly could; use small shapes such as shells or tubes, and cook them before adding, at the last moment, to the soup.  With some good bread, this soup will make a great lunch or light dinner.

Spring Vegetable Minestrone
(makes about 8 servings)
Heat in a heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium heat:
1/4 cup olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and cut into bite-size pieces
Sprinkle a generous pinch of salt over the vegetables and cook for 15 minutes, or until tender.  Do not allow the mixture to brown.  Add:
4 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
5 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon salt
Cook for 5 minutes longer.  Add, and bring to a boil:
3 cups homemade (or canned, low-sodium) chicken stock
When boiling, add:
2 small leeks, diced
Simmer for 10 minutes then add:
1 cup peas
1/2 pound asparagus, trimmed and sliced diagonally into 1/2-inch pieces
2 1/2 to 3 cups cooked cannellini or borlotti beans (from 1 cup dried beans)
1 cup reserved bean cooking liquid (if using canned beans, simply add additional stock or water)
Simmer for another 5 minutes then add:
2 cups spinach leaves. coarsely chopped
Simmer until the spinach has wilted, then check and correct the seasoning of the soup.  Add additional liquid if it seems too thick.  Remove the bay leaf and thyme stems and serve the soup, each bowl garnished with:
A drizzle of olive oil
A tablespoon or so of grated Parmesan cheese
(Minimally adapted from "The Art of Simple Food" by Alice Waters)


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Nutmeg Feather Cake


This is an old-fashioned cake that I first made more years ago than I care to admit. I remember serving this cake to friends when I first had a place of my own.  In those days I was experimenting in the kitchen, finding recipes in magazines and newspapers, cooking and baking, then calling up my extended family and co-workers to sample the results of my efforts.  I took this cake to work on many different occasions and eventually it ended up in a cookbook that was published by my co-workers to raise money for our Intensive Care Unit.  I have misplaced that little cookbook, so I set out to search for the original recipe.  Of course I found it, and some new variations of the original*.  It seems that it was from Southern Living magazine and the broiled topping is what made it so special.   The recipe calls for a 9x13-inch pan but I prefer to make two 8-inch layers.  It makes more sense for our small family.  And it's nice to have a layer cake in the freezer for those times when a quick dessert is needed.  The topping is a mixture of softened butter, brown sugar, coconut, heavy cream and a little vanilla.  It gets spread on the warm cake and broiled until bubbly and golden.  As it cools the topping takes on a caramel-like chewiness and the coconut adds just the right amount of texture.  I think it's the perfect partner to the feather light and nutmeg-intensive cake.   

Nutmeg Feather Cake
(makes one 9x13-inch cake or two 8-inch layers)
Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Butter and flour your choice of cake pan(s).  In the bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large mixing bowl with a sturdy hand mixer), cream together:
1/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup vegetable shortening
When light and fluffy, add, gradually:
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
Beat until the mixture is very well blended and light in color.  Add, one at a time, beating until incorporated:
3 large eggs
In a medium bowl whisk together:
2 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
Add the flour mixture to the butter and egg mixture, alternately with: 
1 cup buttermilk (or soured milk)
Mix on low speed until just combined, then stir in:
1/2 teaspoon vanilla paste or extract
Spread the batter in the prepared pan(s).  Smooth the top into an even layer.  Place in the oven and bake until a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 30 to 35 minutes.  While the cake is baking prepare the topping.  (If you have made the 8-inch layers and are only using one, cut the following ingredient amounts in half.  Wrap and freeze the remaining layer for future use ).  In a medium bowl combine:
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 cup flaked coconut
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla paste or extract
When the cake is done allow it to cool on a rack until it is warm to touch.  Preheat the broiler and set a rack in the upper third of the oven.  Spread the topping evenly over the warm cake  and place under the broiler until golden brown and bubbly all over.  You may have to turn the cake pan to ensure even browning.  Watch very carefully, it will burn in an instant if you are not paying attention.  Allow to cool to room temperature then slice and serve.  Leftovers can be covered loosely and stored at cool room temperature for a day or two.
*I found some versions of this cake that used a cream cheese frosting.  Good, but not as good as the broiled topping, in my opinion.
(From a recipe originally published in the October, 1981 edition of Southern Living  magazine)


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Ratatouille Tart

Are you craving "summer food" as much as I am?  I've come to the end of my seasonal culinary relationship with all things braised, stewed, and otherwise slow-cooked.   And, even though ratatouille is a stew, it brings to mind warmer climates; meals al fresco, glasses of chilled rose wine, long summer days.  Of course it's too early to celebrate garden tomatoes  in my part of the world, so some substitutions had to be made.  But I think this tart captures the essence of a delicious vegetable dish, with the bonus of having it set on a rich, buttery pastry platform.  I constructed the tart in the manner of a Tarte Tatin, mainly to try out my new copper tatin dish.


The original recipe called for a pan somewhat larger than mine, so my tart is a little higher in stature and it took a few minutes longer to bake.  It's a lovely light lunch or dinner, on its own, or a delicious side dish to some grilled meat or fish.  Bake one up to share with family and friends and think about the bounty of summer produce to come.  It won't be long...

Ratatouille Tart
(makes 4 to 6 servings)
In a medium bowl combine:
200 grams (about 7 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves
Rub or cut into the flour mixture:
100 grams (31/2 ounces) unsalted butter, cold, and cut into cubes.
Work the mixture until it resembles coarse meal, with a few larger bits of butter still visible.  Add to the mixture:
50 ml (about 3 1/2 to 4 tablespoons) ice cold water
Toss the flour and butter with the water until all the dry ingredients are moistened and you can gather the dough together into a rough ball.  Knead a couple of times, then flatten the dough into a disk, wrap tightly in plastic, and refrigerate while you prepare the sauce.  In a heavy, medium saucepan heat:
2 tablespoons olive oil
When warm, add:
2 shallots, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
When the shallots and garlic have softened, add to the pot:
1 small red pepper, thinly sliced
Simmer gently until the pepper has softened.  Then add:
1 14 to 16 ounce can best quality tomatoes
Several sprigs fresh thyme
1 small bay leaf
Salt and pepper
Stir the mixture and break up the tomatoes with a spoon.  Simmer over low heat until the sauce is thick and chunky, with a rich and savory flavor (about 30 minutes).  Remove to a shallow bowl to cool.  Check seasoning (it may need a pinch of sugar) and remove the thyme and bay leaf.  When ready to assemble the tart, line a 9 1/2 to 10 1/2-inch baking dish or tart pan with parchment paper.  Preheat the oven to 400°F.  Slice into scant 1/4-inch slices:
7 to 8 ounces zucchini
12 ounces eggplant
A mandolin makes easy work of this task and ensures uniform slices.
Scatter into the bottom of the prepared baking dish:
3 ounces crumbled goat cheese
Arrange the sliced eggplant and zucchini atop the cheese, sprinkling each layer with a little salt and pepper and additional bits of fresh thyme (see above).  Push down gently to even the layers, then top with the cooled tomato sauce.  Quickly roll the chilled pastry, on a lightly floured surface, to a diameter slightly larger than the top of your dish.  Carefully place the pastry atop the vegetables and sauce and tuck the edges over to make a slightly thicker border.  Place the dish in the hot oven and bake for about 25 to 40 minutes, or until the pastry is golden brown and the sauce is bubbling a little at the edges of the dish.  Baking time will depend on the size of your dish and thickness of the vegetable layer.   Remove from the oven and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes on a cooling rack.  Invert the tart onto a serving platter or board, remove the parchment paper, and garnish with additional fresh thyme sprigs.  Slice into wedges and serve hot or warm.  Leftovers can be stored, tightly wrapped, in the refrigerator for the next day.  Reheat in a moderate oven or enjoy at room temperature.
(minimally adapted from Creme de Citron)


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Orange Pound Cake with Prune Filling

I have made butter cakes before, in fact, they are my favorite cakes to bake.  They're mostly simple and quick to prepare, and they lend themselves to all manner of variations.  There's this one, which uses graham cracker crumbs in place of some of the flour,  and this one, a banana cake flavored with banana chips and banana liqueur.   Another favorite is this one, which swirls together a lemon batter and a ginger-flavored batter for a delicious marble cake.  And I can't forget this one, made with tahini and topped with a cinnamon and sesame seed streusel.  This cake is the latest addition to my butter cake collection and it is a winner.  It's fashioned with the flavors of Brittany in mind; orange flower water, butter (of course), and an orange-scented prune filling.  Think of it as a combination of Far Breton, Gateau Breton, and good, old-fashioned pound cake.  The cake is rich and buttery, with a dense crumb.  There is a generous stripe of prune filling in the middle of the cake which adds a touch of sweetness and keeps the cake moist.  It's even better the second day when the texture softens a little and the flavors seem to intensify.  Be sure that all your ingredients are at room temperature before you start to mix the batter for the cake.  You want to get the butter and sugar mixture very fluffy and light.  This, and the eggs, will provide lift to the cake as there is no baking powder in this recipe.  Enjoy!

Orange Pound Cake with Prune Filling
(makes one 9x5-inch loaf cake)
Mix together in a small, heavy saucepan:
3/4 cup prune juice
3 1/2 ounces pitted prunes, coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat, reduce the heat to low, and cook until the mixture is reduced to a thick paste.  Stir frequently to prevent sticking and burning, and mash the prunes as they cook.  This will take about 15 to 20 minutes.  Set aside to cool when done.  Preheat the oven to 300°F and butter and flour a 9x5-inch loaf pan.  In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl, with a sturdy hand mixer), cream until fluffy:
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
Gradually beat in:
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
Add to the butter sugar mixture:
1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest
Beat in to the mixture, one at a time:
4 eggs, at room temperature
Sift over the butter mixture:
1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt 
Blend in the flour at the lowest speed until just combined.  Remove the bowl from the stand and stir in:
1 egg, at room temperature
2 teaspoons orange flower water
Run a large silicon spatula around the mixing bowl to ensure the ingredients are evenly combined.  Spread 2/3 of the batter (it will be a little stiff) into the prepared loaf pan.  Top with the cooled prune mixture, leaving a small border at the edges.  Top with the remaining cake batter, smoothing the top evenly.  Bake until the cake is deeply golden brown and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, about 1 hour and 30 minutes.  Cool the cake in the pan on a rack.
(from Bon Appetit, November, 1983)



Friday, March 7, 2014

Celery Cream Soup

I think celery is like the Cinderella of the vegetable world; she's doing important work behind the scenes and getting no respect and fewer accolades.  Celery has always been associated with a supporting role in cookery.  You add a stalk of celery to the soup pot, chop it up and add it to salad, for crunch, stuff it with peanut butter or cheese, for a snack.  Yes, there is that persistent diet-food association too.  And to add to celery's woes, the iconic chef Thomas Keller banished celery from the stock pot.  Apparently he thinks it adds a little "bitter" note to stock.  Seldom does celery take a starring role in a dish and that's unfortunate.  This creamy, light soup is a prime example of how celery can take the spotlight with ease and grace.  As a child I walked home from school for lunch and Campbell's soups were often a feature of those lunches.  This celery cream soup bears no resemblance to the canned version of our childhood.  This soup is full of gentle celery flavor, smooth and comforting, but not heavy.  The garnish provides texture and color to an otherwise plain-looking dish.  And for me, the green freshness of celery adds a spring-like note to the menu as we look forward to the end of this seemingly never-ending winter.

Celery Cream Soup
(makes 4 servings)
In a medium, heavy saucepan, over low heat, melt:
2 tablespoons butter
Add to the saucepan:
12 medium celery stalks, peeled and thinly sliced
A heaping tablespoon chopped celery leaves
A generous pinch of kosher salt
Cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes.
Add to the soup pot:
3/4 pound Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, halved lengthwise, and thinly sliced
2 cups chicken stock
A sprig of fresh thyme
1 small bay leaf
A pinch more salt, and several grinds pepper
Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover the pot, and simmer until the potatoes and celery are very tender.  This will take 20 to 30 minutes.  When the vegetables are cooked, remove the thyme sprig and the bay leaf.  Carefully transfer the mixture to a blender and blend until smooth.  Return the soup to the pot and add:
2/3 cup milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
A small pinch celery seed
Bring the soup up to a simmer and cook until the consistency is as you like it.  Season the soup with:
A pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Additional salt and pepper, if needed
Pour the soup through a fine sieve and strain, pressing on the solids with a ladle or large spoon.  You can store the soup in the refrigerator for up to 2 days at this point.  When ready to serve, reheat the soup over medium-low heat, stirring often.  In a small skillet melt:
1 tablespoon butter
Add to the skillet:
1 large celery stalk, peeled and thinly sliced
A pinch of kosher salt
Saute the celery in the butter over medium-low heat just until it is tender-crisp and bright green, about 2 to 3 minutes.  Roughly chop:
A handful of celery leaves
Chop finely:
A small handful of fresh chives
Plate the soup in warm bowls and top with the sauteed celery, chopped celery leaves, and chopped chives. Drizzle a little butter from the skillet over each serving.  Enjoy.
(inspired by "Cream Soups and Veloutes", Bon Appetit magazine)


Friday, February 28, 2014

Tropical Smoothie

I am going to resist making any mention of the weather and just move on.  If you need a little tropical flavor in your life right now, may I suggest this smoothie?  It's a sweet and sunny drink, full of fruit flavor and good nutrition.  Why not start your morning with this (while you're planning that Spring break getaway to a warm climate)?

Tropical Smoothie
(makes 2 servings)
1 cup mango chunks
1 cup pineapple chunks
1/2 large (or 1 small) banana, sliced
1 heaping tablespoon coconut butter*
2 to 3 tablespoons honey, or to taste
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
1/2 cup crushed ice
Toasted, shredded coconut, for garnish (optional)
Place all the ingredients in a blender and blend until completely smooth.  You may need to scrape down the sides of the container once or twice in the process.  Pour the smoothie into glasses and sprinkle the top with the toasted coconut (if using).  Enjoy!
* I use Artisana brand organic coconut butter.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Pimiento Cheese with Toasted Cornbread

I was introduced to pimiento cheese, that classic condiment of Southern cuisine, about two years ago.  At the time I was completely unfamiliar with this mix of mayonnaise, shredded cheese, and sweet red peppers.  But I've come to understand that pimiento cheese is very special to Southerners; it's used as a spread on crackers, a filling for sandwiches, a stuffing for celery sticks, and a topping for burgers.  I've seen pimiento cheese as a component of macaroni and cheese, and as a warm dip, served with bread.  As with any regional specialty food, pimiento cheese has its variations, but the basic ingredients don't change.  Choose the best quality sharp cheddar cheese, jarred pimentos, and your favorite (or homemade) mayonnaise.  Some cooks add grated onion, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, and/or honey.  A little cayenne or freshly ground black pepper is a good addition too, if you like a little "bite" to your pimiento cheese.  Some folks insist that only white cheese be used, and then there is the ultimate addition:  Duke's mayonnaise (which apparently has an almost cult-like following in some parts of the South).  I was fortunate enough to come by two large jars of Duke's in a recent trip to North Carolina, and I was more than happy to make space for them in my suitcase.  So I have been making pimiento cheese for the past few weeks and this is the best version yet.  It is adapted from the cookbook of renowned Southern chef Sara Foster, who owns Foster's Market, gourmet take-out stores/cafes in Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  It was from this delightful book that I took the idea of serving the pimiento cheese on toasted cornbread, which seems like a natural combination, if you ask me.  A perky celery leaf atop each toast adds a note of fresh green crispness to the rich cheese spread.  It's a wonderful snack, and one I will be making a lot more of in the weeks and months to come.

Pimiento Cheese
(makes about 2 cups)
2 cups shredded extra-sharp Cheddar cheese
1 cup shredded sharp White Cheddar cheese
One 4-ounce jar pimiento peppers, drained, patted dry, and chopped
1/4 to 1/2 cup Duke's mayonnaise (or your favorite mayonnaise)
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
A generous pinch of cayenne pepper
A few grinds of fresh, black pepper
Salt, to taste, if necessary
Combine the cheeses and chopped pimientos in a medium bowl with enough mayonnaise to make a thick spread.  Add the vinegar, honey, cayenne, and black pepper and stir well to blend.  Taste and adjust the seasoning to your liking.  Cover tightly and refrigerate overnight if possible, before serving with crackers, baguette, or cornbread toasts.  The pimiento cheese will keep for up to a week in the refrigerator.
To serve as pictured:  Slice your favorite cornbread into 1/4-inch by 2-inch pieces.  Lay the cornbread pieces on a baking sheet and brush with a little olive oil.  Toast in a 400°F oven for about 10 minutes, or until golden brown and crispy around the edges. Cool slightly then top each toast with a generous spoonful of pimiento cheese.  Garnish with a celery leaf or a sprig of baby arugula.
(Minimally adapted from "Sara Foster's Southern Kitchen:  Soulful, Traditional, Seasonal")