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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Perfectly Plum

As you may already know, I don’t have terribly fond childhood memories of the Eastern European-style desserts that are my heritage. As opposed to the heavy tortes laden with liquor and nuts, I've always liked Things Baked With Plums. Maybe baking with plums is a Euro thing? I don't know. It just seems like you see plums being used more frequently in desserts there. Anyway, there was a kind of Plum Cake (a Kuchen really…) baked always with those pretty, dusky purple Italian plums. And plum dumplings, best eaten straight out of the oven. Once cool, they would become extra dense and the cornflake crumb coating would lose its crunch. (This always mystified me…how did this recipe evolve to include cornflake crumbs?) They were by no means “light”. When eating one of these dumplings, I always wanted to somehow avoid the dough part and get right to the meltingly juicy, purple-y plum center and I loved how the vivid juice would stain the surrounding dough.

Last week’s CSA box included a bunch of beautiful Mount Royal Italian prune plums. I ate one right out of the box and it was quite juicy making it an excellent candidate for a galette. I usually make a fruit galette with berries, but this was a perfect opportunity to try my own version of a Thing Baked With Plums.

The results were exactly what I had hoped for… a perfect combination of pastry and fruit. I’m absolutely wild about this crunchy, yet tender, pastry that is oh-so-easily made in a food processor. In this case, I used some leftover crème fraiche I had in the refrigerator (same thing as sour cream really). Whether you use sour cream or buttermilk or yogurt (I've tried all these variations and I think sour cream is best) I believe that the tangy creamy element is the secret to this wonderful crust. Then, I actually rolled out, and used, both rounds (the recipe makes enough for two) and made them on the thicker side. When baked, the plums release some of their fuchsia liquid and the folded up corners of the galette contain them beautifully.

Finally, what I thought was the greatest was delicious cold, the next day.

The Dough:

3 tablespoons sour cream (or yogurt or buttermilk)

1/3 cup ice water

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup yellow cornmeal

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

7 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 6 to 8 pieces

To make the dough in a food processor, stir the sour cream and 1/3 cup ice water together in a small bowl; set aside. 
Put the flour, cornmeal, sugar, and salt in the processor work bowl, fitted with the metal blade; pulse to combine. Drop the butter pieces into the bowl and pulse 8 to 10 times, or until the mixture is speckled with pieces of butter that vary in size from bread crumbs to peas. With the machine running, add the sour cream mixture and process just until the dough forms soft, moist curds.

Chill the Dough:

Remove the dough from the processor, divide it in half, and press each half into a disk. Wrap in plastic and chill for at least 2 hours. 
(Storing: The dough can be kept in the refrigerator for a day or two, or it can be wrapped airtight and frozen for a month. Thaw, still wrapped, in the refrigerator. It is convenient to roll the dough into rounds, place parchment between each round, and freeze them wrapped in plastic; this way, you'll need only about 20 minutes to defrost a round of dough at room temperature before it can be filled, folded into a galette and baked.)

The Filling:
1 1/2 cups quartered, or halved, Italian plums
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter

Position a rack in the lower thrid of the oven and preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Put the dough on a lightly floured work surface and roll it into an 8- to 10-inch circle that's about 1/4 inch thick. Since the dough is soft, you'll need to lift it now and then and toss some more flour under it and over the top. Roll up the dough around your rolling pin and transfer it to the prepared baking sheet.

Spread the plums over the dough, leaving a 2-inch border. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of sugar over the fruit and drizzle with honey. Cut the butter into slivers and scatter it on top of the fruit. Fold the uncovered border of dough up over the filling, allowing the dough to pleat as you lift it up and work your way around the galette. Because you're folding a wide edge of dough onto a smaller part of the circle, it will pleat naturally--just go with it.) Dip a pastry brush in water, give the edge of the crust a light coating, and then sprinkle the crust with the remaining teaspoon of sugar.

Baking the Galette
Bake the galette for 35-40 minutes, or until the pastry is golden and crisp. Transfer baking sheet to a cooling rack for 10 minutes. Remove galette to cooling rack and serve warm or at room temperature, cutting the tart with a pizza wheel or sharp knife.

  Best eaten the day it is made.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

High Noon in Oklahoma

I'm driving down a desolate stretch of highway just outside of Tulsa for work. It's raining. The car is a rental...a hulking Dodge Charger in an odd shade of minty green. (The man at the Avis desk seemed disappointed by my blank look when he told me the type of vehicle I was getting as an upgrade. )

There isn't much around. Some refineries. Occasional scraggly trees and mildly rolling hills. And those mysterious rural aluminum structures that resemble oversized tool sheds.

I'm starving and with 20 minutes to get to the location for a shoot, and no prospect of eating in the next 8-10 hours, the outlook for lunch is dicey.

Normally I pick up a bag of nuts at the airport, or just carry my own in a little ziploc and of course, I forgot to pack them on this trip. But what looms on the horizon virtually every couple miles? That tall McDonald's sign. The one they put next to highways so you can see it from really far away. I sort of know I'm doomed. There is no choice. I ask a guy at the gas station if there is a grocery store anywhere nearby since the deli counter can be a good alternative in small towns. Nope, but he tells me, but there IS a SuperWal-Mart a couple towns over. Yeaayy.
So, I make the decision. I'm going to go for it. It's been some time...probably four, maybe five years since I've eaten McDonald's. Why not treat it as an experiment? Or, epicurean research? I've heard that McDonald's has changed. They have salads now.

Since I'm short on time, it makes perfect sense to just go the whole nine yards, and do the drive-thru. As I sit in the car, studying the very busy board/menu, the kid on the other end of the microphone is getting edgy. I am clearly taking too long. The more I ponder the options, the less I know what to order so, starting to panic, I see a familiar phrase. The Quarter-Pounder. Right. Sign me up. The speaker crackles something unintelligible, but I figure not much has changed and I am supposed to pull around. I pick up my meal and pull into a parking space. You KNOW it. I am eating in my car. That's part of the deal, right?

The fast food experience is hard to resist. It's cheap. You don't have to leave your automobile. The food is hot. In this case, I am happy to note, it is impeccably packaged in biodegradeable, recycled cartons and paper. Oh, and, it is soooo bad-good.

The first thing I notice is how salty it all is. Maybe that's what contributes to the sudden rush of greedy hunger that prompts me to eat much faster than I normally do. (Or, maybe it's that odd, furtive feeling I get eating in the car.)
Anyway, I am gulping down big bites of the burger like I have not eaten in days.

And the fries. They are magnificent. Perfectly hot and crisp and, yes, salty. (You may already know that rarely do I meet frites I don't like.)

There is also a gigantic Coke, of which I am only able to drink about a third. How do people manage to put away such quantities of liquid? Admittedly, the carbonated sweetness pairs nicely with the fries.

My solitary lunch is consumed in about four minutes. I quietly belch in the privacy of my vehicle.

Time to go to work.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Anniversary Brunch

Perhaps it was last year's wallet-busting dinner at Spiaggia that made the case for a thriftier anniversary celebration or maybe it was just being in the mood to celebrate without a big fuss. Either way, we decided to try the new (this summer) brunch at Green Zebra as this year's anniversary treat. As we sat in our comfortable banquette in the serene dining room, perusing the menu, I realized that my eyes kept searching for the word "bacon"...d'oh! Green Zebra is a vegetarian restaurant, but let me assure you...not at all in the rustic, brown-rice way. Since this is early September, we thought it would be an optimal time to try a restaurant which prizes seasonality and freshness as vehicles for delivering vibrant flavors, and we were right. It's always a good sign when you can't decide what to have because you'd like to somehow attempt eating everything on the menu.

Helped along by the complimentary toasty warm madeleines, butter and summer plum preserves on our table, we made our choices.

Steve was all about having grits, and these were amazing -- surrounded by sauteed collards and smoky wild mushrooms, all topped with a poached egg.

I'm sorry, but if I just SEE the word "frites" on a menu, I get excited and these were of the excellent shoestring type, accompanied by truffle mayo...mais bien sur!

My choice was the good ol' Fried Egg Sandwich -- yes, that is a mimosa in the background....for what would brunch be without mimosas?! The sandwich was terrific...grilled-crispy bread encasing peppery greens, a perfect heirloom tomato, sharp, white cheddar and said fried egg -- perfectly cooked of course...not too oozy and not too done.

And, to wrap things up...we shared a lovely German pancake with peaches, accompanied by a stellar cup of coffee.

sigh. As we were polishing off every morsel of what we'd ordered (oh my!) I noticed the couple next to us nibbling delicately at their food. The server came by to see if they were finished. They were, and as I saw them send away most of a gorgeous plate of french toast with raspberries, I felt like crying out "Wait! Bring that back...I'll finish it!".

Green Zebra
1460 W. Chicago Avenue
Chicago, IL 60622

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Tomato Glutton

Oh the annual paean to The Tomato! I wonder… does any other fruit, or vegetable for that matter, achieve this much attention and such worship? So much is written about the glory of a summer tomato that I will humbly keep this short and offer you a couple of my favorite ways to eat them. The season for garden-ripe tomatoes is something I look forward to every year, and when they first begin to appear at the market, I simply can’t bear to cook them. Instead, I come home throw all the bags on the counter, root around to find the one with the tomatoes and then slice, sprinkle with salt and eat… while standing at the counter. Only after a few weeks am I willing to start cooking with them.

So, here we are in early September and I’ve been getting tomatoes in the CSA box for several weeks now. Call me crazy, but I supplement this with a weekly visit to my farmer’s market for a second batch of tomatoes each week. Hey. It’s a very small window of opportunity for a tomato lover, and I’ve got to make the most of it!

If you’re still in the I-Can’t-Get-My-Fill-of-Tomato-Salads period…here’s a beauty that I’ve been making for years. It’s from The Union Square Café Cookbook and it is both gorgeous and tasty. Can’t ask for much more than that! I make this regularly every summer, and it's unbelievable to me that it comes from a restaurant cookbook. I mean, where are the 48 steps? the obscure ingredients? the list of wacky kitchen equipment necessary to complete the recipe? (just so you know... the sight of the word chinois gives me a headache.) This is simplicity one can love.

Summer Tomato and Goat Cheese Salad
adapted from The Union Square Cafe Cookbook

(Servings are variable. One tomato glutton could, in theory, eat this whole thing...
or it could feed four, well-behaved people. Tomato varieties are also up to you...I like to mix it up a little with what I find at the market.)

2 red tomatoes -- go for that Brandywine you were eyeing at the market!
1 Green Zebra, if you can find it
1 yellow tomato
10-12, or a couple handfuls of grape/cherry yellow and red tomatoes
kosher salt & freshly ground pepper
1 small red onion, sliced thinly and soaked in ice water for 20 minutes (this works wonders at taking out the bite and crisping them up!)
12 basil leaves, thinly sliced into ribbons
5 oz. fresh soft goat cheese, crumbled
a drizzle of your best extra-virgin olive oil
a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, or red wine vinegar, if you prefer

Arrange the tomatoes on a platter, slicing the large ones into thin circles, and halving the small, cherry/grape tomatoes.
Season with salt & pepper to taste.
Drain the onions well and blot with a paper towel. Arrange over the tomatoes.
Sprinkle evenly with basil and crumbled goat cheese.
Drizzle with vinegar and oil.


If you've moved on to the next stage of Tomato Gluttony and are willing to use a little heat, here are two of my favorite summer pasta recipes.

When faced with the prospect of hosting a meal in our overheated apartment in mid-August, a 'no-cook' sauce is, well, err, a no-brainer for me. A zesty mixture of tomatoes, olive oil, and, wait for it....brie cheese chunks (!) sits on the counter for a few hours, patiently waiting for some cooked linguine before serving. It's that easy. Pair it with some good Italian sausage, broiled or grilled, and you've got yourself a heavenly meal -- and minimal paper towel brow mopping. This version is from my original copy of The Silver Palate Cookbook, and it really is fantastic. Kids like it too. My four-year old nephew, Michael, wanted to know if this was "mac-and-cheese". I thought about it, and said, well, actually, yes, it is. He proceeded to demolish an enormous serving.

Summer Linguine with Tomatoes and Basil
adapted slightly from The Silver Palate Cookbook, original edition

4 ripe large tomatoes, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 pound Brie cheese, rind removed, torn into irregular pieces (put the cheese in the freezer for 10-15 minutes to make rind removal easier)
1 cup large fresh basil leaves, sliced into ribbons
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
1/2 cup olive oil
2 t. salt
1/2 t. freshly ground pepper
1 lb. dried linguine
freshly grated Parmesan cheese, approx. 1/4 cup

Combine the tomatoes, Brie, basil, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper in a large pasta serving bowl, at least 2 hours before serving and set aside, covered, at room temperature.

Cook the linguine until tender but still firm, drain and immediately toss with the tomato sauce. Adjust pepper to taste, and toss with Parmesan cheese, to taste.

And, finally, my hero, Nigel Slater, roasts small grape or cherry tomatoes under the broiler until they're charred and blistered and oozing carmelized tomato goodness, before combining with pasta, basil and a dash of creme fraiche. This is one that I make sometimes in the winter when the little grape tomatoes from Florida show up at the store and I crave a bit of tomato sunshine.

Orecchiette with Roast Tomato and Basil Sauce
adapted from The Kitchen Diaries

serves 2-4

I got this book while in the UK so we're talking metric measurements and fun British ingredients. My copy is covered with notes and adjustments. In this dish he called for "double cream", and I've used creme fraiche as a replacement. Sigh...all those glorious British dairy products...

3-4 cups of cherry or grape tomatoes
4 fat cloves of garlic, sliced thinly
a drizzle of olive oil
1 lb. dried orecchiette
30 large basil leaves
4 tablespoons of creme fraiche
grated Parmesan or pecorino, to serve

Put the tomatoes and the slivered garlic in a roasting pan, drizzle with a little oil and place under the broiler. Leave them in until their skins are golden brown and black here and there and they are juicy and ready to burst.
As Nigel says...don't pussyfoot around here -- really let the tomatoes develop a good char... it will intensify the flavor.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a deep pan with generously salted water.

Remove the tomatoes from the broiler, and crush with a fork, skins and all. Drop in the basil leaves whole and stir to wilt. Add the creme fraiche, stir and taste for seasoning.
Eat straight away with a spoon or two of grated Parmesan or pecorino.