A Super Summery Pasta

orecchiette with cherry tomatoes, mozzarella and basil

I am obsessed with roasted red peppers at the moment. I have been preparing them by the half dozen and using them all week chopped up in salads or left whole in sandwiches or laid atop a bagel with cream cheese. They are so delicious.

There are no roasted red peppers in this pasta dish, however. But I did discover a revolutionary way to use all of those lovely juices generated by roasting peppers. More on that later.

As for this pasta dish, it’s another one I learned while working at that Philadelphia restaurant. As soon as the Branch Creek cherry tomatoes — the sweetest, most flavorful cherry tomatoes I had ever tasted — arrived each summer, this dish would appear as a first course on the menu. And it was a huge hit, a perfect start to a summer dinner.

It’s simple to prepare: Sauté cherry tomatoes with orecchiette, ciliegene mozzarella and basil pesto. Add some fresh basil just before plating along with some shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano and fresh cracked pepper. Yum yum yum. Toasted pine nuts, I think, would make a nice addition to this pasta as well.

So, I normally avoid buying jarred sauces, tapenades, pestos, etc. but I have an amazing Italian deli in my town that sells enormous jars of delectable pesto at a very reasonable price. It’s hard to pass up and makes for very easy preparations. So, if you have a good local source for pesto, by all means use it in this dish — everything else will take minutes to prepare.

Now, onto my revolutionary discovery regarding roasted red pepper juices. First of all, I cannot believe I have been discarding those juices all these years. I mean, I have always stored my peppers in their juices in a bowl in the fridge but once the last pepper has been consumed, those juices go down the drain. I had never before thought to drizzle them over pasta for added flavor or to reheat them with last night’s pasta, as I did yesterday with this very dish, which was extremely delicious.

Oh it pains me to think about! What a waste. Am I the last person on the planet to have discovered this? Have all of you been creatively and resourcefully using your roasted red pepper juices all these years? If so, pray tell how.

I am anxious to try the recipe here with roasted red peppers substituted for the tomatoes, goat cheese for the mozzarella, and red pepper juices for the pesto … ooooh, I think another super summery pasta dish is in the works.

Orecchiette with Cherry Tomatoes, Mozzarella & Basil Pesto

Serves 4 as a starter or 2 generously as an entrée

1/2 lb. orecchiette pasta
kosher salt
2 T. olive oil
1/2 lb. cherry tomatoes, halved (I used more like 9oz., and you could probably use even more)
2 T. basil pesto
1/2 lb. ciliegene (small balls) mozzarella*
fresh basil**
shaving of Parmigiano Reggiano (optional)
fresh cracked black pepper

* Goat cheese would be a nice substitute.
** If you have small tender leaves, leave them whole; otherwise, chiffonade the basil
*** Toasted pine nuts or walnuts would make a nice addition to this pasta as well.

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a pinch of kosher salt. Add pasta and cook till al dente, about 9 minutes. (Package instructions said 11 minutes but the pasta will continue cooking as its tossed with the other ingredients so it’s best to undercook it a little bit.) Drain pasta. Do not rinse.

2. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add the cherry tomatoes and cook for 30 seconds. Add pasta and pesto. Cook 1 minute, stirring to coat pasta with the pesto. Add the mozzarella. Stir to incorporate. Add the fresh basil and remove from the heat.

3. Divide pasta among bowls and sprinkle each with some fresh shavings of Parmigiano. Crack the pepper overtop and serve.

Peach-Blueberry Cobbler

I had signed up to make a “super summery dessert” for a Fourth of July party. I contemplated trifle, pie and tres leches cake. And then I thought, “What could be more summery than a pan of bubbling peaches and blueberries stewing below a floating layer of golden-brown sugar-crusted buttermilk biscuits? ”

Peach-blueberry cobbler it would be.

And it was. With vanilla ice cream melting through each bite, smiles abounded.

Have you found yourself in the same boat yet this summer? Needing to make a dessert for a crowd? Look no further. This is it. Yum yum yum yum yum.

PS: If you can find rhubarb in your parts, try this recipe.

Peach and Blueberry Cobbler

Serves 10 – 12

2 lbs. peaches, yellow or white (nectarines would be great as well)
3 cups blueberries, washed and stemmed
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/3 cup sugar*
zest of one lime
pinch of kosher salt

2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup sugar
½ cup (1 stick) butter, cold
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 cup buttermilk

2 teaspoons milk
2 teaspoons demera sugar

vanilla ice cream for serving

*I used 1/3 cup sugar and my peaches were on the very under-ripe side. So, depending on the sweetness of your fruit, adjust the amount of sugar accordingly. As an example, when I make this recipe using strawberries and rhubarb, I use 3/4 cup sugar because rhubarb is so tart.

1. Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Slice up your peaches — I got about 6 to 8 thick slices per peach. Place peaches in a bowl with blueberries, cornstarch, sugar, lime zest and salt, and toss to combine. Set aside.

2. In separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Cut the butter into the flour mixture in small pieces and stir with a fork to combine. Whisk buttermilk and vanilla together, then pour mixture into dry ingredients. Stir with a fork until mixture comes together — the dough will be very wet and sticky.

3. Transfer fruit to a 12 x 8½-inch (2 quart) baking dish. Break off portions of the dough (about 8-10) and arrange over the fruit. Brush the dough with the milk and sprinkle the sugar over both the fruit and dough portions of the dish.

4. Place in the oven for 50-55 minutes, until topping is golden brown and juices are bubbling. Let cool on rack 15 to 20 minutes before serving. Serve with vanilla ice cream.

Homemade Focaccia + Roasted Red Pepper & Arugula Sandwiches

Sandwiches

Next time you are invited to a potluck picnic, volunteer to make sandwiches. And then make these. You will be loved forever. I promise.

Roasted red peppers, arugula and an herbed goat cheese* is a particularly nice combination at the moment but later in the summer, when the tomatoes are peaking, a classic Caprese salad on this homemade focaccia will be a huge hit.

I have been making this focaccia recipe since it was printed in Fine Cooking magazine over six years ago now. It’s credited to Peter Reinhart and, like all of his recipes, is very precise. But unlike many of his recipes, which seem to begin days in advance of baking time, this one is just an overnighter and only takes minutes to prepare. It’s particularly easy if you have a stand mixer but Reinhart provides detailed by-hand mixing instructions as well. Make it. It’s a winner for sure.

I learned something, too, about roasting peppers while preparing for this picnic: Patience pays. I roasted these peppers as I usually do — on a parchment-lined sheetpan under the broiler for about 15 to 20 minutes or until evenly blackened — and steamed them as I usually do — in an aluminum bowl covered with plastic wrap. But instead of rushing the peeling, charring my little fingers in the process, I waited to peel till the following morning. It was a breeze. From here on out, I will roast, steam and peel 24 hrs. in advance … rrrrrigghhht.

* Note: I whipped a log of honey-goat cheese from Trader Joe’s with fresh basil and about 1/4 cup of crème fraîche (for texture), which made a delicious spread. Any herb or combination of herbs would be nice but I definitely recommend whipping the goat cheese with a little bit of milk or yogurt or something of the sort to make spreading easier.

Homemade Focaccia
Source: Fine Cooking March 2004
Yield = one sheet pan

Notes: If you don’t have a mixer, follow the instructions on the Fine Cooking website for mixing by hand.

1 lb. 9 oz. (5-1/2 cups) unbleached bread flour
2-1/2 cups cold water (about 55°F)
2 Tbs. plus 1 tsp. granulated sugar (1 oz.)
2 tsp. table salt or 3-1/2 tsp. kosher salt (1/2 oz.)
1 packet (1/4 oz.) instant yeast (also called quick-rise, rapid-rise, or fast-rising yeast)
10 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt or kosher salt for sprinkling

Mix the dough:

Coat a bowl large enough to hold the dough when it doubles in size with 1 Tbs. of the olive oil. Transfer the dough to the bowl and rotate the dough to coat it with the oil.

Hold the bowl steady with one hand. Wet the other hand in water, grasp the dough and stretch it to nearly twice its size.

Lay the stretched section back over the dough. Rotate the bowl a quarter turn and repeat this stretch-and-fold technique. Do this two more times so that you have rotated the bowl a full 360 degrees and stretched and folded the dough four times. Drizzle 1 Tbs. of the olive oil over the dough and flip it over. Wrap the bowl well with plastic and refrigerate it overnight, or for at least 8 to 10 hours.

Shape the focaccia:

Remove the bowl of dough from the refrigerator and start shaping the focaccia 3 hours before you intend to bake it (2 hours on a warm day). The dough will have nearly doubled in size. Cover a 13×18-inch rimmed baking sheet with parchment or a silicone baking mat and coat the surface with 2 Tbs. of the olive oil.

Gently slide a rubber spatula or a dough scraper under the dough and guide it out of the bowl onto the center of the pan. The dough will sink beneath its own weight, expelling some gas but retaining enough to keep an airy gluten network that will grow into nice holes.

Drizzle 2 Tbs. of the olive oil on top of the dough. (Don’t worry if some rolls off onto the pan; it will all be absorbed eventually.)

Dimple the entire dough surface, working from the center to the edges, pressing your fingertips straight down to create hollows in the dough while gently pushing the dough down and out toward the edges of the pan. At first you might only be able to spread the dough to cover about one-half to three-quarters of the pan. Don’t force the dough when it begins to resist you. Set it aside to rest for 20 minutes. The oil will prevent a crust from forming.

After letting the dough rest, drizzle another 2 Tbs. olive oil over the dough’s surface and dimple again. This time, you will be able to push the dough to fill or almost fill the entire pan. It should be about 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. If it doesn’t stay in the corners, don’t worry; the dough will fill the corners as it rises.

Cover the dough loosely with oiled plastic wrap, put the pan on a rack to let air circulate around it, and let the dough rise at room temperature until it’s about 1-1/2 times its original size and swells to the rim of the pan. This will take 2 to 3 hours, depending on the temperature of the room. Thirty minutes before baking, heat your oven to 475°F.

Bake the focaccia:

Just before baking, gently remove the plastic wrap and sprinkle a few pinches of sea salt or kosher salt over the dough. Put the pan in the middle of the hot oven and reduce the heat to 450°F. After 15 minutes, rotate the pan to ensure even baking.

Check the dough after another 7 minutes. If it’s done, it will be golden brown on top and, if you lift a corner of the dough, the underside will be golden as well. If not, return the pan to the oven for another 1 to 2 minutes and check again.

Set a cooling rack over a sheet of aluminum foil or parchment (to catch drippings). Use a metal spatula to release the dough from the sides of the pan. Slide the spatula under one end of the focaccia and jiggle it out of the pan onto the rack. If any oil remains in the pan, pour it evenly over the focaccia’s surface. Carefully remove the parchment or silicone liner from beneath the focaccia. Let cool for 20 minutes before cutting and serving.

Roasted Red Peppers
Yield= However many you want
(Estimate about 1 pepper for every 1 to 2 people)

red bell peppers

1. Preheat the broiler. Line a sheetpan with parchment paper for easy cleaning. Alternatively, grease the sheetpan with a little bit of olive oil.

2. Cut peppers in half lengthwise. Remove stem and seeds. Place peppers cut side down on sheet pan. Broil for about 15 to 20 minutes or until evenly charred.

3. Place peppers in a large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap. Steam until completely cool — overnight is ideal. Use peppers for salads, sandwiches, pasta salads, etc.

Do you love roasted red peppers? Here are some other ideas for using them up.

Herbed Goat Cheese

There are many ways to make a yummy herbed goat cheese. This is what I did: I whipped a log of honey-goat cheese (delicious on its own) from Trader Joe’s with fresh basil and about 1/4 cup of crème fraîche (for texture), which made a delectable spread. Any herb or combination of herbs would be nice but I definitely recommend whipping the goat cheese with a little bit of milk or yogurt or something of the sort to make spreading easier.

Fingerling Potatoes with Rosemary and Thyme, Crispy or Not

potatoes in pot

I learned how to cook potatoes by the caseload. By the caseload of salt, too. Seriously. I was working in a restaurant in Philadelphia and gasped the first time I saw the chef unload a box — literally one 3-lb. box — of kosher salt into a pot, albeit a very large pot, filled with fingerling potatoes, water, many cloves of garlic and several bunches of rosemary and thyme.

Bring the water to a boil, he instructed, then turn off the heat. The potatoes, he ensured, would finish cooking as they cooled.

He was right. The potatoes were cooked perfectly, not the slightest bit overdone. And moreover, they were seasoned perfectly, too, not a bit too salty and subtly infused with the flavors of rosemary, thyme and garlic.

These days, I eat these potatoes straight out of the pot with not a bit of extra seasoning. They are excellent, too, sliced and tossed into salads.

But when I’m not feeling so lazy, I go the extra mile and crisp them up, as I learned to do at the restaurant, with a bit more rosemary and thyme and a pinch more salt. And then I splash Sriracha all over them. It’s such a treat. I think you’ll like them, too.

Fingerling Potatoes, Crispy or Not

Serves 2-4

1 1/2 lbs. fingerling potatoes
1/4 cup + 2 T. kosher salt
several sprigs of rosemary and thyme
2 cloves garlic, smashed

olive oil
kosher salt
a few more sprigs rosemary and thyme, leaves removed and minced

1. Place fingerlings in a pot. Cover with approximately one inch of water. Add the salt, herbs and garlic. Bring the pot of water to a boil, then turn off the heat. Let the potatoes cool completely in their liquid before proceeding.

2. Once cool, you can eat the potatoes as they are or you can brown them. These potatoes are wonderful to have on hand — they are truly delicious cooked as they are, sliced and tossed into salads or just eaten straight out of the refrigerator.

3. If you want to crisp them up a bit, slice the potatoes in half on a bias (or leave them whole if they are really small). Then, heat a pan (preferably cast iron or carbon steel or stainless steel) over high heat. Add a thin layer of olive oil and swirl the pan to coat the bottom — the pan and oil should be very hot before adding the potatoes. Add the potatoes, shake the pan once and then let them be. Do not disturb them for a minute or two. Check one before trying to shake the pan or stir them with a spoon — you want that edge to get crispy and it won’t get crispy if you try to move them too quickly.

4. Once the fingerlings are browning nicely, shake the pan, toss in the herbs and give them a pinch more of kosher salt. Serve immediately. I like to eat mine with Sriracha. Yum!

Bean & Cheese Burritos, Beef Tacos & Homemade Flour Tortillas

Bean and Cheese Burrito

Bean and Cheese Burrito

I have a confession. I eat at Taco Bell about once a month. And I love it. More than love it. Look forward to it even. I know, I know. You hypocrite, you say. Well, let me explain.

You see, the reason I eat at Taco Bell is because when I meet a dear friend for lunch every month, our dining options are limited to El Pollo Loco, IHOP, Togo’s and Taco Bell.

And at Taco Bell I can order a bean and cheese burrito, two in fact, and I can pry open the steaming nearly transparent tortilla holding those beans and cheese from oozing out, and I can smother it with hot sauce. What a treat. Seriously, it’s the little things.

All I’m saying is that if you, like me, are picky about what meat you eat, know that at Taco Bell a delectable vegetarian option awaits you. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Incidentally, I was searching cooksillustrated.com for a taco recipe when I stumbled upon the results of a refried bean taste test. Which brand do you suppose prevailed on top? That’s right, Taco Bell Home Originals Refried Beans. Despite these results, however, I like to use Trader Joe’s refried pinto beans “salsa style.” They are tasty and made with just a handful of ingredients (… you may recall Michael Pollan’s eating algorithms.)

So what could be better than a Taco Bell burrito? Why one made in your own home, of course, with homemade flour tortillas. I know, homemade tortillas, “come on” you are saying. “What’s wrong with store-bought flour tortillas?” Indeed, store-bought tortillas are a perfectly fine product, one I undoubtedly will purchase again. That said, if you have the time and the curiosity, I think you’ll find the value in making them from scratch — these homemade tortillas are light and lovely with just a hint of butter taste, and truthfully, not too tricky to make. The dough requires minimal kneading and a short 30-minute rest before being rolled. And while a tortilla press is nice to get the rolling process going, it is an unnecessary tool in this process. A rolling pin does the job.

While nothing makes me happier than a couple of refried bean-and-cheddar burritos for dinner, I am conscious of my husband’s preferences, too, which lean toward meat-based entrees. Fortunately, I always have some of J&J’s grass-fed ground beef in the freezer and thanks to Cook’s Illustrated, I now have a favorite beef taco recipe. The filling, a mixture of sautéed onions, tomato sauce, a little vinegar, a pinch of brown sugar and a homemade spice mix — cumin, coriander, chili powder and oregano — is a snap to make. We’ve been eating tacos once a week here. They are awesome.

And as you can imagine, this beef mix makes a nice burrito filling as well. 

Tortilla Dough. Note: A tortilla press is unnecessary. I mostly use my rolling pin.
tortilla dough

When making homemade tortillas, you don’t really want them to brown too much, especially if you are making burritos. You want them to be cooked, but still pliable, capable of being filled and rolled.
tortilla

 Burritos
See that pan in the lower left corner of the above montage? It’s filled with beef taco filling. We’ve been eating tacos once a week here. I found the recipe (included below) on CooksIllustrated.com. It’s fantastic.

Cut Burrito

Bean and Cheese Burritos

Yield = However many you’d like

refried beans, I like Trader Joe’s brand
cheddar cheese
large flour tortillas, homemade if you are feeling ambitious, recipe below
salsa and sour cream, optional

1. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Spread flour tortillas with beans and cheese. Wrap burrito style. Wrap in foil. Place in oven until cheese is melted, about 20 minutes. I’m not totally sure how long these take, but if you have a whole bunch wrapped and heating in the oven, just pull out one to check and adjust time accordingly.

Note: I ended up placing the beans in a small frying pan to heat before I spread them onto a tortilla. This is mostly because it was hard to stir the beans up while they were still in the can. Also, a little beans and cheese go a long way — think “less is more” while assembling.

Homemade Flour Tortillas

Yield = 8 to 9 taco-sized tortillas or 4 to 5 burrito-sized tortillas

9 oz. (about 2 scant cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp. table salt (not kosher) I used sea salt, fine
1/4 t. baking powder
1/4 c. unsalted butter

1. Whisk flour, baking powder and salt together in a medium bowl. With a knife cut little pieces of the butter into the flour. Then with two knives cut the butter into the flour until mealy, smaller little bits of butter than in a pie dough.

2. Stir in 2/3 c. warm (not from tap, preferably) water with a fork until a shaggy dough forms.

3. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead 3-4 minutes until smooth, soft, and not sticky.

4. Cut the dough into 2-oz. pieces for taco-sized tortillas or 3-oz pieces for burrito-sized tortillas. You will have 8 to 9 small pieces or 4 to 5 larger pieces. Shape pieces into a ball.

5. Cover with a very light kitchen towel or plastic wrap. Be careful that your room isn’t too hot. Let the dough rest 30 minutes and up to two hours.

6. Roll out each ball to about 9 to 10 inches (taco) or 11 to 12 inches (burrito) in diameter, or till you can see the counter start to come through. Note: A tortilla press is nice to flatten the ball into a disk to get things going, but ultimately a rolling pin works best. The tortilla press is unnecessary if you don’t have one.

7. Heat a 12 inch non-stick or cast-iron pan (do not add any oil) on medium-high. Lay the tortilla in the pan and cook until it puffs and little brown spots on the underside appear. Turn with tongs and cook. Each tortilla takes about 45-60 seconds. You don’t really want the tortilla to brown at all. The tortilla in the above picture was actually cooked a little too long.

Notes: When making tortillas for burritos, it’s best if the tortillas are cooked just before you plan on filling them, wrapping them and placing them in the oven. This way they’ll stay pliable. 

Beef Tacos

Source: Cook’s Illustrated, Published May 1, 2002
Yield = 8 tacos, serves 4

Beef Filling:
2 teaspoons vegetable oil or corn oil
1 small onion , chopped small (about 2/3 cup)
3 medium cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin*
1 teaspoon ground coriander*
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt
1 pound 90% lean ground beef, I used J&J grass-fed beef
1/2 cup tomato sauce
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1 teaspoon brown sugar
2 teaspoons vinegar (preferably cider vinegar)
Ground black pepper

* I like to toast whole cumin and coriander seeds and then grind them in my spice grinder with all of the other spices listed above. Just a thought, if you have the time. 

Shells and Toppings:
8 taco shells or small tortillas
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese (4 ounces), or Monterey Jack cheese
2 cups shredded iceberg lettuce
2 small tomatoes , chopped small
1/2 cup sour cream
1 avocado, diced medium
1 small onion, chopped small
2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro leaves
Tabasco sauce , or another brand of hot sauce

1. Heat oil in medium skillet over medium heat until hot and shimmering but not smoking, about 2 minutes; add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 4 minutes. Add garlic, spices, and 1/2 teaspoon salt; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add ground beef and cook, breaking meat up with wooden spoon and scraping pan bottom to prevent scorching, until beef is no longer pink, about 5 minutes. Add tomato sauce, chicken broth, brown sugar, and vinegar; bring to simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, stirring frequently and breaking meat up so that no chunks remain, until liquid has reduced and thickened (mixture should not be completely dry), about 10 minutes. Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper.

2. Using wide, shallow spoon, divide filling evenly among taco shells; place two tacos on individual plates. Serve immediately, passing toppings separately.

Bean and Cheese Burrito

Dinner for One with Bittman’s ‘Polenta without Fear’ + A Huge Thank You

polenta, chard and fried egg

polenta, chard and fried egg

I never thought the day would come when I would consider sautéed greens over polenta topped with a fried egg as the idea of the most delicious dinner. Well, the day is here (has been for a little while now), and I am so glad it is, because nothing could be simpler to prepare.

Before I write another word, however, I just want to extend a huge thank you to the reader who submitted my blog in the comments section of this Bitten post. I am so touched that you thought of me and am so shocked to have been selected. Thank you, too, to the Bitten bloggers for considering alexandra’s kitchen as a worthy under-the-radar blog.

I could think of no better way to commemorate this moment than by making one of my favorite Bittman recipes: Polenta without Fear, which recently appeared in the featured recipe section of Bitten. I first made this dish shortly after returning from a dinner party where, upon arrival, I had been charged with polenta-making duties. I went to work, but what I had hoped to produce to complement the host’s delectable braised short ribs left me embarrassed. (I must note that it didn’t help that the host didn’t own a whisk, but I can’t turn all the blame elsewhere.) My polenta was lumpy, dry and unflavorful. Why?!

Of course my mother had the answer. Or at least a solution. Have you made Bittman’s polenta recipe, she asked? No, I hadn’t. But I would soon, and I did. And it’s delicious. The recipe uses a ratio of 1 cup stone ground cornmeal to 3 cups of liquid (1 cup whole milk + 2 cups water) with the addition of 1/4 cup grated Parmigiano and 2 to 4 tablespoons of butter at the end. Minimal stirring is required and the addition of a little water towards the end of the cooking process is all the doctoring necessary to produce “creamy, soft, mouth-filling polenta,” as described on Bitten.

So, as the title suggests, this polenta, topped with some sautéed greens — chard, kale, spinach — and a fried egg makes a great dinner-for-one. Would I love some braised short ribs on my polenta? Of course, but there are better opportunities for that. Need another dinner-for-one idea? Try these Zuni Cafe Eggs Fried in Bread Crumbs … so yummy!

The ingredients:
mise en place for dinner for one

Sautéed onions and Swiss chard from my Morning Song Farm CSA:
Swiss chard and onions over polenta

polenta, chard and fried egg

Polenta without Fear

Source: Bitten
Serves: 4

1 cup milk (preferably whole milk)
Salt
1 cup coarse cornmeal, preferably stone-ground
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 to 4 tablespoons butter or extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup or more freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, to taste, optional

1. Bring milk to a boil with 2 cups water in a medium saucepan and add a large pinch of salt. Adjust heat so liquid simmers. Add cornmeal in a steady stream, whisking as you do to prevent lumps. When it has all been added, let mixture return to a boil, then turn heat to low. Polenta should be just barely simmering.

2. Cook, stirring occasionally and being sure to scrape sides and bottom of pan, for 15 to 20 minutes, until mixture is creamy and cornmeal tastes cooked. If mixture becomes too thick, whisk in some water, about 1/2 cup at a time. (I added about 2/3 cup water in 1/3 cup increments.)

3. Taste and season polenta as necessary with salt and pepper. Take pan off stove, stir in the butter or oil and the cheese if you are using it, and serve, passing more cheese at the table if you like.

Serve with sautéed greens and a fried egg for a simple simple dinner.

Tomato, Corn & Cheese Galette — A Favorite Summer Meal — With A Chocolate Chip Cookie for Dessert

tomato tart

The August 2000 issue of Fine Cooking Magazine was fantastic. I can’t believe that two of my all-time favorite recipes came from that issue — from one article in fact — and that I have now been making these recipes for almost 10 years. I feel old.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but David Lebovitz, author of The Perfect Scoop, wrote the article and supplied the two fabulous tart dough recipes, one sweet, one savory, that I have been making all these years. The sweet galette dough is used in this recipe as well as this one (both from the above mentioned article), and the savory cornmeal galette dough is used in the above pictured tart, and it is so tasty.

This galette, filled with caramelized onions, fresh corn, basil, Gruyère cheese and heirloom tomatoes, is prefect for the end of summer. Serve it with a simple mixed greens salad or a cucumber-and-feta cheese plate for a light, vegetarian meal. Yum.

I have actually blogged about this tart before. In that post, however, I had pressed the dough into a tart shell and blind baked it briefly before adding the remaining ingredients. That method is fine, just a touch fussier. I prefer making these rustic, free-form tarts.

 tomato tart

The original recipe for this tart calls for onions as opposed to leeks. I used leeks because I received a whole bunch in my CSA, but truthfully, I think this tart is tastier with onions. Use whatever you have. Gruyère is particularly tasty, but any cheese you have on hand will do.

tart ingredients

Assembling these tarts is easy: Simply spread the corn and caramelized onion (or leek) mixture into the center of the dough; top with cheese; top with the tomatoes; then fold the edges up to make a free-form tart.

Assembling the Tart

Tomato, Corn and Cheese Galette with Fresh Basil

Source: Fine Cooking Magazine (40, pp. 68-73 August 2000)
Serves 4

Note: For no particular reason, I split the dough in half and made two small tarts, but this is unnecessary. Normally I make just one large tart, and it is fantastic.

Cornmeal Galette Dough

1-1/4 cups (5 oz.) all-purpose flour
1/3 cup (1-1/2 oz.) fine yellow cornmeal
1 tsp. sugar
1-1/4 tsp. salt
6 T. (3 oz.) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and chilled
3 T. olive oil
1/4 cup ice water

In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, and salt. Cut in the chilled butter using a stand mixer, a food processor, or a pastry blender until it’s evenly distributed but still in large, visible pieces. Add the olive oil and ice water and mix until the dough begins to come together. Gather the dough with your hands and shape it into a disk. Wrap the disk in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Finishing the tart:

2 Tbs. olive oil
1 large white onion, thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, chopped finely
1/2 bunch basil or tarragon, washed, dried, and coarsely chopped, (to yield about 1/2 cup); plus 10 whole leaves
Kernels from 1 ear of corn (about 1 cup)
1 recipe Cornmeal Galette Dough (see above)
1 large or 2 medium ripe tomatoes (about 3/4 lb. total) cut into 1/3-inch slices, drained on paper towels
3 oz. Comté or Gruyère cheese, shredded
1 large egg yolk mixed with 1 tsp. milk or cream

1. Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan, preferably nonstick, over medium heat. Add the sliced onion and cook, stirring frequently, until lightly browned, about 10 min. Season with salt and pepper. Add the garlic, chopped basil, and corn and cook for 30 seconds. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and set aside to cool.

2. Adjust an oven rack to the center position and heat the oven to 375°F. Line a baking sheet, preferably one without sides, with kitchen parchment. (If your baking sheet has sides, flip it over and use the back.)

3. Roll the dough on a floured surface into a 15-inch round, lifting the dough with a metal spatula as you roll to make sure it’s not sticking. If it is, dust the surface with more flour. Transfer it by rolling it around the rolling pin and unrolling it on the lined baking sheet.

4. Spread the onion and corn mixture over the dough, leaving a 2-inch border without filling. Update 7-16-2014: Sprinkle the cheese over the onions and corn. Arrange the tomatoes in a single layer over the cheese and season them with salt and pepper. Lift the edges of the dough and fold them inward over the filling, pleating as you go, to form a folded-over border. Pinch together any tears in the dough. Brush the egg yolk and milk mixture over the exposed crust.

5. Bake until the crust has browned and the cheese has melted, 35 to 45 min. Slide the galette off the parchment and onto a cooling rack. Let cool for 10 min. Stack the remaining 10 basil leaves and use a sharp knife to cut them into a chiffonade. Cut the galette into wedges, sprinkle with the basil, and serve.

tomato tart

This is another recipe I’ve already blogged about, but it is so good. Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies. The key is to keep your oven at 375ºF; bake only 6 cookies on a sheet at one time; and remove them from the oven after 11 minutes — they won’t look done but they continue cooking on the sheet. For kicks, I added a little fleur de sel to the tops of these before baking. Here’s the recipe.

chewy chocolate chip cookie with a touch of salt on top

In Honor of Top Chef: Padma’s Salad with Rancho Gordo Beans & Bäco Flatbreads

Padma's Salad

Padma's Salad
Early last Wednesday morning, before the premier of Top Chef Las Vegas, Padma Lakshmi made a delectable looking salad on the Today Show with Matt Lauer. She chopped up fresh spinach, mixed it with chickpeas, bell peppers and chives, and tossed it all together with olive oil and lemon juice. Served with fresh pita bread, says Padma, this “chickpea tapas” makes a wonderful whole meal.

I couldn’t agree more. Upon seeing this segment, I felt inspired to cook up some of the Ranch Gordo beans I had picked up in San Francisco earlier this month. I have been wanting to incorporate more beans — such a healthy, affordable food, filled with protein — into my diet, and this salad has proven to be a great way to do so. I made this salad two nights in a row last week with my Alubia Criollo beans and various other goodies from my CSA — arugula, cherry tomatoes, chives, shaved zucchini and chopped orange.

Beans, I am learning, are really not so much trouble to make from scratch. I soaked mine in the morning and cooked them according to the instructions on the Rancho Gordo website. I’m not a bean connoisseur, but I like RG’s description of these small white beans: Alubios have a “rich, buttery flavor and creamy, over-the-moon texture.”

I ate my salad with these Bäco flatbreads, the recipe for which I spotted in the LA Times in June 2008 and have had tacked to my fridge ever since. Bäco flatbreads, made with Greek yogurt seasoned with ginger, garlic and lime juice, are similar to the pita breads used for gyros — the pocketless pita breads. They are delicious! The recipe yields more yogurt sauce than needed, but the sauce makes a nice accompaniment to both the flatbreads and the salad. A nice little combination eaten taco style is a bäco flatbread, spread with some yogurt sauce and topped with some salad. So yummy!

Note: I omitted the lavendar and added some chives.

Bacao Flatbread

Bacao cooking in pan

salad ingredients

Here is Padma’s basic recipe. Please note, however, that Padma prefers making this with raw spinach or arugula — I used raw, chopped arugula — as opposed to cooked, which is what her recipe says to do. Also, any vegetables — tomatoes, zucchini, corn, mushrooms, etc. — can be added to this salad. A nice variety of vegetables makes for a nice variety of flavors and textures. I also used a little balsamic vinegar in addition to the fresh lemon juice.

Here is the Bäco Flatbreads recipe. I added some chives to the yogurt mixture and served some of the remaining yogurt sauce with the flatbread and the salad — this is such a yummy meal!

Tartine’s Quiche, Homemade Crème Fraîche & A Little Trip to Napa & Bouchon

Tartine's Quiche with Homemade Crème Fraîche

Tartine Quiche

The weekend would begin with quiche. That was a given. My friend would pick me up at the San Francisco airport and before beginning our journey north, we would stop for breakfast. For quiche, that is. I have been dreaming about the Tartine quiche for over a year now, since my last and only other visit to this most adored San Francisco cafe.

The much anticipated weekend arrived, and I found myself at Tartine with two dear friends standing in a line stretching around the corner. As we waited, we contemplated our order, which quickly became apparent would be a feast. None of us was prepared to make a difficult decision this morning, so we decided to keep things simple — we would order everything. Or nearly everything: Quiche. Croque monsieur. Morning Bun. Scone. Croissant. Almond Croissant. Bread Pudding.

The quiche with ham and Swiss chard, my friends confirmed, lived up to every expectation I had created for them. The bread pudding with fresh peaches, too, and the croque monsieur with heirloom tomatoes and Gruyère similarly blew us away. It’s rare for a restaurant to offer an across-the-board spread of so many delectables, but it seems that’s just how Tartine rolls. 

So, what separates Tartine’s quiche from others? Well, I have a few ideas, thanks to the Tartine cookbook, which so generously has provided a dead-on recipe. Seriously. I followed the recipe to a T and recreated, what I believe, is the most delicious quiche on the planet. 

1. The custard ingredients/ratio. I suspect this is the primary reason why Tartine’s quiche is so fabulous. Tartine uses a ratio of 1 cup crème fraîche to 1 cup whole milk to 5 eggs. The mixing method is also interesting — one egg is whisked with 3 T. of flour until smooth. Then the remaining eggs are whisked in. Then the egg mixture is strained over the crème fraîche-milk mixture. Sound fussy? Well, it sort of is. But it’s so worth it. I wouldn’t recommend straying from the recipe or taking any shortcuts in any way.

When I made this at home, I, for the first time ever, made my own crème fraîche, which was so much fun — it’s crazy  to see heavy cream transform into a thick, tangy mass of goodness. Making crème fraîche is easy: Mix 2 tablespoons of buttermilk (or 2 tablespoons of yogurt) with 2 cups of heavy cream. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 12 to 24 hours. Stir and then store until ready to use.

2. The flaky tart shell is delectable. There is nothing unusual about the Tartine recipe — flour, salt, ice water and lots of cold butter. Blindbaking the shell for about 30 minutes ensures a crisp, perfectly browned crust.

3. Tartine uses uncooked greens. For whatever reason, I have been in the habit of quickly sauteéing any type of green before adding it to a quiche, but Tartine recommends otherwise. The recipe calls for 1 cup of uncooked roughly chopped greens. This is the only step where I strayed a tad — I added more like 2-3 cups of roughly chopped Swiss chard.

The Tartine quiche has completely changed my perception of this classic dish. The texture of the Tartine quiche, which has not an ounce of cheese, is truly a beautiful thing. Prior to tasting Tartine’s, quiche for me was all about the fillers — onions, bacon, cheese, zucchini, tomatoes, mushrooms, whatever. Now, it’s about the custard, the light, creamy, custard. 

I must admit that making this quiche is no simple task. That said, if you have the tart dough made in advance (which I do now since the tart dough recipe yields enough for two 10-inch quiches) and if you have the crème fraîche made in advance (or are using store bought), making this quiche isn’t such a process. It’s also just a matter of getting familiar with the process. 

Tartine Quiche

Clockwise from top left: Quiche shell, lined with parchment paper, ready to be blind-baked. Filled quiche shell ready for the oven. Baked quiche. Baked quiche up close. 

Quiche

Next on my recipes to tackle in the Tartine cookbook is bread pudding made with homemade brioche bread. Before we head there, however, I just want to share a few highlights of my trip to Napa:

Wine tasting at Cakebread Cellars in Napa Valley. Grapes at Cakebread:

Grapes

Wine tasting at Hendry’s Winery in Napa. The tasting table at Hendry’s:

Tasting Table at Hendry's Vineyard

Eating macaroons at Bouchon in Yountville. Incredibly delicious.

Bouchon Macarons

Visiting Bouchon altogher. Here we sampled TKOs (Thomas Keller Oreos), chocolate bouchons, macaroons, croissants, almond croissants, ham and cheese sandwiches, epi baguettes and quiche. The spread, pictured at the very bottom, was remarkable. 

Bouchon

Quiche with Crème Fraîche and Swiss Chard
Source: Tartine (Chronicle Books, 2006)
Serves 6 to 8

Flaky Tart Dough
Yield = 2 10-inch tart or pie shells

1 tsp. salt (I used table salt)
2/3 cup ice water
3 cups + 2 T. all-purpose flour (1 lb.)
1 cup + 5 T. unsalted butter, very cold

1. In a small bowl, add the salt to the water and stir to dissolve. Keep cold until ready to use.

2. Place the flour in a large mixing bowl. Cut the butter into 1-inch (or smaller) pieces and scatter the pieces over the flour. Using a pastry blender or two knives or two forks, cut the butter into the flour until the mixture forms large clumps and the butter is in pieces the size of small peas. Drizzle the water-salt mixture over the flour and stir and toss with a fork until the dough comes together in a shaggy mass. Gently mix until the dough comes together into a ball but is not completely smooth.

3. On a lightly floured work surface, divide the dough into 2 equal balls and shape each ball into a disk 1-inch thick. Wrap well in plastic wrap and chill for at least 2 hours or up to overnight.

4. Preheat the oven to 375ºF.

5. Place dough on a lightly floured surface and roll out to 1/8-inch thick, rolling from the center toward the edge in all directions. (Lift and rotate the dough a quarter turn every few strokes to prevent sticking, and work quickly to prevent the dough from becoming warm.) Transfer the round to the pie dish, easing it into the corners. Trim excess dough.

6. Cut a piece of parchment paper large enough to fit over the pie plate generously. Fill parchment paper with pie weights or dried beans. Bake for about 25 minutes or until the surface looks light brown. Remove from oven and remove the weights and paper. Return the shell to the oven and bake until golden brown, about 5 minutes longer. Cool shell on wire rack until ready to fill.

Quiche with Swiss Chard and Crème Fraîche

1 fully baked 10-inch Flaky Tart Shell Dough (recipe above)
5 large eggs
3 T. all-purpose flour
1 cup crème fraîche*
1 cup whole milk
1 tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 T. fresh thyme, finely chopped (I didn’t have thyme so I used chives)
1 cup uncooked coarsely chopped Swiss Chard (I used more like 2 or 3 cups)

1. Preheat the oven to 375ºF.

2. Place 1 egg and the flour in a large bowl and whisk until smooth. Whisk in the remaining 4 eggs until blended.

3. In a medium bowl, whisk the crème fraîche until smooth. Whisk in the milk. Pour the egg mixture through a fine mesh sieve held over the milk mixture. Whisk in the salt, pepper and thyme (or other herb). Stir in the chard.

4. Pour the egg mixture into the pastry shell. Place in the oven and bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 325ºF and bake until the filling is just set, about 30 minutes longer. The center of the quiche should still feel slightly firm, rather than liquidy, when touched. Let cool on a wire rack for at least 20 minutes to allow the custard to set up, so that it will slice neatly. It can be served warm or at room temperature. To serve a fully cooled quiche warm, cover it with aluminum foil and reheat it in a 325ºF for about 15 minutes.

* To make crème fraîche, place 2 cups heavy cream in bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of yogurt or 2 tablespoons of buttermilk. Stir to combine. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 12 to 24 hours. Stir. Mixture will be nice and thick. Store in the fridge until ready to use. Note: Try to use good heavy cream and not ultra-pasteurized if possible — I used to have no trouble making crème fraîche, but recently I have found that it takes an especially long time for the cream to thicken. If you find that after 12 hours the cream does not look thick at all, add a few more tablespoons of buttermilk or yogurt to the mixture.

Bouchon Spread

Carrot Cake & Soup, Anniversary Dinner at Izza

carrot cakes

carrot cake

Last week I found a stockpile of carrots in the bottom left-hand drawer of my fridge. So, I set to work slicing and dicing, staining my cutting board, dulling my knife, tearing up my uncalloused little hands. Sike. I did nothing of the sort. I for once used my little brain and pulled out an attachment to my Cuisinart I have yet to use. Magic. In about 30 seconds, this gadget had transformed my pound of carrots into perfect little shreds. I didn’t even peel these guys. Just gave them a good scrub, and sent them down the shoot. 

With prep work done, I set to work on a carrot cake recipe I have had saved for years. It appeared in Fine Cooking magazine in 2004 in an article called “Carrot Cake, Perfected.” Why I have waited five years to give the recipe a go is beyond me, but I am so happy I finally have. This recipe is a winner.

With the rest of my carrots, I made a yummy gingered-carrot soup roughly based off The New Moosewood Cookbook’s recipe. And I promise to supply this recipe once I actually make it properly. For whatever reason, I left out about five ingredients, substituted five others, and produced something resembling nothing close to what Mollie Katzen had prescribed. Fortunately, I have another bundle of carrots to play with this week.

carrotswholeandshredded

With the above-pictured carrots, I made cake.

With the below-pictured carrots, I made soup. Some were a tad wrinkly, sure. Not to worry, once puréed, no one would suspect a thing.

carrots

Below: Carrot-ginger soup served with Bäco flatbreads. These deserve their own post. Soon, I hope.

carrot-ginger soup

ginger & garlic

Mini spring-form pans filled with batter (at left) and baked (at right).

baked & unbaked cakes

cut cakes

carrot cakes

cake

cake

I made several mini cakes with this batter as well as some patriotic cupcakes for the Fouth of July. While the cupcakes were a hit, this batter definitely bakes more evenly and better in cake pans. Stick to cakes with this recipe. It is a yummy yummy recipe. 

frosted cupcakes

The pizza guys at Izza, a new San Clemente pizza joint.
pizza guys

I’m not sure why I’m trying to squeeze so much into this post, but I just want to tell you one more thing. This past Wednesday, the love of my life and I celebrated our four-year anniversary by eating our favorite food on the planet … pizza pizza. Izza, a thin-crust, wood-fired, Neopolitan-style pizza place opened its doors just in time for us to celebrate our happy day. The pizza was fabulous, our server was adorable, and the vanilla gelato was heavenly. We couldn’t be happier with this addition to the San Clemente restaurant scene. Well, if they added a white clam pizza to their menu, I might be slightly happier, but maybe in time that will come.

And last but not least, check out this old photo I found. It was taken way back in middle school when Ben and I met on a field trip in Thessaloniki. I’m just kidding, you know, but seriously, I would have guessed ages 15 and 12 respectively. Yikes.

ben & ali

The Ultimate Carrot Cake
Source: Fine Cooking Magazine
Article: “Carrot Cake, Perfected” by Gregory Case

Note: I have made some modifications to the original recipe. To read the original, click here.

For the cake:
Softened butter and flour for the pan
1 lb. carrots
10 oz. (2-1/4 cups) all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. table salt
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 1/4 cup vegetable oil

For the frosting:
8 oz. (1 cup) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and completely softened at room temperature
1 lb. cream cheese, cut into pieces and completely softened at room temperature
4-1/4 oz. (1 cup) confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 Tbs. pure vanilla extract

Make the cake:
1. Position a rack in the bottom third of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour a 9×13-inch heavy-duty metal cake pan.

2. In a food processor, using the shredder attachment, shred the carrots. Transfer to a small bowl and rinse the food processor bowl (you’ll need it again).

3. In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. Whisk to blend thoroughly.

4. In the food processor (again use the steel blade), mix the eggs and sugars until blended. With the machine running, slowly add the oil in a steady stream until combined. Scrape this mixture into the flour mixture. Stir with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula to combine. Add the carrots; stir to combine.

5. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, about 50 minutes. Let cool on a rack to room temperature before inverting the pan to remove the cake. Let cool completely before frosting.

Make the frosting:
Fit a stand mixer with the paddle attachment (a hand mixer works, too). Beat the butter on medium speed until it’s quite light, fluffy, and resembles whipped cream, about 3 minutes. Add the cream cheese one piece at a time, beating well after each addition. When all the cream cheese is incorporated, reduce the speed to medium low and gradually add the sugar and vanilla, stopping the mixer each time you add the sugar. Mix just enough to remove any lumps; scrape the bowl as needed. If the frosting seems a bit loose, refrigerate it for a few minutes until it seems spreadable.

Frost the cake:
Scrape about two-thirds of the frosting onto the center of the cake. With a narrow metal offset spatula, push the frosting from the center out to and just over the cake’s edges. Spread with as few strokes as possible to prevent crumbs from catching in the frosting. Cover the top of the cake first then use the remaining frosting along with what’s creeping over the edges of the cake to cover the sides.