Friday, August 31, 2012

Summer's Last Hurrah

I have wasted an hour an a half trying to come up with something interesting to say here.  I've typed something and then read some gossip sites.  I've deleted it, typed something else and then taken out the trash.  I've stared at it, turned off the air conditioning, opened all the windows in a bid to make the still vaguely-weird-possibly-smokey smell leave my apartment.  I've deleted what I've written again.

I DO NOT HAVE TIME FOR THIS.  I have to work on Tuesday.  This is my last actual day of vacation.  The last day when everyone else is working but I'm on summer break.  I need to be reading trashy novels, using up summer sale coupons that expire on the last day of August, watching HGTV and endlessly snacking.  I cannot spend my time trying to find the exact right way to wax poetic on the subject of heirloom tomatoes.

And let's not even get into how the tomatoes deserve better than my paltry prose.  Heirlooms are the crown jewels of summer.  To heck with those perfectly round, perfectly red globes that try to convince you that they taste as good as they look (usually, with the exception of a Jersey summer tomato, they don't).  Heirlooms may be lumpy and misshapen and have weird gray blemish looking cracks on them, but they are where the flavor is.  One of my favorite little local farmer's markets, Sansone's, usually sets out an amazing tasting tray.  There are tiny chunks of tomatoes, sweet juicy yellows, deep flavorful reds that are nearly purple, green striped tangy ones.  Tomato stops being a single flavor and becomes a whole world of nuanced variety.

Heirlooms don't need recipes.  Most of the time, you just drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle a little salt and you're done.  But everyone once in awhile, you may find yourself with a bounty of heirlooms or you may need to whip up a vegetarian dish for a Labor Day celebration.  This heirloom tomato tart will fit the bill.  The tomatoes aren't cooked, so they'll still be juicy and the cheese is delicate and won't overpower the real star of the dish.  So you go ahead and put together something delicious to eat for summer's last hurrah. I'll be here on the sofa reveling in my last day off.

inspired by epicurious and Food52

1 1/2 C flour
1 stick of butter (8 T) - chopped into small cubes and kept very cold
1/4 t black pepper
3 T parmesan
ice water

In a food processor (I use a stand mixer because I don't have a big food processor, so you can do it in a stand mixer or by hand if you like), combine the flour and black pepper and parm.  Then add the butter and mix until it's a sort of sandy consistency.  Once it's reached that consistency, begin adding ice water about a tablespoon at a time.  You want the dough to hold together but not get too wet.  When you can form it into a ball, you're done.  I shape it into a flattened disk and refrigerate it for awhile so it will be easier to work with later.  I think I chilled it about a half an hour.

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Roll out the dough on a well floured surface.  I used a 10 1/2" pie dish for this pie.  When the dough is large enough, drape it over the pie plate and press it into place.    Then lay a piece of foil over it and add pie weights or dried beans or pennies to the center.  You will be blind baking the pie.  If you don't know what blind baking is, check out the Pie Maven's explanation.  Bake the crust for 15 minutes, then remove and let cool.  You're going to have a very damp filling, so if you want to try Pie Maven's tip for moisture proofing, that might be a good idea.  I am definitely going to try it next summer.  You just remove the pie weights and foil about 5 minutes before the end of baking and using a pastry brush, apply an egg wash to the bottom and a bit up the sides.  An egg wash is simply an egg beaten with a bit of milk or water (usually around 1-2 t of the liquid per egg).  Then you return the pie to the oven for the last 5 minutes of baking.

heirloom tomatoes (1 used 1 1/2 large ones), sliced thinly
1 1/2 C mascarpone cheese
1/2 C grated Parmigiano Reggiano
fresh mozzarella (I used half of a small ball)
salt and pepper
1 t balsamic vinegar

Slice the tomatoes around a half hour to hour in advance and set them on a rack (like you use to cool cookies).  Under the rack, lay a few layers of paper towels (I usually put the paper towels and the rack all on top of a cookie sheet with an edge (sometimes called a jelly-roll pan) so that the liquid won't go anywhere).  Anyway, your goal is to dry out those tomatoes a bit  Feel free to remove the seeds and sprinkle them with salt before you let them sit.  Then right before you use them, pat them dry.

Prepare your mascarpone.  Take the cheese and mix in the parm plus some salt and pepper, a good pinch of each and some lemon.  I didn't have a lemon, but I wished I did. Start with a teaspoon or so of freshly squeezed juice and then taste it.  Mascarpone is creamy and delicate. You don't want to overpower it, but nor do you want it to be bland.  It should taste yummy.  Feel free to adjust the salt, pepper and parm as you see fit.

Slice your mozzarella very thin as well.

Time to assemble!  Use around a third of the mascarpone to cover the bottom of the pie crush.  Smooth it into an even layer.  Lay down a layer of heirloom tomato slices, use the ugliest ones, these are getting buried.  Seriously, ignore all those pictures online of beautiful tomato tarts.  Real heirlooms are lumpy and bumpy and you'll be lucky if you get attractive slices at all.  I used a combination of yellow and red heirlooms for mine, so my first layer was yellows.  Then lay down a layer of mozzarella and drizzle over the balsamic vinegar.  Then lay down a layer of red heirlooms.  Then smooth down the rest of the mascarpone (I didn't quite have enough, so I increased the amount of mascarpone for this recipe so that you WILL have enough).  Finally, using the prettiest tomato slices, create your top layer.  Serve this soon!  The sooner the better!  The tomatoes will try to moisten up everything else, so just go for it.  We had a lot left over, and it was fine, not too mushy and certainly not gross, but it wasn't all that pretty to look at.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

In Which I Nearly Burn Down the House...

It wasn't a particularly great day yesterday, but I was really trying to turn things around.  I had made it through a phone call I was dreading and figured I could at least get dinner out of the way.  The chicken was cooked, the buns were ready to toast, the dishes were washed, the glaze was made and the red onions were caramelized.  I just needed to take Dexter for a walk before Ryan got home.  I turned off the heat under the onions and out we went.  It was a nice evening, so we made it a leisurely stroll and even ran into Ryan on the way back in.  As we got closer to the building, I could hear an alarm.  I assumed it was the neighbors burglar alarm at first, but as we walked up the stairs, I broke into a run.  When I threw open the door of our apartment, I knew.  The air was dark and cloudy with smoke.  The alarms shrieked.  On the stove, bits of charred onion smoked heavily in the bottom of a pan whose handle was on fire.

Unlike the gas stoves I've always cooked on, electric stoves have knobs that can be turned either way.  So in flicking it off, I must have over flicked and ended up on temperature 9, maximum heat.  I blew on the handle which sort of shockingly stopped the fire and then rushed the pan outside.  Ryan threw open the windows.  Dexter barked desperately thinking we were idiots for staying anywhere that was bleeping so loudly.  When the smoke cleared out enough the alarms finally stopped, the dog quieted down and I started making another batch of (highly supervised) onions.

The sandwich was delicious.  The apartment still smells of smoke.  I still feel like an idiot.  I blame the stove.

I give you the recipe in good faith that you will watch your onions, but also that you will share with me, in the comments, any tips you may have about un-smoke-smelling my apartment.  Please.

adapted from Cooking Light
Warning:  This recipe requires multi-tasking.  If you cannot multi-task, you should adapt the recipe so that you will not set anything on fire.

for two sandwiches

1 boneless skinless chicken breast
2 rolls (I used buns because it's what I had, but you might like a real roll)
1/2 a small red onion
goat cheese
lettuce (you can use anything, fancy mixed greens, spicy arugula.  I used half  of a large romaine leaf)
tomato (a thin slice for each sandwich)
olive oil
salt and pepper

for the glaze:
1/4 C + 1/8 C balsamic vinegar
1 t worcestershire sauce
2 T brown sugar

You need two pans and a pot.  A small pot for the glaze, a small pan for the onions and a large pan for the chicken.  Set them all on the stove.  In the small pot, combine the balsamic, worcestershire and brown sugar.  Turn this on medium low and stir periodically (you may want to whisk it a bit to make sure the sugar all incorporates properly).  You want the glaze thick enough that it will coat a spoon (or you know, your chicken breasts) and not just pour all over your plate.  Slice your red onion nice and thin.  Add a bit of olive oil to the small pan.  Again, your heat should be medium low to low.  Put the onion in the pan and add a small sprinkle of salt.  You'll want to watch your onions.  You want them to cook to caramelized, so while you want them to cook down, you are not looking for crispy.  Any sizzling noises are to be carefully monitored.  This will take the longest time, between 15-20 minutes.  Then prepare your chicken breast (you only need 1 breast for 2 sandwiches).  Trim the breast of any fat or icky bits and salt and pepper both sides.  Add a tablespoon of olive oil to the large pan and turn the heat to high.  You want the oil to sizzle a bit if you add a drop of water.  Once the pan is hot, add the chicken.  It will take about 4 minutes a side, a bit less for thin breasts, a bit more for super fat ones.  Because you'll be slicing the chicken eventually this is a great recipe for beginners. You can cut into the breast to check for doneness, a nice slice through the fattest part.  Chicken should be white and sort of opaque, not pink.  You still want it too be moist.  When your chicken is done, you can cover it with foil and let it rest while you finish up anything you may not have timed correctly.  When you are ready to serve, slice the chicken breast on an angle.  Assemble your sandwiches.  I toasted the buns, and smeared goat cheese liberally on the top bun.  Then on the bottom I placed my lettuce leaf, then my tomato.  Then on top of the tomato I layered the chicken, drizzled the glaze on top and added the caramelized onions.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Happy Birthday Gene Kelly!

Earlier this month, my dearest friend had a dinner in honor of the 100th anniversary of Julia Child's birth.   You can read all about her celebration and her family's special relationship with Julia over at My Family Table.  Probably unsurprisingly, I couldn't get my act together to whip up a fancy french dinner in the heat of August.

But today is another hundredth birthday - that of one of my favorite childhood movie stars, Gene Kelly.  While everyone else my age was building up a common knowledge of popular 80's culture, I was watching old musicals.  One of my very favorites has always been On the Town, starring Gene Kelly.  The combination of sailors on shore leave and girls in amazing costumes taking in the sights of New York City made it irresistible to me.  (True confession: I currently own two dresses I love primarily because they remind me of the costumes in the movie. a gorgeous full skirted black and white plaid that looks like the trim on Ann Miller's costume and a black dress with a coral underskirt that makes me think of the stunning crinolines under Vera Ellen and Betty Garret's dresses.)  While it's probably not Kelly's best exhibition of dancing (except for a dream ballet sequence, he doesn't get to truly show his abilities), it's really worth watching if you at all go in for this kind of thing.  If nothing else, you'll get to see Frank Sinatra at the height of his popularity acting sheepish and awkward around girls.

In honor of Kelly's birthday, TCM is running his films all day, with On the Town showing at 6:15.  So why not make it dinner and a movie?  I'll admit, the meal comes solely from my imagination as the movie is almost entirely without food.  Sure, there are few mentions briefly in song, but despite the movie running through a full 24 hours, the only eating shown is when the boys manage to grab a few apples from a fruit stand.  So what would I serve sailors on leave?  Most certainly something they could not afford, a beautiful juicy steak.

It's a perfect New York treat for a perfect New York movie.

New York Strip Steak

A New York strip steak
salt and pepper
olive oil

Selecting the steak:  You want to buy a steak that is about 1.5 to 1.75 inches thick and has a nice amount of marbling throughout (marbling is the strands of fat that run through the meat which make it flavorful and delicious).  The thickness of the steak is recommended so that you have a good ration of nice juicy middle to crispy outside.  In my world you want a nice thin outside with a pink center, not a thin strip of pink between two chewy crusts.  Choose USDA prime for the best quality.

Equipment: You need a cast-iron pan.

Preparation:  Take the steak out of the fridge about 15 minutes before you want to cook it so that it can warm up.  Salt and pepper it generously (don't coat it or anything, just a nice sprinkling on each side).  With a few minutes to go, heat up your cast-iron pan.  Use a paper towel and pour a bit of olive oil on the towel.  Use tongs to press the oiled towel all over the cooking surface of the pan.  You want a nice even coating, but you don't want to just pour oil in there and make a pool.

Your pan should be over medium high heat and it will be ready for the steak when a drop of water placed in the pan sizzles.  Place the steak in the pan and cook it for 4-5 minutes.  Do not poke it or press it or anything once you put it down.  Just leave it alone.  After 4-5 minutes, turn it over and let it go for 3 more minutes.  You should have a beautifully cooked side facing up at you once you flip it.  Use a meat thermometer to check the temperature at both ends of the steak (I know, I know the juice will run out, be delicate, don't maul the things and when you get better at it maybe you won't need a thermometer).  You can pull the steak between 115 degrees and 118 degrees for medium-rare.  When you take it out of the pan, cover it with foil and let it sit a few minutes.  The temperature will go up a smidge more which is probably good and the juices will be less likely to pour out all over the place.

Serve your perfectly cooked steak with a good red wine (or if you're playing sailor, a mug of good beer) and don't forget to toast one of the greatest dancers of all time.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

What's Your Point of View?

If you watch any Food Network show, you'll know that having a point of view is a big deal to the network.  Recently, a friend made an audition tape for Chopped and of course, we needed to discuss, in depth, what her point of view would be.  As a food blogger who is ready pretty much only by family and close friends, I never particularly worried about what my point of view was.  It's always been pretty obvious that I just don't have one.

This last season of Food Network star featured a contestant who felt he didn't need one.  He was so good that he just should be allowed to cook and to heck with having a point of view.  It did not work out well for him at all.  But another contestant's point of view interested me far more than this man's utter lack of one.

Her concept was a show called "My New England," in which she would share her love of New England through cooking.  The network worried a bit that it would be to narrow, and on camera at least, she was unable to really convince them that New England was more than a series of lighthouses, beach houses and fishing boats.  I was not so secretly jealous.  My New England.  Now that is a point of view I could get behind.

My New England is Cape Cod where I spent weeks on end visiting my grandparents each summer, following every fried haddock dinner with a quest for the best ginger ice cream (my father's favorite).  My New England is Connecticut's orchards nestled deep in the country surrounding my college town, hot lobster sandwiches along its shorelines and the Howard Johnson's in Mystic that always kept Peppermint Stick Ice Cream in stock because it was the manager's favorite.  It's Newport, RI, both the restaurants and bars along the water catering to tourists and sailors and the Newport of a century ago.  Not the mansions and elegance of the rich, but the house where my Portuguese great-grandmother raised 13 children with a backyard housing a goat and chickens, where my great-aunts fried malasadas at the stove.  My New England is my Nana's French-Canadian mother making pork pie from leftover roasts and potatoes without ever touching a recipe.  It's my walk through Boston's Italian North End to my first after college boyfriend's apartment, the air perfumed by tomato sauce, the windows festooned with fresh pasta.  It is the tiny restaurant in Inman Square where I could find the tiny custard tarts I fell in love with when I visited Lisbon. My New England is my best friend's Passover table where she shares her grandmother's traditional recipes. I have so many recipes that are influenced by my years living in New England and my own family heritage.  I have so many stories about how the food of that region has been important in my life.

How dare they think this part of the country couldn't carry a show!  Southern cooking has long been considered worthy of its own programs and recipe books.  New England certainly has a rich enough heritage to warrant a show.  And in my imaginary world where I have a cooking show, that program would be all mine.

What's your culinary point of view?  Do you have one?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Pressing Pickle Update

Take a look at that.  Bread and butter pickles in their natural habitat: atop a burger.  I can't say that I've ever eaten pickles on a burger before last night, but evidently I've been missing out.  Because those pickles LOVE being on a burger.  I LOVE those pickles being on a burger.  We have a very happy situation here people.  I already broke down and made a second batch of them, you know you should probably get started on your first.

I'm not even the only one schilling pickles on the internet these days.  Evidently, refrigerator pickles are hot right now.  Lady Gouda's making bread and butters.  Emily Style is making dills.  Clearly this means that they are the new, hot, in, thing.  I'm never on trend.  This might be a first.  I shall revel in it.

Also, remember the poor forgettable loser in the pickle playoffs?  The poor asian pickles?  They know their audience.  Understanding my natural procrastination instincts are especially strong when it comes to throwing out food, they lurked in the batch of my fridge for a week.  I thought they were just peeking around the condiments feeling sorry for themselves, but really, they were gathering spice.  Ryan was on a snack-seeking mission and poking around the back of the fridge and there they were.  I don't know if it was desperation or optimism, but he popped a pickle.  It was nice and fiery.  Happy pickle.  He finished the jar in a single sitting.  I still wouldn't say they were the best pickle option, but if you like things hot, let a batch sit awhile, you won't be sorry.


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