Isn’t it wonderful, when you find out that something
you were convinced
would be terribly difficult,
was, in fact,
a breeze, a lark,
That was my pretzel-making experience.
When Jessi brought her pretzels to potluck a few years ago, we all went crazy for them. Who makes pretzels? We rewarmed the soft salty twists in the oven. A dunk into a crock of spicy mustard, we greedily devoured them.
As I was compiling our recipes for the cookbook, I had no doubt.
The pretzels had to be represented.
Jessi readily accommodated, sending me her method, with tips.
Seeking to recreate the same distinctive taste that she and her husband had enjoyed in Bavaria, she had done extensive research and experimentation. The outcome–a straightforward, authentic, and easy-to-make recipe.
The dough is basic. It does not require lengthy rise time or punching down. If you have a stand mixer with a dough hook, you can whip it up in short order, let the machine do the 10 minute kneading process, while you do something else. Hand-rolling the dough into long strands and looping them into the pretzel shape is quite fun.
But there is one piece to the process that was news to me. What Jessi learned—call it the secret, or the trick to making perfect pretzels—-is that you dip the dough knot into a diluted lye solution before baking.
Lye? Isn’t that the stuff Paulie put into Bed-Bug Eddie’s coffee in The Pope of Greenwich Village?
The idea of working with this caustic substance, well, freaked me out, at first. But Jessi, our resident soap maker, and no stranger to the product, assured me that there was nothing to fear. “Just Be Prudent.” (I’ve listed her prudent tips below, with the recipe.)
Food-grade lye is an intrinsic component of curing olives, and making hominy, In the case of the pretzels, there is amazing science here–the interaction of sodium hydroxide with the oven heat produces that characteristic browning and taste before it vanishes.
And, it was not a problem to use. Really!
I made a batch of pretzels for one of the cookbook’s photo shoot days. I was so elated with how splendid they turned out that I made them again when visiting my bread-baking friend Maggie.
For sure, they are delicious right out of the oven. But you can rewarm them the next day with terrific results. That outer brown sheen only gets crunchier—but there is still that soft chewy pretzel interior.
Many recipes use a combination of baking soda–which is another alkali– and water. And I am happy to send you to Cooking Light for their recipe, if you are not comfortable using the food-grade lye dip. It will make a good pretzel—but not a great one.
Here’s the link to my homemade mustards, if you want to go all-out. The coarse-grain stout mustard is made for pretzel-dunking.
JESSI’S DELICIOUS GERMAN-STYLE PRETZELS
1 1/2 teaspoons dry active yeast
2 cups warm water, divided
5 cups bread flour
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 1/2 tablespoons butter, softened
1/2 cup food grade lye*
10 cups water
Coarse sea salt to taste
Dissolve the yeast in 1/4 cup warm water.
Place the bread flour into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the dough hook. Add the salt, softened butter, activated yeast, and remaining water. Mix until combined. Knead the ingredients until the dough is elastic, about 10 minutes.
Cover with a towel and let the dough rest for 5 minutes.
Cut into 12 equal pieces and form into balls. Let rest for 5 minutes.
Roll each ball into a thin rope (about 18 inches long). Make into an upside-down U, and twist the ends around each other to create the distinctive pretzel shape.
Place each one on parchment paper–lined baking sheet and refrigerate uncovered for a minimum of 2 hours up to overnight.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a stainless-steel bowl, dissolve the lye in the water. Dip each side of the pretzels into the lye mixture for 15 seconds and remove to the baking sheet.
Sprinkle each pretzel with coarse salt.
Bake for about 17 minutes. Immediately remove the pretzels from the parchment onto wire rack to cool.
• You can find food grade lye at a number of online sources. I ordered mine from http://www.essentialdepot.com/servlet/Categories.
• Only use stainless-steel pots, bowls, and utensils when working with lye. No plastic. No wood. It is wise to wear gloves when dipping the pretzels into the diluted lye solution.
• Don’t be afraid of the lye mixture—just be prudent. It’s pretty diluted and really the key to making the outside of the pretzel firm and browned evenly.
• You can also make pretzel rolls. Snip or score the top of the rolled ball after dipping in the lye solution.
White Cheddar Gougeres stuffed with Herbed Chicken Salad
Open Face Cucumber-Boursin and Tomato-Bacon-Basil Aioli Finger Sandwiches
Plum Spiced Shortbread Bars
A chunk of my adult life was spent as a caterer, and from time to time I can be coaxed to put that catering hat back on. My friend Gigi is a milliner and hatter; her amazing HATWRKS store here in Nashville offers not only an extensive selection of hats for men and women from the country’s best known hatters, but stunning custom hats that are Gigi’s own design and creation. She had an in-store event recently and asked me to prepare a few light bites and tea.
While working on it, I realized that it would be a good opportunity to share some catering tips: a few tricks of the trade that will ensure success with relative ease.
When planning to make appetizers for a party, here are some things to keep in mind:
I’ve talked about this here, but you want your guest to be able to eat the appetizer in one (or two) tidy bites, without fear of shattering crumbs allover the floor, or dripping sauce down her blouse.
Hors d’oeuvres means “outside the main work.” They are designed to spark appetite, but not sate. Remember that they are the prelude to something else. As such, here’s a good rule of thumb: You’ll want to offer 2-3 different appetizers, and figure on 2-3 pieces per person of each.
I consider the group when designing a menu and strive to offer:
Mostly savory, with something sweet. Mostly vegetarian with something meaty. I like to use seasonal produce, and have appealing colors.
4. Intriguing Element
Often what separates a mediocre hors d’oeuvres from a terrific one can be found in one defining element of the recipe. I look for that one special aspect that truly elevates—has that “wow” factor. I like for it also to possess versatility. The economy of excellence, so to speak. For instance, if a cranberry-pear chutney is astonishing in one recipe, it likely can lend the same pizzazz to others.
The three light bites highlighted in this post satisfy my criteria. For your pleasure, I’ve posted the recipes for each one’s defining element to make your own.
The recipe for gougeres, French-styled cheese puffs, is a great one to have in your catering repertoire. Originally made with Gruyere cheese and a pinch of nutmeg, they can take on other cheeses and herbs or spices with aplomb. (Check out these, made with chevre and chives.)
The white cheddar gougeres make delectable bites on their own. But you can fill them with anything you like–your favorite chicken salad recipe, or smoked salmon, or deviled ham, or roasted red pepper mousse…you get the idea. People always delight in eating them.
WHITE CHEDDAR GOUGERES
3/4 cup water
3/4 cup milk
1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons ) butter, cut into pieces
2 pinches salt
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups shredded sharp white cheddar
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Line baking sheets with parchment.
Place the water, milk, butter, and salt into a medium saucepan set on medium high heat. Stir and bring to a simmer, melting the butter. Pour in the flour and stir rapidly, cooking the mixture into a mass. When the mixture pulls away from the sides of the pan, remove from heat. Let the mixture sit for a minute or two.
Using a wooden spoon, beat in the eggs, one at a time—beating each egg so that it is well incorporated into the flour before adding the next one. You want to work quickly so that the eggs will not cook or curdle in the mixture. This will give you a real upper arm workout–well worth it! The mass will become smooth, golden in color.
Fold in the shredded cheese.
Place gourgere mixture into a pastry bag fitted with a star tip. Pipe little (3/4-1 inch) mounds in rows on the parchment-lined baking sheet.
Place the baking sheets in the oven and bake for 25 minutes. Check on the pans at the halfway mark, and rotate them in the oven.
When the gougeres are browned and have a hollow crisp to them, remove the pans from the oven and let the gougeres cool on a wire rack.
Makes 5 dozen gougeres.
Boursin. We’ve all seen the small packages of this soft, airy French cheese at the market. But, did you know that It is very easy to make your own? It might be more delicious. It certainly is fresher, and more cost effective.
Spread onto petite rounds of sunflower seed bread, this herbed butter-cream cheese blend is what makes the open-face cucumber sandwich exceptional. You’ll also enjoy the boursin paired with roast beef, or slathered onto tortillas lined with shredded vegetables, rolled and sliced into pretty mosaics, or simply garnished in a bowl, as a smear for bagels, flatbreads, or crackers. Salut!
8 ounces cream cheese, softened, cut into pieces
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, softened, cut into pieces
juice of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
1/4 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
In a medium bowl, cream the softened cream cheese and butter together with wooden spoon. Stir in the lemon juice, thyme, garlic, salt and pepper. Blend well. Cover and refrigerate to allow the flavors to develop and meld. Let the boursin stand at room temperature for at least 15 minutes so that it will be easily spreadable.
Makes 1 1/2 cups.
For the Cucumber-Boursin Finger Sandwiches
1 loaf sliced sunflower or whole grain wheat bread
1 recipe boursin
2 medium-sized cucumbers, cut into 1/4 inch thick coins
a few sprigs of fresh dill
Using a biscuit cutter, or rim of a juice glass, cut the bread slices into rounds.
Liberally spread the boursin over the rounds and arrange onto a platter.
Place cucumber coin onto each round. Sprinkle with a little coarse-ground black pepper.
Garnish each round with fresh dill.
Makes over 4 dozen
Finally, the spiced shortbread crust , with its nuance of cinnamon, ginger, and allspice, is crisp and buttery…and couldn’t be simpler to make. It makes a wonderful foundation and topping, sandwiching either your choice of preserves or fresh fruit. It cuts beautifully into bars, squares, or triangles! The recipe, adapted from The Cilantropist, was originally made with sliced fresh plums. But, it was the perfect vehicle for my plum preserves (I still have many jars from last year’s bounty.)
I think that you could make the recipe and highlight other stone fruits–peaches, apricots–or layer it with fig preserves or applesauce.
PLUM SPICED SHORTBREAD BARS (adapted from The Cilantropist)
3/4 cup turbinado sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) chilled butter, cut into pieces
12-16 ounces plum preserves (you may use fresh plums–about 8, pitted and sliced, instead)
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Coat a 9 x 13 inch baking pan with butter or pan spray.
Place both sugars, flour, baking powder, salt, spices, and chilled butter pieces into a food processor fitted with the pastry blade. Pulse quickly, processing the butter into the flour mixture. Add the egg and pulse until it is incorporated. The mixture will be crumbly.
Place 3/4 of the mixture into the bottom of the baking pan, evenly distributed. Press firmly.
Spread the plum preserves over the shortbread crust layer.
Cover the preserves with the remaining shortbread mixture.
Place the pan in the oven and bake for approximately 30 minutes. The top will become browned and the preserves will be bubbly. It will also feel set.
Cool completely on a wire rack. You can cover and refrigerate the bars overnight before cutting them into squares, if you prefer.
Makes approximately 3 dozen small bars.
Heading into the fall, with holidays soon to follow, you might like to check out Cooking Light’s creative light bites here for other recipes and inspiration. They suggest an appetizer swap party–a variation on the cookie-swap theme, which appeals more to me that all those sweets! It sounds like a fun way to share good ideas and savory bites. Wild mushroom-chevre cups, apricot-blue cheese-walnut in puff pastry….yum.
The unpredictability of harvests causes me to marvel at the steadfast dedication of farmers. One season to the next, they never know how well or poorly a crop will do, despite all care and meticulous planning. And, under the same weather conditions, one planting will thrive, while another fizzles.
In 2010, Gigi had a bumper crop of figs. In the two years that followed, her trees bore meager fruit. It had us worried—was 2010 a fluke? Last week, that notion was dispelled when Gigi called me with this report:
“We need to pick figs. Now!”
Her trees were–and still are—covered. Plump ripe knobs, some royal purple, others streaked greenish-brown, are ready to be plucked and relished. The next morning, I met Gigi at the garden. We picked a fast 100, and two days later, I returned to gather another basketful.
Joy. The figs are back, with the promise of so many more to come. Time to enjoy them now, and preserve them for the future.
My plan was two-fold. I could envision delectable figs roasted to sweetness, tucked in lettuce leaves with goat cheese, chives, and bacon for a summer meal. (almonds for my vegetarians!) What I didn’t use in the salad, I’d put up in mason jars. Roasted Figs in Syrup!
I began by halving the figs and arranging them on a baking sheet scattered with thin lemon wedges. After I dusted them with sugar and a spritz of white balsamic vinegar, I placed them into the hot oven.
I had forgotten how effective and deeply delicious this method is. Very quickly the sugar melts as the figs release their juices. The lemon and vinegar meld into the mix, enhancing the figgy taste, while balancing the sweetness. A gorgeous caramel-ruby syrup results, glazing the fruit in the pan. And that tangy syrup becomes the perfect medium to drizzle into the lettuce cups, the salad’s dressing really.
As for the rest, well, I have a few ideas. I love them baked on flatbread with prosciutto, leeks, and soft gorgonzola. The figs in syrup are sublime with mascarpone on a slice of crusty toasted baguette. Check out Cooking Light’s Guide to Figs for other tips and recipes. I am always open to new recipes with this ancient, treasured fruit, and would love to have your recommendations, too.
Of course, we fig lovers know that there is nothing quite like that one, sun-warmed and ripe right off the tree, sticky to the touch and honeyed to the bite.
ROASTED FIG-GOAT CHEESE-BUTTER LETTUCE CUPS
25 leaves butter (or Boston) lettuce, washed and spun dry
1 11 ounce log plain goat cheese
8-10 strips thick slab cut bacon cooked crisp and crumbled -OR-
1/2 cup sliced toasted almonds
1 1/2 cups roasted figs in syrup (recipe follows)
coarse ground black pepper
Arrange butter lettuce leaves on a platter. Cut the goat cheese log into small slices or pieces, placing a piece into each lettuce cup.
Sprinkle the goat cheese with chives.
Sprinkle cooked bacon or toasted almonds into the cups.
Place a fig half over the goat cheese.
Drizzle with figgy syrup and season with coarse ground black pepper.
Makes 25 appetizers or 10-12 mains.
ROASTED FIGS IN SYRUP
15 ripe figs, washed, dried and cut in half lengthwise
1 lemon, sliced into 10 wedges
1/4 cup sugar
2-3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Place the fig halves on a baking sheet. Scatter the lemon wedges around the figs.
Sprinkle the sugar over the figs. Sprinkle the vinegar over the sugared figs.
Place into the oven and roast for 10-12 minutes, rotating the pan after the halfway (5-6 minutes) mark.
Cook until the figs become puffed and release their juices.
The juices will meld with the melted sugar and vinegar to make a luscious syrup.
Remove from the oven and cool. Place the fig and lemon pieces into a medium bowl or 12 ounce jar. Scrape the accumulated juices-syrup from the pan over the figs.
Makes 1 1/2 cups.
Note: You may double the batch and preserve the figs and syrup in 3-8 ounce jars and process in a hot water bath for 15 minutes.
Life has been full and moving apace; and I’ve been a bit remiss here on Good Food Matters. But, exciting things are in the works—including a cookbook! I’ll share more details on that project soon, but in the meantime I thought I’d give you a look at our beautiful spread, an hors d’oeuvres buffet from last weekend. We held a shower honoring my daughter, son-in-law, and (grand!) baby to come.
No funny games or balloons, just a gathering of family and friends in the late afternoon for appetizers and sweets. We had a colorful array of foods, with a meat dish, a fish dish, and a bounty to please vegetarians and omnivores alike.
Plus, The Pie Board! My daughter Madeleine wanted not just pie, but Pies. A table filled with these assorted treats, great and petite, fruit or nut filled, chocolate cream or baked vanilla custard is a fun alternative to, say, a single cake. Easy as pies…..
While our party was a baby shower, it doesn’t matter: our menu would work for any kind of event, like a cocktail supper.
For your inspiration, with tips:
An Hors D’oeuvres Buffet
Marinated Grilled Beef Tenderloin, horseradish cream sauce, sundried tomato rolls
Orange-rubbed Smoked Alaskan Salmon Fillet
Blanched Chilled Asparagus with Greek Yogurt-Dill Dip
Roasted Butternut Squash-Yellow Bell Pepper-Honeycrisp Apple Quinoa
Black Eyed Pea “Cowboy Caviar”
Hot Baby Spoon Spinach-Artichoke Dip both served with blue and white corn chips
An overnight marinade of olive oil, red wine, balsamic vinegar, fresh thyme, and lots of fresh garlic help insure a succulent and flavorful piece of meat. Liberally salt and pepper the beef before grilling.
I rub the salmon fillet with orange zest and good olive oil before placing on my Big Green Egg to gently smoke. The fish stays moist, and is fragrant with citrus.
Simply roast diced butternut squash that you’ve first brushed with olive oil and lightly seasoned with salt and pepper. Do the same with diced yellow bell pepper. Prepare the quinoa according to package directions. Fold in roasted vegetables and diced fresh apple once the quinoa is cooked. The heat of the quinoa lightly cooks the apple, while retaining its crunch. Served warm or cool, this makes a delicious fall-inspired side or salad.
Blanched Chilled Asparagus with Greek Yogurt-Dill Sauce: Easy to make, easy to pick up and eat! It doesn’t take long to plunge the spears into boiling water, let them cook less than 2 minutes, and plunge them into an icy bath. Season plain Greek yogurt with plenty of fresh dill, scallions, fresh lemon juice and sea salt.
Like the quinoa dish, this vegan “Cowboy Caviar” is healthy, full-flavored, and universally enjoyed. I was lucky to find fresh black eyed peas at the market, which I cooked with garlic, sea salt, bay leaf and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Once the peas became tender and cooled, I added diced avocados, tomatoes, jalapenos, onions, cilantro, olive oil, and a squeeze of fresh lime juice.
This is an updated classic, made with fresh baby spoon spinach and artichoke hearts stirred into a green onion studded bechamel sauce. Always a favorite! Top the casserole with shredded pecorino romano cheese and bake until bubbly.
THE PIES: Rustic Honeycrisp Apple Galette, Chess Tarts, Plum Cream Cheese Pie, Maple Pecan Pie, Double Chocolate Cream Pie
Double Chocolate Cream Pie (the first to go!)
2 tablespoons cocoa
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/3 cup brown sugar
2 cups lowfat milk
4 ounces semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 teaspoon creme de cassis (optional)
pinch of salt
Whisk cocoa, cornstarch, and brown sugar together in a bowl. Pour milk into a 2 qt. saucepan set on medium heat and stir in cocoa mixture. Continue stirring until dissolved. Then add chopped chocolate. Flavor with vanilla, creme de cassis, and a pinch of salt. Stir ( a wooden spoon is good for this.) steadily, as the mixture begins to simmer and thicken. It will become smooth and puddinglike. Remove from heat and pour into pre-baked pie shell. Cool before refrigerating.
Whip a cup of heavy cream with 2 (or so, depending on how sweet you want your whipped cream) tablespoons confectioners sugar and a teaspoon vanilla. Top chilled pie, and garnish with shaved chocolate.
Individual Chess Tarts: these were made by good friend Wendy. A true Southern dessert: Eggs-Butter-Sugar-Buttermilk-Vinegar. Deceptively simple, and somewhat addictive, Chess Pie deserves a post all its own. I promise, I will deliver that soon!
Guests really have a great time making up pie sampler dessert plates for themselves!
Blissful Parents to Be
Due Date is December First
Pimiento cheese was an unknown in my world until I moved to Nashville Tennessee. A young picky eater, and native New Yorker: there was no way that I could have ever encountered that uncanny meld of grated cheddar, mayonnaise, and pimientos. A visit to a Nashville grocery in 1965 provided my first glimpse of the product, bilious orange, in a small tub.
To its credit, it was (and still is) locally manufactured under the Mrs. Grissom’s label. Grace Grissom was a smart businesswoman who launched a time-saving product for post-WWII housewives. It was well-loved by many, especially when spread on soft Wonder style bread.
I was not one of them. Mixing cheese and mayo together with those pieces of red peppers seemed wrong. Really wrong.
It wasn’t until I was an adult–a seasoned one, in fact—that I came to appreciate the very goodness of pimiento cheese. Not the Mrs. Grissom’s way. It took my catering staff’s insistence to try our own! Hard-formed thought-patterns are hard to break. But, made by hand with extra sharp cheddar ( at times, a combo of white and yellow sharps ) a dab of good mayo, garlic, red onion, and roasted sweet red peppers, pimiento cheese can be a veritable art form.
Evidently this is catching on beyond the Mason-Dixon line, as regional Southern food is becoming embraced all over the country. We’re hot! Recently, my daughter visited Point Reyes CA based Cowgirl Creamery’s outpost in Washington DC, where she purchased a small tub of their pimiento cheese. She brought it, along with other select farmstead cheeses, to our home. My-oh-my. Spread some of this onto a cracker! Swoon-able stuff, I tell you.
So when I discovered that my garden’s alleged yellow bell pepper plant was instead a pimiento pepper plant, what else could I do? I had to roast those ripe-red beauties, dice them, and fold them into some gourmet for real pimiento cheese.
Compared to red bell peppers that you usually find at the market, pimientos have a thicker, sweeter flesh, and a tetch more piquancy. They also have a rather endearing heart-shape. Dried and ground, this is what makes Paprika. If you can’t locate one, you can use a red bell in its place. Roasting intensifies the sweetness.
If you must, you may use a jar of prepared pimientos. The result will be good, certainly, but won’t have that same soulful tang.
As with most recipes that have very few ingredients, using the best will insure the best outcome. Key is a top-notch sharp cheddar. I’ve made this with Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheddar, a locally made sharp, and I’ve made it with Cabot Vermont Cheddar. Both are excellent. Successful, tamer versions can be made combining sharp cheddar with Monterey Jack cheese–but really, Sharp is what it’s all about.
If I were a true Southerner, I’d insist that you use Duke’s Mayonnaise. But, Duke’s isn’t available everywhere–and Hellman’s, my other mayo of choice, is. Use whichever you can, and carry on.
I like grate the cheese by hand. Once you’ve roasted and peeled the pimiento, it doesn’t take long to whip up a batch. The simplest way to enjoy it is, in down-home Southern fashion, spread onto humble sandwich bread. I prefer pimiento cheese tea sandwiches, (small bites!) or served with crackers, shown here. I set out condiment bowls of honey-tomato jam and red jalapeno jam to shake things up a bit.
You can get creative, like many chefs, and slather pimiento cheese onto a burger, fold it into grits casserole, or make a very decadent grilled cheese. All are fine ways to break up an old thought pattern, and savor this taste of the South.
FOR REAL PIMIENTO CHEESE
1 large pimiento or sweet red bell pepper: (roasted, peeled, and diced to make 1/2 cup)
1/2 teaspoon cider vinegar (optional)
1 lb. sharp white cheddar (like vermont cheddar)
1 quarter of a red onion, minced (to make approx. 1/4 cup)
4 tablespoons Hellman’s or Duke’s mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Place pepper halves onto a baking sheet and brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Roast in a 450 degree oven until skin is blistered-about 15 minutes. When cool enough to handle, remove peels and chop. Place pieces into a small bowl and add a 1/2 teaspoon of vinegar. Set aside.
Shred the cheddar and place into a large mixing bowl.
Add mayonnaise, minced red onion, granulated garlic, black pepper and prepared peppers.
Fold the mixture until the pimientos are laced throughout the cheese, and the mayonnaise has moistened and helped bind the cheese.
Taste for salt and adjust as needed.
Serve with crackers, on finger sandwiches, or dolloped onto a burger. DEE-LISH.
Cocozelle Zucchinis, Yellow Crooknecks, and now, Buttersticks.
Thanks to our diligent garden, it’s been a squash-filled summer.
Are you familiar with Butterstick Squash?
New to our garden this year, these hybrids have dark green tips and deep gold bodies, with some green streaking. Similar to zucchinis, they grow long and straight. Unlike zucchinis, ( which can hide under vast stalks and leaves until they are baseball bats!) their bright yellow color brashly announces their presence, and readiness for picking.
The flesh is firm, with a delicate, almost nutlike flavor. Seeds are minute. Easily sliced into thin coins, batons, or planks, buttersticks are cooperative. They perform well in all manner of recipes.
This is indeed helpful, because, if you are like me, the quest for different summer squash dishes is a constant from June through September.
Such a tender squash can be eaten raw.
As I was considering a preparation, I recalled a certain post in the delectable blog, My Little Expat Kitchen created by Magda.
A Greek woman living in The Netherlands, she introduces her readers to specialty dishes from her homeland interspersed with other recipes using the fresh seasonal goods found in Holland. Her photography is stunning, and her engaging voice unmistakable in her fine writing. (She also has an abiding love of chocolate, with recipes to match.)
Magda had marinated raw zucchini slices, and layered them several planks high, each in a slather of ricotta-feta cheese mixture with lemon and dill. It was her Tower.
That post was over two years ago—but its simplicity and beauty stood out for me. Whenever you can prepare an exceptional dish without firing up the stove—well, that’s a huge benefit in the heat of August.
With her inspiration, and select ingredients on hand, I decided to make my version, Butterstick Crudo.
It didn’t take long to whip up.
Chevre, churned with olive oil, lemon, green onion, fresh oregano, and just a hint of honey, serves as both slather and marinade for the butterstick slices. I recently bought some local honey that has a light yet distinct floral taste. A scant teaspoon imparts a desired essence of lavender, without being too sweet, or overpowering.
Be sure to season with sea salt and cracked black pepper, to taste.
The mixture will be thin–that’s to be expected. After you lay out a row of thin squash planks, get a spoonful and guide a stripe of the chevre down the center of each one. Place another plank on top and repeat the process.
Mine are not towers–just three stories high.
On to the finishing touches:
Scatter more fresh oregano leaves,
Marigold petals–if you have them—give a distinctive pop
A quick squeeze of lemon, and
A drizzle of good olive oil over the dish…
Place in the refrigerator for an hour, if you would like the chevre to set up. The chilled butterstick stacks slice neatly.
But, it is just as delicious at room temperature. Eat with a piece of crusty bread to swipe up all the creamy dressing.
And, use any leftover seasoned cheese blend stirred into scrambled eggs, or spread on a piece of toast. So good!
BUTTERSTICK ZUCCHINI CRUDO
3-4 small to medium sized young Butterstick Squashes or Zucchinis
4 oz. Chevre
2 t. fresh Lemon Juice
1 t. Honey
2 t. Olive Oil
1 Scallion, cut into small pieces
1 heaping Tablespoon fresh Oregano leaves
Sea Salt and Black Pepper–to taste
Marigold petals–to garnish
Wash, dry, and cut of the ends of the squashes. With a sharp knife, cut lengthwise into thin (1/4″ thick) slices.
In a mixing bowl, place goat cheese, lemon juice, olive oil, honey, scallion pieces, and oregano leaves. Using a hand-held blender, process until smooth. Season with salt and black pepper, and mix a bit more. Mixture will be a little runny.
Lay out squash slices onto a serving platter. Spread each slice with seasoned chevre. Layer each with another slice, then more cheese mixture. Finish each with a final slice. Drizzle olive oil over the vegetables. Sprinkle with salt, black pepper. Garnish with fresh oregano leaves and marigold petals, if you like.
Refrigerate for about an hour to set.
And that’s when I realized that any of my zesty trio–but especially the Apricot Mostarda–could be a key ingredient in the glaze.
I had also been working on a story about Cane Syrup for Relish Magazine.
In Abbeville, Louisiana, the Steen family has been making this deep amber delicacy for over 100 years. Now they are the only producing mill in the country, garnering them recognition in Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, a catalog of over 200 foods in danger of extinction.
If you have the chance to cook with this syrup, I encourage you to do so. The taste is distinctive. Cooking-wise, it is interchangeable with other syrups, such as molasses, sorghum, or honey. Steen’s has a prompt, reliable mail order service, and an easy-to-navigate website.
Lighter than molasses, Steen’s lends a deep bittersweet caramel note to foods.
And, mixed with my fruity mustard, sparked with a bit of allspice, it made a simple, yet spectacular ham glaze, with a slightly sweet nod to the South.
I took that southerly turn just a tetch further, and dusted a top-coat of pecan pieces, which readily adhered to the sticky glaze.
What a wonderful combination!
The pecans toasted onto the ham as it baked, making a nice crunchy layer. Bolstered with piquant mustard, it sealed in the meat’s juices.
I baked this ham for our Third Thursday Community Potluck, and wanted to serve something alongside that fit this Southern-style theme.
Sweet potato biscuits seemed like a perfect accompaniment, and are no more difficult to make than regular biscuits–just a few more ingredients.
You can bake the sweet potatoes well ahead of time–the day before, if need be.
I used self-rising flour (still trying to use up that mispick that worked so well for this other biscuit recipe.)
For their slap-dash, hands-on method—the less you work the dough, the better—biscuits are fun to make. This batch makes three dozen, which isn’t too many, when you have a big group, and a ham to match. The recipe I’ve given can cut in half without any problem.
I love the color. And the smell!
As biscuits bake, your kitchen will fill with the aromas of ginger and clove.
Stuffed with slices of this ham, dabbed with fruity mustard, such a biscuit is a real springtime treat.
PECAN-CRUSTED GLAZED BAKED HAM
1/2 cup Apricot Mustard
1/2 cup Steen’s Cane Syrup
2 t. Allspice
1/2 cup Pecans finely chopped
Sugar Cured Ham—shank or butt portion
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Trim ham–removing tough outer hide pieces, and any excess fat. Do leave a thin layer of fat–important to sealing in the juices of the meat.
Score the ham in crisscross fashion, cutting into that thin layer of fat–but Not all the way through to the meat layer.
In a small mixing ball, whisk the mustard, syrup, and allspice together.
Liberally coat the entire ham–all surfaces—with this glaze.
Place ham in baking dish. Pour 1 cup of water into the bottom.
Coat the upper glazed surface with finely chopped pecans.
Bake, uncovered, allowing 15 minutes per pound. An 8 lb. ham will take 2 hours.
Check periodically, adding a little more liquid so that the sugars don’t burn.
Allow the meat to rest at least 15 minutes before carving. The ham can be baked in advance and kept warm. It is also great served room temperature.
SWEET POTATO BISCUITS
2 cups cooked Sweet Potatoes
4 c. Self-Rising Flour
1/3 c. Turbinado Sugar
1 t. Ginger
1 t. Nutmeg
1/2 t. ground Cloves
1/2 c. Milk, “soured” with 1 T. Lemon Juice
10 T. cold Butter, cut into pieces
1/4 cup ground pecans and turbinado sugar blend (optional)
Ahead of Time: Bake Sweet Potatoes (2 medium sized) in 425 degree oven until done. Allow to cool, and scoop out filling.
In a large work bowl, add dry ingredients: self-rising flour, spices, sugar. Add sweet potatoes, lemon-soured milk (or buttermilk) and butter pieces.
Working with your hands, mix all the ingredients, rubbing the butter pieces into the flour. Work quickly; soon it will all come together in a mass. If it is too sticky, add a bit more flour. Beware of overworking the dough–it will toughen.
Dust the work surface with flour. Roll out dough about 1/2″ thick and cut into rounds. Place on parchment-lined baking sheet, close-set, (sides touching is fine).
Sprinkle the tops with ground pecan-brown sugar mixture.
Bake at 425 degrees for 10-12 minutes.
Makes 3 dozen 2″ round biscuits.
The month of May means Strawberry Time in Middle Tennessee, and this year, it also means the Return of the Cicadas. There seems to be an abundance of both.
Already, our farmers market tables are laden with baskets of just-picked red beauties. My friends at Fresh Harvest Co-op are promising a gracious-plenty yield.
The birds around my house have been in frenzy mode since the curious red-eyed creatures emerged (just yesterday!) from their thirteen year slumber. My backyard is host to this crazy dance in flight. Cicadas buzz into their first light of day. Bold Robins and Grackles swoop through, opalescent insect wings hanging from their beaks. Intruder-wary gold finches flit back and forth from feeder and plum tree.
It’s also been unseasonably hot. Ninety degrees! Loathe to turn on the air conditioning, and also my oven, I was seeking a summertime “no cook” meal for dinner.
We have been gobbling up local strawberries by the quart–in smoothies and salads, over cereal, with yogurt, layered on shortcakes and just plain. You gotta enjoy them while they’re here!
Today, I wanted to use them in something savory.
I’ve made various fruit-based salsas–with peach, mango, or the different melons. But never strawberries. Sweet and red, they accept peppery heat nicely. I had the right ingredients on hand to make a salsa, so why not with strawberries?
I also had a fat, ripe avocado waiting to be used.
Not too long ago, I tasted a memorable guacamole at a restaurant. Served in a little mason jar, it was a chunky, piquant batch laced with goat cheese and pistachios. Something about those two unexpected ingredients made the dip compelling, addictive. And worth recreating.
It didn’t take long to chop, squeeze, splash and stir a bowl of each. I’ve given the recipes for both below, and hasten to add that the nature of salsa and guacamole relies on the unforeseen fire of serranos or jalapenos, and personal taste. Some people love the fresh grassiness of cilantro; others find it soapy and despicable. Some people relish a garlic bite; others prefer more lime.
Start with the strawberries and make it your own. Same with the guacamole—just be sure to put in the goat cheese and pistachios. You’ll like these new takes on old favorites.
You could serve them in separate bowls, with a basket of blue corn chips, and make your friends happy with such tasty snacking. I could also imagine both enlivening some fish tacos.
Or, do what I did on this August-in-May evening, and turn them into a cool, no-cook dinner. I layered them on a fluffy bed of salad greens. Bill and I would dine on this, settle in and watch the backyard ballet.
PISTACHIO-GOAT CHEESE GUACAMOLE
1 large ripe Avocado, cut into large pieces
1 Serrano Pepper, finely chopped
2-3 T. minced Red Onion
2 T. chopped Cilantro
Juice of 1/2 Lime
1/4 cup Toasted Pistachios
1/4 cup crumbled or small dice Goat Cheese Feta
Place all of the ingredients into a mixing bowl and fold so that the avocado breaks down and becomes well seasoned by the other ingredients, while still remaining somewhat chunky.
Taste for salt, citrus, heat, and adjust.
1 pint fresh Strawberries, washed and capped
Cracked Black Pepper
2 Green Onions, chopped
1 T. minced Serrano Pepper (or more)
2 T. chopped Cilantro
1 T. Balsamic Vinegar
1 t. Honey (optional)
Coarsely chop the strawberries and put into a mixing bowl. Season with cracked black pepper. Add onions, serrano, and cilantro. Splash with balsamic vinegar and stir. Allow this to sit—the strawberries’ juices will come out and meld with the other ingredients.
LAYERED SALAD ASSEMBLY
Start with a Bed of fresh lettuces, mixed with cilantro
Place a mound of guacamole (about three-fourths of your batch)in the center, and slightly spread
Top with Strawberry Salsa, (reserving 1/4 of the batch.)
Garnish with chopped pistachios and feta crumbles.
Serve with blue corn chips, or eat with a fork!
April’s first weeks ushered in a Nashville Spring with roller-coaster gusto: sunny days swinging to sweltering 90 degrees, followed by terrific tree-felling storms, a final chilling wintry blast, and moderating now into The Ideal.
Our world has turned new-green. Crumpled masses of peonies are unfurling. Shoots of chives poke up out of barren planters. Dogwoods are in profuse bloom, their white petals glow in the gathering shadows at dusk.
My cousin calls Spring the Optimist’s Season, the one that brings her the most joy.
I have to agree. I relish the promise of the new, and its vibrant energy. And, around our household, it’s been busy-busy with many projects: Preparing garden beds for vegetable and herb planting. Recipe testing for a magazine’s fall issue. Interviewing a chef for another magazine. Writing food-inspired poetry.
In the midst of such busy-ness, it’s been tricky to find time for My Cooking. So, today, in the face of April’s optimism , I want to share something delicious and easy. Something you can make in a blink. Something that holds those simple light flavors of springtime. I promise.
Gougères are savory cream puffs, traditionally made with gruyere, a semi-hard cheese valued for its rich, nutlike flavor. But other cheeses work well into the eggy dough. Soft goat cheese, cracked black pepper, and chives combine to make tangy puffs that have creamy centers under crisp shells.
The recipe comprises a terse list of common kitchen ingredients: flour, butter, eggs, salt and pepper, along with two less common, but readily available: chevre and chives. I found some local Belle Chevre at our market, and chives from a pot on my front porch.
You can add a little lemon zest, if you like, to further scent the paste.
In about 20 minutes, you can have puffs piped onto sheetpans, and into the oven.
The trick to making good gougeres is in the stirring. You will get a good upper arm workout, in the process….
Bring your seasoned water and butter to a boil.
Dump in a cup of flour and stir with vigor. As it cooks, it will form a ball-like mass, coming away from the sides of the saucepan.
Turn off the heat. Make a well in the mass and beat in one egg–quickly. When it is incorporated, beat in the next egg. Continue until 4 eggs are beaten into the dough. It will look a little glossy.
The soft goat cheese crumbles fold and melt into the dough easily.
The dough will be soft, smooth, maleable, not at all runny. It will pipe into pretty ridged rounds on a parchment-lined sheetpan. If you don’t have a pastry bag, you can spoon little mounds instead. If you want, you can brush them with an egg wash for an extra crisp and shiny surface—but this is not essential.
In 25 minutes, they emerge, puffed and golden.
Unlike gruyere-based gougeres, which have a big hollow, the goat cheese ones have light creamy centers. Perfect bites to share with friends, toasting a spring evening, before you put some fish on the grill, some asparagus in the steamer, some fresh greens in the salad bowl…
GOAT CHEESE-CHIVE GOUGERES
1 cup Water
8 T. (one stick) Butter, cut into pieces
1/4 t. Salt
a few grindings of black pepper
1 cup All Purpose Flour
4 Eggs, plus 1 Egg
5 oz. Goat Cheese, crumbled
Fresh Chives, snipped into little pieces
Maldon Salt, for dusting over the gougeres
baking sheet pan lined with parchment
pastry bag (optional)
Preheat oven to 375º.
Place water, butter, salt, and pepper into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and dump in flour. Stir vigorously, until it is well incorporated, pulling away from the bottom and sides of the pan, and becomes a mass. Remove from heat. Using a wooden spoon, beat in eggs–One At A Time– into the flour mass. This will be a terrific upper arm workout!! Then beat in goat cheese crumbles and chives.
The pastry dough–a savory pâte à choux—will be glossy. Scoop it into a pastry bag, and pipe little mounds onto your parchment-lined sheet pan. If you don’t have a pastry bag, simply dollop small spoonfuls on to the pan.
Brush each with egg wash–1 egg beaten with some water. This step is optional.
Sprinkle chives and maldon finishing salt over the tops.
Bake for 20-25 minutes, until puffed and golden. Serve warm.
Once cooled, these can be frozen, and used whenever! Just reheat for a few minutes in a 350º oven.
Makes 30-36 tasty bite-sized puffs.
Next month, I will be one of several chefs involved in a fundraising dinner for our food bank. To a group of 80 guests, we’ll be serving a multi-coursed Tasting Menu. Much fun, this allows for a wide swath of creativity on diminutive plates. I had been asked to prepare something salad-like, something to follow a soup course.
What to make?
I knew, of course, that it would be a seasonal dish. And, I wanted it to be meatless. Many of the chefs had picked a protein— beef, pork, tuna, duck, lamb, bison–for their centerpiece, so I wanted a departure from that. I also had a sense, with the wealth of good food ideas that I am connected to through blogging, that my inspiration was close at hand.
When I came upon this Pear and Walnut Crema Tart on Joyti’s splendid site Darjeeling Dreams, I got excited. Walnut crema! Her description of its taste and simplicity of execution sold me. Alone, the crema seemed incredible, but her presentation–layered with pears, thyme, mascarpone in a savory crust, would be nothing short of sublime.
I could envision a delectable sliver on a small plate, served alongside a ruffle of arugula, sheerly dressed. A drizzle of floral honey, perhaps, over the tart, or, better yet–a lemon-honey infused vinaigrette.
It was time to get to work, test out the recipe, and see how it would work for a large dinner party.
Following Joyti’s direction, I made the walnut crema first. I didn’t have shallots on hand, as her recipe lists, only garlic, which I cooked in the pot with the walnuts. While the walnuts were simmering to tenderness, I made my pastry dough. Both crema and dough can be made a day in advance—and actually benefit from an overnight stay in the refrigerator.
The crema took on the look and texture of hummus, and the walnut flavor, surprisingly deepened in the simmer, had nothing sharp or acrid. This is the sort of sauce, or pesto, that would be quite delicious tossed over pasta or served over roasted vegetables, like asparagus.
1 cup Walnuts
2 small cloves Garlic
4 T. Olive Oil
Place ingredients into a 2 qt. saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, and let simmer for 12-15 minutes. Drain, reserving a little “walnut water.”
Place into a food processor fitted with the swivel blade and pulse until chopped finely. Add olive oil and process until smooth, adding a tablespoon or 2 of the walnut water as well, so that the walnut crema will have the look and texture of hummus. Taste for salt.
Refrigerate tightly wrapped for at least overnight so that flavors will develop well. Keeps about a week, wrapped and refrigerated.
The following day, I gathered my ingredients. I peeled the pears–these were tough-skinned, from the country—but the pears that you use might have a delicate skin that will bake nicely. Use your judgement about that.
I made a few adaptations along the way.
Joyti’s recipe calls for mascarpone or cream cheese. I had a log of mild, tangy goat cheese that I thought could work well. (Use whatcha got!) I had no lemon thyme, but lemon and thyme.
I also compressed her recipe steps, somewhat. She calls for blind-baking the pastry shell, then filling it, and broiling it. For my large dinner group, I decided that it would be better for me to bake the shell and its filling all together.
It didn’t take long to assemble this appealing tart.
Before I placed it in the oven, I brushed some melted butter across the slices, to insure some glazy browning. Happy-Happy with the results.
The tart had a lovely crispened shell–sides and bottom. Walnut bits toasted across the pear-laden top. It cut easily, retaining integrity of layers, even when sliced into delicate pieces.
You’ll notice an inherent sweetness from the pears and bit of lemon, balanced by the tangy chevre, and anchored by the walnut crema.
It’s a simple, beautiful dish in all aspects–you could serve it as appetizer course, a fruit/cheese course in lieu of dessert. And, when paired with winter greens and honey vinaigrette, will be a stunning plate for the special fundraising dinner.
SAVORY PEAR-WALNUT CREMA TART
adapted from Darjeeling Dreams, with thanks to Joyti
1 recipe My Basic Pie Crust (click here )
1 batch of Walnut Crema
4-5 oz Goat Cheese
2-3 ripe Pears (could be Bosc, Anjou, Bartlett–I used a rustic country pear of unknown name from Maggie’s tree!)
Lemon–for zest (1 T.) and Juice (to squeeze over sliced pears)
1 T. melted Butter
a few sprigs fresh Thyme
a few Walnut halves and pieces
10″ pie pan or quiche/tart pan
Roll out pastry dough, place into pan and crimp edges. Spread walnut crema over the bottom, and follow with crumbled goat cheese. Peel and core pears, and slice thinly.
Lay out the slices, one slightly overlapping the other, in concentric circles, pressing the pieces gently into the layer of crema and cheese.
Squeeze a little lemon juice over the slices, and sprinkle the zest. Finish with a sprinkle of thyme leaves and walnut bits.
Bake in preheated 350 degree oven for 25 minutes.
Makes 8 generous servings, or 16 cocktail “tasting plate” servings.