His knock at the door caught me by surprise–and yet it shouldn’t have.
“Here they are,” neighbor Ray proffered a rumpled brown bag and shrugged. “I’m a little behind this year. I was so concerned with getting my tomatoes in early, these got planted later than usual.”
Ray’s famous green beans. My yearly allotment! It’s become a June tradition, the gift of these young and slender haricots verts, just picked from his backyard garden. They are special. Each year, I strive to prepare them in a way that both honors their nature, and the modest, generous gardener who grew them.
Of course, they are sweet and delicious on their own, gently steamed and buttered.
So, how to do the beans justice this time?
No doubt many of you recall the green bean casserole from the way-back machine that has shown up on the tables of umpteen potlucks, church suppers, family Thanksgiving dinners. It’s the one made from many canned items: french-cut green beans, cream of mushroom soup, crispy fried onion bits. (We used to call this a “dump-and-go” casserole.)
The idea is good, certainly easy to prepare, although it results in a mushy, rather sodium laden dish.
What if it were remade, in a fresh, and more deconstructed style?
That was my notion, to update the old green bean casserole.
I’d cook the green beans quickly–blanche ‘em in boiling water seasoned with salt and a few slivers of garlic. I’d oven roast sliced onions to a crisp. Rather than smother the beans in a thick sauce, I’d layer them–show off those pretty pods!
It all hinges on making a mushroom veloute–
—using meaty shiitake mushrooms.
There’s no dairy in this dish. I know; it sure looks like there is. The rich flavor of the shiitakes is further deepened with mushroom broth, which becomes a creamy sauce when cooked in a bit of flour. If you want to be extra-fancy, you can enhance the sauce with a splash of sherry or marsala wine. But, staying true to the standard–but renewed—casserole, it’s not necessary.
Enough said–I’m a bit behind myself, in posting!
Presenting Ray’s Green Beans, June 2012 edition
UPDATED GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE
2 lbs. fresh young Green Beans
1 clove Garlic, sliced
1/4 t. Sea Salt
Place beans into a pot of simmering water that has been seasoned with salt and garlic. Cook for about 2-3 minutes. Test a bean–it should be “tender-crisp.” Plunge into icy water, to stop the cooking process, and set the bright green color.
2 T. Butter (or use olive oil, if preparing vegan)
8 oz. Shiitake Mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1 bundle Scallions, white and green parts chopped
Salt and Black Pepper
2 Tablespoons All Purpose Flour
2 c. Mushroom Broth
a few fresh Thyme leaves
Saute mushrooms and scallions in butter. Season with salt, pepper, and thyme, if desired. When the vegetables are softened (after 5 minutes or so) stir in the flour. Allow the flour to coat the mushrooms and scallions, and cook. Keep stirring, scraping up the browned bits.
When you can no longer see any traces of white flour, pour in the broth. Keep stirring until the mixture becomes creamy. Taste for seasonings, and adjust if needed.
1 small Onion, thinly sliced
Olive Oil and Sea Salt
Lightly coat onion slices in olive oil. Lay out on a baking sheet pan and sprinkle with sea salt. Roast in a hot (400 degree) oven for 10-12 minutes, until golden brown and crispy. Remove and allow to cool.
Coat the bottom of a casserole dish with warm mushroom veloute. Place a layer of blanched green beans. Spoon more sauce over the beans and repeat layers. Finish the top with oven-crisp onions.
Bake until thoroughly heated in a 325 degree oven (about 15 minutes) and serve.
This can be made up ahead of time, refrigerated and then baked for about 30 minutes.
Good morning, Friends!
As I write this post, squirrels and birds are finishing off the last of the plums on our little backyard tree. A frenzy, you can believe it. I don’t mind. In my kitchen, there’s a huge pot filled with simmering fruit, a pantry stashed with fresh preserves, and a table covered with bowls of the plucked, all in varying shades of red violet, awaiting their destiny.
So many plums. Too many to count!
Conditions must have been beyond ideal this year. A mild, wet winter and a warm, almost summerlike spring–our tree blossomed 2 weeks early, dazzling in its fleecy whites. Over time, its limbs became vertical, dragging the ground, overladen with ripening fruit.
In years past, I’ve been forced to act quickly, snatching plums as soon as they showed that first rosy blush, in order to garner any before my backyard menagerie decimated the crop. This year, no problem: there’s been a gracious plenty for all.
Now, what to do with them?
Friend Maggie likes to make plum jelly: long-simmer the fruit and skillfully strain it for all its juices to make a pretty, ruby-clear spread for toast.
I’m more of a jam-preserves kind of girl. I’ve been cooking down the plums in a bit of sugar, allowing their skins to dissolve into the mix. The plums are juicy and tart; I cook them with just enough sugar to bolster their flavor, while still honoring that tartness. As they soften and release their juices, I fish out the pits. (Sometimes I run the cooked plums through the food mill to accomplish that.)
I pour the preserves into sterile jars and process them in a hot water bath for 5 minutes. I also keep some handy, in sterilized, but unprocessed jars, tucked in my fridge. (This freezes well, too–for those of you leery of canning.)
This way, I have plums in a plain yet versatile form, ready to slather on crusty bread with goat cheese, ladle over ice cream, blend into a marinade for grilled chicken, or whisk into a vinaigrette. Add ginger, garlic, hoisin, and the plums take on an Asian flair. Lemon and cinnamon for an Italian plum-good cake.
In crisps or crumbles: whole ripe plums lend themselves nicely for this kind of dessert. I’ve concocted a gluten-free version that uses oatmeal and ground toasted almonds that I think you’ll enjoy. I look forward to learning your ideas, too.
Here’s a round-up of my plum goodies.
BASIC PLUM PRESERVES/SAUCE
10-12 c. whole plums, washed
2 c. Sugar
large heavy-duty stockpot, canning tongs, clean jars, lids, seals
Place plums into your large pot on medium heat. Pour in the sugar. Cover and let simmer for 15 minutes or so. Uncover. Spoon off the foam collected on the top. Stir and continue to simmer, uncovered for another 15 minutes or so.
When the skins seem to have melted into the liquid, and the flesh of the fruit gives way, you can begin straining the plum pits. Some you will see floating in the red sea–just spoon them out. For the rest, set a strainer over a large bowl, and begin pour the cooked plum and juices through. Press with the back of a wooden spoon to crush the fruit and release the pits. Or, run the plum-mix through a food mill set with the largest openings. You’ll get a lush puree. And the color, a knock-out!
Return the puree to the pot and cook for another 5 minutes.
Pour into sterile mason jars, seal and process in a hot water bath for 5 minutes.
Makes 6 half pints.
PLUM VINAIGRETTE/GRILLED CHICKEN SALAD
3 T. White Wine Vinegar
6 T. Plum Preserves
1/2 t. Black Pepper
1/2 t. Salt
1/2 c. fruity Olive Oil
Place all the ingredients except for the olive oil into a bowl. Whisk (or use a hand-held immersion blender) until combined. The plum preserve acts as an emulsifier. Slowly add the olive oil while blending. Makes a thick creamy vinaigrette.
For the Grilled Chicken Salad:
2 boneless Chicken Breasts
1 bunch of mixed lettuces
1/4 lb. Sugar Snap Peas
2 Green Onions
2-3 Nasturtium flowers
Slather a couple of tablespoons of the plum vinaigrette onto boneless chicken breasts and allow to marinate for at least 2 hours.
Grill char the sugar snaps and green onions.
Grill the chicken breasts. Let rest for 10 minutes before slicing onto salad.
Compose Salad: bed of lettuces, charred sugar snaps and green onions. Sprinkle with nasturtium leaves for color and peppery bite.
Place sliced grilled chicken on top and dress with plum vinaigrette.
GLUTEN-FREE PLUM CRUMBLE
1/2 c. Oatmeal
1/2 c. Almonds, toasted and finely ground
1/3 c. Turbinado Sugar
4 T. melted Butter
2 c. sliced ripe Plums (about a dozen)
9″ pie dish
Toast almonds in the oven and cool. Place into the food processor fitted with a swivel blade and pulse until the nuts achieve a powdery form.
Mix ground almonds, oats, brown sugar and melted butter. Add a pinch of cinnamon, if you like.
Take half of the mixture and press it onto the bottom and sides of a 9″ pie pan.
Slice plums and arrange in overlapping concentric rings on top of the crust. Continue until the dish is well filled. Sprinkle with turbinado sugar and dot with butter.
Take remaining almond-oatmeal crust and press over the top.
Bake in 350 degree oven for 25-30 minutes.
Delicious served warm with vanilla or ginger ice cream. Garnish with some plum sauce. Serves 6-8
Dijon Country Mustard, Stout Ale Mustard, or Honeyed Apricot Mustard
Which would you like slathered on your ham sandwich today?
How about a little swipe of each?
I was so pleased when I churned up this sunny trio yesterday. Each with a different hue, texture, and bite! Have you ever made your own mustard? I’d been wanting to for quite some time. Now that I know how ridiculously easy the process is, I am chagrined that I waited so long to do so.
What’s amazing is that these mustards, each with a distinct and delicious flavor profile, began with these three basic ingredients:
Yellow Mustard Seeds
Brown (or Black) Mustard Seeds
Powdered (Dry) Mustard
Plus, an array of pantry staples: Vinegars, brown sugar, honey, dried apricots, allspice, kosher salt…
In short order, your kitchen counter becomes a mustard laboratory. You’ve got a lot of creative license here. Maybe you’d like to add tarragon to one of your batches. Or lemon juice instead of vinegar. Or habanero peppers (whoa!) Or peach preserves.
Check your fridge for a stray bottle of beer or the last few swallows of Sauvignon Blanc. White wine mellows in the Dijon style mustard. A bit of Guinness enlivens the Stout brown.
The beauty is that THERE IS NO COOKING REQUIRED!
No! In fact, heating the mustard can destroy its heady properties.
Instead, a lengthy soaking time—48 hours—-in whatever compelling acid and spice infused liquid you create is what coaxes out the intense flavors. Yep, that’s what ultimately “cuts the mustard.”
Mustard-making harkens to ancient Roman times.
My online research led me to two terrific sites: Hunter Angler Gardner Cook and Kiss My Spatula. Hunter Angler includes the condiment’s fascinating history with some essential recipes. Kiss My Spatula has beautiful photographs with the tutorial. I think you’ll enjoy visiting these blogs.
I derived my inspiration from both places.
After you assemble your ingredients, you simply mix them together in a bowl. Cover, and let the acids go to work on the seeds–softening and plumping them. Over the two day period, you’ll notice changes–a natural thickening. (If it gets too thick, you can always add more liquid–even plain water—-before you process it.)
Mustard, especially when vinegar-soaked, has anti-bacterial properties. It is its own natural preservative. It can keep indefinitely in the refrigerator after you make it. It may, over time, dry out or get bitter—but that takes a while. Likely you’ll use it all before that happens.
It feels like magic when you churn that mixture with an immersion blender. (Of course, you can use your food processor, or go old school with a mortar and pestle!)
It all comes together in a savory coarse-grain kind of way.
But the real magic is when you spread your homemade mustard on a ham sandwich, or over a grilled sausage. Or whisk it in a vinagrette, dollop into deviled eggs. Or glaze a pork roast, or a warm salty pretzel! Not only will you think, “Why did I wait so long?” but “Wow. There’s no need to buy mustard ever again.”
COARSE GRAIN DIJON MUSTARD
1/2 cup White Wine
3 T. White Wine Vinegar
4 T. Yellow Mustard Seeds
2 T. Black Mustard Seeds
4 T. Powdered Mustard
2 t. Salt
Place all the ingredients in a non-reactive (such as glass, ceramic) bowl. Stir well and cover with plastic wrap. Keep at room temperature, and allow the liquid to soften the mustard seeds for 48 hours.
Uncover, and churn with an immersion blender until a smoother (but not entirely smooth) mustard. Taste for salt and spice. Place in a clean jar and refrigerate.
1/2 cup Guinness Stout Ale
1/3 cup Red Wine Vinegar
5 T. Black Mustard Seeds
2 T. Yellow Mustard Seeds
1 T. Turbinado Sugar
1/4 t. Allspice
2 t. Kosher Salt
Mix all these ingredients in a non-reactive bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let it sit out, room temperature, for 48 hours.
Stir. Using an immersion blender, blend until fairly smooth. Place in clean jar and refrigerate.
1/2 c. Dried Apricots
2 T. Honey
2 T. Turbinado Sugar
4 T. White Balsamic Vinegar
1/4 c. Water
5 T. Yellow Mustard Seeds
3 T. Powdered Yellow Mustard
1/2 cup White Wine
2 T. White Balsamic Vinegar
2 t. Salt
In one non-reactive bowl, soak dried apricots in honey-sugar-vinegar-water solution for 2 days, covered, room temperature.
In another non-reactive bowl, soak mustard seeds and powdered mustard in wine-vinegar solution for 2 days, covered, room temperature.
After two days, combine the ingredients of both bowls. Using and immersion blender, churn the apricots into the mustard. Taste for salt and desired sweetness.
Place into clean jar and refrigerate.
Post-holiday drab winter funk settled in my kitchen…with an unsettling inertia. I’ve had as much resistance to picking up a knife and a whisk, as my market shopping bags. It’s been an odd feeling, uncharacteristic of my general passionate-about-food ways, but December left me shopped and cooked out. I’ve tried ignoring it, hoping that the malaise would lift. Now I’ve decided just to chop through it, and play my “use what you’ve got” game.
In my refrigerator, I found a container of ricotta, still in date. Part of a can of whole plum tomatoes in juice. Eggs. A stray scallion. A small wedge of parmegiano-reggiano.
A sealed bag of all purpose flour.
Could dinner lurk in some combination of these?
Indeed it could. Ricotta Gnocchi.
And, those creamy pillow-like dumplings couldn’t be easier to make.
Unlike other versions that use potatoes (also delicious, but have an extra step–cooking the spuds) the dough can be whipped up in a manner of minutes. In their purest form, ricotta gnocchi are simply ricotta-egg-flour. That’s a plain canvas, rife with possibilities. How you want to season them–herbs, bitter greens, nutmeg, other pungent cheese—
or sauce them—smoky beurre blanc with bits of pancetta, chunky pesto, rosy red pepper puree–is up to you.
Or what you’ve got on hand.
You’ve got plenty of time to make that decision! Mixing the soft dough takes moments. Then, you hand-roll pieces of the dough into long logs, dusting with more flour, and cutting into 1/2″ lengths. Or smaller, if you like.
The shapes are imprecise, rustic; the rolling and handling of them feels like child’s play, a delightful aspect to combat any kitchen inertia.
Line them up on a pan lined with parchment and place the pillows into the freezer to get firm. (If you double this recipe, you can keep the unused gnocchi sealed and frozen for up to 6 weeks—ready to use at a given moment.)
While the gnocchi are tucked into the freezer (or fridge) you can turn your attention to the sauce.
Based on my modest assembly of on-hand ingredients, I chose to cloak mine in a brilliant winter red sauce–little more than plum tomatoes cooked with onion and garlic in olive oil, and pureed. I do like to plunge in a sprig or two of fresh rosemary and thyme, snipped from yard, where they vigorously hang on through the cold weather months. They impart just enough piney aromatics to give the sauce a little herbaceous lift, plucked out before the immersion blender descends into the pot.
While the sauce simmers, bring a big pot of salted water to boil. Drop the gnocchi in. Very quickly, they’ll rise to the surface–indicating that they are almost done. Let them cook another minute. Remove them with a slotted spoon, and place the tender bites into a pool of red.
The color–a knockout that reminds you of summer—is vibrant and full-flavored dress for the gnocchi, enough to jar the drab winter funk out the door.
1 cup whole milk Ricotta
3/4 cup All Purpose Flour (divided)
1/2 c. grated Parmegiano-Reggiano (Pecorino Romano would be terrific, too)
1 Green Onion, sliced thin (optional)
1/2 t. Kosher Salt
fresh ground Black Pepper
Place ricotta, egg, cheese, scallion, and Half of the flour into a bowl. Season with salt and pepper and mix until a soft dough forms. Dust remaining flour on your work counter, and divide dough into 4 pieces. Roll each piece into 1/2″ thick log. Cut into pillow shaped pieces, placing each gnocchi on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
Place the gnocchi in the freezer for about 15 minutes–long enough to set up and be firm.
Bring a pasta pot full of water to a boil. Season with salt. Drop in gnocchi. Cook over medium heat until they float to the surface. Cook for a about one minute more. Remove with a slotted spoon. Gently coat with sauce.
Serves 2 generous, or 4 first course plates
Two requests intersect, and complement in today’s post: a lush sauce and a tuna recipe. The first concerns a good customer, and the second, a good cat.
Nearly every Friday, you’ll find me in the kitchen of the Culinary Arts Center at Second Harvest Food Bank. There, we create a wonderful buffet lunch, open to the public. Called First Harvest Cafe, its proceeds go to the support of the food bank, in its varied, but pointed missions to end hunger. We create a different menu for each Friday: One week might be Santa Fe style fajitas and fixin’s, another might explore the tastes of the Mediterranean Rim.
One of our best customers, Don, is a man who lives for good food. He has dined with us nearly every Friday since we started First Harvest Cafe. (August 2005) Talk about loyalty!
A recent Provencal menu featured Salad Nicoise, a beautiful late summer spread with green beans, new potatoes, caramelized sweet red peppers and onions, olives, hard-cooked eggs, and the like. To accompany, I made two dressings: a whipped balsamic vinaigrette and a silken aioli, laced with tarragon and lemony tang.
At the end of our French picnic lunch, Don circled by the kitchen to wish us a happy weekend.
“I could eat a bowl of that sauce,” he said. “If the recipe is not already on your blog, it needs to be.”
Comin’ right up, Don.
LEMON TARRAGON AIOLI
1 Lemon–for juice and zest
1 Garlic clove
2 heaping Tablespoon fresh Tarragon leaves
1 farm fresh Egg
1/2 t. sea salt
1/4 t. black pepper
3/4 c. Olive Oil
In a food processor fitted with a swivel blade, process the garlic, lemon juice, zest, and egg together until smooth. Pulse in the tarragon leaves, salt and black pepper. Then, Slowly-steadily drip-pour in the olive oil while processing. The mixture will emulsify into a luscious thick-and-creamy sauce.
Makes about one cup. Keeps for 2-3 days, refrigerated.
I cooked up this simple, but elegant tuna dish, at the request of my daughter. Today is her birthday, and if we were together, we’d dine on these delectables. It’s not that seared ahi tuna is her favorite. Well-loved, for sure, but not a fervent desire. Her request sprung from a different place: the desire to honor our sweet old cat, Cass, who recently exited this physical plane, on to other unseen adventures.
Cass was the fervent tuna lover.
She came to our household in 1992, via our garage, where, as a very young mother, she chose to have her litter. Her name then was Christine. Neglected by her owners, our neighbors two doors down, she was starving, struggling to care for her young. It was a heartbreaking discovery.
At the time, a pair of parakeets were our pets. I had no plans to become a cat owner.
“We’re bird people,” I remember telling my daughter.
No matter. Often, a cat will choose you.
We renamed her Mama Cass, found homes for her kittens, restored her to good health, and ultimately, found a home for the pair of parakeets.
In short, we became cat people.
Cass was a part of our family for almost twenty years. For her first nine years, she was the solo cat. Then came the boys, Mo and Willis, rascals whom she barely tolerated for the following nine years. The boys were snatched from us in untimely ways: an incurable illness, a pack of dogs.
But Mama Cass endured, remarkably healthy, and fairly spry for a feline who brushed up on the age of 97, in human years. No doubt, that dollop of canned tuna I put on top of her dry food every meal was a contributing factor!
There were hints of her impending translation–a loss in appetite, a lengthening in sleeptime. Her old body had worked well for so long, and it was done. She died peacefully, in the comfort of her home, stretched out on a blanket on the couch, surrounded by her loving human family–me and Bill. As uncomfortable as it was watching her surrender to that inevitability, it was a gift to see her make that passage with nobility and grace.
It’s felt empty in our home since her passing. The sun lowers, and I think, oh, it’s time to feed her. Or, if I’ve been out, as soon as I open the front door, I make a move to check on her whereabouts. The brain, so grooved with habit, has to be reminded, and relearn.
SEARED AHI TUNA, served over mixed lettuces, sliced grapefruit, and avocado, topped with Lemon-Tarragon Aioli
Ahi Tuna Steaks, about 1″ thick
Good Olive Oil
Sea Salt and Cracked Black Pepper
helpful: ridged cast-iron grillpan
Rinse tuna steaks and pat dry. Rub with olive oil, liberally sprinkle with salt and black pepper.
Heat skillet. Sear steaks, about 2 minutes a side. Allow the meat to rest about 10 minutes before slicing.
Arrange slices over a bed of greens, avocado and grapefruit slices. Top with aioli and serve.
Since her acquisition of a mighty stand mixer with a dough hook, Maggie has become an avid baker. Oh, she was already accomplished, when it came to quick breads, cakes, skillet cornbread and such. Yeasted breads had her daunted–that dreaded yeast!
There seemed to be so many hurdles: how to successfully activate it (is this water too warm? not warm enough? did I just kill it?) and feed it (does it really like sugar?) and work it into a sponge (so sticky!) And then there was that all rising time, followed by punching down. And, another uprising!
Mercy. There seemed to be too many opportunities for things to go awry.
But when we talked a couple of weeks ago, she declared that she had conquered these fears. She was baking delicious ciabatta and focaccia breads with ease.
“I’ve got it down, Nance,” she said. “When you come out, we’ll make some. We’ll have it in the oven in under two hours. I’ve got the garlic and tomatoes, if you’ll bring the basil. It’ll be ready for lunch. Steve thinks its the best bread he’s ever eaten.”
I couldn’t wait! Off to the country…
Maggie had the modest ingredients assembled prior to my arrival, so we could get right to it. We decided to make a basic bread—just embellished with sea salt and olive oil. But it would be very easy to fleck the surface with fresh rosemary, or green onions, or sundried tomatoes.
We tested the water–very warm, almost hot (it should range between 105-115 degrees) and dissolved the yeast with the sugar. In less than 10 minutes, it had developed a foamy scum on top of the liquid. Proofed! Activated!
“What’s great about this recipe is that it only requires one rise,” she said.
Then she added the other ingredients. This is where the dough hook is so helpful—it churns up the flour mixture into a ropy sponge. When the dough comes together and climbs up the hook (it takes about 10 minutes) it is ready to form into a ball and knead by hand until smooth.
“So much of this is by feel,” Maggie said, hands busy shaping the dough. “What I learned is this: RELAX. It’s just bread. If you mess up, just throw it away, and try another time. I think that the reason I had failed in the past was because I was too uptight in the process. That kind of thing gets communicated into the bread.”
Meanwhile, the dough had achieved the right elasticity.
With that, she pressed the dough onto a baking sheet and set the focaccia aside for its one-time one hour rise.
Post-rise, we dimpled the surface to accept the fruity oil. We sprinkled the surface with a couple of fancy sea salts, gifts from one of her friends–Hawaiian pink and Fleur de Sel.
Once in the oven, we could turn our attention to lunch. A plummy Italian heirloom from her garden awaited.
I whipped up this intense aioli, using my garden basil, and Maggie’s garden garlic. Sometimes with these emulsions, I use the whole egg. This time, I wanted a smaller, more powerful amount, and in the Provencal manner, used just the yolk.
Place a swipe of this indulgence on your focaccia, still warm like ours, and slap a ripe tomato slice on top. A spritz of salt, another aioli dollop, and dive in. You’ll experience a summer treat that, as Maggie is wont to say, “is moanin’ good.”
MAGGIE’S EASY & BASIC FOCACCIA
5 Cups All Purpose Flour
1 2/3 cups Warm Water
1 packet (approx 2 t.) Rapid Rise Yeast
1 t. Sugar
2 1/1 t. Salt
Olive Oil – 1/4 cup plus 3 Tbsp for coating plus more for coating bottom of pan
Sea Salt/Kosher Salt – to taste
In the bowl of a stand mixer, stir together Warm Water, Yeast and Sugar. Cover and keep for 5-10 mins until foamy.
Add Salt, Olive Oil and 4 1/2 cups of All Purpose Flour (more can be added as needed).
Mix with the dough hook until dough starts to come together. Let the dough mix for another couple of minutes, adding more flour as needed. Once you have a fairly smooth ball of dough, turn out onto a floured board. With floured hands, knead dough for 1 minute or until a smooth ball forms.
Generously drizzle Olive Oil to coat the bottom of a 15×10 inch baking pan. Place dough ball in pan and press into the bottom into an even rectangle shape. Cover with kitchen towel and keep in a warm place for 1 to 1 1/2 hours to rise.
Preheat Oven to 425
With your finger, gently make indentations one inch apart all over the dough. Brush the remaining Olive Oil on the top of the risen dough. Sprinkle with salt. Bake Focaccia for 20 – 25 minutes (Keep an eye on it towards the end – all ovens are different).
GARLICKY PROVENCAL-STYLE BASIL AIOLI
1 clove Garlic
1 Yolk from a farm-fresh egg
Juice from 1 Lemon
3 T. Basil Leaves, coarsely chopped
pinch of cracked Black Pepper
8 T. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
food processor fitted with a swivel blade
Process the garlic and egg yolk together for a couple of minutes. Add lemon juice and process another minute. Then
add the basil—pulse until it is coated with the mixture. Season with salt and pepper, and add the olive oil, while processing, just drops at a time. Scrape the sides of the food processor from time to time. Continue adding olive oil. The mixture will become very thick and creamy–like garlicky basil melting in your mouth. Cover and refrigerate.
This makes a small amount–use within one day (so good, it’s easily done.)
With the currents of change ever in motion, I find comfort in certain annual arrivals, those things that show up, over and over, almost like clockwork. Habits and rituals!
Every March, coinciding with Bill’s goddaughter’s birthday, our plum tree puts out a shock of blooms–a portent of the fruit to come. By the 4th of July, I can count on finding the first of the Bradley tomatoes, in all their ripe-red glory, at the farmers market.
And, in early June, right before Nashville’s Country Music “Fan Fare,” our good neighbor and gardener Ray appears with his special fare: the gift of his green beans: thin, tender, and just picked.
Yesterday afternoon, a knock at the front door–and there was Ray, brown sack of green beans in hand. “Time for your yearly allotment,” he said with a wry smile.
I peeked inside. The beans still had the garden warmth in them.
When presented with fresh-as-it-gets, one is prudent to act quickly. I thanked Ray, and made haste to the kitchen to reassess dinner plans. Something different for a salad!
We have been eating a lot of salads. Our garden plot of mixed lettuces has been flourishing. Each day, I pick and clean a few handfuls for dinner. I might pluck a few sprigs from the feathery patch of dillweed. Rows of green onions have grown tall–so great to yank a couple of them out of the ground as needed.
And, the weather has been more like late August than early June. It’s propelled us to cool dining: minimal use of the stove, and maximum use of the greens, before summer temperatures turn them bitter.
I remembered a wonderful salad I had many years ago in Philadelphia, at a little independent cafe called The White Dog. Very forward in the farm-to-table movement, they procured their produce from the Amish in Lancaster County. This salad married fresh grilled corn, greens, and bacon in a tangy buttermilk based dressing. It was simple and delicious—and could be adapted in a number of directions.
Green beans, such as Ray’s, would work. Later in the summer, some Sungold tomatoes would be divine in the toss. Cucumbers are a natural. Poached Salmon too.
It all hinges on the buttermilk.
Essentially a “ranch” dressing, this is what ranch might really be like, if it weren’t distilled into a packaged powder, or laced with corn syrup, chemical preservatives and bottled. Buttermilk dressings are so easy to whisk up, so tasty, that you’ll never want the commercially made stuff ever.
Green onions and fresh dill bring the summer garden into the dressing.
I’ve made this batch a little thin—with less mayo. If you like a more full-bodied dressing, add a spoonful or two more.
As for this salad, you can use one skillet for the small amount of cooking. First, cook the bacon. After you remove the crisp bits and drain off the grease, griddle and char the corn. It will pick up a little leftover smokiness. Last, those slender green beans–which take mere moments to blanche: Add a little water to the same skillet, and give them a quick plunge.
A delectable combination of creamy and crisp, salt and sweet,
Yet another delicious way to celebrate my yearly allotment.
GREEN BEAN-BACON-GRILLED CORN SALAD
2 strips thick-cut Bacon, cut into small pieces
1 large ear of Corn
4 oz. fresh Green Beans
fresh washed Lettuces for salad base
Buttermilk-Dill Dressing (see below)
In a large skillet, cook bacon on medium low heat until crisp. Remove bacon to a paper towel to drain. Pour off grease. Return skillet to heat and drop in the ear of corn. Cover and let the corn steam and slightly char as it cooks. Add a few glugs of water if it seems too dry, and the corn is not steaming. Cook the corn for about 7-9 minutes. Remove from skillet. Add green beans to skillet and cover with water. Add a pinch of salt. Blanche on medium heat for about 3-4 minutes.
Remove from heat and assemble salad.
Cut corn, in chunks, off of the cob. Toss with green beans and place on a bed of lettuce.
Sprinkle bacon bits over the vegetables. Spoon the buttermilk-dill dressing over the salad. Dig in.
3/4 cup Buttermilk (lowfat is fine to use)
1-2 Green Onions, sliced thinly
a few sprigs of Fresh Dillweed, finely chopped to make 2 T.
1 T. fresh Lemon Juice
2 T. Hellman’s or Duke’s Mayonnaise (more, if you want fuller bodied dressing)
a few grindings of Black Pepper
Whisk all of the ingredients together in a mixing bowl. Add more lemon for tartness, or more mayo for fuller body. Taste for salt and pepper. Refrigerate. Flavors will develop over time, (although the dressing is good right away, too.) and the dressing will keep, covered, for about a week.
Makes 1 cup
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!
My recent trip to Costa Rica has left me longing for the flavors of the tropics. Passionfruit. Mangos. Pineapples.
We would see them, fallen with abandon to the sandy floor of beachside groves. We would also see people gather them in pick-up truckloads, either scavanged from the fallen or cut from on-high, to be arranged alongside bananas and melons on roadside fruitstands.
Hand-lettered signs would advertise the immature “green” coconuts and their pure, nutrient-rich water. For under a dollar, you could purchase one of these foraged delectables, drilled with a small hole and inserted with a sipping straw.
Cool, barely sweet coconut water was so refreshing.
The coconut has remarkable versatility. From husk to coir to palm frond to trunk, there are no less than 46 documented general uses for it! Of course, we are familiar with coconut milk, the key ingredient in lush curries, or Tom Ka Kai soup. And, in Costa Rica, I found that milk in an unexpected place–cloaking a piece of sea bass at a French-styled bistro.
One day, we drove down the coastal highway to explore the neighboring town, Ojochal. We’d heard there was a farmer’s market going on, and several interesting eateries worth visiting. To our surprise, we discovered a strong French-Canadian community there.
The farmer’s market was small, held in the airy lobby of a hotel/restaurant called Citrus. What a treat! One local farmer was selling ripe tomatoes, slender green beans, and bunches of Lacinato kale. Another had fat bundles of green onions, arugula, and genovese basil. And, a vendor was selling gorgeous artisan bread. Some loaves of rustic wheat had undulating waves and a star drawn and baked into the crust. (with a taste that matched the beauty!) These had been baked by a French man further down the Ojochal main dirt road. His breads were in high demand, available only by special order, or at these markets.
After making a few purchases, we stopped at a little panaderia–a bakery/coffeehouse run by another French couple–for a cup of dark roast and croissant. We snacked under the tin roof porch and laughed every time a coconut fell with a startling crash. Here, we learned about Exotica, the long-standing and possibly best restaurant in Puntarenas province. After giving directions, the bakery owners called ahead for us too, in case we needed reservations.
Exotica is a festive little enclave–thatched hut, breezy covered patio with tables made from tree trunks, charming forged lanterns suspended from the ceiling, and flowers-flowers-flowers, all surrounded by natural bamboo and wrought iron fencing.
We were greeted by hostess and co-owner Lucy, a tall, handsome woman who radiated hospitality. She and her husband, Robert, who is the chef, have run Exotica since the 1990’s—in the early years, without electricity.
Their menu wove French and Costa Rican influences, belonging to neither cuisine, but a happy fusion of the two. We each enjoyed a salad of local lettuces in a bright citrusy vinaigrette, garnished with a huge salmon-colored hibiscus bloom. Bill had a cheese plate with camembert, boursin, and a locally crafted tomme. I chose the sea bass in garlic beurre blanc.
My fish had a delicate pan-seared crust, bathed in a beurre blanc sauce that deviated from the expected French manner. Instead of the traditional lemon-garlic-white wine reduction swirled with a heap of butter, this beurre blanc got its acid note from lime, and its buttery mouthfeel from coconut milk. There was a balance of butter and coconut milk, neither overpowering the other, with nuanced layering of garlic and lime. Served with a timbale of jasmine rice and steamed local green beans, it was a sublime dish, one that I wanted to recreate.
Simply —and with speed—-done.
Here are some notes:
The coconut milk replaces at least half the butter in a classic beurre blanc recipe, and is faster-easier to work with too. The whole process came together in about fifteen minutes, which is so nice for such elegant results.
I cooked my jasmine rice in brown butter with leeks—hence the darker color, and rich-sweet toasty flavor. Saute a handful of diced leeks in a tablespoon of butter, with a pinch of salt. When the leeks are collapsed and the butter solids golden, stir in the rice. Let the butter-leek mixture coat the grains before adding the water.
Sea bass was unavailable at the market the day I went shopping, so I chose flounder. While not as thick a filet, it was still delicious. Any mild white fish should work well.
PAN-SEARED SEA BASS WITH COCONUT-LIME BEURRE BLANC
6 oz. fresh Sea Bass fillets (or flounder, or other mild white fish)
1 fresh Lime, for zest and juice
1/2 t. each: Sea Salt, Granulated Garlic, Black Pepper
1/4 t. Red Pepper Flakes
4 T. Butter, divided (1 T. for saute, 3 T. for beurre blanc)
1/2 c. Coconut Milk (canned is fine)
Fresh Chives, for garnish
Rinse fish fillets and pat dry. Season with grated lime zest, salt, peppers, and garlic. Snip a couple of chives and sprinkle over the fillets, too.
Heat skillet and melt 1 T. butter. Sear seasoned fillets for a couple of minutes on one side (edges will turn golden) and flip. Cook for another 2-3 minutes. Remove fillets from the skillet, and place on a separate plate or baking dish.
Return skillet to medium heat. Add coconut milk and stir well, scraping up any browned bits. Add the juice squeezed from the lime and continue stirring.
Cut remaining butter (3 T.) into pieces. Turn off heat, and whisk in the butter, one tablespoon at a time. The sauce will get a glossy sheen. Taste for seasoning and adjust.
Pour the sauce over the fillets, garnish with chives and serve.
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.