Thursday, August 30, 2007

Squash Ribbon Pizza with Blossoms, Basil, & Anchovies

Somehow the ritual of having an aperitivo along with some appetite-awakening, savory little nibbles in the hours before dinner seems perfectly suited to summer, when the outdoors beckon and life feels ever so slightly slower and easier. It’s a reviving, incredibly civilized custom I enjoy whenever I’m in the Mediterranean. Why don’t we stretch out our meals over the longer summer evenings more often, after all? Back in New York, I wait all winter for the warmer weather and the return of our ever-so-relaxing, light-drenched cocktail hours.

And warm it is. Though the calendar says it’s almost September, New York lingers on in the 80's. Factor in the “Indian summer” we always have in the northeast, and I’d guess we’ve got another 4 weeks dotted over the next few months to enjoy a refreshing glass of rosé and some salty little treats whenever a free early evening presents itself.

Here’s a pizza I’ve made a lot this summer – one that I adore for its beauty as much as for the pairing of sweet, buttery squash and smoky, saline anchovies. Summer squash are in season until the first frost – usually late October or early November around here – which leaves you plenty of time to make this dish with wonderfully fresh produce.

You may have leftover basil paste – keep it under a layer of olive oil in the fridge for at least a week. It’s delicious over fish and makes a great base for Susan at Farmgirl Fare’s inspired pesto. I first started turning my extra basil into this simple paste after reading about it in Patricia Wells’ Vegetable Harvest. It’s less of a flavor commitment than dedicating the entire bunch to pesto right off the bat, and it’s a great way of extending the herb’s usefulness. For summer aperitivi ideas, try my Prosecco with Basil, a Kir, or even an Elderflower Liqueur with white wine and soda.

Serves 8 with aperitivi before dinner

1 medium bunch fresh basil leaves, rinsed well and patted dry
extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt
1 portion pizza dough (about 20 oz. Click on the link for a recipe)
sea salt
2 small or medium summer squash, preferably different colors
8 anchovy fillets preserved in oil
1 medium ball fresh mozzarella cheese (about 4 oz.)
6 – 10 squash blossoms, depending on their size
freshly ground black pepper

Put a pizza stone (if you decide to use one – it’s not imperative) in the center of the oven and preheat to 400 F.

Reserve 10 or 12 of the smallest basil leaves for garnish. Put the rest in a food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Use a spatula to push down the leaves on the side of the bowl. Leave the processor on and stream in olive oil until a loose paste forms and season to taste with kosher salt. Pour the basil paste into a bowl and pour over a thin layer of olive oil to keep the color bright. Cover and store in the fridge until ready to use.

Sprinkle a flat cookie sheet (no sides) with cornmeal. Stretch or roll out your pizza dough into a rectangle about twice as long as it is wide – mine was 16” by 8”. Place the dough on the cornmeal and brush with olive oil. Season with a little sea salt and set aside.

Using a y-shaped speed peeler , shave ribbons down the length of one of the squash, Once you reach the seeds, turn over and do the same on the other side. Repeat with the second squash. Lay a single layer of squash strips along the length of the pizza dough, leaving a small amount of bare dough around the edges. You’ll probably have leftover strips.

Lay out the anchovy fillets over the squash strips, running in the same direction. Pull apart the fresh mozzarella and dot pieces of it over the pizza. Next dot small dollops of basil paste over the pizza in the spaces with no cheese. Gently check the insides of the squash blossoms for fauna and then arrange them over the whole thing. Drizzle with a tiny bit more olive oil (there’s oil in the anchovies and basil paste already). Season with freshly ground black pepper and a little bit more sea salt – remember the anchovies are salty, so you’ll need less salt than usual.

If you’re using a pizza stone, sprinkle it liberally with cornmeal and slide the pizza onto the stone. Otherwise just put your cookie tray into the center of the oven. Bake for 20 minutes or until the crust is lightly golden. Cool the pizza on a rack for 15 – 20 minutes before garnishing with small, whole basil leaves, slicing into smallish wedges (this is about piquing the appetite, not satiating it), and serving with cool drinks.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Grilled Merguez with Fresh Prune Chutney

Merguez or mirqaz is a spiced Tunisian or Algerian sausage usually made with lamb and occasionally with veal or beef. Typically red in color, the aromatic merguez takes its hue from harisa and cayenne pepper, and the sausage is used both fresh and dried – in drying, it is pricked all over and left in the sun for 48 hours before being stored in jugs of olive oil.

Authentic preparations call for roasting, braising, or sautéing, though fresh versions of the sausage are also grilled with delicious results. Merguez makes a savory addition to tagines and is a popular meze. Of course, the sausage is well-loved in other parts of the Mediterranean – especially France, which has had a strong affinity for North African cuisine since Morocco was its protectorate in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries.

I like to serve my grilled merguez with a French fresh prune chutney, recreated partly with the help of a classic Mark Bittman recipe. The pairing is hardly traditional, but I find that the chutney complements the sweet heat of the sausage in a way that is utterly addictive and perfect for early autumn. Any firm plum will do here, but I’ve chosen prunes for their velvety color and low moisture content. The chutney keeps for at least a few days in the fridge and is also great over meat, game, and oily fish, or on cheese and charcuterie boards.

Violet Hill Farm makes the most extraordinary fresh merguez sausages - redolent with harisa, cinnamon, and maybe even dried rose petals judging from the floral sweetness of the smoke when they’re grilled. If you can’t find fresh merguez near you, they deliver within the continental U.S. Otherwise, you can certainly substitute any fresh spicy sausage. Oh, and by the by, leftover sausages and chutney make great sandwiches the next day.

Update: You can also telephone or email Violet Hill Farm to order their merguez:
Phone: 845.439.8040

Fresh Prune Chutney

Makes 2 ½ cups

10 fresh prunes or other firm plums, halved lengthwise and pitted
½ cup fresh orange juice
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup honey
1 medium red onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, minced or grated on a microplane
1/4 cup raisins
1 tbsp yellow mustard seeds
1 heaping tbsp wholegrain mustard
½ - 1 tsp crushed red chili flakes
3 star anise pods, plus more for garnish if desired

Chop the fruit into small pieces and reserve. In a medium sauce pan, combine the rest of the ingredients and bring to a gentle boil over medium heat, stirring often. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook uncovered for 5 minutes until most of the liquid has evaporated.

Stir in the prunes and cook uncovered for another 8 – 10 minutes or until the mixture is slightly thickened. Check the seasoning with more honey, vinegar, or crushed red pepper

Keeps covered in the fridge for 3 – 4 days.

Grilled Merguez Sausage

Preheat your grill or grill pan over medium high heat. Rinse and pat dry the sausage and prick on both sides with a sharp knife. Grill for 5 minutes a side or longer if the sausage is thick. Cut into pieces and serve alongside the chutney for dipping.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Apricot Chestnut Tarte Tatin

Stone fruit is at its peak right now, though technically it’s been in season since the second or third week in July. From mid-August until probably the first week in September, the peaches are at their most fragrant and the plums are at their juiciest. So this is the time to feast. Make jam, roast or grill some fruit for serving over ice cream, or just – and this is my favorite – sit in the bath with a large, unadulterated bowl of the juiciest specimens and have at it. My mother used to put us in the bath to eat peaches when we were small anyway.

Apricots are one fruit I actually prefer cooked. I’m not sure if it’s the slightly drier texture of the raw apricot, or the fact that, where even gentle cooking can diminish so many fruits’ fragrance and flavor, with apricots it brings them to their height.

Tarte Tatin originated in 1889 at the Hotel Tatin in the Loire region town of Lamotte-Beuvron. There one of the Tatin sisters, Stéphanie, who handled most of their hotel’s cookery, was overworked one day and left the pie apples cooking too long in their butter and sugar before wrapping them in pastry. Tradition has it that when she smelled burning, Mademoiselle Tatin tried to salvage the apples by tucking a pastry base over them and giving them a speedy bake in the oven just to set the dough. Upon inverting the dish onto a serving plate, she found the deeply golden apples set into their crust and the whole dripping in a decadent apple caramel.

This version, irresistible in late summer, was inspired by another hotel – one further south in the ancient Roman town of Nîmes. Years ago, I spent a few days there, and our hotel’s garden was full of chestnut and apricot trees – all heavy with fruit in that late Provençale summer. A few heavenly hours in that fragrant garden still serve as a sensory reminder of how magically natural the combination of apricots and chestnut is, and it wasn’t long before I started adding a little chestnut flour to my apricot Tarte Tatin. I find the gentle nuttiness and slight smokiness of the chestnuts really come out once the pie has had a chance to cool down a little.

Just be sure to turn the tart out as soon as you take it from the oven. Any apricots left in the baking dish can be rearranged once the tart is on the plate. And use a serving dish with a rim, as the caramel in this recipe is runnier than in the traditional apple Tarte Tatin. There’s no need to braise the apricots first as you do with apples, and I’ve kept the caramel light as I’m particularly fond of the way this, along with a little Grand Marnier or orange flower water, brings out the intensity of the apricots without over-sweetening.

Serves 6 - 8

¾ cup all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
¼ cup chestnut flour or all-purpose flour
½ tsp kosher salt
5 tbsp granulated sugar
6 tbsp unsalted butter, chilled and cubed
1 egg, cold
2 tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
¾ cup granulated sugar
½ cup water
1 ½ lbs fresh apricots, sliced in half lengthwise, stones removed
1 tbsp Grand Marnier (or other orange liqueur, or orange flower water)
2 pinches kosher salt

In a food processor, pulse the flours, salt, and sugar to combine. Add the cold cubes of butter and pulse until the mixture looks like oatmeal. Add the egg and pulse a few more times until the pastry dough just comes together into a ball.

Working quickly to keep the mixture as cold as possible, dust your hands with a little flour and transfer the pastry dough, which will be quite sticky, onto a piece of parchment paper. Press the dough out into a 10-inch circle, cover with more parchment paper, and chill in the fridge for at least 1 hour.

When you’re ready to proceed, preheat the oven to 400 F and use the 2 tbsp of room temperature butter to coat the inside of a heavy 9-inch round baking dish.

Carefully pour the ¾ cup of sugar and the ½ cup water into a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Plunge your hands into your pockets or wring them behind your back, but do not stir or swirl – you must resist the urge to do so, or the whole thing can crystallize, and you shall have to start over. Allow the mixture to bubble just until it takes on a tiny bit of golden color – about 10 – 15 minutes, but watch it closely.

Once the caramel is very lightly golden, pour into the baking dish. Working quickly to finish before the caramel hardens too much, arrange the apricots on their sides, all facing the same way with the skin side slightly down, in a circle around the outside of the dish (see photo above). Complete another circle in the same way, and then another. Sprinkle the apricots with the Grand Marnier and then with a couple of pinches of kosher salt.

Peel one piece of parchment off the pastry dough and invert the circle over the baking dish. Gently peel off the other piece of parchment and tuck the overhang into the baking dish against the inside edge. Pierce several slits in the pastry with a sharp knife.

Place the baking dish on a sheet pan to catch any bubbled-over cooking juices and bake in the middle of the oven for 45 minutes or until the crust is golden brown. Remove and immediately invert onto a serving plate with a rim to catch the caramel.

Allow to cool for 30 minutes before slicing and serving, or wait until it’s room temperature. Either way, the tart is delicious alone and lovely with a little crème fraiche.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Catalan Tomato Bread - Pa Amb Tomàquet

Perhaps one of Catalonia’s simplest and most beloved dishes, pan con tomate (or pa amb tomàquet in the Catalan language) is the tomato bread served to school children and late-night tapas bar carousers alike. The first time I visited Barcelona, I was so enchanted by the ritual of making the bread and so infatuated with the savory aroma and juicy, golden flavor that I practically lived on the stuff.

The beauty is this: You’ve been pounding the streets all morning, or even all day. The heat is scorching and the light intense, but you must get to the Boqueria market, the Gothic Quarter, the Gaudí basilica, or wherever else you’ve decided will mean that you’ve truly made the most of this trip. That you’ve experienced Barcelona. As you enter yet another perfect, ancient, cobblestoned plaza, you spy 4 or 5 tables nestled in a shady corner. A few halting phrases – make sure you include the words “vi rosat” – and the next thing you know, respite, refreshment, rejuvenation, and a mounting sense of serene contentment are yours.

The waiter will bring you a heap of toasted or grilled bread; several ripe, plump tomato halves; peeled garlic cloves, halved as well; jade green or glittering gold olive oil; a little bowl of sea salt; and a platter of pink, whisper thin Serrano ham, which is technically optional, but not to be missed. If you remembered to say “vi rosat,” an all-important bottle of chilled rosé wine will arrive as well. Scrub one side of the bread with the cut side of a garlic clove and then again with half a tomato. Make sure to squeeze out the tomato jelly and seeds into the bread as well as some of the sweet, red flesh. Douse the entire thing with generous amounts of the oil, sprinkle with sea salt, and lay on a single layer of ham.

Bite, chew, and allow the savory, sweet, salty, unctuous flavors to meld. Take a gulp of rosé, and then a deep, restorative breath. Repeat. This, you begin to realize, is Barcelona. Museu Picasso be damned. It’ll still be there if and when you come up for air.

It’s a ritual I fell in love with immediately and utterly. I often serve this tapa with a green salad for supper or as a first, ice-breaking course at dinner parties. Summer is still here – it’ll be 90 again this weekend in New York - and I urge you to try tomato bread for yourself. It makes for fantastic picnics too – most recently last week in Washington Square Park with my good friend Jo and her incredibly sweet 3-year-old Benny.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Chicken, Carrot, & Chickpea Tagine - Kdra Style

A kdra is a type of Moroccan tagine flavored with that region’s strong, preserved butter smen. Described by early British visitors to the region as “foul-smelling” and “rancid,” smen has found a more open-minded fan base in modern times. Paula Wolfert gives 2 recipes for making smen in her exhaustive tome on Moroccan cuisine Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco – a text I highly recommend for anyone in search of “real” Moroccan food and not just the glamorized, homogenized version we find so often in the States today.

In one recipe, Wolfert washes her butter in a salted oregano tincture before fermenting it for 30 days, but she notes that other preparations call for cinnamon, ground coriander seed, and pickling spices. Wolfert also describes the particularly pungent smens of more rural areas – the Berbers clarify and cook their butter, salt it, and bury it in earthen jugs sunk into the ground for a year. She says the finished product tastes “something like Gorgonzola cheese.”

I haven’t ever made smen, but I can’t help incorporating the rest of the traditional kdra flavor profile into my tagine rotation here in New York. With a little saffron and lemon juice and lots of black pepper and braised onions, this kdra-inspired tagine is a gently sweet and gloriously sunny way to show off our late summer chickpeas and carrots.

The Phillips Farms carrots are heavenly right now: well-grown and decadently colored below their leafy green tops, but not at all leathery or starchy yet. I only had to peel the larger ones before pairing them with raisins and ginger – a combination as popular in Europe and North America as it is in northern Africa. This braise comforts and soothes without taking on the sticky richness of winter. I brown the chicken here, which is not strictly traditional, but I prefer the color and flavor that the extra step allows. Also, you may omit the butter if you wish – it’s not completely authentic without the smen anyway, and so I tend to only include the butter on special occasions. Serve with warmed or grilled flatbread.

Serves 4

extra virgin olive oil
8 chicken thighs, bone in and skin on
2 medium onions, halved and sliced into thin half moons
kosher salt
6 cloves garlic, crushed and peeled
½ cup thinly sliced scallion bulbs (reserve the green leaves for another use)
1 heaping tsp freshly ground black pepper, plus extra
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground ginger
1 stick cinnamon
I pinch saffron
3 cups fresh or canned chickpeas, drained and rinsed if canned
4 cups good chicken or vegetable stock
4 tbsp unsalted butter or smen (optional)
1 ½ lbs fresh carrots (assorted colors if available), quartered lengthwise and sliced into sticks
¼ cup black raisins
big handful fresh parsley, chopped
juice of ½ lemon

Rinse the chicken and pat dry. Season both sides generously with salt. Heat a large, heavy pot over high heat and add a glug of olive oil. When the oil ripples, brown the chicken, skin side down first, until deeply golden. Work in batches so that the pot is never crowded, and add more oil as needed. Reserve on a plate.

Reduce the heat to medium and replenish the oil in the pot. Add the slices onions and sprinkle with more salt. Sweat, stirring often, until the onions are translucent. Add the garlic cloves and slices scallions and stir for another couple of minutes.

Stir in the black pepper, turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon stick. Crumble in the saffron and add the chickpeas. Nestle the chicken pieces and any juices from their plate into the onion spice mixture and pour over the stock. Add the butter if using. Bring the mixture to a boil and reduce to a very gentle simmer. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring all the way to the bottom once or twice.

Stir in the carrots and raisins. Cover and simmer for another 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the lemon juice and most of the parsley. Check the seasoning with more salt and pepper and serve hot sprinkled with a little more parsley.

Friday, August 17, 2007

A Crème de Cassis Tasting & Five Cassis Cocktails

August 15th marked one month since I’d set aside my blackcurrants with vodka, sugar, and a little cinnamon to steep and hopefully become Crème de Cassis in time for me to enjoy a homemade version of my favorite summer drink, the Kir. To read my post about the history of this Burgundian liqueur and of the Kir itself, click here.

On August 16th, I took the jar of decadently purple pulp from the sunny spot on our living room floor it’s been occupying for the past 4 weeks (dinner guests be damned), strained out a tentative draught along with a control glass of my favorite Trénel Fils Crème de Cassis, and sipped.

And I have to say, I’m thrilled with the results. Both are warming when drunk neat, but while my beloved Trénel Fils is so deeply purple that it’s almost brown, the homemade liqueur is shamelessly violet-magenta and flecked with blackcurrant pulp despite a good straining. The entire batch needs to be squeezed through several layers of cheesecloth before being bottled.

The nose on the homemade Cassis has much more alcohol in it, but it’s bright and mouth-wateringly fruity, as is the simple burst of flavor, while the syrupy Trénel Fils is smoother and smells as alluringly and mysteriously “hedgerow-ish” as blackcurrants should. The Trénel Fils flavor is rich and almost smoky, with an unexpected herbal note, while the homemade liqueur has far more red fruit and just a breath of cinnamon.

Once mixed with cool white wine to assess Kir potential, the homemade Crème de Cassis turns the whole thing riotously pink – a color evocative of strawberries – while the more elegant Trénel Fils predictably produces a more subtle cocktail. The Trénel Fils also really stands out – completely recognizable as it hums through the white wine. Though equally cooling and calming in a Kir, the homemade Cassis melds with the wine more. After all, it is a far less complex and sophisticated liqueur.

But I love it for that. I wouldn’t dream of replacing my Trénel Fils altogether, but I’m ecstatic to have this honest, punchy, ruby Créme de Cassis in the liquor cabinet too. To help you enjoy your Crème de Cassis to its fullest, there are 5 cocktail recipes below: 3 rustic and 2 more complex, but all authentically French. In addition to cocktails, the Cassis will be delicious over ice cream, folded into whipped cream, soaked into trifles, and even drizzled into pan sauces once game season really kicks in.

Blackcurrants are still being harvested around these parts, and you can find my Crème de Cassis recipe here. As always, check Local Harvest’s Farmers’ Market Finder if you’re not sure where to search for blackcurrants.

Pour 2 tbsp Crème de Cassis into a wine glass. Top up with 4 oz. chilled white wine.

Kir Royale
Pour 1 tbsp Crème de Cassis into a champagne flute. Top up with your normal pour of champagne.

Pour 2 tbsp Crème de Cassis into a wine glass. Top up with 4 oz. Pinot Noir. Perfect for autumn.

Brandy Cassis
1 oz. fresh lemon juice
1 ½ oz. brandy
1 tbsp Crème de Cassis
twist of lemon peel

Pour the first 3 ingredients into a cocktail shaker half-filled with ice. Shake well, and strain into a martini or rocks glass. Garnish with the twist of lemon peel.


¾ oz. gin
2 tbsp Crème de Cassis
¾ oz. vermouth

Pour the ingredients into a cocktail shaker half-filled with ice. Stir well. Strain into a martini or rocks glass and garnish with a single ice cube.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Roasted Heirloom Tomatoes in Olive Oil - Packing up Summer

The tomato harvest has begun in earnest. And these aren’t the timid, tentatively flavored tomatoes of early July. The tomatoes I’m seeing at the market now are juicy, fragrant, and bursting out of their skins. What’s interesting about how beset we can feel during tomato season is that, even 100 years ago, tomatoes were barely consumed in this country. They were grown ornamentally in North American gardens and known as “love apples” but were widely held, as members of the Nightshade family, to be poisonous - much as the eggplant was in Europe.

The tomato was brought to Europe from its native Central and South America in the first half of the 16th Century, and it seems to have been the Italians who first grew the fruit for food. There they called it “poma Peruviana” or “poma d’oro” meaning “Peruvian apple” or “golden apple” – early varieties may have been yellow - but “poma d’oro” seems to have stuck. It was only once Italy, Spain, and then later France and Britain had fallen for the tomato, that North Americans were willing to give it a try.

Several of you have asked me for some recipes that make the most of the tomato harvest, and I hope the Pappa al Pomodoro from last week helped a bit. But here’s a method that’s useful for setting aside something special for after the deluge ends – usually sometime in October around here.

Oven-roasted tomatoes are rich and sweet without taking on the cloying intensity of sun dried tomatoes – which I feel have been horribly overused in the States. These lovelies from Eckerton Hill Farm include Green Zebras, Brandywines, and White Wonders, but you can make this with any standard varieties too. Just choose whatever’s ripest and freshest, and, if you roast them gently and patiently, you’ll find they’ll last under a blanket of olive oil for at least 3 – 4 months in the fridge.

What to do with your oven-roasted tomatoes? They make fantastic bruschetta – alone or mixed gently with some fresh herbs, crumbled feta, anchovy fillets, or chopped black olives. They’re also a great addition to pasta – below I’ve roasted a little eggplant in olive oil, sizzled some garlic and fresh thyme, and tossed the whole thing with some of the smaller roasted tomatoes and fettucine. You can purée them into soups, melt them into long-simmered sauces, and use them as a savory-sweet pairing for meat and fish – along the same lines as the tomatoes I roasted with pork chops in July. However you use them, and I’d love to hear what you come up with, this is the best way I know to set aside the bounty of a good tomato harvest for the colder days ahead.

Roasted Heirloom Tomatoes in Olive Oil

Makes about 1 pint (varies according to water content in your tomatoes)

1 – 2 very clean pint jars

5 lbs fresh, ripe tomatoes, rinsed well and dried
extra virgin olive oil (you’ll need lots here)
kosher salt
1 bunch fresh thyme, rinsed well and dried
small handful fresh whole basil leaves, rinsed well and dried

Preheat the oven to 500 F

Sterilize your jar by putting it in the oven for at least 30 minutes. Remove with tongs, and be careful not to touch the jar. As always, remember that hot glass looks the same as cool glass!

Reduce the oven temperature to 250 F

Cover a sheet pan with foil. Slice any large or especially firm tomatoes in half across the equator (so all the seed chambers are exposed). Arrange the tomatoes on the sheet pan and drizzle with lots of olive oil. Sprinkle generously with salt and then pinch over half of the thyme. Roast on the bottom rack of the oven for 4 – 6 hours, checking occasionally and turning once or twice if necessary, until much of the water in the tomatoes has baked off. Don’t let them get dry or leathery though – the flavor will change too much. The finished tomatoes will seem like a bit of a mess, but treat them gently and they'll hold together.

Allow the tomatoes to cool. Layer them in the jar with the fresh basil leaves and some new sprigs of thyme. Pour over fresh extra virgin olive oil and try to remove any air bubbles. The oil should cover the tomatoes by at least an inch – this seal is what lets them last so long. Store in the fridge.

Roasted Heirloom Tomato Bruschetta

Serves 4 as an antipasto

12 roasted tomatoes
fresh basil, thyme, and/or parsley, chopped
4 anchovy fillets preserved in oil, minced
3 tbsp crumbled feta cheese
¼ cup black olives, pitted and chopped
4 thick slices of good bread
1 clove of garlic, peeled and cut in half
extra virgin olive oil
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

In a medium bowl, gently toss the tomatoes with the fresh herbs, minced anchovies, crumbled feta, or chopped olives. Grill or toast the bread. While still hot, rub with the cut garlic, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Arrange 3 tomatoes on each toast and season generously with black pepper. Serve immediately.

Roasted Tomato & Eggplant Fettucine with Thyme

Serves 4 - 6

2 thin, long Italian eggplants
extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt
1 lb dry fettucine
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced thinly
1 cup roasted tomatoes packed in olive oil
crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
5 stems fresh thyme, leaves chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 F

Trim the ends and then cut the eggplant in half lengthwise. Cut the halves into inch-thick slices, toss with olive oil and salt immediately, and arrange on a baking sheet. Bake in the center of the oven for 15 minutes, turn the eggplant over, and bake for another 15 minutes until golden brown.
In a large pot, boil some well-salted water. Toss in the fettucine and boil, stirring occasionally, until par-cooked (about half-done). Drain and reserve. (Note: My fettucine took about 3 minutes, but cooking time always varies according to brand).

Meanwhile, heat a large saucepan over medium heat. Add a generous glug of olive oil and then the sliced garlic. Sprinkle generously with kosher salt. Sauté, stirring often for 1 minute.

Add the crushed red pepper and then toss in the fettucine, eggplant, roasted tomatoes, and fresh thyme leaves. Add some more olive oil and sauté, stirring gently but often, for about 2 minutes, or until the fettucine is al dente.

Check the seasoning with more salt and red pepper and serve immediately.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Green Gazpacho with Lettuce, Cucumber, & Almonds

The first Andalusían gazpacho probably originated in the fields of southern Spain as sustenance for agricultural workers. Though in this country we tend to think of gazpacho as a chilled, tomato-based sort of liquid salad, it was originally comprised of nothing more than bread, water, olive oil, and garlic. All the ingredients were pounded and emulsified in a large wooden dornillo bowl. This was simple peasant food for the scorching summer months.

Ajo Blanco (in which ground almonds, vinegar, and salt are added to the 4 fundamental ingredients) was probably the next step – suddenly possible when the Moors brought almonds to the region in the early Middle Ages. Today this particular version is still popular, though grapes were added somewhere along the way in a typically sweet-and-sour Moorish flourish), and the recipe is associated with the south-central region of Málaga.

By the time gazpacho became well-known to the rest of Spain and the world at large, which was not until the first half of the 20th century, believe it or not, versions of the soup had become as numerous as the villages of Andalusía themselves. Tomatoes, bell peppers, beans, and green vegetables or herbs all form the bases of popular preparations.

I like blending the milky sweetness of ground almonds with the gentle flavors of lettuce and cucumber. Sherry and white wine vinegar meld with the parsley and garlic to make this soup as satisfying as it is refreshing. When it’s humid and hot - and there were tornadoes in Brooklyn on Wednesday, folks - we sip our gazpacho from glasses and pour a cool draught of fino if the mood strikes. It’s a ritual that makes a wonderful start to supper or, with some good bread and a juicy peach, a meal in itself.

Though some Andalusían cooks hold that a true gazpacho must be chopped by hand or ground in a mortar and pestle for the flavors to properly meld, others choose the convenience and speed of a food processor. Regardless, a jar of gazpacho in the fridge has become synonymous with Spanish summer itself, and it’s a custom that I, for one, am grateful to adopt come these dog days of August.

Serves 4 – 6

3 slices (about 4 oz.) bread
5 cloves garlic
4 scallions, trimmed and cut into 3 or 4 lengths
2 medium cucumbers, ends trimmed and cut into chunks
1 crisp green lettuce, leaves rinsed and patted dry
1 large bunch parsley, chopped into lengths
¾ cup ground blanched almonds
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup almond milk (or water)
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
2 tbsp white wine vinegar
kosher salt

Soak the bread in cold water, squeeze out the liquid, tear into chunks, and set aside.

In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the garlic and scallions until minced, scraping down the sides as necessary. Add the cucumbers, lettuce, and parsley and pulse again until all are minced and incorporated. Add the ground almonds and process until the mixture is smooth. Leave the processor on while you add the bread chunks one at a time. Once the bread's incorporated, slowly stream in the olive oil.

Pour the mixture in a large bowl, stir in the almond milk and the vinegars. Season to taste with salt, and chill for at least 30 minutes before serving.

Stir well all the way to the bottom, check the seasoning with more sherry vinegar and salt if necessary, and serve cold in glasses for sipping.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Pappa al Pomodoro and a Gift from the Garden

A gift of homegrown fruit or vegetables in New York City is a rare thing indeed. But that’s just what I received from a friend’s parents the other day – a bag of sun-warm, perfectly ripened, homegrown tomatoes. Not just any tomatoes either. These were the red, plump, shiny tomatoes in the photo below, and they were grown in a proper Sicilian family’s garden.

Before I met my husband, I spent an awful lot of time sleeping on this friend of mine’s couch. Sure, it saved me a late-night commute after one of our endless dinner parties, but it also allowed me to wake up in the midst of the hustle and bustle that is her elegantly warm and welcoming family – something I’ll never grow immune to.

My friend and her husband live with their daughter on the first floor of the house, and her mother and father live on the third. In the middle are her aunt and uncle who are sister and brother to her mother and father respectively. During those mornings, after my friend and her husband would have left for work, I often hung about, padding up and down the stairs to visit with everyone – I guess I was a little homesick for my own family. As my friend’s grandmother used to say: “You stick together. Stick with your family.” And I wish modern life turned out that way more often.

Anyway I know my lurking about sounds pretty rude, but it became something of a joke. I would inevitably end up being patted and shushed into someone’s kitchen to have an espresso, to play with the baby, and, if I was very lucky, to watch my friend’s mother or aunt cook. Caponata, pizza, pasta sauces, and at Christmas, my favorite orange zest-flecked torrone were all labored over, with lots of instructions muttered over the cook’s shoulder for my benefit. And for this I shall be eternally grateful.

It might be bad form for me to be making this Tuscan bread soup with a Sicilian family’s tomatoes, but I hope they’ll understand. Pappa al Pomodoro is, at its best, honest home cooking: comforting, nourishing, frugal, and time-honored. Use plenty of good olive oil here, and a generous hand with the salt – it’s there to bring out the savory umami of the tomatoes. The only change I’ve made from the traditional recipe is to add a little cayenne pepper, and this I’ve done because one of my favorite osterie in Florence does the same. And thank you DiBartolos for the tomatoes, for the cooking lessons, and for taking care of me when I don’t leave.

Serves 3 – 4

extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 ½ lbs (about 3 large) ripe tomatoes (canned are fine out of season)
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
½ - 1 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
10 oz day-old good country bread, pulled into bite-size chunks
4 ½ cups good chicken or vegetable stock
pinch of sugar
small handful fresh basil leaves
good parmesan cheese

Heat a large pot over medium heat. Add a generous glug of olive oil and the garlic and tomatoes. Season generously with salt, pepper, and as much or as little cayenne pepper as you like, and sauté, stirring often, for 5 minutes.

Stir in the bread, the stock, and a pinch of sugar. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer gently for 20 – 30 minutes or longer if your bread was very stale. The finished soup should be very thick, and the bread must have softened and come apart a bit. Check the seasoning with more salt and pepper.

Just before serving, slice the basil leaves thinly and stir in. Serve the soup drizzled with generous amounts of olive oil and topped with lots of freshly grated cheese.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

A Rockin' Girl Blogger Shares the Love

Last month, I was honored by kind Jenn over at The Leftover Queen with a nomination as a Rockin’ Girl Blogger. Many thanks to Jenn, whose gift for creating community enriches so much of the food blogging realm – as does her lovely cooking (hello Fresh Fig & Sage Grilled Pizza!)

I’m sure, Jenn, that you’ve been wondering if I’d ever get to this (I also owe her an interview, which I’m still working on, really!) It’s been awfully hard to whittle down all the great girls out there – there are so many female bloggers that I think are pretty darn rockin.’ But here are a few special women whose work I've greatly enjoyed and highly recommend.

Rules I’ve found for this award range from nominating 3 to 5 blogs, so I decided to split the difference. No pressure to nominate anyone yourselves, ladies. We’re all busy, and sometimes it just doesn’t fit into the format of your blog. But I wanted to take the opportunity to say thanks for all the great reads and eats! In alphabetical order by blog title:

Wendy at A Wee Bit of Cooking in Inverness, Scotland -
I admit to a ready soft spot for this fellow Scot – she's not afraid to get good and bruised up at a ceilidh for starters. But following this gifted cook and gardener and warm–hearted dog-lover on her travels around her vegetable patch, Britain, and beyond has become one of my favorite things to do.

Jo at Naptime Writer here in New York City -
Jo’s a close friend of mine, but this nomination isn’t a bit biased. She’s a feminist with her Phd. who embraces her domesticity, gave birth watching the Terminator movies for inspiration, and stays home with her 3-year-old to write kick-ass chick-lit. From the horrors of discovering a toddler practicing tantric sex breathing in public to commentary on the patriarchal influence over romantic comedies in Hollywood, this rockin’ girl’s blog makes for a great read.

Lucy at Nourish Me in Melbourne, Australia -
Lucy’s lovely spirit shines through her poetry, photography, art work, and recipes (anyone for making your own ricotta cheese?) It all makes me suspect there’s nothing she can’t do, and anyone this accomplished is rockin’ in my book.

Aileen at Quixote’s Tart in Alaska -
A flying greenmarket? Check. Tundra-grown cucumbers and sweet turnips grown under the midnight sun? Check. Check. Four years ago, Aileen was living two blocks from Union Square here in New York. Now she’s up in Alaska, and her blog reads like a food-lovers version of Northern Exposure - without the eighties haircuts, that is. Utterly addictive.

Congratulations to all of you, and thanks again to Jenn for the nomination!

Monday, August 6, 2007

Grilled Halloumi with Citrus, Fennel, & Parsley

Halloumi (pronounced hah-LOO-mee) is a sheep’s milk or sheep and goat’s milk cheese traditionally made in Cyprus and Turkey. Its production method is similar to that of mozzarella in that the curds are soaked in hot whey until they can be stretched and shaped. The trick is to know how long the curds should be heated. As there’s no aging involved, cooking time is imperative in determining the quality and flavor of the cheese.

Halloumi is semi-firm and squeakily evocative of styrofoam. But don’t let the texture put you off – halloumi’s salty savor makes it truly addictive. In Cyprus, the brine-soaked cheese is served sliced into pita bread or over melon. It’s frequently found in a salad made with tomatoes and radicchio, and it’s popular grated into ravioli and pastries. But best of all, halloumi can be grilled.

The beauty of grilled halloumi is that its outer shell goes beautifully golden – even crunchy – while the inside softens but never melts. Here I’ve paired the cheese with some of my favorite flavors from rugged Cyprus: the bright sweetness of orange and lemon, the hot twang of fresh chili, some earthy-sweet fennel seed, and lashings of thick fruity olive oil. The dish makes a great lunch and a wonderful addition to any mezethes table (mezethes being the plural of meze). Serve with wine, ouzo, or raki.

Serves 8 as meze

zest of 1 small orange
1 medium red chili, seeded and sliced thinly
1 tsp whole fennel seed, crushed in a mortar and pestle
a few pinches of chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
16 oz halloumi cheese, drained and rinsed
extra virgin olive oil
juice of 1 lemon

Preheat the grill or a heavy sauté pan on medium high heat

Slice the halloumi into ½ to 1/3 inch thick pieces. When the grill or pan is hot, place the slices onto the hot metal – you may wish to work in batches here. Once the cheese is golden brown (about 60 seconds), turn it and allow to brown on the second side. Remove to a platter.

Once all the cheese is golden, drizzle with a generous amount of olive oil. Sprinkle with the orange zest, the red chili, the fennel seed, and the parsley. Shower over the lemon juice and serve warm with plenty of crusty bread for soaking up the sunny vinaigrette.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Duck Egg al Tegamino

This right here is my idea of a perfect supper. Uova al Tegamino (or “en Cocotte” if you bake the same thing in ramekins using a water bath) is one of the simplest and most sumptuous comfort foods around - truly greater than the sum of its parts. The dish is infinitely versatile according to the season: asparagus, leeks, and, yes, pancetta all make wonderful bases for baked eggs. But at this time of year, Mountain Sweet Berry Farm has the most divine baby fingerling potatoes I’ve ever tasted.

And by “baby,” I mean that some are literally the size of your pinkie nail. Check them out next to the garlic clove in the photo below. I love using fingerling potatoes here because their mineral aroma and flavor is the most pronounced of any potato I’ve had. These little ones are so fresh out of the ground that, even after a good wash, they smell of the cool, flinty earth, and that’s what makes the potatoes such a lovely foil for the luxuriant richness of duck egg.

Of course, hen eggs are more traditional here, and you shouldn’t put off making this if you can’t locate duck eggs right away. Just crack over a couple of the freshest hen eggs you can find – or for that matter, a few quail or pheasant eggs would be great too. But you’ll have to vary the cooking time to make sure the yolks stay runny, because that’s what you’re counting on here. As soon as the yolk is broken, it melds with the garlicky olive oil, the salty slivers of cheese, and the heady scent of truffles to create the most decadently satisfying sauce you’ll ever make. Serve with crusty bread, a simple green salad dressed in balsamic or sherry vinaigrette, and a glass of your favorite red wine.

Serves 2

Special equipment: 2 small, shallow gratin dishes

½ lb baby wax potatoes (fingerling if possible)
1 clove garlic, crushed but still in its paper
1 medium shallot, halved and sliced thinly
extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 fresh duck eggs
good parmesan cheese
white truffle oil (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

In a small baking dish, toss the potatoes, garlic clove, and sliced shallot with a generous sprinkle of kosher salt and a good glug of olive oil. Roast in the oven for 30 minutes or until the potatoes are cooked and the shallot is golden brown.

Move a rack to the top of the oven and raise the temperature to 450 F.

Once the oven is hot, remove the garlic from the potatoes and toss the mixture with some freshly ground black pepper. Divide between 2 small gratin dishes on a sheet pan. Crack a duck egg into the center of each dish being careful not to break the yolk. Place the pan in the top of the oven and bake for about 6 – 8 minutes or until the white of the egg is just set. Meanwhile shave a few shards of parmesan cheese with a vegetable peeler.

Remove from the oven, sprinkle a little more salt over the eggs, scatter over a few scant slivers of cheese, and drizzle with a little truffle oil if using. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

August's Harvest Calendar

I can’t believe it’s already August, can you? Locally grown and new from the field (rather than the greenhouse) this month are: blackberries, cantaloupes, cauliflower, celery, currants, eggplant, leeks, onions, prunes, turnips, and winter squash.

It’s certainly exciting to see the flavor profile changing over the course of the year, but I can’t help feeling a little sorry to know that we’re already taking a break from peas until their 2nd harvest in September, and that we’re saying goodbye to rhubarb until next May, strawberries until next June, and cherries and raspberries until next July.

Lose strawberries and rhubarb – 2 of my favorite harbingers of the glorious moment when spring remembers summer – while adding prunes, leeks, and winter squash, and we’ve got a completely different flavor profile already. Did I take advantage of raspberries enough this year, I fret? Fortunately, produce doesn’t know what month it is. I already had beautiful field-grown eggplants from Yuno's Farm, and there will still be raspberries for the next fortnight at least – I have it on good authority.

And by the end of this month, the stone fruits will have come to their height, which I can’t wait for. Peaches will be even peachier, and prunes will be at their plummiest. As always, I hope the harvest calendar in the sidebar brings you inspiration as it does me. This calendar is a guide from the CENYC, which runs the Greenmarket & New Farmer Development Project. Happy August!

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