Thursday, November 29, 2007

Pear & Calvados Galette - a Recipe

Well I think I’ve finally emerged from my Thanksgiving turkey coma – hope you all had a great holiday! While I was on break earlier this month, I left a poll up so that you all could vote on your favorite November crop. The choices were chestnuts, parsnips, leeks, pears, and fennel, and, though chestnuts and pears were neck and neck for a long time, in the end pears won out.

This galette is one I love making at the back end of pear season, when the weather’s turned cold and the holidays are within sight. I adore the crust, a gently sweetened pâte sablée, which bakes into a rustic, crumbly shell reminiscent of sugar cookies. This pear recipe’s based on the flavors of Normandy, a northwestern French region that lies on the southern coast of the English Channel.

Normandy’s cuisine celebrates the region’s exquisite cheeses, butter, cream, seafood, and apples and pears, which usually feature in the area’s stunning pastries. And, of course, there is Calvados – the amber apple brandy that’s heady with oak, apricot, nuts, and maybe even a little chocolate. The proportion of tart apples to bitter and sweet varieties that are pressed for distillation is closely monitored, and so Calvados is far more complex and sophisticated than liquors like apple jack, which is far too sweet for my palate. Often up to 100 different apple types are used in this process.

Calvados is used to flavor all manner of dishes in Normandy, from mussels in cream and lamb stew, to pastries and sweets. And the brandy also features in the region’s traditional le trou Normand, or “Norman hole.” Here, during longer meals with multiple courses, a dram of Calvados is sipped while each dish is cleared and the next is served in order to rouse the appetite. Sounds a bit more fun than our sedate spoonful of lemon sorbet, doesn’t it?

Pears are included in one of the appellations for Calvados (AOC Calvados Domfrontais), but I think all 3 Calvados appellations work wonderfully to enhance the flavor and earthy fragrance of the fruit. Here I’ve mixed one apple with the pears to echo the complexity of the brandy. And I think you’ll agree that the sprinkling of citrus zest melds with the Calvados - not only letting the pears sing, but also making this a gloriously seasonal dessert. One whiff, and a little surge of anticipation of the upcoming holidays is sure to follow. Serve with crème fraîche and pour glasses of Calvados for an authentic Norman end to any cold weather supper.

Serves 6

1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
kosher salt
3 tbsp granulated sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
1/8 tsp baking powder
7 tbsp cold butter
2 eggs, cold
½ tsp good vanilla extract
3 large, firm pears (Bosc works well here)
juice of 2 lemons
1 apple (nothing too tart – I use Honeycrisp)
zest of 1 lemon
zest of 1 small orange
2 tsp Calvados
Crème fraîche for serving (optional)

In a food processor, pulse the flour, a pinch of salt, sugar, and baking powder to combine. Dice the butter into small cubes with a sharp knife. Add to the food processor and pulse just until the mixture looks like coarse oatmeal. Add one of the eggs and the vanilla, and pulse until just combined and the dough just starts to come together. Do not overwork.

Turn the dough – which may be quite sticky – out on a sheet of parchment and press into a disk. Use the tips of your fingers for this rather than the palms of your hands – the less heat and movement the dough is subjected to, the more tender it will be. Wrap the disk of dough in more parchment and refrigerate for 1 hour or up to 3 days.

Meanwhile, make the filling. Using a sharp paring knife, peel a pear and halve it lengthwise. Trim the stem and blossom, and use a melon baller to scoop out the core. Turn each half over and slice fairly thinly. Immediately transfer the slices to a bowl and spritz with plenty of lemon juice to avoid browning. Repeat with the remaining pears and with the apple, making sure all are coated with plenty of lemon juice. Add the lemon and orange zest and gently toss with your fingers to combine.

Preheat the oven to 425 F.

Let the dough come back up to room temperature for 15 minutes. Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper, dust a rolling pin and the dough with a little flour, and roll the dough out on the paper to a circle about 12 inches across.

Pile the fruit in the center of the dough. Fold the sides of the dough up over the filling, working around the circle, so that each fold overlaps the last (see the photo above). If your dough cracks, it’s a little too cold still. Let it rest for 5 minutes and try again. If your dough is too sticky, use a bench scraper or the side of a chef’s knife to fold over the edges. Place the baking sheet in the fridge and chill for 15 minutes.

Sprinkle the Calvados over the exposed fruit, and sprinkle with another pinch of salt. Mix the remaining egg with a little water and brush over the crust. Sprinkle the crust with a few pinches of granulated sugar.

Bake the galette in the oven for 30 minutes or until the crust is golden brown. Cool on a rack for 10 -15 minutes before serving. The galette is also delicious at room temperature.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Aegean Baked Potatoes with Lemon, Olive Oil, & Sea Salt - a Recipe

Hello again! Thanks for your patience while I took a quick break to sharpen both my knives and my wits. It’s great to be getting back into the swing of things just as the holiday season is kicking off here in New York – this is truly my favorite time of year.

And it was lovely to be welcomed back the other day with an email from Charlotte of The Great Big Vegetable Challenge. I’m always happy to see her name in my inbox, and this time she wanted to know if I had any jacket potato recipes I’d like to share for her and Freddie’s round up. I adore jacket potatoes, or baked potatoes as we call them here in the States – far less imaginative of us, I know. And as it so happens, there is a simple, perfectly addictive Greek method for preparing them that I revel in this time of year.

The Ottomans, who ruled most of Greece from the mid 15th century until the early 19th century, brought potatoes to the region. But they didn't fully infiltrate the culinary lexicon until the British moved into the region shortly thereafter. In spite of this, I must admit that when I taste the incredibly nuanced flavors that Greece’s terrain imparts to its tubers or sample preparations as rustic and heavenly as this one, it can be hard to believe they haven’t been grown there since the days of Odysseus himself.

Lemon juice and olive oil has to be one of my favorite combinations of all time, and it’s one I’ve been served all over Greece on everything from football-sized squid to cold cheese sandwiches. The pairing never disappoints, and here, with the addition of some good sea salt and a touch of freshly ground black pepper, it raises the russet potatoes to their deliciously fragrant, juicy, and twangily earthy height.

Potatoes tend to be harvested at the same time as the olives in Greece, and I'll never forget the first time I tasted these dressed with freshly-pressed local olive oil, straight from the village mill. Back home, just try to use the best quality extra virgin olive oil you can get your hands on. Thanks for the excuse to post these, Charlotte!

Serves 4

4 large russet or other thickly-skinned floury potatoes
½ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for serving
juice of 2 - 3 lemons
good sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

Wash the potatoes thoroughly and pierce their skins in several places with the tip of a sharp knife. Place them directly on the center rack in a cold oven – there’s no need to wrap them in foil. Turn on the oven to 350 F and bake for 1 to 1 ½ hours until the potatoes are tender and give gently when you squeeze them. Remove the potatoes from the oven.

Just before serving, slit each potato down the middle with a sharp knife – careful not to cut all the way through. Being gentle so as not to tear the skins, scoop out the flesh of the potatoes and place in a medium bowl. Working fairly quickly to keep the potatoes hot, season very generously with plenty of good olive oil (I use ½ a cup), the juice of 2 of the lemons, and a good amount of sea salt and black pepper. Stir with a fork, being careful not to overwork, just until the oil and lemon are absorbed – you’re not going for a smooth consistency at all here. Be sure to taste the potatoes and correct the seasoning with more oil, lemon, salt, or pepper as desired. You may be surprised by how much you need of all 4 seasonings.

Drizzle the inside of each potato skin with a little more olive oil, spritz with any remaining lemon juice, and sprinkle with some salt. Spoon the seasoned potato back into the skins, finish with a final drizzle of olive oil and sprinkling of sea salt, and serve immediately while still hot.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The November Harvest Calendar

It’s a funny time at the markets right now. The sun is lower, the shadows are longer, and all the crops you’d expect this time of year are in evidence, but so are many lingering reminders of summer. Of course, it’s all due to the unusually warm autumn New York’s had. Good tomatoes are still in abundance, as are eggplants, green beans, and even a few everbearing strawberries – strange enough in November alone, never mind piled next to the parsnips, chestnuts, and brussel sprouts.

The River Garden’s fresh flowers seem to be behaving more appropriately, which unfortunately means they’re almost all gone. But there are still gloriously fragrant buckets of fresh eucalyptus for sale next to the wreaths of dried wheat, chili peppers, and lavender from the year’s second harvest. And elsewhere there are domed carpets of chrysanthemums – expectant harbingers to next month’s cyclamen, amaryllis, and poinsettias.

Barring yet another Indian summer, many of autumn’s harvests do finish this month. By November’s end, the field grown apples, beets, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, fennel, mesclun, and pears will all be harvested, so make the most of these crops while you can.

It’s also a good time to enjoy leeks, onions, potatoes, winter squash, and turnips, because, though we’ll probably be dipping into cold storage reserves for these crops by mid-month, the produce will still be as fresh as it’s going to be until next year, if you catch my drift. And pay particular attention to pumpkins. Their harvest is over now, and they’re only available from cold storage for the next 4 weeks.

As always, this information is available in the sidebar harvest calendar over there on the right all month. The information comes from a guide published by the CENYC, which runs the Greenmarket & New Farmer Development Project. Of course, the best way to familiarize yourself with what's in season where you live is to visit farmer's markets in your area at least every couple of weeks. I truly learn the most of all from the farmers themselves. So ask questions at the market – it’s the best way to find out which crops are not only available, but at their peak. To locate markets near you in the US, check the Zip or City Quick Search at Local Harvest.

Happy autumn, and happy November!

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