Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Robiola Crostini with Pine Nuts, Honey & Sea Salt

Spring is here in New York. Well allegedly. The sun is a little higher and the crocuses are out, though the wind off the Hudson still verges on arctic at times. There are always a couple of weeks at the end of winter where the world feels uncertain, faltering, reluctant. Not quite sure it can rev itself up again for the big push.

Possibly I’m projecting.

At any rate, ready or not, come spring must, and when it does, it will be inevitably glorious. But every year there is a lesson I have to learn anew. Just when spring fever finally takes hold, and just when cold weather lovers like me start to yearn in earnest for the warmth and ease they didn’t know they missed, horror will strike. Though we are suddenly, urgently hungry for them, new crops will be nowhere to be found. For an age.

Spring has to get underway before crops can start to grow out in the field, and it takes a good while of course for any crop to be ready for harvest. When eager forays to the farmer’s market begin to feel like a waiting game, it’s best for our poor, snowed-under morales if we can look beneath the surface for signs of hope. Small changes will be in evidence, I promise.

Take milk. As soon as there is even a scattering of green shoots for livestock to graze on, their milk starts to taste floral, sweeter, greener. You will actually notice a darker cream line if you’re lucky enough to buy your spring milk unhomogenized. It’ll be a little longer before we’ll start to taste the difference in cheeses, but they’ll be sweeter, grassier, and more herbal too.

The younger cheeses of northern Italy make a magnificent celebration of spring. There’s the late May/early June pecorino dolce in Tuscany, the Friulian formaggi di malga or mountain cheeses, and the softer, taleggio-type cheeses of Lombardy – all much loved ways to mark the return of growing season.

This dish is a mainstay at my house – one it's good to have on hand as soon as the early season cheeses hit the market. It’s traditionally prepared with robiola lombardia, which is aged in caves in the Valsassina. The full, nutty, fruit-tinged cheese is served in the traditional way – on crostini with a drizzle of honey, sharp, brightly-flavored sea salt, and a scattering of richly-toasted pignoli. There is truly no recipe necessary.

Beth Bischoff, a photographer friend of mine whom I’ve worked with for years, took the top picture at a dinner party I gave in my roof garden, back when I had a roof garden. Which was a long time ago, so you can tell this has been a spring favorite of mine for quite a while.

So long winter.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Gâteau Basque with Cherry Eau de Vie

I have a neighbor here in New York who spends half of every year living in a small village near Tours in France. I dread her going each year. (That’s a rarity by the way. New Yorkers are not known for being friends with their neighbors, even though, or perhaps because, we live in such close quarters with one other). Plus there’s the categorical envy we all suffer as she jets off each spring and we gird ourselves for another withering summer in the city.

But our friend eases the pain as best she can. First there are the care packages, little boxes that arrive now and then while she’s gone with some deliciously scented bars of olive oil soap from the market near her home, a tin of foie gras pâté with some fig confitures and a small sack of fleur de sel, and once a miniature set of antique silver teaspoons from the brocante.

Second are the preserved treasures from her kitchen garden she ships back when she returns. There are jams, and tomato sauces, and most prized of all, the eau de vie she makes each year. In France, producing your own eaux de vie as the fruit crops come in is still quite common. Supermarkets there sell the bottles of Alcool pour Fruits during harvest season. It’s worlds apart – tastier and less harsh than the grain alcohol we buy in the States.

My friend has a white cherry tree, and when the fruit ripens, she makes massive batches of confitures, plenty of clafoutis, and eau de vie de cerise. She puts the carefully rinsed and picked over cherries straight into the bottle unpitted, sets the bottle in a dark, cool place turning it every day for a month, and then leaves it to sit for 5 more months. Then she flavors the eau de vie with a scant amount of granulated sugar, allows it to dissolve for a few days, and ships the rosy liqueur back to New York to see us all through the long, hard winter. Her cherry eau de vie is miraculous – mellow and musky, barely sweet, and heady with the scent of summer and freshly cracked almonds, a perfume that comes from the cherry pits themselves. We sip it at the end of special dinners of course, but every now and then my friend gifts me a generous dram for baking Gâteau Basque.

Gâteau Basque is a much beloved and, needless to say, hotly debated pastry from the French side of the Basque country. There are as many variations as there are cooks, but the basic idea is that two layers of pastry, the texture of which I think should ideally fall somewhere between cake and chewy cookie, encase a filling – sometimes a pastry cream, but far more interestingly, black cherry preserves. The cherry-filled version comes from Labourd (Lapurdi in Basque), where the black cherries are sweet, meaty, and impossibly fragrant. Traditionally whole cherries preserved in syrup would be used, similar to a Greek cherry spoon sweet, but by March our store from last summer is long gone, and so I use black cherry jam instead.

Perhaps my favorite thing about Gâteau Basque, other than eating it of course, is that you can traditionally tell which filling the chef has chosen by the decoration on the top of the tart. A Basque cross, sort of two “s” shapes laid over one another, indicates that black cherries lie within. You can see a clear drawing of a Basque cross here. A crosshatch pattern indicates a pastry cream filled version, or alternately that the cook has not left enough dough to make a Basque cross, ahem.

Kirsch works well if you haven’t any homemade cherry eau de vie lying about. Both combine with the exotic perfume of orange flower water to bring out a heady freshness in the cherries. There is another version I like where a drop of pastis is added to the pastry dough. It makes for a more complex flavor profile, but anise has always worked well with both cherry and orange in my book. I’ve provided provisions for both versions below.

Makes one 9 inch tart (8 servings) or 4 individual tarts

4 oz (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature, plus extra for the tart pan
1 cup demerara sugar (or ½ cup granulated sugar and ½ cup light brown sugar)
pinch of kosher salt
2 egg yolks
1 tbsp plus 1 tsp cherry eau de vie or kirsch (or substitute one tsp with an equal amount of pastis)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp orange flower water
seeds of one vanilla bean
1 ½ cups of all-purpose flour, plus extra for the tart pan
1/3 cup ground almond flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 cup black cherry jam or an equal amount of pastry cream
1 egg
splash of milk

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, blend together the butter, sugar, and salt. Add the egg yolks one at a time, blending thoroughly after each addition. Add the cherry eau de vie, vanilla extract, orange flower water, and vanilla seeds and blend again. Add the flour, almond flour and baking powder. Mix on low speed until just combined into a firm dough. Form the dough into 2 flat disks, cover in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for an hour or up to 2 days.

Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 Celsius, Gas Mark 4).

Butter and flour a 9 inch (23 cm) round tart pan or 4 4½ inch (11.5 cm) individual round tart pans. Roll or press out one of the disks into approximately a 10 inch (25 ½ cm) circle or 4 5½ inch (14cm) circles. I find it helps to do this on a sheet of plastic wrap as the dough falls apart quite easily. Transfer the dough to the tart pan and press in to the sides, removing any excess dough – any tears or holes are easily patched. Fill the tart or tarts with the black cherry jam or pastry cream.

If you wish to make a Basque cross for your tart or tarts, remove a piece of dough from the second disk, then roll the remainder out into a 9 inch (23cm) circle or 4 4½ inch (11.5 cm) circles, using plastic wrap as a base if you prefer. Transfer to the tarts and pinch the sides of the base and top to seal, removing any excess dough. Use a sharp knife to score a crosshatch pattern on the surface of the tart or take your extra dough and shape a Basque cross for the top. This is best achieved by dividing the dough into two pieces, rolling each into a long thin snake, and then creating an “s” shape before rolling or spiraling the ends back in on themselves and pressing down to smooth to create the signature thickened ends of the cross (see photo below).

Briefly whisk together the egg with a splash of milk and brush over the surface. Place your tart on a baking sheet and into the middle of the oven and bake until golden brown (30 -35 minutes for the individual tarts and 40 – 45 minutes for the 9-inch version). Remove from the oven and cool on a rack before removing the tarts from their shells.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

If you would like to help

To contribute to the earthquake and tsunami relief efforts in Japan:

The Red Cross or text REDCROSS to 90999 to donate $10 from your phone.

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières

Save the Children's Emergency Relief Fund

The Salvation Army or text 'JAPAN' or 'QUAKE' to 80888 to make a $10 donation.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Tarte aux Oignons – Caramelized Onion Tart with Black Olives

Peg Bracken, who penned guides on cooking, housekeeping, and etiquette in the 60s and 70s, advised quite firmly against ironing of any kind. She felt it led to a surplus of introspection. In that same vein I would counsel entirely against slicing onions by hand at the end of winter. An old onion is what’s known as a “cryer”, and by the beginning of March, they’re all getting rather vicious.

It’s been 4 months after all, since the end of the onion field harvest. Now that’s not to say I’m suggesting you wait until they’re back in season in August to cook with onions. There are way too many important things to eat between now and then – this tart for example. But if you’re going to set out to make something that involves slicing four or five cold storage onions into half moons, particularly on a dreary day in March, then you might want to proceed with caution.

Let’s say, just for example, that you’re wrapping up the process of applying to New York City nursery schools. You’ve written your essays (I am not kidding) and procured references from your most plausible friends and fumbled through parent interviews that opened with a question about your parenting philosophy (What? My what?). And suppose that all your ducks finally seem to be neatly in a row, and that you’ve made it to the final step, which is your child’s “playdate” or “observation.”

Now let’s just say that your impeccably bathed and dressed 2 year old chooses this exceptionally delicate moment to completely and utterly lose her mind. She steals toys and hurls blocks and pronounces the word “no” in increasingly shrill tones. "Mom!" she calls over her shoulder at one point, brandishing a wooden spatula, "I hit that boy with this spoon!" And just when you think that all your darkest fears have been realized, and that it can’t possibly get any worse, your child marches up to the director of admissions, who is perched in a toddler-sized school chair, and with remarkable force and accuracy, gives her a kick in the shins.

“Hey lady!” she screams, “Don’t talk!”

Hours later your 2 year old has long forgotten her transgressions and the ensuing chaos and admonishments. You on the other hand are still having exactly the sort of day where, upon finding yourself faced with a bowl full of late season onions, you should reach for the food processor.

“Why are you crying Mommy?”

“Oh, I’m just happy honey,” you beam out over your chopping board of hand-slivered onions.

So, so happy.

Sure it’s probably just old onions. You don't cry about nursery schools. You know how to butcher half a cow. But life is full of blurred lines and gray areas too.

Do you know anything about applying to nursery schools in Manhattan? It’s another story for another blog, but suffice to say that when one of you turned to the other and said “Let’s have a baby,” applying to nursery schools in Manhattan was precisely the opposite of what you meant. And when they first handed you this baby, you did not, could not even conceive of the way in which she might hit her “terrible twos” with all the subtlety of a 30-pound wrecking ball. Or synchronize her “hitting phase” (read: “relentless, socially-isolating thirst for blood”) so flawlessly with nursery school interview month.

Fortunately friends come over. To cringe. To laugh. To compare tales of public humiliation. And friends have to be fed. You don’t have the wherewithal for actual cooking, of course, but this is scarcely a recipe. It’s like the less refined, rustic cousin of the classic Alsatian onion tart that uses pâte brisée and a custard filling. Tarte aux oignons is scrappy and crave-able and fragrant, rather like your two year old.

There’s hardly a bit of work involved, especially if you take my advice and let the thinnest slicing blade on your food processor do the labor. In fact it’s your job to leave the onions alone as they cook. That’s the only way they’ll caramelize and build up all the jammy savor that makes this tart so perfect for late winter. I’ve added some black oil cured olives, much like a Provençal pissaladière, though I’ve skipped the anchovies. I find the olives add an earthy salinity that enhances the sweet, floral flavor of caramelized onions deglazed in wine. The white wine is the trick here – it adds an extra depth that sets this apart from other onion tarts.

This is just as good cold as it is warm, and cut into small wedges it makes a wonderful accompaniment to apéritifs. If you want your tarte aux oignons to be the main event though, all you really need with it is a little green salad vinaigrette (I like mâche this time of year) and a glass of whatever you have open. Which frankly ought to be plenty if you’re even contemplating applying to nursery schools. If you require more sustenance, tapenade makes an ideal accompaniment, as do some thinly sliced rounds of sauçisson sec.

Serves 4 – 6

Extra virgin olive oil
4 – 5 large yellow onions, peeled and sliced into thin half moons
1 clove of garlic, peeled and minced,
6 stems thyme
large pinch minced rosemary
1 glass dry white wine
kosher salt
black pepper
flour for dusting
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 egg
splash of milk
small handful oil-cured black olives

Preheat the oven to 425 F (220 C, gas mark 7).

Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Give it a generous glug of olive oil and then add your onions. Do not stir. Do not add any salt. You want these onions to caramelize. Check them often so they don’t burn, and when you see some color beginning to form, give them a good stir and allow to sit still until color forms again. Refresh the oil if the pan gets dry. Make sure the fond in the bottom of the pan doesn’t burn and continue until the onions are golden brown (see photo below).

Add the garlic, the leaves from 4 stems of thyme, the minced rosemary, and stir again. Allow to cook until quite dark and then remove from the heat. Add the glass of wine and season generously with salt and pepper. Return to medium-high heat and allow to bubble, scraping the bottom of the pan to lift up the fond, until the wine has evaporated.

Meanwhile flour a work surface and roll out your puff pastry. Trim to a rectangle of about 10 x 16 inches (about 25 x 40 cm). Line a baking sheet with parchment and then arrange your pastry sheet over the paper. With the tip of a sharp knife, lightly score an inch-wide border around the outer edge of your pastry – this helps the crust to rise. Prick the inner rectangle all over with a fork.

When the wine has evaporated and the onions are dark brown, check the seasoning with more salt and pepper if necessary, and arrange them on the center of the pastry (see photo below), and then sprinkle over the olives.

Whisk together the egg and the milk and brush over the outer border of the pastry. Place the tart in the center of the oven and immediately reduce the heat to 375 F (190 C, gas mark 5). Bake until the crust is puffed and golden (30 – 45 minutes). If your crust gets too dark before 30 minutes has passed, you may tent the tart loosely with tinfoil while it finishes baking. Remove the tart from the oven and allow to sit uncovered for 10 minutes before serving. Just before serving sprinkle over the leaves of one or two more stems of thyme.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The March Harvest Calendar

Now let's not get ahead of ourselves.

It isn't spring. Let's just take that off the table from the outset. Positively nothing has changed since February, I assure you.

Only suddenly there seems to be a lot more color.

From the greenhouses.

From cold storage.

Maybe I just didn't see it before.

Or maybe it's all the rain.

But it definitely isn’t spring. For one thing the crops are still decidedly late winter. Shell beans, cabbage, carrots, onions, parsnips, potatoes, and apples make up the last remnants of the field harvest. Even decent pears are pretty thin on the ground at this point. There is absolutely nothing new to eat. And it's still cold. Until I saw those tulips, we were half-heartedly tossing around the idea of a second cassoulet party.

I love the winter. I can even cozy up to the monotony of the food this late in the season. But how can you not prick up your ears at a sight like this?

As always, crop 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. To locate markets near you in the US, check the Zip or City Quick Search at Local Harvest.

Happy winter and happy March!

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