25 September 2011

Overworking, with a salad

Well, crap.

Someday, perhaps, my life will be my own again, and I'll be able to do what I want, when I want (at least from time to time). I've finally resorted to the Pomodoro Technique at work, and I've seriously considered bringing it home with me. I'm not quite Type A enough to handle that kind of structure.

That being said, there is an end in sight. Work will may return to some level of normalcy come mid-October, and several other things will be wrapping up before Christmas.

In the meantime, believe it or not, I have been cooking. Not much has been blog-worthy, though. I've got a pudding cake recipe that is about 3 tweaks away from perfect; a chewy whole-wheat chocolate chip cookie that, I hope, I will be perfecting this weekend; and several ideas for tarts and cakes that I haven't even begun to properly plan. For dinners we've eaten scads of pasta (tomato sauce made from our crop has been the high point of the past several weeks), the occasional salad, and anything we could think of to eat with salsa.

This is the time of year when I get confused with the food that's on offer. Late summer produce is still everywhere—tomatoes, corn, grapes, peaches—but we're also getting the first fennel and kohlrabi, the prune plums have already disappeared, and local apples arrived just this week. I'm thrilled with all the options, but it's easy to be overwhelmed. Do I embrace the cool, cloudy evenings and use the foods I've not seen for nine months? Do I ignore those and instead just gorge myself on summer favorites, hoping to help me get through the winter?

Not that it's ever worked—I'll be half-dreaming of tomatoes from the day they turn mealy and sickly pink until they return to some level of quality sometime next spring—but that's been my plan so far. We've still got another dozen or so tomatoes ripening on the patio, so as long as the evil mouse-rat that's already stolen at least 5 pounds doesn't get any more of them, I'll be continuing for a little while longer.

Every season, I find some item that I gorge myself on no matter what the price, and when it's gone, I swear that I'm going to eat even more next year. Just as invariably, when that season comes again, I get distracted by something else. Last summer, it was fresh black-eyed peas. This year, it's been corn, and black-eyed peas are but a distant memory (I ate them once, but it was a lackluster dish that we won't discuss). I've always loved corn, and summers spent at my grandparents house in Oregon always included many dinners of corn on the cob, unnecessarily but deliciously coated in butter and salt. Corn is never as good as it is fresh from the garden—like peas, its sugars start converting to starch the minute it's picked. However, even after a few days in the fridge, the right seasonings and a few minutes in a hot skillet will make a meal that I'd never complain about.


Corn-Feta Salad with Tomatoes
Also like peas, corn freezes extraordinarily well. In the spring, this salad would probably be great with Persian cucumbers instead of tomatoes and some fresh-frozen corn (put it in a very hot skillet without thawing, in a single layer to avoid steaming).

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
½ sweet onion, thinly sliced
3 ears sweet corn, cut off the cob (2 to 2½ cups kernels)
1 large fresh tomato
2 ounces feta cheese
pinch dried oregano
salt & pepper
salad greens (optional)

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add one tablespoon of the olive oil and the sliced onion; sprinkle with salt and cook, stirring well, until tender and beginning to brown, 5-7 minutes. Increase the heat to high and add the corn, mixing well and spreading across the skillet. Cook 2-3 minutes, stirring a few times, until tender; if your pan is hot enough, you'll get some nice caramelized bits on the corn.

Remove from the heat and transfer to a shallow bowl; set aside to cool to barely warm or room temperature.

Chop the tomato and add it to the mixture; crumble the feta over. Add the oregano, some pepper, and the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and gently stir to combine. Adjust seasoning to your taste—depending on your feta, you may or may not need more salt.

Serve over a bed of greens, with crusty bread or crostini (or, for that matter, <i>on</i> crostini as bruschetta).

Serves 3 as a main dish, 4-6 as a side, and I-have-no-idea-how-many as a bruschetta appetizer (8-10, maybe?)

06 September 2011


I like to imagine that someday, somewhere, I will have enough land to have a proper garden. Rows of tomatoes, long beanpoles, cucumbers big and small grown for various pickles, a fruit tree or two. Until then, I just have to satisfy myself with my little starter garden on our patio. Every year we try a something new in the spring—it was sweet, oblong French breakfast radishes this year—and spend the summer coaxing as many peppers and tomatoes as we can out of our various containers and small strips of earth.

Yesterday, I decided to pick the tomatoes that were ripe.

a good haul

I don't think we're doing so badly for an apartment patio.

Perhaps unfortunately, I haven't been doing much of particular interest with the tomatoes. We've eaten at least a half dozen dinners of panzanella; some sandwiches with mayo, tomato, and sharp cheddar cheese; and today we had pasta with the simplest tomato sauce: fresh blanched tomatoes, onion and garlic, olive oil, salt, herbs, and a touch of butter at the end. My favorites may have been the specimens that were sliced and eaten plain, still warm from the sun.

They may only be around, in all their end-of-summer glory, for another month or so, but I'm actually not here to talk about tomatoes. I'm here to talk about a meal that it took me several weeks, no few tears, and a burn scar on my arm to perfect. I'm here to talk about cheese gone bubbly and golden-brown in the oven. I'm here to talk about a mushroom and fontina tart.

golden cheese is never a bad thing

Cheese and mushrooms, I'll venture, aren't ever likely to be a bad pair. Years ago, when I was still living in Morocco, I was paging through a borrowed vegetarian cookbook when I saw a recipe for polenta, baked with fontina and topped with mushrooms. In later years, I developed a slight obsession with savory tarts. Chard, beets, tomatoes ... you name it, I'll probably be happy to stick it in a buttery crust.

The first time I made this tart, I planned it days in advance. I read recipes and made notes and made a special trip to the store to get some fontina; I bought mushrooms and scrubbed my kitchen clean.

I should have known early that it wasn't going to work out. As I sliced onions and hummed along to Motown classics, suddenly it came to me: I never made the crust! I abandoned my vegetables, cranked up the oven, and feverishly put together the food processor, shaped my crust, and tossed it in the freezer, and by the time it was ready to go into the oven to blind-bake, it was nearly nine.

Never one to quit, I kept working. My mushrooms were prepped and custard mixed when the par-baked crust came out; the whole thing wasn't out of the oven more than 2 minutes before I popped it back in with its fillings. Then I waited.

And waited. The house was filled with delicious smells and both of us were practically drooling when the timer finally beeped. Perhaps I was starting to bonk and my hands were shaking; perhaps I was just tired, getting ready for dinner at 10 pm. As I took the bubbling, golden tart from the oven, something possessed me to unmold it immediately and without a spatula. As the metal tart ring inevitably slipped and wrapped around my forearm like a bracelet, I yelled, jerked ... and the entire tart fell, face down of course, onto the floor.

I'm not ashamed to admit it. I sat down, surrounded by tart-maggedon, and I cried for a few minutes. Afterward, I got up, iced my arm, helped Mike clean up the mess, and made ramen for dinner.

Tarts were on probation in my house for a few weeks after that. Eventually, though, I was ready to give it another whack, and I'm glad that I did.

mushroom-fontina tart

As long as you don't wait until 8:30 to start dinner, this tart is totally worth your time. The ingredients may be difficult to find (or a bit expensive) in some places, but they're used in small enough amounts that it's not a wallet-buster. The first time I made it, I used a crumbly tart crust enriched with an egg yolk, but the second time I chose to use an all-butter flaky pastry dough, which was quicker, easier, and better suited to the filling. When making an all-butter crust, I use a method similar to the one on Chez Pim—I use more water and don't roll it nearly as much. While it's blind-baking, the onions and mushrooms have ample time to cook, and while the composed tart is then baking, there's ample time to make a salad—in my case, an incongruous but delicious warm corn salad. Just make sure you unmold it carefully when it's done.

mushroom tart

Mushroom and Fontina Tart
You might notice that my pictures look a little bit light on mushrooms; that's because I'm much worse at meal planning (and the shopping that goes along with it) than I would have you believe, and I made the second tart with only about 4.5 ounces of mushrooms

For the pâte brisée:

1 ¼ cups unbleached flour
½ teaspoon salt
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, well chilled
¼ cup cold water, plus more if needed

For the tart:

½ onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 tablespoons butter, divided
6-8 ounces assorted mushrooms (I used a mixture of shiitake, maitake, and cremini)
2-3 sprigs fresh thyme, or ½ teaspoon dried
salt and pepper to taste
4 ounces fontina, grated
2 eggs
¾ cup milk, preferably whole
pinch salt

Preheat the oven to 375ºF.

To make the crust, mix together the flour and salt in a bowl or on a clean counter or chopping board. Cut the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles very coarse meal. Pour the cold water over the flour and mix until it just holds together; feel free to add more, a teaspoon or so at a time, if necessary. Form the dough into a flattened disk, wrap tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Roll out the dough to 11-12 inches in diameter and transfer to a 10 inch tart pan, gently pressing the crust into the edges; fold the crust under at the edges if it is thin in spots. Trim the edges, cover with foil, and weight with pie weights or some dry beans. Place the tart pan on a baking sheet and place in the oven for 15 minutes. Remove the weights and foil and return to the oven until just golden, 8-10 minutes more.

Meanwhile, set a large skillet over medium high heat with the olive oil and one tablespoon of the butter. Sauté the onion with a bit of salt until softened and just beginning to brown, 5-7 minutes; transfer to a medium bowl. Slice all the mushrooms and sauté in two additions, adding one tablespoon of the butter and seasoning with salt and pepper each time; when cooked, transfer to the bowl with the onion. Add the thyme, stir well, and set aside.

Beat the eggs together with the milk and salt; stir in the cheese, leaving a bit out. Spread the mushroom mixture evenly over the tart crust, then carefully pour the custard-cheese mixture over. Sprinkle the reserved cheese over the top.

Return the tart to the oven and bake 45-60 minutes, until golden brown all over and bubbling; if you prod a toothpick in near the middle you will see that the custard has set. Let cool 5-10 minutes before unmolding and serving. Serve hot or warm.

Serves 6 to 8

03 September 2011

Seven links

I wasn't the kid who responded to chain letters, but I can't resist a meme, and this one gives me the opportunity to look back at the past 14 or so months of blogging. Sometimes it's easy to get bogged down in day-to-day life, cooking the same meals, scrabbling for blog ideas, and forgetting to think about ideas and recipes from even a few months past. At least a dozen times this summer I've gone to my recipes page, only to see something like stuffed squash or apple caramels and rack my brain to remember when I last made or even thought about a dish.

Reflection, it turns out, has some value. Although tomatoes and corn and plums are reminding me that there's still a little bit of summer left, the beginning of school and chilly evenings are already turning my mind to braises and wintery spices, to squash and applesauce. As I scrolled through earlier posts, I felt a little flutter in my chest that most women my age reserve for Johnny Depp. Black-eyed peas! Pomegranates! Stroganoff! I may have a few more summer posts left, but my unfaithful heart is already scheming fall recipes. Here are some of the things that I'm planning to share:

- Kale Soup
- Braised Pearl Onions (a.k.a. the best Thanksgiving side dish)
- Cheesy Roast Pumpkin "fondue"
- Chili-that-Texans-would-hate
- Bok Choy
- Onion-Stuffed Moroccan bread
- A trio of autumn cookies: Ginger-Orange, Pumpkin-Raisin, and Molasses Spice
- Eggnog Ice Cream
- and hopefully, Spiced Rum Cake with Custard

But first, I'm going to head down memory lane with seven special posts. Thanks to Nicole at the wonderful blog And Baby Cakes Three for inviting me to participate and forcing me to look back.

My most beautiful post:

I suppose it's cheating to choose either of my Alaska posts, but as much as I love food, I don't think it will ever live up to the beauty of my first home. For food, I think some of my prettiest pictures have been on some of my barest posts—I flipped through dozens of posts, and my favorites all had one or two photos each. I finally settled on my Fresh Black-Eyed Peas with Swiss Chard; not only are they fantastic to eat, but I love both of the photos.

fresh black-eyed peas with swiss chard and bacon

My most popular post:

This also kind of qualified as my most surprising post. Half a Cabbage and a Cake was written near the end of two weeks vacation; I was feeling lazy and relaxed, and I had whipped up a simple little cornmeal cake to celebrate the New Year (and the end of my pumpkin pie). While I make plenty of more complicated meals, this is the kind of food I love: simple, rustic, and flavorful.

lemon and blueberry cornmeal cake

My most controversial post:

Umm... I don't think anything that I write about is controversial—at least, I can't imagine someone who gets riled up about chocolate spends much time reading food blogs. I suppose for lack of anything else, I will choose this post about souped up ramen (pun totally intended), simply because lots of foodies have no place in their heart for packaged ramen. I make no apologies.

My most helpful post:

I don't think that very many recipes I post on here are outrageously complicated, but perhaps the most helpful post is the one for Cheese and Onion Enchiladas. The process of making a more traditional enchilada isn't familiar to most people I've met, but they're not difficult, just time consuming. In addition, eating enchiladas with a big pile of cold, crunchy vegetables is foreign to almost everyone I know, and it can make a believer out of an enchilada hater.

cheese and onions

it ain't pretty ... but it's good

A post that surprised me with its success:

Once I discount the Blueberry-Lemon Cornmeal Cake above, this one's easy: Aloo Simla Mirch. Curried potatoes and bell peppers, made with a simple homemade masala, is one of my favorite Indian dishes when bell peppers are at their best (and one that I will probably be making again this week). However, in my experience most people are more interested in getting Indian food at restaurants than making it at home—perhaps due to the initial outlay to buy spices that Western-centric cooks often don't have—I credit Liana at Pie and Beer, who linked back to it shortly after I posted it.

curried potatoes and peppers

A post I feel didn’t get the attention it deserved:

I had a hard time with this one—since my life crashed down around my ears and my posts became so infrequent this summer, I can't really blame anyone but myself for some of the posts that haven't gotten much attention. The internet wave just keeps on rolling no matter what is going on in real life. However, I think it's a real shame that more people didn't get a chance to check out this simple Pea Purée. Not only is it easy to make and delicious—I recently discovered that it's fantastic thinned with a little bit of water and tossed with pasta—but it also embraces the inherent starchiness of peas that haven't just been rushed in from the garden.

green pea purée

The post that I am most proud of:

The posts that I tend to be most proud of are the ones where I have the much longed-for combination of good recipe, photos, writing, and story. While I often have three of those four (sometimes I may be more terse and not have a story at all; more often, my pictures are altogether lacking), putting all four together is always an accomplishment. What could be more simple than oatmeal cookies? Without raisins, chocolate, or some other accompaniment, the recipe has to be spot-on. My Perfectly Simple Oatmeal Cookies are chewy and flavorful; the pictures, monochromatic though they may necessarily be, are better composed than most; and the story reminds me fondly of family and friends.

perfect oatmeal cookies

Wow. I think I'm exhausted. I'm going to cheat and not tag specific people for this. How about this: if you are interested in joining in here, send a message and let me know.

I'm off for the day, but that promised mushroom tart will be making an appearance before the end of the weekend—with (wonder of wonders) a dessert! I haven't had a dessert on here in ages, it seems, but that will change soon.