Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Shameless Bragging


Okay, are you ready for awesomeness?  Good, because nothing epitomizes awesome quite like a BLT.  Especially a BLT in the middle of summer.  And especially, my BLT.  Now I’m going to try and sound as humble as possible about all this, but really, there’s no way to say this without coming across as totally bragging:  I make the best BLT’s in the whole entire world.  

Bing Cherries
BLT’s with Avocado
Corn Chowder
Raspberry-Almond Crumb Bars

This is something I’ve believed for a long time.  And every time I make this stupendous sandwich, I never fail to proclaim this very sentiment, always with a full mouth, between unbelievably delicious bites.  Of course, I do this only when it’s just me and Ben.  (For some reason, I’m a bit more comfortable bragging over the internet, rather than face to face.)  And anyways, if someone else is with us, I just wait for them to say it.  And I never have to wait very long.  I think you think I’m exaggerating, but I’m being totally serious!  It happens without fail.  Just ask Josh and Dana, our dinner guests for the evening, who both, without any prompting or nudging from me, declared it the best BLT they’d ever had. 

The only way I feel okay about such flagrant boasting, is because now I’m going to fill you in on all my BLT secrets, so that now, all of you can, at the very least, tie with me for the Best BLT in the World award.  I’ll share my imaginary trophy gladly! 

BLT Beauty

So, here is my complete list, all the tricks of the BLT-making trade:

1.  Use sourdough bread.  Try it once and you’ll realize what a difference that little extra tang of yeasty flavor makes.  But don’t use those crusty, freshly-baked sourdoughs.  Go with the soft and tender Pepperidge Farm sourdough.  (I know this is an unusually specific request, but you’ll find it’s worth it.)  All too many high-end restaurants fall into the trap of using fancy, artisan bread.  Trust me, this is a big mistake.  And a painful one too, literally, because once it’s toasted, this kind of bread just rips apart the roof of your mouth.  (That’s by far my number one worst pet peeve of lesser-made BLT’s.) 

2. To further prevent against needless rooftop abuse, toast your bread on one side only.  And butter it first too – Brush the tops of both bread slices with melted butter, then slide them under the oven broiler until they’re perfectly golden brown.  

3. Spread mayonnaise on both slices too.  Not only is it delicious, but this oil-based spread prevents the tomato juice from making the toast too soggy.

4. After the mayonnaise, the first layer should be the lettuce.  And go with Bibb lettuce, the hydroponic kind you find in the plastic containers.  It’s just the right blend of crisp and leafy. 

5. Bacon goes next, on top of the lettuce.  Add plenty of it– at least a quarter pound per sandwich.  Be sure to use thin-sliced bacon.  Again, don’t be tempted by the fancy stuff, all thickly cut and smoked over apple wood or hickory or whatever.  Basic is best here, and thin slices makes for much easier bites. 

6. Thick slices of tomato go on top of the bacon.  And use only the best, most ripe, juicy, summer tomatoes available.  This sandwich lives or dies by the tomato. 

7. Add avocado.  Don’t question it.  Just try it.  You’ll never make a BLT again without it.

8. Don’t forget the salt.  Sprinkle a pinch of the kosher stuff, first over the tomatoes, and then again over the avocado.  A little detail, but what a huge difference it makes.

9. Last but not least, serve these guys right away, as fast as you can assemble them.  The longer the toasted bread sits, the tougher it gets, and the roof of your mouth will definitely pay. 


And that’s about it.  None of those tricks are complicated.  And not a single one is all that extraordinary.  But follow them all, down to the letter, and I guarantee you’ll produce a BLT of such shocking magnificence, you won’t know what to do with yourself. 

Gorgeous CherriesA Simple Hors D'OeuvreBing!

I could go on about BLT’s all day, but I should at least give a nod to those beautiful Bing cherries, a delicious, in-a-pinch summertime hors d’oeuvre.  And the lemonade too, my fondest county fair memory from when I was a kid, and an easy recipe – just lemons, sugar, water and ice – for a refreshing dose of nostalgia. 


I’m beginning to fear I’ve applauded my BLT’s a little too thoroughly.  And not that they don’t deserve it!  It’s just that, after extolling such praise on the sandwich, I’m now in a tough spot as I try to describe the soup.  If I start to eulogize again, I risk sounding insincere.  But if I don’t give this delicious corn soup it’s due admiration, I risk you never trying it out for yourself.  And that to me sounds like the worst case scenario.  Simply said, you’ve got to try this soup!

Corn Chowder

My friend Ed made this corn soup for me years ago.  I loved it from the very first bite, and he was nice enough to fill me in on his own tricks of the trade, which I’ve now made my own.  These included a touch of turmeric, for enhancing the golden hue while adding minimally to the flavor, and a good grating of extra-sharp white cheddar, for enhancing flavor to the max.  Along with these special ingredients – tender kernels of sunny yellow corn, flecks of smoky bacon, sweet specks of sautéed onion, baby potatoes with smooth pink skins, rich and lovely chicken stock, a pat of butter and swirl of cream.  I tell you honestly, this is my favorite soup.  And it’s my favorite accompaniment for BLT’s too.  When it comes to soup ‘n sammies, these two are a match made in heaven.


Now, onto dessert...  If you level your eyes along the tops of the cookbooks lining my shelves, you’ll notice a dozens and dozens of tiny, multicolored (and randomly so) strips and rips of paper, peeking out here and there, holding the spots where old-favorite and must-try recipes are hidden amidst the countless pages.  One such little strip, a bright pink one, and just towards the front of Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook, marks the spot for these Raspberry-Almond Crumb Bars.  I’ve been wanting to make these for ages, ever since receiving the cookbook a Christmas or two ago.  I don’t know what ever stood in the way, but after months and months, this patient pink paper finally enacted it’s humble duty, and led me to a perfect choice for dessert.  These pretty bars were delicious.  Oh so rich and buttery with a sweet streak of bright jam right in the middle.  But the texture was the best part, a sticky-chewy jam center yielding to crisp and tender shortbread crumb.  It’s a shame I waited so long to try out this recipe.  But now that I have, I can tell you for sure, that mini pink bookmark isn’t going anywhere.  It now officially marks an old favorite.  

Raspberry Jam with Crumbled Crumb Topping

Makes 6 cups
 Squeezing Lemons
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup plus 3 cups water, cold
1 cup lemon juice (from 5-6 lemons)
1 lemon, sliced for garnish
ice cubes
First make a simple syrup:  In a small sauce pot, combine the sugar with 1 cup water.  Stirring occasionally, bring to a simmer over medium heat.  Remove from the heat and allow to cool.  Refrigerate until read to use. 
Combine the cooled simple syrup with the remaining 3 cups of cold water and the lemon juice, and thoroughly mix.  Pour into lemon-garnished glasses filled with ice cubes.
BLT’s with Avocado
Makes 4 sandwiches
Oh man!
1 # bacon
8 slices soft sourdough bread (Use this brand)
1/2 stick butter, melted
about 1/4 cup mayonnaise
8 crisp leaves of Bibb lettuce
2 medium-sized ripe tomatoes, thickly sliced
1 large ripe avocado, peeled cored and sliced
flaky sea salt, to taste
First cook the bacon: When cooking this much, I like to bake it in the oven rather than pan frying it.  Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Position a cooling rack over a baking sheet, then arrange the bacon in a single layer over the rack.  You may actually need two racks and two baking sheets to fit all the bacon.  Bake until just crispy (but not too crispy), about 25-30 minutes.  Remove from the oven, and lifting the bacon with tongs, arrange it on a bed of paper towels, to soak up some of the grease.
Then toast the bread:  Preheat the oven broiler.  Arrange the eight slices of bread over another baking sheet.  Evenly brush the tops of each with the melted butter, then sprinkle lightly with the sea salt.  Broil until perfectly golden brown. 
Now, assemble the sandwiches:  Working quickly (because the more time that passes, the harder the bread becomes), flip the bread slices over.  Spread mayonnaise evenly over un-toasted sides of each slice of bread.  Now working with just four slices, arrange two leaves of lettuce over each slice.  On top of the lettuce goes the bacon, a quarter of the total for each sandwich.  Top the bacon with 1-2 slices of tomato.  Sprinkle the tomato with salt, then top generously with the sliced avocado.  Again season with salt, then top with the remaining slice of bread, toasted side up.  Serve immediately.
Corn and Bacon Chowder
Serves  6
2 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
3 Tbl butter
6 oz bacon, chopped
2 large yellow onions, finely chopped
1/4 tsp ground turmeric
1/4 cup plus 1 Tbl all-purpose flour
1 # small red baby potatoes, cut into quarters or eighths
1 1/2 # frozen corn kernels
6 oz sharp white cheddar cheese, grated
1 cup cream
kosher salt & lots of freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Combine the butter, olive oil and bacon in a large saucepot, and place over medium heat.  Cook, stirring frequently, until the bacon is just crispy, about 7-10 minutes.  Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon, and reserve in a small bowl. 
Add the chopped onions to butter/oil/bacon fat in the pan.  Season with a generous amount of salt and pepper, then sauté, stirring frequently until tender and translucent, about 10 minutes.  Stir in the turmeric, mixing well to combine thoroughly.  Then stir in the flour.  Cook for about three minutes, stirring frequently.  Slowly add the chicken broth , mixing as you pour.  Then add the sliced potatoes.  Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally.  Simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes, adjusting the heat as necessary to maintain just a gentle simmer. 
When the potatoes are tender, add the corn and the reserved bacon. Return the soup to a simmer, then add grated cheese and stir to combine.  Add the cream and and stir to combine.  Taste and season as needed with salt and pepper.  Serve hot.
Raspberry Almond Shortcake Bars
Makes 12 squares of roughly 3 x 3-inches
Raspberry-Almond Shortcake Bars
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temp, cut into pieces, plus more for buttering the pan
1 1/2 cups blanched (skinless) almonds, very finely ground in a food processor
2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup plus 1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups raspberry (or apricot or blackberry or strawberry or…) jam
Preheat the oven to 350°F and arrange a rack in the middle of the oven.  Generously butter at 9 x 13-inch baking pan. 
Whisk together the ground almonds, flour, sugar and salt in a large mixing bowl.  Using a pastry blender, cut in the butter, working until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.  Transfer half of the flour mixture to the prepared baking pan, and press it evenly over the bottom of the pan.  Bake until lightly golden, about 15 minutes, rotating the pan half-way through.  Transfer to a wire cooling rack and cool completely. 
Evenly spread the jam over the cooled crust.  Sprinkle the remaining crumb mixture over the jam filling, gently squeezing handfuls of the mixture, then crumbling it into coarse pieces, spreading the crumbs evenly over the jam. 
Bake until the topping just begins to turn lightly golden, about 20 minutes, rotating the pan half-way through.  Transfer to a wire cooling rack to cool completely.
Using a sharp knife, trim around the edges of the pan.  (The crusty edge is a good snack.)  Slice the inner rectangle in to twelve roughly 3 x 3-inch squares.  The raspberry bars can be kept in an air-tight container at room temperature for up to four days. 
Up Close Goodness

Thursday, August 26, 2010

All Too Easy

Fruit Platter

Today, I’ll be filling you in on the downright most simple meal ever to be heralded from the Scrumptious Company screen.  I know from time to time, I claim that this dinner or that recipe is relatively uncomplicated.  Relative to the big to-do’s I normally find myself in the midst of.   But this meal, I promise you, is nothing but easy.  And that’s an absolute, not relative to anything at all.  This meal, the last I’ll share with you from my time as a private chef down in North Carolina, is so darn easy, it’s nearly effortless. 

It’s not that I wandered down this easy street just for the sake of it.  (As most of you have probably figured out by now, easy is something I all too rarely do.)  But in the midst of a busy week, preparing meal after elaborate meal for a hungry family of fifteen, a simple supper every now and again is positively a must. And so, on this midweek afternoon, I found myself quickly throwing together this all too easy feast.

Green Goddess Chicken Salad
Simple Mixed Greens Salad
Corn on the Cob
Sliced Tomatoes
Crusty Bread
Lemon Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream & Sliced Peaches

The only dish that required any proper effort at all was the Green Goddess Chicken Salad (and I’ll get to that in a minute).  All the rest involved nothing more than a quick tossing of mixed greens, a brief toasting of hearty country bread, a speedy boiling of corn on the cob and a swift slicing of fruit and tomatoes.  This was all so simple, so rudimentary, so basic, I never even thought I’d end up sharing it with all of you. 

Simple Mixed Greens Salad

Boiling Corn on the Cob

It wasn’t until I saw the table all set for lunch, that I realized, this food was absolutely beautiful, regardless of what effort it did or didn’t take.  Toasty artisan bread from the nearby village bakery, corn and fruit and tomatoes, all at the height of their summer glory, and a perfect salad of tender greens.  How could it get any better than that?  And why would you ever need to try any harder, with all this so easily at your fingertips?  I knew right then, you all needed to see it!

Lunch Buffet

So now let me tell you a bit about that chicken salad.  I fortuitously stumbled upon this delightful recipe just minutes before heading to the airport, bound for the Carolinas.  A flattering mug shot of this photogenic dish was on the cover of one of my old Food & Wine’s.  This particular issue had, over the course of my haphazard filing and re-filing, somehow made it’s way to the top of one of the tall and rickety stacks of old cooking magazines that are somehow maintaining an upright balance on my office floor.  This beautiful cover with the colorful salad caught my eye and just struck me with it’s gorgeousness.  And so, even though I already had all my meals planned out by then, I stuffed this charmer of a magazine into my carry-on bag, with the thought that an extra recipe or two could never hurt. 

Fresh Herbs in the Food Processor

To say the least, I’m glad I made that last-minute grab.  This Green Goddess chicken salad was a real winner.  Strips of tender chicken (already cooked, rotisserie-style, to keep within the bounds of easy), thin shavings of crunchy, pale green celery, wide slices of smoky roasted red peppers, oblong hemispheres of briny kalamata olives, tiny rings of sliced chives, and a good handful of toothsome spiral-shaped noodles.  All of this cloaked in a creamy, green-tinted dressing of basil, dill, parsley, and oregano.  A hint of garlic, a squeeze of lemon, and just a touch of finely chopped anchovy, not so much that you’d ever even notice, just enough to give a little added depth of flavor.  This tremendous mix of flavors was sensational, and every last bite was quickly gobbled up.  More quickly than it even took to make! 

Oh yes, and then dessert.  You’re really going to laugh now.  If lunch was simple, dessert was a pure breeze.  I do confess that I didn’t even bake the cake.  This glazed lemon cake was a family favorite from the local pastry shop, loved my everyone, and nothing short a summer tradition.  All I did was scoop some vanilla ice cream and slice some peaches.  But, for the sake of my own traditions, I’d still like to leave you all with a recipe.  And so, I’m including below a really wonderful recipe for similar glazed lemon pound cake, one I’ve made on more than one occasion, and always to rave reviews.  Of course, the idea of turning on the oven does tend to ruin the easy-breezy mood of this post.  And I bet you all have a favorite sweet shop nearby too.  So, for today at least, I say go ahead and take the easy (dare I say, lazy) route.  Because we all deserve some delicious laziness every now and again. 

Green Goddess Chicken Salad
Serves 6
Green Goddess Chicken Salad
For the dressing:
2 oil-packed anchovies, drained
1 small garlic clove, peeled and roughly chopped
1/2 cup flat leaf parsley leaves, packed
1/4 cup basil leaves, packed
1/4 cup coarsely chopped dill
1 Tbl fresh oregano leaves
3/4 cup mayonnaise
2 1/2 Tbl fresh lemon juice
2 Tbl sliced chives
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, as needed
6 oz dried pasta, in a fun shape
2 large red bell peppers
1 2-pound rotisserie chicken
3 inner celery ribs with leaves, thinly sliced
1/2 cup kalamata olives, pitted and halved
Make the dressing: Combine the anchovies, garlic, parsley, basil, dill and oregano in the bowl of a food processor.  Process until finely chopped.  Add the mayonnaise and lemon juice, then process until smooth.  Fold in the chives, and season to taste with salt & pepper.
Cook the pasta: Bring a large pot of salted water to a rapid boil.  (Add enough salt so that the water tastes like the ocean.)  Add the pasta and stir.  Boil until just tender, stirring occasionally to keep the noodles from sticking to the bottom of the pot.  Drain in a colander and rinse under cool running water. Drain well and set aside.
Roast and slice the peppers: If you have a gas stove-top: Turn a burner onto high heat.  Place the peppers directly on the grate over the flame.  Keep an eye on the peppers, turning pretty frequently, until the skin is evenly charred all around.  Place the peppers in a container and cover with a lid or plastic wrap.  Allow them to set for about 15 minutes.  [If you don’t have a gas stove-top: Preheat the oven to 500°F.  Place the peppers on a parchment-lined baking sheet and roast, turning every 5-7 minutes, until the skin is loose and blistery.  Remove from the oven and place the peppers in a container. Cover with a lid or with plastic wrap. Allow them to set for about 15 minutes.]  Remove the peppers from the container.  Slice each pepper in half, length-wise, and then into quarters, lengthwise again.  Remove the stems, seeds, and any tough, pithy membranes inside.  Using a knife, scrape off the charred skin from the outside of the peppers.  Slice the peppers into 1/2-inch slices. [Of course, to keep things even easier, you could always buy a jar of roasted red peppers.  No problem with that!]
Pull the chicken: Remove and discard the skin.  Pull the chicken meat from the bones and discard the bones.  Pull the meat into large bit-sized pieces.
Assemble the salad: Combine the pasta, peppers, chicken, celery and olives in a large mixing bowl.  Add the dressing and toss to combine thoroughly.  Transfer to a serving platter and garnish with celery leaves. 
Simple Mixed Greens Salad
This recipe is a repeat from a previous dinner party.  (It’s that good!)  Check it out here.
Simple Mixed Greens Salad


Glazed Lemon Pound Cake
Makes two 8 1/2 - by 4 1/2 - inch loaves
Lemon Cake with Peaches & Vanilla Ice Cream
For the cake:
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for buttering the pans
2 1/2 cups plus 2 Tbl all-purpose flour
1 Tbl baking powder
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 Tbl finely grated lemon zest (from about 2 lemons)
1/2 tsp pure lemon extract
1/2 cup sour cream
5 large eggs
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 Tbl freshly squeezed lemon juice (from about 1 lemon)
For the glaze:
2 cups powdered sugar
6 Tbl lemon juice (from about 2-3 lemons)
Make the cakes: Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven.  Generously butter two 8 1/2 - by 4 1/2 - inch loaf pans.  Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk to combine the flour, baking powder and salt.  Set aside.
Combine the butter, sugar, lemon zest, lemon extract and sour cream in the bowl of an
electric stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment.  Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes.  Add the eggs, one at a time and beating well after each addition.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, as needed.  Add the oil and lemon juice and beat to combine.  Add the flour mixture and beat on medium-low until just combined, being careful not to over-mix. 
Divide the batter evenly between the two loaf pans, smoothing the tops with a spatula.  Bake, rotating the position of the pans about half-way through baking, until the tops are lightly golden and a wooden skewer inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean, about 50-55 minutes.  Cool the pans on a wire rack set over a piece of parchment paper, about 10 minutes.  Invert the cakes onto the racks and continue to cool.
Make the glaze:  As the cakes cool, whisk together the powdered sugar and lemon juice until smooth.
Finish the cakes:  Drizzle the glaze evenly over the tops of the cakes.  Let stand until the glaze is set, about 20 minutes.  Serve, if you’d like, with vanilla ice cream and sliced peaches, but this is wonderful all by itself too.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Spectacular Sunday Brunch

Lunch Buffet

Today, in this second installment from my private chef job down in North Carolina, I'm going to share with you a really spectacular Sunday brunch.  Truly, this meal was a huge hit with everyone.  In fact, I’d prepared this exact same menu the summer before.  (This was my second summer cooking down in NC.)  It was hands down, everyone’s favorite, so I knew I just had to make it again this year.  They all recognized it immediately, and with great enthusiasm.  And all loved it just as much this time around.  If not, then they loved it even more!      

Swiss Chard & Goat Cheese Tart with Current-Pine Nut Relish
Heirloom Tomato Panzanella
Simple Mixed Greens Salad
Summer Fruit Platter

Swiss Chard & Goat Cheese Tart with Currents & Pine Nuts

This Swiss Chard & Goat Cheese Tart is another one of my favorite recipes from one of my favorite cookbooks.  Can you guess by now which book this is?  I feel like a broken record sometimes… It’s Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin.  Every single recipe in this book is incredible, outstanding, simply stupendous.  Every single one is a must-try.  In my case, each recipe is a must-try-again-and-again.  I admit, I’m addicted. 

Red Swiss Chard

Anyways, let me tell you about this magnificent tart.  Atop the buttery puff pastry crust sits layer upon layer of incredible flavor.  First a creamy covering of ricotta and crème fraiche, and then a crumbling of pure white goat cheese.  All this is covered in a shroud of tender greens – huge leaves of Swiss chard sautéed with extra-virgin olive oil, aromatic thyme and shallots.  One last layer before going into the oven, more of that smooth, beautiful goat cheese.  But that’s not nearly it.  Once the tart is through baking – once the crust is crisp, golden brown and the cheese is just slightly melting – then it is time for the final layer of flavor, a relish of plump, juicy currents and toasted pine nuts.   This savory concoction, crowded with fresh rosemary and parsley and sweet, balsamic soaked red onions, is truly like icing on a cake.  And the combination of the tart with the relish is way more than the sum of it’s already delicious parts.

Current-Pine Nut Relish

Now, I’ll tell you the truth:  This tart really, really good.  But I’ve got another recipe for you today, and this one may even deserve one more ‘really’.  The Heirloom Tomato Panzanella.  I think this is my favorite summer recipe of all time.  At the height of the tomato season – in between BLT’s and gazpacho and tomato-basil-mozzarella salads – Ben and I eat this Panzanella all of the time, like once a week at least.  Talk about addictions!  

Rainbow of Tomatoes
Panzanella – and I’ve filled you in before, but just to refresh your memories – is the name for an Italian-style salad made of toasted bread cubes and all sorts of other fixings, although I do believe tomatoes are most traditional.  My version of this classic combines large chunks of juicy, ripe, heirloom tomatoes, in every shape and color of the rainbow, with handful upon handful of fresh, green tarragon and basil, thin strips of shaved, aged Parmesan, perfectly pungent purple-pink speckles of diced red onion,  bright ribbons of fresh, green arugula, and last but not least, hot-out-of-the-oven French bread croutons, their insides slightly soaked in equal parts with sweet tomato juices and a garlicky butter-red wine vinaigrette, their outsides coated in a golden brown parmesan crust.  Man oh man, I love this stuff!   And if there’s one recommendation I can make to you all, it’s to try this recipe out for yourself, and and do it soon, while we’re still in the midst of this blissful tomato season.  You’ll love it too, I’m certain. 
Sliced Tomatoes & Herbs
And really, that’s all the recipes I have to share with you today.   The simple green salad you’ve seen before.  It’s nothing flashy or new, but it was a perfectly fit for the rest of the meal.  A bouquet  of various summer greens, lightly dressed in a quick vinaigrette with hints of thyme and Dijon mustard, it could be the perfect fit for just about any meal. 
 Mixed Greens
And finally, as a dessert of sorts, a platter full of beautiful summer fruit – red then golden raspberries, pluots (my current favorite, a cross between a plum and an apricot, also called an apriums), blushing yellow Rainier cherries, pale white nectarines, juicy fuzzy-skinned peaches, fresh and seedy figs and ripe, red strawberries.  Wow, isn’t that just gorgeous?
Summer Fruit Platter
Swiss Chard & Goat Cheese Tart with Currant-Pine Nut Relish
Adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin
Serves  6
Swiss Chard & Goat Cheese Tart  with Currents & Pine Nuts
For the tart:
2 large egg yolks, divided
1 large bunch Swiss chard
2 Tbl plus 1 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 large shallots, peeled and finely chopped
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
1/2 cup whole milk ricotta
1/4 cup sour cream or crème fraiche
6 oz goat cheese, crumbled
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper
For the current-pine nut relish:
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 sprig rosemary
pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
3/4 cup finely diced red onion
1/3 cup dried currants
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 Tbl chopped flat-leaf parsley
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Prep the tart: Allow the puff pastry to defrost in the refrigerator, for about 2 hours or so, until it can be unfolded easily without ripping. Unroll onto a parchment-lined baking sheet.  Score a 1/4-inch border with a paring knife along the edge of the pastry. Make an egg wash by mixing one yolk with 1/2 tsp water.  Brush this egg wash along the border, only using as much as you need. Place in the freezer until you are ready to use.
Thoroughly wash the Swiss chard in cool water, then drain and dry.  Remove the tough stems from the bottom half or two-thirds of each leaf.  Tear the leaves into large pieces.
Heat a large sauté pan over high heat, for about 2 minutes.  Add 2 Tbl olive oil to the pan, then add the shallots and thyme.  Reduce the heat to medium and sauté for about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add half the Swiss chard and cook for another two minutes, tossing the greens to coat them with the oil.  When the first half of the greens wilt down a bit, add the rest of the greens.  Season with a good pinch of salt and pepper.  Cook for another few minutes, stirring frequently, until the greens are tender. 
Sauteeing Swiss Chard
Remove from the heat, and spread the greens on a baking sheet to cool.  Once cool enough to handle, squeeze with your hands to remove excess water.  Set aside the greens.

Combine the ricotta, the sour cream, the remaining egg yolk, the remaining 1 Tbl olive oil, a good pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Mix with a rubber spatula to combine thoroughly. Spread over the prepared puff pastry, keeping within the lines of the scored border. Crumble half of the goat cheese over the ricotta.  Arrange the greens evenly over the top, then sprinkle with the remaining goat cheese crumbles.  At this point, the tart can be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated until ready to serve. It can even be made a day ahead. (Always good when it comes to having dinner parties!)

Make the relish:  Preheat the oven to 375°F, then toast the pine nuts on a baking sheet, stirring occasionally, until they are lightly golden brown, about 8 minutes.

Heat a small sauté pan over high heat for about 2 minutes, then turn the heat down to medium and add the olive oil, rosemary and chile flakes.  Cook for about 1 minute, then turn the heat down to medium-low and add the diced onion.  Season with a good pinch of salt.  Gently cook the onions for about 5 minutes, until tender and translucent.  Add the balsamic vinegar and cook about 5 minutes more.  Discard the rosemary and transfer the onions to a small mixing bowl.

Sizzling Rosemary

While the onions cook, place the currants in a small bowl and cover with very hot water.  Let soak 10-15 minutes, then drain well.

Add the currants, toasted pine nuts and parsley to the onion mixture in the mixing bowl.  Stir to combine.  Taste, then season as needed with salt & pepper.

Finish the tart: Preheat the oven to 400°F.  Bake for about 30 minutes, until the crust is golden brown (both on the outside border and underneath – Lift it up a bit to peer beneath and make sure the bottom of the tart is thoroughly cooked too). 

Allow the tart to cool for a few minutes, then transfer to a cutting board.  Slice the tart.  Sprinkle evenly with currant-pine nut relish.  Serve right on the cutting board.


Simple Mixed Greens Salad
This recipe is a repeat from a previous dinner party.  (It’s that good!)  Check it out here.
Mixed Greens Salad


Heirloom Tomato Panzanella
Serves  6
Heirloom Tomato Panzanella
2 # ripe heirloom tomatoes of various colors, cored, then sliced into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 small red onion, finely diced, soaked in cool water for 15 minutes then drained
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
2 Tbl chopped fresh tarragon leaves
2 tsp plus 1 tsp finely minced garlic, divided
2 Tbl plus 2 Tbl red wine vinegar, divided
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 stick butter
6 cups cubed French bread (1/2-inch cubes)
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus 2 oz chunk Parmesan, sliced into ribbons with
     a vegetable peeler
about 2 cups baby arugula, long stems trimmed
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 375°F. 
In a large mixing bowl, combine the sliced tomatoes with the diced onions, basil, tarragon, 2 tsp minced garlic, 2 Tbl red wine vinegar and olive oil.  Toss to combine, then set aside.
Melt the butter in a small sauté pan over medium heat, then add the remaining 1 tsp minced garlic and cook for about 1 minutes, stirring constantly, until lightly golden and fragrant.  Add the remaining 2 Tbl red wine vinegar and swirl to combine. 
Place the cubed bread in another large mixing bowl.  Drizzle the garlic-butter-vinegar mixture over the bread cubes, then sprinkle with grated Parmesan.  Season with salt & pepper, the toss well to combine.  Arrange the bread cubes evenly in one layer over a baking sheet.  Bake, stirring a time or two, until the bread is golden brown and crisp on the outside but still soft on the inside, about 10 minutes or so. 
Combine the toasted bread cubes and the tomato mixture in a large mixing bowl.  Toss to combine.  Arrange the arugula over the base of a serving platter, then arrange the tomato-bread mixture over the arugula.  Garnish with the Parmesan ribbons.  Serve immediately.

Monday, August 16, 2010

From a Carolina Kitchen

Peaches on a Windowsill

Hello, all!  I’m back!  Back home in Chicago, and back to business.  With a family reunion in New Hampshire, a private chef job in North Carolina and my sister’s wedding in Ohio, each following right after the other, I had a fun and very busy month away from home.  But I’ve got to say, it’s certainly nice to be back.  And really nice to be blogging again.  Thanks for waiting so patiently for my return. 

While away, I’ve made sure to keep up with the cooking side of things.  Even though it’s been a while since my last blog post (I had very rare internet opportunity while away), we’re still on track with the weekly dinner parties.  So, over the next week or so, I’m going to try to fill you in on what exactly I’ve been up to, and catch up with the writing. 

Seeing that I’ve been out of town this whole time, you’re probably wondering how I’ve kept up with the cooking and the dinner parties.  Well, I’m afraid I had to bend the rules a bit.  Not really bend, more like slightly wiggle the rules.  Since there was absolutely no way for me to host my own dinner parties while away, I decided that it would have to be okay to include the meals I planned and prepared while down in the Carolinas.  I was there for two weeks, cooking lunches and dinners for an extended family of about fifteen.  Scrumptious Company fans themselves, they had no problem at all with me blogging about and photographing their dinners.  It couldn’t have worked out better, because the meals I served this gracious family were the same sort of fare I blog about here.  In fact, many of the meals I cooked for my clients came straight from some of my favorite summer blog posts (like this one, this one  and this one).  So in this and the following two posts, I’ll fill you in on three of my favorite meals from my time in North Carolina. 

A Perfect Dinner Spot

The first I’ll share is one of my favorite dinners menus, not just from North Carolina, but from the entire summer.  Marinated and grilled lamb chops with some incredible sides (including the green beans with arugula that you’ve seen before).  Dessert was actually apple tart tatin, which you’ve also seen before.  Normally I wouldn’t serve apple desserts in the height of summer (what with the peaches and so many other fruits being so amazing this time of year), but this happened to be a birthday celebration, and the guest of honor’s absolute favorite dessert was tart tatin.  Luckily though, I have an easy substitute on hand to share with you all, because the next day, someone else’s absolute favorite was peach cobbler.

Lemon & Rosemary Marinated Lamb Chops
Cauliflower Gratin
Green Beans with Arugula
Peach Cobbler with Vanilla Ice Cream
The lamb chops were sensational, a big hit all around, especially among the little ones in the group.  (A pair of six-year-olds devoured four each!)  The chops were submerged overnight in a potent marinade of lemon zest, garlic and rosemary – flavors that seem meant for each other, especially when combined with delicious, grilled red meat.   With a quick turn on a hot grill, these charming chops boasted a crispy, charcoal-scented outer crust with lush, pink centers and a bright, delicious flavor in every bite.  
Bell Peppers
Up next, peperonata.  It’s my new favorite side dish.  Even with some pretty stiff competition (like the hearty ratatouille I made for dinner last night - ah, like summertime on a plate), I do think peperonata officially qualifies as my favorite, at least for now.  It’s a slow-cooked concoction of utter deliciousness, sweet bell peppers - reds, oranges and yellows - and thinly sliced onions, with a smattering of sweet yet briny capers, green aromatic herbs, and a generous drenching of fruity extra-virgin olive oil.  It’s rich and sweet and totally lovely, with bright, deep flavors and a divine, tender texture.  Delicious alongside the lamb, I imagine it would be a great accompaniment to any red meat.  Fish too seems like a perfect pairing.  Really, I could imagine eating peperonata with just about anything!
A simple yet sensational second side, the cauliflower gratin.  Small florets of cauliflower –tender and white, like perfect little clouds – all cloaked in a smooth and creamy cheddar-spiked sauce.  Spicy handfuls of sliced green onions are folded in for good measure, and then the gooey mess is topped with a generous sprinkling of buttery breadcrumbs.  A stint in a hot oven yields a crispy, golden brown top crust which hides the warm, comfy creaminess beneath.  See what I mean about stiff competition.  This heavenly side dish could definitely give peperonata a run for it’s money.  Try it out yourself – this delicious cauliflower dish could end up being your favorite side of the summer!
Boiling Cauliflower
And finally, a perfect summertime dessert – Peach cobbler.  A sublime showcase for this marvelous fruit, right in it’s prime.  I love, love, love summertime peaches.  We used to have contests when we were kids: who could eat the most peaches.  We’d stand around the sink, devouring one after another after another, letting the juice run down our arms, savoring them with the full knowledge that this perfect summer treat wouldn’t be around for long.  And to this day, this is still my favorite way to eat a peaches, standing up, over the sink.  But then again, peach cobbler is pretty darn good too.  Pretty. Darn. Good.
Sliced Peaches
Lemon & Rosemary Marinated Lamb Chops
Serves  4
Lots of Lamb Chops
12 lamb chops, sliced between the bones into single chops
1 Tbl finely chopped fresh rosemary
3 lemons, divided
2 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Marinate the lamb chops: Combine the chopped rosemary with the zest and juice from two lemons (reserving the third lemon for later) and the extra virgin olive oil.  Season with a generous pinch of salt and pepper.  Whisk to combine, then add the lamb chops and toss to coat.  Let sit at least six hours, and as long as overnight.  Keep refrigerated in an airtight container.  Every few hours, toss the chops to evenly distribute the marinade.

Pre-heat the grill about an hour before you’re planning on eating.  To tell if your grill is at the right temperature, hold your hand right over it.  If you you can keep it there for five seconds, it’s not hot enough.  If you can’t hold it there for even a second, it's too hot. 

When the grill is hot, lightly pat the lamb chops with paper towels, just to remove any excess marinade.  Liberally season both sides of the chops with salt and pepper.  Arrange the chops over the grill.  Grill until well-browned on the first side, about 4 minutes.  Flip the chops over and grill to desired doneness, about 2-3 more minutes for rare (120°F ),     4-6 minutes for medium  (130°F ), and 8-10 minutes for well-done (150°F). 

Remove from the grill, and rest about 10 minutes, covered with a foil tent.  Squeeze the juice from the remaining lemon over the lamb chops.  Serve. 


Serves 4
4 large bell peppers (a mixture of red, orange & yellow, but not green)
3 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 medium red onions, peeled & thinly sliced
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 Tbl fresh thyme leaves
2 Tbl capers, drained & rinsed
3 Tbl red wine vinegar
2 Tbl fresh oregano leaves
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Slice the bell peppers into four quarters, lengthwise.  Remove the stems and seeds, then slice out the white pithy membranes.  Slice, again cutting lengthwise, into thick strips. 
Heat a very large sauté pan over high heat for about a minutes.  Add 2 Tbl olive oil, then heat for 1 minute longer.  Add the sliced peppers, onions, crushed red pepper and thyme.  Season with a two good pinches of salt and a good pinch of pepper.  Sauté over high heat, stirring and tossing frequently, until the peppers are just turning tender, about 5 minutes. 
Reduce the heat to medium.  Add the capers and the remaining 1 Tbl olive oil.  Cook, again stirring frequently, about 5 more minutes.  Add the vinegar, then continue to cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 3-5 minutes.  Mix well with a rubber spatula to coat the vegetables with the vinegar.  Add the oregano leaves and toss well to combine.  Taste, then season as needed with salt & pepper.  Serve warm or room temperature.


Cauliflower Gratin
Serves 8
Cauliflower Gratin
1 large head cauliflower, cut into 1-inch florets
4 Tbl (1/2 stick) butter, divided, plus more for buttering the casserole dish
2 Tbl all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups whole milk
6 oz + 2 oz sharp white Cheddar cheese, divided, coarsely grated
1 bunch scallions, greens only, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs (from about 4-5 slices white bread, crusts removed)
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 450°F with the rack in the middle.  Generously butter a 9x13-inch casserole dish. 

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Add the cauliflower florets and cook until just tender, about 7-8 minutes.  Drain the cauliflower well in a colander. 

Over medium heat, melt 2 Tbl butter in a medium-sized saucepot.  Whisk in the flour, then cook for about 3 minutes, whisking frequently.  Add the milk in a slow stream, just a little at a time, whisking constantly.  Reduce the heat to keep the sauce at a bare simmer.  Cook for about 10 minutes, whisking frequently.  Turn off the heat, then add 6 oz cheddar cheese and whisk until the cheese is melted.  Add the sliced scallion greens, then season with a good pinch of salt and pepper.  Stir to combine.  Combine the cauliflower and sauce in a large mixing bowl and stir to coat thoroughly.  Pour the mixture into the prepared casserole dish.

Creamy Goodness

Make the bread crumb crust:  Add the bread crumbs to a medium mixing bowl.  Melt the remaining 2 Tbl butter and pour over the bread crumbs.  Stir with a rubber spatula to combine.  Add the remaining 2 oz grated cheddar.  Season with generous pinches of salt and pepper.  Stir to combine. 

Sprinkle the crumbs evenly over the cauliflower mixture.  Bake, uncovered, until the topping is golden brown, about 10 minutes.

Green Beans with Arugula
This recipe is a repeat from a previous dinner party.  (It’s that good!)  Check it out here.

Peach Cobbler
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, July 2004
Serves  8
 Peach Cobbler with Vanilla Ice Cream
For the filling:
3 # ripe but firm peaches (about 8-9 medium), peeled, pitted and sliced
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp cornstarch
1 Tbl fresh lemon juice (from about half a lemon)
pinch of kosher salt
For the topping:
1  cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 1 Tbl granulated sugar
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp kosher salt
5 Tbl cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1/3 cup heavy cream
Preheat the oven to 350°F and position a rack in the lower third of the oven.  Generously butter a 9x13-inch casserole dish. 
For the filling: Toss the sliced peaches with the 1/4 cup sugar and let stand 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Drain peaches in colander set over large bowl. Whisk together the peach juice, cornstarch, lemon juice, and salt in small bowl.  Toss peach juice mixture with peach slices and transfer to prepared baking dish. Bake until peaches begin to bubble around edges, about 10 minutes.
For the topping: While peaches are baking, Combine the flour, 1/4 cup sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large mixing bowl.  Whisk to combine thoroughly. Scatter the cubed butter over the flour mixture.  Using a pastry cutter, cut the butter into the dry ingredients, working  until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs.  Add the cream and toss with a rubber spatula until until the dough just combines.  Try not to over-mix, or the topping will be tough. 
Break the dough into 6 evenly sized but roughly shaped mounds and set aside.
Remove the peaches from oven.  Break the dough into 8 evenly sized but roughly shaped mounds, then place on top of the peach filling, spacing them at about 1/2-inch apart but not touching.  Sprinkle each mound with a pinch of the remaining 1 Tbl sugar. Bake until topping is golden brown and fruit is bubbling, 16 -18 minutes. Cool on wire rack until warm, about 20 minutes.  Serve, with each portion topped with vanilla ice cream.