Monthly Archives: August 2011

Tomato tart on a whim

I made this savory tomato tart on a whim with no intentions of sharing the finished product. I didn’t have any particular high hopes or great plans, no fantastic recipe clipping burning a hole in my ideas binder, just a few handfuls of cherry tomatoes and two empty stomachs for inspiration. But the tomatoes were so darned pretty– yellows, reds, greens, and purples–all heaped together in a paper sack from the greenmarket, that I took a few photos. And then the cold, diced butter sprinkled with fresh thyme leaves and a small heap of flour for the crust, looked rather artful in my mini food processor (I may or may not have been hallucinating from hunger). And when the dough pulled together, soft and fragrant and all flecked with green, well, you get the point. So here it is. My thrown-together-at-the-last-second tomato tart.

Do you know what the best part is? Like so many unplanned and unfussed-about things that happen in life, it was wonderful. The tomatoes had swollen and burst in the high heat, creating small pockets of jammy sweetness. Despite the rivulets of thick tomato juices, the crust maintained its crispness and crumbled like a savory cookie with every bite. To make it a meal, I topped each sliver with wild arugula tossed in garlic vinaigrette and served it alongside zucchini pancakes–like summer latkes–swapping heartier, earthy potatoes for the for the light, fresh flavor of green squash, dolloped with lemon pepper yogurt. Judging by the second (Ok, it was more like third) empty plate of a certain curly-haired man next to me, I do believe I’ll be adding this dinner to my permanent summer supper repertoire, along with the spicy fish tacos I threw together last year and pasta with a no-cook tomato sauce, that, frankly, I can’t believe has not made it up here yet. I must dig that clipping out, pronto.

As tart dough, goes, this one was pretty basic. I adapted this recipe by adding a fistful of chopped fresh thyme and some grated Pecorino Romano cheese to give some oomph to an otherwise blasé crust. Blitzed in a food processor with some ice water, the dough comes together quickly. The dough must chill for a bit in the refrigerator before you roll it out and once it’s in the pan. This is probably the most time-consuming part of the process as the rest is pretty snappy.  After 30 minutes or so, it is ready for rolling and pressing into a buttered tart pan.

I mounded the tomatoes, generously salted and olive-oiled, into the unbaked crust. That’s right, no blind baking needed! I found that the crust browned in the oven long before the tomatoes were hot enough to burst open and bombard the crust with their tomato-ey juices. Nifty trick, right? If you will be using whole-cut tomatoes instead, I would definitely consider baking the crust first.

You can get more creative here, add some ricotta or fresh mozzarella if you’re in the mood. Perhaps you have some fresh basil or other herbs in your garden (Please know that if you have either fresh basil readily available to your whims or you have your own garden, I’m terribly jealous). And that’s really all there is to it; Summer simplicity at its best.

Do you have any easy go-to summer recipes?
Cherry Tomato Tart with Cheesy Herbed Crust

Ingredients–Crust adapted from Recipe.com

1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

9 tbsp cold unsalted butter, diced

1/4 cup Pecorino Romano Cheese

2 tbsp chopped fresh thyme

4 tbsp ice water

___________

2 pints cherry tomatoes (a variety of colors looks best)

2-3 tbsp olive oil

sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper

In a food processor, combine the flour, salt, and butter. Using short pulses, process until the mixture resembles oatmeal. Add thyme and cheese, and pulse again until combined.  Add the ice water and pulse quickly until the mixture begins to come together but don’t let it actually form a ball.

Transfer the mixture to a lightly floured surface and gather it into a ball with your hands. Gently flatten the ball into a smooth disk about 1-1/2 inches thick and wrap it in plastic or foil. Refrigerate until firm enough to roll, at least 1 hour.

Roll the dough on a lightly floured surface into a round about 1/8 inch thick. Roll the dough over your rolling pin and lift it over the tart pan. Unroll it loosely over the tart pan and gently press the dough into the pan without stretching it. Roll the rolling pin back and forth over the pan and discard any severed dough from the outside of the pan. Prick the bottom of the shell all over with a fork, cover with aluminum foil, and freeze for at least 30 minutes and as long as overnight.
Arrange a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Remove the foil, and put it on a baking sheet.  In a large bowl, toss the tomatoes with olive oil to coat and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Mound the dressed tomatoes into the tart shell and bake in the oven for about 50 minutes or until the crust is brown and the tomatoes have burst and begin to wrinkle.

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Lavender: the way to my heart

There was a time when the scent of lavender reminded me of medicine and old musty spice cabinets. When the gift of a lavender-scented something was completely lost on me, tucked away in a drawer I never used, rarely to be seen again. But times change. And of all the things that could have changed my mind–sachets, lavender oil, fancy french soap, do you know what has turned me into a lavender enthusiast?

Cupcakes.

Am I that transparent? Is the way to my heart, like the tired (but often true) saying, really through my stomach? Apparently, yes.

On my first trip to London–Europe, for that matter–I happened upon the Hummingbird Bakery, nestled between the watercolor-washed houses and antique shops of Notting Hill. My friend and I stopped in on a whim on our way to find the famous Portobello market, and during a failed attempt to locate the travel bookshop from the movie. The shop was a little girl’s fantasy, very pink and pretty and filled with gobs of icing and pastel sprinkles. The vanilla cupcake I had wasn’t especially memorable, but I was smitten with atmosphere and the fancy European coffee. (Now living in New York, Illy coffee is far less exotic but still strong, dark, and aromatic, just the way I like it).

So, lavender…getting there. My boyfriend knew of my childlike fascination with this little confection factory and bought me the bakery’s cookbook for Christmas after spying it on my Anthropologie wish list (a place that cute can do better than mediocre vanilla cupcakes, right?) And in it, I indeed found a treasure trove of yummy recipes: key lime pie, hummingbird cake (like carrot, but with pineapple!), spiced pumpkin cookies, and yes, lavendar cupcakes. Despite my own feelings towards the little flower, I decided to make them for the ladies in my family–I knew my mom, sister, and aunts would just flip over a lavender dessert.

I bought the first baggie of the tiny purple flower heads at a street market and poured those fusty little things into cups of milk to infuse, as instructed. I cringed when the once pretty buds swelled and bloated after a few hours, turning the milk a pale shade of dirty and wondering why on earth I had selected this flavor. But I kept at it, adding the questionable-looking milk to the sparse cupcake batter (more on that later), dutifully filling those little tins with a hope and a prayer as I slid the pan into the heat wave of the oven. There was just a splash of lavender milk left, and into the butter and sugar it went for whipping sweet icing.

Stop. That right there. That’s what did it. When the frosting turned light and fluffy, I dipped my pinky in and braced for the worst–for the taste of old lady’s perfume to bombard my taste buds. But that never happened. It was surprisingly good. Really, really good, actually. And then another wonder…the cakelets rising in the oven smelled…fragrant and delicious and I found myself counting down the seconds until I could remove that hot pan from the oven.

It turns out that the cake is quite nice: light, delicately perfumed with lavender. But it’s the icing that is swoon-worthy. It’s less flowery than I could have imagined, more herbal and savory than simply sweet. It’s really very hard to explain how fantastic this icing is. You’ll have to trust me on this one. In fact, I could do away with the cake entirely, fill up a pretty parfait glass with a dollop, and eat it like a strawberry fool. It’s that good.

And this cupcake, my friends, specifically that fabulous fluffy icing, has changed my attitude towards this particular flower forever. Musty? What was I thinking? Lavender is the stuff dreams are made of! (OK, that line is the sugar high talking….) But I have since dug out that gifted lavender spa pillow (you warm it up in the microwave, so nice!), tucked a few sprigs from my aunt’s garden into a pretty vase on my dresser, and have developed a weakness for all things lavender, food or otherwise.

Yes, I’ve certainly lost the lavender battle, but it has been a sweet victory for all.

Lavender Cupcakes

from The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook

Now, onto that sparse batter. Once you sift the flour (makes such a difference), add that scant cup of sugar, crack one lonely egg, and whip it all together, you might glance inside that sad little bowl and wonder where it all went. I understand. I went through this the first and second time I made them. I thought I forgot an ingredient or misread the proportions. Unlike regular cupcake recipes which churn out a whopping 24 cupcakes, this recipe is for 12. A very conservative 12. The finished cakes fall just below the cupcake paper. Be aware of this now, so you are not disappointed or rather confused, later. Double the recipe if you like, but honestly, unless I’m bringing them to a party or can pawn them off on my co-workers, one dozen cupcakes is already quite the menacing opponent to the canister of oatmeal I usually reach for in the morning. I would, however, strongly suggest you make a double batch of icing, or a batch and a half. The cakelets, small and subtle as they are, need a little oomph.

Cupcakes

½ cup whole milk

3 tbsp dried lavender flowers

1 cup all-purpose flour

a scant ¾ cup sugar

1½ tsp baking powder

3 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 egg

12 small springs of lavender (optional)

Put the milk and dried lavender flowers in a measuring cup, cover and refrigerate for a few hours, or overnight if possible. Do the same with the milk and lavender flowers for the frosting, in a separate cup.

Line a 12-hole cupcake pan with paper cases. Preheat oven to 325F.

Put the flour, sugar, baking powder and butter in a freestanding electric mixer with a paddle attachment and beat on slow speed until you get a sandy consistency and everything is combined.

Strain the lavender-infused milk (for the cupcake) and slowly pour into the flour mixture, beating well until all the ingredients are well mixed. Add the egg and beat well (scrape any unmixed ingredients from the side of the bowl with a rubber spatula).

Spoon the batter into the paper cases until two-thirds full and bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes, or until the cake bounces back when touched. A skewer inserted in the center should come out clean. Let the cupcakes cool slightly in the pan before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Lavender Frosting

2 tbsp whole milk

1 tbsp dried lavender flowers

2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted

5 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature

a couple drops of purple food colouring (optional)

Beat together the confectioners’ sugar, butter and food colouring, if using, in a freestanding electric mixer with a paddle attachment on medium-slow speed until the mixture comes together and is well mixed. Turn the mixer down to slow speed. Strain the lavender-infused milk and slowly pour into the butter mixture. Once all the milk is incorporated, turn the mixer up to high-speed. Continue beating until the frosting is light and fluffy, at least 5 minutes. The longer the frosting is beaten, the fluffier and lighter it becomes.

When the cupcakes are cold, spoon the lavender frosting on top and decorate with a sprig of lavender, if using.

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A vacation from the ordinary

Hola! Cómo estás? I’ve been away on an island respite.  Not the one usually reserved for my dreams, but an actual island, surrouned by idyllic blue waters, wave-less and warm, where the song of the coqui frog lulls you to sleep each night (or drives you entirely crazy, depending on how you want to look at it).  I would say I am glad to be back but that seems a little bit like lying, since I’d rather nothing more than to be lounging on the beach, drink in hand, waves at my feet or even to be mud-caked and soggy, alternately schleping across slippery crags and soaring above the palms like a red-tailed hawk atop the Toro Negro.

While I reacclimate myself to the real world, restock my baron refrigerator, and prepare to utilize that thing, you know, the stovetop, I thought I’d share some of the exotic bliss I happened upon in Puerto Rico. For starters I’d love to tell you about the  seven new-to-me fruits I tasted in the rainforest of that lush green island. That’s right. SEVEN.  Oh, paradise.

Let’s start with something I know you’ve all heard of, the passionfruit.  Sure I’ve had passionfruit before, in the humdrum form of water ice or popsicles, sometimes lingering in a fancy cocktail or some sort of dessert plate puddle. But I’ve never seen one plucked straight from the tree and cracked open with bare hands, a baseball-sized cocoon giving way to vibrant sunset-hued pulp and glossy seeds so fantastically tart that my cheeks pucker at the memory. It was truly one of the most amazing flavor experiences of my life.  If only I could have stuffed my backpack full of them and snuck them past the USDA inspection point at the airport…
I’m getting ahead of myself. I should have started by telling you this all occurred during a ten hour rainforest adventure, a muddy, tiring, exhilirating trek that included jumping, stiff as a board, into a 12-foot water hole, scaling a waterfall, scrambling on all fours over slippery river rocks, and finally, zip-lining our way back to base camp.   That being said, upon entrance into the rainforest, our expert guides pointed out a long brown pod, not unlike tamarind, containing several large seeds within.  I didn’t catch the spanish name for it, nor did I get a photo of the seemingly inedible pod as we waded knee-deep in cold waters with my camera tucked  away in a dry bag.  After some rather rudimentary Google searches (brown pod fruit, Puerto Rican edible pod seeds), I’ve decided that what I willingly palated was locust fruit. The marble-sized seeds are covered in a dry cottony substance, its fruit, which when placed in your mouth seems to melt like cotton candy, morphing into a pleasantly soft consistency with the flavor of vanilla icing.

Next up, poisonous berries!  This one kind of baffles my mind in hindsight.  As our group hiked up the only trail exposed to the sun and therefore not covered in mud (yay!), our guide pointed out a bush studded with tiny black berries and told us we were welcome to try them.  As I nibbled on a few, he explained that there were two almost identical berry bushes in the rainforest: one safe to eat and one terribly poisonous.  The only way to tell the two apart is by some small variation in the leaves of the plant.  The gravity of that statement did not hit me then, nor at the moment when he laughed at my berry-stained teeth, the equivalent of being caught red-handed, I suppose.  No it was much later, back at the hotel, musing over all the new things I had tried that day. What if he screwed up and pointed out the poisonous plant, instead??? Needless to say, I’m not terribly upset that I don’t remember the name of that berry.

While we’re on the topic, I also consumed a “hairy berry” which does not sound very appetizing, I know.  Our guide, Raymond, was so excited and insistent, however,  that I almost thought he would hand feed it to me if I did not pop it into my mouth on my own.  The color and size of a large blueberry, and indeed covered with a sort of wispy hair (think raspberries), it was faintly sweet but had more savory overtones.  When I told him this, he asked me to explain the meaning of “savory”. Hmmm.  After considerable thought and anticipatory regret for fear of sounding like a caveman, I tentatively answered “not sweet.”  How profound.
More than halfway into our excursion, and hours away from a good solid meal, one of the guides ran ahead of the group.  When we caught up to him, he was beaming above a pile of elongated apples, urging us to eat.  He had scaled the massive tree before us to shake down these funny little rose apples, yielding like pears to our bite, leaving  flavors of apple and rosewater on our tongues.  They were refreshing and sweet and flowery–how wonderfully weird–a welcome interruption to our growing appetites.
Finally, after a long day of hiking and swimming, we were rewarded with a hearty traditional Puerto Rican meal: rice and beans, yucca, chicken, pork, and breadfruit with bananas, ripe from the tree, for dessert. Simple and soulful, the meal was well-seasoned and delicious.  My personal favorite was the starchy breadfruit, cut into shingles, fried, and salted, much like tostones, and as irresistable as potato chips.  I think we all had seconds and I may have swiped a few from the boyfriend’s pile.  We cleaned our plates, stored the equipment, and climbed  back into the van, well fed and clad in warm, dry clothes for the first time all day.
Winding our way back down from the mountain, we made a pit stop for one last specialty.  We bought a huge cluster of quanapes from a man on the side of the road.  A pile bigger than my head for a mere four dollars.  These spanish grapes resemble tiny key limes, with  dimpled leathery skin you penetrate with your teeth to peel off.  Inside, you’ll find sweet and fleshy fruit the palest shade of pink which you pop in your mouth and chew off the pit. They were addictive for the texture alone, if not for the tart green grape flavor.
And so I left the rainforest, exhausted and happy, with dreams of going back again.

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