Sunday, May 31, 2009

sometimes, versatility is overrated

The radish is not what you'd call a versatile vegetable.

Easy to grow, yes. Quick to yield results, sure. Visually appealing, certainly. But when it comes down to cooking radishes - well, it's more a matter of not cooking them.

The primary appeal of a radish lies in its crunch. It's like celery without the fibrous chew. Cooked, the radish softens, and all the liquid that gives the radish a juicy, toothsome character ends up turning it soggy. Radishes, like cucumbers, are better eaten raw.

And like cucumbers, they're also better sliced thin. As pretty as they look whole, radishes taste better when cut into paper-thin discs. (They're still quite charming to look at even after they've been sliced - little white rounds with the thinnest edge of red.)

For the simplest preparation, you can layer them with butter and salt on crusty bread. Place them on a bed of cream cheese on sandwich bread with the crusts cut, and you have an interesting alternative to cucumber sandwiches for afternoon tea.

Or you could combine them with mixed greens, hard-boiled egg, and a few other things for a satisfying light spring salad.

Versatile, no. Tasty? Absolutely.

Spring Salad With Radishes

(Serves one as a light meal.)

Put an egg in a small saucepan, cover with cold water, and bring to a boil. Cook for seven or eight minutes, then remove from heat, pour off the water, and leave the egg under cold running water. Set aside.

Rinse and dry a handful or two of mixed greens, and put them in a big bowl.

Take a handful of radishes (about six or seven, unless they're really tiny), and slice them paper-thin with a very sharp knife or mandoline. Add them to the bowl. Repeat the process with quarter of a small red onion.

Peel the cooled egg, and cut it into slices. Add them to the bowl.

Crumble over a generous slice of decent cheddar (I've used Wensleydale, but any sharp cheddar will work.)

Get out another bowl, and mix together a dollop of mustard, a glug of olive oil, and the juice from half a lemon to form a light dressing. Pour it over the salad. (You might have a bit left over.) Toss gently. Tuck in immediately.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

a incurable urge to meddle

I think I may have a problem.

As I may have said before, I tend to think that cooks can be divided into two groups: those who follow recipes to the letter, and those who think that recipes are a good starting point.

Anyone who has ever seen me cook knows that I fall into the second category. If someone else is in charge and I'm just along for the ride, I can follow a recipe perfectly. But leave me to my own devices, and I'll probably start tinkering, even if I fully intend to leave the recipe untouched.

The latest victim of my meddling was a brown butter raspberry tart I read about over at Hungry Bruno. A melted-butter crust is filled with raspberries, covered in a sticky mixture of eggs, sugar, flour, brown butter and vanilla, and baked until the filling is a light custard dotted with pockets of soft raspberry. Quick, simple, and absolutely irresistible.

The first time around, I followed the recipe exactly - or exactly as I could, given that I only had an eight-inch tart pan and had to tweak the quantities a little bit to compensate. It was fragrant. It was delicious. My dinner guests had seconds. (I sent them home with the leftovers, too.) But the base was very, very firm and crisp, and I sent little pieces flying everywhere when I tried to take a fork to it.

I still had a punnet of raspberries, so I decided I'd make it again the next day with a regular shortbread crust. And all went well until I was preparing the filling. The recipe calls for white sugar, but I couldn't resist the verbal symmetry of brown butter and brown sugar, so I switched out some of the white for brown instead. Nothing major; just enough to give the filling a slightly deeper flavor.

So now it's a brown butter raspberry tart with a crumbly shortbread base, and a filling that's a bit more caramelly, but it's still pretty much the same recipe. Really. And if I use the concept as a starting point when autumn comes around again, for an apple tart with brown sugar and Calvados, it's nothing serious. Nothing to worry about at all.

But if anyone has the number for Recipe Meddlers' Anonymous, I'll take it, just in case.

Meddler's Brown Butter Raspberry Tart

With apologies to Bon Appetit.

(Recipe not for one. Just because you can eat the whole thing by yourself doesn't mean you should. )

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Tart shell first. Get out a mixing bowl, and put in five tablespoons of softened butter, three tablespoons of white sugar, a pinch of salt, and a quarter-teaspoon of vanilla. Cream everything together with a fork until well-blended. Add three-quarters of a cup of flour, a quarter-cup at a time, working it in with the fork until you have a sandy dough.

Press the dough into an eight-inch false-bottomed tart pan. Set the pan on a baking tray and transfer the tray to the oven. Bake for ten to fifteen minutes, or until the very edges are just starting to color.

Remove the tray from the oven; bump up the heat to 375F and leave the oven on.

Set the tart shell aside to cool.

While you're waiting, prepare the filling. Take half a stick of butter, cut into chunks, and place it in a small, light-colored saucepan (avoid cast iron) over low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the butter turns light caramel in color. Transfer the butter to a glass measuring cup or other heatproof container; set aside.

Get out another mixing bowl (or use the one you had for the pastry, that's fine), and beat together one egg, four tablespoons of white sugar, two tablespoons (packed) of brown sugar, a quarter-teaspoon of salt, and a half-teaspoon of vanilla until well-combined. Whisk in a quarter-cup of flour, followed by the brown butter. The resulting batter will be thick and sticky.

Take six ounces of raspberries (one standard-size punnet), and arrange them in rings in the tart shell. Pour (or drizzle) the batter over, and give the tart pan a shake to get the mixture to settle evenly. Transfer to the oven and bake for thirty to forty minutes, or until the filling is puffed and golden. Allow to cool before serving.

Note: Tart can be made the day before and kept covered at room temperature overnight. It may even taste better that way.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

before tomato season arrives

It feels like summer in Boston.

We're still a week and a half away from calendar summer, and it won't really start to heat up for another month or so, but the mood of summer has already set in. Most of the college students have left town. The city feels quieter, a little slower.

Now I want summer food. The farmers' markets are starting again, and they've got all sorts of lovely spring produce, but my mind has moved right past green garlic and radishes to fixate on heirloom tomatoes. Unfortunately, there won't be any heirloom tomatoes for at least another month, so my dreams of eating insalata caprese for breakfast, lunch, and dinner will have to wait.

Still, a tomato craving is a tomato craving, and it can be satisfied before tomato season with a little creative thinking. My local supermarket has fairly decent cherry tomatoes on the vine. Some time in the oven with herbs, garlic, and olive oil will improve their flavor. And then they can be stewed with stale bread to make pappa al pomodoro.

A classic Tuscan summer dish, pappa al pomodoro is somewhere between a stew and a porridge. Like ribollita, it's a way of giving new life to stale bread. It's completely unglamorous, with all the visual appeal of regurgitated pizza, but it's full of rich tomato flavor, and it only gets better after a day in the fridge.

It's one of my favorite summer tomato dishes. At least until the heirlooms arrive.

Roasted Tomato Pappa Al Pomodoro

Like all stews, this one tastes better the next day. It really is good cold for breakfast.

(Serves one, with leftovers to eat cold for breakfast.)

Preheat the oven to 325F.

Take a pint of cherry or grape tomatoes, give them a rinse if necessary, and put them in a non-reactive baking dish. Throw in two or three peeled garlic cloves, a sprig or two of fresh basil or oregano, and drizzle generously with olive oil. Sprinkle with a little coarse salt.

Put the baking dish in the oven and go do something else for two hours. When you come back, the tomatoes should look wrinkly and soft. (If not, give them another half-hour.) Remove the baking dish from the oven.

Transfer the tomatoes and all the liquid in the baking dish to a small saucepan with lid. Add two cups of water, and bring to a simmer.

Cut a large chunk of stale crusty bread (two or three slices' worth) into rough cubes, and drop them into the tomato mixture. Give everything a stir, and put the lid on the pot. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for thirty or forty minutes. (The mixture should be a little soupy; add more water as necessary.) Check for salt; season to taste. Allow to cool for five to ten minutes before serving.

Serve in a big bowl with a little more olive oil drizzled on top.

Monday, May 11, 2009

the things she baked (or what adele did with that five-pound bag of flour)

Finals are over.

I can't quite convey the monumental sigh of relief that should follow that statement, but it's definitely there. No more exams. No more waking up in a panic thinking that I've slept through any exams. No more dreams about forgetting to take exams. And my brain can go back to pondering what it ponders best: food and the myriad ways of preparing it.

I haven't resumed my regular cooking schedule yet - I'm still in the stage of giving my kitchen a much-needed cleaning. (The stove has been sadly neglected, and some of the forgotten items in the fridge managed to reach a rather alarming state.) But I can finally write about the baking that got me through finals with my sanity (mostly) intact.

You've already heard about the jamprint cookies. They were followed by mini-loaves of chocolate chip banana bread. Vegan chocolate chip banana bread, no less.

Banana bread isn't something I usually bake, because I usually don't have bananas on hand. However, a chance encounter with some red bananas at Haymarket the other week had left a few overripe specimens on my kitchen counter, and banana bread seemed like an appropriate solution.*

I opted for a vegan recipe because Virgin has been wrestling lately with the idea of returning to veganism, and she needed something to mitigate the misery of studying for Criminal Procedure. Banana bread is a baked good that is unusually well-suited to vegan-izing: most recipes use vegetable oil rather than butter, and mashed bananas are sticky enough that a batter will hold together without the addition of eggs. I cobbled together my own recipe after deciding that the version in Joy of Cooking looked too involved, with surprisingly good results.

A baking-powder batter in which the liquid component consists only of mashed bananas and oil bakes up into a bread that is moist without being gummy in the middle. It's denser than banana bread made with eggs, but I think it's actually better that way. And unless you tell, non-vegans will never guess that they're eating a vegan baked good.

"Vegan in the Volcano" Chocolate Chip Banana Bread

Vegan dark chocolate chips don't contain milk solids. Double-check your labels.

(Makes four mini-loaves.)

Preheat the oven to 350F.

In a big bowl, whisk together one-and-a-half cups flour, two teaspoons baking powder, one-third of a cup of sugar, a scant half-teaspoon of salt, and a quarter-teaspoon of ground nutmeg.

In another bowl, mash up one large ripe banana, or two smallish ones, enough for roughly a cup-and-a-third of mashed banana pulp. Stir in one-third of a cup of olive oil and half a teaspoon of vanilla extract. It will look like way too much oil, but keep stirring, and it will incorporate into the banana.

Once the banana mixture is smooth, add the flour mixture, a little at a time, until you have a stiff batter that's almost thick enough to be dough. (If it seems on the dry side, add another teaspoon or two of oil, but don't overdo it.) Fold in half a cup of dark chocolate chips.

Glop the batter into mini-loaf pans, filling them almost all the way. Set them on a baking tray and move to the oven. Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until a knife stuck in comes out with nothing more than melted chocolate on it.

Turn the loaves out on a wire rack to cool. Serve with coffee.

Note: For lighter (non-vegan) results, use a quarter-cup of olive oil and one well-beaten egg. If you do this, grease your tins very, very well, because they'll stick like crazy, and only fill your tins two-thirds of the way, because the mixture will rise more. (You'll probably get five mini-loaves out of this recipe, rather than four.)

*For the record, red bananas taste just like regular bananas.