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Posts Tagged ‘recipe’

A Dinner for a Hot Summer’s Night

It’s really here now, isn’t it? Summer in all its tomato-eatin’, mosquito-swattin’, water-fightin’ glory. The cicadas are  winding themselves up to a frenzy out there in the night, and there have even been a few days when it’s been almost-but-not-quite too hot to cook. I’m deep into it, reveling in eggplant and ice cream and firing up the grill, but also painfully aware that it’s beginning to slip away already, that the light is almost gone by 8:30, and when I went looking to buy water blasters they had been displaced by school supplies. But I’m an autumnal refusenik right now, digging in my heels against September and stretching each August day to its full length.

In that spirit, I recommend our menu from last night which seems almost too simple to report, but was deliciously and utterly summer. There was gazpacho to start — a very simple gazpacho of tomatoes, seeded cucumber, red onion, some bread crumbs, cilantro, sherry vinegar and water given a quick swirl in a blender (bonus points for a serious dent in the farm share!). There was a bottle of chilled pinot grigio. At the end, there were chilled cubes of watermelon (more farm share, more bonus points).

And in between? There was an amazingly simple and amazingly good fish that caused us to halt conversation every few sentences and say “oh man! How about this? This is good!” I was inspired by a recipe in Lynne Rosetto Kaspar’s book The Splendid Table. She reports that this is a classic preparation from Italian sea side restaurants. The concept and the execution are simple. A paste of herbs, garlic and olive oil, a little time for the fish to soak in the flavor and a few minutes over a hot grill. We used a $6.00 piece of Trader Joe’s frozen swordfish, and it turned out brightly flavored and wonderfully succulent; I can only speculate and drool over what this would taste like with some fancy fresh fish. We may have been sitting on our citronella-surrounded deck in downtown Ann Arbor rather than a patio overlooking the Mediterranean, but it felt like la dolce vita to me.

Mediterranean Grilled Fish

1 lb. of firm fleshed fish fillets (Kaspar recommends bluefish, mackeral, tuna or swordfish)

4 T minced fresh herbs (I used a mix of flat leaf parsley and basil at about a 1:3 ratio)

1 clove minced garlic

2 T olive oil

Coarse salt

Grind the herbs, garlic, olive oil and salt into a coarse paste using the grinding apparatus of your choice. I used the mortar and pestle because I don’t own a food processor, but that’s not a point of pride. Cut a few shallow slits into the fish and rub on both sides with the herb paste. Wrap the fillets in plastic wrap and let sit in the refrigerator for 2-5 hours.

When ready to eat (say just before you sit down with your gazpacho), light a charcoal fire and let burn until the coals are covered with grey ash. With the grill approximately six inches from the coals, grill the fish quickly on both sides (about 2-5 minutes a side depending on the thickness of the fish).  Serve with a squeeze of lemon.

We also had some blanched green beans (see farm share, above) tossed in olive oil, lemon. fleur de sel and fresh marjoram, my new favorite way to eat green beans. I spent the better part of my life despising green beans and now I have a favorite way to eat them!

This menu best if eaten while crickets carry on and the stars shine overhead.

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Those of you who live around Ann Arbor may have noticed something surprising the past week or so. Finally, in its last official month, summer seems to have arrived. Summer of porch-sitting without sweaters, of kids in sprinklers, of downtown strolls for ice cream, of tossing back the covers at night, of sometimes even seeking out shade, that kind of summer.  It’s not dog days yet, not air-conditioning or swimming after work summer, but still . . . it’s a lot more summer than we’ve had this year. And I’ve been so ready for it.

Among the pleasures of summer, have been winetasting on the “patio” (um, sidewalk) at Vinology . . .

Accompanied by lovely little tastes, like handmade pasta with clams and breadcrumbs and just a touch of anchovy . . .

And making mint ice cream with the out of control chocolate peppermint from the front garden and lots of lemonade from scratch (a favorite occupation and beverage for the almost four year old boy) and never, ever being without peaches in the house.

But  mostly, of course, more and more time consumed by consuming the contents of the CSA box, working our way with patience and fortitude through all that Tantre Farm throws at us (duck! more beets! incoming!). With gratitude too, of course. A lot of gratitude.

When the crisper drawer becomes difficult to shut, the Big Salad often comes to the rescue. This one was particularly pleasing to both the eye and our collective palates, first because it was broken down into its constituent parts and not mixed (allowing picking and choosing of ingredients by those who must pick and choose ) and because of this zippy vinaigrette from Bobby Flay’s Grilling for Life.  We made it first to serve on grilled lamb chops, but the drizzle required by that dish left plenty for salad a couple of days later. The oregano gives it a nice punch that paired well with the strong summer flavors in the salad.

We made up this salad, sat on the back deck in our t-shirts and shorts, all four of us shoeless and slightly sunburned and slowly picked the platters clean and watched the fireflies come out.  Summer indeed.

Oregano Vinaigrette

  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 3 tbsp. fresh oregano leaves, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/3 cup olive oil

Combine vinegar, oregano, garlic, honey, salt, and pepper in a blender and blend until smooth. With the motor running, slowly drizzle in oil and blend until emulsified.

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Couldn’t resist the sssssound of that title.  But let’s make this short and sweet.  This post is really by way of a public service announcement. Because, let’s face it, it’s not even August yet and the yellow summer squash . . . well, it just keeps on coming, doesn’t it? I like summer squash, really I do. I like it grilled. I like it julienned and fried in olive oil or butter until golden brown and almost crispy  (kind of like an almost good for you almost french fry). I like it in pasta, with sausage and feta or basil and cherry tomatoes. I like it in a gratin.  But lately, it seems to multiply in the crisper drawer. It’s voluntarily growing in the compost heap. Really, how’s a girl to keep up?

Before you begin to smuggle squash onto your neighbors’ doorsteps at night or start experimenting with whether the dog might like some, consider this soup from Alice Water’s The Art of Simple Food. This recipe pleases me in two ways. First, and, I hate to say it, most importantly right now, it uses up a significant amount of squash. Second, it’s light and a bit spicy. I usually think of squash soups as mellow, thick and almost meaty.  Fall food. This one is perfect for summer — it has a little zip and it goes down easy. Don’t neglect to make the yogurt garnish. It really adds to the soup. We had plenty of it, and it’s flavor deepened with a couple of days in the fridge, making it all even better as leftovers.

Spicy Summer Squash  Soup with Yogurt and Mint

Adapted from Alice Water’s The Art of Simple Food

For the soup:

1/4 cup olive oil

1 large onion sliced fine

A pinch of saffron

1 t ground coriander

1 t ground cumin

1 t sweet paprika

1/4 t tumeric

1/2 t cayenne pepper

2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced

5 medium summer squash, sliced into 3/4 inch slices (I used ten of the smallish ones that have been coming in the CSA box)

6 cups water, vegetable broth, chicken broth or a mixture.

For the garnish:

4 mint sprigs

2 T olive oil

2/3 cup yogurt

Salt

Heat the 1/4 cup oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot. Over medium heat, add the onion, garlic and spices. Stir frequently and cook until soft but not browned. If the garlic begins to brown, splash in a little stock to cool it down. When the onions are soft, add the squash and some salt and cook for about two minutes.  Then pour in the stock or water.  Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until the squash is tender (15-20 minutes). When the squah is tender, puree the soup in a blender or, even better, with an immersion blender , until it is very smooth. At this point, if you are going for an elegant presentation, you may wish to pass the soup through a sieve. I’ve done that and approved of the results, but I also like the one-dish-to-wash simplicity of using the immersion blender and then serving right from the pot. The soup can be gently reheated when you’re ready to serve. If it seems very thick, you may wish to thin it with some additional stock.

Before serving cut the mint leaves into a julienne. Take half of them and grind into a paste, whatever way you can achieve this (I don’t like this task, so my method is to hand the leaves and a mortar and pestle to my husband). Add the paste to the yogurt, olive oil and remaining mint and season with a little salt. Dollop onto the soup as you serve. Season with a squeeze of fresh lime. Feel relieved of the burden of squash until the next CSA pick-up.

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Something simple for supper


I enjoy using this blog for my musing on food and life and the spaces in between and for connecting with my food communities — the friends and comrades within walking distance and those in far flung places. I hope people enjoy reading it for all those reasons too.

But sometimes, dammit, it should just be about what to eat for supper. And this is what I ate the other night. Because I opened my March Gourmet magazine and said “ooh, that looks good and I have all the ingredients in the fridge.” And it was good, with a simple grilled steak and some roast potatoes. It would be really good with a roast chicken, as Gourmet recommends. The leftovers were good the next day, with a poached egg on top. The kicker? The leftover oil is lightly flavored and de-vine in salad dressing.

Carrot and Fennel Confit. It’s what’s for dinner

  • 2 medium carrots
  • 1 small fennel bulb, stalks discarded
  • 1 1/4 cups olive oil
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne
  • 2 (3-by 1-inch) strips lemon zest, very thinly sliced

Shave carrots with a vegetable peeler into very thin, wide ribbons. Quarter fennel bulb lengthwise, then very thinly slice lengthwise, or do as I did and slice the bulb on a mandoline slicer (watch the fingers!)

Heat oil with cayenne, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a 1-quart heavy saucepan over low heat until warm.

Add carrots, fennel, and zest and cook gently, without simmering, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are just tender. The original recipe recommends 15 to 20 minutes, but I found it took closer to half an hour. Drain oil into a bowl and transfer vegetables to another bowl to cool to room temperature.

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Feb. 1 — Update

I’m such a trend-setter. Over at the New York Times, they’re whipping up my chestnut polenta. Interesting to see the pros wrestling with the same questions I did. Where do you get chestnut flour? Do you eat those proscuitto ends from the ragu?

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This was supposed to be a post about the virtues of
making do with what you have, of cooking with available resources. of stretching the food budget a little bit further in these tough economic times. But, well, something got in the way of all that virtue. Chestnut flour.

So, first, flash back a few weeks to the A16 Ragu Alla Napoletana that filled my kitchen with such fine smells and my freezer with neat little tubs of left-overs. In our dual quest to use up the things around the house and to cook our way through the A16 cookbook, I lit upon the idea of a dinner of chestnut polenta with the ragu and eggs. Defrost the ragu, make sure I have some really good eggs on hand from the market and whip up some polenta. Easy and elegant.

Wait. Whip up some chestnut polenta. So, the means adding some chestnuts to it, perhaps at the end of cooking? Um, no. Chestnut flour, stirred in toward the end of the polenta process. OK, well, Michigan is one of the places in the country where chestnuts are making a significant come-back. Some local entrepreneur must be making chestnut flour, right? Well, not as far as couple of hours of intermittent online research and a couple of inquiries at local purveyors of hard-to-find ingredients indicates. After this investigation, the polenta had moved off the list of “spontaneous ideas for tonight’s dinner” and on to the list of “must make this because it’s a personal challenge.”

Back to the internet. Chestnut flour, it turns out, is available from a few Northwestern growers, Barry Farm in Ohio, imported from Italy and, of course, from Amazon. The native brands run about 7-9 dollars for a one pound bag: Italian chestnut flour costs upwards of fifteen dollars a pound. I settled on Allen Creek Farm for the scientific reason that it came up at the top of my Google search, and I like the kitchy cartoon chestnut guy on their homepage. Eight dollars isn’t so much to invest for dinner, is it, when the rest is leftover sauce, some polenta from the cupboard and a handful of eggs? Oh, well, there’s the eight dollar shipping charge.

Sixteen dollars and three days later, I had a bag of yellow chestnut flour in my possession. A day after that, we settled got down to the business of dinner. Once you’ve got the flour, the hard part is over. You just cook the polenta in the standard way, but late in the process, stir in a quarter cup of the chestnut flour. Yup, all that work for a quarter cup of flour. What it adds is a nutty sweetness, and also, I think, some resistance to thickening, so the polenta stays appealingly creamy. Meanwhile, bring the sauce to a simmer in a wide sauce pan and poach the eggs directly in the sauce. You want to make sure the yolks are still runny enough to break at the touch of your fork, spilling into the sauce and polenta, adding depth and richness. Grate some ricotta salata (or Parmesan is just fine, after all we’re making do with what we have . . . sort of) on top. If, like me, you want to enjoy the fact that you can get chestnuts in Michigan, roast a few and add at the end for both good looks and a nice contrast in textures. The resulting dish is both homey and sophisticated and great fare for a cold winter’s night. Maybe next time to be followed by A16′s Walnut and Chocolate Semifreddo with Chestnut Shortbread and Bittersweet Chocolate Sauce. Because, after all, I’ve got a lot of chestnut flour left over, and I need to be frugal. As soon as I get a line on a good source of tipo 00 flour.

Chestnut Polenta With Ragu Alla Napoletana, Eggs and Ricotta Salata

1 cup coarse-grind polenta

4 cups water

1 t kosher salt

1/4 cup chestnut flour

2 cups of ragu alla napoletana

Fresh basil leaves

Eggs, as many as you want to eat. (We did two per person as this was a main dish).

Extra virgin olive oil

Ricotta salata or other cheese suitable for grating over pasta

Combine the water and salt in a medium pot. Bring to a simmer and whisk the polenta steadily into the water for a few minutes until it comes together and has reached the boiling point. Turn the polenta down to a low simmer (just so that lava-like bubbles come to the surface now and then) and stir often with a wooden spoon. Cook for 30 minutes to as long as you like. The conventional wisdom is that the longer you cook polenta, the better it is, but don’t let it dry out. Add more water as necessary. Toward the end of cooking stir the chestnut flour and simmer for a few more minutes.

Truth be told, you could easily skip the chestnut flour, but I think the dish would lose some of its special quality. I also added some butter because, well, butter makes things better, doesn’t it?

As the polenta is finishing, warm the sauce and combine it with the basil. You may want to loosen it a bit with a little water. Crack the eggs one by one into the sauce, keeping them separate. Cover and cook at a medium-low heat for about 5 minutes, longer if you’re squeamish about runny eggs.

Serve the polenta into warm bowls and then gently slide a spoonful of ragu and the eggs on top. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil and some grated cheese. Nice with an Italian red wine, some crusty bread and a green salad.

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John and I have spent time separately and together in San Francisco’s A-16 , a place that manages to combine warmth and trendiness and that has never disappointed. Shana and I also went there a while back and wallowed in burrata and grilled pizza with chili oil and a softly fried egg and a number of other good things that have now faded into memory. So when I saw A-16 had come out with a cookbook, it was a natural gift pick this Christmas.

Over the holidays, John and I both spent a fair amount of time curled up with the book, poring over Italian wine tutorials, reading about various pastas and considering whether we were brave enough for the more exotic pig preparations. I actually challenged John to start one of those cook-the-book blogs where he cooked and wrote his way through the entire volume. I thought this was a fine idea (no personal gain in this for me, oh no), but he politely declined. Instead, we resolved to conspire on producing a number of its dishes over the next few months.

We’ll see if our energies match our ambitions, but we started off well, with a table full of friends and family on a cold winter’s night — big bowls of pasta, homemade ciabatta, spiced olives, generous glasses of red wine and lots of conversation.

John, my resident dough expert, manned the pasta production, kneading, rolling and cutting wide ribbons of maracararrona (a more complete post on that process another day). I was the mistress of the sauce. I wasn’t quite suspicious of the sauce, but I was curious about the effect of cooking a sauce with two and a half pounds of meat and then removing that meat. The effect, you ask? Wonderful. Rich, smooth and aromatic, somehow much more than your standard tomato sauce.

I highly recommend the whole experience — a long slow cook for a lazy winter’s day that makes the kitchen smell great and provides you with enough sauce for some meal when time is less in abundance.

And I have to close with a special shout-out to Bob Sparrow, our neighborhood butcher who, in this small Midwestern city could produce pork shoulder, pork belly and prosciutto ends without blinking an eye. He ruefully admitted to being out of pig’s trotters, but quickly hauled out a veal knuckle as a worthy substitute. I was happy to live in Ann Arbor that day.

Ragu Alla Napoletana

1 lb. boneless pork shoulder, cut into large chunks

1 pig’s trotter, left whole (or one veal knuckle), or 8 0z. pork belly cut into chunks

Kosher salt

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 red onion, halved

2 (28-oz) cans San Marzano tomatoes with juice

8 oz. proscuitto end pieces with skin intact, cut into large chunks

A-16 recommends seasoning the pork shoulder  and pig’s trotter with salt the night before, but if you’re like me you’ll forget to do this. The consequences are not grave.

In a large, heavy-bottmed pot, heat the olive oil over medium-low heat.  Add the onion halves, cut sides down, and brown gently until they are golden brown (this took about 20 minutes, and I had to keep turning the heat down. Remove the onion and discard (or save for some thrifty use; it’s purpose here is to flavor the oil).

Break the tomatoes into chunks and then add them, along with their juices and all the meat, to the pot. Add a few pinches of salt and bring the whole mess to a boil, stirring often.  When the sauce reaches a boil, turn it down about as low as the burner will go and cook at a low, low simmer for several hours. I cooked mine for five, and I don’t think longer would have hurt. Do not be tempted to skim the fat from the surface. It’s a source of great flavor. When it feels done or you can’t wait any longer, turn off the heat and let cool to room temperature with the meat still in the sauce.

Remove the meat from the sauce and set aside An aside here. I was puzzled about what to do withthe meat, but ended up eating it separately as a sort of stew. Some research indicates that in Naples it can also be passed around at the table with the pasta. The texture on the proscuitto is a bit chewy and the veal knuckle had a lot of fat. The pork shoulder was lovely.

Back to the business at hand. The ragu.  Before serving, prepare about a pound of pasta, dry, fresh, or if you’re ambitious tha t night (as we were), homemade. Meanwhile, bring about a cup and a half of the ragu to a simmer (there will be lots of ragu left-over), add a handful of fresh basil and a little pasta water. When the pasta is almost cooked, drain and add to the sauce. Toss well  and  cook for about a minute more.

To serve, add a slash of olive oil and some grated ricotta salata.

Serves 4 as a main course.

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Um, I don’t know if anyone’s noticed, but baby, well, it’s cold outside. Like snow day cold, like kerchief and cap and long winter’s nap cold, like the dog looks offended when I suggest that he go out cold, like effing cold.

So, I’m settling in. My slippers are in constant use. I’m breaking out some new pajamas. The larder is stocked and there’s a spare bottle of wine or two and a few DVDs around.  And I am making scramble.  Bring on the snow.

Scramble? Uh? What’s that?  You talking about that scrapple stuff they eat down south?

Scramble is a kind of Chex Mix on steroids, but somehow so much more than that description would suggest. It is, truthfully, an old family recipe. But one that has gone long neglected.

Last summer, when I was visiting my Mom, I borrowed the little hard-bound green linen colored notebook in which my father had laboriously written his recipes, many of which he had gotten from his mother-in-law, my maternal grandmother. Among them was the recipe for Scramble, a snack which I had entirely forgotten. But as soon as I saw the recipe, I remembered my diminutive grandmother standing in front of a roasting pan almost half her size and stirring up mound of cereals and salty stuff into a savory, crunchy snack. My grandfather used to scoop it into cleaned out margarine tubs and enjoy it with his late afternoon martini. Sometimes he added M and Ms, but to the rest of us this was heresy. We preferred our salt unadulterated.

Truth be told, I didn’t like Scramble that much as a child. I did like picking out the pretzels and sometimes nuts, but the rest I could give or take. I decided to make some up this Christmas mostly from nostalgia and to send off to my siblings to see if it stirred their own memories.

But for my adult self, it turns out to be surprisingly addictive, a wonder mass of savory saltiness with a pleasing blend of textures.  It’s great for grabbing on a quick, peckish pass through the kitchen and great for putting out (not in margarine tubs please!) with drinks. My children are more sophisticated than I was, I guess, as they are both quite happy to wolf it all down.  Nick recommends it for breakfast. First thing in the morning, he’s on his customary morning perch on the kitchen counter, batting his eyelashes and cooing  “Mama, could I have a little Scramble please?”

This is beyond easy to make, but a couple of caveats on ingredients. My grandmother’s  recipe calls for a “small box” each of cheerios, wheat chex, rice chex and pretzels. Well, in the greedy 21st century, I have no idea what the 1950′s (or so) considered a small box. And when was the last time you saw pretzels in a box? (Another memory flash of navy blue boxes of Mister Salty pretzels: I believe Mister Salty was a sailor — you know, an old salt). But my guess here of 4-6 cups seems about right for the amount of oil.  Speaking of the oil, I’ve swapped in canola for the Wesson suggested by the orginal recipe and that I believe was corn oil, with no discernible difference as far as my taste memory can tell.

Finally, the spices include garlic and onion salt, compounds that I’ve come to consider a bit of an abomination in recent years. What’s wrong with real garlic and real salt, for god’s sake? But hey,  it’s a snack mix; compromise your standards a bit.  I don’t think Alice Waters will be making any of this up. But I bet she wouldn’t mind some with a martini.

Scramble

4-6 cups Cheerios or other multigrain “O” cereal

4-6 cups Wheat Chex

4-6 cups Rice Chex

4-6 cups thin pretzel sticks

2 lbs. mixed nuts

2 cups canola oil

1 T worchester sauce

1 T onion salt

1 T garlic salt

1 T celery seed

Preheat oven to 200 degrees

Combine cereals, nuts and pretzels in a large roasting pan. Whisk together oil, worchester sauce and spices. Pour over dry ingredients and mix gently.  Bake for two hours in the oven, stirring occasionally, until aromatic and crispy.

This can be eaten warm (and at least a little of it should be), but there will be mountains of the stuff, so store in plastic bags, glass jars or storage tins.  Give away a lot of it or find yourself overstuffed and with greasy fingers, yet unable to resist going back to the kitchen for another handful.

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Roasted Romanescu

Or, What Do You Do With This Thing?

The wikapedia entry reads a bit like poetry at times — “the inflorescence has an approximate fractal character, with the branched meristems making a logarithmic spiral” — but a sort of scientific poetry that I don’t normally associate with the food on my table.

My first memory of seeing one of these was two or three years back when I ran into Shana at the farmer’s market one Saturday morning, and she brandished it at me like some sort of medieval weapon, exclaiming “this is just the coolest looking thing.” And it is.

Like sunflowers, artichokes and pine cones, the romanescu evinces a fibonacci sequence, and though I’ve never quite gotten the mathematical theory behind those, I know I’ve never seen one that I didn’t like.

My meandering research regarding romanescu today has led me to sources identifying it as variously romanescu and romanesco and, more, intriguingly, as both romanescu(o) cauliflower and romanescu(o) broccoli. I’m wondering if both broccoli and cauliflower fans want to claim it or if it’s more like the French calling the common household pest the German cockroach, while the Germans call the same little guy, you guessed it, the French cockroach.

Aesthetic appreciation aside, it was slightly daunting to open up the Thanksgiving farm share box last Saturday and say “oh, hmm, one of those.” (Naomi said “what is that thing?!”).  It was fun to photograph, but then the question remained — “what do I do with this?” And since the Tantre Farm handout indicated it was one of the more perishable items, I figured that I better answer that question for myself right quick.

So, reader, I roasted it.  A couple of years back I started roasting cauliflower, sometimes broken up and tossed with olive oil and salt, sometimes, with smaller heads, kept whole and basted with mustard, lemon juice and olive oil.  Roasting has made me quite fond of a vegetable I heretofore considered edible only when under a blanket of cheese sauce.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  Pull the leaves off the romanescu and use a knife to sort of pry out the core. Then use your fingers to pull apart the inflorescence (look Ma, using my new vocabulary) along the natural dividing lines, rendering the romanescu into manageable but still attractive pieces.  Toss with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and a couple of generous pinches of coarse salt. Roast about 40 minutes until some gold and even deep brown color flecks the green of the romanescu.  It will be slightly crunchy and quite delicious as is.  I snacked on some right out of the oven (snacked! On a vegetable sometimes called broccoflower — can you believe it?) but most got tossed with whole wheat penne, feta cheese and caramelized onions, with some toasted walnuts on top for the grown-ups who eat nuts. And that is a very nice way indeed to eat your vegetables and call it dinner.

If you are looking for a recipes a bit more formal than mine, here are a couple that seem appealing. You can, I gather, also use it in almost any recipe calling for broccoli or cauliflower. But make sure you choose something that will show off that fine logarithmic spiral.

Romanesco Broccoli and Parmesan Puree

Romanesco With Green Olives and Capers

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Overcoming Fear of Yeast


It snowed today. The first of what will no doubt be many days spent inside watching the white flakes and considering and rejecting various outdoor activities. The snow awoke in me the yearning for the aroma of warm bread baking drifting through the house . . . well actually, it awoke in me a  great deal of fear and shame. Last January, I made a measly four culinary New Year’s resolutions, and, well, here it is mid-November, and I’m only batting about 500.  I did make a few loaves of decent no-knead bread, but my yeast baking hasn’t advanced very far.

So, with the prospect of a gray November day ahead of me and the additional incentive of staying home to finally put paid to this cold, I pulled out Rose Levy Berenbaum’s The Bread Bible, a book that has made a handsome addition to my coffee table (note, not my kitchen) lately, and got to work.

I made her beginning “hearth bread,” trying for a sort of artisanal, open-crumbed loaf.  Since I still am paralyzed by Fear of Kneading (oh so many wasted loaves in my past . . . delightful smelling bricks, discarded after one slice), I used the dough hook on my Kitchenaid as an enabler, quelling my anxiety long enough to actually get the loaf in the oven. And you know, that makes it pretty darn easy. The resulting loaf was pretty rough looking, in a sort of hubba-hubba way, but tender and flavorful. Probably my best bread, in a not very successful bread-baking career.

This recipe is not difficult, but it does take the better part of a day, as it includes a fermentation step and three risings, as well as 30-40 minutes cooking. It has some interesting steps that made me feel like I was embarked upon rather a complicated adventure (put a cast iron skillet on the floor of the oven? Like, where? OK, substitute a loaf pan and wedge it between the coils in the heating element. Throw ice cubes in the heated pan? Say what?) but it’s really pretty simple if you read the recipe a few times and pay attention.  I didn’t and ended up using regular flour instead of bread flour without adjusting accordingly, but it was still all good. Very good, as a matter of fact.

Here are the steps, with a bit of commentary:

1. Make a sponge:

In a bowl, whisk together 1 cup bread flour , 1/4 cup of whole wheat flout, 3/8 t instant yeast, 1 1/4 t honey and 1 1/3 cups of water at room temperature.  Mix until very smooth, about two minutes, and set aside covered with plastic wrap.

2. Make flour mixture:

Whisk together 1 3/4 cups plus 2 T bread flour (add, ahem, another 1/3 cup of if using reguar unbleached flour), and 1/2 t instant yeast.

3. Combine:

This is interesting. Just scrape the flour mixture on top of the sponge, cover with plastic again, and set it aside at room temperature. No mixing.  In the next couple of hours, the sponge will ferment up over the flour.  I left mine for two hours, which was successful, but apparently the longer the better. Four hours would be good.

4. Mix:

With a dough hook, mix the dough-in-process for about a minute (at #2 on a Kitchenaid), put the plastic wrap back on and set aside for 20 minutes. Then sprinkle 1 1/2 t salt on top of the dough and knead with the dough hook for about seven minutes (using setting #4 on the Kitchenaid).

5. First rise:

Scape the dough into an oiled bowl and oil the top. Cover with plastic wrap again (I kept using the same piece over and over) and set in a warm place to rise. If you are lucky enough to have a sauna that you have used earlier in the day, that’s a great place for the dough.  OK, doesn’t apply to many of you, but it works at our house.

6. Second rise:

When the dough has doubled in size, take it out, put it on a floured surface, and pat it down into a rectangle. Fold the rectangle up as if you were folding a letter, then round the edges. Put it back in the bowl, put the plastic wrap back on, and put it back in the sauna. Well, wherever.

7. Get the oven going:

Preheat the oven to 475. If you have a baking stone, put it in on the lowest rack. If you don’t, put a sheet pan on the rack. Somehow wedge a small, heat-proof pan onto the floor of your oven.

8. Shaping and third rise:

After another hour or so when the dough has redoubled, take it out and put it on a floured surface. Gently shape it into a ball.  Transfer the ball to a small cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Oil it one more time, cover it with that ratty old piece of plastic wrap and let it rise for another 45 minutes to an hour. You don’t need the sauna this time.

9. Cook the damn thing, finally.

Right before cooking, slash the top (decoratively if you can) with a sharp knife and mist the top with water. Put the cookie sheet on top of the baking stone or sheet pan.  Gingerly toss some ice cubes into the pan in the bottom of the oven, shut the door and wait while things start to smell good.  After ten minutes, turn the oven down to 425.  The bread is done when it reaches an internal temperature of 200 degree.  Berenbaum says this will be another 20-30 minutes, but mine took less than 15 more (or 25 total).

10. Cool:

On a wire rack.  All the way. Really. When finally cool, slice a piece off, coat with butter and celebrate your fearlessness.

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A Sweet Something

I am having a little bit of a problem of abundance right now.  There’s still all those really wonderful seasonal ingredients rolling into the market, and I can’t keep up (must eat some more tomatoes, must get one more melon, oh, what about all that squash in the farm share??). The problem is compounded by the ever-increasing list of dishes that I must make at least once a year. You know, I have to revisit the tortino di melanzane, and there’s pasta pepperonata to be eaten, and what’s September without some sort of plum dessert? But I want to try new things too, and I hear the siren song of braised pork shoulder with quince and duck aux framboises . . . and if they’re as good as they sound, then I’ve got a problem, because the roster of Dishes that Must Be Revisited will grow ever longer. What’s a girl to do?

Well, what this girl did this Saturday, as we settled on a dinner of grilled salmon with warm balsamic bacon vinaigrette on a bed of arugula  (with some killer roasted French fingerlings on the side)  — a favorite that appears a couple times of year on our table and that blends a late summer freshness of flavor with enough warmth to feel like a real supper on a cool night — was to say “well, at least I can make a new dessert.”

And now I’m in trouble because it’s a keeper.  It was quick and easy and the aroma of baking pear made the kitchen redolent of autumn. And, pared down (forgive the pun) to a dessert for two it was just so sweet (sorry, again) tucked into its little souffle dish. Plus it’s great with ice cream.  It’s a perfect dish for two, but you might want to be a little stingy on the portions and then shove the serving dish quickly out of sight. Because it’s almost more perfect for one, cold, with espresso, for breakfast.

Perfect Pear Crisp for Two

(adapted from a recipe at Epicurious from Claudia Fleming of Gramercy Tavern)

1/4  cup dried Michigan cherries
Water or red wine, such as a pinot noir, enough to cover the cherries
2 ripe pears, peeled, cored, and sliced
2 T granulated sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 T ground almond meal (the original recipe calls for toasted almonds, broken up, which would add more crunch, but I was making do with what was on hand)
1 T packed dark brown sugar
Dash of ground cinnamon
Dash of ground nutmeg
2 T cold unsalted butter cut into a small dice

In a small saucepan, cover cherries with wine or water. Bring to a boil and turn off. Leave to plump, anywhere from half an hour to overnight.

In a bowl, combine pears, cherries and their soaking liquid, and the granulated sugar. Let sit for half an hour until the pears juice up  nicely.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a medium bowl, combine the rest of the ingredients. Work the butter into the flour with a pastry cutter, a couple of knives, or your fingertips until the dry mixture resembles coarse cornmeal.

Layer the pears and cherries, with their juices, into a two or three cup soufffle dish, or into two smaller ramekins.  Spread dry mixture on top.  Cook until browned, warm and bubbly, 40-45 minutes.  Eat warm or at room temperature. Or cold. For breakfast. See above.

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