Saturday, May 23, 2009

It takes a little thyme

You wouldn't know that it's almost summer here in San Francisco. I know it seems like I have been obsessed with the weather recently, but the ups and downs in the thermometer are more than a native Southern Californian who spent five years on the Peninsula can handle sometimes. Don't get me wrong: I'm delighted that it was warm when JB and J and R were visiting from the East Coast last weekend, but did it really have to be over a hundred degrees in Napa when we ate lunch at Bouchon? And then did the high today in San Francisco, a mere six days later, really have to be fifty-four?

At least the produce in the grocery store and our CSA box is reflecting the warm weather and not the cold. Apricots and cherries are starting to share space with the ever-present citrus and apples in the fruit displays. The tomatoes, while lacking the intensity of flavor and juiciness of the midsummer specimens, have been quite serviceable. I've made these delicious pomodori al forno several times recently, and a simple caprese salad is on the menu for tomorrow night's dinner.

And tonight, before I trudge into the hospital for yet another night shift (I never know when to eat! And I feel like a zombie during the day! And I get confused about the date, which is problematic when I'm asking my patients orientation questions! And in the middle of the night I'm overly enticed by sale items on the J. Crew website!), we're having a tomato tart. I love a tart in general, and savory tarts are particularly under-appreciated. They make a beautiful appetizer, or I like to serve a slice with a garden salad for a light lunch or dinner. B likes to call this tart a "pizza pie," since many of the ingredients are the same, and he thinks that the origin of pizza might be in this very tart.

First, start with a basic pastry dough. I used to use (horrors!) a few tablespoons of vegetable shortening to complement the butter in my crust, which is based on Julia Child's pate brisee. But one day I ran out of Crisco, and loath to run to the store to buy more (I mean, who wants to be seen with Crisco as the only item in their cart?), I made it without. The crust was perhaps a little more brittle when cooked, and the dough wasn't quite as smooth to work with, but simple butter was enough fat to make a sturdy, all-purpose crust. I use this pastry dough for lots of applications: quiche crust (unadulterated), pie crust (add a tablespoon of sugar), and, with a teaspoon of thyme or your favorite dried herb, tomato tart.

This tomato tart is based on a recipe from Gourmet, but I've adapted it considerably. And you can adapt it further too, simply depending on your mood. Sometimes I dot the top with pitted olives and/or goat cheese; sometimes I use Gruyere instead of Monterey Jack; sometimes I add a smashed clove of garlic to the onions while they cook. Regardless of the variations tried, the flavor of the tomatoes concentrates and sweetens in the oven, and marries beautifully with the caramelized onions.

Make sure to serve the tart warm (reheat in the microwave or oven if necessary); it's really best that way. The basic recipe follows. Enjoy...with the New York Times or without!

Beginning-of-Summer Tomato Tart
Adapted from Gourmet, May 1995

Serves 6-8 as an appetizer
Time: 30 min active, 90 minutes total

For the pastry dough:
1 c. flour
1 t. salt
1 t. dried thyme, herbes de provence, or another savory herb
5 T. cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3 to 5 T. ice water

For the filling:
1 T. olive oil
2 small onions
1/2 lb. Monterey Jack cheese, grated
3 medium tomatoes, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
1/2 t. dried thyme
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 425. In a medium bowl, mix together flour, salt, and thyme. Cut the butter into the flour mixture with a pastry blender, two knives, or your fingers until the texture is that of coarse breadcrumbs. Mix in just enough ice water for the dough to form a mass, and turn onto a lightly floured board. Use the heel of your hand to push the dough away from you on the board to blend the butter and flour together; repeat 2-3 times. Roll the dough out to a 12 to 13-inch circle and place dough in a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Fold excess dough over the edge to make the crust, and prick the bottom with a fork several times. Chill the dough for 10 minutes in the freezer, or overnight in the refrigerator. Then place a sheet of parchment covered with dried beans or pie weights inside the tart and bake for 12 to 15 minutes until edges just begin to brown. Remove parchment and pie weights, and bake for an additional two to three minutes.

While the crust bakes, heat olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Slice the onions and saute for 10 to 15 minutes until golden, stirring frequently.

After the crust is pre-baked, place the onions evenly over the bottom. Then cover with cheese, and arrange tomatoes in overlapping concentric circles. Sprinkle with thyme, salt, and pepper. Lower oven temperature to 375, and bake until cheese is bubbling, tomatoes are a deep red, and crust is golden, approximately 50 to 60 minutes.

P.S. Thanks to my mom for the inspiration to make tomato tart!

P.P.S. Guest blog from JB should be posted soon.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Red Hot Chile Peppers (2)

Recently I've been thinking about red peppers and jam. Though I wrote about them independently, I had also been thinking about how it would be nice to make a batch of red pepper jam. So, this past Sunday, when I had an unexpected reprieve from inpatient medicine (long story involving low-acuity admissions on our call night and good discharge planning by the interns, ultimately leading to a very short day for me at the hospital), I came home with visions of red peppers dancing in my head. First, I made lunch and read the Sunday New York Times. (Even though reports indicate that all the newspapers are dying, and even though I read the NYT online daily, I adore the smell of newsprint as I open up the pages made out of real paper each weekend. Plus, it's easier to see the photos in the Weddings section compared to the online interface.) Then, I got to work on the jam.

I started by cleaning the jam jars. Actually, let me back up: I started by accumulating a number of jam jars over the years, some purchased from the grocery store and some inherited from my mom via jam-that-has-been-consumed. All the jars have Ball lids. My mom swears that the Kerr lids, though the two companies are now owned by the same conglomerate, are inferior. The Ball lids can be used time after time after time (and mine have been!). Edited to add: After reading this blog post, my mom (an expert canner) wants me to add that she doesn't reuse lids, usually because they are bent from being pried off. The jars and lids can be cleaned in the dishwasher, or with plenty of warm soapy water.

Then, I started coarsely chopping the red bell peppers and serranos so they would be easier to puree. I made a double recipe, and I needed three rounds of blending in my two-quart Cuisinart (the peppers blend a little more easily if you add some of the vinegar to the Cuisinart bowl). Then I combined the pepper puree with the remaining ingredients (sugar and salt) and simmered on the stove for forty-five minutes, stirring infrequently. Jam made without pectin is a very no muss, no fuss process. You can stop here if you plan to consume the jam within the next week or so. However, if you've just made a double recipe, you probably want to save some for later.

The last step (and by far the most intimidating for the novice canner) is processing the jam so that it will keep. And I mean KEEP: for months or even years. I'm envisioning placing a few emergency jars in your earthquake-preparedness larder for a post-disaster gourmet treat. (Hmmm, B and I really should prepare our earthquake kit sometime. We have a cool flashlight that you can power by shaking intermittently, and a hand-crank radio, and water, but no food.) But getting back to the processing: this is not a scary procedure. I will walk you through it.

Once the jam has been made, the next step in ensuring its longevity is to ladle the hot jam into the cleaned jars, wiping any spillage around the edge with a clean cloth; then center the (Ball) lid on top, and tighten the screw-top. Afterwards, I place the jars in my biggest soup pot, which I have filled with enough boiling water to cover the jars, and leave them there, rattling away, for ten minutes. With tongs (preferably the special canning kind), remove the jars from the boiling water and place them on a heatproof surface and wait for the ping as the lid tightens (pressure-volume physics in action!). After a few minutes, check each lid by pressing in the center; if it doesn't spring back, you're ready for an earthquake. If it does, you can try re-processing the jam in the boiling water for ten minutes, but if that doesn't work, like I said above, you should eat the jam within a week or so.

But this whole jam-making process that I've described assumes that you want to make red pepper jam. To the un-indoctrinated, red pepper jam sounds unappetizing, a misnomer; jam is for strawberries and apricots and plums, for breakfast and scones and toast. To the indoctrinated, however, it is the perfect whip-up-at-the-last-minute appetizer. The sweetness of the bell peppers comes through with each bite, but the hot peppers provide a little kick that lingers. The jam is, in my opinion, best served with cream cheese and crackers, though I know R has tried it on toast and B loves it so much that he has tried it on everything from goat cheese (too tangy for this purpose, I think) to ravioli (too weird!). I have heard that M is working on making red pepper jellies for A&K's wedding favors, and they sound like a solid (or semi-solid) version of this jam.

Seeing some of the jam I made over the weekend in the picture below makes my heart swell with a sense of accomplishment. Jam is durable. Ready for an earthquake, a hasty hostess present, an afternoon snack. Enjoy!

Red Pepper Jam
Recipe from my maternal grandmother

Makes about 3 cups (20-24 oz.)
Time: 30 min active, 90 min total

4 red bell peppers, cored and seeded
4 jalapeno or serrano chiles, halved and seeded
2/3 c. white or cider vinegar
1 c. sugar
1 t. salt

Coarsely chop bell peppers. Puree bell peppers, chiles, and vinegar in a Cuisinart or blender. Place mixture in a 3 or 4-quart saucepan along with sugar and salt, and simmer for 45 minutes or until thickened to desirable consistency, stirring occasionally. Process jam for ten minutes.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A little bit of white powder

I'm not going to talk today about the kind of white powder that you ski on. And not the type that some of my patients smoke. (In a similar vein, several years ago when we went to Jackson, WY with J and other B, the TSA woman at SFO did suspect that I was transporting illicits when she searched my luggage and found several Ziplocs filled with white powder. Quite obviously these packages were not illegal. We were going to stay in a condo with a kitchen, and she had simply unearthed my carefully pre-measured and well-labeled scone mixes! Let's just say the look she gave me as I attempted to explain this happenstance suggested that the legality of my bags full of white powder was not immediately obvious to the outside observer.)

No, today I'm going to write about powdered sugar, a delicious white powder. Oh, powdered sugar, how I love thee! You taste deliciously sweet and provide an aesthetically-appealing topping for cakes and cookies.

Sometimes, when I make French toast, first I put powdered sugar, then maple syrup, then some lightly-sugared berries on top; B thinks I could easily cut out the powdered sugar from the sugary mess that I've created, but somehow I just can't do it. The powdered sugar may have a poorly-defined role amidst all the other forms of sweetness, but I still think it's necessary. And besides, my teeth can take it! I didn't get my first cavity until I was 25, and I think it was related more to the fact that I hadn't been to the dentist in two years (one of the dirty secrets of medical training is that the health and dental coverage for tomorrow's physicians is generally abysmal).

Powdered sugar's characteristic of creating attractive toppings is crucial for the success of the hazelnut thumbprint cookies I made yesterday. They're similar in feel to Mexican wedding cookies (I haven't found a good recipe for those bits of powdery goodness yet). The thumbprint cookies are from an easy recipe that I adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Baking, the final product of which is fancy enough to be served at a tea party, but quick enough to be whipped up for a tea party that you were given late notice for. In fact, I found the recipe one day while flipping the pages looking for a recipe that didn't require chilling for several hours, and this was one of the only ones that fit the bill (I'm often in a rush). Hers in particular look very chichi.

The powdered sugar makes them look completely put-together, like the perfect handbag that manages to finish an entire outfit. The hazelnuts provide crunch and character. And the jam that fills the thumbprint? That's sort of like the maple syrup on top of the French toast, a little bit of bonus sweetness to complement the powdered sugar.

Mine look terribly home-made in comparison (there was a powdered sugar shaker malfunction), but I wasn't taking them to any tea parties; they were just a treat for my somewhat indiscriminate residency colleagues at work. Here they are cooling, before I bundled them up into a Tupperware for the walk to the hospital. They don't look too bad, if you don't compare them directly to the food styling of Dorie's above. Besides, I guarantee that they taste delicious.

Dorie Greenspan's original recipe calls for equal parts hazelnuts and flour, but I prefer the cookies with a little bit more hazelnut. She says you can try other nuts, but the dough I made a few weeks ago using ground almonds with her proportions was so dry that I had to add a few tablespoons of water so that it would stick together enough to be rolled into balls. It's a time-saver to prepare the hazelnuts ahead of time: toast them in the oven for 10 minutes or so at 450 degrees, shaking the pan occasionally, until fragrant and starting to darken; then, while they are still warm, put them inside a dish towel and rub vigorously to try to remove some of the skins (though you needn't be perfect about the skin removal step). The prepared hazelnuts will keep, in a sealed container at room temperature or in the freezer, for months.

As for jam, really any flavor will do. I have used several different jams in these, but what you see above is one of my favorites: apricot-plum. My mother is a big jam-maker who rarely uses the same combination of component fruits twice (each of the 129 place settings at our wedding had, as a party favor, an 8-oz jar filled with some homemade jammy concoction), so I usually have plenty of jam on hand. Who knows what new flavors the coming summer harvest and subsequent fruit-processing will bring! All I know is that I have a new way to enjoy jam and powdered sugar together with these cookies. Maybe offering a thumbprint cookie to that surly TSA officer would have made my trip through security with my bags of white powder a little less painful. Or maybe not. Regardless, enjoy!

Hazelnut Thumbprint Cookies
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Baking

Makes 25-30 cookies
Time 20 min active, 1 hour total

1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 c. sugar
1/2 t. vanilla extract
1/4 t. almond extract (optional)
1 c. hazelnuts, toasted and with skins partially removed, then finely ground
3/4 c. all-purpose flour
powdered sugar, for dusting
1/2 c. jam, such as apricot-plum

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.

Beat the butter and sugar together with a hand mixer in a medium bowl, until light and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes. Blend in the extracts. Add the hazelnuts and flour and mix until just incorporated. The dough should be dry but able to hold its shape; add a tablespoon or more of flour if it is too wet.

Roll a generous teaspoonful of dough between your palms to form a ball. Place balls at least two inches apart on the baking sheets. Repeat with remaining dough. Then, steadying each ball between your thumb and first two fingers, use the end of a wooden spoon to poke a hole in the center of each cookie.

Bake for 15 minutes, or until very lightly browned, rotating the cookie sheets halfway through. Transfer to a cooling rack and sprinkle powdered sugar (generously, if desired).

Heat jam on the stove or in the microwave until easy to spoon. Fill the indentations with jam. Allow to cool. Cookies will keep for several days with the same texture if tightly sealed.

P.S. Happy birthday, JB!