Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Everybody's doing it ... clafouti, that is

Well, clafouti recipes are popping up all over this time of the year, because of all the fresh fruit. Clafouti's a very french dessert, but I'm not picky. This one's turned out to be a particular hit; I got the main ideas for it from some TV show, I think. One of the main differences with many recipes around for this is that I use cream, where most call for some blend of half-and-half and milk, with sometimes a little cream. I'm not sure it makes a huge difference, but it stands to reason that it would make some. The other is the fruit I use.

Sometimes I remember to butter and sugar my Pyrex dish, sometimes I don't. Doesn't seem to make a huge amount of difference with the fruit I currently use. Now, the fruit ...

The recipe is traditionally made with cherries. I like to eat fresh cherries, but I've never been overly fond of them cooked. not sure why .... I started making this clafouti dish the current summer, when I was looking for an alternative to crumble. So far I've mostly gone with strawberries, rhubarb and blueberries. I like the mix of sweet and sour here, a lot. For the quantities below, I do about one to one and a half punnets of strawberries, just washed and halved, the bigger ones., a small container of blueberries (approx half a pound), and two thirds of a pound of rhubarb - also approximately. The strawberries and blueberries I just throw in. The rhubarb I wash and chop without shaking off too much moisture, toss in a bowl with sugar to taste (any sugar you like, won't make a difference) and nuke in the microwave for three to five minutes, depending on quantity. It needs to start falling apart, or at least be soft. You really can't cook it too much, but if you're not careful it will explode in the microwave ......

I take a normal-sized pyrex dish and maybe remember to butter it, and sprinkle some sugar in it, or maybe not ...... you can go with the extra large one by upping the strawberries to two containers, and the rhubarb to one pound or a little more, and upping the dose of the paste ingredients below by one third-ish. I then throw the fresh fruit in it, and take my nuked rhubarb and spread it on top.

I then turn the over on at 375. Now, the batter ... clafouti is basically a form of sweet crepe batter. Here's what I use, more or less

1/3 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs (or 3 extra large), at room temperature - I mostly find large eggs at the market
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups cream (I do a little less if I have four large eggs as opposed to 3XL)
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
some grated lemon zest (half, to 2 lemons, depending on your taste)
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons of your liqueur of choice (tried Grand Marnier, and Vin Santo, both worked really well)

I beat the eggs and sugar until fluffy - easy to do this with a stand mixer at med-high speed and the paddle attachment. With a whisk it might be a bit of a strain, but I'd say go at it for three or four minutes. Add everything else, and mix thoroughly, at low speed in the stand mixer. That is it. pour it in, and dump it in the preheated over for about 35 minutes, maybe a little more. You want it to brown a bit on top.

I've eaten this cold, with a spoon scraping through the pan. It's that good. But, if you want to top it with something, my favorite is creme fraiche (and a bit of confectioner's sugar). This works fine warm - in fact you probably want it to settle for a half hour or so before you pull it out. Or even room temperature. If you serve it on the warmer side, there's always your favorite ice cream.
Fruit wise, I think you can make this with pretty much everything. Now that the Chico folks selling blueberries at the Ferry building are done for the year, and rhubarb is almost through as well, I'll probably try peaches or nectarines. Pears will be great in winter, and cooked apples would also be a hit, I'd bet. You could match the liqueur to the fruit - peach schnapps, anyone? You could melt some chocolate in a double boiler with a touch of milk, reduce your batter a bit, and pour the chocolate in after the batter, and swirl it around, as suggested in our local paper just this last week.

Bottom line, this is really easy to do, and I can imagine lots of things that would work with it. Have fun ....

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Eggplant pasta, California Style

Pasta with fried eggplant and tomato sauce is a big favorite in the
south of Italy. Traditionally, you will cube, flour and fry the eggplant, then mix with tomato sauce (however you like that made) and mozzarella. It's a wonderful dish, if a bit heavy.

So, when I bought my first eggplant of the summer last Saturday at the market, I though about this dish. For about five minutes. Aside from the fact that it is a bit on the rich side, it does take a bit long to make, especially right now that I am out of my yearly stock of frozen tomato sauce. So I ended up making a quick version of this last night - this is almost a "do it while the water boils and the pasta cooks" recipe.

For a pound/500gr pack
of pasta...

four eggplant of the mediterranean variety, but not huge ones. When I slice them in rounds, from the top, most slices came out in "triangles" at no more than an inch in size. Basically, you're cubing this eggplant into pieces of no more than an inch on any side.
a basket of cherry tomatoes
couple of good size cloves of garlic
olive oil
favorite herbs and spices

well, let's start with that. I put the water on to boil, and heated a 12" nonstick pan on a medium to high flame, poured a generous amount of oil, to cover the bottom of the pan, and placed half of the eggplant in the pan to saute. I did this in two turns, since I want all pieces to come into contact with the pan at any one time. Be careful when putting the eggplant in - I managed to splash some hot oil on my hands, and the usual round of italian (no, tuscan) expletives came into play.

I salted the eggplant, to taste, tossed to coat all the pieces with at least some oil, and it almost immediately got soaked up. I then let it cook, turning regularly, and added some thyme. Meantime I finely minced two cloves of garlic, and cubed the rest of the eggplant. After about ten minutes, the eggplant's looking good, starting to let some of the oil out again, and I added half the garlic in. Cook for another couple of minutes, turn off, remove the eggplant, top up oil as needed and repeat for the second batch of eggplant. By the time both are done, your water will be at a rolling boil, your eggplant all cooked, and we're ready to put the pasta in.

While the pasta is cooking, halve all the cherry tomatoes. About four/five minutes before the end, add more olive oil to the re-heated eggplant pan, medium heat, and throw the cherry tomatoes in for about two minutes. You don't want them to break down completely - just to soften, and release some of their liquid into the oil - good pasta sauce. At this point, you could add some chili powder or peppers, or even some thinly sliced or chopped jalapeno. Whatever you like for heat.

Throw all the eggplant in after a couple of minutes, to reheat it, and proceed to drain the pasta, not too vigorously, you want some of the water to stay with the pasta, it will help build the sauce. Put the pasta in the eggplant pan, and toss, while keeping a very low heat.

Now, you could leave it at this, dust with your favorite hard cheese, and have a pretty good meal. Traditionally, you add mozzarella - you could certainly add a half pound of that if you had it around. My wife rightly pointed out that our buffalo mozzarella would be wasted in this dish, as the mozzarella's a little too delicate to stand up to the flavors, and you know, using buffalo mozzarella for texture's a bit of an extravagance.

So, we went with some fontina (actually, Bra Tenero from our favorite cheese shop), about a quarter of a pound, frozen for about twenty minutes, then grated. Once you've mixed the pasta as above, turn off the heat, add the cheese and mix again. You actually end up with a lot less cheese than in a standard mozzarella recipe, it is less noticeable to the sight (mozzarella would naturally thread itself throughout the dish), but the flavor the cheese imparts is more pronounced and I think overall much better. You can still add some grated cheese if desired. This certainly was a big hit last night, and I predict we'll be eating a lot of eggplant this way all summer.

As soon as the San Marzano start rolling into the market, I'll get to making tomato sauces again and try this
with the sauce instead of the cherry tomatoes. Still, with the cherry tomatoes as good as they are right now, this is a wonderful dinner, and really pretty much doable while you boil and cook the pasta.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Castagnaccio - The original energy bar

A few weeks ago I made Castagnaccio, a classic "cake" from the Tuscany hill/mountain regions. I love the "recipe" for this - it's basically chestnut flour, water, olive oil and a pinch of salt. Castagne are chestnuts in Italian.

Chestnut flour was a real staple in the mountain areas north of Lucca, Garfagnana, and in the hill and mountain regions south of Siena. Boriana, the store in the Ferry building which imports goods from the Montalcino areas in Tuscany, carries both Chestnut flours, Farina di Castagne and Farina di Marroni. They aren't substantially different. I also used to buy it from a deli in San Mateo, Stangelini, which only had it seasonally ... I assumed it was local stuff.

For me castagnaccio was Sunday night dinner in winter. My father would go hunting, south of Siena, and come back every Sunday night with chestnut flour, usually sold in bar/deli places in small towns in the countriside, called "spacci" or "appalti", which would carry some local product along the usual fare one found in these places. He'd come home, throw the flour in a bowl, add a tablespoon of olive oil and a pinch of salt, and start to pour water in and stir. There is no fixed amount ... you just pour until the consistency of the mix starts to get liquid, but still coats the spoon.

You then pour it out into a dish that you have greased and floured, drizzle with olive oil and add a handful of your favourite nuts. You then bake this until it dries out. This preparation is most likely thousands of years old - it makes an excellent snack, and needs no special procedure to conserve it other than observing basic hygiene rules. There's no eggs, dairy or perishable product in this recipe - so I bake it and keep it in the oven for a few days, until we finish it. It really is the original energy bar - allegedly the romans used it as such. Chestnut flour's pretty rich and heavy, too, so this really does fill you up.

In baking, the choice of dish will affect the texture of the result considerably. The outside, if you cook this for a good while, will form a crust and crinkle up. If like me you consider this the best part of the whole thing, you will want a big dish, so you can spread the mix out thinly. If you pour it out thicker, the inside of the castagnaccio will resemble a polenta like consistency - there is no baking going on here. It's basically just a different dish. There is indeed a tradition of making polenta with chestnut flour (known in some places as "pattona").

I got thinking about this dish again last Saturday because at this time of the year we have sheep's milk ricotta at Cowgirl Creamery - and that is the perfect complement to serve with castagnaccio. It's the other staple of mountain life in Garfagnana. My other experience with chestnut flour was of "necci", which are basically the same mix as castagnaccio, but a little denser, prepared as a crepe, and rolled with a sheep's milk ricotta filling. It's the best dessert without sugar I have ever had ....

Making necci is a pain, since the paste is thicker, and gets basically squeezed and cooked/dried out between two cast iron plates (known as "testi") in a process that is a little too complicated for your average Saturday night dessert. So I stick with castagnaccio for now, and top it with ricotta whipped up with a bit of cream and some confectioner's sugar. Approximate proportions might be half a pound of flour to two cups of water to start with, or 250gms flour to half a liter of water. But keep an eye on the water as you pour.

If you like chestnuts this is a wonderful dessert. You can certainly substitute any ricotta for Bellwether's sheep's milk stuff, or indeed top this with anything you like, but ricotta really is the real deal here. enjoy ....

Friday, July 13, 2007

Oh Toro, my Toro

Well, I'm not trying to be a review site here, just post recipes, but the other night I took an Eastern European colleague for dinner at Sakae, in Burlingame - probably my favorite sushi place in the Bay Area. He insisted on ordering this:

This is Oh Toro, high quality fatty tuna belly. It was by far the best single piece of sushi I have ever eaten in my life (in fact, I had already eaten mine!) tho' I'm not sure I would usually pay the price. He insisted ... it's the second time this has happened to me ;)

So I'm saving the picture he sent me, as a reminder. Sushi does not get any better than this. It's creamy, delicate, very tender and not at all fish-like in taste.

It was, basically, dessert.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Easy Peasy ...

Pasta with ham and peas ... easy peasy, but I never make it the same way, and this time it turned out quite nicely, so I'm going to write it down.

You need

cooked ham (slices or steak both work - I prefer it sliced, not too thin)
a very small amount of onion - one torpedo is fine
oil/salt/usual condiments
white wine if desired
parmesan cheese - or whichever cheese you prefer

So, chop onion finely and saute with olive oil and a little salt - easy on the salt until the ham's gone in and you have a sense of how much salt you'll need overall. Medium heat.
Now ... if the peas are fresh (as they are at this time of the year) add them next, saute them a little, then add the ham. The peas need to cook, basically. If they are frozen, you can either add them frozen to the pan, have them defrost and let the water dry a little before adding ham, or defrost, drain and add after the ham has heated up some.

Add a splash of wine to taste, then cook it down, and add cream, again to taste. Went light on the cream last night, and it was good nonetheless. Make sure there is some liquid left in the pan.

About 1/2 pound of peas and three largeish slices of ham make abundant sauce for half a pound of pasta. The rest you should probably adjust to taste. Once pasta is cooked, drain and toss into the sauce pan, adding some cheese to toss, with more cheese available to put on top. If the pasta is dry, add a little water you cooked the pasta with. I tend to drain not too vigorously, then put the strainer over the pasta pan so some liquid collects at the bottom of that pan.

Timing is perfect ... up to adding the wine can be done easily while the water is boiling. Cooking down the wine and the cream will take no more than 10 minutes (OK to raise the temperature a bit if you need to accelerate at this stage) - so can be done while the pasta is cooking. This is the perfect dish to be done in less than half an hour.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Start as you mean to go on ....

So ... let's start with our Fourth of July dessert ... the Budino di Semolino, and the spinach spread.

The basic idea is to take semolina flour, and make it nice, creamy and rich, turning it into a flan like dessert. You really are going to be using the very flour you make pasta with. A basic list of ingredients would include

semolina flour
baking powder

This is a three stage flan, first you cook semolino into a cream, you cool it (overnight if possible) secondly you mix it up into a batter, and finally you make some caramel, coat a pan and pour the batter into it & bake. Optional ingredients (I never do without) are lemon rind, and some vanilla essence.

OK, stage 1, cooking the semolina flour ...

The proportions are 1/2 litre of milk (approx 1 pint or two cups) to five tablespoons of sugar and 7 tablespoons of semolina into a pan. Add a pinch of salt, and lemon rind to taste. If you buy nice unwaxed tasty lemons, half a lemon's worth will be OK, or you could do a whole one. This needs to be slowly brought to a simmer, cooked for 10 minutes or until it starts to get creamy, while constantly stirring. You really need to keep stirring this. Spoon or whisk (I use a small whisk). Then, let it cool overnight, if possible. You can't mix it into the batter otherwise.

Once cooled, for stage 2 you want to

mix 100 grams of butter with two tablespoons of sugar. I've tried to mix it softened in a stand mixer, or melted. In the end, it really needs to be melted, you won't get the perfect result any other way. Then add three whole eggs, a "pinch" of baking powder, a teaspoon of vanilla if you like, and once these are incorporated, the semolina mix, and incorporate all together until fairly uniform. It might be a bit grainy because of the flour type - that's fine. If you have a mixing stand, use it.

A note on the "pinch" - this is an aleatory quantity, italian-cooking style, which I've tried out in various ways, and I have reached the conclusion that you want to go for less here, not more. When I do this in a bundt pan, I double up the quantities, and if pinch is interpreted as teaspoon (doubled up), it really is too much. The batter will rise souffle-like, but won't turn out well, and then sort of collapse, since the mix is really too heavy for it. So I'm going to go for 1/4 teaspoon for the quantities above. Then again, collapse or not, this stuff smells and tastes great, and ends up getting swiped out of existence any way it turns out.

Now, the final preparation - 3tbs of powdered sugar and "some" vin santo, melted in a pan and caramelized. Use to coat a bundt, pour batter into it afterwards, and bake at 400 F for at least an hour, to an hour and fifteen, until the top is nicely coloured. Take out of the oven, and turn it out onto a plate if you can, as soon as possible. It it doesn't come out too well, just turn it back into the pan. Or leave it in the pan, and spoon/scrape it out after it has cooled. If you let it cool in the pan the caramel might firm up and it won't come out easily. This makes for great scraping of bits after you've finished the dessert.

Note on vin santo ... my father makes this dessert in Tuscany, where you can buy 1.5 litre bottles of cheap vin santo for 5 bucks. Here in San Francisco, they sell vin santo like it's Sauternes - no Chateau d'Yquem, to be sure, but still 15/20 bucks for a half bottle. So, pick anything sweet and boozy that you have lying around, don't go out looking for this if it is not something you would be drinking otherwise. I've done Grand Marnier, for instance. Then again, cheap Brandy works well, too. Even bourbon ... you know the form.

On the 4th, we dished this up with a fruit compote - "roasting" rhubard, strawberries and blueberries at low heat for a couple of hours with a little bit of powdered sugar mixed in. I wanted a tart and creamy fruit compote to go over the very rich and sweet semolina flan. I did not roast on a large pan to concentrate flavors and evaporate liquid, I mixed it all up and kept it packed. The result is not as syrupy as it could otherwise be, but works fine for this purpose. Leftover fruit works wonders on ice cream - so make as much as you have around. I'm sure peaches, bananas, apricots would all be good added in, but keep a tart element somewhere in there. Rhubarb is wonderful, I get some at the Ferry Building on saturdays ... but when it is not available you could add some lemon juice before sticking it in the oven.

Next piece ... the spinach dip. Very easy, think spinach and jalapeno dip you sometimes find in stores. I bought spinach and assorted greens at one of my favorite stands at the market, some torpedo red onions, and a hot pepper. I saute'd one torpedo onion (could be a couple of shallots, pretty small stuff) and garlic to taste, in olive oil and salt, with half the pepper - could be as much as you can take, or as little - then added the thoroughly rinsed greens. Cooked it down until it was well reduced, with some remaining liquid; then added the juice of half a lemon, and cooked a little more. Dumped a cup of cream cheese in the food processor, added saute'd greens, and ran the blade. Good stuff. What you typically buy is higher on cheese than my version was, and the greens are chopped separately, then the stuff is mixed or stirred together, as opposed to blended. That gives you an effect of green-on-white. If you process cheese and greens together, the mixture will look greener. It will also taste more of the greens, not of cheese with some green in it. I definitely prefer it blended together, but either will work of course.