Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Plum Tart

My sister from Houston is visiting here for two weeks. Along with my other sisters (I have four) this means many lunches and dinners together at our cottage, our various homes and nearby restaurants. There will inevitably be lots of conversation about our kids (all adults now), recollections of the past, cooking, our health and what current diets and/or exercise regimen we are engaged in, but never politics where our opinions are quite divided. This, of course, always leads to the need for some dessert and coffee.  With several super ripe red plums on hand I made a simple and delicately sweet Plum Tart for last night’s dinner dessert.

So simple a recipe is almost not needed, the dessert is an adaptation of a recipe in a baking textbook used by Schoolcraft College’s Culinary Arts program.  The pastry base is a standard tart crust, or Pate Brisee – not as flaky as a pie crust and more shortbread cookie-like in texture and taste. I like this dough because you don’t have to roll it out. You can, of course, to achieve a smoother, more tender crust, but I find it to be too delicate and difficult to handle, so I simply fit it into the pan by hand. 

For the filling, aside from simply the fruit and sugar, I added a base of finely crumbled Italian cookies. My husband and I are big fans of Stella Doro’s Breakfast Treats, which we call S-cookies. These are tender butter style cookies with a subtle almond flavor. Delicious on their own and especially good with coffee, the almond flavored crumbs serve as an easy alternative to the traditional frangipane base used in more sophisticated pastries. To further enhance the almond flavor I finished the tart with a sprinkle of sliced almonds.

Plum Tart
Tart Crust:
1 ¼ c. all purpose flour
1/3 c. sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1 egg yolk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 T. very cold water
8 T. (1 stick) very cold butter, cut into ¼ inch cubes

In a small bowl mix together the egg yolk, vanilla and water and set aside.
Mix together in a food processor the flour, salt and sugar. Pulse a few seconds to combine all ingredients. Add the butter and pulse several times till mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Now add the egg mixture and pulse till dough pulls from the sides of the bowl and pulls together.
Transfer dough to pan a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom and with hands fit dough into pan. Set aside.

Fruit filling and assembly:
5-6 plums, any variety firm to ripe but not hard, cut into 8 wedges
1/3 c. crumbled cookies or cake
1/3 c.  Tubinado (raw) sugar
¼ -1/2 tsp. cinnamon
¼ c. apricot preserves, heated and strained
1-2 T. toasted sliced almonds

Spread a thin layer of cookie crumbs around the bottom of the pastry dough. Arrange the plum wedges in concentric circles, fitting them tightly into the pan. Mix together the Turbinado sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle a generous layer over all of the plums.

Bake in a 375 degree oven for approximately 40 minutes (cover with aluminum foil if crust becomes too brown).  Allow to cool for 20 minutes than brush the top of the tart with the strained apricot preserves (discard solids). Sprinkle top with toasted sliced almonds.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Fried Potatoes with Peppers & Onions Calabese style

Anyone who knows me knows how much I like potatoes. Baked, boiled, fried, sweet, red, yellow, you name it, I love them. Leftover potatoes rarely go bad in my refrigerator. One of my favorite ways of preparing them is to simply fry them up with peppers and onions – yum! Yes, I know this dish falls into the unhealthy category, but whenever I need to enhance an otherwise bland meat entrĂ©e, these seem to do the trick. They are fast and easy to prepare and can be embellished with other vegetables such as zucchini or mushrooms, and/or any combination of herbs. 

It's not necessary to pre-boil the potatoes whole ahead of time, which for me takes too long. True Italians will slice the potatoes and fry them raw to achieve a good crisp. I prefer to 'quick-boil' my sliced potatoes to give them a head start. Of course, if you have leftover potatoes on hand, all the better. Any variety of potato can be used (red, white, russet, yellow), cut anyway you prefer (cubed, spears, rounds), peeled or unpeeled.  

The same holds true for the peppers. Banana peppers are traditional, but any sweet or hot, or combination of peppers can be used. Add a colored pepper -red, yellow,orange-for a spark of color. 

This dish is a typical Calabrese favorite. Sweet and sometimes hot peppers paired with potatoes in this way is a common side or main dish in that part of Italy. With parents from that region, my mother often prepared her potatoes in this way. The aroma of the peppers frying recalls very fond memories of growing up in an Italian American household with my four sisters.

Fried Potatoes with Peppers & Onions

3 medium to large yellow potatoes, unpeeled, cut into ¼ inch spears
1 medium green pepper, cut into strips
1 hot pepper, sliced (optional) 
(When sliced you should have about equal amounts of potatoes to peppers)
1 small onion, sliced
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1 T. each chopped parsley and fresh sweet basil
Salt and pepper to taste
Good olive oil for frying

Place the sliced potatoes in a large skillet. Add just enough water to coat the bottom of the pan and barely cover the potatoes. Season with some salt, and cover the pan. Bring to a boil and cook till just slightly soft, about 5 minutes or less. Don’t let them get fully cooked. They will finish cooking when fried. Remove the potatoes with a slotted spoon and set aside to drain and air dry.

Clean the skillet and dry well. Heat the skillet on high and when hot add a good amount of olive oil to just coat the bottom of the pan. Reduce heat to medium high and add the sliced peppers and onions and fry a few minutes till they begin to soften. Add the garlic and potatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Stir mixture frequently to keep garlic from burning and potatoes from sticking, but allowing potatoes to brown and crisp a bit.

When all vegetables reach desired doneness, add the chopped basil and parsley.  Stir to combine and serve.  

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Corn Spoon Bread

Early one morning while looking for something to watch on TV I stumbled upon a cooking show on the new Oprah network called Anna & Kristina’s Grocery Bag that I now can’t stop watching.  So far, I am not a big fan of Oprah’s new network, but like everyone else, I have high hopes. This show is the only one I like.  Like many on the channel, the show is an old series that originated in Canada replayed for U.S. viewers. The premise of the show is to review cookbooks. It stars two former television reporters from Canada (Anna and Kristina) and personal friends who prepare an ambitious sampling of usually 6-8 recipes from the episode’s featured cookbook within a hurried 3-4 hour timeframe. The finished meal is then reviewed by an invited local, professional chef.  

The show is a real hoot! There are no real cooking lessons involved and because so many dishes are prepared within the half-hour segment, only small snippets of preparation (mostly mistakes) is shown. What I like about the show is that neither Anna nor Kristina is a professional or trained chef and both plod through the featured book’s recipes like the rest of us in the real world. They encounter problems with vaguely detailed recipes; dishes requiring unusual or unfamiliar ingredients; preparations that don’t look anywhere close to the photographs in the cookbooks; or require cooking skills (in most cases, basic skills) which neither star possesses. In spite of their limited skills, they valiantly try recipes I’m not sure I would attempt. The invited professional chefs typically find fault in the preparation or presentation (DAH!), but give high marks for taste, which in the end is really all that matters.  The real lesson of course is that you don’t need to be a professional chef to prepare a meal that is interesting and tastes good

In the episode reviewing the cookbook Bon Appetit, Y’all, both stars really liked the taste of the food they prepared, more so than usual and for that reason fully endorsed the book. Written by a French trained chef and Southern native, Virginia Willis, the cookbook is a compilation of recipes from the author’s grandmother and mother, plus many of her own. Though not into Southern cooking myself, based on the endorsement of the two stars I had to have the book. It features a nice cross section of recipes and lots of expected Southern dishes – black-eyed peas, greens, fried okra, biscuits, barbecued meats, etc.  While I tend to associate Southern food with having lots of fat the author was careful to adjust the recipes by either eliminating or reducing the expected hog jowl, bacon fat or butter.  With the addition of several French inspired dishes there are plenty of recipes I am inclined to try from the book.   

Given the abundance of fresh corn now in the markets I selected the book’s cover recipe Corn Spoon Bread for this post. This is a custard-like dish made in a souffle-like fashion. Not as sweet as a creamed corn casserole it's quite delicious and enhanced by the fresh sweet corn kernels in the dish. Replace the fresh corn with frozen corn and it is a great side dish anytime of the year.

Corn Spoon Bread

2 T. unsalted butter melted, plus more to coat the pan
2 cups whole milk
1 cup very fine yellow cornmeal
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
Scraped kernels from 2 fresh ears of corn (about 1 c.)
2 T. chopped fresh chives
2 large eggs, separated

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Butter an ovenproof casserole or round 2-qt. soufflĂ© dish.

To prepare the batter, in a medium saucepan, combine the milk and cornmeal over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, whisking rapidly and constantly, until very, very thick, about 5 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl.

Add the corn kernels, chives and the 2 T. of melted butter. Season with salt and pepper and stir to combine.  Add the egg yolks, one at a time, stirring after each addition.

Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff peaks form. Gently fold the egg whites into the warm cornmeal mixture.

Transfer the lightened cornmeal mixture to the prepared pan; smooth the surface with a spatula.  Bake until nicely puffed, about 35 to 40 minutes. The inside should be firm, but moist, and the top golden brown.  Serve immediately while puffed and risen.