Friday, May 28, 2010

The Best Goat Cheese Torte Ever

Luscious. Splashy. Soothing. Invigorating. How can one torte do it all. Rich, intoxicating goat cheese with a layer of minty-herb spring green pesto and a layer of sweet-spring-song plum jam. How can you resist?
This torte came to me at the perfect time. I am wrestling with elves and I cannot see my way clear to the end of their story. It's a famous story. It's not like I don't know how it ends. I just don't know who these elves are. And it's due in two weeks.

I mortgaged the homestead and sprung for Coach Farm's goat cheese. No elves were going to leave me any. I was going to follow Mario Batali's recipe - but he added butter to the goat cheese and I thought - if I'm going to spring for truly rich goat cheese it should be flavorful enough to stand on its own. I didn't want it mellow. I wanted the tang. I craved the hints of savory. In making that decision, I greatly eased the preparation.

The goat cheese needed no extras. It stood on its own scrumptious bottom and claimed the day. You could purchase jam - Chef Batali recommends fig jam which would add Italian summery sunshine. I made some jam - because I needed a little time at the stove to summon the elves.
I knew I had a hit when my very theatrical, food-clueless friends began a discussion of the layers and wanted to know each ingredient - wished to taste the layers separately and then taste again with all the layers on one chunk of bread. A conversation starter! (Although theatricals are not noted for their lack of conversation.)

Adapted from a recipe by Bon Appetit, I made the easiest jam recipe on the planet. I lowered the sugar amount and created plum jam. It felt good to let the stove work its magic and transform fruit to jam. I like transformations but you probably knew that.

Chop 3-5 medium, ripe plums - no need to peel. Add two tablespoons honey (I used Mitica's Orange Blossom), 5 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, 2 teaspoons fresh thyme, 4 tablespoons chopped, fresh rosemary and a pinch of Meyer lemon salt. (Pat from Mille Fiori Favoriti would approve of the salt choice. You can use a bit of sea salt.) Bring to a boil in a medium saucepan, lower to simmer and stir occasionally until the mixture thickens - about 20 minutes. Cool. Put in airtight container and refrigerate until ready to use (can be made two days ahread of time). Makes one cup.

The jam could be made with any stone fruit - apricots, nectarines or peaches. I'm also thinking berries - although would adjust cooking time and and lower the vinegar amount.
You can purchase basil pesto but I did go with the minty-herb pesto Mario Batali recommended. I changed it just a bit - more herby than nutty.

In a blender combine 1/2 cup fresh mint, 1/2 cup fresh Italian parsley, 1/4 cup fresh thyme, 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts. Cover all with olive oil and blend - stop once to stir. makes 1/2 cup.

I left a few nuts chunky.
Now the fun part:
Get a "hunk of 12-16 ounces of favorite goat cheese (not a skinny log and definitely not crumbles!) Coach Farm does come in the shape of a torte. A cheese shop would cut a chunk for you. "

1. Prepare dish to hold the goat cheese. The dish should easily fit the torte. Cut parchment paper to fit bottom of dish. Spray with Pam or oil the parchment.
2. Slice goat cheese into three equal layers. If the goat cheese is firm (put it in a freezer for ten minutes) it easily slices.
3. Put one layer on prepared parchment paper. Evenly spread the herb pesto on top of it.

4. Top the pesto with the second layer of goat cheese. Carefully spread the jam on top of the middle layer. Or not so carefully - mine oozed and I delighted in the ooze.
5. Add the third layer.
6. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve. Do ahead: Can be refrigerated for two days.

To serve: Slide goat cheese on to serving plate. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle black pepper.
There is no "goat-cheese-torte police." Whether you purchase your jam and pesto and just assemble the torte or do it all from scratch, it so satisfying to create something - especially when you have an "elf" problem as I do.
I love how this torte touches so many places in your palate - dancing from creamy to minty to tangy to sweet to pepper to pillowy cream.
When elves remain silent, there's always this amazing goat cheese torte. Wishing everyone a loving Memorial Day filled with sweet appreciations. If you do happen upon the elves, please send them my way.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

No-cook appetizers for my spring of amazements

This was an amazing cheese torte. Minty, herby, sweetly-fruity, creamy, pillowy and tangy. I shouldn't be surprised. It's been a spring of amazements.

Years ago, a young child walked into my theatre program. She worked on a play of mine Cast Away in Time. The play actually won some lovely awards, was rewritten continuously (plays are not written but rewritten) and the play turned into Cast Away in Shakespeare's Garden. This child remains - one of the great kids of all times. Months ago I received a call from her. "I would like to direct the first play I was ever in for my Baccalaureate. I have no budget - just a dream. Would you give me the rights" In a nano-second. And that's how she came to direct my Cast Away in Shakespeare's Garden. Her story is on my youth theatre blog.
I went to her opening - it was the night before my father's Memorial Service. Worlds were colliding. It was a reminder of the sweet amazements in this life. It had been her first play at age 9 - she was so very young when I immersed her into Shakespeare's world. Opening night was Shakespeare's birthday. How fitting. Opening night was also her 16th birthday. How perfect. I sat in the audience filled. Not with the longing emotion that I held for the past month - but the emotion that accompanies growth and fruition.

Hours before the Memorial Service, my daughter ran the 10K "Get in Gear" in Minneapolis. Grandpa was an athlete. He would have approved. It rained - but my daughter didn't care - she trained for months and was going to finish strong - and did.
After my amazements in L.A. courtesy of Bertolli Foods, I set my sights on creating my own amazements. Shake off the fog. Rejoice in the spring. And held a spring soiree.

The requisite Parmesan, olives, crusty bread and some mighty fine balsamic for dipping. Just assemble - no cooking required.
Melty-creamy Brie with rosewater-raspberry preserves and a touch of chives. It was a warm weekend - no need to fire up the stove.

The down-to-earth ricotta salata with some might fine, piquant castelvetrano olives.

Cherry tomatoes, de-pulped and stuffed with marinated feta and nicoise olives and marinated fresh mozzarella with kalamata olives.

And some mashed avocado drizzled with lemon, covered with fromage blanc and topped with smoked salmon.

Served in votive candle holders. (All right, I could try to be classy? pretentious? and call them "verrines.") My husband said we would never eat all those appetizers (the "Spring Soiree" was for 7).

But we did - including the most amazing goat cheese torte (recipe coming). And then we had dinner.
And then came an offer of publication for Cast Away in Shakespeare's Garden. (I finally marketed it.) And smiled in amazement.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Into the Heart of L.A. with Rocco DiSpirito - from the heart

And so the day has to come to an end. Still sated from Scoops, our "Into the Heart of L.A." Culinary Group poured out of the limo (I could get used to saying that) and immediately hit delectable, pungent air. You knew immediately that this cheese store would deliver. What good is a cheese store if it does not boldly announce itself?

The aromas did not disappoint. Inside was a world of cheese, a world of flavor and the exploration began. Wines, earthy olive oils, crackers, a myriad of vinegars and condiments filled the shelves. But the cheeses took center stage. The gracious owner, Norbert of the Beverly Hills Cheese Shop had set up a test for us - similar to a Bertolli's Webisode "Into the Heart of Italy." Three cheeses are produced and you need to guess which one is from a cow, a goat and a sheep. The bloggers did very well. I had had only one sample thus far and was clueless. Although I certainly devoured the taleggio (cow) right after, accompanied with some shaved, salty prosciutto. The velvety cream in the taleggio really enhanced the sharpness of the prosciutto - it was mighty fine. My appetite returned.
Purchases later, we were off to our final destination: The wine/food pairing with Rocco DiSpirito.
At the Four Season Hotel's new restaurant - Culina.

The group: All with grand photos (check their websites): Amanda from, Jenny from, Mandy from, Pat from http://www.millefiorifavoriti.blogspot/, Briana from, Brittney from, Shelisa from and and Sarah - our guide from and the scrumptious-looking Visit them. Their enthusiasm and talents are contagious. Except for the food photos, today's blog photos are from Patricia Badolata of Seeing L.A. through her eyes is a visual delight of riches. Do visit her. And let your eyes feast.

The group: I ate so much that day my buttons popped - but we were all game for more.

We all had copies of Now Eat This! from Bertolli Foods.

Ready to be signed by Rocco.

Rocco came during our tasting session. Our first plate was Involitini Di Manzo (Kobe A-5 beef, Delta asparagus, enoki mushrooms and some Parmigiano Reggiano. Accompanied by a light red wine: Nebbiolo d'Alba, giacosa fratelli; 2007 Piedmont) - the first taste melted slowly into my mouth beginning with the soft-as-butter Kobe beef and ending with just a touch of the poetical asparagus.

This was followed by Caponata di Carciofi (baby artichokes, Castelvetrano green olives, San Marzano tomato) accompanied by Pinot Bianco, haberle, alois lageder, Alto adige 2007. This is a heartier white wine than your sipping Pinot Grigio and enhanced the piquant olives, rich artichokes and the sweet tomatoes. I am playing with this combination in Minnesota. Baby artichokes are hard to find. Maybe some tangy artichoke hearts to replace it?

Our last plate was Suppli al Telefono (Saffron risotto croquette, mozzarella di bufala, tomato sugo) accompanied by Mamertino cru timpanara, Vasari, Sicily 2006 - a full-bodied deeply flavored red wines typical of Sicily - hearty enough to hold up the rich tastes of saffron, buffalo mozzarella and the summer-kissed tomato sauce.

Rocco spoke of his recipes. "Did you try the meatballs?" he asked again and again (you definitely knew he was proud of his make-over-lower-the-fat-cut-the-calories meatball recipe!) He posed with all of us (above with Sarah Gim from www.theDeliciousLife and Sarah was instrumental in planning our trip. She helped create an agenda where we would would experience L.A.'s freshest and finest food finds.
Rocco was definitely enamoured by the Kobe beef. At $250/lb. this is not your average grocery store beef. He wanted us to see the marbling that created the velvet texture and a huge hunk was brought to the table - to admire and to photograph. In the end, Rocco found himself upstaged by a slab of beef!

He didn't mind.

And he graciously returned to signing books and being photographed.

We spoke of Jamaica, Queens (his birthplace and mine). After a winter of cooking, I only had to look at the L.A. photos before I went into shock. Hence, my decision to "cook his book." Two weeks later, four pounds shed.

Brimming with the goodness of L.A., we soared into our the waiting limo for one last ride back to the hotel. Mandy serenaded us with "O Sol Mio" as we quietly sat soaking in the events of the day. It was a touching ending to an extraordinary event.
Bertolli Foods wanted us to experience local, fresh, artisanal and care of foods. Without going to Italy, they wanted to convey that what we experienced in L.A. is what Bertolli experiences as they create their frozen dinners - from prime ingredients, artisan products and respect and love of food. And this is what they\hope you will experience in a superior prepared food product. That is for you to judge.
Their generosity shone in that trip by supplying us all with the an experience for the memory bank. And while Bertolli paid for all my expenses, my subsequent reporting is my own. From my heart. Why do otherwise? Every meal prepared is personal. Every glance, every moment, every exchange - it's always personal. Why not let the personal be from the heart?
We all went our separate ways - but Pat and I would meet up later (ostensibly for dinner - but who wanted to eat after our ten-hour feast?) and wound up on the rooftop of the Thompson Hotel, taking in the sights, sounds and aromas of L.A. at night and talking of family, friends, foods, art, history and more. We bought each other a round of drinks, chattering, glancing, sipping, laughing and all the while I am thinking, "You know, Pat - I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." And that, my friends, is from the heart.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bertolli's Into the Heart of L.A. with a Salad Nicoise on the side

My blog was intended as a journey to my own roots and to share them with my very Midwestern children. Since starting it, I have gone on many journeys - sometimes food was the destination, sometimes I needed to preserve a moment in time, a memory, a musing.
That I would get an e-mail from Bertolli Foods asking "How would you like to take a culinary tour of L.A.?" (are you serious) - was never on my radar. It was pure serendipity, luck, and happenstance. I certainly looked forward to grand food - and found myself showered with unexpected dividends - friendship with Pat, new perspectives, revival of spirit.
Our foray into street food was an eye opener. The food trucks have nothing in common with the deep-fried "anything and everything" that emerge from the trucks in Minnesota.
*Note: All crystal-clear, gorgeous photos are the generous gift of Pat at Mille Fiori Favoriti. The over-exposed photos are my own. I bumped the camera, changed the settings and true to form as someone who often lives in an unconscious haze, did not notice till late in the day. "That's okay," chimed my daughter, "You're a writer, Mom - not a photographer." Words of truth!
Worldfare was our first truck. Billed as a "bustaurant" (you dine on top of the truck), they are a fairly new truck and they are quite simply - astonishing.

Dessert first: butterscotch bread pudding accompanied by butterscotch pot of creme. Is this truly from a truck?

Red velvet cupcakes with a cream cheese filling. I may never eat lunch.

Chef Andrea Van Williganspeaking of her new business. "I do charge more than some trucks. All my food is locally sourced. I can go cheaper but I want to know everything that is in my food."

Truffled macaroni and cheese. Yes, I will eat lunch!

Can you tell I loved these?

Can you tell I want to recreate them? Look at the specks of truffles. Savor. Taste.

Bunny Chow - inspired by African dishes, Chef Andi takes inspiration and makes it her own - short ribs (braised slowly and flavorfully), chicken curry, Barbecue pork, beef stroganoff and vegetarian chili. Our samples came in baskets of yellow peppers. Lunch continued. Oh yes, I could eat more.

We each received a sampler. An exquisite taste of the world. To be eaten with gusto but slowly to let the different tastes hug you. Chef Andi also serves an array of freshly-made teas sprinkled with fruit juices and lemonades. Can I say it is worth a trip to L.A. to each on top of their truck? Don't for a moment think lunch is over.
Time out to twitter.

Sated but game for more, we sampled tacos and burritos from Lee's Philly Gogi truck.

Yes Virginia, there is a culinary heaven. I never want this lunch to end.
And then garlic butter shrimp (spicy and non) and coconut lime shrimp (spicy and non) from "The Shrimp Guys." There's always room for shrimp. Especially this shrimp. I love this lunch!

Photo opp with "the shrimp guy." Pat was taking the picture, I was off chomping on shrimp.

From the top of the Worldfare truck, I had to snap a photo of this. SAG (Screen Actors Guild) - a blast from my bast. I may even still be a member.

Lunch is not over. There's still dessert. Silly you, and you thought I started this post with dessert! And so we were back in the limo (such a hardship) and on our way to Scoops.

If there is gelato-heavenly-perfection - this is it. It is no surprise to me that the owner Tai Kim is an artist (or in one review, it states a "former artist.") But that cannot be correct - for his gelatos are indeed a work of art. Silky-creamy-gooey-tangy-fluffy-milky-sunny-sassy-sweet. We were allowed as many samples as we wanted (a tradition) in his shop. As for me - I thought I was full. I was not.

Riccota-marsala-oreo? Really? Oh yes, definitely.

I settled on salty chocolate, pistachio-jasmine and goat cheese-basil. ("Really, Mom - goat-cheese basil?" asked my chocoholic daughter.) Truly, goat-cheese-basil. Tai Kim lifted gelato to new heights. His flavors soar. You soar. Don't go to L.A. without a visit to him. Scoops is located at 712 N. Heliotrope. Why do I mention that? Because he wouldn't let Bertolli Foods pay. It was all gratis. Next time I am in L.A. (and there will be a next time), I shall pay. Mr. Kim is also known for his vegan gelato. You heard that right. Vegan gelato. It receives rave reviews.

Above: Scoops soar above the gelato - the way the gelato does on your palate.
Below: the artist: Tai Kim.

I continue to cook Rocco DiSpirito's new book Now Eat This!
Life has gotten hectic.
Salad Nicoise

Baby lettuce, hard-boiled egg, actual canned tuna in water, nicoise olives, blanched string beans, grape tomatoes. Sprinkled with a little vinaigrette. Three pounds shed. Thank-you, Rocco!
Rehearsing a wonderful ten-minute play for a festival, readying two plays for publication, writing a play for some wee ones and woke up to an e-mail stating, "Congratulations, your play Angel Kisses in Left Field" has won our "best" of the festival. The play is so new it's not even on my website yet. Spring has sweetly seeped into all phases of my life. I am wary of too much good fortune. But old enough to know when to savor and glow. I am glowing.
Disclaimer: Bertolli Foods did indeed pay for my hotel, transportation and meals. My reporting and opinions are always my own.
Next up: The Beverly Hills Cheese Shop and Rocco!