Monday, August 29, 2011

Swiss Chard and Herb Tart

I keep lavender by the door for luck. Believe if you put basil under your pillow, you will see your true love and build Midsummer bonfires for the faeries. Gardens are magical to me. The transformation of a seed into a fruit, vegetable, flower or herb is part science and part enchantment. You will never convince me otherwise.

It is inconceivable to me that my French thyme would have returned after the brutal, long winter winter of 2010-2011. But it did. And I felt I had to do it justice. 

I am attracted to tarts. If there is more meaning to that fact, I won't explore it. And while I never would pass on a sweet fruit tart or an almond cream tart - when given a choice to bake - I go for the savory. The summer sun still graces us with its strong sunbeams but all is more filtered now. The light seems more delicate. And that is thyme. Faery-twigs of tiny delicate leaves that impart a soft, fragrant flavor. A kiss from the earth. 

The Swiss Chard and Herb Tart hails from Tuscany - a place that I remember of soft light - hidden behind hills and filtered through trees. The recipe is from Bon Appetit's May 2000 issue that was devoted to Tuscany. I almost have that issue memorized. And if you know me - I don't toil in the kitchen. This is easy - using frozen puff pastry for the crust.

Swiss Chard and Herb Tart Ingredients
1 pound Swiss Chard - stems and ribs removed (I used two bunches and only removed the thickest stems)

1-1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove minced (I probably used more)
1 15-ounce container ricotta cheese (whole milk)
1/2 cup freshly-grated Parmesan cheese
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon minced fresh thyme (I used an entire teaspoon)
1/4 teaspoon fresh oregano (I again used an entire teaspoon - I have an oregano bush)
1/8 teaspoon fresh nutmeg (I used more)

1-17.03 ounce package frozen puff pastry, thawed (two sheets)

Swiss Chard and Herb Tart Preparation
Need: 9 inch pastry tart pan with removable bottom. Although I used a pie plate because I didn't notice that part!

Bon Appetit has you boil the chard until just wilted, dry it and then saute it. I just sauteed it!
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Chop chard.
Heat oil in large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add chopped garlic. Saute 1 minute.
Add chard until just wilted. - about two minutes.
Transfer chard to large bowl. Let cool. Mix in ricotta and next 7 ingredients.

Roll out 1 pastry sheet on slightly floured surface to about a 14-inch square.
Transfer pastry to tart pan. Trim edges leaving a 1-inch overhang.
Fill pastry with chard mixture.
Lightly brush pastry overhang with brush dipped in water.
Roll out 2nd pastry sheet to a 13-inch square. Using tart pan as a guide, trim pastry square into a 10-inch round. Drape over filling. Seal edges.
Bake about 45 minutes until pastry is golden brown.
Cool ten minutes and serve.

 There are a lot of summer greens you can play with: spinach, kale, arugula. Basil would also marry well and I wouldn't argue if found yourself incorporating zucchini and/or tomatoes instead of the greens.

Soft, savory, flaky. Italian rustic. A touch of the wild and the bitter wrapped in sweet pillows of cheese. As you serve this, you feel touched by Tuscany.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Chilled Zucchini Soup with Mint

I'm a soup-slut. There - I confessed it. I proclaim everlasting adoration for tortellini in brodo but if a new soup winks at me, I have a dalliance. I will waltz with vichysoisse. Tango with Tuscan bean soup - and then search for any soup at 3 a.m. when all is still except my stomach. And this week I found a new love - cold zucchini soup with mint. Not only is it delicate, creamy (without too much cream) and elegant - it is a workhorse. It uses zucchini clubs. You know those precious two inch zucchini that begged to stay in the garden for one more day? Only to transform over night into a club large enough to down a T-Rex? Yes, you can use those in this soup.

I found it in a May 2005 issue of Bon Appetit. From those days when the May magazine would be devoted to a region - and that month was devoted to Rome, Florence and Venice. Of course I saved it.

Cold Zucchini Soup with Mint - 8 servings  (four servings in my house)
1 tablespoon butter
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
4-5 chopped leeks
8 cups chopped, trimmed zucchini (about 1 zucchini club)
6 cups vegetable broth
1/3 cup whipping cream (the 2nd time I used evaporated skim milk and it was delicious)
1-1/2 tablespoon minced fresh mint (I used more) plus mint leaves for garnish (I used zucchini flowers)

 Chilled Zucchini Soup Preparation
Melt butter with oil in heavy pot over medium-high heat.
Add leeks and saute until soft (not browned) - about five minutes.
Add zucchini and saute until softened (another 5 minutes or so).
Add 5 cups vegetable soup and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until zucchini is very tender - about 20 minutes.
Working in batches, puree soup in blender until smooth (I cooled to soup and used an immersion blender). 
When pureed, return soup to same pot and mix in cream and mint.
Cover and chill in refrigerator at least 3 hours or overnight. 
If too thick, add some extra broth.

This was perfect. The small amount of cream added luxury. Really - you just want sip it wearing your Armani suit. The zucchini club was enchanted - transformed from something unwieldy to sweet lusciousness. Try it - have a dalliance with this zucchini soup. Make it your last summer fling.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Continuing Crabby

Travelling. You find perspective. You remember not to be wrapped up in your own world. There are lots of worlds out there. Seattle is rich with worlds. Rich with totem poles. Rich in brick and stone because of the 1889 fire that swept through Seattle leaving it in ashes. Rich in times of the Klondike gold rush (which young Nordstrom of Nordstrom's department store took part in - enabling him to open up a little shoe shop...). Pioneer Park's totem pole was added in 1890 - when a group of drunken city founders stole it from a Tingit Native American village. An arsonist destroyed it in 1938 so the current city council sent $5,000 to pay the Tingits to carve a replacement. The legend goes that the check was cashed and written on it was:

"Thanks for finally paying for the first one. However a new pole will cost $5,000."

And the city is rich in art. From the astounding Olympic Sculpture Park you will find art that soars, blends and ignites. Below is The Eagle by Alexander Calder. He is noted for blending into the landscape that is part pragmatism and part poetry. I was happily surprised that his sculpture is also in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. (Lesson: Know thy own city!)

And the aptly named Seattle Cloud Cover by Teresita Fernandez. Through saturated color photographs sandwiched in glass, you can view Seattle's ever changing sky.

Sunny and cloud blues switch to a red-purple rain.

Bunyon's Chess by Mark di Suvero describes his sculpture as "Unity and joy. That's why I like to suspend elements from the beams of my works, so they can interact with the winds and other forces." Unity and joy - it's actually a beautiful wish if you think about it.

When you are a city walker, you can argue with yourself that a few extra calories won't hurt. And so I found my way to Mario Batali's parents tiny Salumi. And feasted on the most delicately cured meats that I have had since leaving New York many decades ago. 

"Its about Tuscan Finocchiona salami, studded with fennel seeds, and the best spicy sopressata I have ever tasted- complex, slightly smoky, and a vivid red.  Hold up a piece of any one of Batali's salamis and you'll see a carnal kaleidoscope, with bits of rosy hues and solid or clear whites, a slice of careful handiwork." 
Min Liao, The Stranger

And if that wasn't treat-enough, I later managed to to squeeze in some Salty-caramel ice cream from Molly Moons. (after spending way to much at the Elliott Bay Book Company.

And came home deciding to integrate Seattle's crab with MN corn and the gulf shrimp that drops by once a month. My niece introduced the family to Frogmore Stew this summer. I took it a step further with crab and andouille sausage and and cooked enough for 20 people even though I was serving four. Have you ever done that? It's also called Hobo Stew, Shrimp Boil, Fish Boil.... I'm sure you've seen it around. t's more southern and western American than Italian. But if I was going to tie it into Italian I would say - it's all in-season. All fresh. Local? Nope. No shellfish on the Minnesota tundra. But in-season, summer-perfect? Definitely.

There's no recipe. Bring 3-4 gallons of water with 2 bottles of dark beer to boil. Add a bunch of Old Bay Seasoning.

My stew ingredients:
small white potatoes
andouille sausage
snow crab legs
large shrimp - peeled and deveined

I browned the sausages first for color and texture. You don't need to do that. And then added them in the boiling pots according to cook times. The onions and potatoes went first. Both were small and needed about 8-10 minutes of boiling. Then I added the sausages - which were pre-cooked so just need to spice up the stew a bit. Then the crab legs - which needed about four minutes to heat up. The shrimp needed about two minutes. And fresh MN sweet corn? I never let that go longer than a minute. Don't want to cook the sugar out of them!

 Traditionally, this is served outside on newspaper or plain paper and squirted with butter. And you eat with your hands. Since I am not on a beach - I opted for the traditional dinner plates and forks.  I did have melted butter for dipping. None of us needed it.

This is a grand end-of-summer soiree. Forget the hamburgers on the grill for Labor Day and celebrate the harvest with a good dose of this stew. It's summer, it's fresh, it's easy and celebratory. Look at the colors, imagine the textures. The brine of the shellfish, the creamy potatoes, small bursts of heat from the sausages, the sweet of the corn. It continues summer - ripe with possibilities. The season may be waning but the summer-sweetness continues.

One thing I realized as I returned home from Seattle, is that I forget what is in my own backyard and that it is possible to seek beauty and refuge close to home.. A bike ride through Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis reminded me of the riches right here in Minnesota. Of course, I got lost following the Minnehaha Creek - but that's another post. Some noted playwright noted that, "All's well that ends well" and so ends my crabby few weeks that began in Seattle and ended in White Bear Lake, MN.

More on Seattle and a mighty fine recipe for Goat Cheese Timbales wrapped in prosciutto can be found here.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Goat Cheese Timbales in a Sea of Change

Seattle was the perfect place to be as my world changed. I am a "water baby." And like to contemplate looking at bodies of water. Seattle provides water contemplation.

And if bits of my being seemed scattered upon rocks or washed out to sea, the movement soothed me, heightened my feelings and gave way ...

... to quiet thoughts. And appreciation of what is.

I've changed my life before. After an unfortunate "bus incident," I packed my bags and moved from NYC to MN within a week. But not without a plan. I knew the neighborhood I would live in, the theatres I would audition for, the climate... and the lack of food (which has happily improved over - the decades). In fact, my cooking obsession can be directly tied to the fact that I could not find my New York traditional Italian and food-finds and so had to recreate them!

And if you're life is changing, eating crab at Pike's Market can stimulate the brain cells. I know.

I had it all. And then some.

Crab cocktail.
Crab roll.
And at Saltys - with a view of the Seattle skyline - a supper club - but - most importantly - they served -
Crab legs!

And then I came home and had crab for three days. (Yes, I am obsessive - have you ever done this after a vacation?)
I visited the children's garden at the Seattle Children's Theatre. Are you surprised? My life change has to do with youth theatre.

"To know is nothing at all. To imagine is everything." - Anatole France

Yes, there's a waterfall inside the city limits of Seattle.

"Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them, listen to them. They are alive poems." - Joe Harjo

And Seattle was filled with alive poems. I will show more later, but before I make you impatient - I will get to the loveliest of recipes. Easy and elegant - as a life change should be but is not.  After contemplating the new - within the new - I came home and after my crabfest, needed a tried and true. Something that has sustained Paul and I throughout part of our marriage. Something that is a smile, a grin, a luxurious taste, a memory.

Ten years ago, my mother made this for Paul and I for our anniversary - it's from Bon Appetit. And tonight, I surprised Paul with it for his birthday. (He may have been relieved to see he wasn't having crab.)

Goat Cheese Timbales Wrapped in Prosciutto

Ingredients: (makes 3)
6 slices of prosciutto (not shaved paper thin)
5 ounces plain goat cheese
2-3 ounces cream cheese (or mascarpone)
4 scallions, chopped thin
fresh pepper - to taste
olive oil or Pam olive oil
mixed baby greens
Champagne vinaigrette (your favorite or bottled)

With goat cheese and cream cheese at room temperature, beat together until smooth. Cut in thin slices of green scallions and pepper generously. Stir to combine all equally. In 3 4-5 ounce ramekins, lay proscicutto in a X-pattern in the ramekins. Divide goat cheese mixture equally in the 3 ramekins. Layer the overlapped prosciutto on top.

Cover, weight down with a can and let sit 6-8 hours or over night.

In a small saute pan lightly sprayed or brushed with olive oil, heat the timbales 3-4 minutes per side - until just about to ooze, (and if does ooze, enjoy - it's not a bad thing!)

Put aside for 20-30 minutes, so the cheese can "set." Bon Appetit has you serve it with haricot verts on the side which is grand - but I usually opt for baby spring greens in a champagne vinaigrette.

It looks so innocent and it is.

But them you cut into it -

And it welcomes you by spreading its creamy goodness around the salad. Which is just what you want. Just what you need. Just what you counted on when all is changing. Some things are certain. The goat cheese timbales are a sure thing. They succeed every time. Have you ever made a life change? But brought the past with you - to ensure - a happy, new beginning?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

They gave me their hearts...

" A sunrise is a wondrous thing. And it's there every morn, just for the taking."
And so began my weekend of wonder.

They gave me a moon tree. I cried. After final dress rehearsal when they surprised me - and opened their hearts to me. And I cried opening night and closing. Two casts, two openings, two closing, a waterfall of tears. They gave me a moon tree. And I gave them caprese-on-a-stick.

And a lot of sweaty hugs. They put me on their set.

And with such an emotional week, I couldn't cook. I could spread Mostarda (various fruits preserved in a mustard syrup - also delectable with cheeses) on a pork loin and call it a day. Mostarda - sweet and spicy. If you could bottle my cast - they would be Mostarda. Light, color, fruity, a touch of bright,a touch of heat.

And when the temps soared to over 100 degrees F - I didn't bother with any heated food and ate my way through a loaf of bread spread with fresh ricotta and the same Mostarda.

I opened a cookbook last Sunday for inspiration. I cracked open some crab legs and added it to cioppino.

Cioppino from the Rose Pistola Restaurant in San Francisco. I made some substitutions. Nobody minded.

And then it was tech/dress week. The youngest -

And the "oldest" -

..came on stage after final dress. My wonderful (and manipulative) scene designer played the Beatles "In My Life" from the lighting booth. And with center stage lit, the students entered one by one and shared a memory they had of me and put gifts - all memories of past plays with me - by a moon tree. (A magical moon tree created by an eccentric girl from Belfast is a cornerstone of the play.) They gave me their hearts. I shall hold them with care.

Look at the tenderness these young students brought to this play.

David places a belonging of his brother Sam - who died in Vietnam-  under the moon tree and finally begins the grieving process.

After the moon landing, David gives Madrigal his brother's dog tags - to be buried in the Giant's Causeway in Ireland - a place of giants and faeries from the days of wonder ... a place of eternity.

My Madrigals say good-bye after the final show.

But I won't say good-bye. Not to them. I have plans. Promises to keep.