1.17.2016

Of Tarts and Men

It is hard to change eating habits. 

The diet industry is littered with shackle devices like partitioned containers and plate dividers, blenders with supernatural powers, and boxed frozen dinners with poultry the size of a small child’s sock, and about as delicious.  Not to mention weight loss pills that make people behave like Richard Simmons on a nicotine gum bender.

It usually does not have to be that complicated.

I think—for those of us who are not plagued with a complicated illness—we really just need to sit down with someone who is not halfway insane and brainstorm on how to eat a decent breakfast, or lunch.  It has to be somewhat more enjoyable than wanting to hurl yourself down a flight of stairs.  And less complicated.

In many cases, this excludes tofu steaks and quinoa pilaf.

Which is fine.  Treating your body a little more kindly in the preventative department does not have to include a trip to the co-op.  Unless, of course, you find soy and bulk bins of nutritional yeast irresistible.  I think it is safe to assume many people do not.

This tart, however, is a different story.  The first thing you may notice is that its bottom is composed wholly from whole wheat flour.  The addition of olive oil adds a pleasant suppleness to the dough and offers up some merit without vacuuming all evidence of joy out of the room.

You may also notice the inclusion of cured meat.  I assure this does not fly in the face of recent warnings from the World Health Organization, nor will it poison your colon if you approach with a modicum of reason.

It really should not be terribly controversial to suggest digesting two ounces of bacon—or roughly four slices—a day might increase your risk of cancer.  Nor should it be surprising that many people simultaneously find pig parts irresistible.  There is a way we all can meet in the middle on this.  It is likely somewhere between asceticism and Gargantua.  The amount of prosciutto in this tart fits that description.

If you are someone who is averse to pie crust making, you should find the process here comforting. It bears greater resemblance to those crumbled cookie bottoms, which—at least for me—result in much less swearing and sweating in the kitchen.  In fact, it is a project you could probably do with a small child.

The tart can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner and can keep for a couple of days, if chilled. Pair it with a salad or a sliced apple and you have found a respectable meal. A meal that will not use up precious brain power to interpret and execute. 

And, perhaps more importantly, a meal that you will look forward to eating.

Vegetable and Prosciutto Tart with Olive Oil Whole Wheat Crust

Ingredients:

for the crust

¾ cup whole wheat flour
¾ cup whole wheat pastry flour
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp kosher salt
1/3 cup olive oil (plus more for greasing)
1/3 cup chilled whole or lowfat milk

for the filling

1½ to 2 cups bite-sized pieces of leftover cooked vegetables (e.g. broccoli, caramelized onions, or these tomatoes)
1 tsp olive oil
2 ounces prosciutto, chopped
2 large eggs
½ cup plain whole Greek yogurt
¼ cup whole or lowfat milk
1 ounce cheddar or Swiss cheese, grated (about ½ cup)
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp Dijon mustard

Instructions:

For the crust:

Lightly grease a 9 to 10-inch (or similar-sized—I used a 13½ x 4-inch) tart pan with a removable bottom with olive oil; set aside. (A springform pan may also work.)

If you have a food processor: combine the flours, baking powder, and salt in the bowl of the mixer; process 5 to 10 seconds.  In a liquid measuring cup, combine the oil and milk. Pour the liquid into the flour and pulse 3 to 5 times, or until a soft ball of dough forms.

If you do not have a food processor: in a medium bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder and salt; make a well in the center.  In a liquid measuring cup, combine the oil and milk. Pour the liquid into the well and stir from the center with a fork, gradually incorporating the flour until a soft dough forms.

Dump the dough into your prepared pan and press it firmly, evenly distributing the mixture on the bottom and up the sides of the pan to form a 1-inch rim.  Prick the crust with a fork; cover and refrigerate 1 hour (or overnight).

To cook the crust, set the oven to 375 degrees.  Place a piece of parchment paper on the crust and fill it with pie weights or dried beans (you can save and reuse the beans for additional tarts). This will help the crust bake properly.

Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until the crust just starts to pull away from the sides of the pan.  Place on a wire rack to cool and remove the weighted parchment paper. (If you will be preparing the tart right away, keep the oven set to 375 degrees.)

For the tart:

Set the oven to 375 degrees. Heat a small sauté pan on medium heat, add the oil and the prosciutto and cook until the prosciutto becomes crispy, about 5 minutes. 

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, add the eggs, yogurt, milk, cheese, and black pepper and beat lightly with a fork.

Brush the crust with mustard and sprinkle with the cooked prosciutto.  Spread the vegetables over top and then pour in the custard.

Bake 45 to 50 minutes (you may want to place a sheet pan underneath if your pan is very filled).  The tart is done when the filling is set and slightly puffed and the top is lightly golden brown.

Let cool 10 to 15 minutes on a wire rack before serving.

Makes 4 servings

Note:
-The tart pictured above features caramelized onions plus ½ tsp lavender (mix the herb in the liquid custard before cooking). The lavender is lovely and adds a slight perfume that—when dosed in small amounts—compliments the meat and the onions. You could easily substitute rosemary (Herbes de Provence would be nice too) or simply leave off the herbs all together.


- I have no problem eating any leftovers cold.  You could also reheat them by warming at 325 degrees for about 15 minutes.

12.20.2015

To the Tiki with Strange Brew

My shitty bar set cocktail shaker has been getting a workout lately.  Brett found my copy of the Death & Co cocktail book and has committed our livers to a winter of gin. Which is fine by me, having a curious mind constantly making cocktails when the city streets become littered with gray, gritty snow will be very handy.

We are ahead of the death of winter thus far, as he has already studied and perfected construction of the Corpse Reviver No. 2.  He won’t tell you that.  But he has.  Besides it tasting like the kind of botanical, boozy lemonade that F. Scott Fitzgerald might take to, when we were out Friday he instructed the bartender at a respected drinking establishment on how to make one.  (Equal parts gin, Cointreau, Lillet Blanc, and lemon juice with a few drops of absinthe, for the record.)

Having an architect sling drinks is a eureka! moment.  There is an equal proportion of precision and creative thinking to the craft that lends intuition on when to short shake and when to adlib with an herb garnish.  This is precisely the person I want building my cocktail.

Which leads me to a class of drinks known as tiki.  I have thought long and hard about this next statement, but I am sorry and can come to no other conclusion: I cannot like someone who dislikes this class of cocktail.  It is like saying you hate Scooby-Doo or Caribbean vacations or brunch.

They are also easier to make than you might think.  And the best part might be getting to smash ice with a rolling pin.  (Again, if you do not like this sort of thing, that is fine, but please keep your influence away from my joyful extracurricular activities.)

Tiki drinks are pleasure and pain.  And this one, called Strange Brew by the good people at Death & Co, is no exception.  It is, however, arguably much more balanced than some other tiki cocktails, which can be overly sweet and high octane and, thus, prohibitive regarding regular and continued consumption.

Strange Brew is decidedly more delicate, and floral.  It has pineapple and Velvet Falernum, a spicy syrupy liquor from Barbados, to offer up subtle sweet notes. It also has a dousing of IPA for bitterness, which I suppose is falling out of favor with many beer geeks, but I still love it.  You can float the hoppy brew on top, but I prefer to swizzle it in, so it lends a slight fizz to the length of the cocktail.

But perhaps the best part is that the drink gets better as you continue to sip it.  This might also be because you get looser on the way down too.  I guess, technically, it is impossible to judge the fluid merits of an alcoholic concoction with an unsullied sober mind.  And you need other drinks for comparison. Which, I suspect, is a secret motive fueling the craft cocktail scene.  And I wager, with their strange brews, these people are on to something.

Strange Brew

Ingredients:

9 ice cubes, divided
2 ounces gin (try Tanqueray or Alchemy Dry Gin)
¾ ounce Velvet Falernum
1 ounce pineapple juice
½ ounce fresh lemon juice
2 ounces of an IPA beer (such as GreenFlash IPA)
Mint sprig, for garnish

Instructions:

Place 6 ice cubes in a plastic freezer storage bag and bang with a rolling pin until well crushed.  Place the crushed ice in a highball glass (the cubes should fill a 12-ounce glass to the top).  Store in the freezer until needed.

In a cocktail shaker, place the remaining 3 ice cubes and add the gin, Velvet Falernum, pineapple juice, and lemon juice and short shake them (shake quickly and briefly, just to mix the ingredients).

Strain the liquid into your prepared highball glass and top with the IPA.  Stir briefly and garnish with mint.

Makes 1 cocktail

Notes:
-Alchemy is my new favorite gin: it’s incredibly delicate and hails from Portland, Maine. Their distillery is also very happening.

-Be sure to choose a quality IPA, I’d recommend one that might be described as grassy or like fresh cut lawn.

11.21.2015

That's the Shrub.

I would normally start off by suggesting the merits of this liquid as an alcoholic mixer.  I believe cocktails have a therapeutic and social nature which—as long as you do not set out to have, say, seven—can enhance an evening much like candle votives and Ray Charles on piano.  

The gastronome Brillat-Savarin, once said “A dinner which ends without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.”  Please forgive the political incorrectness (he spent most of his life in the eighteenth century). 

I appreciate the general sentiment though.  And feel similarly about beer, wine, and drinks that contain gin or bourbon and the occasional egg white.  However, I cannot suggest much in the way of booze with this mixture today. 

For the past two weeks, I have been battling some sort of viral something that has chosen me as an agreeable host.  I have also been bitten by what general consensus indicates was a spider.  The cocktail of these two organisms has irritated a lymph node in my neck so that it has puffed up to the size of a pea. 

Consequently, I have found my bed more appetizing than a bar and have not done much in the way of imbibing. Unless you count translucents, like soup and hot water, in a list of boring possible antidotes.

In alcoholic terms, I can tell you that this liquid works with a little seltzer and about an ounce of vodka. (But what doesn’t?)  Luckily, it also works as a lovely base for homemade soda with some bubbly water and ice cubes.

The bright cherry-colored liquid is called a shrub and earns its name through the addition of vinegar.  It is an old timey drink that has recently experienced a popularity resurrection. The slight sourness from the vinegar balances and pulls together the other flavors—providing a cohesive kick.

I used damson plums because it was early fall at the time and the market still had some. I suspect you could use supermarket stone fruit, as you will be concentrating the flavors through heat anyhow. You may also want to experiment with a variety of herbs, fruits, and types of vinegars. 

Either way, it is worth trying.  It is an elixir that makes other clear liquids vastly more appealing.  Which is really what we are all after, in some form, anyhow.

Damson Shrub
Inspired by Kathy Gunst of WBUR’s Here & Now

Ingredients:

½ cup sugar
1 cup loosely packed basil leaves
1 cup whole damsons (with the pits) (or about 2 large plums, pits removed and roughly chopped)
½ cup apple cider vinegar, see note

Directions:

In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar with 2 cups of water and bring to a boil over high heat; reduce heat to low and add the basil.  Simmer about 10 minutes then add the plums and cook about 5 to 10 minutes, until the plums start to burst and break down.

Add the vinegar and cook at a simmer 2 to 5 minutes more.  Strain out the basil leaves (or leave them in if you want a stronger herbal note; I did not).  Let sit for 1 hour.

Strain out the remaining ingredients using a wire mesh sieve or cheesecloth set over a small colander or strainer.  Keep the resulting liquid in the refrigerator until ready for use.  It will last for several weeks (mine has thrived for about a month).

Yields about 2 cups

Notes:
-The apple cider I used was fairly mild in terms of its acidity: if you have strong vinegar start with 1/3 cup. (I suspect this will include most supermarket grades.)

-I kept the pits in the damsons because they were too many to remove and was going to have to strain out all the bits anyway.  I also thought maybe they’d add a little structure to the final product, like stems and skins can with wine. Maybe?

-You’ll probably need about ½ cup of the shrub if making a cocktail (adding an ounce of booze and an ounce or two of seltzer, for fizz, with some ice cubes is a good place to start).


10.25.2015

Thirty-three

It is 10:30 PM and I am eating a slice of squash bread.  It is quiet in my kitchen.  I just had the shattering realization that some people—many people—I went to high school with now have multiple children.

I do not have children.  I have a one-bedroom apartment I can barely afford.  I have towels that get moldy. I have a sourdough starter and a few succulents that, some days, seem very challenging to keep alive.

I start to feel a little bad about all this, so I remind myself I just baked two loaves of very good bread.  And that I added a vegetable—not because I needed to—but because I wanted to.  Because I had a craving for butternut squash, and also for cake, and the universe was in low supply of acceptable recipes with these combined appetites.

So I took the bones of a banana bread recipe—a very good one—and browned some butter.  Added autumnal cues by way of cinnamon and allspice. Quartered a whole squash—without chopping a single finger off—and roasted it into submission.

It turns out very well, the bread, until I realize I have compared it to having a child and not killing a cactus.  I recently turned thirty-three and part of me feels I should have more grown-up ends by now. At the very least, maybe a yard?

But instead I live in a pest-free rental—with the black and white-tiled floors I wanted in my mid-twenties—in an area bolstered by the mafia and cannoli.

I have a smart, thoughtful, and very handsome boyfriend who never lets me drink alone, whom I love. I have maintained a job at a well-respected institution for over a decade. Plus I am old enough to swear and not feel bad about it.

I also have the sense to know bad things happen and enough emotional collateral, I think, to navigate them. And to realize that having kids does not make one feel any more put together.

In truth, I do not know if I even want a yard.  I certainly do not want to mow it.  What I do know, for now, is that I want butternut squash in dessert form.  And I know how to make that happen.

Brown Butter Butternut Squash Bread

Ingredients:

1½ cups mashed cooked butternut squash (about ½ a medium squash, see instructions below)
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup granulated sugar
¾ cup packed dark muscovado sugar (or regular dark brown sugar)
2 eggs
½ cup buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla
2½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp allspice
1 tbsp chopped fresh ginger (peeled)
1 cup chopped pecans

Instructions:

A few hours in advance (or the night before):

Set the oven to 425 degrees.  Grease a sheet pan lightly with olive or canola oil.  Quarter a whole butternut squash, leaving the skin on.  Place on the prepared pan, flesh side down and skin side up.  Roast for 60 to 70 minutes, or until it softens and the flesh side become caramelized (you’ll have to peak to see this).  Let cool and refrigerate until needed.

When you are ready to bake, set the oven to 350 degrees. Grease the bottom only of one 9 x 5-inch (or two 8 x 4-inch) loaf pan(s).

In a medium saucepan, heat the butter on medium-low until it becomes caramel-colored and starts to smell nutty; this will take 5 to 10 minutes, swirl the butter occasionally to prevent it from burning in spots and adjust the heat as necessary.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the sugars and brown butter on medium-high speed until fully combined and the mixture resembles wet sand (about 2 minutes).  Add the eggs one at a time, then the buttermilk, 1½ cups squash (flesh only), and vanilla; mix on medium-high until fully combined and smooth. 

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and allspice.  With the mixer on low, add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients in three swift additions.  Stir in the ginger and pecans with a rubber spatula until just combined (make sure bits of flour are no longer visible).

Bake for 60 to 70 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the center.  (Start checking around 55 minutes with the two smaller loaves.) Cool 10 minutes on a wire rack then, with a knife, loosen the sides of the bread from the pan.  Let cool on the wire rack for one hour before slicing.

Makes one 9 x 5 loaf or two 8 x 4 loaves

Notes:
-The pecans seemed seasonally timely, and were good, but I prefer walnuts in breads like this.

-In a pinch, substitute 1 tsp dried ginger for the fresh variety.


-It is decorative gourd season too, and if you need a proclamation mug, you can find it here.