Saturday, February 26, 2011

A is for artichoke

Last week's really warm day - way too warm for February day - was a big tease.  However, it affected my desire to eat the food of springtime.  First and foremost, artichokes.  So, I made a a trip to my local supermarket and purchased a few artichokes. 
It just so happens that it's spring in California where most of this country's artichokes are grown - so, I no trouble tracking down some very nice, plump specimens.
Unless you just steam the glorious thistle buds - which is what artichokes are -, then dip their leaves in melted butter or oil and vinegar you're going to have to do a bit of work to get to the delicious, fleshy center.
I don't mind that chore because I know what lies ahead.  Once the artichoke is whittled down to just naked heart and peeled stem, it can be used for so many preparations.
You'll want to eat artichokes not just for their luxurious flavor but also with the knowledge that of all  the vegetables on earth, these contain the highest amount of anti-oxidant - cynarin - capacity, helping to make them a supreme aid to digestion.  In fact, artichokes are the main ingredient in one of my favorite digestivi  - the Italian liqueur, Cynar.

Here's how you pare an artichoke down to its heart and make it ready for 100s of preparations:  thinly sliced, raw, tossed in a salad  with Parmesan cheese shards and an aged balsamic vinegar dressing; thinly sliced, sauteed in butter and used a topping for risotto;  crispy, crunchy carciofi alla giudia fried open to resemble a golden chrysanthemum; stuffed between the leaves with a savory mixture of breadcrumbs, cheese and herbs - and as I prepared them the other day, as a component of the sauce that I made for potato gnocchi.

It 's important to search out artichokes with their stem in tact.   Cut a few lemons in half.   Squeeze the lemons into a large bowl filled with water.   Working with 1 artichoke at a time, and conserving its stem, remove the outside leaves by  bending them backward and pulling them down; they'll snap at the meaty point of the leaf.  Pull away the leaves until you see only pale green ones, at about the halfway point of the artichoke.  Use a very sharp paring knife to trim away the tough green parts of the leaves that have remained, so that all you see is pale green.  Carefully peel the stem.  Trim the prickly pointed tops. Dig out the fizzy "choke" - a melonballer is an ideal tool.  Immediately add to the acidulated water.  Then proceed to further cut - or not - the artichokes as needed for your chosen recipe.
I made thinly sliced carciofi alla romanaI specify "thinly" sliced because "artichokes, Roman style" are usually cooked whole (after trimmed) or just cut in half.  I used 6 globe artichokes for this recipe.   As luck would have it - the globe artichokes from California are very similar to the mamelle artichokes that are used in Italy for this preparation.

Working with one trimmed artichoke at a time - cut in half, then in quarters.  Thinly slice each quarter and add back into the water until all are cut.

In a large saute pan add 1/2 cup olive oil with  3 or 4 cloves garlic that have been cut into 2 or 3 pieces each and 1 smashed, dry hot pepper such as cayenne and cook until the garlic is pale gold, about 1 minute.    Drain the artichokes, lower the heat and add them to the pan.  Be careful as the oil will splash when the  wet artichokes hit the pan.  Add 2 cups of the lemon water (strained) and 1 teaspoon salt.   Simmer, uncovered, until the artichokes are tender and a tester easily passes through them - about 20 minutes.  Stir in 2 tablespoons chopped, fresh flat leaf parsley.  Stir to combine.    The artichokes can
 be served immediately as a side dish, rice or pasta topper - or, as I did, with gnocchi.

I packed up the artichokes in an airtight container, and then made a very simple tomato sauce by simmering 2 pounds of  crushed-by-hand tinned San Marzano tomatoes in a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, some chopped garlic and a minced hot pepper for about 45 minutes (until somewhat reduced) - also packed in an airtight container.  The next day I left the City for the idyllic home of some friends, way upstate New York.  These friends are avid gardeners and had some delicious potatoes just waiting to be made into gnocchi.  I used the recipe from "Pasta Sfoglia" (John Wiley & Son, 2009), a book that I co-authored.
While the recipe calls for Idaho potatoes, I used an assortment of my hosts' grainiest potatoes - most of them 2nd and 3rd generation samples from their patch -   that included Burbank Russets, Carollas, All Blues (which gave the gnocchi  the most subtle lavender tinge), Kennebecs, and Katahdines.

makes 2 pounds gnocchi, serves 6 - 8

3 pounds unpeeled Idaho potatoes
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 egg
rice flour for dusting

1.   Gently boil the potatoes in their jackets in a large pot of water over medium heat until a tester easily passes through the thickest part.   Remove the potatoes from the pot and let cool to the touch; they shouldn't get completely cold.
2.   Wrap the potatoes in a kitchen towel or cotton napkin and rub to remove the skins.  Pass the potatoes through a ricer, into a large mixing bowl.
3.   Spread the all-propose flour on a clean, dry work surface.  Place the potatoes on top of the flour.  Add the egg and salt.  Use your hands to gather the ingredients together and gently knead the dough  into a 10 by 8-inch log.  Let rest for 2 minutes.
4.   Lightly dust a clean dry work surface  with rice flour.   Cut the log into 4 equal pieces.  Roll each piece into a 1-inch thick rope.  Cut each rope into 1/2-inch-wide gnocchi.  Store the gnocchi on a rice flour-covered baking sheet until ready to use.  Dust with rice flour.
5.   Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
6.   Meanwhile, add the tomato sauce to a sauce pan and thoroughly heat.  In a separate saucepan, do the same with the artichokes.
7.   Add the gnocchi to the boiling water and cook until they float to the top.  Cook for 1 minute more.  (I cook the gnocchi in 2 batches) Use a wire-mesh strainer to remove the gnocchi from the pot and place them them on a large, warm serving platter.  Pour the tomato sauce over the top of the gnocchi and top everything with the artichokes.  Garnish with freshly chopped parsley. Serve immediately.


SUSANSIMONSAYS:  All that good-for-you acid in the artichokes not only makes them oxidize rapidly but also tends to stain your hands as you work with them. Scrub your hands clean with lemon juice.  Believe me, ever-so-briefly, slightly stained hands  are a tiny sacrifice for BIG flavor.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Cocktail Party Prolonge' # 2

In a previous post I talked about how a cocktail prolonge' is my new favorite way to entertain.  The more I invite friends over to graze on a  table full of finger food, and then serve them an entree type dish about an hour and a half or two hours into the party  - the more convinced I am that the cocktail prolonge' is the only way to entertain.  I'm pleased to see how people mix with each other - more than they would at, say, a sit-down dinner (they still get a chance to sit down - just on a more comfortable chair!) - as they go back and forth to the table try another  sample of the selection.  So, when a friend, from Paris, came to visit, (he hadn't been in the City for 4 or 5 or 6 years - he claimed he couldn't remember) I collected a group of his old friends and invited them to come over to my place for a cocktail prolonge'.
Another one of the secrets to the success of the this style of entertaining - is to make everything ahead of time (at the most  you'll just need to heat the entree) - and not to feel the least bit guilty if you buy a few things - and then customize them to make them your own.   Check the menu to see what I mean.
Here's what I served:
.  Fat, Sesame Seed Grissini Wrapped with Thinly Sliced Sorpressata, Black Olives

.  Port Wine "Poached Figs with Goat's Milk Cheese and Chopped, Salted Pistachios
Remember those figs  from the  Easy, Rosy Last Minute Cocktail Party post?   Well, two months later I  had some leftover figs that had progressed from semi-dry to rather dry.  They were added  to a saucepan and covered  with half Port wine and half water and simmered  until they were extremely soft.  I removed them from the pan then reduced the remaining liquid to a syrup.   I cut the cooled figs in half, put a rounded teaspoon of soft, plain goat's milk cheese on the cut-side, drizzled a bit of the Port syrup over the top and then sprinkled chopped salted pistachios over each piece.

.  Sweet and Salty Almonds
See last Cocktail Prolonge' for recipe.

.  Kunik with Roasted Pears
Again, see last post for the description.

.  Garlicky Baked Artichoke Hearts
I buy the artichokes from a little Italian food shop in my neighborhood.  However, if you don't have a Russo's nearby - you can easily make them.   Use canned or frozen artichoke hearts (not in oil).  Pack them into a baking dish, stem-side down.  Mix fresh garlic smashed through a press and lots of freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley with a generous amount of olive oil.  Pour the mixture over the top of the artichokes making sure it sinks down in between the leaves.  Cover with unseasoned breadcrumbs.  Bake at 350 degrees F. until the top is golden and the sides of the dish are bubbly,  25 - 30 minutes.  Let cool serve.

.  Smoked Salmon Focaccia
For years, this has been one of my catering signature dishes. It's pizza dough (I'll give you my recipe in a future post) stretched into logs, then covered with thinly sliced red onions and baked at 500 degrees F. until golden, about 10 - 12 minutes.   The cooled focaccia is covered with ersatz mascarpone which I make by blending equal amounts of unsalted butter and cream cheese.  I add freshly ground black pepper and lemon zest to the mixture which is then generously spread on the focaccia.  The cream cheese mixture is topped with a layer of smoked salmon.  The logs are then cut into  1/2 to 3/4- inch pieces.  I like to serve them, stacked, log cabin-style on a platter.

(Pre) Set a Sideboard or Top of a Chest of Drawers   with a pile of napkins, forks and a stack of plates for serving the entree'.

This fool-proof recipe - from my book "The Nantucket Holiday Table" (Chronicle Books, 2000) - always satisfies.  In the book, it's called Pumpkin Lasagne - however, pumpkin season is a relatively short one - butternut squash is available  throughout the winter.  The lasagne can be put together in the morning  then cooked just before serving.   This recipe serves 8 - I made 2 for my party of 8.  I put the 2nd one in the oven when the 1st one was halfway through cooking.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon pure olive oil
1 onion coarsely chopped
1 cup dry white vermouth
3 cups 2-inch cubed pumpkin, steamed until soft
2 rounded tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
1 rounded teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1 pound good quality precooked lasagne noodles such as Barilla, DeCecco or Dalverde (I used  fresh noodles)
1/4 cup gated Parmesan cheese
10 -12 fresh sage leaves
 1.   In a large, heavy-bottom skillet, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter with the olive oil over medium heat.  Saute' the onion until transparent.  Reduce heat and add the vermouth and squash.  Smash the squash with a potato masher or the back of a fork.  Stir with a wooden spoon to combine with the other ingredients.  Keep at a low simmer.
2.   Meanwhile, make a white sauce:  In a medium nonreacitve saucepan over medium heat, melt 2
tablespoons of the butter.  Add the flour and cook for 3 minutes stirring continuously with a wooden spoon.  Add the milk, nutmeg, salt and pepper.  Stir continuously until the mixture is slightly thicker than buttermilk.   Add to the squash mixture.  Stir to thoroughly combine.
3.   Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F.  Use 1 tablespoon butter to grease an 11-by 7 1/2-by 2-inch baking dish, then cover the bottom with sheets of precooked noodles.  Spread about 1/2-inch of squash mixture over the noodles and sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the grated Parmesan cheese over it. Repeat layering until all the squash mixture is used, ending with a layer of noodles.   Sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan.  Scatter the sage leaves over the top.  Dot with the remaining tablespoon of butter.  Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 15  minutes.  Uncover and bake for 15 minutes more, or until bubbly at the sides and golden on top.   Serve immediately.

. Sliced Blood, and CaraCara Oranges

I love the way oranges finish off a meal.  I  remember when I was in Italy for the first time being pleasantly surprised when people would order a spremuta d'arancia - orange juice - for dessert.   I like to "dress" the oranges, Moroccan-Style with a splash of orange blossom water, a shower of powdered cinnamon and some shaved coconut.  Make the plate of oranges a few hours ahead of time so that all the flavors have a chance to seep into each other.
I put this platter out with a bowl of Medjool dates - and some cookies and chocolates brought to the party by some of the guests.


Saturday, February 5, 2011

My Sputnik Moment

Every winter, right about now, I begin to yearn for light.  While the luminosity that I seek may not always come in the form of longer days or a getaway to a hot little island, I can assimilate light, and bright with food choices.  I love apples and pears - but I'm tired of them.  Local apples and pears have been in storage for more than 3 months and somehow they're starting to taste that way.  It's time to choose pineapples, and bananas.  Oh sure, since pineapples and bananas actually come from those hot little islands, they're available all year 'round.  I like them now, when it's cold outside.   Pineapple makes for the easiest dessert when you cut it into chunks and serve topped with mascarpone (or sour cream) and a shower of cinnamon - or a more complicated one when you make a Pineapple Sputnik from Anne Willan's book, "From My Chateau Kitchen" (Clarkson Potter, 2000).   When Anne claimed that the pineapple will be "fragrant with vanilla" - she was sooooooooooo right.  As my pineapple baked, and my whole apartment filled with vanilla steam complete with frosted windows, it transported me back, decades, to when I stepped off a plane for the first time in the Seychelles Islands. That introduction to the steamy heat temperature of the equator-based islands mixed with  the native vanilla pods and cinnamon bark gave me an indeliable memory to return to on demand.  You see how easy it easy to get to a hot little island?  Ha!


 Anne says, "....roasted pineapple extravaganza, speared with vanilla beans so it looks like a sputnik, must be tasted to be believed."   She's right.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Peel a whole fresh pineapple.  If you like,  use a small knife to outline and remove the eyes in a spiral pattern.  Cut out the core with an apple corer.  Cut 4 or 5 vanilla beans each into 2 or 3 shorter pieces and spear the fruit with these, pushing them as far as possible into the flesh - if necessary, use a skewer to help poke holes.  Set the pineapple standing upright in a baking dish.
Make a syrup by heating 1/2 cup sugar with 1 cup water, the grated zest and juice of 1 orange and 1 lemon, and about 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger until the sugar is dissolved, then simmer it for 2 to 3 minutes.  Pour the syrup over the pineapple and roast it, basting often (I basted every 20 minutes), until the pineapple starts to brown and the syrup starts to caramelize, 1 1/4 - 1 1/2 hours .  It will be fragrant with vanilla.  Toward the end of cooking, keep a close watch as the syrup will caramelize rapidly once it is reduced to a glaze.  Slice the pineapple into thick rings for serving and serve it warm basted with the cooking syrup.  Leave the vanilla beans for decoration.  However they're not edible.

I like to serve the pineapple with rum raisin ice cream.  I think a bit of any kind cream adds to the dish.
Serves 4 - 6

Ubiquitous bananas can be a snack on the run, sliced into cereal, baked into a quick bread, or blended into smoothies, and  the main ingredients in one of  my favorite cold weather desserts.  Bananes Flambees.  I included a simple recipe for them in my first cookbook, "Visual Vegetables"  (Clarkson Potter, 1991).   The recipe was handwritten and surrounded by one of my illustrations - very much like the ones I'm doing now for this blog.  There was an essay on the opposite page that set the stage, through some reminiscing, for the recipe.  Again, a lot like what I'm doing with this blog.
Here's the recipe for the simple, glamourous dish.  It's just a few words. 


Slice 6 unripe bananas in half lengthwise.  Fry them in 4 tablespoons butter and 1/2 cup sugar 'til they become almost caramel.  Then add 1 teaspoon cinnamon and 1 tablespoon more sugar. Pour on 1 cup warm rum.  Set aflame.   Serve immediately.  
Serves 6
Again, I think a little bit of some sort of cream - ice cream, heavy cream, creme fraiche, etc. - is nice accent for the bananas.

Tessa and Lucy, two young ladies whose ages are still in the single digits, have put together a recipe featuring bananas that's is just my kind of dish.

Serves 2
2 bananas
Same amount of vanilla yogurt
Almost 2 handfuls of M&Ms

Mash the bananas, one in each bowl.  Put in yogurt and M&Ms and then mix it all together well.   Eat with a spoon.

I  make something similar with very ripe bananas:
Smash a couple of bananas together with a few tablespoons sour cream and brown sugar.  Stir in some raisins that have been softened in dry Marsala.  That's it.  Instant banana pudding.

SUSANSIMONSAYS:  Not to cause too much alarm  - however - there was a pretty frighteneing article in the January 10th issue of The New Yorker about a deadly fungus that is killing off thousands of acres of banana plantations around the world.   So far, the fungus hasn't reached Latin America, the source of all the bananas we eat in the US.  According to experts, it's only a matter of time.  Oy!