Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Happy Hour Small Plates- Rustic Zucchini Tart

In the summer months I'm all about entertaining. I love the idea of a few friends over, drinks on the patio, a selection of appetizer style foods and small plates to share. Savory and sweet, light and lush. Chilled Riesling, cold craft beers, icy cocktails, laughing and enjoying the waning days of summer.

The baker in me also loves baking. Not the best idea in the summer so much, but sometimes late at night when The Chef is at work I will get out the baking supplies and create something new and delicious. I love anything with a European flair. French foods. Rustic Italian foods. Pastry. Cheesecakes. New recipes and old favorites I've made a million times. Like this one- I make galettes (rustic, freeform tarts) all the time. With all the access I have to fruit trees and generous friends, I always have several made ahead and frozen, ready to pop in the oven at the last minute. So as I'm sitting here, surrounded by piles of zucchini, I'm thinking quiche.... but easier, lighter, fresher. 

Pastry-making is one of the more basic cooking skills everyone should master. I learned to make pastry years ago the old way- with a pastry blender. These days the food processor makes it a snap to have homemade flaky pastry in minutes,  but if you dread the pastry part, it is okay to cheat and buy the ready-made kind for this recipe. Make sure you buy the refrigerated rolled pastry and let it sit at room temperature for 10-15 minutes before using. Don't use the frozen pastry in the tin pans- that will not work with this recipe. If you are up to making your own though, PLEASE, I beg of you, use butter, shortening or lard to make the crust. DO NOT use margarine. You will be most unhappy if you do! I only use very cold butter cut into cubes.

I love this tart for lots of reasons. It uses up zucchini. It's easy to make and doesn't require half the kitchen in ingredients. It's perfect for a small plates dinner, sharing with friends over cocktails. It pairs beautifully with a glass of champagne. It's the perfect picnic food, individually wrap wedges and you're good to go. It goes beautifully with an icy cold Pinot Grigio. It makes a great breakfast the next day with some fresh fruit. It's very quiche-y without having $100 worth of cheese in there (I totally made that word up). It has that rustic look that I love so much- it looks so gourmet when in reality it's almost effortless to make. And most of all, it's delicious!

So let's get started on our Rustic Summer Zucchini Tart.  You will need:
  • pastry for one crust
  • 1 small  zucchini
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 bunch green onions, sliced
  • 4 oz goat cheese
  • 2-3 tb cream cheese
  • salt and pepper
  • chopped fresh thyme
  • chopped fresh Italian parsley
  • a little lemon zest
Make your pastry and set aside, covered.

Cut zucchini in half lengthwise, then slice zucchini VERY thinly, set aside. You can use a mandolin if you have one but honestly, I am scared to death of mine. Bad, bad experience. I am in love with my trusty ceramic knife and used that.

Heat a couple TB olive oil in skillet, add onions, cook over medium heat until softened. Add garlic and saute for 2-3 additional minutes. Set aside to cool.

Add the goat cheese and cream cheese to the onion mixture. Using a wooden spoon mix and "smash" everything together until you have a mixture that's spreadable. Add a pinch of salt, a teaspoon or so of lemon zest, a couple nice pinches of fresh thyme and parsley, minced and some freshly ground black pepper. It's much easier to mix together if you bring the cheeses to room temperature. Set aside.

Roll the pastry out into large circle, doesn't have to be perfect. Transfer pastry to large baking sheet that has been sprayed with non stick cooking spray. The easiest way to do this is fold in half, fold in half and move, centering the "point". Next gently spread cheese mixture over, leaving about a 2 inch "rim".  Layer the zucchini slices in overlapping rows to completely cover the cheese. Fold the edge of the tart over, pleating as necessary, to tuck everything in and get that rustic look. Drizzle with additional olive oil and sprinkle lightly with shredded cheese such as mozzarella, if you like. Use just a TOUCH. Don't think pizza here. I really like the shredded parm as opposed to the usual grated stuff, it looks very nice melted and browned on the top but a little bit of mozzarella will do in a pinch.

Bake at 400 degrees for about 30-40 minutes until crust is beautifully golden brown. Remove from oven and let stand at least 10-15 minutes before slicing. Sprinkle with more chopped fresh thyme and lemon zest. Can be served warm or at room temperature. Slice in thin wedges for appetizers or larger wedges for lunch servings. A nice mixed baby greens salad with a Dijon vinaigrette is the perfect accompaniment, or a fruit salad- fresh fruit, not the fluffy whipped topping kind. 

This is such a wonderful dish to experiment with too- try bumping up the flavor with a quick sprinkle of fresh lemon zest right before serving. Sun dried tomatoes would make a pretty addition too- chopped up and added after baking. A handful of toasted pine nuts, or walnuts. No thyme? Use whatever herb you have on hand- in this case though you really do need to go with fresh. You can add sun dried tomatoes to the softened cheese too, sprinkle on chopped sauteed mushrooms, jalapeno pepper, even seafood like crab or shrimp. Once you get started, your imagination will just go to work and you will create up a storm! Now all you need to do is set the table on the patio or pack that picnic basket.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Happy Hour Small Plates- Peppadew Tapenade

Small plates are hot right now. Lots of trendy nightspots are featuring these tidbits that are perfect for sharing with friends and gives you a chance to taste several different things rather than one big entree. They are also perfect for entertaining, especially this easy-to-fix tapenade, that includes one of my favorite things to make for entertaining- Peppadews!

This is super easy to throw together and keep in the fridge for at least a couple weeks, and the food processor makes quick work of it. So, to make my Pepper Olive Tapenade you will need-

  • 1/2 cup Peppadews, packed
  • 1 cup black olives- I like to use a mix of common black olives and Kalamatas, use whatever you like
  • 1 cup green olives- any kind you like, again I use a mix of different green olives
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2 tb capers
  • 2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
  • small palmfull fresh parsley (leaves only)
  • 1 lemon- juiced and zested
  • 3-4 tb olive oil

Combine Peppadews, olives, garlic, herbs, capers and lemon zest in food processor. MAKE SURE that the olives are PITTED. Pulse/process until you have a finely chopped mixture. 

If you have one of these choppers they are perfect for a chunkier
tapenade and you won't accidentally over-process into puree
Scoop into bowl and toss with lemon juice (use an amount based on your taste- sprinkle in a teaspoon and taste it- add more if you like) and olive oil. 

This is the consistency I am looking for, finely minced
Chill well and serve with toasted slices of baguette or crackers, toss with pasta or with pita chips.

All the colors of the peppers, olives, herbs and pop of fresh lemon
A few things here- first of all, if you're not familiar with Peppadews, you need to meet these guys. They are a South African sweet/hot pepper that is bright red and so delicious. If you are lucky enough to have a supermarket with an olive bar, they likely will have Peppadews as well. 

If not, you can find them in the pickle aisle in jars. If you absolutely cannot find them you could use pimiento or roasted red pepper as a substitute but it won't have the same sweet/hot kick. When I shopped to make this recipe, incredibly, the store had NONE- not a single Peppadew. I had to go with sweet pickled cherry peppers but the flavor and texture were very similar. I just removed the stem and seeds and they pretty much were the same with very little difference in flavor. The cherry peppers are a little meatier and I think less "crispy" but they certainly were very similar in the sweet with a hint of heat character.

Olive bars- the bane of my existence! Gateway Market in Des Moines has the best gourmet olive bar anywhere, and I am officially grounded from going there- I can spend my entire grocery budget on those darn things. We have a chain of grocery stores in Iowa called HyVee and they also have nice olive bars and most have Peppadews on the bar. If you can, seek out an olive bar- you can mix and match the olives you want and not have to open a bunch of jars and cans to get 1 cup of olives. They are sold by weight so go crazy and mix it up! 

I chose a varied mix from the bar- Kalamata, big pitted and briney green olives, smaller black olives, and oil-cured red olives. I made sure to get all pitted olives so I wouldn't have to mess with pitting them. I also was careful not to choose any stuffed olives- while they are all delicious, they really wouldn't work with this dish.

Some of the olives I chose were marinated and the mix included chunks of Provolone. Of course I scooped a few of those in the tub- that's for snacking while I'm prepping the rest of the dish!

Soooo delicious. Fresh, herby, lemony and briney. Yum.
So what exactly is tapenade anyway? Well, simply put, it's a relish. It's an ancient French food typically made from olives, capers and olive oil, often flavored with fresh herbs, anchovies or lemon. There are about as many versions of tapenade as there are chefs, ranging from a pate-like spread to a chunkier relish style condiment. I'm looking for somewhere in between- I want to still see bits of the components and be able to pick out the flavors while still enjoying the tapenade as a whole. I also plan on serving it on toasted slices of baguette, similar to bruschetta. Once you've made it I'm sure your imagination will take you in different directions. Stop back and tell us what you're cooking with tapenade!

Monday, August 18, 2014

In the Kitchen with Deb- Guest Chef Adventures in Vegas

You might remember our friend Deb Tedesco-Roberts from her culinary school interview she did with us a while back. Well.... Deb has been busy this summer! Traveling, enjoying the Vegas nightlife, gardening and COOKING up a storm, Deb has invited us into her kitchen to see what happens when you send men off to fish for trout, and they deliver the goods.

This girl belongs on Food Network!
Going fishing is a rite of passage for many men, and while the "Manly Fishing Trip" may not be as common as it once was, occasionally you do hear of a group of guys making the escape from the city to a secluded cabin or campsite and spending some time at one with nature, baiting hooks and hoping to snag something worth bragging about. Deb's guys loaded up the equipment and headed off to Panguich Lake in Utah for some trout fishing, and judging by the pictures, they have the perfect fishing spot.

Manly men doing manly stuff at the lake

Deb's hubby Kurt seems to have won the fish lottery

Oh yaaaaaa.
While I love fishing, I was more excited to see what sort of kitchen magic Deb would be working when she got a hold of those beautiful, freshly-caught fish, and I was not disappointed. Fresh herbs, lemon, olive oil, wine, all lined up on the counter top, ready to lend their flavors, and an unbelievable amount of beautiful, flawless trout sit waiting for their ultimate destination- the dinner plate.

Trout is one of my very favorite fish. It's so delicious and easy to prepare, and if you leave it whole and don't feel guilty with him looking at you while you're eating him, make a striking presentation. Deb was working with trout but you can use whatever fish you prefer.

Look at these perfect trout! Lemon and herbs are
waiting in the background for their turn
First things first- head on or head off? That's up to you really. I personally don't like my dinner looking at me while I'm eating, so I'm a heads-off gal and so was Deb. Second thing you have to deal with is the skin. Cooking a whole fish is so much easier and gives a moister finished dish when you leave the skin on, so make sure to thoroughly remove all scales from your fish if it's a scaled fish. Not all fish are!

Extra virgin olive oil and Sauvignon Blanc-
match made in heaven with fish
Seasoning your fish is a very important step. Of course you want salt and pepper, but you can add subtle flavors to fish by stuffing the cavity with thinly sliced lemon or other citrus, and lots of fresh herbs. Thyme, dill, Italian flat leaf parsley, fennel fronds all work well with fish.

Fish are stuffed with herbs and lemon
Adding a splash of a light wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil accent the fish perfectly while adding moisture.

Get all that good stuff in there!

Don't neglect the exterior of your fish either. A nice rub of olive oil and season with salt and pepper before you wrap up your foil packets will ensure a tasty fish skin, especially if you finish with a quick broil to crisp up the skin.

Wrapping up bundles of deliciousness
Wrap up the stuffed and drizzled fish in foil and seal tightly! Place on a baking sheet and pop into a preheated 350 degree oven and don't peek for 30 minutes or so (depending on the size of your fish). When ready to test, you can tell the fish is cooked when a fork inserted shows flaky meat. You can check with a thermometer as well- it should be 140 degrees.

Cooking show- right??
While your fish is cooking, get your sides in order- a mushroom rice pilaf is delicious with fresh fish, or a crispy fresh tossed green salad with a light vinaigrette- perfect!

Don't they look fantastic? 

Deb's delicious fish was served with garden-grown tomatoes
and rice drizzled with pan juices from the fish- simple and perfect
Freshly caught trout makes a beautiful dinner and is just as easy to prepare at the campsite- simply cook your foil packets over the campfire or on a grill.You can have lots of fun with this dish too- invite friends over for a stuff-your-own fish feast and get your guests in on the fun in the kitchen, open a bottle or two of wine and enjoy!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Cook it all day pasta sauce

Finding myself with some unexpected time on my hands means I get to spend more time in the kitchen. That means cooking up delicious meals that can simmer away all day. Pasta sauce is the perfect all day dinner, easy to put together and very versatile. Just add the pasta of your choice and some crusty garlic toast and you're set.

Everyone's family has a pasta sauce recipe they love. No one makes it quite like Mom's. Ours is no exception. The Chef's sauce is different than mine even, so we get two incredible family recipes to play with, update, and make our own. We love lots of garlic and herbs, layered flavors of herbs- both dried and fresh bring something to the sauce. Dried herbs lend their subtle flavors through long and low cooking, fresh herbs add that pop of flavor when added at the last minute. Onions and garlic are the backbone of my sauce and both diced tomatoes and tomato puree complete the sauce. 

Herbs? Italian flavors are what I want here. Oregano, basil, marjoram, thyme, and bay leaf fit the bill, and instead of just regular crushed red pepper I am going to use a pepper blend I picked up at Vom Fass, Aglio Olio & Peperoncino.

So let's get cooking! You will need-

  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 4 cloves fresh garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 4 cups tomato puree
  • 8 cups chopped tomatoes
  • dried and fresh Italian herbs- oregano, basil, marjoram, thyme
  • crushed pepper to taste
  • cooking oil
Heat a tablespoon or so of oil in a stockpot, add the onion and saute until softened. Add the garlic. I love sliced garlic in recipes like this (think Goodfellas and the scene in the prison kitchen- Pauly slicing the garlic with a razor blade). Cooking just melts the garlic into the sauce and it's so much more flavorful. Stir the garlic and onion for a couple minutes but don't allow the garlic to brown. It gets bitter and nasty if it browns.

Add the ground beef and break it up. Cook until done. Drain off extra fat if needed.

Add the herbs to the ground beef in the pot and stir. I use about 1-2 teaspoons each of dried herbs, a little lighter on the oregano than the basil.

Next, add the tomato puree and the tomatoes to the pot. Stir it all together, bring to a boil. Then reduce heat, cover and let simmer for an hour or so. 

Next, lift the lid and place it ajar so the sauce can cook down and thicken. Stir once in a while and taste for seasoning, add salt and pepper if needed. Let the sauce cook all afternoon over low heat. A crockpot is great if you have one.

As dinnertime approaches it's time to pick out a pasta. This sauce is very hearty and works well with just about any pasta, from spaghetti to lasagna. We will be having spaghetti tonight. Cook your pasta according to the package directions, drain well, and serve with sauce and hot crusty garlic bread. 

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 55: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Urban Foraging

I don't normally think of the city as a great source for foraging, but my eyes have been opened after talking with friends about their experiences in different cities around the world. When I think about it, and consider the number of beautiful flowering trees planted all over cities to make them more beautiful in the springtime, I should have thought about this before. Now it's starting to make sense!

Sue's beautiful blackberries
Not to be mistaken with the "freegan" lifestyle, which includes dumpster diving for food, rather urban foragers find free edible plants such as fruits and leafy greens. My friend Sue, for example, who lives in Rotterdam, normally shares pictures of her incredible curries and Asian style dishes, all homemade and flawlessly executed. Today she shared a couple pictures of pears and Damson plums she found IN THE CITY! So that started our conversation. 

Damson plums Sue found in Rotterdam

Sue called these stone pears. Aren't they gorgeous?
Not only does she find these beautiful fruits, but blackberries, raspberries, hazelnuts and more. I was immediately inspired to find out more. Foraging is nothing new to me- I live in the country, but in the cities? 

My friend Kevin, who lives in Des Moines, picks black raspberries, mulberries and elderberries in the city. Vivian, also from Des Moines, found an apple tree at a nearby business and had picked apples. Brianna found a fig tree at Georgia Regents University in Augusta, Georgia. More mulberries have been picked by Laura in Clarinda, Iowa, from a tree on a vacant lot. She says she has picked pounds of berries from that tree. Crab apple trees line many parking lots all over the city and people are picking them! It's pretty amazing when you think about how many sources there really are for free food if you know where to look, and carry a plastic bag with you of course!

Of course, if you are an experienced forager you already know you have a virtual salad bar right in your own lawn. Young dandelion greens and plantain leaves make great additions to salads. Many flowers, such as violets and roses, can be steeped as used for teas, jellies and more. 

Plantain, the menace of yard freaks everywhere.

Most of us know at least one homeowner in the city whose lawn is overrun in the fall with black walnuts strewn about, and their smelly and oily black shells decaying all over. My friend Ronda, who lives in Alabama, has a similar "problem" with pecans. I wish I had a pecan problem actually!

So what do we do with all these foraged finds? Let's make a simple salad using plantain.

2 cups young plantain leaves, washed and chopped
2 cups mixed baby lettuces
1/2 red onion, sliced
sliced cucumber or grape tomatoes, if desired
chopped herbs of choice
1/4 olive oil
2-3 tb white balsamic vinegar
1 tb dijon mustard
salt and pepper 

In a large bowl combine all the vegetables. In jar, mix oil, vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper, shake vigorously. Pour about half the dressing over the vegetables; toss well. Add more dressing if needed. Serve on chilled plates.

NOTE:  There are lots of sources for foraging information online and in books. Make sure you know what you're eating. Pick from unsprayed, untreated areas and if permission is needed, make sure you get it. NEVER eat a berry or mushroom or plant of any kind unless you are absolutely sure it is safe.