Thursday, June 25, 2009

I do not own a single flan ring

So I've been snogging this month's Gourmet for the last few evenings while my husband puts Mr Tumnus to bed and tonight I was looking at their recipe for Savory Summer Tarts. Yum. This is the sort of thing I would have made for a brunch pre-Tum. Nay longah!

Anyway, the recipe for the crusts instructs the reader, once the crust is made and chilled, to "arrange [12 4-inch] flan rings on 2 sheets of parchment paper."

Wha - ?

I certainly have plenty of well-edited cooking equipment, down to miniature fluted pie shells (Wedding Shower! Williams-Sonoma Registry!). But I was uncertain as to exactly what a flan ring would look like.

You see them above because I cannot figure out how to break the tyranny of Blogger's image placer. Boo hiss.

Anyway, I have not got such things.

I got to thinking about cooking and desire, because once you get started in the kitchen, you really get INTO it and benefit from some good investments. Or begging at birthdays and holidays. (Yes, I was given the Kitchen Aid Standing Mixer! I have no shame!)

But flan rings. I'm not sure that these are going on my list for begging.

I see immediately that these are probably what folks use to make elegant stacks and napoleons of things - and in that light, maybe one or two could improve my eggplant towers (another post!). But my last purchase for the kitchen was a $6 steamer so that I could make baby food. My old metal steamer finally lost its hold and disappeared somewhere in the last three moves, poor thing.

But 12 4-inch flan rings. Small as this seems, this may have to go in the category of Things to Buy When Not Baby Broke. I'd rather have a really good instant-read thermometer. Or more loaf pans. Or a second Silpat!

So really what this ends up being is a moment when, once again, Gourmet takes off ahead of me, full of recipes for people with more money, more time, fewer (or older, or indentured) children. And flan rings.

I'm off to tuck the stand mixer in for the night.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Babyfood Pie

Now that I've totally revolted you, let me explain.

Baby food, in my opinion, should be of the freshest, best sorts of food there are. I'm making mine these days since I have the luxury of time and my baby eats such simple foods. I buy organic produce and steam or roast it, or just mash it up raw. What could be better? I figure that since I have no desire to eat mush out of a jar, I probably shouldn't feed it to me baby. I'm sure it's better than I think it is, but why pass up the opportunity to get us all used to Mr Tumnus eating what we eat?

So this morning, I got out some sweet potato I had roasted last night and approached Tum with it. Granted, he had had some for dinner the night before. Ho hum. So I got out some banana and mashed it in there, too. He took his usual first judicious taste (he likes to understand what he's eating before taking bit bites) and then immediately opened his baby-bird mouth for more! Always a delightful sight.

I thought I'd try it myself. I tried the rice cereal that most babies start on and thought it was vile. So I switched him to whole-grain baby oatmeal that actually tasted like food - lesson learned. Do not feed baby anything you wouldn't eat. (Note: Yo Baby yogurt is delicious and very dangerous for a parent since it's full-fat milk!)

As you might guess, the combination of two were delicious! Because the potato had been roasted, it had a very dark flavor, strong but very sweet - more like molasses than table sugar. The banana had all the bright, tropical fragrance and melting sweetness you'd expect. Together, they were fabulous!

The baby ate two bowlsful and was full of energy and cheer thereafter. Success!

I got to thinking while he was playing, that this combo must surely be a popular one - and one that I should turn into a pie! I Googled recipes for it and saw some nice ones, but nothing like what I was thinking of.

When the fall rolls around, and I'm not distracted by berries and stone fruits currently begging to be en-pied, I'm going to:

1. start with a graham cracker crust.
2. roast several garnet sweet potatoes until they are as tender as possible.
3. once I've mashed the potatoes up, I'm going to start adding bananas one-half at a time. I don't want people to say, "Good Lord! BANANA!" I want them to get a complex mouthful of many kinds of sweet and smokey flavors.
4. once I have those proportions correct, I'll use brown sugar and a small amount of cane sugar for the added sweetener (which you need in a pie!)
5. vanilla, fresh nutmeg (my obsession), Vietnamese cinnamon.
6. I could debate adding: cloves or allspice. The first may be too strong and the latter too "dusty." Also, I could be wild and add cardamon if I wanted to really make an exotic and more tropical kind of pie.
7. thicken with eggs and cream - I'm going to avoid evaporated milk, which is too like pumpkin pie. I want a lighter filling, I think.

Should there be a topping? I tend not to do such, but who knows. I might feel like it. There could be an argument for drizzled bittersweet chocolate. Toasted nuts (pecans or hazelnuts could nice) or even pralines would add a traditional element of crunch. Of course I would serve it with fresh whipped cream.

So there is the project. I will post again when I get to it! Fall seems so far away as we get into the heights and delights of summer, but now I have a pie to look forward to - and something new for the Thanksgiving table!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Night Kitchen is open

So it's difficult to cook with an infant, as I've observed before.

He plays happily in his excersaucer for a bit, but as soon as I start chopping an onion, or chicken, or some other noxious, poisonous thing (I'm convinced that various germs live on horribly despite my Silkwood shower hand washing and will contaminate my sweet babe), he needs me. So I've taken to cooking dinners (and baby food!) at night while my husband is putting the baby to bed.

It's actually a pleasure.

I clean up the kitchen from dinner (which is also a pleasure - having a clean, neat kitchen puts me at ease). Then I decide which baby foods I need to make and which dinners I want to start.

Tonight, I made an easy almost all-pantry meal that my friend Ashtanga taught me. I poured myself a glass of wine, and got out some organic chicken sausage and sauteed it. I took it out of the pan and sauteed a chopped onion in some olive oil. Then I returned the sausage to the pan and added two 14 oz cans of diced tomatoes and some dried basil and let it simmer. Tomorrow, about an hour before my husband gets home from work, I'll split and roast a spaghetti squash and the reheat the sauce to have on top of it. Easy! This is the beauty of the Night Kitchen - the dishes I make are usually much better the second day and are a snap to reheat.

While I made the sauce, I roasted a sweet potato for my baby. I pick up organic garnet sweet potatoes at our local Whole Foods knock-off (oh, Ho-Fo - how I miss thee!). I roast them, peel and mash them, allow them to cool and then freeze portions in plastic baggies, which then defrost over night. He loves them, these days.

Other nights, I've steamed organic apples and then run them through the mini-chopper. Later this week, I'll figure out pears, which he has never had! I thought about steaming them, as well, but decided to just wait until they get really ripe and tender.

It's really fun to return to my independent cooking ways at night and I always seem to find some energy in reserve for it. My husband says it delights him to see me cooking and smell the the good things - he finds it comforting.

Notes on Roasting Spaghetti Squash

Get a squash that looks healthy and is heavy for it's size. Preheat the oven to 400. Split the squash down its length, rub the split surfaces with olive oil and place, cut side down, on a baking tray. Roast 30 minutes and then pierce with a fork to check for doneness. You want the fork to go in with little resistance. Keep adding 10 minute increments if it needs more time.

I like this better than steaming - the squash will put out a lot of water and roasting helps reduce this. It also gives a sweetness to the squash, which you will then rake with a fork into spaghetti-like strings. Oh - pick up the squash with a pot holder and squeeze it over the sink for a minute to get out some of the water. Or allow it to drain in a colander if you can wait - I never can.

You can serve most pasta sauces on this (lighter ones are indeed better - and it loves fresh herbs and parmesan!). If you want a lighter and unusual change from pasta, try this.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Summer: Cooking Alone--Ratatouille

So it's summer. At last!

I'm definitely one of those people who revel in the growing season and summer is the easiest time to find so many things at their peak of deliciousness. The Farmer's Market is still the best source, but even the grocery store can't help but carry really good produce.

But I am rarely alone when I cook these days. My son, now 7 1/2 months old, is my almost constant companion these days, so I've gotten deft at cooking very simple, quick things while he ruckuses around in his excersaucer that we've hauled into the kitchen. He watches me cook and I say things like, "Spaghetti squash! Mama hacks up the spaghetti squash!" or, "Mama shells the SHRIMP! Mama wipes the mushrooms! Never WASH the mushrooms, lovey-loo - WIPE them!" He smiles and laughs.

He always thinks it's brilliant, whatever I'm doing. Until he wants to be picked up.

So this past Saturday, Mr Tumnus took a nap with his Daddy (the napping was mutual, I believe) and I was alone in the kitchen. So I made ratatouille.

This is certainly a high summer dish and rewards you for choosing the freshest and sweetest of vegetables: eggplant, zucchini, onions, red peppers, tomatoes, herbs. Really, all it lacks is corn - but for that there's succotash! (But that, as Kipling would say, is another story. Or post. Let's update him a bit.)

And it takes time. But it's not like bouillabaisse time (which can be grueling with all of the stock! and the chopping! and the sauteing! and the hey hey hey!). It's caramelization time, which allows a person to think thoughts peacefully, and idly stir the ingredients, perhaps read a bit of a novel, listen to NPR or good music, and actually think about what they're hearing.

I'm not much into celebu-chefs these days, but I made Tyler Florence's version, because I perceived that he used anchovies, which indicated to me that this dude not only new what he was doing but also knew what umami is (another story! another post!) and that was what I wanted.

I got out my iPod and put it on shuffle, which is a total pleasure since it's easy to weed out songs that are hateful or dumb on such a device. I heated the extra virgin olive over a slow heat and peeled and chopped the eggplant. In it went. I stirred it, letting it soften and then wilt and then melt a bit. Meanwhile, I chopped the zucchini. I read a bit of an old novel that I turned up in a box I hadn't unpacked from our move, just before Tumnus arrived. I scooped out the eggplant, set it to drain and added the zucchini.

Here I made a bit of a rookie error - I believed Florence when he said to add another 1/4 cup of olive oil. This was folly. I recommend that, while you will need to add oil after each new vegetable, you eyeball the amount - don't slavishly follow instruction! But yes, you will need plenty of oil for the eggplant and, as a friend of mine says, you will get fat but you must accept this and embrace it for it is delicious.

I scooped out the zucchini and set it to drain. Then I added chopped onion, garlic, fresh basil, fresh thyme and three mashed anchovies. I must tell you that an anchovy or two makes a huge difference in a dish. You won't taste them - the dish will just take on an added dimension of depth and earthy tang. Seriously. Go and buy a few tins of them. You'll use only two or three fillets in one dish, but they're so cheap you will not quail at this. Be brave.

The onions take a good while to caramelize. They smell heavenly. Anyone coming into your home will want to stay and will look hopefully at your kitchen door. I stirred them and thought my thoughts and listened to my music. I read a bit of novel. I stirred the onions. I thought about my past, as prompted by some of the music, and reached various conclusions both bittersweet and surprising. I rinsed the tomatoes.

When the onions were sweet-smelling and brown, the herbs wilted and the anchovies comppletely smoothed into the mixture, I added the tomatoes. These you cook until they wilt and then wither and then burst a bit. Really, cooking them longer repays the time - they become jammy, as properly roasted tomatoes will. Once they reached this state, I put the other vegetables back in and salted and peppered the dish and let its simmer to blend the flavors. The smell was toothsome indeed.

In fact, as soon as the baby was up, my husband wafted into the kitchen, like a Looney Tunes character, lead by his nose. The baby was thrilled to see me and buried his face in my shirt, breathing in the perfume of sauteed onions along with the smell of his mother. I have a very early memory of my father's hands smelling like the ginger and garlic he had been chopping, so I wouldn't be sorry to have my son remember my smell through the antique sweetness of caramelized onions.

The dish tasted delicious - like late summertime, when everything is sun-soaked and heavy with heat and brine and light. But it was missing something - it needs a little bit of acid and I had forgotten the balsamic vinegar! That was it. That tartness is essential - otherwise the different sweetnesses cloy. With the vinegar, it's easier to make out the different flavors of the ingredients.

We ate dollops of the warm ratatouille with hunks or cibatta and smears of soft goat cheese. Mr Tumnus sat in his high chair and ate his mashed banana. There was no rush, nowhere to be. My husband rolled his eyes heavenward. He ate more. he made inarticulate gestures at the dish with his spoon. He recovered enough to command me to make this "fortnightly" so that we'd always have some in the fridge to snack on.

Now THAT is a good plan for summer!

Adapted from Tyler Florence's Ultimate Ratatouille

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 lb eggplants, peeled, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 1/2 lbs zucchini, cut in half and then into 1 inch chunks
3 anchovy fillets, smushed into paste
2 onions, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4-1/2 cup fresh basil, coarsely chopped
Leaves from 10 stems fresh thyme (or to taste)
2 pints cherry or grape tomatoes
Balsamic vinegar to taste
salt and pepper

Note: cooking times are approximate. It's more important to get the vegetables to the proper state than stick to timing.

Prepare a large plate with paper towels. Heat 1/3 cup olive oil over medium heat. Add eggplant and season well with salt & pepper. Cook down until very wilted and soft, about 10-12 minutes. With a slotted spoon, fish out eggplant and put on platter to drain.

Add a bit more olive oil to the pan so that the bottom is coated, but isn't deep. Add zucchini. This needs the least amount of oil to cook. Don't drown it. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Cook until very tender but still keeps its shape, about 10-12 minutes. Add to platter to drain.

Again, make sure that there is generous olive oil coating the bottom of the pan (more so than for the zucchini). Add the onions, herbs, garlic and anchovies. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Cook until onions are caramelized, but not dark brown. Add the tomatoes and cook them down until they are bursting and soft. Return eggplant and zucchini to pan, stir gently and cook slowly for 20 minutes (turn heat to med-low) until flavors blend. Season to taste with salt & pepper.

Add a "splash" of balsamic vinegar and taste. Add more in small increments until the taste pleases you.

JTC's Notes:

I find that you can serve this as a dip with hunks of bread or make sandwiches out of it. If you go the sandwich route, make them a bit ahead and wrap them firmly in plastic wrap and refridgerate until time to eat. The flavored oil will soak the bread delightfully.

You can also serve a little dish of balsamic along side the ratatouille and people can wet their bread with the vinegar before piling the vegetables on.

You need a firm, assertive bread with this, such as cibatta or other peasant bread - thin or airy bread will not stand up to it!

For true summer decadence, add smears of soft goat cheese to your sandwich or appetizer.