Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Post-Irene Summer Tomato Pasta

The quintessential summer dish!

With all the drama of Irene and her aftermath, many of us don't have much time to spend on dinner these days.  If you have power (and we sincerely hope that you do), this one-dish summer pasta meal is the way to go.

While visiting relatives in Vermont earlier this month, I tossed together this lovely and simple dish from the bounty of a local farm stand.  It was a definite hit, and I am confident we will be invited for a repeat visit.  (Sadly, Irene did a number on the town, and we send our good wishes to the citizens of Quechee as they recover.)

While we are far from that rustic little produce shack, we are fortunate to enjoy the bounty of Reading Terminal Market, where the fixings for this summer stunner await you.

Farm Stand Pasta
(serves 4 as a main, 6 as a side)

3 cloves garlic, crushed
4 TBSP olive oil
2 perfect tomatoes, coarsely chopped,. being sure to preserve the precious juice to include in the sauce
a handful of basil leaves, cut in slices with kitchen scissors or a sharp knife
salt and fresh ground pepper to taste (be generous)
1 lb pasta cooked al dente in salted water, reserving 1/2 cup cooking water in case you need to add to sauce
1/3 cup parmesan cheese

While pasta cooks, place all ingredients but cheese in a large, shalllow bowl.  Stir to blend.  When pasta is done, drain thoroughly and dump it into the bowl on top of the tomato mixture.  Toss well; if it seems dry, add pasta water a TBSP at a time til consistency is right.  Before serving, top with cheese and toss again.

We served the pasta alongside grilled sausages but it can certainly stand alone.

As far as the hurricane, well, good riddance. Better yet, in the immortal words of Leadbelly....

Friday, August 26, 2011

Say "Cheese" for Dinner, Hurricane or Not

As hurricane charges up the coast, we thought it would be a good idea to continue discussing meals that require a minimum of preparation and heat, particularly in the face of potential power outages.

As huge fans of the cheese course, we'll use any excuse to serve a selection of our favorites.    These two goals collided this week and with a quick trip to Salumeria in Reading Terminal Market,  dinner was served.

Lucky for us, the folks at Salumeria are supremely knowledgeable and equally helpful.  I explained that I wanted a cheese course that would serve as  light dinner with a simple green salad.  They helped me select seven cheeses that created a perfect assortment of flavors and textures.

For this repast, I chose...

2 firm cheeses:
Hollander, a 4 year aged Gouda with a nutty flavor and grainy, crunchy texture.
Bellavitano, a sharpish Italian cheese which combines the bite of a great cheddar with the salty zing of a great Parmesan.

2 medium cheeses:
Etorki, a Manchego-esque cheese from the Pyrenees Basque region of Spain
Fontalino, a creamy Italian with a strong finish--approaching stinky in the best possible way

2 soft cheeses:

Delice de Borgogne--a triple creme, 'nuff said.
Taleggio--Italy's answer to Brie, in my opinion, but slightly more interesting.

1 bleu--because you kind of have to finish with a bleu, don't you?
Bleu D'Auvergne--the perfect blend of creaminess, sharpness, and pungence.

I surrounded them with some wafer crackers and whole wheat biscuits (slightly sweet), a jar of fig jam, a dish of Marcona Almonds and some fresh fruits and veggies. 

Come on, Irene. (ok, it's a stretch, but it gave me a little titter.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Pesto, the Ultimate No-Cook Dinner

A recipe for pesto is a cook's best friend when the temperatures rise.

As the dog days of summer arrive and sizzle, we are all looking for ways to avoid turning on the oven.  One of my go-to summer meals is pesto.  My husband is a huge fan--and the poor chap was born in January, so he is never able to have his favorite meal at its best on his birthday, for fresh basil is notoriously scarce in the winter.  But, good news for him now, it's everywhere these days and I am making batches upon batches to both eat and freeze.  (Pesto is pretty darned good frozen, but there's nothing like a fresh batch made from just-picked basil.)

We were the recent and grateful recipients of a generous bouquet of basil from our neighbor Elyse's garden.  But if you are not lucky enough to have a generous basil growing friend, head to Iovine Brothers; their basil is fresh, local and top quality.  I went to work immediately, transforming these fragrant leaves, alchemistically, into my husband's favorite elixir.  Full disclosure:  I am a pesto fan, too.

Here's my version, which makes about 2 cups.

Fresh basil, rinsed and ready to go.

Philly Food Lovers' Pesto

10 cloves garlic (best to have all members of the household partake as it is rather fragrant.)
5-6 cups rinsed basil leaves (I remove the tough, thick stems, but leave the smaller, thinner ones.)
1 cup olive oil
1 cup Parmesan cheese
1/4 tsp salt
a few generous shakes of red pepper flakes, to taste
4 TBSP pine nuts

Mix all ingredients in Cuisinart, and puree til smooth.

This will keep in the fridge for about a week; beyond that it should be frozen.

Use this glorious goo in any of the following ways:

  • Toss it on al dente pasta (reserve a bit of the pasta water and toss in a tablespoon at a time to distribute sauce evenly.)
  • Slather it on salmon fillets, then roast, grill, or saute.  (NB:  this works best if you only coat the flesh side; avoid the skin side, and cook skin-side down without turning fish.--if grilling use indirect heat.)
  • Grill bread and spread with pesto.
  • Put it in a pretty jar, tie with a ribbon and give it as a very impressive hostess gift or 'just because' present.
  • Saute shrimp in garlic and olive oil and top with pesto before serving.
  • Use on pizza instead of marinara sauce.
  • Kind of like the ubiquitous visa card--pesto is anywhere you want it to be--round out the flavor of soups with a scoop of it, add it to any pasta sauce, use it as a dip for crusty bread, a condiment for a savory cheese plate, or with antipasti.

It is entirely possible that my husband has tried it on ice cream and in coffee, such is his love for the stuff.  I restrict my usage to the suggestions listed above.

Friday, August 19, 2011

English Comfort Food (Pub Grub)

We left our homeland, England, ten years ago to settle in Philly. Today I can't imagine living in any other city other than Philly.  But, as any ex-Pat will tell you, however well you acclimate to a new culture, one of the things you miss most about your homeland is the comfort food that you grew up with. 

Aside from a traditional Sunday roast, Pub grub (food) is what I miss most of all because it's more than just a meal out -- it's an experience. 

The village pub is what defines the English countryside for any traveller. 

Having just returned from two weeks in the UK and Italy, here's my top picks of the best pubs we visited and the memorable nose-bags (meals, that is) we enjoyed during our whistlestop tour of London, Kent and the South Coast of England...

Every coastal village features a Crown & Anchor pub; it's a testament to that village's loyalty to the Monarchy and a recognition of the Village's reason for existing - the sea, trade and fishing.

A dead impressive pub in Pluckley, Kent, which is allegedly the most haunted village in England!

The South coast of England is characterized by its romantic (but stony) beaches.  Many a pub faces outwards towards the sea.

England is remarkably close geographically to France.  At its closest point, there is a scant 27 miles between the two countries, which explains why the French invaded England in 1066.  The record for swimming the English Channel (the body of water uniting England and France) is 6 hours 57 minutes and 50 seconds.  For any of you thinking of emulating this achievement, other than covering yourself head to toe in Vaseline, I would highly recommend any one of these traditional English dishes.

1. Fish 'n' chips - beer-battered at the posher pubs but best consumed sea-side on Whitstable's stony beach...(To make your own, try Jamie Oliver's recipe.  It combines egg whites and beer and results in a fluffy batter.)

 Our visit to this exquisite fishing community coincided with Whitstable's famous Oyster Festival. I didn't try a beer-battered oyster - it was $5 for a solitary oyster!  Whereas the locally caught fish was a bargain. 

I indulged my yearning for fish and chips on the beach...

2. Steak and kidney pie.  Don't try making it without the kidney it just doesn't have the same depth and texture; mushrooms are often substituted because people are squeamish about offal.  It's just not the same...  

3. Roast beef and home-made horseradish with roasted onions, beets and carrots

4. FRESH horseradish sauce, with a dash of chili powder.  This is a memorable addition to your roast beef.  Once tasted, never forgotten.  (You can buy fresh horseradish root from Iovine Bros in the Market, I checked)  Food Network has a recipe, courtesy of Emeril Lagasse.  Try this...

5. Yorkshire puddings a.k.a popovers - almost warrants a separate entry.  The secret's in the fat.  Ideally you want to use lard (shortening) and it has to be smoking hot before you add the batter.  Also, let the batter sit in the fridge for 5 minutes before you add it to the red hot fat.  If you do, the end result looks like this!

Accompanied by the perfect mashed potatoes - specially when they are dug up from Grandpa's back garden!

Not all pubs serve these British staples.  In recent years, the U.K. has seen the rise of the Gastro-pub - a pub where the food is just as important as the beer.  Probably the best meal I had on my trip was this guinea fowl and puy lentils entree. (Remember that France lies just across the Channel, hence the appearance of ingredients such as puy lentils on an English menu) 
I know Game birds such as quail and guinea fowl are popular but - I balked at this...

Spotted this in The Daily Telegraph, a national newspaper in the U.K.  
Canadian Geese "incline to toughness."  I didn't know that.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Tuna Tartare, Just Eat It!

This tuna tartare recipe was a big hit at the beach this past weekend. It all started when I planned a scampi-esque preparation of shrimp and scallops sauteed with garlic and white wine, then tossed over pasta. The assemblage greeted this announcement with a reaction that could only be called lukewarm. In assessing the temperature of their response, and correlating it with the temperature outside, I hit upon another idea--tuna tartare. The idea of this cooler, lighter dish heated up their enthusiasm, so I switched gears. The seeming lack of gratitude for my anticipated efforts, whether I was offering a gourmet seafood dinner or leftover hamburger helper, did rankle a bit. While noteworthy, it is more topical for an etiquette blog than a food blog, so I will address that issue elsewhere.

Although, to be completely honest, I really felt like breaking out into the following song:

But on to the tartare--this simple, crowd-pleasing concoction is great as a light summer entree served with crispy rice crackers or crostini and a salad of mixed greens, offered the same way in a smaller portion as a starter, or served in a large bowl surrounded by crackers or toast points as a part of a cocktail buffet.  Reading Terminal Market's seafood merchants and  produce merchants provide the building blocks, and we provide the recipe.

Here's the procedure:

Tuna Tartare (this makes a dinner portion for 3-4, a starter course for 6-8, and enough for a 'cocktail buffet crowd' of 12 or so if offered with a few other app's.)

12 oz sashimi grade tuna cut in uniform 1/4 inch cubes
1 TBSP toasted, cooled sesame seeds (place seeds in small dry skillet, heat on medium stirring and shaking skillet frequently to avoid burning. Cook approx 1 minute; when seeds are brown they are done)
2 TBSP sesame oil
2 TBSP mayonnaise
1 tsp hot mustard (or more to taste)
1 tsp Wasabe (or more to taste)
1 TBSP soy sauce
3 TBSP chopped scallions
Optional:  Sriracha or other hot chili sauce; start with 1/4 tsp and add as desired.

Blend all ingredients in mixing bowl.  Chill in fridge 30 mins to allow flavors to blend.  Serve and enjoy!

Ultimately, the crowd was grateful when they tucked in to this stuff and I did not have to serenade them with Wierd Al's song.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Flying Monkey Patisserie - A Cupcake Lover's Fantasy

photo courtesy of Albert Yee/Flying Monkey

The Flying Monkey Bakery has become a cult and for good reason.

(photo courtesy of Albert Yee/Flying Monkey)

Owner Elizabeth Halen, a self taught baker, bakes up treats which range from the homely - oatmeal chocolate chip is a stalwart - to the downright exotic (people emote orgiastically about her Elvis cake, a divine combo of peanut butter and banana, and her ever expanding range of whoopie pies).  

Words can't do justice to the divine Elvis Cake

Elizabeth is an inspirational baker, but this was not her original vocation, as she explains:

"I was an academic most of my working life; I spent six years at Temple University teaching Sociology and Statistics, but I had lots of part-time jobs to support my way through college. I then worked for friends in Northern Liberties who let me use their restaurant to try out my baking recipes."

"My Mother was a good baker and I always liked to watch food being made on TV.  I like experimenting with food.  I didn't go to cookery school; I went through the school of trial and error..."

Elizabeth shares the story of one of her recent creations - a Summer Pummple Cake:  "We took our enormously popular Fall/Winter version (pumpkin and apple pies baked inside of cake) and made seasonal changes to the recipe.

The end result which comprises a blueberry pie, baked inside a vanilla cake, and a cherry pie which is baked inside chocolate cake, is causing a ripple on Twitter!

Summer Pummple Cake (photo courtesy of Flying Monkey)

Flying Monkey Patisseries is equally famous for its whoopie pies, which according to Elizabeth were developed "based on the recipes that I grew up loving. I had to adjust the quantities and some of the ingredients for commercial baking though and I also wanted a seasonal emphasis." 

This theme runs through many of her cosmic creations; Elizabeth likes to change it up to reflect new seasonal ingredients as they hit the Reading Terminal Market. 

Flavors range from Lavender to Cherry Limeade - anything is possible! 

Elizabeth tries to source all her produce from other vendors in the Market, including Iovines Brothers, the Spice Merchant and she gets all her candy from the Pennsylvania General Store: "By keeping it in the Market, we can guarantee that we are using fresh, all natural ingredients in our cakes," says Elizabeth.

The Flying Monkey team are always innovating.  One of the cleverest innovations that Elizabeth has introduced is the use of pumpkin or veggie purees to replace butter in her whoopie pie cookies, as she explains: "We do this for additional moisture, not to reduce the fat, although this is an added bonus."

We asked Flying Monkey to share what she's learned from her "school of trial and error" experiences.  As a master baker, what are her golden rules?

1. "Use cake flour when appropriate.  Because it has a higher milling, it has a finer crumb and makes for a lighter cake.  All purpose flour is still better suited for some recipes, however.

2. Both butter and eggs need to be at room temperature before you add other ingredients to them,  Baking is a chemical process, it's important to observe this principle in order to emulsify ingredients (that is blend the fat and other ingredients correctly). 

3. Remember you are trying to incorporating air - this is the science part of baking...along with the emulsification process!

4. It's common sense but a few materials are reactive.  Some baking equipment is better suited for some tasks; I prefer to use stainless steel and copper for example, as they help egg whites whip into a nice froth," so says Elizabeth.

*** Meanwhile, I must dash, planning to sample the Bakery's newest addition to its whoopie pie collection - the oatmeal caramel whoopie pie.  By the way, do YOU know why whoopie pies are so named?

According to Elizabeth and the folks from Lancaster County, PA, whoopie pies were developed for a workman's lunch.  It was non-messy, a kind of cake-like sandwich, and when the workman threw open his lunch box and viewed its contents, especially this tasty whoopie cake, they'd stand up and shout "whoopie"!

There you have it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Favorite Bakeries in Philadelphia

Philadelphia boasts a wealth of wonderful bakeries, and that is good news for those of us with a sweet tooth.

We've been talking cakes of late, but we recognize that this heat can be a significant deterrent to baking.  Unless you opt to do your baking early in the morning or late at night when the temperatures are slightly cooler, you may feel that you yourself are cooking along with your dessert.  Even when you avoid the heat of the day, the weather of late has been rather steamy, so turning on the oven is simply not tempting.

Fortunately for us,  there are plenty of local places to procure a delicious cake without the swelter of your kitchen...

In Reading Terminal Market alone, there is an enormous selection of baked goods....

Termini's--we liked this chocolate glaze cake: a chocolate cake topped with a vanilla glaze and chocolate drizzle.   This is only one of dozens of tasty treats created by Termin's.

Flying Monkey offers a veritable bouquet of cupcakes and other treats; if you think they look good wait til you taste them.

Flying Monkey Cupcake Assortment [photo used with their permission]
Metropolitan Bakery, known predominantly for their artisan breads, is no slouch in the dessert department--as demonstrated by their chocolate torte and fruit tart.
Bieler's Bakery offers a staggering array of choices...

While we are rabidly devoted to Reading Terminal Market, we do stray from there occasionally.  In such cases, Brown Betty Bakery fills our need for sweets.   We brought a dozen of their justly famous cupcakes to a friend's house for dinner last weekend, thus assuring that we will be invited back soon.

And if you are looking for fancy, nobody maneuvers fondant like Allison's Cups and Cakes.  There is no sculpture, no shape, no theme too ambitious for Allison; she has of course, created beautiful, traditional multi-tiered wedding cakes adorned with flowers.  But that is the tip of the iceberg.  She once made a cake shaped like stacked Tiffany boxes (in the signature blue, of course) with 'jewels' spilling out of them.  With equal skill and attention to detail, she has sculpted a transformers, Elmo, Hello Kitty, a Louis Vuitton bag and dozens of other awe-inspiring cakes that are (almost) too beautiful to eat.

One of Allison's simpler creations, a spider cake for Halloween.

So, if cake is your wish but turning your oven on is your dread, Philly's got you covered.

What's your favorite bakery?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Caramel Cake--Simpler Than You May Think

This recipe for Caramel Cake was sent to us by a friend, reader, and serious foodie with the following recommendation:  "This was the best thing I've ever baked."  With an endorsement like that, and the fact that it features caramel, I simply had to try it.

I am a huge fan of caramel, and routinely make salted caramel sauce as a fondue or dessert topping, a hostess gift, or if I'm having a particularly bad day, something to eat with spoon warm from the pan.   The trick is to watch the caramelizing sugar/water mixture like a hawk.  It seems to bubble away with absolutely no change, then suddenly goes from clear to perfectly browned to tar in blink of an eye.  Fortunately, these cakes are a bit more forgiving while still creating that lovely caramel flavor.

We were scheduled to visit some friends in Virginia over the weekend, and this cake seemed like the perfect thing to bring--I cleared it with them first of course, for no hostess worth her Fleur de sel appreciates a guest bringing dishes that clash with her menu, and no guest with manners would inflict an unexpected dish on a host without permission.  (Although the yumminess of this cake might allow that rule to be relaxed.)  
Dessert starring Caramel Cake, a big hit!

The cake was an instant favorite with kids and grownups alike; kids loved the uber-sweet glaze frosting, adults loved the sophistication of the butterscotch/caramel flavor, a welcome deviation from the run of the mill vanilla or chocolate.

I've had this other version of  Caramel Cake in my repertoire for years.  It's always a hit but it doesn't quite have the visual 'wow' of the Saveur version above.   If you are only feeding 6-8 people, however, and don't want scads leftover, this smaller cake is a better bet; the version above would have easily fed 16.  We covered 6 people and 3/4 of the ring was left.   Six of us ate regular serving sizes;  one of us, strategically seated near the cake kept making those 'let me just even out the edge' slices and nibbling long after the rest of us had finished--it is that kind of cake.  Had it been in arm's reach of yours truly, I'd have been equally guilty.  Even with that, we had plenty left to slice up for the host to take to their daughter's swim team picnic the following day.

Caramel cake for a smaller crowd.

Either way, we've got you caramel-covered!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Lemon Cake - the Spanish Way

Spanish Lemon Cake
This recipe is one of my favorite cake recipes because it's so unusual - it makes people rethink their expectations of what a cake should be.  It's moist, lemony, dense and delicious. 

Instead of using butter as one of the main ingredients, the fat in this traditional Spanish recipe comes from a mixture of extra virgin olive oil and full fat plain yoghurt. 

For the squeamish amongst you - and those who prefer their cakes to be smothered with buttercream topping - I promise you will not be disappointed.  It's easy to customise the cake to appeal to those with a sweeter palate.  You can gussy up the recipe either by finishing off the cake with a dead simple:

lemon glaze

consisting of granulated sugar boiled to a syrup with about 1/2 a lemon squeezed in - once this is almost cooled you just drizzle the syrup over the top of the cake; once it sets, this glaze forms a lemony but super sweet crust, or a:

* vanilla-flavored whipped cream topping

I killed two birds with one stone; I baked this rather adult tasting cake for my son's birthday, but to please the crowds I made both the lemon glaze AND a vanilla whipped cream topping.  (I still haven't figured out how the candles will stand upright in the cake.)

3x lemons - grate the zest finely - best done with a grater rather than a zester.  Reserve the juice of 1/2 lemon for the glaze.
1 1/2 cups flour (no need for cake flour here)
3x eggs
1/2 tsp both baking powder and also same quantity of baking soda
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup yoghurt (I like to use the dense greek yoghurt)
3/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil
Non-stick 9inch cake pan, sprayed with PAM or grease pan with olive oil prior to baking

Oven Temp:  325F

* Combine flour, lemon zest, baking powder and baking soda in one bowl
* Separately whisk the eggs and sugar with an electric mixture.  You need to emulsify these two ingredients for 3-4 minutes until the mixture thickens up and the color changes from yellow to a pale, creamy yellow.
* Add yoghurt and whisk for another minute
* Add olive oil in one go; gradually mix in the flour etc a little at a time.  Keep mixing energetically until all the ingredients are thoroughly combined.  (Don't be put off by the straaaaange shade of yellow green the cake mixture begins to assume; rest assured that it turns out a bright punchy yellow!)
* Pour mixture in pan
* Cook for around 40-45 minutes
* Leave to cool before turning upside down and removing from cake pan.

I think that this same recipe would work remarkably well if one were to substitute the lemon zest for orange.

Manana perhaps :)