Archive for March 2010
Spring is here! Or, rather, it’s supposed to be — the time changed a few weeks ago, meaning longer days, the equinox occurred last week, and the stores are all full of flowery frocks and open-toed sandals. The only thing missing is actual warmth, which has been elusive, and sun.
Folks around here have a bit of Spring fever. I suppose they’re entitled. For the first time in recent memory, we had a real winter here in Alabama, complete with several cold weeks in a row, a bit of snowfall, and lots of rain. Having hit its stride back in January, winter seems disinclined to leave. My fellow citizens are generally grumpy about it, being used to mild winters, but I’ve been pretty happy about it. I like the cold and rain. Still, as much as I enjoy cold weather, I’ll be happy to see it leave this year. I’m tired of my winter clothes and shoes and, surprisingly, I’m even becoming weary of grapefruit and fennel, my two favorite wintertime foods. It’s time to move on, I say.
So, seeking out a little bit of cheery Spring, I decided to make pesto. It’s not basil season (not even close), so I went with another green wonder: pistachios. For a bit of tang, I threw in a jar of marinated artichokes;we can pretend that it’s really spring and that they are in season. Lemon juice beckons to the sun, which will hopefully join us in the coming days. It will be most welcome.
Rigatoni with Pistachio Pesto & Artichokes
1/2 cup of shelled pistachios that are unsalted and roasted**
4 cloves garlic, minced and divided
1/2 cup & 2 tbs. of olive oil, divided
1 lb. hot, cooked rigatoni with 1/2 cup of the boiling water reserved
1 8 oz. jar of marinated artichokes, drained
2 tbs. fresh basil, chopped or 1 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. lemon zest
The juice of one lemon
1/2 tsp. Aleppo pepper
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup chopped pistachios for garnishing
Salt and Pepper to taste
Blitz pistachios and 2 cloves of garlic in a food processor. You want the nuts to resemble coarse sand. Add salt and pepper. Turn on motor and add olive oil in a steady drizzle until a smooth paste forms. Adjust seasonings. You will wind up with about 1 cup’s worth of pesto, enough for 2 recipes. Set aside 1/2 cup — you won’t need that much — and refrigerate or freeze the rest.
Pasta & Artichokes:
Sauté the remaining garlic, Aleppo pepper, and artichokes in 2tbs. oil over medium-high heat for 3 minutes, or until garlic is fragrant. Be careful not to burn it. Add the drained pasta and dried basil, if using and lemon zest. Gently toss around in the pan to coat. Remove pan from heat. Add pesto in 2 tbs. increments until the pesto sufficiently coats the pasta along with a bit of the reserved pasta water and the lemon juice. Coat pasta and artichokes thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add a bit of olive oil if the mixture seems dry. Spoon into bowls and top with parmesan, fresh basil, if using, and chopped pistachios. Serve immediately.
**Pistachios are crazily expensive in the grocery store — about $6 per cup — but they’re much more reasonably priced on-line, even if you account for shipping costs. Even better, they’re fresher– much fresher. Nutsonline is a great source for pistachios and other nuts. If you’re feeling flush, you could purchase some Bronte pistachios online from Kalyustan’s but that will set you back $65 per pound (without shipping). Finally, Zingerman’s carries some prepared pistachio pesto made with Sicilian pistachios from Agrigento, but it’s also bit pricey at $30 per 8 oz. jar.
Recently, a well-intentioned person offered me a piece of “vegan cheesecake.” I politely declined, but the experience rankled. I’m not opposed to vegan food by any means; however, I don’t care to eat any food that is passed off as something that it is not. What the hell is a “vegan cheesecake?” Isn’t it more rightly “tofu cake?” “Tofutti cake”? “Cheese Substitute Cake?” What? I was disturbed the inaccuracy of it all, but then I realized that I was being a purist for a cake that is itself a bit of a cipher.
Broadly speaking, cheesecake is a cake made with soft, unripened cheese. Usually, it has some kind of crust, typically made with cookies or a thin layer of cake. Versions of cheesecake are found in cultures throughout world, including, unexpectedly, Asia, a fact that might challenge my aversion to the tofu cake that began this whole odyssey. In the West, humans have eaten cheesecake since around the time that Hippocrates was thinking about humors and formulating oaths. The Romans were fond of them, too, but then they stole everything from the Greeks. Of course, Italians nearly always improve what they steal, so Italian cheesecake is completely wonderful. In contemporary Italy, cheesecakes are usually made with either ricotta or mascarpone cheese, which makes them less sweet than other versions.
In the US, modern cheesecakes are usually made with cream cheese, often Philadelphia brand, a product that half-heartedly tries to pass itself off as Neufchâtel cheese, something it patently is not (hmmm… see paragraph #1). Specious connections aside, Philly cream cheese is highly adaptable. In fact, the malleability of this type of cheese means that a cheesecake can take a dizzying number of forms. They can be baked or not; contain eggs or not; be flavored or not. Sometimes, they are topped with fruit or jam. Less often, they are savory. I’ve had cheesecakes that were mostly whipped cream and some that were mostly Cream Whip. A beloved St. Louis version even includes butter and yeast.
In short, the cheesecake is a highly variable platform. And, I mostly don’t care for them. So it was a bit of a surprise to me that I became obsessed with the idea of cheesecake after the tofu offer and decided to make my own just as soon as I possibly could.
Given the many and varied reasons I have for not making desserts very often, I had plenty of opportunity to research the history the cheesecake and to seek out a good recipe for one. I was finally able to make my move on Monday, which is how I wound up with this gorgeous thing in my refrigerator.
In spite of my general dislike of cheesecake, I can’t say enough about this one. If you’re thinking of some kind of rubbery Cheesecake Factory version, think again. If you’re imaging a creamy confection that cannot easily be cut into slices, think again. This stellar version is made with a combination of mascarpone cheese and ordinary old Philadelphia brand. It has a graham cracker crust and a thin sour cream topping. It is beautiful and delicious. The filling was just tart enough to play well against the sweet, almost caramelized crust and the texture was creamy without being insubstantial. And, the cake was really fun to make: a bit of serious, but pressure-free baking on a sunny Monday morning. Mimi was an excellent assistant, as these photos will demonstrate. The recipe was minimally adapted from one at epicurious.com.
1 1/4 cup of graham cracker crumbs
1/2 cup sugar
8 tbs. butter, melted
8 oz. mascarpone cheese, room temperature
2 1/2, 8 oz. containers of cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
3 large eggs, room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. lemon juice
First make the crust. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 9 inch springform pan. Combine 1 cup of graham cracker crumbs and sugar large bowl. Reserve the remaining cracker crumbs to sprinkle over the top of the finished cake. Add the butter and stir until crumbs are coated. Press crumbs into the pan, pushing the mixture up the sides of the pan by about 1 1/2 inches. Bake for about 7 minutes, until the crust sets and slightly browned. Remove from oven and cool on a baking rack for about 25 minutes.
Next, get on with the filling. Reduce the temperature of the oven to 350 degrees. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the cheeses and the sugar. Blend on medium until combined and slightly whipped, about 4 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well into the cheese after each addition. Add the vanilla and lemon juice and beat until just blended. Pour the filling into the cooled crust and bake for 30-35 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven and cool for 25 minutes. When you remove the cake from the oven, don’t be alarmed if the filling wiggles a bit. It will continue to set as it cools. Leave the oven on.
Now, make the topping. In a small bowl, combine the sour cream, sugar and lemon juice. Pour onto the cooled cake and spread evenly, leaving 1/4 inch of a gap all around the edges of the cake. Bake for 10 minutes, until the topping is just set.
Remove the cake from the oven and allow to cool to room temperature. Refrigerate for 8 hours. This sounds like a long time; indeed it is, but it is in the cooling process that the cake achieves it full potential. Before serving, sprinkle the remaining crumbs over the top of the cake. Sit back, smile, and — you know — say, “Cheese!”
Expecting something on three of my ex-boyfriends?
Think again. As satisfying as that might be for me, it would not be of much use to you. Instead, I offer something truly valuable: recipes for my three favorite dinner party starters, muhamarra, tapenade, and hummus.
Served alone, any one of the three would be a satisfying way to welcome dinner guests. Serve the three of them together, however, and you will impress your guests with your worldly sophistication, easy generosity, and all around culinary brilliance. At the very least, they will know that you care.
I’m not sure when I started serving all three dips together, but now I feel sort of lazy whenever I make only one or two of them. I wish I could come up with a catchier phase to call them: “the three dips?” Not exactly sophisticated. Fortunately, even if the name doesn’t inspire, the combination does. The dips belong together somehow. Sweet, salty, and earthy; red, black, and beige — however you configure them, they play well together.
Besides, once you haul out the food processor to prepare one, it makes a lot of sense to prepare all three. They share a number of ingredients — garlic, lemon juice, and red pepper — so, you know, while you’re at it.
I’m never able to single out a favorite. Each one tastes wonderful slathered onto triangles of warm pita (especially pita you make yourself–another post). The three distinct flavors also work really well in tandem. Besides this important fact, there are other advantages to serving the triumvirate to guests. They look pretty together on the table and they are just exotic enough to seem special. All three are vegan (or can easily be made so). Best, the dips taste best made the day before, which frees you from some kitchen prep on the day of your event. In fact, even if the dips are all that you serve, your guests will be thrilled.
A word about muhammara, which is a traditional Persian dip. While most of its ingredients are easily found, you will need to look around for the pomegranate molasses since it is an essential component of the dish. Its flavor is both sweet and tart, a common profile in Persian food. I’ve found pomegranate molasses at Zingerman’s and the Spice House, and it keeps forever in the refrigerator. However, don’t despair if you absolutely cannot get some; either reduce 2 cups worth of pomegranate juice (you’ll wind up with about 1/2 cup of molasses) or double the specified amount of lemon juice and add 1 tsp. dark brown sugar.
Finally, I recommend Aleppo pepper in all three recipes, but regular crushed red pepper makes an adequate substitute. If you do use crushed red pepper, reduce the amounts recommended by about half and adjust from there. The muhamarra and tapenade should both be fairly spicy.
1 7 or 8 oz. jar of roasted red peppers, drained
2/3 cup walnuts
3 cloves of garlic
Juice from 1 lemon
3 tsp. pomegranate molasses
1 tsp. Aleppo pepper
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 – 1/2 cup olive oil
Put the first 8 ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and process using short pulses. You want everything coarsely chopped. Once you have the texture you like, add the olive oil in a steady stream while the food processor whizzes away. Adjust seasonings. Garnish, if you’d like, with mint leaves. Serve with warm pita.
1 12 oz jar of pitted Kalamata olives, drained and rinsed
2 tbs. capers, drained and rinsed
3-5 garlic cloves
Zest of one lemon
Juice of one lemon
Scant 1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. Aleppo pepper
1/4 – 1/2 cup olive oil
Place the first 6 ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and process using short pulses. When all is coarsely chopped, add the olive oil in a steady stream while the food processor whizzes away. Adjust seasonings. Serve with warm pita. Sometimes, I add some crumbled feta cheese to the finished tapenade. If you plan to do this, bear in mind the fact that feta is salty so you’ll want to add less salt to the tapenade.
1 8 oz. can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed (although you could make your own chick peas for even better results), separated
2 tbs. tahini (roasted sesame paste)
3-5 cloves of garlic
Juice of two lemons
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. Aleppo pepper
1 tsp. salt
1/4 – 1/2 cup of olive oil
Place half of the chick peas and the next 5 ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and process using short pulses. When all is coarsely chopped, add the olive oil in a steady stream while the food processor whizzes away. Add the rest of the chick peas to the processor and pulse 3 or 4 times. Adjust seasonings. Serve with warm pita.
The hummus can also be served warm. If you want to go this route, make the hummus as recommend above. Then, preheat the oven to 400 degrees; put the hummus in an oven-proof casserole; melt 1 tbs. butter in a sauce pan. Add 1 tsp. Aleppo pepper, 1/2 tsp. cumin seeds, and 2 tbs. pine nuts. Stir over medium heat until everything is coated with butter. Pour over the hummus and bake for 20 minutes. Serve immediately.
Our friends Jeff and Karen and Scott and Laura came for dinner on Saturday and I served the three dips before this lentil soup and this marmalade cake. In our Straw Poll, the hummus and the muhamarra more or less tied. We finished up the hummus on Saturday, but Mimi and I enjoyed the leftovers for lunch today. It was a fabulous way to celebrate Meatless Monday.