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Halloween and Ham and Cheese Muffins

November 1, 2012

Gluten Free Breakfast Muffins with ham and cheddar

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday. Decades before Home Depot was selling giant, inflatable skulls, I was crafting realistic scary monsters out of my dad’s old flannel shirts and work pants and lighting up their makeshift heads with mom’s Christmas window candles. All year long I fantasized of being someone else, someone who didn’t live in a rundown house with parents who argued endlessly. Halloween was living that dream if only for one day. And it was the only time I wasn’t embarrassed of where I lived. Our dilapidated, faded green house sat perched on a steep hill surrounded by a moat of giant pines twice as tall as the house. They guarded the house like sentries, daring anyone to enter, and few did.

Our house was a fright all year long, but I could embrace it for one month of the year. As Halloween approached I’d begin drafting my plans for converting our gracious front porch into a scare fest. It took me three or four days–two of which were days I was supposed to be in school–from start to haunted finish. The results beat most anything you’ll find today: hand-painted tombstones, flying furry bats, dead bodies wrapped in sheets drenched with red paint swinging from mom’s plant hooks in the porch ceiling. Dad helped me build a wooden coffin for one of my monsters. When the strobe light was on you could convince yourself that the monster was moving. I blasted scary music from my boombox–a collection of recorded screams and music from my favorite horror films, Halloween and The Exorcist. Neighbors a block a way could hear Jamie Lee Curtis screaming as she ran from Michael Myers.

I never outgrew my love for Halloween. Instead, I married a man that would come to enjoy Halloween as much as I do. Our first Halloween together we threw a big party at Greg’s apartment and, along with Greg’s sister Laurie, dressed up like members of the band KISS. (Laurie was Gene Simmons complete with the biologically mystifying tongue. I was Ace Frehley. And a shirtless Greg was Paul Stanley.) Those costumes took me a week to make. I even made one for Peter Criss, the fourth band member of Kiss, and stuffed it with old newspapers just like I did the monsters on my porch as a kid. We laid Peter across Greg’s bed as if he’d been killed in a bloody battle. Two years later, in 2001, Greg and I were married on the Saturday before Halloween and treated our guests to a costume reception. That was our last big Halloween bash, but each year we still enjoy dressing up and giving the kids–and some adults too–a little scare. (That’s Greg in the picture below wielding the plastic sword.)


Halloween is a holiday with no obligations or expectations. There’s no pressure to buy the perfect gift or send a holiday card and no argument about how you’ll divide the holiday with your families that are 400 miles apart. Eating candy is allowed and encouraged. You can let your imagination soar, don a mask, a cape, or a wig and be someone else for the night. Your life and responsibilities will be waiting for you the next day just as mine were today even as I picked the black polish from my nails and got back to being me.

Gluten Free Breakfast Muffins with ham and cheddar

Ham and Cheese Muffins

Adapted from Heidi Swanson’s recipe for Cottage Cheese Muffins at 101cookbooks.com. Not a fan of ham? Make them with chicken or turkey instead. Or follow Heidi’s lead and skip the meat in favor of sun-dried tomatoes. These super-moist, savory muffins have a texture somewhere between a sponge cake and a quiche. They’re delicious piping hot fresh from the oven. They also freeze well. Make a batch; eat a few now and freeze some for later. They make the perfect breakfast for families on the go.

Ingredients

    1/3 cup white whole wheat flour (or your favorite gluten-free multi-purpose flour)
    1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
    1 cup plain cottage cheese
    3 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, grated (about 1 cup)
    1 cup almond meal or finely ground almonds
    4 oz. ham, diced (about 1/2 cup)
    5 eggs
    1/3 cup water
    3/4 teaspoon salt
    2 tablespoons minced fresh chives, plus more for finishing

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Grease a 12-cup muffin tin or line it with paper baking cups.
  2. Whisk together flour and baking powder.
  3. In a large bowl combine the remaining ingredients. Stir in the flour.
  4. Evenly divide the batter among the muffin cups, filling each about 3/4 full. Scatter a few chives on top.
  5. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until golden brown and firm to touch. Serve hot or at room temperature

Makes 12 muffins.

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A Patient Food and Butternut Squash Pesto Pizzettas

October 23, 2012

Butternut Squash Pesto Appetizers

There’s something about squash—winter squash to put a finer point on it—that soothes me in a way that other foods, even my favorites like pizza and Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese can’t. I get a little giddy when the Delicatas, my harbingers of autumn that are usually the first of the season to ripen, start appearing at the market. By the time the butternuts and pumpkins arrive a couple weeks later, the leaves are crunching underfoot and I’m holding my coffee with both hands to keep the chill away. And though I’m frightfully aware that winter is just around the corner, I’m seduced by all things fall—the brilliant burning bush outside my front door, fresh sage, roasted chestnuts, the feel of a soft scarf around my neck, my chunky wool cardigan, and my everlasting brown boots that I annually vow to replace and don’t. It’s time to build a fire in the back yard with Greg and while away a Saturday night stoking the embers, sipping bourbon and Cokes, and revising and refining our plans for what we’ll do if we win the lotto.

In the kitchen, squash is my patient companion. A fresh garden tomato cries to be eaten the moment it’s picked, while a butternut squash actually improves with age and will keep for months if stored in a cool, dry environment. Unlike peppers and eggplants, there’s no kitchen race to roast it or pickle it before the tiny freshness window slams shut. The humble acorn squash perched in my window sill says, “No time to roast me and stuff me into ravioli this week? That’s okay; I’ll be right here next week when you’re ready for me.” I breathe a sigh of relief. If only my emails, texts, and voicemails could be so accommodating.

Butternut Squash Pesto Pizzettas

Adapted from Eric Gower’s recipe in The Breakaway Cook. My girlfriend Lauren turned me on to these, and Gower’s inspired cookbook, when she made them for my birthday a few years ago. Since then they’ve become my favorite fall party food. The variations are endless–goat cheese, pistachios, walnuts, sage pesto, feta, and more.

Ingredients

    1 medium butternut squash, peeled (You only need the neck. Reserve the seed-filled portion for another use.)
    1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for brushing
    sea salt
    1/4 cup pesto
    1/4 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F.
  2. Slice the squash neck into 1/2-inch thick wheels (a medium-sized squash will yield 10-14 wheels). Cut the wheels into any shape that pleases you. (Keep the wheels whole if serving as a starter course. Cut into smaller bites for hors d’oeuvres.) Place on an oiled baking sheet or Silpat. Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Bake for about 25-30 minutes, until softened but not mushy.
  3. While the squash is baking, thin the pesto with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Spoon the pesto on the warm squash, sprinkle with pine nuts, and serve. (The squash can be roasted ahead of time and reheated just before serving.)

Makes 50-60 bite-sized hors d’oeuvres.

Ease and No-Knead French Bread

October 11, 2012

No-Knead French Bread baked in a Dutch oven

I bake bread every week, sometimes twice a week.
It’s not because I’m obsessive, which I can be. It’s because it’s really easy.

Flour + Yeast + Salt + Water

I know, I know, what’s easy for me may not be easy by your standards. But this isn’t like the time when I told you that making mozzarella cheese was simple. Or when I suggested that making your own ravioli was an uncomplicated process.

Bread, this bread, is easy–“four ingredients in a bowl, give it a stir, and forget about it for twelve hours” easy.

My husband Greg makes bread when I’m traveling.
My sister-in-law makes bread, and now she’s teaching her twelve-year-old son.
My friend Carrie makes a whole wheat version (half bread flour and half whole wheat flour) of this bread. She taught her husband how to make it and then her sister.

Easy.

That said, my love for making bread has little to do with the ease. There is an allure about it, a certain kind of magic if you will, that never dulls. I’m seduced by the russet colored loaves, a house that smells like a bakery, the feel of the warm loaf under my hand as I slice into it, and that first crisp yet chewy bite. Hold the butter, please.

Fresh bread has the power to unleash my primal instincts. On occasions all too rare, I eschew the bread knife and the evenly cut slices and instead pull the warm loaf apart with my hands. I plunge it into the salty wine broth left behind when we’ve polished off the last steamed mussel. I chew slowly–a much bigger bite than I’m used to–and watch Greg take his turn. His strong forearms bulge as he pulls at the loaf. He soaks his bread until its completely saturated with the briny broth. Not wanting to lose any of the salty goodness, he swiftly brings the drenched bread to his mouth. I’m still chewing as the glistening broth drips from his chin. This breaking of bread and breaking with our usual domesticated dining etiquette is liberating. As if, like the bread, we too are broken open.

In those fleeting moments the ease of making bread is lost on me. Slowing down, allowing myself to succumb to the bread’s magnetism, to savor the crusty loaf one satisfying bite at a time–there’s nothing easy about that.

No-Knead French Bread

Ingredients

    3 cups all-purpose or bread flour
    1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
    1 1/2 teaspoons salt
    1 1/2 cups water
    2 teaspoons cornmeal or rice flour

Preparation

  1. Combine the flour, yeast, and salt in a large bowl. Add water and stir with a long handled spoon until the dough resembles a shaggy ball, adding more water if necessary. Cover bowl with cling wrap. Allow dough to rise at a warm room temperature (67-70°F) for 12-18 hours. It’s ready when it has nearly doubled in size and the surface is bubbly. (I typically make my dough the night before I want to bake it. If you want a shorter rise time, increase the amount of yeast to one teaspoon. The dough will double in bulk in 3-4 hours.)
  2. Sprinkle a large piece of parchment paper with cornmeal or rice flour.
  3. Flour a board and your hands with only enough flour to keep the dough from sticking. Turn dough onto the board and shape into a ball. Place the dough on the parchment paper with the seam side down. Set it in a large colander and cover with a cotton towel. Let rise for 1 1/2-2 hours until doubled.
  4. Put a 6-8 quart heavy covered pot (cast iron or ceramic) in the oven. About a half hour before the dough is ready to bake, preheat the oven to 450°F degrees.
  5. When the dough is ready cut a few 3/8-inch deep slashes across the top with a sharp knife. (This allows the steam in the bread to escape as it bakes.) Remove the hot pot from the oven and set the dough in. Cover pot with the lid. Bake for 25 minutes. Remove lid and bake for an additional 5-10 minutes, until the bread is deeply browned on top.
  6. Cool on a wire rack for an hour before slicing.

Makes 1 loaf.

Hungry for more no-knead breads? Try this No-Knead Bread with Muesli.

My Crash Course in Indian Cooking and a Recipe for Naan

October 3, 2012

Indian Naan Bread made in a skillet

Nothing can lure me out of a funk faster than planning a party. And not just any party. This particular mood improver was a celebration of Indian foods, which I love, and, more importantly, it was the first official cooking party for my fledgling company Conscious Crumbs. But there was an obstacle and it was a big one–my experience with Indian cooking was, err, um, well, limited, and teaching people to do things that I don’t know how to do wasn’t part of my business plan.

For years, I’ve been plodding my way through Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking and Madhur Jaffrey’s Simple Indian Cookery. A flaky but sad little paratha here, a chickpea curry there, the meals were good, but they paled in comparison to the delicious Indian cuisine I can easily find in Chicago. Yet with every saag paneer (greens with cheese) I ordered at my favorite Indian spot on Devon, I vowed that one day I’d be able to make authentic Indian food at home. So I let my “yes, I’ll do it” fly before my gremlins could start talking. Besides, I had a month to prepare.

Sahni’s recipes for braised meats and curries are solid though they often call for more oil than I like to use in my cooking. I was confident that I could adapt her recipes using less oil, but the samosas and the naan bread that I’d so eagerly suggested should be on the party menu (along with lamb korma, egg curry, and saag paneer) stopped me in my tracks. Both foods are technique intensive and require special equipment. When I’m faced with an intimidating to-do list that reads something like “learn how to make awesome naan bread and perfectly crisp, flavorful samosas,” Greg is quick to remind me to “eat the biggest toad first.” I considered the characteristic triangular shape of the samosa. It was a far cry from the pierogi and ravioli that I could make with ease. On shape alone, I chose the samosa as the biggest toad.

Though my Indian cooking experience was about 9,985 hours short of meeting Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, my experience in eating Indian food was considerable. My thorough research taught me that the key to a good samosa is a crispy, not-too-greasy crust. I lost hours in front of my computer watching videos of chefs and home cooks making samosas (my favorite samosa video). Two dough recipes, three potato filling recipes, and a new deep-fryer later, I was finally ready for my next toad: the naan.

Making naan dough is a lot like making pizza dough–a little leavening, some flour and water, and a bit of kneading. Baking naan, however, is nothing at all like making a pizza. Traditional naan is baked in a 900°F tandoor oven, but at a cost of $600-$1000 for a domestic version, I had to draw the line on my equipment investment at the deep-fryer. Then I discovered that Julie Sahni didn’t include a recipe for naan in Classic Indian Cooking, because she considers it the kind of bread that’s easier to buy than make. Maybe the samosa wasn’t my biggest toad after all.

First I had to find a reliable recipe for the dough, which wasn’t the straightforward task I’d hoped it would be after Julie let me down. Many recipes are leavened with baking powder, while others rely on yeast. I tried both, again, and again. The yeast recipes require a longer lead time, but all resulted in softer, chewier breads than those made with the baking powder. The information for cooking techniques varied even more than the recipe ingredients–oven, stove top, baking sheet, pizza stone, open flame, skillet, lid on, lid off. Oh my! I went through ten pounds of flour and countless more YouTube videos (my favorite naan video) before I arrived at the recipe and technique below, which will produce the next best thing to naan fresh from the tandoor.

The party was a success. Was it the naan? Or the crispy samosas? Was it the egg curry? Or was it having the kitchen filled with vibrant women and laughter that made it a night we wouldn’t soon forget?

Naan Bread

Adapted from the recipe at Manjula’s Kitchen.

Ingredients

    2 cups of all-purpose or bread flour, plus more for rolling
    1 teaspoon instant yeast (Use more if a shorter rise is desired.)
    1 teaspoon salt
    1 teaspoon granulated sugar
    pinch of baking soda
    2 tablespoons of oil
    3 tablespoons plain yogurt
    2/3 cup warm water
    Optional mix-ins: cumin seeds, fennel seeds, onion seeds, chopped fresh garlic, fresh coriander

    melted butter or ghee to finish the naan

Preparation

  1. In a large bowl whisk together the flour, yeast, salt, sugar, and baking soda. Add the oil and yogurt and mix with your hands until a crumbly dough forms. Add enough water to make a soft dough that’s not sticky. If the dough is too dry add additional water a tablespoon at a time. Knead the dough until smooth and satiny, about 3-5 minutes. Cover and keep in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 3-4 hours.
  2. Knead the dough for 2 minutes and divide into 6 equal parts. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rest for 20 minutes.
  3. Take each piece of dough, one at a time, and roll into an 8-inch circle or oval shape. Lightly dust your rolling surface with flour if necessary to keep the dough from sticking. If using, sprinkle the mix-ins on top and roll gently one last time, so that they stick to the surface.
  4. Warm a large cast-iron skillet over high heat until it’s nearly smoking. Gently lay the naan in the hot skillet. The dough will start to bubble after a minute. It should be blistered and somewhat blackened in spots. Flip the naan. Cook for about 30 seconds more. If the naan doesn’t bubble and brown after 90 seconds, the skillet may not be hot enough or the dough may be too thick.
  5. Remove the naan from the skillet, brush with melted butter or ghee and sprinkle with a little coarse sea salt. Place it on a plate and cover with foil. Repeat with the rest of the naans and serve.

Makes 6 naans.

My Friend Raible and Peanut Butter and Jam Scones

September 21, 2012

Peanut Butter and Jelly Scones

If you’ve stopped by for a light read, stop here. But before you go, do consider scrolling down for my peanut butter and jam scone recipe. They’re guaranteed to put a smile on the face of anyone who’s ever wished they could eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for breakfast.

This is my third attempt at storytelling here this week. Each time I put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, my words ring hollow. Instead of spinning tales for you about the three giant raccoons that are calling our yard “home” or my current obsession with Indian cooking videos on YouTube, all I can think about is my friend Chris.

It’s ironic really, because before Sunday morning, it had been weeks since Chris had entered my thoughts. Chris, or “Raible” as I always called him, and I were college friends. We were close, not in a boyfriend girlfriend kind of way, more like brother and sister. I did my best to help Raible understand what went on in the minds of college women, and he made sure I never took myself too seriously. Raible made me laugh, always, at the world, at myself. He was crass, irreverent, and politically incorrect in all the best possible ways. He was wicked smart, pragmatic to the point of being annoying, and stubborn. He was loyal. He was generous. And underneath all his bravado beat a very big heart.

After college Raible became a U.S. Marine while I went on to grad school. We stayed in touch, though over the years the time between our calls and visits got longer and longer. Still, ours was a friendship that endured. I’ve witnessed countless friendships gently fade to black over time like a candle that self-extinguishes when it runs out of wax. But with Chris, no matter how much time had passed, we managed to pick up right where we left off–somewhere between a tasteless joke about what I was wearing and why Franco Harris was the greatest Pittsburgh Steeler of all time.

Lieutenant Colonel Christopher “Otis” Raible, 40, leader of Marine Attack Squadron 211 was killed in Afghanistan by Taliban forces on Saturday morning.

My heart aches knowing that Raible is no longer a part of this crazy world. So all week I’ve been doing what I do best when my heart hurts: I bake and cook non-stop, I put too many miles on my running shoes, and I let myself linger in Greg’s arms when he hugs me goodbye each morning.

If you stayed until the end, thank you. I can feel my heart lifting, if not for the medicine of sharing, but for the sound of Raible’s voice saying, “Come on Babs, cut that shit out.”

Peanut Butter and Jelly Scones

Peanut Butter and Jam Scones

The idea for these scones has been rattling around in my head ever since I tried Heidi Swanson’s Raspberry Mega Scones. Baking them slab-style and filling them with jam make these scones moister than their kin. Try them with your favorite jam or jelly, or skip the jam and fill them with dark chocolate morsels instead.

Ingredients

2 1/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour (or all-purpose)
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter, cold, cut into small cubes
1/3 cup peanut butter
2 tablespoons milk or cream, plus more for finishing
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/2 – 2/3 cup jam or jelly (or chocolate chips)
1 tablespoon coarse sugar (turbinado or demerara)
2 tablespoons crushed peanuts

Preparation

  1. Preheat the oven to 375°F.
  2. Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a mixing bowl. Using a pastry cutter or two knives, cut in the butter until the mixture looks sandy. Mix the peanut butter in with your hands until large clumps form. Add the milk and yogurt. You want a soft but not sticky dough. Add more milk a tablespoon at a time if the mixture is too dry.
  3. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured Silpat or sheet of parchment paper and pat it into an 11×9-inch rectangle, about 1/2-inch thick. Spread the jam over the dough. Fold one long side of the dough toward the center, then fold the opposite side over that to form 3 layers, as if you’re folding a business letter. Press lightly on the top of the dough to seal it. To discourage the dough from breaking as you lift it, fold the Silpat in and then peel it back to separate it from the dough. (Thanks for the tip Heidi!) Slide onto a baking sheet.
  4. Brush the top with milk or cream and generously sprinkle with sugar and peanuts.
  5. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the scone is firm to touch and dark golden on the bottom. Allow to cool for 10 minutes on the baking sheet, then transfer to a wire rack. Slice into squares to serve.

Makes 1 slab scone or about 10 individual scones.

Not a peanut butter fan? Try these Cherry Cream Scones instead.

My First Date and Italian Fall Fruit Conserve

September 14, 2012

Côgnà Italian Fall Fruit and Nut Compote

I had my first date when I was a kid except I didn’t know I was eating a date. It was mashed together with marshmallows, coconut, and graham cracker crumbs in my mom’s no-bake coconut date balls–my least favorite of her cookies. When I was old enough to help mom with Christmas cookies, I got a behind-the-scenes look at the making of those date balls. I had no idea what a date was, where it came from, or what it looked like before it was all squeezed together in a cookie. When I asked mom for the dates, she handed me a sticky brown clump wrapped in plastic. “This is a date?” I asked as I accepted the hand-off.

“No, those are dates,” she said, emphasizing the “s” that turned “date” into a plural noun. I unwrapped the log and pinched off a taste lured by the color reminiscent of chocolate. The date goo was sweet with an unfamiliar bitterness. It wasn’t horrible, but I didn’t sneak a second taste. Enough said.

In my 20s, long after I’d learned that mom’s date log was made up of dozens of chopped dates, I discovered Medjool dates in the produce aisle at the grocery store. They were huge, nearly the size of an apricot. Sandwiched between avocados and lemons, the glossy brown skins of those dates coupled with my insatiable curiosity about food made them impossible to resist. I pulled one from the bag and bit into it before I left the parking lot. Ouch! Lesson one: dates have pits. Lesson two: Medjool dates taste like candy. It was sweet and rich with a mouthfeel that reminded me of soft fudge. It was love at first bite.

A decade later Greg returned home from a business trip to Dubai with a large box of chocolates for me. The ornate gold box was tied with yards of purple silk ribbon that promised these were no ordinary chocolates. Indeed, they weren’t chocolates at all, but rather a selection of glossy, unblemished dates. Each delicate confection was nestled in its own golden chamber within the box. Some were filled with almonds. Others had their pits replaced with slices of candied orange or ginger. They felt like a marshmallow between my fingers. And they tasted like caramel, only better. For a month, those dates consumed my thoughts. I tried desperately to ration them, dreading the day when I would see the bottom of the empty box.

Another decade passes. Now I’m forty-one, standing in a fruit market in the heart of Chicago’s Indian and Pakistani community, waiting for a store employee to return with news about their fig supply. For two years I’ve been waiting to play with a recipe for an Italian fruit and nut jam known as Côgnà. With lots of juicy pears from Greg’s grandma’s tree waiting at home, all I needed were a few pints of figs.

I wait eagerly in front of the empty shelf with the sign, “fresh figs, $1.99 a pint.” It’s Sunday afternoon and the market is bustling with women in brilliant saris. I move about trying to stay out of the way and instead bump into an old man standing in front of a bin heaping with golden fruits the size of giant grapes, but oblong in shape. Many of the fruits are still attached to willowy brown branches. I excuse myself and begin to move away as the man says, “Ah, you are here for the dates too.” I look again at the bin with the unrecognizable fruits. The man’s words were heavily accented, but I was certain he said “dates.”

I point at the bin, “Those are dates?”

“Oh yes, fresh dates,” he answers, his “r” trilling across his tongue.

I step up to the bin and the man follows me closely unaware that his requirements for personal space are about half of mine. The urge to move passes quickly; I’m spellbound as he continues talking about the fruit with such passion, not unlike the way I blather on about a fresh garden tomato. I reach for a bunch of the dates intuitively picking the ones that look the firmest and brightest yellow in color. But my intuition knows nothing of these dates. The man takes them from my hand and gently lays them back with the lot. “You don’t want those dates. They’re not ripe yet.”

Instead, with his brown, wrinkled hand he reaches for the soft, dark amber dates, the very dates I would have taken for rotten, and holds them in front of me. “These! These dates will taste like honey, so, so sweet I tell you.”

I grab a bag and together the man and I fill it with soft, slightly squishy amber dates. We finish filling the bag just as the store employee returns with six pints of black mission figs. I gush “thank yous” to both men and hurry off to pay for my things. Once outside, I stand in the sunshine and pull a date from the bag. The pit comes out with a gentle squeeze. I take a bite and close my eyes: my first fresh date. The old man’s words replay in my head, “so, so sweet I tell you.” It tastes like honey just as he promised. I pop the second half into my mouth and head for home.

Côgnà (Italian Fall Fruit Conserve)

This recipe was inspired by chef Peter Pastan’s recipe in Food and Wine Magazine, October 2008. Côgnà (pronounced Cōō-gna) is a Piedmontese conserve traditionally made with red wine must and fall fruits and nuts, typically hazelnuts and/or walnuts. This bold compote has a sweetness somewhere between a jam and a chutney. It’s right at home on a cheese plate, and a perfect partner for braised and roasted meats.

Ingredients

    1 750ml bottle young, fruity red wine (Beaujolais or Zinfandel)
    1 pound fresh figs, stemmed and halved
    6 pears (or a mix of pears and apples)
    juice of one lemon
    1 cup granulated sugar
    2 tablespoons orange rind, diced (or Orange Peel Preserves)
    1 bay leaf
    1 cinnamon stick
    5 whole cloves
    1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted, skinned, and roughly chopped

Preparation

  1. Combine all the ingredients except for the hazelnuts in a large bowl. Refrigerate and let macerate for an hour.
  2. Pour the contents of the bowl into a large, non-reactive pan and bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally until very thick and reduced, about 1 hour and 10 minutes.
  3. Discard the bay leaf and cinnamon stick. Stir in the hazelnuts and simmer for 5 minutes longer.
  4. Process the conserve immediately using your method of choice. If you’re a canning novice, The National Center for Home Food Preservation is a great resource: Processing Jams and Jellies. Or skip the canning step and refrigerate your Côgnà for up to three months.

Makes 4 cups.

Not up to the task of making Côgnà, try Fig Preserves instead.

A Long Weekend and a Pesto Tomato Tart

September 4, 2012

Pesto Tomato Tart with Taleggio and Thyme

It’s been a long, hot summer. The temperatures are still climbing towards ninety each day, yet there are signs that fall is waiting just around the corner. Our drought-stricken grass is peppered with cottonwood leaves from our hundred-plus-year-old tree—a bittersweet harbinger. I love fall: the flavors of sage and roasted squash, the warm, brilliant tones of the falling leaves, and the break it offers after endless weeks of watering, weeding, and tending the gardens. Yet I know that before the last mum blooms, Old Man Winter will be coming for me. This fear fills me with a premature sense of nostalgia that smacks of desperation for all things summer—breakfasts under the trees, long evening walks, tandem bike rides, warm peaches, and the freshest tomatoes just a few steps from our back door. The nearly leafless, skeletal remains of our tomato vines, looking too frail to carry the last few paltry looking Brandywines and Green Zebras, feed my desperation.

This was the soundtrack playing in my head as Labor Day Weekend—a “long” weekend—approached. How then to make the most of what always feels like the last weekend of summer? My idle time of the week prior was spent fantasizing about the leisurely weekend Greg and I would while away together. There were notions of decidedly uncharacteristic spontaneity—maybe we’d go see a movie. When was the last time we saw a movie in a theater? We’d go for a long run, winding through our favorite city parks. The house would be alive again with music, Greg plinking away at the piano, while I sat on the deck with my guitar. The dream grew even as I deadheaded the basil plants that were screaming to be turned into pesto and Greg pulled out the honey extractor. I debated our movie and theater options despite the pepper plants that had fallen over under the weight of their unusually bountiful crop. Pickling peppers wasn’t part of my long weekend fantasy.

As for Greg’s weekend plans, well, let’s just say our to-do lists didn’t exactly mesh together. Greg likes to end a weekend, any weekend, with a feeling that he has accomplished something and those somethings usually don’t include movies and long breakfasts on the deck drawn out over a Times crossword puzzle.

By Monday afternoon of “Labor” Day we’d extracted a record-setting three gallons of honey from our hive, stocked the freezer with ten, quart bags of cheese-less pesto, and added fifteen jars of pickled peppers to our basement larder. Long runs? Zero. The Dark Knight Rises or The Possession? Neither. It was finally time to celebrate the long weekend beginning with lunch under the maple tree. I pulled a sheet of puff pastry from the refrigerator while Greg went to check on the bees. My flip flops smacked as I walked across the kitchen to fetch the tomatoes for the tart. Unfortunately, not all of our honey made it into the jars, but I fought back the urge to run for the mop and bucket. The floor could wait. An unhurried lunch in the yard on a summer day couldn’t, not this time. My tart and wine lunch was the only part of my dream sequence that had a chance of crossing over into the reality of our weekend.

“What are you up to?” Greg asked when returned to the kitchen.

“I’m making a tomato tart,” I answered while I rolled out the dough.

“Now?” He asked, glancing at the clock. It was almost one. “We could just have some yogurt and the last of the chocolate granola instead.”

Yogurt and granola are regular weekend staples, our go-to lunch move when we’re pressed for time on our regular hurried and harried weekends. I started slicing tomatoes without acknowledging his offer. Greg’s to-do list was far from complete and sitting under a maple tree with a tomato tart and a glass of wine wasn’t on it, but something in my voice or on my face kept him from resisting. An hour later golden flakes of puff pastry were sprinkled across the table under the tree and Greg was fast asleep in his chair. I ran back to the house for the crossword puzzle and slid into my seat without waking my prince. The weekend had arrived at last.

Pesto Tomato Tart with Taleggio and Thyme

Pesto Tomato Tart with Taleggio and Thyme

Ingredients

    1 sheet puff pastry, thawed
    1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for finishing
    1 large clove garlic, minced
    1/3 cup breadcrumbs
    1/4 cup pesto
    3-4 medium tomatoes, sliced 1/4-inch thick
    6 ounces Taleggio cheese, cut into 1/4-inch slices
    sea salt
    2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves

Preparation

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
  2. On a Silpat or piece of parchment paper, roll the pastry sheet into a 10 by 14-inch rectangle. Use a sharp knife to score a 3/4-inch-wide border around the pastry rectangle. Prick the dough with a fork inside the score line and refrigerate until ready to use.
  3. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a medium skillet. Add the garlic and breadcrumbs and stir occasionally over moderate heat until the crumbs are golden brown and toasted. Let cool at room temperature.
  4. To assemble the tart, sprinkle the breadcrumbs over the pastry dough inside the score line and dot them with teaspoons of pesto. Lay the tomatoes on top. Follow with the Taleggio cheese slices. Sprinkle liberally with sea salt.
  5. Bake for 25-35 minutes, until the edges of the tart are golden and the cheese is bubbly. Sprinkle with the fresh thyme leaves and lightly drizzle with olive oil. Serve hot or warm.

Serves 2 as a main course, or 6 as a starter.

More reasons to love tomato tarts: Green Tomato Tart and Cherry Tomato Fennel Tart With Balsamic Crust