Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Strawberry Fool

The origins of today's dish are a bit murky. Many years ago, I was watching a cooking show, probably on PBS, where a chef/restaurateur came on and showed some of the dishes that she served at her restaurant. I remember that she had some sort of pork cutlet dish because I enjoyed watching her pound the piece of pork with a tenderizing hammer and reforming the cutlet by folding the pounded bits back onto themselves.

I have no idea who this woman was, but she gave the impression of being the sort of person from whom you'd learn much if you were lucky enough to work in her kitchen. I do remember the dessert she made. She took raspberries mixed with some sugar, bread, and butter, and made it into a dessert by layering buttered bread with the raspberries. Then when the pan she was making it in was piled high, she wrapped it tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerated it.

Today's recipe also owes something to Alton Brown's layered strawberry recipe. His uses potato bread and smaller tin cans, but the idea is very similar. I believe that only his bottom layer has butter, in an attempt to slow seepage.

Seepage is, indeed, a difficult problem with this sort of dessert, especially if you're going to use a springform pan. I took a larger springform pan and lined it with plastic wrap and then put the smaller springform pan inside it, but I still ended up with strawberry juice all over the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. It would be wiser to put the whole thing in a non-springform pan, of course. Also, one might try putting a layer of butter around the seal in the springform pan. I think you just have to live with some seepage.

Mess or not, this was a wonderful dessert. It is, of course, hard to go wrong with good fresh strawberries, but I think this is one of the best ways I've seen to showcase them. It was a huge hit when I served it at brunch on Sunday. Everyone wanted to know what it was called, and then I was at a loss because I'd thought a great deal more about developing the recipe than developing the name. I have no idea what it should be called. I'm not really even sure what a fool is, culinarily. You could certainly call this a Charlotte, I suppose. For that matter, call it anything you like.

[Update: commenters have noted that this dish is properly called a summer pudding, and they are correct.]

The orange butter was my own idea, and I think it works extremely well here. You will probably have more than you need, but you can spread the leftover orange butter on the bread crusts and leftover bread, and you'll be very happy to eat those, as well.

I used Pepperidge Farm white bread for this recipe. Look for the package that says "bread with substance." It was just right. I used all of the crusts and other scraps to make a strata, which I also served at brunch. You need to start both the fool and the strata the night before since they both require time to soak up juices.

Strawberry Fool

2 quarts fresh strawberries
2/3 c. granulated sugar
2.3 c. red wine
Grated zest of one orange
1/4 c. granulated sugar
4 ounces butter at room temperature
White bread

Remove the hulls from the strawberries and slice thickly. Put the strawberries in a bowl, add the 2.3 c. sugar, and stir well. Add the wine, stir again, cover, and refrigerate.

Butter a 9-inch springform pan.

Put the orange zest and the 1/4 c. of sugar in a food processor and process until the orange zest and sugar are very fine. Add the butter and process until creamy and well mixed.

Trim the crusts from the white bread and reserve them for another use. Spread a light layer of the orange butter on one side of the bread. Fit the pieces of bread around the perimeter of the springform pan, with the buttered pieces facing inward. You may have to cut the last piece to fit.

Spread more trimmed pieces of bread with the orange butter and fit them into the bottom of the pan with the buttered sides facing up. This will be a lot like putting a puzzle together, so try to enjoy it. When you have a complete layer on the bottom, add a layer of strawberries, with their juices. The strawberries should come not quite halfway up the springform pan.

Add a second layer of buttered bread slices on top of the strawberries. Then add another layer of strawberries and juice and top with a final layer of buttered bread, with the butter facing down.

Cover the springform pan as tightly as possible with plastic wrap, then put a pie plate and a five-pound weight on top of it. Put the springform pan in something that will catch the juices that will inevitably seep out, and refrigerate the whole deal overnight.

Remove the weight, pie plate, and plastic wrap, and invert the fool onto a platter. Release the sides of the springform pan and carefully remove it from the fool.

Slice the fool into pieces and serve with lightly sweetened whipped cream.

Hopefully, you will be better at controlling seepage than I was, and your bread will be uniformly purple (it's the wine). Mine was in no way dry, however.

I am dying to try the same preparation with fresh blackberries when they're ripe later this summer. It would obviously also be very good with raspberries, and you can probably even you frozen raspberries. I'm not sure you'd need the wine in that case, though.

Monday, May 28, 2007

What's for Lunch

(Oh, it's been a while since I posted, hasn't it? Oops. But I've been cooking, and I should be posting more henceforth. )

Lindy has asked what we eat for lunch and what we use to carry it with us. Taking the last first, I have to confess that I have always found it hard to remain faithful to just one container. I will use whatever I happen to find in the supermarket or the dollar store when I'm running low on containers, which seems to be all the time. I also make heavy use of clear-topped supermarket yogurt containers, and it was with some annoyance that I learned just a week or two that the Giant brand no longer bothers with the clear plastic tops. They were never especially leakproof, but for something very thick or frozen solid, they were terrific, if a smidge on the small side. One cup is an ideal serving size, but a one-cup serving reheats most happily in a ten- or twelve-ounce container.

The little blue-topped Rubbermaid container in the picture above is certainly one of my favorite containers, and it's just the right size for a serving of most of what I take for lunch. I've had that particular one for a few years. Rubbermaid changes its styles every so often, and the red-lidded containers that they're now sending to the markets are really not as nice. They are harder to close and don't have the oversized lip section which makes my blues so easy to open. On the other hand, the reds do seal as tightly and reliably as the blues, so they're still fine for taking for lunch.

These days I'm still trying to watch my weight somewhat, and I've been taking pretty much the same lunch for the last month, and I'm not even close to tired of it yet. I take about a cup of my better tomato soup, a container of light yogurt, and a cup of my unnamed lentil-barley concoction. A single recipe of this dish will make about two weeks' worth of lunches. It keeps extremely well, and it's yummy. It's also very versatile. You can take the basic bones of this recipe and alter it many ways to suit yourself. And it's dead easy to make. You can use frozen onions and frozen peppers with no loss of deliciousness. If you really don't want to deal with a knife at all, you could swap out the minced garlic for some garlic powder and the diced turkey ham for some crumbled bacon. You can use bouillon cubes instead of the boxed chicken stock. It's a very forgiving recipe, and it reheats splendidly in the microwave. You can see from the picture below that while yogurt containers may be only second best for taking lunch to work, they're ideal for use in mise en place.

Unnamed Lentil-Barley Concoction

2 T. olive oil
1 c. diced turkey ham
1 c. diced onions
1 c. frozen peppers
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 t. ground cumin
1 t. smoked paprika
1/2 t. celery seed
Freshly ground black pepper
2 c. lentils
1 c. barley
1 quart chicken broth or stock
2 c. water

In a heavy saucepan, heat the olive oil over low heat. Add the turkey ham and cook for a minute. Add the onions and peppers, stir well, cover, and cook until softened, about five minutes. Add the garlic, stir, and cook for another minute. Add the spices, stir again, and cook for another minute or two. Add the lentils and barley and stir well. Add the chicken broth or stock, stir, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cover. Check the pot occasionally, and add water when needed. You will probably need most of the extra two cups of water.

Simmer until tender, about forty to fifty minutes. Correct seasoning. Serve immediately, or cool and then refrigerate.

You will probably want to alter the seasoning blend to suit yourself. I will often add some chopped pickled jalapenos, cayenne pepper, and chopped cilantro for a spicier version. You can certainly add some diced tomatoes. I don't only because I generally eat it with tomato soup.

In addition to being tasty, low in fat, and very filling, this recipe is very high in fiber. And it's extremely inexpensive to make. The per serving cost is well short of fifty cents, especially if you use bouillon cubes, as I often do.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Better Tomato Soup

Let me be very clear. When I say "better" tomato soup, I am comparing the tomato soup I'm about to discuss with my previous attempts at tomato soup. I am not comparing my tomato soup to the recipe that I appropriated and changed. You can find that recipe here. I originally came across it here. I had been having my own tomato soup struggles, and I emailed the author, who very kindly pointed me to the recipe, which, he says, he modified from a recipe by Pierre Franey. M. Franey may in turn have modified someone else's recipe, since that, after all, is how most recipes evolve, but I can't really say.

I have no doubt that M. Portifex' recipe results in a splendid soup, and I would gladly use it as an excuse to buy myself a Chinois were it not clear that doing so would result in a domestic dispute. As it is, I am living on borrowed time while V. is out of the country. When he returns and finds that I haven't come up with a suitable location in the cupboard for my cast iron Dutch oven, well, it's best that I don't think too much about how that sentence really ends. Even without a Chinois in my overburdened cupboards, I would likely follow M. Portifex' basic process (with my inferior strainer) if I were going to serve this soup at a dinner party.

But this soup is going to be for my lunches (many of them, as it happens), and given that I don't mind tiny bits of peel, I didn't need a strainer at all. Other modifications included the use of canned, rather than fresh, tomatoes (I can't find decent fresh plum tomatoes at this time of year), the substitution of bouillon cubes for canned bouillon (because I forgot to buy boxed chicken stop when I was at Costco), the omission of a bay leaf and the Calvados(I just forgot and I don't have any, respectively), and the addition of some corn (because when I went to taste it, my first thought was that it needed some corn).

Horrid, horrid compromise that this soup is, however, it's also very good. In fact, I may have found the lunchbox soup that I want. The recipe is so simple that I'm tempted not to try to improve it. (I probably will remember the bay leaf next time, though.) It does not meet my stated goal of being as good cold as it is hot, but I reckon one can't have everything, and there is very little of the year during which I don't appreciate hot soup.

Again, this is a soup that takes a significant amount of time but requires only minimal effort and supervision.

Tomato Soup

2 large Vidalia onions
2 T. olive oil
2 large Granny Smith apples
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 quart water
4 chicken bouillon cubes
1/2 t. dried thyme
2 cups frozen corn

Remove the ends and outermost peel of the onions. Chop them coarsely.

Put a large, heavy stockpot on the stove, over a low flame. Add the olive oil. Add the onions, stir well, and cover the pot. The onions will need to cook for about twenty minutes, or until they are nice and soft but not browned.

While the onions are softening, rinse, quarter, and core the apples. Do not remove the peel.

Add the apples, tomatoes, water, bouillon cubes and thyme to the onions. Stir well, bring to a simmer, cover, and simmer for about two hours. Add the corn and simmer for another fifteen or twenty minutes.

There are a couple of ways to finish the soup. If you want the corn to stay whole, then you can puree the soup -- before you add the corn -- with an immersion blender. It does a fine job on the onions and apples, especially after all that cooking time.

If you want a fully pureed soup, the immersion blender alone will not suffice since it will leave large bits of the corn kernels in pieces of just the right size to get stuck in your teeth. A regular blender, however, will do a fine job. I used both types of blender: the immersion blender before the addition of the corn, and the countertop blender at the end of cooking.

Because of all that pureed vegetable matter and the relatively small amount of water, this recipe gives a very thick soup. If you want it thinner, add more water and bouillon, which will also increase your yield.

I used cheap yellow frozen corn, and that works fine for flavor. It seems to me that using white corn might give a slightly better color, but I think that I am picking nits with that suggestion.

You should, of course, taste carefully and adjust the seasoning as necessary, but my batch came out perfectly seasoned without any further tinkering.

As always, feel free to futz with the recipe as you see fit. I'm sure it would be delicious with the addition of some ground chile and cumin. Or with some nice cornmeal-and-cheddar dumplings on top. Some celery seed added at the beginning of the simmer would also probably be a good thing.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Best Green Beans Ever

For years (and years) I have sworn by green beans made the way that I learned from Julia Child. You know the drill: bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, drop in your green beans, boil until just tender, shock in cold water, and later finish by sauteeing either in butter or olive oil with some salt and pepper. And perhaps a pureed clove of garlic.

Green beans prepared in this manner are splendid, and I could easily make my dinner from a large plateful of them. They're also convenient: you can do everything except the finishing a couple of hours before you serve dinner, and they'll still be bright green and yummy when you finish them in time to accompany your main course.

But I was aware, of course, that there were other ways to prepare green beans. In fact, it suddenly occurs to me that I've been over all this ground in my last post on green beans, and that I should probably go back and delete or rewrite the first two paragraphs of this post, because surely in my last green bean post, I wrote about Ms. Child. And surely I wrote about my childhood green bean experiences.

But fear not, readers, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy that shall be to all people. For unto you this day is born in the city of David. Or at least, I'm about to cover some new ground.

When I was in NYC a couple of weeks ago, I stopped in at Kitchen Arts and Letters and bought, among other things, Michael Ruhlman's Charcuterie. I'd been meaning to buy it for a long time: I have been interested in charcuterie for many years, and the book comes highly recommended by Lindy. So I bought it. Right now, in fact, it's in a bag in the bottom of the shoulder bag that I lugged to NYC, but before I packed it, I flipped quickly through the pages and salivated. I didn't read anything in great detail, but my eyes landed on the section about confits. I felt myself getting sucked into the sections on goose and duck, so I quickly moved on and noticed a brief mention of vegetables. I believe there was something about confited (I will not look up the word, I will not look up the word, I will not look up the word; oh all right! Yes, "confited" is acceptable.) onions. I also thought of a story I'd heard on NPR about butter-poached scallops, which seemed to use something of the same approach.

And I had an idea. It seemed like a good idea, so I filed it away for another day.

Late last year, around Christmas, (thanks, in part, to this post, again by Lindy), I acquired a pre-seasoned Lodge cast iron dutch oven. It is a thing of beauty, and if I still haven't gotten around to using it to bake bread, I'm sure that I will eventually. In any case, it gives me a feeling of immense comfort knowing that I have something so solid hidden away in a box where V. won't find it and pitch a fit that I've bought yet another large pot in the cupboard.

Now that V. is off for three weeks in Ethiopia, I have the opportunity to do a lot more cooking. I wanted to make something special, something different, something that would make a good use of my nifty (and very heavy) new pot. So I took my idea with me to Costco, where I acquired one of their two-pound packages of thin, snipped haricots verts, a bag of garlic, and large amounts of extra virgin olive oil and unsalted butter.

Then I came home, and I made the best green beans ever.

I'll admit that I created this recipe in part to do something a little bit ridiculous and over the top, but I always thought that the final result would be pretty good. I didn't know that it would be so good that I'd actually feel like repeating the preparation: after all, the other versions of green beans are also very good, and this one takes a lot of time. But I'm going to make these green beans again and again. For one thing, the work involved is really not that onerous. They take a long time to make, but you don't really have to do anything -- except check the pot now and again to make sure they're not too hot, and if you have a probe thermometer with a temperature-sensitive alarm, you're home free on that count -- while they're cooking. Besides, if you make this dish, you'll have used two pounds of fat that will almost all be left over at the end of the cooking. That fat probably isn't good for much other than confiting more vegetables, but it would be a shame to throw it away when you can keep it in a quart tub in the back of the refrigerator and make more of these green beans whenever you feel like it.

And what's more, beans prepared in this manner will last for a good while in the refrigerator, just waiting for you to warm them up and eat them. And you could make a larger batch just as easily, and I feel sure that the same preparation will work with common (i.e., larger) supermarket green beans. Most importantly: they're awesome.

Confit d'haricots verts à l'ail

2 pounds green beans, trimmed, rinsed, and dried
1 pound unsalted butter
2 cups olive oil
2 heads garlic
Salt (see note below)

In the bottom of a very heavy pot, melt half of the butter over low heat.

Separate the garlic into cloves. Peel the cloves but leave them whole.

Add the grean beans and the garlic cloves to the pot. Put the rest of the butter on top of the vegetables, then put the lid on the pot and let the butter melt. Then add the olive oil. It should cover or nearly cover the vegetables.

Put the lid back on the pot and heat until the temperature is about 200 degrees. At this point, the water from the beans and the butter will start to bubble out. Remove the lid and let the water evaporate. Try to maintain the temperature at about the same level. If browned butter solids rise to the surface, skim them off and lower the heat slightly.

Cover the pot and continue to cook at about the same temperature. Cook for a total of three hours. Turn the heat off. Fish out the garlic cloves with a pair of tongs (some of them will break up: don't worry) and reserve them separately. Drain the beans and refrigerate the beans and the fat separately.

When you're ready to eat some green beans, Put a non-stick skillet over moderate heat. Add as many green beans as you want to the skillet. (No matter how thoroughly you drain them, you won't need to add any additional fat to cook them in. Neither will they taste greasy.) Mash one of the softened cloves of garlic and add it to the green beans. Toss until heated through, and season generously with salt and pepper. Devour.

(Note below.) When I started the green beans cooking, I hadn't added any salt with the butter and the olive oil. About an hour in, I added about two teaspoons of coarse salt. As far as I can tell, none of the salt ended up in the beans or the garlic, so I'm not sure it really helps anything to add it during the cooking time: you will still have to salt them when you saute them.

You will have a lot more garlic than you need for this amount of beans. The extra garlic (with a bit of the oil and butter that it was cooked in) can be mashed to make a terrific spread for bread. Unless you forget to add salt to it, in which case it will make a very bland spread for bread.

You can, of course, confit the green beans and the garlic separately and add some confited garlic to the confited beans when you're sauteing the beans. You could do a lot more garlic that way. In fact, you could do the whole bag of garlic and keep it in the refrigerator to make your bread delicious for weeks or months to come. Again: don't be shy with the salt. Both the green beans and the garlic have sat in a bath of fat for several hours and have developed absolutely wonderful flavors, but without salt, they'll be a lot like vegetables boiled in unsalted water.