Friday, April 26, 2013

Pasta Primavera

Last Year's Post: Special Brunch - Egg Strudel

Pasta Primavera literally means "spring pasta" and it's one of the first dishes I think of in spring.  It's characterized by light and fresh flavors, aromatic herbs, and beautiful, colorful vegetables.  Although many versions have a heavy cream sauce, somehow that doesn't seem like such a great idea when swimsuit season is around the corner.  This version is originally from Cooking Light magazine and although the sauce tastes very luxurious, it's great to know that it fits within a healthy lifestyle.  The sauce contains a small of amount of cream and white wine which both add to the rich flavor without adding a lot of calories or fat. Lemon juice, garlic, grated fresh Parmesan and lots of parsley and basil make the sauce incredibly flavorful and fresh-tasting.   Some pasta primavera versions also add shrimp or chicken, but the traditional version is meatless.  Feel free to add either if you want a more substantial meal, but I like it just as it is.

Since vegetables are the focus, it's important that they're beautiful and perfectly fresh.  Baby vegetables are particularly appropriate in this dish, such as the tiny asparagus tips and miniature bell peppers that I found.  If you can find tiny carrots or pattypan squash they would be great also,  or feel free to substitute your favorite vegetables for any of the ones listed in the recipe.

Along the same lines, feel free to substitute your favorite type of the pasta for the bow ties - I just thought they looked festive.  The pasta, vegetables and sauce are tossed together for a minute or so over medium heat to allow the sauce to coat everything well, and the dish is served warm or at room temperature - perfect for a spring dinner.

printable recipe

Pasta Primavera
Serves 4

Note:  any combination of your favorite vegetables may be used – baby carrots, sugar snap peas, baby pattypan squash, zucchini, and yellow squash all work well.  Cooked chicken or shrimp may be added also.

8 ounces bow tie pasta (or penne or cavatappi)
3/4 cup frozen peas (not thawed)
1 ½ cups small asparagus tips
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 cup seeded and sliced multi-colored bell peppers
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced
¼ cup dry white wine
1/3 cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
¼ cup grated fresh Parmesan cheese
¼ cup thinly sliced fresh basil
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
Lemon slices or quarters for garnish (optional)

Bring a large pot of water to boil and add pasta; cook according to package directions.  During the last minute of cooking, add the peas and asparagus tips to the pasta water (if the asparagus tips are medium to large, increase cooking time but still add the peas during the last minute).  Drain and return to the cooking pot.

While the pasta is cooking, heat oil in a medium non-stick skillet over medium-high heat.  Add peppers; sauté 1 minute.  Add salt, pepper and garlic; sauté 2 minutes.  Stir in wine, then add cream and juice and cook 1 minute.  Pour the sauce over the hot pasta vegetable mixture; add cheese and toss for a minute or so over medium heat to allow the sauce to coat all.  Remove from heat; stir in basil and parsley.

Serve in shallow bowls garnished with lemon (optional).

Friday, April 19, 2013

Cotswold Quiche

Last Year's Post: Ravioli with Apples and Walnuts

Cheese is one of my favorite foods, and Cotswold is my favorite type of cheese.  If you're not familiar with Cotswold you should really give it a try.  Technically it's a Double Gloucester cheese from England that contains spring onions and chives.  I think of it as a really good cheddar with chives.  This was how it was displayed in my store's cheese department - the label on the other side of each cut piece listed the weight, price, and labeled it "Cotswold".  You may find it labeled either way. 

I sometimes wonder what other shoppers think I'm doing when I take pictures in a store
I like Cotswold as a snack on crackers but I have to restrain myself from eating too much cheese and think of it as a special treat instead.  So, when I was planning to make a quiche I decided to create a Cotswold version.  I added broccoli for nutrition and because I like cheese and broccoli together, but you could substitute spinach instead.  Just don't add too much or too many other ingredients or you'll mask the flavor of the Cotswold.  Although most quiches include sauteed onions, I left them out of this recipe because the cheese already contains onions, part of its distinctive taste.

Because Cotswold is a semi-hard cheese, it tends to soften when left at room temperature which is perfectly fine when you're eating it on crackers but not so wonderful when you need to grate it for a quiche.  Grate it straight out of the refrigerator or put the wedge in the freezer for 10 minutes or so to make it even easier.

Just like some broccoli soups, some quiches have big chunks of broccoli.  I tend to like smaller pieces that are more evenly distributed throughout and faster to cook.  A couple of whaps in the food processor work perfectly.

In spring and summer we tend to want lighter meals, and quiche fits the bill.  On a really hot day you could even make the quiche in the morning and serve it at room temperature or cold with a salad that evening. It would also make a great brunch with some fruit and sausage on the side (Mother's Day, anyone?).  Leftovers are good for lunch the next day either hot or cold.

Regarding the crust - I wouldn't dare wade into the debate regarding homemade versus premade, or lard versus shortening.  People have deeply held beliefs on the subject - it's sort of like trying to discuss religion or politics.  You really can't win.  So I'm taking the chicken's way out and leaving it up to you.....whatever floats your boat.  I learned a while ago that there are issues where you should take a stand, and issues you should just walk away from.  :-)

click here for a printable recipe

Cotswold Quiche
serves 6-8
Note: you can substitute spinach for broccoli if you desire.

1 cup chopped fresh broccoli
1 tablespoon butter
1 9” pie crust, premade or homemade
4 eggs, well beaten
3/4 cup half & half
4 oz (approximately 1-1/4 cups) grated Cotswold cheese
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon butter, melted

Preheat oven to 375 F degrees.

Melt butter over medium-low heat in a large skillet with a lid.  Add the broccoli and stir.  Cook slowly, stirring occasionally until the broccoli is soft, approximately 8 minutes.  Adding a tablespoon or so of water and covering the pan for a few minutes helps speed the process and ensures the broccoli doesn’t burn; just be sure to remove the cover during the last few minutes so any remaining water evaporates.  Let cool.

In a medium bowl, combine the eggs, milk, salt, pepper and melted butter.  Set aside.

In a second bowl, combine the cooled broccoli and grated cheese and toss well.  Spread in the bottom of the pie crust.  Pour the egg mixture over the broccoli and cheese; press down lightly with a fork to make sure the broccoli-cheese mixture is mostly covered.

Place quiche on a baking sheet and bake for 40-45 minutes, until the center is set and the quiche is lightly browned.  Let stand 5 minutes before cutting.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Joanne Chang's Lemon Bars

I rarely eat desserts - my weakness runs more to grease and salt (aka chips).  Having said that, I like a good dessert as much as anyone - they're just easier for me to avoid than for some people.  That's why you don't see many desserts posted on this blog, and that fact that I'm posting this one says something.

Joanne Chang is a well-known pastry chef who owns her own bakery and cafe, Flour, in Boston.  Flour has been featured in Gourmet, Food&Wine, Bon Appetit, the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Lucky Magazine, Inc. Magazine, and Boston Magazine and has received numerous Best of Boston awards.  Joanne Chang first caught my attention when I saw the article on her lemon bars in Fine Cooking  magazine a decade ago.  Her bars are extra-tart and have a thick lemon curd topping that is intensely lemony.  Just to give you an idea, her lemon curd calls for 1 cup of fresh lemon juice and 1 cup of sugar.  I recently saw another lemon bar recipe that called for 1/2 cup of lemon juice and 4 cups of sugar.  So, if you love really sweet lemon bars this is not for you.  But if you like your lemon on the tart side you really should try these bars.  I think they're the best lemon bars I've ever tried and apparently I'm not alone because this is a best seller at her bakery.

I made these recently for a family get-together because lemon always seems so spring-and-summery and because they're cut into bars so they're easy to serve a group.  They'd be perfect for your next get-together or picnic.

I wanted to pass along some of her observations about the bars.  The bars have a shortbread crust that's made with two kinds of sugar and two kinds of flour.  Granulated sugar aerates the butter and makes a lighter shortbread; confectioners' sugar dissolves quickly and makes a more tender pastry.  The all-purpose flour provides strength while the softer cake flour ensures tenderness.  The result is a great shortbread that is rich and tender and has a melt-in-your mouth quality.  (Yikes, can you tell why she's a great pastry chef?)  I had most of the ingredients on hand already but not cake flour.  I debated just going with all purpose flour but I like to make a recipe as written so I went ahead and bought it anyway.  I don't know how much of a difference it made so it's up to you whether to buy it or not.

The baking pan is line with parchment to make the bars easy to remove. If you don't have parchment paper, you can just grease the pan with butter before putting in the shortbread crust.  The bars will be a little harder to remove and the first one might end up a little squished as you wedge in a spatula, but no big deal.

The shortbread crust is baked first to a light golden brown.

There's no need to wait for the crust to cool - the hot lemon curd can be poured directly onto the hot crust.  The lemon juice, butter and cream are heated, then very gradually added to the egg/sugar mixture to prevent scrambling the eggs (this is called tempering) and cooked on the stove top until the the curd coats a spoon thickly enough to leave a line when you draw your finger through it.

(Notice the somewhat wiggly line?  The Lawyer was my hand model again and was trying to slowly draw a perfect line when he discovered the lemon curd was HOT and made a rather dramatic speed-up.)

 Although the eggs are tempered, the finished lemon curd is still strained through a fine mesh sieve to remove any cooked bits.  If you don't have a fine mesh sieve I would suggest buying one rather skipping this step.  They're not expensive, and even though I was very careful with my tempering process I still found some small bits in the sieve so it was worth it.

The cooked curd is poured over the crust and baked.  After the bars are baked, they're cooled to room temperature before refrigerating.  If you put them directly into the refrigerator the top will crack. There are several "wait times" in this recipe so think about your timing before beginning.  The butter needs to be at room temperature, the dough sits in the refrigerator for 20 minutes, the bars need to cool to room temperature for about an hour, then they're refrigerated for at least 4 hours. The recipe states that the bars will last in the refrigerator for several days in an airtight container but are best when fresh so I made mine the day of the party.

I took mine out at exactly 4 hours because we needed to leave to get to the party.  They did cut nicely but were just a little soft.  Next time I'll make them the day before serving and leave them in the refrigerator overnight, then cut them the day I plan to serve them so they have plenty of time to firm up.  I discovered that rinsing the knife under slightly warm water between cuts helped to cut more cleanly.  First you trim the sides.  (Snacks for the baker!)

Then you cut into squares.

Then you accent with a flower because you're a crazy blogger and need another picture.

Then you rush out the door to your party.  :-)

printable recipe

Joanne Chang’s Lemon Bars
Makes 16 1 ½” bars

For the shortbread:
4 oz (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ¼ oz. (½ cup) all purpose flour
2 ½ oz. (2/3 cup) cake flour
¼ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt

For the lemon curd:
1 cup fresh lemon juice (from 4 to 6 lemons)
2 oz. (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into 2 pieces
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

To make the shortbread:
in a large bowl, cream together the butter and both sugars with a hand-held mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy, about five minutes.  Beat in the vanilla until thoroughly combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl. 

In a medium bowl, sift together both flours, the baking powder, and the salt.  With the mixer on low speed, slowly blend the dry ingredients into the wet, scraping down the sides, until completely blended and homogeneous.

Scrape the dough onto a sheet of plastic wrap.  Wrap well and press down to form a ½” thick square.  Refrigerate the dough until it’s firm but still pliable, about 20 minutes.  Heat the oven to 350d.  Prepare two sheets of parchment paper, each at least 11x11”.  When the dough is firm, unwrap it and put it between the sheets of parchment.  Roll the dough to an approximate square slightly larger than 8x8” and about ¼” thick.  Remove the top sheet of parchment, gently trim the dough (without cutting the bottom sheet of parchment) to an 8x8” square, and put the parchment and dough into an 8x8” baking pan.  Press the dough into the bottom of the pan, letting the excess parchment come up the sides.  Trim to about 1” above the rim.  The dough should be an even thickness but doesn’t need to be perfectly smooth.  Bake until the shortbread is light golden on top, 25 to 30 minutes.  Remove the pan from the oven but keep the heat set to 350d.

To make the lemon curd:
In a medium saucepan, heat the lemon juice, butter, and cream to just under a boil; the butter should be melted.  Remove from the heat. 

In a medium bowl, whisk together by hand the sugar, eggs and yolks until combined.  Whisk in a bit of the hot liquid and then gradually whisk in a bit more until it’s all added.  This technique, called tempering, heats the eggs slowly and gently so they don’t curdle.

Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and heat on medium, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, scraping the bottom and sides of the pan to keep the eggs from scrambling.  Cook until the lemon curd coats the spoon thickly enough to leave a line when you draw your finger though, 5 to 8 minutes.  Remove from the heat and strain through a fine sieve.  Stir in the salt and vanilla.

To finish:
Pour the curd over the baked shortbread and smooth it evenly with a spatula if needed.  Bake until the curd has set and jiggles like firm jello, 15 to 20 minutes.  Let cool to room temperature in the pan.  Gently tug on the parchment on all sides to loosen the bars from the pan.  Life them out and onto a cutting board and refrigerate until the curd has completely set, at least 4 hours.  Trim the sides for a cleaner look and cut into 16 pieces.

Friday, April 5, 2013

French Chicken Salad

Last Year's Post:  In Praise of Asparagus

Look For Beautiful Ingredients
Someone once said we eat with our eyes first, which is kind of an annoying phrase but true.  Never under-estimate the wow factor of a few beautiful ingredients like the french haricot verts (arh-ee-koh vair) and artisan lettuces I found at the store this week.  Haricot verts are simply a smaller and thinner version of regular green beans with really cool pointy ends.  Don't cut off the ends -they're part of the appeal.  The beans are very tender compared to larger green beans and don't take long to cook - you want them to be crisp-tender.

I've never seen such deep red lettuce before.  There was enough lettuce in this container for at least four huge salads and it was really fresh.  It all got a quick cold rinse and spin in the salad spinner, then off to the refrigerator wrapped in paper towels and sealed in a plastic bag to stay fresh.  If your lettuce is slightly wilted, this treatment will even refresh it back to crisp again.

I always keep my eye out for beautiful and unusual ingredients (especially produce) whenever I'm at the farmer's market or stores like Whole Foods, Trader Joe's or the local high-end grocery store.  I file any discovered treasures away in memory until I come across a recipe that would showcase them.  For example, I found the most fabulous teeny-tiny deep red carrots at the farmer's market last year that I plan to showcase in something when I find them again this summer.  (The Lawyer always asks me how I can remember stuff like that.  He, who can quote winners and scores from NCAA tournaments from 10 years ago.  Men.)

I like to save money on groceries as much as anyone, so when I plan meals for the week I buy as much as possible at the local discounter and then head to the higher-end store for a few special ingredients such as these.  You're still saving money compared to going to a restaurant, and eating a lot healthier too.  Speaking of healthier, warm weather is coming and so are shorts and swim suits.  Great time for salads, don't you think?

This type of salad is called a composed salad because it's, well, composed as opposed to tossed all together.  If you have great ingredients, taking the time to arrange them will make your salad look more beautiful.  Group ingredients side by side to make the most of contrasting colors.  Leaving ingredients whole (such as the haricot verts) also makes the salad more spectacular - the diners can cut everything up and toss it all together if they want (after they stop admiring it, of course).  I debated about leaving the walnuts whole also, but they're kind of difficult to chop up with a table knife and fork so I compromised by leaving them in large pieces instead.  Flying walnuts would undoubtedly be amusing but also messy.

Another tip about making pretty salads - wait until the meat is fully cooled (and preferably refrigerated for a few hours) before slicing for the most perfect slices.

Enough about making food pretty, it has to taste great too.  As with many other foods, one of the most attractive aspects of this salad is its interplay of textures and flavors - juicy chicken, crunchy walnuts, creamy cheese and crisp fresh beans all brought together with a tart lemon-Dijon dressing.  If you don't have the time or inclination to search out fancy ingredients the salad will certainly still taste just as good with regular green beans and a bag of salad greens. You can also use another kind of cheese if you prefer - I used Monterey Jack but Colby, goat cheese, Fontina or feta will also work well.

What makes this salad french?  The lemon-mustard dressing, fresh thyme, walnuts, green beans and chicken are all traditional french ingredients plus the emphasis on visual appeal is very french.  It tastes completely delicious and it's very healthy, plus you can prepare the walnuts, chicken, vinaigrette and beans in advance so all you have to do when you're ready to eat is arrange everything on the plate and drizzle with the vinaigrette.  Yum.  Salad never looked so classy.

printable recipe

French Chicken Salad
Serves 4

For the salad dressing:
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
¼ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon minced shallots
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme, plus more for garnish

For the salad:
2 large boneless skinless chicken breasts
¼ cup soy sauce
¼ cup olive oil
Freshly ground pepper
16 oz haricot verts (French green beans)
1 1/3 cups Monterey Jack (or Fontina, Colby, or feta) cheese, cut into small cubes
1 cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
Red leaf lettuce
Make Ahead:
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees and line a baking pan with foil.  Place the chicken breasts in the pan, and brush both sides with soy sauce and olive oil.  Sprinkle both sides with pepper.  Roast to an internal temperature of 160 degrees (165 degrees after resting a few minutes), about 20 minutes.  Cool completely in the pan, then place the chicken breasts and pan drippings in a sealable plastic bag.  Shake the bag to coat the chicken breasts with drippings, then place in the refrigerator for an hour or two.

Combine the mustard and vinegar in a medium bowl.  Gradually whisk in oil.  Add shallots and thyme, then set aside.

Cook beans in large pot of boiling salted water until crisp-tender, about 4 minutes for haricot verts or 5 minutes for regular green beans.  Drain and immediately place in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process.  Drain again and pat dry.  (Can be prepared 1 day ahead.  Cover chicken and beans separately and refrigerate.)

Remove the chicken from the refrigerator and thinly slice crosswise.  Add a small amount of dressing to the beans and toss to coat.  Place the leaf lettuce on plates, then top with groupings of cheese cubes, beans, chicken slices and walnuts.  Drizzle the salad with additional dressing and top with the reserved thyme.