Monday, July 26, 2010

Simple Pleasures

It is often the simplest things that bring me the most happiness. A leisurely Saturday morning and a cup of coffee, a phone call from a friend I haven’t heard from in a while, or an energizing run after a long week. Likewise, when it comes to food, often the most simple meals are the most pleasurable, both to make and to eat. I am big believer in simplicity in the kitchen: buy excellent ingredients and then try not to mess them up too much. I like to use this lofty reason for making very simple dishes, but in truth I’m also a bit lazy.

Really, I am. If I have a beautiful egg from a farmer who took care to raise a chicken naturally, let it roam about eating bugs and made sure no coyotes got to it first, I think that egg deserves a little respect. There are a myriad of ways to respect an egg. Quiche is a great example, and farm fresh eggs take it over the top. Quiche, however, takes a lot of time, so I reserve it for special occasions, like having girlfriends over for brunch for no other reason than to eat quiche. I do not make quiche when I am feeling lazy, nor do I really make it to celebrate the egg, but rather to celebrate the fact that I’m about to eat every kind of dairy product I can think of in its full-fat glory.

Poached eggs are another story. All you really have is the egg. I love poached eggs for breakfast, but honestly I’m more of a sweet breakfast person – give me fruit, waffles, scones, yogurt or oatmeal – so I end up eating a lot of eggs for dinner. I know, in our meat-and-potatoes culture, eggs are all but extinct from the dinner menu. It’s sad, really. I guess you could say I’m on a one woman mission to show off their versatility, no matter the time of day.

But for dinner, you want something a little more substantial, and maybe a little more balanced, than bacon and poached eggs. As it turns out, eggs can be poached in more than just water: they are excellent in tomato sauce, or even in greens, which is how I prepare them most often. I like to use chard, but you could substitute spinach, braising greens, or even kale or collard greens (though the latter two will take longer to cook). And it is so incredibly easy to do; this is a standby weeknight meal for me.

If you can find it, use rainbow chard; the colors are so bright and pretty. I also use the stems, and am adamant that far too many people throw them out needlessly. I do not know that I’ve ever encountered a recipe for chard that doesn’t start by having you cut the leaves from the ribs and then discard the ribs. I say hogwash: separate them, then chop the stems up and sauté them before adding the greens. They add a tender crunch, plus, aren’t the rainbow ribs the reason we bought them anyway?

The real key, and it cannot be overstated, is to get farm fresh eggs. If your grocery store carries them from a local farm, and they truly are free range and not just cage free, then I am sincerely jealous of you. Use them. If not, seek out a farmer’s market, farm stand, or peruse the internet (I’ve ordered eggs online directly from a farm and they were fabulous!). Yes, you will spend a bit more money. But I can guarantee when you see that bright orange yolk sitting high atop its white, you will be glad you spent the few extra dollars. When you taste them you will probably sigh and moan in delight, wondering where these marvelous eggs have been all your life. At least that’s what I did the first time I had them.

This preparation shows off the egg perfectly. You can still dip a piece of toast in the yolks, and the yolks also make a creamy sauce that tastes oh-so-good with the chard. Adding tomatoes to the greens gives some nice acidity to balance everything out. This is a simple dinner, but one that is immensely enjoyable. It’s the simple pleasures in life that I treasure, and the humble egg truly satisfies.

Farm Eggs Poached in Chard
Serves four small portions or two main course portions

1 pound Swiss Chard, preferably rainbow, or other greens of your choice
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
1 small onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 eggs, preferably free range
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
Salt and pepper, to taste

Remove the stems from the leaves of the chard and dice the stems and roughly chop the leaves. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the olive oil to coat the pan, then add the chard stems and onion. Season with a bit of salt to soften them. Stirring or tossing regularly, cook them for a few minutes, until the onions are becoming translucent. Add the tomatoes, and re-season with salt and pepper. When the tomatoes have softened, add the garlic and cook for one minute while stirring. Add the leaves, in batches if they don’t all fit at once, and stir them so they start to wilt.

At this point you should have a good amount of moisture in the pan from the vegetables and tomatoes. However, if it all looks a bit dry, you could add a splash of stock, white wine or just water. It doesn’t need to be wet or liquid, but should have enough moisture to be bubbling a little bit. Make four wells in the chard for the eggs; if the pan is still a bit dry then add a bit of olive oil to the holes so the eggs don’t stick. Put the eggs into these wells and cover the pan.

Allow the eggs to poach for about 4 minutes for large eggs, checking them after two minutes to make sure they aren’t completely set. The whites should all be cooked and not clear and runny; remove the pan from the heat as soon as they are set. Using a spatula or large serving spoon, serve up the eggs with the chard.

Serve with whole grain toast for a healthy meal.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


I have been smitten with peaches lately. I’m still in awe at how early we get summer fruit in Central Texas, and each week at the farmer’s market I feel like a kid in a candy shop, with so many wonderful choices that I hardly know where to begin. There is bright green okra…

…Buckets of tomatoes…

…Bouquets of herbs and flowers…

It is all inspiring, and I wish I had an army to cook for so I could take advantage of it all. Alas, even my husband is out of town so it’s just me, and I will have to make do with only the pictures for now.

But in the midst of all this bounty, it is the peach that I am completely enamored of. I have been eating them for breakfast every day as I posted earlier, and still it’s not enough. I would love to make a big cobbler or pie, but being home all alone with a pie would not be a good thing. I had the same thought about ice cream, and it is probably lucky I didn’t have any cream on hand or I would still be eating it and not writing a word.

And then it dawned on me that I haven’t made scones in a while, and more surprisingly, that I haven’t baked much lately or even posted one single recipe for a baked good (savory Tomato Tarts are a bit iffy). I love to bake, and now that I think about it, I can't believe it's taken me so long to write about baking. I had decided: I would make peach scones.

I wanted them to be special, to really show off the lovely fruit. Frankly, I wanted them to have a wow factor. Since peaches and ginger have a natural affinity for one another, I added some crystallized ginger to the dry ingredients, and some fresh grated ginger to the sliced peaches. For added complexity, I substituted ¼ cup of cornmeal for flour, which gave the dough a little more texture and a nice hint of sweetness.

Oh my goodness, they were so good! I wish I could invite you over to have a cup of tea and one of these scones! The ginger was completely infused into the scone in each bite, sweet and spicy, offsetting the fruit marvelously. Thankfully I had the foresight to freeze half of them before baking, or there wouldn’t be any left when my hubby gets home. Still, I may have to package some up for the neighbors so I don’t eat 10 scones today.

The taste of ginger is still lingering in my mouth. I think it’s tea time again.

Double Ginger Peach Scones

I like to make small scones so I can enjoy one with a cup of tea in the afternoon. You could just make eight large ones if you’d like, but then you’ll have less of them to eat and share with your friends. They will take longer to bake if you make bigger ones.

2 ¾ cup flour
½ cup sugar
¼ cup cornmeal
2 tablespoons very finely chopped crystallized ginger
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
¾ cup (1.5 sticks) cold butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup buttermilk
1 small peach, ripe but still quite firm
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
A few tablespoons of turbinado sugar, to sprinkle on top

Preheat oven to 450 degrees and position rack to middle of oven.

Slice the peach (no need to peel it) into very thin slices around the peach.
Then cut around in the opposite direction, so that the slices are all cut in half.

Place these in a small bowl and stir in fresh ginger, stirring to combine. The ginger may initially just clump together, so just gently mix it until it’s evenly dispersed. Set aside.

Whisk the flour, sugar, cornmeal, crystallized ginger, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. Cut in the butter with a pastry cutter or rub in with your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Gradually add the buttermilk, stirring with a wooden spoon until it clumps together.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured board and bring the dough into a loose ball. Divide in half, and pat one half into a round a little less than half an inch thick (if one piece is slightly larger, use it for the bottom). Spread the peaches around the disk, as you would pizza toppings. Flatten the other half of the dough into a disk the same size as the first one. Place this on top of the first disk, and pat it down, kind of sealing the edges as needed.

Cut the round into eight even pieces. Cut each eighth into three triangles, making them as even as possible.

Place the scones on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and sprinkle with turbinado sugar. You’ll need to do two batches, or you can freeze one sheet of them, placing them in a freezer bag once they are rock hard; then just bake them from the frozen state for just a few extra minutes. This is what I do, so I can have fresh scones without lifting a finger.

Bake for 12-13 minutes until the scones are golden brown. Try to let them cool a bit, even though the smell of spicy ginger will tempt you. These are wonderful with a cup of tea, especially Rooibos tea.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Hot Tomato

It is that time of year when it is so hot that you run from your car to the air-conditioned house as fast as you can, trying and not succeeding to outrun the heat. And Texas is really hot. I am not from Central Texas and this is my first summer here, so I am now finally understanding the meaning of the word "hot." It is seriously, suffocatingly, hot. I'm tired just thinking about it.

The upside to all of this excessive sunlight and humidity is the wonders it does to a tomato. Sadly, I planted tomatoes in March, shortly after moving, not realizing that here in the south that is late. There I was thinking how early it was, being used to planting after Mother's Day. Anyway, my poor little tomato plants were too young to flower, so I have six cages of spindly, scraggly plants not doing much of anything, yet I can't bear to turn them over. Fortunately, all of this heat leads to mild weather in the fall, and you can plant tomatoes at the end of July. I hope to use cuttings from these plants so that, hopefully, I'll have something to show for my trouble eight or so months later.

But I digress. The point is that despite the heat, or rather, because of it, the tomatoes are wonderful. Plus, right now in Colorado I might have had some cherry tomatoes and maybe the first early German Striped or Russian Black tomato, but here in Texas, I have beefsteaks, summer sweets, Golden Boys, Brandywines, Green Zebras...the names alone are romantic and intoxicating!

If you've ever had a truly good tomato, you probably grew it yourself or at least talked to the person who did. If you haven't, seek out your local farmer's market and go there immediately. Here's the thing: good tomatoes don't need much. A little Olive Oil, a sprinkle of sea salt and some basil is all you need. Don't over think it. Don't work up a sweat in the hot summer. Just slice 'em and serve 'em. Some of my happiest food memories are of home grown tomatoes with my mom's Italian dressing and a sprinkling of torn basil. That's it. I could eat just that for every meal for as long as the crop lasted.

But if you must go to the trouble of turning on the stove to make something fancier, this is about as perfect as you can get while still being relatively easy. I found this recipe in Food and Wine Magazine this April, and unbelievably, I had ripe tomatoes at the ready. My mother in law was in town, and I wanted something special for her visit. Yet despite the time and money involved in the rest of the meal, this simple and inexpensive tart was by far the highlight of the evening. The crust is lightly sweetened by cream, in contrast to the tart burst of the oven roasted tomatoes. The texture and flavor of this dish are perfect, and I have no desire to alter this recipe at all.

Since then I have made this recipe a few times, and the only deviation was to make individual tarts rather than one large one. I like the decadence of having one's own tart; it seems so special, as though I made this for you, and you alone. But do whatever is easiest. It's hot, after all.

Tomato Tarts
This recipe originally appeared in Food & Wine, April 2010. It is perfect as is, but if you must fiddle, a drizzle of good quality balsamic vinegar or good Olive Oil is also lovely.

1 1/2 cups of flour
7 Tablespoons Butter
1/2 cup cold heavy cream
2 pints cherry tomatoes, preferably mixed colors and varieties
2 tablespoons shredded basil leaves

Butter a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom, or four 4" tart pans. In a food processor, pulse the flour with a pinch of salt and the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the cream and pulse until the dough nearly comes together. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead a few times. Make a ball, then flatten it into a disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 325°. Roll out the dough to a 14-inch round. Press the round into the tart pan; trim off any excess. Arrange the tomatoes in the shell. Bake for about 1 hour and 40 minutes for large tart or about an hour for smaller ones, until the dough is evenly browned. Let cool slightly. Season with salt, garnish with the basil and serve.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Just Peachy

This morning as I was making coffee, the scent of ripe peaches was in the air. It's summer in Texas, which means it's peach season. I bought a basket of them at the farmer's market yesterday, and they looked so pretty in a bowl with the similarly colored heirloom tomatoes and nectarines. And the smell was divine.

Sometimes I find amazing produce and am inspired to cook something to show it off. Tomatoes at their peak get turned into a beautiful tart, or spring greens get a quick saute with garlic and olive oil. But in this case, the peaches were so perfect that all I could think to do with them was eat them, just as they were. So I did, and it was everything its scent promised it would be: sweet, with syrupy nectar, still firm enough to bite into without squishing, delicious.

A few hours and three cups of coffee later, I was still thinking about those peaches. I needed something more substantial, but wanted to keep it fresh and light and cool (it's already 90 degrees at 10 am). So I made my favorite breakfast. It's nothing too special, but I never get bored with it even though I eat it, more or less, every single day. I stir some local honey into a scoop of Greek Yogurt, then top with fruit, and sometimes a little sprinkling of homemade granola if I have some on hand.

It is so simple, yet so delicious. It is a great way to use summer fruit, and you can tailor it to your tastes. I like a little honey for flavor and to soften the sour yogurt a bit, but I do like to maintain a little tang to counter the sweet fruit. You have to find your own balance, and that is part of what makes it so much fun.

Is this the most exciting recipe you'll ever try? Likely not, but it is really, really good.

Greek Yogurt with Honey and Fruit

The best part of this is that you can change out the fruit to use what is in season. It is equally good with pears and a dash of cinnamon in the fall or ripe berries in the spring. Make it however you like, just have fun! Serves one.

1 cup Greek Yogurt (I like Fage 0% or 2%)
1-2 teaspoons of good local honey, or to taste
1 ripe peach
1/4 cup quartered strawberries
A small handful of blueberries, for color
A sprinkling of homemade granola (optional)

Stir the yogurt and honey in a bowl (the one you plan to eat out of), and top with fruit and granola. Enjoy!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

A Wink and a Smile

My first year of marriage was a bit of a roller coaster ride. It seems every time we had even a moment to catch our breath, it was on an uphill climb just before dropping off into the oblivion. Much of these highs and lows were a result of a big move from Denver to Austin. It's been a lot of stress from work, a new home and moving away from family and friends, but on the flip side we're exploring a new city together and experiencing everything as a couple, completely dependent on one another for friendship and love. It's been a heady, intimate and occasionally overwhelming experience.

So for our anniversary, we thought we deserved to do it in two parts. Part one, which I wrote about earlier, was a wonderfully relaxing dinner at home. Part two was a great restaurant meal. We had lived in Denver and both been involved in the restaurant scene there for so long that we had plenty of places to go for a great meal. We also knew whtere to go for a simple but delicious meal to suit our needs for the night. Being in a new city is much more hit or miss. We've had a few very good meals, some very mediocre meals, and for our anniversary, one very, very good meal.

We ate at Wink Restaurant, and it was wonderful. The overall experience reminded me of the saying "the devil's in the details" in the best possible way. The wine by the glass was served at the table from the bottle, into gorgeous stemware appropriate for the wine served (my biggest pet peeve is great wine and bad stemware). The silverware and plates for the salad was chilled, my water glass never went empty, no matter how much I chugged...I could go on and on. The bottom line is that they had worked out the finer points of good service. If I am going to pay a lot for a meal, I want excellent service, and at Wink, it was worth every penny.

Fortunately, the service was just a prelude to the food. We had the most amazing Heirloom tomato salad with ginger dressing, another recipe which I swear I will try to replicate and provide here. Our next course was a grass-fed bison tartare with caper aioli, cornichons and trubbled crostini. I am still speechless over this dish, but i will say it was the best rendition of truffle oil I've seen in a long time. Rather than overpowering the dish, the added an earthy note that complemented the meat perfectly. I love truffles when they enhance a dish rather than act as the main event, and this dish delivered.

For our entrees, my husband had veal sweetbreads on purple hull peas with grilled onion and maitake mushrooms, which balanced the richness of the meat with earthy and smoky notes. I had dayboat scallops with potato coulis, melted leeks and chantrelles. I adore leeks that are slow cooked, and will take chantrelles pretty much however I can get them, so I expected this to be a case of "I ordered it for the sides", but the scallops were sublime, with a hit of potato in the sauce. It was such a good meal that neither of us wanted dessert, which is a huge compliment to the chef.

A Wink and a Smile

Food & Love

"All I need is food and creative love" ~Rusted Root

I consider myself extremely lucky to have a husband who both loves to cook for me, but who also appreciates my cooking for him. And not just appreciates it because he is hungry and there is food ready for him, but who enjoys the process all the way from discussing what to eat through cooking and eating it, and of course, analyzing and noting how to improve it. This routine is the foundation of how we met and fell in love, and remains a big part of who we are as a couple. The above lyrics would be just a little better suited to our relationship if they were "All I is need is love and creative food."

For our first anniversary, I was treated to a repeat of the dinner that my husband made me for our first date. It was a true celebration of love and food. The fact that he put so much care into it the first time and then remembered it and recreated it was the best present I could have asked for. We started with a knife and fork salad, which he made with long, crisp Romaine leaves topped with a dried cherries, blue cheese, slivered almonds, Ranch dressing and a drizzle of Balsamic reduction.

This was followed by roasted red pepper soup, made lovingly without a drop of cream since my stomach doesn't handle that very well. The basil and shaved parmesan were not only pretty but tasted beautiful.

But the grande finale was the highlight: the most delicious, Asian-inspired crab cakes I've ever had. There was a Thai Chili Remoulade that was out of this world. It was served under the crab cakes, but I opted to bring the extra bowl of it over and smother my crab cake in it. To cut the richness of the crab and sauce there were salad greens just kissed with olive oil and salt on top. (Sadly, my picture does not do this justice...I must work on my photography!)

I promise I will work up a recipe to post soon,this time standing over his shoulder while he makes it. They were so yummy!

The first incantation of this dinner was several years ago now, and I still have crystal clear memories of not just the food, but of our conversation and getting to know one another. I'm pretty sure the food was about the same the second time around as the first, but somehow, since our relationship has developed, round two was a much, much better meal.