Peaches and prosciutto

A box of ripe, juicy, slightly bruised peaches saved me.

I met my friends Karen and Crystal at the Piedmont Triad Farmers' Market in Greensboro, North Carolina Saturday afternoon. They were hosting a dinner party that night, and I was in charge of hors d'oeuvres. (Really good) deviled eggs were already on ice in the car, but I knew I needed another offering. Velvety prosciutto slices were also on hand (I grabbed them from the fridge that morning as I packed), but I wasn't happy with the standard melon-prosciutto pairing I'd planned. It's a classic, winning combination, but it felt too safe, a bit boring. While Karen and Crystal searched for flowers, I sought inspiration. I found it in a "fresh peaches" banner.

The rosy fruits on display were lovely but very firm, the kind that sit on the counter at room temperature for a few days before they're fit for consumption. Dinner was in 5 hours. I asked if any riper peaches were available, and the vendor waved me around the table, into the booth. "You can take as many of those as you'd like for three dollars," she said, gesturing to a box under the table. Succulent and slightly battered, those peaches weren't considered suitable for sale. I filled my bag quickly and knew exactly what would become of them.

Guests in attendance and deviled eggs on display, Crystal lit the grill while I tried to master the over-sized tongs I had to work with. I grilled the peaches — sliced, brushed with melted butter, and dusted with sugar — until they were lightly charred and soft. Piled high on a platter and tossed with balsamic vinegar, everything sprinkled with freshly chopped mint...  I was satisfied. The salt and fat of the prosciutto is a perfect foil to sweet fruit, balsamic vinegar provides zing, and mint adds a fresh dimension.

Ideally you'll have ripe but firm fruit to work with if you opt to grill them — extremely ripe peaches will turn to mush. Wash peaches and remove any bruised areas with a knife prior to grilling.


Radicchio challenge

I drove home yesterday under a gorgeous Carolina blue sky (the kind of sky that makes you want a convertible), fresh CSA produce and lovable dog at my side, contemplating my new mission: convincing Cathy that radicchio is wonderful.

Being single, I don't need a huge box of veggies each week; as a single mother of a soon-to-be-2-year-old, my friend Cathy doesn't either. We agreed to split a half-share of Bluebird Meadows' vegetables this season, which arrive each Wednesday afternoon. So far, so good.

We split most things down the middle — as of yesterday we each have 6 beautiful carrots, for example, still dusted with soil, greens attached. If it makes more sense not to share an item, we negotiate. Cathy kept the small head of cauliflower, and I went home with a head of radicchio. We (she) reached a decision after I told Cathy to try a bite, as radicchio was unfamiliar.

I prepped her for the first taste. I explained that radicchio is on the bitter side, that I think of it as a perfect winter-y salad component mixed with other chicories, like Belgian endive. I told Cathy that radicchio is great, because it is. After that first taste she insisted that she keep the cauliflower and that I return home with the radicchio. Mission established.

Slightly astringent raw, radicchio's character changes when cooked. In the summer, I'm most likely to toss radicchio wedges with salt, freshly ground black pepper, and olive oil, then throw it on the grill. I drizzle the lightly charred leaves with balsamic vinegar and serve it alongside steak or pork, or (even better) add it to risotto. Last night I used it on pizza — grilled radicchio, ricotta, and pancetta pizza. I hope this recipe will persuade Cathy to keep the radicchio next time.

The topping combination is mine, but I must thank chefs Johanne Killeen and George Germon for their terrific grilled pizza dough recipe. Germon is credited with inventing grilled pizza at their award-winning restaurant, Al Forno. I use cornmeal in my dough (Germon recommends johnnycake meal, which is widely available in his home state of Rhode Island), but he lists cornmeal as a substitute.

For those who don't consume pork: skip the ricotta. Throw a red bell pepper or two on the grill with the radicchio, and char. Let the blackened peppers steam in a bowl covered with plastic wrap, allow to cool, then peel. Cut the pepper into strips, season, and toss with balsamic vinegar. Proceed with the following recipe, the roasted red pepper and grated Parmesan in place of pancetta and ricotta (put the Parmesan on top of the other ingredients, rather than the bottom).

Grilled Pizza with Radicchio, Ricotta, and Pancetta
Serves 1-2

Grilled Pizza Dough
Adapted from Cucina Simpatica
Makes enough dough for four 12-inch pieces, about 24 ounces total

1 envelope (2 1/2 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1 cup warm water
pinch sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 cup finely ground cornmeal
3 tablespoons whole-wheat flour
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 1/2 to 3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

Combine the yeast, warm water and sugar in a large bowl, stirring to dissolve the solids. Let it sit for 5 minutes, then add the salt, cornmeal, whole-wheat flour and oil. Add the white flour 1/2 cup at a time, stirring to combine and create a stiff yet pliable dough (you may not need all 3 1/2 cups of flour). Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 8 minutes. Add only enough flour to keep the dough from sticking to the work surface.

When the dough is smooth, put it in a bowl lightly greased with olive oil and turn it over in the bowl, coating the entire surface. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise until doubled, about 1 1/2 hours.

Remove the dough from the bowl, punch it down, and knead again for a couple of minutes. Allow it to rise a second time, for about 40 minutes. After the second rise, it's ready to be used.

Punch down again and divide into 4 balls. Each will make a 12-inch pizza serving 4 as an appetizer or 1-2 as a main course. This dough freezes well for about 2 months.

Pizza Toppings
Enough for 2 pizzas

1 small head radicchio, cut into wedges
4 thin slices pancetta
a heaping 1/3 cup ricotta cheese
1 shallot, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
extra virgin olive oil
balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons parsley, chopped

Cut the radicchio into wedges. (I sliced the head in half, then cut each half into quarters). Keep the core intact, as it makes it easier to grill. Brush with olive oil, season, and grill until lightly charred, 4-5 minutes. Remove from the grill, cut the leaves from the core, and toss them with a balsamic vinegar to taste, about 2 teaspoons. Add salt and pepper as necessary.

Grill the pancetta slices for 2-3 minutes, until it begins to curl and crisp. Remove from the grill and break into pieces.

Place the ricotta cheese in a small bowl. Add the minced garlic and shallot (if you're sensitive to raw onion, you can cook the them in a little olive oil on low heat until soft, then add to the cheese). Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Stir to combine.

When it's time to make pizza, bring your toppings to the grill on a tray. You will need a small ramekin containing a few spoonfuls of olive oil, a pastry brush, and tongs.

Germon insists that only a wood or charcoal grill will work for grilled pizza, as gas grills don't get hot enough for his liking. I've had success on a gas grill, and if it's what you have, please, grill pizza!  I prefer the flavor charcoal adds, but gas grills are less labor intensive.

Build a fire on one side of a kettle grill — you want one side as hot as possible, the other a bit cooler to avoid burning the crust while the toppings cook. If using a gas grill, set one side on high, the other on a medium-to-low setting.

Stretch or roll the dough into a 10 to 12-inch circle (irregular shapes are fine; mine was a warped rectangle). Place it on a cookie sheet and brush with olive oil. Flip the dough onto the hottest part of the grill and allow it to puff up for a few seconds (longer if using a gas grill). Then flip the crust over with tongs and move it to the cooler side.

Brush this side of the dough with olive oil. Spread the ricotta mixture thinly across the pizza's surface. Scatter the grilled, dressed radicchio leaves and pancetta pieces on top. Cook for about 8 minutes. Remove to a cutting board, sprinkle with chopped parsley and cut into wedges.


Another standby — asparagus, poached egg and parm

Gray skies continue to bring rain in intermittent showers, my work schedule is a bit wonky, and the ant battle rages on (though I seem to be winning). I am tired. Too tired to shop, too tired to go out. It's another make-do-with-what's-in-the-refrigerator post.

A quick review of the the aforementioned refrigerator led to one of my favorite standby meals — Asparagus with Poached Egg and Parmesan. The lusciousness of the egg yolk (it creates a sauce of sorts) makes this dish feel special, though it takes very little time to prepare. This is a lovely appetizer for a large dinner, but I think it's the perfect size for a late-night meal at home.

Asparagus with Poached Egg and Parmesan
Serves 1

Cook a handful of asparagus using your favorite method. Tonight, I opted for steaming, but roasting is always good. Grilling works, too.

While the asparagus is cooking, bring a shallow pot of water to the boil and reduce to a simmer. Add a pinch of salt and a splash of white vinegar. Crack one egg into a ramekin or tea cup. Stir the water to create flow in one direction (think whirlpool), then ease the cracked egg into it. Give the water a gentle stir in the same direction — your egg will be done in about 3-4 minutes. Don't be alarmed if any white strands trail away from the yolk (this is more likely to happen with older eggs). You can trim any ghostly appendages that may have formed with a sharp knife or scissors, making it more acceptable for plating, but I don't worry about this when I'm cooking for myself.

Put the cooked asparagus on your favorite plate, and place the poached egg on top. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and cover with shaved Parmesan. Drizzle with a nice extra virgin olive oil.

Try not to inhale too quickly. 


Summer squash begins

My weekend revolved around thunderstorms.

Much-needed rain rolled through Chapel Hill in waves, sometimes accompanied by flashes of lightning and booming thunder. Occasionally it rained when the sun was shining. The air was heavy with moisture, steam sometimes rose from the pavement, and I tried desperately to gauge whether the dog and I could make it through the neighborhood without getting drenched in an unexpected shower. Eyes cast skyward, I kept our jaunts short and tried to remember the umbrella.

More time indoors meant there was no escaping household chores (laundry! vacuuming!); I enjoyed a fabulous dinner at Poole's Diner with the always effervescent Caroline (more on that later); and there was plenty of opportunity to ponder the summer squash that arrived in last week's CSA box. I'm worried that lots of squash mid-May means an onslaught come July and August, but I put a positive spin on it, beginning with one of my favorites summer staples — a curried yellow squash soup. Prepare yourself for a plethora of squash recipes if my concerns are well-founded.

Bluebird Meadows (the farm that supplies my weekly box-o-produce) plants several varieties of summer squash — crookneck, lemon zephyr and pattypan all made it into the soup pot. Pattypan are the pretty flying saucer-shaped squash you're more likely to find at a farmers' market than a typical grocery. I think they're more flavorful than other varieties, and if you find baby pattypan, you can leave them whole and delight dinner guests. Is it wrong to describe them as cute? Lemon zephyrs are straight and narrow with green tipped ends; crooknecks earn their name honestly.

Despite the ants (who are dwindling in number but still present), I ventured into the kitchen, put my favorite soup pot on a burner, and began chopping.

A few tips for this soup: as always, use the freshest produce you can find; vegetable stock would be an ideal substitute for water, but chicken stock would be too heavy and take over, so please avoid; grind your spices in a spice grinder or coffee mill set aside only for spices; salt throughout the cooking process — I'm a big believer in pulling out layers of flavor, so season and taste as you go.

I'm off to enjoy soup and salad for supper while watching the much-hyped LOST finale — a series that started strong and has ended in a muddled mess, but I have to see it through to the end. I adore Terry O'Quinn.

Spiced Summer Squash Soup
Serves 4 - 6

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced
about 1 1/2 pounds yellow summer squash (pattypan, lemon zephyr, crookneck)
1 1/2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds
5 cardamom pods, husked — use only the seeds
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
5 1/2 cups of water or vegetable stock
kosher salt to taste
1/2 cup cream
 a pinch of parsley and cilantro leaves, finely chopped, to garnish

Heat the butter over medium low flame. Add onion and garlic and cook until soft, about 4-5 minutes.

Grind the dried spices in a spice mill or coffee mill until fine.

Add minced ginger, chopped yellow summer squash, ground spices, turmeric and cayenne to the soup pot and stir. Cook for another 5-10 minutes over medium heat, covered. Add water or vegetable stock and simmer for roughly 20 minutes. Season to taste, puree in a blender (standing or immersion) and add cream. Garnish with parsley and/or cilantro to serve.


Ant battle

I haven't cooked anything for the last two days. Not on the stovetop or in the oven anyway. My meals are all raw, all the time.

Tiny black ants invaded my kitchen this week, trailing down a windowsill, scurrying around the laminate counters, making their way to the stovetop. The stovetop! Ack.

Proud of my neat and tidy home, I took their presence personally. I scrubbed the kitchen from top to bottom and set the oven dial to clean, hoping to roast any unwanted insects that might be lurking within. I also asked for help. Friends consoled me, told me that even a clean home was subject to invasion, but I was despondent, disgusted, at wit's end. Then the lovely Kathleen recommended a product that wouldn't poison me or the dog, and promised it would make the ants disappear within 2 days. I hit the hardware store, bought the aforementioned ant killer, set up sticky little goo traps, and hoped for the best.

Waiting for the magic ant killer to work, I couldn't stand being in the kitchen. The ants were still there, getting themselves acquainted with the goo. And I had to allow them to live, to carry the sticky mess back to their nest and share it with friends.

Watching them gave me the heebie-jeebies.

So I set up shop in the dining room. The table became a temporary (very low) counter top. I brought in my knives, cutting board, bowls, and whisks, pretending the ants didn't exist.

I focused my thoughts on an Asian coleslaw instead, using some of the contents of this week's CSA box: fennel, green cabbage, and snow peas. The CSA newsletter recommended a coleslaw made with mayonnaise, and though I'm sure it's good, I wanted something lighter, cleaner, with the nuttiness toasted sesame oil provides and the crunch of roasted peanuts. The following recipe was made with what was on hand, no stovetop or oven needed.

Cross your fingers and hope that the evil ants disappear tomorrow.

Asian Slaw
Serves 3-4 as a side dish

1/2 small head green cabbage, thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1 red bell pepper, julienned
2 cups snow peas, julienned

3 - 4 tablespoons soy sauce
juice of 1/2 of a lime
2 tablespoons of ginger, minced
pinch of sugar
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1/3 cup canola oil, or other neutral vegetable oil
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 cup crushed roasted peanuts (I like the lesser-salt variety, if available)

Clean and cut vegetables, removing the core and ribs from cabbage. Remove the core of the fennel bulb before slicing. Toss to combine.

Put the soy sauce, lime juice, minced ginger, and a pinch of sugar into a small bowl. Drizzle the toasted sesame oil and canola oil in while whisking, creating an emulsion. Taste, and add salt and freshly ground black pepper as needed. Be sure to coat the vegetables in a small amounts of dressing, tossing and tasting, as you go. Garnish with chopped roasted peanuts.


Radish inspiration

Radishes dominate the farmers' market each spring, and this year is no exception. Stacked high in almost every stall, in colors ranging from red to pink to white, they are hard to escape. But who would want to?

Bright and peppery, radishes are delicious all season, most often julienned and added to salads  — I find they're prettier and easier to eat when cut into tiny slivers. Thinly sliced, placed atop buttered bread, and sprinkled with salt, radishes make a favorite late night snack.

Last night I was leafing through Amanda Hesser's Cooking for Mr. Latte, and the phrase "braised radishes with mint" caught my eye. There was no recipe, but I couldn't stop thinking about it. Braised lamb, braised pork, sure, but braised radishes with mint? Time to experiment. I put down the book and went into the kitchen.

Armed with my favorite chef's knife, Johnny Cash on the iPod, and fresh mint from my back porch, I was good to go.

This recipe would work without the shallot, but I put shallots, garlic or onion in just about everything. Shallots are the onion's mild-mannered, more polite cousin — their subtleties are a perfect fit for this dish. I deglazed the pan with champagne vinegar, giving the radishes a slightly pickled taste. If you don't like vinegar's zing, saute the radishes in butter and add only water to the pan.

The (pretty tasty) result of my efforts follows. This would be a great companion to grilled or roasted poultry or pork.

Braised Radishes with Mint
Serves 2-3 as a side dish

1 very large shallot, minced
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 large bunch of radishes, cut in half, quartered if large
2-3 tablespoons champagne vinegar
3 tablespoons water
about 2 tablespoons of fresh mint, finely chopped

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet or saute pan. Add the minced shallot, a pinch of Kosher salt, and cook over medium-low heat until soft, 3-4 minutes. Turn up the heat a notch and add the radishes, cooking until lightly colored. Add the champagne vinegar and water, then cover the pan and cook on medium-low heat until the radishes are almost tender, about 12 minutes. Remove the lid and reduce any remaining liquid to a glaze. Shut off the heat and sprinkle with finely chopped mint. Season with salt and pepper to taste.


A bum rap

Party planning recently took over both my brain and this blog. I neglected to talk about last week's CSA box, which included... collard greens!

Collard greens are assertive, but I think they get a bum rap. People assume they don't like collards based on reputation, without ever tasting them. It doesn't get much worse than that, does it?

Sadly, my parents are anti-collards. Hailing from the Deep South, one might expect them to embrace this green. They don't. Turnip and mustard greens are welcome in their home, but my father's face wrinkles when he describes collards. These are very serious wrinkles — everything furrows and folds. Even his tone of voice changes. The smell of long-cooked collards seems to be a major stumbling block for my father. I think their scent betrays wholesomeness and the earthy flavor to come.

Ronnie's Country Store in Winston-Salem, North Carolina supplied the country ham for this week's recipe. Ronnie's is my mother's favorite stop when she's downtown. Joy swings by and checks out the fresh produce, which is displayed in boxes on the street and inside. She often picks up candy for her grandsons. And she keeps an eye on the country ham scraps. There's rarely a need for a full country ham in our family, but Ronnie's sells trimmings for a reasonable price, and I'm often the beneficiary of her outings. I keep the scraps wrapped in plastic and frozen, pulling them out to flavor — you got it — collards.

I love collard greens cut into ribbons and sauteed with garlic (this takes 3 minutes, tops), but something about slow-cooked greens sits with me in a way that's tough to describe. Redolent of pork and chile pepper, these collards beg for a bottle of hot pepper vinegar and a warm piece of cornbread. 

Whichever cooking method you choose, be sure to remove the tough, woody stalks from the collard leaves before proceeding.

The following is my go-to, slow-cooked, collard recipe. Adjust according to taste. Substitute chicken stock for water if you want a more substantive dish.

Slow-Cooked Collard Greens
Serves 3-4 as a side dish

2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 piece of country ham, about 2 x 2 inches
  • 1 pound collard greens
  • about 4 cups of water or chicken stock

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and saute until tender, about 7 minutes. Add country ham scraps and cook for a few minutes more. Add collards and wilt. Sprinkle with hot red pepper flakes. Add a very small pinch of salt, water or chicken stock, and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook for about 1 hour, maybe a little more, until the greens are tender. Taste for seasoning and serve.



feel obligated to offer a "gesundheit" after using Geitost as a title, but no one familiar with Geitost would ask for a blessing. They would ask for more. Geitost is an amazing Scandinavian goat's milk cheese.

Sunday started off innocently enough. My friend Lisa and I hiked through Duke Forest with my dog. We had lunch at a local Asian restaurant. We bought yarn, so I could teach her to knit.

Somewhere along the way, Lisa mentioned a favorite food from her Iowa upbringing. After elementary school she would go home with her buddy Nina. Nina's mother was Norwegian, a blond beauty who made terrific after-school snacks in her yellow, sun-filled bungalow. The typical after school goodie was a slice of dark bread slathered with butter and topped with a piece of Geitost (sometimes spelled Gjetost).

Lisa's description of this cheese made me rethink my afternoon. I had to try it. Immediately. We headed to our local gourmet grocery and bought of block of Geitost, along with a package of imported pumpernickel — one of those perfectly square, dark brown slices of bread found in a specialty market or the international food aisle of your local grocery.

At home, the knitting needles came out and I (tried) to teach Lisa to cast on and knit. Then it was snack time. Geitost and butter on pumpernickel for everyone! And, wow, was it good. Geitost is a rich, creamy, dark brown cheese (alarmingly brown) with a remarkable caramel flavor. It's borderline sweet, but not off-putting. The dark bread provided great contrast to the cheese, and the butter served as a nice neutral buffer with a soft, creamy texture.

Now we just need to learn how to make the stuff. A brief bit of Internet research reveals that we need a lot of goat's milk whey (the by-product of cheese production) and a lot of spare time. It takes about 6 hours of stand-by-the-pot time for the milk sugars to caramelize. This will be Lisa's job, as she works from home. Wish us luck.

Note: If you can't find imported pumpernickel, use rye bread or rye flatbread.


Buttercream 101

Buttercream scares me. A lot.

Buttercream is a big, frightening ghoul lurking in the corner, waiting for me to fail. It requires candy thermometers and cool kitchens, electric mixers and a steady hand. Buttercream demands precision, exactness. I am organized in my day-to-day life, but I lack patience for things like buttercream, which I haven't made in years. There was never a need.

A need arose. A birthday luncheon requires birthday cake. After test-driving a few recipes earlier in the month (I showed up at friends' homes, cakes in hand, and quizzed them as to which they liked best and why), I selected a lemon layer cake for the big event. A lemon layer cake with buttercream icing.

I adapted an old Gourmet recipe, making changes to the both cake and lemon curd, but I did away with the confectioners sugar laden icing it called for. Sickeningly sweet and cloying, I find that type of frosting too heavy. Childish, even. No good for my mother's cake.

I turned to baking guru Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Cake Bible for help. Yes, it's an audacious title, but an appropriate one. This could be the gospel of all cake books, an incredible tome of information. Rose is like a scientist, noting all the differences a subtle recipe change can make. If you want more than a list of ingredients and instructions, if you want to understand why you're following certain steps, get this book. It's a worthwhile investment.

A word of warning: do not talk to your sister (or anyone else) on the phone while making buttercream. This recipe is awfully close to foolproof — no candy thermometer required  — but you need to pay attention. I came close to a mishap.

Note: I took the one and only one picture of my very homemade-looking cake before guests arrived, and I forgot to remove the cake dome. Not the best image. It tasted great, though.

Neoclassic Lemon Buttercream
Adapted from The Cake Bible

Makes 4 cups

6 large egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup corn syrup
2 cups unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon lemon extract

Coat a 1 cup heatproof glass measuring cup with canola oil and keep it close to the stovetop.

Beat the egg yolks with an electric mixer (or in a heavy-duty standing mixer) until light until they are light in color. Heat the sugar and corn syrup in a small saucepan, stirring constantly, until the sugar dissolves and the syrup comes to a rolling boil. Immediately pour the syrup into the glass measuring cup - this will stop the cooking.

Beat the syrup into the yolks in a steady stream, but be certain not to let the syrup to fall on the beaters if you're using a hand-held mixer. (This would spin it onto the sides of the bowl).

If you're using a stand mixer, turn it off and pour a little bit of syup into the egg yolks, then quickly turn the mixer to huigh and beat at a high speed for 5 seconds. Stop the mixer and add a little more syrup, then turn the macine to high and beat for 5 seconds. Continue in this manner until all of the syrup is used; beat until the bowl is cool.

When the buttercream has cooled, beat in the butter, lemon juice, and lemon extract. Place the buttercream in an airtight bowl and refrigerate if you're not using it right away. You must bring it to room temperature before using, rebeating to restore it's creamy texture.


Get pickled

I want to claim this recipe as my own.

I want to wrap it in an old recipe box, my grandmother's Mississippi kitchen, and tales of shrimp boats along the Gulf Coast. But I can't. Those stories exist (and I hope to write about them sometime), but they have nothing to do with this fabulous pickled shrimp recipe, which I found in Frank Stitt's Southern Table.

My generous parents bring me shrimp from the North Carolina coast each year. I stash it away in the freezer for special events, and my mother's birthday luncheon is one such occasion. A precious block thawed and last night became one of my favorite snacks, pickled shrimp. Alone in the kitchen, I devour pickled shrimp directly from the container, but this Lowcountry classic makes a wonderful hors d'oeuvre.

How I adapted the master recipe: I doubled up on fennel and coriander seed (favorites), and left out mustard seed and white wine vinegar entirely.

Pickled Shrimp
Adapted from Frank Stitt's Southern Table

Serves 6 - 8 as an hors d'oeuvre

1 1/2 pounds of cooked shrimp (see recipe below)
1 large onion, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 lemons, thinly sliced
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
5 bay leaves
3 dried chile peppers
1 teaspoon celery seed
2 teaspoons fennel seed
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
2 teaspoons coriander seeds

To cook the shrimp, fill a large pot with water, one quartered onion, one roughly chopped celery stalk, a squeeze of lemon juice and a large pinch of salt. Bring it to a boil and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Shut off the heat, then add peeled, deveined shrimp. (I love the look of shrimp with the tails left on, but some people think this makes them more difficult to eat). The shrimp will turn pink and curl. When cooked through, drain and cool.

Combine all of the above ingredients in a large bowl and toss. Allow to sit overnight for the flavors to meld, covered and refrigerated.


Quiche love

Putting quiche on my mother's birthday lunch menu wasn't an easy out. 

This is no ordinary quiche. This is Chef Thomas Keller's quiche, which means hours of work and careful attention to detail. 

I made the dough the night before baking day, ran home the following afternoon to roll it out, place it in a mold, and then return it to the refrigerator to chill properly. After work I fired up the oven and blind-baked the crust while making the filling. When the filling was complete I poured it into the shell and waited another 1 1/2 hours for the quiche to cook. 

It's worth it.

This quiche is decadent. Ethereal. It is light and airy and rich and sensuous all at the same time. The magic lies in the custard. Keller aerates the custard in a blender before pouring it into the prebaked shell.

Brilliant! This man is a culinary genius.

Keller's cookbooks are fun to leaf through — they're gorgeous, over-sized, coffee table quality books with insanely beautiful photography — but bring them into the kitchen. Use them.

You need a 9 x 2 inch ring mold to make The World's Greatest Quiche. Those lucky enough to live in the Chapel Hill area should visit Kitchenworks — the selection of baking supplies is incredible. If you can't find a ring mold at your local cookware store, you can order one online from Sugarcraft.

Quiche Florentine

Adapted from Bouchon.

Basic Quiche Shell 

Makes one 9-inch tart shell 

This takes about an hour and 15 minutes, and at least an hour of chilling time.

2 cups flour (about 12 ounces), sifted
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup (8 ounces or 1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1/4 cup ice water
2 tablespoons canola oil
Combine 1 cup of flour and the salt in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. With the mix on a low speed, add the butter to the bowl one piece at a time.

When all of the butter is in, turn the mixer to medium, combining the flour and butter completely. Reduce the speed to low, add the remaining 1 cup of flour, and mix until just combined.

Slowly dribble the ice cold water into the bowl until the dough gathers around the paddle. It should feel smooth, not sticky.

Now take the dough from the mixer, checking to see if any pieces of butter remain. If so, return mix it briefly again. Pat the dough into a 7-inch disk and wrap in plastic. The dough must rest at least one hour in the refrigerator or else it will shrink as it bakes — and as someone who has experienced shrunken dough, believe me when I tell you that resting is an important step. You can leave it in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours.
Brush the inside of a 9 x 2-inch ring mold with canola oil and place it on a jelly roll pan lined with parchment paper. Place the dough on a floured work surface and flatten it into a larger circle with  a rolling pin or your hands. Roll the dough until it is about 14 inches in diameter. If the dough gets to warm and soft, put it back in the refrigerator for a few minutes, then try again.

Wrap the dough around your rolling pin and carefully lower it into the prepared pan. Press it gently against the sides and bottom, and trim any dough that extends more than an inch over the sides. Reserve the scraps - these will be used to fix any holes or cracks in the dough. Fold the excess dough over against the outside of the ring to help prevent it from shrinking down the sides as it bakes. Check for cracks or holes in the dough, and patch as necessary. Put the shell into in the refrigerator or freezer for at least 20 minutes and reserve remaining dough scraps.

Heat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and place a rack in the center. Line the quiche shell with parchment paper and fill it with pie weights (I use dried beans or rice) filling the shell completely. Bake until the edges of the dough are slightly browned but the bottom is still light in color, 35 - 45 minutes.

Remove the parchment and weights. Fill any holes in the dough with the remaining scraps, then return the shell to the oven. The bottom will turn a beautiful golden brown in 15 - 20 minutes. Remove it from the oven, place on a cooling rack, and allow it to cool completely on the jellyroll pan. Check again cracks or holes, and patch if necessary before filling with the (luscious) quiche batter.

Basic Quiche Batter  
Makes enough for one 9-inch shell that serves 8
2 cups milk
2 cups heavy cream
6 large eggs
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
6 gratings fresh nutmeg
Put the milk and cream in a large saucepan over medium heat until scalded ( when a skin begins to form on the surface). Allow to cool for 10 - 15 minutes.

Put 3 eggs, half the milk and cream mixture, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, 1/8 teaspoon pepper and 3 gratings of nutmeg in a blender and blend until light and foamy, about 30 seconds. (I used an immersion blender, putting the egg mixture into saucepan with the scaled cream mixture - it worked well, and I didn't have to worry about the blender top popping off).
This is the first layer of the quiche. Repeat the process to complete the quiche.

Quiche Florentine
Serves 8

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup minced shallots
1 lb spinach, washed, large stems removed
2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup grated Comte or Emmentaler cheese
basic quiche shell, cooled
basic quiche batter
Canola oil

Soften the shallots in butter over low heat in a large skillet or saucepan. Add half the spinach and season with salt and pepper. Stir for a minute to wilt, then add the remaining spinach. Cook for another 1-2 minutes, until all of the spinach has wilted. Drain the spinach on paper towels and cool.

Put a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

Squeeze the spinach to remove excess liquid and chop coarsely. Place 1/4 cup of the cheese and half the spinach evenly into the quiche shell (which is still on the baking sheet, in the ring mold). 

Blend the quiche batter again, then pour in enough of the batter to cover the ingredients and fill the quiche halfway. Top the batter with another 1/4 cup of the cheese and the remaining spinach. Blend the remaining batter and fill the quiche to the top. Sprinkle remaining cheese on top.

Bake 1 1/2 - 1 3/4 hours, until the top of the quiche is browned and the custard is set when the pan is jiggled. Remove the quiche from the oven and cool on a rack to room temperature, then refrigerate until chilled, at least 1 day, or up to 3 days. (This is why it's the ultimate make ahead party dish).

When thoroughly chilled, use a sharp knife to scrape away the excess crust from the top. Run a small paring knife between the crust and the ring, then carefully remove the ring. Return the quiche to the refrigerator until ready to serve.

To serve, heat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with lightly oiled parchment paper.  Cut through the edge of the crust in a sawing motion with a serrated knife. Switch to a long slicing knife and use it to cut through the custard and bottom crust. Cut the quiche into 8 pieces, place them on the baking sheet and reheat for 15 minutes or until hot.


Getting ready

I learned years ago that a great meal, be it at home or in a restaurant, is the perfect gift. Like tickets to a concert or play, you're giving an event, an experience, something everyone involved will remember. It doesn't have to fit or match. It won't collect dust, be re-gifted, or end up in the Goodwill basket. If you don't completely screw up, it's close to perfect.

I'm hosting a brunch/luncheon this coming Saturday to celebrate my mother's 66th birthday.

Joy is a sweet woman. That's the first word that comes to mind when I think of her. She is kind, generous to a fault, and puts me to shame with her exercise regimen. Joy is gentle, thoughtful, and loves her family more than anything in the world. Her laughter is large and loud and uninhibited. Sometimes she makes me crazy. The name fits perfectly.

I've been planning this meal for some time, but now that birthday luncheon week is here, I've got to get my game plan in order. Last night I began writing my grocery list, checking, double-checking then triple-checking the kitchen cabinets and refrigerator for ingredients on hand. I also ironed napkins while watching Six Feet Under (on to Season 2) on DVD. I dined on leftovers.

I'm all about doing as much advance party prep as possible, so the cooking will begin soon. I wish, however, that I had a maid. These floors could use a good scrubbing.

The proposed menu that follows is not intended to be innovative, just good. Great, even. With an 11:00 a.m. start, I'm hoping to span the gap between breakfast and lunch with a gorgeous quiche as star, mimosas for all, and a bright, light cake.

Joy's 66th Birthday Brunch

Melon wrapped in prosciutto
Pickled shrimp
Thomas Keller's quiche (spinach or the leek and Roquefort version - TBD)
Green salad with radishes and a light mustardy dressing
Lemon layer cake


Get your swagger on

Yesterday was Sunday, my favorite day of the week. A day devoted to reading, long walks with the dog, and my day off. It was also the day to get my swagger on.

I bring you the winner of Duke University's Dessert Expo 2009: Eva's Swagger Pie.

Eva and I met at a local cooking school a couple of years ago. I was on staff, and she volunteered there when she could escape the laboratory. (Eva has a big brain — she's a Ph.D. candidate in Immunology at Duke). After months of cajoling, she came over Sunday afternoon to catch up and make her award-winning pie.

Eva is a terrific baker. She's the coworker who brings in a layer cake she made the night before just for fun, the one who churns out cookies by the dozen during the holidays, the friend who always brings a little something sweet when you invite her to dinner.

Eva claims the pie started as a joke. She and her roommate Jodi discovered a bottle of Old Spice shower gel in (get this) swagger scent. Jodi, familiar with Eva's baking prowess, challenged her to create Swagger Pie and enter it in the dessert contest. Eva began thinking about Things That Swagger. Big, important, sophisticated things that like to show off and throw their weight around. This led to a combination of figs, brandy, pecans and chocolate. (She admits these ingredients were in the house when creative impulse struck). It took 5 attempts to perfect Swagger Pie, but it was worth it. Eva is Grand Champion and the pie is delicious.

Swagger Pie is your favorite pecan pie with a twist. It's bolstered by a hint of dark chocolate, made a little more adult with brandied figs, and it isn't tooth-achingly sweet. I think it's perfect for the holidays, when I'll have to re-post the recipe in this meant-to-be-seasonal food blog.

Swagger Pie

Pastry Dough:
Dough recipe by Nick Malgieri

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (spoon flour into dry-measure cup and level off)
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, cold, cut into 10 pieces
3 tablespoons cold water

Combine the dry ingredients in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse several times to mix. Add the butter and pulse 3 to 4 times, until the butter is in pea-sized pieces. Add the water and pulse only 3 to 4 times. The dough will not form a ball. Invert the dough to a floured surface and carefully remove the blade. Gently press and squeeze the dough together and form it into a disk. Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate it for at least 1 hour. Keep the dough refrigerated for up to 2 days before continuing.

Roll the dough on a lightly floured surface to fit a 9-inch pie pan. Press into the pan, making certain it fits the sides and bottom, and freeze for 15 minutes.

After 15 minutes, remove pie crust from the freezer, prick all over with a fork, and cover with parchment paper. Add pie weights (or rice or beans) and blind bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes, until golden. Cool 10 minutes before adding the chocolate and filling.


2 cups toasted pecan halves
1 stick unsalted butter
1 cup light brown sugar
5 oz. fig jam (Eva prefers St. Dalfour Royal fig jam)
8-10 brandy-soaked figs, cut into a fine dice
2 tablespoons brandy
3 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
½ vanilla bean, split, seeds scraped
½ teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
¾-1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips (we used Callebaut bittersweet chocolate, cut into chunks)

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Add the brown sugar, fig jam, milk, flour, vanilla seeds, and salt. Stir to combine. Cook over moderate heat until the mixture comes to a boil. Add brandy (from figs) and stir.  Remove from heat and let stand for 10 minutes. Remove vanilla bean pod and discard.

In a bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Gradually whisk in the hot sugar mixture. Add the diced rehydrated figs and stir to combine.

Spread a single layer of chocolate chips on top of the warm pie crust. The chocolate should melt a bit and form layer of chocolate on top of the crust.

Carefully pour the filling into the prepared pie crust. Arrange the pecans in a decorative fashion on top. Bake for 45 minutes or until the center is set and the crust is golden brown. Cool on a rack.

Serve warm with brandied whipped cream or good vanilla  ice cream.


To toast pecans: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put pecans in a single-layer on a cookie sheet and cook for 7-9 minutes. Cool on a rack.

To rehydrate figs: Place dried black mission figs in a bowl and add just enough brandy to cover. Steep in brandy for up to 1-3 days, but no longer. After 3 days in brandy the figs get mushy.

To make brandied whipped cream: Pour 1 cup of cold heavy whipping cream into a bowl. Add ½ cup powdered sugar and 3 tablespoons of brandy. Whip until soft peaks form.


Behold, the spring turnip

A beautiful bunch of purple-top turnips were included in this week's CSA box. I like turnips, but many people don't, think they don't, or don't know what to do with them.

Spring turnips differ from their cool weather counterparts, and can be treated accordingly. The beauty of the spring turnip: a crisp, peppery goodness their winter brethren don't offer. Young spring turnips can cooked of course (they're great mashed with potato or made into soup) but it's a shame not to exploit their bright, fresh quality.

Simply sliced on a mandoline, sprinkled with kosher salt, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and a bit of vinegar — this emphasizes a spring turnip's best features. Enjoy alone or as part of a salad.

After singing the praises of raw young turnips, I now bring you a cooked turnip recipe. I want to light the stove, break out a spatula, and feel like I'm really cooking. And I need use up the fattening dairy products leftover from Thursday's ice cream.

Feel free to use only half-and-half here, or reduce the calorie count further by using milk thickened with a blond roux (flour and butter cooked together). Think bechamel sauce. One key point is to flavor the cream with garlic and thyme; another is to slice the turnips very thinly, so they don't require blanching before being layered into the gratin.

This makes a nice lunch paired with a green salad and bread. It can also be used as a first course or side dish.

Turnip and Leek Gratin
Yield: 4 servings

2 garlic cloves
a little butter for the gratin dish
1 cup of half-and-half
1/3 cup of heavy cream
a few springs of fresh thyme
1 heaping tablespoon of Dijon mustard
3 large leeks, white and light green parts only, cut in half lengthwise and again into 1/4-inch thick half-moons
1 1/2 pounds of turnips, peeled and sliced into 1/8-inch thick rounds
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Gruyere cheese, grated

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Rub a gratin dish (mine is 1 1/2 quarts) with a smashed garlic clove and butter.

In a saucepan, heat the smashed garlic cloves with the half-and-half, thyme sprigs, and heavy cream. Don't boil, but bring to a simmer and reduce for a few minutes. Whisk in the Dijon mustard and strain.

Leeks should be cooked in boiling, salted water for 2-3 minutes. Drain and cool.

Layer the turnip and leeks in a gratin gratin dish, sprinkling salt and freshly ground black pepper between the layers, as well as a few thyme leaves. Pour the heated cream mixture (strained) between the layers and over the top. Sprinkle with grated cheese.

Cook for about 55-60 minutes, until the top is nicely browned and the turnips are soft.


At the end of a long week, strawberry ice cream

I adore ice cream — so much so that I don't allow it in the house.

A pint of ice cream is just too tempting, so I make it only on special occasions and won't buy the stuff unless it's in single-serving form at my local ice cream parlor.

Ice cream in my freezer is dangerous. It calls, it beckons, it requires my immediate attention. I eat everything available (yes, the entire pint) and then go to bed, guilt-ridden and sure to weigh more in the morning.

A flat of strawberries proved to be a catalyst for change, however, and Thursday night was devoted to strawberry ice cream. A full quart of pink-hued, rosy-flecked deliciousness now sits in my freezer.

Ice cream recipes approach the subject in 2 different ways. The first type (my favorite) incorporates egg yolks into the mix; the second does not. Don't get me wrong — I will happily consume any ice cream — but the rich, full flavor provided by eggs is second to none, and custard-based ice creams are smoother to boot.

This could serve as an all-purpose vanilla ice cream recipe (minus the smashed berries), and can be altered to accommodate your favorite fruit. I turned to Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food for guidance.

Strawberry Ice Cream
Adapted from The Art of Simple Food

Makes 1 quart

3 egg yolks
3/4 cup half and half
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup heavy cream

2 pints strawberries
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons sugar

a few drops of vanilla extract
a squeeze of lemon juice
a pinch of salt

Whisk the egg yolks together in a small bowl.

Pour half-and-half and 1/2 cup sugar into a heavy-bottomed, non-reactive saucepan. When hot, temper with the yolks. Little bits of scrambled egg will turn up in your ice cream if you don't temper. 

To do this, slowly pour the heated milk into the egg yolks, whisking constantly. Pour the warmed egg mixture back into the saucepan and cook, always stirring. Allow to thicken. Do not let it boil.

Your custard is done when it passes the spoon test. Coat the back of your spatula or spoon with the custard and run your finger through it. It's ready when your finger leaves a trail that doesn't close up.

Remove the custard from the heat and pour through a strainer to catch any bits of cooked egg that may have escaped your attention.

Add the heavy cream and chill in in an ice bath, stirring frequently to speed up the cooling process.

Mash the cleaned, hulled strawberries with 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons sugar (I used a potato masher). Stir to melt the sugar and then add to the chilled cream mixture. Add vanilla, salt and a drop of lemon juice.

The custard base must be very cold before churning; ideally you'll wait 8 hours or more (I'll admit that I cheated and churned mine after about 3 hours in the fridge). Freeze according to your ice cream machine's instructions.

I'm a big fan of home ice cream machines that use a frozen canister. Unless you make ice cream several times a month, this is the most economical (and very efficient) choice.


A flat of strawberries

Other women are excited by new clothes, jewelry, or shoes. 

I get all worked up when my CSA farmer announces that extra flats of strawberries are available for purchase. I immediately responded to his email and bought this extra 12 pints of berries, because what single woman doesn't need a flat of strawberries?

It makes me happy just looking at them lined up in the refrigerator.

I brought the extra flat of berries home last night, along with collard greens, turnips, radishes, spinach, and 2 additional pints of strawberries, bringing the grand total to 14 pints. Everything is fresh and lovely, but I need to hop on the berry thing.

Eight pints went into the freezer. They'll stay there for a week or so, when I find time to make preserves. Many will go into homemade ice cream tonight. The rest I'll consume over the next few days — with yogurt in the morning, with cream for dessert, or macerated with balsamic vinegar and tossed with a handful of arugula from my back porch. This early summer salad is so simple it doesn't really require a recipe, but I've done my best guesstimating quantities. Be sure to use a high-quality vinegar.

Strawberries and Arugula with Balsamic
Serves 2

1/2 cup of strawberries, cleaned, hulled and sliced
pinch of sugar
pinch of kosher salt
2-3 teaspoons high-quality balsamic vinegar (I'm using a lovely fig-balsamic this time)
a few turns of freshly ground black pepper
a couple of handfuls of arugula
extra virgin olive oil

Toss the sliced berries with sugar, salt and balsamic vinegar. Let them sit at room temperature for about 5 minutes, then combine with the arugula. Add freshly ground pepper to taste, drizzle with olive oil, and toss gently to combine.


Strawberries and pie plant, take two

In the interest of space, I decided to write a separate post for last night’s dessert, a strawberry-rhubarb galette. A really, really outstanding strawberry-rhubarb galette. While waxing poetic about the shape and color of rhubarb yesterday, I forgot to mention that it is commonly known as pie plant, giving this post it’s title.

I’ve mentioned that I am a better cook than baker, but galettes are an exception. Free form tarts are pretty forgiving, and I love their rustic look. My friend Caroline says they're elegant, and I think she's right. There's great beauty in simplicity.

This galette was a smashing success. Reviewing the recipe, you'll notice it doesn't contain unusual or fancy ingredients. This is honest food. Freshness and quality of the components make all the difference, so please don't use over-the-hill supermarket berries and limp rhubarb and expect to be thrilled with the results.

The breadcrumbs or crushed cookies absorb fruit juices and keep the bottom of the galette from becoming too soggy. I used vanilla cookies last night, placing them in a sandwich bag and pulverizing them with a few quick strikes of a rolling pin. Don’t even think about using prepackaged canned breadcrumbs here. Or elsewhere. In fact, don’t  buy them.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Galette
Yield: 1 medium tart, serves 4-6

This galette would be wonderful with vanilla or strawberry ice cream. I served it with freshly whipped cream flavored with a drop of vanilla extract and a few teaspoons of sugar.

The tart dough requires at least 30 minutes of rest prior to baking. It can be frozen for about one month, so you may want to make more than you need and stash some away for future use. I always do.

On baking day, take the dough from the refrigerator or freezer, preheat the oven to 400 degrees, line a baking sheet with parchment paper and prepare to roll the dough. One of the (many) great things about galettes – perfect symmetry is unnecessary.

I memorized this tart dough recipe years ago, and can't remember the source, but I owe someone a big thank you. Quick and easy, it uses a food processor. If you don't have a food processor or are a purist, a pastry blender will cut in the fat.

Very cold butter is important — the butter cubes should remain separate as they are processed and combine evenly with the dry ingredients.

NOTE: I used half the tart dough recipe below to bake a medium galette. The recipe makes enough dough for one 9-inch tart when baked in a tart pan. I used all of the filling listed for a medium tart. Taste your berries for sweetness; they made need more sugar than noted in the recipe.

Tart Dough:

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, very cold and cubed
1 tablespoon ice water
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Put the flour, sugar and salt into the food processor and pulse a few times to combine. Add the butter and toss it with your fingers to coat each piece with flour (watch out for the blade!). Pulse again to break the butter into pea-sized pieces.

With the motor running, add the ice water and vanilla and process for just a few seconds. You should have a shaggy mass in the bowl, with a few loose bits here and there. Turn the contents onto a clean work surface and press them together, forming a rough disk. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before proceeding.

After resting, roll the dough into a thin disk — perfect circles not required. Place the dough on a parchment-lined baking sheet and proceed.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Filling:

3 large stalks of rhubarb
1 quart whole strawberries, about 3 1/2 cups when trimmed and quartered or halved
1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons flour
a scant 1/4 cup homemade white breadcrumbs, amaretti cookies, or vanilla cookies, finely crushed

Cut the cleaned rhubarb into pieces about 2-inches long and 1/4 inch wide. Strawberries should be halved or quartered, depending on size. Tiny berries can be left whole. Toss the rhubarb and berries with sugar and flour in a bowl.

Sprinkle the bread or cookie crumbs over the (rolled out) dough, leaving about a 1 1/2-inch border along the edge. Mound the fruits in the center of the dough. They will cook down and the galette will spread out a little, so a tall pile is a good idea.

Fold the dough border up and over itself at regular intervals. This creates a rim to keep the fruit and juices inside. Check for tears or holes when you've finished, and pinch them back together or cover with a little more dough.

To glaze, combine one egg with a few drops of milk or cream. Paint this mixture on the outer border of the galette and sprinkle with a few teaspoons of sugar. Melted butter can be used in place of the egg mix.

Bake in the center of the oven for about 45 minutes, rotating the pan a few times to ensure even browning. Slide it off of the baking sheet onto a rack and cool for 10-15 minutes before serving.

Leftovers make great breakfast food.