Monday, 9 January 2012

Boursin Spinach Toasts (Near-Bennies)

Does anyone else get thoroughly sick of their own cooking? I do – it hit me especially hard after Christmas this year, with the fridge full of foil wrapped packets and bowls of leftovers, all pulling hard on my conscience to not waste any of it. Many days of leftovers and turkey soup later, I was nearly ready to crack.
Friday afternoon saw me in town needing to run a few errands, get a few groceries and pick E up from school. And then I was desperately trying to avoid buying garbagey things for supper or at least snacks, things that would taste like nothing I cook myself. I don’t mind eating out from time to time, but I hate paying what seems like too much money these days for very ho-hum, no-friend-to-my-arteries food (to be clear: I’ve nothing against indulgent food on occasion – I just can’t stand it when it’s crap). A good solution to the hate-my-own-cooking conundrum is to find an appealing recipe and follow it exactly. No boosting this, cutting out that – because that’s how things start tasting like everything else I cook. But all that blind faith takes energy, and I just didn’t have it.
Fortunately a happy idea presented itself: what about Boursin cheese (see note below) combined with sautéed spinach and some sort of starch? Toasted bread? Before Christmas I had laid in a box of Boursin (Garlic & Fine Herbs) for emergency entertaining. I’m a bit sad that no emergencies came up demanding its immediate consumption with swanky crackers and wine, but hey – at least I had a box of fancy cheese coming to my rescue on Friday night.

The results were gratifying – quick to assemble and sumptuous to eat, it was almost like I hadn't made it myself! As I was licking my fingers, it occurred to me that topping it with a poached egg would be a stroke of Dumbledore-like brilliance. Or possibly a reversion to Julie-like brilliance – after all it was she who introduced me to the delights of poached eggs with sautéed spinach. I suspect that Julie is the more trustworthy of the two when it comes to culinary matters anyway.
Saturday lunch and Sunday breakfast saw a repeat of the Boursin spinach toasts plus a poached egg. It seems very like Eggs Benedict to me, with the Boursin taking the place of the hollandaise. Let me know what you think.
Note: This post is no way sponsored by the makers of Boursin. I can assure you they have no idea I exist.

Near-Bennies (or just Boursin Spinach toasts if you don't want to include the egg)
Easy to make for just one, or for many more. My only cautionary note is regarding the spinach: you really want quite a large diameter pan for not too much spinach, otherwise the water released from the leaves will end up pooling rather than instantly boiling away. It’s probably best if you sauté in batches if you’re doing a lot, or at the very least be careful to squish the liquid out of the wilted spinach and pour it away before adding cream or piling it on toast.

If you go without the egg, you may want to give the spinach toast a quick pass under the broiler, just to get the cheese nice and melty (watch it closely – it may not even take a full minute).
Per toast you will need:
1 thick slice of niceish bread (I used Superstore’s focaccia – though if you can go more upmarket why the hell not I say)
Boursin Garlic & Fine Herb cheese, about 1/5 to 1/4 of the 150g (5 oz) box
olive or canola oil for cooking
2 or 3 big handfuls of fresh spinach
1 small garlic clove, minced
salt & pepper to taste
one or two teaspoons of cream (probably not strictly necessary, but I liked it)
slivered fresh basil, or a few thyme leaves (optional)
one poached egg (for anyone interested I’ve included a description of the poaching method I use  below)
Toast the bread and spread it liberally with the Boursin. Heat a large skillet over medium heat with a little oil, add the spinach and cook until wilted and starting to reduce substantially in volume, about 2 or 3 minutes. Add the garlic, a little salt and pepper, and the cream and stir to combine. Remove the pan from the heat, but keep the spinach spread out over the surface of the pan so that the liquid from the spinach can evaporate. Set aside while you poach the egg.
When your egg is about a minute away from being cooked, pile the spinach on the Boursin covered toast, sprinkle with the slivers of basil, then top with the poached egg. Add a little salt and pepper on top if you like (keep in mind that the cheese is quite salty) and eat it straight away.

To poach an egg:
Poaching works best with a fairly fresh egg – it will stay more compact when slipped into the water. 
Start with the egg at room temperature: warm it up in a bowl of warm water if necessary.
Heat about an inch and a half of water in a pan (I use a skillet, but not cast iron) until it’s just barely simmering, then reduce the heat to low. You want the water to stay close to a simmer, but not actually moving (no bubbles forming, but steam still escaping the surface). Crack the egg, and gently slip it into the water, being careful not to set the water in motion as you do so (go slowly!).
I find at my elevation (5300’) that three and half minutes will result in an egg I’m happy with: runny yolk but set white. Since not too many folks live at such high altitudes (water boils at a lower temperature up here, which means longer cooking times), try checking at a little under three minutes if you’re at sea level, and increasing the time as you go up in elevation. Obviously the starting temperature of the egg and its size will also be factors to consider. When the egg is poached to your liking, gently loosen it from the bottom of the pan with a flat metal spatula if necessary, then remove it from the water with a slotted spoon. I like to rest the underside of the slotted spoon on a clean tea towel for a moment or two, which helps blot up excess water.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Oven Fries and Home-made Mayonnaisse

Some days there simply isn't enough food in the house. I nibble my way through lots of lovely nutritious food - like quartered apples and red pepper slices, some yogurt, a piece of grainy toast and maybe a slice or two of prosciutto. Then I pillage my stashes of junk - and eat two or three squares of chocolate, tag ends of chip bags, and maybe some soda crackers spread with butter, but still - there's something missing. Had me one of those days not long ago, but happily came up with a remedy at 2 o'clock in the afternoon. 
Why not some oven-fries, made with Sieglinde potatoes, and lots of home-made, very very lemony mayonnaise? Why yes!

So you'll want the oven to be pretty hot - about 400º or 425º F. And then you'll want to put your rimmed sheet into the oven with a goodly skiff of oil - if you let the pan pre-heat for about 5-10 minutes before you add the potatoes they generally won’t fuse to the sheet. Or you can bake your fries on parchment paper instead. Scrub up your spuds (I leave the skin on) and slice them into wedges of whatever size you fancy. Scatter them over a clean tea towel and blot them dry, then tip them onto either the pre-heated oily sheet, or onto a parchment lined sheet (in which case give them a good drizzle of oil). You can add a little salt here, although I generally forget until afterwards. I know that no French or indeed any other chef would countenance such a move, but I decided to stop salting my roasted vegetables about a year or two ago in an effort to save my arteries. I don’t miss it anymore – except when I have potatoes on their own – then I sprinkle a little Maldon salt over the finished fries. Bake them until golden and crisp on the outside and tender within, giving them a shake or a stir once or twice. They’ll likely need about a half hour, give or take.
While this is going on, head over to delicious days to get the low-down on making mayonnaise from scratch. It’s worth it, it really really is worth it. Even if you, like me, get too enthusiastic with the lemon juice, and your mayo comes out a little on the saucy side. Be sure to heed Nicky’s advice about not using olive oil in this recipe - she’s right: the results will be a bit bitter (which I discovered to my chagrin during an earlier attempt). If you don’t feel like making mayo today, that’s okay too, you can still mix lots of fresh lemon juice into a generous dollop of shop mayo. Just don’t use products starting with M and ending with Whip for this, or if you must, please don’t tell me.
Pile the fries on a plate, add an enormous blob of mayo, and sit in a comfy chair with your feet wrapped up. Oh yes. 

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Tomato Jam

Have I mentioned I love farmer’s markets? I grew up in Calgary, and the Calgary farmer’s markets used to be a little few and far between, and not at all on my radar. I know things have expanded considerably since then, but hey, I’m in the Okanagan now, and my kitchen and freezer live here with me. When I moved here nearly ten years ago I got the best kind of shock – table after glorious table of greens, roots, and fruit. Of course there’s lots going on at the market that isn’t food related, but it’s the fresh produce that steals my heart and makes me lose my head. I get produce amnesia.
What happens is this: I’ll pull up to the stall of one of my favourite growers and work my way through their table from one side to the other, buying everything that’s not nailed down. Then I move onto the next stall on my list, totally forget that I’ve already collected, say green beans, tomatoes and kale, and purchase more of the same from the second vendor.  Clearly this wanton buying of produce gets me into trouble, and I’m forever trying to remind myself that there are three markets every week, and that I’m not about to depart on a year-long space odyssey with only the food I get TODAY.

One particular day not long ago I discovered I’d brought home not only a huge basket of Roma tomatoes but also two smaller punnets of red and orange cherry tomatoes. A week later I came home with everything I needed to muster up a Thanksgiving turkey dinner. I unpacked all the lovely root vegetables and bunches of greens and fresh herbs, put the turkey in a cooler in the garage, and brought in the twenty pound box of plums that I insanely thought I’d turn into jam the following morning before popping the turkey in the oven (didn’t happen). And then I found the Romas: still in their basket and eyeing me with censure.
Now, you’ve got to realize that these Romas were just the most tantalizing little tomatoes I’ve ever seen. They were quite small – just a bit bigger around than my thumb, smooth and solidly red throughout. I flirted briefly with the idea of roasting them all in the oven or turning them into paste, but in the end I decided on jam (sounds like an excerpt from Hansel & Gretel).

Marisa of Food in Jars has a great looking recipe. I reduced the sugar by about a quarter, fiddled with the seasonings, and came up with this:  

Tomato Jam
Stupendous on meatballs, with oven-fries, grilled cheese sandwiches etc. If you like ketchup, try this – it’s better. If you’re not fond of ketchup, you should SO try this – it’s better. 
6 cups (1250 grams) chopped tomatoes, neither peeled nor seeded 
1 1/3 cup (330 grams) sugar 
2 finely chopped fresh bird’s eye chilies, ribs and seeds discarded (feel free to
      substitute a jalapeño, or a few pinches of red pepper flakes. Or omit
      altogether. And make sure you use gloves to handle the peppers!)
1/2 tsp chili powder
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
juice of 1 lime
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
Combine all ingredients in a large non-reactive saucepan or Dutch oven, and bring to a simmer, stirring frequently. Cook until thick and bubbling and altogether dark and jam-like – about an hour and a half. You can ladle the jam into sterilized jars and process, but I just put half in the fridge for now, and the other half in the freezer for later. Makes about 2 -2 1/2 cups.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Plums, and Plum Tart

Plums love having their picture taken. I’m pretty new to food photography, but I’ve noticed that about them: they co-operate. Also? There ain’t a finer fruit to be had – a plum at it’s peak is IT for me, the absolute best of summer, with enough taste of autumn coming to make me a little nostalgic, and a little anxious (all those days of markets groaning with strawberries, raspberries, cherries – gone). By the time we’re hitting late September or early October around here, the plums on the stands will likely be Italian plums, sometimes calling themselves prune plums. But really, though I like prunes well enough, where's the romance? I like saying Italian plums – they conjure up images of feasts and fabulousness in the mind.

I first made this plum tart for Thanksgiving dinner a couple of years ago, and it went over smashingly. By which I mean that I loved it, and I've made it every fall since then, and believe me, the people in this house are just fine with that. It’s a little high-brow, more comely than a crisp or cobbler when you’re after something just that little bit fancier. Weekend instead of Weekday if you will.

I’ve made this crust a couple of different ways, the first with a whole egg, or alternatively with two yolks. The whole egg crust was proclaimed by my husband to be ‘Perfection!’, and I’ve got to say: he’s not generally known as a crust man. Nor is he given to the over-use of superlatives (unless we're talking about skiing, or surfing, or biking). The crust with two yolks is a little more tender, as you'd expect, but the whole egg crust was just fine, especially during it’s first twenty-four hours.

The quantity of plums called for here was about three (or was it five?) plum halves more than I could stuff in my 9 inch tart shell – but you may be using a 10 inch tart shell, or you may be able to pile them in more efficiently than I did. I ate the excess, but feel free to adjust slightly downward if you prefer.

I don’t suggest this tart as a vehicle for other varieties of plum – I suspect the juices would create total havoc. You can see what's happened here with the relatively dry Italians, I think it's best to stick with them. 

Plum Tart (adapted from Gourmet September 2000)
1 1/2 cups (200 grams) all purpose flour
1/3 cup (80 grams) sugar
pinch or two of salt
1/2 cup (125 grams) cold butter
zest of half a lemon
1 egg or 2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1/2 cup (125 grams) sugar
1 1/2 Tbsp cornstarch 
1 3/4 pounds (800 grams) of Italian prune plums, cut in half and stones removed
2 tsp lemon juice
To make the pastry:
Whisk the dry ingredients together in a medium bowl. Pare the butter into large curls directly into the flour. Add the zest, then cut the butter in with a pastry blender or a fork (or use your fingers) – stop when the largest pieces of butter left are about the size of a pea. Make a well in the centre of the mixture, and pour the beaten egg into the well. Roughly mix together with a fork, then use your hands to form the mass into doughy crumbs. You’ll want to keep things a little uneven: you’ll have a few crumbs in the bottom of the bowl, and some larger clumps too. Turn the lot into a 9 or 10 inch tart pan with a removable bottom (don’t wash the bowl yet!), and press into the the bottom and sides to form a shell for the tart. Place in the fridge until it’s cold and firm, about 30 minutes.
To make the filling:
In the same bowl as you you used for the pastry (still unwashed – no need! Please read the note below regarding the washing of bowls...), whisk the sugar and cornstarch together. Add the plums and the lemon juice and mix together. Let it all sit on the counter for about another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the juices from the plums have partially dissolved the sugar and made a starchy slurry in the bottom of the bowl.
Preheat the oven to 450ºF.
Crowd the plum halves skin side down in the cold tart shell and scrape the remaining slurry overtop. Place the tart pan on a cookie sheet or pizza pan and bake in the middle of your oven for 15 minutes. Turn the temperature down to 375ºF, and bake for a further 40-45 minutes, until you’ve got juices bubbling about half way to the centre of the tart and likely some juice spilling over onto the baking sheet (okay, quite a lot. But strangely, spilling juices seem to be a good sign in the world of fruit tarts and pies – don’t you think?). The tart will look a bit too soupy, but everything will set up nicely once it cools.
Take the tart out of the oven – still on its baking sheet – and cool on a wire rack for about 10 minutes. At this point you can brush some of the juices pooling in the tart overtop of the fruit to glaze them slightly, and it might be a good idea to use a metal spatula to liberate the tart pan from its baking sheet too. Be very careful – fruit juices and sugar get terrifyingly hot. All the same, you don’t want to leave it so long the two pans fuse together.
Let the tart cool completely, then pop the base free of the sides, slice and serve however you like: with ice cream, crème fraîche, whipped cream or crème anglaise. Or all by itself is fine too, particularly if you’re having leftovers for breakfast (which I highly recommended).
When my friend Julie gave me recipes to test prior to the publication of her first book One Smart Cookie, the recipe for lemon squares mentioned the golden phrase ‘no need to wash it!’ in reference to the bowl used for making first the base, then the topping. I swooned. She’s pretty brilliant, no?