Thursday, August 29, 2013

Plum Tartlets

These are the fastest tarts ever and since they are not too sweet, you can have them for breakfast topped with yogurt.  My favorite eating plums are the black plums that have just about peaked.  For tarts, I use prune plums which are coming into season now.  They are smaller, very easy to pit and hold their shape nicely when baked. 

My recipe uses squares of purchased puff pastry.  You can make your own or use regular pie dough instead.  The tarlets are baked in regular-sized muffin pans to create their small uniform size. 

They freeze really well and reheat quickly in a hot oven-- no need to defrost.  Also good travelers for the last picnics of the summer.

Plum Tartlets
Makes 12-14 tartlets

1 pound prune plums
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoons jam (fig or your favorite flavor)
2-3 tablespoon water
1/2 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
dash salt
2 teaspoons corn starch dissolved in 1 ounce cold water
1 sheet puff pastry (about 12" X 12")
2 tablespoons grounds almonds (or fresh breadcrumbs)

  1. Preheat oven to 375˚F.  Chill a regular 12-muffin pan in the refrigerator.  
  2. Prepare plum filling. Halve each plum and remove pit.  Cut plum halves in thirds and place in a medium pot with a heavy bottom.
  3. Add brown sugar, cinnamon, jam and water.  Cook plum mixture over medium-low heat and stir as needed to prevent sticking.  Cook unitl plums are tender and most of the liquid has evaporated, about 8 minutes.
  4. Lower heat and add cornstarch dissolved in water and vanilla or almond extract.  Cook another 2 minutes.  Add a touch of salt. 
  5.  Remove from heat and taste. Add a bit more sugar if your plums are not very sweet. 
  6. Pour plums into a bowl to cool while you prepare pastry cups. 
  7. Place puff pastry on a lightly floured board.  Using a rolling pin, roll out puff pastry to create a large square, a little over 12" X 12" inches.  Larger is fine.  
  8. Using a non-serrated knife or pizza cutter, cut puff pastry into 12-16 squares.  (If you cut 16 squares, you will have leftover for more tarts or can form the remainder into a mini-tart (see photo below).
  9. Press each square into the chilled muffin pan.  Spoon about 2 tablespoons plum mixture into each pastry. 
  10. Bake at 375˚F for 18-20 minutes until edges of pastry are lightly browned and crisp.
  11. Remove muffin pan from oven and let pastry rest 2-3 minutes.  Then, remove each tartlet to a wire cooling rack.  If fruit has spilled over and tarts are sticking to pan, place them back in the warm oven for a few minutes to help loosen.  

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Farmers Market Potatoes

The humble potato is special when it comes from the Farmers Markets or a little mound in your back garden.  I love the really tiny ones that can only be gotten close to the source.  The first time I had such exquisite potatoes was at a dinner at one of those Vermont family houses with a name.  Not a ski house name like Trails End or Yodeler but a real architectural name. The house was built by a famous architect who had been part of a major shipping family and knew how to live on a grand scale hidden among the birch trees that dotted the property. 

In the interest of family privacy, I can tell you no more except about the potatoes. They came from my CSA portion for that week.   Each of us was bringing something to the dinner and the grand dame at the head of the table, the daughter of said architect and now a mature woman who knew her gardens and was a regular judge at the country's largest flower show in Philadelphia, scooped up a small bit of my simple potato salad and carried on to the more ornamental fare at the table. 

There were truly tiny potatoes.  None were larger than an acorn.  They took moments to boil and were served whole in their skins and a light dressing. A few larger ones were cut in half revealing a pale yellow interior. Their flavor was intense, what God had in mind when he made potatoes.

Halfway through dinner, the great lady who had earlier noted that potatoes tasted the same no matter the size, interrupted the conversation to search out the half empty bowl and asked for more potatoes.  Upon finding out they were from the organic farm that offered one of the state's first community supported agriculture programs to the southern Vermont area, she promptly signed up for a weekly delivery.  That is the power of the humble potato.  It can melt a gardening judge's heart.

When you get your hands on farm fresh potatoes, the key is to do almost nothing to them.  Boiled until just tender and stuffed into a grilled corn tortilla with some chorizo sausage like I once had in Oaxaca, Mexico or steamed then roasted in a small pool of olive oil in a 425˚F oven and lightly salted. Or, as we first had them, boiled and tossed in a light vinaigrette. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Farmers Market Sour Cherry Pie

I feel a little guilty writing this and posting it in August. The sour cherry season is so brief that by the time you read this it may already be over in your area.  Luckily, there are canned sour cherries available. 

Sour cherries don't look very promising when you buy the at the farmers market.  They range in color from pinky red to orange-flecked yellow fruits.  As you pit them, you feel their thin skin and and soft flesh.  Eventually you are tempted to sample one-- always as tart as you remember.  Not for eating out of hand!

But the very qualities of the sour cherry which make it hard to handle raw, give it its strength to survive a hot pie-baking oven. Sweet cherries dissolve and turn into mush in a pastry shell while the sour cherries firm and plump up, retaining their integral shape and providing a nice pop of pure cherry flavor in the mouth when the pie is eaten. 

I was in a hurry when I made this sour cherry pie.  I'd picked up the cherries at a farm stand along the road on the way home from a visit to family in Vermont.  It was Sunday afternoon, a work week was looming and I had 2 more hours of driving before I could even think about making pastry.  Still, with a short growing season, I could not pass by a supply of fresh sour cherries.  I went the easy way and bought a pie crust that I reformed into two small pies that I could bake and freeze for later in the month.  The lattice top helped me extend the pastry for two 6-inch pies.  Here is the filling:

Sour Cherry Pie
prepared pie crust for one pie or two small tarts
5 cups sour cherries, pitted and rinsed
3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons corn starch
1 tablespoon cold butter, diced very small 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/8 teaspoon salt

  1. Place the bottom pastry in a pie shell and refrigerate it and the top pastry while you prepare the filling. 
  2. Combine all ingredients for pie filling in a large bowl.  Let sit 10 minutes.  Preheat oven to 400˚F while filling is resting.   
  3. Stir the filling to distribute sauce that has formed evenly.  Pour filling into prepared pie shell(s).  
  4. Cover with lattice strips of pastry or a regular pie pastry top and cut holes into pastry top to allow steam to escape while baking.  
  5. Lower the oven temperature to 375˚F and bake pie 40-60 minutes (less time for a small pie) until pastry is cooked and flakey.  
  6. Remove pie from oven and allow to cool at least one hour before enjoying. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Farmers Market Beets

Yellow,  red and white spiraled, pink and this year I learned the name for deep, maroon beauties. The farmer called them "Detroits."  Maroon beets are the most common in our supermarkets but I think these organic heirloom beets, which my sister bought, were another step into beet heaven.

During the summer, you can find a range of color and flavor in the beet family at your farmers market.  I took home as many colored varieties as they had--a bright red bunch, the mild apricot-yellow ones and the red and white candy cane striped beets named for Chioggia, a fishing town near Venice, Italy. (The very Venice where they dress in Chiogga-inspired stripes, colors and other harlequin patterns during pre-Lenten Carnivale.)

Perhaps your own garden yielded some of beet's best colors this year.  When I first move to this neighborhood years ago, a neighbor dropped off a 5-gallon bucket of deep ruby beets.  Some were the size of a small of cabbage.  I was momentarily overwhelmed.  Then grateful-- we had the best borscht, orange scented beets and beet relish and a supply to roast for fall. 

Can you believe we did not yet know about beets and goat cheese?  That salad combination was about to hit the big time at restaurants everywhere.  It is still a favorite, twenty years later.  Our favorite home combination surrounds roasted beets on a bed of greens with a tart or soft cheese and pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds) or roasted pecans. Here we had Camembert on hand, butter lettuce and roasted and salted pepitas.

That big beet windfall taught me how to prepare beets.  I tried a lot of methods to steam, boil, roast and even shave them thinly to eat raw and make into chips.  My favorite technique is to roast them in the manner that America's Test Kitchen recommends. 
  1. Cut off the stems, leaving about an inch.  
  2. Wrap washed but unpeeled beets in tin foil (wrap each individually if larger than a pin ping ball) and roast at a high temperature (400-450˚F) for 30-60 minutes.  
  3. Test for doneness by carefully unwrapping and pressing into the flesh with fork tines  
  4. When you can pass into the center, your beets are ready.  Remove from oven, open the foil and leave to cool until you can handle them (about 10-15 minutes).  
  5. Cut off tops with a butter knife and peel back skin with the knife or use a paper towel to easily pull away the skin.  
Beets are ready for salads, soup, or sauteed with a but of butter, cream and pepper.  Roasted beets will keep in the refrigerator, covered, for 2-3 days. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Farmers Market Zucchini Tomato Gratin

Now is the best time to make simple vegetable gratins.  Summer vegetables are at their peak at farmers markets and grocery stores and gardens are starting to burst at the seams.   Combinations like tomatoes with zucchini or shucked and shaved corn* with sweet or hot peppers show off the best of the season.  Summer gratins are easy and a lot faster than their winter cousins.

The key to this gratin is a thin layer of sliced vegetables beneath a crisp gratin coating.  The vegetables, baked in a single layer, steam in their own juices as the cheese and garlic-infused topping crisps. 

Make two, using two pie plates, if you are serving more than 4 people.

Farmers Market Zucchini Tomato Gratin
Serves 2-3 as a side

2 small zucchini or one large monster from your garden
1 medium tomato
¼  large onion
1 Tablespoon olive oil
Gratin topping
1 heaping tablespoon grated Parmesan Cheese
1 heaping tablespoon fresh bread crumbs
1 garlic clove, minced
¼ teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

  1. Preheat oven to 400˚F.
  2. Thinly slice zucchini, tomato and onion.  The zucchini looks very pretty cut on with a diagonal bias.  Slices should be no more than ¼ inch thick.
  3. Using half the oil, lay a thin film of oil on a glass pie plate.   Lay the vegetables on the pie plate in an alternating circular pattern with zucchini and tomatoes overlapping and the onion slices tucked between the two other vegetables.  Use only a few slivers of onion between each slice of zucchini and tomato.  Create only one layer.   
  4. In a small bowl, mix together the cheese, bread crumbs and remaining ingredients.  Sprinkle the topping over the vegetables.    Sprinkle the remaining olive oil over crumbs.  
  5. Bake at 400˚F for 25-30 minutes until the vegetables are very soft and the topping is browned and crisped.   
  6. Remove from oven and serve hot or room temperature with a drizzle if high quality extra virgin olive oil. 

Leftovers are great nestled into a hard roll or ciabatta for a sandwich-snack.

*Add a few tablespoons of water to the gratin dish to help the corn steam or use leftover cooked corn.