Thursday, January 6, 2011

Savory Tart with Green Beans, Cheddar, and Parmesan

On to the savory tart ...(by the way, kudos to my friend Sarah for styling this first photo with the rolling pin - a gift from my cousin Kate - that I used to roll out the pastry!).

Oh, Seasonal Vegetables
I made a version of this with broccoli florets earlier in the winter and it got rave reviews from friends, so of course I had to make it again.  There are basically 3 essentials.  First, puff pastry, which you can make yourself, or do what I did and buy it in the frozen food section of your local grocery store.  I'm very, very into pastry and I don't think I could have done a better job than the people at Pepperidge Farm with this one.  Second, some good cheese.  Third, whatever seasonal vegetable you feel like eating.  I'm a grad student, so for me whatever vegetable is cheapest often also seems to be the most appetizing.  Earlier in the winter broccoli was among the least expensive vegetables in the produce section; this time around green beans were on special so there it was.

Choosing the Right Cheese
I think with a fairly mild-tasting vegetable like green beans, it's key to use a cheese with at least a little bit of a kick ... here I used the sharpest cheddar I could find, and then sprinkled some parmesan on top of that for a little more flavor.  You won't go wrong if you mix two or even three cheeses together.  I think romano would also be a great cheese for this.  I'd avoid milder cheddar or havarti, that sort of thing.

The assembly is pretty easy: bake up the puff pastry according to the instructions on the package, first.  Grate the cheese and pop the stems off of the green beans, set them all aside.  Have some salt and pepper handy, preferably sea salt and peppercorns that you can grind right on to the tart after you've assembled it.

Is Any Recipe Complete Without a Secret Ingredient?
Now here is one secret ingredient that I didn't mention earlier: the garlic butter.  Friends, you will not be sorry if you take the time to do this next step, even though you can't see the results in these photos.

I pressed, minced, and crushed about 3 cloves of garlic and added it to 2 tablespoons of melted butter in a small dish.  Then I brushed the pre-baked puff pastry with it before adding the cheese or green beans.  Ideally I would use a pastry brush for this; I didn't have one at the time so I just used a spoon and did my best to distribute the garlic butter evenly over the pastry.

Putting It All Together
After that, I spread the grated cheese over the pastry, leaving just the edges to bake up plain, like you can see in the photo, and saved just a little bit of parmesan to sprinkle on top of the beans.  Next, I arranged the beans horizontally in two columns across the pastry.  I find this kind of assembly fun, actually; it's so orderly, doesn't take long, and looks beautiful when it's done.  After the beans were all in order, I drizzled about 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil over the beans, lengthwise down the pan.  You can do this pretty sparingly; it's not like we don't already have pastry, butter, and cheese in this thing.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.

The finishing touches: I sprinkled the little bit of remaining cheese over the beans - but just a tiny bit to add some texture to the top, nothing that will distract from the overall look of the beans in their rows.  Then I ground sea salt (just a little) over the beans, and did the same with the pepper.  I put the whole thing back in the oven and cooked it for about 15-20 minutes at 375 degrees ... you want the cheese to be melted and the beans to be softened but still crispy.  And you also want the pastry to be a lovely shade of golden brown.  So we can't take the pastry out before that's all the case.  I was reaching over my friends Sarah and Jared multiple times to open and shut the oven to check on this, while they were doing all manner of soup-stirring, cheese-grating, and dish-washing while I rushed around my place trying to tidy up before the rest of our neighborhood group arrived for dinner.  (If we all had friends like these, our collective weltschmerz would be lessened considerably).  

Beautiful, Beautiful
My friend Dan Nystedt took this photo, as he did the others posted, and I love how he captured that bit of glistening black pepper on top of the green beans, and the slight, slight wrinkling of the green beans after they'd been in the oven.  The little bit of olive oil brushed over the top helps that to happen; the flavors to soak together and the beans to soften.

If any of you try this with other vegetables or cheeses, tell me if you happen upon any amazing combinations!

Chocolate- Dipped Shortbread with Dried Sour Cherries and Lavender

Mmmm, shortbread.  For some reason I really had the urge to make a pan of shortbread some time in early December, although I'd never made it before that point.  The thing about shortbread is that it's really very simple to make, but it does take about an hour, sometimes a bit more, to bake, so it can be a little time-consuming.  But there's something about the simplicity of it, like the ornamentation of dipping the cookie in chocolate, that I find appealing and kind of beautiful.  So I've made it a few times since then.  In this case I also added dried sour cherries and lavender.  I love the combination of textures, colors and flavors in this cookie: the classic combination of chocolate and cherry, the fragrance of the lavender overlaying the piquant fruitiness of the cherry, the chewy cherry pieces in the crispy cookie and hard chocolate, the tiny flecks of lavender across the golden shortbread, the delicate flavor the lavender brings to an otherwise fairly dense dessert.  

I made the shortbread pictured above for the Christmas dinner with the neighborhood group, where we also ate the barley leek soup with dill and parmesan.

The Cherries
I started out with Martha Stewart's recipe for basic shortbread.  I added about half a cup of dried sour cherries (delicious!), which I chopped up roughly using a large knife.  I wanted the cherry pieces to be small enough that they would be scattered throughout each cookie and wouldn't make the cookies too difficult to slice, but large enough that there would be a clear burst of flavor when biting into one, and also large enough that they visibly looked like cherries and not just colorful flecks when you see them displayed.  I think this visual aspect is really important.

Aunt Sylvie's Garden: Lavender in the Cookie 
Then I had an inspiration - with some trepidation, to be sure - to add some lavender to this mix.  Burdick's Chocolatier on Brattle St. makes really delightful French macarons with lavender, and that's probably one taste and color I had in my head while mixing this shortbread.  I had a little bag of lavender buds from my Aunt Sylvie's garden in Seattle, which she gave me to bake with when I visited last February.  I minced the lavender buds, about as finely as I could.  Then I sifted them to get rid of the chaff of the bud, leaving just tiny pieces of fragrant lavender.  To be honest, I'm not sure exactly how much I put in because I mixed it until it looked right to me, which was when I could clearly see the flecks of lavender in the dough but hoping I hadn't put in so much that the taste would be overwhelming and people would feel like they were eating flowers when they bit into a cookie.  I think it was about 2 tablespoons of the sifted lavender.

I forgot to do this this time, but if I baked this cookie again I would poke two sets of holes in the top of each cookie using a fork, for added ornamentation.

I melted a bar of Cadbury's dark chocolate in a bowl, which I bought across the street at the Harvard Square CVS, and used that to dip each cookie.  I placed a sheet of wax paper on a cookie sheet and set the chocolate-dipped cookies on it, then put the full sheet in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes so the chocolate could firm up.  It's got to be a little bizarre how satisfying I find this step to be, seeing the chocolate become smooth and firm, the finishing touch on this dessert.    

The Results
Truly, when I first tasted one of these cookies, I was afraid I'd put a bit too much lavender in - the scent was pretty strong and I think it jolted me a bit at first.  But then every last cookie was gone by the time my guests left.  There is a certain unusual-ness, an unexpected delicateness, about this cookie that may catch you off-guard at first, but I think overall the combination is a winner and I plan to make these again before too long.  

A note on sugar and cookie texture:
When I've made this recipe before I used brown sugar for half the sugar called for, just because I like the taste of brown sugar ... and maybe also because I like to change it up ... but I noticed that in the batch pictured, which I made with just white sugar, the dough consistency was drier and the cookie itself was crispier.  In the batches made with brown sugar, the dough was more moist, and the cookie was a bit softer.  I realized that's probably because of the molasses in brown sugar, which added moisture to the dough - I didn't think about that when I substituted it.  So when I make this recipe again, I'll probably use brown sugar but may try adding just a bit more flour to offset the moisture and see how that turns out.  The softer cookie was actually nice, too, though - I guess it just depends on your preference.

Barley Leek Soup With Dill and Parmesan

This is the soup that came to me in a revelation during the sermon at church the week before Christmas (apparently I was saying this a lot, because I heard one of the friends who came for dinner the night I served this say to another, "She loves to say that!").  There I was, sitting in the church pew on Sunday evening with Sarah, Dan, and Jared, when I started thinking about how warm and home-ey some barley soup would be ... first, when do I ever get to eat barley?  Hardly ever.  It may or may not be a so-called superfood like quinoa, but it's still fantastically nutritious, hearty, and the chewy, nutty flavor and texture are pretty unique and delicious.

I could cook the barley in vegetable broth, then slice leeks into wide chunks (see the translucent slice in the left photo), and sautee them just briefly in a tablespoon of olive oil before adding them to the broth and barley.  Then I could add lots of fresh dill, a pinch of pepper, a dash of nutmeg, some grated parmesan, and voila; there you have it.  Taste-tested and approved by Dan T on Monday night, and the rest consumed by the neighborhood group on Tuesday night. Some of us sprinkled a little more grated parmesan on top after we'd ladled the soup into the bowls.  Next up: the other parts of the menu from the same night.  Stay tuned. 

P.S. Note the sushi mat being used as a placemat for the soup ... this was a fantastic Christmas gift from one of my freshmen students. I've never made sushi before and honestly, it sounds a little intimidating right now, but all I need now is knowledge to add to my tools and sushi may be posted on this site yet.