Dried Cranberry and Seed Pumpkin Loaves

As I noted a few weeks ago, all I want to do in my kitchen, still searingly bright with sunlight from Southern California’s misguided attempts at “fall,” is bake. Luckily, one of the few cool weekend days we’ve had since then corresponded with a break in grading, and I had a chance to see if my dough skills are still in there somewhere.

Inspiration for these pretty, autumnal loaves came from a seasonal box of those lovely raincoat crisp crackers Trader Joe’s puts out, these a bright, turmeric-esque orange from pumpkin and flavored with dried cranberries and sunflower seeds. I decided to see if I could translate them into a bread. The ingredient list on the box of crackers served as my starting point, but for quantities I returned to these loaves from last year, replacing the rye flour with whole wheat, dolling them up with the dried cranberries, a few additional seeds, and some fresh herbs, and running some of the seeds through the dough itself rather than reserving them all for the top. As before, though, the secret is cooking down the pumpkin puree first to dry it out. It adds a little time to the whole endeavor, but makes the dough much more manageable and more aggressive in pumpkin flavor.

The dough here is soft and elastic and slightly sticky, even after its first rise, and the hardest part of the process is convincing yourself not to use too much flour on your board when you shape them, because the dustier with flour they are, the harder it will be to get seeds to adhere to their surface.Internet forums abound with how to get seeds to stick to the outside of a shaped dough-ball; the easiest and most effective method seems to be dampening the surface of the dough slightly by spraying or brushing with water, then gently pressing it into the mixture of seeds and, in this case, oats. It doesn’t guarantee they won’t tumble off while you’re carving thick slices, but at that point, you at least have the option of spreading the slice generously with cream cheese* and sprinkling the rebels back on, where they are sure to adhere.

As for flavor, these delightfully toe the line between sweet and savory. Pumpkin is so commonly paired with sweet flavors, and the dried cranberries and nutmeg seem to push it in that direction, but the woodsy herb flavor (the crackers use rosemary, which I think I’d prefer, but in the moment I only had sage) and the nudge of heat from the black pepper keep it from feeling dessert-like. I’m not sure you would want to use this for sandwiches, but I could imagine it being a starchy side for a roast chicken or a big dinner salad. I find, though, as with many freshly baked loaves, I want it most in mid-afternoon, when it is still just warm from the oven, and I am slightly peckish and starting to dream about dinner.

*goat cheese is nice too, and though I suppose you could make it into frozen slices a la this peanut butter “hack” the internet responded to with hilarity a few weeks ago to prevent tearing your bread, you could also just let the goat cheese come to room temperature, at which point it smears pretty easily across the tender slice.

Dried Cranberry and Seed Pumpkin Loaves
Makes 2 round loaves 7-8 inches in diameter
4 – 4 ½ hours
1 15-ounce can of pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling)
1½ cups warm milk
pinch granulated sugar
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
¼ cup molasses
2 tablespoons melted butter
1¼ cups rolled oats, divided
1½ cups whole wheat flour
2-3 cups bread flour
1 cup dried cranberries
¾ cup sunflower seeds, divided
¼ cup flax seeds
2 tablespoons finely chopped rosemary or sage
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon salt
½ cup raw pumpkin seeds

 

  • In a small skillet, cook the pumpkin puree over high or medium-high heat for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until the color has deepened and the puree has dried and has a texture something like a thick frosting. Set aside to cool.
  • While the pumpkin comes to room temperature, add the pinch of sugar to the warm milk, then stir in the yeast and let it sit to burble for 5-10 minutes, until it is bubbly and smells like bread.
  • Pour the yeast and milk mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add 1 cup of the oats, all of the whole wheat flour, the molasses, the melted butter, and the cooled pumpkin. Stir with the paddle attachment to combine.
  • Now add 1½ cups of the bread ½ cup at a time, paddling in between, until a soft, sticky dough is formed. Dump in the rosemary or sage, the nutmeg, the pepper, the salt, the dried cranberries, ½ cup of the sunflower seeds, and all of the ¼ cup flax seeds, and paddle again just until integrated.
  • Switch to the dough hook and knead at medium speed until it comes together into an elastic but slightly sticky dough, 8-10 minutes. If it doesn’t seem to be coming together, continue adding the bread flour ½ cup at a time as needed, kneading a minute or two in between each addition. You may not need all of the bread flour.
  • Cover the bowl of kneaded dough with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm spot to rise until it has doubled, 60-90 minutes. While this is happening, combine the remaining ¼ cup rolled oats, ¼ cup sunflower seeds, and the ½ cup pumpkin seeds in a large, shallow bowl.
  • After it has risen, punch down the dough by gently depressing your fist into the center of it. Pour and scoop it out of the bowl onto a lightly floured board and divide in half using a dough scraper. One at a time, shape each half into a round by holding the dough ball in your hands and stretching the top taut, tucking the excess underneath. Each time you stretch and tuck, turn the dough a quarter turn or so. You can also do this while the dough is resting on your board, turning it and tucking the excess, which will form something that looks like a balloon tie or a belly button underneath. Check out this series of photos from the kitchn for helpful illustrations.
  • When you have a round loaf that is reasonably taut across its domed top, spray or lightly brush it with water, then gently press all sides of it into the mixture of oats and seeds you’ve prepared. Repeat with the other half of the dough.
  • Gently place the seeded loaves on a baking tray lined with parchment paper, lightly cover them with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel, and set them aside to rise again for about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375F.
  • After 45 minutes, with the loaves swollen, place them carefully in the oven and bake at 375F for 35-45 minutes, until they reach an internal temperature of 180-200F.
Advertisements

Roasted Apple and Onion Biscuits

I think it’s like this every year. I’m sure I’ve said that before. The first week of the semester goes by and I think “well, that was fun,” and then I think “oh, I have to do that fifteen times more in a row!” The second week goes by, and I’m exhausted, but grateful for the bonus day Labor Day provided.

Then week 3 hits. The add period is over, so my classes stabilize and become the “real” group that will soldier through the semester with me. The serious assignments begin. The bedtime and alarm start to feel like normal and not like torture.

But the work. At this point, yes, classes have stabilized, but in almost all cases they are still at their enrollment caps, which means the first paper I collect comes in a dose of sixty. And even when you parse that out in stacks of ten, boy does it feel like a lot. By the time the weekend following week 3 hits, I need comfort food.

Fortunately, our weather has cooled into something that feels surprisingly like fall. Mid September is usually stifling, but we are descending into temperatures in which it’s not suicidal to have the oven on for a half hour or so. When I saw that windfall on our weather forecast, I thought of biscuits.

I realize, of course, that there is no shortage of biscuit recipes here, and if I’m quite honest with you, almost every one has the same base. The magic, though, is in what extra flavoring agents you add. This time around, the fall combination of apples and onions hit me hard. I’ve done this before, in a meatball that was really just an excuse to eat more breakfast sausage, but in biscuits I wanted less tartness, less crisp-tender bite, and just melting sweetness with a touch of roasted flavor. Green apple and red onion get roasted in chunks for a half hour before they are tossed with the dry ingredients, then blended in with butter and buttermilk or soured cream. Roll, fold, and punch out rounds from the wet dough, and you are only fifteen minutes from hot, flaky biscuits.

As we chatted during our weekly viewing of Project Runway, my friend T. and I speculated additions to these biscuits. You could add plenty of black pepper, or amp up the savory with herbs: sage is quintessentially autumnal, and thyme also goes well with apple and onion. Where our minds went immediately, though, was blue cheese. Think about it: crumbles in the mix leaking out during baking to form little lacy puddles around the edges of the finished biscuit. Or, if you don’t want more busyness in the biscuit itself, T. suggested blue cheese butter to spread in the center.

These are not doctored, though, any further than the original pairing, and honestly, they don’t need to be. Even the tartest apple, as were the two tiny granny smiths I cubed up, mellows as it cooks, playing with and enhancing the sweetness of the onion. You could have them as we did: the “bread” of a breakfast-y sandwich (I mixed bulk sausage with maple syrup, red pepper flakes, and a squeeze of Dijon before frying in patties to put in the center), but I bet, especially if we are thinking seasonally, that they would be perfect cut a little smaller and swaddled in a basket to be served alongside a Thanksgiving turkey.

Roasted Apple and Onion Biscuits
About 60 minutes, including cooling time
Makes 14-15 2½ inch biscuits
2 small or 1 large tart green apple (I like granny smith), skin on, cut into small cubes
½ large red onion, skin, root, and stem ends removed, cut into large chunks
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 cups all-purpose flour + more for sprinkling on your board
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons baking powder
6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into chunks
6 ounces buttermilk, or whole milk or cream soured with about a tablespoon of vinegar

 

  • Preheat the oven to 400F. On a baking tray lined with aluminum foil, toss the apple and onion chunks with the olive oil, the ¼ teaspoon salt, and the pepper. Roast for 15 minutes, toss gently with a spatula, then roast another 15 minutes, until just a few edges are taking on a toasty brown color. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
  • While the apples and onions cool, combine the flour, sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, and baking powder in a medium bowl. I like to use a whisk for this to keep it all light and well mixed.
  • Add in the cooled apple and onion pieces and toss to ensure they are well coated with flour – this will help them stay evenly distributed in the biscuits rather than sinking to the bottom. Dump in the cubes of cold butter and use a pastry blender or your fingers to work the fat into the flour mixture. You are looking for butter bits the size of small peas.
  • Pour in the buttermilk or soured cream and use a fork or your fingers to mix it through the flour and butter mixture and bring the whole thing together into a shaggy, soft ball of dough (if it seems too dry and is not coming together, just set it aside for a minute or three – this will give the flour time to absorb the wet ingredients a bit more).
  • Turn the dough out onto a well floured board, sprinkle some more flour on top, and knead with your hands two or three times just to catch any loose bits. With a rolling pin or your hands, press or roll the dough into a rough rectangular shape about ½ an inch thick. Fold the dough into thirds, then roll out again. Repeat, again folding the dough into thirds and then rolling it out; this creates more flaky layers. If the dough sticks to your board, use the flat blade of a butter knife or a pastry scraper to help you lift it free. This is a fairly wet dough, so you’ll need to be stern with it, and you may need to sprinkle on more flour as you go.
  • After you’ve rolled and folded, rolled and folded (so you’ll have done a total of six folds), roll out once more, this time to a thickness of 1 inch, and use a 2½-inch round cutter (or the floured lip of a glass) to punch out biscuits. Push the cutter straight down through the dough; don’t twist until you are all the way through to the board, or you’ll crush the flaky layers! Repeat until you can’t punch out any more rounds. Re-roll the dough scraps (no need to fold again unless you want to) and repeat – with a 2½-inch cutter, you should be able to make14-15 biscuits around an inch in thickness.
  • Replace the aluminum foil sheet on your baking tray with parchment paper, and arrange the biscuits on it, evenly spaced. I like to do about 8 at a time, but they don’t spread much, so you can crowd them a little. Bake 15 minutes (still at 400F), until they are puffed and the tops are golden and slightly dry. These won’t climb sky high because the apples and onions are wet and add extra weight, but they will still rise a bit.
  • Let cool for a minute or two, then serve warm (see suggestions above for accompaniments).

Mom’s Chunky Gazpacho

I would wager a guess that Spain’s two best-known dishes, at least for Americans, are paella and gazpacho. While I see the value in both for late summer, this weekend the temperature in Southern California – and therefore in our living room – skyrocketed uncomfortably, and the idea of cooking anything felt like a death sentence. We turned, therefore, to the option least likely to wilt us further.

Even then, the idea of venturing into the kitchen – away from a trio of fans all blowing directly on me – to chop up a few vegetables before letting my blender do the bulk of the work was oppressive. Don’t let that stop you, though, because having a big bowl of this in your refrigerator is worth it. Gazpacho is, as I always think of it, the Spanish, blended, soup version of the Italian classic panzanella salad. Traditionally it always includes bread and olive oil along with the tomatoes, producing a lovely smooth, emulsified bowl that chopped vegetables can be floated into.

My mom’s version, which we’re having with few adjustments, doesn’t include the traditional bread component. She adds red wine vinegar and a little chicken broth to the vegetables and the olive oil, and always serves hers up cold, with a dollop of sour cream on top that can be dipped into with every spoonful, or swirled through the entire bowl, for a little extra richness. Of course you can leave off the sour cream and use vegetable broth instead, for a vegan option.

In addition to being simple, and cold, and raw, this soup keeps well; its flavors mingle over a night or two as it sits in your fridge, and it requires only a quick stir to bring it back together (it doesn’t have any emulsifying components, so after a long chill the olive oil will pool on the surface a bit which can look unappealing). One summer, I remember Mom keeping a massive tureen of it in the fridge for a few weeks, replenishing the base and adding more chopped vegetables as needed.

Aside from the indolent bother of rising from whatever surface you’re plastered to, the only troublesome complication of this soup is that it really does need to chill for a few hours before you eat it. Not only is it better served cold (some people like it at room temperature but they are wrong I obviously have preferences); the time in the fridge allows the flavors to meld, mellowing the astringency of the raw onion and the vinegar. Somehow the two acids – vinegar and tomato – harmonize as they chill, resulting in a soup that is bright but not overwhelming, and bolstered by the more neutral flavors of the other vegetables. Aside from the tomato, which softens as it sits, the vegetables retain crunch and a bowlful feels light and refreshing, which means, perhaps to the dismay of your dining partners, they will regain just enough energy to wash up afterwards.

Mom’s Chunky Gazpacho
Serves 6
About 15 minutes, plus at least 2 hours to chill
3 large tomatoes
1 bell pepper (Mom uses green; I prefer red)
1 bunch green onions, root tips removed, or 1 small red onion, or 1 large shallot
1 large English cucumber
3 cups tomato juice or low sodium V8
⅓ cup red wine vinegar
¼ cup olive oil
¾ cup vegetable or chicken broth
salt and pepper to taste
optional garnishes: sour cream or greek yogurt, hot sauce, chives, dill

 

  • Roughly chop 1½ of the tomatoes, half of the cucumber, and half of the bell pepper. Place these into a blender. Add the white bulbs and pale green portions of the green onion stalks, if using, or half the onion or shallot, roughly chopped. Pour in the 3 cups of tomato juice and blend until smooth.
  • Chop the remaining tomato, cucumber, and bell pepper into bite-size pieces, or to your liking (I like a bit smaller than bite-sized). Thinly slice the remaining green onions, or dice the remaining onion or shallot, if using. Combine these and the blended liquid in a large bowl.
  • Stir in the red wine vinegar, the olive oil, and the broth. Add salt and pepper to taste, then cover with a lid or plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. If desired, chill the bowls or glasses you will use as well.
  • Just before serving, taste the soup for seasoning again and adjust as needed – I found I wanted a tiny bit more salt. Following in Mom’s footsteps, I like to top mine with a good dollop of sour cream. You could use greek yogurt instead, and a sprinkle of soft herbs like chives or dill, or a few splashes of hot sauce, would not be amiss. Fresh, crusty bread – perhaps grilled and rubbed with garlic – is a perfect accompaniment.

Save

Midori Fridge Pickles

As both this site and my instagram feed will prove, I’m a big fan of refrigerator pickles. Really, I’m a fan of pickles in general, and have been since childhood, up to and including my Nana’s pickled beets, which marked not only my willingness to eat almost anything, but also one of the first instances in which I became aware that my parents were not above lying to me. One of the few foods I would NOT eat, at the time of my affection for the aforementioned pickled beets, was onion, in any form. Nana’s beets, though, included onions – thinly sliced, limp circles dyed brilliant purple. My parents, in their wisdom, played on my extreme gullibility and, when asked what those other things in the jar were, those clearly not beet things, told me they were “string beets.” I was then quite content to eat them.*

ANYWAY, canny parental treachery aside: fridge pickles! Vinegar, salt, sugar, dried or fresh herbs and spices, brought to a boil, poured over a thinly sliced vegetable of your choice that has been packed into a sealable container. Refrigerate for a few days, and presto! You have a perfect sandwich topper, a bright sourness to add to salads, or something homemade to serve alongside a cheese platter and impress whoever is happy hour-ing with you. I change up the kind of vinegar I use, and I like to play with what flavoring additives I use – I’ve tried everything from cardamom to fennel, but I find I like black mustard seeds the best (though I recently finished off some carrots pickled with dill, coriander, and celery seeds that were fantastic). They add a little bit of floral spiciness to the brew, but at the same time they also get pickled by the hot vinegar and become surprising little flavor bombs I eat right along with whatever vegetable they are accenting.

This particular batch arose, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit, thanks to an overcrowded liquor cabinet (I mean, it’s not a very big cabinet, but still). Between a few essentials, N’s growing collection of scotch, and some red wines of mysterious origin, the bright green elixir in the mottled glass bottle that featured in my go-to college drink just sort of got pushed out. I realized I hadn’t used it in years. Aside from a syrupy cocktail, which I wasn’t really excited about, what could I do with it?

I’m not quite sure how I made the connection, but it made me think of Bobby Flay’s pickled red onions. Lately I’ve gotten hooked on his Food Network show “Beat Bobby Flay,” which requires contestants to face off against him with their own best dish, which they’ve perfected and he only learns about in the moment. He usually wins anyway. A favorite tactic of his, no matter what the dish, is to pickle red onions with a combination of red wine vinegar and grenadine. This makes a lot of sense – the syrup contributes sweetness to the pickling solution and gives the onions a brilliant color. Plus, then he doesn’t have to wait for the sugar in his pickling solution to dissolve. Maybe, I reasoned, a combination of Midori and rice vinegar would do the same!

I settled on cucumbers thanks to the cucumber-melon combination so popular in hand soaps and lotions, but added a few slivers of red onion as well for interest. Rice vinegar, with its tang, seemed like a good pairing for the melon liqueur, and I settled on coriander as well as my favorite mustard seeds for additional flavorings. I’d hoped the green of the liqueur would transfer to my vegetables, resulting in neon green dyed cucumbers, but no such luck. The red color from the onions was leached away, but the cucumbers’ color remained about the same. Despite that minor disappointment, the pickles have a subtle but very pleasing melon sweetness a few days in – there’s a complexity here you wouldn’t have if you had just used sugar and vinegar in the mixture. The cucumbers stay crunchy, too, which is perfect. Though above I’ve listed some more sophisticated ways you can eat these, my preference is honestly just a straight-from-the-jar snack, usually while poised just inside the refrigerator door while I look around for what dinner will be. We also had them on salmon sandwiches, a crunch and sweetness to contrast the heat of wasabi mayo spread liberally over a toasted bun.

* not to be outdone, my dad’s oldest sister, whose kids also liked pickled beets but not onions, told their oldest that those purple strings were “munions” and were also believed.

 

Midori Fridge Pickles
Makes ½ cup pickling liquid for about ½ a large cucumber
About 15 minutes, plus at least 2 days resting time
¼ cup rice vinegar
¼ cup Midori or other melon liqueur
1½ teaspoons salt
enough thin slices of cucumber to tightly pack a 6 ounce jar – for me, this was about ½ of a large cucumber
a few thin slices of red onion, if desired
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
1 teaspoon whole black or yellow mustard seeds

 

  • In a small pot, bring the vinegar, Midori, and salt to a rolling boil. While you wait, pack the cucumbers, onions, and whole spices into a small jar with a lid that closes tightly.
  • When the liquid reaches a boil, stir briefly to dissolve the salt, then pour carefully over the vegetables to fill the jar. Put the lid on tightly, shake the jar to distribute (careful; if the lid isn’t on tightly, hot vinegar can seep out!), and store in the fridge for at least 2 days, shaking occasionally to distribute liquid and spices.
  • After at least 2 days, or when the cucumbers have soured to your liking, consume as desired!

Save

Save

“Big Three” Vichyssoise

Summer is a strange time for soup. Yes, the need for a vegetal base in most means the potentials for flavors are as wide ranging as your harvest (or, let’s be honest, your farmers’ market or produce section), but there’s that whole hot food in hot weather issue that sometimes turns us off. I know that I, at my most overheated, want only cold salads, grilled meat, and an adult beverage.

Fortunately for us, and for this project, there are some soups designed to combat the heat problem, in that they are traditionally served cold. It’s a strange sensation if you’ve never tried one – the first time I had a cold soup, I found myself blowing on the spoon a few times before tasting, because even though I knew it wasn’t a hot liquid, my body was so programmed to treat it as such that I couldn’t overcome the instinct.

It’s possible that the best known, or perhaps most popular, cold soup is gazpacho, but since we just talked about tomatoes, and since the tomatoes I’ve seen at the market in the last few weeks haven’t quite been at their peak, I’m waiting till September, our hottest month in Southern California and therefore the best time to have this cold, raw, bright blend waiting for me in the fridge. Instead, I’m taking us in an unlikely and humble direction: let’s talk leeks and potatoes. It’s a little strange that these two wintry vegetables are the star players in one of the best known cold soups, but maybe it’s a subtle nod to wish fulfillment: if you find you want things to be cooler, then you are lusting after a season half a year away. Vichyssoise, this chilled reminder of cooler times, is the creation of chef Louis Diat. While working at The Ritz in New York in the early 1900s, Diat made a soup that reminded him of a simple bowl his mother used to put together when he was a child in France, but decided to serve it cold with a sprinkling of chives on top. The resulting concoction can be served chunky or pureed, hot or chilled, but as Diat popularized, ice cold and velvet smooth is the most common.

Most recipes are very simple. So simple, in fact, that cooks tend to add and tweak and substitute to make the finished product… what? More interesting? More original? More publishable, I suspect, without leaving the same old classic, unadorned team assembled. Butter. Potatoes. Leeks. Broth or water. Cream. Chives. Sometimes onion bolsters the leeks, various combinations of seasoning are added, and one intriguing option I saw used buttermilk at the end for tang. Differentiations lie in the quantities of the two star players – is it leek-led, or potato heavy? – the amount of broth and of cream, and the thickness of the finished product. To make mine, I turned to the internet and found, among a wealth of potentials, three that looked straightforward, fairly traditional, and from recognizable names. Then I realized all three authors’ names started with B, and I was stuck – the wordsmith in me loves the “rule of three,” and when your sources are Brown, Bittman, and Bourdain, how can you alter course?

There are a few differences in quantities and in seasoning options between these “big three,” but the basics are there. Alton Brown suggests Yukon gold potatoes, which I was pleased to see, since so many other recipes don’t specify. The biggest difference, interestingly, was in cooking time and dairy additions. Bourdain and Bittman sweat their leeks for only a few minutes; Alton (I just can’t call him “Brown”) goes for almost a full half hour. I erred on his side, since really, it’s a lot of leeks, and there are so few ingredients that we need to develop flavor somewhere.

I debated for a few minutes deglazing the limp, pale pile of cooked leeks with a few glugs of vodka to play with the potato idea, but ultimately decided against it, and wound up with a pot of sippable silk that needed only the traditional sprinkling of chives to make it interesting (well, N. thought it also needed a few additional grinds of pepper, but that’s him).

Two possibilities if you wanted to fancy this up. As we ate, unsurprisingly, we noted how this soup is on some level just really, really loose mashed potatoes spiked with onion flavor. To that end, we thought about the possibilities of baked potato toppings: imagine a bowl of creamed potato velvet topped not only with chives, but crumbles of crisp bacon, shreds of sharp cheddar, maybe even a dollop of sour cream. This would add some textual interest as well as other flavors, since I’ll admit a small bowlful of this is all you need – more than that and it runs the risk of monotony.

The other option plays into my bibliophilic considerations above. Small bowls are one thing, but what if you wanted to serve this as, say, an hors d’oeuvre option at a summer soiree? Imagine a cold, very lightly spiked soup in tall shot glasses, served on a shallow, ice-packed tray. You would need only to add a half cup or so of vodka to the concoction, before the long simmer if you want to eliminate the bulk of the alcohol, after if you want this to be a boozy option.

Like many thick soups, vichyssoise is even better on day two than day one, and conveniently, it takes no additional preparation since you don’t even have to reheat it. That said, the onion flavor from the leeks gets progressively stronger as the soup sits, so by day four it is pretty allium-heavy. Also convenient, though this is traditionally a cold soup, it is also delicious served warm, so if you can’t handle the cognitive dissonance, or your last weeks of August are looking chilly, this remains a viable option.

 

“Big Three” Vichyssoise
Serves 4-6 as a main course; 8-10 as an appetizer
About 60 minutes, plus at least 2 hours to chill
4 tablespoons butter
1 pound leeks, white and pale green portions only, split vertically, cleaned, and sliced thinly into half-moons
½ teaspoon salt
1 pound potatoes, preferably Yukon gold (3-4 small), diced
1 quart low sodium chicken or vegetable broth, or water
1 bay leaf
pinch nutmeg
½ – 1 cup heavy cream
additional salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon very thinly sliced chives

 

  • Melt the butter in a pot over medium heat, then add the leeks and the ½ teaspoon salt. Turn the heat down to low or medium low and allow the leeks to sweat, not brown, until very soft; about 20 minutes.
  • Add the potatoes, the broth or water, the bay leaf, and the nutmeg, cover, and bring to a boil over medium or medium-high heat. Once boil is attained, reduce the heat to low and simmer until the potato cubes are soft; 30-40 minutes.
  • When the potatoes are tender but not quite disintegrating, turn off the heat and VERY CAREFULLY puree either with an immersion blender or in a regular blender. If you are using a regular blender, blitz only small batches at a time and cover the top of the blender with a kitchen towel as well as the lid – pureeing hot liquid can cause spurts and small “explosions.” Get the mixture very, very smooth.
  • If you are feeling fussy (I was), pour the pureed liquid through a sieve or colander back into the cooking pot and return the heat to low. Add the heavy cream (start with ½ cup – we found we didn’t want more than that) and heat through. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper to your liking. Sometimes cold food needs more seasoning than hot food, so you can be a little aggressive, especially with the salt. Potatoes can take it.
  • Transfer the smooth soup to a mixing or serving bowl and serve immediately, if you want it hot, or chill until quite cold: at least 2 hours.
  • Just before serving, sprinkle with chives.

Save

Panzanella Toasts

The word “panzanella,” to an American, probably conjures thoughts of two ingredients: bread and tomatoes. Sometimes onion, cucumber, or various herbs join the party; I’ve even added a mix of lettuces and some white beans to make it a more substantial dinner. But the “pan” part of the panzanella is the most important: at its heart, this is a bread salad. As every blogger will tell you (which I learned this morning when I did this very thing,) if you look up panzanella and its history you will learn that this is a charming, rustic way of ensuring day-old bread doesn’t go to waste. You’ll also learn, interestingly, that tomatoes are not part of the original dish. Panzanella is an old salad, eaten and beloved before tomatoes made their way across the Atlantic. The original vegetable paired with the rehydrated bread in this salad was the humble onion. It is esteemed enough and beloved enough that it has found its way into Early Modern poetry; Emiko Davies provides a particularly nice overview of the salad and its literary as well as dietary record.

So, I’m all for food history – I think it’s important to know where dishes come from and who moved them along from what they were to what they are, and I agree that it’s especially crucial to not hide the cultural complications involved in a dish – barbecue removed from its African American roots, for example – but… onions and bread, with some vinegar and perhaps additional greens… just needs some help. Tomatoes are such a convenient addition because they contribute a punch of acid that the vinegar picks up and heightens. They also add juice to the mix, so that the bread gets flavored as it softens thanks to the reintroduction of liquid. Besides, it’s summer, and to me, few things are as summery as a tomato (maybe a crisp, effervescent rosé with a squeeze of lime, but then, no one’s saying you can’t have one or two of those alongside this salad).

There are two general ways of dealing with the bread in a panzanella. One is toasting it, to emulate the dry staleness that is traditional but also to prevent it from disintegrating when dressed. The other is to give it a short bath. This works best with dry, day-or-two-old Italian bread – your standard baguette will break down immediately. I had such a baguette, so I was going to be broiling, not bathing. Panzanella is typically served as a salad, but given that I was already going down the toasting route, I thought about changing the format entirely: rather than a big bowl, why not a layer of crisp toast, topped with chopped vegetables and herbs, so the juice of the tomatoes and vinegar and cucumber soaked down into the bread? The interior of each slice would soften but the bronzed top would retain a bit of crunch to stand out against the rawness of the vegetables. And since we were already far from tradition, why not some meaty chunks of kalamata, a few capers, mixed herbs, and a sprinkle of feta to top the whole thing off?

The final combination of ingredients whizzes like pinballs around your mouth: tomatoes with their sweet tang. Briny salt from olives and capers and cheese. Watery crunch of cucumbers. The bitter, grassy edge of chopped parsley. Sour vinegar, and the unobtrusive richness of olive oil holding everything together. The toast gets rubbed with garlic while it is still hot – because why not? – and the dish becomes something you could offer up at a party as essentially the messiest crostini ever, or pile into a wide, shallow bowl as the main event of a light dinner when it’s too hot to think.

One planning ahead note to consider: this dish is best when it has had time to sit for at least two hours, as the juices of the vegetables, helped along by the salt you’ll add when you mix them together, start to pool and collect, giving you an intensely flavorful dressing to soak into your toast slices. Your best option, then, is to mix it up and toast the bread slices in the morning when it’s cool, then stow the vegetable mixture in the refrigerator for the day. Or, if you are a plan-ahead-er, make the salad the night before, and toast your bread on the day you’ll be serving. When you’re only about half an hour from dinnertime, pull the vegetables back out and let them sit on the counter, just to wake the flavors up a bit – cold tomatoes, unless they are blended into gazpacho or juiced and shaved into a savory granita, are nobody’s darlings.

Panzanella Toasts
Serves 2 as a light dinner; 6-10 as an appetizer
20-30 minutes active time, at least 2 hours resting time
1 pound cherry tomatoes – I like a variety of colors for a prettier presentation – halved or quartered, if large
1 cup chopped cucumber
½ cup finely sliced green onions (2-3)
½ cup chopped kalamata olives
2 tablespoons capers
½ cup basil leaves, rolled and sliced into ribbons (chiffonade, if you’re fancy)
2 tablespoons other mixed soft herbs of your choice, such as parsley, dill, chives, etc.
2 tablespoons cider vinegar or balsamic vinegar
¼ cup olive oil + 1-2 tablespoons or olive oil spray
salt and pepper to taste
About ½ of a baguette, cut into half inch slices
1 garlic clove, halved
½ cup crumbled feta cheese

 

  • Combine all vegetables and herbs in a large bowl, toss lightly to combine. Add the vinegar, then the olive oil, and toss again. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. Cover with a lid or plastic wrap and refrigerate at least an hour and a half, though longer is better to collect more juices.
  • About half an hour before you are ready to serve, take the vegetable mixture out of the refrigerator and let it sit on the counter, just to take the chill off.
  • To make the toasts: heat the broiler on high (you can also use a toaster oven for this) and arrange the slices of baguette on a tray in a single layer. Spray or drizzle them with the remaining 1-2 tablespoons olive oil (you’ll likely use less than this if you are spraying), then sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Broil until evenly golden and crunchy, then remove from heat.
  • As soon as the toast is cool enough to handle, rub each piece with the cut garlic clove, then set aside until ready to serve.
  • To plate, arrange half of the toast slices on a platter or on your plate – a shallow bowl is also nice for this. Scoop big spoonfuls of the vegetable mixture onto the bread slices, including any juice that has collected. Scatter the crumbled feta over the top, and dig in.