Roasted Tomato and Red Pepper Bisque with Herb Puree and Cheese Toast

Just under the wire: your October soup! I debated between this and tortilla soup for several weeks, then it was too hot to think even remotely about soup, and when I came out on the other end, almost time for Halloween and without a single container of chicken stock in my freezer nor an ounce of impetus to make any, all I could think about was a tomato bisque with a swirl of pesto I had at a surprise Friday lunch date with N. last month at a little bistro we like, and the decision was made. Bisque is traditionally a soup made with seafood stock to which cream is added – lobster bisque is of course the poster child. However, it has evolved, as food so often does, and now seems to just indicate a soup that has been blended to smooth consistency and finished with cream. Tomato seemed like a good way of making it a vegetarian option, and I have a soft spot for tomato soup. For extra interest, I wanted to add roasted red pepper to mine, to evoke that dry, smokiness fall can sometimes carry with it. As for the tomatoes, I dithered: did it make sense to look for lingering heirlooms at my Farmers’ Market, or settle for grocery story options, and should I peel or not peel? And would it be cheating if I just grabbed a jar of fire-roasted and called it a day?

Then my friend S. sent me Deb’s new book, and of course she already had the answer, which she says came from Cook’s Illustrated: gently split and drain the canned tomatoes, and roast them until dried and lightly colored. This concentrates their flavor, saves you the headache of deciding on perfect tomatoes, makes this an any-time-of-year option, and gives you time to prep the rest of the ingredients while the tomatoes are in the oven. Yes, it probably makes the soup take a little longer to come together, and yes, if you don’t line your baking sheet with aluminum foil first you’ll be every so sorry, but the flavor difference is noticeable, so I think it’s worth doing. The roasted flavor is evened and enriched by the cream we add at the end, and I think it also combats that too-acidic bite tomatoes sometimes have. But if you find yours are still a touch sour at the end, add a quick squeeze of honey.

A tomato soup is a comforting standard, but the trick – and treat – of this one is the herb puree I made to imitate that pesto from the bistro. A quick whizz of basil along with whatever other soft stemmed herbs you like – parsley, dill, I threw in some sage, but it’s such powerful stuff you really only need a few leaves of it – a clove of garlic, some lemon juice if you dig that sourness, and enough olive oil to bring it all together.

The herb puree can be dolloped on or mixed in, but I wanted to be fancy, so I carefully dribbled a swirl through the center of my bowl. And then, because imagining a bowl of tomato-based soup without melted cheese on toasted bread is impossible for me, I broiled some sharp cheddar onto a few leftover slices of baguette and settled in for dinner.

*This recipe includes charring a fresh pepper and roasting a can of tomatoes, but you can also make it easy on yourself and sub in roasted red peppers and fire-roasted tomatoes, and I bet your results will be similar, and cut down about half an hour of the time it takes to make this. If you try that way, let me know how it turned out.

 

Roasted Tomato and Red Pepper Bisque with herb puree and cheese toasts
About an hour, if your tomatoes and peppers are not pre-roasted. About half an hour if they are.
Serves 4 as a light dinner
For soup:
1 large red bell pepper (or 1 jar roasted red peppers, drained)
1 tablespoon olive oil
28 ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, plain or fire roasted
½ cup diced onion
2-3 cloves garlic, smashed, skins removed
2 tablespoons butter
2-2½ cups vegetable or chicken stock (you may not use it all)
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon fresh oregano (1-2 sprigs)
salt and pepper to taste
½-1 cup heavy cream
1-2 teaspoons honey, optional
For herb puree:
½ cup basil leaves
¼ cup other mixed herbs – I used parsley, chives, and just a few sage leaves
1 clove garlic
lemon juice to taste
¼-½ cup olive oil
For cheese toasts:
Per slice of baguette or half-slice of sandwich bread:
½ teaspoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons finely grated sharp cheddar cheese

 

  • If you are using plain tomatoes, preheat the oven to 450F. If you are using fire-roasted tomatoes, no need. For both, open the tomato can and dump into a fine mesh strainer positioned over a bowl or a large glass measuring cup to collect the juices. As they drain, use your fingers to gently tear the tomatoes and extract some of the juice and seeds inside.
  • If you are using jarred roasted red peppers, skip this step. If you are using a fresh red bell pepper, while the oven is warming, char the red bell pepper over a gas burner turned on high. Let the skin blacken, adjusting the placement of the pepper with a pair of metal tongs to allow for maximum char. As each lobe blackens, turn to a new side, repeating until the skin is well charred and the flesh of the pepper is starting to soften, around 15 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap for another 15 minutes.
  • If you are using plain tomatoes, when the oven has preheated, cover a baking tray or roasting pan with aluminum foil, drizzle on the 1 tablespoon olive oil, and add the juiced, seeded tomatoes. Transfer to the oven and roast 25-30 minutes, until the tomatoes have dried out and are starting to take on a little color.
  • While the tomatoes roast and the pepper steams, turn your attention to the soup base. Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat, then add the diced onions and the smashed garlic. Reduce the heat to medium-low, then sweat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are translucent and smell sweet, 8-10 minutes.
  • After the pepper has steamed for about 15 minutes, strip off the plastic wrap and use a knife to cut a slit into the pepper (be careful – hot steam will be released). When it is cool enough to handle, wrap it in a dry paper towel and rub to remove the majority of the skin – it should slide off relatively easily. Don’t worry if a few charred pieces stay on. Split the pepper in half, remove the stem and seeds, then roughly chop the flesh.
  • Add the chopped pepper and the roasted tomatoes to the pot with the onions and garlic (or add the drained fire-roasted tomatoes and jarred roasted red peppers). Add enough vegetable or chicken stock to the reserved tomato juices to make 2½ cups of liquid. Add to the pot along with the bay leaf and oregano. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer 20-25 minutes with a slightly vented lid.
  • While the soup is simmering, you can make the herb puree. In a food processor or blender, combine the basil, other mixed herbs, a few tablespoons lemon juice, and about ½ teaspoon of salt. Buzz to combine. While the processor is running, stream in about ¼ cup olive oil. Stop the processor, scrape down the sides, and assess. You want a reasonably smooth, well-seasoned puree. If needed, add salt, pepper if you wish, and lemon juice. If the herb pieces still seem dry and not well integrated, run the processor again and stream in some more olive oil, until the mixture comes together into a puree. Scrape into a small bowl and rinse out the processor or blender.
  • After 20-25 minutes of simmering, remove the bay leaf and the stems of oregano, if you used full sprigs, and carefully transfer the soup into the rinsed out food processor or blender. Carefully, since hot liquids can “explode” when blended from the trapped steam, cover the lid with a towel and turn on the processor or blender to low speed. I like to leave the feed tube lid/pusher out of my food processor when I do this, to let steam escape. As the soup blends, turn the machine up to high speed and run until the mixture is very smooth.
  • Once you’ve achieved the consistency you want, return the soup to the pot, add the cream, and season to taste. If it seems a little too acidic, add a little more cream and/or the 1-2 teapoons honey. Warm through over medium-low heat.
  • While the soup warms, it’s a good time to make the cheese toasts. Spread each slice of baguette or half-slice of sandwich bread with a thin layer of mayonnaise, sprinkle on the 2 tablespoons finely grated cheese, and place under a broiler or toaster oven heated to 400F until the cheese bubbles and browns.
  • To serve, ladle the soup into a large bowl. Carefully spoon on the herb puree in a swirl (or whatever pattern you want, or just a dollop). Dunk in a cheese toast, or serve it on the side, while still warm.

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Roasted Brussels and Mushrooms with Goat Cheese Polenta and Red Wine Sauce

food-blog-february-2017-0351It’s funny, isn’t it, how when we have more time, we usually wind up with less time? I went into this weekend knowing, between my schedule this semester and Monday’s holiday, that I had four days before I had to go back to campus. Four days is a lot following the first week of the term, when there aren’t any papers to grade yet and the readings are short. I planned to clean the house, I planned to bake, I planned to get ahead editing photos for this little space, and I definitely wanted to work on a project working with web sources that I’ll introduce to my students a few months from now. Guess how many of those things I’ve done, and how many linger until today, the very last day it’s possible to accomplish any of them?

food-blog-february-2017-0326Sticking to a plan is hard, especially when you have time. That’s the challenge. It’s a challenge whether you’re thinking about cleaning out the garage, registering voters, writing a paper, or making a multi-component dinner. Here I wanted a play of textures and flavors that all come together perfectly in the finished dish – the soft mellow creaminess of polenta topped with nutty roasted vegetables, just frizzled on the edges, topped with a tangy sauce of red wine, well-reduced, sharp with onion and deep with herbs.

food-blog-february-2017-0338I had this all planned out so I could start early and have plenty of time to play with photography, make the polenta extra creamy, and do some multi-tasking while the cooking took place, so of course I ended up rushing, and dinner was a good half hour later than I’d intended. But you, I’m sure, will stick to your plan, and have it all ready to ladle together within an hour.

food-blog-february-2017-0343Though I’ll admit I’m not thrilled with the photos in this entry (I was rushing and didn’t take enough time to get the lighting I wanted), the dish itself was delicious, and turned out almost exactly how I’d hoped. In future iterations I would strain the onions out of the wine sauce before serving, but in the moment I found I just couldn’t be bothered: bellies needed to be fed, after all.

food-blog-february-2017-0342A bowl of polenta is such a comforting prospect when it is damp out, especially when it is enriched with milk and finished with creamy chevre, as I’ve done here. The meaty roasted mushrooms and toasty sprouts, some soft, some with crisp, almost burnt outer leaves, made perfect sense, and stood up to the pleasant acidity of the sauce. Here’s to making sense, then, and planning, and standing up when needed. Here’s to doing what we can with our time.

Roasted Brussels and Mushrooms with Goat Cheese Polenta and Red Wine Sauce
Serves 4
45-55 minutes
For polenta:
4 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup milk
¾ teaspoon salt
1 cup polenta
2 tablespoons butter
4 ounces goat cheese
For wine sauce:
4 tablespoons butter, divided
½ cup finely diced red onion
2 cups dry red wine
3 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
2 2-3 inch sprigs fresh thyme
2 teaspoons honey
2 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
salt and pepper to taste
For vegetables:
2 lbs untrimmed, or 1- 1½ lbs trimmed brussels sprouts
1 lb crimini mushrooms
½ cup olive oil
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon pepper

 

  • Though I’ve divided up the ingredient lists by parts of the dish, in the procedure that follows I go back and forth, showing you where to switch between components, so it can all be ready at the same time.
  • Preheat oven to 425F and line two baking sheets with aluminum foil. Start 4 cups broth and 1 cup milk + ¾ tsp salt in a medium saucepan. While you wait for the milk and broth to boil, prep the vegetables. First, finely dice the onion. Crush the garlic, but don’t worry about the papery skins. Stem, wipe, and quarter the mushrooms. Trim the brussels (stem off, outer manky leaves off), halve (or quarter if quite large).
  • When broth/milk barely reaches a boil, add the polenta slowly, whisking the whole time. Continue whisking slowly, intermittently, until the mixture noticeably thickens. Then pop the lid on, lower the heat, and let it simmer, whisking every 3-4 minutes or so (be careful: it will bubble and spit!), until it is very thick and soft; 30-40 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, as soon as you’ve added the polenta to the pot, start the wine sauce. Put two tablespoons of the butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. When it has melted, add the onions and turn down to medium low. Add a pinch each of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are tender but not browned, about 10 minutes. While you’re waiting, finish up your vegetable prep if needed.
  • With the onions tender and slightly translucent, add the red wine, the crushed garlic cloves, the bay leaf, the thyme sprigs, and the 2 teaspoons honey. Stir briefly to distribute, then turn the heat up to medium high and let it boil until it is reduced to about ⅔ cup.
  • While the wine works, drop all of the prepped mushrooms into a large bowl and toss them with ¼ cup olive oil, ½ teaspoon pepper, and ¾ teaspoon salt. When well combined, scrape them onto one of the prepared baking sheets. Now do the same with the brussels sprouts, dumping them into the bowl and tossing with the remaining ¼ cup olive oil, ½ teaspoon pepper, and ¾ teaspoon salt before spreading them out on the other baking sheet. Load both sheet pans into a middle rack of the preheated oven and roast for 20 minutes. Toss with a spatula, assess, and if you want them browner (I frequently do), pop them back into the oven for another 10 minutes.
  • When the wine mixture has reduced, add 2 cups of chicken or vegetable broth, return to a boil, and reduce to about 1 cup. Remove the thyme, the bay leaf, and the garlic cloves, strain out the onions if you want a smooth sauce, then stir or whisk in the final 2 tablespoons butter just before serving.
  • When the polenta is thick, tender, and pulling away a bit from the sides of the pot when you stir it, whisk in a final 2 tablespoons butter, crumble in the goat cheese, and taste and adjust for seasoning. Hold it over very low heat if you need time for the other components to finish cooking.
  • To serve, ladle a thick puddle of polenta in the middle of a plate or shallow bowl. Top with a mixture of brussels sprouts and mushrooms, and then spoon some of the sauce directly over the vegetables, and some around the outer edge of the polenta. Serve hot.

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Guest Post: Cheddar and Green Onion Sourdough Artisan Boule

Guest post from my friend and colleague (frolleague!) K., with whom I discuss bread baking procedures and triumphs on a frantic, high-volume, excitable and regular basis. Enjoy!

BlackberryEating has officially declared 2017 the year of the soup project just in time for the cold reality of this winter: Montana is 40 below, New England is buried in snow and West Coasters down to San Diego are cold and wet from an atmospheric river that’s brought more rain in the last six weeks than in as many years.

So let’s honor this project with really good bread, the stunning artisan kind, with the open crumb, shattery crust and intense bread flavor that will drive. your. people. wild. And since everyone knows that good bread is made — not bought — this homemade cheddar onion sourdough boule will be the perfect compliment to a comforting pot of simmering soup — unless you eat it before the first ladle of liquid hits the bowl, which can happen.

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A few caveats before the formula:

1) Don’t have a sourdough starter? Make one. You’ll never buy commercial bread or use commercial yeast again. Loaded with hydrogenated oils, nitrates, sugar, bleaching agents and other harmful substances, store-bought bread is just plain bad for you. And commercial yeast is devoid of the healthful bacteria that makes fermented food so darn healthy. Breads made from commercial yeast go stale faster, taste blah, are harder to

digest, and have a higher glycolic index, among other issues. This makes commercial bread profitable and convenient, but not good and healthy.

“Sourdough Starter, America’s Rising Pet” by Sam Sifton, which ran in the NYT recently, says it all. Once you get your starter fermenting on a regular schedule — rising up and then collapsing back in a consistent manner — it’s ready to use in your bread.

I started mine more than two years ago. The directions I was reading said starter consists of flour, water and wild yeast. I tried to order the wild yeast on Amazon. Nope. I Googled it. Nothing. What? Eventually I figured out that the wild yeast are in the air all around me (duh) and you catch them by mixing equal parts flour (50/50 mix of King Arthur’s all-purpose and wheat flours) and filtered water and then waiting. Within a week the starter was bubbling, and now it’s fast and strong. I feed it daily, sometimes twice.

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2) Invest in the basic bread-making tools: a bench knife, dough spatula, scale, banneton, thermometer, and cast iron combo cooker. You need these to turn out dazzling, delicious bread.

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3) Using the very best flour possible makes a huge difference. I use a combination of King Arthur Bread Flour and 10 – 20 percent high extraction wheat flour from Grist and Toll in Pasadena, the only local miller I’ve found in the greater Los Angeles area. They use a stone mill to make whole-grain, small-batch, fresh, local organic flour. And they ship! I love the hard white for its mild nutty flavor. Grist and Toll flour creates a silky, manageable dough that is loaded with nutrition. Read about stoneground, high-extraction flour here.

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4) Be patient. Start your dough the day before you make soup and refrigerate it overnight for a next-day bake. It’s easy to make bread, but fermentation takes time. And good dough handling takes a minute, but you’ll get it, and you’ll be so glad you did. Homemade bread is a game changer. And don’t worry if the first few loaves don’t turn out perfect. Just eat them and start again.

Cheddar and Green Onion Sourdough Artisan Boule (perfect for two with a pot of soup)
The Formula
300 grams flour (270g King Arthur Bread Flour & 30g Grist and Toll Red Fife)
225g water, slightly warmed
75g starter (It’s ready to use when it’s on the rise and a bit of it floats in water.)
5g Kosher salt
4oz. sharp cheddar, cut into small cubes and brought to room temperature.
¼ – ½ cup chopped green onion (I chop them thick) and brought to room temperature.
Cornmeal or polenta for dusting
Razor blade

The Dough

  • Pour 210g warmed water in a clear bowl.
  • Add starter and mix until incorporated.
  • Add flour and mix into a shaggy dough. Let it sit for half hour.

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  • Add the salt and the rest of the warmed water. Dissolve the salt in the water and work it into the dough by folding it in or cutting it in. Let it sit for half an hour.

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  • Flatten the dough out a bit, spread the cubes and press them into the dough. Do your best to space them out. Do the same with the onion.

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  • Pull all the dough edges up and fold over, encapsulating the cheese and onion.
  • Leave it for 45 minutes, then stretch and fold again. Repeat every 45 minutes (or so) for the next several hours, until the dough starts to get fuller and come together. This will take time. Give it 4 to 6 hours and 6 to 8 stretch and folds. Be patient and get gentler with your folds as you go.

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  • Once the dough is noticeably a bit puffy and fuller, turn it onto a floured board. Lightly flour the top and flip it over using the bench knife. Do one more very gentle, half-hearted round of folds, so the dough is roughly round, and gently flip it back over.

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  • Let it sit for half an hour.
  • Lightly flour the top. Flip it again and do a final fold. Start your fold at the top edge, then the right side, then the left, then fold the edge nearest to you up and over and keep rolling the whole ball so the seam side is down.

There is your boule!

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  • Spin it once or twice on the board to seal that bottom seam. Flour your banneton well. You don’t want the dough sticking to the banneton.
  • Slide your bench knife under the boule and gently place it upside down (seam side up) in the banneton.

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  • Cover with foil and put in the fridge to bake the next day.

The Bake

  • Place your combo cooker in the oven and preheat to 500 degrees. Once preheated, wait another 20 minutes. You want it screaming hot.
  • Take your dough out of the fridge. I pluck any cheese cubes that are sticking way out of the dough.
  • Take the combo cooker out of the oven using heavy silicone mitts. Take the top off and dust the bottom of the cooker with cornmeal. It will smoke but that’s OK.

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  • Lightly flour the seam side of your dough and your hands and then gently turn the dough out into the bottom of the combo cooker. Be careful. That sucker is hot.
  • Using a new razor or ultra-sharp kitchen knife, slice a cross into the top of the dough. This allows the bread to expand and rise to its full potential.

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  • Replace the top and put it all into the oven. Cook for 10 minutes, then turn heat down to 450. Cook for another 15 minutes, then remove the top. Watch your eyes! You will release a cloud of hot steam.
  • Cook another 15 -18 minutes. Bake it out strong but don’t burn it. You want the internal temperature to reach at least 210F.
  • Put the loaf on a rack and let it cool, sitting there being beautiful while you make the soup. It’s a fine companion.

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P.S. After you’ve demolished the loaf, keep those crumbs for mac and cheese.

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Quinoa and Kale “Winter” Salad

Boo!2016-food-blog-october-0317Not really. Alas, the only Halloween-ish-ness I can attach here, for all my attempts to catch up with the impending holidays (and everything else), are the “scare” quotes in the title. (Haha? Maybe? I know; groan.)

2016-food-blog-october-02942016-food-blog-october-0302Instead, let’s pretend I’m so caught up that I’m actually looking forward. Forget autumn; I’m already a season ahead. This is a winter kind of salad: no wimpy lettuce and out-of-season tomatoes here, but sturdy greens and the substantial base of quinoa. A good grain salad is a lovely thing – an entrée rather than a starter or a side, if you fill your plate enough – and this one is no exception. It is based on a bright incarnation from the Firestone Walker brewpub located near us, and it screams California, doesn’t it? As if just quinoa or kale on its own weren’t enough, this one offers the hipster bifecta in one brightly colored mound. If we completed the trio and added avocado, we’d probably all spontaneously sprout handlebar mustaches and skinny jeans (although seriously, avocado chunks would be a nice addition here). The aforementioned scare quotes in the title are because, although this is a winter salad, the place it really screams winter… is in California. The kale and cabbage are cold-weather vegetables everywhere, with kale really becoming sweet and crisp after exposure to frost, but the orange segments and the bright gemstones that are pomegranate seeds are also winter crops – spots of brightness in the chill that we can at least dream of in what constitutes a Southern California winter.

2016-food-blog-october-03032016-food-blog-october-0307As a good salad should, this one has plenty of textures for your teeth to play with: the quinoa offers a toasty, chewy bite, the cabbage is raw so it provides a rough crunch, and the feta has that strange squeaky-soft chew. I like that pop of a pomegranate aril and the sudden crushing of the seed within; it’s a nice little metaphor for today, isn’t it? A sweet, plump, juicy treat, but the trick of an unexpected crunch hiding within.

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Quinoa and Kale “Winter” Salad
Serves 4
About 30 minutes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup quinoa, rinsed and drained
2 tablespoons white wine (optional)
2 cups chicken broth, vegetable broth, or water
2 cups red cabbage, sliced into thin ribbons, then halved or quartered into bite-size sticks (see photo)
4-5 ounces kale, thick stems removed, finely chopped (will be about 2 cups when chopped)
½ cup pomegranate seeds
2 large oranges: one cut into segments or supremes (see here for a clear photo tutorial by the kitchn), one reserved for juicing
½ cup crumbled feta cheese + 2 tablespoons
2 tablespoons finely sliced chives or green onions
¼ cup fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon champagne or white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons honey (optional)
¼ cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

 

  • In a medium pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat until it is shimmering. Add the rinsed, drained quinoa and toast, stirring frequently, until the grains are dried and smell nutty. Add in the white wine, stirring while it steams and absorbs, then add the broth or water, stir, and clamp on a lid.
  • Let the liquid in the quinoa pot come to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the liquid is absorbed and the little thread-y looking germ around the quinoa has loosened and separated (see photo above). Package directions usually say this takes 12-15 minutes; I find I like my quinoa a bit more cooked: 18-20 minutes. You do you. When the quinoa is finished cooking, remove the lid, fluff it up a bit, and set aside to cool.
  • While the quinoa cooks, prep the rest of your ingredients: thinly slice the cabbage and cut down the big slices into short, stumpy ribbons, chop the kale finely, and cut the chives or green onions into wispy circles. Make supremes from the orange, and add them along with the vegetables, the cheese, and the pomegranate seeds into a large bowl.
  • You can also use this time to make the dressing: in a 2-cup glass measuring cup, whisk the orange juice with the vinegar and the honey. You can squeeze out the core of the orange that you supremed earlier for some of this, but unless it’s very juicy you will likely need a bit more from the second orange. Stream in the olive oil, whisking constantly, to form a nicely emulsified dressing. Add salt and pepper to taste, whisk up once more, and set aside.
  • When the quinoa is finished and has cooled a bit, pour the dressing over it, stir and fluff to distribute evenly, then dump into the bowl containing the rest of your ingredients. Toss gently to combine.
  • To serve, either scoop out mounds onto individual plates, or just present in a large salad bowl or platter. Just before serving, top with the remaining 2 tablespoons of feta cheese.

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The Rachel: lamb sausage and spinach pesto pizza

2016 Food Blog June-0945A few weeks ago, N. opened the fridge, snooped through the shelves, looked at me. “What’s for pizza? Wait. I mean, what’s for dinner?” Sometimes you don’t have to ask them what they’re craving.

2016 Food Blog June-0915Clearly, the following week I made pizza. We each have a favorite variety – though lately my favorite is becoming N’s favorite as well – and we’ve lent our names to them; whenever I write “The Chelsea” on the weekly meal plan, N. gets quite excited. This got me thinking about what toppings would constitute other members of my family. “The Dad” would certainly have red pepper flakes in some quantity, and my mom informed me on Sunday that hers would have plenty of vegetables.

2016 Food Blog June-0917But I decided to go first with my sister, and that meant lamb. I’m not sure whether it outweighs her affection for seafood, but lamb is certainly her red meat of choice. She stalks the meat counter to find it on sale; she buys the toughest cuts (often the cheapest) and grinds them up herself to make lamb burgers; she manufactures ways to integrate it into even traditionally vegetarian dishes. R’s pizza, then, would feature lamb sausage.

2016 Food Blog June-0918Once lamb sausage was on the menu, and some crumblings of feta had joined it in my imagination, I realized there was no way of avoiding a very Mediterranean flavor profile. Neither R. nor I are particularly interested in tomato-based sauces for pizza – “The Chelsea” has only a brush of garlic infused olive oil over its surface – so there would need to be an alternative. I gravitated toward pesto, and despite R’s declaration that she is “devoted to basil,” she’s also a rather non-traditional person in an interesting and glorious way. Given that, a pesto on her pizza couldn’t very well be the standard, and since this pizza was already leaning in such a Greek direction, I had to reach for the spinach, and added some parsley, some sundried tomatoes, some lemon zest, in addition to the standard garlic and pine nuts.

2016 Food Blog June-0925Considering other personality features, I decided to add some heat. R. is a spicy person: she’s quick, she’s feisty, she’s fun; she speaks her mind. Thinly sliced pepperoncini joined my collection of toppings, though some near-transparent wafers of jalapeno would also do the job.

2016 Food Blog June-0933When you construct “The Rachel,” you have some choices, and those choices depend on how much char you like on various ingredients. Obviously the pesto goes on first, in a generous layer. If you want your peppers and green onions to stay soft, they should be next, so they can hide out under the protective coating of mozzarella. If you prefer a bit of color on these greens, let them ride out the quarter hour in the oven right on top. I like to put the sausage underneath the mozzarella; since it’s already cooked, the cheese bubbling over it seems to prevent the meat from drying out.

2016 Food Blog June-0936Blistering hot from the oven, this was glorious. The lamb sausage I used was a merguez, which carries some heat of its own, so between that and the pepper slices the pizza was perfectly spicy. The spinach pesto is a solid base – not too aggressive in flavor on its own, just pleasant support for the well-spiced lamb and the briny feta. But interestingly (delightfully), the pizza came into its own as leftovers. When I unwrapped the remaining slices today in my office, door closed and light off as though I were getting away with something, the pizza had been out of the refrigerator long enough to come to room temperature, and though the cheese was no longer stretching into long strings and the crust had lost a bit of crispness, the flavors had come together so compellingly that I’d suggest doing one bit of advance planning: if you can, make the pesto a day in advance. Then, when you spread it thickly over the crust, it will already have had a day to slow dance in your refrigerator.

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The Rachel: lamb sausage and spinach pesto pizza
Makes one 12-14 inch pizza
16 ounces pizza dough of your choice
8 ounces lamb sausage (I used a nice, spicy merguez)
2 tablespoons pine nuts
3 cloves garlic
zest of one lemon
¼ cup oil-packed sundried tomatoes, drained
6 green onions
6 ounces baby spinach leaves
½ cup parsley leaves and stems
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1-3 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
8-12 ounces whole milk mozzarella cheese, grated
3 ounces crumbled feta cheese
3-4 pepperoncini or other pickled peppers
*Note: if possible, I recommend making your pesto a day ahead so the flavors have time to meld. Otherwise, proceed as below.

 

  • About 45 minutes before you are ready to cook the pizza, preheat your oven to 500F, or as high as it will go. If you are using a pizza stone (highly recommended), be sure to put it in the oven at this point to preheat as well. If your pizza dough is refrigerated or needs time to rise and relax, this is a good time to set it out as well.
  • Cook the lamb sausage in a medium skillet over medium heat. Use the flat edge of a wooden spatula to coerce the lamb into small pieces. Stir and flip frequently until cooked through and lightly browned, then set aside to cool.
  • For the pesto, add the pine nuts and garlic to a food processor along with the sundried tomatoes, lemon zest, and the white and light green portions of the green onions, reserving the green stalks until later. Process for 4-5 seconds to break down the big chunks of vegetables. Pack in the spinach and parsley and process again, agitating the machine a bit to try and coax the leaves down into the blade. When it is simply not making any progress, add the lemon juice and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil with the machine running. If that’s not enough liquid, add the remaining tablespoons of olive oil one at a time, pausing between each. You are looking for a very thick, paste-like “sauce” – the less moisture we add to the top of the pizza, the better. If things still aren’t coming together after all 3 tablespoons of oil, add a splash of water, but try to keep this to an absolute minimum.
  • Once the pesto is a thick but spreadable texture, taste and season with salt and pepper accordingly. I suggest under-seasoning a bit with the salt, since the feta cheese is quite salty.
  • Slice the greens of the green onions and the pepperoncinis into thin slices.
  • To assemble your pizza, stretch out the dough to your desired size (I put it carefully right onto the hot pizza stone), then spread generously with the spinach and parsley pesto. Add the remaining ingredients above or below the mozzarella cheese depending upon how browned you want them to get. I suggest lamb sausage underneath, to keep it moist, then the two types of cheese, then green onion and pepperoncini slices.
  • Carefully maneuver the loaded pizza back into the roaring hot oven, and bake for 15 minutes until the crust is crisp and the cheese is nicely studded with golden blisters. Remove from oven and let sit 4-5 minutes. Then sprinkle with additional parsley leaves if desired, slice, and serve.

Grilled Zucchini and Corn Salad

2016 Food Blog June-0899As you can no doubt discern from the dead giveaway of two grilled corn dishes in three weeks, I’m itching for summer. Southern California has dipped into its customary “June gloom,” a period of several weeks that I adore, because the marine layer keeps my morning cool enough for a comfortable dog walk, for a bit of gardening, sometimes even for a (gasp) sweater while I sip a cup of tea. And this would, under normal circumstances, be a satisfying start to summer.

2016 Food Blog June-0877But for the first time in a few years, I’m teaching a summer course. It only lasts six weeks, and so far they are engaged and have made me think new things about some of the stories we’ve read – always a wonderful thing for an English professor. Yet still, upon arriving home this past Thursday afternoon, the end of my initial week with the class, I realized I had to go back on Monday, when all I wanted was grilled food and maybe a beer on the back porch, and certainly not to craft a lecture on Frankenstein.

2016 Food Blog June-0884Since only two of these desires can be realized (Frankenstein must be attended to, whether I want to or not), I decided the grilled food should be as summery as possible. Some weeks ago I attempted a warm vegetable salad like this: corn and zucchini sautéed at high temperature and then doused with a sharp shower of lime, but the vegetables were disappointingly wilted. What they needed for the dish I’d envisioned was the grill.

2016 Food Blog June-08892016 Food Blog June-0890If you haven’t already investigated the trio that is corn, zucchini, and lime, I suggest you do so immediately. Zucchini is such a mild, grassy, vegetal taste, so a hit of acid wakes it up and makes it interesting again. It plays well with corn, which carries its own grassiness along with the starchy sweetness that we so prize. Both benefit tremendously from the savory char of a grill – that taste of fire we seem to cling to particularly as the weather warms outside. Michael Pollan has speculated that there’s something about the process of cooking – of submitting food to heat and to flame – that truly awakens our humanness. Grilling – that barely tamed version of fire as a cooking medium – is perfect for summer dishes, then, because it echoes the looser, easier, perhaps even more primal feel of the season. Besides, aside from, I don’t know, cheesecake or ice cream, I can think of few foods that don’t become better when cooked on an oiled grate over a bright flame.

2016 Food Blog June-0887But in case you aren’t in love already with the summery ease and boost of flavor the grill imparts, dousing the still-warm veg in a dressing of lime, honey, and cilantro makes a sprightly side dish that needs only the crunch of toasted pumpkin seeds and the squeaky saltiness of crumbled cotija to complete it.

2016 Food Blog June-0892Because he’s nursing the same summer bug I am, N. wanted steak, so in addition to the vegetables he grilled a piece of sirloin flap.* As I played with presentation ideas, I realized the now-flexible planks of zucchini with their glorious char marks could be artfully arranged on a long platter, and the steak could be sliced thinly across the grain and draped over top, and I could have something that looked, well, like it came from somewhere a bit fancier than my backyard.

2016 Food Blog June-0903By the same token, though, the salad could simply be piled high on a plate, dusted with cheese and pumpkin seeds, and served alongside anything grilled, or perhaps spiced potatoes, or even wedged inside a tortilla as a quite respectable base for a vegetable taco.

2016 Food Blog June-0910* You should make this, too. I didn’t document it with any kind of precision, but I marinated the steak overnight in some dark beer, crushed garlic and coriander, and a bit of red pepper flake, then N grilled it for something like 3 minutes per side over the cooler side of the grill (ours has some hot spots), and rested it wrapped in aluminum foil for about five minutes to produce an incredibly tender, flavorful main course.

 

 

Grilled Zucchini and Corn Salad with Lime Vinaigrette
Serves 2-4 as a side dish
3 ears corn on the cob, husk and silk removed
4 medium zucchini, stem and flower ends removed
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon salt, divided
½ teaspoon pepper, divided
¼ cup pumpkin seeds
¼ cup lime juice from 1-2 limes
1 tablespoon honey
¼ cup chopped cilantro
¼ cup crumbled cotija cheese

 

  • Preheat a gas grill or a grill pan to high heat. While it warms, rub the corn with 2 tablespoons olive oil, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Grill the ears of corn over direct high heat for about 8 minutes, turning every minute or two, until the kernels are cooked and all sides are lightly charred. Remove and set aside until cool enough to handle.
  • While the corn cooks, prepare the zucchini: slice from stem to flower end into ¼ inch planks. In a large bowl, toss with remaining 4 tablespoons olive oil, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Lay out on grates or pan, being careful to keep them in a single layer, reserving any leftover oil in the bowl. Grill until cooked through and nicely marked, 2-3 minutes per side. Remove and set aside.
  • While vegetables are grilling, toast pumpkin seeds and mix dressing. Scatter pumpkin seeds in a small baking tray and cook in a 300F oven for 10-15 minutes. Seeds will take about 10 minutes if the oven is preheated, and more like 15 minutes if you forgot that whole preheating part. When they are browned and starting to crackle, take them out and set them aside.
  • To make the dressing, combine the lime juice, honey, and chopped cilantro in the bowl with the reserved olive oil from tossing the zucchini. Whisk well to combine.
  • When the corn is cool enough to handle, cut off the kernels by standing up the cob on your cutting board (you can use the stem to hold onto, if you’ve left it attached) and carefully cutting straight down the ear with a sharp knife, sawing the blade back and forth a bit to help loosen the kernels. When you get to the bottom of the ear, rotate the cob a half turn or so and cut again, repeating until you have removed all kernels. Some will be individual and some will come off in big chunks; that’s okay. The variety is nice.
  • Add the corn kernels and the grilled zucchini planks to the bowl with the dressing and toss to combine. To serve, either keep the vegetables in the bowl and offer the pumpkin seeds and cotija cheese for individual diners to add to their own portions, or arrange the vegetables on a square or long rectangular platter and sprinkle the seeds and cheese over the top.

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