Friday, June 22, 2012

Tomato and ricotta napoleons with basil oil

I am fortunate to have several friends with organic gardens.  I hope they all know how very much I appreciate their generosity.  They frequently share their bounty with me, and it makes me feel very loved and very well cared for.  My friends grow especially beautiful, pristine vegetables and recently, the tomatoes have been absolutely peerless.  This year, the color, heft and, most importantly, the juiciness and flavor of the tomatoes have been everything you would want a tomato to be.  Dense, flavorful and rich with that perfect just-picked-an-hour-ago flavor.

I had several perfectly ripe tomatoes that were ready to be devoured.  Firm and intensely red, they held together beautifully when sliced.  They would have tasted wonderful all on their own, but they were so perfectly ripe and gorgeous that I wanted to show them off.  I wanted the essence of a caprese salad, but something a little more elegant than that.  I wanted more richness, more intensity and more decadence.  These luscious tomatoes needed a worthy counterpoint and I wanted a salad course that was essentially over the top.

I had made fresh ricotta earlier that day using Ina Garten's recipe.  This recipe calls for full fat dairy products and produces a very rich, very creamy ricotta.  You can reduce the fat by using 2% milk and half and half or light cream and still get a great-tasting ricotta, but the lack of fat makes for a drier, more crumbly product that doesn't have the same luxuriousness.  So bank your calories and go for the full fat ricotta, it's worth the indulgence.  

If you've never made home made cheese, please consider trying it because it's a very simple process.  Essentially, dairy products heated to the boiling point, salt (if you wish) and some kind of acid are combined and then the proteins are strained through cheesecloth until the whey is gone and the desired firmness is achieved.  You can make soft cheese this way with sheep's milk, goat's milk or cow's milk and get perfect results with very little effort.  You can also strain yogurt and get a tangy, soft cheese that is delicious as well.  Fresh, soft cheese spread on warm flat breads or lavash with good quality olive oil and a variety of olives from your local olive bar makes an excellent lunch or a great snack with a glass of wine.

Ricotta curds

Fresh ricotta is a revelation.  Made with Ina's recipe, it's beyond decadent because of the fat content and it's extremely versatile because it can be the basis for something savory or sweet.  I had started out with some vague idea of enjoying it spread on garlic toasts with olives, tomatoes, basil and some good olive oil.  But I later had another idea.

Why not make a tower of tomato slices, ricotta and basil?  I had constructed a menu for the evening that centered around the theme of intensely flavored foods being stacked into small towers on small plates.  The stacked tomatoes and ricotta would be a perfect first course.

I'm not a professional photographer.  But the plate in the foreground makes me drool.
I made some basil oil while the ricotta was draining, which is essentially some sprigs of fresh Genoese basil put into a small food processor with enough olive oil and a little salt to create a flavored oil to drizzle on things.  It's really tasty on steamed green beans, roasted potatoes, hot rice and of course, pasta.  Add some finishing salt and some freshly ground black pepper and you're golden.

I encourage you to try this tomato tower because it's impressive, gorgeous and absolutely delicious.  Did I mention that it was also simple to make?  You can make the basil oil and ricotta up to a day ahead of time and chill them until ready to assemble this plate.  Just make sure that the basil oil and ricotta warm up to nearly room temperature before assembling so that they're easier to work with.

Tomato and Ricotta Napoleons with Basil Oil

1 recipe home made ricotta
1/4 cup fresh Genoese basil leaves and stems
1/2 cup or more good quality olive oil
kosher salt to taste
2 medium-sized ripe tomatoes
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
fresh basil leaves for garnish (I used purple ruffles basil for contrast)

1.)  Make ricotta and set aside to drain.  The more whey that drains away, the firmer the ricotta.
2.)  Meanwhile, make basil oil by combining basil, olive oil and a generous pinch of kosher salt in a small food processor or blender.  Process until smooth.  If you'd like a looser consistency, drizzle in more oil.
3.)  To assemble the napoleon:  slice tomatoes thinly (about 1/4 inch slices) and place a slice on each plate.
4.)  Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
5.)  Place a generous dollop of ricotta on the tomato.
6.)  Drizzle with basil oil.
7.)  Repeat until you have three layers of tomato, ricotta and basil oil on each plate.  
8.)  Season again with salt and freshly ground pepper.  Drizzle with additional basil oil if you wish.
9.)  Garnish each serving with a fresh basil sprig and serve.  Serves 4 to 6 people.

And here's what you can pair with this salad: We drank a light, lovely, domestic 2010 vintage pinot noir from Napa Cellars (California).  Pierre Labet also makes a very light pinot noir that would be a great match.  Or you could also pair this dish with a sangiovese, or an Italian white, or a not-too-light rose (think rose of malbec, cabernet sauvignon or cabernet franc).  Ask your wine guy at Spec's for help.  Choices abound and they are very affordable!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Stacked summer salad

I have friends that love to come help me test recipes and share wine.  We had a wonderful evening tasting all kinds of new foods and I found an easy, do-ahead recipe that I want to share with you.  It's full of flavor and fresh ingredients, it's really pretty on the plate and it's a really ingenious idea.  We all thought it was a great salad and I can't wait to make it again.

I didn't have an oblong or square dish as called for, so I used an oval one.

I found this recipe in the July 2012 issue of Better Homes and Gardens.  Technically, it's a layered salad, but without all the gooey-ness of the typical layered salad.  You basically cut it and serve it like lasagna.  Although I could have made it exactly as the recipe directed I decided to do my own thing and tweaked the recipe a bit.  I just can't leave things alone sometimes.

Stacked Summer Salad

You can make this salad up to 12 hours ahead, but I've found that it's still crispy and delicious 24 hours later.  It got rave reviews.  Adapted from Better Homes and Gardens July 2012 issue.

3 medium green or yellow summer squash
kosher salt
6 radishes 
1 cup shredded carrots
1 small red, orange or yellow bell pepper
1/2 of a red onion
2 cups torn leaf lettuce 
4 Tbs. freshly squeezed lemon juice
5 Tbs. EVOO
2 Tbs. freshly snipped dill, divided
a generous pinch of garlic powder
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup crumbled queso fresco
3 scallions, sliced thinly
1 small avocado

1.  Using a mandoline or a sharp vegetable peeler, shave squash into long, thin strips. 
2.  Sprinkle squash strips lightly with kosher salt, then transfer to a colander to drain for 15 minutes while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
3.  Slice radishes, bell pepper and onion very thinly with mandoline or a very sharp knife.
4.  Rinse squash and allow to drain.
5.  Mix lemon juice, EVOO and 1 Tbs. dill together; season to taste with garlic powder, salt and pepper.  Set aside.
6.  Using a 2 quart square or oblong glass casserole dish, assemble salad by layering one third of the squash, radishes, carrots, bell pepper, onion and lettuce.  
7.  Drizzle with one third of the lemon juice and oil mixture.
8.  Repeat with remaining vegetables and dressing.
9.  Sprinkle with queso fresco and scallions.
10.  Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour or up to 12 hours.
11.  To serve, cut salad into rectangles with a sharp knife and lift onto serving plates with a spatula.  
12.  Cut avocado into long, thin slices and lay some atop each serving.
13.  Sprinkle each serving with a finishing salt (such as Maldon sea salt) and more freshly ground black pepper and the remaining dill.  Serves 6 to 8.

May your tastebuds dance in an air conditioned room!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Happily married: blood oranges and Bauchant

Some things are just meant to be together.  For me, lately, it's been a combination of chilaquiles and heartburn.  But some things are really meant to be together, and they live happily ever after.  I'm thinking of a beautiful spring day and an off-dry rose, for instance.  Recently, on a particularly gorgeous, sunny afternoon, I opened a bottle of Carmela Benegas 2010 (Argentina) and luxuriated in the aroma of strawberry blossoms, tasted a smooth, creamy mouthful of strawberries and then the deep, sophisticated and silky finish.  I love this rose, made of Cabernet Franc, also one of my favorite reds. 

The wine is named for the winemaker's daughter and, as you can see for yourself, there's a very seductive pose on the label:

I don't know if this is an actual representation of Carmela Benegas, but I can tell you that it provides more than a hint of what's inside.  Deepest pink blush, vibrant youthfulness and seductive sensuality come rushing into your glass and the wine is so beautiful you want to touch it.  If it had a texture you could feel with your fingertips, I'm convinced that it would be like velveteen.  This wine is absolutely full of fruit and cream and the smell of spring-about-to-turn-summer.  What's best, it's very affordable.  Anytime I can find it, I bring it home.  It's that delicious.  And it's getting harder to find, so you might want to check the internet for supplies.  Don't bother with asking your wine guy at Spec's--it's gone.  Carmela has a lot of admirers.

I often let wine dictate and influence what I will cook for dinner.  Remember, for instance, my little episode with rioja and black pepper?  Well, it could have been a disaster, but I'd like to believe that The Muse protects me from such things.  As I enjoyed the wine, I was also enjoying how lushly beautiful it was in the tropical Taj Mahal my husband had created for us.  I noticed especially how many fragrant blossoms were blooming.  Jasmine, honeysuckle and brugmansia all made a spectacular showing.  They were as pretty as bridesmaids.

But how would I know?  I didn't have any!  I have seen pictures of bridesmaids, however, and aside from Melissa McCarthy, one of my favorite comediennes, they all looked like frilly, delicate little flowers.  I imagined hundreds of bridesmaids in every color dress imaginable, all congregated in my garden, twittering amongst themselves. 

Oh my.  I think I have a headache.

Brugmansia, or Angel's Trumpet

Luckily, on this particular afternoon, it was only a quiet riot of bougainvillea, Betty Boop roses, Valentine roses and salvia, no bridesmaids.  The back yard was an immense floral choreography.  Suddenly, the image of flamenco dancers rose up before me.  Sultry, pouting flamenco dancers, stamping their feet, fists on hips.  They were hungry! 

I needed to think about what I could cook that would go with the wine I was sipping, what would be aromatic and fresh, and most importantly, what would appease the hungry flamenco dancers.  I thought of Spain and Argentina.  I thought of fruit and flowers.  I thought again about those flamenco dancers, stamping their feet.  But the stamping merely turned out to be my husband, hammering, in the middle of constructing his next project.  The flamenco dancers, like the bridesmaids, suddenly evaporated.  They left me in the backyard with a hungry husband and the reality that it was time to cook dinner.

Once I was in the kitchen, I thought oranges, butter and a little orange liqueur (along with a little more Carmela) might work some magic with the boneless chicken breasts I was planning to serve.  I had a couple of blood oranges, some shallots and some leftover jasmine rice.  I had plenty of butter and plenty of inspiration.  Carmela was guiding me, whispering in my ear.

Yes, I admit it.  I hear voices.  But only when I cook.  I believe that the psychiatric profession refers to this as a situation-dependent hallucination, sort of like the LSD flashback that only happens when you're listening to The Beatles' "The White Album."  

Not that I would know.

A slice of blood orange
I pounded the chicken breasts to flatten them (this evens out and speeds up the cooking time as well), then seasoned them generously with kosher salt and pepper.  Butter and a little olive oil were heating in the saute pan as I finely minced a large shallot.  I sauteed the chicken breasts until caramelized, then removed them to plate and covered them to keep them warm.  Into the pan went the shallot and after it was well-caramelized, the pan was deglazed with a little dry sherry.  I added the juice from the blood oranges to the pan (just a little of the zest went into another small, covered pan along with the leftover rice, some butter, salt and a little water), reduced it a little, then added a healthy glug of Bauchant to the saute pan.  I reduced the sauce until it was just a bit syrupy, then added a pinch of kosher salt, some ground white pepper and a little more butter for sheen.

In hindsight, cutting the rind off the blood oranges then slicing them to add to the saute pan (instead of just the juice) would have been lovely.  But there's always a next time!  The aromatic rice, along with a simple green salad, dressed with Mustard Vinaigrette, and another glass of Carmela Benegas, was a match made in heaven.  I hope you enjoy the wedding as much as we did!

Chicken Breasts with a Shallot, Blood Orange and Bauchant Reduction

2 Tbs. EVOO
2 Tbs. butter
2 chicken breasts, trimmed and pounded to about 3/8 inch thickness
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbs. dry sherry
1 large shallot, minced 
2 blood oranges, juiced (or peel away skin and pith with a sharp knife and cut into slices)
2 Tbs. chicken broth or water (optional)
2 Tbs. Bauchant (or other orange liqueur)
kosher salt
freshly ground white pepper
1 Tbs. butter 

1.)  Heat EVOO and butter in a large saute pan over medium-high heat until butter is foamy.
2.)  Season chicken breasts generously with salt and pepper.
3.)  Saute chicken breasts until caramelized on both sides; remove to a plate, cover and keep warm.
4.)  Deglaze saute pan with sherry, scraping up any brown bits.
5.)  Add shallot and saute until caramelized.
6.)  Add blood orange juice and reduce sauce by half.  If using orange slices instead of juice, add them now along with the chicken broth or water.
7.)  Add Bauchant and reduce by half.
8.)  Taste sauce and add salt and white pepper.
9.)  Add the final tablespoon of butter and stir well until melted. 
10.)  Return chicken breasts to pan and spoon sauce over breasts.
11.)  Serve immediately with sauce.  Serves 2. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Grass-fed beef: it's what's for dinner

Sometimes, it happens just like that.  Inspiration in my own little town.

Yesterday morning, not sure what we would have for dinner (and needing some fresh dill for the pickles I was planning to make), we stopped by our local farmers' market.  It's a small group of producers that provides a colorful bounty of organic wholesomeness to Bastrop County, and what's more, it's a friendly group--one family will give you a free vegetable if you give them a recipe.  Right now, there's a wonderful variety of vegetables and herbs available at the River Valley Farmers' Market.

I ran into one of my neighbors at the beginning of my market crawl and during our conversation she said, "I just eat from here."  That's as local as it gets.  Incidentally, her husband happens to make the best fried chicken I ever put in my mouth so I hinted around that I was craving his specialty--and got an invitation to call him next time I had a hankering.  I have great neighbors!  But I can be so charming and so persuasive!

In my travels and amongst running into friends and neighbors, I eventually found my dill--enough to make the two enormous batches of pickles plus some pickled green beans (cucumbers and green beans courtesy of a lovely family I know that raises beautiful organic vegetables and wanted to share their bumper crop)--and I found fresh beets which, when I'm not roasting them, I'm putting them in my juicer with apples, carrots and celery for a gorgeously vivid morning tonic.  That tonic is a color seldom found in nature and it makes my cheeks glow an unearthly shade of cerise.  Really!

I also found spectacular grass-fed beef offered by a kindly cattle rancher from 6J Ranch in Thrall, TX.  Although my husband balked at the price of this beef, I knew what we were getting: hormone-free, antibiotic-free beef that had grazed on non-GMO, pesticide-free grass and had been raised carefully and responsibly.  I also knew that the flavor and texture of the steak would be outstanding. 

A 6J Ranch Ribeye

I don't eat beef often, but when I do, it needs to be top-quality.  This little beauty was almost a full pound and more than enough to share with my husband.  It was perfectly marbled and almost an inch thick.  I wanted to treat it the right way and was looking for a certain flavor profile: a little acid, a little heat, a little oil, a good amount of salt.  I've been on a Brazilian kick lately, so I was looking for something in that vein. 

After a quick marinade of fresh lemon juice, EVOO, minced jalapeno (with seeds), minced sweet onion and minced garlic, the ribeye was seasoned generously on both sides with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Then it was grilled on a very hot flame with a few hardwood charcoal nuggets added for flavor.

The acid of the lemon juice, combined with the EVOO and beef fat, were a perfect foil for the tender, rich, and deeply flavorful beef.  The minced jalapeno, onion and garlic enhanced each bite.

I served this steak, beautifully charred on the outside, rare and juicy on the inside, along with Brazilian-style rice and a hearts of palm chopped salad that had wonderful texture and a nicely balanced acidity.

Brazilian-style rice (right) is cooked with onion and garlic and enhanced with tomato for color and flavor.  I had run out of the sweet, perfect little cherry tomatoes given me by my friends the organic gardeners by the time I decided to make the rice, so I substituted jarred, chopped pimento, which worked beautifully and tasted great.

The hearts of palm chopped salad (below) adds a great textural backdrop and slightly acidic balance to the richness of the ribeye and the rice.  The original recipe calls for cilantro, but I had only fresh flat-leaf parsley on hand.  We thought it was delicious nonetheless.

Because a steak as richly marbled as this one calls for a red wine with a certain amount of tannins, I opened a bottle of Finca el Origen Reserva Malbec 2009 (Argentina), an elegant, fruity red full of cherries and other bright red fruit.  It has a nicely balanced acid component that pairs beautifully with richer red meats, such as the ribeye we enjoyed.  This wine, plum-colored and gorgeous in the glass, has a bit of a floral nose and a silky finish with wisps of chocolate, spice and just a kiss of oak.  It's a wine that would be lovely to sip on its own, and I thought it was absolutely perfect with this meal.  Ask your wine guy at Spec's about it.

Brazilian Grilled Ribeye Steak with Hearts of Palm Chopped Salad
     Adapted from Eating Well Magazine (February/March 2006) 
3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 small hot pepper, such as jalapeño or serrano, minced
2 Tbs. minced sweet onion
1 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
juice of one lemon
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds ribeye steaks (about 4 oz. steaks)

Chopped Salad: 

1 14-ounce can hearts of palm, drained, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
4 medium tomatoes, chopped
1/2 cup chopped red onion
1/2 small hot chile, such as jalapeño or serrano, minced
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley or cilantro
juice of one lemon
drizzles of extra-virgin olive oil
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste 

1.)  Preheat grill to high and add a few handfuls of hardwood lump charcoal directly to flames.
2.)  Combine garlic, jalapeno, onion, olive oil and lemon juice.  
3.)  Rub mixture on both sides of steaks and season generously with salt and pepper; set aside.
4.)  For salsa, combine hearts of palm, tomatoes, onion, jalapeno, parsley or cilantro, lemon juice and a few drizzles of olive oil. 
5.)  Toss gently to combine, then season to taste with salt and pepper.  Set aside.
6.)  Reduce grill heat to medium and grill the steak 4 to 6 minutes per side for medium-rare. Transfer to a cutting board, tent with foil and let rest for 5 minutes. Cut the steak across the grain into thin pieces. Serve with the salsa and Brazilian Rice (recipe below).  Serves 4.

Brazilian Rice  (adapted from

1 cup onion, chopped 
1 clove garlic, minced 
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup tomato, chopped (you can substitute chopped jarred pimento with great results)
1 cup long grain white rice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 cups water or broth
finely chopped flat leaf parsley, for garnish 

1.)  Wash and drain rice; set aside.
2.)  Saute onion and garlic gently in olive oil over medium heat until onion is translucent and softened.
3.)  Add tomatoes (or pimentoes), rice, salt, pepper and water or broth.
4.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and cook until all bubbles on surface have disappeared.
5.)  Cover and cook on low heat for 20 minutes.  
6.)  Fluff rice with a fork and garnish with chopped parsley. Serves 4 to 6.

May your tastebuds do the bossa nova!