Tuesday, September 23, 2008

At Last! a Rich Creamy Curry

I've been trying for years. Trying unsuccesfully to reproduce the thick, creamy gravy for a meat curry like they serve at good Indian restaurants, such as the 'Bombay Café and 'Mirch Masala' in Atlanta, that feature cooking from the Punjab. These are the curries where the plentiful gravy is almost better than the meat -- which is a good thing since the meat is limited and there is a lot of rice or naan bread to moisten.

As with several other breakthroughs, this one happened with a dish I made for Christina's staff meeting at St. Barts. The church leadership have happily agreed to be guinea pigs, so I get to try works-in-progress on them.

The particular dish this time is 'kofta curry', lamb or beef meatballs simmered in, no less, a rich, creamy gravy. The word kofta for meatball reaches, with slight spelling variations, from India and Bangladesh in the East, through Turkey, the Caucasus, the Arab countries, Greece and Cyprus, to as far west in Europe as the Balkan countries where the Ottoman Empire once reached. Like many food names from India to Turkey, 'kofta' is originally Persian, from a verb meaning to beat or grind. While kofta applied to meatballs, by extension it included small fried or grilled cakes of other ingredients. In Turkey it's köfte, keftes and keftedes in Greece, kufta in Croatia and Serbia.

As with many curries, the gravy in this one is trickier than are the meatballs in the gravy. A key technique is slowly frying plenty of onions, with frequent stirring, in a little oil until they are pale golden brown. The whole spices are fried along with the onions, but the garlic and ginger are not added until the onions are caramelized. Then after several more minutes of frying, as the fragrance gets fabulous, the ground spices are briefly fried in, and then the tomato and liquids. Frying the onions well before adding the garlic and ground spices causes the gravy to thicken well, and avoids having the garlic become bitter from over-frying.

This dish will serve six accompanied by basmati rice. Although wine is not typical in India, and forbidden to Muslims in Pakistan, a heavy, fruity red wine actually goes well with this, such as a Merlot, a Zinfandel, an Argentinian Malbec, or my recent favorite, a Monastrel from Spain.

Kofta (Meatball) Curry Tim

2 large onions
3 tablespoons canola oil
2 sticks cinnamon
6 whole cardamoms
4 whole cloves
4 large cloves garlic
1 inch fresh ginger thinly peeled
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon turmeric
1-1/2 teaspoons paprika
3/8 teaspoon cayenne
4 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups water
1 cup canned evaporated milk (unsweetened)
2 teaspoons salt
Coarsely chopped cilantro for garnish

2 pounds ground lamb, beef, or a combnation, not too lean
1/2 inch fresh ginger, peeled, and pounded or finely minced
2 tablespoons cornstarch (chick pea flour or egg would be used in India)
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

To make the sauce, peel and coarsely chop the onions. Fry them plus the whole spices in the oil in a heavy casserole or Dutch oven over medium heat. Stir frequently and reduce the heat as the onions start to turn golden. This is a slow process, so get the onions started while preparing the other ingredients. Pound together in a mortar or mince finely together the garlic and ginger (thinly slice the ginger first). Measure out the dry spices.

While the onions are frying, mix the meat and other meatball ingredients, kneading them well. With moistened hands, shape the meat into 1-1/2-inch balls, setting them on an oiled surface until needed.

When the onions are golden colored, add the pounded or minced garlic and ginger. Fry the mixture over gentle heat 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the ground spices, and fry for a minute, stirring the dry mixture well and scraping the bottom of the pan. Add the tomato paste and stir it in briefly. Finally add the water, evaporated milk and salt. Simmer ten minutes, stirring occasionally, before adding the meatballs.

When the gravy has simmered for its 10 minutes, stir it well, then add the meatballs. Do not stir the meatballs (or you will break them), but rather swirl the pan so they move around. Cover the pan. Swirl several more times over the next ten minutes. By this stage the meatballs should be firm enough to stir gently. Be sure the gravy is not sticking to the bottom of the pan. Simmer, covered, another 20 minutes (total meatball cooking time is 30 minutes), stirring occasionally. The gravy should be thick but soupy. Add a little water if too thick.

Taste the gravy, and add salt if needed. (It will go on unsalted rice, so do not undersalt the curry or it will taste bland.)

The curry can be served now, or if desired, it can be stored, refrigerated, 3 to 4 days. Carefully reheat before serving, stirring so the gravy does not stick and burn on the bottom of the pan.

Serve heavily sprinkled with coarsely chopped cilantro. Accompany with unsalted basmati rice.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Kibbeh: Eastern Mediterranean stuffed Meatloaf

Our daughter Lisa just had her second child, Clara. With Jason's parents visiting them in Athens to help out, Lisa wanted to have a dinner that would appeal to these meat-eating Coloradans. She also, herself, had a post-partum craving for something I haven't fixed in years, kibbeh, the fragrant roasted flat meat and bulgar wheat loaf that is stuffed with even more meat. My contribution to their dinner this evening, which was well received, was a round baked kibbeh, diamond scored on the top, and stuffed with spiced meat, onions, nuts, and golden raisins.

Kibbeh, a specialty of Lebanon and Syria, was originally lamb pounded in a mortar with bulgar wheat, onions, and lemon juice. There is a raw version, considered a great delicacy, plus the more typical fried kibbeh meatballs and the baked flat kibbeh meatloaf. The 'crust' of the cooked versions is the kibbeh itself, a mixture of puréed lamb or beef, bulgar wheat, and seasonings. One popular style is to make this into little football shapes stuffed with a mixture of chopped meat fried with spices, onions, and pine nuts or other nuts (the Lebanese in Atlanta sometimes use local pecans, as they often do in their baklava), and sometimes golden, or 'sultana', raisins. These little footballs, with pointed tips, are deep fried in oil, and served hot as a 'meze', or appetizer, with lemon to squeeze over them, and are very poular at Lebanese restaurants. The main-course version is a larger 'pie' of kibbeh, with its stuffing, baked and served with rice pilaf and some sort of sauce. It was this latter kibbeh version that I made, and for which the recipe is below.

The recipe makes enough to serve six and have leftovers, which when microwaved may be even tastier than the original dish. In my blog are several recipes for rice pilaf (1/5/07, 3/30/08) and a commonly served yogurt and cucumber sauce (4/25/08). An alternative sauce is marinara (8/7/06), omitting the fennel seeds and adding a large pinch of ground cinnamon toward the end of cooking. A dry rosé or a medium-bodied spicy red wine, such as a French Côtes du Rhône (Grenache grape), a Spanish Garnacha (same grape), or even a Chianti, go with this dish.

This recipe, unfortunately, requires a food processor. Unless you want to pound the meat and wheat with a large mortar and pestle. Bulgar wheat is most easily located at health food stores.

Baked stuffed Kibbeh Tim

Kibbeh 'crust':
1 cup bulgar wheat
1 medium onion (use 3/4 for the kibbeh, 1/4 for the filling)
Juice of 1 medium lemon
2-1/2 pounds ground beef, lamb, or a mixture, not too fatty (use 3/4 of this for the kibbeh, 1/4 for the filling)
2-1/4 teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoon dry oregano
1/2 teaspoon paprika
3/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil for baking

1/4 of the onion, above
1/2 cup pine nuts or chopped walnuts or pecans
1/4 of the meat, above
2 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
Pinch of cayenne
1/3 cup golden raisins

Rinse and drain the bulgar. Soak it at least 20 minutes in plenty of boiling water. (Meanwhile prepare the filling, see below.) Drain the bulgar. In the food processor, finely chop the 3/4 of the onion, cut in chunks, then add the soaked and drained bulgar and the lemon juice. Purée the mixture, scraping the sides of the food processor down several times. Add 3/4 of the meat (you may need to do this in two batches unless your processor is large), and the seasonings, and process until well blended and fairly smooth. Transfer to a bowl, and mix well. Split the kibbeh mixture into two halves.

While the bulgar is soaking, etc., mince the reserved 1/4 of the onion and chop the walnuts or pecans, if used (leave pine nuts whole). In a frying pan, fry the 1/4 of the meat, the minced onion, the olive oil, and the seasonings, breaking up the meat. When it is looking fairly well cooked, add the nuts and fry for a minute, stirring. Then stir in the raisins, and remove from the heat. Let the filling cool.

Set the oven for 375 degrees.

Lightly oil a 9- or 10-inch round baking dish, or an 8x8-inch cake dish. Press half the kibbeh mixture into the pan, making a smooth layer with a little of the mixture pushed up a half inch against the sides of the dish to make an edge. Spread the filling and any juices evenly over the kibbeh, but not on the edge. Press the filling down gently. Carefully place flattened lumps of the other half of the kibbeh over the filling, and gently push it together to make a top crust, sealing it onto the raised edge of the bottom layer. With a sharp knife, make indentations partially down into the top in a diamond pattern with the lines separated by 2 inches. Drizzle the 2 tablespoons olive oil over this.

Bake about 45 to 50 minutes, or until the edges have pulled away from the pan and the middle is springy to the touch. The baked kibbeh can be served now, or cooled, covered with waxed paper and aluminum foil (foil not directly on the meat), refrigerated and reheated in the oven until fully hot (remove the foil and waxed paper for the last five minutes of baking to dry the surface).

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Blonde Carbonade: Lighter Belgian Fare

I know, I know. Carbonade, the heavily flavored stew from Belgium, is made with beef and dark beer. But there's a lighter way, though much less frequent, and it's chicken stewed with golden beer and carrots. It's a Belgian counterpart to French cooking.

'Les Carbonades flamandes' or sometimes 'Carbonade à la flamande' in French and 'Vlaamse Stovery' or 'Vlaamse Stoofkarbonade' in Flemish, in that bilingual and bicultural country, is a Flemish dish from the north where wine grapes don't grow but where the beers are magnificent. Normally, carbonade is made from stewing beef and dark, somewhat sour, beer. Just to make it heavier, in the Teutonic style, it is full of caramelized onions and finished with brown sugar and vinegar. The only lightness -- get this -- is from the boiled potatoes it is traditionally served over. I've had real carbonade several times, made by people who know what they're doing. And while it's tasty, it hasn't won my heart. It probably won't wind up on the blog, and we do not serve it at our restaurant in Athens.

On the other hand, a lighter version, where the meat is chicken thigh and the beer is golden or 'blonde' and the onions aren't caramelized, makes a delightful stew. And the carrots I've used give it some sweetness, eliminating the need for the sugar. I am practicing, frankly, for a 'local food' banquet our restaurant will be doing for the UGA School of Ecology plus for an article I'm writng -- with recipes -- on the 'Locavore' movement in Athens. The chance to make a centerpiece dish with local (free-range) chicken, an Athens microbrewed beer, and young locally grown carrots (local in the spring, at least -- I'll probably use North Georgia cabbage as the vegetable for the Ecology School banquet) is not to be passed up. 'Local' cooking means that wine and other key ingredients from far away (like rice and pasta, alas) have to be minimized. And by the way, our starch accompaniment will be Georgia stone-ground grits cooked like polenta with jalapeños, local beer, milk, and cheese.

Here is my effort at a lighter carbonade. The recipe is geared for six. Boiled potatoes are a good accompaniment, or you can use lightly salted brown rice. The accompanying drink would traditionally be a golden ale or lager, but a cold full-bodied white wine, like a chardonnay from California or Australia would do well too.

Blonde Carbonade -- Belgian Chicken Stewed with Beer Tim

2-1/2 pounds chicken thighs, including skin and bones
2 tablespoons flour, mixed with:
-- 1 teaspoon salt
-- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
-- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 tablespoons chicken fat (from the broth) and/or olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1/2 stick celery, diced
1-1/2 cups (12-ounce bottle) golden beer (Terrapin Golden Ale, Killian's Red, etc.)
1 cup unsalted chicken broth (made from the chicken skins)
1 teaspoon salt, plus to taste
2 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon thyme
3/4 pound small peeled carrots
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped parsley, plus 2 more for garnish

Remove skins and excess fat from the chicken thighs. In a small pan, bring the skins and fat to a boil with 2 cups water, then skim off foam and simmer, uncovered, to make broth. Later, the fat that rises can be used for frying the chicken and onion.

Cut the thighs evenly in half through the bone by placing a cleaver on top, slicing through the flesh, then pounding the cleaver with a mallet or hammer through the bone. Make a mixture of the flour, and the next three seasonings, Sprinkle evenly on the chicken pieces, turning them to coat evenly.

Heat a large stewing pot or Dutch oven to medium heat, and add the chicken fat and/or oil. Fry the chicken pieces, half at a time, turning them often and scraping the pan with a spatula. Remove the chicken to a bowl and finish the other half and add it to the bowl. Discard all but 1 tablespoon of grease in the pot.

Fry the diced onion and celery until well softened, scraping the bottom of the pan frequently. Add the beer, broth (skimmed of fat), bay leaves, thyme, and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, and boil rapidly 1 minute.

Add the fried chicken pieces and the carrots. Add a little broth or water if the liquid level is not up to the level of the chicken. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the meat and carrots are tender, 30 to 35 minutes. Skim off grease if it collects on the top (some chicken thighs have a lot of fat). Taste the sauce and add a little salt, if needed. Remove from the heat, and stir in 2 tablespoons chopped parsley.

The stew can be served at this point, or cooled, stored refrigerated, and reheated to serve. Boiled potatoes are traditional with carbonade. Sprinkle stew with the reserved chopped parsley.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Turkey and Basil Meatballs with Peppers sautéed in Red Wine, or Chicken Broth

Yesterday I did a volunteer chef demonstration for the Saturday morning Athens Farmers' Market. The dishes, made entirely on site and almost completely from local produce for sale there, were Summer-Fall Sautéed Butternut over Jalapeño-Wine-Cheese Grits (the recipes are in my blog postings of 9/6/08 and 8/23/08). A number of farmers contributed ingredients -- including grits milled in Athens between stone grinding wheels turned by a red mule. A red mule named Luke, no less. I was given additional vegetables by the farmers at the nearby booths. Last evening I used some for a meal when my grandson August stayed with us.

Basil is still plentiful (I just put out a recipe for pesto to use some of it -- see blog posting of 9/4/08), and I had plenty left from the Farmers' Market. I was also given some wonderful sweet red 'heritage' frying peppers by one of the farmers. Using ground turkey from the supermarket, I made, and August and I rolled, meatballs with plenty of basil in them and finished sautéing them with the frying peppers plus red wine. I served them with a side of vermicelli pasta tossed with a fresh marinara sauce (see blog posting of 8/7/06) and grated Romano cheese. As accompaniment we had a salad of peeled sliced cucumbers, also the excess of the season, with the luscious Greek 'Fage' yogurt, sea salt, freshly grated black pepper, and a little white wine vinegar.

The recipe serves six, when accompanied by a pasta dish. While most of the crew eating last evening did not have wine, a dry red from almost any grape would pair fairly well with the meatballs.

Turkey and Basil Meatballs with Peppers sautéed in Red Wine Tim

2 pounds ground turkey
24 medium-sized basil leaves, finely chopped
8 tablespoons quick-style oatmeal
3 tablespoons unseasoned bread crumbs
2 eggs
2 teaspoons salt plus some for frying
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
4 tablespoons canola or olive oil for frying
3 large red (sweet) frying peppers or 2 medium red bell peppers
1/2 cup red wine (or chicken broth)

Using all except the oil, red peppers, and wine, mix the ingredients well for the meatballs. (It's easier to roll the meatballs if the mixture at this stage is chilled for half an hour or more.) Spray or wipe a cookie sheet with oil. Shape the mixture into large walnut-size balls and set them out on the cookie sheet until needed.

Heat a large, preferably non-stick, frying pan to medium and add the oil. Add the meatballs, part at a time if need be to keep them from touching. Reshape them if necessary as you put them in the pan, placing them with a narrow side down, if they do not keep their shape. Carefully turn them a quarter turn at a time as they start to cook and firm up, using a sharp spatula in one hand and a spoon in the other, so they do not get flattened. It may be difficult to keep them completely round, but that is not too important. Fry until the meatblls are lightly browned on all sides.

If the meatballs were fried in two batches, remove the first batch to a bowl, and fry the other batch. When all the meatballs are fried, add the first batch, if done, back to the pan. Spoon out all but a tablespoon of grease. Add the peppers, seeded and cut in 1/2-inch wide lengthwise strips plus the wine to the meatballs. Sprinkle with about a quarter teaspoon of salt. Carefully turn the meatballs so they get moistened on all sides with the wine. Cover the pan and simmer for a few minutes. Turn the meatballs and peppers, cover again, and simmer a few more minutes. If the wine is drying down, add a little water. Simmer with occasional turning until the peppers are softened. Serve with the peppers draped over the meatballs for color.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Summer-Fall Sautéed Butternut: for Athens Farmers Market

I was invited to do a cooking demonstration for the Athens Farmers Market today. (This update is scheduled for posting the hour I'm actually cooking there.) The newly established market is already becoming popular in Athens, allowing local producers, especially the organic farmers, to sell and show their produce and to help build sustainable local agriculture. For the cooking demonstrations they wish the chef-du-jour to focus on the produce sold at the market.

Since it is late summer, with fall vegetables starting to come in yet with mid-summer produce still available, I developed a recipe to capitalize on butternut squash, one of my autumn favorites, prepared with summer vegetables and herbs. Originally I pictured this as a topping for pasta, but then got more into the locavore spirit and came up with local stone-ground grits fixed in the manner of soft polenta (see Jalapeño-Wine-Cheese Grits, blog posting of 8/23/08).

The recipe will serve six hungry diners. The sautéed butternut should be served over seasoned grits, or olive oiled and lightly salted pasta, or polenta. With hearty vegetarian dishes like this one, I prefer medium-bodied, spicy red wines, such as Garnacha wines from Spain, Chianti, or Beaujolais.

Sautéed Butternut Tim

1 medium butternut squash, about 2 pounds
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, diced
1 small-medium green bell pepper, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 very large clove garlic, minced
1 small jalapeño, seeded and minced
2 large tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped
3/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 cup white wine
6 medium-large fresh basil leaves, cut in half
2 tablespoons grated Romano or Parmesan cheese
A little more grated cheese, or minced parsley, for garnish

Peel the butternut, cut it across into 3/4-inch slices, scooping out the seed cavity when you get to that part. Cut the flesh into 3/4-inch chunks. Fry (sauté) these gently in a large pan with the olive oil, stirring frequently. Meanwhile prep the other vegetables as indicated, keeping the tomato separate.

When the butternut is just starting to become tender (test with a toothpick), add the onion, bell pepper, garlic, and jalapeño. Add the salt and pepper, and sauté the mixture, stirring frequently and scraping the bottom of the pan, until the bell pepper and onion become tender. Stir in the chopped tomatoes and sauté about 2 minutes, stirring carefully several times. Add the wine and sauté briefly until the vegetables are tender. The mixture should be slightly wet. If not, add a little water to moisten. Taste several bits of vegetable and stir in a little salt, if needed. Remove from the heat, and stir in the basil and grated cheese.

To Serve
Spread a portion of grits (or oiled and lightly salted pasta) on a plate. Spoon some of the butternut mixture over it. Sprinkle with either a little grated cheese or minced parsley.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Pesto: For eating now and for the freezer

The area of Genoa, on the Mediterranean coast of Italy, is home to 'pesto', known in Italian as 'pesto alla genovese'. (The name pesto comes from the Latin for 'pounded' or 'crushed'.) This intense sauce of fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil, and aged tangy cheese, is used primarily as a dressing for pasta. Pesto is most classical as a dressing for 'tagliatelli', a flat egg noodle, and the pasta with my favorite name, 'strozza preti' (priest stranglers). In Genoa, potato is often cooked in with the pasta. Pesto is also served with potato gnocchi, the little fork-scored dumplings.

Genoa is the home of the great navigator and explorer, Cristoforo Colombo, Columbus to us, who sailed for the Spanish Crown. Genoa is also the homeland of the Donderos, a very regional clan. My great-grandfather sailed from Genoa to New York in 1861, worked for a while in Ontario (my grandfather was Canadian born), and finally settled in New Hampshire. Genovese have migrated in small numbers, rather than in mass movements, to wherever ships sailed in the New World. Pesto, and 'Sardo Pecorino', a sheeps milk cheese used for it, are made in Argentina, and pesto and tagliatelli (and even Donderos) are found in Peru.

While pesto is Genoese, similar basil sauces, like 'pistou' from Marseilles, are found through the Mediterranean coast of France and Italy. These days, as traditional food names are stretched, there is a 'pesto rosso', a red sauce of dried tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and cheese. (I'll work on that for a future blog.) And very recently, arugula is being incorporated into pesto, along with or even in place of the basil. As pine nuts ('pignoli') get more expensive, walnuts or even cashews are sometimes substituted. The cheese for pesto is traditionally Pecorino Romano or Parmesan, or a combination. A milder, but authentic, variation in the herb is my preference, replacing 1/4 of the basil with fresh parsley.

Basil is still plentiful, but will be fading as the weather gets colder. This is still a great time to make pesto, to enjoy it now and to freeze for enjoyment in the winter. Pesto can be stored in the refrigerator for a week, putting a layer of olive oil over the surface to keep the green from browning. For freezing for later use, it is better -- but not esential -- to omit the cheese, and put it in just before serving.

Traditionally the pesto is held at room temperature while the pasta (containing some small chunks of peeled potatoes) is boiled. Before draining the pasta, a quarter cup of the pasta water is removed and stirred into the pesto. When the pasta is drained in a colander, after brief shaking it is transferred to a large pasta bowl and tossed with the diluted pesto. The dish is finished with more grated cheese.

The recipe makes enough pesto for pasta for six people. There may be some pesto left over, which can be stored in the fridge for later use, coated with a layer of olive oil to reduce color change. Or make several recipes worth, depending on your supply of basil, withhold the cheese, and freeze the extra in meal-sized portions in zip-locked plastic bags (add the cheese after defrosting, just before eating).

A dry red wine, Italian or South American, or an American Zinfandel, goes well with this dish, as does warm, crusty bread.

Pesto with Pasta Tim

1-1/2 cups fresh basil leaves, lightly packed
1/2 cup parsley leaves, flat 'Italian' type preferred, lightly packed
3 tablespoons pine nuts (or walnuts)
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3/4 teaspoon salt
5/8 cup grated Romano or Parmesan cheese, or a mixture

12 to 16 ounces pasta
2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut in 1/2-inch chunks
Salt for boiling
Grated cheese for garnish

Put basil, parsley, pine nuts, garlic, oil, and salt in a blender or food processor. Pulse it a number of times, scraping down the container with a spatula. Do not puree the herbs, but chop them until they are small specks. Remove the mixture to a bowl. If the pesto is to be eaten soon, stir in the cheese. Taste a little (it's strongly flavored), and add salt if necessary.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons salt to the water. Add the potatoes, and when the water returns to a boil, add the pasta and stir immediately so it does not stick together. Let boil, stirring frequently. When the pasta is tender to the bite, remove 1/4 cup of the pasta-boiling water and stir it into the pesto. Drain the pasta in a colander, shaking once or twice, and transfer it to a large serving bowl. Toss the pasta with the diluted pesto. Sprinkle with a little more cheese to serve.

Alternatively, for freezing, make the pesto without the cheese. Place in meal-sized quantities in zip-lock bags in the freezer. To serve, thaw overnight in the refrigerator, stir in grated cheese and then some of the pasta boiling water. Taste, and add a little salt if needed.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

While they're still fresh: Tomatoes, Provençal Style

It's late mid-summer and ripe tomatoes are still coming in. A dish that takes advantage of -- requires, really -- the freshest, reddest, ripest fruit is Provençal-style roasted tomatoes, 'Tomates provençale' (toe-'mott pro-vanh-'sahl). Fresh tomatoes from the garden or the local farmers' market are the way to go for this one. Don't even bother with supermarket tomatoes trucked in from across the country.

A number of years ago Thomas, a teenager from the south of France, spent three summers with us in Atlanta. While overall he adored the freedom and freshness of being in the US and on summer vacation, he constantly craved the summer specialty of his mother, Sylvie, who came from Marseilles: roasted tomatoes with an herb and crumb topping.

I learned to make it, respectably I thought. But for Thomas it was close yet never quite rang the bell. I subsequently tasted tomates provençale in the south of France prepared by Sylvie herself, and Thomas was right. It was the richness of the Mediterranean tomatoes that made the difference.

The recipe serves six as a side dish.

Tomates Provençale (Provençal Roasted Tomatoes) Tim

6 medium sized, ripe tomatoes, as red as possible, or 12 smaller ones
Salt for sprinkling (plus sugar may be needed)
4 tablespoons unseasoned dry bread crumbs (or 8 tablespoons freshly prepared bread crumbs)
2 medium scallions (green onions), or 1/2 of a very small onion
1 tablespoon parsley
3 large fresh basil leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
A pinch of cayenne or several squirts of hot pepper sauce
3 tablespoons grated Romano or Parmesan cheese or 4 tablespoons grated gruyère
3 tablespoons olive oil

Slice the top off each of the tomatoes so that the stem is removed and a wide flat tomato surface is exposed. Cut out any green core areas. Place the tomatoes, cut side up, in a baking dish in which they can later be served. Sprinkle the cut surface generously with salt. If the tomatoes are not fully ripe, sprinkle each with a large pinch of sugar. In a food processor (or with a chef's knife on a cutting board) mince the scallions (including the greens) or onion, the parsley and basil, using on and off pulsing. Mix with the bread crumbs, salt, pepper, cayenne or hot sauce, cheese, and olive oil. Gently pack equal amounts of the seasoned crumb mixture onto each of the tomatoes. Bake, uncovered, at 350 degrees 40-45 minutes or until the tomatoes are thoroughly heated and the topping is beginning to brown. Serve in the baking dish. Handle the tomatoes carefully when serving, since they are very tender.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Louisiana Bread Pudding with Bourbon Sauce

Louisiana in the news today hasn't suggested rich desserts. But at some point, people will return again from their hurricaine exiles, and life, hopefully will start recovering, yet once more. But the name Louisiana always recalls food for me, and not just the tough endurance of its people. New Orleans was the first place in the United States where everything I ate for a week was both unfamiliar and totally memorable. I hope it won't be too insensitive to that battered land to share a recipe that reminds me of there.

Here's my take on Creole bread pudding. We make this dessert occasionally at our restaurant in Athens, especially around Mardi Gras and for special catering. With the bourbon sauce already soaked into the pudding when served, rather than having a sauce to pour over just as it's eaten, it works well in a commercial setting. An alternative presentation would be to make 3 times the sauce recipe and present it in a bowl to be spooned over the pudding by those dining.

The recipe serves six, with highly desirable leftovers. Good coffee is the best accompaniment, chicory coffee if you like that. (Ground coffee with chicory is available in cans with the 'Café du Monde' label).

Louisiana Bread Pudding with Bourbon Sauce Tim

8 cups, moderately packed, cubed (1/2 inch) soft baguette or dinner rolls
3 eggs
3 cups whole milk
2/3 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
3 tablespoons canola oil (or melted butter for richer pudding)
1/4 cup pecans (optional), coarsely chopped
1/4 cup golden raisins, separated if stuck together
3 tablespoons Craisins (dried cranberries), separated if stuck together
More oil or butter for pan

1/4 cup bourbon whiskey
4 teaspoons brown sugar

Heat the oven to 375 degrees (360 convection).

Prepare the bread. In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs until lightly beaten. Add milk, sugar, seasonings, and oil or melted butter. Mix well to dissolve sugar, then blend into the bread, along with raisins, pecans, if used, and Craisins. Let sit 10 minutes. Stir again.

Generously butter or oil a 9-inch round casserole or high-sided cake pan or 8 by 8-inch glass pan. Fill with the pudding mixture and smooth the top. Cover loosely with a sheet of waxed paper and then aluminum foil.

Place the pan into a larger pan. Put 1 inch of boiling water into the lower pan to make a water bath for the pudding pan. Bake 45 minutes, then uncover and test for doneness – the sides should have pulled away from the pan, and the center should be slightly springy. A sharp knife inserted near the center comes out clean without any milky juices clinging. Bake uncovered for a few more minutes to dry the top, and until the pudding tests done. (The pudding typically takes about 55-60 minutes total.) Remove from the oven to a cake rack.

Simmer the sauce ingredients 1 minute. With a 2-prong fork poke holes into the still hot pudding here and there. Spoon sauce over the pudding so it soaks in.

Cool, then cover with plastic wrap. The pudding can be served very cold, or warmed slightly. (Microwave warming is acceptable for individual pieces.)