Monday, August 29, 2011

A Ratatouille Gateau for Your Picnic

There’s still time for a summer picnic, which is good news since I have something rather shocking to tell you ... my family has not gone on one picnic yet this summer! Nope, not a one. We’ve had many al fresco meals in our backyard but for some reason haven’t pulled out the picnic basket. I’m rather bewildered thinking about this fact, but we’ll remedy it at once! I love our picnic basket. As I lift the lid to fill it, I see the perfectly arranged wine glasses, knives and forks strapped in to their spots (there’s even a cute little set of salt and pepper shakers) and recall fun memories of past picnics. Not that you need a basket to go on a picnic, just good food and a warm day. For our picnics, we enjoy heading to one of the beaches along Lake Washington. Trees and the sound of water provide a relaxing backdrop to our meal.

Our picnic food usually includes cheeses, breads, fruit, veggie sandwiches or quiche, perhaps deviled eggs and a sweet treat. Wanting a different type of veggie dish, I created this Ratatouille Gateau. Ratatouille, mixed veggies and basil mayo are layered between herbed crepes and stacked in a springform pan for easy transporting.

I am a big fan of ratatouille, especially since it's most flavorful if served room temperature (and tastes even better if made the day before). Lots of zucchini are growing right now, so this is a terrific way to use them. For this ratatouille, I roasted all the veggies in order to bring out more flavors. The crepes are adapted from a recipe in Gourmet magazine for homemade manicotti. I reverse the order of instructions for the ingredients (makes mixing easier and no need to push through a sieve) and add thyme.

All of the components can be prepared ahead of time and then the gateau assembled right before heading out the door. By the time you reach your picnic destination, the gateau will be room temperature and ready to enjoy. See you at the beach!

Ratatouille Gateau
Serves 6-8

Gateau Fillings (Ratatouille, Basil Mayo and Veggies)

1 medium globe eggplant, cut into 1-inch pieces
3 zucchini, sliced lengthwise and chopped in 1-inch pieces
1 yellow pepper, roughly chopped
1 red pepper, roughly chopped
5 roma tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 red onion, chopped into 1-inch pieces
10 cloves garlic, sliced lenthwise
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided plus more to drizzle
1/2 cup tomato puree
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. On a rimmed baking sheet, drizzle a little olive oil and use a pastry brush or paper towel to coat bottom. Spread the eggplant in a single layer. Give a quick drizzle of olive oil over the eggplant and toss a bit (or use a Misto sprayer). Roast the eggplant for about 20 minutes, until it is browning on the edges and soft. Pour eggplant into a large mixing bowl and set aside.

Add another light slick of olive oil to the bottom of the baking sheet and spread the peppers, zucchini and tomatoes on in a thick single layer. Drizzle a little olive oil and stir around. Roast the veggies for about 25 minutes, giving them a stir a couple of times. Add the veggies to the eggplant.

Again, add a little olive oil to coat the baking sheet and spread the onions and 10 sliced garlic cloves to pan. Roast for about 15-20 minutes, giving a stir and making sure garlic doesn't burn. Add to the mixing bowl with eggplant and other veggies.

Give all the ratatouille veggies a stir and mix in the tomato puree. Season with salt and pepper to taste. At this point, the ratatouille can be covered and chilled until ready to use.

Basil Mayo
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves
1/2 lemon, juiced
1/2 cup mayonnaise (homemade is wonderful, but for this Vegenaise or Hellmans will do just fine)

To make the basil mayo, combine 2 tablespoons of olive oil, basil, lemon juice, 1 clove of garlic and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Whiz until smooth, scraping down the sides once. Add the mayo and pulse until combined. Chill until ready to use.

1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced
1/2 pound asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces

In a medium saute pan, pour in 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium high heat. Add the mushrooms, cover and steam for about 7 minutes until soft and liquid is released (turn down heat if mushrooms are sticking). Stir and add the asparagus. Stir, cover and steam for about 4-5 minutes until asparagus is soft. Remove from heat and set aside. You can chill these veggies, too, until ready to use.

Adapted from Gourmet Magazine
Makes 6

1 1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 1/2 cup warm water
3 eggs, room temperature
Butter for making crepes

In a medium mixing bowl, add the flour, salt and thyme and stir together. Slowly pour in warm water and stir until combined. Add the eggs one at a time and stir each one in until just combined.

Heat a 10-inch nonstick crepe pan or frying pan over medium high heat and brush with a little butter. Pour 1/2 cup measure of crepe batter in and tip pan to swirl and coat bottom. Cook for about 30 seconds until set then flip and cook the other side for about 30 seconds. Remove the crepe and make 5 more. Crepes can be stacked with parchment paper layered in between. Watch your heat while making and be prepared to turn down a little if the crepes are setting too quickly and you can't spread the batter thin enough.

To Assemble
Mix the basil mayo with the asparagus and mushrooms. Place a crepe in the bottom of a 10-inch springform pan. Spread 1/3 of the ratatouille on the bottom and top with a crepe. Spread 1/2 of the basil veggie mix on and top with a crepe. Spread the next 1/3 of ratatouille, top with crepe and then the last 1/2 of the basil mayo and veggies. Layer with a crepe, add the last 1/3 of the ratatouille and place final crepe on top. Wrap the springform pan tightly with foil to transport to your picnic. Once there, pop off the side, slice and serve.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Sweetness of Chocolate Cake and Friendship

My dear friend, Julie, celebrated her birthday yesterday and I was honored to make a cake for her. Julie has been in my life for many years now. Bob and I met her and her husband, Mitch, when I was pregnant with my older son and soon after we bought houses on the same street. That was 16 years ago and since then we have raised children, taken vacations together, shared holidays and Shabbat dinners and become family. Their children, Sophie and Jake, are close with my children, almost like cousins. In fact, Julie and Sophie (5 months old at the time) were in the delivery room when my younger son, Isaac, was born. Sophie and Isaac like to say they’ve known each other since birth!

A special friend like Julie deserves a decadent cake to celebrate her birthday and it must be chocolate. My go-to chocolate cake for the past 10 years is one from Cook’s Illustrated. You can bake it in a 9x13 inch pan and take it on a picnic, no frosting needed. Or you can use two round cake pans, layer it with a rich filling and slather on frosting for a festive occasion.

Pondering a new cake idea is so much fun! I’ve been dying to try this chocolate bourbon whipped cream and thought it would provide a heavenly cake filling. It did, and I’ll admit to sneaking quite a few spoonfuls while assembling the cake. The icing on the cake was a tangy, rich one of chocolate and sour cream. Yum!

A balmy evening, tiki torches burning, sipping chilled wine, indulging in cake and ice cream and celebrating friendship.... just a few of life’s moments to savor. Cheers to a lovely friend!

Chocolate Sheet Cake
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated
Makes one 9x13 inch cake or two 9 inch round cakes

3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 ounces semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus extra for buttering baking pan(s)
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar (a little less if using semi-sweet chocolate)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Coat bottom and sides of baking pan(s) with butter.

Sift together cocoa powder, flour and salt in a medium bowl. Heat chocolate and butter in a small saucepan over very low heat, stirring until melted and smooth (or you can use a microwave). Whisk together eggs, sugar and vanilla in a medium bowl.

Whisk chocolate into egg mixture until combined. Combine buttermilk and baking soda and whisk into chocolate mixture. Then whisk in dry ingredients until batter is smooth and glossy. Pour batter into prepared pan(s) and bake until firm in the center when lightly pressed, about 30 minutes for 9 inch cake pans and 40 minutes for 9x13 inch pan. Cool on wire rack for 1 hour. This cake freezes well, too. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and freeze up to one month.

If assembling a layered cake, set one cake on a serving plate. Layer with Chocolate Bourbon Whipped Cream, place second cake on top and ice with Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting (recipes follow).

Chocolate Bourbon Whipped Cream
Makes about 2 cups

1 cup heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon bourbon

Combine cream, cocoa, sugar and bourbon in a medium bowl and whisk to combine. Cover and refrigerate at least an hour to allow the cocoa to dissolve. Whisk by hand or beat with a hand-mixer until stiff peaks form. Take a taste (or two!). Chill until ready to use.

Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting
From Cooking for Mr. Latte by Amanda Hesser

2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 cups sour cream, room temperature

Melt the chocolate chips over low heat or in a microwave. Let cool to room temperature. It’s very important that the chocolate and sour cream be the same temperature or the frosting will be gloppy and grainy (this has happened to me before ... still delicious but not as pretty). Stir the melted chocolate and sour cream together until smooth. Frost away!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Tomato Bread Pudding at the Block Party

Yes! I’m happy to report we have an amazingly gorgeous day with a cloudless blue sky. All the windows are open and the house is drenched in sunshine. Sitting at Isaac’s football practice this morning, I sipped my iced green tea and soaked up the warmth. I’ll need these memories when the rain and gray return later this year ... but we’re not thinking about that today. On our way home from the field, Isaac looked at me and said, “This is your kind of day." No truer words were ever spoken!

Tonight is our annual block party and we could not ask for a better evening to be outside. I love this tradition! We pull barbecues out on to the sidewalk, set up beach chairs and folding tables, flip on some music and chat and share food with our neighbors. We have lived on our block for 16 years and it’s a terrific one. When Bob and I moved here, Sam was a newborn baby and we marveled at how old the kids in elementary school looked. Now we’re the ones with two sons towering over the preschoolers. Big sigh ...

As we are in the midst of tomato season, and I am making as many tomato dishes as possible, I have another recipe I must share with you (and it happens to be perfect for a block party). Tomato Bread Pudding (Quajado de Tomate), a Sephardic dish, is part omelet, part bread pudding. Tomatoes are the star, so only local, ripe tomatoes will do here. Eggs, bread, cheese and herbs are supporting actors and when combined with the tomatoes you have a mouth–watering plate of silky custard, salty cheese and sweet tomatoes. This is sublime comfort food. You can vary the herbs and cheeses you use, so this is a fun dish to get creative with.

Bring it to your next potluck, serve out big scoops, relax in your beach chair and catch up on the latest.

P.S. No lemonade stand this year ... instead two neighborhood girls set up a nail parlor! I am so excited!

Tomato Bread Pudding (Quajado do Tomate)
Adapted from Sephardic Flavors by Joyce Goldstein
Serves 6-8

2 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, chopped
4 thick slices of rustic bread (about 12 ounces), soaked in water and squeezed dry
6 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup Italian parsley, chopped (feel free to use other fresh herbs)
3/4 pound cheese (about 3 cups), grated or crumbled (you can use a combination such as feta and mozzarella, or parmesan and mozzarella - just be sure one of your cheeses is a salty one)
Salt and pepper to taste

Place the chopped tomatoes in a colander, sprinkle with a little salt and let drain for 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Oil a 9x12 inch baking dish.

In a large bowl, mix the tomatoes, soaked bread, eggs, parlsey and all but 1/2 cup of the cheese. Mix well and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish, spread evenly and sprinkle remaining cheese on top.

Bake the pudding until golden and set, 40-45 minutes. Serve warm or room temperature.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Cracked Wheat Walnut Bread and News of a Baby

I have a new nephew! My brother, Tim, and sister-in-law, Kristen, just had their third beautiful child and I am delighted to be an auntie again. Babies = pure happiness. I can’t wait to meet this sweet bundle. Is there anything more delicious than kissing tiny baby feet?

In the meantime, I can’t think of a more appropriate time to bake bread than when celebrating a baby. When making bread, I think of new life bubbling up while watching the yeast and liquid react together. Kneading dough is cozy and comforting and it allows me to create a tangible sign of love with my hands. I want to nurture and strengthen my sleep deprived brother and sister-in-law. Sadly, I am not nearby to help with the baby, so until I can visit I will send my love in a freshly baked loaf of whole-grain goodness. (Spoiler alert, Tim and Kristen - guess what’s coming in the mail!)

Cracked Wheat and Walnut Bread is a hearty, nutritious bread and a favorite of ours. It combines bulgur, whole wheat flour, walnuts and a touch of honey to yield a flavorful loaf. I first had it at Macrina Bakery here in Seattle and when their cookbook was published I ran to pick it up and baked this bread immediately (as well as the brownies ... I promise I’ll tell you about those clouds of chocolate delight soon). This is a terrific all-purpose bread! Top a toasted slice with a poached egg, make a tuna salad sandwich (as I just did) or enjoy it warm out of the oven with honey butter. You really can’t go wrong. And I suggest you double the recipe so you have an extra loaf to share or stash in your freezer.

A toast to my new nephew! (Hee hee – I couldn’t resist.)

Cracked Wheat Walnut Bread
Adapted from Macrina Bakery and Café Cookbook by Leslie Mackie
Makes 1 loaf

3/4 cup cracked wheat bulgur
1 cup boiling water
1 1/4 cups warm water
1 1/2 teaspoons dried yeast
2 tablespoons honey
1 cup whole wheat flour (plus extra for sprinkling)
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 cup canola oil
1 1/2 cups walnut halves, toasted and chopped

Place the cracked wheat in a small bowl and cover with boiling water. Stir and let sit for 10 minutes until the liquid is absorbed.

In a large mixing bowl, pour in warm water and add the yeast and honey. Stir and let sit until it bubbles up, about 5 minutes. Add the cracked wheat, 1 cup whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, salt and canola oil. Stir with a wooden spoon until the dough comes together. Using floured hands, knead for about 10 minutes. Add the walnuts and knead until they are mixed in. (This can all be done in a standing mixer with a dough hook, too, but sometimes I prefer to make bread completely by hand.)

Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm area for about 2 hours. Punch the dough down and pull it out onto a floured surface. Form it into a rectangle and position it so the long side is facing you. Fold the 2 short ends onto the top so they meet in the middle. Roll the dough away from you to form a tight log.

Place the loaf in an oiled 9x5 loaf pan. Let rise for 1 hour. While the loaf is proofing, preheat the oven to 385 degrees.

Dust the top of the loaf with a little bit of whole wheat flour. Bake for about 50 minutes, until medium brown on top. Let cool for 30 minutes before removing from the pan. Slice and enjoy!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Cherry Tomato Cobbler for Your Weekend

Are you loving tomato season right now? You know I am. I’ve been roasting tomatoes, saucing, slicing and tossing them into salads and veggie dishes wherever possible. I am hooked on eating open-faced sandwiches with thick, vibrant red slices of tomatoes paired with homemade aioli and sea salt. I’ll never tire of this combination (or the juices dripping down my arm)! I’m excited to share one of my favorite tomato recipes with you here.

Cherry tomatoes, those red, orange and yellow little beauties, are particularly sweet right now and when I’m not popping them in my mouth by the handful (alternating between pints of these and pints of blueberries) I am dreaming of new ways to enjoy them. Ah, the joys of letting my mind wander while feeding the chickens, watering the flowers or cutting butter into flour for pastry dough ...and pastry dough, of course, leads me to thoughts of cobbler. See how my mind works in the summer?

I love cobbler, plain and simple! While sweet fruit cobbler is glorious, I was inspired by a recipe I saw in Living Magazine years ago and created a savory cobbler with cherry tomatoes. The tomatoes are baked until bubbly with onions and basil under a cobbled crust rich with butter and ricotta salata. Serve this cobbler with corn on the cob and a green salad and you'll have a farmer's market dinner to savor this weekend. See you on Monday!

Cherry Tomato Cobbler
Inspired by Living Magazine
Serves 6

Cobbler crust:
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
6 ounces ricotta salata, grated (reserve some for sprinkling on top)
2-3 tablespoons ice water

Tomato filling:
1 medium onion, diced
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 pounds cherry tomatoes, rinsed
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cups fresh basil, roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

For the cobbler crust, combine the flour, butter sugar, salt and about 3/4 of the cheese. Pulse together. Add 2 tablespoons of ice water and pulse. If the dough does not stick together when squeezed, add more water, a few drops at at time. Turn the dough out onto a piece of plastic wrap and pat into a flat round. Wrap and place in the fridge.

For the filling, melt 1 tablespoon of butter over medium heat. Add the onions and saute until they are soft. Remove from heat. In a mixing bowl, toss the tomatoes with the flour, salt, basil and pepper. Add the onions and stir gently.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Pour the tomato filling into a square 9x9 inch baking dish. Break off pieces (chunks and crumbles) of the cobbler crust and sprinkle over the entire top. Scatter the reserved cheese over the crust. Bake on a rimmed baking sheet for 45-50 minutes, until the filling is bubbling and top is golden. If top is browning too quickly you can place a piece of foil lightly over until filling is done. Let cool and serve room temperature. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Peach Dumplings and a Homecoming

My whole family is home now! Woohoo! My younger son, Isaac, returned yesterday after three weeks away at camp. Bob and I joke that Isaac has only been visiting Seattle this summer, but it really is true. After a school trip to Japan and a visit with his grandparents in Boston, MA, he was home for two days before we said good-bye again. This time Isaac jumped on the bus with his buddies and departed for camp in Olympia, WA. Camp Solomon Schechter is beloved by the campers and the kids begin counting down to next summer’s session as soon as they arrive home. For now, though, we have our family together under one roof (Sam just returned from Washington, D.C. a few days ago) and this is cause for celebration!

One of our favorite summer meals is peach dumplings. Yup, dessert for dinner! The recipe is Czech and comes from Bob’s mother, Ann. When I first met Bob (almost 24 years ago) his mom served peach dumplings for dinner one evening. I loved the dumplings instantly (and his mom!). And what’s not to love? Sweet, juicy peaches are wrapped in a cheese dough, cooked, sliced in half and served with melted butter, sour cream and sugar. Oh my! (Yes, melted butter, sour cream and sugar – over the years, I’ve erred in trying to make these healthier by substituting whole wheat flour, whole grain bread crumbs, cinnamon and yogurt. No luck there. I’ve embraced the white flour, sugar and sour cream for dinner!)

I was touched when my mother-in-law shared the recipe with me and it evokes warm memories of her when I pull it out. Grandma's Peach Dumplings are what Sam and Isaac request most when peaches are in season and make the perfect celebratory meal for us. I’m a happy mama with the whole family around the table again!

Peach Dumplings
From my mother-in-law, Ann Cordes
Makes 10

For the dumplings
10 large, very ripe peaches
5 eggs
3 cups ricotta cheese (do not use homemade, the dumpling dough will be too soft)
3 cups unseasoned bread crumbs (very dry crumbs if using homemade)
3 cups all-purpose flour
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

To serve
Sour cream
Melted butter

Rinse the peaches, dry and remove any stems (keep the peaches whole, no need to peel). Fill a large pot (8 quart) with water and start heating it on high heat.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk the eggs and then stir in the ricotta cheese and bread crumbs. Alternate adding the flour and melted butter. At this point, I find it easiest to use my hands to mix the dough.

When you have a smooth dough, shape it into a log on the kitchen counter and divide into 10 portions. Flatten one portion in your hands and wrap around a peach, being sure to seal it well (roll it around in your hands like a ball to smooth). Repeat with the remaining dough so you have 10 dumplings. You can make them earlier in the day up to this point. Just seal them in plastic wrap so they don’t dry out and keep in the fridge.

When the water is boiling, use a slotted spoon to lower 5 dumplings in. Move them around a bit to make sure they are not sticking to the bottom. Cover the pot partially and when the water returns to a boil, turn the heat down a little so it doesn’t boil over. Boil for 20 minutes.

Remove the dumplings carefully with a slotted spoon. Sometimes the dumpling dough will split or start to come off the peach...don’t worry, it’s still delicious even if it’s not looking perfect. Boil the next 5 dumplings in the same way. Keep the first 5 warm by putting them in a bowl and covering with a kitchen towel.

To serve, slice a dumpling in half and slather on sour cream, sugar and melted butter to your taste. I find the dumplings slice best if they have cooled for about 10 minutes. Enjoy!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Tomato Sauce and Music to My Ears

My older son, Sam just returned home (yea!) from a ten day trip to Washington, D.C. He participated in a high school program about forensic science and the group stayed in a college dorm. While there, he learned about bloodstain pattern analysis, DNA evidence, fingerprints, footprints, crime scene investigation and the role of forensic science in the law. How cool is that! Sam met some great students in the program, did community building exercises, toured museums, saw the monuments at night and had a lot of fun (oh, and became a seasoned traveler after a delayed flight, missed connection and no suitcase upon his arrival!). Sam discovered, though, that he does not like dorm food.

As Sam shared stories with Bob and me about all he had learned and what it was like living in a college dorm, he asked a question that warmed my heart. “Mom, can you teach me to cook?” Boy, did I smile! Parenting is full of joy and here is one of those many moments where I think, “Ohhh, hold on to this one.”

The offer to teach my sons to cook has always been there, and as they’ve grown up Sam and Isaac have helped with kneading challah dough, making sushi, baking cookies, chopping veggies, scrambling eggs and flipping pancakes. My boys are terrific eaters and appreciate good food. I hope that, as they continue to grow older, they will be comfortable in the kitchen and enjoy preparing food for their friends at college and beyond. I emphasize that it doesn’t need to be fancy or difficult ... simple preparations yield delicious results.

Together, Sam and I made a list of some favorite meals he’d like to learn to make. We decided to begin with a stellar tomato sauce. Tomato sauce is a building block in so many great dishes such as lasagna, pizza and manicotti, plus this one is delicious served simply on spaghetti. We gathered our ingredients and began cooking while listening to the Mariners game on the radio. Sam and I are going to be in the kitchen together a lot and I couldn’t be happier!

Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter
Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
Serves 4 (enough for almost 1 pound of spaghetti)

This is a brilliant, pure, rich tomato sauce. After the onion simmers, the recipe calls for discarding the onion. Don’t! Savor it as your pre-dinner snack as you finish fixing the meal.

2 pounds fresh, ripe tomatoes or 28 ounces canned whole Italian tomatoes (such as San Marzano), roughly cut up with their juices
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, peeled and cut in half
Salt to taste

**If using fresh tomatoes, you can blanch and peel them if you desire. We skipped this step since this is a sauce with texture (and we were feeling lazy). If you want the sauce to be smoother, you could give it a quick whiz with an immersion blender.

Put the tomatoes in a 4 quart saucepan and add the butter and onion. Bring the sauce to a simmer then lower the heat and cook uncovered at a very slow simmer for about 45 minutes, or until it is thickened to your liking (we cooked ours for 1 hour). Stir sauce occasionally and break up any pieces of tomato with the back of a wooden spoon. Taste for salt and remove onion (you can discard or enjoy). Proceed with using sauce for spaghetti or another dish.

Friday, August 12, 2011

A Shabbat Dinner: Tomato Ricotta Toasts, Vegetable Medley, Salmon with Mango Salsa and Rhubarb-Ginger Sorbet

Reflecting, sharing, talking, eating, laughing ... words that come to mind when I think of Shabbat dinner. Slowing down. Every Friday night, we celebrate Shabbat with candle lighting, blessing wine and challah, and blessing our sons, Sam and Isaac. Most Friday evenings, there are friends at our table or we are at friends’. This is a special time for us to catch up on the week, meet new people, deepen friendships and connect with our community. A time I truly value.

I always look forward to Friday night Shabbat dinners. No matter how busy the week has been, I can count on this being a special time to relax. Often, I breathe a deep sigh once I light the candles. This moment grounds me, almost like a reset button to prepare for the next week. I stop and enjoy being here, look around the table at my family and our guests, and bask in content feelings. We greet each other with “Shabbat Shalom.” There are hugs and l’chaims (to life!). And, of course, there is food.

Cooking for Shabbat dinner gives me great joy. A staple at the table is challah, which I love to bake (with chocolate chips). As for the meal, for me it is a time to get creative with new ideas or to make a family favorite, and always to indulge in dessert.

Our lovely friends Seth, Elana and their delightful son, Gabriel, came for Shabbat dinner in our backyard and what a marvelous evening we had together. We don’t see them as often as we’d like due to our children attending different schools, our jobs, life ... you know how it is. But how wonderful to have some hours to share what is happening in all our lives, their upcoming trip to Turkey, summer plans, updates on our sons’ schools and musings about life.

For this dinner, I slow roasted tomatoes and served them on toasted baguette slices with freshly made ricotta and a dusting of dukkah. Salmon, with a simple sprinkle of sea salt and squeeze of lime, was paired with mango salsa. I roasted fingerling potatoes, radishes, red onions and baby carrots and dressed them together with a vinaigrette. Dessert was a refreshing, tart rhubarb-ginger sorbet (the recipe for this sorbet can be found at Cheap Beets, a terrific food blog).

Here's to a memorable evening with friends. Shabbat Shalom.

Roasted Tomato Ricotta Toasts
This is a casual recipe in terms of amounts. Use your best judgment as far as how many toasts to prepare depending upon the size of your group and whether it’s a snack or appetizer.

Slow roasted tomatoes (recipe follows)
Fresh ricotta cheese (recipe follows)
A baguette loaf
Dukkah for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Slice the baguette thinly and place the rounds on a baking sheet. Bake the slices for about 10 minutes, flipping over halfway through. The toasts should be crisp but not hard.

Smear some ricotta on each toast and top with a roasted tomato half. Sprinkle on some dukkah and serve.

Slow Roasted Tomatoes
For the toasts, I roasted a lot of tomatoes so I would have extra. They are a delicious staple to keep in your fridge. Serve alongside eggs, slip a couple into a sandwich, or eat them straight from the jar. You can’t go wrong!

3 1/2 pounds Roma tomatoes, sliced in half lengthwise (or enough halves to fit on a rimmed baking sheet)
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt to taste

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees. Place the tomato halves in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet, cut side up. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.

Bake the tomatoes for about 6 hours and up to 8, depending upon how juicy or dry you prefer them. They will shrink and start to crinkle around the edges. I like both the juicy and drier ones and will often remove some of the tomatoes after 6 hours and continue roasting the rest for another couple. The tomato flavor concentrates and sweetens and is just delicious.

Cool tomatoes and begin eating! Roasted tomatoes will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for a week.

Fresh Ricotta Cheese
From Gourmet
Makes 2 cups

2 quarts whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Line a large sieve with a layer of fine-mesh cheesecloth and place it over a large bowl.

Slowly bring the milk, cream and salt to a rolling boil in a 6-quart heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching. Add the lemon juice, reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring constantly until the mixture curdles, about 2 minutes.

Pour the mixture into the lined sieve and let it drain 1 hour. You can save the liquid for another use or discard. Chill the ricotta. It will keep in the fridge in a covered container for 2-3 days.

Salmon with Mango Salsa
Serves 8

8-5 ounce filets of salmon, skinned and pin bones removed
3 limes
Salt to taste
Olive oil
2 mangoes, diced
1 cup pineapple, diced
2 avocadoes, diced
1 pint cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
1/4 of a red onion, finely diced

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Drizzle a little olive oil on a baking sheet and lightly coat the bottom. Place salmon filets on the baking sheet and squeeze a little bit of lime juice on each (using 1 lime). Sprinkle the filets with salt. Bake the salmon for about 8 minutes (if your filet is about an inch thick). I like my salmon slightly undercooked since it will continue cooking when removed from the oven and this keeps it from drying out. If you like your fish more done, then bake for 10 minutes. Remove from oven.

Combine the mangoes, pineapple, avocadoes, tomatoes and red onion in a bowl and mix gently. Stir in lime juice and salt to taste. Serve with the salmon filets.

Vegetable Medley
Serves 8 (with leftovers)

2 pounds fingerling potatoes, sliced in half lengthwise
3 bunches radishes, cleaned and quartered
2 red onions, sliced in wedges
3/4 pound small baby carrots, tops removed and sliced in half lengthwise (or quartered if a little thicker)
Olive oil for tossing
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 lemon, juiced
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a bowl, toss the fingerling potatoes with a little olive oil and layer on a baking sheet. Roast until tender and golden, about 25 minutes. Remove potatoes and pile on a large serving platter (you’ll be adding the other vegetables, too, so space accordingly).

Toss the radishes with olive oil (can use same bowl) and layer on baking sheet. Roast until tender but still have a bite, about 10 minutes. Remove and pile on the serving platter.

Toss the onions with olive oil and layer on baking sheet. Roast for about 15 minutes, until soft and browning at the edges. Remove and pile on the serving platter.

Toss the carrots with olive oil and layer on baking sheet. Roast for about 10-15 minutes, until soft but still a little crisp. Remove and pile on the serving platter. This can all be done a couple of hours ahead of time.

Whisk together the honey, vinegars, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle the dressing over the veggies and gently give each vegetable a little toss to distribute the vinaigrette. Serve room temperature.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Pickled Tomatillos, Green Beans and Carrots: It’s a Pickle Party!

Welcome to the Pickle Party! This is the season for pickling those lovely veggies you have grown in your garden, plucked from your CSA box or scooped up at your farmer’s market. And today Shauna Ahern (the Gluten-Free Girl) has invited us all to attend a virtual pickle party. Pickles will be shared from hundreds of kitchens and I’m excited to join the party.

My pickling experience so far has been with quick pickles that are ready in a few hours or a couple of days, and keep well for a month in the fridge. I’ve wanted to branch out into pickling with lacto-fermentation and recently got a crock to do so. We now have a 7 liter crock filled with cabbage in our garage, slowly fermenting into sauerkraut and I can’t wait to try it! But since that takes six weeks or so, I’ve made a variety of quick pickles for today.

The satisfaction from pickling is huge! To stand back and admire beautiful jars of preserved vegetables is wonderful. Last night I let out a very contented sigh and smiled at my afternoon’s endeavor. It touches on the Laura Ingalls Wilder within me, the desire to eat local, to get back to basics, to create food from scratch. When I shared this thought with my mom, she observed, “You’re trying to eat the way I grew up,” and this is true. She was raised on a farm where food was grown on their land and prepared at home. In my urban setting I have backyard chickens for eggs, a variety of tomato plants, and am grateful for the local farms surrounding Seattle that provide a bounty of incredible fruit and vegetables.

The number of vegetables that can be pickled is wonderful. I chose to pickle tomatillos, green beans and carrots for today. But I won’t be stopping there! I hope you’ll join me and get pickling.

The recipes and technique that follow are adapted from an issue of Eating Well and make 6 pint-size jars each.

Pickled Tomatillos

2 1/2 pounds tomatillos, husks removed, rinsed and cut into quarters or eighths
3 cups distilled white vinegar
3 cups water
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons sugar
6 habanero or jalapeno chiles, sliced
6 garlic cloves, sliced
3 teaspoons cumin seed

For the brine, combine the vinegar, water, salt and sugar in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil and stir until salt dissolves. Let boil for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Divide the tomatillos, chiles, garlic and cumin seed between 6 pint-sized jars.

Carefully fill the jars with the brine to within 1/2 inch of the top of the rim, covering the vegetables completely. Discard any leftover brine. Place lids on the jars and refrigerate for at least 24 hours before serving. Pickles will keep in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.

Pickled Green Beans

2 pounds green beans, stem ends trimmed
3 cups distilled white vinegar
3 cups water
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons crushed red chile pepper

Bring a pan of water to a boil and blanch the green beans for 2 minutes. Drain and immediately submerge the beans in a bowl of ice water.

For the brine, combine the vinegar, water, salt and sugar in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil and stir until the sugar dissolves. Let boil for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Divide the green beans and crushed red chile pepper between 6 pint-sized jars. Don’t worry if your beans are a little taller than the jar, they can be gently pushed in.

Carefully fill the jars with the brine to within 1/2 inch of the top of the rim, covering the vegetables completely. Discard any leftover brine. Place lids on the jars and refrigerate for at least 24 hours before serving. Pickles will keep in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.

Pickled Carrots

2 1/2 pounds carrots, cut into 3-inch sticks (I didn’t peel mine, but you can if you prefer)
3 cups distilled white vinegar
3 cups water
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons sugar
6 cloves garlic, sliced
12 sprigs fresh dill

Bring a pan of water to a boil and blanch the carrots for 2 minutes. Drain and immediately submerge the carrots in a bowl of ice water.

For the brine, combine the vinegar, water, salt and sugar in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil and stir until salt dissolves. Let boil for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Divide the carrots, garlic and dill sprigs evenly between 6 pint-sized jars.

Carefully fill the jars with the brine to within 1/2 inch of the top of the rim, covering the vegetables completely. Discard any leftover brine. Place lids on the jars and refrigerate for at least 24 hours before serving. Pickles will keep in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Radish Toasts and Confetti Corn Salad (No oven needed!)

Ahh, summer ... long days of sun, a more relaxed schedule (hopefully!), vacations with family, catching up on books, watching kids splash in the water, dining al fresco or lounging in a hammock. Whatever summer means to you, I’m sure it involves eating some incredible food, food that needs little in the way of seasoning or cooking to let it shine. Strolling through the farmers’ markets or diving into your CSA box means enjoying produce at its freshest and best. Summer also often means you do not need to turn on your oven to create dishes everyone will enjoy.

Corn and blueberries is a farmer’s market combination I’ve been smitten with lately. Both are in season now, and together they are so pretty and so very good! Last week I indulged in a creamy risotto topped with fresh corn and blueberries at Cantinetta. Needless to say, a sublime dish. And I just discovered this recipe for corn and blueberry cobbler that I want (need) to try. Have I mentioned I adore cobblers?

Another blissful pairing is radishes with butter and salt. Sometimes I have to stop myself from eating this combo every day. You can enjoy radishes with herb butter on thinly sliced bread, which makes a lovely appetizer, or by tearing off a hunk of baguette, swiping it in soft butter, sticking a couple radish slices on top and sprinkling with salt. Your choice ... both are delicious!

Radish Toasts with Lemon Basil Butter
Serves 1 (easily doubles)

2 thin slices of your favorite bread
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
10 lemon basil leaves
A few grinds of grains of paradise or black pepper
2 large radishes, thinly sliced
Sea salt to taste

Lightly toast the slices of bread and let cool.

Roughly chop the lemon basil leaves. With a mortar and pestle, pound the butter, leaves and grains of paradise together until well mixed.

Smear each slice of toast with 1/2 tablespoon of herbed butter. Arrange radish slices on top and sprinkle with sea salt. Enjoy!

Confetti Corn Salad
Serves 4

When corn is at its peak during the summer, it can be served fresh off the cob and is sweet, crispy and flavorful. As I was cutting corn off the cob, I thought about confetti and decided to create a colorful salad with the raw kernels. A simple lemon and lime dressing gives the salad a bright, citrusy flavor. Quick and easy for a warm summer evening!

4 ears of corn, shucked
1 pint cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
2 cups fresh blueberries
1 orange bell pepper, diced small
1 avocado, diced small
1/2 English cucumber, diced small
1/2 large lemon, sliced for squeezing
1 lime, sliced for squeezing
Splash of olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Stand each ear of corn up in a large bowl and use a knife to cut the corn kernels off the cob. You can save the cobs to simmer in soup stock, or toss them out the back door to the chickens for an afternoon treat as I did.

In a medium size bowl, combine the corn kernels, tomatoes, blueberries, bell pepper, avocado and cucumber. Squeeze the lemon and lime over the mix and stir gently. Add a splash of olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Stir again and serve.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Grandma’s Kolaches: Another Taste of Summer

Have you ever tasted a kolache? I haven’t met many people outside of the midwest who have heard of them, much less had the pleasure of eating one. They are pillowy Czech pastries and one of the treats I remember most from visiting my grandparents’ farm in Nebraska. My Grandma spent a lot of time in the kitchen baking many warm, comforting sweets.

To be honest, since I only ate kolaches at my grandparents’ (and never saw them in bakeries in Massachusetts), I grew up thinking we were calling one of her sweet rolls by a name my Grandma had made up! It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I discovered this was not the case. My family in Nebraska is not Czech, but my mother-in-law, Ann, was Czech (her father came through Ellis Island on his own in 1920 as a 16 year old!). When I learned that kolaches are Czech in origin it further endeared me to them. Love making those sweet connections!

Kolaches are buns made from a slightly sweet, yeasted dough with fillings such as apricots, prunes, poppy seeds or sweet cheese. If you desire, they can be frosted or dusted with powdered sugar (which I do recommend!). I’ve heard of a savory kolache with sausage filling, but have never tried that kind. I recall my Grandma making a pineapple filling, too, which was a favorite. To me, kolaches appear to be a cousin of Danish pastries or perhaps hamentaschen, especially given their similar fillings. They are perfect for breakfast or an afternoon snack with tea.

Summer is when I most often think of kolaches. This is due to my childhood visits to my relatives’ farms in Nebraska and also to the annual Czech Days Festival in nearby Wilber, NE. Wilber is the official Czech capital of the U.S. and kolaches are a big part of the celebration (including a kolache eating contest). The Czech Days Festival is this weekend, August 5-7, so if you are in the area I highly recommend attending and eating some kolaches for me.

Since I can’t be in Wilber this weekend, the next best thing is to make these pastries. When I copied my Grandma’s recipe for kolaches after she passed away some years ago, I made sure to include her note that reads, “Real Czech, brought to Nebraska before 1880.” This is a recipe with history! I’ve scaled her recipe down since she was clearly baking for 15 grandchildren and any other hungry guests wandering through the kitchen. I made fillings here using tart pie cherries and peaches since I had both sitting on my counter. Feel free to use a seasonal fruit or your favorite jam. I’ve also made fillings with rhubarb and strawberries, blueberries, and have cooked down dried apricots if I didn’t have fresh fruit. If you’d like to frost them, you can make a simple glaze to drizzle from powdered sugar mixed with a few drops of milk.

Biting into a kolache takes me back to hot days of dirt roads lined with cornfields, stopping at the local Dairy Queen after a day spent swimming in the town pool with cousins, and the feeling that summer is endless.

From my Grandma’s recipe
Makes 20

2 1/2 teaspoons yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1 cup warm milk
3 tablespoons melted, unsalted butter
1/4 cup sugar
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon salt
3 1/2 cups all-purposed flour, plus more for kneading
Filling of choice (my cherry and peach recipes follow)
Powdered sugar for dusting or powdered sugar glaze for drizzling (optional)

In a large mixing bowl, combine the yeast and warm water. Let sit and bubble up, about 5 minutes. Add the warm milk, melted butter, sugar, egg yolk and salt and stir together.

Add the flour one cup at a time, stirring until incorporated. Cover the bowl with a dish towel and place it in a warm spot to rise for about an hour.

Preheat the oven to 350. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Punch the dough down and pull it out onto a floured surface. Knead until the dough is smooth, adding a little more flour if it’s sticky. Divide the dough into 20 pieces (egg sized) and roll each piece into a ball. Place 10 of them on the prepared baking sheet and very slightly flatten the top. Let rise for a half hour.

Using your thumb, make an indent and fill with a teaspoon of filling. Bake in the oven for 14-16 minutes, until a little golden on top. Cool the kolaches before glazing. Repeat with the remaining 10 pieces.

Cherry Filling

1 cup tart pie cherries, pitted
1/8-1/4 cup sugar (depending upon how tart the cherries are)

In a small sauce pan, stir the cherries and sugar together. Cook over medium heat until the cherries are soft and break down a bit, about 20 minutes, stirring often.

Peach Filling

1 large ripe peach, pitted and diced
1 tablespoon sugar

In a small saucepan, stir the peach and sugar together. Cook over medium heat until the peach is soft and mushy, about 10 minutes, stirring often.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Walnut Penuche Fudge and an Early Kitchen Disaster Redeemed

Fudge is an incredibly nostalgic treat for me. The summers of my childhood always included eating fudge, and this was usually enjoyed somewhere on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where fudge and ice cream are two vital food groups to be consumed on a daily basis. Standing in front of the glass display cases of the little candy shops, I would gaze at the different flavors of fudge such as chocolate, chocolate nut, maple walnut, rocky road, peanut butter and chocolate mint. The one that always leaped out at me (and still does) is walnut penuche. This brown sugar confection melts on your tongue in a rich, buttery sweetness and the crunch of walnuts balances out the intense sugar. Try nibbling some with the sun setting on your face after a day spent splashing in the waves.

More reminiscing here... Do you recall your first experiences in the kitchen? Let me tell you about one of mine. When I was about 10 years old, I decided to make walnut penuche at home. My parents were out for a bit and I thought this was a terrific way to spend the afternoon. I pulled out my treasured copy of the Better Homes and Gardens Junior Cook Book, which I knew contained a recipe for Quick Walnut Penuche. While I had memorized the photos and drawings in this cookbook (and had thought about cooking many of the recipes) I hadn’t yet tried anything on my own.

I pulled butter from the fridge and tossed it into a saucepan, turning the electric burner up to high. While that sizzled, I scooped out brown sugar and plopped it in with the now bubbling butter. I took some time to hunt around the cabinet for the sifter for the powdered sugar, and then remembered to pour in the milk. I didn’t make it further than the milk pouring because the hissing, smoking mixture had begun to pop all over the place! And when I tried to stir it I discovered the bottom was a hardened blob that had fused with the saucepan. Did I mention the scorched smell? Big sigh ... my walnut penuche was not to be.

My folks returned home to find me attempting to scrape a burnt buttery mess from the bottom of the pan. I remember my mom peeking in the fridge and asking, “How much butter did you use?” Apparently, I hadn’t mastered the proper weighing and measuring of butter yet, and at least a pound was melted into the brown, rock-hard blob. Fortunately, this early mishap did not daunt my desire to be in the kitchen!

I still associate fudge with summer and the time has come for me to redeem my early attempt at walnut penuche. My mom held onto my Better Homes and Gardens Junior Cook Book all these years (thanks, Mom!) and whenever I fondly open its pages I am transported back to my childhood bedroom, sprawled across my canopy bed, dreaming up menus. Pages are still marked for Frosty Lime Floats, Perfect French Toast, Strawberry-Pineapple Freeze, Stuffed Eggs, Sunny Carrots and my favorite, Chocolate Mint Cups.

I am happy to say that today’s walnut penuche fudge making was a sweet success! While waiting for the fudge to firm up, I flipped through the BHGJ Cook Book and found an overlooked recipe for “Chocolate Peppermint Delicious” (imagine cream, chocolate wafers and peppermint candy in a frozen concoction). Mmm, the book may be spending some more time in the kitchen this summer and I don’t expect any complaints (or, fingers crossed, cooking disasters!).

Walnut Penuche
From the Better Homes and Gardens Junior Cook Book
Makes one 8x8 inch pan

Butter for pan
1/2 cup butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup milk
2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1 cup chopped walnuts

Butter an 8x8 square pan and set aside. Melt 1/2 cup butter in a medium saucepan. Stir in the brown sugar. Cook for 2 minutes over low heat while stirring. Stir in the milk. Continue mixing until the mixture is boiling.

Remove from heat and cool the mixture to room temperature. Using a wooden spoon, beat in the powdered sugar until it is a fudge-like consistency (I used just under 2 cups). Stir in the walnuts and pour into the prepared pan (I used a piece of wax paper to press the fudge down and smooth it). Chill until firm and cut into pieces. Leftover fudge can be wrapped in plastic and left at room temperature, or stored in the fridge if your kitchen is very warm. Enjoy!