Friday, July 25, 2014

Simple and Superb Tomato Basil Tart

When women co-workers in our department gather for potluck lunches, an item they—sometimes secretly, but other times more openly—are hoping for is my tomato basil tart.  It’s the simplest thing in the world to make, and far less gourmet in preparation than its presentation and its flavor would lead one to believe.  At a recent holiday brunch I hosted, someone asked for the recipe, saying that she has attempted so many different tomato tarts but found mine the best. 

I would credit the original recipe creator if I could, but I don’t even have that information anymore!  I’ve made the dish so many times that I just know how to make it.  (Sort of like not having the original recipe for your favorite burger preparation…)  If the following dish sounds familiar and you know where the recipe came from, please feel free to comment so that I can give the proper attribution.

To start, I should confess that the secret ingredient is the crust.  The person who attempted so many other tarts said that the crust always failed her somehow.  Too sweet, too savory, too hard, too soggy.  What was my crust recipe that held up so well under so much cheese and tomatoes?  Pillsbury pie crust.  Seriously. 

Will keeps insisting that we should use a “real” crust for this tart—by which he means something that we hovered over the food processor with, dropping chilled tiny cubes of butter and iced lemon water, a teaspoon at a time.  Normally, I would say that homemade crust is vastly superior, but I actually think the pre-made crust works well for what it’s designed to do for this dish.  Besides, using the pre-made crust makes this dish the super-simple weekday meal that it is.  You shred your cheese and slice you tomatoes while the crust pre-bakes, and you are practically finished with the dish already.

1) Pre-bake your pie crust (fitted into a pretty tart pan) for 5 minutes at 375 or 400 degrees, depending on your oven and also on what your pre-made crust package (or your own homemade crust) demands.  Leave the oven on.

2) While the crust is pre-baking (not browning!—see the picture above), shred about 8oz mozzarella cheese, chiffonade about 2 T of basil, and slice 2-3 ripe tomatoes.  I use full-fat mozzarella and multi-colored heirloom tomatoes in the pictured tart, but you can use any cheese and tomato combination you have around.

3) Cover the bottom of the slightly cooled crust with the cheese, then throw on the basil (picture above), and then squeeze in as many tomato slices as you can.  Then drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil (be generous, at least 2-3 T) and grind pepper and salt over the tomatoes.  The uncooked assembled tart is pictured below.

4) Put back in the heated oven and bake for 35-40 minutes (or however long you need/want) until cheese is melted and browned in bits.  Throw on some more shredded basil to top.  Cool only slightly, and then slice and serve.

Trust me.  Potluck attendees ALWAYS love this tart! 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

"Wedge" Salad with Homemade Ranch Dressing

Who doesn’t love the “Wedge” salad?  This popular salad manipulates our first memories of eating a “green” dish and, in doing so, turns a small profit for restaurants.  Because, essentially, isn’t the “Wedge” salad really just a hunk of iceberg lettuce—one of the cheapest and least nutrition-laden lettuce variety—slathered with some River Valley Ranch Dressing, dressed up (sometimes) with bits of cooked bacon and other garnishes?

Knowing we can prepare this at home at a fraction of the costs at a restaurant, we still sometimes fall for this salad since it’s a crowd favorite, and you cannot really go too wrong with ordering it.  Sometimes, the poached egg in the Salade Lyonnaise is a little runnier than you’d like (and some variations include sautéed liver!).  And that Caesar salad vacillates between being nothing more than Romaine lettuce with ranch dressing or being a bit too anchovy-heavy.  The Wedge?  Not much variation.  Maybe bacon is added, but no one complains about this.

But since I’ve long ago given up on purchasing iceberg lettuce, I’d deconstructed the Wedge a bit.  In the photo below, you can see that I used hearty inner leaves of a particularly crisp variety of Boston Bibb lettuce.  (Other times, I might use red and green varieties of crunchy Petite Gem lettuce.)  I lay whole baby leaves down in the bottom of a shallow salad bowl.  Then, for color and texture, I slice in half one red and one yellow small Campari tomatoes.  Spoon some homemade ranch dressing, grind lots of black pepper directly over the creamy dressing, and you’re all set!

Oh, you don’t make your own homemade ranch dressing?  That’s about to change.  I rarely purchase salad dressing since I make my own, but ranch dressing was the last to be given up—yes, even as I was pureeing anchovies and garlic for my own Caesar dressing!  But there are so many simple ranch dressing recipes out there, and I eventually started making my own.

Here’s a tasty variation from one of the simplest recipes online.  Click here for the original recipe, or take my variation if you happen to have Persaillotte available.

To make about 1 cup of dressing:

·      In a clean jam jar (of over 10 oz capacity), spoon in 2/3 cup Mayonnaise and 1/3 cup sour cream. 

·      You want a little bit of liquid astringency (not much!), so you may then add 2 tablespoon buttermilk (if you have it), or 1 tablespoon lemon juice or white wine vinegar.

·      The recipe I started from uses dried chives, parsley, and dill, and then also garlic and onion powder.  I skip the powders (which I rarely use) and the separate dried herbs.  Instead, I use 1 teaspoon (or more to taste) of my handy “Persaillotte” mix which I brought back from Paris.  The Persaillotte is a heavenly mix of dried parsley, garlic, shallot, and salt, and it is a fabulous complement to most dressings—and indispensable for ranch dressings. 

·      Mix to combine, and then close the jar and shake if you’d like.  The mixture should be quite thick at first, so you might not be able to shake from the start.  Then, at this point, you can add more fresh ground salt and pepper to taste.  I actually like how thick the dressing is, but you may wish to thin it a bit with more liquid—buttermilk, lemon juice, vinegar, or even cream or milk, depending on which flavor profile you are aiming for.

Your home is now also a ranch, capable of producing all that homemade ranch dressing goodness!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Sage and Mushroom Frittata with Gorgonzola

One of the pleasures of an Ina Garten recipe is that it predictably yields a yummy product.  Sure, it could have something to do with the talent of the recipe creator—and I don’t want to take too much away from that—but part of the credit must go to ingredient lists that go something like: 1 cup of butter, ½ cup of oil, 1 and ½ cup of sugar, 1 cup heavy whipping cream, ½ cup chocolate chips, 4 large eggs, etc.  (I’m only slightly exaggerating here…)  With a lot of fats and sugars, it’s hard not to like the end result.

On the flip side is something like a Martha Stewart’s Healthy Quick Cook recipe.  Sometimes the austerity of one of those recipes makes me shrink in horror.  I know that today’s fat-laden cooking might be a tad unhealthy for us, but surely original culinary artists didn’t really intend that we whip up everything with cooking-spray coated non-stick pans and evaporated skim milks?

So, I cheat.  I convince myself that I am cooking something “healthy” by choosing a recipe from Martha Stewart’s cookbook Healthy Quick Cook, and then I add some fat—but not too much!  A little bit of fat does add a lot of flavor though…

Case in point.  I like Martha Stewart’s Sage Egg-White Frittata, but I find 1 cup of chanterelles a bit expensive, and I only usually have 3-4 eggs whites leftover from a weekend baking event.  I rarely have the recipe’s required 9 egg whites around!  So, I improvise. 

Here’s a link to Martha’s recipe so that you can have the less fat original version which was my inspiration, but you can also follow my (dare I say, “tastier”?) version.


4 egg whites

4 eggs

2 T butter

1 t olive oil

1 and ½ cups mixed mushrooms (including some cremini), sliced thickly

about 12 whole small and medium sage leaves

1-2 oz. (ie, to taste) crumbled gorgonzola

(NOTE: Don’t worry too much about the exact numbers of eggs and egg whites.  The idea is to use egg whites you have around after you made some crème brulee—or whatever!  How about some combination that would roughly equal 12 white or yolk parts?  That is, 6 whole eggs is fine; or 8 egg white and 2 whole eggs.  Do make sure though that you do include at least 2 whole eggs for flavor and color.)


1.  Whisk together the egg whites and the whole eggs and lightly salt and pepper.

2.  Melt 1 T of butter in an oven-safe 10 inch non-stick skillet over medium heat until it foams.  Dump the mushroom slices in a single layer, quickly stir around to coat them with the fat, and then let sit—without stirring—for a couple of minutes.  Then stir to redistribute and let sit again for another couple of minutes.  Continue until mushrooms release a nice fragrance and the slices are getting lightly browned.  Remove to a plate and then salt and pepper to taste.

3.  Turn the broiler on, and wipe the skillet clean with paper towel.  Place pan back on medium to medium-high heat (depending on your stove) and melt the remaining 1 T butter and the 1 t olive oil until hot and the butter is lightly foaming.

4.  Whisk the eggs mixture again—just to recombine—and then dump the browned mushroom into the egg mixture.  Then, pour the egg/mushroom mixture into the hot butter/oil.  Throw on the sage leaves on top of the egg mixture, and let sit for 2 minutes.  Rotating the pan and tilting it slightly to one side, slide a thin spatula underneath the settling frittata and let the runny egg mixture flow to bottom of pan.  Do this evenly throughout until the top is only slightly wet.  Altogether, this process should take about 5 minutes from the time you pour the egg mixture into the skillet.

5.  Place the pan under the broiler with the heat about 6 inches from the top of the frittata and cook for 1 minute.  Then pull out the pan and scatter the gorgonzola crumbles on top and place back under the broiler for 1 minute longer.  You can check to make sure that the frittata has assumed a puffed up and lovely light brown color and that the cheese is nicely melted. 

Remove from oven, slide onto a cutting board, cut into slices, and enjoy with some French bread and a light salad.  

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Fast, Easy, Yummy, and Impressive Salmon Dish

I might have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating that Hay Day Country Market Cookbook is one of my favorite cookbooks.  There are no fancy pictures or glossy pages in this book, but this book contains recipes that I return to again and again for a unique taste.  Kona-Crusted Beef with Sweet Onion Jam?  Awesome!  Wild Mushroom, Spinach, and Goat Cheese Lasagne?  One of my favorite vegetarian main courses!

Another go-to dish is the Potato-Crusted Salmon in Fresh Avocado “Mayonnaise.”  The first time I made this, I was petrified that the shredded potato was going to fall off the salmon while frying.  Or that I wasn’t going to be able to flip the whole thing without demolishing the rather delicate balance the fish and potato were attempting to achieve.  Somehow though, everything worked out perfectly. 

Since then, I have had minor incidents and anxieties.  Namely, some potato shreds falling off and needing to be put back on top of the fish mid-cooking, or worries that the salmon wasn’t going to be perfectly cooked without burning the potatoes, etc.

Over the years, I’ve evolved an “it-doesn’t-have-to-be-completely-homemade” attitude towards this dish.  I’m not advocating that we all ascribe to Sandra Lee’s Semi-Homemade philosophy, but we also don’t all have Food Network TV shows on cooking.  Why set our bars that much higher and insist on slaving over every detail?  Maybe I’m looking at that wide middle ground between Sandra Lee and Thomas Keller…?

Let’s start with this Potato-Crusted Salmon dish.  Cooking the same dish a few times means that I have some decided opinions about what I do and do not like about this particular recipe.   I love the combination of flavors, the crusty bits of potatoes, and the aesthetics of the dish.  On the other hand—even aside from the slight trickiness of piling the shredded potatoes on the salmon and browning both vegetable and the fish—I’ve always wished that I could have BOTH sides of the salmon browned and crispy.  (I could also use for both sides of the potatoes to be browned, but that’s not as big a deal.)  Moreover, wouldn’t it be nice if I could keep the skin on the salmon so that I could have crispy and salty salmon skin?  Yum!

So, this is what I do, and I am providing step-by-step pictures so that you can follow along.

Avocado sauce on bottom

You can skip making the Avocado “Mayonnaise” by using pre-made guacamole.  Either way, spread a goodly amount (about ¼ cup) of the guacamole or the Avocado Mayonnaise on the bottom of the dinner plate.

Potato layer

You can use shredded potatoes to make hash browns, or you can cheat by frying up potato pancakes/latkes (like I did).  Place on top of the avocado sauce.

Pan sear salmon separately

Salt and pepper both sides of skin-on salmon pieces (about 6 oz each), throw them skin-side down in a hot and generously olive-oiled (cast iron) skillet.  Cook for a few minutes (3-4) to get the skin crispy, and then flip and cook another 2-3 minutes.  Place on top of the potatoes.

Now judge for yourself how fast, easy, yummy, and impressive this salmon dish is. 
Happy July 4th Holiday!  Maybe next week's post will have something on what Will and I were able to put together for the 4th!