Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Green tomato jam with ginger and vanilla

I've been doing my best to forget about tomatoes, loading up at the market on knobbly-skinned winter squash, the tender little broccoli known as brocoletti, and skinny carrots the color of beets courtesy of organic market gardener Joëlle. Oh, and lots of local oranges and lemons too, their leaves still clinging to the stems.
But on Saturday, at Pierre's stand, tomatoes couldn't help but catch my eye one last time. Pierre, you might remember, is the producer who cultivated more than 100 heirloom tomato varieties this summer. His plants continue to produce, even sprouting new seedlings which he has replanted under cover because on the Côte d'Azur there is an off chance that tomatoes could flourish in winter.
Saturday's heat-deprived green tomatoes couldn't compare to the summer's flamboyant display, but they brought to mind an extraordinary green tomato jam I had tasted at Oliviera with the fresh ewe's milk cheese known as brousse de brebis. As luck would have it Nadim, the maker of this jam, was standing next to me and all I had to do was turn to him and ask for the recipe. Armed with his generous advice I picked up two kilos, happy to give tomatoes a last hurrah before winter really sets in.
At home, I was curious to see what recipes might be circulating on the internet and soon came across one from the famed Alsatian jam maker Christine Ferber. Her recipe, although similar to Nadim's in its proportions, involved macerating the fruit overnight and giving it a 10-minute boil the next day before leaving it for another 24 hours and boiling it again. I rejected this method not because I'm against jam that takes three days to make, but because my Saturday expedition to the market had left not an inch of space in my French-sized refrigerator for the luxury of letting fruit macerate.
Ferber also advises carefully deseeding each tomato and removing the white membranes, directions that I took rather lightly as Pierre's heirloom varieties don't have many seeds or membranes. When I did come across a tomato with a lot of seeds, I squeezed them out.
I added ginger to recreate the taste I so loved in Nadim's jam, but also couldn't resist throwing in one of my lively-scented Madagascar vanilla beans that had just arrived in the post. You'll be hearing more about these beans and their uses very soon.
The result, after a relaxing hour and a half of bubbling and occasional stirring, was a beautiful translucent green jam flecked with black dots, its sweetness enhanced by the vanilla and offset by the ginger. You can of course spread it on bread, but I agree with Nadim that it's particularly delicious with fresh cheese or thick yoghurt.

Green tomato jam with ginger and vanilla
Makes about 4 11-oz (300 g) jars

4 1/2 lbs green tomatoes (2 kg)
1/2 the weight in sugar of the tomatoes, once the tomatoes have been deseeded and diced
2-inch chunk ginger, peeled (5 cm)
1 vanilla bean
Juice of 1 lemon, organic if possible

Cut the tomatoes in half horizontally and squeeze out the seeds if they seem to have a lot of seeds. Cut the tomatoes into small dice and weigh them to find out what quantity of sugar you will need. Slice the ginger against the grain and then chop it finely. Slit the vanilla bean in half and scrape out the seeds with a knife, holding each half flat against the board as you scrape.

Place the tomatoes, sugar, ginger, vanilla bean with its seeds and lemon juice in a large saucepan or a copper jam basin if you have one. Bring to a boil, stirring, then reduce the heat and let the jam bubble happily and reduce until thickened. It should look like a thick, syrupy green tomato sauce, which can take up to 2 hours. To test for doneness, drip some of the liquid onto a cold plate. If it sets, the jam is done.

Meanwhile sterilize the pots, either by boiling them in a large pot of water for 10 minutes or washing them well and placing them in the oven at 375 F (180 C) to dry for 20 mins. Fill the pots with the jam while both are still very hot. Seal with very clean lids.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Pumpkin pie with perfect pastry

Why pumpkin pie, you might ask, when Thanksgiving is over?
Well, for one thing, this pumpkin pie is good enough to make just for the pleasure of eating it, and not only as part of a harvest ritual that will leave you far to stuffed to appreciate it. And, for another, it gives me an excuse to talk about a method of making pastry that has changed my life - and just might do the same to yours.
I've published this pastry recipe before, as part of July's strawberry tart. But at the time I didn't realize quite how significant a revelation it was.
Over many years of making pastry, I'd come to accept that pâte sucrée, sweet pastry rich with butter and egg yolk, is tricky to work with. Unlike pâte sablée (short pastry), in which the butter is kept cold, pâte sucrée is usually made with butter at room temperature. This means that you have to chill the dough before you can work with it - at least for a couple of hours but preferably overnight. When you remove the dough from the refrigerator it is inevitably too hard to roll out right away, which calls for even more patience (or, in my case, some vigorous banging with a rolling pin to soften the dough). Once you finally roll it out, you have to let it rest again - preferably for an hour or two - so that it doesn't shrink when it bakes.
The soft-butter method, favored by star bakers such as Pierre Hermé and Eric Kayser, is ill-suited to the impulsive baker - what could be better, after all, than realizing that you have a couple of spare hours in front of you and deciding to treat your family and/or friends to a homemade tart? Enter this foolproof recipe, which I came across in the Books for Cooks no. 7 recipe compilation. This is the standard recipe in the Books for Cooks kitchen, which turns out beautiful cakes and tarts every day, and it has fast become my favorite too.
The ingredients are the same as for traditional pâte sucrée, but the butter comes straight out of the fridge and the water is ice-cold. You could make it by hand, but I've had the best results using the food processor, which keeps the ingredients cool. The magic part of the recipe is that once the dough comes together you roll it out right away, skipping a step that can take up to 12 hours in other recipes. Because the ingredients are cold, the dough is soft, silky and a joy to roll out.
You do need to let the rolled-out dough rest for at least an hour in the refrigerator, but that should be easy to do while you prepare the filling. For some recipes - such as my fig tart with almond cream and this pumpkin pie - I bake the pastry directly with the filling, but you can also bake it blind the standard way, by lining it with parchment paper filled with dried beans or rice. If you freeze the pastry before blind-baking it, you shouldn't need to weigh it down - just keep an eye on it and pop any bubbles with the tip of a knife.
Should you want to use this pastry for a savory tart, all you need to do is leave out the sugar. Try this recipe once and you'll wonder why you would ever go to the trouble of buying ready-made pastry.

Pumpkin pie
Serves 6

Canadian Thanksgiving comes several weeks before the American celebration, which means that I'm usually completely unaware of it. By the time American Thanksgiving rolls around, fall has really come to the Côte d'Azur and I'm in the mood to make this pie. It's a hit with the Niçois, who have been making sweet tarts with vegetables for centuries.

6 oz (1 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour (175 g)
5 tbsp confectioner's (icing) sugar (45 g)
Pinch of salt
3 oz very cold butter, in pieces (90 g)
1 egg yolk
2 tbsp ice water (30 ml)

A piece of pumpkin or winter squash weighing a little more than 1 lb (500 g)
A little vegetable oil
2 oz Speculoos biscuits or other spice biscuits
3 eggs
1/2 cup whipping cream (double cream) (125 ml)
4 oz light brown sugar (110 g)
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp dried ginger
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
A pinch of salt

For the pastry: Sift the flour and confectioner's sugar and place in the bowl of a food processor with the salt. Pulse once or twice to combine. Add the butter and process until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the egg yolk and water and process until the dough forms a loose ball. Be careful not to overmix, but do let the dough come together. Turn the dough out onto a board and form into a ball with your hands. Flatten with the heel of your hand.

Flour the board and roll the pastry out quickly, turning it now and then and lightly flouring the board and rolling pin as necessary. Line a tart tin with this pastry, pressing it well into the corners to prevent shrinkage. Let the excess hang over the sides. Trim the pastry or, if your tin has sharp metal edges, cut off the excess with a rolling pin. Then press the pastry a little above the edge of the tin all the way around. Place the pastry in the refrigerator for at least an hour.

For the filling: Lightly oil the pumpkin or squash and bake in the oven at 375 F (180 C) for about 1 hour, until soft. Peel it and purée in a food processor or, better, though a food mill (mouli-légumes) to remove the fibers. If it seems very wet, drain the purée in a fine strainer for a few minutes.

Blend the spice biscuits to coarse crumbs in a blender or food processor, or place them in a plastic bag and crush with a rolling pin.

In a bowl, beat the eggs. Add the pumpkin purée, cream, sugar, spices and salt. Sprinkle the spice biscuit crumbs over the uncooked, chilled pastry and top with the pumpkin filling. Bake at 375 F (180 C) for about 45-50 mins, until the filling is set and lightly browned.

This tart tastes best to me when it's cold, and the cream, although pretty, is a rather unnecessary flourish. If you do use cream, you might like to sweeten it with maple syrup.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Kamut flour pizza

Homemade pizza might not seem like a very grand way to celebrate a birthday, but to that I reply: it depends on what you drink with it.
Accompanied by a bottle of velvety Taittinger Prélude made only from premier cru grapes, this humble standby became a feast worthy of a momentous event in Philippe's life. We had at first thought of takeaway pizza but decided instead, for the same price, to splurge on the best ingredients at the Italian deli.
I came home with a wobbly white ball of buffalo mozzarella, silky Parma ham, spicy sausage, marinated artichokes and bright red confit tomatoes, which are a little juicier than the sundried variety. I also made use of a fresh ewe's milk cheese I had bought at the market and baby spinach leaves (the combination pictured here). But what made the pizza really exciting - to me, anyway - was the crust, for which I used a combination of organic bread flour (type 65 in France) and kamut flour.
Last week at the Biocoop I picked up a small bag of this slightly coarse, creamy-yellow flour, which I had previously known only as the base for a dense bread sold in organic shops. I wasn't sure I wanted to make 100 per cent kamut bread at home, but I suspected it could work well in combination with other flours.
When I want to know more about anything from amaranth to quinoa I always turn to Jenni Muir's invaluable book A cook's guide to grains. Here, I was amused to learn that kamut is a made-up brand name, meaning "soul of the earth" in ancient Egyptian. The grain itself does have ancient roots, and one web site claims that its revival began when a Montana farmer planted seeds that may have come from an Egyptian king's tomb (he obtained the seeds from his son, a World War II pilot).
Whatever its origins, kamut has impressive properties. A relative of durum, it can be grown organically more easily than other wheats and is high in protein, lipids, amino acids, vitamins E and B, and minerals such as magnesium, iron and zinc. Interestingly, despite its high gluten content kamut is often tolerated by people with wheat sensitivity.
For my pizza crust I used 20 per cent kamut, resulting in a pale yellow, slightly sweet dough with a lightly crunchy texture. I mixed and kneaded it by hand, but you could of course make this dough in a food processor, mixer with a dough hook or bread machine.
I don't have a baking stone so coopted my socca tin instead, a heavy copper dish in which this Niçois chickpea pancake is traditionally baked. I let the socca tin get very hot in the oven and slid each pizza onto it, keeping the pizza on a piece of parchment paper. You could use a very hot baking tray instead, the heavier the better.

Does it seem strange to you to drink champagne with pizza? I think there are times when a really good wine tastes best with food that doesn't try to upstage it. Or maybe it's just that I would drink champagne with just about anything.

Though kamut is not a herb, it is a plant so this will be my entry for Weekend Herb Blogging, created by Kalyn of Kalyn's Kitchen and hosted this week by Truffle from What's On My Plate.

Kamut flour pizza
Serves 3 greedy or 4 average people

Apologies to American readers for the lack of cup measures, but the longer I live in France the less I "do" cup measures. Keep in mind that 130 g of flour = 1 cup. If you can't find Kamut flour, feel free to use a small quantity of whole wheat and/or semolina and/or rye flour instead.

The dough:
400 g white bread flour (15 oz)
100 g kamut flour (4 oz)
1 1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1 packet dried yeast
1 tsp light brown cane sugar (or other sugar)
325 ml warm water (1 1/3 cups)

The sauce:
1 tbsp olive oil
1 big, juicy garlic clove
400 g canned Italian crushed tomatoes (15 oz)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp dried oregano
Freshly ground pepper, to taste

Pizza 1: Small pieces of buffalo mozzarella, torn by hand, thin slices of spicy cured sausage, sundried or semi-dried tomatoes
Pizza 2: Small pieces of buffalo mozzarella, torn by hand, Parma ham (prosciutto), marinated artichokes
Pizza 3: Fresh ewe's milk or goat's milk cheese, broken into pieces, sundried or semi-dried tomatoes, fresh baby spinach leaves

For the dough:
Combine the two flours and salt in a large bowl. Heat the water (I use spring water or filtered tap water, but by all means use tap water if yours tastes good!) until warm and combine with the yeast and sugar. Pour this mixture into the bowl with the flours and mix until a dough forms. I start off using a plastic pastry scraper and finish with my hands. Add a little more water if necessary to form a dough that's on the sticky side.
Wash your hands, then oil a work surface and your hands. Knead the dough for a few minutes, until smooth and velvety. Return to the bowl, cover with a plastic bag and set aside to rise for about 45 mins.

For the sauce:
Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan over a medium flame. Before it gets very hot, add the chopped garlic. Stir for 30-45 secs, just until the garlic starts to turn pale golden. Add the tomatoes, bring to a boil and add the oregano and salt. Turn the heat to medium, letting the sauce bubble and reduce until thickened (about 10-15 mins). Season with pepper to taste.

When the dough has nearly doubled in size, punch it down and divide into three balls. Set these aside to rest, covered, for a few minutes so they will be easier to roll out. Heat your oven to its maximum setting, placing the rack near the bottom of the oven. Heat your pizza stone or baking tray at the same time.

Roll out each ball of dough quite thinly on a lightly floured board and place on a sheet of parchment paper. You can pile them up if you need to, lightly flouring the surface of the dough.

Prepare the pizzas one at a time, first coating them with a moderate amount of sauce, then scattering the toppings over the sauce. Finish with a drizzling of good olive oil. Using the paper to lift the pizza, transfer it to the hot pan. Bake until the crust is golden, checking underneath to make sure it's lightly browned.

Serve the pizzas as they emerge from the oven.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Moi, moi, moi

Help! I've been tagged by the lovely Lucy. I'm normally a deeply private person but this blog has changed that. Here are a few little secrets that I hadn't yet revealed.

Four quirky things about the way I eat (and drink):

1. I need to eat at least every two hours or I am impossible to be around. So I am constantly nibbling on fresh or dried fruit, nuts and seeds (and occasionally pain au chocolat and macarons!).
2. Though I don't cook much meat at home, I like to order really carnivorous dishes in restaurants. I can rarely resist a well-seasoned steak tartare.
3. If I travel to a place where vegetables aren't abundant, I get desperate after a day or two.
4. I don't drink most hard alcohols but I love (very good) rum and (very good) Armagnac.

Four dance forms I have studied, without particular aptitude:

1. Ballet
2. Jazz
3. Flamenco
4. African dance

My four favorite foods:

1. Tomatoes - It's not just that they taste good, it's the way their presence in my kitchen guarantees an effortless meal. Of course I love them best in summer, but I am not above buying cherry tomatoes in winter.
2. Lemons - But the Côte d'Azur has spoiled me, so I will only eat local ones.
3. Strawberries - The dessert equivalent of tomatoes, except that I absolutely will not eat them in winter. Under any circumstances (OK, maybe in jam).
4. Crusty bread - I am French in the sense that bread is the main starch in my diet, but I don't like standard baguettes, only baguette au levain or good wholegrain breads.
Runner-up: Avocadoes - I can't stop eating these at the moment.

Four jobs I've had:

1. Theatre usher - Great job for a teenager. You can watch plays or do your homework, and occasionally flirt with actors.
2. Paper delivery girl - I was paid £6 a week to slog up and down a steep hill every morning with a a sack of newspapers (this was in a seaside town in England).
3. Secretary/receptionist at a country club - Nice boss, no complaints. But the job made me anxious to go to university.
4. Cook/bookseller at a second-hand bookshop/tea room in Paris - The oven was tiny, but I prided myself on turning out puffy, Canadian-style cinnamon buns.

Now it's my turn, so I'd like to tag the Diva, Kate Hill and Dorie Greenspan, three people I admire for their amazing culinary skills and generous characters. Participation is totally optional, of course, but if you would like to play feel free to make up any four categories.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Butternut squash muffins

After the sugary excesses of my trip to England I wanted something sweet but not too sweet, healthy but not too healthy. The answer was these butternut squash muffins, which I came across on the Channel 4 website while looking at Jamie Oliver recipes to compensate for British television withdrawal.
Butternut rivals potimarron as my favorite squash thanks to its sweet yet delicate taste and non-stringy texture. Its smooth surface and elongated shape make it one of the easiest squash to peel, winning it many bonus points in my book. Often I purée it with butter until smooth and top it with sautéed wild mushrooms, but Jamie's recipe looked like the perfect breakfast or after-school treat.
This morning I tested these muffins on the Cours Saleya market vendors, who are often suspicious of anything "foreign" (ie. not originating from within a 15-mile radius around Nice). They accepted them quite readily despite the presence of cinnamon, a spice that rarely makes an appearance in French cakes. "It's like pain d'épice," they said, nodding approvingly and licking their fingers.
I replaced the olive oil in Jamie's recipe with deep yellow sunflower oil from Russia that I bought at the Armenian grocery store. Its taste turned out to be a bit strong, and next time I might try a mild-tasting olive oil. I would also be tempted to replace half the oil with applesauce, a good way to reduce the fat in just about any muffin recipe. Instead of Jamie's soft sour cream icing I topped the muffins with a light sprinkling of cinnamon sugar, which created a crunchy little crust that contrasted nicely with the tender orange-gold crumb.

I'll be submitting this post to November's Sugar High Friday, which in honor of American Thanksgiving is focusing on the beta-carotene harvest. It's hosted by talented fellow Canadian Leslie.

Butternut squash muffins
Makes 18 muffins

Adapted from a Jamie at Home recipe

400 g butternut squash, peeled and cut into chunks (15 oz) (Jamie Oliver uses unpeeled squash, but I didn't notice that until now)
350 g light soft brown sugar (13 oz)
4 large free-range or organic eggs
A pinch of sea salt
300 g plain flour, unsifted (11 oz)
2 heaped tsp baking powder
A handful of walnuts
1 tsp ground cinnamon
175 ml sunflower or olive oil (2/3 cup)

Cinnamon sugar:
2 tbsp light brown cane sugar
1 tsp cinnamon

For the cinnamon sugar, combine the two ingredients in a small bowl.

Place the chopped squash in the bowl of a food processor (I used my Thermomix) and chop finely. Add all the other ingredients and pulse until a smooth batter forms, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Be careful not to overmix. Pour or spoon the batter into greased muffin tins and sprinkle with the cinnamon sugar. Bake at 180 C (375 F) until well risen and cooked through.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

English indulgences

A strange thing has happened.
I have come back from England without having taken a single picture of food.
That doesn't mean that I forgot about food for a few days while riding the tops of double-decker buses with Sam. Far from it. During this trip I made it my mission to introduce him to the things I love best in England: mint Aero, Fry's Peppermint Cream (do you detect a theme here?) and, perhaps best of all, the Crunchie bar*.
I couldn't leave without trying a Wispa, which is making a comeback in England. This airy chocolate bar with a milk chocolate coating was new to me, and I have to say I found it unpalateably sweet (yes, even compared to Crunchie bars).
While not gorging on chocolate, I filled up on food television. I saw Jamie Oliver on screen for the first time in my life - he was mellower than I expected, lying down next to his vegetable patch and plucking out the seedlings - and memorized his recipe for carrot salad with spiced lamb (stay tuned). I caught every minute of Saturday Kitchen and watched Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares in horrified fascination.
During my two days in London, I had to limit myself to what was fast and practical with a child. That meant Prêt à Manger and Wagamama, but also a restaurant called Hummus Bros specialising in bowls of the smooth chick pea purée with meat or vegetable toppings - a brilliant idea that shows how diverse the fast(er) food offerings have become in London.
I also made it to Books for Cooks - foolishly the first time, as it was Monday and the shop was closed. To fit it in on the second day I had to take a taxi there, which cost more than the Sushi book I bought. My only other purchase, in a moment of uncharacteristic restraint, was Simple Indian by Atul Kochhar, chef of the Michelin-starred Benares restaurant. I had seen him on Saturday Kitchen and liked the way he put a contemporary spin on Indian recipes.
If I'd been less traumatized by London prices and had more space in my suitcase, these are the other books I would have bought:Crust by Richard Bertinet - I know I already have some good bread books, but I would buy this book for his baguette recipes alone.
Beaneaters and Bread Soup by Lori de Mori - My kind of cookbook, a series of essays with recipes on food producers in Tuscany.
Arabesque by Claudia Roden - The most recent cookbook by Britain's doyenne of Middle Eastern cooking.
New Flavours of the Lebanese Table by Nada Saleh - Written by a resident cook at Books for Cooks.
What would be on your cookbook wish list?

* In case you're wondering, Sam isn't normally allowed a chocolate bar every day. We were on holiday, after all!

Friday, November 2, 2007

Les vacances

Sam and I are off to England today to visit my sister and his cousins in Norwich, but I couldn't resist adding a couple of days in London to our trip. Guess what's first on my agenda?