Nosh: Peperonata with Ricotta Crostoni

As the boyfriend is a vegetarian (though not a vegan, a very important distinction for the purposes of this recipe), I am always–as in, ALWAYS–on the lookout for veggie entrees.  So when I came across this recipe for peperonata it was sort of a no-brainer; peppers, olives, onion?  Tomato sauce?  On bread?  Done and done!  (And it goes pretty nicely with some chicken, for all you carnivorous types.)

But the kicker for this recipe, the thing that had me at hello, was the do-it-yourself ricotta.  Admittedly, it’s an ersatz ricotta as it is only cooked once (“re-cooked”, ricotta, get it, get it?) and directly from milk, not from the milk solids left over from making other cheeses.  But it’s something I’ve wanted to try for a while and when I saw it paired with a pepper stew?  It was as though choirs of angels sang over my head with joy.  Was I going to make this?  You bet I was.

I’m just linking to the recipe, as it was so good I didn’t really change a single thing about it (except one; I added a serrano pepper for a little bit of heat and next time, I’ll add two, but that’s the only change I made).  So here is the recipe: http://www.bonappetit.com/recipes/2011/09/peperonata-with-ricotta-crostoni and many thanks to the good people of Bon Appetit.

The first thing I did was start the cheese.  They recommend giving it plenty of time to drain and after making it, so do I.  This is all you need:

That's it! Well, and 1.5 teaspoons of kosher salt.

OK, OK.  You don’t need the raisins or the Tia Maria.  But on a completely unrelated note…does anyone else here think Tia Maria + vodka + almond milk sounds like a good idea?  Or is it just me?

Take the above ingredients, put them in a pot larger than you’d expect to need, and let it boil.  When it starts to boil it will expand so in all earnestness, please use a large pot or you’ll be cleaning steaming cheese curds out of your cabinetry.  Remove it from the heat and DO NOT TOUCH IT for fifteen minutes.  The curds are delicate and will break apart and then you’ll never be able to retrieve them correctly and your cheeselicious efforts will be for naught.  Leave them alone.

This is what they look like immediately post-boil.

Once you’ve finished not touching it (fifteen minutes, people!), get a nice big spoon–not a slotted spoon as you want to cause the curds to break as little as possible, and they’d go straight through the slots–and scoop it into your waiting cheesecloth-lined colander sitting on a utility bowl.

And here is my very first ittle-bittle bouncing baby cheese curd! Isn't it precious?

Here's all the cheese, waiting to get drained.

Isn’t that a book?  Who Drained My Cheese?  No?  I’m off?  Oh, OK.  Moving on.

And then, let it drain.

You could also just keep it in a colander over a bowl wrapped in cheesecloth, but I had a pasta drying rack and wanted to go for the groovy.  So.  I let it drain until everything else was ready, and when I unwrapped it I had a beautiful bowl of delicious, creamy, slightly lemony, ricotta cheese.

🙂

Meanwhile…

I was playing with the filters on my camera, hence the carrots look a little uber-orangey.

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And thirty minutes of simmering time, plus a whirl around the food processor...

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You’ll have plenty left over, but that is just fine, it’ll freeze.  It’s a really simple, lovely, basic tomato sauce.  The recipe calls for San Marzano tomatoes which, if you can afford, you should by all means use (and local peeps, you can indeed get them at the Weis).  But they’re usually three or four times more expensive than other sorts of canned tomatoes so believe me when I say you will not be disappointed if you use Furmano’s instead.

Meanwhile…

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In a 375° oven for ten minutes...

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And back in the oven for another 45 minutes...

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Becomes

And then with a little shave of some kind of hard cheese on top, like Parmigiano-Reggiano or asiago (which is what I used here, because that’s how I roll) and you’ve got…

Because seriously?  It is that good.

Nosh: Tomatoes!

It is summer summer summer-TI-IME, and that means it is tomato season.  Yay!  There’s nothing quite like the beautiful seasonal tomato, especially since tomatoes out of season can be bland and mealy, the embodiment of edible pointlessness.  But not the summer tomato, which does not get all Sartre on us in its sweet and meatishly present deliciousness that smells like sunny days and cool evenings.

Suffice to say, this is one of my favorite times of the year.

Since I love to cook during tomato season, and have been having so much fun with it, I’m happy to present not one, but TWO simple recipes that make the most of what seasonal tomatoes have to offer.  First up: Tomato Tart.

Tomato tarts are eeeeeeeeeeeeeasy.  And flexible.  They are receptive to whatever you’d like to accent them with, so long as they A) remain relatively simple and B) don’t ever forget that tomatoes are the stars of this show.  So I used puff pastry (but you could use a pie dough, and if you’re wondering what’s “better” for you, then you need to consider things that do not make use of crusts, as they are generally all fat and refined flour) because that’s what I wanted to use.  If you need to thaw your dough, set it out now to get it ready, but dough doesn’t take that long to thaw, so in the time it takes you to prep your veggies the dough will become ready for use.  Preheat your oven–how long should your tart bake for?  What’s the package say?  How long does your grandmother say her secret dough recipe should bake for, and at what temp?  Do that.  Spray your baking pan with a non-stick cooking spray, stretch the dough to fit, and if (like me) you chose to use prepackaged puff pastry, dock the dough.  Wha-wha the dough?

Poke it repeatedly with a fork.  That’s docking, and what it does is creates vents for steam to escape, so it won’t make the pastry puff, it’ll just bake to a golden deliciousness.  Action photo!

Feeling stabby? Make a tomato tart.

Don’t dock the edges of the tart; it will make for a puffy crust, which is visually interesting and sort of fun.

I have a ton of oregano growing in the back yard, so I cut a bunch and cleaned it, and put that on, as well as the shreddable cheese I had in the fridge.  I had a hard goat cheese (it was called “naked goat cheese”, how minxy!) but use what you have.  Parmigiano-Reggiano never fails to deliver.  Asiago.  Provolone.  I’ve also seen recipes where you dot it with ricotta.  The possibilities are that wide open.

This is off to an excellent start.

Simple so far, yes?  So.  Slice your beautiful tomatoes; this took two good size, large, fat, delicious, beautiful, ripe tomatoes.  And, a word about buying tomatoes, if you don’t have the luxury of a garden…in order to tell if they’re ripe, smell them.  If they don’t smell like they’ve recently come off of a vine, they probably haven’t.  Sniff + meh means they were picked early and forced to redden through the clever use of gases.  Sniff + drool because it smells so good means that’s a tomato that is ready to be celebrated, so dig in.  And I have digressed, so back to the prep work.  I had a half an onion I’d already cut into for something else, so I diced the rest of that up and (as always) chopped a few cloves of garlic.  If you didn’t want to do either of that, that’s fine.  Really!  The most basic (and perfectly tart-like) tarts are SIMPLY tomatoes in a dough with some cheese and herbs.  Prep, arrange, and top with cheese.

Ready for action.

A little cheese makes everything better.

Just remember, this isn’t a pizza, so you don’t need to get crazy with the cheese.  Just a little will do.  You can put on some salt, but depending on your cheese that may be kind of salty, so bear that in mind.  Grind some pepper, give it a drizzle of olive oil and put it in the oven for however long the directions say the dough should bake.

Puffy in all the right places.

Dig. IN.

And that is a tomato tart.  If you want to keep summertizing the rest of your meal, serve this with corn on the cob and a salad.  Your plate will look something like this:

That is one happy, summery plate.

Mmm.

The next recipe is for pasta in a super-fresh sauce–it is very lightly sauteed, but primarily relies on the impact of the fresh ingredients to make its foodie statement.

First, get three pounds of tomatoes (sniff-test standards always apply) and peel, seed, and chop them.  Peeling a tomato is super-easy, though I’m afraid there’s no getting around the mess when you’ve got three pounds of them to manhandle.

First, cut X’s in the bottoms of all the tomatoes.  Blanch them for thirty seconds in boiling water–your objective isn’t to cook them but to loosen their skins, so don’t leave them in the boiling water for too long.

Ahh...only the beginning.

In various stages of preparedness. Notice how the skin has loosened along the X's on the tomatoes on the plate.

Once they’ve cooled, finish pulling the skins away, then seed.  There is only one way to get seeds out of the tomato; just stick your fingers in and pull.

Sometimes, the hands are the only appropriate tools for the job.

This isn’t a seed-removing contest, so don’t knock yourself out getting every piece of seed out of there, but get the vast majority of them and all the gooey stuff.

Ready to get diced into quarter-inch pieces.

Once they are chopped, throw them into a bowl to sit for a half-hour at room temperature with some torn or chopped basil and olive oil.  You want to use good, extra-virgin olive oil because the flavor is integral to the dish.

This is all going to hang out together and trade each other's deliciousnesses.

Once that half-hour has passed (and you have the pasta water boiling and ready for pasta, as you’re going to start that with this portion of the dish, so dump that in your water, and use something long like linguine), put more olive oil in a large pan–a little more oil than you normally would, as its flavor is integral to the final outcome of the dish, though the original recipe I saw called for seven tablespoons at this point, and I just think that’s way out of hand–and get it heated.  Put in some finely chopped thyme and garlic that’s been lightly cracked, but not necessarily chopped.

Let that cook for a very short period of time–the garlic will probably start to brown in about thirty seconds and the thyme is a little less susceptible to immediate and tragic overdoneness but can burn if left unattended.  Once the garlic turns toasted-brown you can pull it out and hold it on the side until the rest of the meal finishes cooking, or you can fish it out later, but either way this is when the tomatoes get poured in.  Get everything cooking at a nice, reasonable simmer (you’ll start to see bubbles) and keep it going at this pace for about five minutes.

Bubbling away

Is your pasta ready?  Drain it and put it in your bubbling tomatoes and voila!  You have dinner.  I finished the dish with fresh chiffonade of basil and the cracked garlic that you’d either reserved or left in until this point, chopped up and tossed back into the pasta.  Chiffonade = ribbons, so stack your basil and cut it into strips, like so:

Stack your basil, and roll it.

Slice the stack (don't hold your knife like this, kids, I should have just put it down).

Ribbons!

OK, so here’s my confession: my good camera’s charge died literally just as I was going to take a final picture, so the image of the pasta and tomatoes together comes from the iPhone, which is a good camera, but still.

Dinner!

It was delicious.  Serve this with some grilled veggies and crusty bread, to help soak up all the tomatoey-basilly olive oil, and you won’t regret a single moment.

Tomato season.  One of the most wonderful times of the year.

Musings about food and maybe a little nosh

When I was a kid, I was the pickiest eater in the world.  The.  World.  If it was a vegetable (with the notable exceptions of corn, carrots, and…mashed potatoes are a vegetable, right?), I didn’t want to know about it.  Turnips?  What?  No.  Brussels sprouts?  Are you KIDDING me?  Cabbage?  Stinky.  Tomatoes?  Good in sauce, ketchup and soup, but on their own?  *hurl*  My pickiness was not limited to vegetables, either.  If it came out of a can (which constituted much of my mother’s cooking—who had the time or money to feed five kids fresh veggies on a blue-collar budget?), I was instinctively skeptical.  Unless, of course, it was the aforementioned corn or carrots, or Campbell’s tomato soup, which I still jones for to this day.  What’s up with the meat in soup?  Why is it often suspect, occasionally spongy?  I always thought Spaghetti-Os had (maybe still have; I don’t know, it’s been years since I ate them) a weird, cloying sweetness and almost gummy quality to the sauce that I couldn’t get around.  For years, my only concept of Chinese food was La Choy, which makes Chinese food that may swing American but tastes like…wait…you know, I don’t even remember the taste (thankfully, I must have blocked it), but the smell always reminded me of the high school gym after a class was over…you know, the smell of unwashed socks and unanswered promises.  Canned spinach?  I’m still not entirely convinced that “canned spinach” isn’t something that’s strained out of the Arthur Kill and spends its time masquerading as a foodstuff…waiting…watching.  Once, my mother got me to try asparagus.  Fresh asparagus, that there was some sort of special on at the grocery store.  All she did was boil it for a few minutes, season it with a little salt and pepper, and bring it to the table.  It was delicious; it was crisp and tasted of green and springtime and unslimy wholesomeness. I was a nine-year-old asparagus convert.  The next time she served asparagus I piled it on my plate and took a big bite, expecting it to deliver that same effect.  Instead, I got a pile of tinny sludge in my mouth; she’d made canned asparagus and didn’t tell me.  It was a bait and switch.  I cried.

Later, I realized, it’s not that I was picky because I didn’t want to eat *food*, it’s that I was picky because I didn’t want to eat *crappy* food.  This generally holds true despite the fact that I still have a soft spot in my heart for those weird, frozen, pre-formed oval-shaped “veal” patties.  Does anyone remember those?  I’m sure I wouldn’t have to wherewithal to actually ingest one today, but for some reason I remember them fondly, even though I know they’re basically the veal version of pressed, frozen, oval-shaped, breaded hot dogs.

I didn’t enter into my love affair with food easily.  There are all these fables about people who love food, and how they’ve always been in front of a stove, and Bobby Flay made his mother pudding when he was four and he was hooked forever.  That?  Was not me.  Certainly, my mother—who is a very good cook in her own right (tendencies towards cans and vegetal baits-and-switches notwithstanding), but super-straightforward and non-adventurous in her cuisine—taught me the basics of spaghetti sauce-making and pot roast-roasting as part of my after-school duties.  But once I grew up?  Meh, I wanted nothing to do with it.  I harbored some erroneous idea that cooking carried an inherent gender bias and represented servility for a woman (though not for a man, why is that?), and my (now ex-) husband was a good cook.  Why bother?  His social status wouldn’t be harmed by his cooking endeavors, and I didn’t mind doing the cleaning-up.  It worked just fine.  Until, of course, my husband and I started working different shifts.  I went from having dinner cooked for me pretty regularly to being on my own, since the ex- didn’t like to cook a full meal if I weren’t right there to enjoy it at that exact moment (hello, people…leftovers?).  So, when faced with the choice of heating up a seemingly endless parade of Campbell’s Tomato Soup which, despite my enduring affection, becomes tiresome after a few days, OR fending for myself in the kitchen, I began to fend.  Eventually.

Anyway, to try and keep a long story from continuing on that much longer…I love food.  I want to talk about it, I want to write about it, I want to eat it.  Food has so much more power than just serving as the fuel that propels our bodies; it has emotional impact, cultural impact, and can bring out the best or the worst in a person.  (And if you don’t believe me, watch how people behave when they go out to dinner and how they treat their waiter, particularly if their meal gets messed up.)  I am in love with the process of preparing food.  I love to cook it, I love to have my hands in it.  I love to pull a butternut squash apart and turn something practically rock-hard and virtually inedible into crispy-puffy-savory squares, or a silky sauce.  I love to pickle things, I love to caramelize things (and I will knock you down for caramelized shallots, Mom), I love to imbue foods with rich and smoky flavors that speak to the depths of your soul.  I love the power of food to bring people together in a family ritual, or bridge a social gap through the process of breaking bread that had not been bridged before.  It’s a kind of magic, it’s the chemistry of magic, and it keeps me centered and happy like no other thing.  When I broke my leg, the one thing I said, consistently, when I was asked what I couldn’t wait to do again, was cook (as it is exceedingly difficult to prepare a full meal when you are forbidden to put any weight at all on one leg, though I did occasionally prop myself up on a cushion and chairs and demand to sauté something…and I digress).

Once I was in the kitchen and embraced it as an adult aspect of life, I realized what cooking was really about.  It wasn’t just about being the ‘girl’ in the relationship and accepting a gender-code according to your household duties.  Cooking is about…maturity.  Freedom.  The ability to take care of yourself at the most basic level, while defining your own sensibilities.  This is why I missed it so much when I was in a cast; I wanted to be able to care for myself even a little.  It’s a faux feminist ideal that gives women the idea that they don’t have to know how to cook as a point of rebellion; all it does is weaken your capacity for self-sufficiency.  There’s no practicality in crippling yourself to prove a poorly-conceived point; it’s like cutting off your own feet because you don’t like wearing high heels.  Learn how to cook so you can feed yourself, learn how to sew so you can put buttons back on your shirt, and learn how to change a tire so you can drive out of a bad spot.  Enjoy your capability.  It’s your life—do you REALLY want to live it according to the quirks of fate and the whims of others?

And so, with my mature sense of foodie-ism, I present one of my favorite recipes.  No, I didn’t write it, but I was happy to take it from the pages of Bon Appetit.  Presenting: Pomodori al Forno.  In Technicolor!  Seriously…om nom nom.  (As an aside, there’s something really right about my first food post involving tomatoes.  Those who want to get the joke will probably get the joke.  Moving on.)

Pomodori al Forno

Ingredients

1 cups (or more) olive oil, divided

2 pounds plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise, seeded

1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano

3/4 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 to 2 garlic cloves, minced

2 teaspoons minced fresh Italian parsley

Aged goat cheese (such as Bûcheron)

1 baguette, thinly sliced crosswise, toasted

Preparation

Preheat oven to 250°F. Pour 1/2 cup oil into 13x9x2-inch glass or ceramic baking dish. Arrange tomatoes in dish, cut side up. Drizzle with remaining 1/2 cup oil. Sprinkle with oregano, sugar, and salt.  (OK, sooooo…I used nowhere near as much oil, thyme instead of oregano, and I roasted the garlic in with it, which I’ve done every time I’ve made this dish, to the tune of zero complaints.  And I forgot to seed the tomatoes, but whatever, it’s all good.)

Nom, phase one

Bake 1 hour. Using tongs, turn tomatoes over.

Nom, phase two

Bake 1 hour longer. Turn tomatoes over again. Bake until deep red and very tender, transferring tomatoes to plate when soft (time will vary, depending on ripeness of tomatoes), about 15 to 45 minutes longer.

Nom nom, nearing the conclusion...

Layer tomatoes in medium bowl, sprinkling garlic and parsley over each layer; reserve oil in baking dish. Drizzle tomatoes with reserved oil, adding more if necessary to cover. Let stand at room temperature 2 hours. DO AHEAD Cover; chill up to 5 days. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Tune in tomorrow to see it finished in all of its parsleyriffic glory.

Serve with aged goat cheese and toasted baguette slices (and dive in ecstatically).

And here is the finished, parsleytized, nommy product:

…in the dish…

Oh, to be a decorative retro Pyrex dish and have such a filling as this...

…and on my plate.

Though for some reason, my camera kept wanting to focus in the Peruvian purple potatoes behind it, so sorry if it’s a little blurry.  But yes, crepes to the left, purple potatoes to the right.  Tomatoes and goat cheese and toasted bread, front and center.  All in all…a meal that didn’t disappoint.

Joy!

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