Food and Movies: Labor Day and a Blueberry Honey Ricotta Tart

LaborDay

I know – it’s a weird choice for a movie associated with food. The actual plot line has nothing to do with food. Food certainly makes an appearance and it’s a memorable one, in my opinion.

If you haven’t seen the movie, Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin star in a strange story in which Kate is coerced into taking escaped convict Josh Brolin home with her so that he might hide out for a bit from the cops. Brolin is immediate and straightforward about his intentions not to harm Winslet and her son. He, in turn, offers to do things around the house  while he hides there for the night. Winslet and her son grow an odd attachment to Brolin (borderline Stockholm Syndrome…) and make excuses for him to stay throughout the Labor Day weekend.

Where food comes in to this story is when Brolin makes a few dishes for Winslet and her son as repayment for their cooperation. One distinct scene is where he teaches the both of them about pie-making. He is adamant that clean hands are a cook’s best tool and crust ingredients must be kept cold. It is clear that this pie-making exercise further sparks an attraction between Brolin and Winslet’s characters. With his gentle but direct guidance, he helps Kate’s character proceed assertively in handling the ripe peaches. He coaxes her to have confidence in shaping the pie crust. His fingertips graze hers and she is lost in an ethereal and sensual pie-making endeavor.

Sex and food? A combination that has endured through the ages. Don’t act surprised. Food and sex share so many inherent qualities, how could they not be thrown together? The full activation of senses and the instant gratification and pleasure from both acts of eating and intercourse are one in the same.

Pie was never so sexy until this scene:

With all this pie-talk, of COURSE I had to make some pie – or rather, some semblance of a pie.

Josh and Kate inspired me to make a Blueberry, Honey, Ricotta Tart.

WAIT. I know. You think ricotta is only for lasagna? Psshhh, please. You just don’t know what worlds I’m about to open for you.

Rarely do I preface a recipe in terms of difficulty. I never want to scare anyone away from making delicious food. So let me say this: there are three parts to this pie. DON’T BE DAUNTED. It’s worth it. You are the conqueror of worlds. You’ve totally got this. Plus – in the end, you get to enjoy a dessert that is rich and simultaneously light. The ricotta custard does not sit heavily in your stomach and the slight touch of orange in the creamy base will make your head foggy with delight. The tartness of the blueberry jam is softened by the inclusion of fresh blueberries.

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Part 1: The Crust 

Part 2: The Beautiful, Blueberry Compote

Part 3: The Ricotta Custard Base

I firmly believe, as a home cook who is always looking to improve and learn different methods, that there are some recipes that just TEACH us things. This is one of those recipes. Roll your sleeves up and let’s do this.

The Crust:

What You’ll Need:

  • 1 1/2 Cup of Flour
  • 1 stick (8 tblsps) of butter, kept very cold and cut into cubes
  • 1/3 cup of ice water
  • 1/2 tsp of salt

(Makes one tart crust.)

Mix the salt into the ice water, set aside. (If you do not have an ice-maker at home or any available ice when you start this, I highly suggest you put this water and salt mixture in the freezer as you work the dough. The fact that it is ICE-COLD is incredibly important)

In a large bowl, put your flour and cold butter in and begin to work the butter into the flour. Use the pads of your thumbs and fingers to press and work the butter into the flour until you have a mixture that resembles course crumbs.

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Once your mixture looks like course crumbs, pour the ice water/salt mixture one tablespoon at a time into the flour and butter until it just barely comes together in the bowl.

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Tip the contents of the bowl out onto a cutting board or whatever surface you prefer. Form into a ball and cover the ball in plastic wrap and let it rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

After the dough has rested, flour your surface (lightly! don’t add too much flour or it will make the dough tough) and, with a rolling pin, roll out your dough to about 1/8 of an inch thin and gently press it into your greased and floured tart dish or pie dish. Cut off excess pie dough (and at this point I always put that excess pie dough in a small baking dish, sprinkle sugar over it and bake it for 10 minutes at 350 degrees. I devour the sugared pie crust pieces as I work.)

Put the tart crust back in the fridge while you make your Blueberry Compote.

Part 2: The Beautiful, Blueberry Compote

What You’ll Need:

  • 1 pint of fresh blueberries (12oz total. I bought two 6oz containers at the grocery store)
  • 1/4 cup of sugar
  • 1/4 cup of honey
  • 2 tablespoons of lemon juice
  • Pinch of Cinnamon
  • Dash of salt
  • 1 heaping tsp of cornstarch
  • 3 tblsp of cold tap water

In a medium saucepan, put half the amount of blueberries,  the sugar, honey, lemon juice salt and cinnamon and bring to a boil.

Once the mixture comes to a boil, lower the heat to a low-medium simmer. Let the sauce simmer and reduce for 10-11 minutes, reducing the liquid by about a third.

At the end of ten minutes, make a slurry – mix the cornstarch and cold water together and stir into the blueberry sauce and let it cook for 1-2 more minutes until the mixture thickens closer to a jam-like consistency.

Pour the thickened mixture in a bowl and set aside to let cool. Save the other half of the fresh blueberries for when the jam mixture has cooled. Work on the Ricotta Custard Base (YOU’RE ALMOST THERE. SOON YOU WILL EAT THE MOST GLORIOUS OF TARTS)

The Ricotta Custard Base:

What You’ll Need:

  • 2 Large Egg Yolks
  • 1 1/3 cup of ricotta cheese
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1 tsp of vanilla extract
  • 2 tblsps of orange juice
  • 1 tsp of orange zest

Preheat your oven to 350.

Set up a double boiler. Fill a medium saucepan a third of the way with water. Bring the water to a soft simmer and set a heat-proof bowl ( I always use a glass bowl) on top of the sauce pan.

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Put in your egg yolks, sugar and honey. Using a whisk, whisk the egg yolk mixture until the soft heat of the double boiler turns your egg yolks frothy and a pale yellow color. The consistency will be thick and creamy. The volume of the mixture will also increase slightly. This process will take 3-5 minutes. Do not walk away from this part. Your eggs will curdle so fast it’ll give you whiplash, if you neglect it.

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Once the eggs have become thick and creamy, take it off the double boiler and whisk in your orange juice, zest, and vanilla extract. Then gently fold in your ricotta cheese.

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All Together Now:

At this stage – take your tart crust out of the fridge and, with a fork, poke a few holes in the bottom of the crust so it doesn’t bake unevenly. Pour your ricotta mixture into the crust and bake in the pre-heated oven (350 degrees) for 16-18 minutes.

You will know that the custard is ready to come out of the oven if you give it a slight shake. The perimeter (the area of custard closest to the crust) will be firm and not jiggle. The middle will still jiggle slightly. There shouldn’t be too much color on top of the custard. It should still be a pale-yellow.

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Let the custard cool to room temperature (or if you’re impatient like me – you can stick it in the freezer to expedite the process).

Meanwhile, fold the rest of the fresh blueberries into the cooled blueberry compote.

Once the custard base has cooled, spread the blueberry mixture on top. It will seem like you’re struggling to cover the top of the tart with the blueberry compote but it will be enough. A little goes a long way here.

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Cut your slices wide, pour some coffee or tea to go with it, sit and relax your shoulders, breathe, and devour. In that order.

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What you learned:

Crust: EVERYTHING MUST BE COLD. I can’t stress that enough. The success and the flakiness of your crust will depend entirely on the coldness of the butter in the dough.

Compote: Lemon juice is key to bring out the flavors of the fruit. Without it, you would be left with a dull semblance of your sapphire blueberries.

Custard: It’s not that hard. It’s not that scary! Also, learning the double boiler method will set you up for  many other desserts. Specifically – tiramisu. Because – good lord, how can you not love tiramisu.

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The Quintessential Strata

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“One learns, necessarily, to be gentle when acquiring omelet skills: a certain measure of sensitivity is needed…I have long believed it is only right and appropriate that before one sleeps with someone, one should be able – if called upon to do so – to make them a proper omelet in the morning. Surely that kind of civility and selflessness would be both good manners and good for the world.”

– Anthony Bourdain, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook

 

Eggs. EGGS. Eggs are good.

Do you like eggs? Are you one of those special people who find them disgusting? YA DEAD TO ME.

Just kidding. Sort of.

Anyways, whether you see eggs as delicious and the pinnacle of all things good or as gross and a discarded chicken period (too much?), there is no denying that eggs are a pivotal part of many recipes. They act as binding agents, leavening agents and tasty agents.

In this particular case, they act as all three and also as a way to use leftover bread. It is also a nifty way to incorporate some vegetables into my carb-heavy diet.

Also, there’s cheese. Cheese is also good.

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Basic Vegetable Strata:

Prep time: 10 minutes

Serves 1 (additional serving options will be addressed at the bottom of the recipe)

What You’ll Need:

  • 1 cup of cubed-up bread (stale is preferred. If fresh, toast the bread a little bit in the oven until the exterior is golden. This will maximize egg-soaking abilities)
  • 1/2 cup of whatever vegetables you prefer. (In my strata, I used roasted cherry tomatoes and roasted brussel sprouts. Don’t judge. Bell peppers, onions, zucchini are all AWESOME options.)
  • 1/4 cup of the cheese of your choice (I used grated Parmesan)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup of milk
  • Salt and Pepper

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  1. Pre-heat your oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Put your vegetables and bread in your greased, individual loaf pan (or a large ramekin).
  3. Beat your eggs and milk together. Stir in half the amount of your grated cheese, salt and pepper into your egg mixture
  4. Pour the egg mixture over your vegetables and bread in your loaf pan and press down on the mixture with a fork. You want to ensure that the bread leeches up all that eggy goodness. At this point, make yourself a cup of coffee, read the newspaper – whatever. Do anything that lets you walk away from the uncooked strata for about 5 minutes. You want to let that sucker rest and let the egg seep into every pore of the bread cubes.
  5. After 5 minutes of seeping, top your strata with the rest of the grated cheese and put your cute, little strata in the pre-heated oven for 20 minutes.
  6. Take out of the oven, marvel at the melted cheese and the browned egg. Then eat. EAT.

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Optional Serving Suggestions:

I realize not everyone is insane like me and hoards miniature versions of cookery like loaf pans. If you want to make enough to share, I would follow the proportions below. That will make enough to fit in an 8 x 8 square baking dish.

  • 4 cups of cubed-up bread
  • 2 cup of whatever vegetables you prefer.
  • 1/2 cup of the cheese of your choice (I used grated Parmesan)
  • 6 eggs
  • 1 cup of milk
  • Salt and Pepper

 

Chicken with Shallots and Tarragon

Let’s get fancy.

Except not.

I think there is this common misconception that recipes with words like “shallots” and “cream sauce” and “white wine reduction” has to be hard and time consuming. To be quite frank, understanding the ease and versatility of a basic sauce will make your life so much more exciting. I promise. You’ve got this.

If you’ve never had a shallot before, they are the onion’s milder cousin. They’re perfect for delicate sauces because they just don’t have that almost vulgar pungency that onions do. Sometimes you need vulgarity. Sometimes you need something more akin to Victorian modesty. That’s where shallots come in.

Also, before you start – give that fresh tarragon a hefty whiff. Have you ever smelled something so heavenly? Savory and almost licorice-like. You’re in for a treat.

Part 1: The Chicken

What You’ll Need:

  • 4 boneless chicken breasts (near 2lbs total of chicken)
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter for cooking

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees

  1. Pat those breasts dry with a paper towel. You want a nice, crusty sear on the chicken when you cook. Wet breasts don’t help. (Yes, I know how that sounds.) Heat the oil and butter in a large skillet (12-inch is best) at a medium-high heat. I use both oil AND butter so that the butter doesn’t burn during the process and for a nice crust and flavor. Season the chicken breasts liberally with salt and pepper.
  2. Place the chicken breasts in the skillet and cook for 2-3 minutes (depending on the thickness of the chicken breasts) on each side. Try not to move the chicken too much so you can achieve that glorious, golden sear.
  3. Place the skillet in the preheated oven for 12-15 minutes until cooked through.

chicken

Part 2: The Sauce. The sinful, sensational, seriously salacious sauce.

What You’ll Need:

  • 1 cup of dry white wine
  • 1 heaping tablespoon of dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons of lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup of half and half cream
  • 2 medium shallots, sliced (which can be found in the onion section of your grocery store)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 4 tablespoons of butter plus 1 tablespoon for cooking
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 tablespoons of chopped, fresh tarragon
  1. Slice your shallots and mince your garlic. Have these ready for the skillet.
  2. Carefully remove the skillet with the chicken from the oven. Using tongs, place the chicken on a plate and cover loosely with foil.  Place the skillet back on top of the stove and turn to a medium heat and melt the 1 tablespoon of butter in all of the leftover chicken fats and juices in the skillet. (Yeah. The good stuff.)
  3. Once the butter has melted, put in your shallots and garlic and cook for 2-3 minutes until the shallots are translucent. Put in your white wine, lemon juice, mustard and let it simmer until it has reduced to about half the original volume. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the pan and lift up all those wonderful, brown bits from the chicken. This part should take about 3-5 minutes on a low-medium simmer.
  4. Once the liquid has reduced, slowly pour in the half and half while stirring the sauce. Then the salt and pepper will go in. Make sure you season to taste. A sauce is nothing without good seasoning.  (If the liquid has reduced a little too much, add a little more wine or some spare chicken stock if you have it.) 
  5. Bring the sauce to a full boil. Once it reaches a boil, take it off the heat and slowly add the butter, one tablespoon at a time, stirring gently so that the butter is fully incorporated. Luscious. So luscious.
  6. Stir one tablespoon of the chopped tarragon into the completed sauce. Spoon this ridiculous sauce over the resting chicken and bring out your inner Emeril Lagasse and yell “BAM” as you rain the rest of the chopped tarragon over your beautiful chicken.

sauce

Enjoy.

Seriously. Rip into it like an animal. Or – be dainty about it. It is a fancy, white-wine reduction sauce after all.

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*These beautiful photos were done by the wonderful Elena. Check out her work at elenabertolo.com*

Flank Steak: Friend or Foe?

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Let it be known that steak has always been my foe.

I am too impatient, too volatile, too wild. To me, life cannot be contained by meat thermometers and timers! It’s oppressive!

Honestly, I’m just a whiny baby who overcooks or under-cooks expensive cuts of meat. I never learned to tame my internal chaos and it’s reflected in my mastery (or lack thereof) of meat.

BUT. I have found the answer. Talk to your butcher. Listen to his sage advice. His hands may be calloused from handling heavy carcasses but he has a gentle soul and even gentler touch. He knows how to tend to meat.

My wonderful, amazing, kind, happy butcher told me a few key things:

  • Get your pan hot. As hot as your cheeks get when a beautiful man (or woman) breathes on your neck. (Aka: medium-high heat)
  • For a two pound piece of meat, like I bought, it’s a hot sear for 6-7 minutes on each side for medium, medium-rare.  And, listen, I’m not a judgmental person but if you prefer your steak cooked more than medium, I need you to understand what utter blasphemy you are committing. RESPECT THE MEAT.
  • Oil the meat well. Not the pan. Heating a pan full of oil to such a temperature is just begging for a visit from the fire department. Trust me, I have set many a smoke alarms off.
  • Always cut against the grain. There are lines of muscle and sinew that run along the length of the meat that, if you cut along it, will make it impossible to chew and completely unpleasant to eat. You want it to cut and chew like Paula Deen’s favorite ingredient, BUTTER.
  • Something else that the butcher did not impart to me but I found to be pivotal in cooking a steak: do not skimp on the salt. Crust that beast with salt and pepper. Massage it as you would a lover. Don’t be a prude.

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Why is it, when discussing meat, that the conversation always feels semi-inappropriate? Maybe it’s just me and I’m a twelve-year-old about it. 

Just A Man

Let’s talk about a man. Just an ordinary man.

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This man, the one with whom I spent countless hours watching cooking shows and kung-fu movies – my father.

Funny enough, he didn’t actually teach me much about cooking. I absorbed via osmosis.

He was a professional cook for as long as I can remember and professional couch-potato, cooking-show-watcher for even longer.  He cooked constantly. He made apple pies, ramen, steak, pasta – literally anything and everything edible. He conquered them all.

With a deft flick of his burn-scar-ridden wrist, he makes the most magical of omelettes.  He picks up searing hot pieces of meat straight from the skillet with his bare, calloused hands. He peels and de-veins shrimp with Olympic-like speed.

If there was ever a question about my culinary aspirations, one would just have to look at my father, taste his food, marvel as he worked in concentration and silence.  That’s him. That is who I want to be.

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My father is of the humble breed. Fresh off the boat, back in ’97 when we first moved to the U.S. He biked to work in the harsh Jersey winters. He’s worked in hotel restaurants, country clubs, nursing homes, his own restaurant (briefly) and is a bona fide work horse to the bone.

He is also the same man who hovers over me when I cook at home. He let’s me have it when I’ve over-peppered the asparagus. He isn’t afraid to yell and I’ve learned to yell back. Kitchen staff never lose that fire, even with their family members.

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He is the same man who made an entire buffet of food for my 18th birthday. That picture doesn’t even show the sushi he made, the two desserts, and the fruit plate. It certainly doesn’t display my father’s worn but accomplished face after waking up and hauling ass at 4am to cook for this party that started at 3pm.

To this day – home is when my father takes out packets of ramen, works some voodoo magic over it, and makes enough for the family. Complete with eggs, ham and sometimes the occasional fish cake.  My father is world-class and can make anything but his ramen…incomparable and nostalgic.

Kimchi Fried Rice

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Guys. I’m Asian.

I’m Asian and I don’t do fried rice. Hilarious? I think so.  I just have never gotten the hang of not burning the bottom of the rice and never understood how to achieve that signature dry-ish rice grain that your neighborhood takeout place seems to mass-produce on a daily basis.

With this dish, I still haven’t achieved that. What I have achieved is a crimson bowl of good eats that is fast and oh-so-satisfying it will make your bottom lip quiver with anticipation.

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If you haven’t had kimchi before, it’s basically a spicy, Korean version of sauerkraut.  BUT. Sauerkraut ain’t got nothing on this sassy sister.

It’s okay. You’re ready for it. You are absolutely ready for this cabbage experience. Don’t be a baby.

What You’ll Need:

  • 3 cups cooked (preferably leftover from the day before) rice  (I used sticky rice)
  • 1/2 a medium onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 cup of kimchi (You can find it at any Asian grocery store. I’ve seen it at Whole Foods and other health-food groceries as well.)
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1 tblsp maple syrup (or plain sugar)
  • 2 tblsp oyster sauce
  • 1 glorious egg per person (or two, if you want to get crazy)
  • Leftover steak (or whatever meat or no meat!)
  • Cilantro, chopped, for sprinkling
  • Sriracha – for dousing to one’s pleasure afterwards

Prep Time: 10 minutes

1.) Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a big skillet at medium heat. Saute onions until they begin to brown – about 3-4 minutes. Put minced garlic in and cook together for a minute, watching it carefully so as to not burn the garlic.

2.) Add the cooked rice to the onions and garlic and cook for rice for 2-3 minutes. Add soy sauce, oyster sauce, and maple syrup and cook until the rice soaks up the liquid and begins to brown a little. About 5 minutes.  Stir constantly so as to not have the rice burn on the bottom.

3.) Add the kimchi and cook together, stirring constantly for 5-7 minutes until rice and kimchi is warmed through and beginning to brown. Transfer to a bowl.

4.) In another pan, heat a tablespoon of oil and half a tablespoon of butter. Crack that one glorious egg in and cook to desired doneness. I prefer over-easy so that when you break the yolk over the rice, the yolk dribbles gleefully onto the rice and creates a sauce.

5.) Warm whatever meat you’ve chosen to accompany your rice with (or not) in the same skillet to save on dishes.

6.) Get fancy, chop up some cilantro and sprinkle over. SERIOUSLY. The cilantro makes it. Squirt copious amounts of sriracha because it just ain’t spicy enough.

The rice serves 2. Oh, alright! It serves closer to 4 not-so-hungry, not-that-excited-about-this-food weirdos. 

Happy Eating!