June 22, 2009

pre-dinner party food

One of my favorite parts about having a dinner party is the part before dinner, just after everyone has arrived. I like to have Mark pour drinks for everyone -- nothing too heavy in the summer, so chilled glasses of vinho verde or maybe Campari sodas -- while I take a couple of minutes to put together something to snack on before the main course. I really love when everyone is hanging out in the dining area outside the kitchen so I can take part in the chatting, drinking, and nibbling while I finish dinner.

We had friends over in the middle of the week for dinner and, for a pre-dinner treat, I decided to riff on the tomatoes I posted about last time. I really liked the way these bites turned out, so I thought I should blog about them, even though these are almost too simple for words.

You begin by toasting thin slices of crusty bread, like a baguette or a boule. You spread the bread with really fresh, mild ricotta. (We used a sheep's milk ricotta from a local producer with a pure milky flavor and smooth texture. The kind in a plastic tub from a grocery store doesn't really cut it -- instead, make your own or use a young goat cheese instead.) Sprinkle kosher salt and ground black pepper on the cheese. Finally, top some of the crostini with oven roasted tomatoes and the rest with thinly sliced Easter egg radishes. Finishing touch: basil, sliced in thin ribbons and scattered all over as a garnish. Fresh and tasty and pretty, too.

[Crostini with oven roasted tomatoes, ricotta, basil; crostini with easter egg radishes, salted butter]

These are two fairly basic combinations that are, in my opinion, elevated by the use of super fresh ingredients. Another favorite is ricotta piled with finely grated lemon zest and a drizzle of honey. Or, radishes would be amazing on bread smeared with sweet butter and a heavy sprinkling of fleur de sel.

I hope some of you will tell me about your favorite pre-dinner snacks, especially those using the summer fruits and vegetables piling up in the market.

Related posts: oven roasted tomatoes

June 13, 2009

pasta with oven roasted tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil

I'm crazy for Molly Wizenberg's recipe for pomodori al forno. I'm on my 3rd batch in as many weeks and these deeply red, deeply flavored tomatoes don't quit being terrific. Today for lunch, I topped pasta with slow-roasted tomatoes, chunks of mild mozzarella, and basil leaves from the garden, along with a healthy drizzle of tomato-flavored olive oil. Oh, and of course a few grinds of black pepper. With a couple of glasses of chilled cava, this was a simple but incredibly satisfying meal. I love these tomatoes! Make them. (I mean, if you want to.)

Pasta with Cafe Lago's Pomodori al Forno
Adapted from Bon Appetit

Notes: This recipe calls for fresh plum tomatoes. However, since tomato season has barely started, I've been using high quality canned San Marzano tomatoes, which are sweet and firm-textured. They work really well.

While the recipe calls for adding raw garlic at the end, I usually add it to the baking dish to cook with the tomatoes so that the oil is infused with garlic.

Speaking of that oil, the tomato-flavored olive oil is really wonderful; save it, even after you've finished the tomatoes. Use as a dip for good, crusty bread or adding to dishes that could use a shot of tomato flavor.

Finally, if you're not in the mood for pasta, these tomatoes are super delicious as a topping for bruschetta, stirred into scrambled eggs, with couscous and steamed zucchini, or alone. I would know since that's basically all I ate this week.

For the tomatoes:
1 cup (or more) good olive oil, divided
1 32 ounce can good quality canned tomatoes or 2 pounds plum tomatoes
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano (or try fresh, I used 3-4 sprigs from the garden)
3/4 teaspoon sugar
kosher salt
2 large garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons minced fresh Italian parsley
Preheat oven to 250 degrees F.

Pour approximately 1/2 cup olive oil into 13x9x2-inch glass or ceramic baking dish. Set aside.
If using canned tomatoes, drain can of whole tomatoes, reserving liquid for another use. Halve each tomato lengthwise and squeeze out the seeds. Arrange tomatoes in 13x9x2 baking dish, cut side facing up. If using whole, fresh tomatoes, halve them lengthwise, seed them, and arrange in baking dish cut side up.

Drizzle tomatoes with remaining 1/2 cup oil. Sprinkle evenly with sugar and a generous amount of kosher salt. (The recipe calls for 1/2 teaspoon of salt but I almost never measure salt when I'm cooking.) Add oregano, along with the minced garlic.

Bake tomatoes for 1 hour. After 1 hour, remove the dish from the oven and, using tongs, turn tomatoes over. Bake 1 hour longer. Turn over again and bake a little longer, 15-45 minutes, until the tomatoes are deep red and very tender. (Fresh tomatoes will, she says, take at least 3 hours, but my experience is that using canned tomatoes cuts the baking time.)

Transfer the tomatoes to a medium bowl, sprinkling parsley (and additional raw garlic, if desired) over each layer. Drizzle the remaining oil over the tomatoes, adding more to cover the tomatoes, if necessary. The original recipe says to let this stand at room temperature for 2 hours, which I have done but I have also let it sit for 30 minutes or so and thought it was fine.

If desired, you can cover and chill up to 5 days, bringing the tomatoes to room temperature before serving. Or you can make pasta, as follows.

For the pasta:

1 pound pasta, such as spaghetti (my preference) but a short pasta would be good too
A few handfuls of fresh basil
3-4 ounces of fresh mozzarella (the kind that comes packed in water, not the shredded/low-moisture kind)

Boil the pasta as directed on the package until al dente.
Meanwhile, gently chop the tomatoes into small chunks. I like to use about three quarters of the tomatoes for the pasta, reserving the rest for another use, but you can use as much or as little as you like. Chop the mozzarella and tear the basil.
Drain the pasta well and place it in a large serving bowl. Top with the chopped tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, and freshly ground black pepper. Drizzle a tablespoon or two of the tomato-flavored oil over the pasta for extra richness and flavor, if desired.

Variations I've tried:
Omit the cheese and basil. Add quartered olives, a handful of capers, and chili flakes for a take on pasta puttanesca.
Omit the basil. Add sautéed artichoke hearts and sliced fennel (cooked with the artichoke hearts). Replace fresh mozzarella with grated parmigiano reggiano.

June 9, 2009

green goddess dressing

I was planning to write about the beautiful Copper River sockeye we had this weekend. Think glistening, orange-red flesh and a thickish layer of fat running along the inside and that fresh smell that good salmon has. So good, right?

Unfortunately, I ruined it. I have this bad habit - it's called googling. I came across this blog post, describing someone buying salmon on sale, cooking it, and having an um, extremely unpleasant surprise. (Don’t click on that link unless you want to lose your lunch. DON'T.) I tried to put it out of my mind but, although Mark makes a great broiled salmon, I couldn't stop thinking about this stupid website. Objectively, the salmon was really tasty --and there were no unpleasant surprises, thank God!-- but I totally ruined the experience for myself.

[Aside about Copper River salmon. Mark/Seattleite/salmon guy explains Copper River salmon thusly: “The Copper River is cold and icy. The salmon have a thick layer of fat to fight their way through the river. Fat is good. Fatty salmon: good.” He also thinks it's kind of overpriced so don't feel like you need to pay $38/lb for good salmon. I picked up CR sockeye for less than half that at Central Market.]

Given all that, I thought I’d talk about what I made to eat with the salmon: green goddess dressing. I made this for the first time years ago and kept it in my mental recipe box because I love the light green color, the bright flavors of all the herbs, and the smooth texture. Although green goddess is traditionally used as a salad dressing, I think it goes particularly well with fish -- assuming you aren’t consumed with terror while eating your fish, that is! Also, I like it on on a crisp lettuce wedge, romaine salad, or as a dip for crudités.

Green Goddess Dressing
from Food & Wine

Notes: If I'm making this for fish, I like to keep the dressing on the thick side, so I add slightly less of the vinegar mixture. Also, don't be shy with seasoning: because the avocado is so rich, you really need a generous pinch of salt to bring out the flavors. One interesting variation is to omit the salt and add a chopped anchovy to the mix, which adds a salty, brine-y touch that I really like. Finally, the recipe says the egg yolk is optional. I always add the yolk, so I don't know if it'd be as good without it. However I definitely want to hear about it if someone makes it without the egg yolk.

1 small shallot, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 large egg yolk, at room temperature (optional)
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 ripe avocado, mashed
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon chopped tarragon
1 tablespoon chopped basil
1 tablespoon chopped chives
sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1. In a small bowl, combine the shallot with the garlic, vinegar, and lemon and lime juices. Let stand for 5 minutes.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk the yolk, gradually adding half of the olive oil in a thin drizzle. Continue whisking until the olive oil is incorporated.
3. To the olive oil mixture, add 1 tablespoon of liquid from the shallot mixture, and then whisk in the remaining olive oil. You want to whisk constantly to form an emulsion. Add the avocado and mash it with a fork. Stir in the remaining shallot mixture and all the herbs.
4. Add salt and pepper to taste.