Thursday, July 26, 2012

Ratatouille Tart and Crazy Days of Summer

"Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer
Those days of soda and pretzels and beer
Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer
Dust off the sun and moon and sing a song of cheer"
-- Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer, Songwriters: Tobias, Bradtke, Carste 

How long has it been since summer was carefree. Forever it seems. Those long sunny days of heading to the beach, camping in the mountains or just stepping out to the garden. A quiet meditation just watering the growing bounty of our vegetable patch. By August the garden was bursting and  heavily laden requiring a daily harvest before the sun hit it's pinnacle. The taste of sunshine in each bite of lemon cucumber, tomato or green bean. I still have a few plants in raised beds, nothing like Dad's huge spread but enough to give me fresh herbs, tomatoes and such. Simple pleasures. Farmer's markets provide local produce to satisfy the void and hassle of growing it all on your own.

When the zucchini, tomatoes and peppers come on nothing tastes better than a ratatouille. I tested a recipe from Kelsey Nixon, Cooking Channel that was a nice change up to the traditional vegetable stew. A puff pastry tart enhanced with a base layer of caramelized onion and tomato jam. The jam was a bit worky, but well worth the effort -- and I got to play with my new De Buyer mandoline. Slicing heaven!

De Buyer Swing Mandoline makes quick work of slicing onions!

I made the jam on a Sunday afternoon when I had plenty of time to caramelized the onions and let the mixture thicken nicely. Overall I noticed that the timing indicated in the recipe was off by half and I reduced the salt to one teaspoon. Next time I'll also peel the fresh Roma tomatoes before adding to the pot. The remnants of the peels just doesn't work for me. Patience is required when you want your onions to have that sweetened bit of dark caramelization that just takes time. I couldn't wait to do a taste test, so a quick bruchetta with goat cheese and a sprinkle of chives and lemon basil was enough to test this recipe was a winner. Reminiscent of a chunky barbecue sauce with a brown sugar molasses tomato base and added punch of chipotle powder. The creamy goat cheese offered a nice counterpoint. The rich mahogany color is just plain ole pretty to look at.

Caramelized onion and tomato jam.
On Monday, while I defrosted my sheet of puff pastry, my mandoline sliced up the eggplant and squashes into beautiful perfect 1/4" width slices. Not something easily done with my food processor, that's for sure.

Summer Vegetables and Herbs
The finale of this adventure -- Ratatouille Tart with Carmelized Onion and Tomato Jam was delectable. Tender not soggy vegetables, layers of fresh sunshine flavors with the underlying sweet smokey jam on a flaky, buttery pastry. My darling dear said this easily satisfies our two to three servings of vegetables a day all in one meal and a welcome addition to our standard rotation.

Ratatouille Tart with Caramelized Onion and Tomato Jam
Adapted from Original Recipe
Ratatouille Tart with Caramelized Onion-Tomato Jam by Kelsey Nixon
This made one 12" x 10" tart with leftover jam.
Serves 4-6  (I can't see serving 6-8 for dinner with just this... but that could just me)

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 Vidalia onions, thinly sliced (I used 3 Walla Walla onions)
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt (reduced to 1 teaspoon)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 10 Roma tomatoes, cored, seeded and roughly chopped (about 2 1/2 pounds) (I will peel next time)
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup cider vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder
  • 1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
  • Flour, for dusting
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup Caramelized Onion-Tomato Jam
  • 3 Roma tomatoes, sliced 1/4-inch thick
  • 1 Japanese eggplant, sliced 1/4-inch thick on a mandoline
  • 1 yellow squash, sliced 1/4-inch thick on a mandoline
  • 1 zucchini, sliced 1/4-inch thick on a mandoline
  • 5 thin slices yellow onion
  • 1 to 2 roasted red peppers, julienned (I used fresh peppers, yellow and red)
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
  • 3 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano, divided (I used a combination of fresh basil, chives, and oregano)
  • 1/2 cup crumbled goat cheese


In a high-sided saute pan with a lid, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions, season with the salt, cover and cook until they are wilted and soft, about 10 minutes. Remove the lid and cook the onions until they are golden and caramelized, stirring often, about 20 minutes more. (I cooked the onions for about 20 minutes more so they were well browned and caramelized but not crispy. This is dependent on how thin your onions are sliced.)

Stir in the garlic and saute 1 to 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook an additional 10 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients, bring the mixture to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Stirring consistently, cook until the tomatoes breakdown and the jam becomes thick, about 20 minutes. (The jam thickness was still too runny for my tastes at this point so I cooked another 20 minutes until a teaspoon cooled on a plate does not run at all.)
Yield: approx 3 cups
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.Roll the puff pastry out on a floured surface to a rectangular shape, about 12 by 10 1/2 inches. Transfer the pastry sheet to a parchment-lined baking sheet. With the tines of a fork, dock a 1/2-inch border around the edge of the sheet and dock the center of the sheet a few times as well. This will prevent the dough from rising as it cooks.

Spread the Caramelized Onion-Tomato Jam evenly over the pastry, leaving a small border around the edge of the pastry. Layer the tomatoes, eggplant, yellow squash and zucchini in overlapping rows, or in whatever pattern you like. Sprinkle the roasted red peppers around the tart. Drizzle the assembled tart with a little olive oil, making sure to brush a little on the edges, season with salt and pepper and top with half of the fresh (herb mixture) plus oregano.

Bake until the pastry is golden brown and puffed, 20 to 25 minutes. (It took another 20 minutes for the pastry to be brown and the vegetables softened sufficiently) I also drizzled a bit more olive oil half way through the cooking process so the squash and eggplant wouldn't dry out. Remove from the oven and immediately sprinkle with the goat cheese and the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons (herb mixture) plus oregano before serving.

What will you do with summer's vegetable bounty?

Did you know this year celebrate's Julia Child's 100th Birthday. Follow the celebration on Facebook
and check out the Recipe of the Week! (Hint: can you say ratatouille?)

Julia Child - Recipe of the Week #11 Ratatouille

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Monthly Mingle - A Taste of Yellow for Barbara

Pickled Golden Beets, Cucumber and Zucchini Salad
Cancer is indiscriminate, the deadly tendrils snake it's way into the fabric of our lives without care. Those stricken are left to suffer and decide how to live the rest of their lives. That is, if they are fortunate enough to have a choice. Loved ones are heart struck and numb in their efforts to be supportive and desperate make it all better, easier. As if will power alone could make it so.

I lost my grandfather, "Smokey Joe" before I got to know him. What a loss to never know his love and feel that special connection. There are vague memories of visiting him in the Sister's Hospital, facing the ocean. I can't say now if they are real or imagined. I was so small. Mom says he carried a lock of my red hair in his wallet. My heart says he loved me.

Cancer, so pervasive, it has touched all of us. A grandfather, uncle, aunt, sister, mother, or friend or even pet. There is no escape. With outreached heart I have witnessed dear friends struggle to get through the treatments. Each with a bravery and spirit I don't know if I could muster given the same circumstances. Helpless on the sidelines. Whether a world away or next door we wait, praying and hoping it will all get better. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn't.

We have learned much about cancer through research and science. Treatments have improved and in some areas the survival rate has increased. But the heartache of the journey is never made easy. That is why the true courage and personal fortitude of someone like Barbara Harris of provides inspiration and awe as a life well lived. Diagnosed in 2004, she fought the good fight with honesty, grace, humor and compassion as a human, and blogger.  She inaugurated a Taste of Yellow across the blog-o-sphere in 2007 to raise cancer awareness in conjunction with Lance Armstrong's LiveStrong Foundation. Regardless how you might feel about Lance, the ubiquitous yellow bracelets urge us all to LiveStrong. Year after year bloggers joined in with inspiring memories, recipes and images. Dear Barbara lost her battle this June.

To honor her memory, this month friends Meeta (What's for Lunch Honey) and Jeanne (Cooksister) have rallied for an ultimate Taste of Yellow, Monthly Mingle as a tribute. You still have time to participate if you want to!

Make or bake something yellow (sweet or savory), or something using yellow ingredients. Let your imagination run wild: lemons, yellow peppers, yellow plums, yellow carrots, yellow squash - the possibilities are endless! Participant directions at the above link to Cooksister.

Whether you blog or not why not celebrate and participate in the remaining days of the month? Take a moment and have a taste of yellow, say their names aloud. Barbara, Beth, Andrea, Mimi, Fawn, John, Frank, David and Christopher.

A call to remember, raise awareness and honor those we've lost but to also cheer on our loves that are fighting through it, and a celebration for survivors who have won a reprieve.

My Taste of Yellow tribute starts with golden beets, fresh from the earth.

Farmer's Market Fresh Golden Beets

They almost look orange don't they? But wait for their transformation. Pickled Beets were a favorite my Dad whipped up from time to time. Only enough for a quart jar in the 'fridge, but oh, so tasty. Spoiled me forevermore. At the salad bars or grocery store, my disappointment finds mushy, spice challenged and bland offerings. Bleh, really? Granted, Dad prepared the traditional red beets, but the cloves, cinnamon pickling spice flavors were embedded in my taste buds. Why not with golden beets? Something yellow.

Spiced and pickled golden beets

Once pickled, what better compliment to your salad?
The one below is simple napa cabbage leaves, zucchini wrapped in wafer thin cucumber, pecans and dried cranberries. A drizzle of white balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

Wouldn't a sprinkle of goat cheese be lovely too?

Recipe for Pickled Beets
Makes about one 8 oz Jar.

4 whole fresh golden beets, tops trimmed, roots on
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup reserved beet juice
1/3 cup white vinegar, plus 1 tablespoon
Pickling Spices
4 whole Cloves
2 whole Allspice
1 Star Anise
1 stick Cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon whole Mustard Seeds
6 Tasmanian Peppercorns (or black peppercorns)
2 Lemon Zest strips (1/2" x 4")

  1. Wrap pickling spices in cheesecloth, tie with butcher's string to make a bundle.
  2. Scrub and trim tops of beets, but leave roots and peels on (they will peel very easily once cooked.)
  3. Cook beets covered in water with 1 tablespoon white vinegar (which will help retain the color) and spice bundle. Bring to a boil and then lower heat to medium. Cook for 30-40 minutes until tender. 
  4. Drain liquid, reserving at least 1/3 cup. Cool beets so you can peel and cut in quarters or smaller wedges.
  5. Put sugar, beet juice and vinegar in a medium saucepan with the cut beets and I reused my spice bundle. Bring liquid up to a boil then turn off. Cool, remove bundle and place in a sterile jar. 
  6. I added more spices to my jar because I like intense flavors. That is up to you. Keep pickled beets in the refrigerator for several weeks (if you don't eat them up right away!)

In Barbara's Words:

A Taste of Yellow - LiveStrong

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Cucumber Mint Soup with Lemon

What is it about hot humid summer heat? Forget the sugary soft drinks and beer, give me something like sun tea and cold soup to break the sweat on my brow. Are my southern roots showing?

Cold Cucumber Soup with Mint and Lemon

Inspired by a recent trip to Decatur, Georgia (by way of Atlanta) I am paying homage to a delectable soup tasted at Cakes and Ale.

What fun it is, to try and let your taste-bud detective reveal the herbs, subtleties, and nuance of taste that make up a finely crafted recipe. I know you have done this, to try to recreate something you've had in a restaurant or a friend's house. Going blind, without a recipe. Just diving right in and start cooking with your vision and taste as a guide. How successful have you been? Do you search out like recipes on the 'net to guide you? Do you invent on a whim? Well, I do. And, for those following, this recipe is not certified, culinarily tested by banks of trained recipe writers or staff. It is my creation, eaten by my family and heck, we just enjoyed it.

The debate about the value of food blog posts such as mine, without verification, validation and test kitchen results versus the cookbooks and professional sites is currently a hot topic. Don't each have value as a creative outlet?

Let not the buyer beware? I have had my own failures based on recipes from published cookbooks and successes from delightful posts on the Internet and vise versa. Aren't we all on this journey together? Although at different places and experiences on the timeline, growth as a cook means that you can learn to read a recipe and discern whether it is viable or not and whether you have enough experience to carry it out. Are  the directions clear and followable enough for you to be successful?  Does the cake have leavening, does it call for salt? Are the flavors, herbs and spices complimentary? I check each of these things and compare before I dive in, don't you? We each "read" a recipe from a different lens based on our own experience.

I am so sorry that "home economics" is not mandatory in schools to prepare kids with cooking basics in a world of take-away family dining. However, those who have the inclination and the cooking bug are lucky enough to learn from TV (PBS rocks,) study videos, search and find fine examples. And, what is even better, the world has developed crowd sourcing for the testing process. Reading reviews, comments and compare similar recipes. If we do the research our confidence grows in our choices.

It is about how you learn, isn't it. Do you trust the author? Do they have like sensibilities to yours? We have a choice before going head-long into a dish that we hope will be spectacular.  Heaven forbid you do not practice that "oh-so-important-spectacular-end-all-be-all" dish before the event of a lifetime. Do you think success comes without practice or as a one-off? This journey, is not about perfection based on a single corporate tested recipe, vetted by professionals, but our own practice and adventures that makes each of us better cooks and culinary citizens. Failures teach as much as our successes.

I honor the trained culinary professional. But, I also honor the inventive home cook with heritage and craft as their guide. Like neighbors across the fence, sharing recipes is what we do.

In the kitchen, I'm yours.

Cold Cucumber Mint Soup with Lemon (and a little pepper)

Cold Cucumber Mint Soup with Lemon
Serves: 6-8 as a starter
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Chill Time:  Minimum 1 hour before serving

1 English Cucumber, seeded, skin on
2 Cucumbers, peeled and seeded
½ - 1 whole Anaheim Chile Pepper (adjust to taste)
3 each Green Onions (scallions) white and light green parts
4 tablespoons fresh Spearmint  (8 large leaves)
1 cup fresh Spinach leaves
2 tablespoons fresh Cilantro
½ to ¾ cup water
1 Garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon Lemon juice
1 teaspoon Lemon zest
1 tablespoon Olive Oil
2 cups plain Greek Yogurt
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
Pinch White Pepper
2 tablespoons fresh chopped Chives or
2 tablespoons micro Lemon Basil Leaves

Peel and seed regular cucumbers, seed chile and English cucumber cut into chunks.
Rough chop spinach leaves, green onions and herbs.

Add cucumbers, chile, onions, mint and spinach leaves in a blender or bowl of food processor,  pour over ½ cup water and puree very well to produce a smoothish green liquid. Add minced garlic, lemon juice, zest and olive oil. Pulse to blend. Add plain yogurt, sea salt and white pepper. Puree for 2 minutes to thoroughly blend and finely mince all ingredients. Check consistency and add ¼ cup more water to thin if desired.

Place fine mesh sieve over 6 cup bowl, pour cucumber mixture in batches working soup through the sieve with the back of a wooden spoon. This will produce a creamier soup. Chilled soup for at least an hour before serving. Divide into small bowls, sprinkle finely chopped chives on top or lemon basil micro greens. Drizzle a small amount of olive oil and serve cold.

Cook’s Tips
Inspired by a cucumber yogurt soup at Cakes and Ale, Decatur, Georgia.

Join Me?

Friday, July 6, 2012

Atlanta Revisited -- Family History and Southern Cuisine

Fever-Tree Ginger Beer  
I do a fair bit of traveling for my job.  Annual conferences with hundreds to thousands of people scurrying about convention centers, hotel ballrooms and hallways. While my agenda is always first about what I can gain from these professional, topic driven and intensely geeky sessions I plan an alternate agenda to get me out and into the hosting city.

My last visit to Atlanta was 2004.

That year, my Mom and I were immersed in genealogy research on her father's side of the family. As fortune would have it, that conference brought us to the heart of Georgia and near our family roots -- stretching back several generations. As an added enticement, we also had a mystery to solve.

What happened to Gilbreth? He just dropped off the census around 1865 with no death record, just disappeared. Not uncommon after the Civil War, hard to trace as he did not serve in the military and would have been around forty years old in 1860. Family lore said he had some disability and was a school teacher.  Flummoxed and hopeful, Mom did research in the library while I was conferencing. After the conference ended on Friday, we drove to Franklin in the pouring rain.  The water ran in torrents, sheeting the car windows so that the highway striping was hard to see. I have never driven in such rain. Soon we arrived in Franklin and the sun broke through as we parked the car by the river. By previous arrangement we met with the kind Heard County clerks who gave us access to the old records, stacked on metal shelves in a storage room, under flickering florescent lights deep inside the tiny brick courthouse.

If you have ever watched the show "Who Do You Think You Are?" you can imagine our anticipation as we open the records and found familiar family names in historical documents, and yet the disappointment of being no closer to resolving the mystery. It was frustrating to say the least. A clue emerged, perhaps more to come from family cemeteries on the old landholdings. Anxious, but hesitant, we pondered our next steps.  Then, with true, genuine hospitality,  clerk Mary, our new friend said, "I know the family who owns the land!" and quickly picked up the phone to call. "I'll see if Darryl can take you out there."  Well, Darryl (who just had his wisdom teeth pulled) agreed to meet us in Glenn the next day and take us to the Lewis cemetery. He confirmed Gilbreth's brother Edward and family rested there. Our hopes were high.

In the heat of the day (and an unexpected side trip to Alabama, to my chagrin), we finally met at a mini mart off the main highway. Following his little green truck we traveled down a red dirt road, deeply rutted by heavy rains and barely visible through the tall, thick Georgia pines. Suddenly we stopped. "We'll have to walk in from here," said Darryl. Walk we did, with hardly a breath of air and humidity unused to. Sweat was pouring off of us in rivers. The road narrowed to a path, tall with weeds, rock and chuckholes until we came to the wrought iron fence and tall family markers in what seemed to be in the middle of nowhere forest, overgrown with vines and brambles.  The gate creaked as we pushed it open and walked into that quiet, sacred space. For Mom, the emotion was palpable as her hands reached to touch the names of family she had only read about,  the notion of family roots and connection that once were words on paper, made real. The kindness of strangers made this possible and we are so thankful, even if we didn't solve our mystery that day. Southern Hospitality.

Lewis Family Cemetery, Glenn, Georgia
If you've read this far, you are probably wondering what on earth has this got to do with food. The meals in the 2004 trip were, I have to say, either very ordinary or downright disappointing. I am sure it was lack of research resulting in poor choices on my part at the time, but the memory made me wary of what I would find in 2012. After all, there is still Hooters and the Hard Rock Cafe in the heart of downtown Atlanta, drawing in the crowds. Incredibly.

With a multitude of blogs, food review sites, restaurant rankings as reference, my experience couldn't have been more different. My adventures took me on a train ride to Decatur, discoveries a short walk from the downtown hotel and a very interesting taxi ride to an event held at the Goat Farm Art Center (that story will take it's own post.)  An active and vibrant culinary community reinventing "new southern" is taking hold in Atlanta!

First stop of note is Cakes and Ale in Decatur, a destination as part of the conference's Pub and Grub Crawl. My dining companions and I rode the MARTA from Atlanta to Decatur.  I had chosen this restaurant based on the chef's credentials (California Culinary Academy, Chez Panisse, and The Martini House in Napa) and was not disappointed.  The delicious menu changes frequently based on seasonal, local ingredients and the chef's creative direction. We ordered several items and shared them small plate style with a selection of wines and beverages from the tasteful beverage list. I discovered Fever-Tree Ginger Beer as an aperitif while waiting at the bar for my dining companions to finish their walk about the square.  Unused to this level of humidity and associated heat, this chill beverage with a pure ginger bite cooled and quenched my thirst from stem to stern. I will be looking for this when I get back home, for sure. Nice to see Bonny Doon Vineyards Syrah made the wine list!

Congenial staff and beautiful plates. I enjoyed a delicious meal with new friends met over creatively crafted fresh ingredients.

A variety of fresh oysters, the selection changes based on freshness and availability and taste

Cold Cucumber Soup with Greek Yogurt

Roasted Beets and Zucchini Salad
Samplings  -- Pulled Pork and Green Polenta, Pasta, and Fire Roasted Duck Leg
Traveling to different regions of the country at different times of the year opens up an expanse of flavors, customs and tastes. An opportunity to challenge our old impressions and open us up to new experiences.  But you have to do your homework to seek out the extraordinary and not fall in the chain food trap of convenience. An awareness dawns on me about how we are shaped by our climates and local surrounds. The best of cookbooks, blogs and magazine seek to capture that essence of the local and culture. Is there nothing better than tasting your way as you travel?


Cakes and Ale,  Decatur, Georgia