Monday, May 28, 2012

Romesco Sauce

Back when I was still trying to figure out what to do with my professional life, I was overwhelmed by the realization that many people chose their paths thanks to seemingly random accidents of history. Someone buys you a chemistry set at just the right birthday, or a beloved family member is stricken with a poorly-understood illness, or you check out a book of folk tales from one tradition or another, and suddenly your life course is set. Tens of thousands of hours will be spent in the lab, or on fieldwork, or wherever, just because of how things happened to shake out one day. Shouldn't the decision come from some deeper, internal place, so that you know it's the Real Right Answer? It all seemed so terrifyingly haphazard and fragile.

But as I got older (and as I let go of some of my anxieties), I realized that when you find things that speak to you, it doesn't seem to matter how they came to be. And if you love a particular professional path—or anything, really—because it reminds you of loving a particular time in your life or a particular person, well... that's really not the worst thing in the world. In fact, it's kind of great.

The other morning, I was downtown swapping out a bum computer charger, and saw the entire soccer (or, if you will, fútbal) team from Valencia inside the Apple store. And I ended up ridiculously, giddily excited, telling the story to everyone I talked to that day. Which was strange. Sure, there was the little bit of celebrity-worship, and the fact that these were some good-looking guys in really, really good shape. But when it comes down to it, I don't care much about sports. At all. My reaction was a bit of a mystery, until I realized—yeah, I could care less about soccer. But I have a friend in Spain.

To be more specific, it's the Basque Country that holds a special place in my heart. But it seems to extend to a fondness for all things Iberian. When I realized this, I was a little bit sheepish at my automatic reaction. But really, why not? Why should I chide myself for gushing over a sports team that I don't really care about? Why not just open myself to these warm fondnesses, no matter how they came to be, and go home and make some romesco?

To be fair, it's easy to have a love connection with romesco, even if you've never been close to Spain. This sauce is so, so good. It is the king of all sauces. Dried chilies, nuts, red wine, toasted bread, garlic, and (of course) olive oil are ground into a rich red paste. It tastes like nothing else, and pairs beautifully with everything from eggs to asparagus. In Spain (Catalonia in particular), it's made every year to eat with calçots, spring onions that are grilled and served, dripping with romesco, in an amazing festival called a calçotada. I haven't had the good fortune to attend a calçotada myself, but was able to create a reasonable approximation by pairing the romesco with some grilled leeks from a friend's garden. Did I enjoy it more because of my personal experiences? Probably. Because yes, your life is shaped by terrifyingly random turns and chance. And it can be delicious.

Romesco Sauce

yields ~2 cups 

Romesco can be made many ways, so feel free to play around. I've used fresh tomatoes (and even sun-dried, which worked surprisingly well), roasted the garlic in the oven, and tried a few different kinds of chiles. All were delicious, but this version here represents my sort of rich, perfect ideal of romesco.

5 dried chile, of the rich-yet-not-too-spicy variety, like anchos (I used the last of my Basque choriceros for this batch)
~1/2 cup olive oil, divided
8 cloves garlic, peeled and thickly sliced
1/3 cup mixed almonds and hazelnuts
1 slice crusty bread/baguette
1/2 cup tomato puree (or a slightly larger amount of grated fresh tomatoes)
1 Tbsp sherry vinegar
splash red wine
salt to taste

Place the dried chiles in a small bowl, and cover with boiling water. Let sit to rehydrate while you prepare the rest of the romesco, turning or pressing them down to make sure they are all submerged.

Heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil over a medium heat in a skillet. Add the garlic, and saute, lowering the heat as needed so they brown evenly, until they are a dark golden, ~15 minutes. Transfer the garlic from the skillet to a food processor.

Add the nuts to the skillet, and cook for a few minutes, until they darken and become fragrant. Add to the garlic in the food processor.

Place the bread in pan, and toast until golden on each side. Add to the food processor.

Add the tomato puree to the pan (be careful of spitting!), and cook, stirring occasionally, until it thickens considerably and the oil separates out, ~7 minutes. Transfer to the food processor.

Drain the chiles, remove the stems and seeds and add them to the mixture, along with the vinegar, wine, and remaining 1/4 cup of olive oil. Process until it is reduced to nubby-yet-relatively-smooth puree. Add more olive oil if needed (I sometimes will add a bit of water to adjust the consistency, which I'm sure the Europeans would scoff at, but I can't be quite that heavy-handed with the olive oil). Add salt to taste, and add more wine or vinegar if needed to bring out the flavors. Serve with grilled leeks, eggs, asparagus, or whatever else you desire.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Goat Cheese Cream with Berries

A few years ago, I was cooking with a friend on a Sunday afternoon, making several dishes to leave us with leftovers for the week ahead. We were debating what to make for dessert, as a possible surprise for her husband. Somehow we hit upon the idea that it would be funny if dessert were, for no real reason, a fully iced layer cake. And so we baked and frosted one, and presented it with much fanfare and giggling.

I love the idea that any random weeknight dinner can easily turn into a celebration. While we don't always have time to construct an iced cake, there are several little turns that you can easily take, quickly turning any dinner into an occasion. Especially when you have some delicious berries to work with.

To be clear, I think berries are a celebration in and of themselves. But with just a few easy accompaniments, they can be so much more. Whether it's honey-sweet Greek yogurt (like at last week's delicious lunch club), a shortcake biscuit, or a blob of barely-sweetened whipped cream, the ordinary can become festive. Recently I rounded up a few quick berry-friendly desserts, from busy-day cake to a blitz-in-the-blender clafouti. But my favorite is this goat cheese cream, where a soft block of chevre is melted into a cheesecake-like custard sauce. Paired with a compote or fresh berries, it's a celebration of the season (or of whatever else you're looking to celebrate). You can find all of these recipes over at The Oregonian.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Rhubarb, Beet and Blue Cheese Salad

My friend Derek has this theory that loyalty is not really the mark of desirable character that many make it out to be. More often than not, the word is used to justify and glorify behavior that ranges from ill-advised to just plain unethical. Giving people unfair advantages over others, covering up serious misdeeds, and hanging onto relationships much longer than you really should. I pretty much agree. And it's something I've been thinking about when it comes to rhubarb.

In years past, I was somewhat obsessed with rhubarb, and all that it represented for the turn of the season. I simmered rhubarb into syrup, and baked it up into custard tarts. But for some reason, I'm just not feeling it this year. I did make up a batch of rhubarb liqueur (as I can't imagine ever losing a taste for that), but other preparations? Not so much. It all just seems both too sweet and too sour somehow. Last week I made up a batch of rhubarb compote, just because I loyally felt like I should, and ended up composting most of it. Rhubarb, what happened to our love?

I was thinking of throwing in the towel on rhubarb altogether, and just give it another go next year. But there's also, as we readily acknowledge, a good side of loyalty — giving the benefit of the doubt, not losing sight of the deep good within just because of temporary lousiness, and allowing yourself at least one chance to be surprised before you write everything off. Perhaps rhubarb had a savory side that I could learn to explore before the season passed? And so I found this salad.

This amazing dish comes from the amazing Yotam Otollenghi. If you haven't had the pleasure, I highly recommend checking out his recipes. He has a knack for showcasing vegetables in surprising ways, putting together recipes that use just a few simple ingredients in totally inspired combinations. Like this salad of beets, rhubarb and blue cheese.

In this preparation, rhubarb's sourness isn't hidden under a mound of sugar, but instead perfectly balanced by other elements. Dense, sweet ruby-red beets are a perfect match for the soft, sour ruby-red rhubarb. Add some rich and salty-savory blue cheese and maple-sweet and pomegranate-punchy dressing, and it's just about perfect. I initially intended to have this as a first course, but instead paired it with a loaf of crusty bread and called it dinner. To be clear, I'm still not a fan of hanging onto things that aren't giving you any joy. But isn't it nice on those rare times you can dig a little deeper and give yourself the chance to be surprised?

And for those of you who are still fans of the sweet side of things, I wrote a little piece about Saint Honoré, the patron saint of bakers and the namesake of a ridiculously delicious cake. You can read about it over on NPR's food blog, The Salt.

Rhubarb, Beet and Blue Cheese Salad

adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi
serves ~4

1 bunch beets (~3 large), peeled and cut into wedges
1/4 lb rhubarb (~5 narrow stalks), cut into 1-inch lengths on a diagonal
1 Tbsp sugar
2 tsp sherry vinegar (or another relatively mild vinegar)
2 tsp pomegranate molasses
2 Tbsp olive oil (plus additional for roasting the beets)
1 Tbsp maple syrup
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/4 red onion, thinly sliced into half-moons (or quarter-moons)
1 large handful parsley or celery leaves, plucked from the stems
1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Farenheit.

Place the beets in a large saucepan, cover with water by a few inches, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat until it's just high enough to maintain a simmer, and cook until the beets are just tender enough to be pierced by a fork ~10 minutes. Drain.

Take the par-cooked beets, and place them on a baking sheet and drizzle with a bit of olive oil, stirring to coat. Roast, turning once, until they are beginning to caramelize, ~7-10 minutes per side. If you want, you can also roast the beets whole, wrapped in foil (Ottolenghi's recommendation), then slip them from their skins and cube. Alternately, you can simmer until totally done and skip the roasting altogether (I choose a hybrid method, to avoid having the oven on for an hour but to still take advantage of its caramelizing effects). Set the cooked beets aside in a salad bowl and let cool slightly. Turn the oven down to 400.

While the beets are cooling, place the rhubarb on the baking sheet, and sprinkle with the sugar. Bake until soft but not mushy, ~10-12 minutes, turning (gently) once.

While the rhubarb is roasting, make the dressing.  Whisk together the vinegar, pomegranate molasses, olive oil, maple syrup and allspice in a medium-sized bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the onion, and let sit for a few minutes to mellow and soften. Pour everything over the roasted beets, along with  parsley or celery leaves, and toss to combine. Top with the cooked rhubarb and any of the juices it's given up (it'll be delicate, so don't mush), and scatter the blue cheese. Serve, alone or with crusty bread.