Sunday, October 28, 2012

Fig, Pistachio and Goat Cheese Danish

I have this theory that the bulk of electric items that malfunction do so because they are, on some level, either:

1. unplugged
2. dirty

Sure, I understand that there are a wealth of complex problems that afflict larger machinery (as my recent $1,600 car repair bill can attest). But when a bike light/toaster/mixer stops working, I find that if I unscrew the back plate, and then either blow out a clot of dust or reconnect some wires that are clearly no longer connected, nine times out of ten the thing will blink back into life. It's enough to give a girl a false sense of prowess. I can fix things! Okay, maybe I don't fully understand how a circuit works, but still! I can fix things! Similarly, I have no culinary degree, and don't really understand the intricacies of pastry and what-have-you. But with a few small tweaks, I managed to come up with a breakfast creation that makes me feel like I've got this whole cooking thing down backwards and forwards. I can fix breakfast!

To be clear, I'm not usually a big fan of figs. Or so-inviting-yet-so-often-one-dimensional-and-disappointing sticky buns. Yet somehow, I bravely soldiered through these twin adversities and came up with a sweet figgy breakfast that is crazy good: the fig, pistachio and goat cheese danish.

Figs have a lot going for them. Namely, they grow all over Portland, plopping down on sidewalks (or, in this case, your neighbor's yard), free for the taking. And they're beautiful, especially the Adriatics, with their light green skins hiding comically bright fuscia centers. But flavor-wise? Meh. As someone who always likes a bit of punch to my desserts (well, to all my meals, really), figs are just a bit too one-note for my tastes. They're all syrupy sweetness, no citrus sourness or berry brightness or appley snap. But luckily, these problems can be solved. With pistachios and goat cheese.

Instead of the stales-within-minutes standard sticky bun dough, I started off with a rich danish dough instead (I used Nigella Lawson's brilliant cheater method, which is really just an easy combination of cutting butter into flour like pie crust, and then mixing in a yeasty, eggy slurry and giving the results a few turns). After folding and rising (you can stretch this out between a few days), you roll it out and spread on a rich-and-nutty-but-not-too-sweet pistachio paste, crumbles of tangy goat cheese, and those figs. The end result is perfect: the sweetness of the figs kept from becoming too cloying by the slight sourness of the goat cheese and the buttery, yeasty lightness of the dough. The pistachio paste keeps everything rich and creamy without overwhelming, and the figs are also just plain pretty. Yes, I'll acknowledge that creating this recipe didn't really take too much specialized knowledge — I just unscrewed the back plate off the standard sticky bun, and connected it with some of my favorite flavor (and, if we're being honest, color) combinations. But the end result is so good, I'd swear I actually knew what I was doing.

Fig, Pistachio and Goat Cheese Danish

yields 12 danish
dough adapted from Nigella Lawson's How to be a Domestic Goddess, the rest of the bad ideas are my own

The danish dough isn't difficult to make, but it does take time, between the cutting and folding and rising. You can divide the stages across several days, or double the recipe, and then freeze half of it to thaw out at a later date.
For the pastry:
3/4 cup milk 
2 tsp active dry yeast
1 large egg, room temperature
2 1/4 cups flour (I like a split of 2 cups white flour, 1/4 cup whole wheat flour)
3 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, cold, cut into pats

3/4 cup shelled raw pistachios (you can use roasted if that's all you can find, but the subtler flavor of raw works a bit better)
2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 stick butter, softened to room temperature
1 Tbsp flour
1 egg
pinch salt
splash rosewater (optional, but adds a nice perfume)
1/4 cup crumbled goat cheese
6 large figs — cut 4 into a small dice for the filling, and the remaining two into slices for garnishing the top

1 egg, beaten with a splash of water (aka 'the egg wash')
coarse sugar

In a small bowl, mix together the milk, yeast, and egg. Let sit for a few minutes for the yeast to soften.

In a food processor or large bowl, mix together the flour, sugar and salt.  Add the butter, and pulse or press with the heel of your hand until the butter is reduced to 1/2" pieces (you don't need it quite as well-mixed as for a pie crust). If using a food processor, transfer to a bowl at this point. Add the yeast mixture, stirring until it's well-combined (it'll be a fairly goopy mass with lumps of butter — don't fret!). Cover the bowl, and refrigerate overnight or up to four days (if the latter, you might need to punch it down to deflate every day or two if it's rising a lot).

To turn the dough into pastry, remove the dough from the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature. Dust a work surface with flour, and turn the dough out onto it. Roll until it forms a rectangle, about 18" in length (no worries about being terribly precise). Fold into thirds, like a business letter, then rotate 90 degrees. Repeat the process three more times — the clumps of butter will roll out into nice long flakes, and the dough will begin to become more cohesive and dough-like. Cover and let rest half an hour (you can also re-refrigerate for another day or two at this point if needed).

When you're ready to assemble the danish, line an 8-inch square pan with parchment and make the filling. Place the nuts and sugar in a food processor, and process until reduced to bits. Add the butter, flour, egg, salt and rosewater, and process until it forms a relatively smooth paste (scraping down the sides of the mixer as needed).

Roll the dough out into a rectangle about 18" in length. Spread with the pistachio filling — go right up to the short side edges, but leave about 1/4" on each long edge. Sprinkle the chopped figs and crumbled goat cheese, then roll the long side in and pinch to seal. Using a sharp knife, cut the roll into 12 equal pieces. Place the pieces, with either swirled cut side up, into your prepared pan (you may need to squash them down slightly). Top each roll with one of the fig slices. Let sit for ~30-40 minutes to rise (they will have some space between them, but that will be filled in as they rise and then bake).

While the Danish are rising, preheat your oven to 375° Farenheit. 

When the Danish are slightly risen, brush with the egg wash, and sprinkle generously with coarse sugar. Bake until browned, ~20-25 minutes. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Warm Butternut Squash and Chickpea Salad with Tahini

A friend once noted that despite living in Southern California, she could always tell when the sun was shining in Seattle. Because of all of the ohmygosh look at the sunshine! posts on Twitter. Sunlight can be so sporadic in the rainy Northwest that people feel compelled to note its presence on the rare times that it shines forth. Likewise, I can always tell when the season is turning to autumn. Because of all of the winter squash posts on the food blogs.

Not that I can blame people. The coming darkness of winter can be a bit hard to handle, especially after the endless warm summer evenings. And did I mention the rain? But winter squashes — butternut, kabocha, hubbard, delicate — are some of the best consolation prizes. They're dense and sweet, healthy, and their penchant for oven-roasting has the lovely side effect of warming up the kitchen on these cold days we're not quite yet accustomed to. And they're delicious. Especially in salads like this.

This recipe comes from the folks behind the Moro restaurant, who specialize in the Moorish cuisine that was at one time common in Spain. In some ways this dish reminds the lovely roasted eggplant with saffron yogurt I recently tried — a produce-driven recipe of simple ingredients in an unexpected combination. Rich golden chunks of squash are roasted until sweet and butter soft, then combined with whole chickpeas, red onions, garbanzos and cilantro. Then the whole thing is dressed with a nutty, lemony tahini sauce. It's got some winter heft with the warm squash, but still a last hurrah of sunny brightness. Perfect for the early days of autumn (because, in case you haven't heard, it's pretty much here).

Warm Butternut Squash and Chickpea Salad with Tahini

adapted from Casa Moro
serves ~4

1 medium butternut squash (about 2 to 2 ½ lb.), peeled, seeded, and cut into 1 ½-inch cubes
1 clove garlic, pressed
½ tsp ground allspice
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 cups cooked chickpeas (either drained from a can or cooked up yourself)
¼ of a medium red onion, finely chopped
1 handful coarsely chopped cilantro leaves (I opted to leave them whole, for a bit more pretty)

Tahini Sauce:
3 Tbsp tahini
1 clove garlic, pressed
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 Tbsp olive oil
2-4 Tbsp water, as needed
hefty pinch sugar
salt to taste

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a large bowl, combine the squash cubes, garlic, allspice, olive oil, and a pinch or two of salt. Using a large spoon or your hands, toss until the squash pieces are evenly coated. Turn them out onto a baking sheet, and bake for 20-30 minutes, or until soft. Remove from the oven and cool.

Meanwhile, make the tahini sauce. In a small bowl, whisk together the tahini, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and the smaller amount of water. Add the sugar and salt, taste for seasoning, then add additional water until it thins to a thick-yet-pourable consistency.

To assemble the salad, scatter the squash, chickpeas, onion, and cilantro on a serving bowl or individual plates. Dress with the tahini sauce, and serve.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Mizuna, Melon and Pomegranate Salad

It's easy to get stuck in a particular idea of how things should be, and lose sight of the huge world of possibility out there. This past weekend I attended an amazing conference, where producers and sound artists talked about the new things they were doing with radio production. It's changed the way I think about the stories I make. And a few days earlier, in a slightly-less-dramatic-but-perhaps-more-delicious development, I had a breakthrough in salad.

Salads slip into boring ruts fairly often. A head of lettuce, a vinaigrette, maybe a few slices of radish or cucumber. We forget that they can easily be so much more. Anything, really. Luckily there are stellar recipes to remind us. Grilled kale with ricotta and plums. Rhubarb, beet and blue cheese, or roasted eggplant with saffron yogurt. And, drawing inspiration from these sources, my own contribution to the genre.

During a trip to the farmer's market, I picked up a head of peppery mizuna and an adorable softball-sized melon, swayed by both the latter's knock-you-out perfume and the farmer saying that this would be the last one, as he'd just pulled up his plants for the season (I am a total gather-ye-rosebuds sap, it turns out). The bitter greens play beautifully against the drippy-sweet melon, and the fresh taste of mint (taken from a neighbors yard), bright pop of pomegranate seeds, and sprinkling of nuts come together to form something that pushes the idea of what a salad can be. It's beautiful, really, a perfect showcase for the fruits and vegetables of the season. And it's delicious.

Mizuna, Melon and Pomegranate Salad

Serves ~4

1/2 bunch mizuna or other pepper green, torn into bite-sized pieces
1 very small melon, or 1/2 standard-sized, cut into small-ish chunks
1 handful mint leaves, torn
1 handful pomegranate seeds
1 handful lightly-toasted roughly-chopped hazelnuts or almonds
1 minced shallot (optional)
1 tablespoon fairly smooth vinegar, such as sherry
2 tablespoons olive oil
dollop honey
salt and pepper

Arrange all of the salad ingredients on a serving plate or individual plates. If using the shallot, add it to the vinegar in a small jar, and let sit for a few minutes to mellow. Add the remaining ingredients, stir to emulsify, and adjust to taste. Drizzle as needed on the salad, and serve.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Roasted Plum and Walnut Sundaes

Early in July, my dear friend broke her leg. I'm not talking about a small, clean break, with a few days of pain and a few weeks in a cast. I'm talking about surgery, pins and plates, about weeks of painkillers and not being able to put your foot on the ground for almost three months. That's nearly a whole season of being bedridden. In the beginning, we ate a lot of ice cream.

As far as bedridden summertime consolation prizes go, ice cream is a pretty great one. Over the Summer Of The Tibial Plateau Fracture, I ate ice cream several nights a week. Taste-testing the difference between chocolate gelato (Talenti was the front-runner). Deciding if hot fudge sauce was better over lavender or vanilla ice cream (opinions here were split). Whether cardamom was delicious or "too perfumey" (again, a split decision). It was a delicious way to spend an indoor summer. And I didn't want to give it up just because the season changed.

And so the ice cream continues! But it needed a bit of an autumnal makeover. I grabbed a bag of Italian prune plums, the only fruit that seems to be in season these post-berry/pre-apple days. Eaten out of hand, they're not really my favorite — sweet but unexciting, lacking the punchy tartness of most other plums. But roasted with a bit of sugar and lemon, they slump into rich fuscia sweetness, more complex, more inviting. And they're perfect with vanilla ice cream. Add a sprinkling of walnuts, and it's a perfect autumnal sundae. Even if you've moved out of summer and onto new pursuits (such as re-learning how to walk without crutches), it's still a sweet way to cap off an evening.

Roasted Plum and Walnut Sundaes

serves 4

3/4 pound Italian prune plums
scant 1/4 cup sugar
juice of 1/2 lemon
4 scoops vanilla ice cream
1 large handful toasted walnuts

Preheat your oven to 400° Farenheit.

Cut the plums in half, remove the stones, and slice them into quarters. Sprinkle with the sugar and lemon juice, and roast until the plums are soft and somewhat collapsed, and the juices have come out and thickened just slightly, ~20 minutes (the juices will thicken further upon standing, so don't worry too much about that). Remove from the oven, and let cool slightly (lest you melt the ice cream like I did).

Scoop out the ice cream, and top with some of the plums and their juices, and a handful of walnuts. Enjoy.