Ricotta Leek Tart with Tomatoes

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If there’s one thing I hate it’s living up to stereotypes. In college I never told people (read: a specific breed of men) that I liked to cook. It was the best way to avoid the inevitable women in kitchen “jokes”, not that it stopped them. As someone who now makes her living in the kitchen I have fantasies about telling such ignorant louts. (These fantasies are essentially channeling Colette from Ratatouille.) There’s something icky about matching up with these stereotypes, like you’re failing to be a fully complex human being.

But to my shame some stereotypes are accurate. Specifically, I’m terrible with technology. I like to say that I’m as good at computers as the average 50 year old, but my Mom is in her 50s and is more proficient than I am. And let’s clarify that this is a me thing, not a gender thing. The other week Aaron and I went over to our friends Anne and Brian. Aaron quickly fell into conversation about tech with Anne, while Brian and I skipped off into their basement to check out their foundation with a marble. As we hurried away Anne quipped that it was computer skills verses actual skills. Our two groups each trouble shot in our own ways- Anne figured out the computer problem at hand, and Brian and I expertly decided their foundation was sound.

All this is to say that this post almost didn’t go out today, because I couldn’t get my camera and computer to synch. I still haven’t solved the problem, and my own personal IT guy (Aaron, who in addition to bar tending used to work for an actual big tech company) has yet to troubleshoot it for me. But today I did discover, after owning my computer for almost a year, that my laptop has an SD port. Problem solved? Absolutely not. Workaround found? Yes. Good enough for me? You know it.

My reticence towards technology spreads to the kitchen sometimes. I know how to sous vide and use liquid nitrogen, but I forget about them both for long stretches of the time. That kid of cooking is deeply impractical for daily life. I have a high speed blender, and I love it, but not nearly as much as I love my chef’s knife and bench scraper. I’m much more interested in fermentation than spherification. At work it’s fun to play with ideas and techniques, but at home I love the simple and the rustic.

Rustic is the adjective I’d chose for this tart. It’s made with an olive oil tart dough, which comes together with less fuss than a butter crust. There’s no cutting in the butter, and no worries about temperature. The crust is sturdy, well suited to the type of thing to make and then leave in the fridge for a week’s lunches.

I’ve paired this tart dough with a sort of faux-quiche. Ricotta and eggs make a lovely, sturdy custard, creamy and substantial. The  custard is filled with leeks, which bring sweetness, and topped with cherry tomatoes, provide brightness in both taste and color. It’s delightfully old-fashioned,  the sort of thing people might bring on classy picnics, with champaign and designated picnic baskets. I initially made this in hope for a classy picnic of our own, but the weather has not cooperated. Instead we have been steadily chipping away at this tart for lunches (me) and dinners (Aaron) in the safety of our apartment, tasting sunshine in its absence. 

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Ricotta Leek Tart with Tomato

I would highly recommend making this ahead of time, as it keeps so lovely. 

Serves 6

1 parbaked olive oil tart shell, recipe below
2 medium leeks, thinly sliced and well washed
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup (8 ounces, 226 grams) ricotta
3 eggs
sea salt
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
12 cherry tomatoes, halved

Preheat the oven to 350.

In a sauce pan over medium heat warm the olive oil. Add the cleaned leeks and cook, stirring occasionally, with a pinch of salt until the leeks have softened, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

In a large bowl mix together the ricotta, eggs, 1/2 teaspoon salt, thyme, pepper, and nutmeg. Stir in the softened leeks. Pour out into the prepared olive oil tart shell.

Gently spoon the filling around the shell so that it’s level. Place the cherry tomato halves into the filling, cut side up. Press down gently so that the cut side is level with with the filling.

Bake for 40 minutes, until filling is set and the tomatoes have shrunk and concentrated a bit. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Serve room temperature or cold.

Olive Oil Tart Dough

Makes 1 tart shell

3/4 cup (120 grams) whole wheat flour
1/2 cup (65 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup cold water

Whisk together the whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, and salt in a large bowl. Stir in olive oil until the dough begins to clump together, then stir in the water. Using your hands, form the dough into ball, kneading it together if necessary. Wrap in plastic then refrigerate 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 350. Remove the tart dough from the refrigerator and roll out onto a well-floured surface until it’s an even circle a few inches longer than your pie dish. Transfer the dough to the pie dish, patching up any holes as they occur. Crimp the edges of the tart dough down and trim as necessary, then prick the bottom of the tart a few times with a fork.

Bake the tart dough, uncovered, for 20 minutes. The tart shell should be firm to touch. Set aside until you’re ready to make the tart.

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Coconut Red Lentil Dip

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At our wedding, almost three years ago, Aaron and I gave bookmarks to our guests as tokens of our gratitude. These bookmarks were printed with various lines from a few of our favorite poems. One was the closing stanza of Margaret Atwood’s Variations on the Word Sleep:

I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.

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Lentils are stodgy things, unassuming and cheap. There’s an hippie strain about them, tainted with the implications of under-salted, uniformly brown meals. It’s easy to obsess over the beauty of fresh produce. There’s a vitality, brilliantly colored and beautifully arrayed. If lentils inspire love, it’s the love of gratitude. It’s a long running marriage to an heirloom’s passionate affairs. Lentils are supportive. There is always more they will be willing to give.

Perhaps we ought to celebrate lentils more. Lentils are accessible. They are sustaining. They give, quietly and without complaint, again and again. And they are happy to fade into the background, allowing their more glamorous accompaniments to take the spotlight. They are unnoticed. They are necessary.

In the spirit of generosity I offer this red lentil dip. Earthy from the lentils, sweet from coconut milk, and with a kiss of heat from ginger. My dreams of taking this dip on a picnic were destroyed by Aaron devouring half of it when he arrived home from work. I’m not fond of this habit of assigning any mashed beans the moniker “hummus”, because there’s no tahini and no chickpeas in most. But this is satisfying in the same way as hummus, with a similar texture and similar balance of flavors. And because red lentils are the uncelebrated workhorse of the kitchen, this dip comes together from start to finish in about twenty minutes. Pretty remarkable for something so unnoticed.

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Coconut Red Lentil Dip

Be careful when blending the dip- too fast or too long and it may start to take on paste-y quality. It doesn’t need to be perfectly smooth- in fact, a slightly nubby texture is delightful.

Makes about 2 cups of dip

4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger, peeled
1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
salt
1 cup red lentils
1 fifteen ounce can coconut milk
4 tablespoons olive oil
juice of 1 lime

to serve

sesame seeds
crackers
vegetables

Melt the coconut oil in a heavy bottomed pot over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and ginger and cook gently for about five minutes, until the garlic and ginger are fragrant but not taking on any color. Add the coriander, black pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Stir well, then continue cooking for another minute. Stir in the red lentils until they are coated in the spice and shiny with the oil, then stir in the coconut milk. Bring the mixture to a simmer and stir often, cooking until most of the liquid is absorbed and the lentils are tender but firm, about ten to fifteen minutes. If the liquid is absorbed but the lentils are still hard, add water at half a cup at a time and keep simmering. You don’t want the lentils to dissolve for this.

Transfer your cooked lentils to a blender and blend until the lentils are mashed. While the blender is whirling, add in the olive oil, lime juice, and 1/4 cup of water. Taste, and add any salt you deem necessary. Serve at room temperature, sprinkled with sesame seeds surrounded by crackers and crudités of choice.

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Rose Posca

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During and after college Aaron worked as a bartender. The places he worked at ranged from good to great, and he took to the work with a single-minded enthusiasm. Need someone to explain to stir or shake a cocktail? Curious about why a drink uses this specific bitter Italian liquor and not that nearly identical bitter Italian liquor? Have an opinion about jiggering in ounces verses measuring with milliliters versus free pouring? Aaron’s your guy. We have a bookcase in our dining room that’s filled with booze. There’s ancho chili liquor and local sour cherry cordial and approximately 50 types of bitters. There’s the stuff he’s made himself like Green Tea Vodka, Hibiscus Gin, and Popcorn Rum. He collects cocktail glasses, name drops cocktail historians, and chats up local bartenders about ratios. He’s been passionate about cocktails since we were able to legally drink.

I’m not passionate about cocktails. I appreciate a well-made drink, but usually choose a Manhattan or Sidecar over a deeply imaginative confection. But passion is sexy and fascinating, and in this case it’s deeply convenient. Aaron takes care of the drinks, and I manage the food. He carefully selects the wine for date nights and I roll out the pasta. At dinner parties he’s whipping up spicy Palomas while I bring cake. He suggests the brewery to meet up with friends and I make the snacks. We sit at the bar in restaurants, Aaron chatting up the bartenders and I investigating the menus. It’s a happy pairing (pun intentional) but it has its downside. I have made perhaps five cocktails in my entire life.

That may not seem notable to you. Let me just emphasize again I have a bookcase full of booze three feet from where I write this. There is all the equipment and resources that I could need, including dozens of cocktail books. And I have no aversion or hangups about alcohol. I just don’t ever put in the effort to make my own drinks. This habit extends to non-alcoholic drinks as well. We had friends over this weekend for the afternoon. I assumed we’d drink water. Aaron whipped up jasmine-lemongrass Arnold Palmers instead.

Sometimes, when I’m lucky, I get inspired rather than lazy by Aaron’s passion. This inspiration usually manifests in non-alcoholic beverages. Have you heard about posca ? It’s an ancient Roman drink, essentially vinegar, water, herbs, and perhaps sweeteners. There’s no known recipe, and the exact proportions have been lost to history. But I love the idea of it- tart brightness from vinegar, honey for sweetness, herbs to keep things interesting. It’s lemonade before lemonade, a refreshing summer drink.

For this posca I took a hint from my bartender husband and instead of honey made a rose syrup. The syrup is simple, floral, and brilliantly pink. I mixed it with apple cider vinegar (because apples and roses are botanically related. Science!), water, and ice. The drink is beautiful, ended up a pale shade of millennial pink and with a lovely, light blend of sweet and tart. It’s, as they say at my work, extremely quaffable. I’ve been drinking it in the sun while reading a master’s newest book and hiding from this terrifying news. If you need a spot of sunshine (and I certainly do), this rose posca performs admirably.

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Rose Posca

Dried rose petals can be found at health food stores and co-ops (mine sells them in the medicine section) as well as some spice stores. The formula I give here is to my taste. Feel free to play with the levels of vinegar, syrup, and water to make your house version of posca.

Serves 1

1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons dried rose petals
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

In a small saucepan combine the sugar with the rose petals and 1/2 cup water. Bring the sugar and water to a simmer, stirring once in a while to dissolve. Once the sugar is dissolved, set the syrup aside and let the rose petals steep. I found 2 hours gave me the strong rose presence I wanted, but if you have less time the syrup tastes of rose after 15 minutes. Strain into a clean jar. Refrigerate if not using right away.

To make the posca, combine 1 cup of water, the apple cider vinegar, and 1 1/2 tablespoons of the rose syrup in a glass with ice. Stir well. Drink in the sun.

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Thyme Kissed Lemon Squares

 

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My sister Abby used to make lemon squares. As a tween, they were her flourish. She would make them, over and over, for almost any occasion. She pulled out the recipe whenever she needed to impress. She made them for family parties, and for teachers. Sometimes she’d make them just to make them. They were always delicious and always devoured, no matter how set or loose the filling was. Abby developed a habit (which she still has) of not measuring when she baked, which meant the same results were never repeated twice.

Neither she nor I can remember which cookbook she used, but I have a feeling it was found in one of two- either the cheerful, red and white checked Betty Crocker, a binder disguising itself as a cookbook; or the stately, encyclopedic Good Housekeeping with its torn cover and pictorial index filled with unmistakably 80s food photography. There’s a chance too that it came from the recipe box stuffed with family favorites, but I doubt it. No one else in my family made lemon squares. Those were Abby’s alone.

Abby lives in Oakland now. Part of being an adult is the missing. There’s nostalgia for what you had, but also a profound sense of loss for what you could have had. Right now life has us in two very different parts of the country, and we’re not able to visit often. But the relatively recent miracle of the internet means we’re still connected. We Facetime and email and tag each other on Instagram. And food, while still miraculous but much more ancient, can bring us together in other ways.

These lemon squares remind me of Abby’s, but they’re not quite the same. Hers were exactly sweet enough for preteens, with a gooey filling and crumbly bottoms. The filling for these lemon squares is creamy instead, and the sweetness is tempered by a flurry of thyme and the floral notes of grapefruit juice. The crust is essentially a shortbread that’s patted into the  pan and then par-baked. And, unlike Abby, I measure while making my lemon squares. I suggest using weight measurements for the greatest precision, but volume works too. Just as long as you use some form of measurement. Please.

Returning again to the miracle of food, this is where we were and where we are. My sister’s favorite childhood dessert, constructed with my pastry training and the sun-filled ingredients that populate her current home. It’s transportive- keeping us connected even when the distance feels insurmountable.

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Thyme Kissed Lemon Squares

These lemon squares will absorb any powdered sugar you sprinkle onto them. I would advise waiting until the last moment to dust with powdered sugar in a decorative flourish.

makes 24 bars

adapted from The Perfect Finish by Bill Yosses and Melissa Clark

1 1/2 cups (195 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (55 grams) confectioner’s sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons (170 grams) unsalted butter, chilled and cubed

1 1/2 cups (300 grams) sugar
zest of 2 lemons
1 tablespoon finely minced thyme
2 tablespoons (16 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
1 cup lemon juice
1/3 cup grapefruit juice

Confectioner’s sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 350.

In a large bowl combine the flour, confectioner’s sugar, and salt. Add the butter in, and toss to distribute and coat in the flour mixture. Use an electric mixer to beat the butter into the flour for about 5 minutes, until the butter is well distributed and the mixture comes together when squeezed. Turn the dough out into a 9 by 13 inch baking pan and pat it down. The dough should make one even layer in the bottom of the pan. Bake until golden and set, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove and set aside.

While the shortbread is baking place the sugar into a medium bowl. Rub into the sugar the lemon zest and the chopped thyme until the sugar is fragrant and evenly speckled. Whisk into the sugar the flour, baking powder, and salt.

In a small bowl whisk together the eggs, lemon juice, and grapefruit juice. Pour into the sugar mixture, and whisk until smoothly combined. Pour the lemon filling over the baked shortbread crust.

Return the pan to the oven and bake until the filling is just set, about 15 minutes. Remove and allow to cool, then cut into squares. Top with a generous dusting of powdered sugar.

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Mushroom Risotto with Salsa Verde

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There are stacks of books on my nightstand. Books for reference, books I’m halfway through, and books that I want to read next. Our dining room table is used less for, you know, dining, and more as a makeshift desk. It’s piled at this moment with fifteen books (actual truth. Not an exaggeration). That’s not counting the heaps of books in the living room, some in front of bookshelves where there’s no space left, some set apart so I remember they belong to a friend.

The internet is marvelous but books are magical. I know I’ve met a kindred soul when we both enthuse over the scent of books. Ink and paper and age make an enchanting perfume, one that I would bottle and spray on myself if I could. The best thing about books is what’s contained inside of them. There are lives not my own that I can dip into. There are daring stories. There are Opinions and Facts and Personalities that I get to linger with. And there’s knowledge.

Because of this marvel I can never stick to only one book at a time. There are too many things to read and learn. Some days I want to read novels, others memoirs, others poetry. And always cookbooks. One fascinating thing about choosing what to read is that when you’re reading multiple things they bleed into each other. There are connections to be found that would otherwise be undiscovered.

I recently found a deeply discounted copy of Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food at my local bookshop, and found I could not ignore its call to take it home. If you ever have the opportunity to read Waters’ work I would recommend that you take it. She speaks with efficiency about the dignity and grace of simple cooking. And I love anyone, especially as esteemed a chef and restauranteur as she is, who confesses that she’s a luddite in the kitchen, preferring a sharp knife and a mortar and pestle to anything with a plug.

At the same time I’ve been steadily working through Near and Far by Heidi Swanson, a book I’ve cooked from here before. Swanson is just as gracious as Waters, and with the same emphasis on good ingredients and good eating, but where Waters is classic Swanson is contemporary. She tops a dish of soba noodles and radishes with paprika, suggests substituting yuba skins

in for pasta, and adds nori to her granola. When I came across her recipe for grilled porcinis I remembered the chapter on rice I had just read in Waters’ book, and the quart of mushroom stock languishing in the freezer. Thus this risotto was born.

Risotto has a recipe for being finicky. It’s considered date night food, not something you’d make on a weeknight. Risotto does require attention, and it will make a killer date night. But risotto can also come together in half an hour without difficultly. While making this risotto I also purged my refrigerator of old food. That’s not something you can say about a fearsome beast of a dish.

Risotto is, at its core, comfort food. It’s creamy and tender and a perfect vehicle for toppings. Risotto will happily take leftovers and turn them into something divine. However, I will argue that these mushrooms in salsa verde are a perfect pairing for risotto. They’re concentrated in flavor from grilling and topped with a tangy, herbaceous dressing. The portobellos I used in lie of porcinis echo the taste of the mushroom stock, rich and savory without becoming heavy. It tastes of early spring- both the fresh bite and the richness not yet faded from winter, and the plate looks like spring- the brown of the earth with the greens and the purples that are always the first to arrive.

Happy Friday. Happy Spring. And to those who celebrate, Happy Easter and Happy Passover.

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Mushroom Risotto with Salsa Verde

If you don’t have mushroom stock then you can easily substitute whatever sort of broth you have on hand. Risotto is adaptable in this way. If you have a little less than 5 cups of stock, feel free to lengthen it with hot water. I have not tried this trick myself, but Waters swears that if you have no white wine (and no red wine or beer to stand in for it) then adding a tablespoon or two of white wine vinegar in with the first addition of stock gives the risotto the acidity it needs.

serves 4

adapted from The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters and Near and Far by Heidi Swanson

For the risotto

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 1/2 cup Arborio rice
5 cups mushroom stock
1/2 cup dry white wine
salt and pepper
1/3 cup grated Pecorino cheese

For the mushrooms

2 shallots, minced
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 portobello mushrooms, cleaned and cut into 1/2 inch slices
2 tablespoons thyme
1/4 cup chopped parsley
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for brushing mushrooms
salt and pepper

To make the risotto, melt two tablespoons of butter in a medium sized, heavy bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the onion and stir. Let the onion cook until it’s become soft and translucent but hasn’t taken on any color. Add the rice and stir well. Cook until the rice is becoming clear and is coated with the butter, but is not taking on any color.

While softening the onion and toasting the rice bring the stock to a boil in another pot. Once the stock is boiling turn off the heat. It will stay warm enough without any heat underneath it.

Once the rice is turning translucent add the wine. Stir well and let the wine simmer away. It should not take long for the wine to be absorbed. Once the wine has all cooked off add one cup of the stock, reduce the heat to low, and stir well.

Watch the risotto and stir often but not constantly. When almost all the stock has been absorbed add another 1/2 cup of stock and stir. Continue this way, watching the risotto and adding the stock as necessary. Your additions of stock should slow as the risotto cooks. Start tasting the risotto about 12 minutes into cooking the rice. The rice should be perfectly tender but not mushy. In my kitchen this took about 25 minutes. Once the rice is fully cooked add just enough broth to make it creamy but not soupy. You may not need all the stock. If for whatever reason you find you need more, feel free to stretch your stock with hot water. Stir in the final tablespoon of butter and the Pecorino cheese and season as necessary with salt and pepper.

While the risotto is cooking, make the salsa verde and mushrooms. Place the shallots in a small bowl and cover with the white wine vinegar. Let the shallots hang out in the vinegar while preparing the mushrooms.

Heat a grill pan over medium-high heat, and brush the mushrooms on both sides with olive oil. Once the grill pan is hot place the mushrooms on the pan to sear and cook on each side for about 3 minutes, or until the mushrooms start to shrink just a bit and have definite grill marks. Place to the side.

In a small bowl, combine the shallots, vinegar, thyme, parsley, and olive oil. Taste, and season with salt and pepper as necessary. Toss the mushrooms in the salsa verde.

To serve, create a bed of the risotto on a plate and top with the mushrooms and salsa verde. Serve hot.

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