Grilled Sourdough Panzanella

Panzanella is an Italian bread and tomato salad that is popular in summertime. Like much Umbrian and Tuscan cuisine, it was at first more practical than gourmet: a good solution for using day-old bread and summer’s plentiful tomatoes. Excellent served with grilled chicken. Also a good picnic food, but take the bread, vegetables and vinaigrette in separate containers, combining just before serving.

Serves 4-6.

Ingredients
4 – ½ ” thick slices sourdough bread
½ cups extra-virgin olive oil
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 green onions, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 small clove garlic, chopped
1 ½ lb. ripe, meaty tomatoes, cut into ½ ” cubes (yielding 3½ cups)
1 small English cucumber, seeded and cut into ½ ” cubes (see note)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained

Method

Brush the bread with ¼ c. olive oil on both sides. Sprinkle with ¼ t. kosher salt and black pepper. Grill on both sides until brown. Cut into ½ ” cubes when cool.

Soak the onion in the vinegar for 10 minutes. Drain the onions and reserve the vinegar, placing the onions in large bowl.

Sprinkle garlic with ¼ t. kosher salt and mash into a paste. Whisk mashed garlic into reserved vinegar. Add ¼ c. olive oil, ¼ t. kosher salt, 1/8 t. pepper until well combined.

Toss bread cubes, tomatoes, cucumber,basil, mint, capers and vinaigrette in the bowl with the green onions. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Cook’s Note:

To seed the cucumbers, slice in half lengthwise then drag a small spoon or melon baller across the seedy flesh. The cucumber slices will be crescent-shaped.

From Fine Cooking (September 2008 No. 80).

Chiles Rellenos con Queso

In early August we had a mini-family reunion and chose Rancho Cooking as a theme for our meal, inspired by my mom’s new California Rancho Cooking cookbook. It was especially fun because Rancho Cooking, which fuses Spanish and Mexican food traditions, is rooted in the very place I live. The cookbook author, Jacqueline Higuera McMahan, tells stories of her great-uncle coaxing the coals of the fire to perfection or her great-grandmother making tortillas so they could make meals such as this one–and all just 30 miles from my home.

For our barbecue, we made the chiles rellenos con queso, which were a favorite at the party. Though the preparation can be tedious, the ingredients are few and the finished chiles taste delicious. We did not make the crusty chiles variation but opted for simplicity as this was a side dish. We used Monterey Jack cheese and uncooked flour tortillas, which we cooked briefly on the grill. A surefire party pleaser!

Ingredients

1 to 8 Anaheim, New Mexican or poblano chiles

½ cup grated cheese per chile, such as Monterey Jack, Italian Fontina, or Mexican Chihuahua

1 to 8 flour tortillas, warm (optional)

Method

Char each chile over a flame or on a grill and place under wet paper towels to steam for at least 10 minutes. Use a paper towel to help wipe off the charred skin. Leave bits of charred skin on for flavor.

Slit the chile down the side and shake out the seeds, or pull out the heavier seed pod of the pobalno if using that. Fill the chile with grated cheese. Place the chile on a dry griddle and cook until the cheese melts. Eat as is or wrapped in a tortilla, if desired.


Serves 1 to 8.


Variation: Crusty Chiles. Dip each cheese-filled chile in 2 eggs beaten with 2 tablespoons water. Spread ¼ cup bread crumbs per chile on a piece of waxed paper and place the chiles on top. Press the crumbs into the chiles. Place the chiles on an oiled baking sheet. Drizzle each chile with about 2 teaspoons of olive oil or melted butter Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven until golden, about 15 minutes.

Note: Place 4 to 5 slices of day-old French or Italian bread into a food processor. Add 2 sprigs parsley, 1 clove of garlic, and 2 tablespoons of grated Parmesan cheese. Grind bread into fluffy crumbs.

From California Rancho Cooking by Jacqueline Higuera McMahan (Sasquatch Books 2001).

Hold the Newtons

While Fig Newtons were my first introduction to figs and I still really enjoy them, I’ve come to love fresh figs. Late summer sees a whole new crop of figs, which are wonderful eaten out of the hand or dressed up a little. In this simple dessert we served fresh figs with sweetened creme fraiche and roasted almonds. Give the Newtons a rest and give fresh figs a try–they are sure to please.

Interested in learning more about figs? Check out California Figs for recipes, history and nutrition information.

The Problem With Pain

The French knew what they were doing when they called bread pain. Even the related panis, pan and pane of other Romance languages carry a tinge of the emotion I associate with bread: each designation has captured so well my painful experiences of making bread.

My first bread-making venture commenced at age five. Our mother was gone, so with the astute guidance of my 10- and 12-year old sisters, we each set about making our own loaf of bread. Convenient and simple must have been my motto. Could flour, water and Captain Crunch cereal mixed in an orange Tupperware cup and subsequently zapped in the microwave go wrong? Oh yes.

My next attempt would surely find success: I was 14 years old and touting my new Baking with Julia cookbook. Inspired by brioche baked in mini flower-pots that I’d recently ordered in a garden-themed restaurant, I decided to bake my own brioche in mini flower-pots. The baking began. The mixing was thorough but careful, the kneading gentle with just the right amount of flour, the first rising took place in a warm but not-too-hot oven, the second rising—“Second rising?! The rolls are already in the oven!” Well, apparently I was literacy-challenged, not reading the directions thoroughly, and my flower-pot brioches were vertically-challenged, but at least they tasted good. And we all know that “at least they tasted good” is on par with “she has a great personality.”

Third time is the charm, right? Would have been, except failing to cook the potatoes long enough for the Rustic Potato Loaves does inevitably result in texture issues. And then there was the sourdough starter. It sat on the counter for who knows how long. “Please, Mom, let me keep it just a little longer! The special mold in the air is what makes San Francisco sourdough spectacular…”

The bread escapades continued but met no success, and that beast of a Baking with Julia book taunted me, reminding me of my inability to turn out a satisfying loaf of bread. I consoled myself, saying, “I like cooking, not baking. Too much precision in baking. I like to create combinations inspired by the moment. It’s an art.”

And yet those glossy pages boasting crisp loaves of chewy Focaccia and buttery Challah refuse to leave me alone. I am Odysseus and those loaves are the Sirens luring me to the kitchen, tempting me to pull out the flour and yeast from the cupboard and bake another loaf. I suppose even art involves precision. Brahms’ rich and layered melodies were not crafted without the great precision. And Matisse did not set down those simple swaths of color before he had mastered traditional technique. So maybe there is more to being an artist in the kitchen than just throwing things together. Perhaps I should try my hand again at the old bread routine. After all, no pain no gain.

Beets with Lime Butter

With their bright purple-red color staining fingers and pages of the cookbook, the mark of the beet is unmistakable. The lime zest and juice in this recipe brighten the beets’ flavor, making this dish a perfect accompaniment to grilled beef or pork in the summer. Taking about 15 minutes to prepare from start to finish, this recipe is extremely quick and easy. Grate the beets in a food processor for even faster preparation. And don’t throw away the leafy green tops of the beets: they can be prepared like Swiss chard.

Serves 4

3 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1½ pounds beets, peeled and coarsely grated (3½ cups)
¼ teaspoon finely grated lime zest
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice, or to taste
¾ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
finely chopped scallion greens to garnish

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a 10- to 12-inch heavy skillet over moderately high heat. Add beets and lime zest and cook, stirring, until beets are crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Remove skillet from heat and stir in remaining 1 tablespoon butter, lime juice, salt and pepper. Garnish with scallion greens.

From The Gourmet Cookbook.

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