Sophomore Slump

One hundred posts in, and I’m still making the same rookie mistake: I haven’t yet learned I need to photograph all my cooking and baking projects, and not just ones I aim to post on this here blog. And what’s even sillier on my part is the fact that I’ll sometimes be dining with other people who do photograph everything they’re about consume, like my friend Rachel who took some really beautiful photographs of every dish of our dinner on Saturday night. (Quick review: extremely affordable, very tasty, and terrible service. I’ll probably be back.)

I think I’ve just committed the most egregious example of this mistake with this savory tart filled with roasted vegetables, caramelized onions and smoked mozzarella. I had no plans to make this, nor blog about it. Nope, had no dreams about how well the sweetness of the onions would bounce off the smoky cheese that had melted in between the layers autumn vegetables that had been wrapped in a savory, flakey crust. Nope, not a thought.

What I had planned on taking a picture of was the butternut squash. Not because I wanted to do anything with it for the blog, but because I wanted to document its size. It was the largest squash I’d ever seen — my guess is one and a half feet high and about 15 pounds. It was roughly as tall as my cat, but clearly outweighed him by five or so pounds. I had wanted to photograph the cat standing next to the squash, but I totally forgot to do it until I had cut off the top of the squash on Sunday night in order to whip together some butternut squash risotto. After I had cleaned and cubed the chunk of squash – there is still a chunk of squash in the fridge that hasn’t been touched, about the size of a regular butternut squash – I realized I had way too much squash on hand. So I decided to roast the leftover squash, and while I was at it, I might as well toss in some other roots I had hanging around my crisper. So out came some beets, a few carrots, and a handful of red potatoes from the cupboard. I did call Rich in at one point to take a photo of the striped Chioggia beet because I was so taken by its beauty. Can you believe this came out of dirt? I asked him.

So I peeled and cubed my root veggies, tossed them altogether in a bowl with a few glugs of olive oil and a healthy pinch (make that two pinches) of salt, and dumped it all in a large lasagna pan. I decided at the last minute to lay down a few sprigs of thyme on top. My goodness, I said to myself, all those colors, it’s as pretty as a picture.  I then covered it with foil, and tossed the pan into a 400 degree oven. I know, ridiculous, right? To see it, say it, and then do nothing about it. So silly!

About 20 minutes in, I checked the veggies, gave them a stir, and then 25 minutes after that, I removed the foil, gave everything a stir, turned the oven down to 350, and baked them for about 15 minutes more. I then removed the pan from the oven, admired how all the pinks and oranges looked like a sunset, and then taste-tested a few of the different veggies to make sure they had all softened sufficiently. Once they cooled, I moved them to some Tupperware and put them in the fridge.

This next part is something that I often grapple with on this blog: using ingredients that aren’t exactly inexpensive. Last week I was poking around the cheese case at the market around the block when I stumbled upon a very nice hunk of smoked mozzarella. It was some sort of Manager’s Special that day, and was discounted $3. I bought the cheese – I mean, wouldn’t you? – but figured I wouldn’t mention it on the blog because I couldn’t very well go and expect people to go and buy a pricey bit of cheese for something, even though I bought it at a discount.

So, I was sitting at my desk at work thinking about my ball of cheese and my roasted vegetables when it occurred to me that those two things might taste very good together. But I didn’t want to mash them into a sort of hash and put them in a pie dish and melt the cheese on top. And that’s when it dawned on me: this would be the perfect opportunity to try out a savory version of Jacques Pepin’s apple galette with some fresh herbs added to the dough. And, I asked myself, wouldn’t the tart be so much better if some caramelized onions were involved?

And that’s when I kicked myself for not photographing my roasted root veggie prep. I did not know any of it was going to end up on Cheap Beets, but now it has, if but with a truncated version of the photography. Sure, some of you might take note that this is the third version of some sort of rustic tart on my blog – in a row, no less. Some of you might even call it cheating. But I don’t think you’ll really mind.

Rustic Roasted Root Vegetable Tart with Caramelized Onions and Smoked Mozzarella.

This is four separate recipes in one, just as the roasted pear and cranberry crostata was. I followed my own advice this time and made each part on a different night. Of course, I hadn’t actually planned it that way, but tarts really are what happen to you while you’re busy making other plans.

Part One: Roast approximately three cups of root vegetables – I suggest butternut squash, beets, carrots and potatoes – according to the description above.

Part Two: Make the savory crust

Crust Ingredients

1½ cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon salt

1 stick plus 2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1/3 cup ice water

1 teaspoon fresh sage, ripped into small pieces

1 teaspoon fresh thyme

Directions

In a food processor, combine the flour with the salt, butter and fresh herbs and process for about 5 seconds. Sprinkle the ice water over the flour mixture and process until the pastry just begins to come together, about 10 seconds; you should still be able to see small pieces of butter in it. Transfer the pastry to a work surface, gather it together and pat into a disk. Wrap the pastry in plastic or wax paper and refrigerate until chilled. (You can also roll out the pastry and use it right away.)

Part Three: Caramelizing the onions

Ingredients

3 red onions, cut in half, laid flat, then sliced into ¼ inch thick half moons

Olive oil

Salt

Directions

Place the onions in a deep 4-quart saucepan and drizzle and toss with olive oil to coat, about ¼ cup. Set over medium heat and, shimmying the pan occasionally, cook until the onions are slightly golden on the edges. Stir occasionally – it might take as long as 25 minutes of slow, slow cooking — then stir in a few pinches of salt. Stew, stirring occasionally, until the onions are amber colored and tender but not mushy, another 20 minutes or so. If at any point the onions look as if they may dry out, cover them to trap some of the moisture in the pan. Taste for salt. You should get about 1 cup cooked onions.

Part Four: Assembling the Tart

All of the previous ingredients can be made beforehand and refrigerated for approximately three days.

Ingredients

¾ cup smoked mozzarella, cut into ½ inch pieces

Savory dough

Caramelized onions

Roasted root vegetables

1 egg, lightly beaten

Directions

Preheat the oven to 400°. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the pastry to a circle and transfer to a large rimmed baking sheet.

In the center of the pastry, lay out all but one quarter of the caramelized onions.

Lay two thirds of the mozzarella on top of the onions.

Using a spoon, gently place all of the root veggies on top of the cheese.

Distribute the remaining onions and pieces of cheese on top of the vegetables.

Fold the pastry edge up and over the vegetables to create a 2-inch border.

Brush the folds of the crust with the beaten egg.

Bake the tart for about 1 hour, until the pastry is nicely browned and crisp. Transfer the pan to a rack and let the tart cool. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Butternut Basics

Butternut squash risotto: seven minutes in a pressure cooker.

As I mentioned in a previous post, work and school have been really crazy lately, and with Rich doing campaign things, sharing a meal together has become a precious commodity. I know I must sound like a broken record by now, but with my trusty pressure cooker and my well-stocked pantry, we have continued to enjoy tasty, inexpensive and quick meals.

One of my go-to dishes when I’m in a time crunch is butternut squash risotto. What?!? Impossible! you’re thinking. But I swear to you, if you buy a pressure cooker, you too can make risotto in seven minutes. Yup, that’s all it takes. Just buy a pressure cooker; most likely it will come with a recipe for risotto. (Results, and recipes, may vary by make and model, so I am not posting a full recipe here.)

In terms of ingredients, all you need is some Arborio rice (which Ocean State Job Lot will sell you for $2.99 a box), a chopped-up onion (pantry staple), a hunk of parmesan (which should just kind of hang out in your fridge’s cheese drawer) and a few cups of stock.

Now, I must admit I am spoiled by Rich who enjoys taking a few hours on his weekends to make homemade stock with leftover chicken carcasses (we keep them frozen until he has the time) and some odds and ends from my veggie drawer. Once it’s cooled off, we pour the stock into ice cube trays, freeze them, and then store the stock cubes in Ziploc bags in the freezer. But, in all seriousness, just keep a box in the pantry. As Julia Child (or Rachael Ray) would say, who’s to know if you take short cuts?

Now that that’s squared away, the only thing standing between you and a nice autumnal dish is that pesky butternut squash. Sure, you can buy it pre-cut from Trader Joe’s, or even find it in your grocer’s freezer, but the cheapest way to enjoy butternut squash is to buy it whole and clean it yourself.

I know that might sound daunting. But I promise you can do it. Here’s how:

First, take your butternut squash and cut it in half, so that you have a distinct round bottom.

Then, peel it. Yup, it’s just that simple. I have very good Kyocera ceramic peeler that my awesome brother-in-law got me for a birthday present last year which does a great job. Now, I’m not trying to sell Kyocera products (or even a specific brand of pressure cookers, for that matter) but, if you don’t think your peeler can handle peeling squash, then I would suggest purchasing a new, sturdier peeler. It should cost less than $15.

After you’ve peeled both pieces of your squash, cut the round bottom one in half, and scrape out the seeds. Then cut your squash into thirds, and then start dicing.

Yup, it’s really that simple.

Once you’ve cleaned your squash, prepare your risotto according to the instructions that came with your pressure cooker, and right before you put the lid on, dump the squash into the pot.

The squash will soften into the rice mixture and, by the time you unlatch the lid, become one with your risotto. I happened to have a rind of parmesan in my fridge which I tossed in pre-pressure, too.  In general, if you find yourself with just the rind of a piece of cheese, keep it in the fridge, and the next time you are making soup, toss it right in. It will add layers of rich flavor to your soup — or in this case, your risotto.

Latch things up, pressurize, cook according to your machine’s instructions, then blow off the steam. Here’s where you add the good stuff: butter and grated cheese. This time, I also threw in some sage from the bush out front. You could also go with goat cheese and rosemary, a la Grendel’s, if you prefer. And there you have it: a fast, simple dish made with pantry staples and one fresh veggie.

CSA SNAFU

Fresh from the CSA... ignore the plastic bag.

I feel like I’ve been an unwitting contestant on Iron Chef: CSA for the past week, trying to use up my box of picked-for-me produce. Some things have been great. I made the basil into a pesto, roasted the cherry tomatoes, and tossed the whole kit and caboodle together with some pasta and black olives. The Kentucky Wonder Beans were delicious in a Chinese stew I made with some potatoes I found in the cupboard and a few mushrooms who were just waiting to fulfill their dinner destiny at the bottom of my crisper. Of course, I failed at taking photos of either dish, but I promise to make the stew in a few weeks and share it with you. I would make it again next week, I loved it so much, but I think Rich would prefer a little more variety on his plate.

And then there were the four poblano peppers and the butternut squash.

What do you do when half your CSA makes you sick?

By some miracle, I came across this recipe off a blog I read about in this New York Times article about a doctor who believes eating well is essential to being well. It looked easy enough, and I had everything the recipe called for in my pantry — quinoa, pecans, and dried cranberries. I had stock hanging out in the fridge, and I ignored the call for non-fat sour cream, which is how I usually deal with dairy in recipes. It sounded easy enough.

But it was a DISASTER. The poblano pepper skins did not peel as easily as the words on my screen said they would. And, it burned. A lot. Now I know I should have known better and used latex gloves to peel the peppers, but honestly, um, yeah, I don’t have any lying around my kitchen because a. I am not a surgeon, and b. really spicy things hurt my tummy, so owning a box of latex gloves seems silly. (Of course, I also received a set of steak knives as a wedding present, but I digress) So the skins didn’t peel right, the seeds burned my fingers, and the pepper just kind of fell apart in the process, making them impossible to stuff. Then I had a bite of one of the roasted peppers and thought, oh uh, I have to eat four of these? I could barely swallow a bite of one, they were so hot. In true Iron Chef fashion I made do with what I had and added some of the poblano peppers to the butternut squash sauce, in lieu of flavor from the non-fat sour cream. I sauteed up the bunch of kale and placed it atop the quinoa mixture and sauce.

Trust me, it looks a lot better than it tasted.

And, well, it was a pretty crappy dinner. It just wasn’t very good.

I didn’t bother signing up for the CSA box this week. My body can’t handle apples, pears, carrots or super spicy things — what I am going to do with with SIX habenero peppers, let alone another bunch of carrots, a half dozen apples and an Asian pear? I would love to get all my produce from a CSA, but it actually turned out to be a wasteful experience for me. I guess other CSA participants have no food intolerances, but I do. What I’m trying to say is, even though I would love to support the farmer, and be with him through floods and tomato blight, I can’t actually eat most of the produce he produces. When I have to give away half my CSA box, I’m not saving any money, I’m wasting the farmer’s time by not using his food he’s worked hard at growing, and then I still have three or four nights of dinners I need to find food for. I guess I do need a little more choice when it comes to what I put in my body.

Perhaps a CSA is just not for me.