My soufflés fell. They fell, I’m fairly certain, because I insisted on peeking at them repeatedly through the cracked oven door to make sure they were puffing up nicely. And they were, at one point. But when I pulled them all golden brown and fragrant from the hot oven, they’d fallen flatter than a pancake, concave even. “Shit, now what am I gonna do,” I thought, not out of any real concern for dinner but because I needed pretty pictures for my blog.
I like taking pictures of the food I make. It’s a meditative thing for me, being in the kitchen and behind the camera, but sometimes it gets away from me. I had a whole story mapped out around this grits soufflé, a story about homesickness—- deep, achey, ever-present, adrift-at-sea homesickness. Grits help with that sort of thing, because food—- the kind of food we care about—- is never really about just food. So I thought I’d make grits, and then I thought, “good lord, who wants to look at a picture of grits?” Within a matter of hours I’d managed to transform my antidote to homesickness into a source of anxiety over blog-worthy photographs. And just as I was beginning to fret about how I’d find the time to remake the soufflés and the light to re-photograph them by my self-imposed weekend deadline, I stumbled upon Brian Ferry’s beautiful post about honesty and the creative process. Before I was even halfway through, I’d decided not to revisit the soufflés.
I spend an awful lot of time thinking about photography, and the photographs that most interest me are those that capture things as they are—- un-staged, un-styled, of-the-moment sorts of photos. That’s not exactly the honesty that Brian was talking about, but it’s what I was reminded of as I read his post.
It’s true, I could make the soufflés again, but I’d only be doing it because I needed a photo of them, and then the things I do for pleasure—- cooking, photographing, writing—- would become a chore. Instead, I give you the soufflés as they were, along with the recipe, which I’ve successfully made for occasions both special and ordinary and which I can assure you do puff up light and airy, creamy and pleasantly gritty, with a whisper of piney rosemary and the sweet, mellow nip of roasted garlic.
recipe adapted, ever-so-slightly, from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, which I love to pieces
I’m not exactly sure where September went. It was here, all crisp and vivid with Indian summer sunlight, and then the light softened and the air grew chill and it was October, a month squarely on the other side of summer. I spent September at work writing a holiday catalog, which may not sound particularly taxing, but is. Like, really. At night, after all the writing, I’d come home ravenous and addle-brained and stand in front of a refrigerator stocked with little more than a handful of fancy cheeses and—honestly—six kinds of homemade pickles. These are not the sort of ingredients with which one can reasonably cobble together the only meal of the day.
Instead, I lived on tomatoes. (And wine. Lots and lots of wine.) There are a handful of things that I make for dinner when I can’t be bothered to figure out what to make for dinner, but this cherry tomato gratin is by far the best of my default dinners. You toss a pint of cherry tomatoes in a shallow baking dish and scatter a handful of breadcrumbs, fresh herbs and Parmesan over them, leaving just a hint of round redness peeking out here and there. Then you slip the dish into a hot oven until the bread is crisp and golden and fragrant and the tomatoes have just begun to go all slumpy and warm. With each bite you get the hefty crunch of cheesy toasted bread, the vivacious freshness of summer herbs, and the exhilarating burst of intensely sweet roasted tomatoes. Which is exactly the sort of thing you need when you’re feeling all sapped and addle-brained and like whoever invented sentences is a real jerk.
I don’t know if tomatoes are still in season where you live, but we have another week or so here along the 45th parallel. That’s at least five nights of cherry tomato gratin— spooned over thick slices of fresh mozzarella or grilled eggplant, tossed with capellini, or served alongside roast chicken. On the other few nights, I think we’ll just go back to September and serve it simply with wine. Lots and lots of wine.
1 pint cherry tomatoes
4 oz. ciabatta or rustic Italian bread, torn into coarse crumbs
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 Tbsp. fresh thyme leaves
1 garlic clove, minced
1 Tbsp. olive oil
kosher salt and ground white pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 400°F. In a medium bowl, combine bread, Parmesan cheese, thyme, and garlic; drizzle with olive oil and toss to combine. Season with coarse salt and ground pepper.
Place cherry tomatoes in a shallow baking dish; scatter bread crumb mixture over tomatoes. Cover baking dish tightly with foil and bake for five minutes. Remove foil and bake until crust is golden and crisp and tomatoes are soft, 10 minutes more.
Serve over fresh mozzarella, grilled eggplant, pasta, grilled fish or roast chicken.
Last Tuesday we attempted to have a dinner party. We invited 15 people, four of them rather small, over for dinner. On a school night. We planned a menu. We made special trips to our favorite farms to pick up produce at its very freshest. We stayed up into the wee hours of the morning making twice as many potato tarts as we really needed to. We borrowed chairs and set two long tables on the deck, using linens from last summer’s wedding. And then, a few minutes before our guests were due to arrive, it started to rain. A lot. We scooped up dishes and glasses and tablecloths and stood, dripping and defeated, in our tiny living/dining room. One of us said some very bad words.
Then we opened a couple bottles of wine, pulled tarts from the oven and steak off the grill, pushed the living room furniture to the edges of the room, dragged our 9′ Ikea patio table inside and just generally made do. And you know what? It was great. I mean, it wasn’t the dinner party I’d envisioned, but maybe it was better and truer than any party I could have orchestrated. Everyone had plenty to eat, none of the munchkins spilled cranberry juice on our grown-up stuff, and there was an amazing potato tart that we’re all still talking about more than a week later.
It’s a tart that, around midnight last Monday night, I made Chris promise not to ever let me make again. But that was before I’d tasted it (and also, he is not the boss of me). This tart is actually not at all complicated unless you’re making it for thirty people, and it’s just the sort of thing to serve a small crowd. It’s substantial without being heavy— a blanket of sliced new potatoes and roasted cherry tomatoes scattered with fresh herbs, settling into a thin sheet of goat cheese atop a bed of flaky puff pastry. At a late summer dinner party it’s the perfect partner to grilled flank steak with parsley sauce, but it’s equally at home next to a simple green salad on more humble occasions.
It’s the kind of tart you want in your repertoire, even if you only pull it out once a year on the night you cram fifteen hungry, happy people into your 12′ x 20′ living/dining room during a thunderstorm. It’s the kind of tart that prompts a handful of those fifteen hungry, happy people to email you a few days later and tell you that your dinner-party-gone-wrong felt like Italy. And I’ve never been to Italy, but “felt like Italy” is pretty much the hallmark of success in my book. Even if once you sit down there’s no way in hell you can get back out to grab seconds.
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
2 Tbsp. olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
salt & pepper
1 lb. small new potatoes
1 large onion, thinly sliced (about ¾ cup)
3 Tbsp. sugar
2 tsp. butter
4 sprigs fresh oregano
6 sprigs fresh thyme
4 oz. hard goat cheese, sliced (Cypress Grove’s Midnight Moon or Beemster Goat are both good options)
2 oz. crumbled goat cheese
1 sheet puff pastry, rolled thin
Preheat oven to 275° and place tomatoes skin-side down on a baking sheet. Drizzle with about a tablespoon of olive oil, sprinkle generously with salt & pepper, and roast for 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil, add salt and potatoes and parboil for 15-18 minutes, until the potatoes can be easily pierced with a knife but are still somewhat firm. Drain and cool. Slice potatoes into1” thick discs, discarding ends for a prettier tart (or use them, if you’re not making it for company).
While the potatoes cool, sauté the onion over medium heat with a little salt for about 10 minutes, until golden brown.
To assemble the tart, brush a 9” cake pan* with olive oil and line with a circle of parchment paper. (You’re basically assembling the tart in reverse order, and then inverting it once it’s baked.) Cook sugar and butter in small pan over high heat, stirring constantly, until you have a semi-dark caramel. Pour the caramel into the pan quickly and tilt the pan to spread the caramel evenly. Pick the oregano and thyme leaves off their stems and scatter generously over the caramel.
Fill the pan with potato slices, placing them snugly cut-side down. Tuck tomatoes and onion carefully into gaps and season generously with salt & pepper. Scatter the crumbled goat cheese evenly over potatoes and top with sliced goat cheese. Trim puff pastry sheet to 1” larger than the pan and lay it over the filling, tucking the edges down inside around the potatoes.
Whew. Have a glass of wine. At this point, you can refrigerate the tart for up to 24 hours. Or not.
When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 400°. Bake the tart for 20 minutes, then reduce heat to 350° and bake for an additional 15 minutes, until the pastry is golden brown. Remove the tart from the oven and let it settle for at least 5 minutes. When you’re ready to serve the tart (and not before, or the pastry will get soggy!) hold an inverted platter or cutting board firmly on top of the pan and quickly flip them over together, then lift the pan off the tart. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.
*If you want to double the recipe for a crowd, it fits perfectly in a half-sheet pan.
I know I said I had everything under control in terms of cooking real food, and I did. Briefly. But then I decided to renovate our little log cabin — a rather ambitious project that involves messy, time-consuming things like drywall and terribly inconvenient things like gutting the entire kitchen (the entirety of which is a mere 62 square feet, but still). And a couple of months ago, Chris popped into our not-yet-gutted kitchen to announce that he wanted to be with me all the time forever, so I’m also planning a wedding. It’s a very small, very casual wedding (as far as weddings go), but still. Then there is also the small matter of my actual job and the fact that I’m pretty obsessive about pretty much everything.
These are not the sort of conditions that foster creativity in the kitchen. These are more the sort of conditions that foster major meltdowns in the grocery. I know this because I recently had such a meltdown. It involved a box of Rice-a-Roni, which is pretty much rock bottom for me. I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy Rice-a-Roni. Actually, yes, I am saying that. You shouldn’t buy Rice-a-Roni. I shouldn’t buy Rice-a-Roni. Nobody should buy Rice-a-Roni. Real food is important, and it is really really easy to make rice. Sometimes we buy Rice-a-Roni anyway. I get that.
But I firmly believe that is it just as easy to make good food as it is to make bad food, and it generally takes about the same amount of time. Lately I’ve been making asparagus. I bring a basketful home from the Farmers Market every week and delight in figuring out how to turn those pretty green stalks into dinner. Asparagus pesto is an old standby, but my favorite of this season is an asparagus bread salad. It’s bright and fresh and hearty all at the same time, with dainty slivers of asparagus and tender white beans nestled in among chunks of crusty grilled bread. The bread soaks up a bit of the lemony dressing without becoming soggy and the whole dish is accented with bits of parmesan. All of this comes together beautifully and quite deliciously, in a way that says, “Oh yes. Food. How lovely to see you again.”
Despite the home renovation and the wedding plans, I intend to do more with this blog than pop in every four months to announce that I got too busy to cook anything worth mentioning but I promise to be good from now on. A girl can only do that so many times (two?) before she starts to look silly. Plus, maintaining a blog about seasonal cooking helps discourage me from buying packaged crap.
Asparagus & White Bean Bread Salad
adapted from Gourmet
I tossed in a handful of salad greens, but I think the salad is actually better without them. The greens appear in the photo but not in the recipe. Feel free to add them if you like.
1 lb asparagus
1 clove garlic, minced
¼ c. + 2 T. olive oil
1 15 oz. can white beans, drained and rinsed well
½ t. finely grated fresh lemon zest
2 T. fresh lemon juice
½ t. salt
¼ t. black pepper
4 slices thick, crusty bread
4 oz. Parmigiano-Reggiano
¼ c. chopped parsley
1) Trim woody ends from asparagus and slice on the diagonal into ¼” thick slices.
2) In a large sauté pan, heat ¼ c. olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the asparagus and sauté for about 1 minute. Add the garlic and sauté for about 30 seconds. Stir in the beans, lemon juice and zest, then season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and let stand, uncovered, for 10 minutes.
3) Brush both sides of the bread with remaining 2 T. olive oil and grill (or broil, if you’d prefer) over high heat until nicely browned, about 3-5 minutes. Cool slightly and tear the bread into bite-sized chunks.
4) Spoon asparagus & bean mixture into large bowl, add torn bread, and toss to combine. Shave cheese over salad, sprinkle with parsley, and toss again before serving warm.