A few weeks ago, I was having good friends and mentors of mine over for dinner. I love them very dearly, and each time I cook for them I want to communicate that sentiment through all the sensory experiences that a meal entails. They had been out of the country and it had been awhile since we’d seen each other, so this meal was an edible welcome home. I wanted to make something that would herald in the glorious spring weather that was just coming around the corner at the time. It needed to be filling, layered in flavors, and vegetarian.
I remembered this delicious savory pesto, tomato, and slow-roasted garlic tart I’d once made from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. This would be the perfect main course, the shining star of the meal. Over the course of the next few days, I thought carefully about what hors d’oeuvres would best introduce the dish. I contemplated what would best balance and complement the simple, yet rich, flavor of the tart. Here’s the menu I came up with:
- Homemade Crostini with an assortment of strongly flavored cheeses and olives
- Paired with a Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend (I’m not a wine snob, so pardon me if my pairings are naïve and/or misguided.)
The main course:
- Plum Tomato Tart with Pesto
- Bitter Green Salad with Fresh Tarragon, Pear, Roasted Pine Nuts, Chevre and Balsamic Vinaigrette
- Roasted Asparagus with Olive Oil and Fresh Lemon Zest
- Paired with a drier Riesling
*This mentor-friend of mine and I have a game we play wherein we try to test each others’ palates by using (sometimes) ordinary ingredients in obscure combinations. I suppose my combination of lavender and chocolate isn’t really that innovative, but it is certainly extraordinarily tasty.
Frequently, when I decide to make meals of this caliber, I end up setting aside most of a day for cooking. This particular Saturday I got up early to complete the grocery shopping. At about 11:00 am, I began preparing the meal, with the goal of serving the hors d’oeuvres at around 6:45, and the main course at about 7:15 or 7:30 pm.
That evening, my friends arrived right on time to a coffee table replete with a mix of robustly flavored stinky, soft cheeses, crunchy crostini, and firm, pungent olives. We talked and ate our way through the stories of their travels, my updates about school, and all of our plans for the late spring and summer. As per usual, our time was going swimmingly well. I excused myself to the kitchen to throw together the last step of the plum tomato tart. It was a beauty to behold. On top of the perfectly golden crust, the layer of deep green pesto only turned even more appetizing as I carefully layered the sweet roasted tomatoes with the garlic and topped it all off with the bright, salty feta.
Now, one challenge I face in my wee kitchen is a somewhat fussy oven. Any time I hit 400 degrees, I am guaranteed to have a run-in with my trusty smoke detector that sits a mere five feet outside of the threshold to the kitchen. This evening was no exception. I took the tart – spectacular! – out of the oven and set it down on the stovetop only to hear the piercingly high pitch of the smoke detector going off. But this isn’t just any ole’ smoke detector – no, it’s fully staffed by an automated, somewhat annoyed and apathetic sounding woman with a peculiar British accent. “FIRE! FIRE!” Try to sound just a little less concerned for my immediate safety, won’t you?
My friends were covering their ears and had retreated from the dining table to the area farthest away from the detector. I quickly grabbed a chair and pressed the button which turns the alarm off and elicits the following statement from that same woman: “Hush mode aaaactivated.” Phew! All was well, or so I thought. My friends came back to the table; I went back to the kitchen. I picked up the beautiful tart and started to carry it out. As I rounded the corner into the dining room, the smoke detector let out a very loud beep, and my pesky friend came back on to say “Hush mode caaaancelled!” Normally, this means the smoke detector is about to come back on full throttle, so without skipping a beat (or thinking, for that matter!), I hurriedly turned around – tart in hands – to save us from another auditory blowout. In a matter of seconds, my whole day’s worth of work was in a crumbled, broken mess at my feet.
A year ago, I would have cried. But after the things I’ve been through in the last eight months, my reaction to this absurd tragedy was less incredulous and more resigned to embracing the humor of it all. If the friends had been peers or college buddies of the non-germophobic persuasion, we may have picked the food right up off the floor and eaten it without hesitation, but it was out of the question here. We made quick peace with the situation, I gathered the food off the floor and set it aside in the kitchen, and we went on with the rest of the meal. Sure, it would have been so much more satisfying if the catalyst for the whole meal had actually made its way onto our plates and into our mouths, but we were full enough from the hors d’oeuvres to avoid hunger at least. After the evening was over, I tasted what I’d been able to rescue. It was quite good. So I resolved to make the tart again, for these same friends – but next time, I’ll make sure to take the batteries out of the smoke detector first!
In the spirit of spring, and with the joy of sharing meals with loved ones, I toast to you! Enjoy!
A note about timing and pulling it all together
This meal is rather time-intensive. You could probably make it happen in about four hours, start to finish, if you had the help of a trusty kitchen companion. But what would be the fun in rushing? Cooking solo, and at a more pleasurable and leisurely pace, it took me about eight hours. As with my last post, I will list all the recipes, in the order in which you should prepare them, below. Here’s some general guidance:
- First things first: infuse the whipping cream with lavender. You can do this as early as a day in advance, or as late as four hours before you want to prepare the mousse (which should be a minimum of one hour before you want to serve it).
- Next, make the crostini.
- As soon as you finish the crostini, turn the oven down and begin roasting the tomatoes and garlic.
- In the meantime, prepare the dough for the crust. After the tomatoes and garlic have roasted, then you can bake the crust.
- When you are done baking the crust, you can prepare the hors d’oeuvres, roast the pine nuts, and prep the asparagus.
- When you set out the hors d’oeuvres, begin roasting the asparagus.
- Towards the end of serving the hors d’oeuvres, finish the asparagus, assemble the tart, and put it in the oven. While the tart is baking, assemble the salad.
- The tart should be presented whole to the guests, and cut into pieces (think square pizza slices) in front of them, so they can bask in its beauty before devouring it. Dress the salad right before serving. Plate the salad, tart and asparagus together.
- The last step is the dessert. The mousse is great by itself, but would also do well with a strong cup of coffee or espresso, or even a robust red wine.
- 5 1/4 ounces chocolate: use a mix of bittersweet and semisweet (Ghirardelli’s baking chocolates work very well; I usually use 4 ounces bittersweet and 1 ¼ ounces semisweet. They come in bars with pieces that correspond to measurements – so the math is easy to figure out.)
- 14 ounces cold heavy cream
- 3 tablespoons food-grade cooking lavender (flower buds)
- 3 large egg whites
- 3 ½ tablespoons sugar
- Sweetened whipped cream, for garnish, optional
- Shaved bittersweet chocolate, for garnish, optional
- Chilled mixing bowl (to beat the cream in)
To infuse the whipping cream with lavender, bring the 14 oz whipping cream to a near boil (do not let it actually boil). Turn the heat off, add the lavender, stir and let cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate for at least four hours, but if you can, overnight (the taste will be much better). Remove and strain the lavender buds out and discard them.
Place chocolate in a Bain Marie or in large bowl set over a double boiler at a low simmer. A Bain Marie simply refers to placing a bowl or pot over/in another bowl or pot which has water in it. It removes the direct heat source (the flame or coil on your stove) from touching the chocolate, which could burn it, and instead melts the chocolate through the heat of the water. Stir chocolate until melted. Turn off the heat and let stand.
I usually wait until the chocolate has cooled a bit, but not hardened or re-solidified at all, to begin the next steps. If you don’t, when you combine the ingredients, the result will be lumpy and chunky.
Using a stand mixer or handheld beaters, beat the cream in a chilled mixing bowl until it forms soft peaks. Set aside and hold at room temperature. With a mixer, whip egg whites to soft peaks. Gradually add the sugar and continue whipping until firm.
Remove the chocolate from the Bain Marie and scrape with a spatula into a large mixing bowl. Using a whisk, fold in the egg whites all at once. When the whites are almost completely incorporated, fold in the whipped cream. This is a tricky feat to accomplish, because you must balance making sure you have fully mixed everything with making sure you don’t over mix (and therefore defeat the purpose of using fluffy, air-filled egg whites and whipped cream in the first place!). Separate the mousse into individual portions in goblets, wine glasses, or ramekins, and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least one hour, or until set. Serve topped with more whipped cream and shaved chocolate, if desired.
Another funny note about my cooking adventures that day. I pulled the chilled, lavender-infused whipping cream out of the fridge and started to look for my handheld beater (which is an attachment on an immersion blender I have), only to realize I had lost the attachment, probably in my move to this new place. So, I had to beat the cream and the egg whites by hand. I swear my right bicep was twice as big as my left one by the time I finished beating everything. God bless our foremothers who did everything by hand… Jesus!
- 1 french baguette, preferably a chewier one (this creates a harder, more interesting texture and crunch than a softer baguette will)
- ~1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- ~1-2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Slice the baguette into diagonal slices about 1/3 inch thick. It is important that the slices are very thin, because if they are thicker, they will not develop the same crunchy texture. Throw all the slices into a very large mixing bowl, and drizzle them with olive oil, turning them so that they are all covered. Depending on the size of your baguette, you may need to use more than ½ cup of oil, as you really want all the pieces to be totally covered – if not slightly soaked – in oil. Distribute the salt over the pieces and mix again.
Lay the slices out in one layer on a rimmed cookie sheet. Place the sheet in the oven and bake for about 15 minutes. Remove the sheet and turn all the pieces over to the other side so that they can brown evenly on both sides. Return to the oven, and bake until the second side is a nice golden brown (another 15 minutes or so). Once they are totally toasted, let them cool on a double layer of paper towels. Soak up any excessive oil with another paper towel. Once cooled completely, set aside in a bowl for later.
These went really well with a mix of stinky cheeses, including a Roquefort, a soft sheep’s milk cheese made with Belgian ale and a goat milk cheese with black truffles.
The olives I served were a mix of large and small, black and green, some with pits, others stuffed with whole peeled almonds, feta, blue cheese or garlic cloves. We drank a nice red wine with this.
(Recipes for crust, pesto and tart itself come from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, Macmillan, NY, 1998)
For the crust
- 1 1/8 cups (about 5 ounces) all-purpose flour, plus some for dusting work surface
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold, unsalted butter, cut into about 8 pieces
- About 3 tablespoons ice water, plus more if necessary
Combine the flour and salt in the container of a food processor; pulse once or twice. Add the butter and turn on the machine; process until the butter and flour are blended and the mixture looks like cornmeal, about 10 seconds.
Place the mixture in a bowl and sprinkle 3 tablespoons of water over it. Use a wooden spoon or a rubber spatula to gradually gather the mixture into a ball; if the mixture seems dry, add another ½ tablespoon of ice water. When you can make the mixture into a ball with your hands, do so. Wrap in plastic, flatten into a small disk, and freeze the dough for 10 minutes (or refrigerate for 30 minutes); this will ease rolling. (You can also refrigerate the dough for a day or two, or freeze it almost indefinitely.)
You can roll the dough between two sheets of plastic wrap, usually quite successfully; sprinkle both sides of it with a little more flour, then proceed. Or sprinkle a countertop or large board with flour. Unwrap the dough and place it on the work surface; sprinkle its top with flour. If the dough is hard, let it rest for a few minutes; it should give a little when you press your fingers into it.
Roll with light pressure, from the center out. (If the dough seems very sticky at first, add flour liberally; but if it becomes sticky only after your roll it for a few minutes, return it to the refrigerator for 10 minutes before proceeding.) Continue to roll, adding small amounts of flour as necessary, rotating the dough occasionally, and turning it over once or twice during the process. (Use ragged edges of dough to repair any tears, adding a drop of water while you press the patch into place. When the dough is about 10 inches in diameter (it will be less than ¼ inch thick), transfer it to a baking sheet.
For the basic pesto
- 2 loosely packed cups fresh basil leaves, big stems discarded, rinsed, and dried
- Salt to taste
- ½ to 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 tablespoons pine nuts or walnuts, lightly toasted in a dry skillet
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, or more
- ½ cup freshly grated parmesan or other hard cheese (pecorino romano, etc.)
Combine the basil, salt, garlic, nuts, and about half the oil in a food processor or blender.
Process, stopping to scrape down the sides of the container occasionally, and adding the rest of the oil gradually. Add additional oil if you prefer a thinner mixture (I would recommend NOT adding extra for the purposes of this tart, but for other uses, sure!). Store in the refrigerator for a week or two, or in the freezer for several months. Stir in the parmesan by hand just before serving.
Note: I decided to use a high-quality, store-bought pesto because the basil was super pricy and also didn’t look too good. Feel free to cheat on this one if it seems appropriate. Know, however, that this is a very easy and tasty pesto recipe.
For the rest of the tart
- 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus a little for drizzling
- 12 ripe plum tomatoes, core, peeled*, halved lengthwise and seeded
- **6 garlic cloves, lightly crushed (don’t bother to peel)
- 1 recipe of the pie crust from above
- ½ cup basic pesto recipe (see above)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 cup crumbled feta (or parmesan or pecorino romano – I like feta the best because the saltiness really complements the sweetness of the tomatoes)
*A note on how to easily peel tomatoes: Bring a large stockpot of water to boil. Add the tomatoes 3 at a time. When their skins start to crack open, remove them immediately, wash under cold water, and peel the skin off using a paring knife. Then you can easily cut them in half lengthwise, core and seed them.
Preheat the oven to 275 degrees. Cover a baking sheet with foil and pour the olive oil onto it; place the tomatoes in the oil, cut side down. Bake for 2 hours or longer, until the tomatoes are very soft and shriveled. **Note: Mark Bittman suggests baking roasting individual garlic cloves with the tomatoes. I find this method usually fails me. So, I recommend roasting a whole head of garlic, skin on, thoroughly coated in olive oil. Just throw the entire thing in with the tomatoes. The low temperature will prevent it from burning, but keep an eye on it nonetheless. You can probably safely remove it at 45 minutes to an hour (it should be slightly soft to the touch of your tongs).
Turn the oven on to 425 degrees. Lay the crust on a baking sheet, and prick it all over with a fork. Bake 12 minutes (keep an eye on it!). Reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake about 10 minutes more, or until golden but not browned. Cool the crust, still on the sheet, for a few minutes on a rack.
Coat the bottom of the crust with pesto; top with the tomatoes and some salt and pepper. Using a serrated knife, cut the top (not the stem) off the head of the garlic. Squeeze the garlic out and use about 1/3 of the head of garlic, save the rest for something else. Mince or mash the garlic and spread over the tomatoes. Top with cheese and drizzle with a little more oil; sprinkle with a little more salt and pepper and bake 10 to 15 minutes, until the cheese has melted. Serve hot or at room temperature.
- 1 pound fresh asparagus – go for the skinnier stalks as they are generally more tender
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1-2 tablespoons fresh lemon zest
- Juice of half lemon
- Kosher or sea salt to taste
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Wash the asparagus and cut any fibrous ends off the bottoms of the stalks. Put the asparagus in one layer on the bottom of a large baking dish or rimmed cookie sheet. Drizzle the olive oil over the asparagus and season with salt. Use your clean hands to ensure that all the stalks are thoroughly coated in oil. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, and then turn the stalks so that all sides get evenly roasted. Test the doneness with a fork and by taking a bite. Your final baking time will depend on how tender they already after. Return to the oven and bake another 10-20 minutes, until they are cooked through. You want the stalks to maintain a relatively vibrant green color, and to be rather straight rather than droopy when you pick them up with tongs.
After you remove the asparagus from the oven, toss it with the fresh squeezed lemon juice and the lemon zest. Season as needed with more salt. The result is a delightfully fresh taste.
- 1 large bag mixed bitter greens (like arugula)
- 2-3 tablespoons fresh tarragon, torn
- 1 ripe pear – I used a red pear for aesthetic purposes
- ~4 oz chevre, at room temperature
- ~1/2 – 3/4 cup roasted pine nuts
For the dressing
- 1 part balsamic vinegar to 2 parts olive oil – (1/3 cup balsamic, 2/3 cup olive oil will be more than enough for this salad)
- Salt and fresh ground pepper
To roast the pine nuts, put a small non-stick skillet over low heat. Add only enough pine nuts to form one layer on the bottom of the skillet (if they are too crowded, they won’t brown properly). Be attentive! Pine nuts burn very easily, and they are not cheap! You want them to just barely turn a very light brown.
Place the greens in a large bowl. Tear the fresh tarragon and mix it into the greens. Slice the pear lengthwise in very thin slices, and fan them over the top off the salad greens. Take the goat cheese and separate off little chunks (they might actually look more like globs if they are at the right temperature!), and layer them on top of the pears. Sprinkle the top of the salad with the roasted pine nuts. Let your guests see the salad before you add the dressing. Dress and toss only right before serving.
I realized I don’t have a photo of the entire meal – I suppose I forgot to take them in the aftermath of the tart tragedy. Just use your imagination!