Friday, September 15, 2006

Oooh La La!

First impressions can make all the difference in matters of life. A first impression is irreversible, it will stay etched for ever in your memory. It is a glorious stamp of approval or an unfortunate death sentence. It occurs in every new situation; when meeting new people, interviewing for a job, visiting a new city and of course, when trying a new dish. If you think back to a fare that you particularly love, or loathe for that matter, I am certain you will remember your first impression of it. The memories play back like an old film and you can remember where you were, what the dish looked like, and that all important first bite you took that would clinch the deal.

I clearly remember that ill-fated night when I was served Pate de Foie Gras avec Aspic. It was a crisp winter night in a remote ski resort in France. The dining hall of our hotel offered an impressive array of classic French delicacies, enough to keep you from wandering elsewhere for supper. Each night we would venture down to what seemed like an adventure of the palate. Confit de Canard, Gratin Dauphinois, Fromage d’Affinois, Eau de Vie. It was a culinary roller coaster, and I was along for the ride. Unfortunately all roller coaster rides come to an end, and too soon at that. Well this ride came to a screeching halt with the formidable Pate de Foie Gras avec Aspic. It was really a rather sad occasion. I was the tender age of 17, my mind was open and I was willing to try new things. When the waiter set the beautifully plated dish in front of me, I was excited. The pale creamy liver colored square on my plate was reminiscent of a smooth pate. The clear oval-shaped gelatin quavered at the slightest touch, gleaming menacingly in the soft lighting. I was nonplussed. Thinking that the Foie Gras was indeed the same pate I had known and loved, I spread a thick layer onto a piece of bread topped with a nice glob of aspic. Upon initial contact with my taste buds, shocking signals were catapulted through my nerve endings to my brain where it desperately tried to decode their messages. I was overcome with emotion, I believe my eyes even welled up with tears. How could it be? This pungent, gamy and intensely rich concoction floored me. It was not the mildly flavored country pate that I had become accustomed to. Yes the texture was lovely, smooth as silk, but the flavor overwhelmed my senses. The aspic did nothing to help the situation! Its gelatinous texture paired with the silky pate was bizarre to me and the salty flavor combined with the strong flavor of the Foie Gras sent me over the edge. I know that some of you must be thinking I am crazy. “Foie Gras is a delicacy!”, you say. Yes, I know. Perhaps my palate was too young and inexperienced to handle Foie Gras. But like I said before, first impressions can make all the difference and to this day I still have not forayed back into the precarious world of Foie Gras.

I am fortunate to be able to say that I have had far more astonishing first impressions than those I’d rather forget. One of my most cherished memories is of when I was first introduced to the glorious Tarte Tatin. The first time I discovered this French delight was actually in a restaurant in Amsterdam called Walem. My mother was working for Dutch couture designer Frank Govers at the time and his studio was across the canal from Walem. We headed over for coffee and a slice of apple pie, a typical Dutch pastime in the afternoon. This restaurant however did not serve your average Appel Taart, no, it served the most mind-blowing, upside down and dripping in caramel Tarte Tatin. That first bite was unforgettable. The soft, flaky crust was saturated in sweet, rounded caramel. The apples, luscious dark amber quarters that melted in the mouth. It’s almost as if it were the first taste of what was to be the greatest love affair. The ingredients are so simple; apples, butter, sugar and pastry. There is not a hint of spices or a drop of vanilla, but that is what makes this dish so impeccable. The flavors are pure and shine on their own.

Tarte Tatin is one of the few items that if I see it on a menu, I absolutely must order it. So naturally the time eventually came when I had to attempt making it myself. I was always daunted by the task, it seemed like the bar was set so high that failure was imminent. When I finally dared to attempt this masterpiece, I was taken aback at how simple it really is. Granted, I used store bought puff pastry, but the result was flawless. Buttery, sweet, caramelized and absolutely divine. I recently made the tarte as the grand finale to my French Affair meal prepared for my in-laws. What better way to end the evening than on a Tarte Tatin high?

Tarte Tatin (the cheats way!)
Adapted from the Williams-Sonoma Paris Cookbook

1 sheet frozen puff pastry, defrosted
2 lbs Golden Delicious apples, peeled, quartered and cored
Juice of ½ a lemon
6 tbs unsalted butter
1 cup plus 2 tbs sugar
Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream for serving
Oven proof 12 inch skillet

Preheat the oven to 375° F.
Roll out the puff pastry into a round slightly wider than the pan and about 1/8 inch thick. Keep the pastry chilled in the fridge until about 10 minutes before needing it. In a large bowl, toss the apples with the lemon juice to prevent them from turning brown.

Melt the butter in the skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle the sugar evenly over the butter and cook until the sugar melts and turns amber, about 6-8 mins. Tilt and swirl the pan but do not stir the mixture. Carefully arrange the apples on their sides in a single layer, using concentric circles and packing them in tightly. Continue cooking over medium-low heat, occasionally tipping the pan and spooning the caramel over the apples until they are tender and well coated with the sauce, about 30-35 mins. Remove the pan from the heat and place the round of puff pastry over the apples, tucking in the sides using a spatula. Bake the tarte in the oven until the pastry is puffed, crisp and golden brown, 25-30 mins. Wearing oven mitts, invert a large plate over the pan, and then in one swift move, invert the plate and pan together. Lift the pan away, allowing all the caramel to drip onto the apples and replace any dislodged apple pieces.

Serve warm with freshly whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

And more, much more than this...I did it myyyy way.

Every so often I get this mammoth craving for tabbouleh. There is just something so utterly satisfying about this Middle Eastern delight. Tiny pearls of pasta, fragrant olive oil, bright and tangy lemon juice and the colorful confetti of finely diced tomatoes, cucumbers, scallions and parsley. Gasp! No mint you say?! How unorthodox to leave out such an integral part of tabbouleh! Well even more disgruntling for some would be that I use couscous rather than traditional bulghur. Now one can argue about the exact origins of Tabbouleh, (most agree on Lebanon) or its precise ingredients (some add cinnamon), I prefer to let them argue while I conjure up my own adaptation of this dish. There is nothing wrong with adding mint, in fact it is something I do when I happen to have some on hand. It all comes down to a matter of taste, and there is little I love more than the sublime combination of lemon juice and olive oil. They are the stars of this dish. The absorbent couscous soaks up every last drop of juice and oil. The contrast of silky couscous and crisp cucumbers is like a party in your mouth. The tomatoes add their seductive red tinge to the dish, where the scallions and parsley lend their delicate flavors.

The wonderful thing about this dish is that it is simply thrown together , no recipe needed, no measuring involved. You add as much as you like of any chosen ingredient. Tabbouleh is so versatile that it can be paired with anything, chicken, steak, falafel, fish. This particular batch made its debut last night alongside a grilled filet of flaky tilapia, sauced with creamy mushrooms and scallions. I must admit, my favorite way to savor this dish is simply on its own. I take great delight in large spoonfuls of this fluffy, citrus and savory creation.

Tabbouleh (My Way):
1 box couscous, original flavor
3 tomatoes, seeded and finely diced
3 small cucumbers or 1 large finely diced
3 scallions, finely sliced
1 lemon, juiced
1 large handful parsley, finely chopped
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Cook the couscous according to the box. Fluff with a fork to separate the pearls, season with salt and pepper to taste and allow to cool. In a large bowl, combine the chopped vegetables with the couscous and drizzle with several swirls of olive oil. Pour in the lemon juice and then toss to coat. Season again if necessary, cover and set in the fridge to allow flavors to meld.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

So long dear Nectarine.

Spiced Nectarine Cake

Nothing says summer to me quite like the nectarine. To me, euphoria is walking into the market to find overflowing baskets of these yellow and white fruits. Although I like the white nectarine, I am in love with its yellow fleshed sibling. Its deep burgundy and warm yellow tie-dyed skin brings a smile to my face. The best way to savor these jewels is simply out of hand, with its sugary sweet juices running down your chin and trickling down your wrist, and the golden yellow flesh as bright as the sun. When nectarines are in season, and it’s a short season at that, I buy them by the bagful and savor them in every way possible. It is such a versatile fruit that lends its sweet’n’tart flavor to a myriad of dishes, from salads to cakes and tarts. So as the summer draws to an end and the nectarines turn from supply ripe to hard as rocks, here is my ode to this delectable fruit. So long dear nectarine, until next summer when we meet again.

This Spiced Nectarine Cake is absolutely scrumptious. It is basically a lemon-scented coffee cake embedded with half moon slices of nectarines and then dusted with cinnamon sugar that creates a caramelized crust on top. Enjoy a slice of this cake with cup of tea or coffee and you will find yourself at a loss for words.
Adapted from

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
1 1/4 cups self-rising flour
5 medium nectarines (about 1 3/4 pounds), halved, each half cut into 4 slices
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350°F. Generously butter 9-inch-diameter springform pan. Using electric mixer, beat 1/2 cup butter in large bowl until fluffy. Add 3/4 cup sugar and beat until blended. Beat in eggs 1 at a time, then lemon juice and lemon peel. Beat in flour until smooth. Spread batter evenly in prepared pan.
Arrange enough nectarine slices atop batter in concentric circles to cover completely; press lightly to adhere. Mix cinnamon and remaining 2 tablespoons sugar in small bowl. Sprinkle over cake.
Bake until cake is golden brown and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 1 hour. Cut around cake to loosen; remove pan sides. Serve cake slightly warm or at room temperature.