Tomato and Mozzarella Tart with Cornmeal Parmesan Crust

Until four years ago, I didn’t like tomatoes.

OK, “didn’t like” doesn’t even begin to cover it. More like hated. Despised. Couldn’t even begin to understand the appeal of. In salsa or tomato sauce, they were fine, but a slice of tomato on a sandwich or in a salad? Nasty, nasty stuff.

Then, one summer in San Francisco, I got goaded into trying an heirloom tomato salad. And almost immediately, the clouds parted, the sun shone down, and I realized: Oh. THAT’S what tomatoes are supposed to taste like.

You still won’t find me popping a cherry tomato in my mouth (too oozy), and I usually get sick of tomatoes on sandwiches about 1/3 of the way through. But by and large, I’ve seen the light, and so when my good friends asked if we wanted to split a flat of gorgeous local tomatoes, I suddenly found myself with several pounds of fruit in my kitchen, waiting to be made delicious.

The me of four years ago finds this all very amusing.

tomato tart

So for the next week or so, it’s going to be a tomatopalooza in my kitchen, and I started off with this tomato and mozzarella tart. The night I made this was one of those nights, when Pete was working late and the couch was so comfortable and all I really wanted to do was slice up some cheese and sausage and call it dinner. But four pounds of tomatoes do not let themselves be ignored so easily, and the basil plant needed to be pruned, and oh hey, is that some extra mozzarella in the cheese drawer?

This tart crust was a first-time experiment that turned out delicious, and the rest of the recipe is simple — just slice, layer, bake, and eat. A good tomato season staple, for sure, and almost as easy as the non-dinner I would have made otherwise.

Tomato and Mozzarella Tart with Cornmeal Parmesan Crust

Ingredients
For the crust:
1 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. whole-wheat flour
1/4 c. cornmeal
1/4 c. grated parmesan
1/2 t. salt
1 stick (1/2 c.) unsalted butter, cold and cut into small cubes
2 Tablespoons-ish of cold water

For the filling:
6 medium tomatoes, sliced
2-3 oz. fresh mozzarella, sliced
a few basil leaves, slivered
salt and pepper
thyme (fresh or dried)

Instructions
1. Slice the tomatoes, place them on a layer of paper towels, salt them, cover with another layer of paper towels, and let drain until you’re ready to use them.

2. Preheat the oven to 350.

3. Make the crust dough: Combine the flours, cornmeal, parmesan, and salt in a food processor and pulse a couple of times to combine. Add the butter and pulse 20ish times, until the mixture looks and feels sandy. With the food processor running, slowly add cold water until the dough comes together (you should be able to pinch it and have it hold shape). Turn the dough out onto a piece of plastic wrap, form into a disc, wrap it up, and toss it in the fridge for at least 15 minutes.

4. Pat the cold tart dough into the bottom and up the sides of a tart pan (I think a pie plate would work fine). Poke a few holes in the bottom with a fork, cover with tinfoil, add pie weights/beans/something to weigh down the edges, and bake for 15-20 minutes, until the crust looks mostly baked. Remove foil and weights.

5. Arrange a single layer of tomato slices on top of the crust, and top with sliced mozzarella. Sprinkle basil slivers, thyme, salt, and pepper on top. Add additional layers of tomato, mozzarella, basil, and seasoning until you’ve used everything up.

6. Bake until the tomatoes are soft and the cheese melty, about 25 minutes.

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Fish Chowder

In addition to the standard turkey and all its accoutrements, my family has another Thanksgiving tradition: crab cakes. Thanksgiving falls just after the start of Dungeness crab season here in San Francisco, and so for the past couple of years, we’ve spent one of the days of Thanksgiving weekend cracking, picking, and cake-ing some local crab legs. This usually leaves us with a pile of crab shells stacked high on the kitchen table, and this year, we decided to stuff them in a big pot and simmer them for stock.

There was just one problem: It turns out I don’t traditionally make things where fish stock makes sense. Which of my go-to recipes use stock at all? Chili. And the idea of chili with fish stock was a little squicky, so since November, I’ve had several baggies full of frozen stock taking up space in the freezer.

Fish Chowder

(Yeah, I need to stop making yellow food and photographing it in yellow bowls.)

In retrospect, soup seems like the obvious solution, but it wasn’t until I spotted this fish chowder recipe that I felt motivated to make it happen. The corn was what got me; I see myself eating a lot of corn between now and when it goes out of season. But the flavor that really worked in the finished soup was the thyme. Use it liberally — it tastes lovely in here.

Looking at the recipe, I was worried it didn’t include enough liquid to take this from soup to stew, but it turned out to be just about perfect. We had thawed a little extra stock, though, just in case, and I’d recommend having some on hand if you’re going to keep any of this as leftovers. If anything, the flavor was better the second day, but the liquid had almost all absorbed/evaporated, so I just dumped the extra cup or so of stock into the pot when I reheated it, and that thinned it out nicely.

Fish Chowder
(Adapted from Generation Y Foodie)

Ingredients
1 lb. fish filet (we used tilapia; any whitefish would probably work)
3 ears of corn
1/2 lb. potatoes, cut into chunks
3-4 celery stalks, diced
1 onion, diced
2 slices bacon, diced
12 oz. fish stock
1/2 c. heavy cream
1/4 c. milk
2 Tablespoons fresh thyme (or more to taste)
Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions
1. Grill, roast, or otherwise cook your corn and remove the kernels from the cob
2. In a large saucepan or pot (we used our dutch oven), saute the diced bacon, then add the onion and cook together until the onion softens
3. Add the celery and saute until it starts to soften (about another 3 minutes)
4. Add the fish filet and lightly brown (about 2 minutes per side). Remove from the pot and cut into chunks
5. Add the corn, then the potatoes, and saute about 5 more minutes
6. Add the stock, cream, milk, salt and pepper, and the thyme and simmer for 10 minutes, covered
7. Add the fish chunks and simmer for another 10-12 minutes, uncovered
8. Top with lots of black pepper and dried or chopped fresh thyme

Served with some of our toasted spent grain herb bread, we got five servings out of this recipe.

Cherry Tomato Cobbler

I know this blog is supposed to be about taking recipes and customizing them and cooking by feel, but sometimes, recipes don’t really need my help. And that’s how I feel about this cherry tomato cobbler with gruyere biscuits. Blistered, gooey tomatoes, deeply browned onions, and cheesy, creamy, dumpling-y biscuits? There’s no reason to mess with that.

cherry tomato cobbler

The second I spotted this recipe in a borrowed issue of Martha Stewart Living, it moved to the top of my to-make list — but tomatoes took a frustratingly long time to ripen this summer. Last week, though, I spotted a few big troughs at a farmer’s market stand for $1/pound, and I hoovered up three bags as fast before the word “tomatoes!” was even out of my mouth.

Martha recommends baking this in a 2-quart, 2-inch deep baking dish, but I actually wish I’d put it in something bigger; it bubbled over a bit in the oven (stick a cookie sheet under the baking dish if you have any worries; it saved me a ton fo cleanup), and I had a lot of biscuit dough left over. Well, “left over” is an interesting way to put it; can you ever really complain about extra biscuits?

gruyere biscuits

If I had to offer one tip on this recipe, it’s this: Don’t cut the onion cooking time short. I almost always think recipes overestimate the time needed to cook onions, but this time, the 25 minute sautee means these onions are rich and caramelized by the time they go into the oven. I’m not sure my kitchen has ever smelled better.

Cherry Tomato Cobbler
(from Martha Stewart Living)

Ingredients
For the filling:
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 pounds cherry tomatoes
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (I used my favorite Aleppo)
1-2 teaspoons salt
Pepper

For the biscuits:
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt (recipe suggests coarse: I split between regular and fleur de sel)
1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup grated Gruyere cheese, plus extra for sprinkling
1 1/2 cups heavy cream, plus more for brushing

Instructions
1. Heat oil in a large skillet. Cook the onions over medium heat for 25 minutes or until nicely browned. Add garlic and cook for 3 more minutes. Set aside to cool slightly.

2. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees while you make the biscuit topping

3. Make the biscuits: combine flour, baking powder, and a teaspoon of salt. Cut in butter with a pastry cutter until small clumps form (it should feel somewhat sandy). Stir in the cheese and the cream. (Martha suggests using a fork, but I needed a spatula.)

4. In a baking dish, combine tomatoes, 3 tablespoons of flour, red pepper flakes, salt (to taste, but about a teaspoon) and pepper

5. Spoon clumps of biscuit dough over the top of the tomato mixture; you should be able to squeeze 6-8 dumplings in there. Brush the tops of the biscuits with cream and sprinkle with cheese.

6. Bake until the tomatoes are bubbling and biscuits are brown, about an hour and 10 minutes. Let cool slightly before digging in.

If you have extra biscuit dough, you can bake it separately on another baking sheet. The biscuits will be a little crispier than the ones in the cobbler, but they’re delicious in their own right. Mine took about 45 minutes to bake, so set a second timer and keep an eye on them.

The Great Spent Grain Baking Experiment, Part 2

I knew the Great Spent Grain Baking Experiment was going to leave me with a kitchen full of bread. But I tend to have a very “well, the oven’s already on” attitude toward baking, and when I started seeing recipes for things like pizza dough and crackers, this had the potential to get out of hand very quickly.

Somehow, nothing was a total disaster, and I ended the experiment with several recipes I’ll make again the next time we brew. Here’s how the non-bread recipes shook out:

Spent Grain Pizza Dough

This was actually the first thing I made, but I didn’t bake it until last night. I added another cup of flour to the recipe, split it into two balls of dough after it rose, and froze them in plastic bags. Yesterday morning, I plopped one of the frozen discs in a lightly oiled bowl, covered it with a towel, and let it rise for about eight hours (pretty much my standard procedure for pizza dough).

spent grain pizza

This dough is very wet and stretchy, so I had to act fast to get it into a pizza shape, and it took a lot of cornmeal to get off the peel and onto my pizza stone, but the result? Amazing: thin and cracker-like with a perfectly puffy edge. This is a keeper for sure, and I’ll probably make a double batch (at least) next time. (Also, yes, that’s the Potesto again, with basil pesto this time.)

Soft Pretzels

I did some finagling with this one: I used my favorite Smitten Kitchen soft pretzel recipe, halved it, added a cup of spent grains to the dough, and then just kept adding flour until the dough cleared the sides of my mixer (four-ish cups, I think; at some point I just stood there with a half-cup of flour at the ready and dumped in a bit every time the dough started to stick again).

soft pretzels

These are perfect. Honestly, perfect. They are soft pretzels, so it would be hard for them not to be great, but I love the touch of whole grain flavor and the softness the spent grains added. These kept perfectly for two days in an open bowl covered with a kitchen towel, and I’m so sad that they’re gone. Absolutely going in the rotation.

Spent Grain Chocolate Chip Cookies

The ultimate “oh hey, why not?” recipe of this experiment, these came out well — not a blockbuster, but they do use 1.5 cups of grains and contain chocolate and peanut butter, so how bad could they be?

spent grain cookies

These remind me most of the pumpkin cookies I sometimes make, big and puffy and hearty. (I could almost pretend they were healthy in an energy bar kind of way.) I could see myself making a batch of these right after the grains come out of the beer to fuel us through the rest of the brewing process.

Spent Grain Wheat Crackers

I didn’t quite give myself enough time to bake these till they were fully crunchy — the top tray got there, but the bottom tray could have used 10-15 minutes more — and they really have to be thin to crisp up. If I were to do these again, I’d roll them out right on the baking sheet (maybe even flip the sheet over, top it with parchment, and bake them right there), because transferring them from my cutting board to the baking sheet took forever.

spent grain crackers

On the plus side, this makes a ton of crackers. The crispy ones are best, but the puffier ones just taste like pitas, so I’m not too bummed. I’ll just leave myself more time to bake next time.

***

So. What would I make again?

The pretzels, absolutely, every time. The crackers, actually; I’d like to try adding seeds and spices. The herb bread, which I really want to get right; I still haven’t figured out how to bake it through, but I love the taste, so I’m not done tweaking. The pizza dough. And perhaps another rye bread; I think I know enough now to work with these basic recipes and come up with something good.

Now, who wants some bread?

Curried Eggplant with Spinach

Before I continue on with carb-fest 2011, how about an actual dinner?

Curried Eggplant

I’d never cooked eggplant before we started getting it in our CSA box a couple of years ago. I had no idea what to do with the thing, and so I was lucky that an issue of Food and Wine arrived almost immediately with what quickly became my go-to eggplant recipe. There was a point in the winter of 2010 that I think we were eating this at least once a week!

The first eggplant of the season arrived last week, and with it came the return of curried eggplant with spinach. It’s one of those great dump-and-roast recipes, and it makes great leftovers. (Everything will turn more yellow over time, though, so if you’re weird about food color, beware.) I usually serve this with naan, but as I learned the other night, it also goes great with warm spent grain soft pretzels!

Curried Eggplant with Spinach
(Adapted from Food and Wine)

Ingredients
1 large or 2 small eggplants, chopped into 3/4-inch chunks
1 large onion, diced or cut into wedges
1 15-oz can chickpeas, drained
2-3 garlic cloves
2 tsp your favorite curry powder
1 tsp ground ginger
5-6 cups of baby spinach
salt and pepper
a few tablespoons olive oil

Instructions
1. Preheat the oven to 425

2. Chop up the eggplant, place in a bowl, cover generously with salt, and let sit for 15 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, chop up the onion and finely mince the garlic.

4. Cover the bottom of a roasting pan with olive oil. Mix the minced garlic, curry powder, and ground ginger with the oil.

5. Rinse and drain the eggplant, and add it, the chickpeas, and the onion to the roasting pan. Stir until everything is covered with the oil mixture, and season with salt and pepper.

6. Roast for about 30 minutes, stirring once or twice during the process.

7. Working in batches, stir in the spinach until just wilted. I always later wish I’d added more spinach, so you can be pretty generous with it.

The Great Spent Grain Baking Experiment, Part 1

We like to say we have San Francisco’s smallest brewery: a corner of a room off our kitchen, parallel to our pantry, wedged between the cleaning supplies and the door to the trash chute. It may be tiny, but it’s totally functional, and every couple of months, we get another batch of beer going in there.

This past weekend, Pete started a rye IPA, and in the process, he happened to mention that he’d read about people baking bread using their spent beer grains. I already had beer bread on the brain, and so the Great Spent Grain Baking Experiment was born.

There are a ton of spent grain recipes online, but my limited experience baking yeast breads and my nonexistent experience with spent grains made it tough to judge which one would be the best. So I didn’t even try to choose. Instead, I baked three different bread recipes and pitted them against each other in a vast whole-grain carb-off. (The results of which I’ll be eating for weeks; anyone wanna come over?) I also ended up making a couple of pizza dough rounds, some crackers, chocolate chip cookies, and soft pretzels, but I’ll talk more about those another day.

spent grain beer bread

First, some spent grain basics:

When we brew beer, it’s actually just like brewing tea — but giant, and with things like oats and barley instead of herbs. When that’s done, what’s left is a whole lot of soggy, slightly sweet, and still totally edible whole grains. (In the past, we’ve just composted the spent grain, for lack of a farm full of livestock to feed it to.)

I used wet spent grains, but they can also be toasted/dried in the oven. Some people swear by that; others say you get more of a beer-y flavor by using them wet. Frankly, I went with wet because it was easier. Toasting seemed like a commitment.

I mixed all of these breads in my stand mixer with the dough hook. I’m sure they could be mixed by hand, too, but I like the feedback I get from the mixer (dough still sticking to the sides of the bowl? add more flour!). If I were a more confident breadmaker, maybe I wouldn’t need that, but I’ll take any safety net I can find.

My grain mix included oats, rye, and a few different types of barley, all of which came from San Francisco Brewcraft. The grain mixture went through a grinder once at the shop, but after we were done brewing, I ran it through the food processor to get it a bit smoother before baking. I also drained any especially wet bits in a wire mesh strainer.

Okay! Let’s see some bread.

Bread #1: Braukaiser.com’s Treberbrot

Spent grain bread #1

I liked the straightforwardness of the Braukaiser recipe: 1/3 bread flour, 1/3 wheat flour, 1/3 spent grain, yeast, water, salt. It seemed like a good, basic start as I tried to figure out the proportions. Because I can’t just leave well enough alone, though, I split the wheat flour portion between wheat and rye flour, added about a teaspoon of caraway seeds, and stirred a touch of molasses in with the proofed yeast right before I added it to the dough. I needed to add an additional cup or so of flour, which was pretty standard across all of these recipes.

Treberbrot cross section

This loaf didn’t rise much, and I think I might have let it sit for too long while I was pre-heating the oven. But it pretty much punches you in the teeth with rye flavor, which is what I was hoping for. Some of that’s the caraway, of course, and a little is probably the rye flour, but I like to think it takes advantage of the rye in the spent grains, too. I worried I’d burned it but it actually came out just a touch underdone. I’d make it again, but maybe in a couple of smaller loaves next time.

Bread #2: Grub Post’s Spent Grain Bread

The second recipe stood out to me because it used the most spent grain, and believe me, I had a lot of spent grain to use up. It intimidated me because it called for making a starter rather than just proofing the yeast, and I’m not sure I did it right — I’m actually making another loaf of this as I write this post, and I’m still not sure I did it right — and the bread took forever to rise. But when it did eventually start rising, there was no stopping it!

spent grain bread #2

Yeah, that’s right. Two loaves. For reference, my original dough ball was about the size of one of those.

I used mostly bread flour in this one, though I switched to all-purpose for the last couple of cups, and ended up using a little more than six cups of flour total. My only changes to this recipe were to add some chopped fresh rosemary and thyme and some rosemary salt from our CSA.

Beer bread cross-section

These loaves looked amazing and smelled even better, so it’s a huge bummer that I drastically underbaked them. In my defense, they sounded hollow, which is apparently the universal signal for bread done-ness, but … they weren’t done. They do make fantastic toast, though, and they would have won the taste test hands-down if they’d been baked through. I’m giving this one another shot in a loaf pan and testing the inside with a thermometer this time; if I can get it to work, I can imagine making this recipe after every batch of beer we brew.

Bread #3: Food and Brews’ Spent Grain Bread

This recipe used the most water of any, and looking back, I probably could have just eliminated some of it; I ended up adding a lot of extra flour. I didn’t make any other changes to the recipe, but I did shape it into dinner rolls instead of a regular loaf.

Spent grain dinner rolls

I’m so happy with how these came out — and happy I decided to use it for rolls. This recipe isn’t very exciting as written, it doesn’t use a ton of the grain, and I’m not sure what I would have done with a whole loaf of it. But as homemade hamburger buns? Perfect! (We sacrificed one for the picture below. And then we ate it plain.)

Spent grain dinner roll cross section

Next time: pretzels, cookies, crackers, and pizza!

Lavender Shortbread

The first thing I knew how to bake was my family’s shortbread. I’ve known the recipe by heart since at least fifth grade, which was the year we had to give how-to speeches in Language Arts. Mine was How to Bake Scottish Shortbread, and my visual aids were bags of white flour and rice flour to pass around and let everyone feel the difference. In college, my mom used to send me care packages of shortbread, and we’d freeze a few pieces in our teeny tiny dorm freezer for shortbread emergencies. I’ve baked shortbread at least once per holiday season every year of my adult life, and it made a memorable appearance at my wedding. I make it the same way every time, and I would never, ever dare alter the recipe.

Um, until now.

Mom, you might want to avert your eyes.

lavender shortbread

We got a huge bunch of lavender from our CSA recently, and it’s been drying in the kitchen ever since. The suggested recipe that came with the bunch was for lavender shortbread, and of course I took one look at it, scoffed, and thought, “I can do better.”

Now: I set out to have measurements for this recipe. I planned to report just how much lavender you need to add to the world’s most perfect shortbread recipe for just the perfect touch of herb-y, floral flavor. But, um. Lavender is sort of a pain to work with, especially when it’s drying upside-down in your pantry. More buds ended up on the floor than in the bowl. And since most normal shortbread recipes maybe make 24 pieces, and this one makes 100+, I was kind of guessing anyway. I think I was shooting for 4 teaspoons, initially, because I couldn’t tell if the lavender technically was still fresh or if it was already dried and how that would affect the strength of the flavor. But 4 didn’t look like enough, so I went for 6, and then after I dumped that into the bowl of dough, it looked like a pitiful amount of lavender, so I scraped a few more sprigs’ worth of flowers directly into the bowl. So, um, 8 teaspoons? Enough that you can see a little bud of lavender in any 1-inch section of dough you pinch, I’d say.

And if you don’t want to mess with perfection, just omit the lavender.

Lavender Shortbread
Ingredients
1 pound (4 sticks) butter
1 1/6 c. sugar
3 c. white flour
1 c. rice flour
2 eggs
8-ish teaspoons of lavender flowers

Instructions
1. Preheat the oven to 300.

2. Pour the sugar into a large bowl. Slice the butter into tablespoon-sized squares and add the squares to the sugar. Leave them there until softened, half an hour or so.

3. Once the butter has softened, cream the butter and sugar together with your hands until smooth. Yes, with your hands. This is a tactile recipe; put your rings somewhere safe and get ready for lots of trips to the sink.

4. Add the eggs and keep mixing with your hands, delighting in how cold and squishy it feels.

5. Add the white and rice flour and mix with your hands until everything feels thoroughly blended. (It’ll still be sticky; that’s OK.) Add the lavender and blend a little more.

6. Turn the dough out into a long baking pan (11×17 is ideal). Pat it evenly into the pan, using the heel of your hand for the center and working the dough into the corners with your fingers.

7. With a knife, score the dough both horizontally and vertically into rectangular pieces. (I usually get 9-10 pieces down the short side and 11-12 down the long side.) Prick each piece twice with a fork.

8. Bake for an hour and 10 minutes to an hour and a half, stopping when the shortbread is just golden brown. (If you know your oven bakes unevenly — mine does — rotate the pan halfway through.)

Fix This Recipe: Molasses Brussels Sprouts

To go along with the cornflake buttermilk chicken, I decided to finally tackle the bag of brussels sprouts that had been sitting in my crisper since my last Trader Joe’s run. The goal was to re-create the molasses brussels sprouts I ate at The Front Porch a few months ago. I checked out a couple of recipes that used either maple syrup or molasses and ended up with something like the following:

1/6 c. cider vinegar
1/6 c. maple syrup
2 T molasses
salt and pepper

Here’s what it looked like when I poured it over the sprouts to roast:

brussels sprouts in maple glaze

Kinda soupy, less glaze-y than I was going for. Tasty, but a mess to keep the sauce from running all over the rest of the plate.

How could I fix this one? More maple syrup/molasses? Less vinegar? Olive oil? Give up and make these totally delicious-sounding brown sugar glazed sprouts instead?