Thursday, August 23, 2012

Tuscan White Beans with Bacon, Rosemary and Lemon

The weather this August has been uncharacteristically cool and that has me thinking of rustic autumnal food, particularly northern Italian food like slow-cooked Tuscan white beans.

I am a big fan of beans.  They are inexpensive and easy to prepare and are incredibly versatile.  This is one of my favorite preparations of white beans.  They are meaty and creamy and fragrant with rosemary, lemon, garlic and wine.

These beans can be used in a variety of ways.  I love to sprinkle them over salads or mix them into just about any pasta dish.  They are also exceptionally good when coarsely mashed and served on small slices of grilled bread as bruschetta.

This recipe is an all day affair, but the actual hands on time is minimal, mostly you will just sit around and wait for the beans to slowly cook in the oven while they fill the air with their incredible aroma.  Once prepared, they can be refrigerated and used in many different dishes.  I provide recipes for a  Tuscan white bean bruschetta and also a rustic Tuscan pasta dish with sausage, mushrooms and peppers.  YUM!

Penne pasta with sausage, peppers, mushrooms , spinach and Tuscan white beans

Tuscan white bean bruschetta with roasted red pepper

Tuscan White Beans with Bacon, Rosemary and Lemon
makes about 6 cups

1 lb dried canneloni beans
6 cups boiling water

1/2 pound bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 medium onion, diced
1 head garlic peeled (about 12 cloves)
zest of one lemon
2 cups dry white wine (I used Pinot Grigio)
4 cups chicken stock
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
4 large sprigs of fresh rosemary
juice of 1/2 lemon

Place dried beans in a large bowl and cover with boiling water. Let soak for one hour.

While beans are soaking, preheat oven to 250 F.  In a large heavy oven proof pan cook bacon over medium heat until fat is rendered and bacon is slightly crisp (about 20 minutes).

Add onion and whole garlic cloves and lemon zest to bacon and saute over medium heat, stirring frequently until onions are soft.  Add white wine, chicken stock and salt and pepper to pan and scrape up any brown bits from the bottom of the pan.

Before baking

Drain beans and add to pan.  Bring just to a boil and add rosemary sprigs.  Cover pan and transfer to oven.  Bake, undisturbed for 4-5 hours until beans are very tender and very little liquid remains (do not cook until dry).

After 4 and half hours in a slow oven

Remove rosemary carefully from pan and discard.  Add juice of 1/2 lemon and gently mix in to beans.  Beans can be refrigerated for one week.

Tuscan White Bean Bruschetta

1 large red bell pepper
11/2 cups tuscan white beans
1 loaf garlic bread or baguette, sliced and grilled

Place pepper on grill over high flames and roast, turning occasionally until all sides are charred black.  Place roasted pepper in a paper bag and crimp top.  Allow pepper to steam until cool.  Remove charred skin and seeds. Slice pepper thinly.

Mash beans coarsely with a fork.  Serve atop slices of garlic bread or grilled baguette and garnish with roasted red pepper.

Penne with Sausage, Spinach, Mushrooms, Peppers and Tuscan White Beans

1lb penne pasta
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/4 tsp dried red pepper flakes
1 lb Italian sausage, casings removed and crumbled
1 small onion, diced
12 oz. sliced mushrooms
2 small red bell peppers, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 small tomatoes, diced
9 oz. fresh baby spinach
1 cup reserved pasta cooking water
salt and pepper to taste
3 Tbsp olive oil (I particularly like porcini-infused olive oil)
juice of 1/2 lemon
salt and pepper to taste
grated parmesan cheese.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cook penne according to package directions.

While water is heating, combine 2 Tbsp olive oil, red pepper flakes and sausage in a large skillet, brown sausage over medium-high heat.  Add onions, mushrooms and peppers to sausage and cook until onions and mushrooms are tender.  Add garlic and tomatoes and cook, stirring frequently until all the liquid has evaporated. Add fresh spinach and then add one cup reserved pasta cooking water over the spinach and toss until spinach is wilted.  Add cooked penne pasta and toss.  Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with porcini olive oil and fresh lemon juice. Let rest for 15-20 minutes, tossing occasionally, for pasta to absorb sauce and thicken.

To serve, place a mound of pasta in a shallow bowl and top with 1/2 cup Tuscan white beans.  Garnish with grated parmesan cheese.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Caramel Banana Pudding

Banana Pudding is a southern classic.  It is one of those desserts that if made properly, everyone eats and loves.  Because it is so revered in the annals of southern cooking there are as many recipes for it as there are people who love to eat it.  I present here my variation on this classic dessert.

The first thing I want to say is that until the age of 28 I absolutely LOATHED banana pudding.  This is probably because I grew up in the midwest where we don't know how to make banana pudding.  The only versions I ever encountered were made with banana-flavored instant pudding and slathered in cool whip.  I always associated banana pudding with artificial flavors and nasty gloppy pudding with soggy cheap cookies.

Then, in 1991 a fellow graduate student, Melissa, who lived next door to us in student village, made banana pudding, her grandmother's recipe.  She stopped by and said she had just taken it from the oven and asked if we wanted some.  I made a scrunchy face and said, "No...thanks.  I hate banana pudding".  When asked if I had ever had REAL banana pudding I became indignant and began to blather on and on about how revolting I thought it was.  My anti-banana pudding tirade continued until she just shoved a spoon of warm banana pudding in my open flapping mouth. I shut up immediately.

What I tasted was nothing like what I was accustomed to. It was sweet and buttery, and fragrant with vanilla and the amazing flavor of fresh bananas which in the homemade vanilla pudding began to exude their esters giving the dessert amazing overtones of rum and brown sugar.  The cookies were soft but not mushy and the meringue topping was light, barely sweet and ethereal like a warm cloud.  I had an epiphany.  THIS is what banana pudding should taste like, no wonder people love it!

I have been a convert ever since.  Like many of my southern friends, when I hear someone has made banana pudding, I begin to get excited, but cautiously... The interrogation of the cook begins.  "So, you made banana pudding?  Did you use banana-flavored pudding or vanilla pudding with bananas in it?  Did you make the pudding from scratch or is it from a box? Did you use meringue or whipped topping?"

There is one and ONLY ONE correct answer to these questions:  Home-made vanilla pudding with bananas in it, topped with meringue.

I also believe that banana pudding is best when it has had a chance to refrigerate overnight to let the flavors meld.  I usually prepare the pudding, cover it in plastic wrap and chill overnight, and add the meringue topping just before serving.

Since 1991 I have been making this pudding recipe and when I serve it, there is never anything left.  It is always the first thing to vanish and a potluck, so I recommend getting a serving early if you want to enjoy your creation.

So here is Melissa's grandmother's banana pudding recipe.  In this recipe I also added some Cajeta Caramel, but this is purely optional.  Cajeta ( kah-hey-tah) caramel is ubiquitous in latin america and is used as a topping for many deserts from ice cream to tres leches cake.  It is creamy and sweet and easy to make.  I think it adds a subtle caramel flavor which enhances the bananas and vanilla.

Another variation of this dessert substitutes peanut butter sandwich cookies for the vanilla wafers... delicious!

Banana Pudding is so iconic that local Chapel Hill band Southern Culture on the Skids has a song about it!  They even serve the audience banana pudding from the stage during a concert!

Caramel Banana Pudding
serves 12

Vanilla Pudding
1/3 cup flour
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
3 egg yolks
2 1/2 cups whole milk
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 tsp vanilla extract

1 box vanilla wafers
5-6 ripe bananas, cut into 1/4-inch slices

6 egg whites
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
1/4 cup sugar

Cajeta Caramel
1 12 oz. can sweetened condensed milk

If you are using the cajeta caramel, make this first since it takes some time.  Place the unopened can of sweetened condensed milk ON IT'S SIDE in a large pot (this is to ensure that you don't get killed if the can explodes from the pressure of cooking).  Cover the can with water by about 2 inches.  Place on the stove on high heat and bring the water just to a boil.  Reduce heat to keep the water at a vigorous simmer and cook for 2 1/2 hours, replenishing the water periodically to keep the can submerged.

Remove the hot can from the water bath and allow to cool completely before opening.

Delicious cajeta caramel!

Now prepare the Vanilla Pudding.  In a large heavy-weight pot combine flour, sugar, salt and egg yolks, whisking to combine in a thick slurry.  Add the milk and whisk to combine.  Add the cold butter to the pot and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until butter melts.  Continue to cook until the pudding becomes thick but still pourable (about 10-15 minutes).  Remove from heat and stir in vanilla.

If using caramel, spread half of the can in the bottom of an 11x7 glass baking dish. Place a single layer of vanilla wafers on top of the caramel.  Cover with banana slices.  Spread 1/2 of the hot pudding on top of the wafers.

Place a layer of vanilla wafers on top of the pudding and drizzle with the remaining caramel.  Top with bananas and the remaining pudding ( If using caramel, you will not use ALL of the pudding because it will overflow the dish!).

Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Before serving remove pudding from refrigerator, remove plastic wrap and prepare meringue.

Place 6 egg whites in a large clean bowl and add 1/4 tsp cream of tartar.  Whip egg whites until very frothy, then, with mixer still running, slowly add the sugar to the egg whites.  Continue to whip egg whites until they are glossy and hold a stiff peak.

Spread the meringue over the pudding.  Be sure to allow the meringue to adhere to the sides of the glass dish or it will shrink up in the oven.

Place the pudding under the broiler and broil until the meringue is golden and brown and just set (about 2-3 minutes).

Monday, August 6, 2012

Tomato Tart with Herbed Goat Cheese

Well August is here and that means we are overflowing with beautiful multi-colored heirloom tomatoes from the victory garden. Our tomato plants are enormous gangly monsters, spreading everywhere and drooping from the weight of all the fruit! Pure joy!

 I love a vine ripened tomato, nothing in the world quite tastes the same! I have been enjoying these beauties on sandwiches and in salsa cruda, but decided it was time to bake them into a cheese-filled tart inspired by the flavors of the south of France.

 This tart is wonderful and fresh, fragrant with fresh herbs from the garden mixed with a tangy coat cheese chevre and topped with thick slices of sun-kissed heirloom tomatoes just picked from the garden. I put a layer of breadcrumbs and parmesan on top of the goat cheese and just under the fresh tomatoes to capture the juice from the tomatoes as they bake. My secret ingredient is a last minute drizzle of honey on top of the tomatoes, just a hint to help coax the natural sweetness out of the tomatoes. Divine.

 This tart is excellent warm or room temperature and makes a fantastic brunch dish or a light supper with a simple salad and a glass of chilled Rose wine.

Tomato Tart with Herbed Goat Cheese
serves 6-8

1, 9-inch circle of pie dough (I cheat and use commercially prepared, but feel free to make your favorite if you are so inclined)
5 oz. goat cheese chevre
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1 tsp fresh rosemary leaves
1 Tbsp fresh snipped chives
1/8 tsp sea salt
1/8 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
1 egg
2 Tbsp bread crumbs
2 Tbsp grated parmesan cheese, plus 1 Tbsp for topping
3 medium tomatoes, thickly sliced
1 tsp (about) honey

 Preheat oven to 350F.

Line a 8-inch metal tart pan with removable bottom with pie dough, folding over edges, and trimming excess. 

In a food processor combine goat cheese, herbs, salt pepper and egg, and process until smooth. Spread in dough-lined tart pan.

Top goat cheese with bread crumbs and parmesan cheese.

 Layer thick slices of tomato atop tart slightly overlapping. Drizzle lightly with honey and sprinkle with parmesan cheese.

This beauty is ready for the oven!

 Bake 40 minutes until golden brown. Allow to cool for 20 minutes before slicing.