Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Vegetables and minerals

For the past few months, I've been slowly but surely working my way through The Art of Cooking with Vegetables, and I've found something rewarding in every new dish.  If Ad Hoc At Home got me thinking about technique and the process of cooking, this book has me thinking about ingredients. Both in its open-ended instructions and its abstract illustrations, collages that suggest both the appearance and the taste of the completed dish, the book offers a new way of thinking about vegetables.  The only misfire might have been a delicious-sounding salad of heirloom tomatoes, roasted red peppers, raw onions, and cilantro, left to marinate for 3 hours and then eaten atop toast.  It wasn't until I had finished the recipe and taken my first taste from the bowl that I realized--wait, this is salsa.  Oh well.  Eat your salsa bagel.

And you read some of the recipes and you want to stand akimbo looking at author Alain Passard--"Chef Passard, I think you're just choosing different ingredients that are purple now."  Beets, blackberries, and lavender--those are all Crayola crayons in the same section of the 96-count box, aren't they?  But the monochromatic presentation really draws you in to consider first the beet, served whole (the audacity!), and then the complements of savory blackberry sauce and lavender-steamed milk.  The book is instructive; the dishes seem to be composed to lead you into this thought process.  What's the ingredient that I am highlighting?  How can I make sure that it's the focus?  What other flavors do I want to add to balance that?  It's a way of thinking about ingredients.

So maybe this avocado souffle studded with dark chocolate needed just a few spoonfuls of flour to bind it together.  maybe I'm carb-crazed, or maybe I've just never dug the texture of whipped egg whites alone.  But the flavors worked well together, and the bright green souffle mixture puffed admirably out of its avocado shell--so if I need to add a little flour to give it a cakier texture that I'd like better, I think the recipe gives me the leeway to do that.

And this recipe, which I made a few weeks ago, highlights the fruity character of tomatoes by pairing them with vanilla, mint, and toasted almonds.  The book suggests serving it with mozzarella cheese, but I'd stumbled upon a recipe for an heirloom tomato and mascarpone tart earlier in the week, and figured that the flavor combination would instead pair well with a olive oil crust.  The tomatoes and the unexpected bite of vanilla were the star, but the little change I made brought the dish even further toward the sweet-savory dividing line.  It was great--a combination of strong flavors I'd never tasted together before, but somehow familiar and comforting. 

This is a funny little book, full of recipes that at once seem both rustic and elevated, classical and avant-garde, simple yet requiring finesse.  And the best part is that you can assemble pretty much all the recipes for dinner on a weeknight after a stop at the grocery store on your way home.  I think I'm going to cook a lot from this book.  I think it's going to keep me busy for the next year.


Tomato tart with vanilla and mascarpone
adapted from Food52 and The Art of Cooking with Vegetables
(serves 3-4)

for the tart crust...
125 g / 1 cup unbleached white flour
125 g / 1 cup whole wheat or rye flour
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 - 1/2 cup cold water

for the tart...
3 heirloom tomatoes, different colors
4 tbsp olive oil
leaves from 6 sprigs of mint
1/2 cup slivered almonds
8 oz mascarpone cheese
2 tbsp full-fat yogurt
half of a vanilla bean
juice from one lemon
up to 1 tbsp sugar
kosher salt
large-grain sea salt

First, you need to make an olive oil tart crust.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Find your favorite tart pan.  Mix together the flours and salt in a large bowl.  Add 1/3 cup olive oil and stir with a fork until a rough paste is just beginning to form.  Add 1/4 cup water and mix with your hands to see if the dough starts to hold together.  If it doesn't, add the rest of the water, a bit at a time, just until the dough is starting to come together into a ball.

Turn the dough onto a floured countertop and divide it into three pieces.  Smash each piece against the counter with the your palm to distribute the fat evenly.  Take the three smashed balls and stack them on top of each other.  Knead once or twice to get them to stick together, then roll them out with a rolling pin into a shape that will fit into your tart pan.  Sometimes I find that olive oil crusts don't roll out very well, so if you have any trouble, just do the best you can and press the crust lightly into the pan.  Even if you do it a little haphazardly, as long as you don't overwork it, it will turn out fine.

Cover the tart crust with a layer of aluminum foil, and then a layer of cheap dried beans.  Bake in the oven at 350 degrees for 20 - 30 min, until it's cooked through and starting to get crisp.  If you find that the top of the crust isn't baking the whole way, remove the foil and beans.  Don't forget to save the beans for your next tart.  Let the tart crust cool in its pan set on a wire rack while you make the toppings.

Pour 4 tbsp olive oil into a small bowl and add most of the mint leaves, whole, reserving a few for garnish.  Mix vigorously with a fork to bruise the leaves as much as possible.  Allow to steep while you complete the remainder of the recipe.

Toast the slivered almonds in the oven at 350 degrees until they're fragrant, about 6 - 10 minutes.  Shake the pan every 2-3 minutes so that they don't burn.

Split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and remove the seeds.  In a small bowl, mix together the mascarpone, yogurt, lemon juice, and vanilla seeds together, until the cheese takes on a spreadable consistency.  Add salt and sugar (not too much!) to taste, striking a balance between sweet and savory.

Slice the heirloom tomatoes into thin rounds and sprinkle with a little kosher salt.

Strain the mint-infused olive oil, removing the bruised whole leaves.  Mince the reserved fresh mint leaves finely and add them to the infused oil.

Spread an even layer of mascarpone in the tart crust.  Top with a layer of slivered almonds, reserving about a quarter of the almonds for garnish.  If the tomatoes have released any precious juices, pour them off and save for another use (add to vegetable stock, make a salad dressing).  Top the tart with an attractive arrangement of the drained heirloom tomato slices.  Garnish with 2-3 tbsp mint oil and some coarse-grained sea salt.

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