Saturday, November 23, 2013

And now, for something a little different

We've been almost hibernating this month. Slowing down big time. The dim days have kept us indoors mostly, while our constantly humming gas fireplace heats our living room to unreasonably high temperatures. An 85 degree apartment makes going outside even more painful, of course; like jumping from a hot tub into a cold swimming pool. And so, we've been venturing outside as little as possible already, which leaves us with the options of nap, or cribbage, or finally put the clean laundry away that I washed on Monday, or let's go to the gym; wait, nah, as our Saturday afternoon agenda.

Winter is here, my friends.

Do I sound like I'm griping? I'm truly not; I love this change of pace. For now. Our once-packed calendar finally gave way to long Saturday mornings at home and cozy meals each night, which is therapeutic for a homebody like me. I'm keeping our crisper drawer full of beets and Brussels sprouts (to me, this is exciting), and it doesn't hurt that a splash of Bailey's has found its way into my cup of hot chocolate on more than one occasion. Tis the season.

But, between our hot apartment, sleepy days and layers of clothing, as comforting as those things may be, I've discovered that it's amazing how a fresh little bite can wake me up. Like a cold drink of water after a pumpkin spice latte. 

Enter these little bruschetta. 

Yes, these are more of a summer appetizer, but I had a craving recently and couldn't help myself - and I think you might like to do the same. A cool swipe of creamy ricotta, a bite of fresh basil, a thick slice of tomato with a drizzle of sweet balsamic: these will make you swoon.

I'm telling you, make our own ricotta, and people will look at you like you've told them you just came back from the moon. In reality, it's embarrassingly simple: heat some milk and cream to 190 degrees, stir in some lemon juice, let it sit for five minutes, and pour it into a cheese cloth. That's it. After two hours, you have this lavishly creamy, perfect ricotta to spread on your baguette, or on anything else you fancy. I use this recipe from Smitten Kitchen, and it's perfect. 

Try these little bruschetta for Thanksgiving, if you're willing to add something a little different to the appetizer table. Or, if you're just sitting in your 85-degree apartment one night, watching Thursday night football, give them a go. With a spicy winter ale, of course. We're hibernating, after all. Right?

Bruschetta with Fresh Ricotta, Tomatoes and Basil
Ricotta recipe from Smitten Kitchen

Note: You want to use excellent ingredients here. I use MN Bushel Boy tomatoes, which are somehow good all year. And choose a quality, aged balsamic.

Fresh ricotta:

3 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
(also need: cheesecloth and thermometer)

Line a fine mesh strainer with a few layers of cheesecloth, and set over a bowl. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, warm the milk, cream and salt to 190 degrees, stirring occasionally with a rubber spatula so the bottom doesn't scorch. When the mixture reaches 190 degrees, remove from heat. Add the lemon juice, and stir gently (just a few stirs) to just incorporate the lemon juice into the milk mixture. Let sit, undisturbed, for 5 minutes.

After 5 minutes, curds will have formed. Gently pour the mix into the cheesecloth-lined strainer - this will separate the curds from the whey (the whey is the liquid part - you'll discard this). Allow the cheese to strain for 1-2 hours; it will get thicker the longer it strains. I usually strain the cheese for the full two hours for the bruschetta recipe.


One baguette, cut into 1-inch thick slices
Fresh ricotta
Basil, whole leaves
Ripe tomatoes, cut into 1/2 inch thick slices, then slices cut in half (as shown in picture above)
Olive oil
Good-quality balsamic vinegar
Salt and Pepper

1. Toast the baguette slices. Preheat the broiler of your oven, and position the oven rack to the top position. Set the baguette slices on a cookie sheet, and drizzle them with olive oil on both sides. Place the cookie sheet under the broiler until bread is lightly toasted - about 1 minute on the first side, then flip the bread over and toast about 30 seconds on the other side. You want bread that is lightly toasted but not overly hard and crunchy.

2. Spread baguette slices with a thick swab of ricotta cheese

3. Press one piece of basil onto the ricotta on each baguette slice

4. Set a tomato slice on top; season well with salt and pepper

5. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Hello, dark

I've been thinking about setting off on a week or two of strict, healthy eating. We've had piles of Halloween candy scattered about the office for weeks now, and, well, I've had my hands on it. I've always got room for a mini Salted Nut Roll, or two, or six, when given the chance. Don't we all? Even worse, my running has tapered sharply from 4-5 times a week (this summer) to 1-2 short runs per week, now that work is crazy and my last race of the season is over (which happened, ahem, nearly six weeks ago). 

I could use a kick in the pants.

Last Sunday was to be the start of something new: a Week (Or Two) of Healthy Eating. I made a big batch of steel cut oats for breakfasts, packed little tupperwares of minestrone soup for lunches, and flung a veritable cornucopia of fruit into my purse to snack on at work each day. Dinners would be light, and, above all else, I would lay off the sugar

I did great with my oatmeal and soup during the day. Mini Twix bar? No thanks. I'm on a diet.

But then? Well, it sure gets dark early now.

By the time I get off the bus at night, in the dark, with the wind tossing my hair and coat collar into my face, meh. Motivation just vanishes. The sun set at 4:30 p.m., and I'm not leaving the house tonight. Who cares what I eat? Who cares.

Who was I fooling with this plan, anyway? There'll be no race, no swimsuit for months. No reason to go crazy with my diet here (the running thing, though - that, I should be doing).

Why not eat your oatmeal, your soup for lunch, your light low-carb dinner, and then end the day with a freaking berry cobbler.

Berry cobbler is a summer dessert! you say? Nope. Stick with me on this one: frozen berries. I will confide that I rarely cook with the fresh ones. Even at the hight of summer, when buckets of berries fill the farmer's market, I can't bring myself to do anything with them beyond eating them out of the bucket, by the handful. Raspberries and blackberries especially: they are just so good right off the vine that each basket never stretches far enough to be mixed with sugar and folded into a pastry dough, or pushed into a cake batter.

I do need to work on this.

So, when baking a fruit dessert, I almost always use frozen berries from the grocery store; and, to terrific results. The great news about this is that you can make this berry cobbler any time of year, August or November, swimsuit season or not.

I truly love this one, and take it to dinner parties more often than any other dessert. Here, a mixture of frozen berries cook together with a bit of sugar and flour into a bright red-purple puddle of fruit, then is capped by lightly sweet buttermilk biscuits. Preferably, you'll serve this hot with a dollop of loosely whipped cream that will melt onto each plate. I've served this again and again, and the reaction is always the same - people love it because it's the perfect combination of berry and biscuit, and it's not overly sweet. 

So, I say cap this November night off with a warm biscuit and berry cobbler. Diets are for January, right?

Mixed Berry Cobbler
Biscuit recipe from America's Test Kitchen

Note: For the berries, I love a combination of 2 cups raspberries, 2 cups blueberries, and 1 cup blackberries. I recently made this with two bags of just generic "mixed berries" from the grocery store - each bag a mixture of strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries. It was terrific.

For the fruit:
5 cups frozen berries (see note above)
1/2 cup sugar
2 1/2 tablespoons flour

For the biscuits:
1 cup flour
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup buttermilk
4 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

To serve: loosely whipped cream

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

First, prep the berry mixture. Into an 8 inch pie pan, pour your 5 cups of berries; add the 1/2 cup sugar and 2 1/2 tablespoons flour over. Stir gently to combine (it doesn't have to be perfectly combined; you'll stir it again later). Bake for 20 minutes.

While the berries are cooking, prep the biscuits. In one bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a second bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, melted butter and vanilla. Gently stir the buttermilk mixture into the flour mixture, stirring until just combined and no pockets of dry flour remain.

When the berry mixture is ready, remove it from the oven and give it a gentle stir. The berries will have melting together a bit, and the mixture will look quite liquidy (don't worry, the flour from the biscuits will thicken it up a bit). Pinch the dough into eight equal pieces, and flatten them into small biscuits the shape of hockey pucks, about 1 1/2 inches or so tall. Set the dough on top of the cobbler, evenly spaced. They will puff up as they back and cover the entire pie pan.

Put the cobbler back in the oven and bake 15 minutes, until biscuits are just starting to brown on top.

Serve warm with a dollop of whipped cream.