Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Sans Picture

If you’re a food blogger yourself, you know that there are some recipes that are hard to share because they just won’t photograph well. I was thinking about this at breakfast this morning, when I was eating a scrambled egg with duxelles, and a leftover concoction of cabbage, roasted red potatoes, onions, bacon, and cream. Both had amazing flavor, and were just heavenly (even the unlikely sounding potatoes and cabbage for breakfast), but boy were they ugly.

I like my scrambled eggs pretty dry (for which read: not fluffy and pretty, but more flat-pancake-like), and that potato and cabbage thing wasn’t particularly attractive when it was fresh, much less as a leftover two days later. If I showed you pictures of it, you’d wonder why I was eating it at all. And it wouldn’t tempt you to make any of it. But I realized as I was reading "Beard on Food," the amazing compilation of Beard’s articles from his various syndicated columns, that I was finding it necessary to keep a packet of sticky flags next to me as I read, so I could mark those recipes I wanted to try. And there are no pictures, just Beard’s discussion of the subject, and the recipes themselves.

The recipe I bring you today is one for something that isn’t really a thing by itself, but is a component of other things. An ingredient, if you will. I refer to the duxelles that was in my scrambled eggs.

I made duxelles once before, but I don’t recall it being much of a standout. In the first place, I think it was microwaved, and in the second place, I believe it was a recipe from Cooking Light, so it wasn't the lavish affair with lots of butter that Beard presents. And as we all know, butter makes the world go ‘round.

For some reason, after reading the recipe for this, I was overwhelmed by an urge to make it. Really, I have no idea what drove this. Certainly it wasn’t a sweeping desire to finely chop two pounds of mushrooms (do you know how many mushrooms are in two pounds? A lot, that’s how many). Maybe it was the comment Beard makes at the end of the recipe: that the lot, cooked down and spooned into a screw top jar, could be kept in the refrigerator for at least two weeks. Maybe it was his ideas for what to do with the duxelles once it was made.

Whatever the reason, Sunday morning found me with my two pounds of mushrooms, a knife, and a cutting board. I chopped and chopped and chopped some more. I got interrupted to go to the grocery store (Sunday is Donut Day, you understand), and to make some peanut butter sandwiches and various other kid food. I used plain old white mushrooms, rinsed off, and chopped both the stems and the caps into a pretty fine mince. This is actually easier than it sounds because the shape of mushrooms lends them to quick chopping.

Once I had my bowls and bowls of chopped mushrooms, I undertook the cooking part of the recipe. All this really requires is a pretty substantial block of time when you’re going to be in and out of the kitchen with some regularity so you can stir the mixture. Beard says it will take 1 ½ to 2 hours, but I found that to really cook them slowly and evenly it was closer to three. The result, however, was just as he’d promised: a thick dense mass of mushrooms, very dark, almost black in color.

Maybe what drew me to this recipe was his suggestions of what to do with them. Because now that you have this stuff, the question isn’t what do I do with it, but what do I not do with it? Beard’s offerings include stacking crepes eight or nine high layered with the mushrooms, dotting them with butter and baking them. This is served sliced in wedges. The way I’ve been eating them is in scrambled eggs, also recommended. Additionally, I made some pork lo mein the other night that called for shiitake mushrooms. I had none, so I stirred in a generous spoonful or two of duxelles; the mushroom flavor they added was amazing.

They can be stirred into mashed potatoes or celery root, spooned over hamburgers, or combined with 4 or 5 tablespoons of shredded cheese (Gruyere and Cheddar are mentioned, I think blue would also be admirable), spread over baguette rounds and toasted under the broiler as an hors d’oeuvres. Add it to sauces, Beard urges: cream sauce, brown gravy.

I can think of a few dozen more things to do with it, starting with adding it to roasted Brussels sprouts after cooking, or warming it up and scattering it over oven roasted roma tomatoes with herbs. It would make a great addition to a steak pan sauce, with a little Dijon or whole grain mustard and a little beef broth, all stirred in after the steaks pan fry. Combine it with hot pasta, fresh baby spinach leaves, and some grated Parmesan cheese.

About the only places I wouldn’t use duxelles is in lemon meringue pie, or chocolate cake or something like that. Otherwise, it's a fantastic “secret” ingredient that requires some chopping and watching time, but it stores well and has so many uses that it's well worth the time to make it. Just don’t expect to be able to take pictures.

adapted from Beard on Food, by James Beard
makes about 1 1/2 cups of mixture

1 1/2 to 2 lbs white mushrooms (Beard suggests that this is a good way to use mushrooms that may be somewhat past their prime, since looks really don't count)
2 tablespoons finely chopped shallot or onion
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
2 teaspoons salt

Chop mushrooms fine, caps and stems. Beard calls for wringing them out in a kitchen towel before cooking, but I confess I barely squeezed out enough liquid to get the towel damp. If your mushrooms seem fairly dry, I think you could safely skip this step.

Melt butter in a large heavy skillet (mine is a 12" one) over medium heat. Add mushrooms and shallot or onion, and stir to combine with butter.

Cook over low heat, stirring every 10 to 15 minutes (or every now and then when you think of it) to move the mushrooms from the bottom of the pan to the top. Beard calls for adding more butter "as needed" but I found a whole stick to be ample, thanks. The duxelles are done when all the moisture has been drawn from the mushrooms and they are completely dehydrated, and are a thick blackish mass. They will appear almost burnt; they are not.

Add the salt and stir through. Spoon into a large jar or storage container and refrigerate. The mixture should be good for, as Beard says, at least two weeks. Use willy-nilly.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Picture Perfect: Concord Grape Jam Tart

Sometimes you want to run out of your house shouting, “I did it! Look at this, world! It looks as nice as it did in the magazine!” You want to take out an ad in the paper, call the networks, and invite everyone in to view your creation.

Today was one of those days for me. As is often the case in my life, an ingredient and an idea came together to nudge me into the kitchen. The display of Concord grapes at my grocery store was too overwhelming to resist. They just smell so…grape. Most of the grapes these days don’t smell like much of anything, but Concord grapes, with their dusky purple skins, smell like grapes should smell. So I bought a pound or so of them, with no clear idea what I was going to do with them. A pricey whim, I’ll concede, but one that paid off.

To the rescue came the October issue of Martha Stewart Living, which contained—ta da!—a recipe for Concord Grape Jam Tart. A beautiful bit of pastry with a cut out of grapes on the top to both indicate the flavor and give you a peek at the dark mysterious filling within. And it’s nice that it’s something unusual; jam tart recipes abound, of course, but the idea of making one with a jam you’ve made yourself seemed unusual.

Since I’ve been brushing up on my pie crust in anticipation of an apple pie to be made with apples picked 100 yards away from my house, and a pear tart to made from pears picked 100 feet away from my own house, I felt this was a good practice session. Would it be beautiful? Maybe. Would it taste good? Undoubtedly, with the Concord grapes cooked down to a thick pasty filling.

So I am happy to report that it was both.

I’ll admit that my first pass at the jam was disappointing. It was too thin and never did thicken up, even when it was cool. Figuring that I had nothing to lose, I returned the jam mixture to the heat and really cooked the daylights out of it. It almost boiled over, in fact. It still didn’t show any inclination to thicken up as it cooled, but since I hadn’t planned to make the tart until the next day anyway, I put it in the refrigerator and hoped for the best.

My efforts were rewarded with a thick purple product that was just what I was expecting it to be. This was, I knew, what it should be like: not as thick as a true jam, it ran off the spoon and left visible ribbon trails behind it. And it was so purple. You’d have to say purple a hundred times to truly express its purpleness. I’ve read that purple is “in” this season; if so, this is the tart the fashionistas should be eating (not that fashionistas eat tart I wouldn’t think, but if they did, this would be it). It has the sweetness and clear flavor of the grapes, with a wonderful almost creamy texture to it.

The dough pulled together without a hitch, and I rolled it out and prepared to line my tart pan. When it came to cutting out the grape design on the top, I hit a snag. The instructions call for using the non-decorative (if you will) end of two sizes of pastry tip to make the circles. I guess I got the low budget pastry tip kit, because all my tips were the same diameter. I used the plastic coupling ring instead, which was just fine. Also since I didn’t have the sanding sugar the recipe recommended, I used Turbinado.

Brace yourself—the top of this tart is going to sink as it cooks. It’s a bit of a shock to peer in at your beautiful creation and find that the top that floated so gracefully over the filling when you popped it in the oven has sunk down into the pan. But it turned out beautifully in spite of that. Just like the picture, in fact.

Concord Grape Jam Tart

from Martha Stewart Living, October 2008

makes 8-10 amazingly beautiful servings

For the dough

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup granulated sugar

3/4 teaspoon salt

8 ounces (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2" pieces

1/4 cup ice water

For the jam

1 1/2 pounds Concord grapes, stems removed

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 cup granulated sugar


1 large egg, lightly beaten

Coarse sanding sugar, for sprinkling

Sweetened fresh whipped cream, for serving

For the dough: Pulse flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor to combine. Add butter, evenly distributed around the workbowl, and pulse until combined and mixture resembles coarse meal, about 10 seconds. Add ice water, one tablespoon at a time, pulsing 2-3 times after each addition. When all water is added, dough will be just starting to hold together. Turn out onto a lightly floured board, shape dough into 2 disks, wrap each in plastic and refrigerate 1 hour (or up to 2 days).

For the jam: Combine grapes and lemon juice in a medium non-reactive saucepan over high heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until grapes release their juice, about 7 minutes. Strain through a fine sieve, pressing the grapes to release all the juice. There should be about 1 1/2 to 2 cups of juice (discard solids). Return juice to a saucepan over high heat, stir in sugar and a pinch of salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until the temperature registers 220 degrees F on a candy thermometer, about 8 minutes (despite my checking this repeatedly, this is the step where my jam flopped, and I put it back in the pan and boiled the daylights out of it, then let it cool down and refrigerated it overnight, and was successful). Let mixture cool, stirring occasionally.

Assemble the tart: On a lightly floured work surface, roll out each disk of dough to 1/8" thickness. Move one round to a baking sheet lined with parchment, and fit the other into a 9 1/2" tart pan with a removable bottom. Trim the dough in the tart pan, and freeze both the tart pan and the baking sheet for 15 minutes.

Using the wide base of two pastry tips (or two other approximately 1" round cutters--one slightly smaller than the other) cut clusters of holes in the dough on the baking sheet to resemble a bunch of grapes. Use a paring knife to cut out a stem-shaped piece of dough. Freeze until firm.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Spread 1 cup jam over the dough in the tart pan (I just spread it all in there--the remaining jam was approximately 1/4"; not really enough for "another use"). Brush top edge of dough with egg white. Slide the remaining dough over the top of the tart, centering the design. Press the edges to seal, and trim excess dough. Brush the top with egg, then sprinkle with sanding sugar. Refrigerate 30 minutes.

Bake tart for 15 minutes, remove tart from the oven and gently tap the pan on the counter to release any air bubbles. Return tart to the oven and bake an additional 15 to 20 minutes, or until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbling. Transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool. Remove tart from pan and transfer to a platter. Serve with lightly sweetened whipped cream, and call the media to witness your astonishingly beautiful feat.