Raspberry-Almond Tart for your Valentine

It’s February and not exactly berry season, but I need my fix. Costco is the dealer with my drug of choice — delectably deep pink raspberries, big and sweet.

They’re from Mexico and surely ate up a ton of fossil fuel to get here, but I just don’t care today. No one can care about everything every day. They are plump, cheap, and I’ve officially declared Tart Week in my house.

It started with a lemon tart, with a filling that was a dud, but a crust that was exceptional. Unsatisfied and faced with these berries in the store, the solution became vividly clear, especially in the face of Valentine’s Day. What better way to have some vivid red color and a feeling of being spoiled than to make a tart with a luscious stack of raspberries?

Indeed, this tart stars raspberries, kept fresh, gorgeous, and glistening with only a light glaze. It’s a simple creation, very basic, but each part — the butter crust, the fluffy cream cheese filling scented with vanilla and almond, the sweet red berries — shines through with such clean, lovely flavors.  It’s sweet, but not cloyingly so, and not too rich or heavy feeling, despite the cream cheese.

Making a tart crust can seem intimidating but it’s actually very simple. Once you get one successful crust under your belt, you’ll never worry about it again. The key is to use very cold butter and pay close attention to how you pulse the dough mix in your food processor.

Follow the recipe carefully, err on the side of under-processing, and you’ll have an enviable crust. Luckily, Deb over at Smitten Kitchen, who adapted this crust from the famous baker Dorie Greenspan’s recipe, has written clear, detailed instructions.  The dough requires some time to rest before baking; you will probably want to make it a day ahead.  (And remember to soften your cream cheese too.)

For serving, all this tart needs is a little dollop of fresh whipped cream. And maybe a glass of champagne!

Raspberry-Almond Tart
A butter crust, fluffy, almond-scented cream cheese, and spectacular red raspberries make a standout tart. Top with a little freshly whipped cream.  Don’t buy that stuff in a can — it would be an insult to the fruit and your effort. If you can’t find sweet raspberries, substitute any good berry you can find (try Costco) and use a matching jam for the glaze. 

Makes one 9-inch tart

For the Tart Crust:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
9 Tbs. unsalted butter, very cold, cut into 1/2″ dice
1 egg
one 9-inch tart pan with removable bottom

Follow the crust instructions by Deb at Smitten Kitchen here.  Pay close attention when pulsing the mix in the food processor. Your final, granular dough mixture should look like my picture above.

Partially bake the crust — bake only 5 minutes after removing the foil.  Let cool slightly while you prepare the filling. 

For the cream cheese filling:
8 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. almond extract
1 egg
1 Tbs. all-purpose flour

Oven at 350F.

In the bowl of an electric mixture fitted with the paddle attachment: Beat together cream cheese, sugar, vanilla, almond extract, and egg until smooth and fluffy.  Add the flour and mix well.

Spread filling onto the par-baked tart crust. It’s OK if it’s still warm. Bake 20 minutes or until set, not wobbly, and starting to brown just a little. Cool the tart in its pan, on a rack.

For the Raspberries and Glaze:
3 cups (12 oz.) fresh raspberries, rinsed and patted dry
1/3 cup seedless raspberry jam

Arrange the berries on top of the cooled tart filling, tips up.

Heat the jam in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring, until it just melts and becomes smooth. Cool slightly. Use a pastry brush to lightly brush the berries with glaze. If your glaze is too thick to brush easily, add a little water to thin it out. You may not need all the glaze – you just want to give a light coating on the berries, not have a pool of glaze on top of the filling.

Remove the tart from the pan.  Store in the refrigerator.  Serve slices with a dollop of whipped cream.

For the Whipped Cream:
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 tsp. vanilla extract, or to taste
1 Tbs. confectioner’s sugar, or to taste

In the bowl of an electric mixture fitted with the whisk attachment: Whip the cream on high speed until soft-peak stage.  Add the vanilla and sugar; continue to beat until stiff-peaks form.

(To determine peak stage: Lift the beater from the bowl, lifting some cream with it. If the lifting motion leaves a peak in the cream in the bowl but the peak tip bends over, you’re at soft-peak stage.  If the peak tip stands up straight and stiff, you’re at stiff-peak stage.)

Apple, Pomegranate, and Arugula Salad with Cider-Honey Vinaigrette

It’s so easy to get into a salad rut – lettuce, bell pepper, cucumber, tomato, bottled dressing. A salad like that is just fine, but not every day. It becomes a chore. At least it has in my house. I’m a cook and even I’m guilty of making the same salad a hundred times.

I bought a great salad cookbook for a Hanukkah gift, Catherine Walther’s Raising the Salad Bar. It turned out to be one of those gifts you just have to have for yourself–I promptly bought a second copy to keep. Walther’s goal is to get you out of the salad rut and into using far more varied ingredients like fruits, cheeses, grains, beans, and quick homemade dressings from various vinegars.

This salad comes almost straight from Walther’s pages; I’ve only made a few quantity adjustments and I didn’t have any arugula, so I picked bright green leaves from a spring mix and added black pepper to make up for the lack of arugula’s spiciness. I’m keeping arugula in the recipe, though, as it would have been even better.

If you’ve never opened a pomegranate, there is a great picture guide here. It seems like a lot of steps but it’s very quick. The ruby seeds, glistening like jewels on your plate, will be worth it. Pomegranates are expensive (mine was $2.99 at Whole Foods) but you only need one for several servings of salad.

When slicing apples, there’s no need for an apple corer.  Simply cut a very thin slice from the top and bottom of the apple.  With the apple upright on its newly flat bottom, cut the cheeks from the apple in four sections, leaving the core with squared edges, as pictured below.  The sections can then be laid flat on the board and easily sliced as thinly as needed.

A little salad trick: Serve beautiful salads on a plate, not in a bowl. The ingredients will spread out, be more visible, and be much more attractive. In this salad, the pomegranate seeds would become invisible in a giant salad bowl. Salads are also easier to eat this way because the heavier bits don’t sink to the bottom and you can easily load each forkful with a variety of flavors.

A unique salad can really set the tone for the rest of the meal, even if you’re just having another rotisserie chicken or spaghetti dinner. This is especially true if you’re having guests over. If you start with a unique, gorgeous salad and a glass of wine, everyone is already happy and the pressure is off.

Apple, Pomegranate, and Arugula Salad with Apple Cider-Honey Vinaigrette
Crispy apples and tart pomegranate seeds add serious crunch and flavor to peppery arugula. Tossed with a simple tart vinaigrette made from apple cider vinegar, honey, and olive oil. A final sprinkling of toasted almonds and goat cheese round out the flavors.

serves 4
adapted from Catherine Walther’s Raising the Salad Bar, 2007

1 apple (I used a Fuji), thinly sliced
6 to 7 cups arugula, washed and dried, large stems removed
1/3 cup pomegranate seeds
1/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted
goat cheese, crumbled

for the vinaigrette:
2 Tbs. apple cider vinegar
1 ½ tsp. honey
6 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
2 pinches kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper, optional

In a small bowl, whisk together the vinaigrette ingredients until emulsified. The mixture will turn from clear to cloudy. Adjust salt and pepper.

Seed the pomegranate. (Instructions here.)

Slice the apple. Toss the slices with a little of the dressing to keep them from discoloring.

Just before serving, toss the apples and arugula with just enough dressing to coat the leaves. Divide among four plates. Sprinkle each plate with pomegranate seeds, almonds, and crumbled goat cheese. Use the tip of your whisk to lightly drizzle with a little extra dressing if needed. Serve immediately.


15-minute Garlicky Shrimp Gratin

Melissa Clark of the NY Times recently posted a very simple recipe for roasted shrimp and broccoli. It’s been all over the internet; folks who’ve tried it say it tastes much better than the sum of its parts.

One repeated comment about that recipe is its extreme simplicity – the one-pan-ness and healthfulness of it all. Recipes like that can turn a weeknight of takeout in to a healthy meal without much more work. It’s not a meal trying to be a huge production; it’s a simple meal of basic ingredients with methods anyone can manage. We all need more of this.  We need to let go of the pressure to cook like chefs and instead just cook at all.  Our health depends on it.

Unfortunately, most cookbooks are for serious foodies who want to spend hours cooking. Publishers sell more copies when the content is splashy and food-pornorific, but most home cooks can’t manage the recipes without a significant time investment. I dare anyone to actually prepare a Rachel Ray 30-minute meal in 30 minutes, with cleanup, unless you’ve got her ridiculous (annoying?) energy. She can barely do it on TV with production help. It takes most people I know 5 minutes to mince an onion. I give her credit for trying, but I still find the approach lacking. On the far end of the spectrum are the junior league cookbooks full of canned mushroom soup and bottled Italian dressing.  Where’s the middle ground?

Jacques Pepin wrote a terrific book called Fast Food My Way which is centered on a simple approach to cooking and the idea that preparing even a very simple meal with wholesome ingredients is infinitely more satisfying than another heart-clogging, chemical-infused cheeseburger and fries and it has the definite appeal of not slowly killing you.

This Pepin recipe for “Little Shrimp Casseroles” is a perfect example of his approach, with only a handful of simple ingredients, very little prep, and only one dish if you make a large gratin instead of individual ones. Your seafood counter probably sells peeled and de-veined shrimp, which are certainly worth the higher price if you’re in a hurry or slow to prep shrimp. Most people can get this dish in the oven in under 15 minutes, with minimal cleanup involved. Lest you think this recipe is here just for its ease, I assure you it’s also quite delicious, with the white wine and butter letting the natural sweetness of the shrimp shine through.

You’ll need a very small amount of white wine – only a quarter cup. If you’re not up to opening an entire bottle, consider purchasing little “airplane” bottles.  They are available at most supermarkets, and while the quality available in small bottles is limited, they’ll do just fine for cooking. I used half a 187-ml bottle of Cavit Pinot Grigio for this recipe.  If you want to drink wine with your dinner, buy a full bottle of a better wine.

As an additional bonus, this gratin can be prepped ahead, chilled, and baked off at the last minute. You can even make two gratins and have it freshly baked on two different nights.

Add a simple green salad or vegetable (perfect broccoli?) to complete the meal.

Garlicky Shrimp Gratin

A fantastic simple gratin of sweet shrimp, earthy mushrooms, slivers of green onion, and the bite of fresh garlic, all topped with bread crumbs and baked until bubbly and crispy. You can make one large gratin or four individual ones if you want an excuse to use cute little gratin dishes. If you buy peeled and de-veined shrimp, this recipe takes less than 15 minutes to prepare.

Adapted from Jacques Pepin’s “Little Shrimp Casseroles” in Fast Food My Way, 2004.

Serves 4.

1 1/4 lb. shrimp, peeled and de-veined
4 tsp. fresh garlic, minced
1/2 cup green onion, minced
1 cup button mushrooms, small dice
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 Tbs. unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 Tbs. canola oil
1 cup panko (see note)

Heat the oven to 425F.

Grease a 4-cup capacity shallow gratin dish or casserole dish.  (Or use four 1-cup dishes.) Add the shrimp, mushrooms, green onion, salt, pepper, melted butter, and white wine. Stir to coat and evenly distribute the shrimp.

In a separate bowl, combine the bread crumbs and oil. Toss to coat. Sprinkle crumbs over the gratin.

Bake 10-15 minutes or until the topping is nicely browned the shrimp are cooked through. The cooking time will vary based on the size of your shrimp and baking dish.  You should be able to hear the liquid bubbling a little when it’s done.

Note: Panko are Japanese-style bread crumbs, which are very flaky and crisp easily. They can be found in the Asian section of most supermarkets.  Pepin calls for fresh bread crumbs, made by putting sturdy white bread in a food processor.

Do you have any good gratin combinations or alterations to this recipe you’d like to share? Please comment.

Perfect Broccoli: a method and recipe

This time of year, after all the gluttony, many of us are downright craving veggies. I actually chose broccoli over the last lingering piece of pecan pie for lunch. Even my fellow food bloggers, pushers of glorious food porn, are all posting healthy recipes right now. Sassy Radish has gone from fleur de sel caramels to tofu.  Smitten Kitchen from biscotti to chickpeas and squash.

What I want to share is a recipe, for sure, but it’s more of a method. Like my post on perfect (indoor) grilled chicken, this is a basic cooking technique that will teach you how to cook broccoli for a variety of uses.

This is not soggy broccoli, needing cheese sauce to mask its gray impotence. (Did anyone even eat broccoli without Velveeta in the 80’s?) This blanching method gives you bright, crisp, vividly green florets with the nutrients intact and less of the bitter tones that become so loud when broccoli is overcooked. I’ve had customers say it’s the only way they like broccoli, even snacking on it straight out of the fridge.

The trick is to blanch the broccoli, very briefly, in properly salted water. Blanching brings out the best in vegetables, amplifying their color and retaining their crispness and a sense of freshness. Blanched florets can then be tossed in a hot pan with any seasonings you want.

I’ve posted two recipes below: one for the basic blanching method and one including a great seasoning combination. I’ve chosen orange rind, garlic, and a hit of freshly cracked coriander seed, which brings an aromatic quality. With citrus in season, you probably have some sort of citrus knocking about – a satsuma, tangerine, or clementine – and you can substitute any of these for the orange peel.  I’ve even used thinly sliced kumquats, which were fabulous. You can also just omit the coriander if you haven’t got any handy; the orange peel and garlic are wonderful on their own.

Perfect Blanched Broccoli
Briefly blanched broccoli is gorgeously green and crisp and lacks the unappealing funkiness of overcooked, soggy versions.

Serves 4

1.5 lbs. broccoli, cut into florets, any thick stalks removed

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rapid boil. (Use about 1 tbs. kosher salt per gallon of water.)

Drop broccoli into boiling water. Cook for 1.5 to 2 minutes, depending on the size of your florets. Broccoli will turn bright green but not be soft or falling apart.

Drain immediately. Quickly toss with any hot fat (butter, oil), seasonings, salt, and pepper.

Do not let broccoli sit around in the colander or it will continue to cook. If not serving immediately, spread out in a thin layer so it cools quickly or dunk into a bowl of ice water.

Tip: If you want to blanch multiple batches, use a strainer to lift the broccoli from the water rather than dumping the whole pot into a colander. You can keep reusing the blanching water (brought again to a rolling boil) until you’re finished.

Broccoli with Garlic, Orange Zest, and Cracked Coriander
With slivers of fresh garlic, ribbons of orange zest, and aromatic whole coriander seeds, cracked just enough to release their flavor.

Serves 4

1.5 lbs. broccoli florets, blanched as described above
1 Tbs. butter
1 orange, zested into strips
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. whole coriander seed
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Crack coriander.  If you have a mortar and pestle, grind the seeds until they open and separate. Or, you can put the seeds in a plastic sandwich bag and bang them with the bottom of a heavy pot or rolling pin. A coffee grinder can also be used.

Melt butter in a large skillet.  Add broccoli to the blanching water.  To the butter, add orange zest, garlic, and cracked coriander. Cook over medium heat until aromatic, 1-2 minutes. Do not allow garlic to brown.  Drain your broccoli and add to the skillet, tossing to coat. Season with salt and pepper.