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October 2008
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December 2008

Simon Hopkinson's Creamed Tomatoes on Toast

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Creamed tomatoes on toast - it just sounds too dreamy, doesn't it? I have visions of sitting in a nursery and tucking into this and a mug of tea while a stern but loving governess speaks nasally about my table manners and tut tuts periodically.

And while it really does seem promising, from Simon Hopkinson via Edouard de Pomiane, with tomatoes baked in the oven in a garlic-scented, mint-flecked cream bath, I am rather sad to admit that nursery food can sometimes be just that: fit for babies.

I think I prefer my tomatoes loud and zesty, screaming with flavor, not baked into muted submission, which is kind of what happens here. Cream takes the edge of the tomatoes, but that edge is precisely what makes tomatoes so great. Right?

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I didn't use plum tomatoes, it's true, because they looked simply ghastly at the store and the lovely little Campari tomatoes were perfect. I tasted one before cooking it and it was delicious, so it's not that the tomatoes were bland, but of course Campari tomatoes are juicy as all get-out and plums are dry and meant for oven-baking. So that's one thing. Another is that I used half the amount of cream called for and I'd suggest you do the same unless you'd like to swill cream directly from the baking dish. You might! If I had a hardier constitution I would.

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The third thing is that no matter how hungry you are, if you do decide that this sounds like the kind of meal you'd like for lunch, please do a wait a bit before attacking your plate or else you will spend the rest of the afternoon with a dull, raised palate - hot tomatoes can be vicious.

Just think of me as your governess.

Creamed Tomatoes on Toast
Serves 2


8 ounces heavy cream (the original recipe calls for 1 1/2 cups)
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
6 ripe plum tomatoes, cut in half lengthwise and cored
Salt and pepper
12 basil or mint leaves, torn into pieces
4 slices of French country bread, grilled or toasted and brushed with a little olive oil

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Simmer the cream with the garlic and reduce by one-third. Put the tomatoes, cut-side uppermost, in an ovenproof dish and season them with salt and pepper. Strain the cream into a bowl and stir in the basil or mint. Lightly season and pour over the tomatoes.

2. Bake in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until the cream is reduced and is thick and the tops of the tomatoes are slightly blistered. Meanwhile, have ready the toast on 2 plates and spoon a few tomatoes onto each slice. Spoon some residual cream over the top.


Sophie Grigson's Sweet Potato and Red Lentil Soup with Mint

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With 3 minutes remaining in this day, this one must be short and sweet. Perhaps I'll even attempt a poem. I warn you, it's going to get ugly.

Sweet potato, cubed
star anise and onions, sweating
magic wand liquidizes
turns to orange velvet
what was once hard as stone

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Never mind, that's bad. The soup, though, very nice. Especially the mint and yogurt on top. Makes the whole thing sing.

One minute left! Done.

Sweet Potato and Red Lentil Soup with Mint
Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 1/4 lbs sweet potato, peeled and cut into chunks
1 1/2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1 whole star anise
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2/3 cup red lentils
2 3/4 pints water or vegetable stock
Juice of 2 limes
Salt and pepper
Greek yogurt or sour cream
Leaves from 5 sprigs of fresh mint, sliced

1. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan, and add the onions, garlic and ginger. Cook, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes. Do not allow to brown. 

2. Stir in the sweet potato and star anise, reduce heat to low and cover tightly, leaving to sweat for 10 minutes. Then add the tomato paste, cinnamon, lentils and water or stock. Bring up to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the lentils and sweet potato are very tender, about 30-35 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

2. Remove the star anise, then liquidize the soup with an immersion blender. Stir in the lime juice and taste and adjust the seasoning, if necessary. Spoon into bowls, topping each with a spoonful of yogurt or sour cream and some sliced mint leaves.


Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's Two Lentil Stew

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I have three minutes to write this post before I fall asleep on the couch and I don't want to break NaBloPoMo right in the very first week, for Pete's sake. Give me seven days at least. The emotion and the nerves from the past few weeks, wait, months, wait, oh hell, years seem to have finally caught up with me and I am staggeringly tired. Plus, do you know what I discovered today? My Very First Gray Hair, growing impudently out of my right temple. Didn't it know I had an agenda of reaching my 31st birthday proudly sporting the same hair color I had on my 30th birthday?

It's all a little much.

So before I nod off with my laptop humming away on the tops of my thighs, let me tell you quickly about the first thing I cooked with the sack of chana dal that my dad brought when he came to visit a few weeks ago. I found a recipe in this brilliant cookbook that has you combine a whole rainbow of Indian dals into a spicy stew.

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I didn't have all those dals in my pantry, so I made do with some red lentils and the aforementioned chana dal (the recipe is originally called five-lentil stew) and it was simply lovely. I simmered the lentils until tender in spiced water, dyed yellow from turmeric, then cooked tomatoes and onions with garam masala and cumin until thick and sticky.

The tender legumes are folded into the spiced tomatoes and what results is comforting and homey and spicy without being painful and nutritious and wonderful. The kind of thing that becomes a meal staple also because the sum total of all the ingredients in this stew probably equaled $0.78. We ate the stew in wide bowls for lunch along with - wait for it - homemade chapatti. Homemade by me! A high point of the weekend, for sure, because I am a dork and the dough arts fascinate me.

Oh, you want to see one of those chapattis? But then I'm going to have to tell you all about how to make them and how cool they are and how easy, too, and like I said, I'm falling asleep, but okay, here you go:

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Two Lentil Stew
Serves 4

Dal:
3/4 cup chana dal
1/2 cup red lentils
5 cups of water
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Spice blend:
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon garlic, finely chopped (about 2 large cloves)
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1 teaspoon garam masala
2 large tomatoes, chopped, or 3/4 can diced tomatoes
3/4 teaspoon salt, or more to taste

1. Rinse the dal.

2. In a large pot, bring the water to a boil. Add the dal and lentils, stir, and bring back to a boil. Then remove from the heat, cover, and let sit for 2 hours.

3. Add the turmeric and cayenne to the legumes and bring the water to a boil. Reduce the heat slightly and simmer until tender, approximately 35 minutes.

4. 15 minutes before the dal is ready, begin cooking the spice mixture: heat the oil in a heavy skillet or saucepan over medium-high heat. When hot, add onion and garlic and fry for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Add cumin and garam masala and cook another minute. Add the tomatoes and salt, and cook until the tomatoes have been reduced, approximately 10 minutes.

5. Add the tomato mixture to the dal, stir well and cook for 2 to 3 minutes more to blend the flavors. Taste for salt and adjust seasoning, if necessary. Serve hot in one large bowl or in individual-sized bowls with chapatti.


Chez Panisse's Winter Squash, Onion and Red Wine Panade

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Oh, dear. This is rather awkward. I know it was only just two days ago that I told you about Paula Wolfert's squash gratin and how much I loved it and how delicious it was. But I've actually got something better now, and you've sort of got to drop everything you're doing and go make it straight away. (Well, you might have something better to be doing right now, like voting, but after that, definitely.)

Go on! Who cares about butternut squash and sheep's milk cheese and potatoes anymore? Now it's butternut squash and long-cooked onions and stale bread and Gruyere. Seriously. Cancel your dinner plans.

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I'm sorry to be a boss, but you know how it is sometimes, when you make something so wonderful that you find yourself somewhat speechless as you chew? Yes, that's what happened to us the other night. We sat there, in somewhat shocked silence as we ate. (Oh, we live a thrilling life, we do.) Look at it this way: you've got to do something tonight while you wait for the results of our election to come in, no matter who you voted for. You can't just sit in front of your computer, refreshing pages obsessively, or lounge on your couch, flicking from channel to channel in the hopes that one talking head will know something before another one does. So why not kill time making a long, slow dinner that takes close to three hours from start to finish?

Staying up late on a night like this is worth it. If not for the sheer pleasure of eating, then at least for your nerves.

The recipe comes from Chez Panisse Vegetables and is a study in the art of flavor-building. Onions are stewed with bay leaves and thyme and garlic. Wine is added and reduced, then in goes chicken stock, which simmers for a while. Good, stale-ish bread is briefly fried until golden in olive oil (or, if you happen to have duck fat lying around, you can use that, too) and two pounds of butternut squash are peeled and sliced.

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Then the fun stuff begins: the layering. In goes a layer of fried bread slices, several ladlefuls of herb-scented broth and a purpureal tangle of onions. Then you arrange the mass of butternut squash slices on top of the bread and ladle in more broth and onions. The rest of the fried bread makes the top layer, along with, yes, more broth and onions and finally, you grate over it all a flurry of grated cheese.

What happens in the oven is very neat: the bread swells with the liquid and rises, so that the panade goes from being a rather dense, heavy thing to a light and puffy wonder. The flavors, already complex, concentrate and the cheese melts and bubbles into a wondrously tasty cap. It's hard to figure out whether you should eat panade with a fork or a spoon - or how to decide what you like more, the broth or the silky bread or the sweet squash or the cheesy top. Oh, who am I kidding, all of it.

So, um, yes, I'd say that today, for sure, this is the only way you should be eating butternut squash.

Winter Squash, Onion and Red Wine Panade
Serves 8 to 10

5 onions
2 pounds acorn or butternut squash
6 cloves garlic
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 bay leaves
12 sprigs thyme
1 cup red wine
2-3 quarts chicken stock
Kosher salt and pepper, to taste
10 slices stale country-style bread
1 ounce Parmigiano
2 ounces Gruyere

1. Begin by stewing the onions, peeled and sliced thin, over medium heat, in about 1/4 cup of olive oil. When they have begun to soften, add the garlic cloves, also peeled and sliced thin; the bay leaves; and the thyme. Continue to cook the onions until they just begin to brown, 20 to 30 minutes. Add the red wine and reduce by half. Add the stock and simmer for 30 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, peel and seed the squash and cut it into 1/8-inch-thick slices. In a sauté pan over medium heat, lightly brown the slices of bread in more olive oil.

3. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and assemble the panade: Cover the bottom of a large casserole with half the bread slices and gently ladle in enough broth (including the onions) to cover. Make a single layer of the sliced squash on top and ladle in more of the broth and onions, to cover. Make a layer with the rest of the bread, add more broth and onions so that the top layer of bread is well soaked through, and finish by grating the cheeses over the top to cover lightly.

4. Bake, covered, for 45 minutes; then uncover and bake for about 45 minutes more, until well browned. To serve, scoop the panade into bowls and ladle more of the hot broth around it.


Lora Zarubin's Warm Gruyere Sandwich with Mustard and Thyme

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It's been interesting to find out some things over the past few weeks. Despite what my passport tells me and the fact that I dutifully pay taxes every single year, cry every time I see an ad for the USO, and think American literature is a. not dead and b. pretty damn good, some people don't consider me a "real" American.

After all, I vote Democrat. I live in a big, coastal city full of foreigners, celebrities, men who love men and women who love women, journalists, bankers, opinion makers, and the unemployed, working class, middle class, upper class, high class, rich, poor, black and white. I give money to charity, not just in the form of checks, but also in the form of dollar bills on the subway. I think health care should be a human right, not a privilege. I believe that abortion must be safe and legal and available and rare. And I don't care if you're Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or if you don't believe in God at all. (And I mean that literally. I don't care. Stop talking about it on television, stop using it as a badge of honor, stop using it as a way of persecuting people who are good and moral no matter what they believe.)

BUT!

The thing that truly sets me apart from "real" Americans is that I don't get grilled cheese.

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Maybe it's because of my father (pretty suspect, too - with his liberal ways and Massachusetts address). He never made grilled cheese for me as a child, and it wasn't served at the school cafeteria (though I can distinctly remember a tuna fish sandwich so soupy with mayonnaise that it's the single reason I can't abide the stuff, crammed into a hot dog bun, for crying out loud), so by the time I got around to tasting it in college, I didn't quite get what the fuss was all about. (I think you kind of need to eat Velveeta as a kid to be inured to it as an adult, right?)

But I've always wanted to love grilled cheese. It seems like such a perfect little meal. Two pieces of nice bread, some good cheese, maybe a bowl of soup, and hey presto! You've got yourself a rocking Friday night dinner.

Well. Let's just say that after this weekend, I might be able to muscle my way, at least partly, into the real American crowd. I have found the grilled cheese of my dreams.

I suppose it's a little misleading to call it grilled cheese. Toasted might be more accurate, or broiled, or simply Warm Gruyere Sandwich with Mustard and Thyme. Mmmm, yes. Call it what you want, it's delicious.

It comes from this underrated cookbook and is barely any more work than making a traditional grilled cheese. You broil several bread slices just on one side, and then brush the unbroiled sides with a little bit of melted butter. On top of that, you spread some nice French mustard (what I'm using right now is Fallot). Then you drop a few thyme leaves on top of the mustard, grate a nice, thick flurry of Gruyere over the thyme and put the slices back under the broiler for a few moments longer. The edges of the bread will be browned and crunchy, the cheese will be molten and bubbly and chewy in spots, and you will not be able to keep yourself from eating just two pieces. I dare you.

I left the quantities up in the air, because bread sizes differ and you might love a big carpet of cheese while someone else might want something daintier. In any case, the combination of mustard, thyme, and Gruyere is simply wonderful, especially on sour-ish bread.

Warm Gruyere Sandwich with Mustard and Thyme
Makes 6

6 1/2-inch thick slices of levain or sourdough bread
Unsalted butter, melted
Good-quality French mustard
Fresh thyme leaves
Grated Gruyere cheese
Sea salt (optional)

1. Preheat the broiler. Place the bread slices on a baking sheet and toast one side under the broiler until golden brown. Remove from the oven and turn the slices over. Brush the melted butter on each untoasted side. Then spread with mustard and sprinkle with the thyme leaves. Sprinkle the cheese evenly over the bread. Sprinkle with salt, if desired.

2. Broil until the edges of the bread are golden brown and the cheese is melted, about 1 minute. Remove the bread slices from the oven and serve them immediately.


Paula Wolfert's Butternut Squash and Potato Pie with Tomato, Mint and Sheep's Milk Cheese

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I am drowning in butternut squash. Well, not drowning precisely, because that sounds like it could hurt. I am inundated with butternut squash. No, that's not quite right either. Up to my eyeballs, then! Yes, I am up to my eyeballs in butternut squash. It's coming fast and furious in the final weeks of our CSA, and there's only so many times that I can roast it and turn it into soup. I mean, I adore butternut squash soup along with everyone else, but I bore easily, I suppose.

You'd be surprised at just how many clipped newspaper recipes I've got for some variation on butternut squash soup. Curried, creamed, with apples, without - they're all lovely, it's true, and the soups freeze well and yes, there's really nothing wrong with them. Except for the fact that I think it's a shame that butternut squash always gets blitzed into smooth oblivion. In some of my favorite butternut recipes, like this risotto, or this curry (oooh, yes), you actually get to experience what butternut squash flesh is like - a little creamy, a little stringy, but agreeably so. Toothsome, I'd say.

After the latest delivery of yet more butternut squash this week, I plunked myself down on the carpet and surrounded myself with my cookbooks. There was a pizza from Chez Panisse, but it sounded too rich. There was a soup from Sophie Grigson, but, well, it was a soup. And then there was this "pie" from Paula Wolfert's Slow Mediterranean Kitchen which sucked me in the instant I read it and held me close close close.

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Okay, I'll be honest right up front: the prep work on this thing is a pain in the neck. Slow is absolutely right. Enlist someone whose knife skills you trust to help you with this, or calculate that you'll need about a half hour on your own. Not kidding at all. Second of all, the salt is an issue. Paula doesn't specify how much, which could lead you, quite easily, to insipid disaster. Potatoes need salt. And frankly, so does squash. I used 1/2 teaspoon in total, because the hard cheese adds a bit, too. But checking for seasoning is probably good advice. Third of all, this is no pie. Oh, no. This is a gratin, of the best kind, far superior to any mere pie. It's Greek, Cretan, actually, and is absolutely, positively delicious. (Something tells me the Greeks probably use a different kind of squash.)

Minced parsley, sliced mint, minced garlic and salt is where you start - tossing half of this mixture with sliced potatoes and the other half with sliced squash, a few spoonfuls of tomatoes for brightness and sheep's-milk cheese mixed with ricotta for spunk and flavor. The two mixtures are layered in a dish and then milk is poured all around it. Paula has you sprinkle a little too much flour on top, and it never quite gets absorbed, so in the version below, I cut the flour down by two thirds. In the heat of the oven, the butternut squash doesn't just soften, its flavor is concentrated and its sweetness is amplified. Your house fills with a fantastic aroma. It will be quite difficult, you'll see, to stay patient throughout the baking process. (I told you slow was absolutely right.)

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But just wait. You'll be rewarded with a browned and bubbling gratin that smells like ourania. The potatoes on top are ever so slightly crisped, the ones below are soft and yielding. The butternut squash is almost fudgy in texture. The herbs and the cheese infuse each bite: it's a little peppery, sweet and savory at once, juicy, almost, and tasty as all get out.

Paula says you should serve this as a side dish, but along with a plain green salad or a tangle of boiled green beans, this makes the star of a fabulous lunch.

Butternut Squash and Potato Pie with Tomato, Mint and Sheep's Milk Cheese

Serves 6 as a side dish or 3 to 4 as a main course

6 sprigs fresh mint leaves, shredded
5 sprigs flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/4 pounds butternut squash, quartered, peeled, seeded and thinly sliced crosswise
1 large ripe tomato, halved, seeded and grated, or a few spoonfuls of drained, diced tomatoes from a can
2/3 cup grated hard sheep's milk cheese, like Greek mizithra or Spanish manchego
1/4 cup fresh ricotta
1 1/2 pounds red or Yukon Gold potatoes, thinly sliced
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine the mint, parsley, garlic, 1/4 teaspoon salt, or a little bit more to taste, and the pepper. Remove and reserve half the mixture. Add the squash to the bowl and mix well. Add the tomato, and the hard and fresh cheeses and toss to combine.

2. Toss the potatoes with the reserved garlic-herb mixture and add another 1/4 teaspoon salt. Place half the sliced potatoes on the bottom of a generously oiled 2 1/2-quart baking dish. Taste a small bit of the squash-tomato mixture for seasoning, adjust if needed, and spread on top, covering with the remaining potatoes. Pour the milk over all, dust with the flour (preferably through a sieve) and drizzle the oil on top.

3. Bake for 40 minutes. Raise the oven temperature to 400 degrees and continue to bake for 30 minutes, or until the gratin is brown and the liquid is nearly absorbed. Allow to rest for 15 minutes before serving.