Sunday, September 28, 2008

To Autumn

My goodness, have I enjoyed the last few days. A cool front rolled into Fort Lauderdale on Friday morning, inviting us to turn off the A/C and open our windows. I read a lot, then picked and chose among our household chores. That's a privilege of autumn cleaning, I think.

I purchased a new disposal for our kitchen, but I did not clean out the closet in our home office. I washed and ironed the curtains in our bedroom, but I did not end up weeding our front flower beds.

I did not end up painting my guest room after all, but I did do a lot of cooking.

In fact, I was inspired to try something I've never done before.

I made a pumpkin tart--from actual pumpkins.

If you live up north, sugar pumpkins may be everywhere around this time of year. Piled in huge decorative mounds, on top of straw underneath a reddening maple, waiting to be picked up by a pink-nosed shopper in long-sleeves. . . perhaps you detect a note of longing?

Autumn is my favorite season. When I lived in Massachusetts, I loved the golds and reds in the trees, the way I could see my breath in the mornings, and the totally different wardrobe that I could haul out of storage. I'd jog along the Charles River in a fleece, watching collegiate eights row toward the Basin in the quickly-darkening evening. I miss all of this in the autumn.

Ah well, here in South Florida, we can get a tan in January.

Sadly, though, we come up short in pie-worthy pumpkin department. We end up using those ochre-colored cans of pumpkin puree instead.

On Friday, however, I lucked out and found these chubby little beauties.

My recipe called for 1 1/2 cups of solid-pack pumpkin. After some reading, I decided to roast the pumpkins in the simplest manner possible: cut in half, seeded, and sitting cut-side down on a baking sheet at 375 degree for about 50 minutes.

I love the smell of roasting pumpkins. The aroma was the base note of my afternoon, while I prepared the tart pastry shell and listened to Michele Norris on All Things Considered.

If you are a pastry novice, here are a few suggestions: First, always use cold butter cut into 1 tablespoon amounts, and do not use a food processor--you'll end up with dense, chewy dough. Second, make sure that you have a few tablespoons of ice-cold water on hand for adding to the flour. The water must be ice-cold, not room temperature, and not just a little cool. Finally, use a fork to incorporate the water into the flour. You won't be stirring so much as "fluffing" the flour with the tines of the fork. The dough will be very crumbly when it is done. You'll know that your dough has enough water when you can pinch a bit of the dough together and it holds. It's work, but it's worth it.

Later on in the evening, my husband and I watched the presidential debate and scooped golden pieces of pumpkin tart into our mouths. I decided that when Keats wrote about that "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness," he might have been talking about a pumpkin tart with cranberry jam.

Pumpkin Tart with Cranberry Jam
Adapted from this recipe and this recipe at Gourmet

In terms of special equipment, you will want to have the following:
A 9-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom
A rolling pin with a pastry sleeve
Pastry scraper
Pie weights or dried beans heavy enough to weigh down the crust during its first baking

For the tart shell
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 stick (1/2 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1 tablespoon pieces
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 to 5 tablespoons ice water

For the tart filling
1 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 cups canned solid-pack pumpkin (not pie filling)
2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup cranberry jam (I used FiordiFrutta)

To make the tart shell
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Toss the flour and the salt together in a medium bowl until combined. Cut in the butter in 1 tablespoon amounts until finely crumbled. You can do this either using two knives or a pastry blender, but do not use a food processor (see the note in my narrative above).

Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of ice-cold water over the mixture and fluff it with a fork to incorporate. Continue doing this until the dough holds together when you pinch a piece with your thumb and index finger. The dough will remain very crumby at this point. If the dough does not hold together, add an additional tablespoon of water and try again.

Flour a clean work surface generously and turn the dough out onto it. Shape the dough gently with your hands into a disk and use a rolling pin to begin to flatten the dough out. Continue rolling out in all directions until you have a disk large enough to cover your tart ring. with 1 - 2 inches of extra dough on all sides.

Gently pick the dough up (using the pastry scraper if needed) and lay it over the tart ring. Press the dough against the edges of the tart ring and trim any excess. Chill for 30 minutes, until the dough is firm.

Prick the dough on the bottom of the tart pan lightly with a fork, then line with foil and add the pie weights or beans to keep the foil pressed down against the dough. Bake for 25 minutes, until the crust is golden. Allow the crust to cool in the tart ring for 30 minutes.

To make the filling
Whisk together the cream, the pureed pumpkin, the brown sugar, the eggs, the cinnamon, the ginger, and the salt until smooth.

To put it all together
Place the tart pan on a baking sheet. Spread the cranberry jam evenly over the bottom of the tart pastry shell, then pour pumpkin mixture over preserves until it almost fills the shell to the top.

Bake the pumpkin tart until the filling is set, 50 minutes to 1 hour. Cool the tart in the pan on a rack, about 1 hour. Remove the tart from the tart ring before serving.

Serves: 8

* With thanks to John Keats for the title of this post

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Life is a Caper

I began writing this post over a cup of coffee and a headache from a wee bit too much wine last night, having had a celebratory meal with my husband and refilled my glass with a lovely Ken Wright pinot noir a time too many.

I am starting a new job on Monday. Yesterday afternoon, I concluded my obligations at my previous position. I carried my wall-hangings and office plant down to my car, gave hugs and said my good-byes, and departed for Whole Foods to purchase some items for dinner.

Driving away from my office building, I smiled. We always miss certain things when we leave jobs, don't we? I do, even when I am looking forward to an exciting new opportunity. I have been fortunate to have many colleagues whose company I enjoy. I'll miss seeing them, and the pretty orchids in the lobby of my building, and the way all of the security guards know my name and smile when they see me. I'll even miss that darn candy box in the kitchen outside my office.

But, Monday brings enticing new responsibilities, new colleagues, and probably a new candy box. Until then, I will relax and enjoy a little time off.

The next few days will be filled with cooking and some neglected home improvement projects. Maybe I will paint our guest room. That room really deserves to be a warm caramel color. Maybe I will do some gardening; read a book; enjoy a spa treatment.

The best part about this mini-vacation of mine is that I have no fixed plans. That's the best part about having some time off: being able to succumb to your whims. I'll see what I feel like doing tomorrow, when I wake up with the sun already high in the sky.

Chicken Piccata with Artichokes and Olives
Adapted from this recipe at Food and Wine

1/2 cup fine dry bread crumbs
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 6-ounce chicken cutlets, pounded to about 1/8 inch thick
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
8 pitted Kalamata olives, drained and coarsely chopped
1 15-ounce can of artichoke hearts packed in water, well-drained and quartered
1/2 cup chicken stock or low-sodium broth
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon drained capers
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley

In a large, shallow bowl, combine the bread crumbs with the salt and pepper. Dredge the chicken cutlets in the seasoned bread crumbs and shake off the excess.

Heat a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat and melt the butter. When the foam subsides, increase the heat to medium-heat and add the chicken. Cooke the chicken, turning once, until golden brown outside and white throughout, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer the cutlets to a platter and cover with foil to keep warm.

In the same skillet, add the olives and artichoke hearts. Cook over moderately high heat, stirring, until heated through, about 2 minutes. Add the chicken stock, lemon juice and capers and boil for 2 minutes, stirring. Spoon the artichoke and olive sauce over the chicken, sprinkle with the parsley and serve.

Serves: 2

Sunday, September 21, 2008

I Don't Miss the Frito Pie

It's back to school time.

I miss the sense of excitement that came with returning to school. Yes, I was one of those kids. I loved the fresh box of sharpened colored pencils, the stiff binding on my new composition notebooks, the bright construction paper letters on the walls of the classroom. The sense of ownership when you were assigned to your desk. I miss the rush of curiosity about our new teacher--she's nice; she's cranky; she has a really big purse and Jack's older brother's best friend says that she keeps mice in it.

Lunch was not so fun. An elementary school cafeteria is a little shop of horrors, food-wise. Remember what you ate in third grade?

I do. Oh yes, I do.

Square hamburgers sitting in steaming, gristly water. Grey meatloaf. A bizarre dish called "Frito pie," composed of a handful of Fritos topped with a scoop of canned chili and melted yellow cheese. Nothing good happened to anyone on Frito pie day.

Other days were better. Pizza day was huge; we waited all month for it. My school offered a surprisingly crisp and varied salad bar and it was around this time that I developed an appreciation for salad as a meal.

I still have a weakness for macaroni and cheese, which also was offered regularly.

Now that I am grown, I prefer a lower fat, more nutritious form of the good old mac 'n cheese. Ellie Krieger has a terrific recipe that I make frequently. Because it includes pureed butternut squash, you can satisfy your inner child's hankering for an old favorite while respecting your adult figure's need for something healthy.

Isn't it fun to learn something new?

Ellie Krieger's Macaroni and Four Cheeses
available in Ellie Krieger's The Foods You Crave and here

Cooking spray
1 pound elbow macaroni
2 (10-ounce) packages frozen pureed winter squash (I use frozen butternut squash)
2 cups 1 percent lowfat milk
4 ounces extra-sharp Cheddar, grated (about 1 1/3 cups)
2 ounces Monterrey jack cheese, grated (about 2/3 cup)
1/2 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon powdered mustard
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons unseasoned bread crumbs
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan
1 teaspoon olive oil

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Coat a 9 by 13-inch baking pan with cooking spray.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the macaroni and cook until tender but firm, about 5 to 8 minutes. Drain and transfer to a large bowl.

Meanwhile, place the frozen squash and milk into a large saucepan and cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally and breaking up the squash with a spoon until it is defrosted. Turn the heat up to medium and cook until the mixture is almost simmering, stirring occasionally, until almost smooth. Remove the pan from heat and stir in the Cheddar, jack cheese, ricotta cheese, salt, mustard and cayenne pepper. Pour cheese mixture over the macaroni and stir to combine. Transfer the macaroni and cheese to the baking dish.

Here is where I depart from Ellie's recipe a bit. Sprinkle the bread crumbs over the macaroni and cheese, then grate a bit of Parmesan cheese over the top. Bake for 20 minutes, then broil for 3 minutes so the top is crisp and nicely browned.

Serves: 6-10 adults

Thursday, September 18, 2008

It Looks Like a Watermelon

Summer is almost over.

For those of you up north, I'm sure that change is afoot. Chilly air is creeping into your mornings and evenings. Tree leaves are mellowing to gold overhead. Some of you are longing for a wooly pair of socks around four o'clock in the afternoon as you slog through the rain--the drizzly, foggy rain.

Do you miss the summer yet? Has the novelty of the first hard squash worn off yet? Have you found that last year's turtleneck sweater itches a little under your chin? Deep down, do you kind of wish you could have one last dip in the pool?

Fort Lauderdale is one of those peculiar places where time stands still. We have no seasons. As I wrote in my very first post, there is no autumn here, only "a more dangerous summer." It remains hot. It remains sunny. The iguanas loll on the bricks, fearless and fat. On the weekend, I loll with them.

I'd like to bring a little bit of summer to you from down here in steamy South Florida. Put on your flip-flops and have a slice of my mother's ice cream watermelon. Bring your sunscreen; you'll need it.

Ice Cream Watermelon
A Lizzie Original

1 pint of vanilla ice cream
1/2 gallon of lime sherbert
1/2 gallon of raspberry sherbert
2 cups milk chocolate chips
1 set of metal nesting bowls (3 bowls, small, medium, and large)

Place the largest of the nesting bowls in the freezer for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, remove the container of lime sherbert from the freezer and allow it to sit for 5 minutes, long enough to become a bit soft, but not drippy.

Remove the large nesting bowl from the freezer. Scoop the entire contents of the lime sherbert container into the large bowl and smooth it into an even layer along the bottom and sides of the bowl. This will be the "rind" of your ice cream watermelon. Tuck a layer of clear plastic wrap against the lime sherbert and place the medium nesting bowl on top of the plastic wrap so that it nestles over the lime sherbert layer and moulds it in place. Return to the freezer for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, remove the vanilla ice cream from the freezer and allow it to sit for 5 minutes to soften.

Remove the large bowl from the freezer and lift the medium bowl and plastic wrap. The lime sherbert layer should be fairly smooth and even in depth, and it should be firm. Spread the entire pint of vanilla ice cream over the lime sherbert in an even layer. This will be the inner white part of the watermelon rind. Tuck a layer of clear plastic wrap against the vanilla ice cream and place the small nesting bowl on top of the plastic wrap so that it nestles over the vanilla layer and moulds it in place. Return to the freezer for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, remove the raspberry sherbert from the freezer and allow it to sit for 5 minutes to soften. Once it is moderately soft (but not drippy), scoop the entire contents of the container into a bowl and fold in 2 cups of chocolate chips. This mixture will be the flesh and seeds of the ice cream watermelon.

Remove the large bowl from the freezer and lift the small bowl and plastic wrap. Add the raspberry sherbert so that the "rind" is filled and it appears as though you are looking at a half of a watermelon. Draw a spatula across the top if you need to even it out.

Freeze the ice cream watermelon for at least 4 hours. When you are ready to serve it, fill your sink with lukewarm water and submerse the bottom few inches of the large bowl for 1 minute. Invert the bowl onto a chilled platter and serve by cutting slices of the "watermelon."

Serves: 6-8

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Fiesta

Steve and I own a black Fiesta grill. I have an emotional attachment to the Fiesta because I watched it survive total destruction one morning. It's a fighter, this grill.

We purchased the grill in early June 2005, a few months after we bought our house. In the sunny hours after work, we sat in the pool, listening to the happy sizzle of steak and tilapia
en papillote.

As the summer eased into autumn, the heat remained but the daylight receded. Soon, I was leaving work at twilight. We began to cook dinner indoors again.
We thought that the grill would be a weekend item until the following May. We were wrong.

Hurricane Wilma hit the west coast of Florida on the morning of October 24, 2005, one day after our first wedding anniversary. Steve and I put up our hurricane shutters over the windows that are not made of impact-resistant glass, and tucked our grill into our heavy metal garden shed. I'm glad that we did, because instead of weakening, the storm actually drew power as it roared east across the Everglades.

The power flickered once, then died as the storm approached. We were slammed by the eye wall winds and f
rom our bedroom window (made of hurricane impact glass, thanks to the previous owners--no really, thank you), we watched the walls of our garden shed crumple and take flight. A large plant stand scraped along the side of our house like something out of a horror movie, then collapsed on top of the contents of our destroyed shed.

After a piece of someone's gutter smacked the glass an inch away from my nose, I spent the rest of the storm cowering with my face in my hands.

Once the sun emerged and the winds relaxed, we ventured outside, blinking in the brightness. Mercifully, our neighborhood sustained only minor damage, our neighbors themselves were unharmed and our house was fine.

Our beloved grill was pinned under the heavy wood frame of the plant stand. After an hour of tense negotiations, we were able to extricate the grill and set it upright. My father, who came to Fort Lauderdale for a visit right before the storm hit, held the propane tank under the scummy water of our pool for thirty seconds to check for leaks. Finding that no bubbles were escaping from the canister, he attached it to the grill and turned it on. It was dinner time, after all.

Now I'm not going to bore you with a description of my many, many anxieties. Those will manifest themselves in my writing on their own, I'm sure. Let's just say that I was convinced--
convinced--that the propane tank had cracked and that the merest flicker of flame from a match would kill us all in a gruesome explosion.

Steve, who is untroubled by the same neuroses as I, suggested that I go in the house while he and my dad lit the grill. He did not believe there was any danger. I refused to leave, telling him that if we were going to die in a fireball, we'd die together. I actually said this while clinging to his arm.

Exasperated or amused--or touched by my wifely devotion to him?--he tentatively lit a match, then tossed it on the grill.
With a gentle fwoosh, the grill came to life.

We cooked salt-seasoned ribs given to us by a generous neighbor, licking warm, tangy bar-b-que sauce from our fingers as the sun set. The following morning, we boiled water in a saucepan and made coffee in a French press.

The propane lasted through the next two weeks of meals--pasta, soup, and other canned fare--until our power was restored. If I could have grilled bathwater, I would have done so. A cold shower, even in warm South Florida, is still a cold shower.

Several years later, the grill still produces some wonderful meals.

Mahi Mahi with Cold Udon Noodles
A Fritter Original

For the Fish
2 1/2 pounds mahi mahi, skinned and divided into six equal portions
1/2 cup of Tamari soy sauce
2 teaspoon hot sesame oil
1 tablespoon of fresh ginger, thinly sliced
2 large cloves of garlic, minced
2 green onions, sliced

1/8 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
juice of 1/2 of a lime

For the noodles
2 pounds of udon noodles
1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
1 1/2 pounds of snow peas, blanched

4 scallions, thinly sliced
4 green onions, sliced

olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
1 cup chicken stock
1 pound fresh shitake mushrooms, sliced
1/2 cup of Tamari soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon of hot sesame oil
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
juice of 1 lime
1/8 cup of black sesame seeds, toasted

To prepare the fish

Place fish in a 9x13 baking dish. Combine all ingredients for the marinade and pour over fish. Cover with plastic wrap and allow the fish to marinate, refrigerated, for 45 minutes.

Heat the grill to medium-high. Place the fish on the grill and hood the grill for 8-10 minutes, until the fish is nearly opaque. Flip the fish and cook for another 3-5 minutes. Remove the fish to a platter and cover.

To prepare the noodles

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the udon noodles and boil for 10 minutes, until al dente. Drain and rinse with cold water, then transfer to a large serving bowl.

Toss the noodles with the snow peas and red bell pepper slices.

Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add one sliced clove of garlic and saute for 3 minutes, until the garlic is fragrant and beginning to turn gold. Add the chicken stock, bring to a boil, and reduce for 5 minutes. Lower the heat to medium, add the shitake mushrooms and simmer for 5 minutes, until the mushrooms are tender.

In a small mixing bowl, combine the soy sauce, hot sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, the remaining clove of garlic, and the lime juice. Stir to combine. Pour over the noodles and toss to coat. Top the noodles with the black sesame seeds.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

And Then:

It has been a few weeks since my last post. You have been so patient. Thank you for your e-mails; I am fine and I am back to business as usual.

When life gets distressing, shouldn't we stop and eat some cake? I think that we should.

Somehow, through all of the events of the last few weeks, I found myself eating quite a lot of cake. I say this with a tone of wonder because I have not been baking for several weeks, nor did I purchase any of these cakes. The cakes found me.

Cake found me as I sat on the patio of a restaurant downtown, surrounded by pink bougainvillea blossoms, sharing a friend's anxiety. The manager of the restaurant sent over a tray of mini-cakes. Carrot cake with lemony cream cheese icing. German chocolate cake with fat raisins. Key lime pie cake, a zinger disguised by bland color.

And then, cake found me last weekend at a college football game. A springy chocolate confection, made by a friend's mother.

And again, cake found me one dark afternoon in the kitchen of my office. A dulce de leche slice kept me company as I answered my emails, one by one by one.

So I'd like to share a little cake with you. These cakes should be called cakelets, or baby cakes, or something adorable. Pleasingly tart and sweet, they are sure to become an addiction and make you smile.

Lemon Cakes with Basil Lemon Syrup
Adapted from this recipe at

For the lemon cakes

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup all-purpose flour plus additional for dusting
2/3 cup plus 1/4 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt, plus an additional 1/8 teaspoon salt, divided
3 large eggs, separated, at room temperature for 30 minutes
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest

For the basil lemon syrup
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups water
1 (4- by 1-inch) strip fresh lemon zest
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
8 large fresh basil sprigs

For the whipped cream
1 cup chilled heavy cream

For the garnish
6 fresh springs of basil leaves.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 12-cup muffin tin with some butter, or non-stick cooking spray, and set aside.

In a medium bowl, beat the softened butter with the sugar and 1/8 teaspoon of salt until well-creamed. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, until well-mixed. Beat in the lemon juice and 2 teaspoons of lemon zest until mixed. Add the flour in 1/4-cup amounts until it is just blended in. Do not overmix the batter.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites and 1/8 teaspoon of salt until soft peaks form. Beat in 2 tablespoons of sugar until the whites hold stiff peaks. Gently fold the whites into the batter.

Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin tins in 1/2-cup amounts. Sprinkle some sugar and grate some lemon zest over the batter. Bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees until the edges of the muffins begin to pull away from the sides of the tins and the tops are golden. Set the muffin tin on a rack to cool while making the syrup and whipped cream.

Make the syrup by combining all of the syrup ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil and allow the syrup to boil for 8-10 minutes. Strain into a container and allow it to cool to room temperature.

Whip the heavy cream until soft peaks form. Lift the muffins out of the tins and place in a shallow bowl. Spoon 1/8 cup of the syrup over the muffin and top with a dollop of whipped cream. Garnish with fresh basil leaves.

Serves: 6

Monday, September 1, 2008

Happy Labor Day!

Enjoy the long weekend! I will be back to my normal posting schedule on Wednesday.