Unfussy Fare

Plum Clafouti

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Clafouti is a simple, custardy fruit concoction. It’s also a richly deserving home for those plums loitering in your fruit bowl.  You could try other fruits, too.  Consider this recipe a blank canvas for your fruity whims. Clafouti. It’s fun to say. It rhymes with snooty and booty, if you’ve got a hankering to write a limerick. (Keep it clean, people.)

Making this required distracting my child for the time it took to slice, whisk, pour, photograph, and write about the whole thing. Will I be named Mother of the Year for whipping up yet another fabulous homemade dessert with fresh seasonal fruit? Or will I be inducted into the Bad Mother Hall of Fame for letting my five-year-old watch Tom and Jerry reruns on a glorious summer morning? (“Ha ha ha, Mom.  You should see this. The cat stuck a stick in a snowball, and lit it, and it exploded.”)  Yes, well. Sacrifices must be made.

sliced-plums

The recipes I read all said to mix the batter in a blender or a food processer. I used a whisk and a bowl, because it seemed simpler. That resulted in some unsightly flour clumps, because I grew bored of whisking after about thirty seconds. The lesson: Either use the blender, or whisk with with a little gumption, for crying out loud. The batter should be smooth.

(Why do I persist in not following recipes to the letter? Maybe because in my heart of hearts, I suspect people take perverse pleasure in making things seem harder than they really are. Are all those steps REALLY necessary? When my shortcuts work out, I feel all smug and superior. When they backfire, I feel all foolish and predictable.)

The clafouti came out of the oven gloriously puffed. It slumped as it cooled, but that’s just how it goes with calfouti. Or so I’ve read. This was my first attempt. There will most certainly be more. I don’t mind that it tastes better than it looks. Cherry clafouti is calling my name.

Claufouti is best served warm.  I am here to tell you that it is silky, sweet, and sumptuous served warm. If it happens to reach the ideal temperature at 10:30 in the morning….well, who’s going to stop you? I’d like to believe that eating warm clafouti on the porch with his mom had a bigger impact on my son’s psyche this morning than cartoon explosions.

Clafouti recipes abound. They’re all variations on the same fruit-custard theme. I cobbled this together after skimming half a dozen recipes, so I can’t properly attribute it. Nobody owns clafouti, right?

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PLUM CLAFOUTI

3 large plums, pitted and sliced into eight wedges each
½ cup plus one tablespoon sugar
4 eggs
1 cup milk
½ cup flour
¼ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
1 tablespoon brandy
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon almond extract
confectioners’ sugar

Put rack in middle of oven and preheat to 375 degrees.

Butter a nine-inch cake pan.

Spread plums in one layer on bottom of pan. Sprinkle one tablespoon sugar over plums.

Blend together eggs, milk, flour, salt, butter, brandy, extract and remaining ½ cup sugar until smooth.

Pour batter over plums.

Bake clafouti until it is puffed and golden and the center is set, about 45 minutes. (The center will be a little jiggly. It’s meant to be soft. If it looks flat-out liquid, keep cooking.)

Cool clafouti for ten minutes on a rack.

Dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve warm.


Beets with Orange Vinaigrette

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Some things in life are better in theory than in reality. Street fairs, for instance. And exercising.  And beets. I buy beets because they’re shapely, and silky. They look like runway models, with those flouncy greens perched atop long, sleek stalks.  And that lurid pink is impressive, lurking beneath such unassuming skin. They’re probably even good for you, right? So what’s not to like?

Well, it’s just the taste. They’re borderline cloying. Thick, dark, and purple-tasting. Please don’t dispute me on this, dear beet-boosters. I never said my “better-in-theory” list would match yours. Besides, I’m removing beets from the list as of today.

I finally found a recipe that won me over to the taste of beets. No longer must I endure beets because they lured me into buying them under false pretenses. This salad has me sincerely gobbling them up and coming back for seconds. Seconds! Of beets!  Imagine if you actually liked beets to begin with.

These beets can add some dazzle to any plate. But it”s the taste, not the color, that brings them into better-than-theory territory. Vinegar and shallots rein in the sweetness, while bright bolts of orange lighten the mood. It”s made to order for a potluck. How many side dishes travel well and are best eaten at room temperature?  I’m not saying you’ll win as much love as the guy who brings brownies to the potluck. We’re not talking miracles here. But sometimes you’re ASKED to bring a side dish, right? So, go ahead, impress your friends. See if you can convert some beet-bashers. I’m here to tell you it’s possible.

There were garden-variety pinkish-purple beets in the faultless cookbook photo that inspired this recipe. They contrasted festively with the orange slices. But I had to go and buy varietal beets. I was seduced by those hues. They were obligingly stunning when I cut them up.  Even the scraps had something to say.

beet-scraps

But when they were cooked, and cut, and tossed with orange slices, they looked, unfortunately, a lot like the orange slices. What should’ve been a dashing feast of color ended up looking like a mysterious orange stew.  But don’t let that dissuade you. Make this recipe. Just stick with magenta beets if you want splashy contrast.

This recipe was adapted from Ina Garten’s Beets with Orange Vinaigrette. If you believe Ina (and I do…I always do), it tastes even better the second day, after marinating overnight in the dressing. Ours didn’t last long enough to test that theory.

BEETS WITH ORANGE VINAIGRETTEbeet-salad02

2 pounds of beets, trimmed
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup small-diced shallots
2 seedless oranges

Place the beets in a large pot with water deep enough to cover them. Bring water to a boil and simmer beets uncovered for about 50 minutes, until they are tender enough to stick a fork into. Drain.

When the beets are cool enough to handle, peel off the skins. They’ll slide right off in your hands. No tools necessary.

Slice beets about 1/3 inch thick, then cut across the slices to make ½ inch-wide slabs.

Put the sliced beets into a large bowl.

Zest the oranges. Then cut the ends and pith off the now-zested oranges, and separate the segments.

Add orange segments, zest, vinegar, olive oil, salt, pepper and shallots to the beets. Toss gently.

Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Serve at room temperature.

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Grilled Steak with Greens and Parmesan

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Simple ingredients command respect. No showing off with fancy footwork or cheap accessories. A simple recipe stands on its own merit, cool and confident. In that less-is-more spirit, I bring you my all-time favorite way to eat a steak. You may be thinking “For this I need a recipe?” But this one will knock your socks off, I promise. Not because there are any surprising ingredients or culinary twists, but because every element is perfectly balanced against all the others.

The first time I made this, it was an answer to not having much in the fridge.  That was in 2002. For SEVEN YEARS this one has held its own as a family favorite.  That’s quite a feat, with so many new recipes clamoring for attention.

This meal calls for stuff we almost always have on hand (well, except for the steak).  Garlic, pepper, olive oil, lemon, parmesan, salt, greens.  Most days, those items are just hanging out in the kitchen, resigned to their humble status as staples. Marry them in this way, though, and I’m telling you, you will wonder if you’ve ever truly appreciated lemon, or pepper, or parmesan before.

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No recipe is sacred in our house. I’m all for substitutions.  I also happen to think lettuce is underrated. But part of the magic of this salad springs from using bitter greens. Arugula is great, or a greens mixture that has a little bite. Not just lettuce. You’ll thank me.

This recipe was inspired by one on epicurious.com. Theirs is much meatier.  I like to give the greens (and the garlic/pepper paste) more of a starring role. Adapt it to your own tastes. Just make more garlic paste for more meat, if you know what”s good for you.

P.S. Meat poses a challenge to this fledgling food photographer.  For my money, meat never pulls off a good picture. It suffers from a certain….ugliness. Is there a closet vegetarian heart beating in this chest? Maybe, but it won’t trump my carnivorous taste buds anytime soon.

GRILLED STEAK WITH GREENS AND PARMESAN
serves four

5 garlic cloves, minced, mashed or pushed through a garlic press.
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus one tablespoon for drizzling at the end
1 tablespoon fresh ground black pepper
1 ½ – 2 pounds New York strip steak, about one inch thick
8 cups loosely packed arugula or other greens
2 ounce piece of Parmesan cheese
1 lemon
salt to taste

Mash garlic, one tablespoon olive oil, and pepper into a paste.

Coat steaks with paste and let stand at least 30 minutes at room temperature.

Grill to desired doneness (about six minutes a side for medium rare on our grill).

Let steak stand for five minutes. Slice into ¼ inch slices and arrange on greens.

Pour accumulated juices onto salad.

Shave parmesan onto salads with a vegetable peeler.

Sprinkle with salt. Drizzle salads with the remaining one tablespoon olive oil.

Serve with lemon wedges. Don”t forget that squeeze of lemon! It matters.

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Chocolate Cookie Sandwiches with Vanilla Filling

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Guilt is a powerful motivator. I’ll start with the confession.  My friend Sarah left some of these cookies on our porch, wrapped individually in red-and-white checked paper, and nestled on a tiny scalloped tray. She’s like that. She doesn’t just bring a thoughtful surprise. She wraps the thoughtful surprise in a charming package with a bow.

There was one cookie for each of us. In the course of a few hours, I ate all three. It was gluttonous and wrong on many levels. My conscience has been hounding me ever since that greedy greed fest.

And so I bring you cookie penance. If there’s anyone whose spirits you’d like to lift, or if you’re feeling contrite about that thing you did (you know who you are), I recommend you buy yourself some butter and get started.

For me, it was like this: The overflowing basket of clothes was STILL sitting there, not folding itself. Emails were backing up. The dishwasher needed emptying. But rather than bite the bullet and cross a few tasks off my list, I broke out the mixer and three sticks of butter.

A good cookie can put any pile of laundry into perspective. These beauties are just the ticket for existential grumpiness.  How grumpy can you be, really, with velvety chocolate and vanilla having a dance party in your mouth?  Oreos will never again cross your lips. They are feeble imposters.

By my standards (which are really low, or really high, depending on your perspective) these cookies are the teensiest bit fussy. Despite the short ingredient list, you still have to make cookies AND filling. I won’t lie to you. That means washing the mixer and bowl twice. I know, I know. The blog is called “Unfussy Fare.” But rules are made to be broken, and in this case it’s worth it. Life’s petty concerns will wait for an hour. They can hang out in the corner, with the dust bunnies.  You’ve got amends to make.

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The chocolate shortbread cookie recipe came from Sarah, who tells me it was originally Martha Stewart’s. Sarah also helped me realize I could make up my own vanilla filling, which I did. If you like a more refined-looking cookie, you can take more care than I did to roll, cut, and fill them evenly. Mine are, shall we say, rustic-looking. That’s because I am lazy and I cut corners wherever I can.

CHOCOLATE COOKIE SANDWICHES WITH VANILLA FILLING
makes 18 sandwiches

1 ½ cups flour
¾ cup cocoa
½ teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 egg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Whisk together flour, cocoa, and salt.

In a mixer, beat sugar and butter together until fluffy.

Add egg and beat until mixed.

On low speed, add dry ingredients. Mix until the dry ingredients are incorporated.

Shape the dough into two round discs about one inch thick. Wrap each disc in plastic wrap and chill for one hour. If the dough is too sticky to roll out, chill it some more. If it’s too hard, let it warm up a little.

Roll the dough out on a well-floured cutting board until it is ¼ inch thick.

Cut cookies with a two inch cookie cutter (or an espresso cup, if you’re me and you don’t have a two-inch cookie cutter). Gather up the scraps, roll them out, and cut a few more cookies.

Bake on a parchment-lined cookie sheet for 12 minutes, or until they look dry to the touch.

Cool cookies completely.

VANILLA FILLING

¾ cup powdered sugar
6 tablespoons butter, room temperature
¾ teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon milk

Beat ingredients together with a mixer until smooth.

Spread one tablespoon of filling on the flat side of a cool cookie. Top with another cookie.

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