April 29, 2012

Strawberry and Fig Tart with Lavender Cream

Beautiful and very easy to make, this simple tart is perfect for the peak of strawberry season. I needed something pretty and sweet to take to a party, but only had about an hour and a half to get it ready. I picked up these gorgeous local berries, some organic heavy cream, and a lavender plant at Local Harvest -- everything else was in the pantry already. The idea for a jam and strawberry tart came to me while swimming laps earlier in the day. And don't let the long-looking list of steps deter you. It's really just a matter of mixing some alcohol in jam and spreading that on an uncooked pastry, then setting some strawberries of top of that, folding it over and baking it off. Let's go!


1 pastry crust*, refrigerated after preparing

1 cup white sugar (you won't use it all, but you'll want to keep it for later because you'll be infusing it with lavender)
12 or so perfect strawberries, delicately rinsed, dried on a paper towel, ends cut off, and sliced in half lengthwise; save a particularly perfect one whole for the center
1/3 cup fig preserves
2 Tablespoons good bourbon
1 teaspoon Port
1 teaspoon Penzey's pure lemon extract
1/2 teaspoon rose water
Lavender, fresh or dried, leave and/or flowers (I used fresh, and both leaves and flowers) -- keep aside one nice flower for topping the cooled tart
Flour Unbleached white, a couple of teaspoons

1 egg wash (in a small bowl, mix egg with a teaspoon of water and set aside)

Parchment paper

Flat baking sheet

Preparation and Assembly

1. Preheat over to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Have your pastry prepared and chilling.*

3. Chop about 1/4 cup lavender (or half that amount if using dried) and toss into the sugar. Cover and let sit to infuse. If you can do this in advance all the better, since of course the longer it sits the more lavender flavor you'll get.**

4. Measure the bourbon and port into a very small sauce pan and bring to a boil, then immediately transfer to a temperature-proof container and transfer to the freezer, uncovered, to cool down (unless you have more time than I had, then you can let is cool however you want).

5. Spread the prepared strawberries (see above) in a shallow dish and sprinkle with about 1/4 cup of the sugar. Let sit to macerate while you prepare the rest of the filling.

6. Place the pastry on the parchment paper and roll out to approximately 13" circumference. This is not a critical measurement so don't sweat it. You just want it big enough to hold the filling in the center with a good 3 or 4 inches of pastry left around the outside, so that you may fold the edges over in the manner of a French country tart, as shown in my photo. It's supposed to be rustic.

7. Transfer the parchment paper laden with pastry onto the baking sheet and slide it into the fridge for a sec while you do Steps 8 and 9.

8. Get the alcohols out of the freezer and mix in the lemon extract and the rose water.

9. Now you're going to mix the above liquids into the fig preserves. How much liquid you'll use is a seat of your pants kind of thing, because fig preserves are going to vary in consistency and sweetness. You're going to be spreading the mixture over the center of the pastry, then arranging the strawberries on top of that. So go for a mixture about the consistency of, say, yogurt. Taste will also be a factor. I found I really needed to cut the sweetness of the preserves, and they took a fair amount of the liquid. If you can imagine that. So go ahead and mix, then taste, and repeat until you like it.

10. Take the pastry out of the fridge.

11. Give the pastry a very light sprinkling of the lavender sugar, using the colander method below.**

12. Spread the preserve mixture in the center of the pastry round, leaving at least 3" all the way around for folding over.

13. Sprinkle a teaspoon of flour over the preserve mixture.

14. Now arrange the berries on the preserves. First put the most gorgeous whole one in the center, then arrange the halves concentrically from there.

15. There will be some lovely, sugary strawberry juice in your macerating bowl. Drizzle a little of that over the berries. Save the rest to make a strawberry simple syrup for cocktails, later. :)

15. Fold the outside edge of the pastry over, but not meeting, toward the center (see photo).

16. Brush the egg wash all visible surfaces of the pastry.

17. Sprinkle with a little more lavender sugar.

18. Bake in the 400 degree oven for about 20 minutes, or until light brown.

19. Remove from over, and transfer parchment paper and all to a cooling rack (just slide the paper off the sheet and onto the rack).

I dashed mine into the freezer for 10 minutes to cool faster, but I was in a hurry! If you are not dashing around like a mad person simply let it cool naturally to room temperature.

The Lavender Cream

So simple. Have your metal or ceramic bowl, and whisk, chilling in the freezer as usual. Pour the heavy cream into the bowl and whip for a couple of minutes. Then sprinkle some over the lavender sugar in (no more than 1/8 cup) and whip for another minute.


*Pastry: I used the simplest of regular, midwestern pie crust recipes, with just butter, flour, salt, and ice water. You may also use a nice French country tart recipe, which has a little sugar in it. I wholeheartedly recommend Julia Child for instruction, though she'll have you using shortening and butter. (I find it awesome that my Ozarkian grandmother made pie crust exactly as Julia does, so I don't feel even slightly pretentious recommending her method.)

**Method for "straining" the herb from the sugar: I simply used my regular stainless steel colander. Put a plate under the colander, put some sugar in, and shake the colander a bit so that sugar falls out, but most of the herb stays in. Some little bits will fall through the holes, but that's pretty.

October 14, 2009

I know!

It's been forever. Yes, we did go to L20. Yes, it was more fabulous than we imagined. And yes, I am soooo swamped with grad school and everything else that I have not been prioritizing this blog. Some day, I will write recreationally again. For now, I must make a living and earn this degree. But much thanks to my beloved Tim for taking me L20 for my birthday, and to all you lovely friends and readers who keep asking me when I'm going to post again. Big kisses!

July 28, 2009

Northern Exposure

Bourdain, you got me. We're going to L2O for our one night in Chicago. More later on that, of course. And to take it the Smith Family direction, there's a plan to make Bill's Best Damn Coffee Cake when we get to Michigan. It really is unbelievable. So, perhaps I'll have time while lolling around over the semester break to report, and post that recipe.

And yes, I'm rather glad to be going away on my 50th birthday.

Big year, this.

July 13, 2009

Grilled Corn on the Cob with Coconut Butter

Yum, yum, yum! Corn on the cob with coconut butter, cilantro, Thai spice, and lime. Just the right heat/sweet/tang/salt chord.

Not cocoa butter. CocoNUT butter. Oh. My. God. This is the new magic ingredient. I ran across it at Whole Foods today. I swear the makers aren't paying me to say this. This stuff is tastes like dinner on the beach.

It's not coconut oil*, either (which I do love). It is made from whole coconut flesh. It's raw, organic, and does not stand up to a lot of direct heat. You won't be frying in it.

You will, however, be slathering it on the ears of corn your going to wrap in foil and put next to the coals in your grill.

Here's how:
  1. Slather each shucked ear of corn with a tablespoon of coconut butter.
  2. Dust moderately with the Thai spice*.
  3. Lay the ear on a foil rectangle.
  4. Lay a handful (about 5 tablespoons) of chopped cilantro on one side of the corn.
  5. Seal up the foil.
  6. Put the packages right down next to the pre-readied coals on the grill.
  7. Cook them about half an hour, then open up the foil to let the steam out.
  8. Squeeze a 1/4 of fresh lime over each ear just before serving.
* If you're worried about the fattiness of coconut oil, remember that olive oil is a fat, too. And them google "coconut oil"+nutrition. You'll be surprised. It's a very healthy oil.
** I used a mixture I found at Whole Foods, called "Thai Garden Sweet Heat Asian Blend." It's a combination of coriander, red pepper flakes, cumin, nutmeg, cinnamon, garlic, black pepper, basil, cardamom, and cloves.

June 25, 2009

Stella Artois Dinner Kicks It Good

June 22, Stella Artois Dinner, Luciano's Trattoria, St. Louis
Hosted By Belgian Beer Sommolier Marc Stroobandt

Sponsored by Anheuser-Busch and Sauce Magazine

Marc Stroobandt gives me a private pour before the dinner, including hot sauce.

St. Louis, my home town. Beer headquarters of the U.S.A. I ask you, Town, am I a traitor for jumping on my chance to cover the Stella Artois Dinner at Luciano's Trattoria for Foodbuzz? Am I a bad citizen for embracing their Belgian beers, so soon after the still-mourned hostile takeover of Anheuser-Busch by Stella's Belgian beer conglomerate parent, InBev? Maybe I am. But if I'm mad at anyone it's our flimsy legal mechanism that allows what should be taken care of by anti-trust laws to go through so easily. I'm not a fan of hostile takeovers generally. They just seem mean to me. And I don't like it when people lose jobs so fat cats can make more money they don't need. But I have to tell you, I have never been fond of A-B beers. Sorry. Bud gives me a headache. Same for Busch. As for flavor, I just don't see the charm. Sorry, A-B loyalists.

However, I was a Stella lover already when the Belgians came to town, though. And after a decent hiatus period I started ordering it again. So, truthfully, I didn't hesitate at the opportunity to cover the dinner. As a matter of fact I leaped it like a starved hound dog. And am ever glad I did!

The three course dinner of coriander spiced scallop salad, chamomile encrusted veal loin with chanterelle mushrooms, and a hop infused panna cotte to finish included tastings of the Stella, and two other small Belgian brands (yes, owned now by ABInBev), Hoegaarden and Leffe Blonde.

Beer sommolier Marc Stroobandt was visibly pumped about chef Mark Del Pietro's menu when I chatted with him before dinner. "I could tell immediately when I talked to Mark that he'd really tasted the beers," Stroobandt said in his fancy Belgian accent. "Sometimes we send out beer and the chefs don't really taste them. From conversations with Mark, I could tell he was very tuned into the flavors."

Pre-dinner cheese plate.

Stroobandt sat me down before the meal with a plate of cheeses, some chocolate, a little spicy tomato broth (to which he added Tabasco) and three different bottles of beer. We tasted: beer; food; beer. Tune in, he instructed. How does the beer change the taste of the food? And does the food change the taste of the beer? It was magical. Every bit as fun as playing with wine.

"Drink more beer, save the planet," he said.

"OK," I smiled back.

I began to favor beer over wine two winters ago when, at a friend's house, my tummy was rumbly and I just couldn't manage my glass of wine. I asked for a beer and, voila! Tummy all better. No wonder. According to Stroobandt, beer is the food of the earth. It begins with barley. Barley can be grown quite environmentally soundly, he says. Then it's off to the brewery, through the process it goes, and then back again to cows in the form of feed. Interesting.

As I nibble on a beautifully crystallized piece of Parmesan and sip the lovely coriander and citrus infused Hoegaaden, I think I'd like to be a beer sommolier. Stroobandt has just finished dining and educating the privileged masses at the Aspen Food and Wine Festival, and now has landed here to try getting through to me and my sister St. Louisans with yummy beers and food. Tough work.

Table setting includes a variety of glassware shapes. Each beer has its needs.

The pre-dinner tasting over, it's time to sit down for dinner. The table is set with at least six shapes of glassware. Stroobandt starts by having us nose some Hoegaaden in a tumbler, and also a wine glass. The scent of the beer is very different in each glass -- the wine glass releases a lot more aroma. Lesson: Put your beer in its proper glass. If you don't know what that glass is, find out. Go to a good room like 33 Wine Bar in Lafayette Square, or The Stable, which has the venerable Jerad Gardner (sometimes called "The Hop Prophet") buying beer, and he and people like him can tell you exactly how to get the most out of a pour. And pour, you should. Release those essences. Let them play. This is only part of what I learned.

Chef Mark Del Pietro talks about the courses before they're served.

Foam is another part. One should sample the foam before drinking the beer, Stroobandt says. I don't remember why, exactly. But I'm certain it had something to do with enjoying the beer, so why argue?

After the foam, Del Pietro sent out his wonderful, perfectly done coriander spiced scallops. Sitting on a bed of baby arugula, sprinkled with toasted almonds and pecorino cheese and lightly swept through a drizzle of orange vinaigrette, it really did pair perfectly with the coriander and orange scented Hoegaaden. The scallops were as tender as any I've had, and the coriander crust had just the right crisp toothiness.

Del Pietro came out again before the main course and spoke a bit about how well the chamomile worked as a crust on the veal loin, with its sweetness and texture. I was disappointed that the crust was missing on my cut, and on all the others I could see. Kitchen snafu? I would have liked to have known the story. Nonetheless, it was delicious, and I was happy chanterelle mushrooms on the plate, as I had bought some at market Saturday. Perfectly in season, they were so earthy and sweet with the rich vegetable broth reduction. I thought the Stella was a nice choice with this course. It lightened the earthiness, lifted it. A less imaginative chef might have done a fish, or something more obviously suited to the dry, light Stella flavor.

My Stella foam, upon a black spoon. I was instructed by Stroobandt to always carry this spoon with me, and to never fail to taste my foam before sipping.

I also learned that one of my tablemates thinks Del Pietro is a genius hottie (her husband told me this), and that the true way to pour a Belgian beer is through The Pouring Ritual, a nine-step process that I was sad Stroobandt didn't demonstrate. Here did go through other basics of good pouring technique, however, including how to get the perfect two fingers of head.

Stroobandt introducing the dessert course.

Part one of the dessert course.

Chef Mark Del Pietro's hop infused panna cotte, paired with Leffe Blonde

And then dessert. Another thing I learned: I'm not the only one who thinks beer and dessert go together like evening grass and fire flies. This was fun. A nice swirl and sip of Leffe Blonde -- a full bodied, filtered beer with some malt, some sweetness, and a nice hoppiness. Imagine, sweetness and hoppiness together. If you were a chef asked to pair this with a dessert, what would you do? Stroobandt talked a lot about chocolate and beer, something he sees as pretty unexpected. And perhaps it is. (Unless you me, who decided one day in her 20s that beer and warm chocolate chip cookies might be the perfect combo.) Anyway, Del Pietro said he tried several chocolate approaches and didn't like any of them. Then he tried panna cotte. I adore panna cotte. 1111 Mississippi does a nice one, especially if you get to it the same day it's made. This one was better. Infused with hops, it was bitter, and sweet, and creamy, just like the Leffe Blonde. After me taste of beer, the dessert changed flavor on my tongue about thirty times in the first 10 seconds. Then another sip of Leffe. Ya. Now the beer is running through flavor dimensions like Einstein through sub-atoms. This was working. The rhubarb and strawberry bed was a nice, tart contrast, and woke my mouth up from its super-dimensional dreaminess, but it was the Leffe infused whipped cream on top that bowled me over. How could something be so delicate and so abrasive at the same time? Nice. But do I really have to wake up now?

Want to see the Nine Step Pouring Ritual? Take a look here.

June 19, 2009

The Best Dessert in Town -- at Agave!

I'm really not kidding.

I've been looking for this since Oaxaca, 1991. A real flan. With real cajeta, the dolce de leche caramel heaven made from goat's milk (usually condensed). Agave's flan is rich and dreamy and way beyond the offensive flan-in-a-sombrero caricature we're subjected to around here. And because Agave is Agave there's tequila in there, too. Anejo, to be specific, which I'm told is aged for a year in small oak casks. Wait until you get a whiff of the swirly sauce of cajeta and tequila the lovely little custard allows itself to sit upon. Just wait.

Agave is on Manchester in The Grove

I remember lingering at an outside table, in a restaurant on the zocolo in Oaxaca town, writing a poem, trying to capture the essence of what my time there felt like: the blues and the greens, the iron-caged doors, the gardenias, little children, all of it. And I ordered a flan to go with my cafe con leche and it came out on a plate, as a slice, with caramel sauce, and from the first bite I knew I would never capture the sublimity of that moment in any poem. I just couldn't; I wasn't talented enough. So I ate it really, really slowly, and forgot everything else. This flan at Agave will take you close to there if you let it. But with a small, sweet tequila kick, and its own little mystery. Honestly, it's pretty hard to get my attention like this. The last time was Natalia's Bienmasabe cake and that was, I don't know, two years ago or something.