Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Baked Pear with Bleu Cheese and Bacon

In a rare moment of inspiration after watching an episode of Jacques Pepin on a lazy Saturday morning, I concocted these little treats and have been waiting to try them for a few weeks. Truthfully, I really wasn't sure if they would be any good. With so many strong flavors fighting for your attention, it may just be too much. But I had to try, if for no other reason than it gave me a reason to buy really good bleu cheese.

My first attempt at making these was not a complete failure, but it was pretty close. First, I did not cook them long enough. Second, I used the broiler instead of the oven, so they didn't cook from the right side. On the second attempt, I think I got it right, or I am at least getting closer. I am still not sure how to classify these. If they were to appear on the menu at a popular five-star restaurant, would you find them with the appetizers? Or with the desserts? I guess I will let you decide. I hope you try them, add your own flavors to the recipe, and have fun. I did. Here we go.

Baked Pear with Bleu Cheese and Bacon

1 ripe pear, (be sure it's not too over ripe or squishy)
3 pieces of good quality bacon
4 - 5 Tablespoons of high quality crumbly bleu cheese
3 - 4 Tablespoons brown sugar

Fry the bacon, set aside to drain and cool. Once the bacon is cool, chop and crumble it into tiny bits. It's ok, go ahead and taste a few pieces. You deserve it.

Spoon the brown sugar into two brulee ramekins, spreading just enough to cover the bottoms. Peal the pears, and slice off the first 1/2 inch of the top and bottom. Halve the pear, and using a paring knife and small spoon, cut out the inner stem and seeds. Use the spoon to carve out the hole made by removing the seeds a little bit.

Place the pear halves in the ramekins, one in each. Place the ramekins on a baking sheet, and place into a 375 degree oven. Bake the pears for about 10 - 15 minutes, depending on softness of the pear. Once the brown sugar begins to liquefy and bubble, remove the pears from the oven.

Crumble the bleu cheese into the hole and trough left by the seeds and stem. Once again, go ahead and take a little taste of the cheese for yourself. I know. You're hungry.

Put the pears back into the oven for another 10 - 15 minutes. Check on them after the 10 minute mark. The brown sugar should continue to liquefy and the pears should soften. You will know they are done when the pears feel soft and forgiving when you squeeze them.

Once out of the oven, sprinkle the bacon crumbles over the top of the pears and bubbly brown sugar. Serve just out of the oven, while the brown sugar is still liquidy. Yes. Liquidy.

The flavors in this relatively simple dish are robust, but manage to mingle well. The sweet pear and brown sugar mix nicely with the tangy bleu cheese and salty bacon. It may not be something you make everyday, but I promise if you give a try, you will not be disappointed. Enjoy.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Dinner in the Raw

In the spirit of healthy living, occasionally the missus and I try something on the greener side of the buffet table. Specifically, we prepare something created by the Raw movement, where everything you eat, and I do mean everything, is well, raw.

Many people might think this way of preparing and enjoying food is missing something; for instance heat and cooked flesh. But the folks who ascribe to this movement may actually be on to something. Food, in its raw, uncooked form, is the best way to get the most nutrition out of each bite. This of course means no meat, but some of the more crafty raw foodies out there have worked their way around that little hiccup.

It should be said that any raw recipe, including the one that follows, is missing one very commonly accepted step: cooking. Many of the simpler recipes, those that don't require 24 hours in a dehydrator, require only chopping, slicing, stirring, and maybe a few seconds in the high-speed blender. The following recipe is a pretty basic raw recipe that should impress even the pickiest omnivore you know.

Zucchini Pasta Alfredo

For the pasta, first you are going to need one of these:

This handy little tool is a spiral slicer. Take 4 to 6 large zucchini, peel, cut off the ends, then spin them individually in the slicer, turning them into beautiful little curly ribbons of squash. Like so:

You might want to cut them down into manageable strips for easier consumption. For the sauce, you will need:

A high speed blender
3/4 cup coconut water
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup raw pine nuts or cashews
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Mix all ingredients (except the zucchini) in the high speed blender until smooth and creamy. Mix the sauce with the zucchini in a bowl, and serve.

Recipe note: The texture of the zucchini noodles improves if they are left to sit at room temperature for 6 hours or so. These can also be prepared the night before and stored in the refrigerator.

Editors note: In order to get the coconut water necessary for this sauce recipe, you might have to get creative. Buy a fresh coconut, carve off most of the outer skin, and see how far you get trying to crack it with a kitchen knife. Really, give it a shot. Eventually, you will realize the tools you need are not in the kitchen. And then you will hammer an 8" Phillips-head screwdiver into the stubborn coconut.

Thanks to Matt Amsden and his "Rawvolution" cookbook for the sauce recipe. The book has some great ideas for raw beginners, and for those of us who just have had one too many hamburgers.


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Blueberry Nectarine Pie Anyone?

When I was growing up, my father was always making pies. Apple, coconut cream, and his speciality, pecan. In our little town in Central California, his pies have become something of a legend and a staple on the wish lists of many in the community. My dad learned everything he knows about making pies from his mother, a true southern lady who's pie crust ingredients read something like "a few cups of flower, about half as much shortening as butter, and some ice water. Too thin? Add flower. Too sticky? Add water." Anyway, something like that.

I have always been impressed with my dad's pie making ability, along with the simplicity of the recipe handed down through my family. So when I first decided to confront the challenge of making a pie myself, I was pretty sure I was going to screw it up horribly. And, believe it or not, I did. It was an unmitigated disaster.

Because of the challenges faced with having a kitchen the size of a public bathroom stall, it is difficult to find enough room to roll out a properly sized pie crust. Well, my first attempt was an easy apple pie, recipe consisting of two pie crusts (top and bottom) and the baked apple filling. As I attempted this seemingly simple task, I think I may have broken several state laws with the amount of vulgar obscenities that came tumbling out of my kitchen. I barely got the bottom crust into the dish and most of the top crust ended up on the floor because the damn thing kept sticking to the "non-stick" mat. So we had a single crust apple pie. Whatever.

So now, for my second attempt, I was smarter. I remembered the horrors of my first attempt and learned from them. I adapted and overcame. For anyone else suffering from the same tiny kitchen syndrome as we are, here are a few tips to help you get through the pie making process. First, put EVERYTHING in the freezer. The butter, the shortening, the water, and especially the mat or pastry board you will be rolling your dough on. The colder, the better. You might even want to freeze your rolling pin. Second, to get the crust off of the mat and into the dish, roll it gently onto your rolling pin, pick it up, and lay it gingerly into the dish. I do not reccomend trying to pick it up with just your hands. So, after finding a recipe, the Missus and I went down to the farmers market to buy some fresh fruit, and away we went.

Blueberry Nectarine Pie

Flaky Pie Dough (These measurements make 4 individual pie crusts. Cut the amounts in half to make enough for one pie.)

5 1/4 cups pastry or all purpose flour
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 1/2 sticks cold, unsalted butter
1 3/4 cups solid vegetable shortening, chilled
1 cup ice water

With a pastry blender, cut chilled butter into the flour and salt until the mixture looks like coarse crumbs. Cut in the chilled shortening until it forms curds.

Add the ice water gradually and toss to blend. (Your hands work great for this.)

When the dough is sufficiently moist, pinch it - it will stick together

Lightly gather the dough into a round and chill before rolling.

After the dough has chilled for an hour, cut the ball into equal halves. Chill one half, and roll the second into a round about 10" in diameter and 1/8" thin. When you lay it into the pie dish, it should come up the sides and hang over the edge. Trim the excess, and chill for 1/2 hour.

The Filling
3 cups fresh blueberries, washed
2 cups sliced nectarines
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
large pinch of lemon zest
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

While your dough is chilling before you roll it out, start your filling. Put half of the fruit in a medium saucepan, keeping the remaining fruit close at hand. Add the sugar, flour, and lemon zest and stir to mix. Bring the mixture to a soft boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. The fruits will release their juices and the liquid will thicken. Turn the mixture into a bowl and stir in the uncooked fruit. Cool the filling to room temperature. Taste, and add lemon juice as needed.

Spoon the cooled filling into the pie shell and dot the tip with butter.

Roll out your second ball of dough. Transfer it to the top of the pie, aligning the edges of the top crust with the bottom crust. Trim any ragged edges.

Fold both layers of overhanging dough under to create a thick edge around the rim of the pan. Crimp the edges by pushing the thumb of one hand against the thumb and index finger of your other hand, creating scallops every 1 - 2 inches around the rim. Using a sharp paring knife, cut 4 - 6 slits in the top of the crust, brush egg wash over the top, and chill for 20 minutes.

Placing the pie on a jelly roll pan in the center of the oven, bake at 375 for about 40 - 50 minutes. Let the pie cool for 30 minutes before serving.

Ok, so I didn't get the nice scalloped edges like the recipe suggests. Other than that, the pie was a success. It even had a top crust! The tart blueberries and sweet nectarines are a great combination, and the crust was tender and flaky.

Deep thanks are owed to the amazing chefs who contributed to the cookbook, "Baking With Julia", especially Leslie Mackie who wrote the recipe for this pie. And, of course my beautiful wife for taking these mouth watering pictures.