Sunday, August 12, 2007

Golden Garden Kings with Chocolate Eyes, plus Herbillette

Summer has finally arrived for us.

(NB: For San Franciscans, that means that we left the city and went to another location where there is no fog, and you can see the sun.)

Over the weekend, we spent a lovely afternoon Chez Ms. Five-and-a-Half and Mr. Thirteen, for their annual Deep Fried Turkey fiesta. Of course, we had to fight traffic getting out of Fogtown for nearly three-quarters of an hour before reaching the open road-- as if the gods were trying to emphasize the bliss of being up in the relaxing warmth of Petaluma.

As always, Ms. Five-and-a-Half's setting was gorgeous, with centerpieces of "garden kings with chocolate eyes." Sunflowers seem so nostalgic to me, a very grand, bright flower that nonetheless has a humble way of bending its head under the sunlight.

Herewith is the menu -- not too extravagant, but delicious:

Golden Garden King Dinner

Fresh Figs with Goat Cheese and Orange Blossom Honey

Deep Fried Turkey
Sagaponack Pudding
Grilled Orange Marinated Fennel
Mixed Green Salad
Fresh Focaccia
Apricot Macadamia Tartlets
Orange Raspberry Tartlets
Homemade Peach Ice Cream

Mr. Thirteen working the fryer/grill station. He injected the turkeys, delish Willie-Birds, with a spiced marinade, and we later caught numerous diners sneaking back to the kitchen to steal some of that fabulous crispy fried skin.

The birds were fried in peanut oil, which this year, was oddly difficult to obtain. Ms. Five-and-a-Half was told by numerous shopkeepers that it was "seasonal." Is that really true? If so, when is the season?

Seasonal, to me, means "the time when a fresh product is available," but shouldn't peanut oil, being a bottled extract, be available all year long-- not just during peanut season? Or does seasonal in this case mean "only during one forty-eight hour period in November when we can charge exorbitant prices for the oil in which cooks across the nation will fry millions of birds for a holiday table"?

Anyway, they did in fact find (apparently unseasonal) peanut oil, and as Ms. Five-and-a-Half puts it, "crisis averted."

The grill was put to hard labor grilling up the fennel, which we sliced a bit thickly, and so was still fairly crunchy. Everyone kindly assured me that they actually like crunchy fennel, but I'm still on the hunt for a better method of grilling the vegetable so that they aren't tough and inedible coming of the grill, but also aren't brunt to a crisp. Help, anyone?

More successful was our tried and true fast focaccia with some caramelized onions on top. No one believes me when I say that this recipe is ridiculously easy, but honest, really, I mean it. You stir everything together, dump the lot into a bowl, let it rise, punch it down and put it in a pan, let rise and then bake. It takes a few hours, but actual work time is minimal.

There are much more authentic recipes out there that require a starter, and more attention, and they do reward you with better flavor, but I find if you add in some herbs or garlic or caramelized onion to this one, the results are pretty satisfying.

Fast Foccaccia

5 cups unbleached flour
2 tsp salt

2 cups warm (110°) water
1 pkg yeast
6 tbsps olive oil
3 tbsp fresh rosemary, chopped basil, thyme or oregano

Optional: A few table spoons of chopped garlic, onions, sun-dried tomatoes, fennel, etc.

Mix flour and salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, mix water, yeast and then 3 tbsp olive oil. Stir yeast mixture into flour mixture until evenly moistened. Mix in herbs with dough.

Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place 1 1/2 hours.

Scrape into 10 1/2 x 15 1/2 pan and pat evenly into pan. Cover with oiled plastic wrap and let rise 1 hour.

Uncover and dimple dough by punching finger at 2" intervals into surface. Drizzle with remaining olive oil, and add chopped garlic, green pepper, sundried tomatoes, chopped olives, etc., whatever on top.

Bake at 450°F for 25 minutes.


For dessert, we did an assortment of tartlets, interspersed with some homemade saffron cookies brought by one of our other guests, all topped off with some homemade Peach Ice Cream. Mmmmm, peach ice cream -- As a side note, I should mention that we have finally broken down and purchased an ice cream maker. Inspired by posts over at David Lebovitz's site and his new book, Perfect Scoop, we've heavily, HEAVILY experimented. Not much has made it on to the blog of late because most of the experiments have not yet been deemed worthy.

In fact, we've had to eat a lot of experiments, sadly.

I feel very badly about it.

(Not really.)

Apricot Macadamia Tartlets

For the crust:
1 cup coarsely chopped roasted macadamia nuts (about 5 ounces)
6 tablespoons plus 1/3 sugar
1/4 cup AP flour
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted

1 cup semidry white wine (such as Chenin Blanc)
1/3 cup water 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise

4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
2 tablespoons apricot preserves

6 apricots, thinly sliced

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Blend the nuts, 6 tablespoons sugar and flour in a food processor until nuts are finely chopped. Add the melted butter and continue to process until the mixture begins to clump together.

Divide the dough equally among the tartlet pans. 4-inch-diameter tartlet pans with removable bottoms work well or you can use a dozen mini-tartlets. Press the mixture onto bottom and up sides of pans. Bake until the crusts are golden and set, about 10-12 minutes. Transfer the pans to racks and allow the crusts to cool completely.

For the soaking syrup, combine the wine, water and 1/3 cup sugar in large nonstick skillet. Scrape in the seeds from the inside of the vanilla bean and add the whole bean as well. Stir the mixture over a medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and boil until the liquid is slightly thickened and reduced to generous 1/2 cup (about 5-6 minutes). Discard the vanilla bean or save for another purpose and cool the syrup to room temperature.

For the filling, combine the cream cheese, preserves and 2 tablespoons vanilla syrup in a fod processor. Purée until smooth. Spoon the filling into the cooled crusts and smooth the tops. Refrigerate until set, about 1 hour. (These can be made 1 day ahead. Keep the tartlets chilled.)

Transfer 2 tablespoons of vanilla syrup into a small bowl. Add the sliced apricots to the syrup in skillet and toss gently to coat. Arrange the apricot slices decoratively on top of the filling in the crusts. Brush the apricot slices with reserved 2 tablespoons vanilla syrup. Refrigerate tartlets 30 minutes. Serve chilled.

Adapted from Bon Appétit, July 1996.


I also can't resist adding a little cheese coda to our tale. We visited the home of the Cowgirls from the Creamery, who kindly laid out a Cheese-go-Round for us to sample. Sharp-eyed observers will no doubt notice the Red Hawk and the nettlesome St. Pat flanking the wheel of (was it Brie?) below. at 11 o'clock is an Abbaye de Belloc sheep's milk cheese and at 1 o'clock is a fine Mrs. Appleby's Cheshire, a better-than-cheddar hard cheese and perhaps the last of the true authentic farmhouse English Cheshires around.

In the middle is a fascinating little wedge of Tomme de Bordeaux or Herbillette, affined by Jean d'Alos. Ms. Cowgirl and I briefly get into a discussion about affinage, which I am hoping will be the Next Big Thing to catch on in cheese. The unusual goats milk Herbillette has crushed fennel, summer savory, juniper berries and peppercorns on the rind, which I definitely don't mind eating on this cheese. It's incredibly addictive, and I drop the credit for the beautiful finish at the feet of Jean d'Alos, the affineur, who lovingly raises the cheeses in his cave in Bordeaux. (Read more about his work on Chez Pim.)

When we arrived at the Cowgirls, Mme. Ranger hooted and said, "Oh, we met someone who's making dinner for you tomorrow-- she was looking for cheese for you!"

It seems our cheesy reputation precedes us. Okay, you can all laugh now, but life could be worse than having your friends unearth fascinating cheeses for you. Indeed, our neighbor La Canadienne, who invited us and another couple to dinner, had been in to consult with the Cowgirls, looking for obscure cheeses, and served up the always welcome Red Hawk, some buttery, grassy Tome de Couserans, and also the wonderful Tumalo Tomme, an aged unpasteurized, goat's milk cheese from Juniper Grove Farms in Oregon.

I'm highly entertained by the description of the Cowgirls' website that notes that the goats "are allowed to cavort freely in the fresh air, drink clear mountain water, and sup on shrubs and alfalfa that grow lushly in the rich volcanic soil..."

High-diddly-dee... a goaty life for me...

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