The good stuff

Arriving home after work with the pressing knowledge that I had fresh mozzarella in my fridge, I only wanted one thing: caprese. The humble insalata caprese is a fixture on many restaurant menus, and it’s easy to see why: tender, delicately milky fresh mozzarella, luscious ripe tomatoes and basil represent the perfect fusion of flavor, color and texture.

Sadly and predictably, restaurant capreses often stray from the platonic ideal they represent. Dry, flavorless mozzarella, anemic basil and, worst of all, hard mealy tomatoes seem to be the rule rather than the exception. As a result, I stay away from caprese unless it’s summer and I have complete confidence in the restaurant. After all, the simplest dishes reveal their flaws most readily: when the focus is on the purity of ingredients, the ingredients have to shine.

I made my caprese with a tomato from Songhaven farm and a sauce of basil, parsley, olive oil, garlic, salt and a splash of olive juice and apple cider vinegar. Against tradition? Perhaps. But it was perfect, none the less.

Herb Vinaigrette

1/2 cup loosely packed basil leaves

1/2 cup loosely packed parsley leaves

1 medium garlic clove

1/3 cup olive oil

1/4 cup vinegar (white wine, white balsamic, sherry or apple cider)

Splash of olive juice (optional)

Pinch of salt

Place herbs and garlic in the food processor and blend until finely chopped. Add vinegar, olive juice if using and salt. Process until blended. With the processor running, add olive oil in a steady stream to emulsify. Serve with salads, grilled meats and steamed vegetables, drizzle on sandwiches or use as a marinade. 

Getting dressed for work

I don’t get out much.  When I do, more often than not I’ll be covered in dust, mud, grime, or some combination thereof by the end of it.

Working in town from time to time gives me the opportunity to dress in clothes that normally languish in the closet. Although wearing my grandma’s pants gets me plenty of funny looks, I stand by my choice: grandma had impeccable taste in clothing and fabrics (and food, for that matter).

Zoey and Beth shirt (thrift store, Monticello, UT), Grandma’s pants, Grandma’s belt, Levi’s jacket, Dansko shoes

Spending a lot of time by myself also means that I frequently succumb to the compulsion to fiddle with my hair.

Random hoops, Aveda lipstick in Mulbury
Hair cut and color by me, in my bathroom

Gratin glory

It will be browned under the broiler before serving…

Fall has come to the Four Corners. Heavy storm clouds, cool temperatures and rain signal that winter – whether we like it or not – is creeping closer.

Grey skies and chilly weather make me want to cook. Almost as soon as I got up this morning, I made an apple pie with walnut streusel topping. And vanilla ice cream (which may sound counterintuitive – I was just talking about the cold, after all – but is an absolute must with apple pie).

Sugar, spice

I was getting ready to roast some eggplant and summer squash on a cookie sheet when I had a better idea – gratin!

Gratin is essentially a casserole with a browned crust. It’s a simple, hearty preparation for vegetables; in its most familiar incarnation – potatoes au gratin – it’s a sumptuous marriage of starch and fat.

I made my gratin by layering potatoes, zucchini and eggplant, sprinkling the layers with salt and minced garlic and drenching the whole thing in olive oil.

I’m planning to serve it for dinner tonight with white beans cooked with greens and tomatoes. And, of course, apple pie and ice cream for dessert!

Do you have a favorite gratin?

Pie.

Apple time

Last night I went to an apple harvest party at an ancient orchard near Cortez, Colorado. Apple picking, cider pressing, fire, food, wine, beer, music and a clear, chilly night: what better way to celebrate the autumn equinox?

Apples, like tomatoes, taste better in season. When the days grow short, the nights become cold, and summer fruits are on their way out, apples ease the transition into fall. Quintessentially autumnal foods like apple pie and apple sauce serve as a consolation and a promise: although summer is gone, there are holiday feasts to look forward to, and the rich, comforting cold-weather dishes to which apples provide the perfect sweet-tart counterpoint.

Although they’re the ultimate pie fruit – firm, flavorful (if you get the right ones) and easy to come by – there are innumerable uses for apples. You can add them to stuffing, make them into chutney or apple butter, bake them with sugar and cinnamon, incorporate them into salads, ferment their juice into refreshing, earthy hard cider – or simply eat them sliced, with gobs of salty almond butter (my personal favorite). Apples keep very well, making them an ideal storage crop; with the right preparation, you can enjoy fresh apples all winter long.

Some of my favorite apple varieties are ones you won’t usually find at the store, like the sugary-sour Gold Rush and the spicy, floral Northern Spy.

What’s your favorite kind of apple? How do you like to eat them?

Apple Pie

1 cup all purpose flour

1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour

1/2 tsp. salt

8 tbsp. unsalted butter

4 tbsp. shortening or lard

1/3 – 1/2 cup ice water

*

6 cups apples, peeled, cored and sliced

1/2 – 3/4 cups sugar (depending on the sweetness of your apples)

1 or 2 tbsp. lemon juice (depending on the tartness of your apples)

2 tbsp. flour

2 tsp. cinnamon or 1 tsp. cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. ground cardamom and 1 tsp. ground ginger

2 tbsp. butter

Pinch of salt

Make the crust: blend flours and salt in a food processor. Cut butter into small cubes; add butter and shortening to the flour and pulse until the mixture reaches the consistency of course crumbs. Transfer to a large bowl and add ice water; mix with swift strokes until dough forms a ball (don’t over-mix!). Divide dough into two balls, flatten into disks, and wrap tightly in plastic; place them in the refrigerator and chill for 30 minutes (or longer).

Pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees and make the filling: place sliced apples in a bowl and toss with sugar, flour, lemon juice, salt and spices. Roll out the dough, place one round in a 9″ pie plate and prick the bottom with a fork; add the apple mixture, dot with butter, and top with the remaining dough. Flute the edges of the crust (or simply trim away the excess and crimp with a fork) and cut four slits in the top. Bake until the crust is golden and juice is bubbling through the slits in the top, about 40 minutes.

Notes: a light hand is essential for good pastry. Handle the dough as little as possible. Always start from the center when rolling out pie crust; use short, decisive strokes and rotate the dough often to insure roundness. I like to use a pie crust shield to prevent the crust from scorching before the filling is cooked.

Granny Smiths are my go-to pie apple; they’re inexpensive and readily available, with firm flesh and good, bracing acidity.

There are many variations possible with apple pie; you can substitute a streusel topping for the top crust, add whiskey-soaked raisins or cherries to the filling, and play with the spicing.

Orchard
Tree
Picking
Rosy
Apple pouch

Weekly photo challenge: Solitary

I live here

I live by myself on the edge of a wild canyon.

When the conditions are just right –  a hot summer day, a cloudless, curving azure sky, a panorama of abandoned barns on a stretch of silent highway – I get an uncanny sense of how high up I am. It feels like I’m at the top of the world, so profoundly alone I might as well be in space.

I did this (diary of a sugar fiend)

Cookie n’ cream

I couldn’t get the Frangelico open, try as I might.

Instead I added homemade coffee-caramel liqueur to a carton of cream and shook madly (not enough to really whip it; that would have taken too long). I poured the resulting froth over a microwaved  chocolate-chocolate-chip cookie from the store.

There wasn’t enough cream on it before.
Yep, I licked it.

Salsa

Salsa

2 pounds (give or take) of tomatoes

A few tomatillos if you have them

1 onion

1 bell pepper

1 clove garlic

1 jalapeno

1 small bunch cilantro

Salt

Quarter the tomatoes and halve the tomatillos, if using. Arrange on a lightly oiled baking sheet, skin-side down; salt gently and roast at high heat (400-450 degrees) until soft and charred, about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.

Finely chop the onion, bell pepper and jalapeno; mince the garlic. Roughly chop the cilantro. 

Puree the tomatoes and tomatillos in a food processor or blender – you can leave them chunky or blend them smooth, based on your preference. Transfer to a bowl or storage container and stir in onion, peppers, garlic, cilantro and salt to taste.

Notes: roasting the tomatoes is key to the flavor of this salsa; the little bit of char lends smoky complexity. If you’re planning to can your salsa, as I did, heat it in a saucepan before transferring to canning jars. Using foil or parchment to line your baking pans will save you a lot of work (burnt-on tomato juice can be a bitch to remove).