Tag Archives: Food

Asparagus and Caramelized Onion Tart

Asparagus Tart

There are hints of both the blessed and the accursed about some Sundays.  The good parts, of course, are obvious.  A day of worship for many.  A day of rest.  It is a day of sleeping in, and long breakfasts, and lolling and lounging and hot baths and long runs and maybe even a nap.  All good.  All very good.  But there is this whiff of despair in the air some Sundays, or maybe it’s just me, looking ahead and counting the dwindling hours of freedom and ease.  Instead of staying in the pleasant now of couch and cat and book I start doing mental arithmetic: this many hours until I need to get ready for work tomorrow, and then get to bed and then get up and go to work and oh, my week is going to be so busy, and I don’t want to go to work, not yet…and there I am, dreading Monday morning instead of living Sunday afternoon.  I’m sure I smell a whiff of brimstone in the air, possibly hear the echo of devilish laughter.

But you know what helps drive back the darkness?  A little time spent in the kitchen–not hurrying, just flowing with the chopping and stirring.  And then a good meal, like this summery tart. Yes, the leftovers will be good for lunch on Monday morning.  But don’t think about Monday while you are making it.

Asparagus and Caramelized Onion Tart

  • 1 shortcrust tart shell
  • 1 large onion
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 15 oz whole milk ricotta
  • ¼ cup cream
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • several grinds of pepper
  • small handful of fresh parsley, minced fine (1-2 tbsp)
  • 15-20 stalks of asparagus, ends trimmed
  • drizzle of olive oil

You will need a tart shell that is approximately 10 inches wide for this recipe.  Buy one, take one out of the freezer, or use your favorite shortcrust recipe to create one from scratch.  Whichever way, you’ll need it rolled out and pressed into a pan. Preheat oven to 350F.

Coarsely chop onion.  In a sauté pan or wok over medium heat, stir onions in 1 tsp of olive oil,  then cook very, very slowly until caramelized—at least half an hour, stirring occasionally.  Add a splash of water every now and then if needed to keep onions from frying/burning/overbrowning.  They are done when they are soft, golden brown, and smell sweet.

Meanwhile, prebake the tart shell for 10 minutes, then remove from oven.

Vigorously stir together ricotta, cream, egg, lemon zest, parsley, salt and pepper.  Pour into tart shell.  Top ricotta mixture with caramelized onions, distributed evenly.  Arrange asparagus spears on top of onion layer.  Drizzle very lightly with olive oil.

Place tart pan on a baking sheet and place in oven.  Bake for 30 minutes, then check periodically and remove from oven when ricotta is set, asparagus looks cooked, and tart is generally golden brown on top.

Boeuf Bourguignon

Boeuf Bourguignon

I’ve been on the fence about whether to write about Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon recipe here.  As you can see, I’ve come down on the pro side of that fence.  But just barely, and here’s why.  Boeuf Bourguignon is, to quote my dear friend and fellow blogger Natalie, “quite simply the best thing that I have ever cooked.” But it is also the most complicated, exacting, and time consuming thing I have ever cooked–including cassoulet, which is really saying something.

So if you decide to try this recipe, be ready to go all-in.  Shop carefully and don’t make substitutions.  Set aside the entire day for cooking. Follow the detailed instructions to the letter.  Plan to clean a fine layer of grease off of every surface in your kitchen (including yourself). Get your kitchen zen on.  And you will be rewarded richly.

Boeuf Bourguignon fully engages all five senses in the cooking process.  In honor of National Poetry Month, I’m sharing my cooking experience in a non-prose (maybe poetry, maybe not!) format.

Squashy cold meat and crisp vegetables distinct in the hand
slide under the knife blade.
Prickly fine droplets of hot fat hit arms in fiery rain.
Ease tired shoulders toward ears,
feel the floor under the balls of feet. Go get soft slippers.
Sizzling and simmering compete with loud, loud, loud music to chop and stir by.
Sharp metallic beef blood transitions to
smoky browned meat, onions sting nostrils and eyes,
a waft of cork and fresh wine–take a sample gulp from the bottle—
the mellower scent of reducing sauce.
Pale mushrooms soften and exude liquid, then
brown to just the right color as promised by Julia.
Steaming finished dish pulled from oven bubbling, deep caramelized brown.
Layer upon layer of flavor: first punch of umami in the mouth
then more subtle notes of thyme and salt and bacon and beef.
Lingering richness on the tongue.

For the original Julia Child recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon, as well as the recipes for sauteed mushrooms and brown-braised onions that are necessary to complete the dish, click here.

Sugar Shack

maple syrup bottles

On my recent trip home to Wisconsin, there was talk of cousin Spike’s maple syrup operation, which had started as a small hobby and then expanded into a big hobby with a lot of fancy equipment and a brand new sugar shack in which to house the operation.  Sissy and I eagerly hopped into our Uncle Tom’s truck and set off to see the sugar shack.  I was entranced by the whole idea, partly due to fond memories of reading all about sugaring off in the Wisconsin maple woods in Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

“All winter,” Pa said, “Grandpa has been making wooden buckets and little troughs…he went into the maple woods and with the bit he bored a hole in each maple tree, and he hammered the round end of the little trough into the hole, and he set a cedar bucket on the ground under the flat end…Every day Grandpa puts on his boots and his warm coat and his fur cap and he goes out into the snowy woods and gathers the sap.”

Maple Syrup Little House in the Big Woods

When we pulled into Spike’s driveway, we saw the new sugar shack.  The metal building was much larger than I had expected, with smoke coming out of the chimney and a pile of freshly split wood.

Sugar Shack

The door opened, and several guys came out to greet us.  As we went inside, they talked to Uncle Tom about the muddy conditions amongst the maple trees after the recent heavy snowfall and thaw, and how the bobcat had slid into a ditch up there while they were collecting sap the day before.  Spike showed us the little plastic taps he puts in the trees, and the shiny silver mylar bags that the syrup collects in.

tap for maple syrup

“He empties the sap into the iron kettle.  There is a big bonfire under the kettle, and the sap boils, and Grandpa watches it carefully. The fire must be hot enough to keep the sap boiling, but not hot enough to make it boil over.”

Maple Syrup (2) Little House in the Big Woods

The sugar shack was steamy warm on the inside, and full of interesting equipment.  Spike showed us the osmosis machine, which removes much of the water from the sap before it is cooked down, saving hours of cooking time.  It takes a whole lot of sap to make a little maple syrup, and much of that volume is water.  The pure mineral water that is removed is drinkable.

syrup 2

Then the sap passed on to a wood-fired contraption that cooked it down slowly over many hours.  A thermostat on the wall showed the temperature inside the cooker.  Several men and a boy were hanging around this machine, and they opened the little doors in the top to let us peek down at the thin, light-colored sap.  They showed us the spout on the side where, when it was the right temperature, the darker finished syrup would pour out into a container.

syrup 3

This step in the process mostly seemed to involve a lot of pleasant hanging around in the warmth of the sugar shack, occasionally feeding the fire and keeping an eye on that thermostat.  Not a bad way to spend a cold Saturday at all.

“Grandpa can make enough maple sugar to last all year, for common every day.  When he takes his furs to town, he will not need to trade for much store sugar…He’s going to sugar off again next Monday, and he says we must all come. Pa’s blue eyes twinkled; he had been saving the best for last, and he said to Ma: ‘Hey, Caroline! There’ll be a dance!’”

Maple Syrup (1) Little House in the Big Woods

Uncle Tom had already promised both of us a few bottles of Spike’s maple syrup to take home with us.  After we’d seen the entire fascinating operation and asked a million questions, Spike suggested that we come back later in the day to see the finished syrup coming out.  And maybe have a few beers.

The equipment has changed over the century or two since Laura Ingall’s Grandpa sugared off, but the process is more or less the same, including the camaraderie of working together to produce the syrup, then celebrating a bit–whether with a dance or a beer from the keg fridge in the corner.

syrup 3 keg fridge

Cassoulet

Cassoulet

“The composition of Cassoulet is, in typical French fashion, the subject of infinite dispute, so much so that if you have read or heard about Cassoulet and never tasted it, you come to expect a kind of rare ambrosia rather than the nourishing country fare it actually is.”—Julia Child, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

I beg to differ, Julia.  As much as I love your brisk good sense and can-do spirit, we disagree on this point.  Cassoulet is nourishing country fare, yes.  But that entirely misses the point of cassoulet.  The point is that it actually is a kind of rare ambrosia.  Cassoulet is a dish that is far more than the sum of its parts.  It is days (weeks, really if you make your own duck confit!) of careful preparation of ingredients in order to serve yourself and your loved ones with a dish of savory meat and beans that first fills the room with a rich aroma, then fills tummies, then hearts.

It is indeed a rare ambrosia when, on a rainy winter night, I shed my damp coat and settle into a chair across from a friend in a favorite French restaurant, and we order a half carafe of red wine, then the waiter lists the specials and one of them is cassoulet.  I feel all hollow in my middle in anticipation.

I am reminded of N.M. Kelby’s words at the end of White Truffles in Winter, and I think that the question before us is not just country fare vs. ambrosia, but “who we…are when we address the plate. The magician, the priest, the dreamer, the artist—it is our most hungry self.”

My imagination was captured many, many years ago, when I had yet to taste cassoulet, the very first time I read A Moveable Feast:

 I walked in the early dusk up the street and stopped outside the terrace of the Negre de Toulouse restaurant where our red and white checkered napkins were in the wooden napkin rings in the napkin rack waiting for us to come to dinner.  I read the menu mimeographed in purple ink and saw that the plat du jour was cassoulet.  It made me hungry to read the name. –Ernest Hemingway

Now there was a man who understood hunger of all kinds.

Cassoulet

(Inspired by Mastering the Art of French Cooking and adapted from Anthony Bourdain)

  • 2.5 cups Tarbais beans or small white beans
  • 1 pound fresh pork belly
  • 1 onion, cut into 4 pieces
  • 1 bouquet garni 
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/4 cup duck fat
  • 3 pork sausages, halved
  • 2 onions, thinly sliced
  • 2 garlic clove, thinly sliced
  • 2 confit duck legs

Day One
Place the beans in the large bowl and cover with cold water so that there are at least 2 or 3 inches of water above the top of the beans. Soak overnight.

Day Two
Drain and rinse the beans and place in a large pot. Add the pork belly, the quartered onion, and the bouquet garni. Cover with water, add salt and pepper to taste, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the beans are just tender, about 30-40 minutes. Let cool slightly, then discard the onion and the bouquet garni. Remove the pork belly, cut it into 2-inch squares, and set aside. Strain the beans and set aside, reserving the cooking liquid separately.

In a saute pan, heat all but 1 tablespoon of the duck fat over medium-high heat until it shimmers and becomes transparent. Carefully add the sausages and brown on all sides. Remove and set aside, draining on paper towels. In the same pan, over medium-high heat, brown the sliced onions, the garlic and the reserved squares of pork belly from the beans.  Once browned, remove from the heat and transfer to the blender. Add remaining 1 tablespoon of duck fat and puree until smooth. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350F. In a deep, ovenproof dish, arrange all your ingredients in alternating layers, beginning with a layer of beans, then sausages, then more beans, duck confit and finally more beans, adding a dab of the onion and pork belly puree between each layer. Add enough of the bean cooking liquid to just cover the beans, reserving ½ cup in the refrigerator for later use. Cover and cook the cassoulet in the oven for 1 hour, then reduce the heat to 250F and cook for another hour. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Refrigerate overnight.

Day Three
Preheat the oven to 350F.
Cook the cassoulet uncovered for an hour. Break the crust on the top with the spoon and add about 1/4 cup of the reserved cooking liquid if it seems dry. Reduce the heat to 250F and continue cooking another 15 minutes.

Serves two plus generous leftovers for the next day, or four if you can share your duck legs nicely with others.