Showing posts with label Appetizer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Appetizer. Show all posts

Monday, November 20, 2017

Cranberry Jalapeño Salsa with Whipped Cream Cheese

In spite of all of the attention the turkey, the sides, and the desserts get on Thanksgiving Day, the unsung heroes of the day might just be the appetizers. Especially if the time between your expected arrival and when dinner is actually served can be as much as two or three hours. If you have ever starved yourself all morning in anticipation of not showing any restraint with how much food you put on your plate, you know waiting an hour in a house filled with intoxicating Thanksgiving aromas is a form of torture. And in spite of what myths or old wives tales you have been told, appetizers don't alway spoil your appetite. They actually keep you from acting as if you have never seen food before. In other words, appetizers enable you to demonstrate enviable social graces and the table manners every Emily Post-esq etiquette teacher in the world would be proud of.

In decades of either making or being invited to Thanksgiving dinners, I somehow managed to never come across Cranberry Jalapeño Salsa with Whipped Cream Cheese. I learned there was such a thing last week while I was getting my hair cut. Had I not asked my hair stylist what she was bringing to her family Thanksgiving dinner, who knows how long, or if ever for that matter, it be before I ever tasted the New England meets the Southwest Cranberry Jalapeño Salsa. The idea of this salsa was so intriguing, I began looking for recipes the moment I arrived home. I discovered I clearly have been living a salsa sheltered life, as there were literally hundreds of Cranberry Jalapeño Salsa recipes out there. After reviewing about a dozen of them (as exhaustive as a search as was needed), I realized I had enough information to decide how much heat and sweet I wanted my Cranberry Jalapeño Salsa to have. I also knew it wouldn't be one served slathered over a cream cheese log as I am a big believer in 'everyone should decide just how much cream cheese and just how much salsa they want' spread on their crackers. But there was another compelling reason. How many time have you arrived late to a gathering only to find that all of the good stuff put on top of the cream cheese had been scraped away? Even if it has only happened to you once, you remember wondering what you had missed out on.

For years I, along with Ina Garten, had not been a big fan of cilantro. Whether my palate is changing or not, I have finally seen the cilantro light. However, if you are already a big fan of this herb, you are going to love this Cranberry Jalapeño Salsa. But if you have been a cilantro hold-out like me, this salsa might be enough to convert you. 

With so many cranberry dishes vying for attention on Thanksgiving Day, why would any one consider adding one more? Because everyone needs at least one savory cranberry option to offset all of the sweet versions being served. But don't let me pigeon-hole this salsa into a 'make only on Thanksgiving Day' appetizer. No. It's one that should be made as often as possible while fresh cranberries are in season.

While perusing Cranberry Jalapeño Salsa recipes, every single one of them was made entirely in the food processor. Being concerned the cranberries would be over processed and the resulting salsa would be more mush than textured, I went with the 'pulse the cranberries in the food processor until coarsely chopped and dice/finely dice everything else route'. 

After the mixture macerated in the refrigerator overnight, I knew the extra chopping time was worth it. Sometimes a little more work makes all the difference in the world. 

Depending on how much heat you like, you will want to use either one or two jalapeños as well as decide whether or not to keep or scrape out the seeds. I used one large jalapeño and didn't throw away the seeds. As someone who isn't the biggest of fan of too spicy, the salsa turned out to have the right kind of spicy. In other words, consider keeping the seeds.

Many of the Cranberry Jalapeño Salsa recipes I looked at called for adding lemon juice. Some called for lime juice and then others gave the either/or option. My so-called logic for choosing lime juice over lemon juice was due in to large part to associating salsa with margaritas. Since the classic margarita is made with lime juice, then it seemed only natural this salsa would be made with lime juice rather than lemon juice. 

To optimize the salsa's flavor, it needs to be refrigerated for at least four hours or overnight. I patiently waited almost 24 hours before giving it the 'taste' test. 

As it turned out, the wait was definitely worth it. 

The combination of the cool, creamy cream cheese with the flavors of the sweet/spicy salsa is a match made in heaven appetizer. I will even go so far as to say it's a little on the addictive side. Seriously. Or could it be I am so late to the Cranberry Jalapeño Salsa party I wanted to make up for lost time? Well, yes I was most definitely late, but this happens to be one of those 'hard to eat in moderation' salsas.

When serving Cranberry Jalapeño Salsa just make certain your whipped cream cheese is creamy and spreadable. If you whip up your own cream cheese (from blocks of cream cheese allowed to soften slightly), wait until you are ready to serve to get our your mixer. Or buy the always creamy in the tub cream cheese. 

For turning me on to this Cranberry Jalapeño Salsa with Whipped Cream Cheese I am going to think long and hard about a worthy Christmas present for my hair stylist. Although how to you thank someone for telling you about a 'wow on the platter and even bigger wow on your palate' appetizer you never knew even existed? Maybe something will come to me while I nosh my way through numerous batches of salsa over the next several weeks.

Cranberry Jalapeño Salsa with Whipped Cream Cheese (inspired from multiple sources)

12 ounces fresh cranberries
1-2 Jalapeños (with seeds), finely diced (I used one large Jalapeño)
4 green onions (white and green parts), thinly sliced
2 1/2 ounce bunch of fresh cilantro, stems removed, finely chopped
1 cup granulated sugar
2 Tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice (from 1 large or 2 small limes)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
16 ounces of cream cheese, whipped (or a 16 ounce tub of the creamy vs block cream cheese)
Assorted crackers and/or nacho chips

1. Place cranberries in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until coarsely chopped. Transfer cranberries to a medium sized bowl.
2. Mix in the jalapeños, onions, sugar, salt, and lime juice. Stir until blended.
3. Add in cilantro. Stir until combined.
4. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or transfer mixture to tightly sealed jars and store in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or preferably overnight. 
5. When ready to serve, place cranberry jalapeño salsa in a small bowl. Place whipped cream cheese in a separate bowl. 
6. Arrange bowls on a serving tray and surround with crackers. Serve immediately.

Notes: (1) To whip cream cheese, allow blocks of cream cheese to soften slightly. Whip with a hand mixer. Alternately buy already whipped cream cheese. (2) Some prefer to serve the Cranberry Jalapeño Salsa over a log of the cream cheese, however, depending on how long the appetizer sits out, the cream cheese will become saturated with the salsa liquid. (3) Many recipes for the Cranberry Jalapeño Salsa called for all of the ingredients to processed in the food processor. I think chopping the Jalapeños, green onions, and cilantro separately ensures the cranberries to do get finely chopped. (4) If you don't want the added heat from the seeds of the Jalapeños, scrape them out before finely dicing

Silos and farms in southern Wisconsin (November 2017)

Monday, July 31, 2017

Garlic Aoili with Crudités

 "You have your way, I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist." Friedrich Nietzsche After experiencing a moment of culinary angst last week, those words, combined with taking a deep breath, and reframing the moment with a yoga inspired intention enabled me to get a grip on myself. So what caused me to have an irrational, temporary moment of emotional regression? Well, it all had to do with making aoili. I had taken it a bit too seriously. Not only was my reaction to a failed attempt a bit out of character (it's not the first time something didn't exactly go as planned), so was the way I had usually approached making a new recipe. Instead of doing a fair amount of research and triangulating multiple recipes/sources of information, I made a new recipe without doing either or both of these things. This is not to say we shouldn't allow ourselves to have those blind faith moments. Because we should. Just not all of the time. Or at least for me, not in making aoili. As it turned out, throwing out the unsalvageable olive oil and (farm fresh) eggs turned out to be a blessing in disguise. While I didn't go into full doctoral dissertation research mode, I took a step back and spent some time learning a a bit more about making aoili and mayonnaise. Without going too far down into the aoili rabbit hole, I learned fairly quickly was there are a fair number of variations in both ingredient proportions and technique. Discovering some respected chefs have shared multiple recipes for their take on a good quality aoili and/or mayonnaise was reassuring. It seemed on any given day, one's choice of aoili recipe might depend on prior success, personal preference, and/or allegiance to a particular culinary belief. In an odd sort of way, this was proof there was no one right aioli making way.

If I could, please indulge my need to share some of what I learned during this aoili and mayonnaise learning quest. Feel free to skip ahead. Using the highly regarded Larousse Gastronomique as a reference, a Bon Appetit article helped to explain some of similarities and differences between these two sauces. "Mayonnaise is a 'cold emulsified sauce consisting of yolks and oil blended together', while an aoili is an emulsified sauce that must contain garlic and olive oil." So technically, a mayonnaise could be considered an aoili, if it's made with garlic and oil, and an aoili could be considered a mayonnaise as long as it is made with a yolk. However, don't expect everyone to agree on this interchangeability viewpoint. 

How the oil is incorporated into the yolk mixture can be achieved in a variety of ways, some more foolproof than others. Food processors, immersion blenders, whisks, and a mortar/pestle are some of the tools used. Some recipes provide directions specify the use of only one of these tools, while others offer directions for multiple options. Owning an immersion blender, food processor, or a mortar/pestle will not prevent anyone from making it. A larger sized, balloon shaped whisk and strong arm muscles will work. However, success will in large part be due to the amount and rate the oil is added to the yolk mixture.

The inherent oppositional qualities of oil and water (two common mayonnaise/aoili ingredients) can make achieving a thick, velvety, smooth texture somewhat challenging (there are reasons for this, scientific ones actually!). The classic aoili/mayonnaise technique (as summarized by Kenji Lopez-Alt) begins with whisking the egg yolks, a bit of mustard, a small amount of water, and either lemon juice or vinegar. Once combined, the oil is ever so slowly trickled in while simultaneously being rapidly whisked. Adding the oil too quickly will prevent the emulsification necessary to create the rich, lush, creamy sauce some of us love. 

All of this was good information, but I wanted, or rather still needed, to know if there was a best or definitive egg yolk to oil ratio?  After looking at significant number aoili/mayonnaise recipes from some highly respected food sources, I discovered there was a fair degree of variability. Even in recipes claiming to be classic versions. The ratios ranged from one egg yolk to a half-cup of oil; to one egg yolk to 3/4 cup (or 12 Tablespoons) of oil; to one egg yolk to 10 ounces of oil; to one egg yolk to 1 1/2 cups of oil. Michael Ruhlman, the food science guru and author of the Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, cited the one egg yolk to 1 cup of oil as the perfect ratio while my favorite cooking goddess, Ina Garten, used a one (extra-large) egg yolk to 3/4 cup olive oil ratio. Discovering all of these different egg/oil ratios could have caused an aoili head spinning moment if I hadn't kept repeating the mantra 'in cooking as in life, there is no one right way to do anything'. There might be best ways, favorite ways, better ways, or for no good reason ways. On the remote chance was there only one right way, I doubt the egg yolk to oil ratio would qualify for entry into such an exclusive category.

Then there was the nagging question: Was there one best oil to use? Some recipes called for olive only; some for a combination of a neutral oil (vegetable, canola or grapeseed) and an olive oil; and still others called for the use of peanut oil. Olive oil appeared to be prevailing choice, but best appeared to be a matter of taste.  Adding another layer to the oil decision making process was learning the powerful blades of blenders and food processors could actually be responsible for creating a bitter-tasting sauce. It seems olive oil is actually made up of tiny fragments. If sheared apart from one another, they can go from being delicious tasting droplets to bitter-tasting fragments in the blink of an eye. 

As I was finally nearing the end of semi-exhaustive research endeavor I began to wonder if I should put aoili in the category of things I shouldn't make. Wouldn't mixing some finely chopped garlic into some already pre-made mayonnaise might be easier? Couldn't I use a semi-homemade or homemade version of aoili to serve with the gorgeous vegetables I had picked up at the Farmer's Market? Would anyone really care? Maybe, maybe not. Could anyone tell the difference between the two? I am pretty certain they would. But would they prefer one over the other? Well, I'd like to think given the choice between eating a semi-homemade aoili and homemade aoili, the flavor and texture of the homemade one would be the hands down favorite. On the chance this assumption is incorrect, I felt a comelling need to experience the triumph of, with or without any adulation, making a really, really good garlic aoili. The farm raised, freshly picked vegetables deserved to be served with nothing less. 

As I embarked on the second, non-melt down garlic aoili making attempt I felt certain there would be a successful outcome. But I had several decisions to make first. Beginning with which tool to use. The food processor method didn't work the first time (for a number of reasons I now realize), I don't have an immersion blender, and I may not have the patience required for using a mortar/pestle. Which left me with one choice: the whisk. Next I to decide which oil or oils to use. Being partial to the flavor of olive oil helped make that decision. And lastly was settling on an egg yolk to olive oil ratio. I had done enough reading to realize any number of the yolk to oil ratios would work as long as I was patient with adding the oil. After a bit of deliberation, I decided on Plan A (aka the 1 egg yolk to 1/2 cup oil ratio). And if, by some chance the aoili was too thick and/or it didn't meet the taste test, I would go to Plan B and add more oil. Either way I didn't think I could go wrong this time, nor lose my sanity.

When selecting vegetables for a crudité platter, there are no hard and fast rules. Choose what you like, what you think everyone would enjoy. All steamed, all raw, or grilled vegetables or a combination of any of these would work. Choose a wide assortment of or several different kinds of vegetables. Create a platter with vegetables all having the same color or make it colorful. Add hard boiled eggs, olives, and/or bread. Or not. Garnish with fresh herbs and/or flowers. Or not. Make it as an appetizer or transform it into a meal. The Garlic Aoili with Crudités  possibilities are endlless.

But definitely have a bowl of homemade garlic aoili on the platter. Like the Plan A recipe below. The one having a rich, creamy, and almost perfect consistency. Not only did it exceed all of my expectations, it restored my culinary confidence. Let the happy dancing commence!

Key to its' success the second time around was adding the olive oil ever so slowly. Starting with only drips of olive oil, gradually increased to half-teaspoonfuls while rigorously whisking well during and after each addition contributed to its' emulsification.  If I could have figured out how to add the the oil in a slow, think steady stream at a certain point, I would have. But I only had two hands. You might think the aioli making process is little time consuming. Maybe slightly. But surprisingly it didn't feel that way. 

While I am more informed about aoili/mayonnaise than I was only a week ago, I am by no means an expert. It's quite possible the next time I make an aoili, I rush the process and fail to experience aoili nirvana. It is also not outside the realm of possibility I will try and fall deeply, madly in love with another aoili recipe I was somehow lulled into making. For the moment, I am over the moon smitten with this version. 

As far as most of my blog posts go, this one may have rambled on a bit more than usual. So let me thank you for taking the time to hang in there. The day cooking and/or baking stops becoming or feeling like an adventure is the day I should probably put away my measuring cups and spoons, the large assortment of kitchen gadgets, and collection of copper pots. The hundreds of cookbooks and stacks of magazines would also have to find a new home. And most importantly, the day I stop learning from and appreciating the culinary perspectives of others is the day I should....well, let's just say I hope that day never comes because I am not certain what the best thing to do would be. Here's hoping we all continue to be kind and encouraging toward one another while experiencing the trials, tribulations, risks, and rewards awaiting us all in the gray world of cooking, baking, and making a homemade garlic aoili.

Garlic Aoili with Crudités (inspired by Bon Appetit's Real Deal Aoili recipe)

2 large egg yolks, room temperature
3 -5 medium garlic cloves, finely chopped (Note: The more garlic, the more intense the flavor. I love garlic and used only 4 medium garlic cloves.)
1 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup good quality olive oil
Assortment of raw and/or steamed vegetables (e.g., cherry tomatoes, carrots, string beans, baby red potatoes, artichokes, radishes, sugar snap peans, asparagus, cucumber slices, kalamata olives, etc.)
Hard-boiled eggs
Grilled Bread

1. Whisk egg yolks, salt, garlic, lemon juice and dijon mustard in a medium sized bowl to combine. The mixture should be creamy.
2. Using a large balloon whisk, add olive oil in drops whisking to ensure the mixture remains emulsified after each addition. After using about a 1/4 cup of the oil, begin to add oil in slightly larger amounts (think half teaspoons) or a very, very thin stream, whisking during and well after each addition. Note: If oil is added too quickly the aoili will break down and the oil will separate.
3. Continue whisking until all of the oil is incorporated and the aoili is thick enough to hold its' shape when spooned. Season with additional salt if necessary.
4. Serve immediately or cover and chill. Can be made a day ahead. Will last for at least a week in the refrigerator. 
5. Choose an assortment of steamed and/or raw vegetables; hard-boiled eggs; and/or grilled bread. Arrange on a platter. Serve with bowl of the garlic aoili. 

Notes: (1) Use a good quality olive oil and dijon mustard. It is not necessary to use extra-virgin olive oil, just a really good olive oil. In fact you can use a combination of olive oil and a neutral oil (like canola or vegetable oil. Maille is my favorite go-to dijon mustard. (2) The flavor of the garlic will intensify the longer the aoili chills in the refrigerator, so you might to use only 3-4 cloves of garlic the first time you make it. (3) This garlic aoili would also be a great condiment for grilled meats, burgers, chicken and/or seafood. It would even elevate any number of sandwiches. And oh, french fries dipped in this garlic aoili would be insane! (4) I didn't provide directions using immersion blender or any other tool as I have only made it using a whisk. If you have had aioli success with any other tool, feel free to use it. 

Farmer's Market bounty. (July, 2017)

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Herbed Parmesan Dutch Baby with Cherry Tomato Jam

Up until just recently I had put the Dutch Baby into the sweet for breakfast or brunch category. And the only thing causing me to vacillate between ordering and not ordering one in a restaurant is the wait time. Twenty to twenty-five minutes feels like a lifetime, particularly if you are in a hurry or hangry. But if time is not an issue and you aren't falling over the edge of starvation, the deliciousness factor of a Dutch Baby is always off the charts. If Rotten Tomatoes rated Dutch Babies instead of movies, it would probably give it a rating of 97%. I have yet to meet a version of a breakfast Dutch Baby I didn't like. The Apple Dutch Baby may be my most favorite, but I wouldn't turn my nose at a Dutch Baby simply dusted with confectionary sugar or piled high with blueberries

The world of savory Dutch Babies was unfamiliar to me until I discovered Melissa Clark's recipe for the Herbed Parmesan Dutch Baby in her new cookbook Dinner: Changing the Game. Serving a savory Dutch Baby for lunch, dinner, or as an appetizer sounded intriguing. But then I would be game for making any dish destined to pair well with wine. In the case of this Herbed Parmesan Dutch Baby, think chilled chardonnay or sparkling wine.

My contribution to this recipe was pairing it with some homemade Cherry Tomato Jam instead of sriracha. I may be the only person on the planet not a fan of sriracha. I had a strong hunch the fruity, nutty taste of Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese would go well with the slightly caramelized sweetness of the jam. And it must have been my lucky day as my hunch turned out to be right. If you have never made or had Cherry Tomato Jam before, you really should. Seriously, you should. Not only does it compliment the flavor of this Herbed Parmesan Dutch Baby, it is a game changer on cheese platters.

Unlike most of the other Dutch Babies I have made, this one is made with almost double or triple the number of eggs used most other of my Dutch Baby recipes. Making it a slightly denser, heartier version of this classic dish. 

When looking at Dutch Baby recipes, there seems to be two approaches to making the batter. Whisking the dry and wet ingredients together until blended or processing in a blender/food processor until smooth and frothy. I prefer the later method. In the direction below I give you both options.

Whenever an ingredient list specifies the amount of grated cheese in cups versus weight, I always convert to weight (grams or ounces). Unlike measuring brown sugar (lightly or firmly packed), there don't seem to be any clearly specified guidelines for measuring grated cheese. The lack of these guidelines more than likely often means a higher probability of erring on the side of not using the amount of cheese called for in a recipe. If you don't have a scale, try to buy a chunk of cheese in the amount you need. And don't even think of substituting packaged grated cheese for freshly grated. Nothing comes close to or tastes better than a high quality Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Oven temperature is another one of the variations noted in Dutch Baby recipes. While all are baked at high temperatures, the recommended ranges are somewhere between 400 to 450 degrees (F). The only exception to these temperatures are found in some German Pancake recipes. This one calls for baking the Dutch Baby at 425 degrees (F). Cast iron pans not only handle the high heat well, their surfaces are inherently non-stick. Make your Dutch Baby in a 12" round or 9"x 12" pan, but make certain it's cast iron or one that can handle the high heat. Note: Most non-stick pans are not designed to perform at very high oven temperatures.

You can either melt the butter by placing it the pan and putting in the oven or melting it on the stovetop. It is critically important be hot when you pour in the batter.

In 20 to 25 minutes, the sides of your Dutch Baby will rise and turn the most beautiful golden brown. Garnish the baked Herbed Parmesan Dutch Baby with some additional chopped thyme and chives and immediately bring to the table. Not just for the wow factor, but like most Dutch Babies, this one is best enjoyed while still hot. Although I found picking at the room temperature leftovers was still an incredibly pleasurable eating experience.

Don't forget to make some Tomato Jam ahead of time.

The batter for this Dutch Baby comes together rather quickly. In less than an hour, you can have dinner (or lunch) on the table. However, you can also have everything prepped in advance. The batter and grated cheese can remain refrigerated until you are ready to assemble, bake, and serve.

But this savory Dutch Baby shouldn't be pigeon-holed in the Herbed Parmesan Dutch Baby category. As Melissa Clark suggested, it would also make for a great appetizer. What about the 20-25 minutes it takes for it to bake in the oven? Well depending on your timing, it won't seem long for your guests. But even if you decided to put in the oven once they arrive, this Herbed Dutch Baby is well worth the wait. And maybe I need to reconsider how and when I think about the sweet versions of this 'love child to the pancake'. 

Herbed Parmesan Dutch Baby with Cherry Tomato Jam (A slight adaptation to Melissa Clark's Herbed Parmesan Dutch Baby recipe as shared in her cookbook Dinner: Changing the Gamea slightly revised version of the Cherry Tomato Jam for Cheese recipe as shared in the cookbook: The Cheesemonger's Kitchen: Celebrating Cheese in 90 recipes)

Ingredients for the Dutch Baby
1 cup (120 g or 4 1/4 oz) plus 2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
8 large eggs
3/4 cup whole milk
2 Tablespoons finely chopped fresh thyme, plus more for garnish
2 Tablespoons finely chopped chives, plus more for garnish
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup (75 grams or 2 1/2 ounces) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese
Flaky Sea Salt

Directions for the Dutch Baby
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees (F).
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt and pepper. Set aside.
3. In a medium sized bowl, whisk the eggs and milk until well blended.
4. Add eggs to the flour mixture and whisk until well blended and frothy. (Note: Alternately put the flour and egg mixture in a blender and mix until well blended or whip using a hand mixer.)
5. Stir in chopped thyme, chives and a heaping tablespoon of the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese.
6. Place butter in a 12" or 9"x12" cast iron pan. Place in oven until butter melts and begins to slightly brown (approximately 3-5 minutes). Note: Check on butter after 2 minutes and every minute thereafter.
7. Remove pan from oven. Pour in egg mixture. Top with grated parmesan cheese.
8. Return to oven and bake for 20-22 minutes or until the Dutch Baby is puffed and golden.
9. Remove from oven, garnish with additional thyme and chives. Serve immediately with Cherry Tomato Jam.

Ingredients for the Tomato Jam
2 cups (340 g) cherry or grape tomatoes (or a mix of the two), cut in half
3/4 cup (150 g) granulated sugar
2 -3 Tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Zest of 1 lemon
generous 1/2 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary

Directions for the Tomato Jam
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (F). Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil.
2. Place the cut tomatoes halves on the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes to loose the skins.
3. Remove tomatoes from oven and place in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Add sugar.
4. Over medium heat gently melt sugar, then bring to a boil and cook (boiling rapidly) for 5 to 7 minutes, or until thick and syrupy. Notes: Stir frequently. My cooking time was 7 minutes.
5. Remove from heat and add lemon zest, freshly squeezed lemon juice and chopped rosemary.
6. Transfer tomato jam to clean, sterilized jars. Seal well. When cool, place jam in the refrigerator.
7. The tomato jam can be kept refrigerated for up to 2 weeks, if it lasts that long!

Notes: (1) Instead of melting butter in the cast iron pan in the oven, can melt on the stovetop over medium high heat; (2) Instead of using thyme and chives, could use thyme and tarragon or thyme (2 T), tarragon (1 T) and chives (1 T); (3) Instead of serving with the Tomato Jam, could serve with Sriracha and/or lemon wedges; (4) Definitely serve with a good quality white or sparkling wine; (5) If using a round cast iron pan, cut into wedges for serving; (6) The Dutch Baby is great hot out of the oven, but was equally delicious when it came to room temperature; (7) The batter and grated cheese can be prepared ahead of time and kept refrigerated until ready to use, making it a slightly make-ahead appetizer or luncheon/dinner entree. 

Fishing on the Snoqualmie River (June 2017)

Twin Falls, Snoqualmie Region, North Bend, Washington (June 2017)

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Baked Feta - Mediterranean Style

If one ever needed a reason to (a) share a great bottle of wine with friends, (b) grow cherry tomatoes this summer, (c) nosh on appetizers so good you wouldn't care if dinner followed or not, or (d) any or all of the above, this Baked Feta - Mediterranean Style may be it. The concept behind this appetizer is so ingenious, so simple I don't know why it isn't one of those 'regulars' served at every cocktail party or gathering. Could it possibly have anything to do with lower than average membership in the feta cheese or kalamata olive fan clubs?  Anyone not already a proud card carrying member, of this club needs to make this Baked Feta - Mediterranean Style. One bite and all of your previously held (pre- and misconceived) notions about the taste of feta cheese and/or kalamata olives will be shattered. How can I possibly say this, considering not all tastes are the same? Well, it just so happened I asked the person who shall remain nameless  to tell me what he thought of this 'new' appetizer.  This would be same person who also happens to be the same person who is neither a big fan of feta cheese or olives of any kind. In an effort to avoid any bias before his first bite, I made certain not to tell him any of the ingredients (a cruel necessity). After his third or fourth crostini schmeared with the warm, softened feta cheese and topped with the baked tomato mixture, I was fairly certain he liked it. But of course, I needed the affirmation. Why? Because it's so much more gratifying hearing accolades or experiencing any other form of adoration, than it is assuming or mind reading someone's thoughts based on their actions. The rave reviews given did not disappoint.

The Baked Feta - Mediterranean Style literally is one of the easiest to prepare appetizers. If any of my friends who claim they don't cook made this for their family and/or friends, more than likely everyone would wonder why they had kept their Iron Chef persona under wraps for so long.

Beyond its' simplicity, the Baked Feta - Mediterranean Style doesn't require any unusual, hard to find, or overly expensive ingredients. Yes, this is the proverbial win-win appetizer.

Everything you need to make it may already be in your own garden or readily available at the grocery store. On a side note, the original recipe called for a quarter cup of thinly sliced red onions. I intentionally omitted them. Not because I don't like red onions (I do), but for some reason my palate was in the mood for an onion free Baked Feta - Mediterranean Style experience.

There were a variety of feta cheeses available in the deli section of my grocery store. While slightly more expensive (relatively speaking), use a good quality, fresh Greek Feta for this dish instead of any of the other feta options you find. Ask for an 8 to 10 ounce block of cheese. To ensure the feta stays fresh in my refrigerator I generally ask the person who cutting the cheese to pour some of the cheese brine into the container. When you are ready to put everything together, cut the block of feta in half crosswise, so each piece is no more than an inch thick.

If you can't find a pint of yellow, red, and orange cherry tomatoes, use whichever ones you can find or whatever tomato colors appeal to you. After that, all you to do is cut them in half lengthwise.

After starting to coarsely cut the kalamata olives with a knife, I thought the food processor would do it faster (and better). Feel free to cut them with a knife, but having the food processor do the work is worth having to wash up a few extra things when you are done.

In a medium sized bowl, the halved tomatoes, coarsely chopped olives, minced garlic, black pepper, oregano, olive oil and only one tablespoon of the chopped parsley are mixed together.

In an oven proof baking dish, one able to withstand a temperature of at least 400 degrees (F), the tomato mixture is spooned over the two slices of feta cheese.

In just 15 to 20 minutes, the cheese will have softened (but will not be runny or gooey) and the tomatoes will have blistered. If, by some chance, your cheese has not softened, continue baking, checking every 2 minutes. When the Baked Feta came out of the oven, I gave it an ever so light drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. Because, why not.

I served the Baked Feta with some homemade crostini instead of crackers or pita chips. The baked cheese is soft and spreadable (versus runny or gooey like a baked goat cheese). So whatever you use, it needs to have some substance to it. Not only did the crostini hold the baked feta and tomato mixture well, it was the perfect choice to mop up any of the remaining incredibly flavorful juices.

This is one of those substantial appetizers. Depending on how much wine you are serving and drinking while enjoying this Baked Feta - Mediterranean Style, you might consider serving it with some grilled shrimp and/or the Hot Spinach and Artichoke Dip. Suddenly your appetizer can turn into the perfect small plate dinner. And who knows, you might end up adding a few more members to the feta and kalamata olive loving fan club.

Baked Feta - Mediterranean Style (ever so minor changes to the Smitten Kitchen's Mediterranean Baked Feta with Tomatoes recipe)

1 pint of a colorful mixture cherry tomatoes, halved
1/3 cup pitted Kalamata olives, coarsely chopped
1 large clove garlic, minced (if you love the flavor of garlic, use 2 cloves)
2 Tablespoons fresh flat leaf parsley, finely chopped and divided
1 generous teaspoon dried Greek oregano
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing
Freshly ground black pepper (about 1/4 teaspoon)
An 8 to 10 ounce block of fresh Greek feta
Optional: 1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion
Crostini, crackers, or pita chips for serving

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees (F).
2. In a medium sized bowl, mix together the tomatoes, olives, garlic, only 1 Tablespoon of parsley, oregano, olive oil and black pepper. Note: Mix in sliced red onion if using.
3. Cut the block of feta in half crosswise. Lay two halves on an oven proof baking dish. Spoon the tomato mixture over the top.
4. Bake for 15-20 minutes. Note: Feta should feel soft to the touch.
5. Garnish with remaining tablespoon of parsley, lightly drizzle with olive oil, and serve immediately with crostini (or baked pita chips, or crackers).

Notes: (1) The originating recipe came from "The Sprouted Kitchen Cookbook" written by Sara Forte. That recipe offered baked and grilled versions of the Baked Feta. If you don't buy the cookbook, you can find the grilling directions in the Smitten Kitchen link above. (2) Chopping the kalamata olives in the food processor worked perfectly and is much easier than chopping them with a knife. (3) If possible, buy your feta from the deli portion rather than in a pre-packaged container in the cheese section of your favorite grocery store. (4) The Baked Feta Mediterranean Style will cool quickly, so it's important to serve immediately. If becomes room temperature either return to the oven to warm or reheat in the microwave oven. (5) Toss any leftovers into some freshly cooked pasta for a mediterranean style pasta dish.

Barns in Door County, Wisconsin (April 2017)