Sunday, November 18, 2012

Little luxuries

Surprise Tatin
About two weeks ago, a couple of good friends of mine here in Chicago became parents! This, for me, anyway, is still a little mind-blowing. I feel as though, still being in my mid-twenties and a grad student, I only act like a real grown-up about half the time. Sure, I have obligations. But most days, I don't have to be anywhere at any particular time. I can work at home, curled up in an armchair, barefoot, hair still a mess. I can ease my way into the day with a good cup of coffee and buttered toast, when most people are already shuffling off to work. I can pull together a loaf of sourdough pretty well every week, even mid-week, midway through the day, if I want. So I don't quite feel like I live a particularly grown-up life with grown-up responsibilities. And the thought of having that change anytime soon, of giving up little luxuries like late breakfasts and weekly bread-baking--well, let's just say that I think my friends are brave, brave folks.
So with all this in mind, when I heard that my friend had given birth to a beautiful baby boy, one of my first thoughts was that I should make some good, nourishing food for the new parents. With a tiny, helpless, newborn to care for, I thought, they probably had their hands full. (I might have been thinking of this post.) But I didn't know what to make. What do new mothers eat? Do they crave particular foods after those nine long months, those first sleep-deprived days? I really didn't have a clue. But I knew that my friends and I had at least one cookbook in common between our two kitchens--Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty. So I asked them to pick something from it that they'd been wanting to try out.
Roasted tomatoes and caramel Rough puff
My friends chose well, really well. Ottolenghi's Surprise Tatin is something truly spectacular, a crown jewel for the dinner table. It, much like its sweeter namesake, involves a puddle of dark caramel and pillowy puff pastry. But instead of the usual apples tucked beneath that buttery lid, it's roasted cherry tomato halves, itty bitty potatoes, sweet onions, and semi-firm goat's cheese that bubble away together in the heat of the oven.
One of the things I enjoy most about tarte tatins is the anticipation--the moments leading up to the end of baking and then the big reveal when you turn the tart out of its skillet. I'm the sort of girl who can't keep away from the oven window, even if there isn't much to see. So though those forty minutes or so of baking feel impossibly long, though they keep me in suspense--heady, tantalizing smells, puff pastry ballooning--they make the end all the more worth it--that moment when you finally get to slip on your oven mitts and get your first peek at what's been happening beneath that flakey dome. And in this case, it might just take your breath away. The onions will have reduced to sticky-sweet ribbons. The caramel and tomato juices will have seeped into the potatoes, leaving them ruby-tinged. The tomato halves will gleam, bright and candy-like. Like I said, a real crown jewel.
Potatoes in a sea of tomatoes Onions added Goat's cheese and puff pastry
And this tart tastes every bit as good as it looks. With each bite you get something a little different. But each is its own discovery--different textures and flavours, harmonizing together in different ways. Sometimes, what you'll get is the sweet-tart intensity of the tomatoes balanced against the richness of the pastry and the gentle creaminess of the potatoes. With other bites, it'll be goat's cheese and the potatoes--salty, earthy, comforting. My favourite sort of bite is one where the sweetness of onions melts into that of the tomatoes right at the edge of the tart--tangy and sweet with just a little crunch from the pastry.
The process of making this tart, admittedly, is not one that you can just breeze through. The tomatoes, onions, and potatoes all need separate preparation before they get nestled together in their skillet. There's also the caramel to cook and the cheese to slice--all that prep can add up. (But once assembled, you can leave the tart in the fridge until you need it--for up to 24 hours.) And you might end up with a sink full of dishes. But this is another reason why I think my friends chose so well. Elaborate and impractical meals are a bit of a luxury on most nights, and with a newborn to care for, my friends, I thought, could use a little luxury. (Plus, I just wanted to drop something off for an excuse to see the baby.) Likewise, if there's someone in your life that deserves a little pampering, you might want to consider this tart. 
Inverted tart

Surprise Tatin
Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty
Note: About the puff pastry. If you're feeling really ambitious, consider making your own "rough" puff. I like this old Gourmet recipe. It makes enough for two of these tarte tatinsAbout the potatoes. Tinier potatoes tend to make for a better presentation here, I think, but I used what I could find--a mix of red-skinned new potatoes and a variety called German Butterball. About the goat's cheese. My go-to is goat gouda, but feel free to branch out.

150 g cherry tomatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for drizzling over the tomatoes
Salt and pepper
500 g new potatoes, really tiny ones, preferably
1 large onion, peeled and sliced thinly
45 g sugar / 3 tablespoons sugar
10 g / 2 teaspoons butter
1 sprig fresh oregano, picked, or a few big pinches of good-quality dried oregano
100 g aged goat's cheese, sliced
1 sheet (about 250 g) puff pastry, rolled thinly

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees F. Halve the tomatoes and place them skin-side down on a baking sheet. Drizzle with some olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place in the oven to dry for 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook the potatoes in boiling salted water for 25 minutes or until easily pierced with a knife. Drain and let cool. Trim off a bit of the top and bottom of each potato, then cut into 1-inch-thick discs.
Sauté the onion in olive oil and a little salt for 10 minutes, until golden brown.
Butter a 9-inch cake pan or heavy-bottomed skillet and line the base with a circle of parchment paper. In a small pan cook the sugar and butter on high heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until you get a semi-dark caramel. Pour carefully into the cake pan and spread out evenly over the bottom. Scatter the oregano on top.
Stand the potatoes close together in the bottom of the pan. Press onions and tomatoes into the gaps, season well with salt and pepper, and cover with goat's cheese. Cut a puff pastry disc that is 1 inch larger in diameter than the pan. Layer the pastry lid over the tart filling and gently tuck the excess around the potatoes inside the pan. (At this stage, you can chill the tart for up to 24 hours.)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Bake the tart for 25 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 350 degrees F and continue baking for 15 minutes, or until the pastry is thoroughly cooked. Remove from the oven and let settle for 2 minutes only. Hold an inverted plate firmly on top of the pan and carefully but briskly turn them over together, then lift off the pan. Serve the tart hot or warm.
Serves 4.

Monday, November 12, 2012

We made an occasion of it

Pommes Anna à la graisse de canard
Some dishes just call for a crowd. I'm thinking here of layer cakes stacked six inches high, of flakey pastries hot from the oven, of soufflés puffed and golden--dishes just too extravagant, too involved, for a weeknight dinner with only one or two at the table. These are dishes meant to be shared, dishes whose goodness you wouldn't feel right keeping all to yourself, dishes that call for an occasion. The trouble is I always find myself with more dishes like this than occasions on which to make them. And so have my friends, apparently, since we've started making occasions out of these dishes instead of waiting for the right ones to just come along.
Butter and duck fat Dipping potatoes Layering potatoes
Take, for instance, dinner on Saturday night. A hunter friend of a couple of friends of mine had bequeathed to them a neatly butchered venison neck months ago, and we had talked a lot then about getting together for dinner and tackling it. But birthdays came and went, and the neck remained in the dark recesses of their freezer. Recently, though, quite possibly when we were all a little tipsy, we decided that enough was enough. We had to cook this thing. It'd be a shame for it to go to waste. So, finally, just this past weekend, we made an occasion of it. Our friends did the hard work of de-boning, trussing, browning, and braising. Octavian and I brought over side dishes and something sweet. We opened some bottles of wine. It was a great night. A venison neck roast, if you're curious, is kind of like brisket. After a few hours of gentle cooking, it has the same tender, fall-apart qualities. (If you're lucky enough to find yourself with a neck roast but don't know what to do with it, you might want to peek around here.)
Potato slices Layering and seasoning Assembly complete
But I have to admit, in encouraging this dinner to happen, I had another motive. There was something else that I'd been waiting to make, and I was confident that that neck roast would provide for the occasion. Remember that disastrous dinner a while back--the one with the saltine panna cottas? Well, not all was lost that night. We may have overcooked the duck, but we at least managed to render and save some fat. It was my one consolation, and I was determined to make the most of it. Hence, the potatoes at our venison dinner--Pommes Anna à la graisse de canard.
These potatoes almost call for an occasion all their own. They nearly stole the show on Saturday, anyway. There's no doubt that they're an indulgence--sliced paper-thin and slicked in plenty of butter and duck fat, they pretty well fry where they touch the pan. Crisp, burnished edges five or six layers deep. Creamy and soft beneath an equally burnished lid. They are something to behold and savour. And made for the right occasion and shared with your friends, what's the harm?
Crispy, golden layers

Pommes Anna à la graisse de canard
Adapted from Louis Gadby via Epicurious
Note: About the duck fat. The fat I had was rendered from six duck breasts and was just enough for the dish. There's lots of discussion about how best to do it here. You can also purchase rendered duck fat from a reputable source like D'Artagnan. Duck fat gives the potatoes a savouriness that you just don't get with butter. However, classic Pommes Anna calls just for butter, so I'm sure that you could do without--it would just be a bit of a different dish. Make ahead. This is a dish probably best eaten still warm from the oven. I, however, got away with making it earlier in the day and reheating it. I turned the potatoes out of the skillet as instructed but lined the plate with a piece of parchment. I then transferred the potatoes with the parchment onto a cooling rack. Reheated at a gentle 300°F for about 20 minutes, the exterior re-crisped while the insides remained moist and tender.

45 g / 3-4 tablespoons duck fat
70 g / 5 tablespoons butter
Coarse sea salt
Black pepper
3 lb Yukon gold or other yellow-fleshed potatoes
1 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced

Put the oven rack in the middle position and preheat oven to 400°F. 
Melt the fat and butter in a well-seasoned 10-inch cast-iron skillet over low heat. Remove from heat and pour into a large bowl. Do not wipe the skillet. 
Peel the potatoes and cut crosswise with a mandoline into 1/16-inch-thick slices. Add the potatoes to the bowl with the butter and duck fat--in stages if necessary--and toss to coat. Arrange about a quarter of the potatoes in the skillet in a layer of overlapping concentric circles, starting from the centre and working your way outwards. Season the layer generously with salt and pepper. Make three more layers in the same manner, seasoning each layer as you go. You may end up with five or even six layers, depending on how closely you arrange your potatoes--that's okay.
Cook potatoes over moderate heat for about 15 minutes. Take care--towards the end of cooking, the fat at the edges tends to bubble and fly with some vigour. Press down on potatoes with a wide spatula, then cover surface with parchment paper, and cover skillet with foil. 
Bake until outside edge is golden brown and potatoes in center are tender when pierced with a fork, about 25-30 minutes. Let stand, covered, at room temperature 5 minutes, then carefully loosen edge with a heatproof flexible spatula. Invert a plate with a rim over skillet. Using pot holders and holding plate and skillet together firmly, invert skillet. Remove skillet and sprinkle potato cake with parsley and garlic.
Serves 8.