Sunday, June 14, 2009

From Texas Pete to Pesto

"School's out for the summer!" You know, the old Pink Floyd song... Anyway, yes, it is finally over. Exams graded, grades averaged, progress reports written, 8th graders moved up to high school, seniors moved out and on to college soon and I have three brand-spanking new "Moodle" websites courtesy of a 4-day workshop last week. New ways to bring teachers, however old or young, into the 21st century technology-wise. You CAN teach an old dog new tricks, I guess.
While grading exams a couple of weeks ago, I installed myself on the sofa and turned on the TV, something I rarely do in the middle of the afternoon. But paperwork brings out the best of my procrastination skills (I read that the French do not even have a word for this... need to do further research on that!), so I was flipping through the channels and settled on the Food Network. Quite honestly, I have never watched that channel, but it was the best thing on since I am not into soaps or judge shows. Even Oprah gets on my nerves sometimes.
I listened off and on to a couple of the chefs, practically yelling at a young female "chef" who kept saying that the French terms in the coq au vin recipe she was preparing were just some one's way of making things sound fancy and confusing (heaven help her). I scribbled down a recipe for brownies from another chef and then discovered "Everyday Italian" with Gaida De Laurentis. Now, she is so skinny that she doesn't look as if she really eats her own cooking, but I have to cut her a break because she is, after all, European and even I, with my Southern American genes, didn't gain an ounce while eating my way through Provence and other sections of France for six months. I found myself drawn to the simplicity of her recipes and the fact that she was preparing swordfish sandwiches for her husband and a bunch of guys who were coming over to watch a game.
I live with three guys, four if you count one of the cats. The upstairs of our townhouse is referred to as "the frat house" from time to time because it is where our two sons hang out. Their rooms are up there, as well as the computer room and a small living room with a TV, usually tuned to a game or ESPN Sportscenter. Sports has always been our way of life.
These two athletic young men are not very adventuresome eaters yet, though. Their dad, however, is more willing to try my experiments. So, armed with Gaida's swordfish sandwich recipe, I decided to invite my BFF Martha and her husband Tracy over for dinner the following Saturday evening. We visited the Durham Farmers' Market and found the necessary arugula for the sandwiches plus zucchini and tomatoes for the gratin I planned to also make. We bought just about the last of the strawberries from Lyons Farms. As usual, we wandered around and bought a beautiful bouquet of flowers from the owners of Hurtgen Meadows Farms before leaving. (Tom Hurtgen sent me what I like to call my first fan letter after my May column appeared in the Herald-Sun!). I am still not too sure where to buy seafood in Durham, so we headed to Harris Teeter to see if they had any swordfish and to look for foccacia bread. No swordfish, but after talking to the very nice man behind the counter, we settled on mahi mahi. No foccacia bread either. Instead of driving around searching for it, I decided I would pull out the Cuisinart breadmaker when I got home and put it to use.
I settled upon a caramelized onion tart to start off with and that came out of the oven at about the time Martha and Tracy arrived. We ate that on the deck, pairing it with a bottle of 2008 Zweigelt Rosé (all wines mentioned are from the Wine Authorities). Our deck gets morning sun so by afternoon and early evening it is heavenly out there, even on a very hot day. Very nice place for warm hors-d'oeuvres (wonder what the food channel woman has to say about that French term) and chilled rosé. Tracy quizzed me on my herb garden and we admired my potted tomatoes that will yield fruit soon.
Next, we sat down at the table for tomato and zucchini gratin and mahi mahi sandwiches. There was another bottle of chilled rosé, Venus de Pinchinat 2008 and a bottle of Lange 2006 Pinot Noir I had bought a year or so ago after reading a book about the Lange family in Oregon and their wine operation. We had a lovely long, leisurely dinner. Between us, we have 5 boys and they had all decided to leave us to our "fancy" dinner and go to see a movie. Martha and I actually met 17 years ago because our oldest boys were in pre-kindergarten together at Durham Academy and became best buddies from their first day of school.
Dessert was meringues (because Martha loves them and refused to believe that I could actually make them) with strawberries and freshly whipped cream. The boys came home as we were whipping the cream and we debated the merits of Cool Whip vs "real" whipped cream. Instant gratification vs having to put in a little work for a superior result. Sweeter stuff vs a creamier taste with mom adding less sugar than the Cool Whip chef.
The name of this blog was born a couple of nights later during another food debate at dinner with the boys. We were having pasta. I do believe that I could live on pasta served with pesto and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. That was my first meal upon my arrival in France in June 2007. I flew from RDU to Toronto, overnight to Paris, rode the TGV train to Avignon, was picked up at the station by Chef Érick, visited Madeleine Vedel and the boys at their home near Avignon and then, finally, we drove to Arles. I was starving and exhausted. The pasta and pistou vert were just what I needed and I've never forgotten the taste of it, with a little sea salt sprinkled on top. Anyway, the boys started teasing their dad about putting pesto on his pasta. The legend now goes that they all learned to love Texas Pete during my 4 1/2 year absence from the house. The guys say they put it on most everything dad made in order to give the food some taste. They are a bit worried about him-- making the switch from Texas Pete to pesto. He still uses Texas Pete, though, and it is on our shopping list for the next trip to the grocery store.

This recipe is from Everyday Italian, with my modifications included.

Swordfish Sandwiches

Swordfish steaks (I used mahi mahi)
Focaccia bread (I made a loaf of Italian/French bread with wheat germ in it)
Spread made of mayonnaise with crushed, chopped garlic and lemon juice
Herbes de provence
Olive oil

Heat olive oil in pan. Sprinkle the fish with the herbes de provence. When the oil is hot, add the steaks and cook for about 10 minutes on each side. Assemble the sandwiches by spreading the mayo mixture on the both sides of the bread, placing arugula on the bottom slice, laying the hot fish on top of the arugula and then covering with the top slice of bread. The hot fish wilts the arugula and releases the flavors. Cut in half and serve while hot.

Onion Tart

I used store bought pastry (not puff pastry), rolled out and placed in a shallow round baking dish. Caramelize two large onions in olive oil. Spread Dijon mustard on the pastry and place the onions on top. Bake at 400F for about 20 minutes or until the crust is browned.

Zucchini and Tomato Gratin

Cut zucchini into even-sized rounds. Cook them in a single layer in hot olive oil for about 3-4 minutes on each side. Drain on paper towels. Chop an onion and cook it in olive oil until it is soft. Slice the tomatoes in even-sized slices. Crush and chop a couple of cloves of garlic. Place the onions in the bottom of a baking dish. Add a layer of zucchini, a layer of tomatoes, sprinkle sea salt and some of the garlic. Continue to layer until all the zucchini and tomatoes are gone. Sprinkle shredded swiss, gruyère or emmental cheese on top. Bake at 350F for about 30 minutes or until cheese is browned and bubbly. You can add herbes de provence to the tomato layer, if you wish.

(basic recipe from The Barefoot Contessa)

6 extra - large egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Kosher salt
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Fruit of choice
Whipped cream

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Using a small glass and a pencil, draw 6 (3 1/2-inch) circles on each piece of paper. Turn the paper face-down on the baking sheets.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites, cream of tartar, and a large pinch of salt on medium speed until frothy. Add 1 cup of the sugar and raise the speed to high until the egg whites form very stiff peaks. Whisk in the vanilla. Carefully fold the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar into the meringue. With a large star - shaped pastry tip, pipe a disc of meringue inside each circle. Pipe another layer around the edge to form the sides of the shells. (I did not pipe the meringues-- I just dropped them by large spoonfuls and spread them out a bit.)

Bake for 2 hours, or until the meringues are dry and crisp but not browned. Turn off the heat and allow the meringues to sit in the oven for 4 hours or overnight.

Bon appétit!


Mom In Between said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Martha said...

It was an awesome meal! Good friends, good wine and especially good food! And yes I now believe you can make meringues. I'm happy to be your "test dummy" whenever you need me!

The Sabbatical Chef said...

So now if I call you "dummy" you won't be offended??
Merci, ma BFF!