Friday, October 28, 2011

Artichoke-Olive Pesto

When we were in the French countryside near Cognac recently, we loved the vine-covered stone houses and crusty baguettes. The produce was incredibly fresh, and it was easy to see why: all along the road to town, there were small intensively-planted gardens, with dozens of varieties of vegetables and fruit in every plot. Close rows of cabbages, garlic, artichokes and squash occupied one single bed. It was striking to understand that this small town can feed itself fresh, local produce and take good care of the land, the farmers and the townfolk.

This pesto goes great on bread, but then you can probably call it artichoke tapenade. This is two recipes in one, because it so much more delicious to marinate your own artichoke hearts, insted of buying the overpriced packaged ones. The pesto is nutty and rich, but also bright and fresh-tasting. Miso is a great replacement for salt, because it adds a savory pungent flavor, and the white variety is mild enough to melt into the background.

Marinated Artichoke Hearts
1 cup sliced artichoke hearts
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
juice of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
salt, red chile flakes (to taste)
fresh herbs, minced: I used thyme and rosemary
garlic, minced (optional)

Combine all marinade ingredients in a bowl and gently stir in artichoke hearts to saturate. Allow to rest at room temperature for 1 hour or in refrigerator up to 3 days.

Artichoke-Olive Pesto
1/2 cup packed marinated artichoke hearts (recipe above)
1/3 cup toasted pine nuts
1/4 cup kalamata olives
1 sprig rosemary leaves
juice of 1 lemon
1 tbs. white miso
1 small clove garlic (optional)

Combine all ingredients in food processor and pulse until desired texture. I like when specks of olives and pine nuts remain. Serve with pasta or as a spread for bread or polenta.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Tarte aux Mirabelles

Bonjour! We have just returned from a luxurious vacation in France where we were lucky enough to be part of a fairy-tale perfect wedding in a château near Bordeaux. It was over the top in the way that only a château wedding in France could be, and we were thrilled to live the high life for our visit.
Of course, for us every trip is about food: so how was it? Well, day one was heavenly. Impossibly perfect baguettes and jam for breakfast, simple green salads with classic vinaigrettes, grated carrots, everything we missed from our days living in Paris.
And then... more bread! more plain green salads! grated carrots? again? We were quickly reminded that France is not on the forefront of the vegan scene, and mainstream French chefs hardly seem interested in toning down their use of animal products.

We did, however, have some exceptional meals in France, mostly what we cooked ourselves and shared with friends and family. There is a lot to be learned from the French (particularly in the countryside) and their way of eating, that is to say their way of life, for France understands that food is life. In the countryside, we were surrounded by fresh farms overflowing with a bounty of fresh produce, from raspberries and figs to leeks and cabbages.

We certainly had our fill of sweets on the trip, and have not lost our dessert momentum since returning! Sugar is tasting really goood these days. So it brought us back to our long summer days in Sonoma, when this fairy-tale trip to France was still in the future, and we transformed the summer fruit harvest (So much fruit that we shook the trees over a tarp!) into a sweet treat worthy of the best French pâtisseries.

When I first saw this beautiful tart at a potluck in Paris, looking like a yellow cherry pie, I asked what it was and the response, "tarte aux mirabelles" made me laugh. It sounded like a tart made out of a girl named Mary-Belle! In fact, it is a delicious tart, and quite a looker, made from small yellow mirabelle plums.
Bon appétit!

Tarte aux Mirabelles
This recipe was adapted from a French encyclopedia of food. The pâte alsacien called for hazelnut meal and 1 egg; I have substituted a flax egg and a blend of ground almonds and hazelnuts. The original recipe also called for apricot jam poured over the top, but I made a mirabelle jam to keep the gentle flavor of the mirabelles intact.

Pâte alsacien:
1 1/2 cups pastry flour
2/3 cup ground nuts
1/3 cup sugar
dash cinnamon
pinch salt
1/3 cup vegan butter
1 flax egg:
1 tablespoon ground flax seeds
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon oil
1/8 teaspoon baking powder
juice of 1 lemon
3-4 tablespoons almond milk
cinnamon sugar, to sprinkle in unbaked shell

Pitted whole mirabelles (about 60 or enough to fill pie dish in a single layer)

Mirabelle Jam:
2/3 cup mirabelles, whole
2 tablespoons cointreau or liqueur of your choice (optional)
2 tablespoons brown rice syrup
2 tablespoons water

Before anything else, I would recommend pitting the mirabelles. This is time consuming, but beautiful work. Using a small paring knife, cut along the natural seam of the fruit, so the pit stands up vertically. Gently run the knife along either side of the pit and it will come out. Even those that fall apart a little can be salvaged by reshaping them as they are placed in the tart; the seriously pulpy ones can be used for the jam. Don't waste any!
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Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Make the flax egg by whisking flax, water, oil and baking powder, then set aside (It will thicken within a few minutes). Sift the flour, sugar and ground nuts into a large mixing bowl. Stir in a dash of cinnamon and a pinch of salt. Begin gradually adding vegan butter, a tablespoon at a time, and combining with your hands or a fork. When all the butter is incorporated and the mixture resembles coarse crumbs, add the flax egg and lemon juice. Stir to incorporate. Then, add the almond milk, little by little, until the dough forms a ball that holds together well but is not wet or sticky.

You can roll the dough out immediately or let it chill, covered in plastic wrap in the fridge. For this single-layer tart, roll the dough to a thickness of about 1/4 inch. Crimp the edges to your liking, then sprinkle the empty shell with cinnamon sugar to your taste.
Next, fill the tart with mirabelles. Starting on the outside, place the round fruits in circles until the tart is full. They will puff up slightly while baking, but look pretty much the same. Bake the tart for 25-30 minutes on the bottom rack until the crust is golden brown and fruit is cooked.

Meanwhile, make the jam. Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a simmer until thickened to the consistency of jelly or jam, about 30 minutes. Strain to remove pits. Plums are high in natural pectin, so no other thickener is necessary.

After removing tart from the oven, pour jam over the top while it is still warm. Allow to cool completely and serve at room temperature.

NOTE: I know mirabelles are a fruit that most people do not have access to. Any stone fruit can be used for this recipe. In fact, in the original encyclopedia recipe, this was listed as tarte aux abricots (apricot tart) and mirabelles were a possible substitute. Have fun!