Sunday, August 24, 2014

Cucumber Melon Caprese Salad

I went out to an impromptu dinner the other night with my dear friend Amelia at what might just be my current favorite restaurant. Piccino is in the Dogpatch, the next door neighborhood to Potrero Hill. A moderate walk from our home, it has superb food and a relaxed, neighborhoody vibe that is thankfully devoid of Mission hipsters. Their menu changes frequently to reflect peak-of-season produce, and yet they refrain from taking every given opportunity to tell you so. Though the restaurant has seemed filled to capacity every time I've wandered inside, we've always been able to find a seat at the bar or tucked into a corner. The atmosphere is busy yet welcoming, the decor sparse but warm. It is just perfect.

During my handful of visits to Piccino, I've had many dishes that stay on my mind for days afterward. There were fried wedges of polenta topped with oozing burrata and greens; an eggplant pizza bianca topped with roasted sweet peppers perched atop a crisp, tender crust; a thyme-scented madeleine served with strawberries and rhubarb. Their wine list is organized by flavor profile, a help to someone like me who knows what I want though not how to order it. I'm always impressed by the unique tableware, making it clear that all the little details are being attended to.

On this particular night, Amelia and I bellied up to the bar that surrounds their open kitchen stocked with freakishly attractive staff, and ordered some bubbly.

Or at least, we tried. "Just so you know," the server informed us, "that sparkling wine isn't very bubbly. It's only slightly frizzante."

This description struck us as comical. "I think I'll tell the guy I'm dating that I'm only slightly frizzante about him," Amelia mused as we sipped from our glasses. 

We didn't mind the gentle fizz of the wine, in fact it went perfectly with the food: a cucumber melon caprese salad, seasoned with peppery olive oil and arranged in a dainty stack; thin-crust pizza topped with prosciutto and peaches; and the biggest surprise of all, rye gnocchi served in whey and flanked by morsels of smoked potatoes which was one of the most interesting and delicious things I've ever tasted in my life.

I'm usually only slightly frizzante when it comes to melons, as evidenced by the fact that there is only a sole other melon recipe on this site and it is also a salad spiked with cheese and herbs, but in the case of this salad, I was entirely effervescent. The play of textures – soft, crispy, gooey – and flavors – sweet, tart, clean, peppery – kept me dreaming of this salad long after it had been washed down by pizza, pasta, wine, two desserts, and more wine. 

I had to have more, but since I can't afford to drop fifteen dollars on a salad every night, I would have to make it myself.

Luckily, a salad is far easier to reverse engineer than, say, rye gnocchi with whey and smoked potatoes (though if they don't put that back on their menu, I may have no choice). I bought a couple of melons at the co-op, a galia and a charentais, some lemon and Persian cucumbers, and a ball of mozzarella. Liking a bit of green in my salads, I grabbed a bunch of purslane and wild arugula as well. I had just tried purslane for the first time in a watermelon, feta, and heirloom tomato salad at Marinita's in San Anselmo and liked its crunchy texture and mild, slightly citric flavor reminiscent of sour grass. Plus it just looks cool.

I sliced everything up and tossed it with plenty of good olive oil, white wine vinegar, flaky salt and cracked black pepper, then made it into dainty stacks alla Piccino. It's my current favorite salad, the one I crave all day, every day, but especially during warm summer days. Even Jay, who considers salads a sacred place for vegetables and normally views fruit as an unwelcome intruder digs it. This is fortunate, since two small melons have already provided four rounds of the stuff.

This salad makes the most of melon's quiet flavor and soft texture which complement tangy vinegar, crunchy cucumber, spicy greens, and mild, salty cheese. 

It has also changed my mind about melon. The other day I found myself ordering a melon mimosa when lunching at Local Mission Eatery with my friends Princess Tofu and Pete Lee. I was surprised to discover my excitement not only for the sparkling wine, but also for the melon, which tasted delicate and floral...

...and quite frizzante. 

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Salad Days:

One year ago:

Cucumber Melon Caprese Salad with Mint and Purslane

Inspired by a salad of the same name from Piccino

This is the sort of recipe that is suited to eyeballing and seasoning to taste, but here are the quantities that I used for guidance. You can either stack your salads as instructed, or simply strew everything onto a plate and have at it. Using two melons and two cucumbers of different varieties lends a fun contrast of flavors and textures, but use whatever you've got. I found purslane and wild arugula at our co-op, but another peppery green would work just as well, such as watercress or peppercress, or a chicory such as frisee or radicchio.

Makes 2 appetizer-sized salads, or 1 light-meal-sized salad

8-10 (1/4" thick) slices from 1/4 of a small Charentais melon (or cantaloupe)
8-10 (1/4" thick) slices from 1/4 of a small Galia melon (or cantaloupe)
~3/4 cup thinly sliced cucumber (I used some lemon cucumber and Persain cucumber)
a large handful arugula greens, tough stems removed, washed and dried
a large handful purslane greens, tough stems removed, washed and dried
a small handful basil leaves, torn into large pieces
a small handful mint leaves, torn into large pieces
1 tablespoon good olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
2-3 teaspoons white wine vinegar
1/8 - 1/4 teaspoon flaky salt
1/8 teaspoon cracked black pepper
4-6 ounces fresh mozzarella, drained on paper towels, halved, and sliced 1/4" thick

In a large bowl, combine the melon and cucumber slices with the arugula, purslane, basil, and mint. Drizzle the olive oil and 2 teaspoons vinegar over the top, and sprinkle over the 1/8 teaspoon flaky salt and the cracked pepper. Use your hands to gently toss the components together. Taste, adding more vinegar, salt, or anything else you like until the flavors pop. 

For stacked salads, make a ring with 2 each of the melon slices. Top with cucumber slices, a quarter of the mozzarella, and a mound of greens. Repeat to make two layers of each ingredient. Repeat with salad number 2. Drizzle a little more olive oil, flaky salt, and cracked black pepper over the top. Serve right away, preferably with a glass of crisp white wine. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Zinfandel Grape, Rosemary + Gin Crush

When my friend Shawn (now famous for hating on rum) was opening his new bar Driftwood last year, he was looking for hot-shot bartenders. I'd secretly always dreamed of being a bartender, so my ears perked up one evening when he started detailing a recent interview.

"This guy said he's the master of the three-minute cocktail. So I started counting. 1, 2, 3... all the way to 30. I was like, 'That's 30 seconds. If you haven't made three drinks by now, YOU'RE FIRED!'"

And that is why I'll never be a bartender.

Bar cocktails tend to rely on infusions, syrups, tinctures, bitters, amari, and such; all fast ways to add flavor to spirits. Just pour everything into a shaker, make a show of joggling the thing with your buff and often tattooed arms, strain it into a chilled glass, and voilà: you (probably) won't get fired.

And then there's me. Luckily, I'm not on the clock because not only am I incredibly slow at everything I do, most of my drinks start with labor-intensive (though bicep-enhancing) muddling. For this drink, grapes and rosemary get the bejeezus squished out of them for a good thirty seconds in order to extract both their juice and deep purple hue. A touch of sugar gives the drink just the right level of sweetness, and gin and lemon juice turn it into a grown-up beverage. The mixture is strained through a fine mesh sieve, which takes a bit of mashing and pressing to get out all the good stuff. The drink is stirred with ice, then strained again into ice-filled tumblers where it gets topped with a splash of fizzy water and a rosemary sprig. Sure, you could cook the grapes to extract their juice and color, and make rosemary simple syrup to have at the ready, but I like the freshness that raw ingredients add here.

I had never experienced wine grapes before, but a vintage Le Creuset baking dish full of them found their way to me from wine country via my friend Shawna (not to be confused with Shawn). Shawna brought them and a box full of plates, bowls, and silverware for me to borrow from her friend Jilla who lives on a vineyard outside of Healdsburg. The grapes were tasty on their own – complex and not too sweet – but their thick skins and big seeds made them not ideal for eating. My friend Amelia suggested using them in a beverage since they're wine grapes and all, so I've been muddling them into this drink.

The piney notes of rosemary and juniper add complexity and gravitas to the sweet and mild grapes, and a shot of lemon brings the drink into balance. As a nod to the Tom Collins, I serve this over ice with a splash of fizzy water, but you could just as easily strain it into a chilled glass for something stronger. 

If you don't have wine grapes on hand, you can make this with table grapes (black for a similar color, or green or red if that's what you've got) though you may want to omit the sugar and up the lemon if needed since those can be sweeter. I can't wait to try this with Concord grapes when I can get my hands on some; I'm guessing I'll need to reduce the amount of grapes to 1/4 or 1/3 cup since they are sweeter and stronger-tasting than other varieties.

Regardless of how labor-intensive this cocktail is, it's still a relatively quick way to get your grapes into alcoholic form.

Because wine: that really takes a long time.

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Zinfandel Grape, Rosemary + Gin Crush

Zinfandel grapes are less sweet than table grapes, with velvety-soft floral notes and tough skins and seeds. They work brilliantly in beverages (obviously), but this drink can be made with other varieties of wine grapes, or with purple table grapes or concord grapes. Since other varieties may be sweeter, adjust the sugar and lemon juice according to your taste. (If making this with Concords, try reducing the quantity of grapes to 1/3 cup). Also feel free to dial up or down the rosemary; I found that 1 loosely packed tablespoon of fairly long needles yielded a mild woodsy taste that blended well with the gin. 

Speaking of gin, we tested this with New Amsterdam, a mild and fairly inexpensive gin, as well as St. George Terroir and Botanivore, which have more assertive flavorings. We both liked the Botanivore best on first sip, with its milder, sweeter flavor, but as the ice melted we preferred the more assertively junipery flavor of the Terroir. The New Amsterdam was very mild and yielded a less complex drink that would be pleasing to sensitive palates. Feel free to experiment with your favorite gins, too (and report your findings!). I tend to prefer my cocktails served over ice with fizzy water as shown here, but feel free to serve this "up" by simply straining it into chilled glasses. I use a small shot of gin here (1 1/2 ounces), but feel free to up that to 2 ounces for more oomph.

Makes 1 drink

1/2 cup Zinfandel (or other purple-skinned) grapes
1 loosely packed tablespoon rosemary needles
1 teaspoon sugar (I use organic blonde cane sugar)
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed, strained lemon juice
1 1/2 ounces (3 tablespoons) gin (such as my favorite, St. George Terroir), preferably chilled
sparkling water

In a jar or cocktail shaker, combine the grapes, rosemary, and sugar. Use a muddling stick to mash the grapes to a pulp; the more you mash, the more color you'll extract from the skins and the more flavor will come out of the rosemary. Work in the lemon juice, then the gin. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve, pressing on the solids to extract all the good stuff. Stir with ice, then strain into a glass filled with ice, and top off with a splash of sparkling water (more or less according to your taste). (Alternatively, shake the drink vigorously with ice and strain into chilled glasses for a stronger drink.)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Ricotta Blackberry Shortcakes with Honey and Thyme {Gluten-Free}

I've developed a physical dependance on Bellwether Farms' basket-dipped ricotta. The thick, rich cheese is the perfect combination of salty and creamy, with fat, irregular curds. I'm powerless against it. Largely, I invent recipes just so I can have it around. I put it in pancakes. I put it in gnocchi. I smear it on pizza and under carrots. And the other day, when I could stop putting it directly on a spoon and into my mouth, I put it in this dessert. Twice. 

Gluten-free scones had thus far eluded me, and I was overjoyed when ricotta turned out to be the answer. Among my past attempts, there was a super chewy scone made with rice flour, honey, and dried fruit. There were some savory biscuits that stayed gummy in the middle no matter how long I baked them. There were dry, chalky cobbler biscuits, and the biggest disaster of all: scone dough that melted into more of a cake batter that I baked anyway and then threw most of it away. 

Since scones are one of my favorite things to bake, I found this frustrating. 

Gluten-free flours lack the protein present in wheat (i.e. gluten) that helps baked goods hold together. The protein is often replaced with bean flours (which have an off-taste) or nut flours such as almond (which are lovely, but make everything taste like marzipan [not necessarily a bad thing, but not always what one wants]). Ricotta added the protein needed to create a pillowy texture, while altering the flavor for the better. These are some of the tastiest shortcake biscuits I've ever had.

So I'm extra excited to share this recipe because not only does it contain a double dose of my favorite ricotta (in the biscuits and in the cream) but also because I finally baked gluten-free biscuits that are good on their own and undetectably sans wheat. Woohoo!

The inspiration came via Smitten Kitchen. I had a hunch that the extra protein would help the biscuits maintain their biscuity texture, and it worked like a charm, no xanthan gum necessary (though I did add a bit of ground chia seed, cornstarch, and tapioca flour to help the millet and oat flours hold together). The dough is a pleasure to work with, and the biscuits bake up with craggy tops, crisp edges, and soft, wheaty-tasting middles. They spread a bit in the oven, but as Danguole pointed out, they're called shortcakes for a reason: thinner biscuits mean that the ratios are just right. (Also: Danguole is awesome.)

It took all my willpower to let them cool long enough to whip some ricotta and cream together, macerate blackberries with honey and thyme, and assemble and shoot the shortcakes.

Ok, maybe I had one or two straight from the oven. But I'm glad I had enough restraint to make these shortcakes with the rest of them. 

The idea for this combination of flavors came from this ice cream and it is a winner: savory-sweet, bright and deep, mild and herbaceous all at the same time. I love the contrast in textures of toasty biscuits topped with a crunch of coarse sugar, thick cream studded with ricotta curds, and juicy blackberries sweetened with blackberry honey and dotted with lemon thyme.

Jay made himself one for a snack today, and later we shared one for dessert after which he said, "I could eat like ten of those." This from the man with no sweet tooth. 

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Very Berries:

Shortcakes, previously:

One year ago:
Two years ago:
Three years ago:

Ricotta Blackberry Shortcakes with Honey and Thyme {Gluten-Free}

I highly recommend using a good quality store-bought or homemade ricotta cheese here. The one I love is Bellwether Farms' Basket-Dipped Whole Milk Ricotta; I eat it by the spoonful. If you or your guests are highly sensitive to gluten, be sure to source certified gluten-free ingredients (especially oat flour). If gluten isn't an issue, feel free to try this recipe with 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour and 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons whole wheat flour, omitting the cornstarch, tapioca flour and chia seed altogether and adjusting the cream as needed to make a firm dough that holds together. The blackberries here are something special, but other berries or stone fruit could easily stand in. The biscuits are also lovely on their own when freshly baked, spread with a bit of jam and more ricotta.

Makes 6 modest servings

For the ricotta biscuits:
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons (1.75 ounces / 50 grams) millet flour
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons (1.5 ounces / 40 grams) gluten-free oat flour
2 tablespoons (.5 ounce / 15 grams) tapioca flour/starch (same thing)
2 tablespoons (.5 ounce / 15 grams) cornstarch
2 tablespoons (.75 ounces / 20 grams) organic blonde cane sugar
1 tablespoon (.25 ounce / 5 grams) ground chia seed
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
3 tablespoons (1.5 ounces / 45 grams) cold, unsalted butter, diced
zest from 1/2 a large lemon
1/2 cup (4.25 ounces / 120 grams) whole-milk ricotta cheese
6 tablespoons (2.5 ounces / 70 grams) cold heavy cream, plus another 2 tablespoons for brushing the biscuits
coarse sugar (turbinado), for sprinkling

For the shortcakes:
3 cups (12 ounces / 340 grams) blackberries, halved lengthwise
3 tablespoons (2 ounces / 55 grams) honey (blackberry honey, if you've got it), plus extra for drizzling
1-2 tablespoons loosely packed thyme leaves (lemon thyme, if you've got it), plus a few pretty sprigs for garnish
1 cup (7 ounces / 200 grams) cold heavy cream
3/4 cup (5 ounces / 145 grams) whole-milk ricotta
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Make the biscuits:
Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat to 425ºF. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. 

In a large bowl, whisk together the millet, oat and tapioca flours with the cornstarch, sugar, chia seed, baking powder, and salt. Add the butter and lemon zest, and rub with your fingers until the mixture looks like gravel with some pea-sized butter bits remaining. Add the ricotta and cream, and stir / knead with your hands until the dough comes together in a rough ball. The dough should feel fairly firm, but evenly moistened. 

Working quickly to keep the dough cold, turn the dough out onto a surface dusted lightly with oat flour and form it into a disk. Cut the disk into six equal pieces. Shape each piece into a ball, place on the sheet pan spaced well apart, and flatten slightly. Brush the tops of each biscuit with cream and sprinkle with a bit of coarse sugar. (If the biscuits have become soft, you can chill or freeze them until they have firmed up a bit; this will keep them from spreading too much.)

Bake the biscuits until golden on top, 14-18 minutes. Let cool at least 30 minutes; they are still cooking from residual heat. The biscuits are best the day of baking, but they will keep at room temperature for a day or two. Toast before serving.

Finish the shortcakes:
Toss the halved berries with the honey and thyme and let macerate for at least 10 minutes and up to an hour or two. 

Whip the cream, ricotta, sugar and vanilla until the mixture forms soft peaks. Chill if not using right away. 

Slice a biscuit in half using a serrated knife. Place the bottom half on a plate, top with a large dollop of ricotta cream, and place a mess of honeyed berries on top, letting some fall off onto the plate. Top with the biscuit lid, garnish with a drizzle of honey and a thyme sprig or two, and serve.