Recipe inspiration comes from poetry
My inspiration for this week’s column comes from a most unlikely source: a poetry workshop. Before you turn the page (perhaps afraid I’ll start writing in iambic pentameter), consider the theory our instructor proposed. To achieve success in any artistic endeavor, whether poetry, pottery or painting, musical or culinary composition, you need to understand the basic building blocks.
In the case of poetry, you begin with words - choosing each one, placing them on the page, arranging their combinations of sound and meaning. In the case of a culinary project, whether a single dish or a 12-course banquet, you focus on the ingredients. How to select ingredients will vary from cook to cook and menu to menu.
Some of us start with the recipe and purchase what is specifically listed in the instructions. Others may reach for what is seasonally fresh and locally available to provide the essentials of the dish or as a place to begin building an entire menu. Just as an oil-painted masterpiece stems from a combination of imagination, skill and primary colors, so does the perfect meal.
As you may guess, this discussion arose in the early afternoon, shortly after we’d eaten our brown-bag lunches. After that, the conversation turned from the philosophical to the practical. Before long, we were describing our favorite recipes and the ideal way to prepare them, which is how the group ended up taking notes on Gerry’s roasted smashed potatoes (see photo).
The recipe requires two cooking steps, which makes it a special-occasion treat. Small, new potatoes are boiled, drained and arranged on a baking sheet; they’re then smashed, seasoned and roasted. Instead of one half-hour cooking process, this dish entails two different half-hour cooking periods in two separate pans. However, after one bite, you’ll agree the effort is well worth the end result.
Smashing the potatoes can be accomplished any number of ways: with the bottom of a glass, your fist wrapped in a kitchen towel, a baking sheet applied with firm pressure or a potato masher. My choice was the latter, giving me enough control to keep the potato connected in a single piece, rather than shattered into bits.
There are two secrets to this simple dish. The first is to boil the potatoes to the correct degree of doneness. Not so soft they begin to fall apart as you would for mashed potatoes, and not so firm they resist a fork, as you would for potato salad. I found using a deep skillet instead of a saucepan allowed the potatoes to remain in a single layer and cook evenly.
The second tip is to avoid overdoing the toppings. Like a twice-baked potato that is often seasoned with everything from the condiment section, the flavor of these shines most brightly with only a few touches: salt, pepper, olive oil and a scatter of Parmesan cheese. When roasted to perfect crispness, these become addictive mouthfuls – with or without the bacon bits.
Another lesson from our poetry instructor was how important it is to take risks and to use those experiences as a way to better understand the basics. Extending his guidance from the printed page to the kitchen means trying new (unfamiliar) ingredients and attempting more challenging techniques or recipes. This gave me the idea to venture into new puff pastry territory.
Instead of the standard onion tart I usually bring to a party when asked to contribute an appetizer, I thought I’d try a variation. What was usually a rectangular pizza layered with caramelized onion and cheese became heart-shaped tarts, sliced from rolled, filled pastry and baked into golden, puffy treats, reminiscent in flavor to the original, but in a new shape with a different texture. I’ve included recipes for all three dishes, so you can decide if any of them should be written in iambic pentameter.
Gerry’s Roasted Smashed Potatoes
2 T olive oil, separated
1 lb tiny new potatoes
1/2 t kosher salt
salt & pepper, to taste
1 T shredded Parmesan cheese
crumbled bacon, if desired
chives, for garnish
Preheat oven to 450 F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Brush the parchment paper with 1 T olive oil to coat; set aside. Wash the potatoes and remove any blemishes. Place in a deep skillet with 1/2 t kosher salt and enough water to cover. Bring to a simmer over medium-high and cook until tender but not mushy (test with the point of a paring knife).
Place potatoes in a colander to drain until completely dry. Arrange potatoes in a single layer on the oil-coated paper. With a potato masher, push gently on each potato to break the skin and open the potato. Season generously with salt and pepper; drizzle with remaining olive oil. Scatter cheese over potatoes along with crumbled bacon pieces (if using). Bake until golden and crunchy, about 25 to 30 minutes. Adjust seasoning and garnish with snipped chives. Yield: 2 servings.
Onion & Gorgonzola Pizza
1 piece frozen puff pastry, thawed
2 T olive oil
4 C sliced onions (2 medium)
1 T sugar
2 T white balsamic vinegar
1/2 t salt
2 oz diced Brie, without rind
2 oz crumbled Gorgonzola cheese
2 t chopped basil
Preheat oven to 400 F. Cover a rimmed baking pan with parchment paper; set aside. Roll pastry into a 10-by-14-inch rectangle. Place on prepared baking pan and prick with the tines of a fork every two inches; set aside. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium. Add onions and cook, stirring often until wilted, about 10 minutes. Stir in sugar, vinegar and salt; continue cooking over medium-low until deeply caramelized. Spread onions evenly across pastry; sprinkle with cheeses and basil. Bake until pastry is golden and crisp, about 18 minutes. Allow to cool for 5 minutes before serving. Yield: 6 appetizer servings.
Brie & Onion Tarts
2 onions, thinly sliced
3 T unsalted butter
2 T brown sugar
1/2 t cider vinegar
1 frozen puff pastry sheet, thawed
4 oz diced Brie, rind removed
1/2 t caraway seed
2 t water
Preheat oven to 375 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium. Add the onions and cook until golden brown, stirring frequently, about 12 minutes. Stir in brown sugar and vinegar and cook until onions are completely caramelized. Roll puff pastry into an 8-by-11-inch rectangle. Spread Brie evenly over pastry. Layer onions over cheese and sprinkle with caraway seeds. Starting with one of the long sides of the pastry, roll from the edge to the middle of the dough. Repeat with the other long side so they meet at the center.
Using a sharp serrated knife, cut rolled dough into 1/2-inch slices that resemble hearts. Place each slice on the prepared baking sheet and flatten slightly. Place pan in the refrigerator for 15 minutes. Remove from refrigerator and whisk together egg and water in a small bowl. Brush the top of each slice with the egg wash. Bake until puffed and golden brown, about 13 minutes. Yield: 8 appetizer servings.