Appetizer as easy as 1-2-3

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I don’t often have an excuse to make appetizers. I don’t entertain, and usually when I contribute to a potluck or other event, I bake.

A couple of my friends and I got together for a movie night. We each agreed ahead of time to bring a couple food contributions. I made stuffed grapes, meatballs, and strawberry shortcake—because dessert is what I’m good at.

The stuffed grapes are something I learned to assemble last year as an easy appetizer. And really, when I say easy, I mean it. It requires three ingredients and a bit of patience. The funny thing is that, of the three things I took for movie night, these were the favorite. Sometimes simple really is best.

Ingredients
1 bunch red grapes
7-ounce log of goat cheese
1/3 cup pistachios, finely chopped

Remove grapes from stems. Cut the curved edge off the bottom of the grape so it can sit up when placed on a plate. Carve a cone-shaped space into the top. Repeat this step with all grapes.

Take a pinch of goat cheese and stuff it into each grape. Top with chopped pistachios.

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Beets make for a satisfying salad

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Since I now have a job with normal hours, it’s a lot easier to plan meals ahead of time.

It wasn’t until I started cooking with beets about a year ago that I really started to enjoy them. I usually use them in either salads or cook them in my dutch oven with a roast.

This salad is all about texture. It has hearty beets, a nutty crunch, creamy goat cheese, and balsamic vinegar that really sets off the flavor. It’s one of the Barefoot Contessa’s recipes. Her version called for almonds and arugula, but I only had pistachios and romaine lettuce, so I went with it. Arugula probably would have been better, but it was good just the same.

This is a great meal on a warmer day. As we head into summer, I’ll be looking for more great salads to make at home.

Ingredients
3 medium-size beets, tops removed and peeled
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup good olive oil
1 teaspoons Dijon mustard, such as Grey Poupon
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 ounces baby arugula or romaine
1/4 cup raw pistachios
4 ounces soft goat cheese crumbled

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Wrap the beets individually in aluminum foil and place them on a sheet pan. Roast them for 50 minutes to 1 hour, depending on their size, until a small sharp knife inserted in the middle indicates that they are tender. Unwrap each beet and set aside for 10 minutes, until cool enough to handle. Peel the beets with a small, sharp knife over a piece of parchment paper to prevent staining your cutting board.

Meanwhile, whisk together the vinegar, olive oil, mustard, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper and set aside. While the beets are still warm, cut each one in half and then each half into 4 to 6 wedges and place them in a large mixing bowl. As you’re cutting the beets, toss them with half of the vinaigrette (warm beets absorb more vinaigrette), 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Taste for seasonings.

Place the arugula in a separate bowl and toss it with enough vinaigrette to moisten. Put the arugula on a serving platter and then arrange the beets, almonds, and goat cheese on top. Drizzle with additional vinaigrette, if desired, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and serve warm or at room temperature.

Behold the sides of March

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This month my blog is going to be all about side dishes. To kick off the theme, I’ll introduce the most beautiful side dish I’ve ever made. I came across this recipe for beet and goat cheese napoleons on Pinterest a couple months ago. I’ve been eating beets lately and wanted to try something other than roasting them.

While I always like to make things that taste good, sometimes I’ll take the time to make something pretty, too.

A mandolin makes slicing the beets evenly a lot easier, but it’s not a necessity. You can cut the beets with a knife as long as you keep the thickness as uniform as possible. I don’t have a biscuit cutter, so I used the mouth of a glass to make the beet slices the same shape. I saved the beet scraps and made a beet salad for lunch the next day.

I don’t have presentation rings because they’re not something I see myself using on a regular basis, so my presentation of this dish is wanting. Luckily that doesn’t affect the flavor. I expected the overall taste to have a bit of a fresh, tangy flavor to it because of the goat cheese, but the honey in the mixture made it sweeter than I had imagined, and that was a pleasant surprise.

beets2Because I was making this for myself, I made two beet towers instead of the four or so the original recipe serves. I’ve pared down the ingredients so the recipe below produces two servings. I saved the second beet tower in a bowl, covered by plastic wrap, in the fridge for two days, and it kept, though the top beet layer was slightly dry and the beet juice had stained the goat cheese a pinkish purple color. I wouldn’t keep these refrigerated for longer than that. I served mine with pork, but it could stand alone for a vegetarian meal.

Ingredientsbeets3
Two beets, golden and/or red
5-6 ounces goat cheese, softened (at room temperature)
2 sage leaves, minced
1 tbsp chopped parsley
salt and cracked pepper
1/3 teaspoon honey
chopped pistachios, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Wrap the beets individually in aluminum foil. Bake for 1 hour, until a knife is easily inserted into the beet. Let them cool, and peel the skin off. Use a mandolin to slice the beets about 1/4-inch thick. Use a biscuit cutter to cut out beet slice circles.

Mix the sage and parsley with the goat cheese. Add the honey and season with freshly cracked pepper and salt to taste. Put dollops of goat cheese in between layers of sliced beet, until you get five slices of beet per napoleon. Serve with the chopped pistachios on top and watercress on the plate.

Taking a tomato tart up a notch

I’ve been working a lot lately, which means I’ve been eating a lot of pasta and quick meals. After a few days of reaching for whatever was in the fridge, I was craving something healthy, something homemade, something that would leave leftovers.

After a long day at work on Wednesday, I turned on the Food Network and saw the Barefoot Contessa was making a tomato and goat cheese tart, but hers used puff pastry and I was too tired to go to the store. So I Googled it to see what other recipes were out there. That’s how I found this recipe on The New York Times.

Compared to the tomato and goat cheese tarts I’ve made before, all of which were either unremarkable or overwhelmed by goat cheese, this one made an impression. I loved the crust for it — it’s somewhere in between bread and a pie crust; crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Next time, I might even bake herbs into it. The dijon mustard spread on the crust added an unexpected level of flavor. If you don’t like dijon mustard, try substituting regular mustard, some kind of salad dressing or just eliminating it. Or, if you only want a bit of the flavor, use half the amount called for by the recipe. This version of a tomato and goat cheese tart is more tomato than goat cheese, and I prefer it that way, Choose ripe heirloom tomatoes for really fresh flavor. They make it beautiful, too.

Crust
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1/4 cup lukewarm water
1/8 teaspoon sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature, beaten
1/8 cup olive oil
1/2 cup bread flour
1/2 cup unbleached flour
3/4 teaspoon salt

Dissolve the yeast in the water, add the sugar, and allow to sit until the mixture is creamy, about five minutes. Beat in the egg and the olive oil. Combine the flours and salt, and stir into the yeast mixture. You can use a bowl and wooden spoon for this, or a mixer — combine the ingredients using the paddle. Work the dough until it comes together in a coherent mass, adding flour as necessary. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface, and knead gently for a few minutes, adding flour as necessary, just until the dough is smooth — do not overwork it. Shape into a ball. Place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover the dough tightly with plastic wrap, and allow to rise in a draft-free spot until doubled in size, about one hour. If it’s too cold to rise, put the oven on warm until it heats up, then turn it off and put the dough inside. It’s a gem of a trick one of my former coworkers taught me. It has saved many a bread dough from being thrown out due to frustration.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, gently knead a couple of times, and cut into two equal pieces (or as directed in each of this week’s recipes). Shape each piece into a ball without kneading it. Cover the dough loosely with plastic wrap, and let rest for five minutes. Then roll out into thin rounds, as directed in each recipe, and line pans. If not using right away, freeze the dough to prevent it from rising and becoming too fluffy. The dough can be transferred directly from the freezer to the oven.

Filling
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 ripe heirloom tomatoes
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 to 3 teaspoons fresh thyme, chopped rosemary or dried herbs
2 eggs
4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Oil a 10-inch tart pan and line it with the pastry. Keep in the refrigerator while you prepare the filling.

Brush the mustard over the bottom of the dough. Slice the tomatoes and arrange over the mustard in concentric circles, overlapping them slightly. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and the herbs.

Beat together the eggs and goat cheese. Season with salt and pepper and pour over the tomatoes. Drizzle on the olive oil. Place in the oven and bake 30 to 40 minutes, until the top is nicely browned. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for 10 minutes before serving. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.