Hors d'oeuvres

Effortless summer baking: The (life-changing!) joy of frozen puff pastry

How much fun can a (relative sane) person have with a box of frozen puff pastry? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

I spent most of my adult life avoiding puff pastry. Well, I'm always happy to eat it, but make it? Not so much. I made it from scratch exactly once, a hundred years ago; that was enough. I'm not the type of person to spend endless hours rolling out layers of dough and butter and chilling it and waiting and rolling, etc. etc.

Until very recently, it never occurred to me that there were good brands of pre-made frozen puff pastry made with actual butter rather than hydrogenated vegetable oils. 

I know, right?! How out of it can a person get?!

Some months ago, I happened upon a box of frozen puff pastry in the freezer case at Trader Joe's that boasted an all-butter situation, snapped it up, stuck it in my freezer and nearly forgot about it. Then, when I was visiting friends in London last month, my dear friend Jenni’s wonderful sister Alison invited us for dinner. It one of these off-the-cuff affairs for 20 or so. What I love about the way these girls entertain is that they don't stress (even when 20 people are coming!); they don't worry if everything's not ready when people start arriving. Sometimes Jenni doesn't even start cooking until people start walking in the door! She and Alison understand that the important thing is to hang out with friends and family, and whatever winds up on the table will be delicious just because. 

They also happen to have some very good ideas up their sleeves. On this particular evening – a regular weekly Friday night dinner with extended family and friends – Alison pulled a savory tart out of the oven, placed it on a table out in the garden, and wheeled a pizza cutter through it to slice it into hors d'oeuvre bites. 

This is Alison's savory appetizer tart, before it was sliced into pieces. Doesn't it look *fantastic*? It was!

This is Alison's savory appetizer tart, before it was sliced into pieces. Doesn't it look *fantastic*? It was!

The thing looked so delicious, I was mesmerized. Free-form, golden-crusted, beautifully messy, it was strewn with greens and mushrooms and slices of some kind of marvelous-looking washed-rind cheese melted into it. It was even more delicious than it looked – some kind of serious umami savory action on that perfect, flaky crust. I stayed there, parked next to it, trying with all my might not to eat piece after piece until it was demolished.

After showering her with compliments, I asked how she made it. "Frozen puff pastry!" she said. "All butter."

That was then (about a month ago). Now, four savory tarts, three fruit tarts and a set of cheese straws later, I can't imagine life without a box of the stuff in my freezer. At. All. Times.

All-butter frozen puff pastry, where have you been all my life?

All-butter frozen puff pastry, where have you been all my life?

So far, I have found three brands. Perhaps there are more out there. Both the Trader Joe's and the Dufour Pastry Kitchens' brands are far superior to the Pepperidge Farms non-butter frozen puff pastry I used to use occasionally in the past (that's the one with the hydrogenated vegetable oil; it also includes high-fructose corn syrup). The Dufour Pastry Kitchens classic puff pastry contains only butter, unbleached unbromated flour, water, salt and lemon juice. It's not inexpensive: I paid $10.99 for a 14-ounce box at my local Whole Foods Market and $10.49 for a box at my local Central Market. The Trader Joe's pastry was nearly as flaky and delicious, and much less expensive: $3.99 for an 18-ounce box. The Dufour brand is one single large rectangle, which comes folded; the Trader Joe's brand is two rectangular pieces, wrapped separately, which is nice (you can defrost one at a time); they come rolled.

Just one problem with the Trader Joe's brand: According to a clerk at my local store, the chain only sells it during the last quarter of the year, presumably for fall and holiday baking. So unless you keep a box in your freezer for more than six months, you can forget about it for summer baking. (Mr. Joe, please change your policy! If you do, I'll make you a summer tart!)

Mr. Trader Joe, if you start stocking your frozen all-butter puff pastry year-round, I will make you one of these. I promise.

Mr. Trader Joe, if you start stocking your frozen all-butter puff pastry year-round, I will make you one of these. I promise.

A third brand, White Toque, was $12.99 for a one-pound box at Whole Foods, but this brand is two rounds – which struck me as less wonderful for a savory tart to cut in small rectangles to eat as pre-dinner nibbles, but very nice for a fruit tart. The White Toque brand – which I've only spotted once – did not rise as high as either the Dufour or Trader Joe's brand, but it's possible it was because my refrigerator died, and after defrosting it sat in a less-than-optimal temperature for more than a few hours. I will give it another try next time I find it. Still, it worked just fine for a cherry-plum tart that I will blog about soon.

First I need to tell you the two ways all-butter frozen puff pastry has changed my life (and no, I'm not exaggerating). 

The first is the savory tart. I managed to approximate Alison's, although Alison used a really nice aged washed-rind goat cheese on hers, and I haven't been able to find anything like it 'round these parts.

But the great news is once you grasp how to put one of these tarts together, you can make one out of just about any kind of summer veg. The general idea is this: Thaw the pastry, unwrap it, and fold up the edges to make a rim, painting a little egg wash on them if you want glossy look. Make a filling of sautéed veg, add a couple of eggs beaten with a little cream or half and half, and either put some grated or crumbled cheese in the egg (feta, goat cheese, cheddar, etc.) or strew crumbled feta or goat cheese on top. Pop it in the oven. So easy.


You can riff on it endlessly, changing up the cheese or the sautéed veg, adding sliced fresh or chopped sun-dried tomatoes. It always turns out great, even if you're in such a hurry that you make a terrible mess of it – as I did with a zucchini, tomato and okra version in which I used too much egg and had a sloppy a edge, so egg spilled out all over the parchment.

My hastily-assembled zucchini, tomato and okra tart. With too much egg and sloppy edges, it spilled all over the parchment.

My hastily-assembled zucchini, tomato and okra tart. With too much egg and sloppy edges, it spilled all over the parchment.

It was still pretty fabulous. (For that one I sliced the okra in half vertically and grilled them before laying them atop the tart, along with sliced fresh tomatoes, before popping it in  the oven.)

Even so, it looked – and tasted – pretty great!

Even so, it looked – and tasted – pretty great!

The point is, these savories are so easy and impressive that they have already become a go-to appetizer for me for laid-back summer entertaining. A glass of rosé, a slice of savory tart – who needs anything else?

OK, here's the other way in which all-butter frozen puff pastry changed my life: They are brilliant to use for summer fruit tarts, including those that star unbaked fruit, like berries.  

Until I learned the joys of frozen all-butter puff pastry, I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to make a good tart using fresh strawberries. All you do is make a quick pastry cream – which is way less involved than you might think (much less tricky than making most custards), blind-bake a crust, spread the pastry cream on top, and cover with berries. If you want to be fancy you can melt some fruit jelly and glaze the berries, but you don't have to. 

I also made a pretty wonderful tart using mixed berries – blackberries, blueberries and raspberries. That one is super easy because you don't have to stem or slice or pit anything -- just toss the berries with a little orange liqueur before dropping them onto the pastry cream. 

Easy berry tart. How festive would this be for the Fourth of July -- or Bastille Day?

Easy berry tart. How festive would this be for the Fourth of July -- or Bastille Day?


I'm thinking it could be the perfect, patriotic-hued dessert to serve on the Fourth. Or for Bastille Day! What the recipe? Here you go. 







From Paris' trendiest tables to yours: Whelks with basil aïoli are a snap to make

If you've been to Paris in the last few years (I just got back!), you know that bistronomie – laid-back bites in relaxed, new-style bistros – is Parisians' favorite way to dine these days. Expensive, elaborate menus dégustations (tasting menus) are pretty much for tourists and rich old fogies. OK, perhaps that's an exaggeration, but that's how it feels.

Thierry, Wylie and I dined bistronomie-style each of four nights when we visited Paris earlier this month, and twice we found bulots – the small sea snails English-speakers call whelks. They seem to be having a moment! I'd seen and eaten them occasionally in decades past on plateaux de fruits de mer – chilled seafood platters – where they'd sometimes be mingled with oysters and clams on the half-shell and steamed or boiled bigourneaux (periwinkles). 

"Bulots mayo," is how they were announced on the blackboard menu at Jeanne A – a terrific little bistro in the super-hot 11th arrondissement. I had to order them (6 euros) – for the three of us to share with our other starters. 

They came chilled in a coffee cup, accompanied by a little pot of good, house-made mayo. So much fun! A couple nights later, there they were again – listed under "zakouskis" at Le Servan, which offered them with mayonnaise au piment for 8 euros. (Le Servan, by the way, was wonderful – the best meal I had in Paris this trip, also in the 11th.) 

Ding ding ding ding ding! A lightbulb went off over my head: We can make bulots at home! Why? Because I know where to find them – and very inexpensively: at Jusco, an Asian supermarket with a fabulous seafood selection, in the Dallas suburb of Plano. In fact, I'd picked some up (about $6 per pound) to toss onto a seafood paella just a couple weeks before my France trip.  

As I researched bulots on my return, I learned a few things. First, that they're also called buccins, though I've never seen them called that on a menu. Second, that they're traditionally served in Provence with aîoli – the super-garlicky mayo whose name has been appropriated by American chefs who want to make gentler flavored mayos sound chic.  And third, that whelks is a term applied to several different types of sea snails, which explains why they don't always look quite the same – some are striped or ridged; others are spotted and smooth.

In any case, they couldn't be easier to cook. First, give 'em a 10-minute soak in cold water, so they release any sand, and rinse. Then boil them in heavily salted water for 20 minutes. That's it. I went a step further and tossed some sliced onion, thyme and bay leaves to the water as it came to a boil, and added a splash of white wine – a court bouillon on-the-fly. 

But first I whipped up some aîoli – a real one, with lots of garlic. It's easy to make in a blender. I flavored half of it with chopped basil. Or you could add chopped or puréed roasted red pepper. Or you could serve the bulots with mayo from a jar, dressed up with a squirt of harissa from a tube. But even plain mayo – home-made or store-bought would be swell.

With the aïoli – and glasses of chilled rosé – they were outstanding, a fabulous pre-dinner nibble, ideal for laid-back entertaining. Serve 'em warm, or chilled, or room temp – with toothpicks, which you need to coax the meat out of the shell. Delicious fun indeed. Want to try it? Here's the recipe:

Please let us know if you find them in your neck of the woods – and how you like 'em!



Having friends over for dinner? Be sure to invite Mikie's fabulous marinated olives

One of the best parts of visiting my hometown, L.A., is dinner or lunch at my friend Michalene's. I've mentioned Michalene – or Mikie, as her family and a few close friends call her – in many posts. It was Mikie, for instance, who wondered, after a recipe for Chinese lacquered roast chicken changed my life, what would happen if I adapted it to duck. (Answer: more life-changingly delectable fowl play.) 

I met Mikie in 2003, when she was Food Editor at the Los Angeles Times, but I'd long been a fan. Before arriving at the Times a couple years earlier, she'd been Dining Editor at the New York Times, producing the Dining section that quickly, under her tenure, became a must-read. I hadn't realized I wanted to work at a newspaper – in fact I thought I didn't. But the minute I met Michalene, who invited me for a drink to discuss the possibility of my coming on board as her deputy editor, and she talked so excitedly about her love for cooking, and eating out, and editing and writing and putting together a food section, I knew I had to give it a go. 

Before long, we became not just co-workers, but fast friends. That meant we cooked and dined together often. It's one of the things I miss most about living in L.A.

So, dining at Mikie's. There are lots of great things about it. Hanging out with Mikie, and her partner Dan (who happens to be an amazing cook, too, and an awesome bread baker). They have an spectacular view of the ocean, over their rows of vineyards, from their house in the Malibu hills, so dinner's often on the patio. They are warm, generous, thoughtful and altogether brilliant hosts. 


I always secretly hope, as I drive up Pacific Coast Highway toward their place in Corral Canyon, that Mikie will have made her fabulous marinated olives: They're just so much better than any other olives anywhere, perfumed with orange and herbs, and spiced just so – a dreamy pre-main-event nibble.

A couple weeks ago, with friends coming to a dinner with a Spanish theme, I thought, as I tried to figure out the tapas y pinxtos, hey – why don't I make Mikie's olives? I texted her, asking for the recipe, and she told me it's from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. – just tweaked a little. She adds orange zest, she tole me, and fennel seed. And she uses more vinegar than Bittman does, and less olive oil. Oh, and her technique is slightly different.

In other words, Mikie has made the olives her own. Honestly, I think it's the orange zest and fennel that knock them out of the park. 

How good are they? Well, I spent all day cooking to prepare for that dinner. I made bandilleros – all kinds of pickly and cured treats, prettily skwered. And some really nice tapas – piquillo peppers filled with brandade. And grilled asparagus with Serrano ham. And seafood paella. (OK, I blew the paella, if truth be told. Overcooked it terribly. Don't tell anyone.) Want to know what got the most applause? Mikie's olives. 

They take all of about five minutes to put together: It's just assorted olives (I like to use Castelvetranos, Picholines, Niçoises, Cerignolas and anything else that looks great – with pits), plus a few smashed garlic cloves, bay leaves, thyme branches, red pepper flakes, fennel seeds, orange zest, olive oil and red wine vinegar. Combine it all, and let it sit on the counter all afternoon – or even just an hour. Give it a toss with a spoon every now and then. That's it. 

Here's the recipe:

I will be eager to hear whether you love them as much as I do.


Nervous nibbles: 5 irresistible election-night snacks

The big night is finally here! Everyone's been so swept up in prognosticating and the frenzy of voting, who's had time to think about snacks for return-watching tonight?

Since I know you already voted (right?! If not, please stop reading this now and GO VOTE!), let's project ourselves into this evening. After you vote, you can run to the supermarket.

OK, now it's six p.m. We've all snuck out of work early (after voting, of course!!!). Everyone is jittery as we gather round the TV.  Need drinks and nibbles. Your friends will bring the drinks. You can make these easy nibbles.

Amazing cheater hummus

Swipe a warm pita triangle through smooth-as-silk hummus, and you won't care who's ahead in Florida. (OK, maybe I exaggerate slightly.) It's too late to soak garbanzos overnight, so here's a super-quick and easy recipe for amazing cheater hummus, made with canned chick peas. It takes all of about ten minutes to achieve.

No one will know the chick peas used to live in a can!

Sevillian marinated carrots


Whether you're looking for a vegetarian snack, or you're after a nibble the color of Donald Trump's hair, this classic tapa will spice up your evening.

Charred okra

Got okra? Char it.

Got okra? Char it.

Here's another great vegetarian snack, and you don't need a recipe for this one. Procure a basket of okra, and slice each one vertically. Heat a stove-top grill (let it get really hot), brush the grill with a little olive oil, and place the okra cut-side-down on the grill. Use tongs to turn them over once they're nicely charred, and char the other side. Transfer to a platter, sprinkle with your best salt and, if you like, some kind of red pepper: Aleppo, Espellette, red chile flakes, whatever you've got. Ready, set, nibble.

Lamb meatballs

Spear these with toothpicks.

This one does double-duty: irresistible nibble and soothing comfort food. For a crowd, make a double batch. Spear 'em with toothpicks and prepare to swoon.

Guacamole, salsas and chips

Our recipe for guacamole will satisfy the baddest of bad hombres; roasted salsa verde makes a great complement. Are you so nervous you can't get anything done today? Then go all-in, and make the salsa borracha, too. Don't forget the chips!

Oh, one more thing: Don't forget to VOTE!!!


When life deals you zucchini, make these insanely delicious Greek fritters

It happens to everyone at one point or another: You find yourself with zucchini coming out of your ears. Maybe you have a garden, and it's the end of summer. Maybe your friend has a garden, and she's gifted several pounds of giant veg to you. Maybe the heirlooms at the farmers market were so pretty you bought too many. 

Whatever it is, after a lifetime of looking for delicious things to do with the cartoonishly prolific summer squash, I've found it: The most insanely delicious zucchini dish ever. 

Barry making scottiglia in my mom and Warren's kitchen in Malibu

The fritter is the creation of my step-cousin Barry Kalb, who is a gifted cook, a former journalist and restaurateur and an all-around amazing person with a super-interesting story. 

Barry moved to Hong Kong in 1975 to work for NBC News, then became a staff correspondent for CBS News before heading to West Berlin in 1979 as Eastern Europe bureau chief for Time magazine. His Time gig later took him to Rome, then New York and eventually back to Hong Kong. In 1987, still in Hong Kong, he quit journalism and became a restaurateur – opening Marco Polo Pizza, the first "genuine, Italian-style" pizzeria there. The following year, he opened what he describes as the first authentic Italian restaurant in Hong Kong – Il Mercato, in the Stanley Market on the south side of Hong Kong Island. He ran it until 2002, when he returned to journalism, as an editor at Voice of America's Hong Kong bureau. 

These days Barry is writing fiction; he just published his second novel, a mystery – Chop Suey: A Tale of Hong Kong, China and the Chinese People.  (I'm not usually one for mysteries, but I'm looking forward to diving into this one!) He and his wife Suzi divide their time between Hong Kong and Thailand; they have a house in Phuket, which is where he was when my mom died in June. Barry flew out for her memorial (which we held, with lots of food and wine, at my mom's favorite neighborhood Italian restaurant) and to spend some extended time with Warren. 

To soothe ourselves and each other, we cooked. We needed comfort food. One night I made my mom's chicken curry, a family favorite. Another night Barry made a wonderful Italian braised meat dish, scottiglia con polenta – preceded by Greek-style zucchini fritters so delicious they blew us all away. 

Barry's zucchini fritters

Why Greek-style?  Barry fell in love with the fritters that inspired them in Greece, where he and Suzi are building a house – on the island of Meganisi, south of Corfu, just off the larger island of Lefkada. "When we arrive in Lefkada, en route to Meganisi," says Barry, "we always head for our favorite restaurant on the island, Margarita's, which serves the best zucchini balls we've found anywhere in Greece (and which introduced us to the dish)." It was this fritter than Barry set out to recreate. What sets them apart from other zucchini fritters is tons of chopped fresh herbs – mint and dill and parsley – along with a healthy dose of crumbled feta. 

I think you'll love them, and they're easy to make. You grate the zucchini on a box grater, sprinkle it with salt, let it sit for an hour, then squeeze out the liquid. Mix the zucchini with egg, breadcrumbs, the crumbled feta, herbs, ground cumin and pepper, form the mixture into patties, dredge them in flour, and fry them on both sides in olive oil. 

Barry's were pretty big – about three inches, with a shape like a flattened ball – and required a fork to eat, which I'm guessing is how you eat them at Margarita's. (I hope I have the occasion to find out one day!) 

For my adaptation, I made them a little smaller – finger food – and added tangy yogurt sauce with punched with lemon zest, which is wonderful with the minty thing the fritter has going for it. Got zucchini? You want this recipe:

Do try it, and let us know what you think!



Ottolenghi meets Zahav: Introducing the ultimate hummus recipe

First there was Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi's recipe for hummus, published in  Jerusalem: a Cookbook in 2012. Then there was last year's sensation – the hummus tehina from Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook's Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, which just won the 2016 James Beard Book Award for Book of the Year. Finally, we had an easy way to make amazingly smooth, creamy and fabulous hummus, and America went nuts over it

Now that the excitement is simmering down, I started simmering up: I have at last (after receiving a review copy) given Solomonov's recipe my full attention and put it to the test. 

Yes, it is wonderful. But it's also somewhat more complicated than it needs to be. And there were a few minor issues. It needed more salt, and my chickpeas cooked much quicker than Zahav said they would. The recipe said they would be tender in about an hour; mine were falling apart after 25 minutes; 10 minutes later they were mushy to the point of being waterlogged, resulted in too-watery hummus. Covering the pot of chickpeas simmering over medium heat made the pot overflow the first time I tried it; next time I tried lower heat, but the same thing happened. 

I wondered: How did this differ from Ottolenghi and Tamimi's recipe? So I went back to that one for guidance. They didn't cover the pot. And their estimated time to tenderness was "between 20 and 40 minutes, depending on the type and freshness" of the chickpeas, "sometimes even longer." 

Aha. Two great recipes. How about synthesizing them, taking the best, most thoughtful aspects of each? The goal was to achieve maximum flavor and amazing creamy texture with a minimum of time and effort. (Of course if you want a quickie cheater version using canned garbanzos, you can do that, too.)

The thing that probably makes Solomonov's recipe brilliant for a restaurant actually makes it cumbersome for the home cook: It calls for 1 1/2 cups "basic tehina sauce," which you have to make first. The recipe for it – a whole separate recipe – yields 4 cups.  That's great for a restaurant doing serious volume, but silly for a home cook making one batch – which is already a ginormous amount of hummus. Ottolenghi's recipe simply has you put those ingredients (tahini, garlic, lemon juice) directly into the food processor without making a separate sauce first. However, Solomonov's recipe, in breaking out the tahini sauce separately, does something clever: He has you drop whole cloves of garlic into lemon juice, pulverize them together in a blender, let the mixture sit and mellow for 10 minutes, then you press it through a fine sieve and discard the solids. It's the mellowly garlic-infused lemon juice that goes into the tahini. 

Great effect, but it's kind of a pain in the butt. I found a compromise: While the chickpeas are simmering, you crush the garlic through a press into lemon juice and let it sit and mellow till the chickpeas are tender. No need for straining, pressing, discarding. 

So here's how it goes: You soak the chickpeas overnight, with a teaspoon of baking soda to start breaking down the garbanzo skins so you get that amazingly smooth texture. Next day drain and rinse them, and simmer them (uncovered) in a lot of water with another teaspoon of baking soda. Drain them and purée in a food processor. With the motor still running, add tahini, the lemon juice-and-crushed-garlic mixture, salt and a few tablespoons of ice water. And let it run and run – until the hummus is incredibly smooth, creamy and light. 

Wow, is it incredible – wonderfully warm, nutty and vibrant. It almost seems alive.  You will be licking your spoons and rubber scrapers like a kid with Tollhouse cookie dough. Such a simple food, and such an amazing one. 




Artichoke vinaigrette: an easy, elegant, French (and vegan! and healthy! and make-ahead!) appetizer

Growing up in California, I took fresh artichokes for granted. After all, Castroville – the town that bills itself as "the artichoke capital of the world" – is right there in the central coastal part of the state, not far from Monterey. I used to love stopping there on road trips and seeing the giant concrete artichoke sculpture that greets you at the edge of town.

In the spring and summertime, my mom always steamed artichokes and served them as an appetizer with melted butter to dip the leaves in. I love them even more dipped in mayo, or a mustardy red wine vinaigrette. Wylie loves it with balsamic vinaigrette.

A classic French way to serve artichokes is  à la vinaigrette – that is, actually dressed in the vinaigrette; shallot vinaigrette suits them particularly well. Pouring the sauce over them while they're still warm lets the vinaigrette penetrate the leaves – no additional dipping sauce required. An artichoke vinaigrette is also pretty beautiful. It's great as a sit-down starter at a dinner party or as a sharable treat before the dinner gets started. 

A few years ago, I served boiled artichokes as an appetizer to new friends in Texas, and was surprised that they found them exotic. "How do you eat them?" they asked. We showed them how to pull off a leaf, dip it in sauce, scrape off the meaty part (closest to the crown) with your teeth and discard the rest of the leaf. When all the leaves are gone and only the thin, prickly ones at the heart remain, you pull those off, scrape the fuzz off the crown with a spoon, and eat the heart  – the prize! – which is also delicious dipped in mayo or vinaigrette.


Many cooks boil artichokes rather than steaming them. I've prepared them both ways, and find that boiling them in plenty of salted water gives them the best texture. Acidulating the water with lemon juice (as some cooks do to prevent discoloration) is unnecessary; I find the results to be the same with unacidulated water. Instead, after I trim them, I simply rub the cut surfaces with half a lemon.

For a party of four to eight, I often make two artichokes and serve it with another app or two. For a dinner party, you can serve one per person, or for a more casual dinner, one for every two to share.

So, how to trim them? You can get all fancy, and remove the chokes if you want to, but I usually don't. 

Once you do it once or twice, it's easy. Using a sharp serrated knife, slice off the stem, creating a flat surface for the artichoke to rest on. Then slice off the top straight across – removing the tops of the inner few rows of leaves. Next use your fingers to break off the tough row or two of small leaves around the bottom.


Finally, use kitchen scissors to snip off any remaining leaf tips (be careful – there's a prickle at the top of each). Rub the cut surfaces with half a lemon and they're ready to cook.

Boil them in lots of salted water in a covered pot. Don't worry if they bob up to the top; flip them over with a spoon once or twice so they cook evenly. While they're cooking, whisk together the vinaigrette. 

Drain the artichokes upside down, then dress them with the vinaigrette. Voilá. Easy, chic, delicious and healthy. And there are a couple of bonuses: You can serve them warm, or make them ahead, serving them chilled or at room temperature. And . . . they're vegan!

Ready to try? Here you go!



Hummus fans rejoice: Introducing an amazing, easy cheater version

I lied: I told you this post would be more about gribiche. But we need to interrupt our gribiche coverage to bring you breaking news on the hummus front: Cooks Without Borders has figured out how to make pretty amazing hummus from canned chick peas. 

No joke! 

If you're among those who caught hummus fever as chef Michael Solomonov's recipe for Israeli hummus tore up the internets last fall, or fell in love with Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi's recipe in their brilliant cookbook Jerusalem (the excellent cooking blog Food 52 featured it a few years ago), you know how earth-shattering this is.

For those who are just catching up with it, here is the hummus situation in a garbanzo shell: Since time immemorial, creating hummus as smooth and fluffy as what you get in a great Lebanese, Israeli or other middle-Eastern restaurant involved soaking chick peas (aka garbanzo beans) overnight, simmering them for an hour and a half or two hours and removing their skins (can you imagine?!) before puréeing them. Sheesh! The brilliance of Ottolenghi's technique (which he apparently didn't invent, and which Solomonov also uses) is that it uses baking soda during the cooking process to soften the chick peas' skins so they don't need to be removed. 

Home cooks, meanwhile, who want to make a quick, easy hummus that's always at least as good as what you buy in a plastic tub at the supermarket, could simply purée chick peas in the food processor or blender with some garlic, lemon juice, tahini and salt, maybe a little olive oil. A hummus like that is fine, but never killer. It never has that amazing texture and deep flavor that a great one has.

I've been playing for the last few weeks with hummus made the Ottolenghi/Solomonov way, and I'll post about it when I'm ready to draw some conclusions. (There's more hummus to be made and tasted first!) But as I play, I can't help but wonder: Can we use this baking soda trick to radically improve the super-quick and easy version from canned garbanzos?

Yes, we can!

All you do is rinse the canned beans, simmer them for just five minutes in water and a little baking soda, and toss 'em in the food processor with some tahini sauce you've made while the garbanzos simmered. I found it pretty incredible that the skins could be softened enough to make a difference in just five minutes, but there you go. 

Was our cheater version as smooth as hummus made using dried-and-soaked garbanzos you simmer for an hour with baking soda? Well, if not, it was certainly close. It had been a week since I made a more involved one, but Thierry couldn't tell the difference: The cheater hummus was light, fluffy and soft, maybe more velvety than satiny. The flavor was very good, if not as extraordinary as the more involved way. It was terrific enough so that I'll certainly do it again if I'm pressed for time and want hummus. 

Want to try?

OK, toss whole garlic cloves (you can leave their skins on) in the food processor with salt and lemon juice. Purée briefly to chop the garlic, and let the mixture steep 10 minutes while you boil the garbanzos. Strain the solids from the lemon-garlic-salt juice, then put the juice back in the processor. Add tahini, pulse, then slowly pour in ice water through the tube as the motor runs. 

That gives you very light, lovely tahini sauce. Now add the garbanzos plus a little cumin (if you like that flavor), purée a couple minutes till very smooth, plate and garnish with olive oil and paprika – and more, if you like. I usually keep it simple, but you can get creative with parsley, whole garbanzo beans and such. 

Yippeee! Who says cheaters never prosper?

I think I can improve it still further flavor-wise (I'm going to play with adding more tahini, for instance). Once I have the very best version possible of the cheater hummus and the more involved hummus, we'll do a side-by-side taste-test. 

Meanwhile, I wanted to give you this recipe right away as it is very acceptable – way better than the stuff you'd buy in a tub.

Very good indeed with pita toasted or heated in the oven, and crudités. Who says cheaters never prosper?








My pissaladière: a French cook, three pounds of onions, a jar of anchovies and an overscheduled journalist add up to one snazzy starter from Provence


There I was, caramelizing onions at midnight on a Thursday night. At seven the next morning, in between dressing for work and putting on my makeup, I found myself rolling out tart pastry, organizing anchovies, putting things in and pulling them out of a hot oven. My morning workout? Not happening.

It didn't seem completely batty to offer to bring a pissaladière -- a Southern French caramelized onion-and-anchovy tart -- to dinner at my friends' house on a Friday night when the event was a couple weeks off in the future. No problem, I thought, as I normally I work from home on Fridays. But as I stared down my schedule the Wednesday before, I found myself with back-to-back-to-back meetings at the paper downtown. Working from home was not in the stars. The dinner was a Francophile dinner party at our friends Keven and George's place (also downtown); the theme was Provence. Georges had bouillabaisse on the menu as the main course. So how to manage the promised  pissaladière?

No worries -- I'd prepare the ingredients on Thursday evening, assemble and bake it in the morning, drive it (gingerly!) downtown, and let it cool its heels in my car all day while I did my thing at the paper. A quick turn in Georges' oven, and we should be great to go.

Pissaldiere ingredients

Crazy? Perhaps, given all I have on my plate at the moment. But making this classic dish is much easier it would appear, and making the tart actually turned out to be a high point in a stressful week. Have I mentioned that I'm happiest in the kitchen?

More often than not, a pissaladière made with bread dough, but I learned to make it from an old friend, Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch, who makes hers using pâte briseé  -- a savory tart crust. We could argue about bread vs. pâte briseé all day long, and Danièle is not from Nice (from whence the dish comes), but rather Dordogne. But I think she has it right: The flavor of sweet, deep onions with salty anchovies melting into them show more deliciously on a flaky crust.

Interesting side note: Danièle was a home cook, queen of the hearth oven in the kitchen of her family's 500-year-old stone farmhouse, when François Mitterand -- who was president of France at the time -- tapped her to be his private chef at the Élysée Palace. They made a movie about her a few years ago called Haute Cuisine; Catherine Frot did a wonderful job portraying Danièle. Here's an interview Epicurious did with Danièle when the movie was released in the U.S. In any case, she's a wonderful cook, and an amazing spirit. A true cook without borders if ever there was one.

Pate brisee

But back to our regularly scheduled tart.

So, the first thing to do is caramelize onions -- a lot of them. It's a slow caramelization, and I'm completely opposed (morally, gastronomically and vehemently) to adding sugar to speed the caramelization. Required: a sharp knife, a low flame and patience.

Slice thin about three pounds of yellow onions in a little olive oil (or better yet duck fat, if you have some) and let them cook very slowly for more than two hours, till they're deep golden and sweet. Then you drain them. While the onions caramelize, make your pâte briseé. Give flour and salt a whirl in the food processor, toss in bits of chilled butter, pulse till it has the texture of coarse meal, add an egg lightly beaten with a dollop of milk, let the motor run till it clumps together. Honestly, it's that simple.

Let the dough rest in the fridge half an hour, roll it out, fit it into a tart pan with a removable bottom, pour in the onions, smush them in nicely, garnish the top with anchovies, niçoise olives and bits of fresh thyme, pop it in the oven, and in 35 minutes, you have a gorgeous pissaladière. Click on the black bar below for the recipe.


Place in shopping bag, drive to the office, spend the day getting things done, arrive at K and G's, present tart, demand Ricard. (That's is the beloved anisette aperitif of Southern France.) 

Note to self: Next time I make this, do it on a weekend!

Judy Rodgers and her New Year's Eve Gougères

My favorite thing to do on New Year's Eve is cook for friends – because I love to cook, I love my friends and I don't really like going out on New Year's Eve, especially to a restaurant. If I entertain at home I can spend a luxurious day in the kitchen chopping and slicing and baking, enjoying the smell of something warm in the oven and the sizzle of onions and shallots on the stove. Then I get to enjoy the company of people I love best, spending hours at the table, sipping wine and eating and talking and laughing, and – bien sûr – popping a bottle of Champagne at midnight. 

And it has to be Champagne. It just wouldn't be New Year's Eve without it.

And every New Year's Eve, I think of Judy Rodgers, the late great chef-owner of Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. Her Zuni Cafe Cookbook, published in 2002, is one of my favorite volumes of all time. One of the many recipes I love to cook from it is her New Year's Eve Gougères.

Gougères – French cheese puffs, served warm just out of the oven – are wonderful anytime, particularly with a glass of light red wine, maybe a village Beaujolais or a Côtes du Rhônes.

Sliced open and stuffed with great bacon, arugula and pickled onions, as Rogers suggests, they're a spectacular, and very festive, hors d'oeuvre – on New Year's Eve or any other eve.  Rodgers, who died two years ago this month, wrote in the recipe's headnote,"This was the most successful New Year's Eve hors d'ouevre of the last decade, outselling foie gras, oysters, caviar, crab salad, and little truffle-laden pizzas."

There you go. They are a real treat – definitely something to consider whipping up on the last day of the year.

I treasure my copy of The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, not just because there are so many great recipes and ideas in it, but also because Rodgers signed it for me when I bought it at the restaurant many years ago. "For Leslie," she wrote, "always cook with heart." Rest in peace, Judy Rodgers. You will always live on through your recipes.

Happy New Year!