Nice & Easy Does It

Michelle Huneven's last article for the magazine was about three up-and-coming pastry chefs

Summer, the season of enervating days and mild evenings, is almost here again. Since nobody wants to spend hours in a steamy kitchen, preparing food for this time of year should be, well, a breeze. And wilted appetites need cajoling. Not with stick-to-your-ribs fare, but light, flavorful food as fragrant and perishable as a peach, as fresh and sweet as just-picked corn, as bright and vivid as the sunlight condensed in a vine-ripened tomato.

We found a perfect--and perfectly easy--summer menu in "Intimate Gatherings," a new cookbook by Ellen Rose, who founded the Cook's Library bookstore in Los Angeles, and Jessica Strand, a Los Angeles-based writer and knowledgeable home cook. A compilation of seasonal menus for small dinner parties, their book is aptly subtitled "Great Food for Good Friends."

This menu was expressly designed to be eaten outside, or wherever it's coolest, with people you know well and love. "The recipes are intentionally uncomplicated," Rose says, "so when your guests gather in the kitchen, it's easy to visit with them. These should be good friends and/or family, so you won't have to stop everything to entertain them. Cooking and visiting, and then eating--that's the rhythm we wanted to instill in all our menus."

This particular summer meal also happens to be vegetarian. But meat eaters may not notice and certainly won't mind a missing chop or chicken breast: After all, haven't we been waiting for months to eat our fill of the season's corn and tomatoes, stone fruit and berries?

When guests start arriving, greet them with a big glass or goblet of sangria--not the murky purple stuff with the occasional stained fruit bobbing into view, but white sangria, clear, sparkly and refreshing. Though the recipe calls for pear, green grapes and strawberries, Strand claims any fruit will do. "Almost any infusion you can think of will be pretty because you can actually see the shapes and colors."

Goat cheese mixed with chopped fresh herbs and spread on endive leaves makes an incredibly easy and tasty hors d'oeuvre. "The bitterness of the endive is perfect with the creamy cheese," Strand says, "and it looks quite elegant." Whipped cream cheese can be substituted for all or part of the goat cheese.

Fresh sweet corn comes off the cob for a subtly spicy corn chowder that can be made ahead and reheated at the last minute. Lime juice, some sneaky jalapeno and chopped cilantro give this soup a Southwestern edge. Although the recipe suggests you puree all of the soup, you can create more texture, Strand says, if you set a cup of the corn kernels aside and add them to the pureed soup during the final cooking.

The centerpiece of this meal is an herbed tomato tart that looks as if it's been shipped straight from a wood-fired oven in Tuscany. This is one of those great, gloriously easy recipes that serves the home cook well: It's delicious, portable and impressive to behold. "Everyone at the Cook's Library has already prepared this tart more than once," Rose says.

The Parmesan pastry is made with a few short pulses of the food processor and can be prepared a day or more in advance--just let it soften up for half an hour after taking it out of the refrigerator. The rusticity of the crust means that no artful crimping is required. In fact, the simpler the pastry treatment, the more charming the results. The recipe calls for ripe plum tomatoes, but any firm, small tomato can be used. Strand suggests small yellow and orange tomatoes for heightened color.

The tomato tart is served with a composed salad of arugula, caramelized shallots and toasted pecans--"a very earthy dish," Rose says. In the slow cooking, the natural sweetness of the shallot comes across loud and clear. "It's a reminder that whenever something is chopped or minced, it loses some of its flavor," Strand says. Small roasting onions, or cipolline, may be substituted for shallots, but they might need to be cooked longer. Walnuts can be substituted for pecans.

What could be better for dessert than a mixed summer fruit cobbler served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream? This versatile and virtually fail-proof recipe, with its shortbread crust, comes from Rose's Aunt Jennie. "My Aunt Jennie was a maiden aunt who lived with my grandmother," Rose says. "Aunt Jennie was the only person in the family who could actually put a meal on the table. For this reason, she thought she could cook.

"Her efforts were always applauded, but not always edible--except for this fruit cobbler, which was invariably delicious. And she would make it no matter what fruit was in season. We would tell her the reason we weren't eating much dinner was that we were saving room for her cobbler."

The recipe calls for five cups of mixed fruit. Rose's favorite combinations include nectarines and blueberries or blackberries, peaches and raspberries, peaches and rhubarb, mixed berries and cherries. Nuts and dried fruit can also be added. The cobbler is prepared ahead and then put in a 375-degree oven as dinner is served; it should be warm in about 20 to 25 minutes. If you expect to linger longer, set the oven at 350 degrees.

By the time people have gone back for seconds on dessert, the sun has set, the air is cooling down and the crickets have begun to sing. But by far the sweetest sound to a host or hostess' ear is the ringing of spoons as the last drops of cobbler and melted ice cream are scraped from bowls. Summer--deliciously, irresistibly plain and simple.

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Styled by Ann Johnstad; food styled be Christine Masterson

Cake pedestal from Crate & Barrel; tart plate from Williams-Sonoma

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SUMMER MENU

Savory Goat Cheese Spread With Endive

Fresh California Corn Chowder

Arugula With Slow-Roasted Shallots and Toasted Pecans

Rustic Herbed Tomato Tart With Parmesan Crust

Aunt Jennie's Mixed Summer Fruit Cobbler

Summer Sangria

Vodka Pink Lemonade with Mint and Lemon Slices

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SUMMER RECIPES

The following Recipes are excerpted and adapted from "Intimate Gatherings: Great Food for Good Friends," written by Ellen Rose and Jessica Strand and published this month by Chronicle Books.

SAVORY GOAT CHEESE SPREAD WITH ENDIVE

Serves 8

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4 ounces goat cheese or whipped cream cheese

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 tablespoon fresh tarragon, finely chopped

1/2 tablespoon fresh oregano, finely chopped

1/2 tablespoon fresh chives, finely chopped

1/2 tablespoon cracked black pepper

salt to taste

1 tablespoon heavy whipping cream

3 whole endives

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Put cheese, garlic, herbs and pepper in medium bowl. Thoroughly mix ingredients, making sure herbs and garlic are blended throughout spread. Salt to taste. Gradually stir in cream to loosen cheese.

Pull leaves off endives. Using damp paper towel, wipe leaves clean. Discard small bitter center of leaves.

Use blade of dull knife to fill leaves with cheese spread. Arrange filled leaves on decorative plate and serve.

FRESH CALIFORNIA CORN CHOWDER

Serves 8

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10-14 ears of fresh corn or 8 cups frozen corn kernels

4 tablespoons butter

4 medium leeks, white part only, coarsely chopped

2 ribs celery, diced

2 small jalapenos, minced

6 cups strained vegetable or chicken stock

juice of 4 limes

4 cups milk

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 medium avocado, cut into 32 thin slices, for garnish

12 tablespoons cilantro, coarsely chopped, for garnish

*

Cut kernels off ears of corn and set them aside.

In stockpot, melt butter over medium heat. Add leeks, celery and jalapenos. Saute until leeks are translucent and celery and jalapenos are soft, about 5 minutes. Add corn and stir for 2 to 3 minutes, making sure that it is thoroughly combined. Add chicken stock and lime juice and cook for 15 minutes.

In food processor or blender, puree soup 2 cups at a time, about 2 minutes.

Return soup to stockpot and slowly stir in milk. Cook for 5 minutes or until warmed through. Season with salt and pepper.

Ladle into 8 bowls. Garnish each with 4 avocado slices and 1 1/2 tablespoons cilantro.

ARUGULA WITH SLOW-ROASTED SHALLOTS AND TOASTED PECANS

Serves 8

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16 shallots, peeled and ends trimmed

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup pecan pieces

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Vinaigrette

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/2 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

4 teaspoons olive oil

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

* 3 bunches arugula leaves, torn into thirds

*

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Put shallots in large bowl and toss them with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Place shallots on baking sheet or in baking dish and bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until tender.

Meanwhile, place pecan pieces in pie tin and toast them in oven for 5 to 7 minutes, checking frequently to make sure they do not burn.

To make vinaigrette: Combine mustard, lemon juice and balsamic vinegar in small bowl. Slowly add olive oil, whisking continually, until mixed and creamy. Add salt and pepper.

When shallots are cooked, put arugula in large serving bowl and toss with pecans and vinaigrette.

To serve, put greens and nuts on individual plates. Place 2 roasted shallots on top.

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RUSTIC HERBED TOMATO TART WITH PARMESAN CRUST

Serves 4

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Pastry

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted cold butter, cut into 5 pieces

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated

zest from 1/2 lemon

1/4 cup ice water

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Filling

1 1/2 - 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, freshly grated

2 tablespoons fresh basil, finely chopped

1 tablespoon fresh thyme, finely chopped

1 tablespoon Italian parsley, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

6-8 ripe plum tomatoes (about 1 1/4 pounds), cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 egg yolk beaten with 1 teaspoon water

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To prepare pastry: In food processor fitted with metal blade, combine flour, butter, salt and Parmesan cheese. Pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal, 5 to 10 seconds. With motor running, add lemon zest and pour water through feeder tube in steady stream. Process for 5 to 10 seconds, or until dough begins to bind. Remove dough and shape it into 12-inch disk. (If mixing by hand or with pastry blender, rub butter with flour and salt until it resembles small peas. Add lemon zest and Parmesan cheese and combine. Slowly add ice water, stirring with fork until dough starts holding together. Shape dough into disk.)

The dough can be used immediately or wrapped in plastic and refrigerated. When ready to use, remove dough from refrigerator and let soften to room temperature, about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

On lightly floured surface, roll dough into 12-inch circle. Transfer to baking sheet. Using pastry brush, paint pastry with mustard, leaving 1- to 1 1/2- inch border all around. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese evenly over mustard.

In small bowl, combine basil, thyme, parsley, garlic, salt and pepper. Arrange half the tomato slices over mustard-coated pastry and sprinkle herb mixture over tomatoes. Cover with remaining tomatoes, overlapping slices if necessary.

Fold pastry border over tomatoes to enclose sides of tart, gently draping pastry over tomatoes and folding it into soft pleats every few inches. Pinch any cracks to seal pastry and prevent tomato juices from running out during baking. Drizzle olive oil over tomatoes. Using pastry brush, paint dough with egg wash. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until dough is golden. Remove tart and let cool slightly, about 10 minutes. Slice and serve warm.

AUNT JENNIE'S MIXED SUMMER FRUIT COBBLER

Serves 4

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Crust

1/4 cup walnuts, finely chopped

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/4 cup confectioners' sugar

pinch of salt

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup all-purpose flour

*

Filling

5 cups mixed fresh fruit, such as peeled, sliced peaches or nectarines, and blueberries or blackberries

1/2 cup granulated sugar (or more, depending on sweetness of fruit)

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

pinch of salt

*

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter bottom and sides of 8- or 9-inch square baking pan. Put chopped walnuts in pan and toast in oven for 6 to 8 minutes.

To prepare crust: In bowl of electric mixer, combine butter and confectioners' sugar and beat until fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes. Add salt and vanilla extract and beat for another minute. Add flour and beat until just combined. Stir in nuts by hand. Roll dough between two sheets of waxed paper into square the size of baking pan. Refrigerate until ready to use.

To prepare filling: Place fruit, granulated sugar, flour and salt in large mixing bowl and stir to combine. Spread mixture evenly in prepared pan.

Bake for 10 minutes or until filling is hot and bubbling. Remove pan from oven.

Remove dough from refrigerator. Peel off top layer of waxed paper, place dough on fruit and peel off remaining piece of waxed paper. Tuck any overhanging pieces of dough between fruit and sides of pan. Cut 3 to 4 small, decorative slits in dough with tip of sharp knife. Return pan to oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until crust is pale gold.

While cobbler is still warm, run blade of small knife around edges of pan to loosen. Serve warm with scoop of vanilla ice cream.

SUMMER SANGRIA

Serves 4

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1 bottle dry white wine

2 cups club soda

4 tablespoons Cointreau

2 tablespoons superfine sugar

1/2 peach, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 small ripe pear, cut into 1-inch cubes

8-10 seedless green grapes

4-5 strawberries

Mint sprigs, for garnish

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Combine wine, club soda, Cointreau and sugar in large pitcher and refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours. Add peach, pear, grapes and strawberries at least 1 hour before serving and return to refrigerator.

To serve, pour sangria and fruit into tall glasses filled with ice. Garnish with mint sprig.

VODKA PINK LEMONADE WITH MINT AND LEMON SLICES

Serves 6

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12 ounce can pink lemonade concentrate

4 cups water (or follow instructions on can)

2-3 lemons, sliced

25 mint sprigs

9 ounces vodka

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Defrost lemonade concentrate 30 minutes before using. Put concentrate into large pitcher and add water. Stir thoroughly. Add lemon slices and mint sprigs. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving.

Place several ice cubes in 12- or 14-ounce glasses. Add 11/2 ounces vodka to each glass and pour lemonade to fill. Serve with lemon slice and mint sprig.

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Note: For nonalcoholic lemonade, omit vodka.

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Copyright 1998 by Ellen Rose and Jessica Strand. Reprinted by permission by Chronicle Books

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