Like many Americans, technically I’m what you might call a “mutt”- like a big pot of stew with lots of bits and bobs, my family tree is peppered with Scottish, English, Native American, French, German and probably a bunch of other genes I’m unaware of. But, coincidentally, I have Alsatian roots on both my mother’s and father’s side. My mom’s grandfather’s family, the Steffeses, and my dad’s father’s side, the Lothamers (originally Lotthammer) are both from Alsace and the Black Forest region (on the other side of the Rhine river, which divides Alsace from Germany). So, given the fact that I have been enamored with French language and culture from an early age, and that I have a French first name and German last name, I have adopted Alsace as my pays and taken to telling people with a wink that I’m alsacienne.
One of my uncles has done pretty extensive genealogical research on the Lotthammer family and has made contact with several families living in Alsace and Germany today that are related to us. When I was 16, he arranged a trip for me and my best friend to travel to Alsace and stay with some of the families he had made contact with through his research (yes, that’s me in the photo above on the right at age 16… the French got a kick out of my braces!). We were there for three weeks, and visited the region extensively- from the largest city, Strasbourg, to a tiny village called Guewenheim, and several towns in between (Colmar, Mulhouse, Thann, Belfort…). The experience was nothing short of transformative for a suburban teenager who until then had barely traveled in the U.S. let alone Europe.
That trip was a huge stepping stone on my path to adventurous eating and cooking. In Guewenheim, we stayed with a family whose refrigerator was unplugged and used as a pantry, because they ate fresh food every day and had no need to refrigerate anything! (Any leftover scraps were given to their lucky chien, Zora.) One of the funniest memories from that trip was going over to the home of an elderly woman in the village for a lesson in making kugelhopf, only to discover that the woman’s Alsatian dialect was totally incomprehensible to our limited third-year French ears. Let’s just say there was a lot of nodding and smiling going on that afternoon, and that I still don’t know how to make kugelhopf!
It took a while for my budding food curiosity to convert itself into a love for cooking, but some of the first recipes I ever made from a cookbook came from France: The Beautiful Cookbook. This was a gift from another uncle to our family, and since my parents weren’t the type to cook from a “fancy” French cookbook, the book defaulted into my possession. I still have a great nostalgia for the hours I spent as a teenager poring over the photos, reading about the different regions of France, and staring longingly at all the strange food depicted between its covers, trying to conjure what it would taste like. Luckily, not all the recipes were out of reach, and I taught myself to make tarte flambée (basically a “pizza” with crème fraîche, bacon and onions) so I could have a little taste of Alsace here in the States. With crème fraîche being readily available now, along with ready made pizza dough, this is now something that’s totally doable for a weeknight supper, and I’ve found myself making it fairly often of late. One of these days I’ll make a choucroute garnie, the most famous of Alsace’s regional dishes, but with spring around the corner, I don’t know how many more large heavy dinners will be in the works, so it may have to wait until next winter at this point. If I get really motivated maybe I’ll even make my own sauerkraut!
P.S. This is a GREAT recipe to adapt to the grill- see this post for instructions on grilling pizza.
Photo note: all of the non-food photos are scans of old photos from my trip. The top two are in Colmar; the third was taken atop Strasbourg’s cathedral, and the remainder I believe are from Guewenheim (possibly another nearby village).
Tarte Flambée (Alsatian Bacon & Onion Tart)
1 lb pizza dough, divided in half
1 small tub crème fraîche (you’ll probably use 1/2 to 2/3 cup total)
3 medium yellow onions
6 slices bacon
white or black pepper
optional: shredded Gruyere or Emmenthaler cheese
Notes: This will make two approximately 10″ tarts, depending on how thin you stretch your dough. Each tart serves two as a main course or more as an appetizer, so you can make the second tart right away or save the leftover dough and toppings for a quick and easy after-work meal. Cheese is not traditional per se, but I had some and wanted to use it up. If you do use cheese, do so sparingly, otherwise you’ll end up with a pretty greasy tart. The nutmeg may be non-traditional as well but I love nutmeg with cream, bacon and onions so I always include it. White pepper vs. black is more a visual thing, if you don’t want black specks on your white food, use the white pepper.
Place a pizza stone in the oven on the center rack and preheat to 475. OR, make this on the grill. Remove your dough from the refrigerator and allow to come to room temp while you prep the onions and bacon.
Heat a medium (10″ or 12″) cast iron or aluminum skillet over medium heat. Cut the bacon into 1/4-” strips (I like to use a kitchen scissors and just snip the bacon right over the pan) and fry to your preferred doneness. While the bacon is frying, cut your onions. I like to do thin rings but you can dice it if you prefer. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Pour off some of the bacon fat, leaving enough in the pan to fry the onions. Saute the onions over medium-high heat until soft and golden.
Put a generous amount of flour on a pizza peel or other flat surface such as a cookie sheet with no lip (in a pinch, I have used an upside-down cookie sheet; you just need to be able to slide it off onto the pizza stone). Take one of your dough balls and flour it until it is dry to the touch. Gently stretch the dough, using your fists, flouring as you go to keep it from sticking to your hands or the pizza peel. I like to get mine as thin as possible, but if you prefer a chewier crust you can adjust accordingly. Don’t forget that your dough will shrink back a bit, so make it slightly thinner than you think you’ll want it. When you’re done, place the dough on the peel and shake it, making sure the dough moves freely and is not sticking anywhere.
Working as quickly as possible, spread a thin layer of crème fraîche over the dough, about 1/4 cup or a little more if needed. Top the tart with half the onions, half the bacon, a few grinds of pepper and nutmeg, and cheese if using. Slide the tart onto the pizza peel and cook until the crust is golden, 5-10 minutes depending on how thick you stretched the dough. Brush the flour off the peel and use it to serve the tart.
I’m getting to this point in my cooking career where I’ve begun to actually create my own recipes based on techniques I’ve learned from cookbooks. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great feeling to make a recipe from a cookbook and have it turn out just right (especially if it’s something you’ve never attempted), but it’s a different level of satisfaction to conceive a recipe and have it turn out perfectly the first time. This is so exciting to me- kind of like when I first started writing songs after just playing other people’s for years. I’ve never had much problem making up recipes for simple things like soup, pasta, salad or salad dressing. But this past year I’ve been branching out and creating slightly more advanced recipes based on ideas I have for flavor combinations. One of the first times I did this was for these scrambled eggs with scallops & bacon (which, incidentally, would be a fabulous Valentine’s breakfast!). I did refer to another recipe, kind of like a musician refers to certain chord progressions to write a pop song, but the cool thing for me was that I thought up the idea independently and that it worked! Since then, I’ve written other recipes, each time getting a little more confident and feeling less like I need to consult a cookbook. Some are very simple, like this saffron-citrus risotto or this Chinese-style kale (probably my most popular recipe), while others, like this venison & porcini ragu, are a little more involved.
Last weekend I got together with some girlfriends for Soup Swap Mach II (you can go here to check out last year’s Soup Swap) and after flipping through tons of cookbooks for soup recipes, decided to just make one up. The flavors for this soup were inspired by an onion tart I made last year from the Chocolate & Zucchini cookbook which contained onions, cheese, and the somewhat unexpected element (for French cuisine, anyway) of cumin. I really loved these flavors together and thought they’d be wonderful in a soup. The depth and intensity of this soup was unlike any cheese soup I’ve ever had- I caramelized the onions for almost an hour until they reached a deep amber color, toasted the cumin seeds, and used a pound of cheese. Decadent, perhaps a bit, but this soup reaches a level of savory that makes it all worthwhile. Don’t be put off by its somewhat drab appearance- what it lacks in looks, it more than makes up for in taste. Serve it with a salad, some fruit (apples or pears would be good) and crusty bread or croutons.
Cheese Soup with Caramelized Onions & Cumin
6 cups diced yellow onions
3 Tbs butter
1 cup dry white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc
4-5 Tbs flour
2 cups chicken stock (substitute a mild vegetable stock for a vegetarian version)
2 cups lowfat milk
1 lb shredded cheese such as Cheddar or Emmenthaler (see notes)
1 rounded tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp ground white pepper
kosher or sea salt
optional for serving: chopped parsley and croutons
Notes: If you’d like detailed instructions on caramelizing onions, I used the techniques described in this post, using wine to deglaze the pan instead of water. For the cheese, you can use whatever you like- Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Emmenthaler or another hard cheese like Comte… Just make sure whatever you choose is not going to have a funky flavor once melted, as some Swiss-style cheeses are prone to do. I used a mixture of 3/4 Wisconsin white Cheddar and 1/4 Emmenthaler (because I had some in the fridge to use up) but I think you could play with the proportions or try other cheeses. I wouldn’t use anything too strong or too mild unless you plan to mix two cheeses. The Emmenthaler on its own would be lovely, but it’s a bit spendy; the Cheddar is much more affordable.
Directions: Melt 2 Tbs of the butter over medium-high heat in a heavy-bottomed skillet or Dutch oven. Whatever you choose, make sure it has a light-colored bottom so you can monitor the browning process. Most importantly, do NOT use a non-stick pan! When the butter has melted and the pan is hot, add the onions. Sprinkle them generously with salt- this will help to draw out the water, which is the first step to getting them browned. Stir often with a wooden spoon or spatula. Be patient- the caramelization process will take quite a long time (45 minutes to an hour), but it’s not difficult and the flavor is so worth it! Some cooks like to read while they stir… The hotter you keep the heat, the faster things will go, but the more you’ll have to be vigilant with your stirring. Towards the end, you may have to reduce the heat a little to keep things from scorching. After the water has started to cook out, the onions will become a pale brown and an amber-colored residue will gradually begin to build up on the bottom of the pan. When you can no longer scrape the browned part up with your spoon alone, start using the wine to deglaze the pan. To start off, you’ll want to deglaze every 45-60 seconds or so; as the onions cook, the intervals will become shorter. Every time a “crust” accumulates, add a SMALL splash of the wine (no more than a tablespoon; less if possible) and stir and scrape the pan to incorporate the browned bits into the onions. The sugars from the wine will assist the browning process and give you a gorgeous deep amber color.
When you’ve used up all the wine and the onions have become quite dark (see photos), reduce the heat to medium and add the remaining 1 Tbs butter to the pot. When the butter has melted, sprinkle the flour over the onions 1 Tbs at a time, stirring to incorporate and making sure there are no lumps. Cook the floured onions for 2-3 minutes so that the flour loses its “raw” taste.
Increase the heat back to medium high, add the chicken stock, and bring to a low simmer; the soup will thicken slightly. Add the milk; when the soup comes back up to temperature, add the cheese. If you like, you can reserve a little of the cheese for garnish. Stir gently until the cheese has melted. Cover the soup and reduce the heat to low.
Toast the cumin seeds in a small dry skillet over medium-low heat until they are fragrant, being very careful not to burn them. (If they seem at all burned, toss them out and start over; burnt cumin is very bitter and will ruin your soup!) When they have cooled, crush them a bit in a mortar & pestle to release their flavor. Add the cumin to the soup along with the white pepper. Taste for salt, but it likely won’t need any.
If you want to leave your soup as-is, you’re done. If you want a smooth soup, transfer to a blender in 2 batches and puree until very smooth. Alternately (and I think I’d do this next time), puree half the soup and stir it back in- this will give you some body, but you’ll retain the texture of some of the onions.
Ladle into bowls and top with croutons, a little chopped parsley, and a pinch of grated cheese if desired.
I don’t know about you, but I get a little manic this time of year. It’s tomato season here in Michigan, that all-too-fleeting two or three-week period where we can actually get gorgeous, red-ripe tomatoes, the kind that actually taste like tomatoes should. When the season rolls around, I feel a bit frantic- I want to put it in a chokehold so it can’t slip away, or beg it like a forlorn lover never to leave me…
If you couldn’t tell from the impassioned words above, tomatoes are my absolute favorite fruit and/or vegetable, and I get so frustrated reading recipes that have the caveat “Don’t bother making this unless you have really great tomatoes”, since 90% of the year I don’t. Hence the mania- when I can actually make those dishes, I rush like crazy to make as many as possible before they elude me once more.
Last Sunday at Eastern Market, we picked up half a bushel each of Romas and regular slicing tomatoes (not sure the exact variety), as well as a couple pounds of heirloom tomatoes (all for the paltry sum of $10!). The heirlooms, of course, were simply sliced and eaten with a tiny pinch of salt and olive oil. The Romas are destined to be slow-roasted with olive oil and herbs, and the regular tomatoes have (so far) been used to make a gargantuan batch of gazpacho and a small batch of salsa. (Unoriginal, I know, but hey, it’s only once a year that I can make those things with excellent tomatoes.) I still have a bunch left that I need to use- perhaps a panzanella, or a tomato panade or summer pudding? Or stuffed tomatoes? What’s your favorite way to showcase fabulous tomatoes? I’m dizzy with the possibilities…
I’ll be posting more tomato recipes (hopefully) very soon; meanwhile, here’s a recipe for the easiest salsa you’ll ever make (and it’s pretty damn good, at that). It’s very similar in style to the salsas served at Mexican restaurants- somewhat thinner than jarred salsa, but with an amazing fresh flavor and a little kick. And outside of tomato season, if you substitute a couple cans of tomatoes, I won’t tell anyone.
Noelle’s Kick@$$ Blender Salsa printer-friendly version
4-5 cups ripe tomatoes, cored and roughly chopped
1 small yellow onion or 1/2 a large white onion, quartered
1 small jalapeño, halved and top removed (remove seeds and pith for a medium salsa; leave in for a hotter salsa)
1 tsp sea salt (or to taste)
1 clove garlic
a handful of cilantro leaves
Notes: The garlic and cilantro are marked “optional” for the simple reason that if you don’t have them, you can still make a great-tasting salsa with the first four ingredients. I love cilantro, but I know it’s not for everyone. For the jalapeño, if you want it really spicy, don’t bother taking out the seeds or pith (if it ends up too spicy for your liking, you can always add more tomatoes). In regards to equipment, I prefer the blender because it does a better job of not leaving any large chunks, but use the processor if that suits your fancy.
Directions: Place 3 cups tomatoes and all other ingredients in a blender or food processor, onions & jalapenos at the bottom. Pulse gently until no large pieces remain, and the salsa has a nice even consistency. Add the remaining tomatoes and pulse just a couple times- this will give the salsa a little more texture. Taste for salt and adjust as needed. The salsa will appear light in color at first from the air that gets mixed in during the puréeing, but after it sits it will settle and look normal. Makes about 1 quart.
I recently finished reading Russ Parsons’ How to Pick a Peach for our first book club discussion, and thought it would be fitting to cook a couple of his recipes to enhance the experience. Since the book is sectioned by season, I flipped through the “Spring” recipes for ideas. Right off the bat there was a recipe that appealed to me in the Onions chapter for a grilled cheese with onions. Like me, I’m sure most of you don’t need a recipe for grilled cheese; for me the recipe was more a reminder of how great a simple combo like cheese and onions can be. He dresses it up a bit by using a fancy cheese, and dressing the onions in a little champagne vinegar and parsley. The other recipe I chose, Asparagus-Shrimp risotto, was dictated by the fact that asparagus is just about the only seasonal Michigan produce you can get in the farmers’ markets right now (with the exception of rhubarb, which was not in the book).
Parsons’ grilled cheese is meant to be cut into strips and served as an appetizer with wine or (as he suggests) Champagne. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one to eschew an opportunity to drink Champagne, but the only chance I had to make this was at lunch, alone, and seeing as how I had other chores to do that day, the Champagne was not an option. Anyhow, the basics are: white bread with the crusts trimmed (I left mine on), very thinly sliced sweet onions (Vidalia, Walla Walla, whatever) marinated in a splash of Champagne vinegar (I used white wine vinegar), chopped parsley, and some soft cheese (he suggests Taleggio, Brie or Taleme; I used Fontina). Something I learned from the book is that sweet onions aren’t any “sweeter” than cooking onions; they just contain much less of the sulfurous compound that makes onions taste oniony. It’s really kind of pointless to even cook with them, since what little onion flavor they have dissipates with cooking. My Vidalias were so mild that I put an entire 1/2 onion on my sandwich and for my taste, it still could have used more onion flavor. I was also a little disappointed in the Fontina; despite the fancy Euro name, it tasted almost exactly like Monterey Jack (but of course cost more). I think a slightly more assertive cheese would be my preference if I made this again. Either that, or I’d put a little Dijon mustard on it. I also added a sprinkle of salt and pepper to my onions before putting them on the sandwich. With a green salad, it was a simple but satisfying lunch, if not altogether nutritious.
The Asparagus-Shrimp risotto was also familiar ground, but I thought I would try his method of making a simple, light stock out of the trimmings rather than use the usual chicken stock. I have to say, though, 1/4 lb shrimp does not make for a heck of a lot of shrimp shells, so don’t expect a pronounced seafood flavor. I actually save shrimp shells in the freezer for occasions such as this, though, so I was able to amp it up a little. (I used more than 1/4 lb shrimp, too- more like 1/3 or 1/2 lb.)
You probably know the drill with making risotto, but to sum up the recipe: 2 cups arborio rice, 1 1/4 lb asparagus (skinny works well for this recipe), 1/4 lb shrimp (or more), 1 onion, 9 cups H2O, 1/2 c dry white wine, 4 tbs butter, a few tbs Parmigiano. Trim the asparagus, reserve the tips and cut the stems into 1/3-inch rounds. Dice the onion and shell the shrimp; put the trimmings from the above ingredients into a stockpot with the water and simmer for at least 30 minutes. Melt 3 tbs butter in a large skillet and add the asparagus stems and onion and cook until onion begins to soften; add 2 cups arborio rice and cook another 5 min or so. Add wine and cook until evaporated. Start adding the hot stock, about 3 ladles’ worth at a time, ladling it through a strainer, stirring as it cooks down, repeating the process as the stock gets absorbed. Before the final addition of stock, add the raw shrimp and asparagus tips. I like to cut each shrimp into 3 or 4 pieces, so that it’s more evenly distributed through the risotto, but also so it cooks in the same time as the asparagus tips. Since the stock is unsalted, you’ll need to add a fair amount of salt, which you can do at this stage. According to Parsons, your result should be fairly soupy (it does tend to thicken up a bit as it sits). Add the final tbs butter and the cheese, and enjoy with a green salad (I made a lemon-Dijon- Parmigiano vinaigrette) and a crisp glass of white.