It’s not often that you’ll see me extolling a dish for its hearth healthy qualities. It’s not that I don’t care about good health, it’s more that I prefer to focus on eating a diet that is balanced, with the philosophy that “all things in moderation” will render it unnecessary to have to specifically seek out recipes that are low cholesterol or low fat or whatever. But at the beginning of this year, Marvin let it be known that he’d like us to eat less meat and more vegetables and grains. He specifically requested whole grain salads, which I already make from time to time and which are great for quick lunches when you have the hectic schedule of a freelance photographer.
I happily obliged by adapting a recipe from Once Upon a Tart (a great cookbook for soups and side salads) with wheatberries, beets and pomegranate. The recipe instructs you to fold in the beets and pomegranate at the end so they don’t stain the salad, but I wanted the dramatic, deep reddish-magenta hue to soak into the wheatberries… so much prettier and seasonally appropriate. The salad is quite good as it is, but even better with a little crumbled feta or fresh goat cheese on top. (This I would add at the last minute though, since I draw the line at pink cheese.) Although there’s no reason not to make this any time of the year, it would make a dramatic Valentine side dish- I plan to serve it alongside a venison tenderloin tomorrow. And you can serve it feeling comforted in the knowledge that you’re not potentially bringing about your loved one’s early demise with rich foods. If you do have a decadent main dish or dessert planned, no worries- it’s all about balance. Continue reading
When it comes to indulgences, I prefer to blow my “calorie budget” on an exquisite piece of cheese*, a succulent slice of fat-studded saucisson, or a glistening leg of duck confit (with accompanying duck-fat-roasted potatoes, of course). In fact, I’ll usually forgo the dessert course altogether, having sated myself on one or more of the above. But I was making Marvin a Valentine’s supper, and the menu didn’t feel complete without dessert. Things were going in a somewhat Italian direction (rabbit braised in red wine; polenta with roasted garlic & honey; broccoli raab sautéed with anchovy & red pepper) so I thought of an olive oil cake- not too rich, just a subtly sweet ending.
The recipe I chose was a plain, unadorned sponge cake, enlivened with the zest of a lemon and an orange, a slug of late-harvest dessert wine, and some finely chopped rosemary. This simple, clean flavor combination struck me as the perfect ending to a rich meal. (If it sounds a bit too austere, don’t forget that you’ll have that open bottle of dessert wine to sip along with your cake!)
This cake was especially appropriate for Valentine’s Day (or an anniversary for that matter) because rosemary symbolizes “remembrance and fidelity”. It’s often used in weddings for this very reason- in fact, I attended one wedding where rosemary plants were given out as favors for the guests to take home. I like to think that remembrance is meant not just in terms of looking back on something in the past, but rather in the sense that we should always keep our partner in our thoughts on a daily basis, remembering why we chose them and not taking them for granted. Fidelity has the obvious connotation of sexual fidelity, but it also refers to being loyal to your partner- letting them feel secure in the knowledge that you’ve got their back no matter what.
I can’t say that either of us were thinking any of these deep thoughts while eating our cake, but it was interesting to look up the meaning of rosemary and to know that it had a symbolic connection with what is supposed to be a day of celebrating romance. Although Valentine’s Day may be behind us for this year, I urge you to make this cake anytime you want to honor remembrance and fidelity, or anytime you want a simple, uncomplicated ending to a rich meal.
(*This cheese is pretty amazing with dessert wine too if you’re ever looking for something really special- it’s an artisan blue cheese wrapped in grape leaves that have been macerated in pear brandy. It’s pricey, but no more pricey per pound than really good chocolate- for 4 bucks I bought a small piece that we didn’t even finish.)
5 eggs, separated
2/3 cup sugar
2 packed tsps rosemary leaves, very finely minced
zest of one lemon
zest of one orange
4 oz. fresh, whole milk ricotta
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup Moscato, vin Santo, or other late-harvest white wine
1 1/3 cups all purpose flour
3/4 tsp sea salt
Preheat the oven to 375. Prepare a 9″ or 10″ springform pan by buttering the sides and lining the bottom with a parchment circle. Beat the yolks and sugar until pale. Stir in the citrus zest and rosemary.
In another bowl, stir together the ricotta, salt, olive oil and wine until combined. Add the ricotta mixture and the flour to the yolks, a third at a time, alternating the two.
Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks and fold them into the batter. Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 20 minutes, then reduce the heat to 325 and bake an additional 20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Be careful not to overcook, as this is a cake that can quickly go from perfectly done to dry.
Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then unmold onto a plate and allow to finish cooling. DeBlasi suggests serving a few roasted nuts alongside the cake, as well as the dessert wine you used in the cake. If you like, you can decorate the cake with a sprinkling of powdered sugar as pictured. My favorite way to do this is to put the sugar in a mesh tea strainer and lightly tap it over the surface of the cake (use a cardboard cut-out for a “stencil”).
We had been planning an oxtail dinner for Valentine’s Day all week- bought the ingredients days before, had the meat marinating in a whole bottle of wine- so why are you looking at a photo of a sandwich? This is an object lesson for all you other cooks out there to READ YOUR RECIPE ahead of time!
Saturday I got home a little later than expected from a baby shower and dropping off some of my Valentine goodie bags and was feeling a tiny bit stressed about the time, but we were planning to eat late anyway because Marvin had a quick job to do at 8pm, so I wasn’t too concerned about the fact that I wasn’t getting started until 5pm. After all, the meat was already marinating, and all I really had to do was chop some carrots and celery, right? Until I looked at the recipe and panic set in because I failed to notice the 4 hour cooking time required for this dish. Mind you, that’s not even counting the pre-braise browning time, or the time required to reduce the braising liquid before the dish goes in the oven. Factor into the equation that I am one of the world’s pokiest cooks, and you can understand my anxiety levels rising. A second wave of panic set in when I went into my cupboards and realized I had no tomato paste or canned tomatoes (I could have SWORN I did). I had just been at the grocery store picking up a few last-minute items, but I decided to head back out and just quickly grab the tomatoes. I was in the automatic checkout lane at Kroger and the machine asked me to scan my shopper card, so I started fishing around for my keys, when I came to the horrible realization that they were in the ignition of my car. I had been in such a hurry and so distracted that I had just rushed into the store, locking them in. At this point I was completely distraught. I called Marvin and had to tell him that the oxtails were not happening- we would have been eating at 11pm or later at that point. To add to the overall mood, the Hazel Park police officer who unlocked my car for me made a point of saying “Eww, gross!” multiple times when I answered his question about our supposed menu. (Like I care if he likes what we have for dinner, but I thought it was pretty insensitive!)
Fortunately, I was able to cobble together a respectable supper for us in spite of adversity. It involved a THIRD trip to the store, but at that point I didn’t care. I had already bought a good loaf of bread and a couple of nice cheeses at Holiday Market (a Zingerman’s fresh cow’s milk cheese with Tellicherry pepper, and a Point Reyes farmstead blue) and had happened to pick up a couple of red bell peppers since they were on sale for an unheard-of $1.67/lb. So I formed a plan: go retro-’90s and roast the peppers along with a couple heads of garlic, and serve that with the bread, cheeses, and a salad. The final trip to the store was to pick up some prosciutto and another bottle of wine (the bottle I had bought had been chosen specifically to go with the oxtails, and I wanted to save it for that).
Once I got over beating myself up over being so ill-organized, I was able to relax and enjoy the evening. It definitely made me question the wisdom of planning such an involved, lengthy dish on a special occasion (at least not when you have other obligations the same day). Of course, I could have been better prepared, but I also think that sometimes I sacrifice my own enjoyment for the sake of trying too hard to do something complicated for a dinner party, holiday or other occasion. My other problem is that I always use a special occasion as an excuse to try something I’ve never made before, which can lead to complications. We enjoyed our “picnic supper” every bit as much as a meal that would have taken hours longer, and it gave us more time to sit across the table enjoying each other’s company. An added bonus was that we ate the oxtails the next day, so it was almost like having a whole Valentine weekend rather than just the one day. Not bad. And I will be posting the oxtail recipe soon.
(Incidentally, the photo is of a sandwich I made the next day with the leftovers. I wasn’t about to try to take photos that night after all the hassles; I just wanted to eat and relax!)