Morbiflette (French Mountain Potato Gratin)

A couple of years ago, on a trip to France, we ended up poking around a Christmas market in Dijon. It was lunchtime and we were staring at a giant skillet (a poêle, linguistically related to paella) with potatoes and onions and bacon and cheese, all being stirred by strapping French country men. It was love at first sight. Chunks of Morbier cheese with its signature dark vein running through the center were on display, being tossed in as the cooks saw fit. We got a portion and split it. That was dumb; should’ve each gotten our own. After cross referencing multiple recipes, we FINALLY hit on a good reproduction.

The method is based on that of tartiflette, a potato dish developed in the 80s to promote Reblochon cheese. Reblochon is a much softer, brie-like cheese, as opposed Morbier, which you can slice. The firmer texture of Morbier is why I’ve upped the crème fraîche; runnier Reblochon made for a creamier finished product.

A note: you guys, it is SO EASY to mess up a gratin. Believe it or not, a pile of cheese and starch will be sad and bland if you don’t do the detail work. Think “eh, I don’t need to boil the potatoes, they’re going in the oven,” or “ew, I don’t want to cook the onions in bacon grease! I’ll use olive oil instead,” and you will ruin all your hard work. The potatoes need to be boiled in salted water or they’ll be gummy and bland. The onions need the bacon grease because of the smoky saltiness it imparts. The salt levels need to be checked and adjusted throughout the process to keep the flavors balanced. If you’re worried about this not being healthy, make something else. Cutting corners on this dish will render it inedible. A salad with a tart vinaigrette is the perfect accompaniment.

1 k or 2.2 lbs large waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into halves or thirds
2/3 t salt
200 g or 1/2 lb bacon
2 large onions, sliced into ribbons
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
100 mL or 1/2 c white wine (we forgot this, so we drank it with)
1/2 t dried thyme
75 g or 1/3 c crème fraîche
3 T heavy cream (forgot this too, but the texture would benefit)
300 g or 2/3 lb Morbier cheese, rind trimmed and sliced thickly (1/2 cm or 1/4 in)

In a large pot, cover the potatoes with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat, add salt, stir and lower heat to a steady simmer. Cook potatoes for 15-20 minutes, or until easily pierced with a sharp knife. Drain potatoes and set aside to cool. Do not rinse potatoes!

Heat a large skillet to medium high and cook the bacon until browned and crispy. Set on paper-towel lined plate to cool. Turn heat down to medium and add onions to the skillet to cook in the bacon drippings (if there are a lot of drippings, remove all but 2 T and set aside to add in case pan starts to look dry). Cook until softened and starting to caramelize, stirring only occasionally. Add a pinch or two of salt if needed (onions shouldn’t taste salty, just very oniony) and chopped garlic for last 2-3 minutes of cooking. Remove onions to deep bowl.

Preheat oven to 220° C or 425° F. Lightly but thoroughly butter a medium to medium-large baking dish (several individual deep crocks would also be great for a crowd). Chop cooled bacon into bits and add to onions. Add thyme, crème fraîche and cream to onion mixture and stir until well distributed. Slice cooled potatoes into generous 1/2 cm or 1/4 in pieces.

Assembly
Layer half of potatoes on bottom of buttered dish, using broken bits to fill in gaps. Top with half of onion mixture, spread evenly. Top onions with half of Morbier slices (try to leave small margin around sides of pan). Repeat sequence until all ingredients used up.

Put pan in oven and lower heat to 200° C or 400° F. Bake for 30-40 minutes or until top is browned and bubbly. Let sit for 5-10 minutes before slicing.

Creamy Roasted Red Pepper Pasta

I’m sick of cooking. Yeah, I didn’t think it would ever happen, either, but the recently wrapped-up holiday season kinda tested my limits. Mostly because I’m tired of doing dishes, but at least part of it is a lack of inspiration. As much as I wanted to go out last night, I didn’t feel like spending the money, so I looked inward…to my pantry. It had to be something made from staples that wasn’t boring. The technique came from one recipe and the flavor profile from another and it yielded delicious results: subtly sweet and smoky, with a salty punch from cheese and some half & half to ease the acidic edges. And it came together in the amount of time it took to boil the pasta.

Maybe my mojo’s not entirely gone.

1 T olive oil
1 T butter
2 shallots, diced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 T tomato paste
1/4 c white wine
1/2 t basil
1/2 t oregano
large pinch red pepper flakes (optional)
1 jar (3-4 peppers) roasted red peppers, drained, lightly rinsed and roughly chopped
2/3 c half & half
1/4 c Parmesan cheese, grated
salt to taste*

In a small saucepan, heat oil and butter to medium-low. Sauté shallots and garlic until just tender, then stir in tomato paste and cook for a couple of minutes. Add wine, basil, oregano and red pepper flakes, stir to combine and allow wine to reduce to 1/3 (the boozy smell the should be gone). Reduce heat to low, add the red peppers and half & half and stir until everything is combined. Allow to heat to a bare simmer, then blend with a stick blender until very smooth. Stir in the cheese and bring sauce to a simmer for 3-5 minutes, stirring constantly, but do not allow it to get to a full boil. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. Toss with pasta and serve with more cheese for sprinkling.

*The peppers I used had a little salt in them, as part of the preservation process. Combined with the cheese, that was salty enough for us. Plus, be careful not to blot out the peppers’ sweetness – I think that’s where the interest comes from.

Creamy Goat Cheese Tomato Pasta

I am a total sucker for a creamy tomato sauce. Unfortunately, they tend to be a little disappointing. This is the exception.

The goat cheese flavor is pretty pronounced, so if you’re not a fan, this one isn’t for you. The original is here, but I made lots of changes (chief among them: cutting out the bacon – sundrieds really fill that meaty, umami slot for me). That said, the technique is the same and I might employ it in the future. As a plus, this comes together very quickly.

2 shallots, minced
2-3 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
100 g (roughly) oil-packed sundried tomatoes, drained and sliced thin, oil reserved
2 T white wine
1 14.5 oz/400 g can stewed tomatoes
1 small pinch salt
1 small pinch sugar
1/4 t dried oregano
1 large pinch dried red pepper flakes
1 lb/500 g short pasta (1/4 c pasta water reserved before draining)
3-4 oz/100-125 g spreadable goat cheese (Ziegenfrischkäse)
lots of torn basil leaves

Heat a deep skillet over medium low heat and warm 1-2 T reserved sundried tomato oil. When oil shimmers, add shallots, garlic and sundried tomatoes and stir frequently until shallots and garlic are tender (3 minutes). Add wine and cook until 3/4 reduced (and the boozy smell is gone). Add canned tomatoes, salt, sugar, oregano and red pepper flakes and reduce heat to low. Stir to combine, crushing tomatoes with spoon. Allow sauce to simmer, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, then remove from heat and set aside.

Cook and drain pasta, returning it quickly to the pot off the heat. Add goat cheese to pasta and stir well to coat. When goat cheese is well distributed, pour in tomato sauce, again stirring very well. If sauce seems too thick, add a little pasta water to loosen it to your desired texture. Add torn basil and stir until just distributed. Serve immediately.

Ham, Mushroom and Cheese Quiche

Got the inspiration for this quiche from Thursday Night Smackdown. We had

  • a pie crust to use up, and
  • the mushrooms at the Donaumarkt this weekend looked great, and
  • my favorite ham was there: “schwarz geräucherter” from Rottaler Landmetzgerei Griesbacher. I get a Leberkäs Semmel mit dem scharfen Senf from them most Saturday mornings.

So conditions were favorable for a quiche this weekend. Continue reading Ham, Mushroom and Cheese Quiche

Stove-top Macaroni & Cheese with Broccoli

This was a weird one. I was pretty doubtful about the method, but the result was unquestionably fabulous. We’ve been on a bit of a broccoli kick of late – I would go so far as to double the broccoli and halve the pasta. I found the original here by way of Tastespotting, but I lightly steamed my broccoli, making my version use more than one pot. The recipe below details what I did.

4 1/2 c/1.125 l water, plus more as needed
1 lb/500 g broccoli, cut into small florets
3 T butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
12 oz/350 ml evaporated milk
1/2 t salt
1 lb/500 g short tube pasta
3/4 t cornstarch
1/2 t smoked paprika (pimentón)
1/2 t dry mustard
12 oz/350 g shredded cheddar cheese

Pour 1 cup/250 ml water into a small saucepan and set a steamer basket filled with broccoli in it. Cover with tight lid and steam over medium low heat for 5 minutes or until broccoli is bright green. Set aside when finished (if you like, shock the broccoli by pouring it into an icebath slightly before the desired texture is achieved).

In a large dutch oven, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and cook until translucent and fragrant, 1-2 minutes. Turn heat to medium and add the remaining 3 1/2 cups/875 ml of water, 1 cup/8 oz/250 ml of the milk, salt and pasta. Stirring frequently, bring to a rapid boil. Turn heat down to simmer and cook pasta for 7-9 minutes, always stirring, until pasta is barely undercooked and liquid thickens slightly.

Whisk remaining 1/2 cup/125 ml of milk with cornstarch, paprika and mustard. Stir into pasta and continue to simmer until sauce is well thickened, about 2-3 minutes. Remove pasta from heat and stir in shredded cheese, a handful at a time, until completely melted. Add broccoli and stir until well coated. Serve immediately or allow to sit for 5 minutes for sauce to thicken.

Lemon Risotto

We’d just returned from Italy with all kinds of ideas and experiences and raw materials for good food prepared at home — welcome, after being on-the-go for so much of September, October and November. We had a few lemons (from the Biomarkt) and shallots and garlic to use up, plus arborio rice and Pecorino Romano cheese from our grocery expeditions.

The original recipe came from our swell How to Cook Everything app (thank you Mark Bittman!), but the version below has our enhancements in it.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 large shallots, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Large pinch saffron threads
1½ cups arborio rice
½ cup (120 ml) dry white wine
4 to 6 cups (950 ml to 1400 ml) chicken or vegetable stock
2 to 4 tablespoons softened butter
juice of one lemon
zest of one lemon
½ cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Heat the oil in a large, deep nonstick skillet to medium. Then add the shallots, garlic and saffron, and cook, stirring constantly, until they soften, 3 to 5 minutes.

Add the rice and cook, stirring constantly, until it is glossy and coated with the oil, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the white wine. Stir and let the liquid bubble away.

Use a ladle to begin adding the stock, a ladlefull or so at a time, stirring after each addition. When the stock is just about absorbed, add more. The mixture should be neither soupy nor dry. Keep the heat at medium to medium‐high and continue stirring.

Don’t plan on doing anything else while this risotto is going — you gotta keep stirring it. It’s going to take a while to get to that perfect texture. Plan on an a half-hour, but check it occasionally after 20 minutes. You want it to be tender but still with some resistance upon chewing; it could take as long as 30 minutes to reach this stage. When it does, stir in the butter and lemon zest and at least ½ cup of cheese. Taste, adjust the seasoning if necessary, and serve immediately. Throw some more grated cheese on it, if you like.

We used peppercorn Pecorino Romano, so we didn’t need any additional salt, pepper or other seasoning. You will need some of those flavor boosters if you choose a less burly cheese.

We found this recipe went exceedingly well with Roasted Brussels Sprouts.

On curds and whey

Here’s the version I remember from my childhood:

Little Miss Muffett
sat on her tuffet,
eating her cottage cheese.
Along came a spider
who sat down beside her
and asked “Can I have some please?”

(I knew what cottage cheese was pretty early on…curds and whey were a much more recent learning experience.)

In that spirit of sharing, my parents got us a home cheesemaking kit for Christmas from cheesemaking.com. I guess we must have been bemoaning the lack of France in our lives lately (we haven’t been to Provence since…*gasp*…summer 2009!). The kit came with a recipe book and some essential ingredients for ricotta and mozzarella and a thermometer and an instructional DVD to whet your appetite. It worked. Soon after unwrapping the present, we started stockpiling milk. Note: supermarket milk is just fine for these recipes, as long as it’s not ultra-pasteurized (H-Milch ist verboten).

Ricotta

We started off with (what seemed to us to be) the simpler of the two varieties our kit supported: ricotta. Taken literally, you’re supposed to make ricotta from the left-overs of other cheesemaking exploits (ricotta means “recooked” in Italian). But you can also start with milk, provided you have a stainless steel pan and a skimmer (not hard to find) and about an hour to kill experimenting with hot milk. The kit says these recipes take half an hour, and maybe they will, once we’ve practiced this more.

First curds 3 Our ricotta curds are just starting to come together.

Ready to drain 2A little firmer now.

The ricotta was a good beginner cheese to make. I really have never liked it straight, and usually just tolerate it in lasagna, but this batch tasted good to me — probably appreciation borne out of our emotional investment in this cheese. And the lasagna it went into (including our homemade Hot Italian Sausage) was top notch. Sadly, no evidence remains of it whatsoever.

PC281381I love English Muffins. I practically wept for joy when I saw that one of the recommended uses of leftover whey from the ricotta recipe was making loaves of English Muffin bread. We had enough whey leftover for four loaves. I tried to cram all that into our three loaf pans and wound up with a comb-over on one of them. Oops. Still tasted good though.

After our ricotta success story, we watched the mozzarella segment on the video a couple more times, went over the recipe in the book, and practically memorized the recipe from the included booklet, only to find that all three recipes differ from each other somewhat. Well, OK. I guess artisanal cheesemaking means you have to experiment and fine-tune your own methods over time. Which is great, because I am looking forward to doing this again and again, and there are enough supplies in our kit to keep us going for quite some time.

Mozzarella

P1021400One of the first steps is making sure you’ve got enough curd density after separation from the whey. You can see Sarah’s able to press into the soft cushiony curds and make them start to flip away from the side of the pot. It took us a little longer to get to this stage than we expected; something like eleven minutes instead of just five.

P1021403Once you get there, though, you’ve got to slice up those thickened curds in three dimensions.

P1021404Reminds me of ice along the shore of Lake Ontario. After you’ve cut your curds on three axes, they go back on the heat for a few minutes to allow more cheesey magic to happen.

P1021406Then drain out as much whey as you can without damaging those curd structures. I’m keeping our whey intending to use it in pizza dough sometime very soon. Then we’ll take this mozzarella out for a test drive, too.

P1021407Nuke it for a minute, season with some salt, and get stretching.

P1021409Re-nuke a few more times. When it stretches like taffy without breaking, it’s ready. Quickly form it into a ball, braid, log, or little bite-sized lumps while it’s still too hot to properly handle. It’s ready to eat now, so why not enjoy?

P1021412If you’re not going to consume it warm, dunk it in ice water for a while (how long? one recipe said a few minutes, and another said thirty — and these were all from the same company!) to preserve the texture. OK, we’re going to have to work on our mozza-balling.

P1031414We gave the whey bread a few more chances today. This is what the English Muffin bread is supposed to look like.

P1031415Whey also makes for a swell pizza crust. It was smooth and elastic and very easy to work with, once you’ve kneaded enough flour into it (thank you KitchenAid dough hook!). I’m excited to use it in other places (soups and broths come to mind), since there’s so much of it left over from a batch of cheese.

P1031416Aww, yeah. This kicked European Pizza butt. The better part of a gallon of milk is represented here between the homemade mozz (about half of our mozz batch is on the pizza) and whey in the dough. Plus Sarah’s pizza sauce. Some homemade Hot Italian Sausage would have been great here, but I’d just made some the other day to go into the lasagna mentioned above, so we opted for a simple salami. I’m hoping the next experimental kitchen adventures will involve sausage stuffing and I don’t want to blow my Wurst wad.