August 24, 2015

Zucchini Ricotta Crostada

I love recipes that look gorgeous and fancy but are really extremely easy to make. In other words, I love getting credit for doing things even if it didn't take that much effort. And just imagine--that could be you too! With all these back to school events and book club meetings and garden parties and whatever else happens to fill your social calendar, you're probably going to need some hors d'oeuvres and finger foods. I, however, am one of those people that gets irrationally angry when someone says there will be light appetizers and there are only a few tiny bites. I'm a starving college student; I need my food, ok? Luckily this appetizer is light and refreshing but also pretty satisfying, and it's pretty enough to impress just about anyone.

The name itself is pretty fancy, too. Zucchini ricotta crostada. It has a nice ring to it, and you can impress all your friends (and enemies) with a beautiful free-form tart. The perfectly imperfect folds hide a creamy three-cheese filling and fresh zucchini, which is currently in every farmers' market you can find. It's also possible to find decent zucchini pretty much year round, so when people request this every week after you first serve it you won't have to turn them down.

I use my basic savory pie crust dough since it's buttery, flaky, and perfect. It's an all-butter crust, which gives it flavor and flakiness. You can use some shortening or some lard if you really really want to, but nothing compares to a butter crust. Regardless of your choice in fat, handle the dough as little as possible and keep it cold right up until baking and you'll have an extra flaky base.

The cheese filling is slathered on the crust in a thick, creamy layer of goodness. It's mostly ricotta, which has the right texture and a neutral flavor. I also add in shredded mozzarella for the gooey, stringy factor (every dish could use some gooey cheese) as well as shredded parmesan for flavor. Garlic oil and herbs add some depth, so try to use fresh herbs if you have them on hand.

The final touch is the sliced zucchini, which I salt and let rest for about half an hour before spreading onto the crostada. This step requires minimal effort but prevents the tart from completely falling apart. Salting the zucchini draws out the water and lets it soak into paper towels instead of the cheese filling. If the water from the zucchini bakes into the tart, it makes the whole thing watery and gross. The zucchini only has to sit for a little while before it's dry enough to cook with; you don't want shriveled and dry zucchini, just slightly dehydrated.

The zucchini slices are spread onto the cheese, the edges of the dough are folded up over the outside and brushed with an egg wash so they brown, and the whole thing is baked until golden and gooey. The only thing I can think of that detracts from this otherwise perfect appetizer is that it's impossible to sneak a taste without people knowing you cut into it, so it might be a good idea to bake up a mini taster crostada (or twelve).

1 Recipe Savory Pie Dough (See Below)
1 lb Zucchini, Sliced in ¼" Thick Rounds
1/2 tsp Salt
1 T Olive Oil
1 Clove Garlic, Minced
1/2 Cup Ricotta
1/2 Cup Grated Parmesan
1/2 Cup Shredded Mozzarella
1/4 tsp Basil
1/4 tsp Oregano
1/4 tsp Thyme
1 Egg Yolk

Spread the zucchini onto a few layers of paper towels and sprinkle with the salt. Top with another layer of paper towels and let sit for 30 minutes.

Combine the oil and garlic. Combine the ricotta, parmesan, mozzarella, basil, oregano, thyme, and the garlic oil.

Heat oven to 400F. Line a cookie tray with parchment.

Roll the dough to a 12" round. Transfer to the parchment. Spread the cheese mixture over the dough, leaving a 2" border. Shingle the zucchini on top of the cheese and drizzle with remaining garlic oil. Fold the edges of the dough over to cover part of the zucchini.

Combine the egg yolk with 2 tsp water. Brush over the edges of the crust and bake for 30-40 minutes or until zucchini is wilted and the crust is golden brown.

Pie Dough:
1 1/4 Cups Flour
1 1/2 tsp Sugar
1/2 tsp Salt
1 Stick Butter, Chilled & Cubed

Pulse the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor to combine. Add the butter and pulse until small lumps remain, then drizzle in cold water until it clumps together. Chill until firm.

Serves 6-8
Recipe Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

August 14, 2015

Raspberry Key Lime Pie

It's been a long summer, and I only have two weeks at home before I have to head back up to Madison for the fall semester. It won't be too bad, though, since my current research project is studying key lime pie. I'm not allowed to say too much, but I will admit that I make a damn good key lime pie because of it. It's a perfect balance of sweet and tart, and it has an incredibly smooth, creamy texture.

Like most recipes, my key lime pie is delicious all on its own or with a dollop of whipped cream, but it gets exponentially better when you swirl in some fresh raspberry puree. It adds another element of acidity and a gorgeous pop of color. Since it's still basically raspberry season, I simmer some fresh raspberries with some sugar to break them down a bit and then puree them with some raspberry jam. If you want to make this year-round (which you will), just heat some raspberry jam with a little bit of water, whisk until smooth, and swirl into your pie base when cool.

I think the red raspberries contrast beautifully with the key lime pie (which definitely should not be green if you ask any Key West native or pie expert), but the recipe can work with just about any other berry. Deep purple blackberries would be gorgeous, or you can do a combination. I'd make two separate purees and drizzle them on top of each other instead of mixing for maximum aesthetic appeal.

As for the pie itself, it starts with a graham cracker crust. I tend to just buy a premade crust from the grocery store because it's easy and they don't shrink. It's definitely possible to make your own with graham cracker crumbs, butter, and sugar, but I find that they tend to shrink and burn.

Making the key lime pie filling is truly easy as pie (yes, that was a terrible joke). There are only four ingredients: sweetened condensed milk, egg yolks, a bit of extra sugar, and, of course, key lime juice. If you gain anything from this recipe, make it these two facts: key lime pie should never be noticeably green and regular lime juice is NOT an acceptable substitute for key lime juice.

You can choose to juice dozens of those teeny key limes (if you can even find them), or you can get bottles of key lime juice in many grocery stores or online. I cannot stress this enough; it is impossible to make a halfway decent key lime pie if you don't use key lime juice.

Once you obtain your key lime juice, whisk it with a can of sweetened condensed milk, a few egg yolks, and a little bit of extra sugar (optional if you don't want it quite as sweet). It forms a thick, velvety custard that I recommend baking immediately before the lime juice curdles the eggs, though of course there is time to swirl in that yummy berry puree. I bake my pies just until they set in the center; you don't want the top to brown, and you want a soft but not runny filling.

This is honestly the best key lime pie recipe you'll ever try. It has approval from undergrads, grad students, and professors in the food science department, so you know it has to be good. Add some fresh berries (and some homemade vanilla whipped cream) and it's literally the best pie--of any variety--that you'll ever have.

1 Graham Cracker Crust
1 14 oz Can Sweetened Condensed Milk
3 Egg Yolks
1/2 Cup Key Lime Juice
3 T Sugar
2 oz Raspberries
2 T Raspberry Jam
Whipped Cream

Combine the raspberries, 1 T sugar, 1 T water, and the raspberry jam in a small pot. Cook for 5 minutes or until thickened. Strain and set aside to cool.

Heat oven to 325F.

Whisk the condensed milk, egg yolks, lime juice, and sugar together.

Pour the key lime mixture into the crust and swirl in some of the raspberry puree. Bake for 16 minutes or until just set. When cool, garnish with the whipped cream.

Makes 1 9" Pie
Recipe Adapted from Nellie & Joe

August 1, 2015

Shrimp & Grits with Bacon Corn Relish

Y'all have probably figured it out by now, but I'm in Wisconsin for the summer. One of the horrifying realizations I had during the move-in process was that there are no grits here. I was expecting it, but it was still a very sad moment. Luckily, I had planned ahead and brought a big sack of my favorite Logan Turnpike Mill grits up from Georgia (they aren't paying me to say that, but you should email them and tell them to sponsor me), which TSA thankfully didn't confiscate. I've been eating these grits with steaklamb chops, roasted chicken, and for breakfast basically every day. But the one true classic Southern dish that they really do belong with is shrimp and grits, and I've found a way to make it even better, using bacon of course.

To make sure everyone has a chance to read all of my witty comments, I'm saving the bit about the spicy bacon corn relish until the end. The shrimp deserve your love too, and I think I've made my stance on grits pretty clear. The grits are cooked in my usual fashion. I cook them in a mixture of water (standard), chicken broth (for flavor), and milk (for creaminess) and season them with salt and tons of butter. It's a simple side dish, but there are a few ways to make sure it comes out perfectly every time. I refuse to use instant grits; they just aren't as good and you really should take the time to make these the right way. You also have to keep an eye on them and stir them fairly frequently to avoid lumps, especially when they start to thicken. Other than that, just cook the grits until they're the texture you like and keep throwing in lumps of butter when no one is looking.

The shrimp are just as easy. I season them simply with salt and pepper and cook them in bacon fat (see the next paragraph) until just opaque. There's a fine line between raw and rubbery, but it's better to overcook them and not give anyone food poisoning. If you mess up and forget about them, just smother them in the delicious corn relish.

Ok, it's finally time for me to tell you about this stuff. I was literally eating it with a spoon. The full name is spicy bacon and corn relish with a honey vinaigrette, but just tell people it's corn and bacon and they'll just dig in. It starts with cooking the corn; pick your method but I'll stick with my weird baking soda thing (it's in the recipe below). Meanwhile, cook up a big skillet of bacon, chop it, and cook some minced jalapenos and garlic in the bacon fat. The corn kernels, bacon, garlic, and jalapenos are mixed together and tossed in the dressing, which consists of honey, olive oil, and apple cider vinegar for a sweet and tangy touch to a salty, savory, and spicy topping. Pile it on top of the tender shrimp and the creamy grits and you've got yourself a fantastic Southern dinner.

If the heat from the jalapenos isn't enough for you, I've also included a 30 second recipe for chili oil to drizzle over everything.

1 lb Shrimp
1 Cup Grits
1 Cup Chicken Broth
2 Cups Milk
3 T Butter
4 T Olive Oil
2 T Hot Sauce
1/4 tsp Cayenne
1/4 tsp Chili Powder
2 Ears Corn
1/2 tsp Baking Soda
5 Strips Bacon
1 Jalapeño, Sliced
4 Cloves Garlic, Minced
2 T Honey
1 tsp Apple Cider Vinegar

Heat the chicken broth, milk, and 1 cup water to a simmer over medium-low heat. Stir in the grits and season with salt. Cover with a tilted lid and cook, stirring often, until thick, about 15-20 minutes. Stir in the butter and season with additional salt if necessary.

Meanwhile, heat a pot of liberally salted water to a boil. Add the baking soda and corn, turn off the heat, cover, and cook for 10 minutes.

Cook the bacon in a large skillet. Crumble when cool and reserve the fat.

Cook the jalapeño and garlic in the bacon fat until tender, about 2 minutes.

Combine the corn kernels, bacon, jalapeño, and garlic. Whisk the honey, 2 T olive oil, and apple cider vinegar together; season with salt and pepper and stir into the corn mixture.

Cook the shrimp in the residual bacon fat until cooked through, about 6 minutes, seasoning with salt and pepper.

Whisk the remaining olive oil, hot sauce, cayenne, and chili powder together.

To serve, pile the shrimp on the grits, top with the corn relish, and drizzle with the chili oil.

Serves 4