Thursday, March 12, 2009

Ina's Flawless (Almost) French Dishes And The Rules (Of Glazing) That I Live My Life By

Barefoot Contessa with Ina Garten
Easy French
Roasted Butternut Squash Salad with Warm Cider Vinaigrette
Easy Sole Meunière
French Apple Tart

French food isn’t just fancy restaurant food, Ina tells us. What she loves is simple bistro food that you can make at home. She ends her introduction with a hearty Bon Appétit! à la Julia.

Jeffrey is home for the weekend and Ina wants to make him a really nice French dinner. (I thought Jeffrey came home every Friday night for roast chicken…)

She starts with her and Jeffrey’s favorite apple tart. 4 granny smith apples get peeled and cut in half. Ina uses a melon-baller to take out the center core. Interesting. I don’t do that, but I may try it. She cuts the remaining bit of skin off with a knife. She slices the apple ¼ inch thick and very even.

She loves the La Grande Epicerie at the Le Bon Marché department store in Paris and we see scenes of one of her visits there.

Ina says “your friends don’t have more fun” if you’ve made the dessert yourself. I don't agree. OF COURSE Ina’s friends prefer it if she’s made dessert, especially if it’s a 15 layer cake for 4 people, or 12 fresh individual strudels for 2.

Ina takes the pastry from the fridge, saying it sounds daunting, but she’ll show us how easy it is. Actually, she's said a few times how easy it is. Ina, we don’t need all the hand holding.

She makes the pastry in the food processor. She adds 2 cups of flour, ½ teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon sugar. She pulses the mixture a few times and adds 12 tablespoons of ice cold unsalted butter and pulses it until the butter is the size of peas. With the motor running, she adds ½ cup of ice water and pulses it just until the dough comes together. Ina kneads it on a board to make a nice ball. She wraps it in plastic and refrigerates it for at least an hour.

I have a slightly unorthodox method of dealing with pastry. I can’t STAND dealing with a hard ball of refrigerated dough. I roll mine out between sheets of plastic wrap immediately after I make it (and line the pie pan – this tart if free-form) and THEN refrigerate it or freeze it if I’m making it in advance.

Ina removes the pastry from the fridge and sprinkles flour on the board. Maybe she heard what I said about my method, because she says it’s really important to let the dough rest BEFORE you roll it out. It needs that resting time to stretch out better and to have more elasticity. Otherwise, it just springs back to where it was.

Ina rolls the pastry out to a rectangle. She reminds us to roll the dough from the middle.

Ina adds that it’s important for the dough to be cold. As the heat from the oven touches the butter, it makes steam and that’s what makes a light, flaky pastry. She measures the dough and cuts it exactly 10 inches by 14 inches, saying she always keeps a ruler in her kitchen. She transfers it to a parchment-lined baking sheet by laying it over the rolling pin and lifting it off the counter and onto the baking sheet.

Ina takes the apple slices and arranges them diagonally across the pastry. That’s a pretty way to do it. Ina says you can also use peaches or plums, as long as you use firm fruit. She sprinkles a half a cup of sugar over, which will caramelize the apples. She says to use that entire amount of sugar. Ina cuts a ½ stick of butter into tiny pieces and distributes it evenly over the top.

She bakes it at 450°F for 45 minutes until golden brown. She says not to worry if the edges burn a little.

Ina repeats (again) that the tart is very easy to make as she moves on to an apricot glaze. She spoons ½ cup of apricot jam into a pot. Ina says it’s fine to use to apricot JELLY, but she can never find it. (Me neither.) She heats the jam with 2 tablespoons of Calvados to thin it out a bit. I never thought to use that before…I usually use lemon juice. Next she sieves the mixture into a small bowl and brushes it on the tart, which is fresh from the oven.

Okay, I have to part ways with the Contessa here. I’ve been glazing stuff forever and I have to take issue with her method. I’m glad she didn’t skip the sieving, which is essential. But she did two other things which frankly appall me. The glaze has to be used super hot AND the tart should be completely cool before the glaze goes on.

If the glaze has cooled down, it glops and goes on too thickly. If the tart is hot, the glaze can slide off the fruit and make little pools.

Here’s how I handle glazing: I heat the apricot jam with some lemon juice. I sieve it and put it back into the rinsed-out saucepan and bring it to the boil. Then I start to glaze the tart, putting the pan back on the heat occasionally to keep it boiling. I add a bit more lemon juice or water (or Calvados) if it gets too thick.

Oh, 3 other things…the REASONS you glaze a fruit tart are:

Appearance - It gives the finished tart a jewel-like finish.
Freshness - It keeps the fruit from drying out.
Taste - It adds another level of flavor to a simple fruit tart.

Oh good, Ina mentions the second reason. Her tart does look really good. She takes a HUGE spatula and transfers it to a board.

Ina says she just loves the bistros and cafes of Paris. We see her with Jeffrey in Paris, sitting in Café de Flore. Ahhh. They toast each other with a glass of champagne. How perfect.

Back in the kitchen, Ina is peeling a 1½ pound butternut squash. She halves it and scrapes out the seeds. She cuts it into big chunks and places them on a half sheet pan. Ina drizzles over 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 tablespoon “good” maple syrup and lots of salt and pepper. Using “clean hands”, she tosses it all together and roasts it at 450°F for 15 minutes. (The recipe says 400°F. I’d use the higher temperature.)

Ina makes a warm vinaigrette. She starts with ¾ cup apple cider and 2 tablespoons of shallots. She reduces that for 6 to 8 minutes to concentrate the flavor.

She turns over the butternut and makes sure it’s in one layer. She says it needs 10 more minutes.

Ina adds 2 teaspoons of mustard to the reduced cider and whisks in ½ cup olive oil (off the heat) with ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper.

Ina tells us about the 4 month camping trip she took to France with Jeffrey after they were married. That’s when they developed their love of French food.

Ina adds 3 tablespoons of dried cranberries to the butternut for the last 5 minutes of cooking to bring out their flavor and plump them up.

She adds 4 ounces of washed arugula to a bowl and grates Parmigiano-Reggiano over. She spoons over the warm butternut squash with ½ cup toasted walnuts. She tosses it with the warm vinaigrette.

She serves it to Jeffrey outside with a glass of champagne. “Jeffrey is going to think we’re in a bistro in Paris.” He says her salad is better than the one in Paris. I love him. They should sell a talking Jeffrey doll, so we could all have instant positive reinforcement in our kitchens.

We see Ina back in Paris at the markets. I want to be there.

Ina is using Dover sole for dinner. She melts some butter in a frying pan. She mixes ½ cup flour with lots of salt and pepper. She pats the fish dry and sprinkles it with salt and then dips it in the flour. She adds two of the fillets to the hot butter. (She’s making four fillets for the two of them.) She says it takes longer to talk about this dish than to make it. That’s funny.

Ina grates lemon zest and squeezes the juice. She turns over the sole and adds the lemon zest to the top of the fish and pours over the lemon juice. She undercooks them just a bit, plates them and pours the pan juices over and puts them in the oven. She keeps the first two fillets warm in a 200°F oven, while she cooks the other two.

Butter in pan; flours the fish; into the hot pan; turns the fish; lemon zest then juice in pan; plates them; sauce over. She sprinkles a little parsley on top and adds a huge wedge of lemon.

She serves him the fish. Ina asks if he remembers when she first made this AND HE DOES! He says she went to the market in Paris and she didn’t know what she was going to make. She came up with this and “it turned out to be one of the great meals of all times!” Jeffrey professes. WHERE CAN I BUY THAT KIND OF DEVOTION?!!

Ina serves the apple tart. He says this is the best apple tart he's ever had. She says you always say that. He says there WAS that one time (when something wasn’t so good). He says she’s allowed one failure in 40 years. He can live with that and, meanwhile, this is JUST amazing.

Before she showed us the fish recipe, Ina talked about how she usually cooks from recipes, whereas the French will go to a market and only decide on their menu after they see what’s fresh that day. She wanted us to believe that that is a challenge for her. I don’t believe that for a second. Of course, the Contessa is capable of turning on a dime and changing her cooking plans. She is definitely selling herself short. With all her catering experience and cookbook writing, she could probably come up with a dozen alternatives in the blink of an eye.

I tried her salad, which was very attractive. (I used mixed greens, instead arugula.)

But my dining companions didn’t really see the point of the butternut in the salad. I tried to talk them into it, but to no avail. Frankly, I didn’t get it myself. The roasted butternut would have been fine as a vegetable, but it was a little mushy and bland to be in a salad.

I also made the tart (It WAS my 2nd blogiversary this week, after all.) The idea of a melon-baller to core the apples was brilliant.

Also I usually quarter the apples, core them and then slice each quarter. This time I sliced the HALVES and they were more uniform.

Ina was right, the tart DID burn around the edges.

It was good, but I've used better pastry recipes. Oh, and I DID glaze the tart as Ina said to. It did get gloppy and if you look closely you can see that the apples aren’t as well-covered with glaze as they should be. And the glaze pooled a bit too much in the spaces between the rows of apples.


Emily said...

I love the apple/melon baller trick. I'm going to try that one.

I think the salad looks really, really good. It's beautiful! And I love butternut squash, so I think I would like it. Even though you guys didn't.

I now know to glaze a tart when it is completely cooled off, with hot glaze. With some yeast breads, don't you brush them with an egg glaze, straight out of the oven?

I want to go back to Paris. I'd never leave.

Tom said...

Hi Sue,

Good point about glazing, too early and it can trap heat/moisture on the tart and make it a little soggy. Really hot glaze means you'll use less of it, too, because it spreads more easily.

I've never seen instructions for glazing right out of the oven unless you want whatever it is you've baked to take in some of the glaze. (Like on cakes where you want some of it to soak in and some to form a crust on top). An egg glaze on just-baked breads will soften the top crust, which is OK if that's what you want.

Sue said...

Yeah, that is a really great way to core an apple.

I admit the salad LOOKED good.

You're such a good student!

I'll come with you to Paris.

Hi Tom,
You sound like you know your way around a pastry brush. I'm glad I wasn't the only that that sounded strange to.

The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

The melon baller is a cool idea.

Ina's right my friends would have just as good a time if I don't make dessert, but I'm WAY too big of a diva not to show off my dessert-making skills.

This show does exemplify why I have such a prejudice against Ina. I don't want to heear about all of her fabulous jaunts to Paris. Some of us have never been to Paris, Ina. Some of us don't have a lot of money and wonder if we ever will go to Paris, Ina. Stop talking about your fabulous life in Paris because you make us peasants feel bad.

Sue said...

If people are coming to your house, believe me, they're expecting you to make dessert. Don't disappoint them!

I hear what you're saying about Ina, but I just don't get that full-of-herself, better-than-the-peasants feel from her. In fact, I think she's saying you don't HAVE to go to Paris to cook as if you did go. AND remember, the clips they showed were from 2004...the good old days.

But there are shows which are very conscious of the crappy economy. Matt Lauer isn't going around the world. He's sticking to the US, travelling around with his co-hosts finding good value here. Maybe Ina should go to Providence or New Haven and show us good local dishes from there.

Cynthia said...

I can't wait for the day I get to taste your food.

Sue said...

When may I expect you?!!

Mary said...

Made your salad butternut, my family loved it. Tomorrow I will try the apple tart but I will shortcut and buy pastry dough. Hope it comes good. And I did the fish in the oven because of weight watchers and high triglycerides. I put fresh lemon and a little zest and black pepper, no salt and it was delicious. Yes I know the apples are not diet but a little induilgence is good for the soul.

Sue said...

Hi Mary,
I'm so glad you liked the salad. That's a good idea to bake the fish.

You'll love the apple tart. Enjoy it!