Thursday, March 1, 2007

Pecorino Toscano with Roasted Sweet Peppers and Arugula Coulis

I don't know about you, but every day at around 3 o'clock in the afternoon, I hit a slump. I can't focus on work. I don't feel like talking on the phone. I'm not even interested in reading gossip web sites. Because I own my own business and I work from home, thankfully I can just quit work early when this slump hits... and I often do. Most days I work from 8:30 a.m. - noon, take an hour break, and then work for another hour or two. Around 3 o'clock, I pack it in and go do something I enjoy. Sometimes, it's the gym. Other days, it's joining a friend for coffee or poking around the bookstore. Today, I decided to make Pecorino Toscano with Roasted Sweet Peppers and Arugula Coulis as a little cheese course for my friends before we all went our separate ways for dinner. One friend was off to the DC United game while another was balancing her kids' dinner schedules around their various sporting activities. Me? I was balancing my hectic schedule of what to make for dinner vs. watching last night's episode of America's Next Top Model or the Real Housewives of Orange County on TiVo. Don't you wish you had my life? You know you do.

But enough about my shallow TV-watching peccadilloes. Let's talk about a different kind of cheese. The kind you eat.

Here's the mise en place for the Pecorino Toscano with Roasted Sweet Peppers and Arugula Coulis:

If you've been paying attention, you'll see two ingredients that were preapred for previous dishes. I'm not gonna go all Highlights magazine on you and make you circle which ones they are, but if you've been following along closely and hanging on my every word (which you'd better), you'll recognize the roasted sweet peppers (they're julienned in this photo) from the Blini canapé, as well as the Balsamic Glaze, which first appeared in the Gazpacho.

My neighbor, Holly, loves the balsamic glaze so much that I'm thinking about changing the locks to my front door so that she can't sneak in and steal it when I go to the gym tomorrow. Just kidding, Holly. Don't hit me. Seriously. That would not be cool, because you could totally kick my ass.

Now that you've seen the ingredients (and learned that I have a neighbor who could beat me down if she were so inclined), let's talk about the process of making this dish. The first thing I did was boil the arugula for about 5 minutes until the stems were tender:

Then, after straining out as much of the water as humanly possible, I put it in the blender to make a purée. After it was completely puréed, I slathered it on my tamis for about 5 minutes to let more of the liquid drain out of it:

After it drained a bit, I then pressed it through the tamis to strain it further, then returned it to a clean blender along with some olive oil to complete the coulis:

Next, I tossed the julienned roasted peppers with some balsamic vinegar, minced chives, olive oil, and a pinch or two of kosher salt:

You know, I've always been a girl who loves her olive oil, but with this cookbook, I'm gaining a whole new appreciation for vinegars as well. But I digress... After I let the peppers rest for awhile in their new vinegary home, it was time to start plating. I'd already made the baguette croutons the night before, which was so easy -- just thinly slice a baguette, line up the slices on a baking sheet, brush them with olive oil, sprinkle some kosher salt, and roast them in the oven for about 10 minutes or until they turn a light golden brown.

To start plating this cheese course, I first did a small circle of balsamic glaze on the plate. Inside the circle, I placed a spoonful of the arugula coulis. On top of that went the peppers. On top of the peppers went the crouton, and on top of the crouton went shaved slices of pecorino toscano cheese. And, on top of all that goodness went a little bundle of baby arugula that had been tossed with a smidge of olive oil. Here's what the final dish looked like:

And, I can't let another line of type go by without giving a shout-out to my eight-year-old neighbor, "C," who acted as my chef de garde manger today -- helping plate the final dish, and bringing the dishes to the table so that when my friends came in to sample it, everything looked gorgeous on the table. Here he is with his proud creation:

I gotta say, one of the highlights of doing this French Laundry at Home project has not only been pushing my own cooking boundaries, it's been about spending time with my friends over some good food. We get together quite a bit as it is (especially for Friday cocktails), but it's nice to have a reason to get together, even if it's only for 15 minutes on a Tuesday, to sample some food and have a laugh. And, it's been really cool watching my friends' children eat all these dishes, ask questions about the ingredients, and actually want to help with the preparation. Granted, these are kids who, like me, live in a community where ethnic food is a given, so it's not like this is the most exotic thing they've ever eaten. But, to hear that an 8-year old rolled his eyes back in his head after sipping the Cream of Walnut Soup, or to watch two 10-year olds get excited about decorating a plate with chive oil and balsamic glaze gives me hope that not everyone in America eats every meal from a drive-thru or cobbled together from cans and boxes and thrown into a microwave or a crockpot. It's also nice to know kids who will try at least one bite of almost anything, and who can sit at a table and hold a conversation about their day. Obviously, they have parents who "get it" and who value this kind of behavior/interaction. I feel lucky that most of my friends' children are this way -- and it gives me hope that America isn't going to turn out like Mike Judge depicts in Idiocracy. At least I hope not.

One last thing before I go, and it's sort of related to what I just wrote about in the previous paragraph. A friend of mine who writes a blog about the public relations profession recently wrote a column on "media snacking" and how it's becoming second nature to get information in quick snippets in electronic format. As he was drafting the piece, we talked about how people think we're strange because we still read the print versions of newspapers and magazines. We still read books in paper form. We enjoy a nice meal and spending time face-to-face with people. We like the tangible, the tactile, and the talk that often follows. And if it takes time, that's fine, too.

We spoke about how much has changed in this electronic age we're now in, and how even though some of the advances in technology and communication are important, we're not happy with the sacrifice in quality of communication that seems to be taking place, and not just among the young. We talked about how sad it is to hear adults measuring their self-worth in terms of how many MySpace friends requests they get. And, because my friend knows how much I like to talk about food, we likened the trend of media snacking to real-life snacking. We talked about how the more people spend time mindlessly snacking in real life, the more obese they get because when you snack on food, you gain weight because you're not focused on what you're doing and you're absentmindedly putting food in your mouth, but to what end? Most experts say that the real hunger a person is trying to satiate with snacking is often an emotional hunger -- hunger for connection, for family, for friendship, or for richer, deeper experiences in life.

But what are we trying to satiate through an over-reliance on media snacking? Is it the need to feel smarter, faster? To accumulate as much information as possible as quickly as possible? Like someone who is satisfying an emotional need by snacking on food, are we absentmindedly shoveling in information without really appreciating it, enjoying it, or even remembering it?

The one conclusion we came to is that snacking on food makes you obese. But snacking on information is starving us intellectually and interpersonally. And, that both are bad for you in the long run. Are they one and the same? Probably. But maybe not. You tell me.

So why am I going off on what might seem to be an unrelated tangent? It all goes back to the reason I started this French Laundry at Home project. Much like my distaste for a rampant increase in IMs and text-messaging taking the place of in-person and telephonic conversation, I got fed up on the food front hearing about diets and shortcuts and quick fixes and things that are semi-homemade. I got tired of people (myself included) snarking and bitching, but not really doing anything to move the needle, as they say. In doing The French Laundry At Home, I hope I can show people that, despite what the Food Network and others want you to believe, food is not the bad guy.

Just like I don't want to catch up with friends only via IM or email, I also don't want to buy into the concept that I need to be in a huge rush to get in and out of my kitchen as fast as possible, sacrificing the quality of what I make and how I make it in the process.

And, just like I enjoy spending time with the people in my life, I want others to see that spending time with food -- taking the time to touch, see, smell and taste -- can be rewarding in a similar manner. Much like we stumble day-to-day through our various interpersonal relationships in life, I'm living proof that cooking quality food can be done by someone with absolutely no culinary training, and who instead stumbles day-to-day through her kitchen with a simple desire to show that food doesn't have to be the bad guy and is something that should be honored in a thoughtful, tangible way because it nourishes our bodies much like interpersonal relationships nourish our soul.

In choosing the French Laundry Cookbook, I wanted to not only push myself, but I also hope that someone out there might give one of these recipes a try and see that maybe, just maybe, they might end up liking homemade gnocchi. Or sweetbreads. Or balsamic glaze, if they can wrestle it out of my neighbor's grip.

Okay, I'm stepping down from my soapbox now...

Up Next: Parmigiano-Reggiano Custards with Romaine Lettuce, Anchovy Dressing, and Parmesan Crisps.

Brands Used:
All-Clad cookware
Antica Italia olive oil and balsamic vinegar
All produce and dairy products from Whole Foods

Music to Cook By: Love and Rockets; Earth, Sun, Moon; and The Ramones, End of the Century.


Maura said...

Diner Girl,
I've been considering doing the same thing you're doing with the French Laundry, I just haven't decided which book to use yet. I've been cooking since I was ten, and am the de facto hostess in my group of friends. But I've been feeling lately that I'm not adventurous enough. So thanks for the inspiration.
Also, I can't really add much to your thoughts on media snacking. I love that you still read a real-eo newspaper. We have a love affair with print in our house.
Keep cooking, and as I've said before, don't ever stop writing.

Anonymous said...

Your link to Whole Foods is broken (put an http:// in front of the link)

Anonymous said...

Amen, and WHOOT sistah!

Eleanor said...

This looks really good -- I've made something similar to this and found that it's hard to eat with that crouton. Did you have trouble with it?

JoP said...

Ah, another success. Congratulations. Love reading your insights, DinerGirl, and it's beyond cool that the neighborhood kids are involved in the project, too. Warms the heart it does.

Here's a question for you.....after pushing whatever through the tamis, how in the world do you clean it?! The other day, I made cream of tomato soup which I've never liked before because after pureeing, it's still sort of grainy. This time, after pureeing, I "tamis-ed" it, and it was awesome! Smoht and silky, just the way I want it to be. But the clean up....oh, my. Wasn't easy getting that tamis clean. Do you have a helpful hint?


Diner Girl said...

Maura: Thanks for your kind words and good luck finding a book to cook from. You know, you don't HAVE to pick just one book. You might want to tackle an ethnicity, or a food group, or something like that. Do what gets you excited to be in the kitchen... and something that won't bore the heck out of your friends because you'll want to talk about it all the time. :)

JoP: I rinse my tamis in the sink and then (because it's a stainless steel tamis) I run it through the dishwasher. It's the only way to get all the goop out of it. If you don't have a dishwasher, you could probably soak it in the sink before rinsing it. Or, maybe take it outside and clean it with the garden hose. Any other readers have a hint for Jo on how to clean a tamis?

Eleanor: Yes, the crouton can be a pain in the ass, but the taste is necessary. We ended up just picking up the crouton and eating most of it by hand.

JoP said...

DinerGirl said "something that won't bore the heck out of your friends because you'll want to talk about it all the time." Boy, that's the truth. My friends are sick to death of hearing about French Laundry, Thomas Keller and Micheal Ruhlman, but that doesn't stop me from talking about them!

Thanks for the tip about cleaning the tamis, DG. I odn' tuse my dishwasher often, but for the tamis, I will.

Last night I made scalloped ham and potatoes. Not gourmet, but comfort food for me. As I was cooking, I wondered how Keller and Ruhlman would up the ante on this dish, one they'd pass on for sure were they to encounter it in the form I make it. Fingerlings, I decided; cream instead of 2% milk and Smithfield ham instead of the hohum ham I used.


Kitt said...

I don't have a dishwasher, so I use a nail brush or vegetable brush -- anything with lots of stiff, short bristles -- to clean fine sieves, under running water.