I love cooking in the Spring and Summer, because so very little actual cooking is required. Meal assembly is more like it - chopping, slicing, tossing - a little blanching here and there, maybe a little grilling. It's not so difficult to pull a multi-course meal together when the ingredients of three out of the four courses require minimal intervention. On this occasion, I did kind of go the high maintenance route - shelling and blanching peas and favas for a dip, and making a risotto (which I can't help but call "ris-ought-o" since watching Hells Kitchen with Gordon Ramsey.) But the cake was baked the day before, and I bought the cheese and bread so all that remained was for me to take the marvelous produce the good lord (and Specialty Produce) gave me and make the most of them. And crack the wines of course. This was our menu:
Spring Dinner Party
Pea and Fava Bean Crostini with Garlic, Parmesan and Mint
Marinated Heirloom Tomato Salad with Burrata over Baby Greens
Aspsaragus and English Pea Risotto
Lemon Almond Cake with Strawberries and Vanilla Quark
I don't really have a recipe for the dip, because I just felt my way through it - tinkering and blending until it tasted right. First I shelled and blanched the English Peas and Favas (it takes more than you might think, so buy plenty) and pureed them in a food processor with half a clove of garlic, some salt and pepper, a little mint, quite a bit of lemon juice, a good glug of olive oil and a lot of grated parmesan cheese. Next time I'd use pecorino romano - it has a bit sharper flavor, and the reggiano parmesan is just a little too expensive to use here, where its mellow nutty flavor doesn't really shine. This was really good with champagne and actually improved with a little age. I served it with some crostini brushed with olive oil.
To make the salad I diced some heirloom tomatoes and marinated them for about an hour with some finely chopped red onion, a pinch of sea salt, a splash of red wine vinegar, a grind or two of pepper, a drizzle of olive oil and some micro-basil that I pinched off of some seedlings I had just started. I tossed the greens with balsamic vinaigrette, topped them with the tomatoes, added a hunk of burrata from Taste Cheese in Hillcrest, and drizzled the tops with the juice from the tomatoes. This was our first taste of heirloom tomatoes this year, and boy were we ready.
Then there was the risotto. I mean, the ris-ought-o. Yes, I will not be making this for a dinner party again anytime soon. This is the second time I've done this, and both times the result has been an unacceptable delay between courses. I really need to work on my technique - and should do it on my own time, on a weekday after work sometime, instead of when my guests are hungry. (Then again, if they keep drinking, it matters less and less what the meal tastes like, right?) This was a good idea in theory - just a basic white wine and parmesan risotto recipe with blanched asparagus tips and peas stirred in toward the end, but the risotto was just a little too al dente, and an hour of cooking really is too long. It looked nice anyway.
The dessert was one of those can't go wrong sort of things - just what you want to serve after a rather long and wine-intensive dinner. The lemon and almond cake was made the day before and topped with macerated berries, and a fantastic new-to-me discovery, vanilla bean quark from Spring Hill Dairy. It's available at the Farmers Markets in Little Italy, Hillcrest and even La Mesa, and it sells fast, so get there early (they also do lemon, but I prefer the vanilla.) A half pint carton is $5. and well worth it. It's tangy, cheesecake-y, just a bit sweet - and perfect with berries and lemon cake, and a little dessert wine, if you're so inclined.
Most of the groceries for this meal came from Specialty Produce. If you live in San Diego and you like to cook (and especially if you like to throw parties) and you haven't been, you really must go. The better restaurants and catering companies in San Diego rely on them for their ingredients, and they carry a number of items you can't find anywhere else. It's such a great place it really deserves its own post, so look for that coming soon.
This simple, relatively sturdy cake can be made in less than an hour and is just the thing with summer fruits, especially berries. The flavors of the butter, almond and lemon play off each other perfectly, and the moist texture allows it to stay fresh for days. It's great with coffee as a simple snack all on its own. You could also sub a teaspoon of vanilla extract and a swipe of the inside of a vanilla bean for the lemon, and pair it with a chocolate glaze for another dessert entirely.
1 cup of All Purpose flour
1/2 cup of almond flour or ground almonds (I used Bob's Red Mill)
3/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 tsp almond extract
2 large eggs
3 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup oil
2 tsp grated lemon zest (about one lemon)
½ cup plain organic yogurt (low fat or whole, but not non-fat)
for the glaze whisk together:
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice
Line a 9 inch round cake pan with parchment paper, and grease the pan. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Whisk together the flour, almond flour, sugar, and baking powder in a large bowl making sure there are no lumps. Whisk the almond extract, eggs, butter, oil, zest and yogurt together in a separate bowl, then gradually add the wet to the dry ingredients, mixing just to combine.
Pour the batter into the cake pan, and bake for 35-40 minutes, until the middle springs back when touched, and a toothpick comes out completely clean. Cool the cake in the pan for thirty minutes or so, then turn out onto a cooling rack covered with parchment and and peel the parchment off the bottom.
Brush the bottom of the cake with the glaze and allow to stand for at least half an hour before turning back over onto a plate. (The paper on the rack will help you flip it back over and keep it from sticking to the rack.) Alternatively, you can use a toothpick to poke holes in the top and just glaze it right side up as well!