Early-Apple Crumbly Pie

Chris started school on Thursday, so I headed to my brother-in-law's to enjoy the beautiful end-of-summer weather with him and my niece. After dinner, as we were running across the lawn flying her kite, I noticed they had an apple tree and it was full of plump red apples. "What kind of apples are these?" I asked. No one seemed to know what kind, only that the tree had fallen into neglect and that the local bunnies, squirrels and groundhogs seemed to like them.

I had a Julia Roberts moment just then, as most women my age have had at some point. Mine (this particular time, anyway) was inspired by Sleeping With the Enemy. It is after Julia's character has escaped her cruel husband and set up house in a small Iowa town. She is strolling through the neighborhood and spies an apple tree. Surreptitiously, she picks some apples, gathering them in the folds of her peasant skirt, when the owner of said apple tree catches her and jokingly accuses her of stealing. All she wanted to do was bake a pie, she insists. He loves pie, he says, flirtatiously. Hesitant and distrustful, she drops the apples on the ground and flees. Next scene - he is at her screen door, apologetic, apples in hand, inviting her to dinner and encouraging her to bake, and bring, the pie. And thus, in Hollywood style, boy meets (and saves) girl. I digress.

Scene in mind, I gathered a few apples from the tree and headed home to bake a pie for my man. Alas, my apples were not gathered up in a flowing peasant skirt but carefully dropped into a plastic grocery bag. When I got home, I hid them, with the intention of surprising Chris (who had to go to work the next day while I was still home on summer vacation) with the pie. Morning came; Chris left for work. I bit into one of the apples - not too tart, not too sweet. I created this pie/crumble based on the flavor of the apples and the ingredients I had on hand. The house filled with the scent of fall, a bit early, but appropriate since school is starting. Chris loved it.

And we lived happily ever after...just like in the movies...

Topping mixture is prepped.

Apples wait in pie crust.

Butter, sugar, flour, spices, vanilla, and water to pour over the apples.

Ready for the topping.

Before baking.

Baked, cooled and ready to be eaten.

For the topping:
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons melted butter
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the pie:
6-7 apples, peeled, cored and diced
1 refrigerated pie crust
1 stick unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 tablespoon apple pie spice
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 425. In a medium bowl, mix the ingredients for the topping so that coarse crumbs form, then set aside. Press the uncooked pie crust into a 9'' pie plate and fill with the diced apples; set aside. In a medium saucepan, melt the stick of butter. over medium-low heat. Stir in the flour and apple pie spice and cook about a minute until it starts to thicken. Add the white and brown sugar and stir until smooth. Stir in the water and the vanilla. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for five minutes. Pour the mixture evenly over the apples inside the pie crust. Spread the crumbly topping over the top of the apples. Bake at 425 for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 and continue to bake another 30 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool before serving.


Foodie Book Friday: Tomato Rhapsody

Amy writes:
Last week, one of the dictionary.com Words of the Day was rhapsodize, a verb meaning "to talk with extravagant enthusiasm." I had just finished my latest summer read and was looking for a new book on one of our many bookshelves when I saw the title Tomato Rhapsody, a debut novel from Adam Schell. Perhaps I was drawn to it because of the Word of the Day. Or, perhaps because it's August, peak tomato-eating time, a few days after we attended our Slow Food chapter's Tomato Fest, and a week after watching a rerun of Iron Chef featuring a tomato battle, tomatoes are calling me. Whatever the reason, I grabbed the book from the shelf and took a seat on my porch swing to delve into the pages.

I was happily surprised as I began the book and realized it purports to be the "almost-true" tale of how the tomato made its way from Columbus's New World to Italy. The author unfurls his story through a bawdy cast of characters in such a way that the reader feels for each and every one. These villagers, at first fearful of what they perceive as Eve's forbidden fruit, slowly but surely fall in love with the "love apple."

Yet this is not the only love story in the book. The book tells the story of the forbidden love between a Hebrew tomato farmer, Davido and a Catholic olive farmer, Mari. It tells of the paternal love between Davido and his grandfather, and the Grand Duke of Tuscany and his odd young son. It tells of the pastoral love between the good priest and the villagers. But most of all, it tells of the love these people share for food, tradition and each other.

As the Tuscan villagers work, play, laugh and cry, the reader gains insight into their daily customs. They are rimatori, peasants who speak in rhyme, and thus the book is full of wordplay. They are Catholics with strict moral laws and interesting religious festivals. Most of all, they are Italians whose love for good food almost trumps all else.

Near the beginning of the book, the novel's protagonist rhapsodizes, "His eyes could not help but mist with tears - the tomatoes were that beautiful. His first true crop: lush, round, slightly ribbed, a shade of red unmatched in all of nature, with a melding of yellow as the fruit bent and crinkled toward its green stem." As summer winds to a close and people everywhere harvest their own tomato crops, I submit that now is the perfect time to enjoy this book, a inspiring testament to summer's favorite fruit.


Tomato To-mah-to

Last Sunday, along with our friend Lise and her dad, we attended the CT Slow Food chapter's annual tomato tasting feast called Tomato To-mah-to. This largest heirloom tomato tasting in the U.S. took place at the beautiful and intimate Upper Forty Farm in Cromwell and featured 100 or so vine-ripened, organically-grown heirloom and old-fashioned hybrid varieties of tomatoes from Upper Forty as well as Urban Oaks Organic Farm in New Britain. Chefs from several area restaurants were there serving up tastings of their tomato-inspired creations, and tomatoes and other fresh produce were available for purchase.

We tasted as many tomatoes as we possibly could. There were tomatoes of different shapes - round, oval, even tipped at the end. Some were sweet, some were tart, some were sweet and tart. Some tasted like other things, like pineapples or oranges. There were green tomatoes, orange tomatoes, yellow tomatoes, red tomatoes, purple tomatoes, and striped tomatoes. There were huge, big, medium, small and tiny tomatoes. And we loved the names! Our favorite tomatoes included "Sugary" and "Sungold" (both types of cherry tomatoes) as well as "Black Zebra" and "Orange Strawberry" heirlooms.

All in all, we had a great time, despite the rainy weather. The day was a testament to the wonder of August's favorite harvest. Check out our photos.

The Grand Tasting Table - over 100 types of tomatoes cut and ready to be tasted. Which is your favorite?

Chefs from Pond House Cafe in West Harford offered this tasty tidbit of tomato jams on savory shortbread.

Chefs from Firebox Restaurant in Hartford made this wonderful tomato flatbread.

There were plenty of tomatoes for sale!!!

Peppercorn's Grill Chef makes fresh mozzarella. Soooo good with tomatoes!


In a Rage over Ragin' Cajun

In Hartford is what used to be a fantastic New Orleans-style restaurant called Ragin' Cajun. The website suggests what Ragin' Cajun once was - "Hartford's home for authentic Cajun cuisine." We have been to this joint several times and have always left with our bellies full and our craving for Cajun completely satisfied. We have ordered fried turkey dinner from here before we owned a turkey fryer and loved it. We have raved about this place and the New Orleans-born Chef Tom Armstrong to anyone in earshot for years. And finally, last Saturday, we brought our friends and New Orleans natives PJ and Ceria there for lunch. 

What a disappointment. Nay, an embarrassment. Ragin' Cajun isn't even a shadow of what it once was. We were barely greeted by a nearly silent server who never offered us drinks. When we ordered our usual favorites, Cajun staples like crawfish, alligator, and oysters, which are all over the Ragin' Cajun menu, we were told these items were no longer available. We browsed and pondered and ended up finding a few items that we hoped would please us. Then we waited.

The gumbo came first, with one spoon although we had indicated we wanted to share it. Thin, watery, greasy, and without okra, this was unlike any gumbo we'd ever seen. It was not a good start. Next came our entrees. We had talked up the place so much, and we were quite hungry, so we decided to order five entrees to share among the four of us. The fried shrimp platter, served with french fries, was a platter of seemingly pre-frozen food and was bland and plain. We would have been better off getting this at a fast food joint. The blackened catfish, served with mac-n-cheese and collard greens offered overcooked fish, mushy greens, and greasy mac-n-cheese. We requested vinegar twice just to give the greens some flavor, but our server never brought it. The BBQ shrimp platter was inedible. NOLA-style barbecued shrimp are fresh shell-on shrimp cooked in butter, herbs and spices to make an amazing dish that belies the word "barbecue" in the name. We're still not sure what exactly they served us (see photo below), but it looked like bad Chinese food and tasted worse.
Red beans and rice, something anyone who has ever lived in New Orleans can, and does, make often? Forget it. Our plate was canned red beans, drained and rinsed and served over dry white rice, with not an herb or spice to be found on the plate. Seriously? The two sausages served with it were pretty good, we'll give them that. (We doubt they were made in-house.) 
The server forgot the fifth entree (the barbecued ribs platter), realized she forgot, and had the cook bring out whatever he could. There were three ribs on the plate with the mushy greens and greasy mac-n-cheese. Three. Ribs. Come on. As we were leaving, we saw a guest with a full rack of ribs on his plate. He must have ordered the barbecued ribs platter. Indeed.

We waited about twenty minutes for our server to clear our dishes. Although we weren't particularly full or satisfied, we didn't dare prolong this agony by ordering dessert, and handed her our $100 Ragin' Cajun gift certificate. The one marked "Expires Never." Just to cap off our awful experience, she replied, "We don't take these anymore." How exactly is that acceptable? 

To the folks at Ragin' Cajun, we say this. If you want to become one of those fried chicken-and-rib joints that can be found in most Hartford neighborhoods, so be it. But change the name of the restaurant. Reprint new menus. Stop teasing us with promises of Cajun food you're not willing to make. Chef Tom Armstrong, you should be ashamed of yourself. To call what we were served on Saturday "Cajun" is an insult to your skills, to all of Cajun cuisine and to us. You had an amazing thing going for a while there but you've let it fall apart. We won't be back. To PJ and Ceria, we're sorry we ever took you there and promise to make it up to you somehow. And as for you, dear reader, if you're in the mood for Cajun food, trust us and go elsewhere.


Roasted Tomato, Fennel and White Bean Salad

When we invited our niece and her friend over for dinner, we wanted to make something special, something different from what they are used to. Our menu included this salad, which we served at room temperature, and quickly became the hit of the party. We used fresh, sweet tomatoes from our garden and loved how they enhanced the savory flavor of the fennel and the starchiness of the white beans. We roasted the tomatoes whole, and while roasting, they burst and seeped their deliciousness into the other ingredients. We based our recipe from one we found on epicurious.com.

1 large bulb of fennel (also called anise)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups grape and/or cherry tomatoes (we used grape tomatoes and two types of cherry tomatoes)
2 large fresh oregano sprigs
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 15-ounce can cannelini beans, drained and rinsed

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Chop the fennel into 1/2-inch-wide pieces. Heat oil in a large ovenproof skillet, then add the fennel pieces; sprinkle with salt. Cook over medium heat until the fennel browns and softens, turning occasionally, about ten minutes. Add tomatoes, oregano, garlic slices, red pepper, and black pepper. Toss together gently and transfer skillet to heated oven. Bake for 25 minutes, then mix in the beans. Bake five minutes longer to heat through. Serve at room temperature.

Corn and Lobster Fest: A Shop Rite Culinary Workshop

The Shop Rite grocery-store chain offers culinary workshops in their stores every week. The workshops in our town's store just happen to be taught by our good friend Chef Lise Jaeger. What we love about them (besides seeing Lise!) is that they are hands-on - Chef Lise encourages each and every student to participate in the prep work and cooking. Also, we make 3-5 dishes per class, so it's a great way to gather recipes, get ideas, and learn new culinary skills and techniques. Perhaps the best part of the workshop is, at the end, we get to enjoy the fruits of our labor by tasting all the dishes we helped make. It's fun, delicious and educational!

The workshops are themed, by season (this summer's "Barbecue and Blues"), by ingredient ("Jazzed about Jersey Tomatoes"), or by certain celebrations ("Mother's Day: Something Special for Mom"). Amy has gone to over a dozen of the workshops over the past couple of years, and we have gone to a few together as well. Last week we went to the last one of the summer series, "4th Annual Corn and Lobster Fest." In about 2 and 1/2 hours, we made five recipes, met some new friends, and enjoyed a tasty dinner. Here are some pictures! For more information about the workshops, including locations and schedules, go to the Shop Rite Culinary Workshops home page.

Chef Lise explains the recipe we'll be doing next.

Lobster Garlic Butter, made with lobster roe.

Chef demonstrates the proper way to cut an onion.

Students prepare corn for the next recipe.

Fresh Corn, Lobster and Pancetta Risotto (the favorite of the night) is cooking away.

A student plates the Lobster and Summer Vegetable Bruschetta.

Linguine with Corn and Lobster Sauce - rich and delicious.

Don't forget dessert - Cornmeal-Olive Oil Cake with Roasted Peaches


Cocktail Time! The Milan Mule

On our way home from Maine, we stopped at a luscious Italian restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire called Pesce. It was a beautiful summer day, around 80 degrees, with a baby blue sky and light, wispy clouds. Sitting outside, we enjoyed a cocktail with our amazing lunch and it transported us back to our times in Italy. They called the cocktail "The Milan Mule," and we successfully replicated it at home the other day. It's so very cool and refreshing, you can't beat it on a warm summer's evening. Here's our version.

1/2 cup limoncello
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup ginger beer (we used Gosling's brand)

Put all ingredients in a glass over ice and give a quick stir. Garnish with basil and enjoy.


Pesto Shrimp Pasta

We just returned from a lovely and relaxing beach vacation in Maine, where we gorged ourselves on boiled lobster and steamers dipped in drawn butter, clams and scallops fried to golden perfection, and lots of ice cream. Returning home, we felt a little bit doughy around the middle and rejoiced in seeing our garden blooming with some much-needed vegetables - zucchini, squash, eggplant, cucumbers, peppers, and best of all, tomatoes of all shapes, colors, and sizes.

Last night we created this 20-minute meal with our garden-grown basil and several of those tomatoes, specifically, the grape and cherry varieties. While Chris made a nut-free pesto, I boiled some angel hair pasta and sauteed the shrimp with a few tomatoes and some parmesan. We added the pesto and tossed everything together for a dish that was light and summery and full of fresh flavor. The pesto was herbacious and garlicky, while the tomatoes burst in our mouths like sweet, juicy candy.


For the Pesto:
2 cups loosely packed basil leaves
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste

Rinse and dry the basil leaves then put them in a food processor. Pulse several times then add the garlic. Pulse several times until basil and garlic are well chopped and mixed. While the food processor is still running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Scrape the sides down and add the parmesan, salt and pepper. Pulse a few more times to mix. This recipe makes about a cup's worth of pesto. Extra freezes well.

For the Pasta:
1/2 lb. angel hair pasta
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 lb. raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 cup grape and cherry tomatoes, halved
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup pesto

Boil water and prepare the pasta according to package directions. In the meantime, heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Saute the shrimp in the oil until they begin to turn pink. Add the remaining ingredients to the skillet and continue to cook 1-2 minutes. Drain the pasta and add to the skillet. Toss everything together and serve hot.