No Regrets Tomato Tarte Tatin

Years ago The New Yorker ran a cartoon that is still one of my favorites: a psychiatrist sits behind his patient who is lying on “the couch,” the doctor’s mouth is open, and the caption reads, “Shoulda, woulda, coulda. Next!” Isn’t that great? If only it were that easy to think that way, to really be able to say, “Yeah, it is what it is. I am who I am. Now, let’s move on.” Not to mention that if shrinks really adhered to this principle a lot of people would save a lot of money.
I try not to spend too much time looking backwards and thinking, “what if I had done this or hadn’t done that?” Regret is a huge waste of time, if you dwell on it. Learning from it is the only way to go. I also don’t really believe in “shoulds” because if I did, I would be in big trouble. The list of things I should be able to do, have done, know, or care about is endless. And in my old age I have come to realize that for the most part, we all do what we want to do, so if there are things on the should list they are probably there because they are things that are not that interesting to you or that you don’t really care about or that you have little desire to do. For example, I don’t know how to drive and yes, I know it is a survival skill and yes, I know it is crazy that I don’t have a license. I could blame it on my past and say they didn’t offer drivers ed. at my school and in those days, like good New York City dwellers, my parents didn’t own a car. But that wouldn’t explain why both of my siblings learned to drive by the time they left for college and have always owned cars. So we’re back to the fact that I don’t really want to drive. Oh, and I’ve had plenty of lessons. There was the Taggarts Driving School six-lesson package I received for my 19th birthday (thanks a lot). The driver was a smelly, creepy little man and it ended badly when he told me to veer to the right on (a congested) Eighth Street and I veered to the left instead. Thank goodness for duel steering wheels. I tried lessons again six years later with a different little man, who wasn’t that creepy, but I found myself zoning out while we cruised down Columbus Avenue. My eyes glazed over and I was having an out of body experience. Not a safe way to travel. So I gave up. And I rarely think about it.
Football is another thing. Shouldn’t a red blooded American person know how to watch a football game? Know the appropriate time to cheer or groan? Not me. That game has been explained to me 100 times and I still don’t understand what a “down” is or why they seem to stop the game every five seconds. The fact is I think I just don’t care. Oh, and what about Prussia? Do you know what Prussia is or was? I took European History in high school and can’t for the life of me retain what Prussia’s role in the world was, who it belonged to, or what happened to it. Yet somehow I am able to remember that Madonna’s birthday is August 16th. How does my brain make those decisions? Could it be that I care more about Madge’s upcoming 52nd birthday than the history of the world? I really hope not.
There is so much more. I haven’t read For Whom the Bell Tolls or Moby Dick (despite being an English major), I’ve never taken physics or chemistry, and I still have trouble remembering the names of all nine Supreme Court justices. I’ve yet to go to the Grand Canyon, have only the loosest grasp of the major Jewish holidays and can’t explain the difference between “effect” and “affect.” See what happens when you think about shoulds? It’s like a race to the finish of the self-loathing 5K.
And of course there are the shoulds of the kitchen. Most people are surprised to learn that I don’t really cook. Yes, I could say it is due to the cozy conditions of my apartment and the fact that I’d rather not have my pillow smell like broiled salmon or sautéed shrimp. But really, I think it’s because I don’t enjoy it as much as I enjoy baking. Timing the preparation and presentation of an entire meal is so much more stressful for me than frosting a cake or even making a soufflé. Still, I’m ashamed I’ve never roasted a chicken or grilled a steak. And there are holes in my pastry repertoire as well. I realized the other day that I’d never made a tarte tatin. You’d think in pastry school we might have touched on that bistro staple but, no. And I don’t think I’ve sought it out myself because I’m just not that excited about cooked apples or pears. But this month’s Bon Appetit had a recipe that seemed so strange I just had to make it—a tomato tarte tatin. Who would have thought? And it is delicious! The acidity of the tomatoes is soothed by the creaminess of the caramel and the buttery-ness of the pastry. A little whipped cream doesn’t hurt either. And if nothing else, I just got rid of one of the shoulds on a list I have now realized is way longer than I’d initially thought. Taking personal inventory is a dangerous undertaking and this needs to stop. I have to remember I have no regrets. I think I need a slice of tarte tatin and a little Edith Piaf, “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.”

No Regrets Tomato Tarte Tatin
From Bon Appetit, August 2010
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1 3/4 pounds plum tomatoes (about 8 large)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 sheet frozen puff pastry (half of 17.3-ounce package), thawed, corners cut off to make very rough 9- to 10-inch round
Lightly sweetened whipped cream

Preheat oven to 425°F.
Bring large saucepan of water to boil. Cut shallow X in bottom of each tomato. Add 4 tomatoes to boiling water. Blanch tomatoes just until skins at X begin to peel back, 15 to 30 seconds. Using slotted spoon, transfer blanched tomatoes to bowl of ice water to cool quickly. Repeat with remaining tomatoes. Peel tomatoes.

Cut out cores, halve lengthwise, and remove seeds.

Spread butter over bottom of 9 1/2-inch-diameter, 2 to 3 inch deep ovenproof skillet (preferably cast-iron).
Sprinkle 3/4 cup sugar over butter.
Arrange tomato halves, cut side up and close together, in concentric circles in skillet to fill completely.
Place skillet over medium heat. Cook until sugar and butter are reduced to thickly bubbling, deep amber syrup (about 1/4 inch deep in bottom of skillet), moving tomatoes occasionally to prevent burning, about 25 minutes. Remove skillet from heat. Immediately drizzle vanilla over tomatoes.
Top with pastry round. Using knife, tuck in edges of pastry.
Cut 2 or 3 small slits in pastry. Place skillet in oven and bake tart until pastry is deep golden brown, about 24 minutes.
Cool tart in skillet 10 minutes. Cut around sides of skillet to loosen pastry. Place large platter over skillet.
Using oven mitts as aid, hold skillet and platter firmly together and invert, allowing tart to settle onto platter.
Carefully lift off skillet. Rearrange any tomato halves that may have become dislodged.
Serve tart warm or at room temperature with whipped cream.
Yield: 6 servings


McMansion Fruit Salad with Cannoli Cream

I have a confession; I have house envy. I’ve had it ever since I was a kid. Emily, my grammar school best friend, lived in a pristine town house where she and her sister ruled the top floor. She had her own room with a walk-in closet, crisp pink and white gingham sheets on her twin beds (one for guests, aka me), and they shared a special little room just for watching The Brady Bunch or, when her sister made us, The Streets of San Francisco. I shared a room and a closet with my little sister, slept on white sheets, and watched TV in my parents’ bedroom. I know, tragic.
These days my envy tends towards that of the Nancy Meyers movie variety; Diane Keaton’s ideal Hamptons beach house in Something’s Gotta Give or Meryl Streep’s It's Complicated 1920’s Spanish-style Santa Barbara ranch. It makes no difference to me that these houses were created on a soundstage; I still want to live there.

But, given this summer’s dearth of interesting shelter porn flicks (or any flicks for that matter), my attention has turned to the smaller tube. And I am here to announce that I am secretly (until now) fascinated by the McMansions of the Real Housewives of New Jersey. I can’t believe it either. But think about it: the kitchen and great room alone are enough to keep my eyes glued and may be why I am fascinated with McMansions to begin with. Who knew a house could come with something called a “great room”? There’s no denying that it is indeed, great—arm’s reach to the fridge, all squishy couches and 54” flat screen TV’s, open and airy.

What I think I might envy even more than the physical spaces is the guilt-free way in which these women inhabit them. They think nothing of spending the day around an island, on a tall, cushioned, stool, picking bakery coffee cake the hostess has unwrapped, drinking the Starbucks another has brought (despite the presence of an elaborate coffee maker on the back counter), and yakking with each other about North Jersey happenings. That is until they break so one can run out for a quick hair weave, another can drag her child to an audition, and the third can visit another woman’s great room to enjoy a glass (more like a chalice) of wine before heading home to her own cherry kitchen. There she will pull out the refrigerated drawers in her granite topped island, and start making her signature cocktail, maybe a Bailey’s Butter Baby, for Caroline, Theresa and Jacqueline to sip while they repair to her overstuffed sofas to snack on grissini and gossip about the three hours they spent apart. Not that I’d want to spend my day playing musical kitchens but wouldn’t it be nice not to feel guilty if you did? And I don’t know what a Bailey’s Butter Baby is but the ladies really seem to enjoy them.

Among the Housewives kitchens, I get the biggest kick out of Jacqueline’s “Tuscan-Style” décor: the cluster of giant candlesticks (don’t you like a little mood lighting when you cook?), the ochre curtain swag framing the window over the sink, and truly the best of all, the over-sized “Tuscany: The Beautiful Cookbook” proudly displayed on an easel in the middle of the island. Imagine, you’ve poured yourself a glass of Chianti, about to start to work on assembling your antipasti platter to enjoy with the girls, and you think, I’d like to take a moment for myself, hoist my beautiful book from its wrought iron display, dreamily flip through the glossy pages, and let my mind wander to Italia: just me, my kitchen, and my great room enjoying our time together.
I know it sounds greedy but it would be nice to be like a cat and have nine lives. I recently accepted the fact that I’m never going to be an Italian-American housewife living behind baroque electric gates in Franklin Lakes. When Johnny Carson died so too did my plans of sitting on his couch (not sure what I thought I was going to talk about, I just assumed as a kid that I would take a seat). And due to the “D” I got in biology, finding the cure for cancer is just slightly out of reach. I’m just saying it would be neat to try on lives, like trying on different coats, even for a day. But barring an unlikely appearance on Wife Swap, this is it folks; I’ve got one life to live. I best make the most of it, and my tiny kitchen.
Sure, there are ways to pretend to be someone else. I suppose I could start speaking in an accent (hey, it worked for Madonna) and see what happens. Or lie to strangers about my life story. Then again, I’m not a serial killer or trying to bilk the Rockefellers. I think I’ll stick to something a little closer to home and make something the Housewives might enjoy. Aside from a signature cocktail, what would Jacqueline make for her “girls-night in”? A quick look at Theresa’s new cookbook (is that a law? If you’re on a Bravo show you have to “write” a book?) reveals a complete lack of respect for desserts. After a quick consult with Giada De Laurentiis, another envy-worthy (great kitchen, cute kid and cuter husband) but dessert-happy Italian girl (who I have a feeling wouldn’t be caught dead in Jersey), I’m thinking about cannoli. But I’m not going to really make them because they require vats of bubbling oil, lard, a pasta maker, and a special metal shaping tube I don’t own. Plus, the one time I made them in pastry school my hair smelled like grease for a week. No, I’m just whipping up the cannoli cream, which is the best part anyway, to pair with fruit, which makes you feel less disgusting than a deep fried shell. I think I’ll curl up with my dessert in my perfectly fine, if not great, (living) room and watch what? Brideshead Revisited? Citizen Kane? The Queen? I mean, if I’m going to envy a house, I may as well go all out.McMansion Fruit Salad with Cannoli Cream
adapted from Everyday Italian, by Giada De Laurentiis, 2005
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1/2 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons plus 1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon grated orange zest (optional)
3 tablespoons powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
12 ounces fresh strawberries, hulled, quartered (the big box from the market, about 2 1/2 cups)
1/2 dry pint fresh raspberries (the little box at the market, about 1 1/4 cups)
2 nectarines, cut into 1/2 inch slices
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon fresh orange juice (or lemon juice if you're not using orange zest)
3 tablespoons shelled, toasted pistachios or almonds or crumbled amaretti

In a medium bowl whisk ricotta, orange zest if using, and 2 tablespoons of cream together to incorporate.
In the bowl of a standing electric mixer (or using a hand-held) beat remaining cream, confectioner's sugar, vanilla and cinnamon until semi-firm peaks form.Fold the ricotta into the cream mixture and place in fridge for at least 30 minutes to thicken. (Cream can also be prepared up to 4 hours ahead and refrigerated until ready to use.)Stir the strawberries, raspberries, nectarine slices, sugar, and orange juice in a medium bowl to combine. Let stand until juices form, tossing occasionally, about 15 minutes.Divide the fruit mixture among 4-6 bowls and top with spoonfuls of the cream. Sprinkle with the nuts or cookie crumbs and serve.
NOTE: I like the combination of orange and cinnamon but not everybody does. Feel free to omit zest from cream and use orange or lemon juice with the fruit.
Yield: 4-6 servings


Summer Lovin' S'mores Bars

The other day a story on the front page of the Times caught my attention. No, it wasn’t about BP’s history of being horribly irresponsible or Spain’s World Cup triumph or the spread of the Shabab; it was about the release of Grease: Sing-A-Long, a karaoke version of the 1978 smash film. “That sounds like so much fun!” I thought.
I was surprised by my reaction because historically I hate audience participation, probably a result of having suffered through it too many times. Once at a lame a capella concert in college some creepy little boy/man from the visiting school sat on my lap and serenaded me with a coy, warble-y rendition of “I Only Have Eyes for You” as his fellow choristers stifled their own laughter behind their harmonic “oohs” and “aahs.” I wanted to crawl under my chair. But that was nothing compared to last year’s experience at the recent Broadway production of Hair in which the performers spent way too much time off the stage and in the audience. I knew I was in trouble when I noticed an “X” of masking tape on the carpet next to my aisle seat (bad seating choice when participation is a threat) and generously offered to trade places with my sister so she could have a better view. “Nice try,” she said looking down at the “X.” I guess it wasn’t enough that one of the “hippie” girls embraced me when she danced through the theater (as anyone who knows me knows, I rarely hug my friends, much less patchouli scented strangers) but then during the big “Hair” number a truly hairy, raggedy guy stopped at my seat, planted one foot on each armrest, squatted in front of me, and began to give me a head massage. Clearly he didn’t know my (and Tony Manero’s) rule # 1: Don’t Touch the Hair.
But who doesn’t like to belt out a tune when no one is looking and everyone else is doing it? I took a pass on The Sound of Music Sing-Along (the idea of an audience made up of grown men in nuns’ habits was too campy even for me) but I may have to give in and break into a group duet of “Summer Lovin’.” For anyone of a certain age Grease was huge. I saw it at Loew’s Orpheum on 86th and 3rd on a hot June afternoon. My mother, who was fed-up with her three kids complaining of boredom during those two weeks between the end of school and the beginning of camp, left me $10 with orders to take my younger siblings to the movies and leave her alone at the office. I will never forget the sight of my six year-old brother standing up in the middle of the theater and combing his non-existent ducktail, a la Danny Zuko, (with the comb he'd tucked into his jeans after seeing a commercial for the film) while the other kids in the audience screamed at him to sit down.
The music became the soundtrack to that entire summer at camp and Olivia Newton-John’s transformation into a spandex-clad, Candies-shod bad girl was endlessly fascinating to those of us forced to wear white tennis shirts, blue gym shorts with white trim and Topsiders every day. I had a friend who joined me for my first camp summer and to this day compares it to being at a Siberian labor camp. According to her we were forced to swim in a mucky lake when it was pouring and freezing, only allowed to shower once a week, and starved—slightly hyperbolic with the exception of the starvation. Unlike all of my other friends spending their summers at more humane camps, we were not allowed to receive care packages containing food. We were however allowed to chew gum. I don’t know what’s worse, a few mice skittering around a bunk at night in search of a stray Dorito or the sound of 250 girls chomping on wads of Grape Bubble Yum. Needless to say, I lost weight every summer, something I really didn’t need at the time, and in fact looked a bit like I had indeed spent the summer breaking rocks with a pick-axe in the Gulag.
Apparently today, according to my completely unscientific survey of five female friends whose daughters are all away at camp, by and large camps strictly prohibit care packages of food and gum is always forbidden. The kids get into big trouble if they’re found hoarding a smuggled stash of Hershey’s miniatures under their pillows or even a stray Tic-Tac mixed in with the lint in their shorts’ pocket. “What about visiting day?” I asked. Back in 1978 parents really weren’t supposed to bring food but most of them broke that rule and arrived in Sweden, Maine bearing shopping bags of their daughter’s favorite something from the neighborhood bakery or the candy aisle at the market. There was one legendary family who had four girls at our camp and whose arrival was like a scene out of Fiddler on the Roof, only they were coming not fleeing. You have never seen so much food in your life; whole salamis poked out of paper bags, loaves of bread, boxes of cookies, bags of candy. It was insane. Then you had my rule-following parents who brought me nothing my first summer because that’s what the guide book instructed. After seeing how scrawny I’d become they broke the rule the next summer but oops, left what they bought at their hotel. The third they came with a dozen cider donuts for my sister and me to share. I suppose I should be grateful for my six donuts because I have one friend whose parents brought her fruit. That is just cruel.
This weekend marks the beginning of the parents’ visiting weekend portion of the summer season and so I have camp treats on my mind. The legend of cooking s’mores over the campfire has remained just that for me; we didn’t roast marshmallows once and I’m still resentful. I’ve made them as an adult and in their authentic state they are shockingly sweet. They must be if I can barely make it through one in its entirety. So I’ve been investigating other forms of chocolate, graham and toasty marshmallows and have settled on this bar cookie interpretation. I’m not going to lie, even with the dark chocolate and the salty-ish crumbs they are still sweet and gooey but not nearly as tooth-rotting. The good news is that they are packable so if you want to do any smuggling to your rapidly shrinking child, you can. Yes, they are sticky and a little messy but a lot yummy. I may sneak one into the movie theater; the sing-a-long starts at 7pm.
Summer Lovin' S'mores Bars
adapted from Gourmet Magazine, July 1990
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15 graham cracker sheets
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
10 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
16 ounces dark chocolate chips (like Ghiradelli 60% Cacao)
4 cups mini-marshmallows

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place graham crackers in food processor and process until crackers become small, uniform crumbs. OR place the crackers in a Ziploc plastic bag, seal and roll over with rolling pin until the crackers become small, uniform crumbs. You should have 2 cups of crumbs.
In a bowl large bowl combine crumbs, sugar, salt, and butter making sure until crumbs are completely moistened.

Scoop out 1 cup of mixture and set aside.
Press remaining graham cracker mixture into the bottom of a 13 x 2 inch baking dish.
Bake crust for 12 minutes, or until it is golden. Remove from oven and set on rack to cool.
Place chocolate in microwave proof bowl and nuke on medium for 30 seconds, stir and continue nuking for 30 second intervals and stirring until chocolate is melted and liquid.
Pour chocolate over crust and smooth with and a spatula (offset works well).
Sprinkle marshmallows over chocolate, pressing gently to adhere.Sprinkle reserved crumb mixture over marshmallows.Preheat broiler and place pan 2 inches under heat for 30 seconds or until marshmallows are golden.
Cool pan on rack and then refrigerate for 30 minutes before cutting into 1 1/2"- 2" squares.
Yield: 2-3 dozen squares
NOTE: For travel, pack in an air-tight container layered between wax paper. Keep refrigerated until ready to go.