Monday, October 11, 2010

know your customers & potato focaccia

When I wrote about my dinner party sanity saving tricks the other week, I left out one very important tip: know your customers. By "customers," I mean guests--friends, family, co-workers. Does your mother-in-law love pears? Make a mental note of that and file it away for future use. Then, when she comes over dinner months later, make her a pear crisp or torta di pere, and she'll love you forever. Does your cousin have the palate of a five-year-old? Make her some spaghetti and meatballs (sauce on the side) and she'll feel extra special.

Knowing people's preferences will make you a dinner party hero, even if it's the smallest detail. Put a vase of tulips on your table if you know your best friend loves them. Set out some bacon-wrapped dates if you know your boyfriend is going through a bacon phase. Knowing how to make other people happy will make you happier in the long run.

Our friend Martha came over for dinner last week. When I started to figure out a menu, I thought about Martha and the things I know about her food preferences. Martha is a relatively health-conscious eater, she has spent a good deal of time in Italy and loves all things Italian, hates chocolate (I know!), and isn't a big drinker.

I love homey, rustic Italian food, so that was a no-brainer. But I didn't want to go the traditional route of pasta or a big piece of roasted meat. It was fall, but the weather hadn't turned cold yet, so I could get away with something fairly light and not too rib-sticking.

My first thought was my favorite focaccia, by Luisa of Wednesday Chef. After much tweaking and re-jiggering, she developed a tomato and oregano-topped potato focaccia that she fell in love with after eating it in Europe. It's a fairly traditional focaccia--crusty around the edges and pleasantly chewy inside, but her version has little pockets of potato throughout from a baked potato that you knead into the dough. The top is dotted with sweet cherry tomatoes and crunchy flakes of salt. In the past I've dusted it with dried oregano, as Luisa makes it, but this time I would use up some of the fresh rosemary hanging out in my fridge.

Bread alone does not make a meal, so I decided to pair it with a steak salad Dan and I have been eating on weeknights. It's pretty simple, just a bed of arugula with thinly-sliced strips of steak, blue cheese crumbles, and halved cherry tomatoes. I'd replace the tomatoes with grilled onions--sort of trattoria-ish, right?

And because I am now paranoid about not making enough food, and also because it is autumn and I love butternut squash, I made a simple side dish of roasted squash to eat alongside the steak salad and bread.

For dessert, a lovely apple tart that I will tell you more about later.

Did my plan work? Was this a Martha-esque meal? After digging into the salad she said, "This is perfect. A bridge between late summer and fall." I couldn't have said it better myself.
Dinner for Martha
Potato focaccia
Butternut squash
Apple tart with ice cream

Potato focaccia
Via the Wednesday Chef. Luisa's recipe calls for the bread to be baked in an 8-inch cake pan lined with parchment, but I've found that a pizza stone works just as well.
(Makes 1 8-inch focaccia)

1 medium Yukon Gold potato
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
1 tsp. fresh yeast (I used Fleishman's yeast, from a packet)
A pinch of sugar
1 1/2 tsp. salt, plus more for salting water
2/3 cup warm water
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 pint of cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced crosswise
1 to 2 tsp. dried oregano
Coarse sea salt
Wash the potato and place it in a small saucepan along with enough water to cover the potato by an inch. Place the pot over high heat, covered, and bring to a boil. Add a handful of kosher salt to the water. Simmer until the potato is tender when pierced with a knife, around 20 minutes. Drain the potato and let it cool. Peel the potato and mash finely with a fork. Set aside.

Put the yeast in a large mixing bowl along with a pinch of sugar. Add the warm water in a thin stream over the yeast, using a fork to help dissolve the yeast entirely. Let the mixture stand for a few minutes.

Pour the flour into the yeast water and stir with a fork, then add the mashed potato and the salt. The dough will be relatively thick and shaggy. Use the fork to incorporate the potato into the flour. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and begin to knead the dough by hand. It will come together quite quickly. Knead against the bowl for a minute or so, until it is relatively smooth. Add more flour if the dough is too sticky to handle. Form the dough into a ball and let it rest, covered with a kitchen towel, in the bowl for an hour.

Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit the bottom of an 8-inch cake pan, if using. Using your fingertips, gently release the puffy and risen dough from the bowl and place it in the cake pan or on top of the pizza stone. Gently tug and pat it out so that it fills the pan, or is about 8 inches wide on the stone. Cover the top of the focaccia with the tomato halves, distributing them evenly. Sprinkle the oregano and a large pinch of coarse salt over the tomatoes, drizzle with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil, and let it rest for another hour. (I was short on time and let it rest for about 30 minutes.)
While the focaccia is resting, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place the cake pan or pizza stone in the oven and bake for 40 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through. Let cool on a rack for 20 minutes before removing the focaccia from the pan. I serve it right on the pizza stone, once it has cooled enough to slice.


Unknown said...

Oh yes, potato focaccia! This was my next thing to tackle. Thanks for the reminder.

Daniel said...

Pretty light for a potato bread. Why is that?

Lisa said...

Tender Branson: You're welcome--let me know how it turns out.

Daniel: Hmm, I'm not sure. Maybe all of the different rising times?

brooklynite said...

this looks like my ideal dinner!

blueeyedfreckle said...

yum. yum. yum. yum. I am in awe by the meals you cook everytime I read this blog. I want some of everything! I wil be making that steak salad and the foccacia for sure.

Lisa said...

Aw, thanks Katie!


Blog Widget by LinkWithin