I arrived in Los Angeles at noon on a Sunday. Less than an hour later, I was devouring an animal style burger and a batch of well-done fries at In 'N Out (Can you tell that I spent the last leg of the plane ride studying the secret menu?) And it was good. In fact, I was afraid it was too good. As I sat there shoveling grilled onions into my mouth, I started to suspect that despite my high hopes for California cuisine, dozens of dinner reservations and meticulously mapped out must-eats, the best thing I would taste the entire trip would be that fast food burger. Well, no offense to In 'N Out, but I was quite happily proven wrong just a few hours later. After spending the afternoon visiting the Getty Center, the Hollywood sign, and Julia's new house, we made our way to Lucques, where each week Suzanne Goin and her staff prepare a seasonally inspired three course Sunday Super.
We started out with almonds, green olives, and some remarkably good house made sourdough before moving on to our first course, a salad of baby gem lettuces with green beans, cherry tomatoes, mint and ginger lime vinaigrette. My salad was wonderful, but at this point, I think In 'N Out still had a slight edge (what can I say--I really love a good burger). Then came the main course. We had a choice of two entrees, and I selected the pan-roasted market fish with fennel potato gratin, green olives and lima bean yogurt. Without question, it was some of the best fish I've ever tasted. It wasn't that the flavors were anything outrageous--in fact, the dish was quite simple. However everything was executed perfectly.
Within minutes, I was licking my plate clean and In 'N Out had fallen to a distant second on my list of California culinary treasures. (And that was before I even tasted the dessert, a caramel nut tart with bittersweet chocolate, fleur de sel and coffee ice cream). Needless to say, I couldn't leave without purchasing a copy of Suzanne Goin's cookbook, Sunday Suppers at Lucques. I also decided to kick off a tradition of buying a cookbook on each leg of our California adventure (a tradition that ended with me on the floor of the San Francisco airport ten days later frantically pulling things out of my suitcase, which by that point was 17 pounds of cookbooks over the weight limit).
The cookbook is divided into seasons, and I immediately turned to summer, determined to sneak one last recipe in before fall strengthens its hold. After much deliberation, I chose this plum tarte tatin. A tarte tatin is a tarte that is prepared upside down. The fruit (traditionally apple) is caramelized in butter and sugar before being topped with puff pastry. The whole thing is baked in a cast iron skillet, and inverted just before serving. This version, made with plums instead of the traditional apples, turned out better than I'd ever imagined and reminded me of everything I loved about the restaurant. It's something simple and unpretentious elevated by the power of fresh ingredients and spot-on technique into something elegant and impressive. In other words, totally better than In 'N Out, which is saying a lot--do you really need to know more than that?
A quick note: A photo of my Blueberry Buttermilk Cake is a finalist in the Food & Wine Magazine Dessert Photo Contest. The winning photo will be featured in the January issue of the magazine! To vote, go to this link, select your favorite photo (mine is the one on the far left), and click the blue "vote for this photo" button (it takes a little while to load). You have to be logged in to Food & Wine to vote, but can log in via your Facebook or Gmail account. Thank you!
Plum Tart Tatin
From Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin
3 lbs plums
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 sheet frozen, all butter puff pastry
1 egg, lightly beaten
creme fraiche, for topping
Cut the plums in half and remove the pits. Toss the plum halves with 1/4 cup of the sugar and let them stand for at least 30 minutes.
Place a 10 inch cast iron skillet (or another heavy-bottomed pan that can be transferred from the stove to the oven) on the stove over medium heat and add the butter. Once the butter is melted and foamy, add 3/4 cup sugar and cook, swirling the pan regularly, until the caramel is a deep golden color (this should take about six minutes). Remove the pan from the heat and let the caramel cool in the pan for 20 minutes.
Drain the plums, reserving their juices for a future recipe such as a cocktail.* Arrange the plum halves, cut side down, in the skillet of caramel, overlapping them slightly in order to pack in as much fruit as possible (they will shrink when cooked). Note that I cut a few plum halves to fit them into the center of the pan. Return the pan to the heat and cook over medium-low for 20 minutes without stirring or touching the fruit at all. Let the plums and caramel cool before proceeding to the next step (Suzanne Goin recommends putting the pan in the refrigerator for two hours).
When you are ready to bake the tarte, preheat the oven to 375, and remove the puff pastry from the freezer, allowing it to thaw just to the point where it's malleable. Cut an eleven inch circle from the puff pastry and place it over the top of the plums. Pierce the pastry a few times with a fork, and brush it with the beaten egg. Sprinkle the remaining two tablespoons of sugar over the top, and bake the tarte for 45-55 minutes, until the pastry is golden and cooked through.
Just before serving, invert the tarte onto a serving platter. Serve topped with creme fraiche.
*After 30 minutes, my plums had not given off much juice. I proceeded with the recipe anyway, but wish I would have let them sit for a while longer. Plums are very juicy fruits, and when I went to invert my tart after baking, there was so much liquid in the pan that it both made a huge mess on my counter, and caused my puff pastry to get soggy. It was still delicious, but don't make the same mistake I did. Be patient.