Category Archives: Vegetables

Roasted Green Beans, and a simple supper idea

Yes, roasted green beans!  No more soggy beans, or canned beans.

The secret is:  the pan must be really hot.  If you place the beans in a cold pan, and try to roast them like that, they will be rubbery.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  Place a rimmed metal sheet pan or metal cookie sheet or metal cake pan in the oven at the same time so the pan heats up.

Just snap the ends off of plain old fresh green beans.  Place them in a bowl and drizzle them with a really little amount of oil:  a good quality olive oil or pure avocado oil is my preference.  What is important in this step is that the beans aren’t drowning in oil.  They should just lightly glisten.  The beans shouldn’t be in a puddle of oil.

Next, season them.  My favorite seasoning for the beans is Montreal Steak Seasoning (I know!  This isn’t steak, but somehow it’s an amazing combination).  I put plenty on the beans, and they taste great!  You can use lemon pepper, or just salt, or pretty much whatever seasoning you like.  I season them generously because I enjoy the peppery bite on the beans.

When the oven is hot and the pan is hot, dump the beans with their oil and seasoning in the pan and quickly try to spread them out so they’re in a single layer.  They don’t need to be neatly lined up like soldiers, just not piled up.

Roast them for about 15 to 20 minutes, shaking the pan every few minutes so the beans char evenly on all sides (or stir them about with a spatula).  When they’re lightly charred, they’re done.  They’re good as a side dish, or as a snack.

Another idea for a simple supper:  to the green beans in the bowl, prior to cooking, add shelled edamame (out of the pods).   A couple of big handfuls of beans, and about half that amount of shelled edamame (frozen is fine, or pods that you’ve cooked and shelled), with the small amount of oil and a hearty sprinkling of Montreal Steak Seasoning, or lemon pepper or salt.  Do the same thing with the pan: preheat it while the oven’s preheating to 425 degrees.  Dump the beans and edamame on the hot pan and roast until lightly charred.  Then grate fresh Parmigiano Reggiano cheese over them and return to the oven for just a minute or two until the cheese begins to melt.  That’s it!  It’s almost no work, vegetarian, and really simple and satisfying.   Fresh cornbread is a nice accompaniment.

A One-Ingredient Pasta Sauce (well, one ingredient plus some water, to be precise)

You’ll need a blender or food processor for this sauce, but little else.  Here’s how to make a one-ingredient pasta sauce, plus some variations.  I’ll include a brief summary for those of you who prefer just a simple overview, and then I’ll provide details for the readers who like a more complete recipe with explanations.

Ingredient: One winter squash.

The quick version:  roast a squash and puree it, adding just enough water to make a smooth consistency.  (A little pasta cooking water is excellent).  Add to hot cooked pasta, stir gently and enjoy!

Variations:  stir in grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and a little freshly grated nutmeg.  Add salt to taste (how much salt you need will depend on the sweetness of the squash you chose, which can only be determined by tasting it).  Instead of fresh water, or water left over from cooking the pasta, use chicken stock for a richer sauce. Top the pasta and roasted squash puree with chopped toasted walnuts, or bacon, or roasted prosciutto.

Now for the detailed version:

You can use an acorn squash, butternut squash, or a pumpkin (make sure it’s a pumpkin grown for baking or for use in recipes, not the large inedible ones intended for carving and decorating only) – almost any winter squash except for a spaghetti squash will work.  Most grocery stores identify the pumpkins that can be cooked as “pie pumpkins” or “sweet pumpkins”, and they call the others “carving pumpkins” or “Jack-O-Lanterns”.  The produce manager can tell you whether the pumpkin is intended for eating or for decorative purposes only.

Line a baking sheet with non-stick foil or parchment paper.  You can either cut the squash in half, remove the seeds and lay the squash halves cut-side down on the pan, or you can simply put the whole squash on the pan.  There’s some debate as to whether a whole squash should be pierced a couple of times prior to baking.  Some cooks say to pierce the squash with a sharp knife or fork, as you would when baking a potato, and some cooks say this allows delicious steam and flavors to escape and they don’t pierce the skin.  I’ve roasted whole winter squashes and I simply make one small knife slit in the skin – I don’t feel like using my oven as an experimental pumpkin explosion testing center.

Anyway, roast a winter squash: halved, seeded and cut-side down, or whole.  Just roast it until the squash is very tender, when a fork inserted into the squash pierces it easily with no resistance.  That will take about 45 minutes to an hour, at 350 degrees, unless you are roasting an unusually large squash, which may take longer.

Let it cool, and then either scrape the flesh from the skin, or cut the whole roasted squash in half and scrape out the seeds and then the flesh.  Transfer just the flesh to a blender or food processor.  Puree it, and add just enough water to make a smooth sauce.  The best choice would be the water left over from cooking pasta: when you drain the pasta just save about a cup of the water.  The goal is to have a sauce that is a similar consistency to a cheese sauce, like when you’re making macaroni and cheese, not too thin and watery, and not too thick.

Now you can use the pureed squash as is – just stir it into hot cooked pasta   Or you can add some grated parmesan cheese and a little nutmeg (freshly grated nutmeg is best).  If the squash was very sweet, you might need some salt, but that’s up to you.  You’ll only know how sweet the squash was by tasting it.

I toasted some prosciutto on a baking sheet until the prosciutto was very crispy and crumbled that over the pasta and squash puree just before serving.  Crumbled cooked bacon would also be good.

Toasted and chopped walnuts or pecans would also be delicious on this pasta, as would chopped dried cranberries, and/or grated Parmigiano cheese.

But, if you just use the roasted and pureed squash, with a little water added to it to make it a smooth puree, you’ll have a very healthy and simple sauce made from just one real food.

A new take on Grilled Cheese

This sandwich is a delicious new way to appreciate avocados, and it’s a fresh idea on the traditional grilled cheese.

Ingredients (for one sandwich)

2 slices firm bread or rustic bread (we used a nice rustic Italian loaf)                                       1 ripe avocado, peeled, pitted and thinly sliced (mashed would be ok too)                           1 large ripe tomato                                                                                                                                              a couple of ounces of good quality blue cheese (your favorite type)                                         a handful of baby arugula leaves, or baby spinach, or mixed greens

Toast or grill one side of each of the slices of bread.  Lay the bread slices, toasted/grilled side down, on a baking sheet or broiler-safe pan.  Preheat the broiler.

Slice the tomato thinly and lay the tomato on one of the bread slices.  Top the other bread slice with the blue cheese.  A nice thick layer of blue cheese would be nice, but how much you use is up to you.

Broil the slices of bread, with their tomato and cheese toppings, just until the cheese is beginning to melt and turn golden.

Remove the bread slices from the oven, and quickly lay the avocado slices and your choice of greens on the tomato side.  Place the cheese side, with the cheese facing the vegetables, on top of the greens, and enjoy!

I took this one step further.  Prior to starting to make the sandwich, I sliced a couple of nice big tomatoes into one-half inch thick slices and spread them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  I drizzled the slices with a little olive oil, sprinkled them with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, and roasted them at about 400 degrees until they were tender and golden.  Instead of fresh tomatoes in the avocado grilled cheese, I used the roasted slices.

If you’re not liking the whole vegetarian feeling of this sandwich, you could slip a few slices of beautiful cooked bacon into it.  Just lay the cooked bacon underneath the tomatoes before you broil it.

I don’t usually prefer Gorgonzola cheese.  My favorite is Stilton, but a nice Amish blue cheese or Danish blue cheese would be great.  The combination of fresh avocado, broiled blue cheese, tomatoes and hearty bread is really delicious!  This is no ordinary grilled cheese!

More adventures with baked avocados: Roasted Guacamole!

Ok, I know.  This is NOT true guacamole.  Guacamole is an amazing blend of fresh avocado, lime juice and salt, with the addition of certain raw vegetables according to one’s preference and traditions.  There are hundreds of variations.  Some people prefer a specific type of onion, or leave the onion out altogether, and some add garlic.  Some cooks insist that tomatoes do not belong in guacamole and some wouldn’t call it guacamole if it didn’t have tomatoes.  Some people use hotter peppers, and some are minimalists, using simply avocados.  Then there are the people who add in sour cream or their own favorite additions, or who will argue over whether the guacamole should be creamy or chunky.  But nearly every guacamole recipe involves time and fine chopping or mashing, and requires that it be served immediately.

Thanks to my daughter, our family has a wonderful guacamole recipe.  It involves a lot of fine dicing (usually that’s my job) and then she is the perfecter of the proper ratio of spice, saltiness, raw vegetables, and acid, mixing with precision.  It must be served immediately, and it’s delicious.  Fresh guacamole starts to turn an dull brown after it’s exposed to air, and the myth of keeping an avocado pit in a bowl of guacamole to preserve it is just that: a myth.  A thin layer of water or olive oil will help keep leftover guacamole fresh for a short time, but the best way to deal with guacamole is to devour it completely right away!  More chips!  Tequila, anyone?

But since I’ve been experimenting with baked avocados lately, I wanted to try a simple roasted “guacamole”.  This will not be a beautiful blended typical guacamole, but more like a rustic roasted avocado salsa.  The upside of this is that it only takes seconds to prepare, and there’s no fine dicing needed.  You only need to know how to pit an avocado, and how to hack a vegetable in half.  Plus, since everything’s roasted, there’s no need to rush to serve it while it’s still bright green;  it’s already golden brown and tender! It could be served with chips, or as a topping for tacos or fajitas or nachos.

To prepare it, line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  (That’s not essential, it means you can simply toss the parchment paper and have no cleanup afterwards.)

Gather your favorite guacamole or salsa ingredients.  I peeled and cut an avocado into quarters and then cut a few jalapeños, tomatoes, onions and limes in half.  Make sure to use several limes.   Throw everything on the baking sheet.

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Feel free to add different types of hot peppers and/or garlic and use more or less of a certain ingredient, according to your taste and what’s available.  Generously salt everything, and drizzle a bit of olive oil over all.  Roast at about 400 degrees until it’s all golden and tender.  This might take a half hour, but there’s no tending to it, no need to stir or fuss.

When it’s done, remove the limes and squeeze the juice from them over all the roasted guacamole/salsa.  You can let your family or guests choose their roasted ingredients, or you can place everything on a cutting board and roughly chop and combine everything.

This photo shows what it looks like just after roasting, before chopping into more manageable pieces,  with the lime still in there.   It’s not beautiful, but it sure is delicious!

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Baked Avocados – For an Easy Breakfast or Amazing Nachos!

How does this sound?  Breakfast that you can roast in a fruit and customize in dozens of ways?  No bowl needed, almost no cleanup?  Plus it’s healthy and delicious! (Avocados are technically a fruit).

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First, the basics:  you’ll need an avocado and two eggs.  This works best with a large avocado and smaller eggs.  Since I only had large eggs on hand, I cracked the eggs, one at a time, into a small bowl and poured off about half the egg white (I saved the extra egg whites in a bowl in the fridge to stir into scrambled eggs next time I make them).

Then, halve and pit the avocado.  Don’t do anything else to it.  Into the hollow area of each of the avocado halves, where the pit was, place one egg.  Put the avocados in a small baking dish (you can line it with parchment paper if you want, for easier cleanup).  Bake them at 350 degrees until the eggs are set.   Breakfast is ready!  (You can cook the eggs thoroughly, or you can take them out when the whites are set and the yolks are still a little runny:  your choice, your preference).

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Now, you can just dig a spoon into this and eat it.  The avocado is warm and delicious and smooth, and when you’re done, throw the “bowl” (the avocado peel) away!  No cleanup! Sprinkle with salt and pepper if you like, or cumin, or paprika, or hot sauce.

And here is the part where you can customize this, top it, spice it up, and make nachos!

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On top of the hot avocado and egg, you can add chopped tomatoes and grated cheese, chopped onions, or salsa (extremely mild or devilishly hot), or fresh pico de gallo (or all of those!)  You could top it with cooked crumbled sausage (hot or mild), or chorizo, or even soy chorizo (which is surprisingly good!).   You can keep your choices healthy, or vegetarian, or dairy-free, or make them as spicy and meaty as you like.  Add just a few simple toppings, or bury those avocados in a mountain of extras!

Another option is to make the baked avocados into amazing nachos:

 

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It couldn’t be easier:  spread some tortilla chips on a plate.  Using a spoon, scoop the baked avocados and eggs out of the avocado peel, and place them on the chips.  Just smash the avocados so they spread out on the chips (or, if you want to be neater, use a knife to cube up the avocados).  I topped them with cheese, tomatoes and salsa.  You can add lettuce, cooked black or pinto beans, salsa, fresh vegetables, roasted corn, cooked ground beef or sausage, or just keep it simple.  You could even omit the eggs and bake the avocados with halved cherry or tomatoes instead of the eggs.   Keep it super simple with just good salsa from a jar, or get creative with toppings!  Make it a healthy breakfast, or a delicious dinner!

So what would you put on these Baked Avocado Nachos?  I’d love to hear your ideas!

 

Baked Stuffed Tomato Pies with a Savory Crust

Here’s something new to do with large tomatoes.  You could use a large heirloom tomato, or one of the bigger ones that are still hanging on in your garden.  This can be a side dish, or a hearty entree, depending on the filling you choose and on the size of the tomatoes.

First, prepare a filling.  Really the only rule to follow is that any raw meats or proteins should be cooked before stuffing them into the tomato.

I used mozzarella cheese, some Panko bread crumbs, fresh chopped basil, cooked chopped bacon, grilled corn, salt, pepper and some freshly grated Parmigiano cheese.

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You could use Mexican inspired fillings, like cooked taco-seasoned ground beef, chili peppers, shredded Cheddar cheese, sliced jalapenos, and chopped fresh cilantro.

Another nice choice might be broiled shrimp, chopped or sliced garlic, lemon zest, and chopped scallions, with Panko bread crumbs and just a bit of mayonnaise to moisten the stuffing.  Season with a spicy Cajun seasoning if you like.

Or for a more gourmet choice, how about rare or medium-rare steak (cut into bite-sized pieces), grilled corn, chopped seeded tomatoes and a little blue cheese?

Go completely vegetarian with roasted or grilled chopped vegetables (zucchini, summer squash, corn, tomatoes, mushrooms,and any other seasonal vegetables that are available and affordable)!  Mix the vegetables with a little Panko bread crumbs, some fresh herbs and a little olive oil.

Or make a Greek stuffed tomato, with cooked lamb or beef pieces, chopped red onion, Kalamata olives, chopped tomatoes and crumbled feta cheese, with fresh oregano.

The filling should be moist.  The Panko bread crumbs can be eliminated but they do add a little crunch and texture.  For a gluten-free option, crumble up some lightly toasted gluten-free bread and substitute that for the Panko crumbs.

Completely scoop out the insides of the tomato, and lightly fill with the mixture (don’t pack the filling in).

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Place the tomatoes in a baking dish, or if you’ll be cooking this on an outdoor grill, in a grill-safe pan or dish.  Drizzle with a little olive oil.

You can roast the tomatoes now, or bake them, until the tomatoes are soft and the filling is heated throughout (about a half hour at 375 degrees).

For something extra delicious, top the tomatoes with a savory crust.  I made a basic pie crust with flour, butter and ice water, and added chopped fresh basil to the crust.  I cut out a circle of dough roughly the size of the tomato and baked the tomato with the dough on it.  It was like a fresh tomato pie!  You could use a store-bought crust or even thawed puff pastry crust, and you can omit the basil or substitute another appropriate herb.20140727_175438

 

 

 

 

 

If you need a pie crust refresher course, it’s really easy.  The basic rule is 1 part flour, 1/2 part butter or other shortening (vegetable shortening or lard or a combination of those), and 1/4 part ice water.  So if you use 2 cups flour, use 1 cup shortening and 1/2 cup ice water.  For a smaller recipe, use 1 cup flour, 1/2 cup shortening and 1/4 cup ice water.   Simply place the flour in a bowl, use a pastry cutter or a fork to distribute the shortening into the flour (or pulse in a food processor) until the flour and shortening resemble coarse wet sand and stir in the ice water.  Knead the dough briefly and gently on a lightly floured surface, and form the dough into a disk.  Wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate the dough for about 45 minutes or an hour.  Then roll or pat the dough to the desired thickness and cut to the desired size.

For this tomato pie, I used all butter and kneaded in several large basil leaves that I finely chopped.  I wanted a savory rustic crust and didn’t make the butter pieces too small.  I also sprinkled some coarse salt over the crust before baking the tomato.

Let me know what fillings you can think of for these individual baked tomato pies!

Crispy Asparagus Bites

This “recipe” is pretty open-ended, but easy to follow.  The precise amounts of ingredients will depend on how many asparagus spears you plan to use, and how many crispy bites you’d like to end up with.

Quick recipe (detailed instructions below):

Wash and dry asparagus spears.  Trim the bottom ends off.  Lightly dredge in seasoned flour, then in a basic egg wash, and finally in Panko bread crumbs combined with grated parmesan cheese (the cheese is optional).  Bake on a baking rack placed over a sheet pan at 425˚ for about 15 minutes or until golden and crispy.  Cut with kitchen shears into approximately 2 inch lengths, and garnish with lemon zest or a little fresh lemon juice or minced preserved lemon peel and a little freshly ground black pepper.  Serve immediately or chilled or at room temperature.

The recipe, step-by-step, with more detailed instructions:

First, wash the asparagus spears.  I used one and half bunches of regular thick-stalked asparagus.  Dry them with paper towels or a clean kitchen towel.  Then, trim the woody thick ends off.  To do this, bend one asparagus spear down near the end with both hands, as if you’re going to break it in two.  You’ll feel it begin to snap, and then a section of the bottom of the spear will automatically snap off.   It’s usually about a 2 or 3 inch section. Where it naturally snaps off is where it should be trimmed.  You can just line up the rest of the spears and cut the rest of the ends off with a knife to match the size of your sample spear.

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You’ll need three shallow containers:  one for flour, one for an egg and water mixture, and a third for bread crumbs.  I used three cheap oblong plastic storage containers that were long enough to hold the entire spear.  You could use cake pans, or even gallon-size zip top plastic bags.  You’ll also need a sheet pan or cookie sheet, and a baking rack (the kind you’d cool cookies on).  Preheat oven to 425˚.

In the first container, place enough all-purpose flour to coat the spears.  Add a half-teaspoon of salt and stir with a fork or clean hands so the flour and salt are combined.  (You could also add a little cayenne pepper or paprika or garlic powder, if you want a little spice kick.  I just stuck to flour and salt.)  The spears don’t have to be buried in the flour, just tossed to coat thoroughly.  For my one and a half bunches of asparagus, I used about a heaping half cup of flour.

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In the second container, mix 2 eggs and about a quarter cup of water.  The desired result is enough egg mixture to be able to coat the asparagus spears, so that the bread crumbs (in the next step) will stick to the spears.  Again, the spears do not have to be completely immersed in the egg mixture, just coated all over.  Lay a few spears in the egg mixture, and use your clean hands to make sure each spear gets an “egg bath”.

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In the third container, place about a heaping cup of Panko bread crumbs.  Panko crumbs are flaky and made from bread specifically crafted to produce these light crumbs.  They’re inexpensive and, in a regular grocery store, they’re usually found with the other bread crumb types or in the Asian section.  If you’d like, grate some fresh parmesan cheese (a couple of tablespoons) into the Panko crumbs.  Remove the asparagus spears from the egg bath, lightly shake off any excess egg, and place the spears into the bread crumbs, rolling to coat thoroughly.  The spears will not be completely coated like a corn dog, but there will be crumbs clinging around the entire spear.  You’ll still see plenty of the green asparagus through the crumb coating.

Place the baking rack on the sheet pan or cookie sheet.  I put parchment paper over the sheet pan just to catch any crumbs that fell off, for easier cleanup.  Lay the spears gently on the rack, making sure they are not too crowded.  Air should be able to circulate around each one.

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Bake them for about 15 – 18 minutes, until the crumbs are golden and the asparagus is crispy.  They won’t be crunchy like a potato chip, but they will not be soggy.

Then, to finish them, I used kitchen shears to cut each spear into bite-size pieces, about 2 inches long.  I think they’re easier to eat that way, and more appealing to kids.  For people who aren’t accustomed to eating asparagus, tasting a bite-size little crunchy bit is less intimidating than picking up an entire spear, and even if you’re an asparagus lover, the smaller pieces are neater to eat than a whole crumb-covered spear.  They’re also easier to pack (easier than finding a container long enough to hold entire spears).  I added a touch of lemon over them:  you could use the zest of a fresh lemon peel, or a spritz of fresh lemon juice, or – even better – if you’re lucky enough to have some preserved lemons (that’s for another blog post!), a little finely minced preserved lemon peel.  I also grated a little freshly ground black pepper over them.  Lemon pepper (if it’s not loaded with salt and sugar) would be a great seasoning to shake over these little bites, too. They can be eaten right away, or enjoyed chilled or at room temperature.  I packed them loosely in a container and brought them for a crispy picnic treat.

 

Edamame: the Nutritious, Bright Green, Young Soy Bean

Edamame (pronounced ed-ah-mah-may) is a young soybean pod, picked when they’re a beautiful green color and edible, but not fully ripened.  They’re generally sold frozen, in one pound bags, with nothing added (no salt or any other ingredients).   Sometimes they’re available fresh, but most of us will find them in the frozen section of the market.  The pods resemble pea pods, and usually have two to three beans inside.  Edamame are a nutritious source of protein, fiber, vitamins and iron, and they’re an inexpensive and delicious snack or light meal.

To cook them, fill a large pot with water and add about 2 teaspoons of salt.  Bring the water to a full boil and then put the entire bag of whole edamame pods in.  You’ll notice that the pods sink to the bottom, but quickly, they’ll begin to all bob to the surface.  Boil for about 3 minutes, remove from the heat and drain them in a colander.  If you are boiling fresh – not frozen – pods, boil them for about 7 minutes.   Keep the pods intact; don’t remove the seeds.

Sprinkle them with good quality sea salt and serve with plenty of lime wedges. My daughter tosses hers with a little butter.  I prefer mine with just lime juice and salt. Eat them by holding a pod to your mouth (kind of like holding a harmonica) squeezing the pods between your teeth until the tender seeds pop out.  Only the seeds are eaten and the pods are discarded.

They’re delicious with crusty bread or pita chips, or just by themselves.

Other ways to enjoy edamame:  the seeds can be removed from the pods after they’re boiled and mixed with other seasonal vegetables (such as roasted corn kernels, chopped red bell pepper, halved cherry tomatoes) and served as a side dish.   Add cooked pasta to the cooked edamame seeds, chopped fresh or sun-dried tomatoes, grated carrots, chopped red pepper, a little grated parmesan cheese and a drizzle of olive oil for a delicious pasta salad.  The cooked seeds can be combined with cooked rice, chopped cooked chicken, sautéed red bell peppers and a little soy sauce.  Or you could cook a pound of edamame for about 15 minutes until they’re very soft, and purée the seeds with 4 ounces of a mild soft, fresh cheese (such as goat cheese, soft feta,  or brie), 1/2 teaspoon of dill,  the juice of a lemon and a little salt to make a delicious dip.

Tomato Berries!

Even though I’ve been discussing seasonal vegetables, the next subject of this blog will not, in fact, be a vegetable, but a berry.

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That’s right.  Not only is the tomato a fruit, but it’s actually a berry.  It’s all about how the tomato plant is pollinated and how the plant grows and where the seeds develop.  There’s lots of information available about the botanical classification of the tomato, but let’s just agree that it’s a berry and get on with some of the basics of using the tomato in cooking.

Walk through a store or farmers’ market that has a wide variety of tomatoes available, and the colors and sizes will amaze you.  There are the typical round tomatoes that we’re so familiar with, and smaller tomatoes like the cherry tomato and the even smaller grape tomato, and heirloom tomatoes and Roma or plum tomatoes that are more oblong in shape.  The colors vary from bright yellow to all shades of red and orange and green and almost purple.  Some seem to have almost no flavor or aroma, and others smell like they came from the garden a few minutes ago.  There are canned tomatoes that have been puréed or chopped or fire-roasted or imported.

Heirloom tomatoes have been cultivated from seeds passed down from generation to generation, to protect a certain size or color or shape.  There are commercially produced heirlooms, and family heirlooms (the family saves the seeds from that year’s crop and carefully preserves them for planting next year).   There are also heirlooms that have been created by combining varieties.  There are so many names, colors, and tastes of heirloom tomatoes – you’ll have to try a few.  Some people feel that the deeper darker colored varieties taste better.  It’s a matter of personal preference.  However, if you can find heirloom tomatoes that are certified as “dry-farmed”, there’s a good chance they will taste delicious.  Dry-farming is a way of controlling the way the tomato is watered, which allows for more flavorful development.

The standard round grocery-store tomato is available in loose bins, or still on the vine.  Tomatoes are carefully monitored while they’re ripening.  After they cross a certain ripening point (determined by the percentage of green unripe-ness or ratio of green to red) the vine is cut with the tomatoes still on it or the tomatoes are picked.  They’re timed to be red when they reach the market.  But they were all picked green and some were artificially ripened.  The only way to harvest a ripe tomato that had time to properly ripen on the vine is to grow it yourself, or to buy from a farm stand that you trust.  Sometimes I think that the tomatoes on the vine smell and taste better than the hothouse ones, but that might be my imagination.  It’s hard to buy a flavorful ordinary supermarket tomato.  Tomatoes on the vine look more appealing to consumers but often the taste is no better than the cheaper loose type.   Look for seasonal, local tomatoes and it will be worth it!

Roma, or plum, tomatoes are the oblong ones, and usually less expensive than other varieties.  They often have fewer seeds than the large round ones.

San Marzano tomatoes are a protected type of Roma tomatoes that grow in one location in Italy, in volcanic soil.  You may see some tomatoes marketed as “San Marzano style” or “Italian style” but only the true San Marzano tomato may be called San Marzano, and here in America they are only sold in cans, never in jars.  There will be wording on the can that certifies that they are authentic (the can label will say D.O.P. which is an Italian certification of authenticity).  San Marzano tomatoes have been cultivated to have more flesh, arguably a better taste, and fewer seeds and the gelatinous material that surrounds the seeds.  There are almost endless discussions online about whether it’s worth it to pay more for authentic San Marzano tomatoes (they can be expensive).

Canned traditional tomatoes often have additives like citric acid which can make them a little more acidic than fresh tomatoes.  Try to find tomatoes with as few additives as possible.  Skip the canned tomatoes that include basil and onion and garlic.

Now, about those tomato skins and seeds:  to peel a tomato, simply make a small x (just about a half-inch long) in the skin with a sharp knife.  Drop the tomato into boiling water for about 45 seconds, and then remove it to a bowl of ice water.  The skin will slip off easily when the tomato is cool enough to handle.

There’s a lot of debate about removing seeds.  Some people believe that the seeds are flavorful.  Here’s my opinion:  If you are making a chili, or a tortilla soup, or a dish with lots of chopped vegetables and herbs, then the seeds won’t really matter.  If you are slicing tomatoes to put on a sandwich or chopping tomatoes for a fresh salsa or a salad, then the seeds will tend to make the final product watery.  To remove the seeds when you want to keep the nice shape of the tomato, slice the tomato in half, and use a small melon baller or a round spoon (even a grapefruit spoon) to just slide those seeds out and the gelatinous membrane that surrounds them.  To remove the seeds when you’re going to end up chopping the tomato or when you’re going to throw it in a sauce, and the shape isn’t too important, just slice enough of the top of the tomato off to reveal the seeds, hold the tomato upside down over the sink and just gently squeeze.  The seeds will fall out (you may need to coax them a little with your finger or a small spoon).  If you’re making a very pure tomato sauce, removing the seeds is more for looks than anything else.

Bottom line:  remove the seeds from tomatoes to keep fresh salsas, salads and sandwiches from getting watery and soggy and when you want the final product to look smooth and simple.  Don’t bother removing them for making chili, chunky soups, or casseroles. 

Roasting tomatoes is a great way to bring out a whole new depth of flavor.  Simply lay whole or halved tomatoes on parchment paper and drizzle with a little olive oil and salt.  Roast at 425 degrees until they turn a deep color and become tender.  One of my favorite simple meals is a lightly toasted piece of Italian artisan bread, covered with roasted tomatoes and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.  Roasted tomatoes are great on pizza, and they can be made into a delicious sauce.

To make a simple marinara sauce, inspired by the great chef Marcella Hazan, whose sauce is the standard for all marina sauces, an onion is sautéed in olive oil, and canned San Marzano (or a similar style) tomatoes are crushed by hand and simmered with the onion and a little butter. (I use a sharp paring knife to just nick off the slightest tip of the canned tomatoes where the stem was, simply because that part bugs me and I think it will never become tender.  That’s just a personal quirk of mine.)   If you plan to use this as a pizza sauce, some fresh oregano leaves can be added at the beginning.  For a meat sauce, after the onions have been sautéed, add a pound of ground beef and brown it thoroughly before proceeding with the tomato step.  If you want to use fresh tomatoes, use about 4 pounds of seeded and peeled tomatoes, and cook the sauce until the tomatoes are very tender.

Here’s the recipe:

Simple Marinara Sauce

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 28-ounce cans of good quality tomatoes

4 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon salt

10 basil leaves, roughly torn or finely sliced (your choice)

In a saucepan, sauté the onion in the olive oil over medium heat until the onion is golden and tender.  Meanwhile, crush the tomatoes with your hands in a separate bowl.  Add the tomatoes and butter to the pan, along with the salt, bring to a simmer, and cook gently for about 45 minutes (10 minutes if you’re in a rush, up to 2 hours for maximum flavor).  Add basil and taste for salt at the end of the cooking time.

            Now is a good to talk about the herb rule.  If the herb has a tough stem (like rosemary, or oregano or thyme; their stems are woody) they can be added at the beginning of the cooking time (even if it’s going to be a long cook time).  Herbs like parsley and basil and cilantro, with stems that are grassy and bendable, should be added near the end of the cooking time.

So try some new tomato varieties this week, and enjoy these delicious berries!

Good Things to Know About Selecting and Using Seasonal Vegetables (and some science stuff)

It’s the time of year when the produce sections of grocery stores and farmers’ markets and farm stands are starting to look bright and fresh.  Beautiful red peppers, tomatoes that look and smell amazing, colorful zucchini and summer squashes are everywhere.  But do you know the best way to select and use them?

Let’s start with bell peppers.  Make sure to read the word of caution near the end of this post, please.  That’s where the science-ish stuff is.

Green bell peppers are not fully ripened.  They’re less expensive than red or yellow or orange bell peppers because they require a shorter growing time and can be harvested quickly without regard for proper ripening.  They can be bitter and are best used in recipes with lots of strong flavors like sausage and onions, or in a spicy chili dish.  Most people prefer not to eat them raw. The beautiful red, yellow and orange peppers have been allowed to ripen naturally and slowly, and they have a sweeter, milder taste as a result.  They can be eaten raw in salads or with dips, or cooked in a variety of ways.  The pepper variety will determine the color  and shape and size.  A green pepper may ripen to become any one of a number of colors, depending on its variety, but it won’t really properly ripen at home after buying it at the store.  There’s no truth to the myth about “male” and “female” peppers (determined by the number of lobes or sections on the bottom of the pepper – some people have been told that the number of lobes can tell you if the pepper is “male” or “female” and that one is sweeter than the other.  But that’s neither a botanical possibility nor a culinary fact).  The number of lobes depends on the botanical variety of the pepper and growing conditions and other factors.  However, it does seem that a pepper with more lobes or sections on the bottom might have more edible pepper flesh inside and less room for the seeds that we throw away.  Look for firm, unblemished, smooth, shiny skin and uniform color when selecting a pepper.

Red, yellow and orange peppers are fun because they’re one of the few foods that you can purposely burn!  It’s easy to make your own roasted red peppers.  Use an outdoor charcoal or gas grill, or a gas stove burner or the broiler in your oven.  Keep the pepper whole, and hold the pepper with tongs over the grill or burner, or lay the pepper directly on the grill, or set the pepper right in the flame of the gas stove (this last method is the fastest and requires paying close attention to the pepper).  If you’re broiling the pepper, put it on a broiler rack and place it close to the broiler, or lay it directly on the top oven rack with a piece of foil on the lower rack to catch any drippings that might escape.  Turn the pepper from time to time as the skin blackens so that all sides char evenly.  It won’t take long.  When the skin is completely blackened all around, use tongs to place the peppers in a plastic bag or paper bag and seal it up until the pepper is cool.  The steam from the roasted pepper in the sealed bag helps to further loosen the skin.  When the pepper is cool, you can just brush the charred skin off or rinse it under cool running water or peel it off.  Run your fingers over the pepper flesh once the skin has been removed to check for any leftover shards of charred skin.  What will be left is a beautiful tender skinless pepper.  Slice it and use it in salads, serve it on a steak or on top of a baguette slice with some salty feta or queso fresco cheese, or in other recipes.  The tenderness and the flavor can’t be matched!

An important word of caution:  You may have noticed that roasted red peppers in the grocery store are in pretty jars of olive oil.  However, when you roast peppers, use them right away or store them, covered with olive oil, for just one day in the refrigerator, or wrap them securely and freeze them.  Never store them for a long period of time (more than a day) in olive oil either in the fridge or at room temperature because of the real possibility of botulism poisoning.  Roasted red peppers (and other vegetables like garlic or sun-dried tomatoes) sold in grocery stores in jars of oil have been specially treated so that the botulism toxin will not form, and it’s impossible for the home cook to be sure that roasted red peppers covered in olive oil will not develop the deadly toxic bacteria if stored for more than a day or two at the most.  So if you make your own roasted red peppers use them right away or the next day at the latest, or freeze them.  If you freeze them, lay them individually on a tray covered with parchment paper until they’re frozen, then transfer them to a freezer bag.  This keeps them from freezing in a clump.

The botulism poison develops when the bacteria is deprived of oxygen (I know, that sounds backwards, but the botulism spores don’t grow in oxygen.  Once they’re starved of oxygen they can flourish.  It’s a whole bunch of science gobbledygook but it’s real and it’s important.  If you want to read words like “anaerobic”, “clostridium botulinum” and “gram-positive” you need to find a much more intelligent blog).  I’ll summarize:  Oil has no oxygen.  The botulism bacteria cannot survive in an oxygenated environment, like the air in our houses and the air we breathe.  When you immerse a vegetable such as garlic or peppers into oil (even if the vegetable has been cooked), you create an environment with no oxygen and any botulism spores that were present are now free to grow.  Refrigerating the infused oils is not enough to kill the bacteria.  That’s why you should never slice your own garlic and keep it in the fridge in oil so it’s convenient to use, or roast a whole bunch of peppers and keep them in oil in the fridge for the future.  The same holds true for herbs.  Botulism doesn’t taste bad or have a bad smell which makes it impossible to detect, but it’s a dangerous, even potentially fatal, result of improper food storage or canning.

So burn some beautiful peppers and enjoy them right away.  Chop them up or slice them into strips.  Mix them into a homemade hummus or crab cakes.  Add them to deviled eggs or scrambled eggs or a frittata.  Stir some into tuna or chicken salad.  Purée them with a little cream and pour them over pasta, or stir them into some sour cream for a dip.  Or just enjoy fresh red, orange and yellow peppers, washed and sliced or diced, with salads, with tuna and olives and hardboiled eggs, or briefly sautéed with other spring vegetables like snap peas and stirred into cooked pasta.  Peppers are full of nutrients and flavor!

These pictures show the progression from charred whole pepper, to steaming in a bag, to skins and seeds being removed, to the final product.  The last photo is a baguette slice topped with queso fresco (a mild, salty cheese – you could use goat cheese or feta instead) and roasted red peppers.  It’s a delicious light lunch.

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