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!

Two ways to add flavor to what you’re grilling this summer

Grilling can be an enjoyable, quick and easy way to make a great supper without heating up the kitchen.  And you don’t need expensive ingredients or the finest steaks, if you know how to make those simple grilled chicken or pork or sausage or fish dishes taste special.  Here are two ways to add flavor:

Compound Butters.  A compound butter is just regular butter that has been combined with chopped herbs, citrus, cheeses, or spices.  Here’s how to make it:  Bring two sticks of butter just to room temperature.  Finely chop the ingredients you’ll be adding to the butter, (about 3 or 4 tablespoons), and mix them into the butter with a spatula or electric mixer until thoroughly combined.  Place the flavored butter on a piece of parchment paper or plastic wrap, roll the butter into a smooth log shape, about 2 inches in diameter, and tie the edges of the paper with string so the butter stays in the log shape.  Chill until very firm.  Then slice into ¼ or ½ inch-thick slices with a sharp knife and place the butter directly on top of the grilled meat or poultry or fish as soon as it’s removed from the grill to platter or plate.

Some flavor suggestions:

Finely crumbled blue cheese, finely chopped walnuts, chopped chives and freshly ground black pepper (great on steak!)

Orange or lemon zest, chopped tarragon and thyme (for fish)

Minced garlic, finely chopped rosemary, chopped flat-leaf parsley (for pork).

Minced jalapeños, chili powder, cumin, and chopped sun-dried tomatoes (goes well with burgers, or steaks)

Finely chopped seeded tomatoes, finely shredded mozzarella, finely chopped Kalamata olives (for chicken)

There aren’t any rules: just think of what you’re grilling, and what flavors might go well with that, or which herbs are fresh, seasonal and readily available.  Chop those flavoring items up and combine them with butter, roll into a log, chill and slice, and then melt an amazing buttery taste on your hot-off-the-grill dinner!

Chimichurri sauce:  This is a delicious and easy-to-prepare classic South American marinade and sauce.   You’ll need a food chopper or processor or blender (or a good knife).

Finely mince 4 garlic cloves.  Then add the following into the processor or blender:

1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, with the thickest part of the stems removed

¼ cup red wine vinegar or white wine vinegar

2 teaspoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Pulse until finely chopped, and then add in about ½ to ¾ cup vegetable oil (olive oil is usually not the oil of choice), just until combined.  If you’re not using a food processor or blender, just finely chop the garlic and parsley and then stir them into the rest of the ingredients.  The sauce will not be smooth like a purée, but easy-to-spoon, with bits of garlic and parsley and pepper flakes floating in beautifully infused oil and vinegar.   If possible, let this sit at room temperature for about 2 hours.  Stir before using, and stir occasionally if you’re using this as a condiment.

There are as many Chimichurri recipes as there are people, it seems.  There are long discussions (and bitter arguments!) online about whether to use flat-leaf or curly-leaf parsley, how much garlic to use, and whether someone should be disowned for not adding fresh oregano into the mix. So the bottom line is, however you make this sauce, someone somewhere will disagree with how you made it.  I say: it’s delicious, so make it and enjoy it and enjoy your Chimichurri steaks while the fight rages, right? You can tailor the sauce to your preferences, of course.  Use less garlic, use more crushed red pepper flakes, add a hot red pepper, or add in some cilantro with the parsley (even though several countries may claim that their governments will collapse and thousands of years of tradition will be ruined, at the mere thought of such horror!)

But ultimately, you’ll have a beautiful, glistening green sauce that is perfect for use as a marinade, and for serving as a sauce or condiment with grilled steaks, bratwursts, sausages, chicken or fish.  It’s a delicious pizza sauce (with toppings like grilled chicken and Monterey jack cheese), or it can be spread on a sandwich.  Or, just dip thick slices of grilled bread into it.

 

 

Another example of the importance of reading those labels!!!!

While in the produce department of my local supermarket this morning, I noticed a prominent display of “Smoothie Mixes”, pouches with very attractive photographs of fruit, and on the front were the words “quick and easy to prepare, our Smoothie Mixes are an easy way to add  fresh fruit to your diet”.  Anyone who knows me knows I’m pretty suspicious of packets so I picked one up and read the label.

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I’m wondering how this is even allowed!!  I took photos of the directions, and the ingredients and “nutrition” facts.   So just to get this straight, you’ll need this pouch, a banana, milk and ice.  The mix contains sugar, corn syrup solids, natural and artificial flavors and xanthan gum.   There’s nothing nutritious in the mix, in fact, there’s nothing but sugars, a thickener, and whatever those flavors might be.

 

 

The entire packet contains 45 grams of sugar!!  That’s 10 more grams than a can of Coca Cola, or about 1/4 cup of sugar, and nearly twice the recommended daily limit of sugar consumption.

??????????????? So how does purchasing that smoothie mix pouch provide an easy way to add fresh fruit to your diet?  You buy the pouch of sugar, and then you buy a banana, and dump all that sugar onto the banana.  Here’s a crazy idea:  eat the fresh fruit in all it’s pure good natural state!  Think about it!  Make a smoothie out of fruits and vegetables (bananas, berries, carrots, and spinach are good choices) some ice, non-fat Greek yogurt and enjoy it.

I just want to encourage everyone to read what’s in the convenience and processed food products that we’re buying.  And then go buy the real food!

 

 

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.

 

Homemade Chocolate Syrup

What’s in the chocolate syrup that is stirred into milk and served to those kids who are always smiling in the commercials on TV?  What does it have to do with wood-pulp industry by-products?  Read on…

Recently, I looked at the labels on the bottles of chocolate syrup in the supermarket.  Most of them listed “high fructose corn syrup” as the main ingredient, then corn syrup, and another sugar.   Cocoa was on the list of ingredients, but often 4th, after all the sugars.  Then there were the polysorbates, the mono and diglycerides, xanthan gum, artificial flavors and vanillin.  Vanillin?  If you want to delve deep into chemistry, just look up “vanillin” online.  It’s pretty depressing: vanillin is synthesized from a by-product of the wood pulp industry called lignin, or an even more mysterious word called guiaicol (described as a yellow-tinged oil) and at that point the multi-syllabic words and chemical processes made my brain tired, and I quit reading.  I am pretty sure that Walter White, the chemistry teacher from “Breaking Bad”, would be a helpful resource when trying to understand how vanillin is manufactured.  But whether or not you stayed awake in chemistry class, it doesn’t take long to realize that vanillin is not what we want to be consuming or feeding to our families, especially in something as simple as chocolate milk.  Many websites advise avoiding vanillin in the diets of children with ADHD (along with other artificial colors and flavors).

I looked up homemade chocolate syrup recipes online and for the most part, they called for sugar, cocoa powder, and a few harmless extras like salt, or butter or vanilla extract.

But I was trying to find something even more basic, and healthier.  Most of the ordinary cocoa powders that are on the grocery store shelves today are labelled “Dutch process” or “processed with alkali”.  That’s not an entirely bad thing.  Pure cocoa powder (the kind our grandmothers baked with) can be a little bitter.  So a Dutch chemist figured out how to process the cocoa to make it less acidic.  [This is why some vintage recipes that call for “cocoa” don’t come out quite as nicely as you had expected.  Some of the recipes, passed down from years ago, used cocoa that had not been Dutch processed, and the leavenings are affected (the baking soda and baking powders, for example).  So it’s important to know if the recipe you’re using calls for Dutch processed or natural cocoa.  If it’s from a magazine from the 1940s, or on your grandma’s recipe cards, use natural cocoa.  Recipes today often specify “Dutch process cocoa” and the other ingredients are adjusted accordingly.  It’s possible to buy natural cocoa, but it requires reading all the labels and some stores don’t carry anything but the Dutch processed types.]

Processing cocoa with alkali strips it of some of the healthy properties of chocolate, or else the healthy properties are greatly reduced.  You’ve probably heard that dark chocolate has anti-oxidant properties, and contains flavanols, which can help lower blood pressure and contribute to overall health (when consumed in moderation which, sadly, means we cannot exist on a diet of 100% dark chocolate).  When cocoa is “dutched”, those anti-oxidants and flavanols are significantly lessened.  So it’s not so much the process as the loss of the healthy attributes of pure chocolate that make Dutch process cocoa not as preferable a choice when using cocoa.  The problem is, it’s getting harder and harder to find natural, unprocessed, old-fashioned cocoa.

This led me to trying to make as simple a chocolate syrup as I could.  After a little experimenting, and remembering that raw local honey and maple syrup are good choices of sweeteners, I made this:

Homemade Chocolate Honey Syrup

3/4 cup raw local honey                                                                                                                                     8 ounces pure unsweetened chocolate (I used two 4 ounce Ghiradelli 100% Cacao bars)     1/2 cup water                                                                                                                                                         1/2 tsp salt (I used Redmond Real Salt, which is unrefined and contains minerals)               1 tsp vanilla (good quality, without additives or caramel coloring;  see note below)

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and melt to combine over low heat, stirring occasionally.  Store in a jar or bottle.  Since this is just honey, chocolate and water basically, it really doesn’t need refrigeration, as none of those are routinely refrigerated. 

I found that the next day, the syrup was pretty thick, so I stirred in another half cup of water (didn’t heat it, just stirred the water in.)  It all combined smoothly.  You can adjust the water amount until it’s as thin as you’d like.  

I’m going to experiment a little with this recipe.  I’m going to make another batch and instead of just melting it, I’m going to boil it for about 3 minutes to see if that results in a slightly thinner product.  If you try that, let me know what you think!

My daughter taste-tested this and loved it.  She said she could taste the honey but that wasn’t a negative point.  I did use a rather strong local honey, which was what I had in the pantry,  so if you prefer a milder taste, try to find a local honey that is milder or sweeter.  Many local farmers’ markets or stores like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s will have several honey options to choose from.  You can usually get good advice from those sources about the different tastes of different honeys, and which are milder and which are stronger.

Use this chocolate syrup to make chocolate milk (your choice of milk: oat milk, almond, soy, lactose-free, or regular dairy milk).  Drizzle over ice cream or pound cake.  If it’s too thick, heat it a little or stir in a little water.

Note:  I make my own homemade vanilla extract, from brandy or vodka and vanilla beans.  Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa from the Food Network, has an excellent and simple method of making vanilla extract that is available online.  This allows you to use vanilla that consists of just two ingredients, without caramel color, or additives.  But it’s important to remember while homemade vanilla takes just a few minutes to make, it requires several months to develop the flavors.  You can make a couple of bottles in minutes, and then store them in a dark cool place for several months until they’re ready to use.  So start now and the vanilla will be perfect by late summer or for holiday gifts or hostess gifts in the fall and winter.

 

Small Gadgets: I’m not a big fan, but this one is different

My kitchen is pretty simple.  Good, sharp knives.  A heavy-duty stand mixer and food processor.  Spatulas that can handle heat and a substantial dough.  Really good scissors for boning a chicken or cutting a pizza.

What I don’t have is a lot of cute gadgets, or tools that only serve one purpose.  No separate slicers for bananas, avocados, mushrooms, hard-boiled eggs, strawberries and lemons (they all seen to be shaped like the food they’re intended to slice, or else they have a name that a four-year-old would think is funny).  Nothing with little wheels that rolls like a toy car and chops herbs.  Nothing that makes faces on food or that turns food into clever shapes.  No plastic burger shapers or burger stuffers.  Nothing that most clean hands can’t do, like separate egg yolks and egg whites.  Nothing that turns hot dogs into animals or people shapes that you can dress up or decorate, or that turns completely different foods into hot dog shapes.

I do understand that there is a place for some gadgets – when a cook really needs to make a task easier and/or safer (to relieve arthritis pain, to help with a task that is difficult, or to allow children to help with some tasks rather than using a sharp knife), or if you just really like serving hot dogs that have arms and legs and a smiley-face.  I have a julienne vegetable peeler, and a tool that makes removing corn kernels quicker, so I’m not completely against gadgets.

But then I bought a Pampered Chef Scoop Loop.  Yeah, maybe it’s a silly name (or maybe it’s a clever name).  And I thought, it’s probably going to be a silly tool, too.  I was wrong!  This gadget is going into my drawer with my microplane grater, nut-milk bag and strong kitchen twine (in other words, the good stuff).  It stays.

It’s advertised as being a flexible oblong tool with serrated ends that allows the user to quickly scoop seeds out of cucumbers and squashes and tomatoes.  It also says that it creates an easy granita (A granita is a shallow layer of fruit juice or other liquid, frozen until not quite rock-solid, and then scraped with a fork or spoon into a bowl; it’s a refreshing treat that can be made from pure fruit juice (or almost any other liquid such as coffee or tea, or the hundreds of creative ideas for granitas online).  It’s a great substitute for a calorie-loaded ice cream, very refreshing and extremely easy to make. But scraping it out of the pan with a fork is messy and time-consuming and pretty much discourages me from making a granita.  Attacking a rimmed sheet pan filled with frozen juice with just a small fork seems doomed from the start, and the frozen bits of juice kind of fly everywhere.)

So I tried the Scoop Loop.  First, I ran the serrated smaller end of the Loop around the top of a whole tomato, and then sunk the loop into the tomato.  Within seconds, I had a completely hollowed-out, neatly-seeded tomato, ready for stuffing or chopping.  Then I tried it on a cucumber.  Again, the result was a completely seeded cucumber, with only the seeds removed, leaving the rest of the cucumber intact.  Then I poured a pure fruit juice with no added sugar or ingredients into a very shallow dish and froze it until it was fairly solid.  I used the thicker end of the Loop and within seconds, a granita appeared, with no ice bits splashed all over, and with very little effort.

This is one gadget that is worth having.  (And no, I don’t sell Pampered Chef or have any connection with the company other than being the occasional customer.  I just really like this Scoop Loop.)

Here are two photos, of the Scoop Loop removing cucumber seeds, and of the finished granita (this one was made with 100% pure organic tart cherry juice and nothing else).

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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.

The Mother’s Day Picnic That Almost Was

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day.  It reminds me of a memorable Mother’s Day picnic that we almost enjoyed several ago.  My husband was stationed on a remote and beautiful Caribbean island, and we all lived there for about two and half years.  It was an island of contrasts:  alongside the turquoise oceans, dolphins jumping out in the bay and the snorkeling and scuba diving, there was crime, a drunk man who roamed the parking lot of the island’s only movie theater throwing coconuts at people, and poverty that was so extreme that it was almost impossible to comprehend.  We met many wonderful people there – some with lovely homes on beautiful beaches who helped us adjust to life on the island with amazing graciousness and hospitality, some brave people who lived in cinder block huts who had suffered abuse in their home countries and were hiding out as refugees, and tourists, travelers, and adventurers from all over the world.

There was a lot of island wildlife that we got used to (and some that we never did get used to).  There were parrots and dolphins and stunningly beautiful fish and jelly fish and pelicans.  Gorgeous birds would perch on the window sill of our house and hop right into the kitchen.  We learned not to turn on the toaster oven without first checking underneath it for lizards.  We would sit outside in the evenings on the veranda and watch the little almost-transparent lizards roaming the walls of the house.  Crabs made their way into the house sometimes, and they could be big and mean.  Once I came down to the kitchen to find a crab as big as a dinner plate in the middle of the room, and when he saw me he hissed and snapped at me.  One crab got stuck in the roof vent of our house.  We could hear him tip-tapping and skittering through the vents at night but we could never catch him.  He crawled through the ducts until he finally found the vent in the bathroom ceiling.  For a while we had to use the bathroom with the crab sticking his claw through the vent and snapping at us.  He was mad.  I was pretty miffed at him, too.  (But it’s an effective way to make sure someone doesn’t take too long in the bathroom, let me just tell you.)

Anyway, for Mother’s Day one year I requested that we all go down to the lagoon outside our home, and go snorkeling and enjoy a picnic lunch together.  Everyone liked that idea and together we packed sandwiches, cold drinks and ice in a cooler.  We set the cooler on the rocks by the water and had fun snorkeling and swimming and feeding the fish that would follow us around as we swam.  After a while we got hungry so I went onto the beach and opened the cooler to get lunch ready.  I guess we hadn’t shut the cooler as tightly as we thought, or maybe someone opened it to get a drink and then didn’t close it all the way, because lying on top of our nice sandwiches was a plump colorful gecko lizard, about eight inches long.  His eyes were closed, and if it had been a cartoon, I think he would have had little x’s where his eyes were, with stars circling his head.  He looked dead dead dead.  His not-so-bright idea of helping himself to our lunch had trapped him in a box that was much too cold.  I screamed in surprise and backed away (pretty far away and pretty quickly), wondering what else might be in the cooler (some of his friends?) or whether I could still enjoy a lunch that a  big old lizard had recently died on.  Then my husband and kids got the idea that maybe he wasn’t truly dead, just too cold, and they gently removed him and put him on a warm rock.  Sure enough, he un-froze and once he warmed up, he crawled away.

We ate lunch at a local restaurant.

My family insisted that the food would be fine, but all I could picture was lifting the lid of the cooler, expecting my Mother’s Day picnic and seeing that cold, lifeless, fat lizard on top of all the food, like a weird freaky garnish.  And you know what they say about the rules for garnishing:  the garnish should be edible and it should be appropriate for the food it’s served with.  That was one huge garnish fail.

But the picnic we almost had made a memorable Mother’s Day for me that year.

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.

tomatoes

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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