Summer

One Method, Endless Pesto Possibilities

The key to learning to cook, and learning to cook well, is a willingness to experiment. If you must have exact recipes and exact ingredients then you will never feel completely comfortable in the kitchen. Cooking is learning a method and experimenting and tasting and tasting until you learn what works well together and what doesn’t.

Take pesto, for example. Sure, you can follow a recipe that shows you how to make a basic basil pesto. Or you can master the method behind making pesto. Once you understand the method, then the possibilities and ingredients are endless.

And so below are the things I have found make excellent pestos:

  1. Herbs, particularly basil. Basil is, of course, the key ingredient in a traditional pesto, and I have found it is by far the best herb to use, but why not throw in other herbs as well? Parsley works well. Even non-Italian herbs, such as cilantro, can give pesto a different twist.
  2. Greens. Not traditional, but such a good way to use greens! Spinach, arugula, and kale are my favorite. Each adds a unique taste and gives you a different pesto. Experiment with using different combinations.
  3. Garlic. Really, can you have pesto without garlic? I usually use at least 1-3 cloves, depending on how garlicky I want it to be.
  4. Nuts. Pine nuts are traditional, but, in my opinion, they are not worth the money. Experiment with other nuts. I personally love almonds and pistachios in pestos.
  5. Cheese. Though not necessary, I personally love adding cheese. Hard cheeses, such as Parmesan and Romano, are best. Also good: feta. Just don’t add too much. A handful will do. You should have far more greens and herbs than cheese.
  6. An acid. Lemon juice is traditional. About 1/2 a lemon will do the trick. Also try: Lime juice. Vinegar.
  7. Olive oil. Just enough to make it smooth.
  8. Salt and pepper. Want it spicy? Add red pepper flakes.

A bulk of the pesto should be herbs and greens. Put everything, except the olive oil, in the food processor and pulse it several times. Add the olive oil while pulsing and process until smooth. Taste and adjust and write down what works well together.

Though my favorite way to serve pesto is on pasta (no surprise, right?), you can also put it on sandwiches or meat or use it as a dressing.

 

Pictured below is a combination of arugula, spinach, basil, slithered almonds, garlic, Ramon cheese, feta cheese, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper.

pesto-4

So what’s your favorite way to make pesto?

 

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How to Freeze Tomatoes for Winter

I’m going to start with a warning. Freezing tomatoes takes time and effort, and it’s certainly a lot easier to buy a can of tomatoes in middle of winter. The taste of frozen tomatoes, however, is something that even the best canned tomatoes can’t compare to. Plus you know where the tomatoes came from, you supported a local farmer, you’re in control of the type of tomatoes, and you don’t have to worry about any chemicals that could be potentially lurking in a can. It is worth every second you have to spend in the kitchen. And actually, freezing tomatoes isn’t that hard. It’s easier than canning. All it takes is a few hours on a Sunday afternoon to get the job done.

There are many different ways to store tomatoes. I prefer to freeze tomatoes because you don’t have to worry about sterilizing the jars the same way you do when you preserving food for the pantry shelf. Ideally, you want a large freezer, or even a spare, but I live in an apartment and still manage to squeeze plenty of jars into my tiny freezer.

I personally freeze the entire tomato, with the exception of the skin and core. I don’t worry about removing seeds. Some people do, some people don’t. It’s a complete personal preference.

I also freeze them two ways. Most of the tomatoes I puree. Some of the small paste tomatoes, however, I leave whole.

Also, you can freeze any tomato, but the big plum tomatoes are best.

So where to begin? First you need to prep your kitchen. Here’s what you need:

  • wide mouthed mason jars (any size will do)
  • a funnel (optional but it makes it a lot easier)
  • a large pot
  • a large bowl filled with ice water
  • a medium size bowl
  • a food processor (if pureeing)
  • a slotted spoon or spider skimmer
  • an extra bag of ice
  • plenty of dish towels

Directions:

  • Wash the jars and let them dry completely before using.
  • Bring a lot pot of water to a boil. 
  • Clean any dirt off of the tomatoes.
  • Cut a small X towards the bottom of each tomato. This makes it easier to peel.
  • Drop the tomatoes into the boiling water. You want to work in small batches. Only boil about 5-6 tomatoes at a time.
  • Boil them for a couple minutes. You’ll know they’re ready once the skin starts to peel back a little.
  • Remove them from the boiling water with a spider or slotted spoon and immediately drop them into the ice water.
  • Let the tomatoes cool for a couple minutes and then remove the skins. Also cut off the top and core each tomato. (I do it that same way I remove the stem from a strawberry. Just use a small knife to remove the hard, inner part of the tomato that is right below the stem.)
  • At the point, if you’re not pureeing, you can drop the tomatoes right into the jar. Or if you’re pureeing, place them into the food processor.
  • When pouring the tomatoes into the jar, be sure to leave a couple inches of space at the top. If you don’t leave room for expansion, the jar could crack in the freezer.
  • Repeat the previous steps with the rest of your tomatoes.
  • Let the jars cool before screwing the lids on and placing them in the freezer.

And now, some photos:

jars-12

My mom’s kitchen is currently being remodeled, so she came over to use mine. Two pots going at once.

pots-12

Ice bath:

ice-12

Tomatoes after they’ve been peeled:

tomatoespeeled-9

The jar on the left shows where you should stop.

jars and funnel-12

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The yellow and orange tomatoes are the paste tomatoes that I froze whole.

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tomatoesjars-12

 

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Roasted Tomatoes Part Three: Roasted Tomato Sauce with Peppers, Rigatoni and a Simple Basil Pesto

Ok, so these tomatoes are really only semi-roasted. When making sauces/soups/salsas, I like my roasted tomatoes to still be good and juicy. Still, this tomato recipe is everything I love about summer and tomatoes, all in one big dish.

First, before I get to the recipe, a few notes:

  • I often read recipes that first instruct you to remove the seeds and peel the skin off before using in a sauce. You’ll see that I didn’t do that here. If I was going to roast them for hours, I would probably remove the seeds, but for this sauce, I find it isn’t necessary. I don’t like to waste any part of these precious tomatoes. Of course, this is a personal preference, so certainly remove the seeds and skin, if you wish.
  • As for the pasta, I used rigatoni simply because I happened to have it on hand, and I was in the mood for a good, thick, chewy, white pasta. I think you could use just about any pasta shape, white or whole wheat, long or short (just as long as it can hold the sauce).
  • The pesto described below really isn’t a true pesto. Usually I use almonds and lemon juice when I make pesto, but for this dish, I really just wanted to savor the wonderful basil flavor with the tomatoes. The pesto, therefore, is very simple.

And now, the recipe:

tomatoes-8

Begin with 6 large beautiful heirloom plum tomatoes. (For those of you in Ohio, I got mine from Northridge Organic Farm.) Cut them in half and sprinkle with salt, freshly ground pepper, and rosemary. Drizzle with olive oil and spread out on a baking sheet. Toss 3 cloves of garlic on there, as well (peels still on).

Bake at 350 degrees for about 20-25 minutes. They will look like this when they’re done:

tomatoes-9

In the meantime, heat olive oil in the bottom of a heavy bottomed pot. Add:

1/2 a yellow onion, finely chopped
1 large red or green bell pepper, chopped
red pepper flakes

Sprinkle with salt and let them sauté for at least 10 minutes. Then add:

2 large tablespoons of tomato paste
1/4 cup of water or white wine

Once the tomatoes and garlic are done, puree them in a food processor until smooth (don’t forget to remove the garlic peels!), then add them to the pot. Let everything simmer together for at least 20 minutes.

While the sauce simmers, make the pesto by adding the following ingredients to a food processor:

2-3 cups of fresh basil
1 clove of garlic
1/4 cup of Parmesan or Romano cheese
salt and pepper

Pour in olive oil while pureeing the above ingredients until the basil is finely chopped and the pesto can easily be poured out of the container. Pour the pesto into a small bowl and set aside.

To serve, you can either mix the sauce in with your pasta of choice or spoon the sauce on top of the pasta while serving. Top the pasta with some of the pesto and sprinkle it with Romano or parmesan cheese. Enjoy!

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Coleslaw

Even though it’s still August, I’ve already mentally transitioned to fall cooking. I’m starting to crave those hearty soups and stews and slow cooked food. But I can’t possibly transition to fall recipes yet without posting one of my favorite summer recipes: coleslaw.

Now, there are many things I despise about the typical midwestern diet, but I grew up eating creamy coleslaw, and I still love it. What I don’t love are the bottled coleslaw dressings sold at the grocery store or recipes that include mostly mayonnaise. Instead I use Greek yogurt and just a touch of mayo (which you could easily leave out, if you wish). And my secret ingredient? Old Bay Seasoning. Yes, that’s the stuff typically used in crab cakes, but trust me: it adds a wonderful touch to this salad.

There is one down side to this recipe. If you don’t have a food processor, it’s going to be a lot more time consuming, and you’re going to need some mean knife skills. A large food processor, however, makes the salad quick and easy to make. I use two different blades. One of the large slicing blades for the cabbage (I like thick shreds) and the small shredding blade for the carrots. Use whatever you have available.

slaw-1

And now, the recipe. Below are instructions for about 2 servings of slaw.

Begin by whisking the following ingredients in a medium size mixing bowl:

1/2 cup of plain Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon of mayo
1 teaspoon of mustard (either stone ground or Dijon)
1 teaspoon of rice vinegar
a few good shakes of Old Bay Seasoning (go by taste)
1/4 teaspoon of garlic powder or fresh garlic, finely minced
salt and pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon of fresh parsley (optional)

Mix it all together and set aside.

Next, cut off about a quarter of a small head of green cabbage. (Or a mixture of green and purple cabbage. The purple cabbage really makes a gorgeous slaw.) Once shredded, it’ll be about 2-3 cups. Also, shred 2 carrots.

Dump the shredded cabbage and carrots into the same mixing bowl that has the yogurt dressing. Using two spoons or forks, toss the veggies with the dressing until the dressing is evenly mixed with the veggies. Taste for seasoning. You can serve it immediately or let it sit in the refrigerator. It’s wonderful the next day as well, so it’s worth making extra. Enjoy!

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Roasted Tomatoes Part Two: Roasted Tomato and Pepper Soup

I love making tomato soup. It is one of the most nourishing comfort foods that I can think of. I grew up eating tomato soup out of a can, so when I changed my eating habits, I had to find a new way to enjoy my favorite soup. I’ve discovered some good recipes that I use throughout the year, but none of them can compare to this recipe. Unlike my fall/winter recipes that use either canned tomatoes or frozen tomatoes, this one is all about fresh heirloom tomatoes. I roast them first to give them even more flavor, and I also include peppers, which you could easily leave out if you wish.

Start by selecting 4-5 heirloom tomatoes. Any variety is fine. I prefer using different colors. The yellow heirlooms are usually sweeter, and I have found that they add a wonderful flavor to the soup.

tomatoes for soup

 

tomatoes for soup 2

Preheat the oven to 400.

Core the tomatoes and cut them into thick slices and place them in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Also add:

4 small or two large bell peppers, seeded and cut in half (as with the tomatoes, use different colors)
1 jalapeno, seeded and cut in half lengthwise 
2 cloves of garlic, peel on

Drizzle all of the ingredients with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast in the oven for about 20 minutes.

In the meantime, heat olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add:

4 leeks (white and light green parts only), chopped and rinsed well or 1 large onion, sliced

Season lightly with salt and cook those for at least ten minutes.

Once the tomatoes and peppers have roasted, add them to the pot. Be sure to get all of the juices into the pot and don’t forget to remove the garlic peels! Also add:

4 cups of vegetable broth or water
2 tablespoons of arborio rice 

The rice helps thicken the soup. I like using arborio because I think it gives the soup a creamy texture, but any white rice is fine.

Bring to a boil and let simmer for about twenty minutes. Puree the mixture until smooth and taste for seasoning. If the soup is too thick, add broth or water.

tomato soup

Optional: If you want a creamier soup, stir in a large tablespoon of mascarpone cheese or a touch of cream.

Serve with crusty bread or croutons.

 

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Roasted Tomatoes Part One: Roasted Tomato Salsa

Confession: I didn’t liked tomatoes growing up, unless they were in the form of ketchup (which really doesn’t count) or tomato sauce or chopped up in tiny pieces (and that was questionable). Then, when I got older, I realized something. The types of tomatoes typically found in restaurants (you know, those soggy pinkish things) are not real tomatoes. Of course I didn’t like those (who does?). I still don’t. But a homegrown or locally grown tomato? Now that’s a real tomato, and it is so sweet and juicy that I can’t believe I lived for so many years without experiencing them. During my childhood, my dad always grew his own tomatoes, and him and my mom would rave about the flavor. I didn’t get it at the time. To me, a tomato was a tomato, and it was something to be avoided, unless it was pureed. Now, I’ve seen the light.

tomatoes

This post will begin a three part series in which I feature my current favorite way to prepare tomatoes: roasting. Yes, it means turning on a hot oven in the summer, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay for these delicious dishes.

The first recipe is a simple one: Roasted Tomato Salsa.

This recipe is very similar to my previous recipe (Roasted Tomatillo Salsa). And I’m also going to begin this recipe with the same instruction as I did before: Unhook any smoke alarms near the kitchen. Things are about to get smokey.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Arrange the following ingredients on a cookie sheet:

3-4 heirloom tomatoes, sliced
1-2 jalapeno peppers, cut in half lengthwise
1 clove of garlic, peel still on
Any other sweet/spicy peppers you have on hand (bell, poblano, and cubanelle all work well)

Tomatoes Tray

Drizzle everything with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Stick it in the oven and roast for about 20 minutes.

Remove from the oven and let cool for a few minutes. In the meantime, place the following ingredients into the food processor:

1/4 of a red or yellow onion, roughly chopped (red looks pretty, but I don’t always have it on hand, so yellow works too)
1 generous handful of cilantro (optional)

Add the ingredients from the cookie sheet. (Don’t forget to remove the garlic peel!) Pulse the mixture a few times and then puree to desired consistency.

Once smooth, poor the salsa into a bowl. Squeeze the juice of about half a lime into the mixture, stir and then taste to see if it needs more salt and pepper.

salsa

Serve it warm with your favorite tortilla chips. (Check out my recipe for homemade: Homemade Tortilla Chips.)

Note: This doesn’t make a lot, so if you’re serving more than a couple of people, double it.

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