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Freshly Picked Tomato Sauce

Monday, September 6th, 2010

Despite the fact that our Seattle summer has been less than stellar – I have been fortunate to have a bounty of tomatoes. And not just the green ones like I had last summer. This year they turned every shade of brilliant orange and deep red and vivid yellow. The colors reminded me of a beautiful fall afternoon.

There are hundreds of tomato recipes out there. But I wanted to honor these little beauties. I didn’t want to mask their sweet flavor with heavy spices or any kind of accompaniment. So a simple tomato sauce was in order. I originally called this a “marinara” but learned that a traditional marinara sauce incorporates Italian spices. So this is simply “sauce.”

Having never prepared this – I immediately contacted my culinarily gifted friend Colleen. She seems to know how to cook just about everything. She advised me to forgo using a ton of garlic – which was definitely counterintuitive to me. I am a garlic fiend. And she also recommended adding a bit of butter to finish the sauce. Again – not something I would have considered. But as it turns out – both suggestions were genius. I resisted adding a lot of garlic so the sweetness of the tomatoes really shone through. And the butter at the end added the perfect touch – balancing the acidity of the tomatoes and giving the sauce a sumptuous, velvety texture.

I tossed this gorgeous sauce with a lovely pasta and topped it with fresh basil and shaved Parmesan Reggiano. It tasted like summer in a bowl.

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Freshly Picked Tomato Sauce

Yield: ~ 4 cups

Ingredients

  • 1 large onion, finely diced
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 8 cups chopped, fresh tomatoes
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • 1 tablespoon butter

Instructions

Heat oil in large sauté pan over medium heat. Add onions and peeled, WHOLE cloves of garlic. Turn heat down to low and sauté until onions start to disintegrate – about 15 minutes. Remove garlic cloves.

Add tomatoes and salt (about 1-2 teaspoons) and continue to sauté over low heat for about 1 hour – stirring frequently.

Allow sauce to cool for about 10 minutes then process using a hand mill. If you don’t have one of these – try straining through a sieve. You’re trying to remove any skins from the tomatoes. This is especially important if you’re using cherry tomatoes as you’ll have more skins – which can be bitter and a bit tough. If you don’t strain or mill the sauce – consider adding a touch of sugar of balsamic vinegar to off-set the bitterness of the skins.

Put sauce back over medium heat and add the butter. While not mandatory, the butter will add some body to the sauce – making it velvety and evening out the acidity of the tomatoes.

Serve immediately. Or can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days. But … eat it immediately if at all possible!

Springtime Asparagus

Monday, April 19th, 2010

When I think of spring vegetables – asparagus comes immediately to mind. It’s so fresh and earthy and…well, green. The verdant spears, often tinged with purple at the tips, would make a beautiful bouquet, I think. Asparagus is tender and succulent, healthy and extremely versatile.

In sunny California the first crops are picked as early as February, however, the harvest season here in Washington usually begins in early April and lasts through June. The warm spring days and cool nights provide perfect growing conditions for this perennial crop. 

According to the Washington Asparagus Commission, the vegetable is “the leading natural source for two nutrients that prevent disease and promote a healthy body – folacin and glutathione. Folacin (folic acid) is important for the formation of blood cells and helps prevent birth defects. Asparagus provides 60% of the USDA recommendation of folacin. Glutathione has been shown to be one of the most potent anticarcinogens and antioxidants found within the body. Of all foods tested none was higher in glutathione than asparagus.” 

When shopping for this delectable treat, look for firm, uniformly sized spears with closed, compact tips. I’ve been told that the larger stalks are more flavorful and tend to agree. Try to prepare it soon after purchase – asparagus does not seem to like sitting around in the fridge. If you need to wait a day or two, wrap the cut ends in a moistened paper towel and wrap in plastic. 

There are a number of ways to prepare Asparagus. Regardless of the method you prefer, make sure you take off the bottom of the stalk – which can be hard and woody. A favorite tip of mine is to snap the whiteness end of one spear – it will break to delineate the tender top from the hard bottom. Then you can line up the remainder of the bunch of stalks and cut off the bottoms in line with the one that snapped naturally.

I’m listing basic cooking instructions below followed by some favorite recipes. Many people have long considered asparagus to be a delicacy and reserved it for special occasions. Considering its versatility and considerable health benefits – I hope it becomes a spring staple in more kitchens. I know I’ll be picking up a bunch whenever I see it.

Steaming – cut asparagus into 2 inch pieces and place in a steamer basket, dropping it into a pan of shallow boiling water. Turn the heat down to medium, cover the pan, and cook the asparagus 2 to 5 minutes or until crisp tender.

Boiling – bring water to boil in a shallow pan. Cook asparagus in boiling water until crisp-tender, about 4 to 6 minutes. Remove immediately and place in ice bath to shock to stop cooking process.

Sautéing – heat olive oil in a sauté pan until quite hot. Add asparagus (whole spears or cut into pieces) and cook 3-5 minutes, stirring frequently.

Roasting – Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Toss asparagus spears in olive oil and sea salt. Spread prepared asparagus on a baking sheet in a single layer. Avoid overcrowding as the asparagus will steam rather than roast. Roast for approximately 10 minutes.

Grilling (my personal favorite) – Have the grill heated to a medium heat. Toss with olive oil and sea salt. Place the stalks on the grill so that they are perpendicular to the grates. You can even thread them onto skewers or use a grill basket. Grill the asparagus for 5 or 6 minutes, turning them slightly every few minutes to provide even grilling.

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Pasta with Asparagus & Goat Cheese

Ingredients

  • 2 bunches asparagus
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2  tablespoons finely chopped shallot
  • 12 ounces short pasta (fusilli, penne, gemelli, etc.)
  • 1 small log soft goat cheese (5 ounces)
  • 1 – 2 tablespoons fresh oregano
  • 4 tablespoons pine nuts (optional)
  • Zest of one lemon

Instructions

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil for pasta.

Remove tough ends from asparagus and cut into 2-inch lengths. In a medium bowl, toss asparagus with 2 tablespoons olive oil and minced shallots. Season with salt and pepper. Place asparagus on a large rimmed baking sheet. Try to avoid having pieces touching – this will result in steamed as opposed to roasted asparagus. Set bowl aside for later use. Roast until tender, tossing occasionally, approximately 10 minutes.

While asparagus is roasting, generously salt boiling water. Add pasta, and cook until al dente, according to package instructions. Set aside about one cup of the pasta water; drain pasta and return to pot.

In the medium bowl used for tossing the asparagus, combine goat cheese, remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1/2 cup pasta water. Season with salt and pepper, and mix until smooth. Add goat-cheese mixture and asparagus to pasta; toss to combine, adding more pasta water if necessary for sauce to coat pasta. Toss in chopped oregano. Serve pasta garnished with toasted pine nuts and lemon zest.

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Chilled Asparagus with Lemon Vinaigrette

Ingredients

  • 1 bunch asparagus
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Sea salt

 Vinaigrette Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon shallot, finely minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

Roast asparagus according to instructions for Pasta recipe above – but keep spears whole rather than cutting into pieces. Grilled asparagus would also be delicious for this recipe. Cook only until al dente – closer to 8 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool slightly. Place in Ziploc bag and place in refrigerator to chill – approximately 1 hour or overnight.

Prepare the vinaigrette by whisking all ingredients together until smooth and starting to thicken a bit.

To serve, place asparagus on serving platter and spoon vinaigrette over the spears.

A Perfect Day in the Kitchen

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

plates of figsThis is how I spent my afternoon the other day – and, in my mind, it’s as close to heaven as you can get. (Which is not to say this is a typical day in my kitchen – fresh Meyer lemons and dried figs are not always on hand. But when they are – well, you know where to find me.) Fortunately, I returned home from a recent trip to California with a bounty. My father has a fig tree right outside the back door and he lovingly dried a few batches of beautiful Mission figs just for me (this from a man who doesn’t even like figs). And the neighbors have a Meyer lemon tree that I can’t help but pillage every time I’m down there.

lemon marmalade and fig preservesNow, I know it may seem unfair that our neighbors to the south enjoy the benefits of edible gem-producing fruit trees year round. However, local markets offer an increasingly wide selection of produce – and the following recipes are miraculous enough to make it worth the extra effort. From the fruit trees of my childhood hometown, without further ado, I give you Meyer Lemon Marmalade & Balsamic Fig Preserves with Rosemary. (For those who, like me, view jarring as a potentially overwhelming endeavor – please see end note for the wary.

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Meyer Lemon Marmalade

Ingredient note – while Meyer lemons are not grown in Washington State, they are currently in season and can be found in any number of markets around town (among them, Metropolitan Markets & Apple Markets). This recipe should only be used with that specific type of lemon – the skin of a Meyer is especially thin, making for a perfect marmalade.

Based on a December 1999 Gourmet magazine recipe.

Yield: Makes 12 (4 ounce) jars

Ingredients:

  • 6 Meyer lemons (approximately 1 1/2 pounds)
  • 4 cups water
  • 3 1/2 cups sugar

Special equipment:

  • Cheesecloth
  • Candy thermometer
  • 12 (4 ounce) Mason-type jars, sterilized
  • Canning pot, funnel and jar lifter

Preparation:

sliced lemonsHalve lemons crosswise and remove seeds. Tie seeds in a cheesecloth bag. Quarter each lemon half and thinly slice. Combine with bag of seeds and water in a 5-quart nonreactive heavy pot and let mixture stand, covered, at room temperature 24 hours. (The seeds release a natural pectin that will help set the marmalade).

Remove bag of seeds. Bring lemon mixture to a boil over moderate heat. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until reduced to 4 cups, about 45 minutes. Stir in sugar and boil over moderate heat, stirring occasionally and skimming off any foam, until it reaches 220 on the thermometer.

Ladle hot marmalade into prepared jars (see below for prep tips), filling to within 1/4 inch of top. Wipe rims with dampened cloth and seal jars with lids. Put jars in a water-bath canner or on a rack set in a deep pot. Add enough hot water to cover jars by 1 inch and bring to a boil. Boil jars, covered, 5 minutes and transfer with tongs to a rack. Cool jars completely.

*You may find that the resulting mixture is quite liquid when you’re putting into the jars. It will thicken as it cools, and be ready for your toast in the morning.

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Fig Preserves with Balsamic Vinegar and Fresh Rosemary

mission figsIngredient note – Dried mission figs can also be found in several markets around town.

Serving note – these preserves pair extraordinarily well with goat and blue cheese and, my favorite, a good Spanish Manchego.

Based on a combination of several fig jam recipes.

Yield: Makes 12 (4 ounce) jars

Ingredients

  • 4 cups finely chopped figs (~3 cups dried – reconstituted in lukewarm water for a few hours)
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice plus zest of one lemon
  • 1/3 cup good quality balsamic vinegar
  • 4 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary

Special equipment:

  • 12 (4 ounce) Mason-type jars, sterilized
  • Canning pot, funnel and jar lifter

Preparation:

balsamic fig preservers w rosemaryAdd the figs, lemon juice, vinegar, and rosemary to a large pot. Let sit for 15 minutes to allow the flavors to blend. Stir in the sugar.

Bring the mixture to a full boil. If the mixture isn’t liquid at all when you turn on the heat, you can add a few tablespoons of the water used to reconstitute the figs – or just plain water. You will want a fairly thick consistency before cooking. Turn the heat down and continue to gently boil until thickened. (I boiled it for about 25 minutes).

Ladle into prepared jars (see below for prep tips). Put jars in a water-bath canner or on a rack set in a deep pot. Add enough hot water to cover jars by 1 inch and bring to a boil. Boil jars, covered, 5 minutes and transfer with tongs to a rack. Cool jars completely.

Jar Preparation:

Wash jars and rinse in very hot water. Put jars in a water-bath canner or on a rack set in a deep pot and cover with hot water.

Bring water to a boil and boil jars, covered, 15 minutes from time steam emerges from pot. Turn off heat and let jars stand in hot water.

Just before filling them, invert jars onto a kitchen towel to dry. (Jars should be filled while still hot.)

Sterilize lids in boiling water 5 minutes.

Closing Word for the Wary - While even the mere mention of ‘canning’ is enough to make novice cooks run for the Smucker’s jar, it is not as arduous as rumor would have you believe. These recipes were the subjects of my First Official Canning – and resulted in a success by any standards. And too, they make excellent gifts – which is nothing to turn your nose up at either.