LittleJudeonFood

One kid's adventures in gastronomy


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Tomatoes’ Last Hurrah

Mama says it’s funny that we pine 10 months out of the year for vine-ripened tomatoes only to bemoan their abundance come August and September. Since we don’t grow them at home (as I tend to pick them too early… I just can’t help myself!), Mama brought home a nice big box of organic heirlooms. In it were Rutgers, Moscovich, Brandywines, Cherokee purples, and Japanese Trifles, which are apparently a hot commodity in Russia. Mama roasted a few dozen, and then she made sauce.

Mama tells me that you’re going to find as many variations of tomato, or marinara, sauce as there are tomatoes. There are quick tomato sauces and slow tomato sauces. Some stay on the stove, while others are tucked into the oven. Some rely on fresh garden produce, while others punch up the flavor by adding sugar or balsamic vinegar. Because she was asked, here’s how Mama does a quick, fresh tomato sauce:

Finely chop 1 yellow or sweet onion and sauté it in olive oil until soft. Add 1–2 minced garlic cloves and sauté 1 minute. Add 2, 3, 4, or 5 chopped tomatoes and cook until tomatoes break down and are heated through. Add salt and pepper, to taste, and stir in chopped fresh herbs (basil or oregano, but whatever you like). Done. Use immediately.

If you have more time, however, why not cook a little bit of summer in a pot that you can freeze for delectable dining come December?

This isn’t even remotely close to half of what Mama brought home. Sheesh.

This isn’t even remotely close to half of what Mama brought home. Sheesh.

Regarding peels: They’re fine in a fresh sauce, but you don’t want them in your long-cooked sauce. Peel ripe tomatoes by hand, or try this method: core them (or lop off the top), cut a small X in the bottom, dunk in boiling water for 20–30 seconds, then plunge into ice water. Alternatively, you can run your finished sauce through a food mill, which will remove the seeds and skins. (While some folks feel the seeds turn bitter with prolonged cooking, Mama doesn’t mind them, so she doesn’t use a food mill.)

As with most things delicious, Mama insists on starting with a good base of sautéed onions and garlic in olive oil. Depending on personal preference, you can keep the heat low and cook them until tender, or you can raise the heat a bit and cook them until soft and caramelized (that’s when they turn brown). In either case, start with a big pot, and don’t add the garlic until the onions are where you want them (otherwise it’ll burn).

Even if you don’t like to eat onions, you would notice they’re missing if you skip them.

Even if you don’t like to eat onions, you would notice their absent flavor if you skipped them.

The darker you brown the onions, the more flavor they’ll have.

The darker you brown the onions, the more flavor they’ll have.

Mama chose to deglaze the pot with some red wine since she happened to have some on hand. No red wine? No problem. Just add the roughly halved tomatoes. But here’s the catch: You have to squish them. This is a great thing for a kid like me to do! Lower the heat, and begin simmering. Give them a good dose of kosher or sea salt and toss in sprigs of fresh herbs.

Mama clipped some oregano from the garden. (She’ll add the basil later, since it’s more delicate.)

Mama clipped some oregano from the garden. (She’ll add the basil later, since it’s more delicate.) You should’ve seen the mess these tomatoes made on the walls!

Once the tomatoes cook down, they’re going to release all their delicious juices. To add a bit of body (and to give the sauce a fighting chance of sticking to pasta), Mama did add a small can of organic tomato paste. When everything was good and bubbly, she put the whole pot, lid and all, in the oven on a lowish heat, about 300°F, and forgot about it. Well, not really. Every now and then she left me to play on the porch while she stirred the sauce, and the heavenly sweet smell would waft through the windows to where I sat. She cooked it until it reduced to a thickness she liked and the flavor was concentrated enough to be considered “awesome.”

What do you think was for dinner?

What do you think was for dinner?

If you prefer a smoother sauce, run it through a food mill, or take an immersion blender to it. We happen to prefer a little heft to our sauce. Set some aside for dinner, then allow the rest of the sauce to cool before portioning it into jars or zip-top freezer bags.

Poor Papa. He wanted to take a bag out of the freezer a few days after Mama made it, and she said he wasn’t allowed! It doesn’t matter that she froze several quarts. She doesn’t want to run out before the end of the year. Which is a shame, since I could see eating this every day.

Love, Jude

Oven-Roasted Tomato Sauce

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 (or 2) yellow or sweet onion, finely chopped (depending on how many tomatoes you have)
2–4 cloves garlic, minced (depending on how garlicky you like it)
Red wine (optional)
12–15 pounds fresh tomatoes, peeled* and roughly halved (crosswise preferred)
Kosher or sea salt
6 ounces tomato paste
Several sprigs fresh herbs, as desired

Preheat oven to 300°F.

Coat the bottom of a large, oven-safe pot or Dutch with olive oil and heat it over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, until very soft and beginning to caramelize, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté 1 minute more. If desired, deglaze the pot with a healthy splash of red wine. Carefully add the tomatoes in batches, squishing them with your hands as you go. Mama supposes you could skip the squishing step, but it gets the juices released a bit quicker. Alternatively, you could give them a few pulses in a food processor to speed things up. But we’re not talking fast here, are we?

Get the tomatoes going at a low simmer. Add a generous helping of salt and stir in the tomato paste. Toss in a few sprigs of hearty herbs like oregano. Just put the whole thing in; you can fish it out later or catch it in the food mill. Cover and put in the oven for a couple hours, stirring occasionally. Towards the end, add more delicate herbs, like basil.

*May also reserve peeling for after the sauce is cooked, either by hand (tedious!) or with a food mill.

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What do you do with a TON of basil?

Our basil was slow to start this year, but it decided to spring up while we were on vacation. Now the plants are almost as big as me! In order to keep the plants lush and producing big flavorful leaves, Mama picks off the flowers. She says otherwise, the basil will get woody. “Woody?” I ask. “Woody,” she confirms. (I was being too much of a stinker to let Mama get a good picture of me with the basil, but you can see how tall the plants are here.)

She also has to harvest the stems and leaves if she wants to keep using the plants. It sounds funny to me that you have to take off leaves to get more, but Mama is sometimes right about things, so I’ll trust her on this one.

Aside from tossing chiffonade basil (that’s thin ribbons) into salads and over tomatoes & mozzarella, Mama likes to make pesto. Though pesto is decidedly of Italian origin, Mama told me she first had fresh pesto while in college on a visit to a friend in Germany (she says I’m not allowed to say how long ago that was ). She wrote down her friend’s mother’s recipe in her little journal and used that recipe for many years. Now she makes her own, and you’ll see that it’s not only simple to prepare but simple to store—and so much tastier than the oily stuff that comes in jars.

Gather everything together before you start, and you'll be done with your pesto in no time.

Gather everything together before you start, and you’ll be done with your pesto in no time.

Mama showed me how she whirrs everything in a food processor. She usually does it to taste, which is helpful when you don’t have a recipe handy. She said if you want to keep your pesto looking as bright as the day you made it, blanch the basil leaves in boiling water for all of 20 seconds, then plunge them in ice water and squeeze dry. Otherwise, if you don’t really care that the color fades, skip the extra step.

The last thing I’ll tell you about pesto is that you can use just about any green, like kale, cilantro, or parsley, as well as just about any nut or seed, such as walnuts or pumpkin seeds. If you find yourself with a bunch of herbs or a head of greens, try making your own variation on a classic pesto.

Now, I told Mama, “I don’t like pesto,” but she and Papa claim I’ve eaten it before. I’m not so sure, so I’ll give this one both a “hit” and a “miss.”

Love, Jude

What would enjoy a dab of pesto? What wouldn’t?!

Potato salad
Various pastas
Peas/green beans/asparagus
Béchamel (white sauce)
Meatloaf, burgers, meatballs (add to the mix or serve as a topping)
Scrambled eggs
Egg salad
On top of grilled portabellas or eggplant with mozzarella & tomatoes
Pizza (spread on pizza crust or a pita or anything else you’d consider a “pizza”)
Mix with softened butter and slathered on corn on the cob
Sandwich spread
Aïoli
Bruschetta with roasted red peppers
Broiled or grilled chicken or fish
Hummus or white bean mash
Chickpeas
Thinned with a bit of balsamic vinegar and use it as a vinaigrette

Basil Pesto

1 cup packed basil leaves
2 tablespoons pine nuts (Mama uses raw, but go ahead and use toasted if that’s what you have)
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1/3 cup olive oil (extra-virgin, if you like)
¼ cup grated pecorino Romano or Parmesan (Parm is more traditional, and lends a nuttier taste, but Mama likes to change it up and likes the subtle sweetness of the sheep’s milk cheese. That, and she had pecorino and didn’t feel like running out for Parm.)
¼ teaspoon sea salt
few grinds of black pepper
½ tablespoon fresh lemon juice

This is a packed cup of basil. I couldn't fit more leaves in there if I tried. (By the way, picking leaves off a basil plant is a great task for someone like me!)

This is a packed cup of basil. I couldn’t fit more leaves in there if I tried. (By the way, picking leaves off a basil plant is a great task for someone like me!)

In a food processor, process the basil, pine nuts, and garlic into a paste.

Your pesto really doesn't need to look just like this, but it gives you an idea.

Your pesto really doesn’t need to look just like this, but it gives you an idea.

Add the oil, cheese, salt, pepper, and lemon juice and process  until well blended. If you want to be able to drizzle your pesto, add more oil or cut back on the cheese.

This is a good consistency for pesto, but you can certainly make it thinner with more oil.

This is a good consistency for pesto, but you can certainly make it thinner with more oil.

A little goes a long way, so it pays to experiment with how much you prefer on pasta, etc. Pesto will keep in the fridge for at least a week; or, freeze in ice cube trays, then store cubes in zip-top plastic freezer bags for a few months.

Mama put my old baby food freezer trays to good use!

Mama put my old baby food freezer trays to good use!

Note: Mama says this pesto will taste salty, which is a good thing as it generally tops plain pasta. If you’re concerned about the salt, start with a little less—or use kosher salt. The bigger grains cause you to use less of it.


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You can have your fun and eat your dinner too

Because it was so warm and sunny outside when Mama picked me up from daycare, she took me to the river so I could throw rocks in it. (I like to pick up the biggest rocks I can carry.) Needless to say, it was already past dinnertime by the time we walked in the door, wet feet and all. Mama chose to make a dinner that practically cooked itself.

First, she put a pot of salty water on the stove to boil and set the oven to 400°. Then she rinsed and prepped the veggies: snapped the bottom ends off the asparagus, cut the broccoli into florets, cut some basil into ribbons, and sliced the colorful little tomatoes in half (I helped). She put the tomatoes and basil in a large bowl and the broccoli and asparagus on a baking sheet and tossed them with olive oil and salt & pepper.

I sure love teeny tomatoes.

I sure love teeny tomatoes.

Then she showed me the funny little pasta we would be eating, called Israeli couscous. It looks like couscous that grew up to be big and strong. Mama said that even though it looks like a grain, it’s really just a pasta. I ate a few of them raw—crunchy! Once the water came to a rolling boil, Mama poured in the couscous and gave it a good stir. Did you know that the proper way to cook pasta involves plenty of boiling water for the pasta to move around in? She also put the asparagus & broccoli in the oven, on the lower rack.

You would think Mama would’ve stopped there, but instead she took out a pound of beautiful Pacific salmon. She gave it a quick rinse, then set it on a baking sheet, skin-side down, and patted the flesh dry. She drizzled olive oil on it then sprinkled it with salt and pepper, and into the oven it went, on the upper rack. While dinner cooked, we had time to wash our feet in the tub. Do you have any idea what a river does to kid feet?

I'm trying to eat around the basil.

I’m trying to eat around the basil.

Israeli couscous cooks quicker than regular pasta (it’s really small), so when that was tender, Mama drained it and added it to the bowl with the tomatoes. She added—you guessed it—olive oil, salt, pepper, lemon juice, a bunch of freshly grated Parmesan (I helped), and some leftover roasted garlic. (This is even easier to make: Cut off the top of an entire garlic bulb, drizzle about 1/2 tsp olive oil over it, wrap it in foil, then bake at 375°F for about 45 minutes, or until very soft and oh-so-yummy.) Gently, she mixed it all up and set it out for yours truly to devour. I loved those little baby balls of pasta, but I had to pick around the basil, which slowed me down. The fish and veggies were done at about the same time (veggies starting to brown, fish just opaque in the center), about 10 minutes all told.

This was my plate! (Just kidding.)

This was my plate! (Just kidding.)

Do you think I tried everything on my plate? You bet I did. The fish was succulent, almost creamy. The veggies were toasty and fragrant and full of flavor (and Mama grated some more cheese on them). Then I discovered how fun it was to toss the Israeli couscous….and that was the end of my dinner.

Love, Jude

Israeli Couscous with Tiny Tomatoes

1 cup Israeli couscous
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
4 or 5 cloves roasted garlic (or 1 or 2 cloves fresh, minced)
5 or 6 basil leaves, chiffonade (cut into ribbons)
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Salt & pepper to taste
Olive oil
Parmesan cheese

Cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain and add to a bowl, along with the tomatoes, garlic, basil, and lemon juice. Add salt and pepper to taste, along with a healthy drizzle of olive oil. (Mama says you don’t want to drown your pasta, you just want to moisten it.) Top it with freshly grated Parmesan cheese, if desired. Serve warm or cold.


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This is how Mama procrastinates

Mama had a mess of heirloom tomatoes ripening on the counter and more kale in the fridge than she knew what to do with. Even I can’t eat that many kale chips. So she decided to make a tomato tart with kale pesto.

You can use beefsteaks or romas…but why would you want to?

The first thing she did was lop off the top of a head of garlic. She laid it in foil, drizzled it with olive oil, scrunched it all up, then put it in the oven for about half an hour. Just until the garlic softened and started becoming golden. She told me this is a really yummy thing to spread over crostini, which she said I’ve actually eaten before, but my baby memory isn’t recalling that.

A drizzle of oil transforms garlic into something YUM.

Meanwhile, Mama made the crust. She explained to me that she doesn’t generally like making crust in the food processor because then she has to clean the darn thing, but since she would be making pesto with it anyway, she figured why not? To the processor, she added her flour, oats, and salt. Then she added her butter and processed it just until little clumps formed.

This is how you want your butter cut in to the flour, whether it’s by hand or machine.

She said you don’t want to process the butter so much that it melts–the cold butter is what makes for a flakey crust. Then she added the ice-cold water and processed it again just until large clumps formed and began pulling from the side. She tested the dough by squeezing a bit in her hand, and she saw that it held together. You don’t want to process it into a smooth ball, otherwise you’ve overdeveloped something called gluten, and your crust will be tough.

This is how you your dough should look when it’s ready. See the squished clump in the top left?

Once she had the crust chilling in the fridge, Mama moved on to the pesto. Ordinarily, Mama makes a pretty traditional pesto, which she first ate, ironically enough, at a friend’s mother’s house in Bad Bramstedt, Germany, back in the ’90s. When you use basil or other fresh green like arugula, you can make the pesto fresh from the garden. When you use something hardier, like kale, it’s better to first blanch the greens. Mama generously salted her boiling water (and I stayed far away from the burner) and blanched the kale for a minute or two, in batches. She then ran the cooked kale under cold water (she said she’s cheating because she really should be putting it in an ice bath…but there are only so many dishes she wants out of the cupboards at any given time). The kale went into the food processor, to which she added olive oil, more salt, pepper, fresh lemon juice, toasted pine nuts (you don’t have to toast them–they just develop a nicer flavor), some freshly grated Parmesan cheese, and the roasted garlic. When the cloves were cool enough to handle, a gentle squeeze popped them right out of their papery skins! She whirred the ingredients in the processor and stopped to taste. I reached in and grabbed a chunk of the pesto to try for myself. I was not happy with it. But neither was Mama! She added more lemon and more salt.

A tart is so pretty and sophisticated (like myself), but Mama had so many tomatoes that she decided to turn this into a deep-dish pie. I sampled many of the tomatoes to be sure of their ripeness, which is rather strange considering that I rarely eat raw tomatoes.

If I see something sitting on the counter, I’m going to eat it!

Then Mama rolled out the dough. I took my bitten tomatoes and stamped them on the dough to make pretty patterns. She showed me how to wrap the dough around the rolling pin to lay it into the pie pan easier. There was really a lot of dough, so Mama trimmed the edges and was sure to have leftovers. Then she spread some pesto along the bottom of the pie. She neatly layered some sliced tomatoes, then sprinkled some mozzarella on top.

I like the pretty colors of the heirloom tomatoes.

She explained that if this were a shallow tart, she’d be done, but she continued with two more layers in the same manner. (The leftover pesto she put in the fridge for pasta, but it would also freeze fine.) She put the whole thing in the oven until the top was brown, about 30 minutes, then grated some asiago cheese on top. She could’ve put it back in the oven for another minute or so, but she didn’t.

I had a few bites, which tricksy Mama was trading off for bites of the crust, which I really enjoyed. She kept telling me that if it were horrible she wouldn’t be bartering, but I’m not so sure. I hear this pie tastes good cold, too. Guess  I’ll find out for lunch tomorrow.

Love, Jude

Heirloom Tomato & Kale–Roasted Garlic Pesto Tart

Roasted Garlic

1 head garlic
1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

Pastry Crust (or, Pâte Brisée if you’re really interested)

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (you can substitute whole-wheat, if you like)
1/3–1/2 cup ground rolled oats (optional)
1 tsp sea salt
2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cubed
1/3 cup ice water

Pesto

1 large bunch kale, ribs removed and torn into rough pieces
Extra-virgin olive oil (about 2 swirls around the food processor)
Juice of a lemon (or more, to taste)
Kosher salt (to taste)
Freshly ground black pepper (a few grinds)
2 Tbsp toasted pine nuts (toasting optional)
3 Tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Tart

1–2 pounds ripe heirloom tomatoes (however many you need, depending on size & variety)
1–1½ cups shredded mozzarella
Freshly grated asiago cheese

To roast the garlic: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Trim the tops off the garlic bulb, place it (cut side up) in the center of a square of foil, drizzle with the olive oil, seal the top of the foil, then place the bundle in the center of the oven. Roast until the garlic is soft and fragrant, and slightly brown, about 30 minutes. (You can certainly make the pesto with regular ol’ garlic, too, without the roasting.)

For the pastry crust: Combine the dry ingredients in a food processor. (Mama already had ground oats, but if you don’t have them, grind them in the processor first.) Give it a few pulses to distribute. Add the butter and pulse about 10 times, just until the butter and flour begins to form pea-sized lumps throughout. With the machine running, add the water in a stream and process just until the dough starts to clump. Turn it out onto your counter, give it a few quick kneads to bring it all together, flatten it into a disk, and wrap it in plastic. Refrigerate for half an hour.

For the pesto: To blanch the kale, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Working in batches, if necessary, add the kale to the water and stir to submerge. Boil for 1–2 minutes, until the kale is bright green. Transfer with a slotted spoon or tongs to a bowl of ice water (or to a colander that you’ll then run under cold water in the sink). If using toasted pine nuts, toast them in a dry pan over medium heat for a few minutes, shaking every so often, just until fragrant. You can also put them on a piece of foil or on a baking sheet and stick them in the oven, since it’s on. As soon as you smell them, they’re done! Place all the ingredients in a food processor and blend until pasty. You might need to add a little more oil—you can even add some of the blanching water. Taste and adjust seasonings. (Mama notes that all these amounts are approximate.)

To finish the tart: Slice the tomatoes—about as thick as you would a sandwich tomato. Set aside. Take the pastry crust out of the fridge and remove the wrap. Generously flour a surface, then gently roll the dough. Lay into pie or tart pan, then trim the edges, fluting if desired. Spread a layer of pesto along the bottom. Arrange slices of tomato to cover, then sprinkle with mozzarella. Repeat layers, if desired, ending with cheese. Bake until golden, about 30 minutes. Shave additional cheese on top, then pop back in the oven until melted and browned, a few minutes more.