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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Fajitas are fa-easy

You know that Mama makes quesadillas and fish tacos on occasion, but did you know she also makes fajitas? A lot of people cook a marinated skirt steak or chicken breast, then thinly slice it for the fajita filling, but Mama made ours minus the meat. And they’re really simple—but not necessarily quick, like a quesadilla. Mama said the more thinly the vegetables are sliced, the quicker they’ll cook and soften, so that part’s really up to you.
You can also change up the veggies and spices you use. Try zucchini and carrot ribbons with fresh mint or cilantro. You can even dress them like a taco salad with tomatoes, lettuce, sour cream, and cheese. And if you don’t want to use a corn tortilla (Mama and Papa say they’re pretty bland, but I ate mine), use an alternative kind. You can serve it with salsa, refried beans, Spanish rice, or whatever else you prefer. Mama whipped up a quick guacamole. Normally, I love avocados, but tonight, I just wasn’t feeling the guac. I tried everything (I’m getting very clever about the size of my “no thank you” bite), but I stuck with the Spanish rice.
Love, Jude
Mama deconstructed my fajita for me, but she needn't have bothered. I was all about the rice.

Mama deconstructed my fajita for me, but she needn’t have bothered. I was all about the rice.

Easy Veggie Fajitas
Canola oil
½ Spanish or sweet onion, thinly sliced
1 red, yellow, or orange bell pepper, thinly sliced
½–1 jalapeño or Serrano pepper, minced (optional)
1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced
1 can black beans, drained & rinsed
½ tsp cumin
Salt and pepper, to taste
Juice of 1 lime
6” corn or flour tortillas
In a large skillet, heat the oil over moderate heat. Add the onion and pepper and sauté until browned and very tender. Add the garlic, and sauté 1–2 minutes more. Add the beans, cumin, s&p, and lime juice, and stir to combine and heat the beans. Remove the pan from the heat. Heat tortillas according to package directions. Spoon about ½ cup filling into each and serve.
Note: Mama says you can add a tropical twist to this fajita filling by finely chopping up a small amount of pineapple or mango and adding that along with the beans. (Even with the pineapple in ours, I still didn’t want to eat more than 1 bite.) And if you’re adding meat, cook that separately.

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A little balsamic reduction makes everything taste better

I’m a quarter Italian, just under half Irish/U.K., and just a little over a quarter Eastern European mixed breeding. That’s a lot of heritage for this young lad to shoulder. But just think of all the wonderful foods I get to eat as a result. Take, for example, pierogies.Mama says my Great-Baba made the best pierogies. When she was growing up, Mama would visit her for two weeks every summer, and they were the first meal she’d eat when she arrived. She and her parents and brother and sister would swarm like locusts around the kitchen table, devouring little dough pillows of mashed potatoes with cheddar, caramelized onions, sauerkraut, stewed prunes, or thick and chunky applesauce. They even had a funny name for them, something that sounded a lot like pudaheya. There was—and still is—much discussion as to the best way to prepare pierogies: boiled, then pan-fried leftovers the next day. And always, always served with buttermilk, sour cream, fried onions, and home-canned wild mushrooms that Great-Baba and her sisters foraged in the woods.

But this post isn’t about pierogies. Not really. You see, Mama knows how to make them, and she plans on showing me sometime this fall (stay tuned—maybe my Auntie Karen will chime in!), but since I’m such a handful, she hasn’t really had the opportunity to make them. So sometimes she takes advantage of those that are already made. And come in a box. In the freezer section.

The horror!

So what to do? How do you dress up what’s essentially pub fare? First, you caramelize some onions. We happened to have some lovely purple beauties from my friend Walter’s farm. They’re very easy to do—slow cook thinly sliced onions in butter and olive oil (or either/or) with a pinch of salt until they’re melted and browned. But if you really want to class ’em up, you whip out the balsamic reduction.

In the time it takes to fry the pierogies (Mama skips the boiling stage these days), you can make a tangy, viscous, shimmering bit of deliciousness that you can put on just about anything. Mama likes to have it on-hand, but as we were out, she wanted to make a very fast batch. She poured about half a cup of balsamic vinegar into a small saucepan and cranked the heat until it started bubbling. Then she lowered it to medium, threw in a large pinch of brown sugar (honey would work too), and let it simmer until it reduced…and reduced…and reduced. When it’s ready, it shouldn’t be as thick as chocolate syrup, but it should be rich, like good maple syrup. And it should coat your spoon like a silk shirt.

Just try convincing yourself that you don’t want to eat this.

When combined, the sweet and buttery onions meld with the slightly sweet and oh-so-tart balsamic reduction over the crisp pieorgies—whatever their provenance. Mama didn’t think I would like the reduction (since I’ve never been very keen on the vinegar), so she served me a naked pierogi with a few onions. Absurd! But Papa… now there’s a man who knows what it’s like to be fed well. He gave me big bites of his black gold–speckled potato puffs. And now I can look forward to when we can serve it over our own homemade pierogies, and do Great-Baba proud.

Love, Jude