tomatoes

Well stocked

We are well stocked. At least when it comes to tomatoes. At least for the moment. Over 100 pounds of ripe San Marzanos and dry-farmed Early Girls have passed into my kitchen and been forwarded into jars in various forms. I dried them, as above. I popped them into jars, blanched and peeled, but still whole -

I realized that approximately all of the time I end of chopped whole peeled tomatoes to use them in sauce, so I canned some of them already chopped -

Of course, if I am chopped them to turn them into a sauce, a person may as well can sauce too -

Then I figured I may as well round things out and put up some perfectly  smooth skin-free and seedless purée -

What I really did with the vast majority of all those tomatoes, though, was to put in a supply of over a dozen half-pints of homemade tomato paste or, as we lovingly call it in my house, tomato conserva -

My dashing husband reckons that while he’d love to go through a full pint every week, he can probably limit himself to a half-pint each month, stingily spreading it, as Brits spread marmite, thin and scraggly on his toasted tranche of baguette before topped it with a fried egg for breakfast. Dabbing a bit here or there in pasta dishes when it’s his turn to cook. Doing this, please understand, when what he’d like to do is eat it by the spoonful while he researches graffiti artists or streams soccer games. He will sacrifice because he has seen what it takes to produce this brick red gold, because he is grateful anyone does such a thing for him, and because he can’t bare to think of that window of time that will inevitably come between when the last jar has been scraped clean and the first jar filled with a new harvest, when once again the house will smell of bubbling tomatoes and the seeds and pulp I pull from those tomatoes destined to become conserva -

get strained and we drink the most tomato-flavored and refreshing concoction I know -

It is a flavor that cannot be canned or jarred or kept with any integrity. I tried freezing it and something fell flat, if only my imagination. This tomato juice must be consumed immediately at best, within hours at the outside to capture all its tomato-ness. It is a reminder that you can only stock so much, only prepare and plan for things you can actually imagine. Some things must be taken in when they come along, no matter how much you’d rather have have had time to prepare or wished they’d come to you earlier. Cupboards may well be for stocking, but fresh tomato juice, like life itself, is for drinking up right now.

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Fresh tomato lasagna

Can you count the layers?

I can. I did. If we’re willing to count the bit of sauce on the bottom of the dish – and I’m not at all sure we should be – then this lasagna has 18 layers of homemade pasta sheets, fresh tomato sauce, and creamy mozzarella cheese (with a smack of Parmesan on top). If we just want to count the pasta sheets themselves, then the answer is eight, which isn’t too shabby, though I say it myself.

It had been a good long time since I made lasagna, and the last time I made it… well, it was a disappointment at best. That one was too complicated, too many twists and turns and clever ideas and it all became a giant convoluted baked mess. Edible, to be sure, but hardly the triumph I was reaching for. So this time I kept it simple. Super simple. Too simple? Not really, but the light touch I gave this one caused my dashing husband to proclaim that it was more souffle than lasagna. I took it as the highest compliment. Or, to be more precise, I took it as a compliment once I stopped obsessively wondering if he really meant that there wasn’t enough food. There was enough food. Pretty much. Who knew the lasagna would turn out so tasty? Who were we to resist its charms?

Overly Long and Picture-Laden Fresh Tomato Lasagna Recipe

Start by buying super ripe tomatoes. The better the tomatoes, the better this lasagna will be. And by “better” I don’t mean fancy names or labels or heirloom-ness,  I mean ripe and super tomato-flavored. Taste before you buy. Also, less juicy varieties will work better here. Your Romas, your Early Girls, your plums.

Take about 3 pounds of those tomatoes and hull them (cut out their core). Chop them and run that mixture through a food mill.

Alternatively, you can purée them in a blender and then run them through a food mill or, if you don’t have a food mill, strain the mixture through a sieve to get the seeds and skin out – although that process is such a pain that I would then consider peeling and seeding the tomatoes first and then whirling them in a blender. In any case, you want to end up with a smooth purée of tomatoes with very minimal seeds or skin in the mix.

Pour this purée into a pot, add an onion that has been halved and peeled and about 6 tablespoons of butter. Bring the whole mess just to a boil.

Reduce to a simmer and cook, stirring now and again as the mood strikes you, until it is all reduced and dark red and yummy looking and a bit thickened up. This will take at least an hour and maybe two depending on how juicy the tomatoes were to start with.

While the sauce is cooking you need to make the pasta. Work 2 cups of flour, a teaspoon of fine sea salt, and 4 eggs into a dough. Knead this dough so it holds together and is nice and smooth – you can just do this in the bowl you mixed the dough in. No big deal. No need to knead it like bread dough. Put the pasta dough on a piece of plastic wrap, wrap it up and shape it into a flat disk as you do so. Put it in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. You could, of course, do this before you get the sauce started so that once the sauce is cooking you can start in the with pasta. I did not do that. I found there was plenty of clean-up, note-taking, and lunch-eating to do while the pasta rested.

Then you need to roll out the pasta. I divided the dough into 8 portions. Rolled one portion on the thickest setting, folded that piece like a business letter in thirds, rolled it on the thickest setting, repeated that move and then moved on, doing that with each portion of dough (adding flour as necessary along the way, of course).

I then took each piece through the next setting, and so on until the dough was rolled out on the thinnest setting on my pasta roller-outer. You may well have another method for rolling out pasta dough. Please, use that if it works for you.

Cut the pasta sheets into pieces that 1) will fit in the pan you’re going to bake the lasagna in and 2) that you can deal with and handle without losing your mind. For me that meant cutting each sheet into 3 or 4 pieces.

Put a large pot of water on to boil, add enough salt so it tastes salty, and drop the pasta sheets in for about 30 seconds each. Have a bowl of ice water ready to dunk the pasta into when you take it out of the boiling water to cool it immediately.

Lift pasta out of the water, running your hand down each piece to remove as much excess water as possible, and lay the pasta out on clean kitchen towels. Warning: this will most likely use up most of your counter space.

Thinly slice about 8 ounces of fresh mozzarella cheese. Finely grate about 4 ounces of Parmesan cheese.

Taste the pasta sauce, add enough sea salt to make the flavor really pop.

Put about 1/3 cup of the sauce in the bottom of a 9×13 (or there about) baking pan and spread it around. Arrange a single layer of pasta in the pan. Top that with just a bit of sauce – seriously, just the thinnest of layers that will fall far short of coating everything.

Then a layer of pasta. Then a layer of mozzarella – but not a solid layer, just pull each slice apart a bit and arrange about half the mozzarella in the pan. Top with pasta. Then sauce. Then pasta.

Then a sprinkle of Parmesan. Then pasta. Then sauce. Then pasta. Then the remaining mozzarella. Then pasta. Then sauce. Then pasta. Then sauce and the rest of the Parmesan.

Cover and bake for 35 minutes at about 375°F. Uncover and bake another 15 minutes or so. Serve with fresh basil leaves and some oven-dried tomatoes. I also offered up a platter of sautéed zucchini, all beautifully browned and yummy out of a cast iron pan.

I’d like to say that this feeds six, but that is stretching it. It really is terribly light. Delicious. But light.

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Two loves

Two loves. One I came by quickly and things haven’t always been smooth – I might never have technically strayed, but, as Jimmy Carter said, I’ve lusted in my heart. The other took a long time in the making, but I’ve never looked back.

I’m talking, of course, about San Francisco and tomatoes.

San Francisco. I first came to San Francisco the summer between my junior and senior years of college. My friend wanted desperately to go to Gay Pride. She had just come out to her family; they had then visited and refused to talk about it. She wanted to connect, to celebrate, to be larger than her own world. I had one boyfriend who was bugging the shit out of me, two part-time jobs, three days free, and a strong desire to get the hell out of Portland.

We hit the I-5 early with coffees from a new cool place called “Starbucks” and, thanks to some speed demon driving I learned from my mom, were in San Francisco in nine hours.

We drove over the Bay Bridge on a brilliantly sunny blue-sky Friday afternoon and for that one moment towards the end of the bridge it felt like we were driving straight into the buildings of downtown. It was magical, it was Dorothy’s Emerald City. We made our way to the Castro, I found a parking spot and managed to park on that stretch of 16th between Market and Castro without destroying the transmission on my Subaru Justy (a fact that still impresses me to this day every time I go by it), we got out of the car and I was gobsmacked by the hills and the houses and the color.

This was 1991. People were rebounding from the sucker punch of AIDS. People were more angry than sad; determined to celebrate rather than mourn. Anger and partying pretty much fit my mood at 21. It was bright lights and lots of dancing, with ACT-UP keeping it real every once in awhile.

I was back two years later, my dashing then-boyfriend in tow, moving from Paris to go to grad school. It was a drought year, so the gorgeous blue sky that greeted our U-Haul in August stayed through to the next fall, or so it seemed. The city was still beautiful, but it also felt small. A cow town. Then slowly and yet somehow suddenly, the 90s really showed up and we were living in a boom town. The restaurants we had loved became impossible to get into, the traffic insane. El Niño came with forty days and forty nights. We thought about moving, but by then my dashing husband had a business here. Then one week I ran into three different people I knew in places I wouldn’t have expected to see them and the city started to feel a bit like I really lived here instead of a way-station. The economy tanked and the city became somewhat livable – or at least you could get reservations at restaurants without a month of planning – again. I switched careers, I started going to farmers markets, I took up early morning open water swimming for awhile and would watch the sun hit Alcatraz on my way out and the moon set over the Golden Gate Bridge as I headed back. Then we had a child and bought a house and met our neighbors and found a school and now we’re here.

For now, anyway. I can’t help but look at real estate listings in New York, in Paris, in Vancouver, in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, in Bergen, Norway. Who doesn’t imagine a life rendered more interesting by geography? But for everything about it that drives me crazy – I’m talking to you, you hippie who knits in variegated rainbow yarn during school meetings and wants to talk about “process”! – I do love San Francisco.

Tomatoes. I didn’t like tomatoes until I was about 30. I didn’t eat tomatoes – other than just the teeniest bit of sauce in something – until I met my dashing husband. (His part Italian-American heritage made avoiding eating tomatoes any longer pretty near impossible.) I moved from eating actual sauce to eating the larger pieces of tomato that might show up in a sauce, to having a bite of raw tomato as part of a dish, to eating a plain piece of raw tomato. That all happened by the time I was 25. I didn’t really like them, however, for several more years.

Now, of course, juicy, meaty, sweet, acidic tomatoes are part of what I love about San Francisco (well, that and all the other fab produce), part of why it’s difficult to imagine moving. I like to eat them chopped and tossed with olive oil, spooned onto toasted bread that’s been rubbed with the cut side of a raw clove of garlic, sprinkled with salt. If I eat them on our deck with a glass of rosé while shielding my eyes from the power of the setting sun as it dips behind the city I call home and that I managed to cross despite the goddamn street closings for Folsom Street Fair (how did I space the date?), all the better.

tomatoes

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Thunder bowl

My dashing husband calls these concotions – of rice and beans topped with salsa and pretty much anything he can scrounge in the kitchen thrown in for good measure – “thunder bowls.” He picked up the term when we were traveling in New Mexico and West Texas. Why thunder bowl? My theory is that they are named after the thunderous clap of a fart such a meal can create.

He made me this thunder bowl for lunch the other day. He heated up leftover short grain brown rice that had been cooked in chicken broth and some chickpeas. While those warmed up, he threw together a salsa fresca from all the tomatoes sitting around and chopped a perfectly ripe and amazingly delicious avocado. It was a reminder that sometimes some crap sitting around in the fridge or on the counter can make a crazy delicious meal. It also reminded me of how perfectly lovely it is to have someone cook for you. As I like to tell people who express nerves or concern about inviting me to dinner or otherwise cooking for me: everything tastes better when you didn’t have to make it and people hardly ever cook for me, so it’s a total (and much appreciated!) treat.

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Caprese pasta

Much like the chickpea salad in July, I feel sheepish posting this. Too easy. Too simple. Yet it’s also too delicious not to share in case anyone out there isn’t making it.

Caprese pasta

The short version is this: chop tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil and toss with hot angle hair pasta. The longer and slightly more accurate version is –

1 – 1 1/2 pounds very ripe and sweet and meaty tomatoes

3 – 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

4 – 8 ounces fresh mozzarella ball(s)

Stack of basil leaves

Salt

1 pound angel hair pasta

Put a large pot of water on to boil. While that gets boiling, rinse tomatoes clean and pat them dry. Chop the tomatoes and put them in a very large bowl, being sure to include as much of the juices that may have escaped during chopping as possible.

Add olive oil to tomatoes, toss a bit, and let sit.

Drain mozzarella and dice it. You can add it to the tomatoes, if you want it to get a wee bit melty when you add the hot pasta. If I’m making this for myself, I do this. My dashing husband prefers this dish without the mozzarella, however, which is fine. No, really, it’s totally cool. So i leave it out and just add mine on top of my serving, as you see above.

Stack some basil leaves, roll them up, and slice them into thin ribbons. Set aside.

When the water is boiling, add enough salt to make it taste salty, add the pasta and cook until tender to the bite. Drain and quickly add to the tomatoes. Start tossing. Add some basil and toss to combine. Add more olive oil, if it seems at all dry.

Divide among serving bowls and garnish with basil (and mozzarella if you find yourself married to someone who for some insane reason doesn’t want mozzarella in their portion).

I should note that, despite my husband’s mozzarella-induced insanity, I must agree that the dish is perfectly delicious without it. I just really really like cheese. Like a lot. A bit of mozzarella in my tomato basil capellini keeps me from feeling weak or getting the vapors.

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Grilled halloumi and vegetables

Halloumi, for those of you not in the know, is a Greek cheese that you can grill or broil or saute. It doesn’t melt! Why doesn’t it melt? I’m thinking it has to do with its crazy rubber-like, chewy, salty nature. While I was at the family cabin this summer, my parents went back and forth between their house in Minneapolis during the week and up to the cabin on the weekends. So every week my mom would call or email and want to know what I wanted her to bring up. One week I thought having grilled halloumi and vegetables would be a nice dinner and asked her to get 2 or 3 packages of halloumi.

She ended up with “3 lbs halloumi” written on her shopping list.

We had quite a few grilled halloumi dinners. Enough, in fact, for me to finally figure out that the way to grill it isn’t in cubes on a skewers, which tends to make the cheese crack and break apart and stick to the grill, but cut into long rectangles put straight on the grill that can be manipulated individually, as well as decently oiled, making them easier to cook evenly.

Notice above the technique of putting the same vegetables on the same skewer, allowing for different cooking times for the different veggies (tomatoes are done quickly, red onions take a bit more time; see more about grilling vegetables). Just skewer everything, brush everything (including the halloumi pieces) with olive oil, sprinkle the veggies with a bit of salt (seriously, the cheese is really salty, so just enough to season them a bit), and grill until done how you like them. As you can see, we like things with a crusty edge at our house. Some may even call it a bit burnt, but we don’t.

Even my dad, who is not a particular fan of meatless dinners, loved the hearty texture of halloumi along with brightly colored grilled cherry tomatoes and chunks of zucchini. He also got pretty into grilling it. As he put it, “it’s kind of fun to grill something like that, that looks so pretty.”

We served it with a lemon orzo pasta (cook orzo in chicken broth, drain, toss with olive oil, lemon juice, and lemon zest – add chives or parsley with whatever floats your boat and serve it hot, warm, or even chilled) and a mint chutney (whirl a bunch of mint, a hot green chile like  a serrano, a few stems of parsley, a clove of garlic, 3 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and salt to taste in a blender until smooth and saucy).

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Chickpea salad

So simple it hurts.

Summer chickpea salad

All together now: 2 cans chickpeas (drained and rinsed), 6 green onions* chopped up, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, a tablespoon of lemon juice, about a teaspoon of finely shredded lemon zest (gotten off with a box grater – no fancy microplane zesters here!), salt, plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Then  4 sprigs of mint cut into ribbons and a pint of grape tomatoes tossed in at the last minute.

* chives, garlic scapes, green garlic, or minced red onion would all be lovely as well

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Kale tomato pasta

Yes, it’s yet another veggie-heavy pasta/one-pot meal. You know you love them. Well, I know I do, anyway. They are a working girl’s best friend.

This one is a bit different because it used the last bit of the tomato paste I made last summer. It came from an almost-empty half-pint jar in the back of the fridge. That last bit was well covered with oil and had avoided any mold or mildew.

Now that the fridge is clean and I know for a fact that there is not more tomato paste in there, I’m white-knuckling it to tomato season. I can live without caprese for awhile longer, but I find myself oddly psychologically dependent on having that tomato conserva at hand.

Kale tomato pasta

The tomato paste in this sweetens and softens the kale.

1 pound pasta (fusilli is my favorite for this)

2 bunches Dino/lacinato/black kale

3 cloves garlic

3 Tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon red chili flakes (optional)

2 Tablespoons tomato paste

Salt

Parmesan for garnish

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add salt to make it taste as salty as sea water. Cook the pasta until tender to the bite or according to package directions.

Meanwhile, clean the greens and chop them. Slice garlic cloves as thinly as you can – don’t stress it too much, it will be tasty no matter how you cut it.

Heat a frying pan large enough to hold the pasta or a medium pot over medium high heat. Add olive oil. Add garlic and chile flakes, if using. Cook, stirring, until garlic is just barely starting to turn golden.

Add tomato paste and stir to combine with the garlic and oil. Add 1/3 cup of water and stir to combine.

Add chopped kale, stir to combine, cover, reduce heat to medium low, and cook until kale it tender, about 5 minutes.

Add another 1/3 cup water if mixture seems dry or kale is sticking to the pan.

Pasta should be ready to drain or already drained at this point. Add drained pasta to kale mixture. Stir to combine. Taste and add more salt, if you like. Top with Parmesan.

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Winter tomatoes (in spicy yogurt sauce)

mintfishyogurttomdinner

It ends up that yes, you can freeze tomatoes. Not tomato sauce, not tomato paste, not tomato puree (although all those things freeze just fine, too), but actual tomatoes.

I learned this indirectly from my aunt. Indirectly because she was not talking to me, but rather had left instructions with my cousin (her son) while she was out of town to pick the tomatoes from their ample garden as they ripened and put them in the bag already started in the freezer that she kept for all the tomatoes they couldn’t keep up with.

It’s been a great tip – especially since my dashing husband overestimates even his impressive tomato-eating ability when tomatoes are ripe and plentiful and cheap at the market. Once frozen, the tomatoes won’t work as fresh tomatoes – you wouldn’t want to make caprese salad with these, for example – but if you’re going to cook them anyway, it’s perfect. If you were going to peel them in the process then freezing has the bonus prize of making the tomatoes extremely easy to peel without the usual step of blanching them first.

So when I found a bag of Early Girl tomatoes from last summer in the freezer the other day, I decided to pretend it was summer (I needed a distraction from these gray days we’ve been having on the West Coast), if just a little bit. I smeared petrale sole with a paste of ginger and mint (notice all the mint on my table lately? That’s because mint grows like an invasive weed in Northern California, especially when it rains) and baked them, cooked a pot of rice, and peeled a few frozen tomatoes and then gently heated them up in a spicy yogurt sauce. I know it sounds a bit weird, but it is an unbelievably delicious flavor combination. The delicate fish – rice – tomato in spicy yogurt sauce combo was sublime.

Tomatoes in spicy yogurt sauce

I developed this recipe when I was working at Sunset and can never get over how good it is, or how tasty that sauce is on rice. I can now add to its many wonders how delightfully it makes use of frozen tomatoes.

8 ripe but firm tomatoes

2 teaspoons vegetable oil

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

2 Tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

6 cloves garlic, minced

2 small hot green chiles, seeded and minced

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup plain whole milk yogurt (low-fat or fat-free versions will curdle)

If you’re using fresh rather than frozen tomatoes, blanch tomatoes to make peeling them easier: bring a large pot of water to a boil and prepare a large bowl of ice water, cut a small “x” in the bottom of each tomato, dip tomatoes in the boiling water for about 30 seconds and then use a slotted spoon to transfer the tomatoes to the ice water, drain tomatoes and pat them dry.

If you’re using frozen tomatoes, just take them out of the freezer. In any case, the next step is to use a paring knife to gently peel off the tomato skins and set tomatoes aside, whole or at least as whole as possible.
In a large frying pan, heat vegetable oil over medium high heat. Add cumin seeds and mustard seeds and cover. The seeds will start popping within about a minute. Cook until the popping slows down, about 2 minutes total.
Remove the lid and add the butter. When the butter has melted, add turmeric and cayenne. Stir and cook until brightly fragrant, about 1 minute. Add garlic, chiles, and salt. Cook, stirring, for about a minute. Reduce heat to low and add yogurt. Stir to combine.
Add tomatoes to yogurt mixture, Gently stir to coat the tomatoes with the sauce. Cook over low heat until tomatoes are just warmed through, about 5 minutes. Serve warm.

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Patatas bravas

patatasbravas
Back in the day I used to go to Spain fairly frequently, especially if you consider that I had no business in Spain and didn’t speak Spanish.

When I first went – and this is dating myself significantly – the tapas craze had not yet hit these New World shores. Tapas in Spain, where they are everywhere, are different from tapas in the U.S. There you don’t settle down for the evening and order a bunch of tiny plates in one restaurant. No, there you grab a drink and whatever tapas a particular bar is best at one place and move on to the next spot for another glass and a different snack: gambas a la pancha, coquettascroquetas, bocalones boquerones, and, of course, patatas bravas.

“Brave potatoes” have lived in my mind ever since. I finally got it together this week and made some. Shazam! I nailed it the first time out of the gate. We ate them as part of dinner, but if the potatoes were cut into bite-size pieces and toothpicks were used, these would have been fabulous passed hors d’œuvres.

Patatas bravas

The sauce can be poured on or used more as a dip – in any case, make sure not to sauce the potatoes too heavily. This will be difficult because the sauce is crazy good. So good, in fact, that you may want to make a double batch and eat the extras with a spoon before you go to bed.

About a pound of potatoes – Russets or Yukon Gold work well

3 Tablespoons olive oil, divided

1/2 small onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1 teaspoon hot paprika

1/2 teaspoon red chile flakes or a small red chile, minced

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 cup pureed peeled tomatoes or tomato sauce

Tabasco, if you like

Cut small potatoes in half or into quarters, or cut them into bite-size cubes – whatever you like. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large, heavy pot or cast iron pan over medium high heat. Add potatoes, in a single layer if you can, and cook, partially covered, until browned on one side, 5 to 10 minutes. Turn to brown on other side(s) and cook, again partially covered, until potatoes are browned and tender.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan over medium heat, heat the remaining tablespoon of oil. Add onions and garlic and salt and cook, stirring frequently, until onions are soft, about 3 minutes.  Add paprika and chile and cook, stirring, for about a minute. Add white wine and cook, stirring, until most of the wine has evaporated. Add tomato sauce, stir to combine, and adjust heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook, uncovered and relatively undisturbed (try to avoid stirring it if you can) until the sauce is thick, about 20 minutes. Taste the sauce and add more salt or some Tabasco, if you like.

You can whirl the sauce in a blender to smooth it out, if you like, but I rather dug the ever-so-slightly chunkiness of the unadulterated version pictured above.

Serve potatoes with sauce in whatever way you see fit.

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