Viva Tomate!

This just in: “Tomatoes are coming! You’ve written a lot about preserving, so how about some of your favorite fresh dishes as well as a thought or two on preserving tomatoes?”

It will be my great pleasure! I walked the tomatoes at Neighborhood Gardeners with Grant, and the smell is still fresh in my mind; to me, there’s nothing like the aroma of growing tomatoes that says ‘garden’ more. I envy y’all the amazing varieties you’re gonna enjoy, especially among the heirloom stuff that you’ll simply never, ever see in a store.

OK, so fresh stuff first:

With beautiful heirloom ‘maters, (Southern for Tomato…), you’ve simply got to do a dish or two that lets the fruit speak; here’s another fantastic amuse bouche.

Simply take a tomato or two of your favorite variety, slice them about ¼” thick, arrange on a plate, season with a little sea salt and a light drizzle of olive oil, and that is that – You don’t need anything more and this way, you really get to enjoy the depth and character of a truly good tomato!

Next comes sauce, because you simply must do this as well. This version is a take on a classic Pomarola, (Known over here as Marinara, this is how to really do it; nothing like the commercial crap out there…) There are a bunch of varieties, this is my take on a Sicilian style.


Salsa alla Pomarola

1 lb of tomatoes, blanched, cored, peeled and rough chopped (About ¾”)
4 or 5 sun dried tomatoes preserved in olive oil, (See below and make your own!)
5 or 6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 carrot, fine diced
1 celery stalk, fine diced
5 or 6 fresh basil leaves

Sauté garlic, carrot, and celery in olive oil until carrots are fork tender.
Add tomatoes, ½ cup white wine, 3 tblspns of olive oil and bring to a simmer.
Fine dice, grind or process your sun-dried tomatoes into a nice paste; add this to the simmering good stuff. Let the mix cook for 1 hour, covered.

Remove sauce from heat, and blend thoroughly, (Blender, food processor, or my personal fave, a stick blender, AKA boat motor)

Return blended sauce to heat, add 4 ounces of butter, and allow to simmer for about 15 minutes more.

Chiffenade your basil leaves, and grate some fresh Parmigiano, Pecorino Romano, or Asiago cheese.

Serve over angel hair pasta, garnished with fresh basil and cheese.

OK, how about a super simple, cool summer tomato dish?

Tomato – Avocado Salad

3 tomatoes, blanched, peeled, cored and diced
1 avocado, peeled and diced
1 small bulb Shallot, minced
Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper to taste

Combine tomato, avocado and shallot, mix gently in a non-reactive bowl. Add roughly 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve straight up, or with toasted Italian or French bread, lightly brushed with a garlic clove.

How about another, since we’re on a string of 100+ degree days down here? This is my take on an Spanish favorite:

Gazpacho Andaluz (Cold Tomato Soup)

2 pounds tomatoes, roasted, peeled, and cored
1 clove of garlic
½ Lemon Cucumber, peeled and cored
½ red, orange, or yellow bell pepper, roasted and peeled
½ cup day old bread, diced ¼”
¼ cup Olive Oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Salt and Pepper to taste

To roast your tomatoes and peppers, cut them in half, brush lightly with olive oil and put them on your grill or under a broiler until the skins start to blacken; pull ‘em out and let ‘em cool before prepping further.

Put the whole shebang in a blender or food processor, (Or have at it with the boat motor) until everything is smoothly blended. Place in a non-reactive bowl or container and refrigerate for at least 3 hours.

Serve with a dollop of plain yogurt in the middle of a cup or bowl of soup, and a nice piece of bread to wipe it all up with!

And finally, tomato desert, you ask? Absolutely… Keep in mind, technically, tomatoes are fruit, not vegetables, and as such, they make fine deserts indeed!

Tomato Granita

2 pounds tomatoes of your choice, (Naturally, go for something nice and sweet!)
1.5 tablespoons fresh lime juice, (FRESH, NOT bottled!)
¼ cup fresh cilantro
salt
Optional: For a version with zing, add a moderately hot chile of your choice, blanched, peeled and veined.

Blanch all your ‘maters, then peel ‘em and put everything into a blender, food processor, or have at ‘em with the boat motor.

After blending, run the mixture through a chinoise or strainer, (A chinoise, the conical metal strainer, is really perfect for this kind of thing and super handy for canning and preserving; get one.)

Pour your strained mixture into a glass baking dish big enough to allow the layer to be roughly ½” thick or so.

Set the dish on your freezer for around an hour, or until the mix looks frozen around the edges. Use a fork or small spatula to scrape all the icy part into the middle of the dish, then let it freeze some more. Keep repeating this cycle about every half hour or so until everything is frozen evenly.

Serve in a martini glass with a little sprig of mint.

You can easily prepare Granita the day before as well!

So, preserving, eh?

Well, here again, my favorites are canning and drying.

As for canning, while traditionally tomatoes are done via the hot water method due to their relatively high acidity, I think that pressure canning yields better and more intense flavor; also, if you’re canning tomato-based sauce, you really do need to pressure can for your safety.

There are lots of canned tomato recipes out there, so I won’t go into specifics about that, other than to say that you should certainly can tomatoes in your favorite styles; if you like the Pomarola, make a bunch and can it. I like to use several versions of tomatoes when I cook; sometimes I want whole, sometimes crushed, sometimes sauce, sometimes puree – If that’s the case for you, too, then can all your favorite versions and, this winter, enjoy a level of taste and quality no store will ever, ever touch!

Drying:

Sun dried tomatoes are a huge treat; nothing but the sun adds such intense flavor in them!

Slice your favorites ¼” thick and lay them out to dry, (Or use a dehydrator, if you must.) Dried tomato flake is a wonderful thing to have in your spice cabinet, so cut those slices into roughly ¾” pieces and dry those – You can add them to soups, stews, eggs, all kinds of things. Quarter or half your favorite variety, dry them and then preserve those in olive oil; they’re unbelievable on pizza, or with smoked chicken, basil and mozzarella cheese in a grilled sandwich. Finally, put dried tomatoes into a coffee grinder, (Do you have one of these just for spice? NO? GET ONE!! You can find used grinders for a couple of bucks at a second hand place; I keep two around just for spices – We all know that spice lasts longer and tastes better if kept whole; store yours this way and grind what you need when you need it; you get better flavor, longer lasting spice, and lower cost to boot.) Anyway, back to those tomatoes…. Grind them into powder, and you can add that to soup, stew, or to biscuit, pasta, pizza or tortilla dough for a fantastic flavor and a very cool look too!

This weeks other mail bag question: “you wrote about not using table salt for canning, what about for cooking? I see a lot of salts out there, is there really any difference?”

Short answer; ye Gods, YES! Excellent question and thank you for not letting me gloss over this; let’s talk about salt and pepper, since they’re the main go-to seasonings.

One of the main things about good restaurant food, or great restaurant food versus yours, maybe, is the nature and quality of seasoning. Great chefs don’t need nor use 14 things in one dish; they use 1 to maybe 4 or 5 max. The idea of seasoning is to enhance flavor, not overcome or mask it. Salt is incredibly versatile and absolutely necessary in cooking as far as I am concerned, and pepper runs a close second.

Notice that even in relatively sweet dishes, like the roasted corn salsa we made a while back, there is salt; this is because it definitely enhances flavor when used properly, and by used properly, I mean not overused!

That said, what salt you use matters a great deal. Treat salt no differently than any other ingredient; in other words, would you settle for a lousy cut of beef or veggies that weren’t fresh as you can get ’em? No, of course not, so don’t settle for sub-par seasonings either! Plain ol’ table salt is crap – NO flavor, treated with iodine, and terrible for seasoning and cooking. The bottom line is, If I have to buy salt from the grocery, I get either untreated sea or Kosher salt and so should you; read your labels so you know what’s really in there! I use good quality salt from a known source with nothing but salt in it; (Even Morton Kosher salt has prussiate of soda in it as an anti-caking agent; I neither need nor want that in my food, frankly…).

OK, on to the second part of the question, regarding the varieties out there and whether they’re worth it or not: Short answer, you betcha! I just went and counted, and I have 11, count ’em 11 varieties of salt in my pantry, including; curing, kosher, a couple varieties of smoked, (Alder and Mesquite), sea salt, sel de mer, Janes, Utah Basin, Murray River Flake, Hawaiian, and Black. Each and every one has a completely unique flavor profile that lends itself to certain styles and genres of cooking. For me, it’s a requirement; you don’t probably need that many, but two or three really good salts will serve you well and make your food taste that much better.

Similarly, plain ol’ black I-don’t-have-a-clue-where-it’s-from-or-what-variety-it-is pepper is junk. Pepper is a great baseline spice to add a little bit of zing to a dish without getting overboard or exotic; to me, good pepper is a must-have in, once again, more than one variety. Malabar or Tellicherry are great black peppers, with genuine flavor and consistent quality. That said, green, red, and white pepper have completely unique tastes that will go better with some things than black does. Our every day pepper here is a hand blended mix of all those colors and adds a really nice note to food. Once again, don’t buy it from the store; they may have it, but for what they charge for a tiny jar, you can and should buy a pound of good stuff online.

We’ll get into broad seasonings later on, but for now, suffice it to say that most of what you can get from the average grocery is crap and not worth your money. For dependable quality, you either have to go local with someone you know and trust, or buy online. Butcher and Packer and World Spice are tremendous spice resources; the quality is the best you’ll find anywhere, and the prices are seriously good; check them both out.

NGKG Chef Q & A

Well, I have made an effort to encourage questions, ‘cause I really do want them, so I sure am not gonna pass any up!

PLEASE DO ask questions, comments, offer suggestions, etc! At the bottom of each post in the blog, you’ll see a little bar that separates the post from the last one; kinda in the middle of that there’s a little line that reads ‘comments’; just click on that to ask a question, make a point or comment, etc: A new window will pop up and you can enter your question there. It may ask if you want to follow the blog and the answer is, of course you do! Following the blog means you get notified when new posts are up, etc.

You can also email me; ebena at sbcglobal dot net, (Do that up in typical email format; I just spelled it out here to avoid spam mail…) OK, so down the river!

Got an email that reads “I keep seeing you use the term “Non-reactive pan” or bowl. What exactly does that mean and why do I care?”

That’s a great question, (And a great reminder not to throw cook-speak around too much, Eben!)

A non-reactive bowl or pan is simply one made of stuff that food won’t react with chemically: Aluminum, copper, brass, cast iron, and plastic should all be considered potentially reactive. At issue isn’t the pan or bowl itself so much as it is what you’re putting inside of them: When cooking with high acid foods, like citrus, tomatoes, vinegar and the like, those foods can react with pans and bowls and leave an off taste in your mouth. There is also some discussion to the effect that aluminum, non-stick, and plastic containers can in fact present health hazards simply by their use, so let’s take a look at that stuff.

When high acid foods are cooked in aluminum, certain aluminum salts can form, and there is some evidence that these salts can lead to dementia and impaired vision; in any case, we don’t want to be ingesting them if we can avoid it, right?

Likewise, food wrapped in plastic or placed in plastic containers has potential problems. Fatty foods like meat and cheese can promote the leaching of diethylhexyl adipate from such films and containers; you may have gotten an email to that effect from a well meaning friend. While the FDA claims that the amount of this chemical we’re exposed to is within safe parameters, I say unto you again, is this really something we want in our food and bodies?
Long and drawn out answer; no.

Quick and dirty nonstick Q & A; is nonstick OK for the kitchen? Answer; if you’re really getting health and environment conscious, no. The most commonly used non stick coating is PTFE, the exact same stuff you find in plumber’s tape; do we really wanna eat that? No. The stuff is applied as fluorocarbon layers to pans; remember the ozone layer? Heating nonstick pans can breakdown flouropolymers into such wonderful things as:
Triflouroacetate, (Harms plants and takes decades to break down)
Polyflourocarboxylic acids, (Removed from Scotchguard ‘cause it’s bad for us).
CFCs, (Ozone layer again).

‘Nuff said? Yeah, I think so…
Do yourself and your world a favor and stick to stainless steel and cast iron cookware, glass and stainless bowls, and glass storage containers. Your body and the environment will thank you, big time!

OK, next question:
“I love the blog, but I can cook too! Can I submit recipes and suggestions?”

Answer: YES, and please do! Sharing and learning is what this is all about! We ain’t the end all to be all of food, just one resource among many, so bring it on!

Storology 101

It has been brought to the Chef’s attention that some of y’all might like a few words on care and storage of produce and herbs and such; here goes…

Ok, first and foremost, as you should know, your veggies from The Neighborhood and King’s gardens comes to you without pesticides or herbicides on them; that said, all you really need to do upon receiving them is a quick rinse and inspection for bugs and dirt. The best way to wash veggies is The Restaurant Way; fill a sink with cool water and dunk stuff while agitating gently; this allows dirt and such to fall to the bottom, leaving your goodies nice and clean. Lift your bounty out of the water and dry gently on cloth or paper towels.

Most nice, fresh veggies really don’t care for the fridge, truth be told: Hardier stuff and the most delicate will do fine there; carrots, celery, lettuce and such, but onions and tomatoes and potatoes don’t really like it there and will suffer in relatively short order. It is always best policy, when getting beautiful fresh produce like you are, to use as much as possible right away, and properly store or preserve anything left over. With produce, we’re generally talking about drying and canning as best storage process; if you’re gonna get great stuff, why not make it available all year ’round, right? Face it, our not-too-distant ancestors spent a lot of time canning and preserving, and we’d all do well to learn from that. If you’re getting this wonderful stuff, you obviously enjoy great food, so if you don’t have the ability to can and dry properly, get it and use it; you’ll thank yourself profusely come January or so…

Herbs will store best if left dry, so don’t wash those until you’re ready to use them. Most herbs will do well in about 40 to 45 degrees; if you are blessed with a cool cellar or basement, take advantage of that; if not, and your fridge has a decent crisper, then store your herbs in a clean container, (We use glass, to avoid excess plastic and for taste). Herbs stored thus should be fine for about a week or so; any longer than that and taste and appearance are gonna suffer!

At all cost, avoid cold spots in your fridge if you store this way! Some of our fave herbs, such as basil, (And lemon verbena), don’t like cold at all and will turn black below 40 degrees! The hardier varieties, like parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, (Hey, there might just be a song there…), will do fine for a couple weeks, but again, the more delicate ones will definitely not do so well.

Herbs kept dry don’t really need to vent, and will do great in airtight conditions; if yours are wet, then the special veggie bags or containers with air valves will do best. I know some folks like the wrap-it-in-wet-paper-towel concept, but truth be told, it will rob flavor and invite spoilage. Since Monica and I are blessed with fresh herbs out back almost year ‘round, we do use the stand ‘em up in a glass container of water method, and you can too, but only if you’re sure you’re gonna use those guys within two or three days; much more than that and things will get funky, even if you change the water.

Of course for long-term, (AKA over winter) storage, nothing beats drying of herbs and even your favorite produce. Home driers are cheap and do a decent job, and will allow you to enjoy your favorites right through the Dark Ages. As a for instance, we use some of our chiles that are coming ripe now, and dry some for later – The drying process makes your house smell great too! Store dried herbs in air tight glass containers for best results and do not chill or freeze; they’ll be happier at room temp in a nice clean jar. Try drying onions, cilantro, and tomatoes as well as peppers and chiles; they’re a real treat later on! All your herbs can be dried easily; field strip your stuff down the to the form you want for use, (i.e., remove Rosemary, Thyme, Sage, Cilantro or Mint leaves from stems, check them for bugs and dirt, and then go ahead and dry ‘em up.

Nothing in the world beats fresh herbs for great cooking, but in the dead of winter, believe you me; the difference between herbs you’ve chosen and preserved yourself and the crap that comes on a grocery store shelf is night and day – You’ll be super happy with the results, and you’ll get that nice little flash of memory back to the summer days when you made it all happen, too!

Chileheads of the world, unite!

Just got the pepper list from the gang; didn’t really need it myself – When we were up the other week, Grant asked, “Wanna come look at the peppers?”
Answer; do bears poop behind trees?

I nosed all through the little buggers, and I promise you, they are magnificent and we are gonna have a ball with them. Gonna just publish the list here in a sec, but a few words first: We LOVE chiles and peppers, and we want you to also! We are gonna do a good few entries on chiles covering cooking with fresh, preserving, using for spicing and anything else we can think of or you ask until we exhaust the topic, (FAT chance!)

OK, so for now, the list, and then onward and upward in a little bit!

THE NEIGHBORHOOD GARDENER-KING GARDENS PEPPER LIST FOR 2010

We grow all of the major types of peppers, but there are many more varieties in each category than we could ever grow. There is a lot of variation in flavors, texture, thickness and thinness of walls, heat, etc. If you are not familiar with a particular type of pepper, start by tasting a small piece raw. Then consider various uses (suggested below) and sauté a small piece to judge texture, flavor, and toughness of skin for the use you have in mind.

About HOT Peppers:
Capsaicin is what gives chiles their heat. Pepper hotness is rated in Scoville Units or the Heat Scale. The Scoville scale is somewhat subjective, and rates peppers in multiples of 100. The Heat Scale is determined by HPLC (high-pressure liquid chromatography). But—and most important to the cook—heat can vary widely within any category of chile due to variety, growing conditions, etc. and the amount of heat in a pod can vary from pod to pod on the same plant! Always taste your hot chiles first and adjust accordingly. Remember, you can always add more!

Although we equate hot peppers with Mexican cuisine, you can use them with many other types of cooking such as Cajun, Indian (think hot curry), Chinese, and South Asian.

What to do if a chile is too hot to use in a particular recipe?

Removing the placental tissue (seeds and those white inner membranes) will reduce the heat considerably. If you are using with tomatoes, increase the amount of tomato products. Add sour cream or yogurt. Soak the chiles in salted ice water before using. Add Bell peppers.

What to do if you’ve already eaten something too hot?
The absolute best solution is to immediately eat dairy products such as sour cream, yogurt, or ice cream. Starchy foods such as bread or potatoes will also dilute or absorb the capsaicin. In India you will find bananas on the table to quench the fire of curry. And if you drink enough beer or margaritas, you won’t care how hot the chiles are!

The worst thing to do: drink water. It will only spread the capsaicin around in your mouth. Water does not dilute the hotness of capsaicin!

PEPPER HANDLING TIPS

Always wear gloves when preparing very hot chiles, such as Habaneros, Serranos, or even Jalapenos. You can get a very bad burn from hot chiles and you can also spread the capsaicin to your eyes or things such as doorknobs and switches.

If you do get capsaicin on your hands, rubbing with oil (not water) will help the most, as capsaicin is oil soluble.

Most hot chiles will cool down a bit after cooking, pickling, or melding into a dish. If you add some minced Jalapeno to cold slaw, for example, you may want to taste it again before serving to see if you want to add more.

Most New Mexican varieties and sometimes Ancho/Poblanos are peeled before being used in cooked recipes. You can blister the skin over a gas flame on your stove, over a grill, or in a broiler. Blister then all over. A little charring is fine, but don’t let them blacken too much. Wrap in a damp towel and let steam for a few minutes. If you want them to be crisper and less cooked, put them in cold water right away. You can peel the skins off by rubbing with your hands or the blunt side of a knife. Don’t worry about getting every little bit of the skin off—a little smoky charred flavor tastes great. You can then freeze them for future use. This is also a good way to prepare Sweet Italians, or even Bells. After you’ve removed the skin, cut into pieces and freeze in olive oil for a great appetizer with crackers.

You can freeze bell peppers or smaller hot chiles very easily. Just wash small chiles and freeze whole. Chop bell peppers, freeze on a cookie sheet and then transfer to a freezer bag.

All peppers pickle well. Check out any pickling/canning book.

You can use chiles in vinegars or make chile oil. The uses for peppers are endless!

OUR VARIETIES:

SWEET PEPPERS

BELL
Various kinds, most are sweet with no pungency at all. We grow kinds that are green, light green, red, brown (aka “chocolate”), orange, yellow, cream, purple, and multicolored. You undoubtedly already know how to use these.

SWEET ITALIAN
Sweeter than most bells, even in the green stage, and without the aftertaste that most bells have. They are generally more elongated than bells, with a tapered end, and have a nice thick flesh. The candy of sweet peppers! They start out green and turn red, yellow, or orange as they ripen. They are rarely found in supermarkets.

CUBANELLES
Similar to Italians, but not as sweet. The Gypsy pepper is probably the best known in this category, but we usually grow a couple types. They are perfect for salads. Most are a light green, ripening to reddish, and are elongated like Sweet Italians but are smaller and have thinner walls.

ITALIAN ROASTERS
These are all heirloom types, not found in supermarkets. They are long and skinny and sometimes have a little zip to them, but are really neither sweet nor hot. They are the pepper you find on Italian sandwiches if you go to an authentic Italian restaurant. They are typically used for frying and roasting. You do not need to remove the seeds in these. These peppers are thin-walled and cook quickly. Use either green or red.

PEPPERONCINI
The salad bar pepper. Makes a wonderful overnight pickle. Just slice in rings and marinate in pickle juice from a commercial pickle jar, or mix salt, vinegar, and spices. Often canned whole when they are small. Like Italian Roasters, they are neither very sweet nor pungent and have thin walls. Also good used like Cubanelles in salads.

MODERATELY HOT

PASILLA
When used in the fresh stage, these are called chilaca, and when dried, they are used in mole~ sauce. Use them in enchilada sauces or most any Mexican type sauces where they will add a depth of flavor. They measure between 1,000 and 1,500 on the Scoville scale and 3 on the Heat Scale.

ANCHO/POBLANO
In the US, the green fresh chile is called Poblano, while its mature red version (usually dried) is called Ancho. However, in Mexico it may be the other way around, and in most of California both green and red pods are called Ancho. Whatever you call it, this is one versatile pepper. It’s our favorite hot pepper. These can be stuffed for chiles rellenos, or used in casseroles and sauces. We recommend removing the skin by blistering it first. They are approximately 1,000 to 1,500 Scoville Units or 3 on the Heat Scale.

NEW MEXICAN (aka ANAHEIM, HATCH)
This is the state vegetable of New Mexico. We love this pepper! They can be used in chili, sauces, salsas, stews, casseroles. You can stuff them for chiles rellenos, where we recommend removing the skin by blistering first. This chile is a must-have for any Mexican type cooking. Use them green for a classic green chile sauce. They have a wide range of heat—between 100 and 10,000 Scoville Units, or 2 to 4 on the Heat Scale. If adding to casseroles or salsas, be sure to taste first. If stuffing for rellenos, you’ll just have to take your chances—one person might get a very mild pepper while the next will be reaching for the beer.

WAX OR “HUNGARIAN WAX”
There are many different varieties, usually yellow maturing to orange or red. These are great in salsa and make a fantastic pickled pepper. These have the widest heat range of any chile. Some have no heat at all, others may range from 3 to 8 on the heat scale. We grow the Hungarian Wax and Volcano types, which are similar in heat—generally less than a jalapeno, or about 4 on the Heat Scale. Be sure to check the heat in each pepper before you use it.

HOT TO REALLY HOT

JALAPENO
Can be used fresh, pickled, or smoked (then called chipotle). The main hot pepper used in salsas in the USA. Can be stuffed and baked or grilled, sliced into rings and pickled, used as a topping for nachos, minced and added to cold slaw—a million uses. Heat will vary by variety and where it’s grown, so always check before adding to a dish. 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville Units, about 5 on the Heat Scale.

SERRANO
Small green or red, commonly used fresh in salsa. Be sure to mince finely. Great in sauces of all kinds. 10,000 to 23,000 Scoville Units; 6-7 on the Heat Scale.

CAYENNE
We grow a number of oriental peppers that are cayenne types. Can be used fresh, or dried or powdered. An essential ingredient in Cajun cooking and in many Asian stir-fries. To use in Asian dishes, fry in oil, then take the pepper out and use the oil. Very hot—30,000-50,000 Scoville Units or 8 on the Heat Scale. Only Habanera types are hotter.

HABANERO
Sometimes called Scotch Bonnet or Bahamian. It is the main ingredient in jerk sauces, and is generally made into hot sauce. It has a distinct fruity flavor. It’s the hottest: 200,000 to 300,000 Scoville Units, or a 10 on the Heat Scale.

Now a brief postscript: TAKE HEED of the warnings regarding heat, and especially the fact that almost any chile with heat potential can go nuts now and then; two of THE hottest chiles we’ve ever had were jalapenos, which we eat like candy and expect to usually be moderate in heat at best – One of them literally drove us OUT OF THE HOUSE when cooking; we had to open all the windows and doors and vent liberally before we could even breathe in there again, no BS! SO, test BEFORE you use, and unless you’re a real glutton for punishment, when using hot peppers, vein and seed them before use!