Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Pickling Class and Autumn at Northern Orchards

My dear readers, it is that most blessed and hallowed of times--that magical intersection of seasons where there are still tomatoes, peppers and corn, but now the winter squashes are upon us, and the pears and apples have begun! There are simply not enough words to convey how much I LOVE this time of year! It's what makes enduring the eternal North Country winters worth it. But of course, this season is all too ephemeral. In fact, this week is the last for my favorite local farmers' market. Boo hiss. So from here on out, we must go to the farmers ourselves, which is what I have already begun doing. I have a new favorite haunt called Northern Orchards in Peru (NY) that I have been frequently lately. I first met a nice woman named Deb from Northern Orchards at the Thursday green market last year who always provides me with the most delicious produce at the most reasonable prices. I saw her this past Thursday, and she still had some marvelously plump green beans which I wanted to buy for my canning class on Saturday. But I really needed fresh-picked beans to use for pickling, so she gave me directions to the orchard, and I headed down there Saturday morning before my class. Well, my goodness, was it a charming place--and all decked out for fall! Observe the glorious abundance of the harvest:

Stunning, eh? You gotta love autumn. Have to. No choice, no free will about it. Anyway...I collected my five pounds of green beans from the farm stand and headed off to the college for my second of three canning classes, this one featuring pickles and relishes. Originally, I had planned on teaching them the secrets of the amazing, unparalleled Blesi Dill Pickles, but since we had to back up the classes by a couple of weeks, pickling cukes had become too scarce. So I went with dilly beans. Everyone loves them, and they're easy. Then we also made zucchini relish, which is perfect for the end of the season when you're trying to use up every last tidbit from your garden. It was a fun class. There were three people that returned from last week, one new lady, and then we also had both the mother and the daughter of one my colleagues at school. My friend Chrisa's daughter Madeleine is 13, and she came with her grandma, Barbara. It was just so CUTE to watch grandmother and granddaughter canning together! Don't believe me? Look... (I hear that "awwwwww" sound escaping your lips! Don't deny it!)

So two classes down, one to go. The last class will focus on fruit, including jam and applesauce. I really wanted to do apple butter, but it just takes too darn long! Nevertheless, I wanted to make some at home for the students to try, so today after work, I headed back down to Northern Orchards to acquire some apples. I also took a little token gift for Deb with me, since she has always been so kind, and particularly because she hooked me up with the fresh-picked beans last weekend. I took her some of the beloved paradise jelly that I made last season. She seemed delighted--so much so, in fact, that she sold me a half bushel of antique/heirloom apples at half price! (Ah, the fringe benefits of networking with other market vendors! Tee hee.) I chose a mix of Milton, Hume, and Red Wealthy in order to give the apple butter a depth of apple flavor. I also bought a half gallon of fresh cider to simmer the apples in, and a couple of honeycrisps just for my own personal munching. Yum! On the way home, the car smelled delicious and apple-y, but that was nothing compared to the stock pot full of apples simmering on the stove all evening, wafting spicy, autumnal vapors throughout the house. Fall is literally in the air, my friends. Make sure you get out and enjoy it. It's all over far too soon.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Canning Class and The. Best. Cupcakes. EVER.

In my last post, I made reference to some beginning canning classes that I was going to teach through Continuing Education at my college. The first one was this past Saturday, and though I was so worried about how it would go, I must report that I think it went GREAT! (I hope the students agree.) The first class focused on canning tomato sauce and salsa, and I had originally planned to teach it on September 6th. Unfortunately, the kitchen that I was assigned to use wasn't "up to code" yet, so we had to delay. I was worried that the tomatoes might have slowed down due a couple of nights of near-frost conditions. But we were fine, and I had no trouble procuring all my ingredients either from my own garden or the green market held on Thursday afternoons at the Nazarene Church in town. As it turned out, the hardest part of planning for the class was that, although the kitchen has "new" (to us) commercial applicances, it doesn't have anything else that you might need! So I basically had to haul EVERYTHING from my kitchen in Sciota to school (half hour away), making multiple trips from my car using the cart that I snitched from the mailroom. UGH! I mean, they didn't even have so much as a sponge and dish soap in there! (I had to go steal some from a kitchenette in the main building.) Surprisingly, given all the tidbits that I had to remember, the only thing I forgot was a can opener. So we had to mangle cans open with a bottle opener. Oh well. Crisis averted.

I arrived early (good thing, too, with all the running around, procuring and hauling in supplies) and got everything unpacked and set up. Then I put myself to work, washing the half bushel of tomatoes and also the peppers that I brought. Then I got a start on coring and seeding tomatoes while I preheated the canning kettle on the big, industrial stove. (Wow! I want one of those at home! The water boiled in the blink of an eye!) When the students arrived (all five of them!), I started the class with a basic how-to and safety lecture, handing out a comprehensive packet of notes, resources, and recipes. I explained to them how I had practiced making every kind of preserved tomato while I was waiting for the kitchen to be outfitted, and that I had come to the conclusion that it was really only worth our time and energy to make prepared sauces, such as those for pasta and of course, everyone's favorite, Annie's Salsa.

After the mini-lecture, I offered them a chance to take a break, but they all stayed around, waiting to be put to work! So I started them all cutting and chopping ingredients for the tomato sauce and the salsa. And can I just say that it was AMAZING having all those hands making light work? I wish that team would come help me at home every time I can! The worst part of canning is always the food preparation, which is why it's best to can in pairs or small groups--making a memorable family event out of it or a little party with your friends--and then everyone can share the bounty when you're done. That way, the project is actually FUN! We were so efficient, that when we had some "down time," I busted open some tortilla chips and tore off chunks from a roasted garlic bread loaf, and opened some sample jars of both of the products that we were making that day. I also brought a couple of two-liters of soda, and there's actually an ice machine in that little kitchen, so we chatted and snacked and had a fun little tasting party while we were waiting for things to cook and process. It was highly enjoyable!

We made the tomato sauce first, as it takes awhile to cook down. In fact, we had the salsa prepped, cooked, and in the canner before the tomato sauce was even done reducing. That was the only kink in my plan. Class time was up (three hours sure flies by!), and the tomato sauce still had a half hour to process. But luckily, most of the students are coming back for next week's class on pickles and relishes, so I told them I would bring their finished jars of sauce next time (and I work with one student's mom, so I gave his jar to her the next day to take home). In the meantime, I sent them each home with a quart of whole tomatoes, a pint of plain tomato sauce, and a pint of salsa that they made themselves (ok, I might need to remember potholders next week, too--note to self). This was my little group (pictured below). Don't they look very knowledgeable and oh-so-happy about preserving tomatoes? (The lady in the middle in the blue shirt works in Continuing Education. A plant! A ringer! A spy in our midst! I wonder if she was there to keep an eye on me and report back to Big Brother if the class was awful?! Just kidding!) I think we all had fun, and it went off with only very minor hitches. Not too shabby for a first effort in teaching a non-credit workshop, if I do say so myself! And I must confess, though it pains me to do so, it was SO MUCH DIFFERENT teaching students that actually wanted to be there and were excited about participating and learning (as opposed to my regular students who often loathe the subject of public speaking and are coerced into being in the class by the dictates of their academic programs)!

By the time I finished processing the tomato sauce, cleaning the kitchen, packing and hauling everything back to the car, I was nigh unto death. My feet hurt, my back felt broken, and I still had to make a harrowing trip to the Wal-Mart before heading home. I had considered staying in town to go see the new Coen Brothers' movie and perhaps have some Chinese food, but I was too tired even for that. I just wanted to go home and crash. And despite the fact that I had three buckets of my own tomatoes waiting to be dealt with (picked in haste last Thursday evening due to the first frost warning of the season), I put my foot down and declared, NO MORE CANNING this weekend! I can't face one more tomato! Let them rot! See if I care! I even went to bed early that night (well, early for me at midnight, right after the news on SNL).

I woke up at 6am having to go to the bathroom, so I let the dogs out, too (the basset hound has become old and leaky...like me, ha ha), fed them, and checked my email. By then it was 7am, and I said screw it, and took my doggies and went back to bed, sleeping until 11! Whew! I needed that! And of course, I felt so good and re-energized that I went ahead and made a batch of spicy chili sauce from the good old Ball Blue Book to use up the harvested tomatoes before they went bad. I'm not exactly sure what I'll be doing with the chili sauce, but I'm thinking that it would make a tasty dip for shrimp cocktail, a yummy meatloaf topping, or there's always the classic crockpot meatballs with grape jelly! Basically, you can use it anywhere you might use ketchup to add a little extra zing. So if you are getting sick of making tomato sauce and salsa, here's yet another recipe to help you deal with an abundant tomato harvest.

Spicy Chili Sauce
(Source: Ball Blue Book)

4 quarts red tomatoes (about 24), seeded
3 tablespoons salt
2 cups onions, chopped
2 cups sweet red pepper, chopped
1 hot chili pepper, finely chopped (I cut back on some of the sweet pepper and added more hot chilis)
3 tablespoons mixed pickling spices
1 tablespoon celery seed
1 tablespoon mustard seed
1 (to 1 1/2) cups sugar (taste it to check the sweetness)
2 1/2 cups vinegar

Combine tomatoes, onions, sweet and hot peppers, sugar and salt in a large sauce pot. Cook gently 45 minutes. Tie spices in a cheesecloth bag; add to tomato mixture; cook until mixture is reduced by 1/2, about 45 minutes. As mixture thickens, stir frequently to prevent sticking. Add vinegar and cook slowly until as thick as desired. Remove spice bag. Pour hot into hot jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Adjust caps. Process 15 minutes in boiling water bath.

Yields 6 pints.

After I made the cauldron of chili sauce, I was so proud of all my hard work over the weekend, that I decided to celebrate by making myself a special sweet treat. Naturally, I wasn't up for anything too involved or complicated, so I chose a quick and simple recipe that has been in my "to-try" pile for months now. I spied it on a blog amusingly titled, How to Eat a Cupcake, where apparently, the readers choose which cupcakes she's going to make each week and then she blogs about how they turned out. The one I chose is a very easy recipe made with pre-fab ingredients (mainly, a box mix and a package of Oreos), but the cupcakes are the best I've ever had! I used half sour cream and half vanilla yogurt in the batter, and they turned out sturdy but soft, and freckled with rich Oreo bits and chunks. On the bottom of the cupcakes, you will find a little surprise--half an Oreo as a crispy base for the tender cake above. The frosting is perfect, too--buttery, creamy, and not too sweet, even with the cookie bits mixed in. And the recipe makes just enough to adequately frost the two dozen cupcakes without lending itself to frosting overload. (Mind you, I say this, and I don't even like frosting as a general rule.) These cupcakes are just delicious! You have to try them!

Cookies and Cream Cupcakes
How to Eat a Cupcake)
Makes 22 to 24

30 Oreo cookies
1 package (18.25 ounces) plain white cake mix
1 cup sour cream (or 1/2 cup sour cream plus 1/2 cup plain or vanilla yogurt)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Line 24 cupcake cups with paper liners. Set the pans aside.
2. Count out 12 Oreos and separate the top and bottom wafers. Make sure each has some of the icing on it. Place one wafer, icing side up, in the bottom of each paper liner. Set them aside. Place the remaining 18 Oreos between sheets of waxed paper or in a large, closed zipper-lock bag and crush them by rolling over them with a rolling pin. Set these crumbs aside.
3. Place the cake mix, sour cream, oil, eggs, and vanilla in a large mixing bowl. Blend with an electric mixer on low speed for 30 seconds. Stop the machine and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat 1 1/2 minutes more, scraping down the sides again if needed. Measure out 1 1/2 cups of the crushed Oreos and fold these into the batter until well incorporated. Set aside the remaining crushed Oreos for the frosting. Spoon or scoop 1/3 cup batter into each lined cup­cake cup, filling it three quarters of the way full. (You will get between 22 and 24 cupcakes; remove the empty liners, if any.) Place the pans in the oven.
4. Bake the cupcakes until they are lightly golden and spring back when lightly pressed with your finger, 18 to 20 minutes. Remove the pans from the oven and place them on wire racks to cool for 5 minutes. Run a dinner knife around the edges of the cupcake liners, lift the cup­cakes up from the bottoms of the cups using the end of the knife, and pick them out of the cups carefully with your finger­tips. Place them on a wire rack to cool for 15 minutes before frosting.

Store these cupcakes, in a cake saver or under a glass dome, at room temperature for up to three days or in the refrigerator for up to a week. If you plan to freeze them, don't add the cookie-crumb frosting. Wrap them in aluminum foil or in a cake saver and freeze for up to six months. Thaw the cup­cakes overnight in the refrigerator and top with frosting before serving.

Cookies and Cream Frosting

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 3/4 cup confectioners sugar, sifted
a pinch of salt
1/3 cup whipping cream
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
remaining crushed Oreos

Mix together butter, confectioners sugar, and a pinch of salt until it’s creamy. Increase your mixer speed to high and beat until its light and fluffy. Add whipping cream and vanilla. Beat until its smooth. Fold in crushed Oreos. Makes enough to frost 24 cupcakes.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Crimson Tide

"Where the HELL have you been??!!"

You have every right to demand to know, but if you'd just take a peek at your calendar--or take a walk through your vegetable garden--I think you'd be able to make a pretty good guess at where I've been, what I've been doing, and why I've been MIA on this blog for more than a week and a half! That's right, dear friends, it's that glorious, crazy, exhausting, delicious time of year at long last. The peak moment that we could only dream of back in February as we started our humble flats of seeds under grow lights in the deep, darkness of winter. It's TOMATO TIME! If you don't believe me, observe. I picked one row on Sunday (and mind you, there are five rows), and this was what I got (picture below). And if you can even conceive of it, I have also been buying tomatoes by the half-bushel. You see, in a weak moment, I offered to teach some canning classes through my college's continuing education program. This Saturday will be my first one, featuring tomatoes and salsa.

So, I've been practicing. I started with whole tomatoes. Surprisingly, I'd never done them before, as I always figured they would be more trouble than they're worth. And guess what? I was RIGHT! By the time I washed, blanched, peeled, deseeded, and halved or quartered the tomatoes, then packed the jars, covered them with hot tomato juice, and processed them in two batches for a total of THREE HOURS, an entire day was gone. And for what? Eight ugly jars that all but exploded in the canner, leaving two inches of unsightly head space and an inch of clear liquid at the bottom. And when you finally get around to using these tomatoes, they are probably going to cook down to practically nothing. If you're making chili or stew or something, you'll no doubt need two jars, or 25% of your yield! Stupid. Totally not worth it. Spend two dollars for a large can of imported Italian San Marzanos at the store and get on with your life!

So my next brilliant idea was to buy one of those tomato press/food mill thingies that old Italian grandmothers use so that I didn't have to peel or seed the tomatoes. I bought another half bushel and went to work. I still needed to wash them, and upon the recommendation of one knowledgeable fellow on the Harvest Forum, after cutting the tomatoes, I gave each one a squeeze to get the excess liquid out so I wouldn't have to cook the sauce down as long. Basically, I was still deseeding them! The press worked pretty well and was easy to use, yielding a beautiful, seedless puree. And the work probably took a couple of hours of active time, then three hours of passive time to cook it down and reduce the puree by half. I got six gorgeous red pints, but a yield which, again, seems pitiful. However, it's concentrated, so one pint will do for a recipe. Still, plain tomato sauce just doesn't do much for me. I want to be able to open a jar, heat it up, pour it over pasta, and chow down. I don't want to have to cook something for three hours initially, then add other things and cook it again before I use it.

So here's the conclusion I've come to, taking me full circle back around to where I started. Canning plain tomatoes is pointless and just not worth the work and expense when commercial products are just as good, or dare I say, superior. However, when the garden tomatoes are exploding and you just can't eat them all fresh, it is a fine idea to put up some tomato sauce. But I much prefer to make a pasta sauce involving other veggies--onions, peppers, squash, herbs, or all of the above. You end up with a better yield, great flavor, and a product that can be used immediately upon opening without further fuss. You are also preserving other things from your garden that will be very welcome in the dead of winter when they are scarce and/or expensive. And best of all, you can have a batch done from unwashed tomatoes to jars cooling on the counter in about two hours. This is possible if you abandon blanching and peeling, which I do happily and with no remorse. If I want a chunky sauce, I just tolerate the little pieces of peel in the sauce, calling it "rustic." But if they offend me, I can always whiz the sauce through the food processor or the blender for 30 seconds and that will take care of the problem. Or the best solution of all, in my opinion, is to take the stick blender to your stock pot of sauce after it's finished cooking. You'll get a smooth sauce, of course, but the bits of peel and any seeds will be dealt with quite effectively.

I tried a different sauce this year, a recipe from my beloved Harvest Forum called Chunky Basil Pasta Sauce, which involved a good bit of red wine and a lot of fresh herbs, among other tasty things. When it finished cooking and I sampled it, I found it pretty acidic (it also calls for red wine vinegar in addition to the red wine), even though I added some extra sugar to counterbalance the flavors. It was late, so I chucked the cooked sauce in the fridge to be jarred and processed the next day. The following day, I liked it much better, and I suspect that it will mellow more in the jars. In fact, I have decided that it would make a terrific pizza sauce, especially if I had cooked it down a little further until it was super-thick. However, I think I prefer the basic Ball Blue Book Seasoned Tomato Sauce that I made last year. That's the one that we'll make in my canning class this weekend, along with Annie's Salsa, of course.

By reading this lengthy post, you have saved yourself three hours and 25 bucks by not having to take my class. And I'll even give you one more bonus gift for free. As I have been up to my...er...eyeballs in red sauce lately, I haven't had much time for any other cooking that didn't involve tomatoes. Plus, school is back in full swing, so I'm working my usual long hours. And my roommate is still in Minneapolis for work, so cooking for one sometimes seems like too much effort. Hence, I have been eating a lot of sandwiches lately. What a sad but typical picture--me, hunched over the kitchen island, eating a sammy while a cauldron of tomato sauce bubbles behind me. Rather, it would be sad, if I hadn't recently invented what may be among the world's greatest sandwiches! I will call it The Fire and Ice Wrap. Here's what you do: you take a sandwich wrap (preferably a red one, like tomato-basil), spread this with a little garlic mayo (mayo with a smashed garlic clove mixed in) and a tablespoon of Wickles' fiery hoagie and sub relish (available in the pickle section of your megamart), then top with thinly-sliced buffalo-style chicken from the deli, slices of smoked provolone, slivers of zesty red onion, and finally--to cool the fire--slices of ripe avocado. Roll, cut in half, plate, and enjoy. This fabulous sandwich will give you the energy and will to make it through even the most tedious of canning projects.

Chunky Basil Pasta Sauce
(Source: posted on
GardenWeb's Harvest Forum)

8 cups coarsely chopped peeled tomatoes , about 9-12 tomatoes or 4 lbs (I washed but did not peel mine)
1 cup chopped onion
3 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, optional
2/3 cup red wine
1/3 cup red wine vinegar, 5% strength
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon pickling salt (I used about 1 1/2 tablespoons!)
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar (I used about 1/4 cup)
16 oz. can tomato paste

Combine tomatoes, onion, garlic, pepper flakes, wine, vinegar, basil, parsley, salt, sugar and tomato paste in a very large non-reactive pan. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 40 minutes or until mixture reaches desired consistency, stirring frequently.

Remove hot jars from canner and ladle sauce into jars to within 1/2 inch of rim (head space). Process 35 minutes for pints jars and 40 minutes for quarts in a boiling water bath. Yield: 8 cups

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Fall Preview

My goodness! How unpredictable our weather is of late! On Friday afternoon, it was quite hot and made that much worse by the tail-end winds of Hurricane Hannah whipping up from the south. Sticky humidity is always the worst, but being dehydrated like beef jerky by pummeling winds that blast you with heat is a close second. By the time I got home that day, everything outside was as crispy as I felt, and in desperate need of a good soaking. So yesterday, I got out there and watered and watered until I ran our pump dry, just in time for the late afternoon rains to come...UGH! Friday night, I needed the AC to sleep, but today (Sunday), I woke up and had to resist the urge to run around the house, closing all the windows and finding myself a sweater! Weirdness!

The unseasonably cool temperatures have had strange effects on all of us. The dogs have been crazed, tearing through the house, busting things up and pestering the cats to within an inch of their lives. I, on the other hand, felt less destructive, but equally as frisky and quite inclined to turn on the oven and bake something. I had a few competing ideas, but all involved chocolate. And then, of course, there was the matter of two large zucchini that I harvested yesterday, staring at me on the counter. So that decided it--chocolate zucchini cake it would be! I did an internet search and found two recipes that I couldn't make up my mind between, so I made a combination of the two. I know, I know. You're not supposed to futz around too much with the ingredients when baking, because it's "an exact science," as everyone likes to tell you. But the two recipes were really quite similar, and the only thing that gave me pause was the leavening. One recipe called for a combination of baking powder and soda, and the other called for soda only. I have had the unfortunate experience of exploding chocolate cakes in my past because of improper substitution of leavening, but nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? And what do you know, it turned out AMAZING! It is dark and lush and incredibly moist--and no one would even know that there's zucchini in it unless you told them. Plus, it's so rich, it doesn't even need frosting. Yum!

However, it ended up making enough for a bundt cake and a loaf on the side, so the math-inclined among you may wish to scale the following back by a third or so. But as far as I'm concerned, you might as well make the whole thing and throw the extra loaf into the freezer to enjoy mid-winter. In fact, you could make three large loaves, eat one and freeze two. Now that's the kind of food preservation everyone can get behind! (Barbara Kingsolver would be proud.) As for me, I shall take my big old bundt to work tomorrow to share because it is huge and more than a bit decadent. And I will freeze the leftover loaf to share with Cyd when she comes home...if she behaves herself. ;-)

Dark Chocolate Zucchini Cake
(Source: adapted from
Bon Appetit, November 1995 and a reader who posted a recipe in the comments section of Simply Recipes)

2 (1 oz.) squares unsweetened chocolate
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (preferably, Hershey's Special Dark)
1 cup vegetable oil (for a lower fat option, swap out some or all of the oil with applesauce)
2 3/4 cups sugar
3 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup plain yogurt or buttermilk
3 cups zucchini, grated (I peel mine so that it disappears in the cake)
1 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
2 cups chocolate chips (I like Ghiradelli 60% bittersweet)

powdered sugar to garnish

Preheat oven to 325°F. Spray one 12-cup bundt pan and a large loaf pan.

In a microwave-safe bowl, melt the two squares of unsweetened chocolate with the butter (about two minutes total, stopping and stirring once or twice). Mix in the cocoa powder and set aside to cool a bit.

Beat oil and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer until well blended. Slowly add in the chocolate and butter mixture and mix. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla extract.

Sift flour, baking soda and salt into medium bowl. Mix in dry ingredients in thirds, alternately with yogurt or buttermilk. Mix in grated zucchini, nuts, and chocolate chips.

Pour batter into prepared pans. Bake cakes until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about an hour and five minutes for the bundt, 55 minutes for the loaf. Cool cake for about 15 minutes in pans before turning out to cool completely on a rack. Dust with powdered sugar before serving*. This
is such a moist cake that it will keep (covered) for up to a week.

*Like most cakes of its kind, it's even better if you let it age for at least 24 hours before cutting and devouring.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Lonely, naked cooking...

No, not me! The food! (Name that chef.) What happened to his new show, by the way--the one where he cooks things fresh from his garden? I loved that! Well, today's recipe is an homage to the kind of nearly naked food that Jamie Oliver prepares. But first, a preamble, as is my way...

So I'm cooking just for myself these days, and it's hard not to eat a big bowl of Breyer's and call it a night. It seems wasteful to spend a lot of time and make a big mess in the kitchen just for little old me. Plus, I've been horribly sick since last week (something that rarely happens to me), and I just haven't felt like doing too much. But thanks to the wonder drug that is Mucinex (seriously, it kept me from going to the ER this week to plead for antibiotics before it turned into pneumonia), I think I am going to pull through! Moreover, the dogs took pity and let me sleep in today, so that was the best rest I've had in I can't remember when. I feel like a whole new woman--a woman with a head cold, perhaps, but no longer the Harbinger of Death. I even had enough energy to spend some time outside this morning, weeding, watering, and generally tending to my sadly neglected herb and vegetable gardens. And bending over to weed didn't set my chest on fire and make me have to call 911 as it might have a couple of days ago. Yeah!

What I discovered in making my foray into the garden is that, now that we have had a couple of weeks of actual summer-like weather, things are finally starting to produce. Even the squash that I had to replant in July has yielded the first zucchini and yellow crookneck. There are peppers in a rainbow of colors, too, and of course, the tomatoes are going like gangbusters. And that's my problem, you see. I am putting tomatoes on or in everything and eating bruschetta by the buckets, but I just can't eat all of these tomatoes by myself! Cyd usually helps thin the herd by eating a bowlful at every meal, but with her gone, I have become horribly overrun! Of course, I am processing and preserving some of the excess, especially anything red. But I can't bring myself to can the unusually-colored ones (black, yellow, orange, green, and especially the red and yellow bi-colors, my favorites), since they are just so incredible and flavorful when eaten fresh! So I have been trying to figure out new ways to eat them, and I have found just the thing. Over at my beloved Harvest Forum on the GardenWeb, many folks are experiencing the same tomato glut as I, and a couple of them shared an idea for a minimalist, nearly raw pasta sauce that is the perfect dish for this time of year when you can't use up the tomatoes fast enough.

My picture doesn't do it justice, because I used two huge mainly yellow bi-color tomatoes, so there's not much color in the shot. Also, I started making dinner late, and I couldn't find fresh basil and parsley in the dark (through all the weeds!), so I just used a little basil that I had in the fridge. Thus, it lacks the visual pop of additional greenery. But let me just tell you how AMAZING this dish is, and so easy! It tastes like a Caprese salad but with pasta. The sauce is very thin, of course, but it's also rich. You'll want to use something like penne or shells or orechiette to hold every savory drop. And it makes a TON! I ate a huge bowl for dinner and another one for lunch today, and I think I maybe finished half of what I made. But that's okay, because it tastes better the longer it sits, as the flavors meld and the pasta absorbs the tomato juice and the cheese. It's heavenly stuff!

Furthermore, it's a great dish for this time of year because you can throw any garden vegetable that you like into the mix. Someone left an unusual pepper on my desk yesterday at work (I love that I am the sort of person for whom people leave strange vegetable gifts). It was white and elongated in shape and mildly spicy, so I used half of that in this pasta dish, along with a half an onion that I had knocking about. I think some sauteed summer squash would be a delicious addition, too! Now I ate this as a stand-alone dish, and it's certainly hearty enough to fill you up. But it would be equally lovely as a side dish to a steak, grilled chicken breasts, a few meatballs, or a link of spicy sausage. And it would be yummy with some shrimp tossed in, too. This is a great recipe because it's so adaptable. Actually, it's more of technique than a precise recipe, but here is an approximation:

Tomato Deluge Pasta (Caprese-Style)

4-5 regular-sized tomatoes (I used two ginormous and one smaller one)
1/4 cup (a handful) fresh basil leaves, chopped
1/4 cup (a handful) fresh parsley, chopped
8 oz. cheese, cubed (I used mozzarella, but anything melty would do--provolone, fontina, even brie)
salt and pepper, to taste
1/4 cup olive oil
2-4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1/2 bell pepper, seeded and chopped (optional)
1/2 medium onion, chopped (optional)
1 lb. pasta, cooked al dente then drained
parmesan or Romano cheese, grated or shaved, to garnish

Bring a medium pot of water to boil. Drop in the tomatoes for one minute, then remove with a spider or slotted spoon. Cool them off under running water, then core and peel. Gently squeeze each tomato to remove the majority of seeds and gel. Roughly chop and add to a large mixing bowl (something that retains heat--metal or pottery, not plastic). Chop the herbs, dice the cheese, and throw them into the bowl along with a good amount of salt and black pepper.

In a saute pan over medium heat, add the olive oil and any veggies that you're inviting to the party. I sauteed some pepper and onions until softened, and then I threw in the garlic at the last minute (do not brown the veggies). You could also add some sliced summer squash, or you could just use garlic by itself and no additional veggies--your call. Pour the olive oil and garlic (and other veggies, if using) over the tomato mixture, stir, and set aside while you cook the pasta.

When the pasta is cooked (al dente), drain and toss into the mixing bowl with everything else. Gently combine the pasta and sauce, cover the bowl and let stand for five minutes. (I just put the saute pan that I used over the mixing bowl, but you could also use plastic wrap.) Serve with a generous sprinkling of parmesan or romano cheese.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

My labors never cease...

Well, folks, I hope you had a great Labor Day! Sadly, I had to work on what was surely the most glorious day of the season! I kept looking longingly out the lakeside windows at school to see what seemed like more sailboats than water on beautiful Lake Champlain. It was tempting to be bitter about having to work, but we've only been back a week, and the faculty made a willing trade of Labor Day for two days over the Columbus Day weekend in October. I'm sure we'll really need a four-day mini-vacation by then!

On top of having to work, my allergies morphed into a nasty head cold by the end of last week, and now it all seems to be settling in my chest. I expect someone will have to call hospice soon. ;-) And as my roommate has gone off to the home office in Minnesota for a month of training, I don't have anyone to cook for at home, even if I felt up to it. But my sweet friend, Lee Ann, took pity on me over the weekend, and invited me over to a Labor Day Weekend cookout with her family so that I wouldn't be on my own at home. The day before, I had stopped by one of my favorite farmstands--Garrant's on Military Turnpike, for all my local readers--to buy some more canning tomatoes (a half-bushel for seven bucks!). My own tomatoes are starting to come on like gangbusters now (observe the most recent haul, left), but I will be teaching some canning classes soon through continuing education, and I want each student to have a quart of tomatoes to take home, so I'm trying to get ready for that.

Anyway, when I was at Garrant's, I spied a quart of overripe peaches for the rock-bottom bargain of one dollar! I wasn't sure exactly what I was going to do with them, but I couldn't pass them up for that price. Then Deb at Smitten Kitchen gave me the perfect idea for what to take to the party at my friends' house: the flakiest fresh peach turnovers! Deb made smaller "hand pies," but I made larger, six-inch turnovers, and since I was serving them to two little girls, I omitted the bourbon, increased the vanilla, and added a wee bit of almond extract. Of course, the larger pies had to bake a bit longer, but other than those minor changes, I followed her recipe very closely, and they turned out beautifully, just as pictured on her gorgeous blog. I snapped a quick picture of the turnovers when I was at Lee Ann's (below), but of course, Deb's pictures are much better. Then again, I don't think Deb had her hand pies served with homemade, hand-cranked vanilla ice cream like we did at our cookout! So there! Tee hee. The recipe follows. It's fussy, to be sure, and you'll spend the better part of your day chilling and re-chilling that damn dough. But your patience will be rewarded with an exceedingly flaky, tender turnover that's the perfect foil for summer's freshest, sweetest peaches--or perhaps the ripe stone fruit of your choosing.

Fresh Peach Turnovers
(Source: adapted from Smitten Kitchen)
Makes about 10-11 (depending on cutter size)

For the pastry:
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons (2 sticks, 8 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/2 cup sour cream
4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup ice water

For the filling:
2 pounds of peaches
1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup sugar
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon almond extract

one egg yolk beaten with one tablespoon cream (for egg wash)
coarse sanding sugar, for decoration (optional)

1. To make the pastry, in a bowl, combine the flour and salt. Place the butter in another bowl. Place both bowls in the freezer for one hour. Remove the bowls from the freezer and make a well in the center of the flour. Add the butter to the well and, using a pastry blender, cut it in until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Make another well in the center. In a small bowl, whisk together the sour cream, lemon juice and water and add half of this mixture to the well. With your fingertips, mix in the liquid until large lumps form. Remove the large lumps and repeat with the remaining liquid and flour-butter mixture. Pat the lumps into a ball; do not overwork the dough. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for one hour. If preparing ahead of time, the dough can be stored at this point for up to one month in the freezer.

2. Divide the refrigerated dough in half. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out one half of the dough to 1/8-inch thickness. Using a six-inch round cutter or bowl, cut about five circles out of the rolled dough. Transfer the circles to a parchment-lined baking sheet, and place in the refrigerator to chill for about 30 minutes. Repeat the rolling, cutting, and chilling process with the remaining half of dough.

3. Make the filling: Peel and chop the peaches into small bits (approx. 1/2-inch dice), much smaller than you’d use for a regular-sized pie. Mix them with the flour, sugar and pinch of salt, and add the vanilla and almond extracts.

4. Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator, and let stand at room temperature until just pliable, 2 to 3 minutes. Spoon about two tablespoons of peach filling onto one half of each circle of dough. Quickly brush a little cold water around the circumference of the dough, and fold it in half so the other side comes down over the filling, creating a semicircle. (I found it unnecessary to use the water to seal the edges as there was plenty of juice oozing out!). Seal the turnover, and make a decorative edge by pressing the edges of the dough together with the back of a fork. Repeat process with remaining dough. Place the turnovers back on the parchment-lined baking sheet, and return to the refrigerator to chill for another 30 minutes.

5. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Remove the chilled turnoevers from the refrigerator, cut a small slit or two in each and lightly brush with the egg yolk wash. Sprinkle sanding sugar (if using) generously over the pies, and place pies in the oven to bake. Bake until the turnovers are golden brown and just slightly cracked, about 35 minutes. Remove the pies from the oven, and let stand to cool slightly before serving, preferably with homemade vanilla ice cream! Yum!