This week, my mom Joanie passed a milestone birthday–85 years on the planet. Jumpin’ Jive, Joanie’s 85! With the exception of some minor aches and pains, she is blessed with good health and a sharp mind. She and my dad (a robust 88!) live on their own, and go about their day-to-day with enthusiasm and gratitude.
Five years ago, she celebrated her 80th with a big hullabaloo. This anniversary, however, she decided to observe on the down-low.
From me, she requested an afternoon of my cooking and company, with time reserved to solve the Sunday NYTimes crossword. Preparing a special meal, dining together, and then escaping with our erasable ink pens into the world of cleverly constructed words: That’s a gift I am happy to provide.
For our lunch, I made three dishes–puree of cauliflower soup, grilled strip steak smothered in sherried mushrooms, and chocolate pudding parfaits. All three were delicious, but it’s the soup I want to tell you about today.
It is lush and creamy, without a speck of cream. No roux or other thickening agents either. A couple of potatoes, an onion, a parsnip or heirloom yellow carrot work together with the cauliflower to give the soup its silken body.
Simply put, it is vegetables and broth, simmered and pureed.
And, with a modicum of embellishments, it elevates to a soup for celebrations.
About those embellishments:
I reserve a handful of cauliflower curds, which I oven roast to crispness and drop into the soup, like croutons. Then I sprinkle in crumbles of gorgonzola–or any blue, which slightly melt into the soup where they fall, supplying little knobs of pungency in select spoonfuls.
To finish it: A whirl of chili oil–for a brilliant streak of heat, a scatter of sliced green onions for a hit of brightness and fresh taste. (Green onions are a gift. What savory thing isn’t improved upon with a bit of fresh green?)
Joanie and I loved the soup. I was happy, because it was beautiful to serve, delectable to eat and easy to make. The fact that it is gluten free, vegetarian, (and if you omit the gorgonzola, vegan and dairy-free) makes it one that I’ll keep in my repertoire, knowing that I can serve any guest with any dietary preference with confidence.
Now, back to puzzling…got to figure out 94 Down, site of ancient Greek Olympics…four letters beginning with E…
PUREE OF CAULIFLOWER SOUP WITH CAULIFLOWER CROUTONS
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 parsnip or heirloom yellow carrot, peeled and sliced
2 medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and diced
1 large head cauliflower, washed, cored and chopped, 1 1/2 cups of curds reserved
1 quart vegetable broth
salt and black pepper, to taste
2-3 green onions, finely chopped
4-5 tablespoons crumbled gorgonzola (or blue cheese)
Place a large pot over medium heat. Add the olive oil.
Add onions, carrot or parsnip, and potatoes. Saute for five minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the chopped cauliflower and continue sauteeing for another five minutes.
Pour in the broth. Stir well. Cover and simmer until the vegetables are tender–12 minutes.
Remove from heat.
Blend until smooth—I use an immersion blender to puree the soup, but you may use a food processor or regular blender if that’s what you have.
Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Garnish with roasted cauliflower “croutons,” crumbled gorgonzola, green onion, and chili oil, if desired.
Makes 6 servings
Roast the cauliflower curds:
For more tips on roasting cauliflower, with corresponding recipes, visit Cooking Light’s healthy makeovers here.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Toss the cauliflower in a tablespoon of olive oil.
Spread over a baking sheet and place into the oven.
Roast until golden brown and slightly crispy, about 15 minutes.
Happy 2015, friends! I have begun this year in focused down-sizing mode. After living in a wonderful old–and large– house for fifteen years, Bill and I have decided that it is time for a change. Simplify. This calls for a smaller home, more efficient living, in space that better meets our needs.
Before we can make that kind of move, we must start where we are. When you live in the same place for many years, stuff accumulates. You don’t even see it! (so much crammed into drawers and closets!) And if you are planning to live in a third less space—-well—it’s easy to figure out. A third of your things gotta go–at the very least.
It’s imperative to adopt a detached point of view. I find myself in this sort of mental dialogue: Is this something that I have used in the past year? 2 years? More? Probably don’t need it, right? Is this something that I want to pack up and move to the next place? No? The response is simple: Say bye-bye.
It is a gratifying process, this letting go of stuff. Home furnishings, kitchen goods, books, clothing, electronics. We have made countless trips already to the Goodwill and recycling centers. We’re not into selling the stuff–just give it away, right now. (Except for a tandem ocean touring kayak. I know, beyond ironic for life in land-locked middle Tennessee —Bill needs to find a buyer for it!)
With the lightening of our home comes a lightening of spirit. What an uplift. Shedding these often unseen, all unused items also sheds psychic dead weight.
And now, for a lightening of another kind. After such fun feast-filled holidays, my body could use a little down-sizing too! Today’s recipe fits the bill, for just about anyone. With cauliflower as its centerpiece, it’s vegan, gluten-free, yet meaty and satisfying.
In recent years, cauliflower has demonstrated its versatility, in soups and purees, mimicking chicken piccata, egg salad, rice… This preparation uses just three ingredients. But what fantastic, complex flavors, thanks to za’atar.
Do you know about this seasoning, used throughout the Middle East?
The word za’atar is Arabic for wild thyme.
But that’s just one of the elements. Crushed sumac, toasted sesame seeds, oregano, salt, and sometimes cumin combine to make a beguiling blend that you can stir into plain yogurt, (terrific dip or marinade) or extend with olive oil to brush onto grilled flatbread.
I read here that some consider Za’atar brain food. In which case, it seems all the more fitting to have it roasted onto the brainlike round of cauliflower.
I’ve made this dish twice this year–to rave reviews. The rumpled curd becomes crispy, the za’atar mixture caramelizes onto the cauliflower as it roasts. Redolent spices fill the kitchen!
The first time, I served it as a side dish. Another time, I cut the roasted head into florets and cast them over a salad, dressed with citrus fruits and pistachios. Lovely.
If you cannot find za’atar at your global market or specialty spice shop, you can make it yourself. Here’s the recipe.
Here’s to being lighter.
ROASTED CAULIFLOWER ZA’ATAR
2 tablespoons Za’atar
4 tablespoons Olive Oil
1 head cauliflower, washed, leaves removed, head left intact
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In a small bowl, place the za’atar spice blend. Add the olive oil and stir. Let it sit for about five minutes.
Place the cleaned head of cauliflower onto a baking sheet.
Brush the entire surface with the za’atar-olive oil mixture.
Place into the oven and roast for an hour.
Makes 4-6 servings
My friend Heather had overbought produce for an event, and found her fridge bursting with 12 bunches of assorted winter greens–curly kale, lacinato kale, and great fronds of Swiss chard. She called me, wondering, what could she do? They were becoming limp, and it would be a shame for them to be fodder for the compost.
Later that day, she arrived at my door, arms laden with grocery bags, a jumble of green leaves, bright and dark, veined and rumpled, some sturdy and sweeping, some starting to look a bit weary.
Great greens, girl. Gotta get to work.
Before I could figure out their destiny, I had to assess their condition. I trimmed their stems, and plunged them in tubs of fresh water to rehydrate. Within an hour, most of the greens had perked up. The chard plumped and straightened, out of the tub. The rumpled kale regained its bounce.
Now, what to make?
The thing with greens—any sort really—is that what starts out as monumental quickly cooks down to manageable. Nonetheless, I had enough chard to make a great pot of stewy-soup, and plenty of lacinato kale to make this beguiling recipe I’d just discovered on Food 52.
Both are simple wintertime recipes, hearty and delicious. Most of work is in prepping the greens–cleaning, deribbing, tearing, chopping.
You begin this soup the way you do most soups: You build a foundation. Saute hunks of portabello mushrooms with diced onions and carrots to get a meaty base before adding vegetable broth and tomato paste. The mushrooms and tomato are the powerhouse duo, making the sienna-colored broth in which the chard simmers a veritable umami-bomb of flavor.
And this kale gratin? Ridiculously easy. Only 6 ingredients, 3 of them being salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Everything gets tossed into a baking dish and then placed into the oven. That’s it!
I made two modifications.
The original recipe calls for 3 cups of Cream. I know. So rich, so luxurious, so over-the-top—but I couldn’t bring myself to go there. And, I already had a quart of half-and-half in the fridge. I dialed it back a bit–and substituted the half and half for cream. Instead of placing slabs of sharp cheddar over the top of the casserole, I shredded the cheese–4 ounces each of New York yellow and Vermont white—to generously sprinkle over the mass, the pieces nestling in and around the greens.
Don’t worry about the tower of kale in your baking dish–it cooks down in that hot oven. Some of the leaves get dry and crispy on the top—and boy, is that ever a boon. (Kale chips!) The cheese, as it bubbles and melts, forms a savory caramel crust too. Scoop through that layer of crunch into this compelling press of green, cooked to tenderness, the kale absorbing the nutmeg-scented dairy in the process–a perfect balance of bitter and sweet.
I cannot overstate the absolute wonder and earthy delectability of this dish. If it’s this marvelous with half-and-half, the cream version must be Heaven. I just want to be a little mindful of my heart, and not get there too soon.
SWISS CHARD-PORTABELLO MUSHROOM SOUP
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
4 carrots, peeled and diced
1 pound portabello mushrooms, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme
1 quart vegetable stock
1 small can tomato paste
2-3 bunches Swiss chard, stemmed, leaves cut into ribbons
Place a 6 quart pot over medium heat. When warm, add the olive oil. Then add the onions, sauteing them until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the carrots and continue to stir and saute for another three minutes. Increase the heat to medium high, and add the mushrooms.
Season with salt, black pepper, and thyme. Stir. The mushrooms may stick to the bottom, but don’t worry–that will add to the flavor of the base.
Pour in the vegetable stock. Add the tomato paste and a cup of water. Stir well.
Add the Swiss chard, folding into the broth. It will collapse as it cooks. Cover and reduce the heat to low. Simmer for 20 minutes. Taste for seasonings.
Serve over hot cooked rice.
Makes 10-12 servings
LACINATO KALE GRATIN adapted from Food 52 and Renee Erickson/A Boat, A Whale, and a Walrus
2-3 bunches lacinato kale (a.k.a. black Tuscan or dinosaur kale)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
3 cups Half-and-Half
1/2 pound shredded sharp cheddar (can be a combination of yellow and white sharps)
Preheat oven to 350 convection or 375 conventional.
Remove the kale ribs and tear the leaves into pieces. Place into a large bowl. Sprinkle the leaves with salt, black pepper and nutmeg and toss. Heap the seasoned kale into a 9 inch by 13 inch baking dish. Pour the half-and-half over the kale, taking care that it doesn’t spill over the sides. Top with shredded cheddar, tucking some of the shreds underneath some leaves.
Place into the oven, middle rack, and bake for 45 minutes (convection) or an hour (conventional)
Let cool for 5 minutes and serve.
Makes 8 servings
A few years ago, farmer and friend Tallahassee May introduced me to this vibrant root vegetable, the Watermelon Radish. An apt name, I thought, for this member of the daikon family. It grows rather large–its size and heft ranging from golf ball to soft ball. A slice through the outer mottled green peel reveals a shock of magenta ringed in white.
I later learned that this heirloom is a native of China, and the Chinese have given it a better name: Xin Li Mei, which means Beautiful Inside.
Sometimes our challenges in the kitchen mirror those in the world: how to uncover that inner beauty so often hidden?
Unlike other radishes—such as cherry bombs, white icicles and French Breakfasts, which have a bright snap and crunch—the slower-growing watermelon radish can be a bit on the tough side.
I discovered this the first time I made a snack with them. Prepared in the French manner, it was a simple tartine: salted radish slice over soft butter on toasted bread. The big brilliant coins curled up on the open face sandwich, their earthy taste buffeted by leathery texture.
This time, I thought that the radishes might benefit from some “down time,” relaxing in a light vinaigrette before I’d place them on the rounds of bread.
I used avocado oil–clear, clean, slightly nutty in taste–to cloak them, (although a favored olive oil would work well too.) followed by a generous frill of grapefruit zest, a squeeze of the tart juice for acidic counterbalance, and scatter of coarse sea salt.
I covered the gleaming coins in plastic wrap. An afterthought (after I’d set aside the camera too), I placed a tea kettle, as a weight, on top, and left them alone for about an hour at room temperature.
Meanwhile I sliced a crusty baguette, slathering each piece with creamy chevre.
Then, lifted the kettle and peeled back the plastic.
Time in the marinade, under the kettle’s weight infused a delightful citrus essence into the radish slices. Salting tenderized. Avocado oil made them glossy.
One by one, I placed the watermelon jewels onto the smeared bread rounds. Then took a bite.
Hmmm. Beautiful, inside and out.
MACERATED WATERMELON RADISH-CHEVRE CROSTINI
1 pound watermelon radishes
coarse sea salt
4 tablespoons avocado oil
zest from one grapefruit
1-2 tablespoons grapefruit juice
12 ounces chevre, softened
1 crusty baguette, sliced 1/4 inch thick, toasted if desired
small bundle fresh chives, optional for garnish
Wash, peel and slice the watermelon radishes into thin rounds. Arrange the rounds on a plate or platter and sprinkle coarse sea salt over them. Drizzle avocado oil over the radishes, followed by sprinkles of grapefruit zest. Squeeze some grapefruit juice over the radishes too.
(Eat the grapefruit–or keep to slice on a salad!)
Cover with plastic wrap. Place a weight (like a tea kettle!) on top and allow the liquids to macerate the radishes, for about an hour.
Spread the softened chevre over the baguette slices. Uncover the platter of radishes, and place a macerated round on top of each slice. Garnish with chives.
Makes 3-4 dozen.
It’s the last day of August, and my summer garden is looking ragged. The ongoing battle with Johnson grass is over and I’ve surrendered: a thick border now entrenched along the fence row, and tall clumps reside undisturbed among the tomatoes and wax beans.
Arugula, long since bolted, has reseeded, trying to bully its way up through the weeds. One by one flourishing squashes have collapsed, victims of those dreaded borers. Two large tomato plants yellowed and died, seemingly overnight, the reason unknown.
Nonetheless, my visits remain fruitful and full of wonder. My stand of Mexican sunflowers continues to put out astonishing blooms in copper, bronze, and blazing yellow, even when their primary heads are bare, petals dropped, seeds picked clean by feasting goldfinches.
The slow-growing Italian roasting peppers are showing streaks of bright red, their fiery signal for harvest.
A few heavy rains have inspired the tomatoes to produce again, although not in the gargantuan sizes of July, and their skins are a bit tougher.
And my lone eggplant, which weathered an early onslaught of flea beetles, is forming plump white and purple streaked fruit. Sweaty, dusty, but excited, I return home with my pouch filled with just-picked things for dinner.
What to make?
Today’s recipe comes from my cookbook: Caroline’s Warm Eggplant Salad. It uses my garden spoils so well! I’ve embellished only slightly–having found a genius idea in the Farmer’s Market issue of Cooking Light (June 2014).
Chef Deborah Madison shared a simple beefsteak tomato salad with fried tomato skins. It’s those fried skins that caught my attention. They are easy to prepare, and add a welcome bite as a garnish-a clever use for these late summer-tough skinned “maters.”
After you plunge your tomatoes in boiling water, quickly cooling them in an icy bath, you slip off the skins. Your tomatoes are ready to cube for the salad. Dab the skins dry and pan fry them in a small amount of oil. They’ll become like thin glassy pieces of cellophane, crisp–and when drained and salted–almost “bacony.”
Even without the fried skins, the salad is simply delicious. A splash of sherry vinegar (a nice change-up from balsamic or red wine,) minced garlic and salt coax out the sumptuous tomato juices. Chunks of roasted eggplant gain a rich brown crisp, and soft sweet flesh.
If you’d prefer this to be vegan, omit the fresh mozzarella. I like the extra meatiness the cheese brings. It turns the salad into a one-dish meal, especially if you serve it with crusty bread to mop up all those lush juices.
I haven’t tired of the tomatoes—not yet. In fact, knowing that their time is waning makes me savor them all the more. The seasonal shift is soon to come.
WARM EGGPLANT-TOMATO SALAD WITH FRIED TOMATO SKINS
adapted from Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook
1 large eggplant, unpeeled, cut into 1-inch cubes
3 tablespoons olive oil
Coarse kosher salt and black pepper to season eggplant
5 ripe heirloom tomatoes, skins removed* and cubed
2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup fresh mozzarella, diced
*Recipe to follow
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a large bowl combine the cubed eggplant with the olive oil in a large bowl and toss well to coat. Spread the eggplant out on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with kosher salt and pepper. Bake for 12 minutes. Turn the eggplant over and bake until soft, with browned edges, about 12 minutes longer.
While the eggplant is cooking, toss the cubed tomatoes, minced garlic, and chopped basil together in a large salad bowl. Add the extra-virgin olive oil and sherry vinegar along with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Toss gently to blend.
Allow the eggplant to cool slightly, about 5 minutes. Add warm eggplant to the tomato mixture and toss. Let this sit at room temperature for about an hour before serving to allow the flavors to marry.
Right before serving, fold in the diced fresh mozzarella. Garnish with fried tomato skins and serve.
FRIED TOMATO SKINS
from Deborah Madison for Cooking Light
5 heirloom tomatoes
1/4 cup vegetable oil
kosher or sea salt
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Core tomatoes; discard cores. Place tomatoes in boiling water for 15 seconds. Plunge tomatoes into ice water; drain. Peel; arrange skins flat on a jelly-roll pan. Cut peeled tomatoes into 1/2-inch-thick slices; arrange on a platter.
Heat 1/4 cup oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add half of skins to oil; cook 2 minutes or until crisp, turning occasionally. Drain on a paper towel; repeat procedure with remaining skins. Discard oil in pan. Sprinkle skins with 1/8 teaspoon salt.
Every element of this savory summer tart appeals to me.
The crust, made with whole wheat flour and olive oil, is rustic, free-form and forgiving.
Inside is a layer of ricotta, scented with lemon zest, nutmeg and thyme, generously spread across the base.
Coins of zucchini, (that ubiquitous summer garden veggie I am ever seeking another way to cook,) ring the top.
A drizzle of lemon agrumato imbues the squash with piquant citrus oil.
The pastry bakes beautifully, surrounding the creamy filling and vegetables with a rumpled golden crust.
And, whether sliced warm from the oven, or carved cool the next day, out of the fridge, it is delicious.
The recipe comes courtesy of Adri Barr Crocetti, whose Italian-centric blog will captivate you with its authentic preparations and stunning photography. When I first read her post about this crostata back in May, I knew that I would make it.
It was just a matter of time.
All summer, I’ve had most of the necessary ingredients in my pantry, and an abundance of those prolific squashes from my garden. The only thing I lacked was Lemon Agrumato–a special oil from Abruzzo where olives are stoneground with lemon.
Serendipity and luck–a friend gave me this bottle for my birthday.
While it is not a true agrumato–it doesn’t indicate that on the label–it does impart a pleasing citric essence to the otherwise peppery nature of the olive oil.
Adri tucks cubes of pancetta between the zucchini slices, and I can well imagine the luscious sweet-salty bites those bring to the tart.
But, I live with a vegetarian. So I strew Sun Gold cherry tomatoes–halved—over the top.
LEMONY ZUCCHINI RICOTTA CROSTATA adapted from Adri Barr Crocetti
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
1/2 cup white whole wheat flour
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup plus 2-3 tablespoons cool water
Place the flours, fine sea salt, baking powder, and nutmeg in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse twice to combine. In a measuring cup combine the olive oil and cool water. Begin to pour the liquid slowly into the processor as you gently pulse then run the machine.Remove the feed tube from the processor, and with the machine running, slowly add all the liquid. Process until the ingredients are well combined, and come together into a mass.Turn the dough out onto the counter, knead and form into a disc shape.Wrap in plastic and allow the dough to rest for at least 30 minutes.
Note: You may make this up ahead of time, refrigerating the plastic-wrapped dough overnight.
15-16 ounces whole milk ricotta, drained for at least 4 hours*
Extra virgin olive oil
2 bunches green onions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon chopped thyme (or lemon thyme) leaves, plus whole sprigs to garnish
Grated zest of 1 large lemon
¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
Fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2-3 medium zucchini, sliced into 1/16-inch coins
Lemon Agrumato Extra Virgin Olive Oil
* To drain the ricotta: line a strainer with cheesecloth and place over a large bowl, or set a large sieve over a bowl. Put the ricotta into the sieve, cover and refrigerate to drain for at least 4 hours, or overnight.
Pour 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil into a skillet set over medium heat. Add the sliced green onions and a pinch of fine sea salt. Sauté over medium heat until soft and translucent, about 3 minutes. Transfer the onions to a small bowl.
Place the drained ricotta (discarding the separated whey) to a medium bowl. Fold in the chopped thyme, lemon zest, ½ teaspoon of fine sea salt, ½ teaspoon of black pepper, and ground nutmeg.
1 large egg
1 tablespoon water
Beat the egg and water together in a small bowl. Set aside until time to brush onto the pastry.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. If you have a baking stone, place it into the oven on the middle rack.
Dust your counter with flour. Unwrap the dough disc and roll it into a 14″-15″ circle. Slide the rolled out dough onto a parchment-lined baking sheet.
Spread the ricotta mixture over the circle of rolled dough, spreading it evenly, leaving a 1-inch border. Sprinkle the sautéed green onions over the ricotta. Arrange the sliced zucchini over the ricotta, and top with slices of cherry tomatoes. Sprinkle with salt and black pepper. Finish with a drizzle with Lemon Olive Oil.
Fold the border over the zucchini, crimping it to make a circle. Brush the egg wash over the pleated border. (You will not use all of the egg wash.)
Slide the crostata and parchment from the baking sheet onto the preheated baking stone. (Or simply bake on parchment lined baking sheet. Bake until the crust is lightly browned and the zucchini is cooked, about 45 minutes. Allow to cool on a rack for 15 minutes.
Cut into wedges and serve.
Amish Paste, Red Pear, Roma
When I was planting my garden earlier this spring, I included, on a whim, one plant from each of these meaty oval-shaped tomato varieties.
I figured, if they produced, they would be good for making thick red sauces, even ketchup.
And, boy, are they producing! Each week, for the past month, I’ve been harvesting an abundance of the brilliant red orbs, turning them into sauces and salsas.
But my new favorite way is this slow roasting method, introduced to me by Joy Martin.
Joy is a master gardener, and I would extend that master descriptor to cook and baker. She is also one of our devoted Third Thursday potluckers. You’ll find several of her recipes, including the one I’m about to share with you, in my cookbook.
Slow roasted tomatoes. That may not sound exciting—don’t we roast everything these days?—and the recipe is deceptively simple. It’s the slow slow roast, coupled with a seasoning of olive oil, fresh garlic, oregano, salt, pepper, and sugar, that yields surprisingly complex, intensely savory-sweet tomatoes, with deep, rich umami taste.
A cautionary note: Don’t leave out the sugar. I resisted sprinkling it over the halves at first, but in combination with the salt, the sugar coaxes out the maximum flavor.
Look! They are glistening jewels. They taste like the sun.
You’ll find numerous uses for them: placed onto grilled bruschetta, dropped onto a rosemary cracker, tucked into a toasted BLT, tossed in a fresh pasta.
Or, do as we do: eat them out of the jar.
Around my house, we call ’em tomato candy!
JOY’S SLOW ROASTED TOMATOES (TOMATO CANDY)
2 pounds Roma tomatoes
4 cloves garlic, minced or shaved
Olive oil (about 1/4 cup or so)
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh oregano or thyme
Kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon sugar
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.
Slice the tomatoes in half lengthwise and place into a 9 x 13-inch casserole dish, or on a baking sheet in a single layer, skin side down. Distribute garlic evenly over the tomatoes. Drizzle with olive oil and generously sprinkle with oregano, salt, pepper, and sugar. Bake for 2 to 3 hours. After cooling, place the halves into jars, and pour over herbed olive oil and juices collected in the sheet pan. Refrigerate until ready to use.
As a first time author of a cookbook, having just passed a milestone birthday, I have found myself in a reflective mood. I’ve been thinking about my culinary evolution, how I got here today, how I’ve grown up and grown in the world of food. It had a shaky beginning: a girl, born in New York, who didn’t care for most foods at all.
Moving to The South made a big impact. It took time, but I came to embrace its culinary ways. There’s a real focus on vegetables that we never experienced up North.
The climate supports a greater variety, that alone surprised me. I had never seen or tasted okra, crookneck squash, pole beans, yellow wax beans, collards, turnip and mustard greens, October beans, or purple hull peas.
Have you heard of purple hull peas? These are tender pulses belonging to the family of Cowpeas, Vigna unguiculata, whose relatives include black-eyed peas, crowders, lady peas, and field peas. High in protein (24%) and easy to grow: they actually thrive in poor soil, and hot, dry conditions.
Their history in the South has dark roots in slave trade. Their seeds were brought on ships, along with enslaved West Africans to the Caribbean and eastern Atlantic seaboard. Rejected by the Europeans as poor man’s fodder, fit only for cattle, they acquired the name “cowpeas.” Little did the Landed Gentry realize all the good they were rejecting.
Make no mistake, the lowly legume has far-reaching benefits for man, animals, and plantlife. Easy to grow and prepare, the peas are delicious. They are high in amino acids, lysine and tryptophan. According to Cooking Light’s notes on healthy living, they are among the foods that will help insure better sleep. (Ahhhhh.)
And, used in crop rotation, cowpeas infuse nitrogen in vast quantities into the soil. That’s important, as corn, for instance, consumes nitrogen greedily. (NOTE: read Dan Barber’s book, The Third Plate–which goes beyond “farm-to-table” detailing an integrated model for vegetable, grain, and livestock production that is truly sustainable.)
As a picky child, I did enjoy corn on the cob–what self-respecting kid doesn’t? Once you got through the task of shucking (and avoiding any green worms!) the prospect of eating it was as fast as a plunge in the kettle of boiling, lightly salted water.
There’s nothing as blissful as sitting on a back porch stoop, chomping on an ear in the summer, hands and face sloppy with kernels, spurted “corn milk” and butter .
But until I came to Nashville, I had never eaten fresh fried corn–cut from the cob, scraped and skillet-simmered in butter and water. More a technique than a recipe–this is not “creamed corn.” No cream, milk, or flour.
I learned about the pure pleasure of this dish at my first restaurant job in the late ’70’s at a Southern style “Meat-and-Three” called “Second Generation” run by Anna Marie Arnold. Anna grew up cooking with her mother, first generation founder of The White Cottage, a tiny yet legendary eatery that vanished–closed and bulldozed in the ’90’s, when a city bridge had to be widened.
Silver Queen was the favored corn of the day–a small kerneled white corn that had candied sweetness.
A delectable summer combination.
One of the shifts in my “food evolution” is using local ingredients in classic recipes. That practice makes good sense, but I didn’t awaken to that sensibility until more recent years. Nonetheless, a creamy risotto lends itself readily to accepting these Southern staples in the stir:
Purple hull peas, cooked in onion, garlic and red pepper
Sweet Corn, cut and scraped from the cob
Short-grain Rice, cooked in tomato-vegetable broth
The tomato-vegetable broth is key too. Certain ripe tomatoes have high water content. When you cook summer tomatoes to make sauce, or chop them to make salsa, if you strain the pulp, you’ll have a lot of remaining juice, or “tomato water.” Use it, in combination with vegetable broth (made with trimmings of carrots, celery, onions, garlic)
Stir—stir—stir. It can be a meditative process. You might find yourself reflecting on your own life in food!
As the rice becomes plump and savory, releasing its starch into the broth, a seductive creaminess results. Fold in the corn and its scrapings, and finally the purple hull peas, along with the “pot likker” in which they were cooked.
Garnish with fresh thyme, if you like, or a few curls of pecorino romano.
But it is not necessary–the risotto is rich with flavor, and wonderful texture. Enjoy it with spoon, to capture every luscious bite.
SUMMER RISOTTO WITH SWEET CORN AND PURPLE HULL PEAS
3-4 ears fresh corn
1 pound purple hull peas (weight is unshelled)
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 cloves garlic, slivered, divided
2 medium onions, chopped, divided
1 chili pepper of choice, split in half (cayenne, serrano, jalapeno)
a few sprigs of fresh thyme
2 tablespoons butter (may use oil to make this vegan)
1 1/2 cups short grain rice, like Arborio or Carolina Gold
8 cups tomato-vegetable broth
salt and black pepper to taste
Cut the corn from the cobs, scraping the cobs for extra “corn milk,” into a bowl and set aside.
Shell the purple hull peas, rinse, drain, and place into a bowl. Set aside.
Place olive oil into a 2 quart sized saucepan on medium heat. Add 2 cloves slivered garlic and 1/2 onion, diced, into the saucepan to saute for 2 minutes. Add chili pepper, purple hull peas and enough water to cover the peas by 2 inches. Season with a little salt and black pepper. Increase the heat to bring it to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes, until peas are tender, yet still firm. Let the peas cool.
Place tomato-vegetable broth into a saucepan and warm.
In a large heavy duty pot, (such as an enameled cast iron Le Creuset) melt the butter over medium heat. Add remaining diced onion and minced garlic. Saute for a minute, then add the rice. Stir until the grains are well coated.
Begin adding the broth, a cupful at a time, stirring the rice, watching it plump up from the savory liquid, monitoring its creaminess from the released starch.
This process will take 30 minutes: stirring, pouring in more cups of broth, stirring, stirring, but I do not constantly hover over the pot. I’ll turn my attention to making salad, slicing tomatoes, visiting with my friends…
At the 20 minute mark, fold in the corn. Stir stir stir.
At the 25 minute mark, fold in the cooked purple hull peas. Stir Stir Stir.
At 30 minutes, turn off the heat. Taste for seasonings. Serve
I’m not one to boast, but the scores (hordes, legions, truckloads) of plump, ripe, succulent tomatoes that I’ve been picking from my little garden have afforded me bragging rights.
Never–and I really mean NEVER–have I had such success.
Biggest Juiciest Tomatoes EVER!
Check it out—this handful is more the norm than the anomaly.
My friend Kimmie, an avid gardener who follows the Farmers’ Almanac, tells me that it is because I planted them in alignment with the full moon.
I checked back on the calendar, and why, yes, I did. Unintentionally.
Bill speculated that it is because our winter was extra cold, killing off the destructive insect larvae and/or fungus-mold-rot starters hidden in the soil.
I figured the damp spring got our plants off to a terrific start in making blooms, and now that the hot summer days are here, they are bearing beauteous fruits.
And, maybe, it was just time.
Bill’s dad, who was a dedicated farmer by profession, always said you could count on 1 great growing year in 7. Maybe this is that year.
Whatever the case—and I suspect it is a serendipitous confluence of all these factors—I am the happy harvester of Cherokee Purples, Lemon Boys, Sun Golds, Black Krim, Amish Paste, Bradleys, German Pinks, Teardrops, and one other heirloom variety whose clever name escapes me.
We’ve been eating them all ways—caprese, savory tart, pasta sauce, on sturdy bread swiped with mayo—but this salad, a featured recipe in my cookbook, has been favored both at the dinner table, and in my cooking demonstrations.
Cornbread Panzanella is a Southern take on the much loved Italian bread salad. The season’s bounty of ripe sweet tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, and sharp red onion are at the heart of each version. But, instead of using hunks of leftover, stale rustic bread, you make cornbread croutons. (Hint: the cornbread is the only part of this dish that requires turning on the oven. Everything else is either chopped or whisked!)
Instead of tossing the vegetables and bread cubes in a red wine vinaigrette, you make a tangy buttermilk ranch to coat the mixture.
It works beautifully.
After chopping the tomatoes, you put the chunks into a bowl and sprinkle them with salt to coax out their juices. When you toss the mixture with the herbed buttermilk ranch,(enlivened with lemon, flat leaf parsley and scallions) those juices meld with the dressing, creating a luscious rose-tinged sauce.
That soaks into the cornbread croutons, which you’ve toasted to a toothsome crunch. There’s a marvelous combination of textures and tastes.
You could add bits of bacon or pancetta, shavings of parmegianno-reggiano, or a good sharp white cheddar, if you wanted to make it “meatier.” But this big tomato salad makes satisfying summer meal, just as it is. The bread salad theme can be expansive: this BLT version from Cooking Light is mighty tempting.
It has been fruitful outside the garden too–busy promoting the Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook. It’s been getting great reviews, I am happy to report, and I’ve been compiling the blogpost and articles here. I appreciate everyone’s kind words and support.
1 1?2 cups cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 large eggs
1?2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
1 cup milk
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a baking sheet.
In a large bowl whisk together the cornmeal, flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Whisk in the eggs, melted butter, and milk until well incorporated. Do not overbeat. Pour onto the baking sheet.
Bake until set—golden brown—about 20 minutes.
Allow to cool. Cut into cubes and spread out onto a lightly oiled baking sheet.
Toast for about 15 minutes. Allow to cool.
Makes 2 cups.
HERBED BUTTERMILK RANCH DRESSING
1?2 cup buttermilk
1?2 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 green onions, chopped finely, tops included
1 heaping tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1?2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1?4 teaspoon salt
Pinch of black pepper
In a medium bowl combine the buttermilk, mayonnaise, lemon juice, green onions, parsley, garlic, salt, and pepper. Whisk until smooth and creamy. Taste for seasonings and adjust. This will keep, refrigerated, for a week.
Makes 1 generous cup.
1 1?2 cups diced Bradley tomatoes
1?2 cup peeled, seeded, and cubed cucumbers
1?2 cup sliced red onion
1?2 cup chopped fresh basil
Salt and black pepper to taste
In a large bowl combine the tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, basil, salt, and pepper. Add 2 cups of cornbread croutons. Pour the Real Ranch Dressing over the croutons and toss well. Serve immediately.
Cool mornings, steamy afternoons, with isolated downpours daily,
have been the recipe for a lush, dense, almost tropical backyard,
and a happy garden plot:
Chest-high tomato plants are laden with the promise of abundance;
Prolific golden-bloomed squashes double in size overnight, hidden under their great leaf umbrellas;
Aggressive cucumber vines amble over stakes and wires, ever-seeking new places to latch on and climb.
June is done. Summer is here in full regalia.
And, the cookbook is out! Between tending my garden and teaching teen cooking camp, I’ve been making presentations–in book stores, at two restaurants, our farmers’ market, on local television: demonstrating recipes, reading, signing, answering questions, telling our story. The response has been wonderful.
And, it is just the beginning.
In the meantime, I wanted to check in with you and share a recipe. This one is of the quick-and-easy variety: a kind of potato salad (I know, another potato salad recipe?)
New potatoes and string beans are dressed in a Greek yogurt sauce folded with charred red onions. There’s something about it that harkens to old school tastes in an appealing way–however updated. The combination of sea salt, cayenne, a dash of Worchestershire sauce with those crispy onion pieces in thick yogurt cream reminds me of “French Onion Dip.” Only I think you’ll find this one to be much, much better—and certainly healthier.
Stirred into a mixture of petite new potatoes (still slightly warm!) and whatever young string beans you can find (I am partial to yellow wax beans.) the charred red onion dressing (and, yes, it doubles as a dip. Get out your sweet potato chips!) creates a delicious picnic side dish. It is a different take on potato salad.
And goodness knows, as long as there are potatoes and ingenuity, there will always be yet another take on potato salad. Embrace variety!
Thank you all for your interest in and support of my cookbook.
For those of you who have asked “How Can I Buy It?”
Here are the possibilities:
Online at Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Books-a-Million (links are upper right on this page)
In Tennessee: All of the SAM’S CLUBS are stocking the book.
In Nashville: These independent booksellers: Bookman Bookwoman Books in Hillsboro Village and Parnassus in Green Hills.
You may also ask your local bookstore to order the book for you.
Garden New Potatoes with Yellow Wax Beans and Charred Red Onion
1 1/2 pounds new potatoes, halved or quartered depending on size
1/2 pound yellow wax beans (or young green beans), ends snapped
charred red onion dressing (recipe below)
Place potatoes into a large saucepan and cover with water. Add a pinch of salt and a bay leaf. Bring to a boil over medium high heat. Simmer and cook until tender—about 12 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Fill a skillet with water, add a pinch of salt, and bring to a boil. Blanche the beans in batches (do not overcrowd) for 3-4 minutes.
Fill a bowl with ice water. Plunge cooked beans into the ice water bath to chill and stop the cooking.
In a large bowl, fold the potatoes, beans, and charred onion dressing together until well-coated. Serve room temperature or chilled.
Charred Red Onion Dip/Dressing
adapted from Cooking Light
1 cup chopped grilled red onion
1 cup plain lowfat Greek yogurt
1/4 teaspoon Worchestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Cut the onion into chunks and place onto a baking sheet. Brush with olive oil, sprinkle with salt. Roast until the onion edges become dark brown and crispy.
Remove from oven and cool. Chop coarsely.
Combine the onion with the remaining ingredients in a mixing bowl. Stir until well combined.