Friday, August 28, 2009

Dinner, Day 4: Tomato Soup (for the soul)

As I mentioned previously, I'm feeling extraordinarily under the weather. Enough that all I've done over the last 24 hours is sit at the computer or in front of the tv. Okay, that's not true. I took the kids to school, picked them up from the stop, made lunch, fixed Em's hair for ballet, cleaned the kitchen, scrubbed the floor, and worked on my new crochet stitch. And I made tomato soup.

Tomatoes are high in vitamin C. Not as high as oranges, which are crazy-off-the-charts high, but a good source of vitamins C and A with a little fiber to boot.

I was planning on tomato soup with grilled cheese for dinner as a celebration of my son's first day of kindergarten, since he's a grilled cheese fan suddenly. But I was slightly hungry at lunch and nothing - NOTHING - else sounded good enough to ingest except water. So I made tomato soup. I didn't have any chicken stock or vegetable stock on hand, so I cheated by adding a few extra vegetables at the beginning. Also, I had a little less tomatoes than I would have liked and supplemented with a can of chopped tomatoes.

I roasted the tomatoes and carmelized the onions to give the soup some depth. I only added a small amount of milk, so it was not only very healthy but a good soup for me on a sick day. I ate very small bowls of it most of the day and found it very comforting.

We didn't have the grilled cheese and tomato soup for dinner. My kind husband whisked the children away as soon as he was home from work to their various activities (ballet, back-to-school night, grocery shopping) and left me alone to lay perfectly still and nearly catch up on Top Chef Masters. And he found some food for them on the way. But I didn't mind at all. Now I have more soup leftover for today. Which I am happy to consume.

Tomato Soup

4 lbs. tomatoes (or at least 2; you can supplement with good, canned diced tomatoes)
1 large onion, chopped
1 medium carrot, thinly chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
4 T. butter, room temperature
1 1/2 T. flour
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 c. milk

Turn the broiler on in the oven and set the rack six inches below it.

Spray a sheet pan with non-stick spray. Core the fresh tomatoes (not as essential with Romas) and spread them out on the pan. Broil on both sides until the skins are blackened. Remove from oven and set aside to cool for a few minutes.

In a large saucepan (larger is better so it doesn't spit at you), sauté the onion and a couple of pinches of salt in 2 T. butter for about 5 minutes over medium high heat. (Adding the salt immediately with the onion helps to bring out the sugars in the onion, which will help it to carmelize faster.) Add the carrot and celery and continue to cook until the onions are starting to brown, then reduce the heat to medium and cook for about 5 more minutes, until they're more thoroughly browned but not burning. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for another minute. Remove the pan from the heat.

Place all of the contents of the saucepan in the blender. If you're supplementing with canned tomatoes, add a 15-oz. can, juice and all, along with the onion mixture to the blender. If you're not supplementing, add a tomato or two, removing the skins first. Blend until smooth, then return to the saucepan.

Remove the skins from the tomatoes and purée the tomatoes, in two batches, in the blender. Add to the saucepan. Stir everything together and return to heat. Add 1 cup of water and leaves from the thyme sprigs. Bring to a simmer and let it cook for about 5 minutes.

Stir together the remaining 2 T. room temperature butter and flour to make a beurre manié. Stir the beurre manié into the soup and continue stirring as the soup thickens slightly. Stir the milk into the soup and remove the pan from the heat. If you prefer a thinner soup, you can add more milk.

Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as desired.

You can, of course, strain the soup if you don't like the tomato seeds in there. It wasn't a big deal to me, and straining would take a while. Plus I really liked the consistency of the soup, which would smooth out more upon straining. Removing the skins before puréeing the soup takes away the biggest reason to strain, but use your own judgment.

Also, one or two tablespoons of chipotle purée would be a great addition if you're not serving it to spicy-sensitive kids.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dinner, Days 2 & 3: pancakes, simple soup, and peach cobbler

Day 2 was Tuesday and we had pancakes. Not so exciting, really, unless you're a kid. Then they're great (picture the Kellogg's tiger here). And since it's peach season and I'm overflowing with peaches, we had them with peach syrup.

We use a pretty basic recipe for pancakes from The Joy of Cooking, but we always use half wheat and half white flour, and I usually add cinnamon to the dry ingredients.

My mom nearly always made homemade syrup for pancakes when I was little, or at least that's how I remember it. I've used Mrs. Butterworth's or Log Cabin here and there, but when I don't have maple syrup (because I'm so darn cheap, which is nearly always), I revert to her recipe. It's really easy and I think my family prefers it to all the other options.  It's a simple syrup made by bringing equal parts brown sugar and water to a boil in a saucepan, then boiling them for 15-20 minutes, depending on the heat and your elevation, until it's slightly syrupy. Or, for a more precise determination, your finger should leave a trail after you've dipped a metal spoon into the syrup and rubbed your finger along the back of it.

Sometimes we get a little crazy and add 2-3 T. butter to the syrup at this point, then let it boil another 4-5 minutes. Then nobody gets to request butter for their pancakes because it's already in the syrup and saves us the hassle. This time I also chopped up 3 peaches and added them to the syrup for about 2 minutes of boil time. It tasted really good. And then I could say there was semi-fresh fruit with dinner as well as whole grains. See, not too guilt-inducing.

Day 3 was yesterday, and I was starting to feel a little sick. Stuffy nose, sore throat, that sort of thing. (And today, lucky me, I'm much worse!) Since I'd opted for pancakes the night before, I couldn't resort to cereal or anything so un-vegetably for a second night. Besides, I wanted vegetables. So I made a really basic vegetable soup: I sautéed onions and celery, then added several chopped carrots, 1 clove minced garlic, and 4 chopped potatoes. I covered it just barely with enough water and simmered it until the carrots and potatoes were tender.

Next I used a beurre manié, a handy little trick I learned from paying close attention to a food show on tv years ago, to thicken the soup before stirring in about 1/2 c. of milk. (To make the beurre manié, stir together 2 T. butter and 2 T. flour until well combined.) I highly recommend you learn that beurre manié method, as most soups can't start with a roux and this tastes a heck of a lot better than whisked in cornstarch. But you do have to add fat. Still, it's a healthy soup.

I served it with homemade whole wheat honey bread. It's a revised recipe, not the one I posted about a year ago, and I hope to post it in the near future, preferably before I lose it.

I realized I still had about 10 ripe peaches in the bottom of my fridge that needed to be used, so I made a cobbler for the kids as bribery to get them to clean. (See how wicked I truly am?) I used my favorite ever cobbler topping, which is a sweet biscuit-style topping that always reminds me of making pie dough. In a very good way. And cobblers are so easy. Chop the fruit, stir in some sugar, throw it in the pan, and top with biscuit dough. Bake. Cool slightly. Eat with vanilla ice cream. Mmmmm....

Here's the recipe for the cobbler.

Peach Cobbler 
(or any other fruit variety)

about 10 medium peaches, peeled and sliced (or 6-8 c. other prepared fruit)
1/2 c. sugar, or to taste
1/2 t. cinnamon, optional

1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
3/4 c. (12 T., 6 oz.) unsalted butter, very cold but not totally frozen
1 t. white wine vinegar (you can substitute lemon juice)
1/3 c. cold water

Preheat the oven to 400˚. Toss the butter in the freezer for a few minutes if it's not really, really cold.

Prepare the peaches (or other fruit) and add sugar to taste and cinnamon if you want it. Stir well and spread evenly in a 9" x 13" baking pan.

Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Cut the butter up into 1/2" pieces and add to the flour. Working quickly with your fingers (like pie dough or baking powder biscuits), break the butter into smaller pieces and flatter pieces without warming it up and rubbing it into the flour too much. Combine the vinegar and cold water and stir into the biscuit dough until it's evenly moist. Drop/spread evenly over the peaches.

Bake at 400˚ for 35-40 minutes, until the fruit is bubbly in the middle and the biscuit topping is golden brown. If it's browning too quickly, turn your oven down to 350˚ about halfway through.

Cool partially (you know, about 15 minutes). Serve topped with ice cream or straight up!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Dinner, Day 1: steak, grits, and grilled vegetables

I've mentioned to friends a couple of times that I'd be willing to just jot down what we eat on a daily basis for about two weeks, though this may prove to be terribly boring to some of you. Now that school is starting and things are settling, this seems to be a good time, since I'll actually be home for two weeks.

I've been a little busy lately, which is nothing new, and I often forget to think about dinner until afternoon. Yesterday I was thinking we might be having cereal for dinner with everything going on, but my husband mentioned that he'd forgotten to bring lunch or lunch money, so I knew something more filling would be a better plan. Lucky for him, I had the right stuff hanging around.

I pulled a couple of ribeyes out of the freezer and set them out on the counter to thaw. Now, I know you're not supposed to do that. Meat should be thawed in the refrigerator. The problem is this: I've read that it takes about 24 hours per pound of meat to thaw in the refrigerator. You either need one day's advance notice on a small portion or a week and a half for guests if you're thawing anything. Let's not even talk about Thanksgiving turkey. The other bonus in my direction is that I have granite counters, which like to maintain an even temperature and will quickly conduct heat (of the room temperature variety) to the meat. It takes me about 2-3 hours to thaw 2 one-inch steaks from my deep freezer. That's not even getting into the danger zone for meat sitting out too long. (Meat should be kept below 40˚ F or above 140˚ F for safety reasons, as that will prevent bacteria growth.) Seriously, I shouldn't even be mentioning this. Don't follow my advice, because if you get sick I'm warning you this is not proper procedure and you can't sue me. Use your refrigerator for thawing, but plan WELL ahead.

Did I get sidetracked?

So, I thawed two large steaks, which would easily be enough for our family of five.

Last weekend, we took a quick trip to Boise to visit old and dear friends (not old and feeble; they're all still very young). We had a nice meal with three different families, and there was one pervading factor: fresh garden produce. We were even sent home to Utah with some of that produce, so I thickly sliced the zucchini and onion, brushed them with olive oil on both sides, and seasoned them with salt.

After lighting the grill, I cut some fresh tomatoes in half and removed the core and most of the juice inside each half. I drizzled a little olive on them, salted them, and topped them with sharp white Cheddar cheese and fresh thyme. They went into the oven at 425˚ for about half an hour.

We all really like grits, something I've discovered over this last year, and they're so easy to make, so I quickly pulled those together while grilling the steak (just salted), zucchini, and onions. My husband helped, since he really is master of the grill.

So, we had steak, grits, grilled zucchini and onions, and roasted tomatoes topped with cheese. It was absolutely delicious, and I could have left the steak off my plate if it hadn't been so good, too. There was something for everyone in my family, since we have our variety of picky eaters. And there was enough leftover for both parents to have a good lunch the next day.

In case you haven't made grits before, they're not only really easy, they're delicious (if you like corn) and fairly healthy in the standard starch-side-dish category. Unless you add a whole lotta cream and butter. I add a little; I like enough milk and bits of cream and butter to make it creamy tasting without being crazy high in fat. Also, I was never trained by a southerner, so keep in mind that I just make mine to taste really good, not to be authentic to anything in particular. I use yellow cornmeal, which I'm sure is so not the way to go, but it's handy for me, as I usually have yellow cornmeal in the pantry.

Sorry – no pictures!


1 c. yellow cornmeal
2 c. water
2 c. milk (skim to whole, you decide)
1/4 c. cream (or milk, if you don't want to)
3 T. butter (or as little as 1 T., if you're going light)
freshly ground black pepper, optional

In a medium-large saucepan, combine the milk and water with a generous pinch of salt. Bring to a boil over medium high, then quickly whisk in the cornmeal.

When the mixture begins to boil, turn it down to medium or medium-low (depending on how much you'll be standing next to it) and whisk at least every 30 seconds, or continually, for about 10 minutes or so. Taste it a few times, and when the cornmeal is tender, the grits are done.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the butter, then the cream or milk. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as desired. Serve warm.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Pie Night

The other night we had a little (sort of) get together with a few friends, mainly to celebrate (or lament?) the end of the biking season, though we've still got Lotoja to go.

I loved the evening because it was nice to hang out and relax with all of our friends we've made through Mark's hobbies, and it was great to serve pie. Don't get me wrong. I love eating pie, too, but – if I had to choose – I would pick making and serving pie over eating it any day.

We had a really difficult time limiting the number of people we invited, which is always a real issue for us, since we would prefer to have an open invitation and let everyone show up, but we don't have that kind of space. Instead, we chose a very crowded amount we thought we could manage and most of them were able to come, fortunately.

That meant we needed a lot of pies. A couple of friends brought cookies (which were really, really delicious). Holly volunteered to make two peach pies and Gina lent me two pie dishes. It was also my brother-in-law's birthday, and he requested pecan pie. I can't make a lot of pie without making chocolate cream, so I made 2 of those, 2 pecan, 3 blueberry, and 1 peach, bringing us to 10 pies with Holly's contribution. But then I had one more pie dish sitting in my cupboard and two boxes of peaches waiting to be frozen and canned, calling out to me. I gave in and threw another peach pie in the oven last minute. As busy as I was, I loved making the pies. It may be my favorite thing to make. I could make them forever.

Even better than making pies, though, was hanging back and watching everyone chat and eat, knowing they were happy to be here. I really like all the friends we've made here, and it was comforting to me to surround myself with them, since moving to a new place can potentially make you feel like you're a fish out of water for a long time. It's terribly selfish of me, really, but I feel really happy serving good food, knowing someone gets to enjoy a taste of something they'll like. I didn't even care if I ate pie that evening, which is crazy, since it was really good. Know what I mean?

I made blueberry pie for the first time ever just a few weeks ago. Not only was I surprised at how well I liked the flavor of the baked blueberries, I couldn't believe how simple it is to make. No peeling or slicing fruit. No juice streaming down the arms. And they bake a little faster than other pies, too, which is nice. This is my recipe:

Blueberry Pie

enough dough for a double crust pie (I like to do 1 1/2 batches of dough and bake the extra, just to be sure I've got plenty)

36 oz. blueberries (2 1/4 lbs.) - frozen then thawed blueberries are great, just use good quality
2/3 c. sugar
2 T. cornstarch
1 T. lime juice
1 t. cinnamon (you almost can't taste it, but it gives it a nice nuance of flavor)

Preheat the oven to 425˚.

Stir together all the pie filling ingredients.

Roll out the bottom and top crusts. Lay the bottom crust in the pan. Add the filling. Top with the top crust. Trim edges, press together, and crimp. Cut a few vent lines in the top of the pie.

Bake at 425˚ for 30 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 375˚ and bake until filling bubbles in the middle, topping with foil if necessary to keep the crust from burning (not always necessary). Cool on a cooling rack until room temperature. Serve with vanilla ice cream.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Canning Salsa

For the last several years, Mark and I have been canning salsa as our tomatoes ripen, storing up for the winter. And the fall and the spring. He eats a lot of salsa, which is okay, as it's a very healthy food by itself. And still sort of healthy with chips.

This year, we moved to higher ground: 6300 feet, to be more exact. Not having gardened at this altitude before, I was highly disappointed when nothing really worked except the strawberries and blackberries. (The blackberries are new, too, so I won't see any fruit for a while, though the plants have been growing strong all summer, and I'm pleased with that.)

Still, canning salsa is a necessary tradition from an economical standpoint. Even if I buy tomatoes, if I get a good price it's still a better deal than purchasing enough salsa over the course of the next year. And if I use local tomatoes, the flavor is better. At least that's the hope. Mark has traditionally been the mixer and taster, so this year when my steal of a deal on tomatoes ($20 for 30 lbs) coincided with his 170-mile bike race, I knew I'd be in for a daunting task. Not only would I need to be the recipe developer, but it would need to be up to Mark's standard, since he's the consumer. As he relaxed and then snoozed on the couch, I would periodically bring him samples to taste. They passed muster, or maybe even surpassed. In any case, we were both very happy with the recipe, and I was happy I'd kept careful records so I don't have to repeat the stress of perfecting the ingredient list each year.

Most online recipes we've found for salsa include large amounts of vinegar, presumably to keep the pH level plenty low for the boiling water-method of canning. When we started the tradition a few years ago, I did some research. The pH level needs to be at or below 4.6. I bought some pH testing strips that bottom out at 4.5. As long as my salsa is registering at least as bright in color as the 4.5 I'm safe. We've actually never had a problem with this, even without the added lime juice. If you loaded your salsa up with a lot of bell peppers – at least a few cups – you'd probably run into problems and need some vinegar. But, really, you'd need more than just vinegar, because the flavor wouldn't be right in my book. I keep my recipe similar to the same way we make fresh salsa: tomatoes, onions, chiles, cilantro, and salt. I add just a bit of lime to my canned version to give back a little of the tang that's lost from cooking.

As a side note, I'm going to tell you how I choose limes when at the grocery store. (I keep thinking I should do a post on picking produce but have yet to do it.) The thinner the skins, the more time the fruit has had to fill them out on the tree. This means they also shouldn't have large dimpled sections on the ends. If they're all looking pretty good, then it comes down to weight. Compare several by holding them in your hand, one at a time, and choose the heaviest. The heaviest ripened the longest on the tree and is heaviest because it has the most lime juice, and it has the best flavor as a bonus.

As far as special equipment goes, I highly recommend a food processor. I think mine is a 10-cup. You could go as low as a 7-cup, but lower than that and you'll add a lot of time to the whole process, as will going the knife and cutting board direction.

You'll also need a very large pot for a boiling water bath, which you probably already have if you're considering this. I just have a large thin aluminum pot that I use, not specifically made for this, which I bought dirt cheap at a Latin market a long time ago. I don't have a rack for the bottom, though that would be lovely, but I use cut pieces of old flour sack towels (any very thin towel or fabric will do) to wrap the bottom and sides of each jar. This keeps them from banging against each other and seems to work just fine.

Lastly, you'll need a 9-qt. pot for cooking the salsa in. If you don't have one this large, prepare half of the recipe at a time and use a 5-qt. pot.

This recipe makes a medium spicy salsa.

I made two batches of this over the weekend. The second batch, the one I did without several stops to keep track of the process, took me 2 hours from start to finish, including cleanup. Not too shabby, really. Only slightly more than jam.

Canned Salsa
yield: about 7 quarts

15 lbs. juicy, ripe tomatoes (preferably local, as the flavor will be best)
3 large bunches - 9 oz. - cilantro, stems and all, washed
2 poblano chiles
12 large serrano chiles
4 very large (5 lbs. pre-trimmed weight) Walla Walla onions
1 1/2 T. Kosher salt, plus additional as needed
juice of 2 limes, or more to taste

Rinse and core all of the tomatoes. In batches of 4 tomatoes (approximately 1 1/4 lbs.), pulse the tomatoes in a food processor about 8 times, until there are no large chunks left (this will make it easier for dipping once you get to the chip stage). Transfer the chopped tomatoes to a colander suspended over or inside a bowl with room to drip juice. Repeat the process.

After three batches of chopped tomatoes, use a spoon or clean hands to stir the tomatoes in the colander to separate all the juice from the fruit (my tomatoes were almost half juice by weight). Turn the tomatoes out into another bowl and pour the juice into a large pot. Set the pot over medium high to high heat. (You'll want a large pot or it will end up spitting tomato juice all over your kitchen!)

Repeat this entire process with the remaining tomatoes, adding the juice to the reducing liquid as you go, until finished. Continue reducing the liquid while working on the next steps, but stir it occasionally and keep an eye on it. You'll want it to be about a third of the original total amount of juice and it should have the consistency of slightly loose spaghetti sauce.

Rinse off all of the parts of the food processor and put it back together. (You could be really sloppy and ignore this part, but that's messy and a bit disgusting.) One bunch at a time, chop the cilantro in the processor until very fine. Large pieces of cilantro are a good idea for a fresh garnish, not for cooked salsa. Add the cilantro to the tomatoes. Repeat with remaining cilantro. Rinse the food processor again and put it back together.

Peel the onions and cut them into wedges. Process them in small batches - one at a time - until very fine, about 11 quick pulses. Rinse the food processor again.

Cut the ends off the poblanos and serranos. Slice the serranos in half lengthwise and process them until very fine, scraping down the sides twice to make sure the pieces are homogenous. Add them to the tomatoes. Slice the poblanos in large pieces and process them until just as fine as the serranos. Add them to the tomatoes also. Rinse the food processor out completely and set aside for cleaning later.

Add 1 1/2 T. Kosher salt to the tomatoes and stir all the ingredients together. This is a delicious fresh salsa and you could stop here if you had a huge crowd to serve, but you probably don't. If you want to, you can reserve a cup or two of fresh salsa to keep in the refrigerator; just remember it will taste best over the next two days.

Once your liquids have reduced to the right consistency (which is probably right about now), add the salsa to the tomato juice. Stir the reduced liquid and the salsa together thoroughly and bring to a boil.

While you're waiting for the salsa to boil, prepare your next line of equipment: fill your water bath pot a little over half full of hot liquid, cover, and bring to a boil; wash and rinse your jars, lids, and bands in dangerously hot water and set them on a rack to dry as you near filling time; and have your rags or rack on hand, whatever you are using in your boiling water canner.

Let the salsa boil for 5-10 minutes, as the taste will change once this happens, then add lime and additional salt as desired. I added the juice of two limes, but my tomatoes had a bright flavor; you may choose to add more lime. I ended up adding 1 T. more of salt.

Using your canning funnel and a mug or measuring glass, fill a jar to the top, leaving only the slightest amount of space (one-eighth inch or less) at the top. Place a lid and tighten a band on top. Repeat until the salsa is all allocated. One by one, wrap your jars in a thin cloth that is large enough to reach the lid on 2-3 sides, then, using a jar lifter, ease the jar into the boiling water. Process at least 30 minutes, 40 minutes or so at high elevation (that's me!).

Using the jar lifter, place each jar on a cooling rack until room temperature. Make sure all the lids are sealed once cool. Wipe off the lids and label them, then store for later use.

Note: I can salsa and jam in quarts because we go through it quickly. If you're not that sort, go ahead and use pints. You'll process them in boiling water in two batches.