Thursday, August 28, 2014

When life hands you a gazillion tomatoes...can marinara !

 The tomato gods have been very good to us this year. The Romas especially have been loaded and gorgeous and  just keep on coming.  Because they are so much meatier than big tomatoes, they are perfect for making sauces.  I had quite a few big tomatoes too and put those through the Vitamix to pulverize all the skins and seeds.

When canning marinara (spaghetti sauce),  I like to cook the sauce down  long and slow, on low heat. So I use my biggest crock pot. It is big enough to cook 5-6 quarts of sauce, which is perfect. It takes a lot of tomatoes to make sauce.  I probably used 15-20 pounds to make this batch.

 Any good marinara starts off with onions and garlic. About 2 large or 3 medium sized yellow onions and about 3-5 cloves of minced garlic.  Finely chopped and sauteed in a bit of olive oil. They don't really saute in a slow cooker, lol, but you get the idea. I start the cooker off on high and start chopping.  Along with the onions, you'll want some beautiful bell peppers.

 These beauties were so fresh !!  I picked them the same morning I made this.  I used 4 big bells.  Nicely diced, as you can see.

 I often shred a carrot or two to put in my sauces, but not when I'm canning them.  You want the acidity when canning, and that's what the carrot does to the sauce. It neutralizes the acid. 

 Then I took all the big tomatoes, washed them and cut out any and all yucky spots or bruises.  My husband walked in and said--WHAT are you doing ?? as I was sniffing a tomato to be sure it wasn't smelling of rot where I'd cut a chunk off.  lol  I sniff and I taste and I scrutinize.  I NEVER peel tomatoes if I can get away with it.  Most recipes will tell you to peel them, and it's true that sometimes the skins can be tough and stringy. But if I'm saucing, I just throw those bad boys in the Vitamix and pulverize 'em.  Problem solved.

  Because I like my sauce chunky, I hand chopped all the Romas.  It's not a chore. Almost a mediation.  My big french knife makes quick work of it. Dice away!

 Toss all of it together and this is what you get.  It's a thing of beauty, innit ?

 Next I add spices...salt, pepper, oregano, basil. Not too much...spices will fade in the high heat of canning and I like to be able to spice my sauce as I'm using it anyway.  Years ago, when I cooked at a sweet little place in the Pacific Northwest called Tomaso's Tomato Pies...I learned that when you put dried basil in a large batch of sauce you need to add a little brown sugar to offset the bitterness that may occur. So, I always do that. Just about a quarter cup or so.  You can leave this out if you don't want any added sugar. I would recommend that you go really easy on the basil though. I grow and dry my own herbs and have a tendency to be a little heavy handed with the ones that I especially love, like basil.  Stir all this together, put a lid on it, and let it simmer at least a good 10 hours.  I left this batch go overnight because I wanted it super thick.

  As you can imagine, my house smelled wonderful.  Tomatoes, onions, garlic, oregano...Italian air freshener !! lol

  First thing the next day, I got  my jars and lids  ready, ladled that yummy goodness into hot jars a half inch from the top, wiped the rims down, put the lids on and screwed the bands tight, and put them in the pressure canner. 

  (Do we need a Cliff Notes tutorial on using the canner??)  This is for Charlotte-- 
 *** Before you start filling jars, put  about 3 quarts of hot water into your pressure canner and set it on med high heat.   Then put the filled jars into the canner, making sure the jars aren't touching each other. (The number of jars you can get in it will depend on the size of your canner. My Presto canner holds 8 regular mouth quarts or 7 wide mouth quarts).  Once all the jars are in, put the lid on the canner, but not the little pressure regulator--leave it off.  Make sure the lid is on securely and watch for the steam to start coming out of the stem that the regulator sits on. When the steam is coming out steady, this is called "venting".  You want to vent the cooker for at least 10 minutes. At the end of that time, set the regulator on it, watch the pressure cock pop up and the temperature gauge will start to move.***

 I can my marinara at 10 pounds of pressure for 25 minutes.  At the end of 25 minutes at 10 pounds,  turn off the heat and leave it alone. When the pressure has dropped to zero, you can take the regulator off (!! Make sure it is at ZERO !!)  Then you can take the lid off and take your jars out. Set them on doubled up towels on a counter where they won't have to be moved for 24-48 hours.  No draft.  The sealing process will complete, you'll hear the little PINGS! of the lids sealing.  Resist the urge to dance to this music.  lol

  Before you store them (after 2 days)  wipe the jars down and label with contents and date. Don't not label them because you think you'll remember what it is.  DATE AND LABEL.  Always.

  You can add mushrooms or even meats to these, but if you do it will change the processing times. I LOVE mushrooms in my marinara, but I put them in as I'm cooking because I like them best fresh. I don't like the texture of canned mushrooms, not one bit. (Yes, I am a picky eater).   I like canning a basic plain sauce because that gives me more freedom to use this pantry item in more ways in different kinds of foods.   Sometimes I like sweet Italian sausages with my pasta, but again--I like that fresh too. I very rarely make a meat sauce for pasta, so I would never go to all the extra prep and time to can meat sauce. But that's just me. Lots of canners wouldn't do it any other way.   

  You can do what you like. As I always say, one of the reasons I love to cook is because I get to make up my rules as I go.  

  Freedom, baby.

Bon Apetit !

Monday, August 25, 2014

Perfect for a hot summer supper (or lunch !) Gazpacho

 (There's an awful lot of superfluous stuff in this picture....)  LOL

  This time of year it's hot, the humidity is high and tomatoes and peppers and cucumber are running amok.  We had some strangely cool weather and now it whip-lashed us back into the hot hot dog days of summer. High nineties temps with heat indexes at 110 and more.  I picked tomatoes this morning at about 9:30 and it was already so hot you could barely breathe.

  Today's recipe is a wonderful way to use up fresh produce while making a healthy and delicious supper that's a little exotic, but sure to please.  You can play with the ingredients a little,  there are lots of recipes for this soup.  The basics though, are tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers.  If you have those, you can make gazpacho.  

  The recipe I use calls for lemon or lime juice, but I started using white balsamic vinegar instead and I love it.  I also put a whole jalapeno with about half the seeds removed in it. It gives it the tiniest bit of an after bite, which I love.  DISCLAIMER:  When I say "the recipe I use"  you know it's a lie, right ?   I am the most undisciplined erratic cook in the world.  When I get it in my head to cook something, I might look up a couple of recipes...take part of this one and part of that one...oh LOOK!!  SHINY!!... see something else in the cabinet or garden and think, oooo...I'll bet that would be good in this !  Sometimes I end up with something nothing like the original and sometimes I get a super star hit. It's always good (usually, lol)  but I have made it my own (Assuming I can remember it next time I want it again.  When I'm not maniacally throwing stuff around, I write it down.) Sometimes.

  So...while it's fresh in my mind, let's go.

  This is what I got out of the garden today
 Lots of beautiful ripe meaty Romas and the bottom layer in that basket is all heirloom  big tomatoes. Bell peppers, jalapenos, and a few onions.  Oh, and an egg.  But that's got nothing to do with this soup.  lol

  Ingredients you'll need:

  4 cups tomato juice (home canned is best, but...)
  2 cups diced tomatoes (I have a Vitamix, so I don't peel the tomatoes.)
  1 cucumber peeled and diced
  1/2 cup onion, chopped
  1/2 cup celery, chopped
  1/2 cup bell pepper, chopped
  1 jalapeno, finely chopped (discard at least half the seeds)  (or don't, if you're adventurous)
  2 green onions chopped
  2 garlic cloves, minced
  3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
  2 tablespoons olive oil
  salt and pepper to taste.

 Today I also threw in a handful of fresh parsley and a small handful of fresh basil.  
  Because I could.

You want to seed the cucumber.  I hold back about 1/3 of each of these vegetables to chop finely and throw into the soup bowl . The rest goes in the blender. I don't save back the garlic, I run that through.  Nobody wants a mouthful of THAT.  lol  Some recipes blend all the soup.  Some make it really chunky.  I like to land in the middle somewhere.  So, into the bowl (a covered bowl you can refrigerate this all in)  go a bit of pepper, cucumber, onion, celery, green onion and tomato.  All the rest goes  in the blender.

 Alright, I know.  I'm just bragging now...  lol

Whir it up, run until smooth.  Pour it into your bowl of chopped veggies and mix well. Taste it. Add more salt or pepper if needed.  Put the cover on and stow it in the fridge. It tastes better if it can chill at least 5 or 6 hours, or overnight. But it will be good no matter what.

 Serve it up with some french bread or crackers and cheese or anything you want, but keep it simple. It's too hot to get too excited!  

Bon Apetit !

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Pad Thai for supper, anyone ?

Mmmm...who doesn't like Pad Thai ?  

  There are as many recipes for pad Thai as there are cooks in Thailand. I was surprised to learn that it is not the heralded exotic dish that we Americans think it is (..."signature dish of Thailand"), but more likely something you'll find at a casual meal or off a noodle cart.  lol  It's easy, it's nutritious and it looks real pretty on a plate.  It's also easy for me to make with items that I keep in my pantry. 

  You can get really strict about the ingredients (tamarind sauce, fish sauce...) or you can play it by ear. Lite Soy sauce or tamari in place of fish sauce.  Rice vinegar and brown sugar in place of tamarind sauce.  I always keep bean sprouts in my cupboard for making egg foo young when my chickens are laying lots of eggs.  I almost always have rice noodles in there too...just because I do. 

  Here's how I made the pad Thai tonight :

  Bring a pan of water to almost boiling and put the dried rice noodles in and turn off the heat. Set aside and allow the noodles to soften. When they are soft, drain and rinse in cold water.

  I like to make my own ginger peanut sauce for this dish.  It's really easy--all natural peanut butter (yes, the kind you have to stir), brown sugar, powdered ginger, garlic powder and a little hot pepper.  I add a little soy sauce too and put it all in a pan over low heat. You'll want to add water and stir until it's a medium consistency.  Play with this recipe and find a way to make it your own. I usually add crushed peanuts to it. Sometimes I throw in a splash of rice vinegar. Stir and taste.  Stir and taste. It will look something like this:

 You can use a variety of vegetables in this dish. Put some sesame oil (or any oil) in the bottom of your wok (or big skillet)  and stir fry :

  Thinly sliced onions
  Thinly sliced cabbage
  red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
  snow peas
  leftover chicken, shredded
  tofu, pressed and cut into 1/4 inch slices
  a little cilantro, if you like it (I do!)
  canned or fresh bean sprouts (I put about 2/3 of the can in the pad Thai and save the rest to put  in the spring rolls)

  When these vegetables are crisp tender, add the noodles and a dollop or two of that peanut sauce you made.  Also add some unsalted peanuts to the mix, just for fun.  Push the vegetables to the side and break in 2 or 3 eggs  in the space by themselves. Scramble them up and once they're set , mix them into the noodles.  Taste it.  If it needs more,  put another dollop of the peanut sauce in there.  Garnish it with cilantro (if you're so inclined) or chopped peanuts.  It's beautiful.

 Tonight I was feeling really ambitious, so I also made spring rolls.  Spring rolls are just egg rolls with no meat in them, basically.  You can buy egg roll wrappers at almost any grocery store these days.  They do take a bit of time, and you want to cook them last because they are best hot.  That said, I usually chop the veggies and get that cooked, seasonings and all and then set it aside. Then I start the pad Thai and while the veggies and stuff are cooking, I start putting together the rolls. I make all the rolls and put them on a piece of waxed paper dusted with corn starch (so they don't stick and tear to pieces when I'm trying to put them in the oil.) Don't forget about the pad Thai-- (I know, I know--we're juggling a little here). Finish it up per the above directions and put a lid on it and move it aside.

  Basic ingredients for the rolls are thinly sliced onion, thinly sliced cabbage, finely shredded carrots and the rest of those bean sprouts and some chopped red pepper.  I put this in a skillet with some sesame oil ( as little oil as you can) and garlic powder, black pepper, soy sauce and powdered ginger (or fresh if you have it--I was out).  Cook over medium high heat until the cabbage is slightly tender.

I added a little cilantro too.  Why not ?  lol

Then roll about a tablespoon or 2 of filling up in an egg roll wrapper.  Don't overfill.  Roll it up like a burrito, tucking in the sides and edges. 

I make a small cup of a slurry of cornstarch and water to use to "glue" the sides and tip of the wrapper after I've rolled it up.  You don't want it  exploding open in the hot oil.  lol

 Once you've got them all done, heat a pan of oil (I used canola) deep enough to submerge the spring  rolls and let them cook until golden brown. Take them out with tongs and cool on a wire rack over paper towels. The first batch will barely brown, but the batches after that will brown quickly, so keep an eye out.

This picture is a little dark, but you get the idea.  Dip them in some of that peanut sauce and voila !!  YumYum.

Bon Apetit !