Caramelized Tomato Tart

The tomatoes keep coming. I have canned three separate batches, froze some sauce and now have a third bowl that I must deal with before I leave the house today. These tomatoes were given to mother and me by my aunt on my recent visit to Western New York, and are some of the most beautiful I have seen this season: medium-sized tear-drop shape, deep red and very sweet. When home, I was inspired to use these beauties to make a tomato tart (from a Bon Appetit recipe a week or so ago) and I was pleasantly surprised at how it turned out. I do plan on tweaking this recipe a bit, but it disappeared rather quickly, so I won’t change it too much – here are the details!

In a cast iron skillet I melted a quarter stick of butter and a 1/4 cup of sugar and let it all melt together and start to turn brown. I drizzled about 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and let that reduce for a minute.  I tossed in a few leaves of torn basil and a teaspoon of salt. Next I filled the pan with those gorgeous tomatoes, cut in half and placed cut-side down, letting these cook down and caramelize for 15 minutes or so, stirring every so often. Once the tomatoes were soft, I placed a round of pie dough on top and tucked in the edges around the tomatoes. The original recipe (which I’ve deviated from quite a bit) called for puff pastry, which I didn’t have, and might work better. I baked this until the pie dough was browned (about 20 minutes) in a 425 degree oven. Once I took this out, I let it cool in the pan for 5 minutes or so and then loosened the dough, put a plate to the bottom of the skillet and inverted the whole pan. In truth, some of the tomatoes stuck a bit, but it was easy to recreate and looked quite beautiful – especially drizzled with a touch of high quality balsamic and a few more torn leaves of tomato.

Is it a dessert? A side dish? An appetizer? I don’t know. But it was all delicious.

Whitefly, Don’t Bother Me!

Maybe it was wishful thinking that had me ignoring the numerous white flies that buzzed around my backyard tomato plants whenever I brushed past their leaves. Until my neighbor noted, matter-of-factly, “You have whitefly.” Aphids and blight I was schooled in, but whitefly? Never heard of it. Upon further inspection I found an entire stalk to be diseased-looking (with tumor-like bumps and dying leaves). I could ignore the white flies (and the whitefly) no longer.

Turns out whitefly can be dealt with in similar ways as aphids. Beneficial insects are the best route – ladybugs are a favorite and can be ordered online or bought at many gardening centers. However, because these are in pots in my backyard (my community garden tomato plants are, thankfully, unaffected) I decided to go with a topic solution. Safer Soap is a spray I picked up at the hardware store – and is certified for organic gardening! I gave a spray the other evening and found only a few remaining buzzing white flies the next morning. I feel confident that I will save all but that one diseased stalk (which I am cutting off at the base) with one more spray and some vigilance.

Harvesting Garlic

Finally, more than seven months later, I am reaping the benefits of my planted garlic cloves. I watched the green shoots grow – the first sprouts in the garden, four months ago now – and knew that this day would come. I read about when to harvest garlic: mid-summer was generally when they would be ready; I’d know when because the tops will “die back”. As with most of my garden experiments, I couldn’t exactly picture or pin-point how or when this would happen. But sure enough, as I was weeding the other day, I saw unequivocably that those garlic tops were dead. So dead, that if I hadn’t been careful, I might have cleared away the brown, straw-like former-sprout and not even know that there was a garlic bulb below the dirt. I poked around (my garlic is interspersed throughout my garden) and saw that most of the garlic tops were dying and I would need to be harvesting all those beautiful bulbs soon. But what did I do after I dug a dozen or so heads (smaller than I thought they’d be – and with a bit of a red tinge to them) from the ground?

In my internet research, I found a lot of ideas. Preserving in vinegar, freezing whole or chopping cloves and dehydrating are some ideas. Most of these methods also keep the all or most of garlic’s health properties as well. All fine and good, but I wanted them as close to their harvested state as possible. One source said that that freshly harvested would keep 4 – 12 months at room temperature. (I have the few I dug up the other day in my little garlic bowl – a pot with a top and a few air holes that is meant to keep the garlic aerated but dark.) But I will also throw a bunch of heads in a mesh bag in the “root cellar” nook of my basement, as a few other sources recommended. It sounds like aeration is important, as is darkness and temps that don’t much fluctuate. I’ll report back. In the meantime, garlic, zuke and spinach stir fry over lentils tonight for dinner!

Homemade Mozzarella

I often buy balls of mozzarella from Fiore at the local farmer’s market. For $5 I get a sandwich bag of deliciousness, almost always made that morning. Which got me thinking – if this small cheese company can make countless balls of mozz before 9am, it can’t be too hard for me to make a few of my own! I did a bit of research and discovered that besides milk, I would need rennet and citric acid, both of which can be bought from any number of cheese making sources. Luckily, New England Cheesemaking Supply Company, one of the best known and respected sources, is located barely more than an hour away (thus supporting a local business as well).  Online, I ordered the beginner mozarella and ricotta kit – promising 30 minute mozz – all I needed to add was the milk.

A few days later when my kit was delivered, I made a quick trip to Sherman’s for a gallon of milk. I buy all of my dairy from Sherman’s anyway, but in particular fresh cheese must be made from milk that isn’t “ultra-pasteurized” – which is about the only kind that most large grocery stores sell. Thus proper sourcing of the key ingredient is important. Procuring the milk was almost the hardest part – once home there were only a few steps of heating the milk, adding the citric acid and rennet, stirring and stretching. NE Cheesemaking Supply Co was right! – I had four balls of mozz ($20 worth by farmer’s market prices) less than 30 minutes later – ready to be sampled. So easy – and delicious!

Pickled Strawberries

I dragged my husband along for our yearly strawberry-picking adventure. I supposed I could do it alone, but it seems less of a chore and more of an outing with someone else. We arrived at Verrill Farm in Concord, MA (where last year we had a semi-celebrity sighting: Doris Kearns Goodwin! How did we even know what she looked like? And she was in the farm stand area, not in the field) less than half an hour before they were to close for the day. The berries were perfect: fat with rain and sunshine and as sweet as they would get before bursting and becoming insect food. Six pounds of perfect (although smallish) berries only took us until closing time to pick.

I let them sit for a day, only slicing them into yogurt, before I figured out what I might do with six pounds of berries. Sure, jam was great, but I had made jam for the past few years, never quite giving away or finishing each season’s efforts. My parents and friends were getting tired of the same gifts. On the second evening that the berries sat on my counter, covered lightly in a vain attempt to keep out fruit flies, I met a friend at Garden at the Cellar, one of my favorite small plate restaurants that specializes in farm to table and seasonal food. The bartender (who, at one point plucked basil from a plant on the bar to make my cocktail) described the specials, one a pate that came with pickled strawberries. I asked her what the berries were like – salty or sweet.

“The pickling doesn’t make them salty, really, it just brings out the berry flavor. They’re amazing, really,” she told me. I didn’t order the dish, but I did make pickled strawberries the next day, inspired by her description alone.

This recipe is loosely interpreted, and of course relies on small berries that are incredibly sweet, and not at all bruised or rotting. The result is tangy from the vinegar, but sweet and complex from the spices and the berries themselves. An interesting condiment to fancy cheese, I would say, or even pate or fois gras.

Pickled Strawberries

In a saucepan I combined 4 cups water, 1 cup white vinegar and 4 tablespoons salt. To that I added a teaspoon each of mustard seed, black pepper corns and vanilla extract (I would have scraped a vanilla bean if I had one), two bay leaves and one cracked cinnamon stick. I boiled for five minutes and let cool to room temperature.

After sterilizing my jars (the brine would fill about four pint jars) I filled the jars loosely with the best strawberries, stems still on. When the brine was cool, I filled the jars, using a clean butter knife to help release any air bubbles and cap them. I tried some after a few hours in the brine and they were tangy and sweet and totally unexpected.

The flavors are so strong, eating within a week would be great. Although I did process two jars for future gifts using the technique described in Blue Ribbon Preserves my canning bible. In this cookbook, Linda Amendt recommends boiling the jars (with fresh lids on of course) at between 180 and 190 degrees for 30 minutes. This lower temperature helps keep the color and texture of the pickles. I did this and the berries did shrink a bit and were a bit paler than before, but I do trust that the jars will keep longer – by months or even years if unopened. The brine turns a nice magenta though, obscuring the pink-grey berries. An interesting experiment.

Green Tomato and Tomatillo Chili

We had a late October frost (and snow) that killed some of our more tender plants around here, but then the weather warmed up and has been above-normal for the past couple of weeks or so. Thus we’ve had some tomato plants, delicate herbs and even a few tiny peppers holding on for dear life. Kale, chard, onions, woody herbs and beets are all around til the hard frost, so I’m letting them be while I use up what’s on their last legs in my fridge and from the garden. I cleared the green tomatoes and pulled and tossed the spent plants (always a depressing activity, although it’s better than seeing the lonely stems peeking out from the top of a snow drift) and washed up the tomatillos that had been kicking around in the fridge for a few weeks from our last CSA drop-off. What to do, what to do? How about some green chili for a night that the temp might flirt with freezing?

Green Tomato and Tomatillo Chili

Brown up 1/2 – 1 pounds of ground beef  (Chestnut Farms). Add 1 chopped onion and 2 – 3 chopped cloves of garlic, and 2 chopped hot peppers (or to taste) (CSA/ farmer’s market/ garden). Season with salt, pepper, cumin. Add 1 – 2 pounds of chopped tomatillos and green tomatoes (see above). Cover and let cook over medium heat – check and stir every few minutes, adding a bit of liquid if too dry (broth, wine, beer are good options, although I didn’t have to add any). Add 1 – 2 cups of cooked beans: kidney, black, or white (I had tongue of fire shell beans frozen from the CSA this summer). Heat through, adjust seasonings, eat local even in late November.

Butternut Squash, Fennel, Apple Sage Soup

A true taste of fall. With my many hand-picked local apples (mostly of the McIntosh and Rome variety), I made a few sweet items, but wanted to add some apple-y depth to a savory dish as well. I had a lovely butternut squash from the farm share – actually from a few weeks ago, but butternut are some of the heartiest squash for long-term storage – and a few bulbs of gorgeous fennel from Saturday’s farmer’s market. To stave off the first frost of the season, I decided to combine them all into soup.

I chopped one butternut squash, 2 apples, 1 fennel bulb and a few chopped sage leaves and placed them in a sauce pan and just covered them with veggie stock. I cooked until the fruit and veg were very soft (maybe 25 minutes on medium heat) and then added some salt, pepper, and a dash of nutmeg, to taste. Then I blended everything until smooth – a handblender is the ideal tool, but the blender would work well too (just be careful – it’s hot!).

There are ways to dress this up with olive oil, a drizzle of pesto, or served with garlic toasts. But I think it is pretty perfect as is, too.

Preserving Peppers

While today is a beautiful fall day – a bit cool, but warm in the sunshine – I can’t help but feel that first twinge of sadness as I see the end of harvest season and winter looming. This was even more apparent at the farmer’s market today, where some veggies at the end of their season were on sale, most likely precipitated by the past week’s night temps in the rural valleys that came close to freezing.

sweet green peppers

Thus peppers were on sale – 10 for a $1 for small sweet green ones. I have also been getting a veritable bounty of red peppers the past few weeks in the farm share, which have been accumulating in my fridge. One can only eat stuffed or roasted peppers so many days in a row until you feel a bit decadent. Plus, this year’s red peppers were the sweetest I have ever tasted. Hands down. Amazing.  I would love to taste that sweet savoriness in the depths of winter and know that what I was tasting was local and preserved at the peak of its freshness.

So today I plan to freeze some peppers – very easy: chop fresh into large hunks and freeze them in a single flat layer in a plastic freezer bag. I also will do what I did about 3 years ago when I got pounds of amazing red and green peppers the day before I was leaving the country. I roasted them whole in the oven (40 minutes or so at 350 degrees), then cleaned them of their seeds and ribs once cool enough. Then layered in a clean glass jar and covered with olive oil, making sure to eliminate any air bubbles. I kept these in the fridge all winter, sneaking a few sweet roasted peppers for salads, antipasti platters or what have you, with the bonus being the sweet pepper-flavored olive oil that added a nice twist to fried eggs, pastas, salads or potatoes. I plan to experiment with roasting hot peppers and preserving them in oil as well.

Meat Share: Chestnut Farms in Hardwick, MA and Meat Sauce

I haven’t yet given appropriate due to my new, beloved meat share. Chestnut Farms offers a great deal – 10 pounds of meat per month (on a six month committment) for $80. I pick it up at in Arlington (the next town over) and if I get there early enough, I can even buy farm fresh eggs for $4/ dozen. We typically get a mix of chicken (legs, breast on bone), pork (chops on the bone, thinner boneless chops, ground), and beef (all cuts from filet to skirt to ground to burger patties). I’ve been told that once the lambs are big enough we’ll be getting some of their gracious offerings as well.

The pork sausage this month was fantastic. I took one link out of its casing and browned it in olive oil, then added chopped garlic, then tossed in a bunch of fresh tomatoes and cooked until it turned into a chunky sauce, seasoned with salt, pepper, and fresh basil and oregano from the garden.

What I love about this meat is that it is so flavorful and so guilt-free. I know where these animals came from (all CSA members are welcome to visit the farm) and I know that they lived a satisfying, clean, and hormone- and antibiotic- free life. I know that I am supporting a family farm. I know that I am paying a fair price for my meal. And because I am savoring my food, and supplementing my mostly local veggies and grains with flavorful meat instead of building my meal around the protein, I eat less but still feel satisfied. The downside is that when I eat meat while dining out, it never quite satiates body or soul. A small price to pay.

Shell Beans: Cranberry and Tongue of Fire

shell beans

A delayed post from my pick-my-own excursion at the farm the other day. I filled half of a paper grocery bag with shell beans – from varying sources I found them called both Cranberry beans and Tongue of Fire beans. I got these for the first time last year and I was so pleasantly surprised! First of all, they are gorgeous. The long pink and white speckled pods each hold maybe 5 or 6 large similarly dappled beans. That these are fresh is amazing. I wouldn’t eat them raw, but when you cook them – depending on your dish, they become soft in about 10 to 15 minutes of boiling time – they have a great meaty-ness to them. I took almost an hour to shell the whole bag and then froze some (last winter I pulled out a container and made a great cassoulet), dried some in the dehydrator (just a  few hours), and then cooked some up with kale and garlic. The only downside is that they lose most of their dynamic color when cooked.

Tongue of Fire Beans and Kale

Boil the shelled beans in the bottom of a saute pan in enough water to cover them (and/or broth and/or wine) until tender -about 10 – 15 minutes. Keep an eye on them and add a bit of water if it starts to look dry. You want the pan to be wet but not have more than 1/2 inch of liquid on the bottom. Toss in some chopped fresh garlic and a drizzle of good olive oil saute until just tender. Add freshly washed chopped kale, salt and pepper, and cover the pan so the kale can steam. Toss with tongs every few minutes and finish with another drizzle of good olive oil and maybe a few pinches of smoky salt to taste. Yum!