The first Michigan tomatoes of the season are starting to ripen, and one of my favorite things to do with them is to make gazpacho, the chilled soup that’s a summery blend of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions, garlic and bread, enriched with olive oil and spiked with sherry vinegar. In the States (or at least in my neck of the woods), our love of Mexican food has caused mutations to appear, usually in the form of adding cilantro, jalapeños or lime juice, making a tasty soup but one that is much more akin to salsa than a true gazpacho. The tendency here is also to serve gazpacho chunky rather than smooth. Although I don’t necessarily dislike these alterations, my one pet peeve is that many of these salsa-like creations don’t even include gazpacho’s signature ingredient (the bread!), often making them too acidic to eat a whole bowlful.
Summer tomatoes may seem like an odd thing to post about right now, as most other North American food bloggers are fully in fall’s sway. But now that I have this silly wedding business behind me, I’m catching up with a few odds and ends- blog posts I’ve been sitting on; photos I’ve been meaning to edit; recipes I wanted to share. Besides, the particular recipe I have for you today- a savory zucchini-tomato bread- is actually more suited to this time of year, because who wants to turn up the oven on a sweltering August day? (Oh, that’s right, I did.) This bread, though- if you still have a glut of zucchini but are tired of sweet zucchini bread, this is the ticket. It’s rich, eggy, cheesy and perfect for a cool fall day, and it keeps for a few days because of how moist it is. Also, if you’re grabbing bushels of Roma tomatoes to make these roasted Romas, this is a great use for them. Mine were from last year (roasted and frozen in olive oil) but they held up beautifully. If you don’t have tomatoes you can throw in a handful of black olives, or even a little diced ham.
The last meeting of our cooking club took place on August 12 and as we have a seasonal bent, we celebrated the tomato. Once again, I wondered how we would pull off 8 or so dishes with the same ingredient in common and not have it be “too much”, and once again, I needn’t have worried. From just-picked to barely cooked to long-simmered to roasted, the permutations were as creative as they were delicious. Sarah skewered fresh tomatoes with melons, basil and mozzarella for a salad on a stick. Molly puréed tomatoes from her garden with peaches and a little yogurt and garnished it with tarragon for a chilled summer soup, a riff on a Mark Bittman recipe. Amy, ever the fancy-pants (I say this with the utmost admiration!), stuffed squash blossoms with seasoned diced eggplant, fried them and set them on a bed of barely-cooked tomato sauce. Heavenly. Continue reading
I’m sitting in the guest room where Robespierre and Farrow are sequestered, trying to milk the last moments with them before we give them up this week to their new “parents” (due to Marvin’s severe allergies). The house– my new home– is filled with the aroma of chicken roasting on a bed of shallots, herbs and garlic, courtesy of Marvin, who decided to take a turn in the kitchen tonight. Although we signed the paperwork over a month ago, the moving process has been slow, and I was still at the old house this weekend trying to take care of odds and ends and consolidate things to one side in the basement. As of this weekend I’ll have tenants in both flats, and even though I’ve been sleeping here for a couple weeks, that somehow seems to make it official.
Surprisingly, I have been managing to cook a fair amount since the move, I just haven’t had time to photograph or blog about it. We’ve had venison and pork meatballs with pasta sauce from last summer’s tomatoes, a chicken in mustard sauce with goat cheese and leek-stuffed apples, and these Provençale-style mussels that I actually did photograph because it was a paying gig for a recipe column I’ve been writing.
That day we also had our first dinner guest, our friend Jon, who had been helping Marvin move that day. I love all the “firsts” that come not just with moving, but with moving in together- our first night in the new house, first meal cooked on the new stove, first guests, etc. One first that I am particularly eagerly anticipating is the first fire in the fireplace (right now, there are boxes piled in front of it, but I hope to rectify that this weekend). Unlike the vast majority of my peers, I have never shacked up with a significant other, so I was a little anxious about the adjustment, but it seems to be going fairly smoothly so far. (One night at dinner when we did get into a bit of a spat, he gave me a hug afterward and said something like “It’s OK, it wouldn’t be normal if we didn’t have some growing pains”. That’s why I love this man!)
As soon as things are more settled, I really hope to get back into my blogging routine. Going from posting a few times a week to only once or twice a month is seriously bumming me out! Part of it is due to time taken up with some paid writing gigs I’ve gotten lately, which is a good thing, but I miss writing here just for me (and the few of you who visit). But instead of dwelling on that, can we talk about mussels? I can’t believe I’ve never posted about mussels before, seeing as how they’re one of my favorite quick-but-fancy meals (fancy in terms of being a bit more exotic than my usual weeknight fare, not in terms of difficulty).
This recipe will be old hat for experienced mussel-makers, but I’m hoping to convert a few of you who may have the mistaken assumption that mussels are tricky to make. Au contraire, mon frère- if you can mince shallots and open a bottle of wine, you’re more than halfway there. This article on CHOW is the best one I found to describe the selection, cleaning and storage of mussels for the uninitiated. Personally, I just buy them the day I’m going to use them; the store I buy from (Holiday Market) sells them already cleaned and debearded, so all I have to do is check for any open ones (if they close when you tap them, they’re still alive and you can safely use them). Add a green salad and some bread to soak up the juices and you have a pretty freaking fantastic meal in about 10-15 minutes. Perfect if you’re busy doing other things like, say, unpacking 30 boxes of cookbooks…
Moules à la Provençale (Mussels with Tomatoes and Garlic)
The following recipe makes enough for two main-dish portions or four appetizer portions. If you want to double the recipe, double the quantity of mussels but only increase the other ingredients by half.
2 lbs. mussels
2-3 large shallots, roughly chopped (about 2/3 c.)
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped (about 2 tbs.)
1 bay leaf
4 tbs. chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 14-oz. can diced tomatoes, drained
1 c. dry white wine (I used an inexpensive Vinho Verde, but a Sauvignon Blanc would also work well)
A couple of glugs of olive oil (about 2 tbs.)
Pinch of salt, as needed
Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a wide, lidded skillet (alternatively, a Dutch oven or stock pot may be used). Add the shallot and garlic and cook until they just begin to soften. Add the wine and bay leaf and simmer for a couple of minutes to blend the flavors. Add the tomatoes and 3 tablespoons of the parsley. Taste the mixture for salt, adding a pinch or two if needed (may not be necessary if your tomatoes are salted).
When the mixture begins to simmer again, add the cleaned mussels and cover the pan or pot with a lid. You will want to have the rest of your meal ready to go, because the mussels are best eaten as soon as they are cooked. Steam the mussels for about 4 minutes, shaking the pot occasionally (especially important if your pot is deeper than it is wide and the mussels are stacked on top of each other). Do not overcook or the mussels will become tough.
Spoon the mussels into shallow bowls with some of the cooking liquid and vegetables, then garnish with the reserved parsley. Any mussels that have not opened should be avoided (usually there are only a couple per batch). Serve immediately with crusty bread, a salad and the leftover wine you used for cooking.
Folks, I’m taking a deep breath. This post is about one of the easiest, most laid-back dishes in my repertoire. While I did snap a few photos, I didn’t stress about the lighting or try to style the food or plating. I just wanted to do an easy-breezy blog post since it’s been a while.
Most everyone I know has a lot going on- everyone has periods where things get crazy, time is maxed out, and they feel completely spread thin. So I try not to go on TOO much about how nuts everything feels, because it’s like “boo hoo, you’re not the only one who has a million things to do and no time to do them in”. But the past couple weeks were frantic even by my standards. Blogging, of course, didn’t even make the list of things to do during this time, but I hope to rectify that in the next week or two before things get busy again with my sister’s wedding.
The Friday morning of Memorial weekend, I left for my sister’s bachelorette party in Nashville. I had worked all week and tried to get things ready bit by bit- shopping for gifts, laundry, making sure there was food for the cats, a trip to the library for books on tape and Nashville guides, and all the other little pre-trip things that needed attending to. Packing and straightening the house, of course, always gets left until the last possible minute. So, as I was trying to get things together at 10:30 Thursday night, I got an unexpected call from my friend Youn, an old acquaintance from my Toulouse days. He and a friend were traveling around the U.S. and wanted to know, could they possibly come and stay for a few days? Of course! I replied, while inwardly starting to panic. The house was reasonably tidy- I don’t like to come home to a mess- but it was nowhere near “house-guest clean”. I would have to drive 10 hours, then spend a few hours cleaning Monday night, because I had to work on Tuesday and they were arriving that evening. Also sandwiched into the week’s schedule were two Scarlet Oaks shows, one of which was in Cleveland.
Long story short, I pulled everything together the best I could and we had a nice time (more about their visit in a later post), but coming back from a trip and then entertaining for 5 days left me wiped out. Sunday I wanted to cook, but I knew I needed to do something hyper-simple. My mind jumped to this dish of white beans with tomato and sage (one I’ve made many times before) because of the abundance of sage in my herb garden right now. This is one of the easiest dishes I know, and it goes great with some grilled Italian sausages. Unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate so our sausages were pan-grilled in the cast-iron skillet, but that actually made things even easier. I threw together a green salad as well as some cucumbers with labneh (thick strained yogurt), scallion, lemon and parsley, we cracked open a bottle of red, and reveled in our simple feast as we breathed a sigh of relief at not having anywhere to be or anyone to entertain. While I love having guests, a quiet evening with my sweetheart was just what I needed to get grounded and catch my breath.
If your sage is blowing up right now too, check out this post from Clotilde of Chocolate & Zucchini on 45 things to do with fresh sage!
This recipe is originally from a low-fat cookbook, and you can certainly choose to make it that way, but I of course like it with generous amounts of olive oil. Obviously, you can cook the beans from dried, or use fresh tomatoes if in season, but the point is that you can open a few cans and have a pretty tasty and respectable side dish ready in about 15 minutes. For the vegetarian folks out there, you could certainly serve this alongside veggie sausage or even some risotto to get the complete rice+beans protein combo.
2 15 or 19-oz cans cannellini beans*, rinsed and drained (I prefer the bigger cans if you can find them)
1 28-oz can good quality diced tomatoes, drained, juice reserved*
3-6 cloves garlic, depending on size, to yield about 2 Tbs minced
about 25-30 washed sage leaves, to yield 3-4 Tbs minced
salt & pepper to taste
*Another type of white bean can be substituted if necessary.
**My version appears more “saucy” because I used whole canned plum tomatoes and just squished them up with my hands as I added them to the pot. Remember, this dish is all about whatever’s easiest.
Put a few Tbs of olive oil in a medium-sized heavy saucepan over medium-low heat. When warm, add the garlic, stirring frequently (you want it to soften but not brown). After a couple minutes, increase the heat slightly and add the sage. Cook for a couple more minutes, then add the drained tomatoes. Cook for a few minutes to blend the flavors, then add the beans and cook until heated through. If the dish seems too dry, add a bit of the reserved tomato juice. Drizzle a little more olive oil on top if desired, and serve.
All of my food friends have been all atwitter the last couple weeks about pumpkins, apples and other fruits of fall, but I’ve been having a harder time letting go of summer flavors. It occurred to me a couple weeks ago that the whole summer had gone by and I hadn’t made any ratatouille- how did that happen?! Luckily the folks at the farmers’ market still had tomatoes, peppers and eggplant [NB: this was 2 weeks ago, on Oct. 3]- I just had to go to the store for squash, but happily it was locally grown too.
I realize this recipe isn’t very timely*, but it takes me a while to get a blog post up these days. I bought the vegetables and didn’t get to make the ratatouille until the following weekend. (That’s one of the perks of the farmers’ market though- it’s so fresh that even if it sits around for a week, it’s still probably fresher than what’s at the store.) Tack another week on there to edit photos and write up a post and before you know it, it’s already mid-October! I’m trying to be Zenlike about the fact that I have almost no free time these days, and just make sure to fully take advantage of any little scrap that I do have, but it’s hard not to be a little bummed out. For example, I really wanted to make the pho recipe for this month’s Daring Cooks, and the date rushed up on me before I could plan it out. (Sadly, all of my cooking has to be planned with near-military precision these days, or it just can’t fit in…)
But on to our ratatouille! I’ve made ratatouille lots of times and had pretty good results, but this time I was after something specific: I wanted the vegetables to have that melting quality, but to keep their shape and flavor rather than be cooked down into an indistinguishable mush. The solution? Roasting. Not only does roasting help them retain their “integrity”, but you get the additional element of caramelization that you wouldn’t get from cooking them all together on the stove. Plus, you remove moisture and concentrate the flavor. My guinea pigs, aka Marvin & Amanda, said they could definitely taste the difference. I think this one’s a keeper! I served it with creamy polenta with Parmigiano and some kale that I’d sautéed with olive oil, garlic and pepper flakes. Along with a green salad, some bread and cheeses, and a couple bottles of red, it was the perfect goodbye-to-summer vegetarian feast.
*I know this is borderline heretical, but if you’re in need of a summer food fix in the middle of winter, all of the ingredients for this can be found year-round at the grocery store, and I am hard-pressed to tell the difference between squash & eggplant from a greenhouse or from a garden once they’re cooked. The tomatoes won’t be quite as good, but Romas are fairly dependable, and roasting definitely goes a long way towards improving them. Or you could always substitute a can of good-quality San Marzanos.
Roasted Vegetable Ratatouille
This is a very loose ”recipe” because ultimately I think this is a dish that has a lot of flexibility, and however you prepare it, it’s unlikely to be bad as long as you have good ingredients. But here’s what I used and how I went about it; use it as a guideline and go for it!
2 pints Roma tomatoes
3 bell peppers- red, yellow or orange
2 yellow summer squash
3-4 cloves garlic
fresh herbs- I grabbed some marjoram, thyme, and a little rosemary from my garden, although basil is good too
Wash and pat dry the peppers, and place them in the broiler, turning occasionally and checking on them often, until they’re blackened on all sides. Place in a paper grocery bag and roll the top shut; set aside. Reduce oven to 300°.
While the peppers are roasting, cut the squash and eggplant into large-ish chunks (see photos; they’ll shrink a bit as they roast). Generously salt the eggplant and place in a strainer while you prep everything else. Cut the tomatoes in half lengthwise and remove the little stemmy bit; put cut side up on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with a little salt and brush or drizzle with olive oil. Cut the onions- I like to do wedge-shaped slices rather than rings. Mince any herbs you’ll be using.
Place the squash & zucchini in a large bowl, salt lightly, and drizzle with olive oil. Shake the bowl around so the oil gets distributed all over, then dump it onto a baking sheet. Put the eggplant on some paper towel and press lightly to remove excess moisture and salt, then toss with olive oil, putting it on a separate baking sheet. Place all three baking sheets in the oven.
When the peppers are cool enough to handle, remove the skins, stems and seeds, and cut into approx 1″ squares; set aside in a bowl.
In a dutch oven or other large heavy pot, heat a generous amount of olive oil (a few Tbs) over medium heat. Sauté the onions and garlic until the onions begin to soften. Add any minced herbs you’re using (except basil- add that at the end) and hold, covered, over low heat.
Check on the vegetables in the oven periodically- they’ll be ready at slightly different times. I kept the tomatoes in about 10 minutes longer than the squash. Ultimately your cooking time will depend on how big you cut everything. As the eggplant and squash are ready, add them to the pot with the onions and keep warm over low heat. Add the peppers and any juices that have collected. When the tomatoes are ready, let them cool enough to handle, and cut each half into quarters, adding to the pot. Make sure to scrape any of the juice that collects on the cutting board into the pot as well!
Raise the heat slightly (to medium low) and cook the vegetables just until the flavors combine- remember, we’re going for distinguishable pieces rather than stew. Taste for salt (although you shouldn’t need any, since the vegetables were already salted). If you’re using basil, cut it into a chiffonade and stir it in at the end. Serve with polenta or couscous for a vegetarian meal, or as a side dish to roasted chicken or lamb. Leftovers can be used as filling for an omelette or put it in a baguette with some goat cheese… lots of possibilities with this one!