The Tomatoes of High Summer

Celebrating Essential Tomato-ness

Perfectly ripe tomatoes taste like the essence of summer; tangy, bright, tart-sweet and full of subtle flavor shadows. Picked at peak, tomatoes need very little help to shine; in fact, too many competing ingredients obscure their best qualities. Save those fancy, jazzed up sauce recipes for the long months when ripe tomatoes are just a dream. For now, celebrate these scant few months of tomato bliss with recipes of stunning purity and simplicity.

To keep plants productive and happy through summer heat and drought, I feed them various versions of my all-purpose elixir. For tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, my most effective booster combines liquid kelp and fish fertilizer with a little humic acid. This high-energy blend suits high-volume producers, from tomatoes to hanging baskets or color bowls. To give tomatoes and peppers a second wind, spray it on plant foliage and water some in to the roots as well.

High Summer Plant Food

1 tablespoon liquid kelp concentrate
1 tablespoon humic acid concentrate
1/4 cup liquid fish fertilizer
1 gallon water

Combine in a gallon jug, shake well and let stand overnight. After watering, give each large plant (tomato, pepper, etc) 1 cup of elixir, and each smaller plant (basil, hanging basket) 1/2 cup of elixir every 2 weeks. Plants in 1 gallon containers get 1/4 cup each on the same schedule. Store leftover elixir in a cool, dark place.

Tomato Treats

We all have our favorite summery recipes, from tarts and pizzas to ice cream and cobblers. Many of my favorites come from Italy and France, where I’ve enjoyed some of the best food of my well-fed lifetime. Gazpacho is a perfect example; many recipes try too hard to dazzle and end up tasting of heat and spice rather than their main ingredients. This one is my attempt to recreate a meal at a small Provencal restaurant under the shade of a trailing grape vine, with cicadas creaking away endlessly in the dry heat. Like all very simple food, it’s only as good as the ingredients; made with sun warmed, just-picked garden produce, it’s glorious, especially when served as it was in Provence; at room temperature with a dollop of creamy, subtly savory Basil Sorbet.

Provencal Gazpacho

4 cups tomatoes, skinned and diced
1 cup red bell peppers, skinned and diced
1 cup yellow or orange bell pepper, skinned and diced
1 cup cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 cup sweet onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon fresh Italian (flat) parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons cilantro, stemmed and chopped

Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor and puree to desired consistency. Chill for at least 1 hour. Serve cold with basil and olive oil sorbet (see below). Serves 4-6.

Basil and Olive Oil Sorbet

1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon honey OR sugar
1 teaspoon fruity olive oil
2 tablespoons minced sweet basil

In a sauce pan, combine cream with 1 tablespoon honey or sugar over medium low, stirring until dissolved. Remove from heat, add oil and basil and puree with an emersion bender until smooth and foamy. Chill for an hour, then pour into chilled ice cream maker or ice cube trays. If using ice cream maker, follow makers’ directions for sorbet. If using ice cube trays, freeze until mixture is firm (more or less). Dump into a bowl and mash until smooth, then serve in small scoops or balls (about 1 tablespoon makes a garnish serving). Makes about 1 cup.

High Summer Salad & Sandwiches

Here’s another recipe that’s very pleasant when made in winter and totally fabulous when made with fresh, ripe tomatoes. It’s also good with any shell beans or chickpeas, each of which contributes its own particular flavor to the melange.

French Tomato & Cannellini Bean Salad

3 cups chopped tomatoes (or halved if cherry tomatoes)
2 cups cooked cannellini (or any) beans, drained and rinsed
2-3 Persian cucumbers, halved and thinly sliced
2 stalks celery, chopped (greens included)
1/2 cup chopped sweet onion
1/2 cup chopped kalamata olives
1/4 cup chopped basil
1/4 cup chopped flat Italian parsley
2 tablespoons fruity olive oil
2 teaspoons capers, drained
1 clove garlic, minced

In a serving bowl, gently toss all ingredients and let stand 10 minutes before serving. Serves 4 as an entree or 6 as a side salad.

What? Tomato Sandwiches?

Of course there is nothing like a BLT or one of its many versions that include avocados but it must be admitted that they are bacon dominated. There’s of course nothing wrong with that but when ripe tomatoes fill my kitchen, it’s Tomato Sandwich time. Again, these probably sound too simple to be any good but again, with perfect ingredients they are sumptuous. If you make seasoned salt, the fresh herbs are less critical but still pleasant. Try just one and see if you don’t find yourself craving them from now on…

Tomato Purist Sandwiches

1 crisp-crusted baguette, sliced 1/4 inch thick
sweet butter
sea salt or fleur de sel or seasoned salt (see below)
ripe tomatoes, sliced 1/4 inch thick
Minced fresh herbs (basil, chives, thyme, rosemary)

Spread two slices of baguette with butter, add a slice of tomato to one and sprinkle with salt and fresh herbs OR just the seasoned salt. Top with the other slice and take it outside to eat in the garden. No go make another one. And another. Am I right or am I right?

Seasoned Salt

3 plump cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
zest from 2 organic lemons
1/4 cup stemmed herbs (rosemary, thyme, and a few sage leaves is very good)
1 cup flaked sea salt

In a food processor, grind garlic, lemon zest, and herbs to a fine paste. Add salt and buzz until evenly mixed. Spread on a rimed baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees F. for 15 minutes or until dry and slightly crunchy. Cool and pack in jars. Makes about 1 cup. Keeps indefinitely.

 

 

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Dark Of The Moon Pie

After the Eclipse: Beauty In Shadows

After so much hype, the eclipse came and went in my neighborhood without much fanfare. Though we only enjoyed about a 92% eclipse rather than a total event, it was still enchanting to hear the birds hush their twittering as twilight built. I remember being awakened super early to watch a total eclipse with my family at hat felt like the crack of dawn back in 1959. As I recall, the day was utterly overcast and drizzling and chilly, but even so, there was a definite wave of darkness, as if the sun tried to get up, flopped back down, then rose again with more energy.

Today, though, the sky remained blue to the west while the eastern sky paled and the temperature dropped. The gaps between the leafy shadows in my wooded front yard turned to a million crescents as the moon shadow passed over the sun, then slowly regained their usual assorted shapes. The birds began to sing and chirp again, my cat woke up (far from acting odd, she slept through the whole event), and I found myself enjoying yet another ordinary day in Paradise. Ho hum, right? Still, some celebration seems called for, so I offer you two fine pies, one for the dazzling daylight and one for the deeps of night.

Dark Of the Moon Pie

Dark, murky, subfusc, mysterious; this is a dessert for midnight or the blackness of a total eclipse. Exceptionally rich and rewarding, this surprisingly simple treat is a snap to make but tastes like culinary alchemy must surely be involved. There are lots of versions of this delectable pie or cake or whatever you may call it. This is the one I’ve settled on after much incredibly arduous experimentation; I never spare my efforts in the search for culinary perfection, for which you may thank me if you like….

It’s true that the lack of flour does make for a silky texture no cake can match. In any case, it’s always a huge hit with those who eschew gluten as well as those who just really love chocolate. It’s less dense than ganache-based cakes but you can add a ganache glaze if you like. I generally serve this with whipped cream and raspberries, a slightly less overwhelming combination that provides the pleasing illusion of lightness.

Total Eclipse Pie

1 stick (4 oz.) unsalted butter
5-6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (Bourbon vanilla especially good)
3 large eggs
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Generously butter an 8-inch round baking pan and line bottom with parchment paper (trace the pan onto the paper). Combine butter and chocolate in a large glass bowl set over barely simmering water, stirring occasionally until melted enough to blend. Remove from heat and add sugar, stirring until it no longer feels gritty. Add salt and vanilla, then gently beat in eggs. Sift cocoa powder into batter to keep it from lumping and stir until smooth. Spoon batter into prepared baking pan and bake until top crust is set (usually 25 minutes). Cool on a rack for 5 minutes, run a thin, soft rubber spatula around the rim, then quickly invert onto a cake plate and peel off the parchment paper. Cool to room temperature before glazing or slicing. Serves many; this is super rich. Supposedly freezes/stores well in a tightly closed container; I’ve never had enough left to find out.

Ganache Glaze

1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup bittersweet chocolate, chopped

Put cream in a glass bowl set over simmering water until it’s barely starting to steam. Remove from heat, add chocolate and stir gently to combine completely. Cool slightly, then pour while still warm over cooled pie/cake. Allow glaze to cool to room temperature before slicing. Or forget the glazing, just get out some spoons and share. Makes about 1 cup.

Full Moon Pie

Round and golden, this savory torta glows like the full moon and tastes like a perfect summer day. If you love crusts, you can add one before filling the pie dish but this delicious pie slices up handsomely without one. Adjust ingredients and quantities freely, but be aware that too many softies (as in squash and mushrooms) can make for a runny filling. It will still taste great, but put a baking sheet on the rack below your pie to keep your oven free of drips. In Italy, any leftovers would be stuffed into soft rolls for a flavorful picnic lunch.

Squash & Sweet Corn Torta

1 tablespoon avocado or olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 onion, chopped
2 medium summer squash or zucchini, thinly sliced
2 cups shredded kale or spinach
2 ears sweet corn, kernels cut
2 tablespoons chopped kalamata or any olives
1/4 teaspoon seasoned sea salt or any (**)
1/4 cup shredded basil
1 teaspoon minced oregano
4 large eggs
1 cup grated mozzarella
1 cup coarsely grated hard cheese
(Pecorino, Romano, etc.)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Melt oil and butter in a wide, shallow pan over medium heat. Add onions and cook for 3 minute. Add squash/zucchini and kale, cover pan and cook for 3 minutes. Add corn, olives, salt, and herbs, remove from heat and let pan stand 5 minutes on a cooling rack. Beat eggs with mozzarella and half the hard cheese. Pour vegetable mixture into egg mixture, stir to blend, then pour into a pie dish and top with remaining hard cheese. Bake for 10 minutes at 400 degrees F., then reduce heat to 350 degrees F. and bake until puffed and set (about another 20-25 minutes). Cool on rack for 10 minutes before slicing. Serves 4-6.

 

Moon Shadows

 

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What Do We Do Now?

Standing Up To Far Too Much

Like most of my friends, I’m stunned by Saturday’s events in
Charlottesville. Maybe it’s hitting me harder today since I found out long after most people. My weekend was spent participating in the Port Gamble Maritime Music Festival and playing for a benefit event. I’ve been struggling with depression and anxiety since well before the November election and have chosen to maintain a media fast much of the time. I don’t have a television and rarely listen to the radio, though I do follow a few trusted media sources, such as NPR, The Washington Post, and YES Magazine. It’s not at all because I don’t care what’s happening in our country and in the world. It’s because I feel immobilized and crushed in spirit by the daily barrage of horrifying, terrifying news.

The constant barrage of inhumane, unconscionable actions, statements, and events is clearly deliberate policy on the part of our current administration. It’s an effective strategy, diluting the focus and sapping the energy and drive of everyone I know who is progressive, kind, hopeful and humanitarian. I am so grateful that some folks are able to use their rage to fuel constructive activism against the relentless tide of malicious cruelty pouring from the White House, Congress, and the Senate. Me? I make a lot of phone calls to encourage my representatives to accurately represent me. Most days, I find myself weeping with desolation because so few of our elected officials red or blue or in between seem able to demonstrate genuine concern for vulnerable populations; people of color, women of all descriptions, those on the LGBT spectrum, refugees, the disabled, the elderly, the young, the undereducated, the underemployed and unemployed, the homeless, the dispossessed, outliers, those who “present different” and don’t quite fit in. The people Jesus always had time for, right?

What Are We To DO?

I respect and admire all religions that encourage people to practice loving kindness and compassion, but as it happens, the tradition I am most deeply acquainted with is that of Jesus. These days, progressive Christians often talk about how uncomfortable it feels to identify oneself as Christian when that label carries so many contrary and even evil associations. (Actually, it has for millennia.) I’m imagining that if I were a progressive Republican I might feel much the same way about claiming THAT label these days. However, no matter which label we might accept or which tradition we follow (if any), most folks I know are asking the same question: What are we supposed to do when the ruling regime ignores, reviles, or actively punishes and endangers vulnerable people?

Given my background, I often remember the Beatitudes, a collection of statements Jesus made in the sermon on the mount. In Jesus’s terms, humble people are blessed. Those who grieve for themselves and others, who mourn the state of the world and the ugliness of inhumane behavior are blessed. Those who are kind, gentle, and able to appropriately control their own actions are blessed. Those who seek social justice are blessed. Those who are compassionate, merciful and generous are blessed.

Blessed or Oppressed

The opposite of beatitude or blessing is sometimes defined as misery, or “being unwillingly afflicted with pain and suffering.” When we know or learn about people who are miserable, suffering, frightened and and oppressed, here are some practical responses:

Feed the hungry

Give clean, pure water to the thirsty

Clothe the naked

Shelter the homeless

Comfort the imprisoned

Visit the sick

Bury the dead

Few of us will be presented with direct opportunities to do all these things but pretty much all of us have daily chances to do at least one. None of us can fix the world but each of us can ease suffering, at least a little. Some people scorn those who just send money to worthy causes but money makes it possible for activists to act. Even so, there is even more power and healing in direct, hands-on action. Such actions don’t have to be huge or even particularly difficult. They aren’t earth shaking, but they do change the world, quietly building community and reducing suffering, little by little.

Take garden vegetables or fruit to a food bank

Make soup for a sick acquaintance

Invite a lonely neighbor to tea or dinner

Knit a chemo cap or a preemie blankie

Send a personal note to a shut in

Shoot hoops with a kid who needs a Big Brother

Play cards with a nursing home resident without visitors

Donate clothing directly to a homeless shelter

Pass along toys to foster parents who take in babies

Volunteer with Hospice

This Little Light Of Mine

None of that works for you? Or all of it works but it’s just not enough? Tonight there will be many gatherings all over the country with people standing to protest the death and damage, the destruction and disrespect, the cruelty of police and protector complicity in Charlottesville and in far too many other places. Gather your friends and community, find a candle and stand on a prominent street corner to hold vigil for lost people and lost values. Stand up, knowing we’re standing up to far too much, but let’s stand anyway and let our little lights shine.

 

 

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Herbal Oils And Vinegars

Garden To Kitchen: Beam Me In

In the Seattle area, the recent heatwave was sadly mellowed by a dense haze of smoke from Northern wildfires. On the worst days, you could taste the tang of burning trees at the back of your throat and eyes itched and burned in sympathy for the fallen. Grey skies and dry weather is not unusual for the maritime Northwest, but our grey summers are usually cool, not steamy like this one. Meanwhile, the gardens go on, the muted heat speedily ripening fruit and flowers and awakening essential oils in herbs, bringing them to full fragrant flavor.

This is a good time to harvest herbs for all sorts of uses, from oils and vinegars to simple syrups and seasoned salt blends, both culinary and for the bath. Tightly sealed in jars and stored in a dim, cool place, dried herbs keep their savor for months and can be stored in the freezer even longer. Right now I’m making herb-infused oils and vinegars of various kinds, some standard, others experimental. As always when playing about, I make small batches of anything I’m not sure about, keeping detailed notes so I can recreate the successes and avoid repeating the disasters. (That is, if I remember to check my notes before trying a seemingly grand notion yet again.)

Capturing Sunbeams

Herbs picked in high summer have almost shockingly vivid flavors, bright and lively, with over- and under-tones missing from dried ones. captured in oils and vinegars, these sunny, summery garden essences contribute sparkle to many dishes. Basil oil and lemon thyme vinegar make a memorable dressing for green, fruity, or pasta salads. A dash of rosemary-shallot oil gives steamed vegetables depth and finish. A drizzle of garlic-chile oil lends pizza pizzaz. Plain soup gains luster from a few drops of lemon-basil finishing oil, while vegetarian chili sings with a splash of jalapeno-oregano vinegar.

To bring out the richest flavors, oils infused with garlic, shallots, and fresh or dried herbs are oven baked until the added ingredients are brown and toasted. In order to evaporate moisture from the foliage or vegetables that could harbor harmful bacteria, heat oils in a non-reactive, wide-mouthed container such as a large glass measuring cup or a glass casserole dish. Once cooled and strained, the clear and deliciously scented oil may be stored in the refrigerator for up to three months. If an oil looks cloudy or displays a definite layer of clear and cloudy oils after straining, reheat it for 30-45 minutes and strain through cheesecloth or muslin again.

Slow Steeping

Similarly, various basic vinegars may be gently heated with spices, herbs, or vegetables such as chili peppers or garlic. (Always heat vinegar in a non-reactive saucepan made of stainless steel or enamel). After steeping for several days or even weeks, flavored vinegars are strained and rebottled in handsome containers for gifting or kitchen use. Pretty though they are, flavored oils and vinegars should be stored in the refrigerator, not a sunny window, since heat and light can cloud them and may promote bacterial growth. For safest use, always refrigerate homemade oils and vinegars after opening.

I find it entertaining to develop playful combinations of herbs and spices with fruit flower petals, spices and even toasted nuts and seeds. For instance, a flavorful oil or vinegar can be made by partnering pink, green, or black peppercorns with organic lemon, orange, lime or grapefruit zest. Try different base ingredients, giving preference to polyunsaturated oils with high smokepoints, such as buttery avocado and blander grapeseed. Mild and almost flavorless, American Heart Association favorite rice oil is an excellent carrier that emphasizes the taste and fragrance of your chosen additives.

Play Time

Now, this is the fun part. Assemble your backbone ingredients and a note book, then jump in and play. Try a little batch of whatever appeals most, perhaps infusing rice oil with rose petals, basil, and lemon rind, or calendula petals, rosemary, and toasted hazelnuts. Wow, right? Vinegars also have particular properties that make them suitable for various partnerings. Mellow apple cider vinegar works well with both herbs and spices, while red or white wine vinegars pair well with fruit, robust chili peppers, and garlic. Like its cousin oil, plain rice vinegar (not the kind made with salt and sugar) boosts delicate flavors without competing; try it with a split vanilla bean, rose petals, and toasted pink peppercorns, or lemon rind, dill, and chamomile petals.

Lemon Thyme & Basil Oil

1 cup safflower or canola oil
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon stemmed lemon thyme
2 teaspoons organic lemon zest (finely grated peel)

Place all ingredients in a glass 2-cup measure set into a baking pan. Bake at 300 degrees F for 40 minutes. Cool for 30 minutes, then strain through muslin or a coffee filter into a sterilized bottle and cover with a tight cap.

Rosemary Rose & Garlic Oil

1 cup avocado or olive oil
1/4 cup fresh rose petals
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
2 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed

Place all ingredients in a glass 2-cup measure placed in a baking pan. Bake at 300 degrees F for one hour. Cool for 30 minutes, then strain through muslin or a coffee filter into a sterilized bottle and cover with a tight cap. Refrigerate after opening.

Basic Herb Vinegar

2 cups apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs (such as basil, tarragon, lemon balm, parsley, cilantro, chives, dill, etc.)

Bring vinegar to a boil in a small saucepan. Roll fresh herbs lightly with a rolling pin and place in a sterilized jar. Pour in hot vinegar and cover tightly. Let infuse for up to 2 weeks, tasting every few days until you like the intensity. When it’s just right, strain through muslin or a paper coffee filter into a sterilized bottle and cover with a tight cap. Refrigerate after opening and use within 3 months.

Fruit Vinegars

If you like fruity salad dressings, try making some of your own and prepare to be amazed at the cleaner, fresher flavors you come up with. You can substitute many kinds of fruit, including other berries, peaches or nectarines, melons or citrus. Strain carefully through several layers of muslin or cheesecloth to remove as much pulp as possible; the result should be colorful but clear, not cloudy.

Raspberry Vinegar

1 cup fresh or frozen raspberries
2 cups red wine vinegar or cider vinegar
2 tablespoons cane sugar or honey

Combine all ingredients with 1/3 cup water and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to medium low, cover pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, strain through two layers of muslin lining a fine sieve, pressing very gently to get all the liquid out. Pour into a sterilized bottle, cover with a tight cap and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.

 

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