6 Recent Kitchen Staples

I haven’t been very innovative in my cooking lately, but these 6 things get me through the busy weeks with my sanity intact. What 6 things make your kitchen function?

  1. frozen chicken breasts – It’s simple, no-bone meat, but it tastes good quickly or in a crockpot recipe, which saves me when there’s no time to develop something or choose a meat with finicky needs for cooking.
  2. canned tomatoes – I love the bounty of fresh summer tomatoes, but in the winter, I just have to stock more cans of tomatoes and tomato paste than I expect to need, because making up a pasta sauce or a curry is a fast way to add a lot of veggies, warmth, and spice into my life.
  3. Cut cucumbers, celery, carrots, and peppers – The amount of good veggies I eat is pretty much proportional to how many I have on hand, washed, and cut. This means taking some time at the beginning of the week to get them into shape, but it definitely pays off when the veggies are handy at the vulnerable, late-afternoon moments when I’m trying to decide whether to get fast food or wait for dinner.
  4. Sparkling water – I never thought I’d be a flavored sparkling water fan, but I really like it – it’s not sweet, and doesn’t even have artificial sweetness, but it is just different enough from drinking plain water to feel special. I’ve substituted it for most of my idle wine, soda, and juice consumption, saving those three for special occasions instead.
  5. Whole bean coffee – It just goes without saying that having a tasty hot beverage at the ready is important, but Husband has convinced me that it’s worth the minutes of grinding the beans to have a cup of coffee that just explodes with flavor.
  6. Kale – for kale chips! They crisp up so fast and I can eat a whole bundle of kale in a sitting this way, with little more than a dash of olive oil and salt to season it.

There are obviously many other things in my kitchen, but these are the basics on which all the others depend. What are yours?

Fried Green Tomatoes… Messy Goodness

I don’t like having gunk all over my fingers, but there are circumstances that call for it. Fried green tomatoes are now one of those reasons.

My friend C counseled me on how to use all the beautiful green tomatoes I had still in my garden – it’s frustrating that as soon as they ripen up, I have to snatch them up or risk disease or pests getting them. Green tomatoes, on the other hand, are often beautifully firm and shiny and I was itching to try eating them. C mentioned that a simple egg wash, a dry coating of corn meal and flour mixed together, and a quick dip in some hot oil would yield a tasty treat, so I tried it! It got my fingers quite messy, but I still vote for it!

I started by mixing corn flour (not corn meal, but I think they’d be even more crunchy if I had used that) and regular flour with some salt, pepper, garlic, and a little paprika. In a separate bowl, I mixed a little milk and an egg (I had to replenish with a second egg; you guys know I’m terrible with proportions). I then sliced all my green San Marzanos length wise; I wanted larger surface area to coat because my tomatoes are pretty petite to begin with. They took three dips (dry, wet, dry) while I heated up a quarter inch of canola oil in a big frying pan. It was more than just a coating on the bottom, but not enough to float the tomatoes. Once it was nice and hot (medium-high), I put the coated tomatoes in to sizzle.

While I would recommend doing this with a friend, Husband was busy working on our monthly budget at the kitchen table while I scrambled to have enough hands: I was cutting and breading more tomatoes, flipping the cooking ones once they turned brown, pulling the finished tomatoes out onto a plate with paper towel on it, and seasoning them with more garlic and pepper, all while accidentally getting goo on my fingers and having to wash it away. That being said, this is a delightfully active cooking experience; no set-it-and-forget-it. The tomatoes fry quickly and I had to adjust the temperature of the oil just to keep up.

What resulted was firm and tangy but mostly just tasted like fried batter – i.e. wonderful. Husband dipped his in Frank’s red hot sauce, and I made a garlicky, peppery mayonnaise for dipping. I want to say I ate something else for dinner, but let’s be real – this is all I had. High marks!img_4806

Who Taught You What Good Produce Looks Like?

Like many people, I grew up shopping for vegetables with my mother. She was the one who taught me what too much give in a tomato meant, how to choose my cucumbers, and whether the lettuce was starting to wilt. I watched her do it and learned from her; from a pile of veggies, she could always select the ones that would be good long enough to eat at home that week.

It’s hard to compare my produce with that of the grocery store, though. Especially this late in the season, I pick anything that isn’t ruptured, covered in molds or scars, or full of worms. My tomatoes and squash have little imperfections, and are sometimes covered in cobwebs from where insects tried to make their homes in the vines. I wash them, trim off the spots of disease or damage, and cook them till they are all alike. The home-grown flavor is the same whether the original tomato had a big spot I had to cut away.

These days, I’ve noticed more than the beautiful produce at the grocery store – certainly, if I’m going to buy an avocado I’m going to pore over the pile before I select, but I also notice half-price lettuce that needs to be eaten, or the piles of older potatoes that have been marked down so they’ll sell fast. I’m starting to see the marginal foods as beautiful too, because the truth is that the worst spots can be cut away and we don’t waste the rest of the food connected to those spots. My mother’s knowledge still guides me to keep myself from eating things that will make me sick, and I’m sure most people reading this are also grateful to someone in their life for guiding them toward foods that will help and not harm them, but more and more, I find myself drawn to use creatively that which would be unappetizing to others.


The Little Blogger who Can… Can.

This weekend was when we hit a lot of milestones – I had three ripe butternut squash sitting on the counter and more than 11 pounds of tomatoes in the freezer, so I decided to take the kitchen that Husband so lovingly cleaned and cover it in canning equipment and tomato guts. I also did some cooking and roasting of butternut squash, but I’ll save that for another day.

I knew I was starting at a disadvantage with the whole canning process, because I had too large jars and too small a pot, but I managed to fit 3 jars into my pot at a time, which was good. I cooked down the tomatoes with a little water for hours, maybe 3? because I hadn’t taken the skins off or cut them up much to begin with. I figure, when I want to use the sauce, I can chop up the sauce a little in the food processor if I don’t want it chunky. Then it was the old standby: clean jars and lids, sanitize jars and lids, add sauce, put lids on to finger tight, and process for whatever amount of time multiple blogs say is right (45 minutes was the consensus for mine).

For my first batch, I forgot the lemon juice until I realized they were already processing with the lids on, so I decided those would get used in the next couple of weeks and could live in the fridge. No one said your first canning experiment is perfect. But for the second batch, I mixed in tablespoons of lemon juice to get the acidity up and I think that will be enough. I really recommend following some old-school directions (from a box of mason jars, or from a canning cookbook) on this – there are so many steps in the process that could introduce germs/bacteria/something else into your tomatoes that it’s good to follow to the letter. I would prefer to throw more tomatoes into my next few meals than to save them all winter and find them moldy or full of poisonous substances.

Overall, I see the accomplishment people get from canning, but I also understand the impulse to just give away ripe tomatoes if you have too many, so that others can enjoy the garden flavors. It really isn’t a money saver, at least not this first year, but I liked the sense of accomplishment on what was otherwise a pretty lazy Sunday for me.


Seasons Changing, Seeds for the Future

My friend N recently mentioned that she likes having two new years, because she’s still in school and gets a new school year and a regular new year. My job operates on the school year calendar, and so I get that too. Strangely enough, the weather has gotten the first whispers of cool in it the past couple of days, and school begins tomorrow. The tomatoes are still coming in strong, though less strong than last week, and two more squash are still on the vines, but five have already come in. We’re past peak summer, we’re into ebbs and drips of remaining heat.

I’m excited to pull out the tomato vines when they stop yielding and I hope to put in a few more spinach plants to make salads for us till first frost. I’m excited to save the squash seeds I’m painstakingly rinsing and use them in the spring to create another lush bed of vines that will, eventually, be pulled out so that Husband can actually mow the yard again. I’m excited to drop a few more carrot seeds into the ground and just see if maybe, some of them will grow.

But I’m also pretty happy, today, with where I am. I haven’t been good at that, most of my life, but gardening, especially what I would call a bounteous harvest season, has taught me that all the steps seem to be joy-full. I don’t need to be looking to fall crops to be happy, or looking to winter to construction of a window box for herbs, or to spring for new sprouts. Now is good enough – soup on the stove is good enough, the heavy smell of curry and squash mingling. The hum of bugs outside, and the knowledge that tomorrow will be a very busy day, are all enough. I’ll enjoy these first gulps of fall weather and not hurry myself to whatever comes next.

Food that Feels Like Freedom: Tomato and Olive Oil Toast

No lie, I’ve eaten a lot of tomatoes, greens, potatoes, and squash this season – you’d think I’d get sick of it, but I feel like I cannot get enough. And yesterday afternoon I got home from work so ready to be done for a couple days, I was jonesing for a snack that made me feel free and easy. 

I turned to pan tomate, the Spanish snack I loved so much when I lived in Madrid. Two pieces of toasted bread, slices of garden tomatoes, a drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil, and a sprinkle of salt (sea salt for crunch if you have it!). The result is fresh but rich; I ate mine while chatting with Husband about our weekend plans.

What food makes you feel carefree and like you are unburdened? What do you cook when facing a weekend or just a couple luxurious free hours? 

A Day of Plenty: Harvesting Squash and Tomatoes

Husband has been pushing patience at me, because online I read that for butternut squash to be ready to harvest, you have to wait until the stem had died a little; that’s the only time when it’s truly done with nutrients. He said to wait to harvest ours until that ripeness level.

However… they’ve been that creamy orange color that indicates ripeness for more than a week now! I harvested our first two, one that weighed 2 pounds and one that topped out at almost 5, and I set about preparing the first for roasting. As soon as I cut into it, a sweet smell and a bunch of water came out – it was the juiciest butternut squash ever! I was quite sticky-fingered by the time I finished cleaning it out, cutting it up and getting it into the oven, but so happy. And glad that, this time anyway, my haste was alright. I’ll wait longer for the other, because it will take me a while to process the 5 pound squash.

Also, our tomato jungle is so dense that it’s hard to reach the back rows, which are up against the neighbor’s fence. Yesterday, I braved the spiders and the mosquitos to get in and get all the hard-t0-reach tomatoes, yielding me about 25 cherry tomatoes and 15 of the San Marzanos. I’ve found that my friends J, S, and B love cherry tomatoes so I’m not freezing any more of those, but for now, my plan is to keep freezing San Marzanos until I have enough pounds to merit a day of canning. I know I don’t need to try canning, but I think it’ll be fun. I’ll bug a friend or two to help me, and we’ll make sure we have the tools we need, and everyone will go home with jars of tomato sauce (simple sauce, with plenty of lemon juice to keep it acidified against botulism!). I’m rather excited.

Finally, I had given up entirely on our pepper plants, but two lovely things happened: the only pepper plant I knew of now has 3 teeny tiny peppers on it, so I’m hoping for lots of sun and rain to get those swelled up and beautiful, and there are at least another 10 flowers that I can dream about turning into bell peppers. Also, I noticed a very small plant with the same kind of leaves as the pepper, which I hope means we’ve got another, late-bloomer pepper emerging. Last year, Husband moved into the house in September and was pulling peppers into early October, so I am hopeful that we’ll have a long, luxurious harvest. It’s not orderly and perfect, but just dragging in the bowl of tomatoes every day gives me more joy than I ever thought raising a little bit of food could.


Canning Plans and Anxieties

Estimating my output of tomatoes this year has me somewhat excited: it looks like we’re going to get 200-300 cherry tomatoes and 50-100 San Marzano paste tomatoes. I’m excited that we raised the San Marzanos from seed, and that the cherry tomatoes all came from the same small seedling that Husband’s friend D sent us. However, we’re starting to hit the point in the harvest, as 10-15 cherry tomatoes come in each day and the San Marzanos are turning rosy, where I have to think about how to handle them.

I love a good tomato-based pasta sauce, especially now that I’m putting some sauces onto quinoa, so I am tempted to can my San Marzanos, which have a reputation for making a wonderful red sauce. I’ve seen lots of sites that say to just cook the tomatoes, add lots of lemon juice, and can them sterilely; I am tempted to do this, but it seems like so much work that I would need more than the few pounds of tomatoes I’m likely to pull this year. I don’t know if the tomatoes will ripen in a way that will make it possible to gather a big group and cook them down.

I also love sun-dried tomatoes, but I don’t know if there is a good way to make them fully dry and keep them on the shelf. I’m considering making a full-on tomato sauce and packaging it for freezing instead of room-temperature, but I think the quart-sized mason jars I have aren’t freezer proof… You can see I’m a bit at a loss. What is your favorite way to preserve tomatoes, in terms of ease of using down the road, ease of preparation upfront, and total flavor retention? I will certainly let you all know what I choose, because while I love a good story, I don’t have any childhood stories that connect to canning tomatoes… I bet my grandmother knows a little, though, so I think I might give her a call this weekend and find out if she’s got any tips.

Also… a small animal stole one of my beautiful, half-ripe san marzanos last night. I’m fine with critters eating in the garden a little, but he just bit it a bunch of times and left!!! Sigh. Sharing the world with animals, I suppose!

GoSun Veggies!

As the veggies are coming in in the garden, I’m even more excited to use the GoSun. I asked recently on their community forum about how to dry tomatoes in it; they said it probably wouldn’t work unless I artificially lowered the temperature by putting something over part of the parabolic dish, but I’m hopeful. It’d be so cool if my dried tomatoes in future pasta dishes were actually sun-dried tomatoes. 🙂

This batch was from canned tomatoes (the variety that comes with oregano and garlic already in it) mixed with chopped peppers and zucchini. I would say that in the future, I might want to leave them out for a little while or press them between paper towels, because these particular veggies generate so much liquid that I get a stewed flavor rather than a roasted flavor. Another option I’m considering is putting some nice long-grain rice with a little oil down at the bottom of these high-water-volume veggies so that it can cook along with the veggies and make a nice veggie rice dish.

I have yet to see a successful bell pepper plant in my garden this year, since all the plants I thought were going to unfurl as pepper plants turned out to be tomatoes. We’re going to have the world’s best crop of tomatoes, it looks like, but I’m a little worried that it will be no peppers for us, which is sad. At our grocery stores, a dollar a pepper is a good deal for fresh green peppers, so it’d be quite easy to recoup the money spent on seeds and soil if our pepper plants were to grow up big and strong, but so far, nothing doing. Maybe they are hiding in the jungle; we’ll just have to wait and see. This morning I found more masquerading carrots, so we have a few more of those coming. 🙂