Look Ma, No Hands: Cooking Without a Recipe

September 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

Sometimes the universe sends just what you need before you realize you need it. Earlier this week, as my friend Amy was getting ready to head to the East Coast to visit her daughter, she offered me… groceries. Groceries. I wanted to say yes, but um, have you seen my fridge? It’s still packed full of untouched produce from last week’s CSA delivery, which arrived right before IFBC weekend in Seattle. I wasn’t sure I could get through the food I already had, but she insisted, and I’m glad she did. Lucky me, I came home with a container of arugula (excellent, because I’d just run out), a half pint of blueberries (my favorite addition to breakfast cereal), one plump, must-use-now tomato to add to my collection at home, and a small bunch of basil.

Funny thing about that tomato and that basil. Last weekend, during a pre-lunch session at IFBC 2014, Seattle-based chef Thierry Rautureau demonstrated a quick-and-easy tomato-basil soup. The soup is a simple solution to an end-of-summer tomato and basil surplus. Or, depending on your perspective, it could be a last celebration of summer’s bounty. As far as recipes go, it’s the kind of no-recipe recipe that you’ll either love for its simplicity or hate for its lack of detail. Why? Because he didn’t give any quantities — not a one. The ingredients are olive oil, tomatoes, basil, salt, and pepper. That’s it. The technique? Briefly sauté the ingredients together, then purée them in a blender. You can then either freeze the soup, or serve it immediately with a garnish of goat cheese and drizzle of good olive oil. Ta-dah! Wait, what?

Chef Thierry Rautureau blending Tomato-Basil Soup at IFBC 2014

Chef Thierry Rautureau blending Tomato-Basil Soup at IFBC 2014

In fact most of his presentation was about using what you have on hand to create a dish, or even a meal. After the soup demo, Chef Thierry played an audience-participation game in which he’d ask someone to list the contents of his or her refrigerator, then Chef would come up a recipe idea. It’s basically the exercise that most of us do every day, standing there, in front of the fridge, door open, gawking at the contents, hoping that a delicious dinner will magically reveal itself. Except that Chef Thierry can put those ingredients together in his head, et voilà! Dinner. Nifty.

I could think of just as many friends who would be all over this no-recipe cooking approach as I could those would be paralyzed with fear by it. I’m a big believer in cooking to taste and adjusting ingredients as you like them (for savory cooking, that is — not for baking. Uh uh, no way.). But as I was watching Chef Thierry’s demo, my methodical, technical-writer, pastry-chef brain was squirming. How many tomatoes was that? How much basil? Eek, what if you overdo the basil? How do you fix that? How much olive oil? I don’t have a blender. Can I purée the soup in my food processor? Yep, I’m just as susceptible to recipe fear as anyone else. And yet, that’s the beauty of “savory” cooking — there’s room to adjust as you go, and even right until the end (which is why most recipes have you check your seasoning at the end and adjust to taste as a last step). It’s also the beauty of working with good, fresh ingredients. If they’re flavorful and tasty, that’s half the work done for you.

Yesterday, as I was looking at my really-must-use-now tomatoes, I thought: I should make that soup. What the hell. I’ll make a small portion to test the basil-to-tomato ratio (hello, methodical, technical-writer, pastry-chef brain). Hopefully I won’t overdo the basil. And, if all goes well, I can freeze the soup, saving it for a cold, rainy day, aka, winter here in Northern California. Honestly, this is the sort of thing that, before I went to culinary school, I would have waited to try until it was an hour past dinner time, and I was starving — well, maybe not starving, but definitely hangry. Let me tell you that those sorts of experiments never go well when it’s 8 o’clock at night, and you still haven’t figured out what’s for dinner.

So, with lunch over and done with and a sunny afternoon ahead of me, I pulled together my ingredients, got out a frying pan — and yes, the food processor — and got to work. In short, the whole thing was as easy as Chef Thierry made it look. It was over in about 10 minutes, and yes, I got the tomato-to-basil ratio right — for my taste. My advice, if you’re a cautious cook:

  • Taste your ingredients first; they’ll guide you as to freshness and how much seasoning you might need
  • Assemble everything you need, or think you might need, before you start cooking (aka, mise en place); believe me, you’ll have less stress if you chop those tomatoes before you heat up the oil in the sauté pan
  • Add spices, herbs, salt, pepper in small increments, tasting as you go, so that you can figure out what you like and minimize the risk of overdoing your seasoning
  • Trust your instincts in the kitchen; they’re better than you think

If you’re the kind of person who’s happy to experiment in the kitchen and good with the on-the-fly approach, then you’re probably already off making batches of soup. If you need a bit more structure, here’s my version with quantities. Consider it a gentle guide — a framework for creating your tomato-basil soup.

Tomato-Basil Soup ingredients: Olive oil, tomatoes, basil, salt, pepper

Tomato-Basil Soup ingredients: Olive oil, tomatoes, basil, salt, pepper

Recipe: Tomato-Basil Soup
Adapted from Chef Thierry Rautureau’s demonstration at IFBC 2014
Servings: 1 large bowl or 2 cups of soup

Feel free to adjust the quantities of everything to your taste. If you prefer more basil, go there. Use whatever tomatoes you have on hand, as long as they’re flavorful and not too soft. This soup is meant to be served cold or at room temperature, so there’s no need to return it to the heat after you blend it.

Ingredients:

Olive oil
3/4 pound tomatoes (about 3 medium-large), cut into quarters or eighths
2 1/2 tablespoons fresh basil, chiffonade (cut into thin strips)
Salt
Pepper
Optional garnish: More olive oil, goat cheese

What you need:

Large sauté frying pan (I used a 12″ pan, but scale up if you increase the recipe)
Blender or food processor

How to:

  1. Add 2 to 2 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil to the pan and heat on medium-high.
  2. When the oil is glistening, add the tomatoes and any juice to the pan, and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring to combine the tomatoes, juice, and oil.
    Adjust the heat if necessary (you don’t want to sear or break down the tomatoes, just cook them enough to enhance their flavor).
    Things will start to look a little saucy as the tomato juice and oil come together.

    Is it soup yet?

    Is it soup yet?

  3. Add the basil, salt, and pepper to the pan and stir to combine. Cook another minute longer.
  4. Remove the pan from the heat and transfer the tomato mixture to your blender or food processor.
    If you have a blender, I recommend using it. You’ll end up with a soup that has a silky texture and lighter orange-red color. My food processor does a great job, but takes longer than a blender and doesn’t produce the same light, silky texture. My food processor soups tend to be more “rustic.”
  5. Purée the tomato mixture until the soup is smooth and has a light-orange-red color.

    Puréed soup in my food processor: your mileage may vary

    Pureed soup in my food processor: your mileage may vary

  6. If serving right away, stream some good olive oil into the puréed soup while running the blender, then ladle into a bowl (or bowls) with a dollop of goat cheese and garnish of chopped chives.
  7. If not serving now, don’t stream in the extra olive oil, but do pour the soup into a freezer-safe container and freeze for up three months. To serve, thaw overnight in the refrigerator, drizzle with good olive oil, and garnish with fresh chives and a spoonful of goat cheese — or enjoy plain.

650 Cooks: Suzanne’s Tomato-Watermelon Salad

August 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

Ever have one of those days when you come home from work, and it’s — ugh — too hot to cook dinner, and yet, you still want a satisfying, homemade meal? Sometimes you just gotta go with your cravings and make something on the fly! This was exactly what long-time 650 resident and avid gardener, Suzanne, did last week. Her answer to dinner on a muggy 650 night? Create a delicious Tomato-Watermelon Salad with items she had on hand, some of which came from her own garden. She posted the result to Facebook, and it was stunning — not only beautiful, but easy to make!

Suzanne's Tomato-Watermelon Salad

I think everyone who saw that post asked for the recipe — including me. Except, there wasn’t one, exactly. Suzanne knew what she wanted to make, but couldn’t find a recipe that worked for her, so she created her own. And fortunately for us, she’s been kind enough to provide the recipe for her Tomato-Watermelon Salad here on 650Food. The text and image below are all hers (thank you again, Suzanne!). Quantities are approximate, so just adjust to your taste and enjoy!

 


On a recent warm summer evening with uncharacteristic residual monsoonal moisture (I confess, I am a Bay Area Native and can’t tolerate an ounce of humidity!), I craved a watermelon-tomato salad. Not being completely jazzed about some of the recipes I’d seen, I decided to create my own. Fortunately, I was blessed with fresh tomatoes and basil from our garden – and with simple dishes such as this, freshness is essential. It was quick and easy — and just right for beating the heat.

Recipe: Tomato-Watermelon Salad
Yield: Serves 2

Ingredients:
For two servings I used approximately

1 cup cherry tomatoes
1 cup watermelon
¼ cup thinly sliced red onion
½ can white cannellini beans
2 tablespoons fresh basil, cut into chiffonade
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon white pepper
½ teaspoon minced jalapeño,
Juice of one lime

To taste:
Extra-virgin olive oil
Champagne vinegar
Fresh-cracked black pepper

How to:

  1. Combine the two fruits with red onion,white beans, basil, salt, white pepper, jalapeño, lime juice, champagne vinegar, olive oil.
    Splash in extra-virgin olive oil and champagne vinegar to taste.
  2. Finish this simple, cooling dish with fresh-cracked black pepper.

    Summer in the 650: Suzanne's Tomato-Watermelon Salad

    Summer in the 650: Suzanne’s Tomato-Watermelon Salad


 

What are you making with ingredients from your garden? Have you created a simple, fresh dish that you’d like to share? Or maybe even a decadent cocktail or dessert? If you’d like to share a recipe and the backstory on its creation here on 650Food, contact me by leaving a comment below or through 650Food’s Facebook page (where you can also give us a “Like,” if you’re so inclined).

Inspired: Creating a Kitchen Garden

April 17, 2014 § 1 Comment

You know what I love about spring in the 650? Everything! The days are deliciously warm, and the sun sets late enough in the evening that you can have dinner outside. Spring color brightens every yard on my street, thanks to blooming trees, rose bushes, and freshly planted annuals. The luscious perfume of citrus blossoms fills my neighborhood, especially at night. It’s an indulgence just to sit in my backyard in the evening and enjoy that scent.

Citrus trees, full of blossoms, give off a heady scent all spring

Orange trees, full of blossoms in the spring

Spring gives me another chance to complete (hell, start) those “getaroundtoit” projects at home. It’s the time of year when I really start feeding my house-porn habit with stacks of design magazines and fantasizing about re-creating my backyard so that I can host fabulous al fresco dinners. (Hey, a girl can dream!) And in my fantasy backyard I would have a thriving kitchen garden, complete with herbs, vegetables, berries, and an assortment of fruit trees (again with the dreaming).

I have to admit that I’m having garden envy. I know — as if I don’t have enough fabulous, fresh fruits and vegetables in my life (some of which actually show up on my doorstep, thanks to my CSA)! Between the plethora of farmers’ markets here on the peninsula and the generosity of my neighbor with over-the-fence tomatoes and in-a-pinch limes, I’m pretty spoiled for locally grown produce. Yet, there’s something very special and satisfying about just slipping out the back door and snipping fresh herbs to finish off a dish, or seeing what you can pull from your own garden to make dinner.

On a recent walk through my neighborhood I noticed that my neighbors are using whatever space is available for creating gardens, including driveways and front yards. How cool is that?!

Driveway garden

Driveway garden

These homeowners are taking advantage of the sunny front yard for their garden.

Creative front yard garden

Creative front yard garden

Check out the artichoke plant in left corner of the yard:

Artichoke plant

Artichoke plant

My next-door-neighbor and his daughter just got the tomato plants in pots along our shared driveway fence last weekend. (He was pretty excited on planting day, and I have to admit, thinking about those summer tomatoes, I am too.) They also planted zucchini, basil, and lemon balsam.

A few months from now, there will be tomatoes here!

A few months from now, there will be tomatoes here!

I’ve had edible gardens off and on over the years, but planting one wasn’t really an option when I was running Gâteau et Ganache. I barely found time for the basics (sleep, exercise, or a meal that consisted of something more than taste-testing bonbons and marshmallows), let alone creating and maintaining a garden.

Being a seasonally focused business meant relying on local farms for the fruits and herbs I used for making bonbons. Sometimes I was able to plan fun field trips to places like Swanton Berry Farm to hand-pick organic blackberries. Other times it meant long, frustrating searches around the Bay Area to find a reliable source of fresh, organic peppermint. (Harder than you’d think, as it turns out. What’s up with that?). At some point I hoped to create a garden that would give me a reliable supply of the fruits and herbs I so loved working with when I was making chocolates.

Now that I’m cooking again and have a bit more time, I’m thinking about taking a step toward “garden-to-table.” Between my neighbors’ creativity in making their own small gardens and the impressive bounty of the farmers’ markets, I’m inspired to carve out a little space for my own garden this year. First on my list are the herbs I love using for sweet dishes: lavender, lemon verbena, and peppermint. They pair with most summer fruits and are perfect for infused syrups, ice creams, and yes, ganaches. Once I get those herbs going, I might add some basil and chives for salads and some jalapeno and poblano peppers, just because. If there’s time to get fancy, I might try some strawberries, or — dare I say it? — tomatoes. Stay tuned.

What’s growing in your yard and your neighborhood this spring?

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