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?
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.
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.
3/4 pound tomatoes (about 3 medium-large), cut into quarters or eighths
2 1/2 tablespoons fresh basil, chiffonade (cut into thin strips)
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
- Add 2 to 2 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil to the pan and heat on medium-high.
- 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.
- Add the basil, salt, and pepper to the pan and stir to combine. Cook another minute longer.
- 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.”
- Purée the tomato mixture until the soup is smooth and has a light-orange-red color.
- 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.
- 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.
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!
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
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
Extra-virgin olive oil
Fresh-cracked black pepper
- 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.
- Finish this simple, cooling dish with fresh-cracked black pepper.
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).
July 7, 2014 § 5 Comments
Time for the monthly progress report on my little edible garden! (Actually this post should have appeared last week, but the 4th of July holiday delayed things a bit.) We’re about 9 weeks along at this point, for those of you playing the home game. Lots of sunshine and more than a few hot days in June really got the tomatoes and peppers going, but put an end the Little Gem and Burgundy Mix lettuces. Herbs — both sweet and savory — are thriving, which means it’s time for harvest! Read on for more details and photos.
First up, the peppers and tomato plant are definitely rockin’ — check out this photo:
Remember, these babies were about 4 inches tall when they went into the planting boxes. Today, they range from 30-48″ tall, with no signs of slowing down.
Purple Jalapeño Peppers
Honestly, I bought this plant for the novelty, figuring if it grew, “fine.” If not, oh well. What a wonderful surprise it’s turned out to be! Healthy and hearty since planting, it’s now about 30 inches tall. The delicate purple flowers are so lovely, and the resulting black-purple fruit is really striking against the green foliage.
A few of the older peppers have matured during the past week, transitioning through a range of intense colors from black-purple to purple-red to magenta, and finally to a deep scarlet. (The fruit actually starts out green with purple shading when small, and then turns completely dark purple as it grows.) I’m thinking about using them for an infused tequila or syrup for cocktails. Gotta plan ahead: National Tequila Day is coming up on July 24!
Unfortunately, the regular green jalapeños haven’t done as well. The plant is growing and spreading — it’s now about 36″ tall — but during the first and second flowerings, most of the blossoms died off. There are a couple of 3-inch peppers near the base of the plant from the first flowering, which are probably ready for harvest. Otherwise, I’ve seen some new baby-thumb-sized green nubbins appearing in the past couple of weeks, but there’s not much to photograph. Hopefully I’ll be able to report a bounty of green jalapeños in a few weeks.
Ancho Chili Peppers
Like the purple jalapeños, the anchos are going gangbusters! This baby really blossoms in heat — literally. After the first round of hot days in early June, the plant was full of creamy white blossoms, and most of those have turned into peppers! I lost one pepper to a bit of mold/rot, but the rest are a luscious, shiny green. The peppers on the lower part of the plant are from the first flowering, and should be ready for harvest later this month. I’m looking forward to an August filled with chiles rellenos!
Sweet Red Peppers
This plant has been slow to start, and like the ancho, really thrives in the hotter temperatures. Oddly enough, the plant itself hasn’t grown much; it’s only about 18 inches tall. Right now it’s filled to capacity with peppers that have just blown up in the past two weeks. With a long maturity time (90 days), I don’t expect to see any red peppers until late August.
Tomato plants can be touchy — my neighbor has already lost a couple this year, despite all of his experience and attention. Fortunately, my friend Jill had some helpful advice that I took to heart for my Indigo Apple plant: lots of water and remember to fertilize. The tallest and widest of my nightshades, that little 4-inch start is now about 4 feet tall!
Like the purple jalapeño, the Indigo Apple tomato starts out green, turns purple (more violet than indigo so far), then red at maturity. Maturity is about 75 days, so the fruit from the first flowering should be ready in August — maybe the end of July, if we have another round of hot days.
Oh, my poor lettuces! Unfortunately, I let the Little Gem and Burgundy Mix stay in the ground too long, and they bolted during the 90-degree days. What’s “bolting”? It’s when the lettuce throws up center stalk, preparing to go to seed. It’s the lettuce’s way of saying: I’m done, outtie, see ya. The leaves become bitter, and all you can do is pull the head and replant.
It was a newbie mistake not to harvest entire heads sooner, but the great thing about lettuce is that the maturity is only about 28 days, so there’s plenty of time for a do-over. I planted three new varieties a couple of weeks ago.
I’m planning to try an early harvest this time around, taking more baby leaves than I did with the Little Gems.
The herbs are doing really well, but admittedly, they’re low maintenance. Water, sunshine, the occasional cutting, and they’re good. The spearmint and lemon verbena are flowering, which means that it’s time to cut some back so that I can get another harvest or two this season. It’s also time to start planning for preserving them for use in the fall and winter.
So, that’s the latest here in the 650! How is your garden growing? Are you preserving yet, or just enjoying the experience of eating garden-to-table?
Want to see how my garden has grown up? Flash back to the post in which I commit to creating my own edible garden and get all the nitty-gritty details of how I did it. Follow the progress of the first month and find out how my 4-inch plant starts fared — plant porn included, of course.
May 30, 2014 § 1 Comment
As we’re heading into the last weekend of May, it’s time for the first update on my attempt to grow food. After just about a month, my little garden is flourishing! To date everything I planted is thriving, and much to my surprise, the lettuce is overflowing the planting boxes.
As a comparison, here’s what they looked like when I planted them four weeks ago. Amazing what good organic soil, sunshine, water, and a little TLC can do!
Just this week I’ve started harvesting the outer leaves for small salads, pulling only what I need from the garden. I hope I can keep this going through the summer — continuing to harvest leaves as I need them, without having to harvest entire heads of lettuce that might go to waste.
I’ve also (cautiously) started snipping the tops of the chives, for the occasional garnish. If they continue to thrive, I might get a bit more aggressive and really give them a haircut. The sage is popping, too, so it might be time to pull some leaves and fry them up. (No, it doesn’t matter what you put them on — fried sage leaves are delicious! Ideas? Try them with sausage and pasta or grilled swordfish with olive oil or roasted veggies with brown rice…)
The peppers and tomato plants are taking their own sweet time, but they do have a longer growth time (75-90 days) compared to the lettuces and herbs (30-60 days). The anchos are the frontrunners right now, with three peppers, while the purple jalapenos are a close second.
If you’re thinking about starting a garden, it’s not too late! Lettuces are much easier to grow than I ever imagined, and they give an abundant return for your time and effort. Peppers are sturdy and do well in containers — but you need some patience because they do take up to three months to really produce. Tomatoes do amazingly well in the 650 — my plant start was four inches tall with no flowers a month ago, and now it’s almost 24″ tall with lots of flowers (which means, if all goes well, fruit will follow!).
You can check out how I put my little garden together here. The post also includes resources for more gardening info.
So what’s this all leading to? Hopefully a summer of creative, simple meals made of local ingredients. Just to give you an idea of how you can “eat local,” at home, here’s a simple meal of locally sourced, seasonal ingredients:
The run-on, menu-style description: Baked west-coast halibut, topped with Nut ‘n Bean Jalapeno Cilantro Cashew Cheese “sauce,” and chives, served with late-spring rainbow salad. The salad brings together lettuces from my garden, carrots and beets from my CSA delivery, a sprinkling of feta from Marin, and a simple dressing of olive oil and lemon juice (yes, from local lemons). With the exception of the fish and the olive oil, every ingredient on this plate comes from within 85 miles of where I live. How cool is that?!
Of course, you can vary the protein based on your budget and diet (chicken or tofu could work, too), and the salad fixin’s based on what’s available in your garden or market. The point here is that it’s so easy it is to create a good, fresh dish from local ingredients. I know what you’re thinking: “I don’t have time to cook something like that.” Au contraire! Halibut takes 13-14 minutes to bake; other fish or proteins might time a little more or less time. During that time, you can wash, chop, and assemble the salad ingredients. Overall, figure about 30 minutes to prep and assemble a meal like this.
The best way to enjoy a meal like this in the 650? Grab a chilled bottle of wine (or some homemade sangria), your favorite people, and head to the back yard for some nice al fresco dining. What more could you ask for this weekend?
May 6, 2014 § 3 Comments
650Food is six months old today! If you’ve been following along, you know that I’ve been writing about food — eating, cooking, buying, and growing — in the 650, aka San Francisco’s peninsula neighborhoods. A few weeks ago I wrote, admittedly with a smidge of garden envy, about neighborhood gardens. Well, today my garden envy is gone…over…pfffffttt! While I’ve been encouraging people to “grow local” here (and on Twitter, if you follow me there), I want to tell you that I’m walking the talk. For the first time in many years, I’ve planted a small, edible garden. Hell yeah, I’m excited — I’m growing food! Well, right now they’re just baby plants, but by mid-summer, if all goes well, I’ll have food.
There’s a lot to be said for growing your own food — reconnecting with the outdoors, teaching kids about where food comes from, eating simple, fresh meals — just to name a few reasons. You don’t have to plant an entire farm’s worth of produce, but you can easily get a small kitchen garden going to supplement what you buy weekly at the market. Wondering where to start? Think about the herbs, fruits, and vegetables that you love to eat or can’t find on a regular basis. For me, it started with peppermint and lemon verbena.
While this is not my first edible garden, I’m also not a gardening expert by any means. I definitely did some researching and organizing before I got started. First, I had to figure out where the “full sun” areas are in my yard — those spots that get 6-8 hours of direct sun. Most edibles love full sun — and it’s definitely necessary for fruit, which needs that light and heat to fully develop its sugars. Turns out I don’t have many full-sun spots in my yard, so that limited the garden size and location, right off the bat. (Good thing, too. Because once I got to the nursery to start buying plants, I wanted everything.)
Next I had to decide what I really wanted to grow. Sweet herbs — lavender, lemon verbena, and mint — were at the top of my list. After that I started thinking savory — sage (mmmm, fried sage leaves!) — and spicy, which meant peppers! I love summer salad greens, so if there was room, maybe I would give those a go. And finally, if I could squeeze out one more spot, I wanted just one tomato plant. My neighbor with the tomatoes was already making deals as soon as I mentioned my plans: he’d happily trade his tomatoes and basil for my peppers and mint.
Having picked my spot, I decided that a combination of pots and raised beds would take less time to set up and give me some flexibility in placing what I want to grow. I’m not exactly what you’d call “handy,” so getting pre-made raised beds sounded like a lot more fun than making beds. Fortunately Home Depot had these cedar boxes that just slide together (no tools involved, yay!).
I’d already decided that I wanted my garden to include as many organic components as possible, so here’s where the research really kicked in. I’d waited too long to start plants from seed, so that meant finding a reliable source of quality organic plant starts (baby plants). While the big-box home improvement stores stock a small selection of certified organic plants, you’ll do better to go to a local, independently owned nursery. Typically you’ll find better quality plants and better customer service. (Not to dis the big stores, but sometimes the folks working the garden section don’t know much about gardening. Or they usually work in lumber, or electrical, or plumbing. You get the idea.) A nursery can provide advice on planting, fertilizing, and managing your garden. Two mid-peninsula nurseries that stock organic plants: Wegman’s Nursery in Redwood City and Common Ground in Palo Alto.
Finally, I had to source the soil and fertilizer. This was a tough one, and probably where I spent most of my research time and energy. The large home-improvement stores and small nurseries carry “organic” soil, but you have to read the labels to see what’s really in it. The challenge was finding a brand of organic soil that didn’t contain chicken manure, blood meal, or GMO’s. Unfortunately, most of the companies that use these components can’t or won’t disclose their source, so you don’t know exactly what you’re getting. For example, is the chicken poop in your soil happy, free-range chicken poop, or over-crowded, full-of-antibiotics, just-ate-the-dead-guy-next-to-me chicken poop? I mean, if I’m growing food in it, I want to know.
I ended up choosing Dr. Earth brand, which you can get from Orchard Supply. Dr. Earth is all about no GMO’s, chicken manure, or sewage sludge (who knew that was even an option in soil mixes??). Keeping it in the family, I also went with the Dr. Earth fertilizers.
So, I had my raised beds, pots, plants, soil, and fertilizer. All I had to do was wait for a not-too-hot, not-too-cold, not-too-windy day, and I could put it all together. Fortunately Mother Nature cooperated this past weekend, and I was finally able to plant everything (well, almost). Ta-dah! The big reveal…
And a few closeups…
Lavender and lemon verbena ended up in pots on the other side of the yard, where they’ll also benefit from full sun.
Finally, yes, with the lime shortage in mind, I picked up a 5-gallon lime bush (no idea how I’m going to plant this thing). It will go in the sunniest corner of the yard, near the lemon tree.
There you have it: my attempt at a kitchen garden! I’ll try to post updates throughout the season, assuming the squirrels and raccoons behave themselves and stay the f— out. In the meantime, I’m pretty excited about the possibilities of what I might harvest later this summer!
Need help figuring out how to plant an edible garden? Check out this article from Houzz on growing edibles in 16 square feet. My go-to source for figuring out what plants will and won’t thrive in my area is the Sunset Western Garden Guide. (I received my first copy as a gift 20 years ago, and just finally bought the updated version this year.) For more garden and landscaping ideas and growing info specific to the Bay Area, Sunset.com is a helpful resource.
Have you planted a garden? What are you growing this year?
November 15, 2013 § 5 Comments
Every summer my next-door neighbor, a retired widower, grows tomatoes along the white picket fence that separates our yards. Since his wife passed away several years ago, his grown daughters help with the gardening now. They tend to the roses and other plants along the fence, too, but it’s the tomatoes that take center stage from late spring until mid-fall.
From the time the seedlings are planted, I get regular updates on the tomato plants’ progress: how many plants went in this year, when the first blossoms appear, and when the first batch of actual tomatoes might be ready for picking. This year’s crop included beefsteaks, romas, and adorable orange and red cherry tomatoes. (One of his daughters calls these sweet little babies “pop-em’s” because “you just pop ’em in your mouth.”)
We have a good exchange going, my neighbor and I. He gets apricots from my 70-year-old tree in the late spring, and I get tomatoes from the his prolific plants in late summer. He generously insists that any tomatoes on my side of the fence are mine for the taking, whenever I want. Those on his side are for The Sauce he makes and cans with his daughters in the fall. Friends and family are the lucky recipients of The Sauce, and I am grateful to be included in that group.
If I don’t take enough tomatoes during the height of summer, he’ll make sure I get my share. I’ll pull into my driveway, and just as I’m getting out of the car, he’ll emerge from his backdoor to quiz me from across the fence: “Are you taking tomatoes?” If it’s early in the season, and I say “not yet” or hedge a bit, he’ll pull a few perfectly ripe red beauties from the plants on his side of our white picket fence and insist I take them, handing them across the fence. Sometimes I’ll arrive home to find a few tomatoes waiting for me on the landing outside my kitchen door.
As the summer wore on, I finally learned to keep fresh mozzarella and basil on hand for impromptu insalata caprese. On nights when I wondered what to pair with my favorite little gem lettuce, I could just slip out the back door and grab a handful of pop ’ems to add to my salad.
Just as I was getting my groove with the local tomato supply, summer and the tomato harvest came to an end — all too quickly, it seemed. My neighbor had stashed his harvest in fridges and ice chests until it was time to make The Sauce with his daughters. I made do with the last few pop ’ems that hung on my side of the fence. Sure, I could still buy tomatoes at the local farmers’ markets for another few weeks, but they’re not quite the same as my sun-warmed, white-picket fence tomatoes. I’m already looking forward to next year’s crop.