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.

You Say Tomato, I Say Tomahto

August 27, 2014 § 1 Comment

To look at our weather forecast, you wouldn’t think that summer is on its way out. Yet, as much as I hate to say it (and I do — summer is my favorite time of year), it’s true. I looked out my kitchen window this morning and noticed that my garden was no longer getting a full day of sun. Yep, the sun has already started slipping lower in the sky, to the point where shadows from the large, cherry plum tree across the yard are covering large swaths of my little garden.

And yet, everything in my garden — and I do mean everything — has ripened and is ready for harvest. I’ve been out every morning, trying to keep ahead of the thieving squirrels, gathering colorful, fresh produce. I’ve been picking red-purple tomatoes, large ancho chiles, purple (now, red) jalapeños, bright-red bell peppers, and green-turning-bright-red jalapeños. I snip herbs when I need them, but they’ll keep growing, so I’m in no rush to harvest them yet. But the nightshades? That’s a different story! They’re ready NOW.tomatoes-in-bowl

Two things struck me recently, as I was admiring the pounds of peppers and tomatoes I’ve grown this year:

  • How cool it was that I had all of this gorgeous, fresh food in front of me, that I grew in my own little garden.
    and
  • Ohmygod I have all of this gorgeous, fresh food in front of me that I have to hurry up and use. Now what?!

Well, here’s what: it’s time to enjoy, cook, preserve and store! Fortunately the peppers are hardy enough to handle some cold storage until I’m ready to use them (more about my plans for the peppers in a future post). The tomatoes are a different story: the clock starts ticking as soon as those babies ripen. I’ve found that the Indigo Apples I’ve grown will keep their texture and flavor for several days while stored at room temp, but after that, they’ll soften and start to lose flavor. And no, you can’t keep them in the refrigerator. Refrigeration decreases their flavor and creates a mealy texture toute de suite, so, no cold storage for my tomatoes!

At the beginning of the summer, I had every intention of learning to can so that I could preserve my garden harvest, as well pounds of fruit from u-pick trips. Turns out, I just haven’t had time to get that project going yet, so no canned tomatoes or pasta sauce for me. And really, sauce didn’t seem like the best use of these tomatoes, which have a sweet flavor, low acidity, and somewhat meaty texture.

I’ve kinda fallen in love with the Indigo Apple. It’s a tomato that holds its own in salads, summer pastas, even with a slice of cheese and drizzle of olive oil. I decided that the best way to enjoy these beauties was to give them a long, slow oven roast. Oven roasting intensifies the flavor and makes the texture a little chewier, giving you a lot of options for use. Plus, you can store oven-roasted tomatoes in the refrigerator for about a week, or try freezing them for longer storage.

Recipe: Oven-Roasted Tomatoes

This recipe is super-simple and results in an oven-roasted tomato that you can use in so many ways: added to pastas, salads, sandwiches, or homemade pizzas. I crave them and snack on them right out of the refrigerator with just a sprinkle of sea salt!

The quick version: arrange tomato halves on an aluminum-lined sheet pan; season with a drizzle of olive oil, salt, pepper, and a tiny sprinkle of sugar; roast at a low temperature for about 3 hours. (Want to add more flavor? Drizzle on some balsamic vinegar, add herbs, or sprinkle with minced garlic before roasting.)

Tools:

Rimmed, sheet pan (at least 1″ deep)
Aluminum foil

Ingredients:

Fresh tomatoes
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
Pepper
Sugar

How To:

  1. Wash and dry the tomatoes to remove any dust, pollen, or dirt.
  2. Preheat the oven to 275°F.
  3. Line the sheet pan with two layers of aluminum foil, making sure to cover the sides of the pan.
  4. Cut the tomatoes in half horizontally and arrange them, cut side up, on the prepared sheet pan.sheetpan
    Cutting the tomatoes horizontally means they’ll rock and roll a bit less on the sheet pan than tomatoes cut vertically (through the stem).
  5. Drizzle olive oil over each tomato half, then season to taste with salt, pepper, and a tiny sprinkle of sugar.
    I used freshly ground sea salt and black pepper, plus a little fine white sugar. Adding a little sugar brings out the tomatoes’ sweetness and promotes some caramelization during the roasting process. Next time I’ll try raw sugar!

    Indigo Apple beauties: organic and home-grown!

    Indigo Apple beauties: organic and home-grown!

  6. Place in the oven and roast for about 3 hours, turning the sheet pan every 45 minutes or so for even cooking.
    Just to give you an idea of what to expect after 1½ hours:

    Roasted tomatoes after one-and-a-half hours in the oven

    Roasted tomatoes after one-and-a-half hours in the oven

    You can see that the tomatoes have darkened around the edges and started to deflate, but they’re still juicy. After 3 hours in the oven, the tomatoes are deflated/sunken, caramelized, and dark-red in color. Delicious!

    Roasted for 3 hours: tomato-y goodness

    Roasted for 3 hours: tomato-y goodness

    Want an even chewier version? Keep roasting for another 30 minutes.

  7. After roasting, cool on the sheet pan. Store in refrigerator in a covered container for up to a week (if they last that long!) or freeze.

Grow Local: How Does Your Garden Grow? — Part Deux

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:

Pepper and tomato plants

L to R: Purple jalapeño peppers, Indigo Apple tomatoes, green jalapeño peppers, and ancho chili peppers

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.

Flower on purple jalapeno plant

Flowers on my purple jalapeño plant

Purple jalapeño plant with unripe peppers

Purple jalapeños and a few that have turned red

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!

Purple jalapeños, red at maturity

Mature red jalapeno in the foreground; deep-purple peppers will be ready in a few weeks

Green Jalapeños
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!

Ancho pepper plant with half a dozen or so peppers

Ancho peppers

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.

Nope, those aren't green bell peppers -- they're unripe red, sweet peppers. Just another 30 days to go (more or less)

Nope, those aren’t green bell peppers — they’re unripe red, sweet peppers. Just another 30 days to go (more or less)

Tomatoes
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!

Indigo Apple tomato plant

Indigo Apple tomato plant

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.

Closeup of unripe Indigo Apple tomatoes

Unripe Indigo Apple tomatoes

Lettuces
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.

New baby lettuces

New baby lettuces: Black Seeded Simpson, Lettuce Manoa, and Wildfire Mix

I’m planning to try an early harvest this time around, taking more baby leaves than I did with the Little Gems.

Closeup of new baby lettuces

Closeup of Lettuce Manoa (left) and  Wildfire Mix

Herbs
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.

Spearmint

Spearmint, starting to flower

The flowers are pretty, but it’s time for harvest. (Hello, mojitos. How you doin’?)

Peppermint

Peppermint, overflowing the container

Hmmm, might be time to make mint-chocolate ganache…

Sage

Sage

The sage has reached critical mass; time to harvest and preserve

Chives

Chives

Chives: my go-to herb. They’re going into every savory dish I make.

Lavender

Flowering lavender

Flowering lavender: so pretty, and it’s bringing pollinators to my yard!

Lemon Verbena

Flowering lemon verbena

Flowering lemon verbena

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.

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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