Monday, August 19, 2013

The Lucky Tomato

It's funny how things change over time. For instance, once it became accepted that tomatoes were not poisonous (see Tomatoes To Die For), the once shunned fruit became a symbol of luck and prosperity! In fact, it was customary to place a tomato on the mantle of a family's new home, blessing their new life. When tomatoes were not seasonally available, tomato sized balls of red fabric were stuffed with sand or sawdust and used in the place of the real ones! That is why pincushions became the iconic red tomato! Who knew?
Not traditional is this recipe for "Provencale Oven-Roasted Tomato Sauce!" I've been making this sauce for years, ever since I discovered it in an old 1998 Gourmet magazine. Unlike my Fresh Tomato Marinara, in which the tomatoes are peeled and cooked on the stove top, this recipe roasts the tomatoes along with a whole head of garlic and seasoned with rosemary and thyme. Because it is not necessary to peel the tomatoes, this is the perfect recipe to use up random size and types of tomatoes, like cherry tomatoes! Once tender, all the roasty goodness is blended together with an unconventional acid source - freshly squeezed orange juice! I know it sounds weird, but it really works! This recipe is a nice alternative to traditional tomato marinara! It's so good, you'll want to freeze some for a burst of summer one cold, wintry day!

Provencale Oven-Roasted Tomato Sauce

Makes about 3 cups (enough for 1 pound pasta)

Olive oil
1 head of garlic
4 pounds home or local-grown fresh ripe tomatoes
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves (optional)
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice, or to taste (1 orange should have enough juice.)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees and lightly oil 2 shallow baking pans with the olive oil.

Separate the garlic head into cloves, discarding the loose papery outer skins but keeping skin intact on the cloves, wrap in foil, crimping seams to seal tightly. Cut the tomatoes in half and arrange in one layer, cut-side up, in the baking pans. Sprinkle 2 teaspoons each of rosemary and thyme evenly over the tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. (I drizzle over a little more olive oil before baking.)

Put the foil-wrapped garlic in one of the baking pans with the tomatoes and roast together in the upper and lower thirds of the oven, switching position of pans halfway through roasting, about 45 minutes total, or until the garlic is tender and the tomatoes are slightly charred. Unwrap the garlic and cool slightly. Peel the skins from each garlic clove and force pulp with warm tomatoes and herbs through a food mill. (I don't own a food mill, so I just whiz it up in a food processor or blender.)

Finely chop the remaining teaspoon of rosemary and remaining teaspoon of thyme and stir into the sauce with the orange juice. Season sauce with salt (about 1/2 teaspoon) and pepper and reheat if necessary. Sauce keeps covered and chilled, 4 days or, frozen, 4 months. Reheat sauce over low heat and reseason with orange juice, salt, and pepper, to taste.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Tomatoes To Die For

These days, it's hard to believe that tomatoes were once thought to be poisonous, feared to cause appendicitis and stomach cancer. Even in 1519, when Cortez brought tomato seeds back from Mexico (where they are native) to Europe, they were only grown as an ornamental curiosity. Not surprisingly, Italy was the first country to embrace and cultivate tomatoes in Europe. However, in America, we have to thank Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson of Salem, New Jersey for bringing the tomato to America from abroad in 1808. In September of 1820, Colonel Johnson set out to prove that tomatoes were not poisonous once and for all! With a horrified crowd of over 2,000 people, believing he was committing public suicide, complete with a band playing mournful tunes, Johnson stood on the steps of the Salem county courthouse and consumed an entire basket of tomatoes! Guess what happened? He didn't die or have any ill effects! News spread and America's love affair with tomatoes began!

One of the best things about summer are home-grown tomatoes. These sweet, juicy, and sometimes deformed looking varieties are a real treat and their flavor cannot be duplicated any other time of year. Luckily, tomatoes are prolific performers in the garden, so why not capture their flavor in a home-made, from scratch, "Fresh Tomato Marinara!" This is my favorite version, which I make a lot during the summer, package in quart-size freezer bags in 1 1/2 cup sizes (enough for 1/2 pound of pasta), to enjoy during the dreary winter months! Remember to label them, remove any excess air, and lay them flat in the freezer so they don't take up much space. It tastes so fresh, you may never buy store-bought again!

Fresh Tomato Marinara

Makes about 3 cups (enough for 1 pound of pasta)

3 pounds home or local-grown fresh ripe tomatoes, peeled (see Techniques) and cut into 3-4 chunks each (Don't use cherry tomatoes because the tomatoes have to be peeled! Save them for "Provencale Oven-Roasted Tomato Sauce.")
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
6 garlic cloves, minced (see Techniques)
1/2 cup water or tomato water from blanching
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh basil (See Got Tomatoes to see what I consider a sprig of fresh basil!)
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon Kosher salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
1 teaspoon sugar, or to taste

In a soup pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and saute until soft and golden, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and saute for 1 minute. When you smell the garlic, add the tomatoes, bay leaf, sprig of basil, the oregano, and 1/2 cup tomato or plain water. Stir and bring to a boil, then reduce to a steady simmer, partially cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally for 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes, add the remaining seasonings (salt, pepper, sugar) and continue to simmer another 30 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and basil and whiz up with an immersion blender (see Gadgets) or leave chunky, if you prefer.

*Notes: If your tomatoes just don't have enough flavor, you can add a little tomato paste. If you like, you can add 1 teaspoon of vinegar (like balsamic) to the finished sauce. I prefer it without. This sauce is also great on pizza!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Parchment Paper Primer, and Presents for Everyone!

Wild salmon is just about gone, so if you're lucky enough to find some, I strongly suggest you try my version of "Salmon en Papillote," which translates to "salmon in parchment." This is a traditional French technique in which fish, vegetables (like the zucchini growing in my yard!), and seasonings are steamed in a parchment package. Although you can cook any meat "en papillote," it is especially well suited for cooking fish and seafood, keeping it moist, flavorful, and best of all, extremely healthy!

But what is parchment paper, anyway? Don't confuse writing parchment (made from animal skin) with the cooking parchment, which is made from cellulose (cotton and wood). It is amazing stuff! But who do we have to thank...why, John Mercer! John Mercer was born in Lancashire, UK, in 1791. He began his career as a weaver, then calico-printer, and then became a chemist. He introduced many new processes into calico-printing, but the invention for which he is best remembered is that of "mercerising" cotton. Mercerising (aka., mercerizing) is the process of treating cotton fibers with a caustic solution, making cotton fabric softer, stronger, lustrous, and easier to dye. Incidentally, the same experiments led to his creation of how to make cooking parchment paper, which he patented in 1850. This type of parchment paper is greaseless and non-stick, making it ideal in the kitchen. Thanks, John!

This delicious recipe is so fast and easy! Tear the parchment into about 16" sheet rectangles, per package, fold in half and cut into a half-heart shape, just like in grade school. The shape is not only traditional (which I love), but makes it easier to seal, than say a rectangle. Place the sublime mixture of sauteed julienned carrots, leeks, and zucchini in the center of each half heart, top with the salmon seasoned with a little salt and pepper, a lemon slice, a spoonful of white wine, and a drizzle of olive oil. (Feel free to experiment with your favorite flavors!) You then hold the edges together and start to fold and seal, from the top of the heart to the bottom in about 1" increments, in which at the end you just twist and fold the paper under. Pop the parcels on a sheet tray and in the oven, for about 15 minutes, and you're done! To serve, slide each parchment parcel on to each plate and cut open! You'll immediately be seduced by the fantastic aromas, to a moist delicious dinner, that has virtually no clean-up! It's like a present on every plate!

Salmon en Papillote

Serves 4


2 tablespoons olive oil
2 carrots, peeled and cut into julienne
2 small leeks, washed and cut into julienne
2 small zucchini, washed and cut into julienne
4 lemon slices
1-1 1/2 pound wild caught salmon fillet, skin-on, deboned, cut into 4 equal portions
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons white wine (serve the remainder with dinner!)
Extra virgin olive oil, to drizzle
Parchment paper


Heat the oven to 400 degrees.

Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat, and gently fry the vegetables together until al dente (erring on the slightly undercooked side). Season with salt and pepper.

Cut or tear 4 pieces of parchment, approximately 16" wide. Fold each in half to form a wide rectangle, then cut half a heart shape from the top and around the open edge, so that when you open it out, the parchment will be shaped like a heart.

Arrange one-quarter of the vegetables in the center of one side of each heart. Set a fish fillet on top of each.

Season with salt and pepper, and top each portion with a lemon slice and a drizzle of olive oil. Add one tablespoon white wine to each portion.

Fold over the other half of each parchment, aligning the edges. Working from the top edge of the heart, make small, tight folds all the way around each package, in approximately 1" increments, to seal it, leaving plenty of room for the papillotes to puff up with steam during baking. Set on a baking sheet.

Bake for 15 minutes. Let sit a few minutes before transferring the packages to plates and serve.