Tomato S…omething

Painted in Waterlogue

“We should make pulled pork,” she said. “There’s all that pork shoulder in the freezer.  And you should make favorite slaw from that cabbage.”

Ah. She wasn’t really jonesing for pulled pork; it was a ploy to use a young cabbage that had arrived in our CSA box. Still, I didn’t disagree. I never disagree with a request for pulled pork. But it was opening weekend for my new musical—which came directly on the heels of production week for my other new musical—so we didn’t make the time to make the pork. I’d do it early on a weekday, and give it all day to sit in the slow cooker.

Except, well, there wasn’t all that pork shoulder in the freezer. Or any pork shoulder. There was a package of ground pork; there were several packages of ground beef, and some steaks; there were chicken breasts—she’s been doing most of the grocery shopping lately, and has been stocking up when things are on sale. That’s why I also found 10 pounds of butter, and quite a bit of ice cream. I’m not complaining about any of this; I’m just reporting what I found. Six quarts of really good stock, and bags of bones, shrimp shells, and vegetable clippings from which we’ll make more one day. And, although there was a package of bacon, too, nothing in the freezer was pork shoulder.

I also took from the freezer an unfortunately unmarked container of something red. I don’t know if its label fell off or it had never been labeled, but after it thawed overnight in the fridge and I tasted it, I still wasn’t quite sure if it was tomato soup or tomato sauce. (If the former, it had been made without cream; if the latter, without meat.) It was going to be the basis for dinner, but I wasn’t sure whether to make grilled cheese sandwiches or pasta.

Then the CSA delivery came, bearing purple carrots, green peppers, red onions, and some tender young eggplants. I chopped a big pile of each and sweated them in a big skillet, and set a pot of water to boil.  When the vegetables were softened, I poured in the tomato-something in and let it simmer gently. There was some leftover sausage in the fridge, so I chopped and added it, along with a hunk of parmesan rind. If the red stuff had once been tomato soup, it would be soup no longer.

Dinner was wonderful. We haven’t had a bowl of pasta-with-sauce in quite a while. It felt like a treat.

Planning is good. Preparing is good. Stocking-up is great. Organizing the freezer once in a while is essential. Proper labeling is a fine and glorious thing. And figuring out what to do with a mysterious package—well, it might be better if there weren’t such mysteries, but the figuring-out was fun.

It’s Thursday, so the grocery store fliers will be in today’s mail. I’ve got a bunch of cole slaw, so I hope somebody’s running a special on pork shoulder.

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The eyes have it

So I made this carrot-tomato soup over the weekend, and we enjoyed it for dinner on Monday – along with grilled cheese sandwiches and a green salad. Fine, fine comfort food that seemed worth a review.

I couldn't get the texture smooth enough in the food processor, so he whirled an immersion blender through the last of it in the pot to remove lumps and bumps. The soup is very thick, even though I subbed in cream for the yogurt (since ours was still in the machine at finishing time), but beautifully spiced with basil, cracked black pepper, and the cumin-seasoned roasted veg.

If we hadn't been eating cheese-stuffed sandwiches along with (provolone, cheddar, and cranberry Wensleydale inside pumpernickel), I would have sprinkled shaved or crumbled cheddar over the soup as a mix-in, for a little sharpness over the top of the rest. As it was, the soup a great dipping consistency for our sandwiches.

I would make this again, albeit with a bit of something green thrown in – Garlic scapes, or some shredded cooked spinach – for a bit of contrast, and a bit of stock for thinning it out. And I can imagine tossing in a bit of roasted turnip, parsnip, beet, or potato when those come in season.

Do you have a favorite puréed or other root vegetable soup recipe?

My Family’s Favorite* Pickles

 

A jar of our Fave Dill Pickles, before delivering them to a friend on Saturday night.

Some of my earliest memories as a little kid are from the vegetable garden at my grandparents’ house. It seemed as large as a football field to me, and the when our shadows started to get long in the grass, Gram would lead us cousins down the rows with an enormous colander.  We would pluck beans, peas, zucchini, yellow squash, cucumbers, and tomato for dinner – filling our tummies more quickly than the dinner basket, which was a great strategy to keep us from complaining of hunger.

 

My relatives preserved their own food the whole time I was growing up. Fresh food that we grew ourselves was tastier (and cheaper) than store-bought, so the pressure canners got passed around and everyone had a large collection of long-used and well-loved mason jars that got passed from house to house. I remember my mom carrying jar after jar of corn scraped fresh from the cob with small, bright pieces of red pepper down the stairs to our cellar while I sat at the kitchen table, well out of her way.

When I moved to the city on my own, I took on the work of hot-water-bath canning high acid foods on my own – sourced from pick-your-own orchards and farms, or the generous overflow from my hobby-farming uncles. By this point I’ve put up hundreds if not thousands of pints of tomato sauce, salsa fresca, spiced applesauce, apple butter, fruit jams, and sour dill pickles. The pickles are my absolute favorite.

I couldn’t tell you whose recipe this was to start with, but it’s pretty simple:

  • The night before canning begins, scrub your pickling cucumbers to remove dirt and the spiny groths from the nubbly outer skins. Toss the washed cukes into a colander in the fridge to dry.
  • The morning of canning, prep your cukes:
    • Slice off both ends
    • Sort the vegetables by size, and practice stuffing an empty jar, so you know how many of each size will fit into your jars.
  • Set up the hot water bath and sterilize jars, lids, and rings. While they are sterilizing,
  • Make a brine and bring it to a boil, following these ratios:
    • 1 cup of vinegar
    • 1 cup of water
    • 1 tbsp kosher salt
    • 1-1/2 tsp granulated sugar
  • Prep your seasonings. For each jar:
    • 1 head of fresh dill or 2 tsp of dried dill seeds
    • 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
    • 1 clove of garlic, peeled but whole
  • Once the jars are sterilized, remove them from the canner. Into each jar, place the seasonings, then the cucumbers, then ladle in the hot brine (leaving 1/2 inch of headroom). Seal the jars and dump them back in the water bath for 10 minutes. Let cool, check the lids for a vacuum seal, label with the date, and place them into a cool dark cupboard to mellow for at least six weeks.

 

*If I’m 100% honest I’ll admit that most of the family prefer sweet bread-and-butter pickles to the dill ones. I despise those fake pickles, so am calling these the favorites. 

Pendulums Swing: The Veg Box Chronicles

Last week I wrote that we hadn’t done much cooking or eating in two weeks. We have more than made up for that lack in the last week!

  • Last Monday, we cleaned out the fridge of as much about-to-be-too-far-past-prime-for-eating produce as we could for the Salmon Feta Soba Salad.
  • Tuesday we had dinner with friends in town and came home too late to do much with our veg box other than tuck it into the fridge. It contained:
    • 3 pints of Blueberries
    • 1 head of Cabbage
    • 3 pounds of Carrots
    • 20 pickling Cucumbers
    • 8 small Eggplants
    • 2 heads of Leaf Lettuce
    • 1 enormous bunch of Parsley
    • 3 green Peppers
    • 8 summer Squashes
  • Wednesday was a lovely night for cooking.
    • I combined two-thirds of the carrots with some onions and garlic from our pantry and roasted them for a carrot-tomato soup.
    • He used all of the Peppers plus most of the Eggplants and Squashes (plus onions and tomatoes from the pantry) to make a Disney-inspired Ratatouille., served over grits with a fried egg for dinner.
  • Thursday was a late night for him, so I enjoyed left-overs and started the annual summer scrubbing of the kitchen cabinets.
  • Friday was for preserving.
    • I turned the 2 largest Cucumbers into Amy Pennington’s sesame quick pickles and preserved the rest as my family’s Favorite Dill Pickles (3 beautiful pint jars of them).
    • While a set of salmon filets were grilling away outside, he tossed the last of the prior week’s Romano Beans into the pressure cooker as an adaptation of this recipe from the New York Times – and they remind me of a stewed tomato and french bean dish my grandmother used to serve when I was a little girl.
  • Saturday we went to a dinner party, bringing a jar of those lovely pickles as a hostess gift, and a tray of hoisin-glazed grilled shrimp for the appetizers.
  • Yesterday I assembled the carrot-tomato soup from Wednesday night’s carrot roast, made a tart from the prior week’s pint of Sour Cherries and the last handful of blueberries (plus one of the bags we froze on Tuesday night) – while he made a salad with the last of the prior week’s Kale, Friday’s quick pickles, and some peppers, tomatoes, and herbs to go with a grilled steak for dinner, and did all of the work for more homemade yogurt.

Sadly, the parsley did not survive its overnight in the fridge without water, but the cabbage has been reserved for a batch of coleslaw – we’ll make it tonight to have with pulled pork on Friday – and the lettuces are washed and dressed for bag lunch sandwiches this week. We still have some eggplant, squash, and carrots, along with some potatoes from the prior week. I’m hoping that the Potatoes will become Hasselbacks to go with next Friday’s dinner, and that the Eggplant will become a lovely dip to take with lunch as an afternoon snack. Carrots last for a while so I’m not worried about those, but I am fast out of ideas for Squash.

What have you been cooking? What would you do with 4 little summer squashes that aren’t zucchini?

Odd Little Heirlooms

“I bought some salmon,” she said, as we were talking about meals for this busy week. “And feta.” I didn’t realize at first that she was talking about smoked salmon, so I didn’t make the connection right away; I didn’t realize she was talking about a salad she makes from salmon, feta, and soba noodles. Having caught on, I was completely in favor. It’s not something I’d ever had before we met, but I like it a lot; Neither one of us, in fact, could remember making it since we’d moved into the Country House. So it was very definitely time.

When we started our life together, we brought lots of things from our pasts. We spent a fair amount of time comparing and deciding which to keep—or sometimes both, and occasionally neither. There are some things that each of us brought that delight the other. How I ever lived without a wide-mouthed funnel is a great mystery to me. She used to hate driving, but loves being behind the wheel of the Prius.

We both brought recipes, too. Some from our families—her aunt Donna’s Lemon Squares are not to be trifled with!—and some we’d collected ourselves. And some from—well, where did they come from?

Salmon-Feta-Soba Salad

Cook the soba noodles according to package directions—usually about 7 minutes. That’s planty of time flake the 6-oz package of smoked salmon and to crumble the feta if it didn’t come that way already, and to chop a bunch of parsley. If it’s been an especially rough July and the parsley in the kitchen garden has wilted from too much sun and too little care, don’t beat yourself up; seven minutes is still plenty of time to see what you can use instead. One of you can harvest some chives from the pot on the porch while the other chops a cucumber, a couple of carrots, some tomatoes, a rib of celery, and, what the heck, a fat handful of kale that you chop and put into a steamer over the pot of noodles.

Then, not at all long after, when the noodles have been drained, combine everything in a big salad bowl; add a pepper to taste—you won’t need salt, since the salmon and feta bring plenty. Squeeze some lemon juice overtop if you feel like it. Maybe drizzle a little olive oil, too—but, really, no dressing is required.

At some length, we figured it out: this is a recipe she’d been introduced to by somebody she once thought she’d marry. That relationship didn’t work out—and much to our eventual and current happiness. But it’s the only recipe she could think of that she kept from that relationship—an unusual keepsake. An odd little heirloom.

This salad can be served warm, cold, or at room temperature. It’s hearty without being heavy; it’s nothing like any mayo-glopped pasta salad you’ve ever encountered. The bunch of parsley originally called for brings plenty of brightness; the assortment of vegetables I substituted were chosen for convenience and availability and because of the moisture they’d bring to balance the salty, fishy, buckwheat-y goodness brought by the original ingredients. But, really, use whatever you’ve got. If the tomatoes at hand are odd little heirlooms, they’ll be wonderful. But a handful of slightly-withered grape tomatoes from the supermarket will work, too.

Honor the past, be grateful for the present, look forward to the future.

Getting over the Blues

It’s been a rough couple of weeks. Work has been full of headaches for both of us. Our vacation contained more stress than we expected, and, while we were away, our older cat’s health took a turn for the worse. (Trust me, “What’s your vet’s phone number?” is not a text message you want to read while you are getting dressed for a wedding.)

That’s not to say that all is sturm und drang around here. We love our work, even when it gives us headaches. We have terrific friends and family. The older cat is no longer with us, but that means she is no longer suffering—and it means that round-the-clock medication is no longer being administered; and the younger-now-only kitten is growing into her role as Cat of the House.

And we have the CSA.

Finding a week’s worth of fruit and vegetables on your doorstep is a wonderful thing. Washing, sorting, and putting away a week’s worth of vegetables after arriving home at 10 PM is a little less wonderful. We stowed the box of veg in the refrigerator to deal with tonight, when we’ll get home earlier. The box of fruit was light—three pints of blueberries. (I love blueberries, but three pints in a week is more than I can handle. Especially when we’ve still got one of last week’s two pints in the fridge.) She proposed freezing them in 1-cup portions. I liked the idea. I fed the cat, she started packaging berries.

But the little plastic tubs of berries had rattled around in the big cardboard box, and more than a few were bruised, so sorting was required. It was turning into a larger project than she’d hoped. Trying not to sound too complaining, she said, “Would you mark these with a date, please?”

I took her at her word.

Sometime this winter, we will be making muffins with “Dinner and a Movie,” “Picnic in Central Park,” “10,000 Steps in a Mall,” “Pancakes and Broadway,” or “HGTV and Chill.”

She looked at the bags and guffawed. Mission accomplished.

(Yes, I went back later and marked them with today’s date. I can be practical sometimes.)

Berries

Sweetening Sorrow

Our beautiful, loving, feisty old girl left us forever last week. We miss her dreadfully, but are grateful that she's no longer in pain.

Part of grieving our friend has meant not eating very well (or very much), and being not at all creative with food. Last week's CSA delivery included pickling cucumbers that have not yet been pickled, squashes that have not yet been squashed, and lots of kale and lettuces that have been chopped and added to dishes that have gone mostly uneaten. We've pledged to take better care of ourselves this week, and have already started by drinking some of our nutrients, via smoothies.

I'm not much of a health foodie. Juice bars are not my thing. But I love milkshakes and things resembling them – like Starbucks frappucino. He's a bit more conscious of feeding me good-for-you ingredients than just milk + ice + fruit purée, so has been experimenting with ingredient combinations. Today's train-ride take-along is a tangy, tart-sweet blend of:

  • Banana
  • Pineapple
  • Strawberry-Rhubarb Jam (homemade)
  • Greek Yogurt (homemade)
  • Honey
  • Ice

After some trial and error, we found that fruit purée is a more reliable punch of flavor than whole fruit chunks, so I made up two bottles* of it on Sunday night.

Fruit Purée (adapted from Giada De Laurentis' recipe)

  1. Make a ginger-rosemary simple syrup: combine 3 tbsp chopped ginger, 1 cup of sugar, and 1 cup of water in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir until every grain of sugar has dissolved and the liquid is clear. Remove from heat, add a 3" sprig of rosemary to the pot, cover, and let stand until cool. Strain the solids, reserving the liquid in a jar.
  2. Place 3/8 cup of ginger-rosemary syrup in a food processor with a pound of fresh fruit. (I used strawberries and pineapple.) Pulse until beautifully smooth; ladle into jars.

It took more time to wash the food processor (twice) than it did to make the purées, and they feel like decadent ingredients. Totally worth it.

* He claims that getting the purée out of slender-necked bottles is more trouble than it's worth. Next time I'll store it in jars.