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Archive for March, 2010

There are three things that one can be sure to be seen when it’s Springtime here in my neck of the woods:  a vase full of daffodils (they’re like a fistful of sunshine), strawberries waiting to be made into jam, and ME, at TomatoMania, agonizing over the 200+ varieties of tomatoes. 

 See, I’ll tell you something–I’m a cold weather person.  Bright sun and the heat make me wilt like a tulip.  Come February, though, a small gnawing at the edge of my appetite appears, low and slow; I barely notice it at first, but come March and the burst of sun and warmth that approaches, I know that it is my very being craving a fresh tomato.  Sure, there’s those overpriced styrofoam balls at the supermarket, and if you want to call them tomatoes, but, really, you know what I’m talking about:  a still warm from the sun, perfectly ripe tomato that can only come straight from a plant in the backyard. 

This, of course, is why TomatoMania is just so goshdarn popular, because I know I’m not the only one who feels the same way.  If you love tomatoes, or love to garden, and you’re in the L.A. area, this is definitely worth a stop, if you haven’t been before.  Just walking through all those darling little baby tomato plants will just put a spring in your step.

My favorite part of the whole experience is seeing all the different varieties available, especially the ones with the fun  names.  Berkeley Tie-Dye Heart?  Missouri Pink Love Apple?  Consider me tickled.

The worst part of going?  Due to space constraints, I have room for only four plants.  Four!  Do you know how excruciating it is for me to pick only four?  In a perfect world, I’d have at least twenty, and then I would be up to my knees in tomatoes and sick of them by October, which is how it should be. 

This year’s picks:

From left to right, Momotaro (it caught my eye due to it being labeled heat-resistant–an advantage here in the San Fernando Valley), Sun Gold (an orange cherry, and a favorite), Enchanted (a small/medium dark pink), and Black Cherry (the name says it all, a dark purple cherry);  plus, two basil plants.  Because, you know, if you’re going to have fresh tomatoes around, it’s best to have some fresh basil, too.  Now, if I had the space for a cow for the fresh milk to make mozzarella, we would be In. Business. 

There’s just no way in this world I could say anything bad about TomatoMania and the people who run it.  They bring out a remarkable amount of seedlings to suit just about every tomato-based whim, and they love what they do.  This weekend, they will be at Tapia Brothers Farm Stand in Encino, on 5251 Hayvenhurst, right next to the 101 Freeway (closest cross-street Burbank), and will be there all weekend.  Don’t fret if you can’t make it this weekend, as they’ll be back in Arcadia for the L.A. Garden Show April 30-May 2nd, and for our Ventura County neighbors, they’ll be in Ojai April 23rd-25th.  They also have some stops in Northern California, Maryland, and Connecticut, so stop at their website for their schedule.  Happy Tomato Growing!

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Something I haven’t mentioned in these past few weeks, is that Choo and I are doing what we call The Lenten Meatless Challenge.  We’re not actively Catholic (but from Catholic upbringings), but we often like to use the time of Lent to instill new habits in our lives.  Now, I’ve mentioned before that we’re both pretty committed carnivores, but let’s face it, we know that meat production in the US is ecologically damaging.  We’re not giving up meat by any means, but we do want to incorporate more meatless meals–it’s healthy to eat more vegetables and it’s nicer to both the earth and our bank accounts. 

During this whole process over the past few weeks, I’ve made some real effort in making some very delicious vegetarian meals.  A co-worker passed on a recipe that sounded interesting, and with a few of my own personal tweaks, made one heck of a dinner.

I’ll tell you,  as much as I love an enchilada (oh, man, there’s this one place near where I work that makes these awesome seafood enchiladas, all creamy and crabby and shrimpy and cheesy…), I really am not a fan of making them.  There’s the whole assembly line needed:  the frying pan to fry every tortilla before dipping in sauce, the bowls of fillings and not to mention the whole fiddly process of rolling filling into the tortillas. 

But.  BUT.  It’s so, so, so worth the effort and the dirty dishes.  And, one of the greatest things about enchiladas:  they can be frozen.  One of the best things you can do when you make enchiladas is to make a double batch–one for dinner tonight, and one to get wrapped up tightly and frozen for an easy dinner in a few weeks, which means all of the deliciousness with none of the fuss.  

This makes two 9 x 13 pans of enchiladas, or, in my case, one 15 x 10 and one small casserole dish.  Of course, the recipe is easily halved if you don’t want to make the double batch. 

Sweet Potato & Black Bean Enchiladas

  • 2 pounds sweet potatoes
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon each salt & pepper
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 can of Herdez Salsa Casera or Rotel Tomatoes & Chilies
  • 2-15 ounce cans black beans, drained and rinsed
  • juice of 2 limes
  • 1/4 teaspoon each salt & pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 20 corn tortillas
  • oil for frying
  • 2-28 ounce cans mild red enchilada sauce
  • 2 cups shredded Mexican blend cheese
  • 1-4 ounce can diced mild green chiles (optional)
  1. Preheat oven to 400°.  Rinse sweet potatoes and pierce with a fork;  place on foil-lined sheet pan.  Roast sweet potatoes until very soft, approximately 45 minutes to an hour, depending on size.  Set aside to cool.  Reduce oven temperature to 350° when done.
  2. Once cool enough to handle, peel sweet potatoes and smash with chili powder, salt, and pepper.  Set aside.
  3. In a large skillet over medium heat, add oil and saute onions until translucent and tender.  Add garlic and salsa and simmer until liquids reduce. 
  4. Add black beans, lime juice and cumin; stir to combine. 
  5. Prepare two 9 x 13 pans by first pouring 1 cup enchilada sauce into each pan. 
  6. Heat a small skillet with a thin layer of oil.  Have close by a lipped plate or cake pan with a thin layer of enchilada sauce.  Start by lightly frying a corn tortilla until soft, then place on plate with enchilada sauce, turning it over to coat the tortilla on both sides. 
  7. Spoon out approximately 2 tablespoons’ worth of sweet potato mixture and 2-3 tablespoons of the black bean mixture, spreading out in a line through the center of the tortilla.  Gently roll tortilla with filling and place into prepared 9 x 13 pan. 
  8. Repeat steps 7 and 8 with all 20 tortillas, filling pans.  Add oil to frying pan or enchilada sauce to plate as needed.
  9. Pour remaining enchilada sauce over enchiladas, coating evenly.  Top with shredded cheese and diced chiles.
  10. Bake in 350° oven for 25 to 30 minutes, until cheese is melted and sauce is bubbly. 

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There are certainly days where the thought of spending more than 30 minutes in the kitchen making dinner makes me feel kind of cranky.  We’re still recovering from a busy weekend and my focus was on laundry this afternoon, so it was all about something that would turn out a tasty dinner without much fuss. 

The great thing about this pasta is that everything that goes in this dish, for the most part, are shelf-stable items (well, yes, once the jars are open, they do need to go into the fridge) so you can be prepared to make this at the drop of a hat when, say, the mountains of dirty towels and socks are threatening to collapse and bury small children alive and making a meal is barely a thought in your head.  Whole-wheat spaghetti, sundried tomatoes packed in oil, capers, pine nuts, garlic and breadcrumbs all come together quickly and painlessly, and it pairs perfectly with either a lightly dressed salad or roasted asparagus. 

Sundried Tomato, Caper & Pine Nut Spaghetti

  • 1 box whole wheat spaghetti
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  • 1/2 cup sundried tomatoes packed in oil, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons capers, drained
  • 1 1/4 cups breadcrumbs
  • Grated parmesan, optional
  1. Bring 4 quarts of salted water to a boil and cook whole wheat spaghetti to box instructions (8-10 minutes).
  2. While the pasta is boiling, heat a large skillet on medium heat and add olive oil.
  3. Add garlic, thyme, and pine nuts to skillet, and saute until garlic is lightly browned, about 2 minutes.
  4. Add sundried tomatoes and capers and stir until heated through, about 2-3 minutes.
  5. Add breadcrumbs and stir in until crumbs have absorbed the oils, and toss occasionally to toast breadcrumbs.
  6. Drain pasta and rinse;  add to skillet and toss spaghetti with sauce until well coated with breadcrumbs. 
  7. Serve with parmesan if desired.

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Why, helloooo ladies.

Where are you going on this fine day?

OH.  I see.

I’ll be seeing you tomorrow with a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream. 

Fresh Strawberry Pie

Crust

  • 1 box Nilla Wafers
  • 1 stick melted butter
  1. Preheat oven to 350°.
  2. In a food processor, pulse Nilla Wafers to a coarse crumb texture.
  3. Mix wafer crumbs with melted butter in a medium-sized bowl. 
  4. Press crumbs into a deep-dish 9″ pie dish.
  5. Bake for 8-10 minutes until set and toasty.  Cool completely before filling.

Glaze

  • 3 cups of fresh strawberry puree
  • 6 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  1. In a blender or food processor, blend pureed strawberries, cornstarch, lemon juice and sugar until sugar is dissolved.
  2. Pour puree into saucepan, and simmer on medium heat, stirring constantly.  Bring to a full simmer (it will bubble like lava), remembering to continue to stir.
  3. Once thickened, pour into a bowl and let cool to room temperature.

Filling and Assembly

  • 1 Nilla Wafer Crust
  • 1 batch Strawberry Glaze
  • 8 cups fresh strawberries, hulled and halved
  1. Add fresh strawberries to the cooked glaze and gently toss to coat completely.
  2. Fill pie crust with glazed strawberries.
  3. Refrigerate for a minimum of 6 hours.

(Yeah, this one was a quickie.  It’s a busy evening, but I just had to share!)

Edited to add:  after leaving it to set overnight, it didn’t set as well as I’d like.  I need to work on the glaze–I think reducing the puree by a 1/2 cup will do it.  I’ll be making it again for Easter, so I’ll report on my findings.

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This is something we all know as the honest-to-god truth:  there’s nothing quite like homemade bread.  It’s just one of those happy scents that when it’s wafting through your house, you know there’s going to be something delicious on the table. 

See, last week I had a hankerin’ for some Middle Eastern food.  You know the drill:  hummous, baba ganoush, tzatziki, falafel, and pita bread.  I thought I’d give doing my own pita a shot again;  I had done it during those long-ago days of school, so I knew it wasn’t hard to do.  And, really, if you’ve ever made a loaf of bread in your life, making your own pita is a snap. 

This recipe makes a good amount of dough–I got a dozen 6″ pita breads, which is plenty for our little family.  The great thing about leftover pita bread:  it makes delicious pita chips.  All you do is cut them into 1/6 wedges, toss them in some olive oil and salt, and toast them in a 400 degree oven until crispy.  You’ll make pita bread just for the purpose of making chips, I tell you. 

Kiddo got into the act with helping roll out the breads. 

A great thing about pita is that it cooks fast–it’s just a few minutes on a pizza stone or sheet pan in a hot oven.  This is definitely worth the effort of making your own.

Pita Bread – Recipe adapted from Flatbreads & Flavors by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid

  • 2 teaspoons regular dry yeast
  • 2.5 cups lukewarm water
  • 5-6 cups all-purpose flour (I used a 50/50 combination of whole wheat and white flours)
  • 1 tablespoon table salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  1. In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water, and stir in one cup of flour and let sit for about 15-20 minutes. 
  2. Add salt, olive oil, and flour in 1 cup increments to the sponge (that bubbly flour-yeast mixture–it’s called a sponge, but you knew that, right?), stirring until the dough is too stiff to stir.  Turn dough out onto floured surface and knead for 8 to 10 minutes, or knead in a KitchenAid with a dough hook for about 6 to 8 minutes.
  3. Place dough in a clean and lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled, about 90 minutes.
  4. Preheat oven to 450°.  Heat pizza stone or baking sheet in oven.
  5. Punch dough down, and divide into 10-12 pieces, and roll into balls.  On a lightly floured surface, roll dough to 1/4″ thick.
  6. Place 2 or 3 breads onto heated stone/sheet and bake for 3 to 4 minutes, until bread has fully ballooned.  If your bread doesn’t balloon, it’s okay, it’ll still be very tasty.
  7. Keep baked pita wrapped in a clean kitchen towel to keep warm while the rest of the breads bake. 

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It’s something that’s intrigued me since just barely dipping my toes in it during culinary school–making my own cheese.  I have a vague memory of making mozzarella in Garde Manger classes, but after that, I just never got around to doing it again.  There’s a thousand recipes out there on how to make your own ricotta, but I chose David Lebovitz’s recipe

In my humble little opinion, if you want to give cheesemaking a try, this is definitely the way to go.  Milk, a bit of yogurt, some cream, a little vinegar (or lemon juice), and some salt will give you freshly made ricotta that will be perfect for lasagna or my favorite use–with fresh fruit and honey for a simple summertime dessert. 

Kiddo wanted to help, and I used this as a chance to try to tell him about the process that was happening in the pot while we stirred the milk as it warmed up–how the acids and the heat worked together in coagulating the proteins in the milk, creating curds… yeah, he’s four years old, so I think most of it went over his head.  He still thought it was fun to watch the process.

Look!  It’s SCIENCE!

I think my only beef with making cheese is the yield of cheese that comes out of the amount of milk used–I doubled the recipe, and came out with just over 3 cups.  Sure, it’s the nature of the beast with making cheese, but I had kind of hoped for a little more.  Still, it was delicious and I’ll definitely do it again in the summer when all my favorite fruits are in season. 

Homemade Ricotta, by David Lebovitz (from SimplyRecipes.com)

Ingredients

  • 2 quarts whole milk
  • 1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
  • Optional: 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 2 teaspoons white vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Method

In a large pot, bring the milk, yogurt, heavy cream (if using), vinegar, and salt to a boil. Very gently boil for one to two minutes, until the milk is curdled.

Meanwhile, line a strainer with a few layers of cheesecloth and set it over a deep bowl.

Pour the milk mixture into the strainer and let drain for 15 minutes. Gather the cheesecloth around the curds and squeeze gently to extract any excess liquid.

Storage: Homemade ricotta is best served slightly warm, although it can be refrigerated for up to three days, if desired.

Makes 2 cups.

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