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Posts Tagged ‘tomatoes’

Photo courtesy of Budget Bytes

That was fast.

Just a week after I took up the pursuit of an easy homemade alternative to store-bought pasta sauce, I think I’ve found my go-to recipe.

Over at Budget Bytes, Beth posted a recipe for a slow cooker marinara sauce in November (gotta give kudos to Pinterest for helping me find it). She noted that the long, slow cooking process (eight hours on low) carmelizes the sugar in the crushed tomatoes. Carmelization gives the sauce a depth of flavor that jarred pasta sauce simply cannot replicate. It’s got the hint of sweetness that a good tomato-based sauce should have without the artificial, overpoweringly syrupy sweetness offered by most manufactured sauces these days.

It was a cinch to make, too. I diced an onion and a couple of cloves of garlic the previous night and dumped everything into the 4-quart slow cooker crock the next morning. The husband texted me at lunch to let me know that it smelled delicious.

I browned a little ground beef to make a simple meat sauce and served it over two small servings of penne. (And while I’m talking about pasta, let me recommend that you cook half the recommended serving size listed on the box. The suggested serving sizes are obviously calculated to make you buy more pasta, not maintain a healthy weight.)

I might add some crushed red pepper next time for a more piquant sauce, but other than that, I’m very satisfied with this recipe. Like other tomato-based sauces, it’s going to freeze well, meaning that I’ll now have ready-to-serve pasta sauce in the freezer instead of the pantry.  It’s going to be versatile, too: Besides meat sauce, it’s going to be a great topping for ravioli and a good dipping sauce for the husband’s homemade calzones.

Next goal: A go-to, not-too-salty soup recipe to keep in the freezer.

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True confession: Despite growing up with ready access to my grandparents’ South Mississippi farm, I never learned to like cucumbers. Plates of cucumber slices would appear on the table throughout the summer, and I carefully avoided them.

I eventually learned that cucumbers were delicious alongside other foods. First, a high school friend made me a cucumber sandwich, well-salted and slathered with mayonnaise, and eventually I discovered cucumber salads. Mixed with tomatoes and an olive oil-based dressing, cucumbers became perfectly acceptable, if not well loved.

These perfectly acceptable vegetables show up every two weeks in my CSA box, so I had to find a go-to recipe for a quick and easy salad. Christy Jordan over at Southern Plate posted a recipe last year that looked like every cucumber salad I had ever loved. As a bonus, it called for bottled Italian dressing, so all I had to do was chop vegetables.

I pretty much just chopped up a cucumber, a medium tomato, a small red onion and a banana pepper, then coated the mixture with a few tablespoons of Italian dressing (the Southern Plate recipe calls for an entire bottle of dressing — I just can’t justify making the veggies slosh around in that much dressing).

Marinated for two hours, the salad was the perfect accompaniment to eggplant pasta (also a CSA-inspired dish). Marinated for two days, it was an even better accompaniment for leftover eggplant pasta.

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I still remember the moment I discovered that salad could mean something more than iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, croutons and dressing. I was at a fancy mountainside restaurant in Birmingham, Ala., with my future husband, probably around 1995, when the waiter brought out our small starter salads. They were filled with … leaves. And no hint of the crunchy, flavorless iceberg lettuce my fiance and I had both grown up thinking was the foundation of salad.

I learned that the leaves were baby arugula greens, and suddenly a new culinary world opened for me: Salad was no longer that bland bit of crunch existing only to carry dressing or serve as a low-calorie, tasteless diet option, but a real opportunity for nutritious, delicious creativity in the kitchen. Non-iceberg greens could be sweet or bitter and carry their own weight in a salad without relying on the dressing to make up for lack of flavor.

How did America get so obsessed with iceberg lettuce? Probably the same reason that grocery-store tomatoes and apples taste like mushy cardboard: According to Practically Edible, iceberg lettuce is easy to grow, easy to ship and lasts a long time in the fridge compared to other greens.

Through the early ’90s, it was nearly impossible to find any other kinds of greens in your average suburban grocery store, at least in Mississippi. I only had to remember one lettuce code during my entire six-month stint as a Jitney Jungle cashier in 1990.

I’m working my way through a big batch of Sylvetta Italian arugula mixed with other fresh greens this week, thanks to a winter CSA split with MrsDragon over at Mrs Dragon’s Den.  I even had to wash the dirt and a couple of tiny worms off, since my greens had just been plucked from the ground only two days earlier. Best salad ever.

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One of my favorite local farmers, the guy who sells tomatoes and whatnot out of the back of his truck in front of Hartlex Antiques in Madison, Ala., warned me last week that the watermelons weren’t all that this summer, but I had a jones and could not easily be talked out of buying one.

I’ve had worse watermelons, but this one was nothing to brag about. Its texture was good, but it just wasn’t very sweet. I’m pretty much the only person in the house who scarfs down watermelons, save for one misguided cat, so I had a lot of mediocre melon to account for.

Luckily, my mom and I had recently discussed sorbet. Mission acquired.

I ended up using a recipe from a blog called Mmm … That’s Good! because it was one of the few that didn’t require lime zest. It did call for the use of my ice cream freezer, which I’m trying to break out more often this summer.

My watermelon sorbet did not fare well. It emerged from the ice cream freezer a sweet, soupy mess, resembling a half-melted ICEE more than sorbet.

Delicious? Yes. Scoopable? No.

Now it’s granita, waiting in the freezer for me to scrape it into fine, pink crystals with a fork and scoop it into my grandmother’s awesome green sherbet glasses. And I have no more excuses to avoid buying mediocre watermelons.

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Tomato Envy

I’m finally getting tomatoes in my CSA box–they seem exceptionally late this year. Another farmer occasionally sets up shop out of the back of his pickup truck in the same parking lot where I pick up my goods every week, and I’m more likely than not to add some extras to my produce selection from his offerings. This week, he had a truck bed filled with $3 baskets of ripe, juicy tomatoes.

It’s been positively extravagant having so many homegrown, delicious tomatoes at the ready. I’ve had a sandwich. I’ve made a tomato-filled salad. I’ve served sliced tomatoes with dinner, garnished only with a sprinkling of salt and pepper.

Tomatoes aren’t a rarity, but good ones definitely are. I rarely buy grocery-store tomatoes any time of the year–they have no taste compared to the homegrown delicacies I grew up with at my grandparents’ farm.

I figure I only have three or four weeks of tomato season left, if that much. It’s fleeting, but it’s worth waiting for.

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The first CSA haul of the summer and I’m already faced with the unknown: eggplant. I guess because my grandfather never grew eggplants, I hardly ever ate them and certainly never had to figure out how to cook them.

Indulging my tendency to try things that are probably a bit too complicated, I settled on making Eggplant Parmesan, using a recipe from Martha Stewart.

That’s right. Martha Stewart.

It turned out delicious, even if it took the better part of two hours to make. I was unable to capture its deliciousness in a photograph, however; it’s one of those dishes that just looks like a big watery blob on the screen.

Next week I’m hoping for tomatoes, because juicy homegrown tomatoes have to be nature’s gift to us for putting up with heat like this.

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I finally made it to Huntsville’s new Earth Fare location last weekend, although I failed to spend the requisite $100-plus some customers have brag-complained about.

Earth Fare is like any other grocery store in its basic layout: If you stick to the perimeter, where the produce, dairy products, meats, cheeses and breads are located, you’ll spend less money and get healthier food for your family. Head to the interior aisles, however, and you may spend more than you should on things you don’t need, like frozen waffles,  cereals, prepackaged mixes and fancy juices.

Yes, eventually you’ll have to venture to a middle aisle, if nothing else than to find Reed’s Extra Ginger Brew, seriously the only soda I waste calories on anymore. But consider another pass through the produce area instead of grabbing a couple of boxes of all natural fruit chews off the shelf, especially if you intend to grouse about prices later.

Earth Fare’s biggest draws for me, in order: the bulk bins (grains, not candy), the produce selection, the fresh peanut butter grinders (husband thing) and the olive bar. The olive bar is a tad pricey at almost $10 a pound, but it’s great when you just need a few olives of a certain type for a recipe, or you get a craving flung on you for a few spoonfuls of marinated mushrooms.

Some folks want to criticize the store for carrying non-local produce, and I admit I was momentarily disappointed to find watermelons from Honduras on display. What I forgot for a second, and what a lot of people forget when they rant about produce being shipped into their regions, is that we don’t HAVE watermelons locally in May. Local tomatoes don’t exist in March. Local citrus … uh, no.

If we want all fruits and vegetables the whole year round, we have to accept the fact that they will not come from any place close by. I do hope to see local produce in Earth Fare as the summer progresses, however, and the natural crop cycles play out.

In the meantime, my supply of steel-cut oats has taken a beating this weekend (they take a ridiculously long time to cook, but emerge from the pot chewy and creamy, subtly sweet after I add just a hint of brown sugar and a scattering of raisins), and the freshly ground peanut/dark chocolate mixture my husband requested seems to be dwindling as well. A return trip to the outer edges of Earth Fare may be in order.

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