Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Avocado Bomb Bombed

I’m not going to write about my crumbling edifice except to say that for three weeks I’ve been focused on a spine issue that has puzzled, distressed, and exhausted me. My life has been a blur of sleeplessness and visits to doctors, chiropractor, acupuncturist, and the LMH emergency room.

One thing I’ve learned, incidentally, from this nightmare is that my blood levels of chloride and sodium are low. These are electrolytes, for Pete’s sake, and the body’s intricate electrical (nervous) system needs them to run smoothly.

Fifty years ago my mom had to give up salt in her diet for medical reasons. Watching her distress over unappetizing, unsalted food, I decided right then to reduce by half the amount of salt called for in recipes. That’s what I’ve done ever since, but apparently I’ve overdone it.

Now I’m trying to learn to like salt again. This morning at breakfast, as I spread my toast with salted butter, I got to thinking about food fads and how silly some of them are. Consider salted butter – most contemporary recipes that include butter specifically call for unsalted butter.  Then they instruct the cook to add salt. That, to me, is an artifice and a bit of snobbery.

As I learned at my grandmother’s knee when she churned cream into butter, unsalted butter is essentially tasteless. She always added salt at the end of her labor of turning the crank that moved the paddle in her churn and working the wad of resulting butter with a wooden spoon to press out all of the drops of buttermilk.

So I say phooey on unsalted butter.

Another affectation – one that seems to have subsided a bit – was the balsamic vinegar craze. As vinegars go, balsamic is very strong tasting, and that strong taste can easily overwhelm the taste of salad vegetables. Now the consensus seems to have shifted to red wine vinegar, but I’ll bet there’s half-used bottle of balsamic vinegar in most of our kitchen cabinets.

I don’t know why our culture is so easily enticed to faddishly take up new foods, (think quinoa, think kosher salt) but we seem to have an insatiable hunger for the different and we strive to create something totally new to eat as well as something superior.

Recently at a new Japanese restaurant I ordered, at a friend’s recommendation, something named Avocado Bomb. (Yep, that’s it in the photo.) It turned out to be a construction of shrimp, mango, unidentifiable white things, and slices of avocado topped with red roe and spicy sauces. It was interesting but my interest waned long before the bomb had disappeared into my maw.

Personally, I favor the old tried and true in my diet. Fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy are a marriage made in heaven to me. Nothing beats bacon and eggs for breakfast, or for supper for that matter. Lettuce and tomato salad during homegrown tomatoes season rates a ten in my book.

But you all go ahead and fill your cabinets with ten kinds of vinegar, dozens of spice bottles, and all the other fashionable ingredients as they come and go. Please let me know how it all turns out.

Copyright 2017 by Shirley Domer

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Summer's End Pasta

In a recent entry i wrote about this favorite late summer dish. It's only fair to include the recipe:

Peel and dice 6 garden ripened Roma tomatoes (or equivalent slicing tomatoes)
Peel and mince 2 cloves garlic.

Place the tomatoes and garlic in a non-reactive bowl and add at least ¼ cup of first-cold-pressed olive oil. Stir and leave for two or three hours to marinate. If you use salt and pepper add them to the marinade.

Cut 2 sweet Italian sausage links into bite size slices and put them into a skillet on medium-low heat. (The sausage really isn’t necessary. Leave it out if you prefer.)

Next, cook the pasta. Put on a pot of salted water to boil. Measure 1 ½ cups whole wheat penne and add it to the boiling water. When the water returns to the boil, set a timer for 10-14 minutes, depending on how soft you want the pasta to be. During this process, remember to stir the sausages occasionally. When the sausage bits are browned, put them in a paper towel lined bowl to drain.

When the pasta is done, drain the water and immediately pour the pasta into the marinating tomatoes. Add the sausages and stir everything together. Next, snip fresh basil leaves over the pasta mix, sprinkle on some Parmesan cheese. Toss everything together. Add more basil or Parmesan to adjust the balance.

It’s a pretty dish and tastes divine.

Copyright 2017 by Shirley Domer

Friday, August 25, 2017

Freezing Tomatoes

I’ve neglected this poor old journal this summer, in part because we are inundated with tomatoes. For the home gardener, almost every summer has its outstanding vegetable, and this is the Year of the Tomato. We planted a dozen plants and allowed one volunteer to grow.  Three of them went into the soil quite late and haven’t produced fruit yet. (When we returned from Arizona and went shopping for tomato plants we couldn’t find our favorite slicer, the Abraham Lincoln. I had some seed stashed away, and planted some, even thought the time for seed-starting tomatoes was long past.)
Tomatoes began ripening in late July this year, right after our girls and grandchildren visited. I was sorry the girls missed that because both of them live in parts of our country where tomatoes can’t be grown successfully.

At first, each tomato was a treasure. If you’ve never eaten a home-grown tomato, you haven’t tasted a real tomato. Soon we were eating tomatoes twice a day. I made almost every tomato recipe I could think of from caprese salad to Summer’s End Pasta*. Then there were so many tomatoes, I began preparing them for freezing.

Note: the ugly ones near the foreground are the best tasting ever.

For years I canned tomatoes, usually regular slicing tomatoes. Friends and family bragged about freezing whole tomatoes, but the whole tomatoes I froze turned into a stringy, watery mess as they thawed. I longed for the convenience and relative ease of freezing tomatoes, though, and I finally hit on a method.

Realizing that the enzymes in fresh vegetables must be inactivated before successful freezing**, I decided to process the tomatoes just as I would before canning them, which is to blanch the tomatoes in boiling water, strip off their skins, and reheat them. (I don’t need whole tomatoes, so I cut mine into pieces before reheating.) I loved the results and have been freezing partially cooked tomatoes ever since. Because of their meatiness and low water content, I freeze paste-type tomatoes exclusively, either Roma or San Marzano.

Here’s how it’s done, step-by-step:

Wash the tomatoes. Cut out and discard any bad spots on the tomatoes. Place all the tomatoes on a counter beside the stove. Fill a 2-quart saucepan two-thirds full of water and bring it to a boil. Set a large bowl on the other side of the pot.

When the water boils, drop into it six to eight paste tomatoes. This will  briefly stop the boil. Watch for bubbles beginning to rise from the bottom of the pot, and set a timer for one minute. When the timer goes off, remove the tomatoes from the boiling water with a slotted spoon and drop them into the large bowl. Continue until all your tomatoes have been blanched.

Get out a saucepan and wait for the blanched tomatoes to cool enough to handle comfortably. Holding each tomato over the large bowl of blanched tomatoes, cut off its top, strip off the skin, and drop the tomato into the waiting saucepan. Cut the each tomato into pieces if you desire. When all the tomatoes are in the saucepan, get out a colander and set it over the saucepan. Dump in all the tomato skins and tops and juice from the large bowl. Press and turn the mass of peels to extract the juice and pulp. Scrape the paste from the bottom of the colander and set it aside. (You can compost the remains or feed them to the chickens.)

Finally turn on a burner below the saucepan and gently bring the tomatoes and their juice to a simmer. The idea ia not to cook the tomatoes, but to gently heat them through. When you deem this done, turn off the heat and let the tomatoes cool down. Because my stove is electric, I set the saucepan off the burner to cool.

When the tomatoes have cooled to room temperature, spoon them into freezer cartons. (I use old cottage cheese cartons, or their like.) Set the containers in the refrigerator to cool further before putting them in the freezer.

That’s what I did this morning, and will be doing again as the tomatoes continue to ripen. See ya later.

* This recipe appears on page 137 of the New Ksnsas Cookbook and was recently featured on that cookbook's Facebook page.
** An explanation of the effect of enzymes on frozen vegetable is readily available online. Search for "enzymes freezing vegetables."

Copyright 2017, Shirley Domer

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Eggplant Parmesan at the Paradise Cafe

Photo credit: Lawrence Journal-World

Eggplant Parmesan was one of my favorite dishes at the old Paradise Café in Lawrence. The Paradise is long gone now, but I have find memories of meeting friends there on Friday evenings. We would sit at the bar, sipping martinis while we waited for our table to be ready. After the waiter seated us we would scan the menu, deciding which of the familiar dishes we would eat that night. My choice often was the eggplant.

It was an unusual combination – a layer of pasta with marinara sauce, topped with slices of crisply crusted eggplant. No wonder, then, that I thought of making it this summer when I became a semi-vegetarian.

The trouble was, I’d never made this dish because eggplant is not easy to prepare. The slices have to be salted and left to drip in a colander while the salt draws out the eggplant’s excess water. Then the slices are dried, dipped in batter, and fried in oil. They are famous for soaking up oil, and often end up soggy with excess oil.

A beautiful, shiny eggplant in hand, I set out to find a way to prepare it without excess oil. Lots of recipes are available but none quite filled the bill. Finally I devised a plan to dip the slices in beaten egg, then  into seasoned flour, put them in an oiled sheet cake pan, drizzle the tops with olive oil, and bake them.

All the recipes instructed me to peel the eggplant, but I tried to use my sharp peeler to no avail. With badly damaged arthritic hands, I just couldn’t peel the skin. A quick consultation with Mr. Google, my reference librarian, revealed the important fact that virtually all of an eggplant’s nutrition is in its skin! That settled it so I proceeded to slice and bake my eggplant with its skin intact.

Using jarred pasta sauce, fresh basil, and shredded cheese, I built layers of baked eggplant. The slices browned nicely in the oven with very little oil.

The final result was tasty served over pasta for the first meal, then over polenta for the leftovers, but it wasn’t as good as the dish the Paradise Café served.  How I miss that place! I hear there's a Paradise Cafe and Bakery Cookbook now. That's my next quest. I would buy it just for the eggplant recipe.

Copyright 2017 by Shirley Domer

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Going Semi-Vegetarian

For years I’ve scarcely had an appetite for meat in the summer, but this year my regard for meat has hit an all-time low. Now I’ve become a semi-vegetarian*, but it hasn’t been easy because I’m accustomed to planning and executing meat-centered menus. It’s now necessary to develop a new repertoire for evening meals and to think about food in an entirely different way.

I struggled with this transition until my pal Linda, counseling me over the distress inflicted by our staggering government, said, “You need a project to distract you.” She’s right, I thought, but none of my usual distractions appeal to me now. Later as I was mulling about what to prepare for supper, it dawned on me that becoming a decent vegetarian cook would be a suitable project. Instead of dreading re-learning how to cook, I could sink myself into it as a project and learn to be a freestyle vegetarian cook. (Everything about recipes is cumbersome, from assembling the ingredients to dishing it up, all the while checking back on the recipe. I want to know what to do, and just do it.)

So far it is going pretty well. I still look at different recipes for inspiration but gradually a sense of what works in the vegetarian kitchen is developing.

In this hot weather one of our favorite meals has become a beet salad. It started with a salad Carol served last summer in Maine. Carol used baby kale, crisp bacon, goat cheese, cherry tomatoes, and glazed walnuts.

I never had a taste for beets until I ate them in a salad with honey-mustard dressing at an Albuquerque restaurant.  Boy, it was delicious!

So I took Carol’s salad as a starting point, and added beets. No baby kale was available, so I used torn romaine lettuce. The pecans are lightly glazed with sugar. To me, this salad must have a honey-mustard dressing, though I might try it with raspberry vinaigrette.

Honey Mustard Salad Dressing    

3 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
¼ cup cider vinegar
½ cup vegetable oil

In a one-cup liquid measure, combine honey and mustard until smooth.

Add vinegar and whisk until blended.

Slowly add oil while beating with a whisk. Start with a few drops and gradually increase the stream, whisking all the while. This emulsifies the dressing.

Store in a glass jar in the refrigerator. Makes about 1 cup.

Yep, I’m starting to enjoy this project. Thanks, Linda.

*I'm not giving up bacon.

Copyright 2017 by Shirley Domer