Thursday, September 23, 2010

Our fast food starts slowly, very slowly

by June

One boon of harvest season is fast food. No drive-throughs here, but we have been known to feed ourselves by walking through the garden—plucking a tomato or two, scissoring off some tat soi leaves, and pinching a handful of raspberries for dessert. Even if we slow it down a little, passing it through the kitchen on its way to the table, preparation is swift and simple.

This year, we've had the luxury of tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes. Two of our simplest favorites are salads inspired by Indian spices. Both are so pungent and flavorful that I wonder how I will survive the winter without them.

The first—fresh tomato salad—is nothing but sliced tomatoes (mine are Persimmon heirlooms) dribbled with lemon juice and then layered with basil leaves. Then, I heat some mild-tasting oil (often canola or peanut), toss in mustard seeds and cumin seeds and a lovely, stinky pinch of asafetida, which may qualify as my favorite seasoning. I pour the hot mustard over the tomatoes (but not the basil). Then I dash on sea salt, a grind of black pepper, and a sprinkle of cayenne.

Our absolute favorite dish this summer has been a tomato-and-yogurt salad. It's another variation on the Indian-spice theme. It depends on great Greek-style yogurt, a good cup-size dollop (more or less depending on whether you want the yogurt to melt into a thinner sauce or hold its peaks). Blend sea salt to taste into the yogurt. Fold in tomatoes chunked to your liking or Sungolds cut in half. Mince up a shallot. Heat a couple tablespoons of mild-tasting oil and saute the shallot until it is browning along the edges. Toss in cumin seed, mustard seeds, and a two-finger pinch of asafetida. Pour the hot, spicy oil over the cool, yogurty tomatoes. You can add a sift of cayenne and some rings of scallion—if you can manage any extra flourishes once you catch a whiff of those ingredients melding into creamy, tangy, zesty perfection.

It's a good thing fine dining is so easy just now because the harvest is running us ragged. The countertops seem to pulse with tomatoes, and we move through supper knowing that it's not just the dirty dishes waiting in that kitchen, it's also the next batch of garden bounty waiting to be transformed into winter's comfort—fast food that tastes like summer.

We always seem to be out of jars or lids or both, out of daylight hours (and even midnight hours), out of pep, but never out of tomatoes. Far be it from me to complain, especially after last year's blight left us with a scanty pantry. This year, we've had nothing but sunshine and warmth, and all of it has gone on for longer than usual; our first frost is late this year. We are hard pressed to keep putting away winter's fast food.

We try to blend the preserving with other work we're doing in the kitchen—or outside in the pizza oven. We even used the outdoor oven to roast our tomatoes for Tall Clover Farm's homemade catsup. (Can you blame us after what happened to dear Tom last year?) Tom's catsup recipe is the best we've ever made, and it makes a lot of catsup. I can already tell it won't last the winter around here.

This is our first summer growing San Marzano tomatoes. I can assure you they are here to stay. And so is the way we've been storing them for fast meals when we're tuckered out from a cross-country ski jaunt. I've always slow-roasted our Sungolds, but I saw where Sylvie at Laughing Duck Farm adds sugar to her slow-roasted paste tomatoes. I used thyme, not rosemary. Heaven on a crusty loaf, I tell you. Pure heaven.

Don't forget to scrape the tomato caramel off the pans and into your jars—or straight into your mouth as a reward for your work.

My two girls have been at my side for all the work of the harvest. They rarely waver in their enthusiasm. But one late night, when each of us would rather have been upstairs in bed reading, Blossom sighed at the sight of more tomatoes. I did too. Thankfully, Blossom quickly rallied and revived us all with one observation: "Just think how happy we will be to see them again this winter."

How true, Blossom. How very true. It may be slow-going now. But in January, fast food will be just the twist of a lid away.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Savoring the harvest: Sungold tomato jam

by June

Even if Sungolds weren't the sweetest tomato, they would be growing in our garden. To my eye, they are the most beautiful object ever to sprout from a seed (at least by my hand). They are eye candy even before they make it to the taste buds. And when they do reach the taste buds...oooooh-la-la!

Sungolds are always the first tomato to ripen here.

We eat the earliest ones sliced and sprinkled with crystals of Malden Sea Salt—a perfect marriage.

With abundance, we do a tomato sauce that is basically Sungolds split then tossed with red wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper. That sits for an hour or so. Basil leaves are torn into confetti by little helpers. Day-old homemade bread is pulled apart and scattered into a skillet with olive oil until toasted a nice gold. The basil adds a flavor spike and the croutons a crunch. Tossed with piping hot noodles, the Sungolds melt a little at the edges but hold onto a sweet, fresh burst of juice.

As the season rolls on, we begin hoarding that sweetness for the winter. Nothing has ever come as close to perfection as our tomato nuggets. Slow-roasting in the oven, the tomatoes fill our home with a perfume that is the essence of late-summer. Then, they fill the freezer with little summery taste sensations. But...they're, well, not so beautiful anymore. They're wizened to yumminess, but that gorgeous color is muted.

Then came tomato jam.

I've tried other tomato jams. They were always more like marmalades, lots of citrus and ginger. The spices ended up overwhelming the part that I most wanted to taste: the tomato. So I experimented. Last year, I took the mixture all the way to set point (222 degrees Fahrenheit). It turned out too stiff for my liking. This year, I dialed back to a softer set, more of a preserve.

Sungold Tomato Jam

2 pounds of Sungold cherry tomatoes
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup fresh basil, torn into small bits

—Peel the tomatoes. Cut an X in the end opposite the stem. Douse in a pot of boiling water for about thirty seconds. The skins should pinch right off.

—Put the peeled tomatoes into a heavy enamel pot with the sugar. Stir well.

—Stir over medium-high heat until the sugar dissolves. Then stir occasionally until a drop beads up on a cold dish (or if you want to take it all the way to jam, until 222 degrees F).

—Take it off the heat and stir in the lemon juice and the basil.

I freeze mine in jars.

Adding sugar to Sungolds might seem like overkill. But, somehow, it creates an alchemy with the sharp basil that reaches perfection when dolloped on a salty or sharp cheese. We love it all winter on grilled-cheese sandwiches with cheddar or goat cheese. It may be best, though, with aged gouda. We have taste-tested with several wedges of cheese so far. We cannot yet make the claim for what's best. We must eat a little more.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Savoring the harvest: Heirloom-tomato elixir

by June

Here I go with the heat again. But, forgive me, please. It's September, and it is ninety-seven degrees. In Maine. Where we moved to escape the heat and the humidity and...

It is unnerving.

Jamie at Home: Cook Your Way to the Good LifeFortunately, the sizzling, sunny weather has kept late blight at bay in the garden, and our ripening heirloom tomatoes provide just the thing for my nerves—a beautiful tomato elixir. It's a soup that Jamie Oliver calls tomato consomme. Jamie is one of my heroes. I've always loved his slap-dash, flavorful style in the kitchen. And he endeared himself to me forever when he took on the battle to give school kids a healthy start in life. Did you see where test scores went up in science and English while absences for sickness went down? Woohoo! If you don't own his Jamie at Home cookbook, oh, do get it. Now. It is a feast of a cookbook, part gardening how-to and part kitchen magic. The photos—with the exception of a dead bunny—are almost as sensuous as the food itself: Delicious!

But back to the soup... This lovely, light tomato broth required only our energy and a blender's. Blossom, Fern, and I adapted Jamie's recipe a little, mostly because we were too hot to fuss with a butcher's hook. 

Pink Brandywine tomato

Ruby Gold tomato

Persimmon tomato

Here's how you can do it too:

Strip down to your dainties. Really. This is why there are no photos of the process. We were practically all natural. If there's one thing I learned from my mother, the less you wear in the kitchen during harvest-time, the longer you'll be able to bear being in the kitchen during harvest-time.

Clear out a space in your fridge that will hold your largest pot. This is both a good way to feed the chickens and cool off at the same time.

Then get out your largest pot—we use our enamel canning pot—and fit a crockery bowl down inside it. Around the rim of the bowl, secure at least a double layer of cheesecloth with clothespins.

Roughly chop up four-and-a-half pounds of burstingly juicy heirloom (or any truly flavorful vine-ripened) tomatoes.

Throw them in batches into a blender with:

—a large bunch of fresh basil leaves
—one two-inch nob of horseradish (or three teaspoons of horseradish); don't scrimp unless you've got a thing against zing
—a nick of garlic
—two tablespoons red wine vinegar
—a slice of beet (or if you can't stand not to use the whole beet, the whole beet)
—sea salt
—six-ish whole black peppercorns

Pulse everything until it's a bright mush then pour it slowly and carefully into your cheesecloth sling. Tent some clear wrap over it all.

Slide the pot and its precious load into the fridge.

Go swimming for five or six hours. Or seven.

When you come back, lift out the cheesecloth sling (with a whole new batch of delight for the chickens).

Pour the tomato elixir into chilled cups. Sip.

You may feel as though you are swimming all over again.

We used an entire beet (smallish), and it definitely verged on cranberry-punch color

Note: We have found that the chilled mush, if left overnight in the fridge, will give off another clear and delicious helping large enough to serve the whole family again. Also, Jamie uses vodka in his. And I'm thinking that there's a cocktail just waiting to be made with this elixir. If you discover what it is, will you please let us know?

Next up in our festival of tomatoes: Sungold tomato jam!