Sun-Dried Tomatoes

Dear Friends,

Every time I open my freezer I’m reminded of how prolific my SunGold tomato plants were last summer. About a dozen zipper-lock bags of the sweet, sun-dried mini tomatoes lurk in wire baskets, boxes and crannies, in-your-face reminders to use them before the next crop arrives.

When I remember, I scatter a few in salads and occasionally use a couple of handfuls in lieu of sauce on a homemade pizza. But now it’s time to get serious. The daffodils are bursting into bloom, the hostas are peeking through the soil and a new crop of tomatoes will be here before you know it.

This week I hauled a couple of batches of sun-dried tomatoes from the freezer and set about creating a sun-dried tomato pesto. Recipes for the pasta sauce abound, but I had my own ideas about which ingredients would taste best with my SunGolds.

They aren’t really sun-dried tomatoes, by the way. They’re oven dried, and technically they aren’t even dry. As I’ve mentioned before, I half-dry the tomatoes just long enough to concentrate the flavor without turning  the things into tomato leather. Then I freeze. I tried packing them in oil one year, but that’s risky. The anaerobic properties of oil, plus lack of acid, creates an ideal environment for the growth of bacteria, even botulism. The dried tomatoes I covered with oil one year became moldy, even though I stored the jar in the refrigerator.

Freezing is easier anyway, and my frozen half-dried tomatoes tasted fresh and sweet after I thawed them. I was determined to thicken my pesto with walnuts, which I thought would be a better choice than the typical pine nuts most recipes call for. I also added a judicious amount of garlic, plenty of grated Parmesan, a miserly amount of olive oil and one tablespoon of chopped Nicoise olives (small, wrinkled black olives with an intense flavor). The olives gave the pesto a mysterious undertone of flavor.

Tony wandered though the kitchen as I was scraping the fragrant sauce from the food processor to a bowl. He glanced at the reddish-brown sauce and wrinkled his nose, sensing maybe that his beloved spaghetti with meat sauce would be displaced by this newcomer.

Tony: “It doesn’t look good.”
Me: “It’s just for one meal, for crying out loud. Taste it.”
Tony: “Mm. But it doesn’t look good.”

Ok, so it isn’t Ragu. If that bothers any of you, try it anyway. Live it up. Your freezer will be the better for it.

MY OWN SUN-DRIED TOMATO PESTO

  • 2  large cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 tbsp. roughly chopped Nicoise olives
  • 3/4 cup half-dried tomatoes, thawed, or drained commercial sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 1/2 oz. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tbsp. broken walnut pieces

Drop the garlic cloves through the feed tube of a food processor with the motor running. Add olives and tomatoes and puree until fairly smooth. Continue to puree while adding  oil through the feed tube. Process until smooth, adding more oil if necessary to produce a texture looser than a paste but thicker than a liquid. Add the Parmesan and walnut pieces and process until the nuts are chopped fairly fine but still provide some texture to the sauce. Makes 1 generous cup, enough to sauce about ¾ lb. of pasta.

Here’s a sophisticated way to use sun-dried tomatoes on pizza, from “The Wolfgang Puck Cookbook.”
 

PIZZA WITH SHRIMP AND SUN-DRIED TOMATOES

  • Dough or purchased crusts for 4 8-inch pizzas
  • 2 tbsp. hot chili oil
  • 1 cup grated fontina cheese
  • 2 cups grated mozzarella
  • 1/4 cup blanched garlic, chopped (see note)
  • 1 medium red onion, sliced thin
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
  • 1/2 lb. raw medium shrimp, peeled (about 20 to 24)
  • 1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, cut into slivers

Preheat oven to 500 degrees, preferably with a pizza stone inside. Shape the dough into four 8-inch circles and place on a lightly floured pizza peel (one at a time).

Brush each pizza with the chili oil and top each with a quarter of the fontina and mozzarella, leaving a 1/2-inch border. Top each equally with the garlic, red onion, basil, shrimp and tomatoes. Slide the pizzas onto the pizza stone or baking sheets. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until the cheese is bubbling. Slide onto warm plates and cut into wedges to eat. Makes 4 servings.

Note: To blanch garlic (and soften the flavor), cut off the tips of unpeeled garlic cloves. Place the garlic cloves in a small long-handled mesh strainer and dip into a pan of boiling water for 30 seconds. Transfer to a bowl of ice water for 30 seconds. Repeat, then dry. The skins will slip right off.

HELP U COOK

I was confused for years about whether to boil or soak rice noodles. I figured I was getting rice noodles and cellophane noodles mixed up when I encountered different preparation techniques in Asian recipes. But rice noodles can be either boiled for soaked, depending on how you plan to use them. I’ve developed my own rule of thumb to simplify things in my own mind. If the noodles will be cooked further (in a stir-fry, for example) after the pre-cooking, I will merely soak them for 10 to 15 minutes in hot water, then drain. If the noodles will not be cooked further (in a cold noodle salad, for example), I will boil them for about five minute, just until tender.

THE MAILBAG

From Melanie:
Have you ever heard of hrudka? It is an Easter milk-egg mixture that you cook on top of the stove in a double boiler, then wrap in cheesecloth and twist into a ball to get the water out. My grandmother used to make it, and I remember eating it 50 years ago. Thanks.

Dear Melanie: Hrudka brings back memories of a college boyfriend of Slavic heritage who explained why he cheated on me in this lyrical fashion: “She’s someone new to tell old stories to.”
The creep  probably shared his mother’s hrudka with her, too.

But since your memories of hrudka are pleasant ones, I set aside my loathing for Dennis and located two recipes. They are from an interesting food blog, 52 Weeks in Slovakia.

Hrudka comes in sweet and savory versions, according to writer Allan Stevo. I hope your biceps are in good shape, because both are made by stirring a ton of eggs and some milk in a saucepan over low heat for 30 minutes. Sugar is added to the sweet version, while salt and pepper are added to the savory.     

The heat and the stirring cause the eggs and milk to lump together into curds, which are then hung in cheesecloth overnight to produce a soft, cheese-like treat that is sliced and served as a side dish or with dessert. Stevo’s recipes and photos can be found at http://www.52insk.com/2011/hrudka/.

From Dave:
I was cleaning out my freezer and wonder how long can I keep frozen foods?  Some are the steam-in-the-bag products.  I don’t think there is a date on the packages.  I do have veggies that I blanched and froze and I put a date on them.  Thank you.

Dear Dave: Because freezing prevents bacteria growth, frozen foods won’t spoil no matter how long they are in the freezer. Even if they’ve been in your freezer for years, they will be safe to eat. Whether you’d want to is another story. Frozen food can get freezer burn, dry out, and lose flavor, depending on how long it has been in the freezer and how well it was wrapped. If the food looks good, thaw it out and try it.

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Recipes from Nancie McDermott

April 4, 2013

Dear Friends,

Who is this Nancie McDermott and why are her recipes so good? I know I’m late to the party, but since discovering McDermott’s 2004  cookbook, “Quick and Easy Thai,” in my unruly cookbook collection, I’ve come to admire McDermott. I usually consider myself lucky if I find one or two outstanding recipes in a cookbook, but every recipe I’ve tried from this slim paperback has been a winner.

According to her website (http://www.nanciemcdermott.com/about.htm), McDermott is a Chapel Hill, N.C. cooking teacher who learned to cook Thai as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand. She is a kindred soul because, like me, she specializes in streamlining complex recipes. Lots of cookbook authors try to do this, but most subtract the flavor while simplifying the ingredients and techniques. Not McDermott, at least in this book. (She has written a handful of other cookbooks, including “Quick & Easy Vietnamese,” which I intend to buy and try.)

The latest recipe from her book that I’ve fallen in love with is Red Curry Shrimp with Pineapple. She dumps coconut milk and Thai red curry paste in a skillet, adds some water, fish sauce, sugar and pineapple, and then finishes it by simmering raw shrimp in the fragrant sauce for a couple of minutes, until they’re cooked.

How could a recipe that easy taste so good? I couldn’t believe it, so I added another layer of  flavor by sautéing the shrimp first in oil, and tossed in some asparagus just because it’s spring. I’m sure Nancie’s version is fine as is, so if you’re pressed for time, add the raw shrimp at the end as she does.

The recipe  can serve as a template for all kinds of Thai seafood curries. Nancy writes, “Follow this as a guideline for making a curry with seafood or fish and any curry paste you like.”

I will. After you try this delicious, ridiculously simple curry, I bet you will, too.

RED CURRY SHRIMP WITH PINEAPPLE
    •    2 tbsp. vegetable oil
    •    1/2 lb. asparagus, tough ends trimmed and stalks cut into 1 1/2-inch lengths
    •    3/4 lb. large raw shrimp, shelled
    •    1 1/2 cups coconut milk
    •    2 tbsp. Thai red curry paste
    •    1/2 cup water
    •    2 tbsp. Thai fish sauce (nam pla) (I used 1 tbsp. fish sauce and 1 tbsp. soy sauce)
    •    1 tbsp. sugar (2 tsp. Splenda)
    •    1 cup bite-sized fresh pineapple chunks
    •    6 wild lime leaves, quartered (I used 1 tsp. fresh lime juice)

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Stir-fry asparagus until tender-crisp. Remove from skillet and set aside. In same skillet, stir-fry shrimp, turning, until opaque on both sides but still slightly raw in the interior. Remove from skillet and set aside.

In same skillet, simmer one-half cup of the coconut milk over medium-high heat, stirring often, until thickened and fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the curry paste and cook a minute or two, whisking until the paste is dissolved. Stir in remaining 1 cup coconut milk, the water, fish sauce, sugar, pineapple and lime juice. Bring to a gentle boil. Simmer gently two to three minutes longer, until mixture develops a depth of flavor. Add the  shrimp and asparagus and simmer one minute more, just until shrimp are cooked through.

Serve over steamed rice or rice noodles. Makes 3 to 4 servings.
Recipe adapted from “Quick  & Easy Thai” by Nancie McDermott.

HELP U COOK

A block of tamarind pulp is handy to have in the cupboard if you like to cook Asian or Latin American cuisines. It usually comes in a fairly large square that looks like dark, thick fruit leather. When processed into a liquid, it adds a distinctive fruity, tart flavor to dishes. The liquid may also be sweetened judiciously and served chilled as a summer quencher, as it is in the Dominican Republic.

To use the tamarind pulp, you break off a hunk and soften it in hot water for a half-hour or so, squeezing the pulp occasionally until it is pliable and releases it flavor. Then the liquid is strained into a container and the pulp is pressed through the strainer into the container. The mixture is covered and refrigerated for up to a week (the flavor becomes stronger the longer it is kept). The block of tamarind pulp will keep in your cupboard for years, as long as it isn’t subjected to moisture or overly hot temperatures.

Thai cooks often use distilled white vinegar or lime juice in place of tamarind liquid, according to author Nancie McDermott. Other good substitutes in Thai recipes, she says, are Indian-style tamarind chutney, or a mix of equal parts white vinegar, sugar and soy sauce.

THE MAILBAG

From Kathi:
How long can I keep homemade pickled eggs in the refrigerator? I usually throw away the leftovers after a week, although they still look and smell good.

Dear Kathi: Your instincts are on the mark. Pickled eggs should be stored in the refrigerator and eaten within a week, according to the American Egg Board. The high acidity will prevent bacteria from growing for longer than a week, but the acid begins to break down the egg itself. Unopened commercially packaged pickled eggs in brine will keep for several months, but should also be used within seven days after opening, according to the Egg Board.

Tony has been on a pickled egg binge, so I’ve been making them for the last month. He likes the Amish mustard pickled eggs with garlic. I like regular pickled eggs with beets, so I made just three for myself for Easter. They won’t last a week, and neither will the dozen mustard pickled eggs I made for Tony. Here’s the recipe I use for Tony’s pickled eggs (I created it to his taste). Also, I can’t resist sharing a recipe for Ada Boni’s Sardinian-Style Hard-Cooked Eggs that I found in a cookbook recently. To chefs and savvy  cooks, Ada Boni is the ultimate authority on Italian cooking.

TONY’S MUSTARD AND GARLIC PICKLED EGGS
    •    1 1/2 cups distilled white vinegar
    •    1/2 cup Splenda granular (or 3/4 cup sugar)
    •    1/2 cup water
    •    1/2 tsp. powdered mustard
    •    1 tbsp. yellow prepared mustard
    •    5 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
    •    1 dozen hard-cooked eggs, peeled

Combine everything except the eggs in a saucepan and bring almost to a boil. Pour over the eggs in a tall, narrow container. Cover and refrigerate for at least two days (if possible) before eating. The brine may be used again for another batch.

ADA BONI’S SARDINIAN-STYLE HARD-COOKED EGGS
    •    1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
    •    4 tsp. red wine vinegar
    •    1/4 tsp. kosher salt
    •    6 large hard-cooked eggs, peeled and halved lengthwise
    •    2 tbsp. finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
    •    1/2 tsp. minced fresh rosemary
    •    1/2 tsp. minced fresh thyme
    •    1 garlic clove, minced
    •    1/3 cup fresh soft breadcrumbs
    •    Fresh-ground pepper

Combine the oil, vinegar and salt in a large skillet. Add the eggs and cook over low heat, carefully turning the eggs once or twice until the vinegar has evaporated, leaving just a film of oil in the pan. Transfer the eggs, cut side up, to a heated serving dish. Cover with foil to keep warm.

Add the parsley, rosemary, thyme and garlic to the skillet and cook over low heat, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the bread crumbs and cook, stirring until golden, about 3 minutes more. Add the black pepper.

Carefully spoon the breadcrumb mixture over the eggs. Serve warm or at room temperature.