August 31, 2016

Dear friends,

I’m obsessed with tomatoes this summer, maybe because I don’t have any. I harvested just one big, juicy yellow-orange globe from my vines before weeds strangled the last gasping tendril. A month’s vacation did ‘em in.

Without the usual tomato glut, I have been coveting friends’ tomato patches and lusting after the many varieties in farm markets. Last week I lugged home a peck to freeze and almost another peck to eat, and I’m still not sated.

My M.O. this summer is tomato sandwiches. I have slipped thick slices between seeded whole wheat with pesto and a bit of chicken. I have indulged in BLTs and grilled Spam, cheese and tomato. Last weekend I made my favorite so far: Blue cheese and tomato on a soft wheat roll. If anyone knows of a better tomato sandwich, I’d like to hear about it. Seriously.

Tony is about to meet Mr. Tomato in a big way. He has promised to feed me while I recuperate from a knee replacement. By the time you read this, I hope to be home from the hospital. While I lounge in the living room with my ipad and ice compresses, Tony will be in the kitchen making tomato sandwiches.

When he’s done with that, I’ll ask him to make some fresh tomato salsa to spoon over grilled steaks, and roasted tomato sauce to freeze. Tony will either cater to my tomato fixation or abandon me. I think it’s a toss-up.

My favorite salsa fresca recipe starts with a saute of diced portobello mushrooms and garlic flavored with balsamic vinegar. The cooked mushrooms and garlic give the salsa a rich backbone of flavor.

The remaining ingredients are simple — diced ripe tomatoes, sweet onion, green onion, a smidgen of minced jalapeno for heat, and diced yellow bell pepper for color. Roasted corn, barely scorched at the edges, is added, too. The salsa is seasoned with olive oil, lime juice and a hint of ground cumin.

Chopped fresh basil and cilantro are folded in at the end.

My recipe calls for seeding the tomatoes, which is simple. Cut the tomatoes in half horizontally, hold the halves over the sink, and squeeze. The seeds and liquid will come pouring out, leaving you with the pure, meaty flesh.

Too many ripe tomatoes? Do not refrigerate, which kills the flavor. Instead, store them in a dark place to help prevent decay. Or just turn them into roasted tomato sauce. My version is wonderfully full-flavored and a snap to make: On a baking sheet, place 6 medium tomatoes, 4 unpeeled cloves of garlic and a peeled onion cut in half. Roast at 400 degrees for 20 minutes, or until the tomatoes are soft and the skins are beginning to split.

When the tomatoes are cool enough to handle, peel off the skins and place the pulp and juice, along with the onion and peeled garlic, in a food processor.

Puree, then simmer in a saucepan for about 20 minutes to thicken. Ladle into freezer bags and stash away for a taste of summer in the middle of winter.

But enough about those gray, tomato-less days ahead. Today the sun is shining and tomatoes are plentiful. Now is the time to make tomato sandwiches and salsa like crazy. Or in my case, to get my husband to do it.

SALSA FRESCA
(Fresh tomato-basil salsa)

2 tbsp. vegetable oil
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 cup finely diced portobello mushrooms (about 3 oz.)
1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
4 ripe tomatoes, seeded and diced
1/2 cup diced sweet onion, such as Vidalia
1 green onion, including top, sliced
1/2 yellow bell pepper, diced
1/2 fresh jalapeno, minced fine
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 tbsp. fresh lime juice
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1/4 tsp. ground cumin
1 tbsp. minced fresh cilantro
1 tbsp. minced fresh basil
1 to 2 ears corn, scorched in a dry skillet

Heat vegetable oil in a skillet over medium-high heat.

Add garlic and mushrooms and sauté until mushrooms are limp and cooked through, about 5 minutes. Add balsamic vinegar and stir until vinegar evaporates.

Place mushroom mixture in a medium bowl with tomatoes, onion, green onion, bell pepper and jalapeno. Stir well. Add olive oil, lime juice, salt and cumin. Stir well. Stir in cilantro and basil. Cut corn kernels from ear(s) and fold into salsa. Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

In the past week I’ve used my microwave to cook corn, reheat coffee, defrost a Lebanese meat turnover and zap a lemon before squeezing to increase juiciness. I don’t often cook in it, although I should in the summer. The microwave is especially good at baking fruit crisps. Local peaches are spectacular this year, so treat yourself:

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MICROWAVE PEACH CRISP
5 peaches
4 tbsp. flour
3 tbsp. butter
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup chopped almonds
1/4 cup quick oats

To peel peaches more easily, microwave each peach, one at a time, for 30 seconds. Peel immediately while microwaving next peach. Cut each peach into 8 slices. Combine peach slices and 2 tablespoons of the flour in a buttered 8-inch glass pie pan or equivalent shallow microwave-safe dish. Stir to distribute flour.

Melt the 3 tablespoons butter on high power in a small bowl. Stir in chopped almonds, brown sugar, oats and remaining flour. Sprinkle evenly over peaches. Microwave on high power for 6 minutes or until peaches are tender and topping is bubbly. Makes 4 servings.

THE MAILBAG
From Lorraine:
Can you take another garden recipe? My sister is visiting and loved this.

2 to 3 medium zucchinis
l small onion
2 tbsp. olive oil

Cut zucchinis into disks. Sauté onion in olive oil until soft. Add zucchini and cook until they soften a bit, 5 to 6 minutes over medium heat. Add an 8-ounce can of tomato sauce, a pinch or two of oregano, some fresh basil leaves and cook until zucchini is tender but a bit firm.

Spoon half of the vegetables into a 9-by-9-inch baking pan. Cover with 1 1/2 cups cottage or ricotta cheese. Layer on 4 slices of provolone cheese and sprinkle with Parmesan. Cover with remaining zucchini and another sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until bubbling.

This is a very flexible recipe that can be doubled depending on your zucchini haul. An egg and parsley can go in the cheese mixture if you like. This recipe freezes well.

Dear Lorraine: That’s the kind of recipe I like – easy, quick and made with seasonal ingredients. I bet your zucchini lasagna casserole will be on a lot of tables in the coming month. You could add eggplant, too, and browned ground beef or chicken for more protein if desired.

From Bob:
Always enjoy your newsletter! Several weeks back you had a request for Greek Spaghetti. I’ve been meaning to respond, but just never have had a chance.

You did a column years ago about Cincinnati Chili. It’s of Greek origin and has been served in the Cincinnati area since the early 1900s – and, it’s served over spaghetti. It contains unsweetened chocolate and has a hint of cinnamon and cloves, producing a very unique flavor. Could be what your reader was talking about.

Cincinnati Chili is served in “ways.” 3-way is spaghetti, chili, and a gigantic mound of finely shredded mild cheddar cheese. 4-way is spaghetti, chili, either onions or beans, and cheese. 5-way is spaghetti, chili, onions, beans, and cheese.

I’ve had my recipe for years — don’t even remember where I got it. We did serve it occasionally as a special when we owned The Courtyard Cafe in Brecksville, which we sold over 15 years ago. I still make it in the same quantity because everyone enjoys it and it freezes well. My oldest son, Andrew, requested this for his rehearsal dinner. Cincinnati Chili and Coney Dogs were a big hit with our out-of-town guests!

Here’s the recipe:

CINCINNATI CHILI
9 lbs. lean ground beef
3 quarts water
3/4 cup dehydrated onion
6 tbsp. chili powder
3 tbsp. seasoned salt
1 tbsp. allspice
1 tbsp. cayenne pepper
1 tbsp. ground cumin
2 tbsp. minced fresh Garlic
3/4 tsp. ground cloves
3/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
6 bay leaves
3 oz. unsweetened chocolate
2 cans (28 oz. each) tomato sauce
3/4 cup red wine vinegar

In large kettle, combine beef and water. Break up with hands until beef is separated and mixture is almost a pudding consistency. Stir in remaining ingredients. Bring to a slow boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for 3 hours. Stir often.

Let cool. Remove any excess grease. Refrigerate or freeze in small batches until ready to use. Makes 2 gallons.

Dear Bob: I really liked your restaurant back in the day. Thanks for the restaurant-sized recipe, handy for stashing in the freezer. Some of the spices in your chili may intensify or weaken when frozen, so cooks should taste and adjust when reheating.

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