Search This Blog

Monday, September 27, 2010

Heirloom Tomatoes- Buy 'Em Now!

I catered a lovely bridal shower this weekend and one of the dishes I prepared was an heirloom tomato salad with basil and a shallot vinaigrette. I got up early the morning of the shower and walked to my local farmers market in search of perfectly ripe tomatoes. The vendors were still carrying crates of produce out of their trucks when I got there. As soon as the tomatoes came out I started eying all of the beautiful varieties. There were red, yellow, orange, green and even purple tomatoes that ranged in size from a golf ball to a softball.

Even just speaking to their physical characteristics, these heirlooms look quite different from the tomatoes we find in the supermarket. The bins in the supermarket are chock full of tomatoes that are almost exactly the same size, shape and color. That's because commercial growers have chosen to grow just a couple varieties. They have chosen which to focus on based on several factors which include:

*Consistency: every tomato should be the same size and shape, be bright red and have no creases, bumps or blemishes.
*Productivity: the more a particular seed variety yields, the better.
*Hardiness: a primo variety should be able to withstand mechanical picking and long distance traveling. Additionally, they should be able to tolerate pesticide use.

So if a tomato variety meets all of the above criteria it is deemed a suitable variety for commercial growing and distribution. But isn't there something missing here? What about what the tomato tastes like?
But since a tomatoes hardiness and beauty is often deemed preferential to taste, so many times the commercialized versions barely resemble their incredibly sweet and juicy heirloom counterpart.

Heirloom varietals are native non-hybrid fruits and vegetables and are not used in modern large-scale agriculture; however are gaining popularity with home gardeners and small farmers. Since the fall weather is quickly moving in, try to get to the farmers market to take advantage of this last week or two of tomato season. Plus, since it is getting towards the end of the season, the prices seem to lower than what they were when they first started cropping up a couple months ago.

Here are two very different heirloom tomato recipes. One (the salad I prepared for the the bridal shower) is exceedingly simple and fresh. The second is warm and comforting. Both ar
e wonderful ways to highlight this fantastic fruit.

Heirloom Tomato Salad with Basil and Shallot Vinegarette
My apologies for not having a picture of the finished salad. I was in such a hurry to get everything packed and over to the shower I completely neglected to snap a quick pic-- but with all those beautiful, multi-colored tomatoes and fresh basil, you can just imagine how beautiful this dish looks.

serves 6 as a side dish

3 lbs. heirloom tomatoes
1/2 c. fresh basil, shredded
1 large shallot, minced
extra virgin olive oil
red wine vinegar
salt & pepper

Chop the tomatoes into generous bite-size pieces. Place in a colander, sprinkle lightly with salt and let sit for about 15 mi
nutes to allow the salt to extract the excess moisture.

In the meantime, place the minced shallot in a tablespoon or two of red wine vinegar and let marinate for a few minutes (letting the shallot sit in the vinegar will slightly "cook" the shallot and take out some of its harshness). Whisk in the olive oil (you should have 3 parts olive oil to 1 part vinegar) and season to taste with salt and pepper.

To assemble the salad, place half of the tomatoes in a serving bowl, top with 1/2 of the basil and some of the dressing. Top with the remaining tomatoes, basil and a little more of the dressing. You may not need all of the dressing.

Pasta with Heirloom Tomatoes, Feta & Sausage

Serves 3-4

1/2 lb short-cut whole wheat pasta, such as fuscilli

1 TBSN olive oil
1/2 lb spicy sausage, removed from casing

3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper
1/2 c. dry white wine
1/2 c. chicken stock
1 lb. heirloom tomatoes, roughly chopped
handful kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
1/3 c. basil, shredded
1/2 lb. feta cheese, cubed

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and add pasta. While pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sausage and break up with a spoon. When no longer pink, remove the browned sausage from pan.

Lower heat to medium-low and saute garlic and crushed red pepper until fragrant. Add the wine and reduce by half while scraping up any bits from the bottom of the pan. Pour in the chicken stock and simmer over medium heat for about 2 minutes. Add in the tomatoes and olives and continue cooking another few minutes.

Toss the cooked pasta in with the sauce and fold in the half of the basil and feta. Adjust seasoning. Top with the remaining basil and serve with a juicy pinot noir.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Farro Risotto with Arugula & Pan Seared Salmon

The last week has been an exciting and event-filled week for us. We welcomed in the Jewish New Year with Andrew's family in Cincinnati, broke fast with my family in New Jersey and relished in the beginning of a much anticipated football season.

Since these wonderful and celebratory last couple of weeks have been busy ones for us, we have not been eating at home as much as usual. And between working and traveling I have slipped a little bit with my meal planning. Instead of carefully planning out and shopping for meals in advance, I lately have found myself throwing something together for dinner at the very last minute (the previous entry for Curried Chickpeas with Spinach is a good example).

This past Sunday, after we had flown back into LaGuardia from Cincinnati, Andrew rushed off to catch the Bengals game at Phebe's, a bar in the East Village that has become the unofficial "Bengals Bar" (think 300 Cincinnatians wearing orange and black, eating Cincinnati-style chili and chanting "Who Dey!"). I rushed home to watch the 1 p.m. Giants season-opener. Around 4 p.m., after my beloved G-men wrapped up a win against the Carolina Panthers, I found myself gazing into an almost empty fridge thinking, "Ok, now what am I going to make for dinner?".

Seemingly reading my mind, I then received a call from a slightly downtrodden Andrew (the Bengals unfortunately didn't fare as well as the Giants), asking if he could pick anything up at Whole Foods on his way home (I know, he's good). "Yes!" I said. "Pick up a protein, please! A
nything we can serve over risotto." I had a plan. I had a bag of farro in the cabinet that I could make into a risotto and I would serve the protein on top.

Andrew returned home an hour later with a beautiful piece of wild Coho salmon, a bag of Satur Farms baby arugula and a bunch of, my favorite, maitake mushrooms (did I mention how wonderful he is?!).

I wilted in the peppery baby arugula with the farro risotto and topped it with seared maitake mushrooms and the Coho salmon fillet (alternatively, you could toss the seared mushrooms in with the risotto). Nutritionally, this meal knocks it out of the park. As we all know already, wild salmon, arugula and maitake mushrooms have a lot going for them, but I would like to spend a moment talking about farro.

Farro is an ancient grain that is very closely related to spelt. It has long been a popular grain in Italy and is now gaining attention, and increased distribution, in the US. Look for it in specialty and health food stores (I found it at Sahadis in Brooklyn). This hearty
grain has not had the husk removed, which means it contains significantly higher amounts of dietary fiber and vitamin E than other processed grains. And, it is one of those magical foods that is wonderfully good for us and extremely delicious. It has a chewy, toothy texture and a pleasantly nutty flavor.

For those of us who are skeptical that a fibrous, unprocessed grain like this could actually taste good, I urge you not to shy away from trying this. The first time I prepared farro for us, Andrew c
ame into the kitchen, looked suspiciously at the grain and asked "Is this one of those cardboard-y tasting health grains?". Even though he was skeptical at first, we both agree that it is a wonderful, and I may even venture to say preferred, alternative to white aborio rice risotto.

Farro Risotto with Wilted Arugula

extra virgin olive oil
1 small white onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 c. farro
1/4 c. dry white wine
2 c. stock (chicken or vegetable)
2 big handfuls baby arugula
1/4 c. grated parmesan cheese
1 TBSP butter
salt & pepper to taste

Heat enough olive oil to lightly cover the bottom of a heavy bottomed pot. Add the onion and cook, over medium-low heat, until softened, about 7 minutes. Add in the garlic and cook another minute or so until fragrant. Add in the farro and stir to coat the farro with oil, about 1 minute. Add in the white wine and stir until all of the liquid has been absorbed.

Add in 1/2 c. of the stock, stirring until the liquid is absorbed. Continue adding the stock, 1/2 c. at a time, until the farro is softened but still has a nice bite to it (you may not need all of the stock). The total cooking time should take around 25 minutes.

Stir in the parmesan cheese and butter and simmer for a couple more minutes until the risotto has thickened. Add in the arugula and gently stir to wilt. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

To prepare the salmon:
This hardly deserves its own designated recipe, however the technique for pan searing salmon is important. It is particularly important to get the oil in the pan very hot in order to get a good sear and prevent the fish from sticking. When the oil develops a sheen and starts to ripple, you are ready to add the salmon. To be sure the pan is hot enough, place a corner of the fish down and make sure it doesn't stick. If it does, give the pan another minute to heat up.

2/3 lb. wild salmon

salt & pepper
canola or grapeseed oil

Pat salmon dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Heat a stainless steel pan over high heat and add in enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan (for this application you do not want to use olive oil, as it has a lower smoke point and will burn). Heat the oil until is starts to ripple, then carefully add the salmon fillets, presentation side down. Cook for 3-4 minutes, or until golden brown.
Flip the fish, cover the pan, and continue to cook for another 2 minutes or until they have reached your desired level of doneness.

To prepare the Maitakes:
Be sure not to salt the mushrooms until they have browned. Salting early in the cooking process will draw out their moisture, which prevents them from browning properly. If you can't find Maitakes, any other kind of wild mushroom (crimimi, shitake, oyster, etc) would be great at well.

1/4 lb. fresh Maitake mushrooms
1 TBSP olive oil
1 TBSP butter
salt & pepper to taste

Use a damp paper towel to brush off any dirt from mushrooms. Break up into bite-size "florets". Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium-high heat and add the mushrooms. Cook for several minutes, until they have browned up nicely. Add in the butter and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Curried Chickpeas & Spinach

Even though I now write a food blog, I admittedly don't follow all that many. But one blog that I check on a daily basis is The Delicious Truth. It is written by Chef Rob Endelman who, in addition to running a company that provides in-home culinary instruction, is also committed to raising awareness about the dangers associated with our modern industrial food supply. He shares articles and commentary on how to look for, and avoid, potential toxins as well as various cooking tips and techniques. The other week he posted an idea for a quick and nutritious version of curried chickpeas and spinach which inspired me to make a similar dish.

It was a great idea for a quick weeknight meal. It came together in about 20 minutes
and was super tasty. Chef Rob used kale in this dish (which is probably what he had on hand), I used spinach (which is what I had on hand), or chard would be terrific as well. I played around with the spices based on my preferences and what I had in my spice cabinet, and encourage you to do the same.

I prefer to soak and cook dried beans rather than using canned, but when you're in a situation where you haven't planned out your meal 24 hours ahead of time, the canned variety work just fine. Just be sure to purchase organic beans that are packaged in BPA (Bisphenol A) free cans. BPA, which is used in the linings of many cans, is a toxin that, according to multiple scientific studies, can have numerous adverse health effects on humans. Eden Organic (pictured above) sells a good variety of canned beans and they never use BPA in the linings.

I served this over steamed amaranth grain, which is an extremely nutritious ancient grain (see July 24, 2010 post), or brown rice (as Chef Rob used) would be terrific as well.

Curried Chickpeas & Spinach

2 (generous) servings

1 TBSP canola or olive oil

1 onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 15 oz. can chickpeas, drained & rinsed
2 TBSP curry powder
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp chili powder (if you like zippy)
1 tsp salt
1 big bunch spinach leaves, roughly chopped

juice from 1/2 lemon
1 cup Greek yogurt

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat and saute onion and garlic for about 5 minutes until tender. Add in chickpeas, curry powder, coriander, cumin, turmeric, chili powder and salt and stir until combined. Add in the spinach and stir until wilted. Turn off the heat and stir in the lemon juice and yogurt. Season to taste with more salt, pepper and lemon juice if needed/desired.

Because the flavors in this dish continue to meld together as they sit, this dish would make great leftovers. To reheat, simmer, covered, over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes.