I’m back…

It’s been almost exactly eleven months since my last post. I didn’t plan such a long break. When I started to lose my blogging mojo I thought I would take a break for a few weeks, or maybe a month. Well, somehow life got in the way and here it is, almost a year later.

Highlights of the last year

Calvin got his driving permit and is slowly learning how to drive. We have graduated from parking lots to subdivision streets. Soon we might venture out on a main thoroughfare. He isn’t totally comfortable behind the wheel and Rich and I are fine with taking the whole process slowly. He will be sixteen in a few weeks (gulp!) but I think the license will wait for a few months until he is more than ready for the test.

We gave the kitchen a facelift in late winter. That story is material for another post, complete with pictures. But I will say I love the new kitchen and still catch myself standing in the middle of it, marveling at the new look.

Okay, I wanted three things to highlight for the year, but there really haven’t been any earthshaking events. The year was full of food and fun in the kitchen, of course. We made lots of pizza, lots of desserts and even tried deep frying (that is definitely a story for another post).

I didn’t make any big cooking discoveries, at least I can’t remember any. One thing I missed about not blogging was taking notes while I cooked. I need to get back in the habit, whether I intend to blog about a recipe or not. We have had some killer meals that I haven’t been able to recreate because I didn’t take any notes.

The blog might look a little different as I move forward. I won’t be posting as often, and I probably won’t be posting as many recipes. I am going to try to get back to my original intent to use the blog as a window into the world of a cook, baker, gardener and foodie. Rest assured, though there may not be as many recipes, I will still be posting cooking tips for the novice (and the expert). And I will still share recipes and experiments in the kitchen, just maybe not three times a week!

Here’s to eating, cooking and blogging about it! (Raises a glass and cuts a piece of cake).

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Roasted Cherry Tomato Sauce

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September can be the time of tomato burnout, at least if you have your own garden or are friends with someone who gardens. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but fresh tomatoes at every meal do pall after awhile. We don’t personally have that problem this year, but we were inundated last year, especially with cherry tomatoes. I love the bounty of fruit you get from a cherry tomato plant, in July and August. By September I am usually faced with bowl after bowl of cherry tomatoes that no one is really all that interested in anymore.

The typical answer to too many tomatoes is to make sauce. This can be problematic with cherry tomatoes. No one is going to peel those babies and they sometimes have very thick skins. Last year I tried an experiment to deal with them in the quickest way possible. It was about a hundred degrees (I’m not exaggerating) and I wanted to get in and out of the kitchen in the shortest amount of time.

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Now, this does involve turning the oven on in the summer heat, but it isn’t on for long and the results make it worth it in my book. Long story short – roast those luscious nuggets of summer sunshine until they are browned and shriveled, which takes very little time since they are so small. Let them cool a little and then chuck them into the food processor. A quick whirl and they break down into sauce that is thickened by the pureed skins.

I like to freeze the sauce flat in ziplock bags, like I freeze my zucchini, to save freezer space. It also makes for easy and fast thawing later. You can thaw in the fridge overnight or put the bag in hot water. It also works to cut the bag off the frozen block of sauce and put it right in a pan to thaw over low heat.

Print or download the recipe.

Roasted Cherry Tomato Sauce
From The Cook’s Life
Yield varies

Cherry tomatoes
Olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wash and dry the tomatoes. Spread them out in a single layer on a baking sheet with sides. Drizzle lightly with olive oil. Bake 20 minutes, or until softened and browning in spots. You might hear some of the tomatoes burst as they are cooking. There will be a fair amount of liquid on the pan from burst tomatoes and it might be caramelizing in spots. That is fine.

Let the tomatoes cool, on the pan, for about 30 minutes. The scrape, pour or otherwise transfer the tomatoes and all their juices to a food processor or blender. Process the tomatoes into a sauce. Scrape down the sides once and process again.

Pour the sauce into ziplock bags. Be sure to label them with the contents and date before you fill them or you’ll be writing on squishy bags. I like to use quart bags and fill them with about two cups of sauce. It is easiest to place the bag in a straight-sided glass or glass measuring cup before filling. Place the filled bags flat on a plate or a cookie sheet and place them in the freezer. Once frozen solid, you can store the bags upright like books or stack them flat.

When ready to use, thaw the bags overnight in the fridge or float in a bowl of hot water for about half an hour. You can also cut the bag off the frozen sauce and thaw it right in your cooking pot. Use the sauce as the base of any soup or stew, or spice it up for pizza or pasta.

Baking for a Barbecue

I have been baking up a storm this week. Once again I am providing desserts for the Midtown Alley BBQ. I baked the desserts last year and couldn’t pass up the chance to do it again this year.

I decided to make the same desserts I made last year:

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Gooey Butter Tarts

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Chocolate Gooey Butter Tarts

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Gingersnaps

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Chocolate Chip Cookies

I was going to make a new gooey butter tart flavor, lemon blueberry, in honor of summer. The first experiments weren’t quite there yet, but stay tuned for the perfected recipe soon.

Feel free to stop by Atomicdust in Midtown St. Louis if you are in town and looking for something to do tonight. For now, I’m headed back to the kitchen to finish baking.

Zucchini for the Freezer

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‘Tis the season of zucchini – the time of year when gardeners are tired of the zucchini bounty and are happy to give friends, neighbors and random passersby their extra squash. I got so tired of my plant taking up most of my garden space that I took the whole thing out and planted a fall garden. More on that in another post.

I have mentioned dealing with all the zucchini in several posts. Can you tell that zucchini has been preoccupying me just a bit? Some of the harvest played a starring roll in lemon zucchini muffins and some featured prominently in pasta dishes or side dishes. And then the rest of it…

Most of the harvest ended up in the freezer, in the form of bags of shredded zucchini. Ready and waiting for me to make zucchini bread and muffins or to sauté to make a quick batch of zucchini pesto for pasta. When I’m not so tired of the blessed vegetable.

DSC_0349I have a ready stash now, stacked in the freezer in ziplock bags. Over the years I have develop a process that works for me and makes the most of precious freezer space. First, shred the zucchini, either by hand or with a food processor. For ease of filling, line a glass or other straight-sided container with a quart-sized ziplock bag, folding the top edge back over the glass. Fill the bag with about two cups of zucchini shreds. You can measure the first one and then fill the others to the same height as the first. I use two cups because that is what most of my recipes call for, and it fills the bag nicely.

DSC_0359Press all the air out of the bags and seal them tightly. Flatten the bags as much as possible, spreading the zucchini shreds out to the very edges of the bags. Label each bag with the contents and the date. Don’t skip the labeling or you will be stuck puzzling over the contents in January, when the contents are frosty and your memory is fuzzy. Freeze the bags flat, and then store them on their sides, like books in a shelf.

When you are ready to use the zucchini, the bags thaw in just a few hours on the counter. Or dip the sealed bag briefly in hot water until the zucchini is thawed enough to use. Or throw the frozen zucchini block right into boiling soup or pasta sauce.

What is your favorite way of dealing with garden abundance?

Peach Overload

DSC_0350I realized last week that I was well into canning last year at this time. I have been so preoccupied with zucchini and the start of school that I haven’t made any peach butter or plum jam this year. I have almost finished my stash from last year and I definitely need to lay in a supply of toast topping for the next year.

I had time last Friday, so I thought I would head to the local farm and see if they had any peaches. Usually they have their blemished and bruised peaches for half price, but the supply goes fast. I was in luck and they had enough that I had my pick of the baskets. I bought two, which worked out to twelve pounds of peaches. I had all afternoon free and I figured I could cook and can peaches for a bit and then work on other chores around the house. Oh, the best laid plans…

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I blanched the peaches, since I had so many. I wanted them to be quick and easy to peel. I must not have left them in the water long enough – they were not easy to peel. The skins came off in little pieces instead of just sliding off the peaches. I should have re-blanched them, but I had already dumped the water and didn’t feel like waiting for more to come to a boil. Not the best decision I have ever made.

I had enough peaches for a double batch of peach butter, and I still had only used half of them. I got those cooking and tried to decide what to do with the rest of my bounty. Since I had already blanched them, I couldn’t really put them off to another day.

I had bought a box of low sugar pectin a few weeks ago, so I pulled it out to see how many peaches would make a batch of peach jam – four and a half cups. Okay, fine. That took care of a few more peaches. I figured I would peel and dice the rest and decide what to do with them after that.

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About the tenth pound of peaches I decided that maybe the afternoon wasn’t so fun anymore. I was hot, sticky and royally tired of peaches. I diced the last peach and tossed it into the measuring cup. Grand total – eight cups. Perfect for a pie. Another day. I tossed the diced peaches in a zip lock bag and froze them.

I still had to can the peach jam. And can the peach butter. And wash all my sticky dishes. I forged ahead, water bath processing the filled jars while I cleaned up the messy kitchen. I had the realization at that point that the actual canning process isn’t the arduous part – it’s the peeling, dicing and cooking that come before the canning.

Once I finished it all, I collapsed onto the couch in the much cooler living room and vowed not to move, or to look at another peach, for a very long time. From my vantage point I could see the beautiful jars of peach jam and peach butter cooling on the counter – all fourteen of them. Not bad for an afternoon’s work.

Summer Days and School Days

School started this week in our area. Calvin started ninth grade this year – the dreaded and exciting high school. Though he has been in the same school district since kindergarten, and he has always started school this early in August, it still seems insanely early to me.

School, when the summer cicadas and katydids are still singing? School, when it is still blazing hot? Well, not this year, but I’m not complaining at all about the beautiful weather. School, when we are still eating summer produce in all its glory?

DSC_0053Though the school year is in full swing, and our activities feel like fall, I am hanging onto summer at least a few more weeks. The fall spices, pumpkins and apples can wait a while, as far as I’m concerned. Summer is still here and I’m hanging on to it – long days, garden vegetables, lemonade and all.

Summer cooking for me has involved a lot of zucchini this year, and not quite as many tomatoes as usual. It all comes down to what is doing well in the garden. We have had spotty success with tomatoes for the past few years, so this spring we decided to give the soil a rest from tomato plants and raise them in pots.

Well, that was a failure – we had a grand total of eight cherry tomatoes and one larger one. The plants just never took off in the pots, and the deer took care of most of the fruit we did get on the vines. To top off the season, a deer ate two of the plants down to stubs. I bagged the whole experiment in mid July. I am trying a second, fall crop of tomatoes, but in the garden this time, behind the lattice fence that was supposed to keep out the rabbits. It seems to be doing a fine job deterring the deer too.

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We have had good luck with zucchini this year, at least. I have one plant, count it, one. It currently is taking over the garden. We have had several huge zucchini that escaped our notice under the insanely huge leaves. One weighed three pounds and the other was over four. There really was nothing to do with those but shred them, since they were so big. They found their way into zucchini tots, lemon zucchini muffins and the freezer. We have had a lot of smaller zucchini too, using those on pizza, and in zucchini chips and zucchini planks.

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Calvin’s first week of school is just about over. I think it calls for a celebration, which in our house usually means something special from the kitchen. I wonder if he’d go for zucchini cake? Probably not. Guess it’s time to break out the chocolate.

Family Vacation Fun

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We just got back from a week long vacation to Washington, D.C. Usually we visit family for our summer vacation, but this summer we decided to take our first nuclear family vacation. We have done weekend trips as the three of us, but never a full-on road trip and sightseeing trip.

It was a wonderful week and we hit most of the sights in our nation’s capital, along with a good portion of the eastern U.S. And I mean a lot of it. A road trip really drives home the size of our great country. It took us a little over fourteen hours over two days to get to Washington, via Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia. On the way home we drove for another fourteen hours through Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois. Beautiful country, but it started to pall just a bit after delays for construction, rain and about the twelfth hour on the road. I think we’ll fly if we go again.

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The trip was a first for all of us. Not sure how Rich and I missed out on visiting the capital until now, but it was a great adventure to discover it all with Calvin. We feel like we did it all – or at least a good portion of it. And we did most of it on our own feet – our biggest day, according to the pedometer on Rich’s phone, clocked in at ten miles of walking. Count them, ten. We felt it just a bit, at the end of that day. And by a bit, I mean a lot. It was hard to walk without limping or groaning. In our defense, the ten-mile day followed two seven-plus mile days. Foot rubs and a little lie down were in order that evening. And we all slept really well.

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We worked our way through the Smithsonian museums, hitting American History, Natural History, Air and Space and Native American. We saw the Capitol, the White House, the Library of Congress and the National Archives. We walked the length of the National Mall, from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, stopping at the Washington Monument in the middle. And it is a long, long way from one end of the mall to the other, especially when it is hot and sunny. We also hit the not-to-be-missed Spy Museum and Newseum while we were at it.

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It is hard to pick out the highlights after seeing so many cool things. Tops on my list are seeing the actual Star Spangled Banner, Julia Child’s kitchen, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And the Spy Museum was a great combination of camp and intrigue mixed with a dash of real history.

I can’t forget the food. I polled a few foodie friends and former and current D.C. residents for restaurant recommendations before we went. We hit a few of those, and found a few gems of our own. We managed to find stellar cupcakes, wood oven fired pizza and calzones, burgers and shakes, house-made pop tarts along with a few salads to offset all the goodies. With all of our walking we didn’t feel too overindulged, but it was good to get back to home cooking. Somehow, most of our meals since we got back have featured vegetables, fruit and whole grains.

It was nice to have a break from cooking and baking, but by the end of the week I started to get the urge to bake something. Of course, with our vacation treats still a recent memory, I am more in the mood for fruit than cookies. But I think a few more days of healthy eating will have me in the kitchen again, flinging flour and creaming butter and sugar with abandon.

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