Roasted Cherry Tomato Sauce

DSC_1054

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.

DSC_0392

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.

Zucchini for the Freezer

DSC_0356

‘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?

Salvage Smelly Cutting Boards with Salt and Lemons

DSC_0023

I am a fan of wooden cutting boards. They are easy on my knives, they look pretty and they last forever with just a little TLC. They do have their drawbacks. They can’t go in the dishwasher and they sometimes pick up aromas from whatever you have been chopping on them.

I speak most specifically of onions, garlic and shallots. Some of my cutting boards have a definite smell of onions when you get them wet. The aroma lingers, even after umpteen scrubbing sessions. I even got the sandpaper out and went to town. No luck.

The problem came to a head when I cut an apple on a cutting board and then used it to serve said apple. Partway through the meal Rich and I both commented on how weird the apple tasted. Yep, eau de onion. Not a good combination.

It was time to pull out the big guns. Or rather, whatever we could think of that we felt comfortable using on a food preparation surface. Anything chemical was out – I was afraid it would soak into the wood. I remembered that I had stained my white Corian counters with blueberries not long ago. I scrubbed the stains with salt and they were gone in no time, with just a little effort.

DSC_0001

I decided to use salt on the cutting boards. Then I started thinking about other food safe fresheners. Lemons came to mind – they work on garlic and onion smells on my hands and to freshen the microwave.

I made a paste of salt and lemon juice right on one of the cutting boards. I scrubbed it with a nylon scrubbing pad until the salt was all dissolved and not abrasive anymore. I repeated the process and then rinsed the board clean. No onion smell. I let it dry and took another whiff. A hint of onion. I repeated the process. Voila, no onion.

Salt, lemon and a little elbow grease did the trick. I had to re-oil the boards after that, but I now can cut apples and bread on my boards without adding a note of onion.

What are your favorite kitchen cleaning tips?

The Freezer Makes it Easy

We have had a few busy weeks here lately. To be honest, when is a week ever not busy for any of us, but lately we have been burning the candle at both ends more than usual. Most people would probably eat out more than normal or rely on boxed frozen meals, but I’m not most people. I have a few tricks that have saved the day lately.

DSC_0006

Lately, when I make a casserole, pasta dish or soup, I double the amounts and freeze half for another time. Sure, that makes more work initially, but it certainly doesn’t take twice the time for twice the food. And, of course, later I will have a homemade dinner in the freezer, waiting. I do this most often with cheese stuffed shells, but it works with just about any soup, chili or casserole.

DSC_0023

In addition to having some main dishes in the freezer, I am trying to build up a frozen stash of a few things to give me a head start on the cooking. Our grocery store had a meat sale a few weeks ago, and I picked up a bunch of packages of bone-in chicken breasts. I baked them all and then shredded the meat. Then I portioned it out into quart bags, filling each with about two cups of chicken. It makes me feel rich to have those bags in the freezer, ready to make into tacos, sandwiches or to throw in a quick chicken soup.

DSC_0014

I also picked up a pork roast as part of the same sale, and cooked it in the crockpot. I shredded the cooked meat and stashed it in the freezer next to the chicken. It is all ready to mix with barbecue sauce for pulled pork sandwiches, to dice and put in stir-fry or to put into tacos. Can you tell we are on a taco kick lately?

What do you do when you are pressed for time at dinnertime? Do you plan ahead, do you get take-out, or do you stand over the sink and eat a bag of chips and salsa?

Get the Scoop on Chilling Your Dough

DSC_0058

The weeks leading up to Christmas are cookie-baking time around our house. We give cookies for presents, take them as our contribution to potluck holiday parties and package them up for hostess gifts. We have done this since the first year we were married, and I don’t see us ending the tradition any time soon.

We make about twelve different kinds of cookies every year. Most of them are drop cookies, or the kind you roll into balls before baking. Some of them require a little more effort, but none of them are complicated or time consuming. As I write this, I realize many of our favorites are the roll-into-balls recipes – gingersnaps, Russian teacakes, chocolate chip doodles and snickerdoodles. The recipes instruct, “chill the dough before forming into balls for baking.” This often ends up with me using my forearm muscles of steel to scoop rock hard, chilled cookie dough.

The other day, when I was fiddling around, fixing my Russian teacake mistake, I had a revelation. If I scooped the dough balls first and then chilled the dough I would be getting the best of the process. I could scoop soft, creamy dough with ease and then chill the balls. Then, when I was ready to bake, the heavy lifting (so to speak) would be done and I could just place the balls on the pans and bake.

It works beautifully. Mistakes lead to innovation. And no, I’m not comparing myself to an inventor of say, rubber or the Slinky. It did kind of rock my cookie-baking world, though.

Try the method with any dough that calls for an hour or two of chilling. Portion out the dough right after you mix it and then chill the balls in an airtight container for up to a week. You can freeze them if you want to make them further ahead.

Oh, and in the free time that you will have if you use my revelatory method, you can kill some time on the internet. Try typing, “mistakes that led to inventions,” into any search engine and you will get some interesting reading.

Take Your Recipe Box into the 21st Century

DSC_0011

I used to have a binder of recipes torn from magazines and printed out from websites. You might have one too – full of recipes you are going to try “some day.” Mine was a zippered binder, which was the only thing that kept the whole thing in one place. I used to have to make sure it was on a flat surface when I unzipped it, or papers slithered everywhere. Add my handwritten recipe collection of family recipes and tried and true favorites and you had the sum total of my version of the old recipe box.

I have a whole new system now that works so much better than the old one ever did. Several years ago I stopped printing out recipes I wanted to try, instead I saved them as PDF files on the computer. Our Computer Cookbook (catchy name, right?) is full of recipes that I want to try someday – alphabetized and ready for me when I want them.

The computer cookbook file also has every recipe that I have typed up to email to someone and all the recipes I have developed for the blog. Slowly I am adding old favorites from my handwritten recipe book, as I get time to type them.

DSC_0009

Dropbox is the tool that makes the computer recipe file work like a dream. In case you aren’t familiar with it, Dropbox is a cloud storage service that allows me to share my files (recipes and otherwise) between my various devices: computer, iPad and iPhone. Since my computer cookbook files are stored on the Dropbox servers, I can access them from any device, anywhere I happen to be.

Mostly I use it to open files on the iPad so I can use it as an electronic cookbook in the kitchen. I also love having access when someone asks me for a recipe – I can find it right then and send it in an email. Best of all, Dropbox is free, unless you need tons of storage, and it works better than any of the recipe and cookbook apps I have tried. If you want to check it out, click on this link. (Full disclosure, if you sign up, you get extra storage space, and so do I).

How do you manage your recipes?

How to Evaluate a Recipe

DSC_0003

I have had several conversations lately about how to decide if a recipe is worth making. Recipes are everywhere and it isn’t always obvious which ones will give good results.

A simple online search for just about any recipe brings up thousands of results. Not all of them are worth making. Some are not tested, some contain inaccuracies and others don’t give you enough information or direction. Many are just fine. Some are spectacular. The same goes for recipes in cookbooks, magazines and newspapers. Just because a recipe is in print doesn’t mean it will necessarily work. A few simple tricks can help you determine if a recipe is worth your time and effort.

First, read through the whole recipe, including the directions. Are the ingredients listed in the order you use them? If they aren’t that is a red flag. Recipe convention is to list the ingredients in order of use. If the ingredient list is all over the place, the results might be too. It is overstating it a bit, but if the recipe isn’t carefully written, you should wonder if it was carefully crafted and tested. You don’t have to automatically pass by a recipe written like this, but make sure everything else checks out before you make it.

Read through the directions to make sure you understand how to do everything. If you don’t, check any accompanying pictures or headnotes to see if they help you. Sometimes recipe authors assume you have skills or experience that you don’t. If you really don’t understand what you are supposed to do, you might want to find a recipe that is more detailed.

Check to see if the proportions of ingredients are similar to other recipes. If you have never made a dish before, compare the amounts of ingredients from several recipes for that dish online or in cookbooks. If one recipe has ingredient ratios that are wildly different from most of the others, you might want to skip that one.

This is not a comprehensive list, by any means. But these are the steps I follow when I am searching for recipes. No, they are not foolproof. I have certainly made some bombs. But for the most part, these are starting points for finding good recipes, both online and in print.

How do you decide if a recipe is worth trying?

Go with the Grain

DSC_0051

Quinoa, kamut, red rice, amaranth, millet – whole grains are the hot trend right now. You may not know how to pronounce some of them, let alone cook them. But a whole new world of interesting starches awaits you if you can be the tiniest bit adventurous.

It really is as simple as buying something that sounds interesting to you and following the cooking directions. With a little jazzing up, of course. If you are used to white rice and white bread, you may want to start with a mild grain like white quinoa. You could also buy a rice medley, which will have a variety of rices, and will usually include some white rice.

You don’t have to break the bank to buy whole grains. Check the bulk bins at your grocery store. You can also buy boxed grains and mixes, but skip the ones added flavorings. They are usually mostly salt. Just the grains, ma’am. You will add your own flavorings and tailor them to your tastes.

Generally, the easiest, and most common way to cook these lovely grains is to boil them in water, until they absorb the water and are soft – like you would cook white rice. Some bulk bins have nearby informational charts, complete with cooking instructions, or even free recipe cards. Or you can look up cooking instructions online. You want to know how much water you need. And how much of your particular grain constitutes a serving. Some of them swell up to fill the pot and if you cook too much you will be eating it for a week. Trust me.

Of course, plain water can be pretty boring. I like to use broth to cook the grains, usually chicken or vegetable. I use Better than Boullion or canned broth most of the time. And I usually chop a clove or two of garlic and throw it in too. Or a shallot or small onion. If you are in the mood to chop, you could add some minced celery and carrot too. You won’t need salt if you use broth, but a little black pepper or a few red pepper flakes will add a bit of zing.

Have you cooked any “exotic” or new-to-you grains? Which are your favorites?

Cookies for Later

DSC_0023

I spent a lot of Friday working on various kitchen projects, which is pretty much my idea of an ideal day. I planned to make cookies, but I only got as far as mixing up the dough and sticking it in the fridge to deal with later. By the time I remembered it I was out of energy and the inclination to bake the cookies was gone. I left the dough in the fridge for the next day.

Between one thing and another, baking cookies wasn’t going to be part of Saturday’s plan either. I decided to freeze the cookie dough balls to bake another day.

The concept is simple – portion out cookie dough (this works with any drop cookie recipe) as if you were going to bake the cookies. You can put them as close together as possible, just try not to let them touch or they will freeze together. Instead of baking the cookies right then, freeze the dough balls on a cookie sheet. Once they are hard, which only takes about half an hour, put them in a ziplock bag. The frozen dough balls will keep in the freezer for several months. Label the bag with the name of the cookie recipe, since the dough balls can be hard to identify later. And you won’t remember what they are. Trust me.

DSC_0007

When you want to bake cookies, preheat the oven according to the cookie recipe directions, pull out as many dough balls as you like, place them on greased cookie sheets and bake them frozen. They might need an extra minute or two in the oven, but that is the only adjustment you need to make. You can bake any number of cookies – the whole batch, a dozen for a quick after-dinner treat for the whole family, or just a couple for you to eat by yourself, whenever you need a quick pick-me-up.

Back to Basics – Home Canning

DSC_0007

I avoided any sort of canning for years. I had a picture in my head of vats of boiling water and steam clouded windows, rows and rows of jars, bushels of fruit and me, toiling over the hot stove with sweat streaming down my brow. Canning doesn’t have to be like this. It certainly isn’t when I do it. I finally ventured into canning several years ago and wondered why I had waited so long.

The first time I made blackberry jam and canned it was a revelation. I had seedless, slightly tart blackberry jam that I was unlike anything I could buy in the stores, and I could eat it in January. The canning process wasn’t hard, once I understood what I was doing. Since then I mostly have canned fruit based products that are exactly what I want – peach butter that is preserved summer sunshine in a jar, sweet-tart plum jam, spiced pear preserves and the blackberry jam, when my parents’ blackberry vines have a good year.

DSC_0049

Canning is not hard. And you don’t have to can huge amounts of vegetables or fruit at a time. And it isn’t a mysterious process. It basically boils down (see the pun here?) to cooking your filled canning jars in boiling water until they are germ free and vacuum-sealed.

I usually can a few jars of jam or preserves at a time. I can make the jam and can it in an afternoon. I can even make the jam one day and can it another day, as long as I heat up the jam again before filling the hot jars (so they don’t break from the difference in temperatures).

DSC_0042

A Note on Sources
You can find umpteen sites online that give you directions and recipes for canning. Make sure you are reading reputable sites with up-to-date information. There are a lot of unsafe and outdated canning methods out there. The National Center for Home Food Preservation, university extension services and the Ball canning site all have information you can trust. I use all of them for reference.

To Buy a Canning Kettle or Not
You need a canning kettle or other large pot that is deep enough to hold your jars and water to cover the tops of them by at least an inch. If you are using something other than a canning kettle, which comes with a rack insert, you need a rack or trivet in the bottom of the pot to elevate the jars a bit. I don’t have a canning kettle – I use my giant pasta pot with a rack in the bottom. There are kits that have a rack or jar caddy, and other canning tools. They are nice, but you can get by perfectly well with a big pot, a rack, a pair of tongs and a ladle.

I recommend canning in pint, half-pint or even smaller jars. I like the smaller jars for gift giving and so that we can finish each jar relatively quickly. If you decide to can in quart jars, you probably will want a canning kettle, since it will be tall enough to get the water deep enough. You might not want to invest in a canning kettle if you aren’t going to be canning a lot, or if you aren’t going to be canning quart jars.

Sterilizing
Most sources say you don’t need to sterilize jars for foods that are going to be processed in a hot water bath for more than ten minutes. I tend to err on the side of caution and sterilize mine anyway. Even if you don’t sterilize your jars, you need to heat them up in hot water so you aren’t adding hot food to room temperature jars, which could lead to broken jars. I have never (so far) canned a batch of jam or preserves that has molded, so I think I will stick with my method. I would rather play it on the safe side than have to throw away a batch of moldy preserves.

DSC_0040

A Note on Jars and Lids
Be sure to use jars and lids made for canning. Don’t reuse jars from commercial products. You can reuse glass canning jars and the threaded lid bands, but you can’t reuse the flat lids. Once they have been used once, the rubber seals won’t form a proper seal again. You can buy packages of just the flat lids if you are reusing jars and bands.

The Actual Canning Process
Wash your jars, flat lids and bands in hot soapy water.

If you aren’t sterilizing your jars, keep them hot until you are ready to use them. If you are sterilizing your jars, put them in the kettle or pot and fill it with water to cover the jars. Bring it to a boil over high heat, covered. Boil the jars in the water for 15 minutes to sterilize them. Boil the flat lids and threaded rings in a smaller pot, also covered, for the same amount of time. Throw the ladle that you are going to use to fill the jars into one of the pots.

When your jars are sterilized, leave them in the hot water until right before you are ready to use them. Lift them out of the water with tongs and drain the water out. The jars will be hot – use an oven mitt to handle the jars. Don’t dump out the hot water in the kettle – you will use it again for the actual canning process.

DSC_0054

Fill the jars with hot jam or preserves, leaving the headspace specified in the recipe you are using. Wipe the tops of the jars clean. Fish the flat lids and rings out of the hot water with tongs and put them on the jars. Tighten them only finger tight and put the jars back in the canning kettle or your large pot with a rack. If you over-tighten the bands air will not be able to escape and the vacuum seal might not form properly. Add hot water if necessary to cover the jars and reach an inch above their tops.

Bring the water back to a boil and keep it boiling for the time specified in the recipe you are using.

Remove the hot jars with tongs and place them on a folded towel or wooden cutting board. Let them rest, undisturbed, until they are room temperature. This will take several hours. You will hear the lids pop as the vacuum seal forms. If any of the jars don’t form a seal, which will vacuum the lid down, refrigerate and use them within a couple of weeks.

DSC_0044

When the jars are cool, label them and store them somewhere cool and dark. Give as gifts or open them one at a time over the months, gloating every time over your home canned, homemade jam.