The Fruits of Summer

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This year’s tomato harvest started with a trickle of red fruit – one cherry tomato every few days. And that was if I could beat the deer to them. I can’t tell you how many tomatoes I picked that had one dainty bite out of the side. We have a small family of a doe and her two fawns that have adopted our neighborhood. They are so comfortable that they relax in the shade of the trees in the afternoons. Bucolic suburbs, anyone?

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We haven’t seen the deer as much lately. I guess our neighbors have tastier offerings in their yards. Fine with me. We finally have had a couple of substantial tomato harvests. I actually had to get a bowl the other day, instead of holding the red bounty in my hands. In fact, I had to get two bowls and they were both overflowing. I spent a little time gloating over the piles of red lusciousness before taking them inside.

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As often is the case we didn’t deal with the harvest right away. I was stumped over the best way to use our many, many cherry tomatoes. They are nuggets of summer tomato tastiness, but they do have a high ratio of skins and seeds to flesh, which makes them slightly problematic in sauce.

After two days of sliced tomatoes and quick sautéed pasta sauces, and after I noticed the first fruit fly, I had to do something. We had more tomatoes ripening every day. I settled on roasting as the most efficient method to deal with the bowls of red guilt that were covering my countertops.

I usually remove the skins after roasting, but I couldn’t see taking the time to peel all of the melting globs of cherry tomatoes. And then I would lose the caramelized, roasted skins, with all of their rich flavor. I decided to chuck the whole lot into the food processor, peels and all. It pureed into a thick, bright red sauce with dark flecks of toasted peels. I am already dreaming of pulling those bags of summer sunshine out of the freezer on a cold, dark December day.

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What is your favorite way to use vine-ripened, picked at the peak of freshness, summer tomatoes?

Roasted Red Pepper and Tomato Soup

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I used to think I didn’t like bell peppers at all, until I had roasted red peppers. Green peppers are bitter (to me) and the red ones aren’t much better, when they’re raw. Roasting caramelizes the sugars in them and brings out their natural sweetness. Before the roasting discovery I avoided peppers (especially the green ones) like the plague – picking them off pizza, eating around them on salads and bypassing them on relish trays. I never would have imagined that I would eat them in soup, much less come up with my own recipe.

The sweetness of the roasted peppers nicely offsets the slight acidity of the tomatoes. The peppers give the soup more body and depth than a straight tomato soup would have. With a concession to the seasons, I used canned tomatoes, but I can’t wait to try this soup again with garden tomatoes (and peppers) in the summer.

You can’t get much simpler than this – roast the peppers with shallots and garlic. Puree the roasted veggies with a little chicken broth and then heat with tomatoes and a few spices before serving. If you want a totally smooth soup, blend the tomatoes too. It’s a beautiful soup to brighten dreary winter days. Whip up a batch and dream of summer sunshine and warmth.

Download or print the recipe here.

Roasted Red Pepper and Tomato Soup
From The Cook’s Life
Makes 4 generous servings

2 large red bell peppers
1 large shallot
1 tablespoon olive oil, approximately
2 large cloves garlic (or 4 small ones)
2 cups low sodium chicken or vegetable broth
2 (14.5 ounce) cans diced tomatoes, undrained
1 teaspoon dried basil, or more, to taste
about 10 grinds of black pepper
a few dashes ground cayenne, or to taste
salt, to taste
Grated or slivered Parmesan cheese
Crackers, croutons or bread

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Lightly grease a baking sheet.

Cut peppers into about 4 pieces each and discard tops and seeds.  Place peppers skin side up on baking sheet. Peel shallot and cut in half. Add to baking sheet. Drizzle peppers and shallot with olive oil. Peel garlic cloves and set aside. Roast peppers and shallot for 10 minutes. Add garlic cloves to the middle of the sheet, drizzle with a little olive oil and return pan to oven for 20 minutes more. Remove the garlic cloves and shallots early if they start to brown too much.

Combine roasted vegetables with broth in a blender and blend until mostly smooth. You can also use an immersion blender or food processor.

Pour the blended soup into a 3-quart pot and set over medium heat. Add tomatoes, basil, black pepper and cayenne. If you want a totally smooth soup, add the tomatoes during the blending step.

Bring soup to a boil and then reduce heat to medium low so the soup just simmers. Cook for about 15 minutes, then taste for salt. You may not need any because of the broth and canned tomatoes. Serve with Parmesan cheese and crackers, croutons or bread.

Soup reheats well. Freeze for longer storage.

Fresh Tomato and Mozzarella Risotto

Risotto was a new dish to me in the 90s. I think the first I heard of it was during an episode of Seinfeld when they spent a long time talking about the risotto at a certain restaurant. Not long after that, Cooking Light magazine ran an article on risotto, with several recipes.

Arborio rice was impossible to find when we first started making this, at least in rural eastern Pennsylvania, where we lived at the time. We had to use medium or short grain grocery store rice, which was good, but not great. Take the time to pick up Arborio rice – it will make all the difference in your risotto.

This recipe started out with the Cooking Light version, but I have changed it so much over the years that I probably wouldn’t recognize the long-lost original recipe. I have gradually added more olive oil than the original recipe, but I don’t think I have moved beyond the ranks of healthy cooking. I’m not sure what else I have changed – probably less basil, more mozzarella, more Parmesan, shallots instead of onions and more tomatoes.

The secret to good risotto (other than using Arborio rice) is adding the broth in several parts and stirring often. You really don’t have to stir constantly. Rich will probably fight me on this one – he insists constant stirring is necessary. You will get a creamier end result if you stir constantly, but if you are juggling the rest of dinner preparations, kids, pets or a ringing phone, you won’t ruin things if you have to step away from the stove briefly, or even repeatedly.  You do have to stir as often as you can, though, or you end up with rice cooked in chicken broth instead of creamy, saucy risotto.

We love making this when we have access to fresh garden tomatoes in the summer, but we also make it in the winter with grocery store cherry or grape tomatoes. You can use other tomatoes too, but we think the smaller tomatoes have more flavor in the sad months when tomatoes are out of season. In the summer, use whatever tomatoes you can get and it will be fabulous.

Fresh Tomato and Mozzarella Risotto
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 6

You can use fresh basil, if you prefer, but we prefer dried. The dried basil provides just a background note of flavor and really lets the tomatoes shine.

5 cups chicken broth, preferably low sodium*
1½-2 cups tomatoes, diced (or halved, if using cherry or grape tomatoes)
1 teaspoon dried basil
black pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 shallots or one small onion, minced
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1½ cups Arborio rice
½ cup dry white wine
½ cup diced part-skim mozzarella cheese
Parmesan cheese for serving

*Use canned broth, a flavoring paste like Better Than Bouillon mixed with water, or homemade broth, if you have it. Avoid bouillon cubes – they are too salty.

Heat chicken broth in a saucepan until hot, but not boiling. Lower heat to medium low, and cover until ready to use. Combine tomatoes, basil, black pepper and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Set aside.

Heat remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the shallots or onion and sauté until soft. Add garlic and sauté a minute or two. Add rice and sauté for several minutes. Add wine and stir until absorbed. Add hot broth, a cup at a time, stirring each addition until almost absorbed before adding more. Rice should start to get creamy and soft after 15-20 minutes. Taste rice to see if it is al dente, but not crunchy. If rice is still crunchy, add more broth or water and continue to cook for about 5 more minutes.

When rice is al dente, add tomato mixture and continue to stir and cook for 2-3 more minutes. Remove pan from heat and stir in mozzarella cheese. Let stand, uncovered for 5 minutes. Stir to mix in melted cheese. Serve with lots of Parmesan cheese. Reheats well, though it will be thicker when leftover.

 Download the recipe here.

Roasted tomatoes and sauce

We had a break in the heat last week, and I took the chance to turn on the oven to make roasted tomatoes. I was lucky that the cool-ish spell coincided with a bowl of tomatoes that needed to be used. Or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, I had a bunch of tomatoes from my parents’ garden (which turned out the be the last before the extreme heat and drought took out most of their plants), a few tomatoes from my favorite produce farm and a couple of Arkansas tomatoes that I bought when we were champing at the bit to get fresh, local tomatoes.

I don’t know if the rest the country places as much importance on Arkansas tomatoes as we do here in Missouri. In years past, they were the first of the summer tomatoes, and they tasted like good summer tomatoes. And we could get them a few weeks before our local tomatoes were ready. Now I am not so sure that they either have trademarked the name “Arkansas Tomatoes” or they are now picking them green and ripening them on the way to the store. Either way, they don’t taste much better than regular out-of-season tomatoes. Maybe next year I will remember the hype and skip them. But, as I usual, I will probably be seduced by the prospect of summer tomatoes and jump the gun with Arkansas tomatoes.

Roasting is a great way to bring out the sweetness of both in-season and pushing-the-season tomatoes. I cut my tomatoes in chunks, drizzled them with a little olive oil and roasted them for half an hour. I then sautéed some garlic in olive oil, added the tomatoes and some fresh basil and simmered it a bit. In practically no time at all, with not much effort, I had beautiful roasted tomato sauce. You could also serve the roasted tomatoes on pasta as is, with just a little salt and basil, if you like. Or use them as pizza sauce. Or freeze them to use in the winter when you want a little taste of summer.

Roasted Tomatoes
From The Cook’s Life
Servings: varies

This works with any amount of tomatoes, so I am not giving amounts. Just be sure not to crowd the pan, otherwise the tomatoes will boil and steam instead of roasting.

Tomatoes
Olive oil

Preheat oven to 400°.

Cut tomatoes into large chunks, removing the cores, and spread on a baking sheet, leaving room between the tomatoes. Drizzle tomatoes with olive oil and roast for 20-30 minutes, or until tomatoes are soft and starting to brown.

Let tomatoes cool until easy to handle. Remove skins with tongs or your fingers. Use in any recipe calling for canned tomatoes, or in the following recipe.

Roasted Tomato Sauce
From The Cook’s Life
Servings: varies

Amounts are approximate. Adjust amounts to the number of tomatoes you have, as well as your tastes.

1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, minced
12 roasted tomatoes, approximately
1 handful fresh basil, chopped (about 12 large leaves)
Salt
Pepper
¼ cup white wine or dry vermouth, optional

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and lower heat to medium low. Cook until garlic is soft. Add tomatoes and raise the heat to medium. Add basil, salt, pepper and wine, if using. Simmer for 15 minutes, or until sauce is slightly thickened. Serve over pasta or use as pizza sauce.

Download the recipe here.