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.

A Day Made for Soup

I haven’t looked at the weather forecast in a few days, so rainy, cold dreariness was a shock. A shock, I tell you. I was expecting sun and 50s, like we had yesterday and the day before. Instead we have cold, cold rain and 40s. And the day started out so nicely sunny. That lasted about an hour.

DSC_0021All I want to do today is curl up with a blanket, a book and a cup of tea. Not exactly in my plans for the day, but it is that kind of afternoon. If I didn’t already have a plan for dinner, I would make roasted red pepper and tomato soup with some of my freezer stash of peppers.

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Or maybe lentil soup.

DSC_0023Or maybe turkey chili.

What do you do to warm up on a cold, rainy November day?

Fall Garden’s Last Gasp

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Our fall weather is definitely here. And the garden knows it. We are down to one tomato plant and it isn’t producing much. The nights are just too chilly and the days aren’t warm enough to compensate. I do still have two basil plants and a robust crop of garlic.

The garlic was a surprise – the plants are growing from the bulbs I missed when I harvested in early summer. We will let the bulbs grow over the winter, divide them in the spring and harvest them in early summer. This will be the first time I will be overwintering anything and I’m a little bit excited. Garden nerd alert.

While my garden is limping to the finish, my dad’s garden is flourishing. A couple of weeks ago, we had my parents over for dinner and they brought us a beautiful selection of eggplant and red bell peppers from their garden. I couldn’t resist taking few pictures. I took a shot of the biggest pepper in my hand, for scale. Dad said he brought me the largest pepper he had ever grown. I am honored. And there is absolutely no hidden sarcasm in that. I know how hard it is to battle the critters for the ripening peppers.

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I am having a good time using up the beautiful garden bounty. We sautéed the smaller eggplant for pasta. One of the big ones became what we call eggplant croutons – diced, tossed with egg and bread crumbs and baked until crispy. Perfect on top of pasta or just to eat hot out of the oven. The last big one is destined to be roasted and mixed with roasted garlic to make dip for bread. The peppers will all be roasted and frozen to wait for red pepper soup or to become part of tacos. Oh, the garden riches!

What are your favorite fall vegetables right now?

Fall Gardening

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Though you wouldn’t know it from the weather, fall is in full swing here in Missouri Despite temps in the 80s, fall is in the air – the humidity is down slightly, the sky is bluer and the days are shorter.

It has been a hard year for the garden, with wild temperature swings and periods of flooding rains followed by drought-like conditions. Drought really took over the past few months and it has been a struggle to give the plants enough water.

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One of our tomato plants in the garden died, and the other two are just limping along. The cherry tomato is still producing fruit, but not nearly as much as it was in the height of the season. And the one heirloom we tried this year, a Gypsy, has only one healthy section. It has a couple of ripening tomatoes on it and I’ll probably pull it out as soon as they are ready to pick. The cherry tomato will get a reprieve until we get frost, as long as it keeps producing. I might even run out with a sheet to protect it from our first few frosty nights. As long as it doesn’t get too cold at night, it should keep producing at least a few tomatoes until we get a hard freeze.

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We have one tomato plant in a pot next to the patio and it is going strong. Unfortunately we don’t like the fruit from that one as much – they are tiny, don’t taste like much and their skins tend to split when you pick them. I think I am going to harvest all of the red tomatoes from that one, stems and all, and roast them with the stems on. Then that plant will head to the yard waste bin.

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Our ten basil plants are down to two. Most of them were at the end of their short lives and were unable to take up enough water to keep their leaves from wilting. I managed to harvest enough for another batch of olive oil and basil pucks for the freezer before most of them wilted.

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We did have one surprise from our lackluster gardening season – a volunteer cantaloupe vine has taken over our compost bin. It came up in late August and we decided to see what was growing before we rooted it out. Until it set fruit, we weren’t sure what it was – though we suspected a zucchini or a cantaloupe. It was an exciting day when the fledgling fruit was big enough to identify as a cantaloupe. The other promising melons on the vine shriveled, or succumbed to the deer, but we have one cantaloupe ripening. We are supposed to get some cool nights next week, but I’m hoping we still have enough warm days for it to ripen soon.

Gardening season is winding down for me. Soon we’ll harvest everything and put the garden to bed for the winter, under a blanket of compost and shredded leaves. I hate to see the summer plants go, but it is almost time. I am already planning for my early spring garden. The circle of life continues, even in a suburban garden.

Pizza Margherita

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There are as many versions of pizza margherita as there are versions of apple pie. I am not saying mine is authentic, quintessential or the best. I will say it is darn good. It was one of those spur-of-the-moment creations that turned out better than expectations – crisp, bubbly crust, milky cheese, sweet tomatoes and pungent basil, all accented by a hint of garlic.

I was looking for a different kind of dinner the last time Rich and I had a date night. Nothing really was really sparking our interest, so I started thinking about what we had on hand. Half a pound of fresh mozzarella was begging to be used, the garlic and basil were flourishing in the garden and we had a container of grape tomatoes. Pizza margherita came to mind.

It was the perfect date night meal. Rich and I assembled it together and even had time to document the process with pictures. I can take no credit for the pics. Rich did them all since I was covered in flour and dough for much of the process.

I have a pizza stone, but I don’t always use it. This time I decided to pull it out and chuck it in the oven to preheat. I wanted to get the crust as crispy as possible, since it is a star player in a simple pizza like margherita.

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And I did keep it simple, no sauce, and only olive oil and garlic, and a touch of Parmesan, in addition to the traditional mozzarella, basil and tomatoes. I did experiment with adding the basil at different times and we liked it best added during the last few minutes of baking so it didn’t burn.

All amounts in the recipe are approximate. You can’t really go wrong, unless you pile on too much stuff. I got a few too many tomatoes on some of the pizzas, so the middles were a little soggy. Use a lighter hand than you think with toppings and you will be fine.

I roll my pizza out on parchment paper when I am using my baking stone. I have had too many problems using cornmeal to keep the dough from sticking to the counter or the peel. Problems meaning folding pizza that splats cheese side down on the screaming hot stone. Parchment takes away a little of the crispness, but I’ll take it over smoke boiling out of the oven and inedible pizza. Do what works for you, though.

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Download or print the recipe here.

Pizza Margherita
From The Cook’s Life
Makes 4 small to medium pizzas

1 recipe all-purpose pizza dough, or your favorite dough recipe
olive oil
1-2 cloves garlic, chopped
½ pound fresh mozzarella, sliced into ½-inch slices, slices cut into small wedges
1-2 small tomatoes or a handful of cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced thin or halved if cherry tomatoes
freshly grated Parmesan (not the green can stuff, please)
a handful of basil leaves, left whole or sliced into ribbons (I did some of both)

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees with a pizza stone, if you have one. If you don’t, you can still make the pizza.

Roll out a quarter of the dough onto parchment paper, if you are using a stone. If you aren’t, press or roll out the dough onto a greased baking sheet.

Top dough with a drizzle of olive oil. Sprinkle with garlic and scatter mozzarella over pizza. Add tomatoes between mozzarella slices. Top with grated Parmesan. Wait to add the basil, or it will burn.

Repeat with remaining dough and toppings as the first pizzas bake.

Bake the pizzas, 1-2 at a time, depending on size until the crust is brown on the bottom and edges and the cheese is starting to brown, 10-15 minutes. Times will be shorter with the stone, and will depend on how thick your crust is. Add the basil after 7-10 minutes, or wait to add it after the pizzas come out of the oven, if you prefer it that way.

Leftovers reheat well, especially in a skillet or on a griddle to re-crisp the bottom.

Lemon Pasta with Zucchini Ribbons

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The end of lemon week is here. I am on such a lemon kick – I think I have a few more recipes in me, but they will have to wait for another time. I’m sure I have enough to have another lemon week, but two in a row would be a bit much.

I have been making a variation of this pasta for several years now. It was originally inspired by a cooking show, though I have long forgotten which one. I used to make it by juicing a lemon into a serving bowl and adding chopped garlic and olive oil. Hot pasta on top, a quick toss and it was ready to serve, with lots of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Of course it has evolved over the years.

Now I prefer cooked garlic to raw, so I sauté the garlic while the pasta is cooking. I also started adding the zest from the lemon, because it adds such a punch of lemon flavor that highlights the garlic and olive oil somehow.

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The last time we had it I tried adding zucchini, cherry tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. We had some leftover cooked chicken in the fridge, so I tossed that in too, though Rich and Calvin preferred theirs without. The zucchini added color and texture and the cherry tomatoes were nice pops of color and sweetness. The fresh mozzarella added its milky creaminess that contrasted nicely with the nuttiness of the Parmesan. Note: I added a ton more Parmesan on top after I took the pictures. White drifts of Parmesan aren’t great when you want to show off the pasta, but they are essential at the table.

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I cooked a whole pound of pasta when I made it this last time, as we were fighting each other for the leftovers the time before that. This time we must not have been as hungry – we had a lot left over, which made for nice lunches. It all depends how many veggies you add and how many other dishes you have along with it. You could also leave out the chicken and serve this as a side dish with fish or roast chicken. We like it best hot, but room temperature isn’t bad either, if you want to go the pasta salad route.

I used to have a beautiful cobalt blue glass bowl that I liked to serve this in. Well, to be honest, I liked to serve everything in it. But the lemon pasta, with its flecks of yellow zest was pretty against the blue. I miss that bowl – it didn’t survive me dropping a plate on it while I was emptying the dishwasher a few years ago. Maybe someone will get me another one for my birthday or Christmas (hint, hint to Calvin and Rich).

Blue bowl or not, the pasta is just the thing to use up the zucchini and tomatoes that are going to start ripening soon. Or for the middle of winter when we are stuck with grocery store zucchini and tomatoes. Or in the fall when we are tired of the same old tomato sauces and zucchini bread. Or…well, you get the picture.

Download or print the recipe here.

Lemon Pasta with Zucchini Ribbons
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 6, with leftovers

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 medium zucchini, sliced into long thin slices
2 tablespoons white wine or water
salt
pepper
1 pound medium pasta shells, or any shape you prefer
1 lemon
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1 cup cooked, diced chicken, optional
1 cup fresh mozzarella cheese, diced
Grated Parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of water to boil to cook the pasta. While the water comes to a boil, heat the oil over medium low heat in a skillet and add the garlic. Cook until garlic is fragrant. Add zucchini and spread it out in the pan in a mostly even layer, trying to keep most of the zucchini slices intact. Add wine or water, salt and pepper and cover the pan.

When the water boils, cook the pasta according to package directions. While pasta and zucchini cook, zest and juice the lemon into a large serving bowl. Add the cherry tomatoes and chicken, if using.

Check the zucchini and remove the lid if there is too much liquid in the pan. Continue cooking until zucchini is tender.

Drain the cooked pasta and add to the serving bowl, along with the zucchini mixture. Add the mozzarella. Toss gently. Serve with grated Parmesan cheese. Leftovers reheat well.

Tomato Anticipation

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Celebrate with me – I have tomatoes in the garden that are bigger than peas! The first day I noticed them they weren’t even that big, but they doubled in size in a day, and they continue to grow. Our goal for ripe tomatoes is usually the Fourth of July, and we might just make it this year, even with our screwy, hot then cold spring.

I am so looking forward to cooking with garden tomatoes, and eating them on sandwiches. This is from a person who went from hating even the smell of raw tomatoes when she was a kid, to thinking they smelled pretty good but still hesitating to eat them, to looking forward to the first BLT or grilled cheese and tomato sandwich of the summer. Not to mention bruschetta with chopped tomatoes, pasta with olive oil marinated tomatoes, pizza with sliced tomatoes, roasted tomato pasta sauce, pizza sauce and veggie sauté featuring tomatoes. I guess I am a true tomato convert.

There is such excitement when we get the first tomato from our own plants. It isn’t always the tastiest tomato, but it is the first one. And following close on its heels will be loads of tangy, yet sweet, warm from the sun garden tomatoes. Maybe I should buy some bacon so we’ll be ready.

What is your favorite summer vegetable or fruit?

The Tomato Saga Continues

I didn’t think I would be writing a post about our flourishing tomatoes in the middle of October. Usually the tomatoes are sort of limping along by now, but this year we have lush green leaves and loaded vines. Our average first frost date is October 20th, so our tomato days might be numbered. But then again, if we get out there with sheets to cover the garden before forecasted frosts, we might just be able to stretch the season a little longer. I think the vines deserve the TLC after the hot, dry summer they endured.

I spent an hour on Saturday picking tomatoes and trimming back the vines that were growing over the fence into the neighbor’s yard, into our compost bin and stretching out across the grass when they couldn’t find anything to climb. I picked all the tomatoes off the cut vines before I put them in the yard waste bin. Now I have a huge bowl of green tomatoes, as well as a bunch of red ones.

I know what to do with the red ones (eat them!), but I’m not sure what I am going to do with the green tomatoes. I might make green tomato and apple chutney. I have looked at several recipes that sound pretty good – green tomatoes, apples, vinegar, brown sugar, raisins and spices. I have never tasted green tomato chutney, so I am pretty much shooting in the dark. Does anyone have a recipe they love?

Pasta with Olive Oil Marinated Tomatoes

 

 

Summer is drawing to a close here in St. Louis. Yesterday and last night we were downright chilly, which means garden tomato season is coming to an end. I welcome the cooler weather, but I will miss garden tomatoes. We still have a few weeks until our first frost date, and our tomato plants are going strong, so we don’t have to give them up yet.

Pasta with Olive Oil Marinated Tomatoes highlights the sweetness of the summer tomatoes, contrasting them with slightly bitter olive oil and the nuttiness of Parmesan cheese. We make it year-round, using hothouse cherry tomatoes in the winter, but summer tomatoes make it the dish it was meant to be.

Despite the name, this dish is just about as easy as it gets. It is our emergency dinner dish when we forgot to plan anything, or we really don’t feel like cooking and don’t have the energy or the inclination to go out. We eat it as a main dish, but it would also be a great side dish to go with fish or chicken. You can add dollops of pesto, small cubes of mozzarella cheese or even diced, cooked chicken or shrimp to make it your own.

One word of advice – since the ingredient list is so short and each component really stands out, this is the place to use the best Parmesan cheese you can. We buy big wedges of Parmigiano-Reggiano at Sam’s, but you can also get tubs of shredded Parmesan or small wedges at the grocery store. Use what you can find, but at least skip the powder in the green can.

Pasta with Olive Oil Marinated Tomatoes
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 4-6

Use any pasta shape you like, from bowties to rotini to spaghetti. We like the nuttiness of whole wheat pasta, but regular pasta is good too.

2 medium tomatoes or two handfuls of cherry or grape tomatoes (½ pound approximately)
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt
Black pepper
¾ pound dry pasta
Parmesan cheese, for serving

Start the water heating for the pasta. While the water comes to a boil, chop the tomatoes, or cut the cherry tomatoes in halves or quarters, depending on size. Place the tomatoes in a serving bowl and drizzle with the olive oil. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Cook pasta according to package directions.

Serve hot pasta, topped with the tomato mixture. Add Parmesan cheese at the table. This reheats well, though it will be a slightly different dish, since the tomatoes will cook slightly when you heat it.

Download the recipe here.

An Ode to a Vine

This weather this year has been lousy for gardening. Through some strange fluke, and a lot of work, ours has flourished. We have as much basil as we want and the tomato vines are trying to take over the yard. Of our three tomato plants, we have only harvested off the cherry tomato vine, but they are the epitome of summer tomatoes – full of tomato flavor, sweet and tasting of summer. We are hoping the other green tomatoes on the Early Girl and the Rutgers vines will ripen some day. When they do, we will be inundated.

If you aren’t a gardener, let me give you the lowdown – tomatoes like it hot, but not too hot. And they like just enough moisture. Too much and they can get blossom end rot on the fruit, which is exactly what it sounds like. Too little and they conserve their energies and stop blooming and producing.

Here in St. Louis we have had a scorcher of a summer so far, and we are only half through it. We don’t usually get 100-degree days until August, but we have had our fair share of them already. All without a drop of rain. Well, maybe a few drops, but not many. Not nearly enough. The grass is dying. The trees are struggling. And forget about flower gardens unless you water often and try to shield them from the relentless sun.

Our little cherry tomato vine just keeps plugging along, though. I say little, but if you stretched it out it would be over seven feet tall. And it is full of tomatoes in every stage of ripeness from green to a hint of blush to orange to red. Keep going little tomato!

Do you garden? What fruit or vegetable to you look forward to every summer?