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Homemade Fresh Italian Salad Dressing

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Tis the season for over indulgence so it’s really hard to remember to eat some healthy food occasionally. It’s also really tough to slow down long enough to make a balanced meal. But, with a little planning and some simple recipes, we can maintain some semblance of a healthy diet through the holiday season. Really! Here’s an easy dressing recipe to make and use all week long.

I always thought there was some sort of secret voodoo involved in making fresh salad dressing. I don’t know why I thought it was difficult, but it seemed like something that was unnecessarily complicated when there’s an entire aisle in the grocery store devoted to the bottled stuff – and a lot of healthy bottled varieties at that. My opinion on those bottled dressings totally changed this summer when I started trying some homemade dressings.

I had such a bumper crop of fresh lettuce I HAD to get creative with it. I figured I couldn’t afford to buy a bunch of different dressings to top our plethora of greens, so I better learn to make some homemade versions. I also had some fresh herbs from the garden and also from my Bountiful Baskets, so I decided to dive in and give it a spin. I’ll never go back. Well, I tried when I was too lazy to make some dressing for a salad one night. YUCK. It just is not the same. All those…extra preservatives really do change the flavor of the whole salad.

One of my favorites this Martha Stewart recipe for Fresh Italian Dressing. I keep the basic recipe, but fiddle with the herbs and the amounts a little. The trick is in the preparation, which isn’t hard, but just something you may not know if you haven’t made your own dressing before.

Here’s how:

Gather your ingredients, so they’re all handy to make the process super quick. Start by chopping your garlic and fresh herbs. The original recipe calls for basil, oregano and marjoram. I never have fresh marjoram, so I use thyme instead. I would imagine that any kitchen herb, except maybe mint or cilantro, would work with this dressing, so don’t worry if you don’t have exactly these herbs. Can you use dry herbs instead of fresh? Sure, but use one teaspoon of dried herbs for one tablespoon of fresh herbs and know that it may not end up with the amazingly fresh taste that the fresh herbs create. Still, it will be better than the bottled stuff, so go for it. As always, I’m not that precise in my measurements with the herbs and it doesn’t seem to matter.

Left to right: thyme, garlic, oregano, basil

Next, whisk the vinegar with the garlic, sugar, mustard, pepper flakes and salt & pepper. Let’s pause and talk about the whisk itself. I bought this cool springy whisk at a yard sale recently and it’s quickly become one of my favorite kitchen tools. It is the perfect thing to get a great emulsification going with a salad dressing.

In a separate bowl, whisk the two oils together. I always feel like it’s more oil than I need, so I have cut down on both by equal amounts and it’s worked out fine, also.

Vinegar mixture on left; oil mixture on right

Ok, here’s the part you want to pay attention to because it’s the one critical step! Emulsification. Martha explains that’s when you suspend the oil in the vinegar. This happens when you slowly add the oil into the vinegar while you whisk away. If you just dump, it won’t do that suspension thing, so take a minute and slowly pour and whisk and then BAM! Emulsification happens!

Finally, whisk in the herbs and viola, it’s dressing! I like to let it sit for a few hours, if possible, before serving because it allows the flavors to develop more completely.

I make dressing so often now that I invested in this little cruet that I found on Ebay to store it. Isn’t it cute?

Homemade Fresh Italian Dressing

Yield: about 1 1/3 cup

Ingredients (directly from original recipe):

  • Two small garlic cloves, pressed or minced
  • 2 tsp dried mustard
  • 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 1/4 cup + 2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp fresh oregano, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp fresh marjoram (I used thyme), finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Coarse salt and fresh ground pepper

Directions:

  1. Chop fresh herbs and mince garlic.
  2. in a small, but deep bowl, combine and whisk together vinegar with mustard, red pepper flakes, sugar, 1.5 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp pepper and garlic.
  3. In another small bowl, whisk together the two oils.
  4. Slowly drizzle the oil into the vinegar mixture, whisking continuously until all ingredients are well combined.
  5. Whisk in the herbs.

Serve immediately, or let sit for a few hours while flavors marry. Refrigerate for up to one 1 week (I have gone longer, but that’s Martha’s suggested shelf life). Be sure to give it a vigorous shake before serving.

Notes for next time:

As I mentioned above, I use less oil than called for and it works out fine. If you don’t think you’ll use up the dressing within a week, try halving the recipe. I have also added a little lemon juice to brighten it up a bit. I think I tried balsamic vinegar once and it was also very good. Otherwise, I really like this dressing as is.

The fresh herbs with the oil and vinegar really are so spectacular. You won’t believe how much tastier your salad is with a fresh dressing on top. I also like to use Italian dressing when cooking veggies. Instead of just drizzling in some olive oil when sauteing or roasting, drizzle on this dressing for more flavor. Imagine tossing some fresh tomatoes in this dressing and then roasting it in the oven. Oh my!

See my Dips, Dressings and Sauces board on Pinterest for more fresh dressings.

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Goodbye Garden 2012, Hello Garden 2013

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I’ve been feeling blue for a couple of weeks. Temps have been dropping and my harvest has been drying up. My once lush and prosperous plants have been drooping and shrinking. Then Sunday afternoon the Hubs and I stood in the kitchen looking out to the garden, knowing it was going to freeze that night. I was a little teary and he put his arm around me and told me what an awesome garden we had this year and how much he enjoyed it and all of the fresh food. Awww…

It was 32 degrees when I went to bed that night, so I knew it was over then. Black leaves are so sad…and overtly symbolic. While I pulled the green tomatoes off my blackened vines Monday, I reflected on this year’s garden and already found myself planning for next year. One way to shorten the mourning period over the end of this season is to look forward to the next one. If only I didn’t have to wait sooooo long. First goal for next year: plan for Fall gardening, so I don’t have to feel soo sad when summer harvest ends.

Whether you had your own garden this summer or you’re planning to try one next year, now is a good time to start planning. Most of my early planning is focused on which type of plants I want to add and which I plan to skip. But, along with those plans I’m realizing that I’m going to have to expand my garden space. Luckily, I have room, so I just need to get the dirt worked – and I should do it before the ground is totally frozen to get a jump on soil prep for next year. I also need to incorporate my compost into the soil now so it can get happy for next Spring.

But let’s talk plants because they’re more exciting than dirt. I have been thinking about what I’d like to add and subtract next year. My big lesson from this year is to grow what I like – well, love. If you don’t like it – or love it, you might not use it and find yourself swimming in produce you’re not very excited about, which can lead to waste. This year I realized I don’t need to repeat a few things.

No repeats:

  • Broccoli – I like it and the Hubs likes it, but I guess we don’t love it. The plants take up a ton of space and really don’t produce as much as a huge plant should.

  • Elephant garlic – it’s supposed to produce really large heads, but I wasn’t very impressed with its size or flavor. Regular garlic is better.
  • Sandia and Big Jim Peppers – I ended up with way too many of these and didn’t find them to be hot enough for my tastes, so I would rather plant some hotter peppers instead.

Happy additions:

  • Tomatillos – I got some in my Bountiful Basket and LOVED them. I want to make and can salsa verde next year.
  • Cucumbers – I’m not crazy about pickles, but cucumbers are great in a salad and when you’re eating lettuce daily for months, you need some fixins to make it more interesting.
  • Radishes – as with cucumbers, I think they go nice with salad, so I would like to grow a few.
  • Beets – I really love pickled beets and have seen some good looking recipes for roasted beets, so I think I would like to have some fresh beets.
  • Brussels sprouts – no idea if I can grow these in SW Colorado, but I like them, so I’m going to find out. I bet they will be really great when they are garden fresh.
  • Peas – maybe. I love peas and have grown them previously, but they take up a lot of room and take a lot of time to shell, so we’ll see.
  • Herbs – mint, thyme and rosemary. I don’t know why I didn’t do more with herbs this year. I adored my basil, cilantro and oregano, so I want to include more so I have fresh herbs to cook with.
  • Giant Sunflowers – not for eating, but for their supreme beauty. I just think they are cool to look at. Plus, they are handy for providing shade for tender plants during the peak of summer.

More or less:

  • Tomatoes – I had three cherry tomato plants and two regular tomato plants. Apparently I’m a real gardener now because I’m totally obsessed with tomatoes. I learned to can, so I need MORE. Next year I plan to focus on romas since I tend to make a lot of sauce, but I also want some salsa varieties and about three cherry plants seemed to be just right.

  • Onions – I felt like I planted bushels, but I know my stash will not last more than a month or two into winter. I need much more! I also plan to plant more green onions because they are so great to have and use during the summer while waiting for the big ‘uns to be ready.

  • Garlic – I also need much more garlic since I go through a head or two per week. It stores easily, so I need to plant more – and should have gotten some in the ground before freezing for a Spring harvest.

  • Bell Peppers – I had a few plants, but would like more variety than the purple and green I had: red, yellow, orange.

  • Spinach – I had a very small crop this year, so I think I need a heartier variety and I need to get it in the ground even earlier so the heat doesn’t get it.
  • Lettuce – I planted a mix that included about 4 varieties of heat tolerant lettuce and it was very, very prolific. I want to plant less of that mix and add some different varieties. A little seed results in mountains of cut and come again lettuce, so one needs to be careful how much they plant (remind me about this next Spring).
  • Potatoes – our crop was very small because I only planted about five plants and they weren’t very productive. I think my seed potatoes were not good, so I will try another variety and plant more.
  • Eggplant – my three plants had us swimming in eggplant and though we enjoy it, it was too much for us. Next year we’ll only have two plants.

  • Pumpkin – next to tomatoes, my other favorite crop is my accidental sweet pumpkins. I have almost used all of my pumpkin crop this year, and plan to buy some during the Halloween season to preserve for the winter. So, obviously I need to plant more next year. I think I’ll do a whole pumpkin patch area in the garden.

  • Basil – another favorite crop is basil and I must have more. I’m making pesto with the last of this year’s crop and wish I had more to put in the freezer for the winter because it’s so versatile and easy to cook with.

So I guess this is goodbye to Garden 2012. You were great fun and so productive! I can only pray that Garden 2013 lives up to your example…and then some! 🙂

Readers: what new plants do you plan to add to your garden next year? Maybe you’ll give me more ideas (I’m going to end up with a whole farm, aren’t I?)


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Growing Cantaloupes in Zone 5, a happy accident

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I have been so focused on writing about cooking with the harvest, I have been ignoring the other part of the story: the garden. It’s Fall now and the leaves are changing and the temps are dipping to the low 40’s and high 30’s at night, so the garden production is slowing and it’s time to finish the harvest and start planning for next year.

One crop the Hubs insists we do again next year are cantaloupes. I didn’t plan them – or plant them – this year, but we grew them. Divine intervention? Sort of. Apparently last Fall or winter when I was in “lazy composting” mode I must have thrown the remains of a cantaloupe out into the garden area. Then, even after having my garden rototilled  in the spring before planting, little mystery sprouts started appearing. They mostly looked like some sort of squash, but some were a little different. I asked friends who know things about gardens and they identified the seedlings as squash. I took photos and posted on Facebook asking for identification. Again, they said squash.

Yep, some were squash: zucchini and pie pumpkins, it turns out. BUT, the other ones that looked a little different turned out to be cantaloupe. I didn’t have much faith that they would actually mature into edible fruit because our growing season here in SW Colorado at 6,900′ is fairly short and can be pretty cool. I tried growing melons many years ago and nothing ever materialized. I figured I’d let them try to grow and see what happened. I thinned them so they wouldn’t take over the whole garden if they really took off and I moved some to the far side of the garden (yes, I admit it, the rocky not-so-fertile side) to get them out of the way.

I just watered them along with everything else, but generally ignored them, yet they prevailed! The vines spread out and grabbed onto the onions and tackled the cilantro and made pretty little orange flowers (another clue that they were not squash – different flowers). Then one day, there were little balls of melon hanging around out there. I was finally able to positively identify them as melon. I started feeling sorry for the poor things, still assuming they would never mature enough to get to go inside and be sliced up for a snack. I propped them up on rocks so they wouldn’t sit in the mud too much and I tried to redirect the vines so they would be more comfortable. That’s about it, though.

They started growing up and looking like actual cantaloupes and I thought, well…maybe they’re going to work out. I read up on when to harvest and watch for signs of ‘slip’ from the vine and a change from green to light brown color. Then a few weeks ago we had a really huge, long rainstorm. I don’t know how much moisture we actually got, but I certainly didn’t need to water for about a week – a rarity in our high, dry area. About a week later, I was rummaging around in the garden and noticed one of the big melons looked awful! It was all cracked and starting to rot and ants were feasting on it. YUCK! I grabbed a shovel and removed it from the area. I poked around at it and noticed the inside really looked like a cantaloupe. It was mostly pretty and orange. So, even though that one had rotted for some reason, I realized we had real hope for some good melons!

I read some more and found that uneven watering can cause the cracking. I am pretty good about daily watering and I use soaker hoses, so I think it’s fairly even. I’m blaming the crazy rainstorm for the “uneven” water.

While they still weren’t showing all of the signs of ripeness, I knew I had to keep a close eye on them, lest they crack and rot like their big brother.  I started checking the big melons daily and as soon as I detected a crack, I cut the cord and brought them in. I had learned that melons will not ripen more after harvesting, so I wasn’t terribly convinced that they would taste good since they weren’t technically ripe. Turns out that I was wrong. Again.

The first one I cut tasted sweet and ripe like the best summer melons from Green River, Utah. I enjoyed some, sliced the rest and put it in the fridge and forgot to tell the Hubs when he came in that night. Later he found it while foraging for a late-night snack. All sorts of excitement as he came to the bedroom where I was reading to tell me that the cantaloupe was amazing! He was totally impressed and couldn’t wait to tell his buddies at work – though he didn’t want to share.

Who knew? The Hubs keeps telling me how impressed he is with my gardening skills, but I feel a little guilty since I really didn’t do much to help the melons grow. It’s like being the apathetic parent of a child prodigy. The Hubs says we (meaning I) have to do it again next year. How do you accidentally do something twice? I guess I throw some melon remains out in the dirt sometime this winter and see if we have a repeat. I have read that you’re not supposed to save seeds from grocery store food, so I’ll work harder at an organic accident next time around.

So far we’ve eaten three full size melons and there are two more I’m keeping a close eye on outside. There are also several babies out there still. Not sure what will become of the poor underdeveloped orphans, but maybe they’ll be edible, if small. I’ll keep you posted!

Leave a comment about your surprise garden successes.

See my Gardening board on Pinterest for more garden notes.


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Carrot and Sweet Potato Soup – orange you ready for some soup??

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I love orange veggies! Pumpkin, carrots, sweet potatoes, sweet orange peppers, butternut squash….mmmhhhmmm. They all inspire images of cozy Fall evenings by a fireplace. Comfort. Fall is in the air here in SW Colorado. The nights are cooling off enough to force us to close some windows at bedtime and when we drove up to Telluride this weekend, we saw that the leaves are turning crispy golden colors already.

Another sign that Fall is upon us is that the Hubs has a cold. That’s the downside of the season change, right? I’m fending it off, so far, but I feel some sniffles coming on, too. So Fall is arriving and we’re a little sickly, so that means it’s soup season! I adore making soup. There is something so wholesome and satisfying about mixing up a batch of comforting soup and letting it simmer quietly on the stove. I think one of the first real scratch cooking recipes I made was soup – Tuscan bean soup, I believe, and I was amazed how simple it was to make and how yum-o it was to eat.

The Hubs requested chicken soup over the weekend and we finished it last night, so I wanted another soup recipe for tonight. My kitchen is overflowing with veggies from the garden and from my most recent Bountiful Baskets haul, so I assessed what I had and started my daily trolling of Pinterest for  ideas. I found it: carrot soup! I have tons of my own garden carrots and also two packages from Bountiful Baskets. I’ve never made carrot soup, but I have made pumpkin soup and it sounded similar – and it’s orange! YAY! My inspiration recipes are from Basket 411 (which I’m glad I found because it’s all about using Bountiful Basket produce) and from Food 52. I stole borrowed a few ideas from both and made my own version tonight.

It turns out that I got to combine the carrots with another orange veg: sweet potato (or yam)! Orange squared!

Secret ingredient: sweet potato!

So here’s what you do:

Start by peeling and chopping up about 6-10 carrots into bite-sized pieces. Personally, I only peel my carrots if I can’t get all of the dirt out of the nooks and crannies because you lose a lot of nutrients by peeling. You need to wind up with about four cups of chopped carrots. I have some very large, odd looking carrots from my garden, so my quantity of carrots to start was only about 4, plus a couple of normal carrots.

This is what happens when your carrots get “uneven watering” and you don’t thin them enough – freaky carrots!

Chop up carrots into bite-sized pieces measuring about 4 cups

Next, peel and dice one sweet potato (or yam) and toss into a bowl with the chopped carrots. Peel a few cloves of garlic and add to the bowl. Pour about 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil over the mixture and gently toss to coat all veggies in the EVOO.

Combine carrots, sweet potato, garlic and EVOO

If this process sounds familiar, it’s probably because it’s basically the same process described in my post about roasting cherry tomatoes. Yep, we’re going to roast these veggies before we throw them in the soup. Roasting brings out all kinds of flavorful yum in veggies and since it’s cooling off, we don’t mind having the oven on for awhile.

Dump the mixture onto a jelly roll pan (rimmed baking pan) and spread veggies into a single layer. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast at 425 degrees for 20-30 minutes until largest pieces are very tender. If they begin to scorch, move to lower rack or reduce heat to about 400. Each oven is different, so adjust accordingly.

Dump veggies onto baking sheet and spread into a single layer

Roast at 425 degrees for 20-30 minutes until largest pieces are very tender. Be sure to taste test to be sure.

While the orange veggies are roasting in the oven, caramelize an onion in your soup pot. The roasting and caramelizing both take about 20-30 minutes, so do other kitchen chores while they’re working.

Caramelize an onion while the orange veggies roast

When the orange veggies are roasted, pour in some vegetable stock to deglaze the soup pot before adding veggies.

Sidebar: speaking of veggie stock, you should make your own! Really! It’s super simple and it’s healthier than the commercially processed kind. Plus, you’ll always have some on hand when you need it. See my method for Easy Vegetable Stock here.

Freeze veg stock in muffin tins then store in big baggies for easy use

I used about 2.5 cups of stock, but I like a thicker, heartier soup. If you like a thinner soup, use more stock. You can also add more after you puree it to get the desired texture. Bring stock and onions to a medium boil.

Dump the roasted veggies in the pot and add the ginger and thyme, with a little more salt and pepper. I decided we needed a little acid to counteract the sweetness of the roasted veggies and caramelized onions, so I added about two or three heaping spoons of my roasted tomato mixture from the fridge. If you don’t have roasted tomatoes, just chop up a couple of tomatoes and throw them in the pot. You cold also use about half a can of diced tomatoes, drained.

Combine the rest of the ingredients and let simmer on low for at least 10 minute or longer

Next, add the other secret ingredient: Worcestershire sauce. I know: weird, right? I don’t even know what’s in the stuff (no, I don’t  want to know), but I swear by it in soups and stews. Adding it increases the richness of the soup exponentially. I only use a quick glug or two, but it makes all the difference. Trust me.

Finally, chop the parsley and add to the pot. Once all of the ingredients are in, simmer covered on low for at least 10 minutes to allow all of the flavors to get happy and dancing together. I believe soup must simmer and you must be able to smell from outside your front door before it’s “done.”

To finish, you need to puree it. You can use a blender or food processor, but you’ll need to cool it to warm before doing so or it blows the lid off. Also, don’t overload the container; process in batches. I am lucky enough to own an immersion blender (and I highly recommend you invest in one, too), so I just buzz it around the pot until I get the right texture. The Hubs  and I like some chunkiness to out soup, so I leave it pretty thick and don’t blend down all of the pieces (though I do try to get the garlic pieces all pureed in). Add water or more stock if you want a thinner consistency.

Puree the soup to the desired texture, adding water or stock to thin if needed

Return pot to stove and reheat until hot. Simmer a little longer, or serve immediately.

Simmer pureed soup on low or serve immediately

Garnish with whatever you like and have on hand. Some toasted nuts or pumpkin seeds would be lovely. Or, some cilantro or green onions would be good. I meant to add green onions, but the Hubs arrived and I got distracted and forgot. Crusty bread or toast makes a great dipping tool (too bad we finished the baguette with the chicken soup). Cuddle up under a flannel blankie by the fire and enjoy your orange soup!

Carrot & Sweet Potato Soup

Servings: 4

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups chopped carrots (about 6-10 carrots)
  • 1 sweet potato, peeled and diced
  • 4-5 whole cloves of garlic, peeled
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (canola would also work)
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
  • 1 onion, sliced (preferably yellow)
  • 2-3 cups vegetable stock (could sub chicken broth)
  • 1 Tbsp minced ginger (fresh is best, but I only had some in a jar)
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 2-3 heaping Tbsp roasted tomato mixture (or 2 chopped tomatoes, or 1/2 can diced tomatoes, drained)
  • 2 Tbsp fresh chopped parsley
  • 1-2 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • Garnish (optional): nuts or seeds, green onions or cilantro

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Combine diced carrots, sweet potato and garlic in a medium bowl. Toss withe EVOO to coat all veggies.
  3. Dump mixture on a jelly roll pan (rimmed baking sheet) and spread into a single layer. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  4. Roast in over for 20-30 minutes until the largest pieces are very tender.
  5. Meanwhile, caramelize the sliced onions in a large soup pot (see caramelizing instructions here).
  6. Deglaze the soup pot with a little veggie stock, then add another 2 cups of stock. Reserve the remaining stock to add as needed during the puree process.
  7. Bring soup to a medium boil, and add ginger and thyme and a little more salt and pepper to taste.
  8. Add remaining ingredients.
  9. Simmer on a low heat for about 10 minutes.
  10. Puree in blender or food processor (cool to warm, then puree in batches) or using an immersion blender. Blend to desired consistency, adding stock if needed.
  11. Return to stove and reheat until hot.
  12. Garnish with nuts or seeds, green onions or cilantro.

Notes for next time:

I like spicy food, but since the Hubs has a sore throat, I didn’t spice this recipe with anything other than the garlic and onions. Next time  I would add some red pepper flakes or a little curry powder or paste to heat it up. I also might try using basil rather than parsley and I might add a little red wine to the soup. Another thought is to toss  a little balsamic vinegar with the veggies before roasting. I also thought out adding some roasted corn after pureeing the rest of the soup. The Hubs liked his soup, but required a grilled cheese sandwich on the side to feel satisfied after a long day of working while sick 🙂 I was full after my bowl.

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Roasted Cherry Tomatoes: Simple Savories

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UPDATED: See bottom of post.

This year I planted tomatoes for the first time. I had planned to only have three plants because I wasn’t convinced that I would enjoy growing them – or be successful. Since I didn’t know a lot about the many plant choices, I ordered a variety pack from Burpees. One of those was called the Super Sweet 100 Hybrid, described as a high-producing sweet cherry variety. Then a friend gave me a couple of additional plants, which turned out to be cherry varieties, as well. So, out of five plants, I have three that are cherry! Know what that means? I have MILLIONS of itty bitties, and I wasn’t prepared for the influx of the little sweeties.

Cherry tomato plants produce MILLIONS of sweet little tomatoes!

I started exploring other food blogs to figure out how to preserve the giant harvest of mini tomatoes and learned that while it is possible to can them, most people don’t because most people don’t like to leave the skin on canned tomatoes and most people refuse to peel 1000 cherry tomatoes in order to get a couple of pints of canned tomatoes. Personally, I’m not terribly averse to skins and I do throw some cherry maters in my salsa, but decided I wanted to do something else with the little guys since I’m canning the big ‘uns.

What to do with all of those little yummies?

I learned a simple, fast and super yummy trick for roasting and then preserving cherry tomatoes. I’ve seen several versions of this technique, so I am by no means claiming to have thought of it myself! As always, I try to put a little of my own spin on it and show you how easy this savory delight is to make and how versatile the finished product can be.

Roasted cherry tomatoes are simple and versatile

I started with about a pound of cherry tomatoes, which fits in one jelly roll pan and makes about one half pint of the mixture. I only have one jelly roll pan so that’s all I make at a time – you could make more if you have multiple pans.

Preheat the oven to about 425 degrees. Prepare the tomatoes by slicing each of them in half. TEDIOUS! I hate tedious! Let’s make this faster. I wish I remember where I saw this trick (somewhere on Pinterest, I’m sure), but the person who invented it is a genius. Here’s what you do: find two plastic lids of the same size. I use the kind from the big Greek yogurt containers (cottage cheese, sour cream, etc.). Set one lid, label side down and fill the lid with tomatoes. I find it works best if you use similar sized tomatoes in each batch.

Fill the first lid with the tomatoes

Fit them in as snugly as you can, then place the other lid, label side facing up on top of the tomatoes, making a little tomato sandwich.

Place the second lid on top of the tomatoes

Now, press down on the sandwich firmly and begin slicing into the tomatoes with an very sharp knife. If you don’t keep the pressure firm, the tomatoes will escape out the backside of the sandwich. Sometimes I do rotate it a bit, but do not pull out the knife, which would make it messy.

Press firmly on the top while slicing through the tomatoes

Viola! Quick work made of slicing up a handful of cherry tomatoes! I told you it was genius!

Like magic, they’re all sliced in one move!

After the tomatoes are halved, place them in a medium sized bowl. Peel, but do not chop a few cloves of garlic and add to the bowl of tomatoes. Remember that garlic mellows out when roasted, so feel free to add more!

Add some garlic cloves to the bowl of tomatoes

Add about a 1/4 cup of EVOO to the bowl and gently stir to coat all tomatoes and garlic cloves. Dump the contents of the bowl onto the pan and spread the tomatoes and garlic out into a single layer. It doesn’t matter if the tomatoes sit cut side up or down.

Spread the garlic and tomatoes into a single layer on the pan

Sprinkle the spices and salt and pepper over the mixture and place in the oven. Roast for about 20-30 minutes. I like a little charring on the edges, so I wait until I see that before I pull them out. Be careful, though, because you can go from a little char to a major scorch in a matter of a minutes. My pan below may have gone a little too long.

Roast until you see a little charring on the edges of the tomatoes

Let the mixture cool on the pan. The second they are cool enough to eat, taste them! (Caution: I have burned my tongue more than once by diving in too soon!). Amazingness, right? Super savory flavors that make you want to lap it up off the pan. Depending on how much you eat off the pan, you now have a nice little batch of roasted yummies to add to tonight’s dinner, or save in a jar for a future recipe.

Cool then taste!

If I want to save them for another day, I scoop the mixture into a half pint (jelly size) jar. Be sure to get all of the drippings and the garlic (you can smash or chop the garlic to make for easier use later). Smoosh the mixture firmly into the jar and top with a splash of EVOO. Fill to nearly the top, but f you’re going to freeze it, leave about 1/2″ headroom. I have kept the mixture in the fridge for up to a week, but if I don’t think I’m going to use it quickly enough, I just pop it in the freezer. Defrost in the fridge overnight when ready to use.

Pour the mixture in a small jar for fridge or freezer

The mixture makes a perfect pasta topping, as is. Just prepare some pasta, warm the tomato mixture in a saute pan (add some pesto and/or a little tomato paste for more body) and then combine the pasta and tomato mixture for a super easy, but very savory supper. I will share my FAVORITE pasta dish with you in a future post soon, and we’ll use this recipe as our basic sauce starter.

Besides pasta, you could use this as a topping or stir it into many other dishes since it’s just a tomato and garlic combo. Think: stews and soups, stir into meatloaf or burgers, cassaroles, bruschetta, pizza, eggs, rice, veggie stir-fries, shrimp or fish topping, bean or green salads, etc. It also occurs to me that it could be pureed to create a smoother texture, making it even more versatile. Oooo…gotta try that!

Roasted Cherry Tomatoes

Serving size: makes about 1/2 pint

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb cherry or grape tomatoes
  • 4-6 whole, peeled garlic cloves (more, if you like)
  • 1/4 cup EVOO
  • 1 tsp dry Italian seasoning (or any combo of basil, oregano, thyme, etc. You could also use fresh chopped herbs)
  • 1/2 tsp each: salt and pepper

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Slice tomatoes in half, place in medium-sized bowl.
  3. Peel garlic, add to bowl with tomatoes.
  4. Add EVOO to bowl, gently stir to coat all tomatoes and garlic.
  5. Pour mixture onto jelly roll (rimmed baking sheet), spreading mixture into single layer.
  6. Roast for 20-30 minutes, until edges of tomatoes are slightly charred. Remove from oven.
  7. Cool completely on the pan.
  8. Use immediately, or scoop mixture into small jar, packing tightly and topping with EVOO. Leave 1/2″ head space if you plan to freeze.

Notes for next time:

I think it would be fun to try a Mexican spin on the mixture by using Mexican spices instead of Italian and adding some green chiles or jalapenos to the roasting pan. This version could be used as a stir-in to taco filling and other Mexican dishes. Another nice addition to either version would be thick slices of onions and/or green peppers which also roast so nicely and pair well with tomatoes.

Leave a comment with your roasted tomato recipe ideas. Enjoy!

UPDATE:

When I wrote this post, I noted that maybe the roasted tomato mixture could be pureed into a smoother texture, making it even more versatile. I also thought it would be fun to add some onions and bell peppers to the roasting pan to include even more savory flavor. Well! Last night I tried both and it turned out to be simply delicious and got rave reviews from the Hubs. He isn’t quite as enamored with the texture of the plain roasted tomato mixture as I am, so the smoother version works great for him. I just had to share!

Here’s how:

Prepare cherry tomatoes and garlic as above, but add chopped pieces of bell pepper and onions. I had some pearl onions (over-grown green onions) from the garden, so I used those. You can just chunk up about half an onion. Toss with olive oil, as described above and roast the same way.

Next, dump the mixture into a bowl and use the immersion blender to puree to the desired consistency (or cool then use a food processor or blender).

Blend with food processor, blender or immersion blender to desired consistency

I added a dollop of my basil pesto, a little salt and pepper and about 1 Tbsp of sugar, but mostly because I was experimenting with the flavors. It was great, as is, before adding ingredients. Just tweak to your own tastes and you end up with great marinara sauce. I served mine over open-faced (chicken) meatball sandwiches and the Hubs asked for seconds. Enjoy!

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Mexican Zucchini Succotash (Calabacitas)

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It’s that time of year when squash is taking over our gardens, kitchens and every other available corner of our lives. It’s great that it’s so easy to grow, but after you’ve made 88 loaves of zucchini bread, it’s time to change things up a bit. Zucchini is a very versatile veg, so you can really put it in most any recipe and it’ll make a great addition. My friend Mary even made a zucchini cobbler for book club once and it was way yummy (it was actually sweet, not savory).

This is some of the squash that is currently hanging around in my kitchen

I have a speedy weeknight, one-pot wonder of a zucchini meal for you that the whole fam will devour. When I first started growing zucchini, my husband kept talking about something his mom used to make with zucchini, corn and cheese. He called it calavacitas, but in doing some research, it looks like calabacitas and calvacitas are the same basic dish – each family just has their own way to say it. The beauty of it all is that there are many versions of the old-school dish, so we can tweak it however we want!

I also use the zucchini, corn and a little cheese, but I add a few more ingredients to make it more of a main dish. I use chicken as the protein, but you could swap that out for pork, ground beef, or shrimp – or you could leave it out and make it a vegetarian meal instead. It is really fast to throw together and it’s one of those recipes where you can sub out any ingredient you don’t have for one you do have and get dinner on the table in less than 30 minutes.

Simple one pot Mexican Succotash!

Start by dicing the chicken into bite-sized pieces. I used some chicken tenders (about 3) I had in the freezer, but you could use breasts or boneless, skinless thighs also. The meat is easier to dice if it is still about half frozen.

I buy a large package of chicken tenders when they’re on sale and then freeze smaller portions to pull out as needed.

While you’re dicing the chicken, heat a large saute pan to medium heat. When hot, add a few swirls of EVOO and let it heat up. Add 3-4 cloves of minced garlic to the pan and cook for a minute – be careful not to scorch it as burned garlic tastes really bitter.  Chop up about a quarter (or more, if you like!) of an onion and add to the garlic.

Add garlic to taste: I used 3 cloves

Now add the corn. If you have fresh corn on the cob, just slice it off the cob straight into the pan. I used two cobs in mine.

Once the corn gets a little sear on it, place the diced chicken in the pan, along with some salt and pepper. Sprinkle in about a 1/2 tsp each of cumin and Mexican oregano. Stir and simmer over medium heat.

I have a lot (a ton) of these little green peppers – we think they’re Sandias – so I chopped up a few and threw them into the pan. You could use bell peppers or whatever type of pepper you might have on hand – or just skip if you don’t.

We received a mystery pepper plant from a friend that we think is a Sandia pepper and it’s very productive, so I threw some in for some flavor.

Next, add some chopped tomatoes, and/or salsa. I had some (or about a thousand) cherry tomatoes and some fresh salsa so I added some of both. Use what you have on hand. If you think you’ll need a little more heat, throw in some red pepper flakes.

Throw in some tomatoes and/or some salsa and let it all simmer together until the chicken is fully cooked and tomatoes are softening.

Then continue by chopping the zucchini (or yellow squash) – I used about two regular sized zuccs to feed two of us. Add more for a larger group (or to use up more of your harvest).

Slice the zucchini in half, then slice each half horizontally.

Repeat with the other half until you have quarters

Chop the quarters up into about 1/2″ slices

Add the zucc to the pan and stir into the mixture. Cover and simmer for about 3-5 minutes. Watch the zucc, though, because you don’t want to let it get overcooked and mushy.

Add the chopped zucc and cover. Simmer 3-4 minutes.

At this point, your meal is complete – well, the Hubs says it’s not complete until you add the cheese! He likes a lot of cheese all mixed up and melted in the pan, but since I’m on the healthy kick, I shred a little on the side so we can each add as much or as little cheese as we like.

I had some sharp cheddar and some Monterrey Jack cheese on hand; use what you have, or skip if you prefer no cheese

Garnish with some green onions and/or cilantro and you’re ready to eat!

Can it get any simpler than that? If you have other veggies you need to use up, go ahead and throw them into the pot as well. I think some diced potatoes or some green beans would be a happy addition – and would add a little more bulk if you’re trying to stretch the meal a little further. I could also see beans – maybe pinto or black – rounding it out nicely, as well. You could also wrap it up in a corn or flour tortilla to make it more kid friendly or portable.

Mexican Zucchini Succotash

Servings: 2-3

  • 2-3 medium sized zucchini, diced
  • Diced chicken (2-3 tenders/thighs/1 large breast) – or similar quantity of pork, ground beef or shrimp
  • 1/4 onion, chopped
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 Sandia peppers (or 1/2 bell pepper), diced, seeds removed
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp Mexican oregano
  • Corn – 2-3 fresh cobs or 1 small can drained or 1 cup frozen
  • Tomatoes, diced (1 handful cherry or two regular) and/or 2 Tbsp salsa (optional)
  • 1/4 -1/2 cup grated cheese (optional)
  • Red pepper flakes (optional – to taste)
  • Salt and pepper + 2 Tbsp EVOO

Directions:

1. Heat a large saute pan over medium heat. Add a couple of tablespoons of EVOO to lightly coat the bottom of pan.

2. Add garlic, saute for 1 minute then add onions. Saute on medium heat, stirring occasionally.

3. Remove corn from the cob and place in pan with garlic and onions.

4. Stir cumin and oregano, along with salt and pepper into the mixture.

5. Once corn is beginning to sear, add diced chicken to the pan.

6. Let the chicken begin to brown and then stir in tomatoes and/or salsa. Let simmer until chicken is no longer pink. (If you’re using shrimp, add the tomatoes, allow to cook five minutes then add shrimp with zucchini, making sure they are cooked through (pink) before removing from heat.)

7. Add diced zucchini, cover and cook 3-5 minutes until zucchini is tender but not mushy.

8. Remove pan from heat and stir in cheese, if including it – or use as topping for individual portions. Garnish with green onions, cilantro and red pepper flakes to taste.

Notes for next time: The Hubs liked this version of his childhood favorite and endorsed the addition of the chicken. He said I made it a little spicy for him (perfect for me), so taste before adding extra heat with peppers. I will make with shrimp next time (when I’m home alone) because the Hubs is weird about shrimp mixed into other food – he likes it on the side (??). Otherwise, I might also add some beans next time.

I would love to hear your spin on this old, new again classic.

Need other zucchini recipes (who doesn’t?)? See my squash board on Pinterest.

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Caramelizing Onions – Oh, how sweet it is!

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I never really knew what caramelized onions were – or cared. Then, I accidentally made them one night when I was making brats for the Hubs and wanted to put some cooked onions on top. I chopped up the onions and got them cooking in a little EVOO. Then the Hubs called and said he was running late, so I turned the onions down really low and just let them simmer. I stirred them as I wandered through the kitchen occasionally, but generally ignored them. I don’t remember how late the Hubs was, and thereby how long the onions cooked, but it was a spell. When I finally put them on the brats (mine was really a chicken sausage), the most amazing sweetness came through with the mild onion flavor. WOW! Who knew?

Apparently a lot of people knew because it’s a standard cooking trick, but I figure that if I didn’t know how to do it, then other people may not either. I have a bunch of onions hanging out in the dirt in the backyard and soon I’ll be harvesting and curing them for winter storage. While I let them finish maturing, I have pulled a few to use in my daily cooking. They are so pungent and  fresh tasting. They even make me cry when I chop them and I haven’t cried over onions in years. Oh, and the stalks are wonderful to chop up and use like green onions. I’m sure there are whole recipes devoted to the stalks, but I have more pressing issues with all of the other produce to harvest and cook – I’ll learn that later (but please share if you know any).

I grew white, yellow and purple onions. Soon, I will pull them out for curing.

A purple pretty from the garden

Anyway, I am digressing. Caramelizing onions is super easy and the payoff is huge! Here’s how to do it:

You can use whatever sort of onion you have on hand. Slice it up into rings, about half an inch or so and use the whole onion because it’s going to shrink down.

Slice up a whole onion into rings

Next, heat up a small skillet to medium heat. After it’s hot, add some EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) – enough to mostly coat the bottom of the pan – and let it warm up. Add the onions and season with some salt and pepper. You can also drizzle a little EVOO over the top, but they don’t need to swim in the oil.

Place the onions with some EVOO and salt and pepper in the warm pan

After they start to soften, turn the heat to a low-medium heat. Keep it low and cook it slow! You’ll notice the onions starting to brown – that’s the carmelization! I promise they’re not burning, as long as your heat is low. If you’re worried, turn it down a bit more.

The dark color is the caramelizing process in action!

Keep an eye on them, but go about your business doing other kitchen tasks and just give them a stir now and then. They will keep getting yummier and yummier.

Keep cooking them low and slow for super sweetness

You’ll also notice that they are shrinking up, too. Again, that’s ok and it’s part of the process. Usually, it takes about 25-30 minutes to caramelize an onion, but it will depend on how thick your slices were when you started, and your cooking temp. No, cooking at a higher temp will not make the process faster because they will crisp up and burn. However, like my first try, you can cook them at a super low temp for longer to squeeze even more yummy out of them. I find the 30 minute mark is about right for my tastes – oh yeah, make sure you have some tasters along the way!

When they turn a deep, dark CARAMEL color, they’re done!

That’s all there is to it! So heap some on your burger or your brat and experience a whole new level in taste-ology. But, stay tuned because I have some upcoming recipes that take the caramelized onion beyond the brat and burger – way beyond. In the meantime, experiment by using them in recipes that you might ordinarily use regular boring cooked onions in and see how it improves the flavor. Simply stirring in some chopped veggies, like zucchini, broccoli or peppers – or green beans! Or mushrooms! (so many options), at the end of the caramelizing step and cooking for a few more minutes would be an easy, flavorful side or even main dish……Or… roasted potatoes would be fabulous with these onions! I could go on..but you get it.

Ok, now you know the process and I’m sure I’ve convinced you that you must make some caramelized onions NOW, but it gets better. How? When you’re cooking the onions, pour in a little BEER (like 1/4 cup) and let it cook down with the onions. Seriously – it takes the whole thing to an even deeper, more flavorsome place that you may never have experienced before. Do it.

Oooooo…and I bet wine would also be a heavenly twist….

Leave a comment and let us know how you’re using caramelized onions.

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