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A different take on pumpkin “spice”

It’s just past Halloween and soon to be Thanksgiving. The pumpkin bins at the Trader Joe’s will probably disappear next Tuesday morning, very convenient. The worst of it is, the only edible-grade pumpkins they sell are the little pie pumpkins. The gorgeous Cinderella’s carriage ones, a dusky pale orange-gray, are a staple of Mediterranean cooking from soups to couscous to filled fillo spirals and beyond. Even candied pumpkin as a spoon sweet. But the ones the supermarkets here sell are grown for looks only with questionable water, fertilizers and pesticides, and are presumably just for decorating your lawn and attracting rodents.

It would be so nice if they sold edible larger pumpkins like the Cinderella kind–organic ones? even in wedges, as they do in European and North African farmers’ markets. It’s a shame to see so much food potential wasted like that.

Meanwhile, Starbucks, Cinnabon and other mall favorites will no doubt be assaulting the national palate once again with an overload of nutmeg and cinnamon extracts–the gastronomic equivalent of “Rockin’ Around the Xmas Tree” and “Feliz Navidad” played endlessly over the PA system wherever you go shopping. Taste is no object.

So my grumbling has resulted in a couple of searches for pumpkin with spices that don’t threaten anyone’s latte. I’ve been cruising my ever-growing collection of Mediterranean and Near Eastern cookbooks in search of good vegetarian and vegetable dishes that I can speed up with the help of a microwave without losing flavor.

Just by starting with a microwaved butternut or other whole red squash, you can cut the roasting, peeling and chopping time and effort (and danger of self-inflicted wounds) way down. Some decent savory recipe ideas can be done with ordinary cans of plain packed pumpkin too.

Then my preference is to go savory rather than sweet. It’s more interesting, for one thing, and it’s more versatile too. Finally, I look to see if I can make some of the recipes I find faster, svelter–and preferably both.

I see little benefit to using heavy cream, full sticks of butter, and extra egg yolks for “richness,” which mostly means as bulking ingredients more than for actual flavor. My head, my heart, my doctor and my hips are all in accord with me on this one. Besides, I’m a cheese freak. In my world, you need to save up your limited saturated fat allowance for stilton or chevre or camembert–something with funk and flash and that lightningy je ne sais quoi.

My lineup of adaptations so far:

Kolokithopita

Like spanakopita triangles or fillo rolls but instead of spinach and feta, use cooked and fairly dry pumpkin (or in this case butternut squash) mashed with feta, oregano and/or thyme (or fresh za’atar if you can get it), hot pepper flakes, a little tehina sauce or some garlic and lemon.

Butternut squash fryup–just add a little feta and some hot pepper flakes

If you’re only making 4-8 rolls or triangles, you can stick them on a length of foil that fits your toaster oven. Use a sandwich baggie over your hand to dab very sparing amounts of olive or expeller-pressed grapeseed oil or other light vegetable oil on each individual fillo sheet before folding in thirds, putting the filling on and rolling or folding. Brush the tops very lightly with a little more oil, turn down your toaster oven settings to about 400F and bake for about 10 minutes. When the tops are golden brown, turn the pastries over very gently and bake the whitish bottoms a little longer.

Pumpkin Gorgonzola Flans with Toasted Walnuts

 

Butternut squash savory flan, slimmed down

adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table

This one has to be microwaveable–it’s a custard base, after all. It also, and I mean this, has to be svelte-able. Really. Greenspan uses 3 eggs plus 2 yolks and half a cup of heavy cream for only one 15-ounce can of packed pumpkin. That’s pretty obscenely rich, especially with 4 ounces or so of crumbled gorgonzola and some toasted walnuts sprinkled over the 6 individual ramekins before baking in a water bath in a conventional oven. And she suggests creme fraiche or sour cream as a garnish? Yikes.

Flan in quarters

Microwave-safe ceramic ramekins are pretty inexpensive if you shop Ross for Less or Target.  I didn’t have gorgonzola or any kind of bleu on hand, so I winged it for concept with some feta.  I will say I’ve noticed that at least Stella gorgonzola melts into a runny sauce in a microwave–good if you want a smooth gorgonzola salad dressing, not so good for a recipe like this where you don’t want it to disappear into the flan. Maybe a more solid bleu like Stilton will melt and run but I’m hoping it stays together better.  Also, nuts in the microwave–maybe not a good idea, at least for big chunks. Even with the moisture from the flan taking the brunt of the energy, I kind of think you’re at risk of scorching them from the inside out, particularly if they’re on top of the flan. Better to roast them separately on a lowered heat in the toaster oven–200-250F for 5 minutes or so while the flan is going in the microwave, then sprinkle them on afterward as a garnish.

My half-recipe test came out pretty delicious on its own merits and I’m going to buy a small wedge of Stilton to try next. Because I mashed the butternut squash with a fork rather than using a purée, it’s a little rougher and less refined but the fresh taste is noticeable and lighter. Using plain nonfat yogurt in place of the heavy cream also made it obviously lighter and played up the tang that gorgonzola and bleu normally contribute. The acidic yogurt  may be counterintuitive if you’re thinking conventional cooking, but the small addition of flour plus the egg plus the starch and fiber in the squash prevent it from separating and curdling under heat.

Half-recipe pumpkin flan for lunch (serves 1-3 for lunch or an appetizer/side dish)

  • 6-7 oz/185 g chunk of butternut squash
  • 1 lg egg
  • 1/4 c or large heaping soupspoon of plain nonfat milk-and-cultures-only yogurt (not even Greek! just the cheap regular!)
  • small clove of garlic, mashed/minced/grated
  • pinch or stem worth of thyme
  • 1 t flour
  • 1 oz crumbled feta
  • sprinkle of smoked paprika, grind of black pepper to taste
  • toasted walnuts, optional

Mash everything up to the feta together in a microwaveable soup bowl, sprinkle on a little paprika and/or pepper, cover the bowl lightly with a lid or saucer, microwave 3 minutes on HIGH. Lift the lid carefully to check–it may still be liquidy in the center but cooked towards the outside rim. If the bowl’s very hot, let it sit covered another couple of minutes, jiggle again to see if the center’s cooked. If not, give it another 30 seconds and let sit again to cool down enough to handle. Cut into 3-4 pieces and serve–garnish as desired.

Last-Minute Sweets for Rosh Hashanah

toaster oven baklava rolls with honey

A quick last-minute wish for peace and a sweet and prosperous New Year to everyone. I know it doesn’t look that likely, between the physical and political versions of “weather” in the news, but I try to remember that it begins with us in our own neighborhoods and that we can make a difference by our own actions. If you haven’t yet, please make an effort to donate aid–even a couple of bucks–to the victims of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and to the victims of the earthquakes in Mexico. If you have neighbors and friends waiting to hear from loved ones caught in these disasters, do what you can to support them.

In the meantime, if you’re stuck for a last-minute dessert that works along the theme of “honey”–try baklava. I’m not actually kidding–if you have a toaster oven (for smaller amounts, 7-10 portions) and a microwave, and you have the makings of baklava (a roll of fillo, a bag of walnuts, some sugar and sweet spices and some butter or light-flavored vegetable oil), plus a bottle of honey, you’re in business. Of course, you could do apples instead of walnuts and make a strudel instead–also good and pretty easy. Peel and slice up or chop the apple (s), stick the pieces on a plate and microwave a minute or so to cook through and drain the juices before sprinkling on sugar, spices, and crushed nuts or breadcrumbs and/or raisins, and rolling up in fillo.

Toaster Oven Baklava Rolls

These are kind of like “ladies’ fingers” Moroccan fillo pastries, only with walnut filling rather than almond paste. Rolling individual fillo sheets is easy and a lot  quicker (and more fun, frankly) than layering several sheets flat and neat and then cutting pieces and baking and pouring a big jar of cold syrup over the hot pan. Plus the traditional syrup soak is a huge overload of sweet that’s admirable in its own odd way but very rich and hard to deal with–very sticky–right before you have to head off to synagogue. This is kind of a modular recipe–make just a few rolls if you feel like it, drizzle a bit of honey over the rolls at will.

  • roll of fillo dough , thawed (uses 1 sheet per roll; if you have extra left over, rewrap carefully and store in the fridge or freezer)
  • about 1 ounce walnuts per roll (I used about 6-7 ounces for 7 rolls)
  • 1 T sugar per 3-4 oz walnuts (I used 2T)
  • cinnamon or ground cardamom, about 1/2 t for 6-7 oz walnuts)
  • 1 t orange blossom water, optional, or orange or lemon juice or rind–you don’t want the mixture wet, this is for aromatic flavor
  • 2-3 T butter, melted, or vegetable oil, or a mixture, as needed
  • honey to drizzle over the top once baked, about 1/2-1 t per roll
  1. Slice the butter thin and melt in a ceramic or other microwaveable bowl, about 2 minutes.
  2. Put the walnuts in a plastic bag with some room and roll over them with a rolling pin or wine bottle to break them up fairly fine with a few 1/8th-1/4 inch bits, or if you feel like it, chop them in a food processor, not too fine. Add the sugar, spices and orange blossom water or juice to the bag and mix them into the nut meal.
  3. Unroll the fillo carefully onto a clean flat surface (lay down plastic wrap first as needed).
  4. Put a plastic sandwich baggie over your hand and dip it lightly into the melted butter. Dab on the top sheet of fillo.
  5. Fold the fillo sheet in thirds lengthwise. Grab a small handful of the nut mixture (2 T-ish), squeeze, and place at one end of the fillo strip. Tuck the side edges over it by 1/4-1/2 inch, then roll the end over and around the nut filling to enclose it. Dab a bit more butter on the rest of the strip and roll it up. Place on tin foil. Repeat with the rest of the fillo sheets until you run out of nut filling. If you run out of butter or oil, you can slice a bit more to melt quickly. You don’t need much per roll and the sandwich baggie should help spread it without absorbing any.
  6. When all the rolls are made, dab the last of the butter or oil on the tops, wait a minute to let it sink in a bit, and place the sheet in a toaster oven (or your regular oven preheated to 350F). For the toaster oven, set to bake on 350-400F, not “toast”, for about 8-10 minutes and keep an eye on it so nothing burns.
  7. Bake until the rolls are a deep golden brown and smelling baked. Remove from the oven, cool and squeeze on a drizzle of honey to taste–about half to one teaspoon per roll is enough for flavor without submerging it in syrup.

Baklava rolls browning in the toaster oven–don’t forget to set the temperature a little lower than for toasting so the tops don’t burn

L’Shanah Tova Tikatevu!

Microwave Tricks: Black Beans

microwaved black beans

Cooking seasonally is a tricky thing–especially if your season currently includes hurricanes or extreme heat. Pasadena has finally cooled down to 80s/90s with a bit of cloud cover, but last week’s 105-degree afternoons were a serious challenge. It was so bad the only time to go out for a walk was about 5:30 in the morning. Hard to think school has been in session for a month, it’s already September, and Rosh Hashanah is a week and a half away. Running the oven is, to put it bluntly, not an option, and the stove top isn’t much better in my small and easily overheated galley kitchen.

Microwaving is a powerful way to cut the time and pain (and airconditioning bills) for bulk cooking of things like vegetables, rice, pasta…and dried beans, which are much cheaper and more versatile (and much lower in sodium) than canned. Make a bean stew or chili and you can zap a portion of it at will later in the week. Plus bean salads can be served cold–a plus for weeks like the ones we’ve had recently.

But for microwaving, you usually have to adjust whatever method is spelled out in a recipe to your oven, your containers, your food quantities. Microwave times are sensitive to all of those factors, plus how much water you have (water’s the main molecule microwave radiation acts on) and whether or not you’ve got a lid.

Most people don’t try to make changes based on their first-run results and most cookbooks never really explain how to make useful adjustments. Predictably, most microwave cookbooks end up in the Last Chance bin at your local Friends of the Library booksale.

It’s a shame, because once you’ve got your timing and so on down, you can repeat it with reliable results.

Over the years I’ve posted basic heat-to-simmer-and-let-sit-to-absorb microwave methods for cooking split peas, chickpeas, lentils and other bulk dried beans. Lentils and split peas always did work out well without needing to soak them first–they tend to be easier to cook quickly by standard stovetop boiling too. Chickpeas work okay if you presoak them or hot-soak in the microwave (heat briefly in water just to cover, let stand 15 minutes or so and let them swell up) before the main cooking, and adding a dash of baking soda to the soak water really helps. Same with gigantes (giant favas)–which I’ve now decided cook better with the skins left on, same as if you were boiling them, and they’re certainly a lot quicker and easier to peel afterward–also more fun.

But some beans just seem to toughen if you don’t presoak overnight or if you microwave them too long. Black beans and kidney beans have given me more trouble than they seem to be worth–and I’m a bit reluctant to post this because it’s fussier than I like to admit even after adjusting the method successfully. Microwaving isn’t supposed to take more time and fuss than straight boiling on a stove, or working with a pressure cooker, if you have and trust yourself with one.

But this is a good illustration of how to use a microwave as a workaround when you don’t, and it shows you how you might think about making adjustments based on what the food is doing or not doing.

I microwave because I want something relatively safe, that doesn’t heat up the kitchen, and that turns itself off when done because, let’s face it, I’d rather be reading or writing than waiting for a pot of water to boil or jumping up at the whistle to avert an explosion. And I want the beans properly cooked and tender in less total microwave time at the least and without having to boil them afterward on the stove. I’ve done that before and I’ll probably do again if it ever cools down enough, but I’d rather not have to. The prior microwaving steps still shorten the stovetop time to maybe half an hour, but really, I’d rather it were all microwave, no fuss (I can dream, can’t I?)

So after a rethink of my previous methods, I’ve made some changes to the way I cook black beans from scratch by microwave. It also works for things like brown rice, steelcut oats, and other tough, uncut, unpeeled whole grains like farro or pearl barley when you’ve forgotten to put them up for soaking overnight, and at least for the rice it’s quicker than the 45 minutes or so of my previous brown rice method–maybe 20-30 minutes for a pound or two of brown rice. For the beans, maybe an hour of time total, with sitting and rechecking. Maybe less if your beans are fresh enough and/or you remembered to soak them overnight first.

Cracking the method

It starts with the water. I had been covering a pound of dried beans (or brown rice) with more than an inch of water and heating it all, or else heating that much water by itself (more than a quart) and then tipping in the rinsed beans to soak for a bit. But since the water molecules are what the microwave heats up first for preference, the more water you have, the longer it takes for the Continue reading

Microwave Tricks: Quick-Pickled Peppers

Microwave Hungarian pickled peppers

This is what happens when I get to the corner grocery or (more occasionally) the farmer’s market at the end of the day: I’ve already got a basket full of stuff, ripe, bursting with aromas it would take most supermarket produce days, weeks or forever to achieve. But there in the last-chance corner is a bag of very pale green, very contorted Hungarian peppers, about 10-15 of them for a last-chance dollar. They’re in good shape, maybe one or two has a couple of minor wrinkles, but that’s it. I can’t resist.

At first I thought I’d use them to stuff with corn kernels and feta and scallions, which I haven’t done for a while. But when I got them home, they were obviously too twisted to stuff, and very thin-walled at that. And unlike Anaheim or pasilla chiles, not really spicy enough to set off the corn. What then?

I’ve been feeling my nonexistent Italian and Greek roots lately, so I thought, pepperoncini? Well, why not? I did pickled green tomatoes last year, and it was incredibly easy (except for finding the green unripe tomatoes, which even my local Armenian corner store doesn’t provide often, and especially not at the height of the summer Fresno tomato frenzy).

But I didn’t want to wait two whole days for the peppers to ferment. And I didn’t want them quite as salty as actual pickles. So I decided to microwave-marinate them the way I make marinated artichoke hearts.

Yes, you can always just buy a jar of pepperoncini. My greengrocer definitely has them. But if you have the fresh peppers and they’re dirt cheap and you just want them right now, not necessarily every day for the next three months, microwaving them takes all of five minutes, and the result is surprisingly good.

It also brings out the full flavor of the peppers quickly–even a hint of spice, though they’re still not hot, and you can limit the salt to your own taste. Continue reading

Nectarine Sorbet, Light on the Sugar

Nectarine sorbet, ready to freeze

Last summer when I had too many nectarines all at once, and they were starting to go soft in the fridge, I sliced them up and froze them as-is to dig out and gnaw on whenever the temperature got over 100 or so–which it did, often. I did admit it wasn’t a recipe, as such, and that if you really wanted, it might be worth blending them up for a granita or sorbet. But it was too hot to bother, and I didn’t care how silly it looked to stand around with the freezer door open just to grab a wedge and chill myself a bit.

This summer, luckily, I have the same problem–not the nectarines from the big Ralph’s/Kroger supermarket, those are still hard as rocks and have almost no scent most of the time. But the Armenian greengrocers get all the overgrown, just-about-overripe, bee-bitten and split-pit nectarines and peaches, the ones that aren’t perfect, hard and shiny, and that have an insane-making aroma when you pass by.

I always have to grab as many as I can, which is about eight or ten at a time, and hope I can hide them in the fridge just long enough to snag one for myself before my teenager decides they all belong to her and what are we looking at her like that for? Grrr…

Well–I hid them from myself as well this time, buried them under a couple of bags of fresh herbs for a couple of days, and when I relocated them, about seven of them were getting just to the point where I had to do something or else. So I cut them in wedges and froze them, of course. It was a lot–about a quart of cut-up fruit. And after testing out a couple of wedges, I thought, well, what if I try the sorbet thing with the rest of them after all?

frozen nectarine wedges

The only problem with sorbet is that it usually contains a lot more sugar syrup than I think it needs if the fruit is properly ripe. Three-quarters of a cup of sugar (150 grams) for a quart–sometimes just a pint–of sorbet is like drinking whole cups of Concord grape juice. Very spiky for a diabetic kid–or prediabetic adult. With the carb content of whatever fruit you use, it can add up to 35-45 grams of carb per serving. A whole large nectarine by itself has about 25 grams of carb, and at least it’s got fiber.

And the toothaching standard of American commercial dessert sweetness blankets the taste of fresh fruit until it’s not really fresh anymore. It might as well be canned. This is acceptable–just–for blackberries and raspberries, which are pretty sour if you don’t add sugar, and which keep a lot of their flavor cooked, but absolutely horrible for nectarines and peaches.

If you can get nectarines or peaches that actually taste like they came off a tree and not out of a warehouse, you do not want to cook all the wildness and tart freshness out of them (apricots–go for it; they actually improve sometimes with baking). Continue reading

Hot Air

The last two or three months of school seems to be getting more and more fraught every year–for parents, certainly. I’ve just woken up to the fact that I’ve been offline for something like three months now–March! yeesh! Not because I had nothing new to say about food, exactly, but because I had three or four competing ideas and no time to figure out pictures for the posts. And as everybody knows, if you didn’t take a picture of it, it practically didn’t happen. Just like all those tourists who used go to the Grand Canyon and (back in the day of actual film) had to wait for their pictures to be developed to see what it looked like…

And now that school’s out, it’s hot. 107 degrees twice this week in Pasadena, smoke in the air from the San Gabriel fire not too far away, and no desire to cook, walk during the day, or listen to anything resembling hot air.

Because the recent spate of presidential campaigning has become poised to take away almost any American’s appetite for a while.  Just read a newspaper online and look at the prominent photos and bombastic quotations and examples of rank cowardice.

I mean, yeah, I voted in the California primary two weeks ago, and I even researched all the local judges and assemblypeople for my district this time, hoping to make something count or at least not to commit any hideous mistakes.

Contrary to what you might think, reading the candidates’ own statements will actually give you a feel for what kind of people they are, whether they give a flying leap about their prospective constituents and whether they know how to tie their own shoes. Reading through about fifteen last-minute write-in candidate statements for various assembly-and-county-supervisor-type posts was pretty entertaining, actually–most of the hopefuls (you could guess which parties) stated their qualifications as “I believe in God.” Seriously. Sum total.

Nationalistic and bigoted fervor seem to be going around, though. To wit, “Brexit”, which actually won the vote today. Not that I don’t understand Britain’s–and everyone else’s–frustration with the EU administration, but the vote results and the resulting–utterly predictable–mess announced this morning are really disheartening.

Some are calling it a shot in the dark; to me it looks like a solid a shoot-yourself-in-the-foot-why-don’t-you move. It’ll take at least two years to execute, cost an immediate fortune in lost business and one-downmanship, and probably cost a lot more time, money and headache than previously suspected to resolve with the EU countries. Let’s face it; if Trump (king of the gold-tone hot air vent) thinks that it’s a great idea, you know you’ve gone wrong somewhere. Scotland, where his fabled floundering golf courses are located, went solidly for “remain,” by the way…

So is it any wonder I feel like taking a major break from my computer, my kitchen, and possibly your kitchen as well? If only to soothe your eyeballs and your rapidly developing ulcer, for which I apologize profoundly. Oy.

Now that that’s over, I guess I have no more excuses. What was I going to post all this time, anyway?

Harking back to early April, it looks like I made a couple of tries at something about microwaveable side dishes for Passover seders. Yes, it’s now too late to care where I hid the afikoman, but I maintain that the ability to microwave greens like asparagus or broccoli to perfection in a couple of minutes at the drop of a hat can save a meal–Passover or not–and some heat in the kitchen. If you’re vegetarian or leaning toward it, some of the not-chicken microwaveable soups can also be kind of handy and quick to nuke and store in those big snaplock containers in the fridge and free up your stove.

I didn’t go so far as to try any microwave matzah balls. No idea whether that would be a great idea or a terrible one, I was too not-chicken to try it. What can I say–be relieved. Be very relieved.

However, a crustless Israeli-style spinach and feta casserole, basically a quiche but more rustic in texture, was a hit both conventionally baked and browned for a Saturday congregation lunch during Passover and later for us at home via the quickie microwave method (minus the crust, so you don’t need the oven at all). It’s less glamorous-looking, more get-it-on-the-table-and-don’t-heat-up-the-house.

Israeli-style spinach, feta and egg casserole

Unfortunately for the spinach and feta thing, it turns out there are a gazillion of these posts all over the web, especially on low-carber fitness sites. Which takes away some of the charm of posting about it. But it’s still a good and very simple dish.

Israeli Spinach and Feta Crustless Quiche

Per casserole dish:

  • 6 eggs
  • 1 c. milk (skim is fine)
  • 1 lb. thawed and squeezed-out frozen spinach
  • 1 lg clove garlic, minced/mashed/grated
  • 2-3 chopped scallions
  • handful of chopped dill or 1-2 T dried
  • 6-8 oz. crumbled feta

Toss the spinach, herbs and feta lightly in the casserole dish so there are visible clumps of cheese (i.e., don’t blend it too fine), mix the eggs and milk together and pour them over. Optional–grate or sprinkle a pinch of nutmeg on top. Either bake about 35-45 minutes at 350F, which makes it all pretty, puffed and browned on top, or (as I see it, the better option for Pasadena weather), just nuke it covered in a microwaveable stoneware casserole for about 7-8 minutes until puffed and cooked through to keep your kitchen from sweltering.

…Are we sensing a theme here? I hope so–because yes, it’s actually been 107 degrees this week in Pasadena. I’m not that good at keeping my cool or not cooking at all (don’t ask about the sourdough I “rescued” by baking around midnight with all the doors and windows open when the temperature dropped below 90…) But I’m trying hard not to cook.

When it’s this hot, dinner becomes a pastiche of sort-of-niçoise salads with beans or canned tuna added, maybe some cold hard-boiled or medium-boiled eggs. I’m also not above making a dinner of wedges of leftover cauliflower omelet reheated (or not) in the microwave, and either tomato-cucumber salad or some sliced tomatoes with vinegar, olive oil, maybe basil flowers from the struggling plant outside.

box of winter salad

The big box of grab-and-go salad vegetables is still looking like a good strategy too–veg that doesn’t wilt in an instant is as valuable in summer as in winter. As is shredded Greek cabbage salad. Cold raw or microwave-blanched green beans, romano beans, cauliflower or broccoli with mustard dressing, Italian-type vinaigrette, or a yogurt-based dip is also a relief.

Here are a few other hot weather ideas dragged from the depths of my blank-book cookbooks, which I now realize I’ve been keeping more than half my life.

Cold marinated tofu

Tofu is actually pretty handy to have in hot weather–either nuked with vegetables instead of stir-frying if you can stand to eat it hot, or else sliced cold and marinated for ~ half an hour with jao tze dipping sauce ingredients poured over it. Continue reading

Faster Roasted Tomato Soup

Yeah, I know, it’s early March, the winds and rain and snow and tornadoes are still doing their thing around much of the country and here in Pasadena the chill has set in…sort of, to about 75 degrees or so daytime. With actual rain last night.

Chunky pan-roasted tomato soup

And it’s tax season.

So what we really need is something to brighten the last dregs of winter. I was thinking tomato soup, myself.

Why was I thinking it? Because so many food articles in the past couple of weeks have mentioned slow-roasted tomatoes, charred tomatoes, and so on to improve the obviously lacking flavor of winter tomatoes and avoid using canned ones. One  chef got flamed for suggesting in the New York Times food section that “local” is not the sane way to go with produce that simply isn’t producing in winter in the northeast, and that canned tomatoes are not the worst idea in the world after all. Shame! Shame!

Actually, I agree with her–and not just because I’m the original purple thumb when it comes to gardening. In a surreal reversal of my hideously lacking garden skills, I actually have three–count ’em, three–grape tomato plants in bloom and producing the occasional tomato-let as we speak. I even have basil and rosemary and mint and thyme that I haven’t killed through inattention and forgetting to water. But really, even so, there’s no way I’d set myself up as a homesteader on those flimsy credentials. We’d starve.

Tomatoes are one of those things–either you’ve got the Fresno specials (or something local and preferably from your own garden so you can brag) in the summer and they’re divine with nothing but a bit of olive oil and vinegar, or even just plain, or else it’s winter and you’ve got blah tomatoes that are kind of orange and grainy. Or you’ve got canned tomatoes, preferably no-salt Romas. Frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that in winter. Or any other time you’re making microwave marinara.

ripening roma tomatoes

However…If your supermarket tomatoes will consent to ripen on a counter near a window for a couple of days, you might be able to eke out some actual tomato flavor from them. They may still not be fantastic, and one or two may start to develop soft spots, but it’s still worth doing anyway. Keep turning them gently every day to minimize the risk of spoilage and use them. They should at least redden.

And as mentioned above in the numerous food section articles, you can do the slow-roast-on-parchment-in-the-oven thing to them and they’ll be a bit more flavorful for sauces and tomato soup. But it takes about 45 minutes to an hour. And I’m impatient.

So today I rescued a couple of aging Roma tomatoes from my countertop and decided to try pan-roasting them, as in frying pan. Would they take on a char? Would they taste better? Would they make soup worth eating?

Bear in mind this is an experiment more than a proper recipe with specific quantities, but yes, it worked, and it only took about 10 minutes from start to finish. Maybe the flavor’s not as glorious as if I’d oven-roasted them for an hour, but the lack of waiting makes it reasonably good, and the garlic makes up for the rest of it. Continue reading

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