Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Tomatillo and Husk Cherry Salsa

Over the past few weeks, we've been harvesting pints of tomatillos as part of our farm share. We had a fast-growing bowl of them sitting in our 'fridge, because I'm annoyingly picky and have been looking everywhere for the perfect tomatillo salsa recipe.

When S and A visit (they're with us for the week), we usually eat obscene amounts of salsa, especially when everyone gets peckish around mid-afternoon. I like tomato-based salsas, but I've been itching to try something different, and I really wanted to use up the tomatillos!

My first attempt at tomatillo salsa (two years ago)- an experiment without guidance from a recipe- failed miserably. The salsa was lip-puckeringly tart, with no real flavour other than an overwhelming sourness. Not wanting to waste these tomatillos on further wild experimentation, I decided to look to the experts. As luck would have it, the September issue of Gourmet magazine arrived just before we left for the camping weekend, and the back-page column (aptly called The Last Touch) happened to include a recipe for tomatillo salsa! What perfect timing!

We had two pounds of tomatillos and I dislike cilantro, so I doubled the recipe and substituted parsley. We also have a small bowl of husk cherries that desperately need to be eaten; as they're related to tomatillos, I figured it couldn't hurt to add a handful (about 15, peeled and coarsely chopped) about 10 minutes into the simmering process.

Happily, the salsa came out fantastic! The husk cherries add an intruiguing fruity note, the lime juice and parsley are refreshing additions, and the secret to muting the characteristic tomatillo tartness seems to lie in the brief simmering. This is a nice departure from our usual salsa choices.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Summer Vacation!

Sugar Baby watermelon

Gasp... shock... we are actually taking a vacation this summer! This afternoon we head north for a weekend of camping with friends, followed by a lazy week with everyone at our house.

We've all known each other for a lo-oo-ng time and we've done things like this together before, so I can say with certainty that it will be a crazy vacation, albeit the absolute best kind of crazy.

The dishwasher (my BFF*) will be called into service every night. The water will run cold for the last person to shower each morning. We'll stay up obscenely late and wake even later. Suitcases will be piled in the guest room. The 'fridge will be stuffed. We'll drink more mojitos and margaritas than I should state publicly (!). We'll cook up a storm and eat way too much.

Out in the wilderness, the spastic New England weather and hungry mosquitoes will hopefully cooperate. If it rains, as the weatherman predicts it will, one of the three tents will certainly leak.

It will be especially funny if this is someone else's tent.

I can't wait! See you after Labor Day!

* Best Friend Forever. I love it that much.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Husk Cherries

Our newest discovery at the farm is the husk cherry, also known as the ground cherry or cape gooseberry. Last week's share included a handful of them, and I'm hoping that as they flourish, we might be allowed a pint or two.

Husk cherries belong to the deadly nightshade family and look like tiny tomatillos (no surprise- they're related). They grow low to the ground on strong, wild-looking runner plants, and their delicate, papery husks turn yellow when they're ready to be harvested. When you peel back the husks, the glossy-skinned, raspberry-sized globes roll out freely.

The flavour is definitely unusual. The first bite releases a pleasing tart acidity, followed by an intensely fruity, somewhat sweet, almost floral taste. L described them as a cross between a tomato and a grape; the wikipedia entry lists both tomato/pineapple and tomato/strawberry flavours. I agree with all three assessments- the sweet aspect is intriguing and difficult to identify.

A few weeks ago, The New York Times profiled the husk cherry as a fabulous addition to salads. I think we'll stick with that route, though I'm tempted to try preserving them (perhaps with some late-season strawberries?), if we ever do get that full pint!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Beekeeping, Honey and City Bees

During the past year, I've developed a nearly (lucky for L) irresistible itch to start keeping bees. We know two families who have beehives, and we've been lucky enough to sample divine raw honey from both (I posted about one of these lovely families back in June).

Beekeeping requires a tremendous amount of energy, knowledge and skill, and I suspect that most landlords aren't too thrilled with the idea of their tenants setting up beehives in the backyard. I have none of the above requirements, but I do find the world of beekeeping intriguing, so for now I will have to be content with books and a few favourite websites.

It's probably a good idea to leave it at that and honey-eating, for now... I'd like to think that I can brush off a few injuries along the way, but I'm sure I'd feel differently after picking bee stingers out of my hands and feet. Worse still, if all the bees decide to take a daytrip out of the hive, the beekeeper is expected to retrieve the swarm from the neighbor's property. I'd probably get the overwhelming urge to run in the other direction or employ similarly drastic measures!*

When someone patents a reliable bee-training method, I'll certainly be ready:
Bees... sit! Bees... stay! Good bees!

* "What bees? Those bees? Oh, yes, you've definitely got a bee problem. They can't be mine- those aren't even my hives! They just appeared in my backyard. No sirree, I don't know anything about those bees."

Friday, August 17, 2007

Pasta with Fresh Tomatoes, Basil and Provolone

clockwise from top: Japanese Black Trifele, Moskvich, Taxi, Juliet
middle: Sun Gold, Baby Girl

Yet again, the farm staff's careful planning has paid off: the tomatoes and basil came into season together a few weeks ago, and both are growing at lightning speed. The garlic and shallots aren't too far behind, and we saw our first array of soft, barely-dried bulbs this week.

The tomato rows are things of beauty- tall, healthy and producing profusely. The farm staff planted no less than 22 tomato varieties this year! This week, we took home 5 pounds of mixed larger varieties, 3 pints of plum and 2 pints of cherry tomatoes. Within each group, you get to pick your mix, so you're able to try a bit of everything each week. I'd like to say that I have a favourite; though I gravitate towards the unusual colours (i.e. not red), and the Sun Gold cherry tomatoes are a big hit with friends, I couldn't possibly choose one over another.

I'd been seriously considering documenting each tomato variety by looks and taste, so I could later remember what we've been able to try, but it seems that the farm staff read my mind! Someone beat me to it, and the list was featured prominently in this week's newsletter. I don't think they'll mind if I reproduce it here.

We hope this handy guide will help you identify what you're eating and what you'd like to try.We buy tomato seeds from five companies: J means Johnny's Selected Seeds and F means Fedco Seeds, both in Maine, T is Totally Tomatoes, S is Seed Savers Exchange, and B is Baker Creek Seeds. Quotes are from their catalogs.

Red Varieties

New Girl J: Smaller early red tomatoes with a pointed bottom.

Moskvich J: "Fruits are early, deep red, and cold tolerant. Rich taste."

Red Sun J: "A flavorful Celebrity type with larger, prettier, deep red fruit and more crack resistance." This one does very well on our farm.

Rutgers F: Red tomato with "that great old-time flavor."

Paragon J: Large main crop variety with heavy fruit set.

Yellow Varieties

Taxi J: "Concentrated early set." This is the only early yellow tomato we grow. We only planted 2 rows. Can you tell how productive it is?

Golden Sunray S: "Golden-yellow fruits, full tomato flavor."

Other Varieties

Rose J: "Deep pink and smoother than Brandywine, Rose is every bit as large, meaty, and flavorful."

Rose de Berne F: "This French emigré is a superior medium-sized pink tomato that delivers the robust flavor of the bigger types. It has a rich sweetness the others can't match." One of our favorites.

Paul Robeson B : "This famous tomato has almost a cult following among tomato connoisseurs, who cannot get enough of this variety's amazing flavor that is so distinctive, rich and smoky.

Japanese Black Trifele B : "The flavor is absolutely sublime, having all the richness of fine chocolate." You decide.

Nebraska Wedding S: Meaty orange fruits with "well-balanced flavor."

Jubilee F: "The best medium-sized open-pollinated orange tomato, Jubilee ripens smooth-textured sweet mild meaty 8 oz. globes."

Green Zebra F: "A most unusual beast in the tomato menagerie, this zebra starts out green with dark green stripes, softening and blushing yellow when it ripens."

Tigerella T: Red, orange and yellow striped, medium-sized tomato.

Ruby Gold F: As aesthetically appealing as it is delicious, Ruby boasts prolific beautiful huge red-streaked yellow fruits with marbled interior flesh.


Sun Gold F: "To quote one of our customers, 'Without these little babies, there's no summer.' The best cherry tomato ever developed, a perfect combination of deep sweetness with a hint of acid tartness. Splits readily after rain."

Sweet Baby Girl: Standard red cherry.


Juliet J : "Delicious, rich tomato taste for salads, great salsa, and fresh pasta sauce."

Blue Beech F: "This Roma type has been acclimated in Vermont for the last 50 years so it is much more adaptable to cold climates than Roma. It usually makes a richly textured sweet sauce that's just brimming with flavor."

Orange Banana F: "The proof is in the eating and Orange Banana has several times been the clear winner of our annual autumn paste taste. Comments from this year's tasters include, 'the best flavor and sweetness yet, wow!' and 'gourmet candlelight.' No wonder Banana has become a staple of famous tomato sauces. Its amazing sprightly sweet flavor, reminiscent of Sungold but with more depth and diverse tones, makes an ambrosial sauce by itself and adds a vivid fruity complexity to any sauce with other tomato varieties."

Striped Roman F: "Near the top in our 2005 sauce test for its rich tomatoey sweetness and good texture. An underground favorite of many seed savers, Roman is just beginning to find its way into commerce."

When we'd finally got our extremely dirty selves* home and had sorted the tomatoes into three big bowls, it was hard to resist eating the lot- there are few things better than tomatoes still warm from the sun. I've planned out a few different tomato dishes for the rest of the week, so we'll have plenty of yummy tomato enjoyment until our next pickup.

As most people do during the hot New England August and September months, we rely on fast dishes that require little to no heat. This is a variation on a pasta dish that L's mom makes- it's definitely a household favourite.

Pasta with Fresh Tomatoes, Basil and Provolone
serves 4 as a main course

2 pints mixed variety tomatoes, cut up any way you like
2 shallots, peeled and sliced into thin rings
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1 large handful basil leaves, chopped
1/4 pound provolone cheese, grated
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 pinches of salt
1 pound of pasta, any type

Bring a large pot of salted (just a pinch) water to a boil, but don't add the pasta yet. Cover and keep at a simmer.

Find the serving bowl you plan to use and position it nearby.

In a medium-sized heavy pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat until hot. Add the shallots and saute until soft, stirring frequently to prevent burning. Add the garlic and saute for 1-2 minutes, stirring frequently, until the garlic starts to turn a pale gold. Add the tomatoes and a pinch of salt (this will encourage them to release some of their liquid) and saute for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally, until softened but not mushy. Add the basil and saute for 30 seconds. Remove from heat and immediately pour into the serving bowl.

Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until
al dente. When the pasta is done, drain and toss immediately with the tomato sauce. Toss in the grated provolone and serve immediately.

* The dog was ecstatic at being so filthy- all that dirt masks his doggie fragrance, so that his enemies (the vacuum cleaner) can't detect him.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Basil Pesto

I have a long-standing love affair with pesto, and I'm sure that I am not alone. I first encountered the recipe- something a kid can easily make on her own- in my mother's copy of the Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan. It's a great solution you're looking for something delicious and quick that requires very little heat-up-the-kitchen-cooking.

I've changed the quantities of the original recipe quite a bit, as I usually do (you may have noticed that habit!). I prefer a thicker paste with less oil to sink to the bottom of the bowl, a stronger cheese and garlic tang, and whole pine nuts for a bit of crunch. Marcella adds butter to hers, and while I like the flavour, I can happily do without (in my pesto, at least).

L and I eat a lot of pesto during the summer months, especially July and August, when basil is at its peak and you see piles of it at farm stands and grocery shops. When I'm making a batch for dinner, I often make an extra batch or two to freeze for later use. The bright, sunny flavour is a welcome respite during our long New England winters.

Basil Pesto

2 cups firmly packed basil leaves, rinsed in a bowl of water and gently dried
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup pine nuts for grinding
1/4 cup pine nuts to add whole
2 cloves garlic
1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt, plus more to taste (use a little less if you use fine salt)

1/2 cup freshly grated parmegiano-reggiano cheese
4 tablespoons freshly grated romano cheese

Put the basil, olive oil, 1/4 cup pine nuts, garlic and salt into a food processor and pulse a few times until you have a paste dotted with small, recognizable pieces of basil, but not so long that you reduce the mixture to a fine paste. You can also use a mortar and pestle (grind to a paste), or by hand with a sharp knife or mezzaluna (finely mince).

If you're making a batch for the freezer, stir in the remaining 1/4 cup pine nuts and stop here. Fill a freezer-safe container with the pesto and toss into the freezer; add the cheeses later, when the pesto has thawed. Containers of frozen pesto can be thawed in the refrigerator or in a bowl of warm water.

If you are using a food processor or knife, stir in the cheeses and remaining pine nuts by hand. Do not be tempted to add the cheeses using the food processor- the resulting texture will not be the same. If you are using a mortar and pestle, add the cheeses and grind until well incorporated.

When you're ready to use the pesto, taste and correct for salt. Toss with hot pasta and serve immediately.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Peacock Orchids

The peacock orchid, or Acidanthera bicolor, is actually not an orchid at all. It's a close relative of the gladiolus, native to Ethiopia, and it takes a very, very long time to flower. I planted these in early May, and the first few have finally started to bloom!

Plant them under a window, so that their sweet fragrance wafts through when the wind blows.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Ina Garten's Summer Fruit Crostata

Tonight, all of a sudden and without warning, I had the irresistible urge to bake. I'm not one of those people who loves to bake all kinds of adventurous treats in my spare time. I can bake certain things, but if I'm putzing around in the kitchen, I usually prefer to be cooking.

We had a huge platter of quickly-ripening peaches in the dining room (I read that you're supposed to ripen them stem-side-down in a cool room, and our kitchen isn't air conditioned), and I really wanted to bake something I'd never made before. In a flash of inspiration, I remembered seeing a crostata recipe in Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa at Home cookbook. Crostatas sound so tempting in a romantic, rustic sort of way (just what the cookbook editors want, I am sure), so I decided to give the recipe a try.

So, now I have a confession to make. I have an irrational fear of dough, crusts, and anything else that requires that sort of baking precision. I've had tart shells turn out beautifully (by accident), and I've had them fail miserably (more often than not). I haven't yet got a technique down, nor do I have a favourite, perfect, never-fails recipe. My mother has both, and she sets a high standard- I grew up eating her beautiful, flaky, tender tart shells. I would love to be able to make them, too.

It's now 8 pm, I've made the dough, and it's been resting in the fridge for exactly an hour. I'm an impatient baker, so I'm off to roll it out, fill it, and pop it in the oven.

The good news is that L is napping, so if the crostata dough comes out truly awful, I can rescue the fruit, share it with the dog, and L will never know. Bonus: after that, the dog will definitely love me more than he loves L.

Wish me luck!

Oh, frabjous day! The crostata is beautiful! Beautifully messy, that is, and very tasty.

The filling was piled dangerously high, but it cooked down to a manageable amount. The crust is wonderfully flaky, though I'm afraid I was overzealous and I rolled it out a bit more than I meant to. It doesn't seem to have suffered much, so hopefully this really is one of those perfect, consistently-good dough recipes that I keep hearing about.

I'm not going to reproduce the recipe here, because I think that counts as copyright infringement or something equally bad. I can, however, tell you that it's very similar to Ina Garten's apple crostata recipe. Instead of the apple and spice filling, I used 1 1/2 pounds of unpeeled, sliced peaches and 1/2 pint blueberries. As directed in the cookbook (summer fruit) version, I tossed the sliced fruit in 1 tablespoon sugar, 2 tablespoons orange juice, and the orange zest also called for in the apple crostata recipe. I then used the fruit mixture as you would the spiced apple filling.

It was a hard sacrifice as far as blueberries are concerned, since I have an awful tendency to hoard them all for myself, but it was definitely worth it! We have some strawberries in the fridge, and the dough recipe makes enough for two crostatas; I suspect I'll get the itch to make another fruit crostata before the week is out! All in the name of valuable and important baking practise, of course...

Sunday, August 5, 2007

2007 Restaurant Week- Summer Edition

Summer Restaurant Week starts today!

If you live in the Boston area and you haven't heard of Restaurant Week, I encourage you to check out the official website and the unofficial guide.

From Sunday, August 5 - Friday, August 10 and Sunday, August 12 - Friday, August 17, you can enjoy a 3-course prix fixe lunch or dinner for $20.07 or $33.07, respectively, at participating restaurants in the Boston metro area. Some restaurants offer wine pairings for a small additional charge.

I've made reservations for L and myself at a restaurant we first (and last) visited during Restaurant Week 2005: La Morra in Brookline. The food was memorable, the wine reasonably priced and well-paired, and parking was surprisingly easy (no small consideration in Boston, and Brookline in particular). We still talk about the addictive fried green olives, and I could eat the desserts three times a day. Their menu for this go round can be found here. I can already guess which dishes L and I will choose!

We are limiting ourselves to two reservations this summer, and I'm having a tough time deciding on the second. I'm hoping we can agree on something soon, as Restaurant Week reservations go quickly!

What are you waiting for?

UPDATE: We weren't able to get reservations at lumière (
I waited too long), so our second reservation is at Sel de la Terre. I've heard rave reviews, and we've been wanting to go for a while. Their menu isn't posted, so this one will be a surprise. I can't wait!

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Garlic Scapes

A relative newcomer to the American produce world, the garlic scape is a strange and striking thing indeed. When hardneck garlic* starts to grow, thin shoots make their way out of the garlic bulb. These shoots- the garlic scapes- are edible while tender and still-curled.

If allowed to grow and straighten out, they will harden, turn garlic-skin-white, flower, and slow the growth of the garlic plant. Farmers would snap them off, to direct the garlic's energy back to the bulb, and toss them straight on to the compost pile. Luckily for us, someone discovered that they're not just edible, but delicious, too!

This year, we encountered garlic scapes as part of our farm share, and I learned that you can use them as you would chives, spring onions, or garlic cloves. Chopped or minced, raw or briefly cooked, they add a nice texture and subtle, green, garlic undercurrent without overpowering other flavours.