tomatoes

Heirloom Tomatoes: Tomato Chutney

Next to my home-grown, round, organic tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes look wild and crazily-shaped. Their sunset reds, dazzling yellows, and deep purple colors, along with striations and ridges, only accentuate their misshapen appearance. However, heirloom tomatoes’ strange form conceals a smooth texture and buttery sweetness. This combination of firmness and balanced acidity makes heirloom tomatoes a favorite in a Caprese salad – the bold flavors pair particularly well with basil vinaigrette. These same qualities make heirloom tomatoes good contenders in pickles and chutneys.

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The best time to eat heirloom tomatoes is when they are at their peak during summer. Their flavors are best conserved when the fruits are stored at room temperature. However, as spoilage is quick, cooking the tomatoes into a chutney (with spices, salt and sugar) preserves them. Heirloom tomatoes can now be enjoyed well into fall!

Tomato Chutney

Heirloom tomatoes – 2, chopped

Onion – 1, small, roughly chopped

Ginger – 4-5-inch piece, chopped

Chilies – 7-8, adjust depending on preferred chili heat

Vegetable oil – ½ cup

Salt – 1- 1½ tsp

Sugar – ¼ tsp

  • Process all the ingredients in a food processor or in batches in a blender, until you have a smooth mixture.
  • Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed cast iron pan.
  • Add all the blended ingredients into the pan and stir.
  • Bring the mixture to a boil, and then let the mixture simmer for about 30-40 minutes. The mixture should have boiled down and have a creamy texture. Remove from heat and let the chutney cool.
  • Once cooled, store the chutney in sterilized mason jars in the refrigerator or freeze.

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Tomato chutney, much like pickles, provides the zesty addition to an Indian meal of vegetables and meat served with rice or naan. Tomato chutney can also be used as a spread over cream/goat cheese in a sandwich or used as a dip with sliced, raw vegetables.

 

 

 

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Tackling A Classic: Eggplant Parmesan

I recently bought ready-made eggplant parmesan from a small (and authentic) grocery that stocks fresh pasta made in-store by the Italian owners. The parm was delicious. There is everything to love in the two main ingredients – eggplant and cheese! Unfortunately, my new health app registered the accompanying high number of calories which forced me to attempt a healthier version of the classic.

Eggplants are notorious for absorbing unhealthy amounts of oil, and by baking eggplants, my version cuts out frying the eggplant altogether. Cutting this step also eliminates both the eggs and breadcrumbs that coat the eggplant; these add to the amount of oil absorbed, as well as to the dish’s total calories. All that was left to do was to combine good tomato sauce (thickened with celery, carrots, onions, and garlic), fresh basil, and cheese, and bake. The toasted breadcrumbs that were sprinkled in between layers added crunch, but they are not essential.

Tomato sauce

San Marzano tomatoes (28 oz) can – 2

Tomato paste – 1½ tbsp

Onion – 1 medium, sliced

Carrots – 2, diced

Celery – 1 ½ stalks, chopped

Garlic cloves – 6-8, minced

Olive oil – 1 ½ tbsp

Salt – to taste

Chili pepper flakes – 1½ tsp

Pepper – 1 tsp

  • Heat the oil in a pan.
  • Add onions to the hot oil, and sauté until translucent.
  • Add garlic and stir-fry, until light brown.
  • Add carrots, celery and cook for about five minutes or until softened.
  • Remove the mixture from heat, and mix in the food processor to a grainy texture.
  • Add the mixture back to the pan. Start to heat the pan, adding tomatoes and tomato paste to the mixture. Cook the juice down, mashing up the tomato pieces.
  • Add the salt, pepper, and chili flakes. Adjust the seasonings to taste.
  • Keep 3 cups aside, and boil it down until it is a thick liquid.
  • Freeze the rest of the sauce to use later. I often serve with meatballs, spiralized zucchini “noodles,” and grilled shrimp.

Eggplant

Eggplant – 2 medium sized, peeled and cut lengthwise into ¼-inch strips (10-12 strips in total)

Olive oil – 1 tbsp

  • Heat the oven at 400°F.
  • Place the eggplant slices on aluminum foil and brush lightly with oil.
  • Cook for about 35-40 minutes, turning slices halfway through, until just soft. Keep aside.

For The Assembly Line:

Toasted breadcrumbs or panko – ½ cup

Mozzarella cheese – 12 oz, thinly sliced

Parmesan cheese – 4 oz, freshly grated

Fresh basil leaves – 12-15 leaves

Tomato sauce – see above

Baked eggplant – see above

  • Lightly grease a loaf pan or Pyrex dish.
  • Divide the ingredients in the following order for three layers: sauce, breadcrumbs, overlapping eggplant slices, cheese (parmesan and mozzarella), and basil. Repeat, until you have formed 3 layers.
  • Bake at 350°F for 40 minutes. Set under a broiler for 5 minutes at the end for a crisp topping.
  • Once cooled, the baked eggplant parmesan will be firm. Loosen the slides by sliding a knife along the edges. Flip over on to a serving plate.

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Note: Reduce the tomato sauce, so that there is no excess liquid. Otherwise, your layers will not be firm.

 

Summer Soups: Gazpacho and Cucumber Yogurt Soup

When I know that A. and N. have a busy week ahead, I share with them easy recipes that require little preparation. While checking out the farmer’s market this week, I noticed piles of long, earthy-green cucumbers, and varying shades of red, misshapen heirloom tomatoes – the intensity of colors would add up to flavorful summer soups.

Apart from Sangria, gazpacho, the cold tomato soup, was my favorite of the dishes that I encountered in Spain. I’ve eaten gazpacho before (and not much cared for it), as it had either mushy vegetables or a tart flavor that was all the more startling in a cold soup. However, in Spain, the gazpacho that I had was a smooth soup with hints of green peppers and cucumber and subtle garlic and onion flavor. Bread, traditionally added to bulk up the soup, was present as croutons, served on top for a much lighter garnish. More importantly, the soup had a perfectly balanced finish; the acidic flavors were absent from the deliciously-sweet tomatoes.

Cucumber, the other summer vegetable that is now in abundance, blends well with yogurt (see last week’s blog: Yogurt: Food for Longevity). In Lebanon and Bulgaria the two are combined to make a refreshing soup. Cucumber yogurt soup, like gazpacho, requires no cooking. Both soups should be made ahead as they need to be served chilled; this makes them both great options for a no-fuss summer meal.

Cucumber Yogurt Soup

Cucumber – 2 peeled, deseeded and cut into chunks

Scallion (spring onion) –1 large or 2 small, sliced

Olive oil – 1tbsp

Lemon juice – 1½ tbsp (about ½ a lemon)

Garlic clove – 2, crushed

Plain Yogurt – 2 cups

Salt – to taste

Garnish – Sprig of mint and dill

  • Put all of the ingredients, except the yogurt, into a food processor or blender. Blend until smooth.
  • Add yogurt and mix for about 30 seconds.
  • Store chilled until ready to use.
  • Serve in chilled glasses or fun soup bowls, topped with thin slice of cucumber, dill, and mint.

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Gazpacho

Large Heirloom (or sweet) tomatoes – 3, chopped

Red pepper – 1, deseeded and chopped

Cucumber – 1, peeled and deseeded

Onion – 1, chopped

Garlic – 2

Red wine vinegar – 4-5 tbsp

Sugar – ½ tsp

Salt – to taste

Garnish – croutons, scallion, and cubed cucumber

  • Add the first five ingredients into a food processor. If you want a smooth soup, blend the vegetables in smaller, separate batches.
  • Strain the vegetables through a colander to collect the liquid. Using the back of a large spoon, press the vegetables into the colander to extract and collect as much of the liquid as possible. Add a glass of chilled water to the vegetables and continue to squeeze out as much liquid from the vegetables, until you have just the skin and fibrous tissue left behind.
  • Add the red wine vinegar.
  • Add sugar and salt, and adjust them to balance out any acidity in the tomatoes.
  • Chill overnight.
  • Garnish just before serving.

 

 

 

Pairings – Companions Plants and Companion Foods

When my uncle gave me chili seeds this winter, the gift also came with a piece of advice: Plant the seedlings with tomatoes and basil. Companion planting is a method of fostering a symbiotic relationship between certain plants. These plant groupings support the arrival of the right insects for pollination, while simultaneously discouraging pests, and avoiding competition for the same nutrients in the soil. When I looked for other plants that could be compatible with the chili seedlings, I found brightly colored Venn diagrams and charts that offered different options for small urban gardens and even container pots. My research paid off; my tiny 8×3 ft. vegetable patch is now packed with Swiss chard, tomatoes, basil, and chili pepper seedlings. The cover provided by basil, a low-growing plant, should increase the humidity required for the chili plant to thrive, and its fragrance will repel the pesky tomato hornworm. The big tomato leaves should protect the chili peppers from the sun while the roots of the chili peppers block the growth of certain fungi.

As I was mapping out my patch, I wondered if the adage “what is grown together goes together” was why our family often enjoys juicy sweet tomatoes and freshly-plucked basil together. Pairing this combination with fresh mozzarella and whisked red wine vinaigrette (1 part red wine vinegar to 3 parts olive oil, plus kosher salt and pepper to taste) creates our favorite go-to summer flavor. Another companion plant/companion food combination that I will enjoy this summer is Swiss chard and tomato. I am excited to try them in combination with dried beans and couscous for a new summer salad.

It is not just plants and food that go together. Food and beverage pairings such as Chinese food and black tea or steak and big red wines are universally enjoyed. Tannins found in both tea and red wine are astringent (which is what creates a dry sensation in your mouth), and work well with the fat in meats to accentuate the taste of protein. It is this same astringent taste in beer that has us eating bowls of salted peanuts!

In ayurveda, an ancient Indian holistic practice, certain food pairings are discouraged as they are said to create an imbalance in the body. Eating foods that create opposition in our bodies (such as iced drinks after food) is tamping down the heat created by digestion, thereby slowing the process. Similarly, fruits and cold milk are never combined as milk acts as a laxative while fruits act as a diuretic, resulting in poor digestion. Yet I love my fruit (specifically, mango) shakes!

Do culture, current fashions, or our environment dictate our choices? When in doubt, simply follow the advice of a chef with a passion for local and seasonal ingredients – Alice Waters writes simply in The Art of Simple Food: Notes, lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution: “Let things taste of what they are.”