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If any week is screaming for comfort food, it is this one.  In my life, I am facing a grading deadline (I teach high school science when I’m not cooking), parent conferences crammed into any and every spare hour, and a nail-biter of an election.  Yes, the presidential election has my nerves on end, but honestly the biggest concern on my mind is California’s Proposition 30.

As an educator and parent of children in public schools, I know first hand the drastic cuts that California schools have made over the last five years.  The passage of Proposition 30 does not make things much better, but it prevents further cuts to the already ravaged district budgets.  The other day, a few students approached me about the upcoming elections.  They had engaged in spirited mock democracy in their history classes, their faces aglow with hope and pride in our civic opportunities.  We discussed that our district, backed against the wall, may be forced to end the school year three weeks early (among other extreme measures) if Prop 30 does not pass.   No, these kids did not dance and dream at the thought of a longer vacation, they went gray with the realization they may not be able to finish the year.  They want to attend school.  They know they engage in valuable learning and skill-building at school and that 15 days out of each of their classes puts them at a huge disadvantage.  Every district in California is facing some similar extreme measure.   This is the heartbreak of the school funding crisis.  Yes, economies and tax codes are complex, but when funding is denied to schools, it is the students who lose every time.  School children cannot vote.  It is our responsibility to represent their interests!  So Tuesday, get out to vote.  And if you can read this, thank your parents’ generation who approved taxes to fund the public schools that gave you and your peers the opportunity to learn.

Saucy Sausage and Eggplant over Polenta is a simple, comforting dish with fresh, rich flavors from the Roasted Tomato Sauce with Fennel.  Having a batch of the sauce in the freezer makes this dinner come together in no time.  You could certainly make this dish with your own favorite marinara sauce.  To save time, cook the polenta slow on the stove top, while you put together the sausage and eggplant.  Then sit back, pour a glass of wine, and wait for the election results to roll in…

Please share this post with other voters and lovers of comfort food!

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It is clean up time in the garden.  The last of the tomatoes and peppers are ripening on the vine.  We have cleared almost all of our summer crops in favor of space for fall garlic and broccoli and kale.  We left the tomato and pepper plants in hopes that a few more fruits would ripen during this week’s heat wave.

We have been on a serious salsa bender this summer, chopping most of the best tomatoes into a simple lime-laced habañero-powered accompaniment to everything from grilled fish to scrambled eggs.  Our smallest tomatoes are now chilling in the freezer having been transformed into Savory Oven Dried Tomatoes .  Today though,  emboldened by a bulb of fennel gleaned from a surprise source, I squirreled away enough tomatoes to make this delicious basic tomato sauce.

Basic is perhaps not the right word to describe Roasted Tomato Sauce with Fennel, because it suggests that the results may be a bit boring.  Quite to the contrary, this sauce absolutely sings of late summer with intense flavors of tomato and a slight sweetness lent by the roasted fennel.  I make as much of this sauce as I can, multiplying as necessary, and then freeze it in 2 cup portions that are ready to serve with the mood strikes.  Besides the intense and pure fall flavor, I also love this recipe because it calls to cook the sauce in the oven which frees up my time (and stove top) to take on other tasks such as making fig jam, cheering for the Giants, and supervising my children’s creation of a zillion maple leaf imprints. Read the rest of this entry »

Fresh Tomato Basil Soup

September 16, 2012

 

Though I was not particularly fond of tomatoes in my youth, tomato soup none-the-less was a favorite.   Tomato soup, the condensed variety-from the can, was the required side dish, along with crusty sourdough French bread, to our Dungeness Crab dinners every winter.  I loved the tangy creaminess of the soup topped with loads of cracked black pepper.  As the years progressed and I grew to have a garden that graces us with loads of tomatoes each late summer, I began to make my own soup- still seeking delightful tang and creaminess, but with fresh notes as well.

Fresh Tomato Basil Soup does not taste like the soup of my youth.  Do not try to pass it off on a die-hard canned soup fan.  Instead it highlights the intense flavor and aroma of summer tomatoes and fresh basil. Cook the tomatoes down and puree smooth.  The creaminess comes from a bit of Greek yogurt swirled in at the end, making this soup deceptively light despite its luxurious mouth feel.  My daughter, who is a bit of a tomato-phobe, paused while eagerly loading this soup into her mouth to say,”MOM, this soup is YUM!”  We are still working on proper grammar, but you get the point.

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There are certain foods I count on to take me through the dreary winter months.  Summer tomatoes are without a doubt on the top of that list.  We are not fantastic tomato growers, but each year I scan the plant sales and farmers’ markets for ten or so tomato plants to sink into our backyard garden.  At least one of those plants must be a Principe Borghese.  This heirloom tomato is a bit larger than a grape tomato and bred to be dried,  If you cannot find that variety, any Roma type or smaller tomato will do. While I have sliced and tossed these beauties into my dehydrator, I much prefer to dry them in the oven.

Savory Oven Dried Tomatoes are unlike the brittle sun-dried tomatoes found in stores.  They are dehydrated only to the point that their juices intensify and the flesh develops a slight chewiness.   Because they still have some moisture to them, they are not shelf stable and must be kept in the refrigerator or freezer. Dry a few baking sheets worth and enjoy them through the winter.  These oven dried tomatoes taste great in any number of dishes.  Toss them on pizzas or into a simple pasta dish, lay them  in frittatas, or on a simple Oven Dried Tomato and Goat Cheese Tart.

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Chunky Garden Salsa

September 27, 2011

This has been our best tomato year ever.  Quite a shocker given the cool summer, but in our tiny garden we have a bona fide bounty of tomatoes this year.  They spill from their bowls, piling up in every free space the kitchen counters can afford.  These tomatoes have been taunting me.  After a wait that tested every ounce of my patience, they began coming in heavy just at the time the other parts of my life asserted their own demands.  The kids, the family gatherings, and oh, my job that actually pays  the bills, all take their cut of my precious time before I get to the  satisfying job of canning.  But this weekend was made for me and the tomatoes.

Starting early in the morning, I prepared a “ketchup” that we all agreed is delicious, but not ketchup.  Luckily, instead of an outright rejection, my son suggested we rename it and came up with “Rojo Sauce”.  Perfect.  Another lug of tomatoes went into a basic tomato sauce, and the last load into Chunky Garden Salsa.

To be honest, I have not had great success with canned salsas in the past.  Each recipe I used seemed have one of two problems: the salsa was too watery and/ or the specified canned lemon juice gave the entire batch a foul artificial taste.  This recipe takes care of each of those issues and demonstrates some serious tasty flavors.  Instead of simply peeling the tomatoes, I grilled them to lend a bit of a charred flavor.  After skinning and removing the core, the tomatoes drain in a colander which removes most of the excess water and allows the salsa to easily thicken up on the stove.  In place of lemon juice, the recipe called for half white vinegar and half lime juice.  This gives it a perfect acidity and delicious flavor from the lime.  My only complaint is that I only ended up with five pints.  These are sure to go fast around our salsa-loving house.

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Our country is awash with cheap fast food options.  As companies increasingly market these inexpensive, yet low quality foods to us in the drive-through and the supermarket the questions arise: Are fast food and prepared foods the only option for families on a budget?  Can nutritious and delicious foods also be economical?  For our family, we make almost all of our food from scratch, yet still adhere to a strict food budget.  Absolutely, YES, nutritious and delicious foods can be economical!  September 17, 2011, Slow Food USA is hosting a $5 Challenge.  They seek to counter-act the myth that slow food has to cost more than fast food.  The challenge calls upon us to serve a meal to our friends and/or family for less than $5 per person.

Truly, $5 per person is quite generous.  At this cost, a meal can be more than just a way to feed our hunger, it can be special.  Back in May, my Sausage and Kale Dinner Tart won Best Dirt Cheap Dinner on a food52 contest. This tart, though inexpensive to prepare, is suitable to serve for a dinner party.  For $5 per person, you can afford the tart, a salad, and a bottle of wine!  Most of the meals I serve my family come in at about half that price- closer to $10 for our family of 4.  In fact, the more of the preparation I take on myself, the lower the cost.  The base ingredients for bread, sausage, and soups are very low.  We also have a productive garden which helps to cut the costs of our produce.  Preserving the bounty of the seasons is a great way to ensure low cost, high quality food throughout the year.

Cannellini Beans with Tomatoes and Greens is a perfect late summer stew.  It is for those days when tomatoes are still abundant, but the air slightly hints of fall.  The flavors are rich without being too bold and the light color of the beans makes the dish seem light enough for even a hot night.  It is a perfect example of a delicious meal that does not cost much nor take exorbitant amounts of time to prepare.  In fact, the total cost of this meal is less than $10 total, or even less if you have garden tomatoes and cook with dried beans instead of canned ones.  This meal came together on a Thursday night, when the cupboard was nearly bare and the young natives of the household were restless and hungry.   Taking stock of the pantry, I found two cans of cannellini beans.  Heading out to the garden, I collected a pile of tomatoes and a handful of basil.  These humble ingredients cooked up with a small amount of sausage for flavor and protein made for a tasty dish.  The little man gave his seal of approval stating that it was “very, very good.” For an extra treat, bake up a loaf of Weeknight No-Knead Bread to serve on the side.   Nutritious, delicious, homemade food does not have to be expensive.

What will you make for the September 17th, $5 Slow Food Challenge?

Other My Pantry Shelf meals for under $5 per person:

Soups and Chili

Big Beef Chili, Chicken Tortilla Soup, Mexican Pozole Rojo, Split Pea Soup with Ham and Beer Bread, Vietnamese Hue Noodle Soup

Pasta, Pizza, and Tarts

Perciatelli and Meatballs, Green and Brown Spaghetti with Basil Pesto, Roasted Asparagus Pizza, Sausage and Kale Dinner Tart

Poultry and Meat Dishes

Chicken Satay, Biscuit-topped Chicken Pot Pie, Corned Beef, Divine Indian Butter Chicken, Fresh Ground Bacon Burgers with Homemade Bun, Huevos Diablos con Chorizo, Lamb Kebabs with Greek Salad, Roasted Garlic Lemon Chicken, Sesame Ginger Meatballs, Southwestern Chicken Burger, Swedish Meatballs (Kottbullar), Thai Lettuce Wraps, World’s Easiest Carnitas with Grilled Tomatillo Salsa

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Chipotle Salsa

March 2, 2011

Abandoned on a desert island with just one food to eat for the rest of my life, salsa would be my number one pick, hands down.  I am a salsa fanatic.  In the spring, I choose which tomato plants to grow in my garden with salsa in mind.  Through the summer months, our refrigerator is filled with various forms of salsa: pico de gallo, roasted tomato salsa, green tomatillo salsa, peach salsa, you name it.  In the winter, I make salsa with canned tomatoes freshened up with fresh cilantro and lime.  There is almost no dish that cannot be improved by some sort of salsa.

Frustration over the mediocre quality of most commercial jarred salsas and the exorbitant cost of most commercial fresh salsa inspired the creation of Chipotle Salsa.  It is really easy and inexpensive to create great tasting salsa with basic pantry items. This recipe uses canned tomatoes, chipotle chiles, garlic, onion, cilantro, and lime.  Blend the ingredients until they are somewhat uniform, but still slightly chunky.  Serve the salsa over eggs, with tacos or quesadillas, pour it over chicken and bake, or eat it with chips.  There are unlimited uses for this salsa.

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