Sunday, September 23, 2007

Green Tomato

I was able to pluck a handful of fully ripe tomatoes earlier this summer. But most of my crop looks like like this: big, beautiful, and green. Today is the fall equinox; there is no hope of them turning red.

What to do with a bumper crop of green tomatoes? A friend recommended I fry them up and write a book about it. Very funny. Instead, I searched the internet for green tomato pie recipes. I expected recipes to be savory pies, but the ones I found are all sweet. The base recipe I used was Emeril Lagasse's Old Fashioned Sweet Green Tomato Pie with Sweet Pie Crust (no, I didn't say BAM!). It calls for cinnamon and white pepper for the spices, and I added fresh grated ginger. Since this was my first double-crusted pie, I diligently followed the instructions for the pastry. But the crust wasn't forming as it should, so I used Betty Crocker Cookbook's Buttermilk Pie Crust for the rest of the method.

I had to wait an hour for it to cool and give the real test--my husband, Eldon who hates pie, hates cooked fruit, and graduated top of his Baking and Pastry class from the Culinary Institute of America.

"Do you want to try a little pie?"
"Pie?! I hate pie, but I'll try one bite."
"Not bad for cooked fruit and pie."
He had a couple more bites which doesn't happen ever. Then he launched into discussing the quality of the crust, asking if the water I used was cold enough. Eldon concluded it was good for my first pie.

I took half the pie to some friends to see how they liked it. They too thought it would be savory, but were pleasantly surprised by tart and sweet taste.

I should have tasted a green tomato before making my pie, but an unripe-orange-not-yet-red tomato is such a disappointment. A completely green one must be worse, right? My curiosity got the better of me. I went out to the garden and took a bite out a 'Pantano Romanesco.' The consistency is similar to apple,* but with typical tomato seeds, and they are tart like a 'Pippin' apple. Of course they're the perfect candidate for a pie with lots of sugar, butter, spices and a little lemon juice.

I still have several pounds of green tomatoes gracing my garden. Time to try some more recipes. Middle Eastern countries use green tomatoes for saute and pickling. I may even try frying a few one of these autumnal evenings.

*Tomatoes were labeled as an aphrodisiac and called "love apples" or "pomme d'amour" by the French as part of a marketing campaign. This helped the tomato gain popularity throughout Europe. Some types are heart shaped which is more apparent when they're cut in half.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Basil and Tomato

Seattle is finally getting a little bit of summer back after a gloomy August. We're into our second week of September and it's in the 70s; not a cloud in the sky.

I grew 'Dark Opal' the last two summers at work, and although the deep purple leaves are striking, it tends to be leggy. I gave 'Red Rubin' a try this summer (seed found online at Cook's Garden). Given the name, the deep purple is more red than 'Dark Opal'. Its flavor is not as pungent as other purple basils and won't overpower your dishes. If the plants start to flower, you can pinch them back and the plant retains the typical basil flavor. Some basils are too harsh on your palate if allowed to flower even if they are pinched off.

The basil was fertilized to encourage growth in the spring and haven't been fertilized since. They're planted in quick-draining soil and are watered at the first signs of wilting. My garden is slug-and-snail city yet so far they have not touched them. To harvest, I pinch back to where I see new leaves emerging, but not too low. I want the plant to keep pushing new leaves for me!

Warmer weather the last couple of weeks have helped ripen my 'Pantano Romanesco' tomatoes. We had a good rain last week and the tomatoes had just a slight split where they hung on the vine. I only water my tomatoes if they are wilting for more than a day. This summer we have had regular rain, and only a few weeks here and there when we had temperatures over 80 for several days in a row. A little stress increases their flavor. Too much stress makes them mealy, and too much water makes the fruit more watery and causes them to split.

Tuna pasta is a regular dish in our home since it's so easy to make. I usually have canned tuna and pasta in the pantry, and once the pasta is ready, dinner (or lunch) is served. In the winter, I use parsley, garlic, shallots, and sliced black olives mixed into the pasta with a couple tablespoons of olive oil. But when I have fresh vine-ripened tomatoes from my garden and purple basil at hand, I can make a great summertime lunch. Here's the recipe:

3 large tomatoes diced (preferably heirloom, or 1.5 cups of grape tomatoes halved)
3 tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic chopped
2 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp fresh ground pepper
chopped basil (about 5 sprigs' worth of leaves)
2 cans of tuna drained
1 lb pasta cooked

While your pasta is cooking, mix everything except the tuna in a large bowl. While the tomatoes are marinating and the pasta is cooking, flake the tuna into a separate bowl; then mix in 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil with the tuna. If you have tuna packed in olive oil, you can skip this part. You may want to save the oil drained from the tuna for mixing with the pasta at the end. Drain the pasta and add it to the marinated tomatoes, add the tuna and mix thoroughly. Garnish with basil flowers if you wish. Mangia! Mangia!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007


French tarragon, Artemisia dracunculus 'Sativa', is related to absinthe, Artemisia absinthium, and both are considered wormwoods. The straight species originated in SE Russia and is unpleasantly pungent compared to the culinary cultivar. It's possible Arabs introduced it to Europe in the late 1600s, using it for its medicinal properties. Tarragon has numbing effects thus used to treat snakebites and its roots are gnarled which may be why Europeans considered it to be an herb of the dragons.

Tarragon is a subtle plant. Its leaves are similar to lavender in shape, but a truer green. A pinch of its leaves reveals a scent similar to fennel bulb. Like most herbs, it likes quick draining soil and full sun. Seed-grown tarragon is not for cooking, but the not-so-tasty straight species. French tarragon is propagated by stem or root cuttings.

A bird's eye view of Artemisia dracunculus 'Sativa'.

Now for the recipes! Eldon and I loved the simple salad dressing at the Crepe Bistro when we were attending UC Davis. We claimed it was practically drinkable! He was able to figure out a close version. I don't have exact measurements. I leave it up to you to create the balance of ingredients that you like best. Be frugal with the vinegar and Dijon mustard as a little goes a long way.

French-style dressing:

Champagne vinegar--a good red wine vinegar is a fine substitute
1 clove garlic chopped
Dijon mustard (the easiest to find is Maille)
Fresh ground pepper
Chopped tarragon (~1/2 tsp--add more to taste)
Quality extra virgin olive oil

Combine all the ingredients except the olive oil in a small bowl. Taste and adjust ingredients if needed. Slowly add olive oil in a continuous stream while whisking, creating an emulsion. The amount you add will depend on the amount of ingredients you started with. Taste and add more oil if needed, or if there is too much oil, add more mustard and/or vinegar. Drizzle dressing over butter lettuce or your favorite salad mix.

A favorite summer meal is poached ling cod using white wine, salt and a few sprigs of tarragon. While the fish is poaching, I prepare a soft boiled egg and combine that with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and chopped tarragon. Once the fish is ready, I remove it from the poaching liquid and place on a large plate. The egg mixture is poured over the fish and chilled for an hour. I will either serve it with water crackers or ficelle (skinnier than baguette). It's a light-tasting dish that is perfect on a warm summer day or evening.

Potato salad can be hum-drum and overly mayonnaisey. Try this the next time you have to make it for the company picnic. Prepare small red potatoes as you would for any potato salad. Instead of mayonnaise from the jar, make your own combining 2 egg yolks, a few tablespoons champagne vinegar (or white wine vinegar), 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard, salt and fresh ground pepper to taste, and 1-2 teaspoon lemon juice. Add olive oil to your liking in a steady stream while whisking to create an emulsion. Once you have your homemade mayonnaise, add it to the bowl of cooled, quartered potatoes, add a small shallot (peeled and minced), a few tablespoons of fresh tarragon, and salt and pepper to taste.

Give an old salad recipe or your pickling cucumbers some French flair by adding a little tarragon. Bon apetit!

Tuesday, September 4, 2007


Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) is known for its edible leaves whereas its relative the globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus) is famous for its edible flowers. I thought it would be perfect to make a dish using the unusual cardoon leaves, and even better timing since my parents would be in town to share the culinary adventure with Eldon and me.

I did a little research how best to prepare the cardoon. Looking at the 4-foot long leaves my plants possess, plus the abundance of hairs and spines--I wasn't about to just cut off some leaves and saute them like Swiss chard. And I didn't have a pan big enough for one leaf.

I came across many recipes for "bagna cauda"--literally "hot bath"--a sort of Italian fondue typically made with olive oil, butter, garlic and sometimes cream. The recipes called for "stalks." Did they mean leaf of flower stalks?

Then I saw a picture of their cardoon. It looked like a feathery bunch of celery. By the size of these leaves, my guess is they were harvested at the end of spring.
Have you seen my cardoon?

Since mid-summer, my cardoon has been towering over my garden with purple artichoke-like flowers. The stalks are at least 8 feet tall; adding great structure to the garden. These plants were started from seed two years ago and have flowered both years. They completely died back in the winter, survived a weeks' worth of snow, and sprouted again this spring. My garden is warmer in general, except for the middle of winter when we have 8 hours of daylight. This may be why the cardoon, a Mediterranean native, comes back every year. I don't fertilize them and the soil is quick draining.

This time, I'm too late in my harvest. I plan on next year to start another round of cardoon later in the season and make "bagna cauda" for the first fall rain. I'd love to try any recipes you send my way.