August 30, 2009

Tomatoes: Sauced & Canned

Oh my poor little blog, I've been neglecting you... But not to fear, I haven't been neglecting my cooking duties, just the blogging!

Last week was tomato project week: making fresh tomato sauce with the 20lb box of local tomatoes I bought, then preserving the sauce by canning it in mason jars. That's right folks, I went totally old-school on this one. It seems like everyone in the foodie/blogging world has taken to this Canvolution and I thought I'd give it a try too.

The first thing I learned was that tomato sauce for that night's dinner versus tomato sauce for canning are two different species. Most recipes for tomato sauce that's intended to be eaten right away usually include carrots and celery. Tomato sauce that's intended for canning is really just tomatoes, onions and dried herbs, nothing more. I mistakenly made tomato sauce with carrots and celery on my first try which, sadly, tasted more like carrots than tomatoes. So I went searching for a different recipe and found one from Bon Appetit (ah, BA, you never fail me) specially formulated for canning.

A word of warning: this project is not for those short on time or patience. Although I'd say even the beginning home cook could successfully complete this project (I did!), the difficulty is that it requires a lot of time and involves multiple steps. Steps, which if you don't follow precisely, could lead to incorrectly canned sauce and the real risk of food poisoning via Botulism. To make it easier on myself, I divided the project up into two days; Day 1: peel, seed and chop tomatoes and prepare all the tools & ingredients you'll need to sterilize the jars and cook the sauce; Day 2: sterilize canning jars, make sauce, can, then process.

Special equipment:
1. Mason jars & lids for canning, which you can purchase here.
2. Very large stock pot in which to sterilize empty jars and process filled jars. Should be large enough so that the jar, sitting up, can be covered with at least 1 inch of water from its lid.
3. This utensil set. The most useful things are the jar lifter and wide-mouth funnel.

For a first time "canner", I found these tips on sterilizing, canning & processing to be very helpful. I had a print out next to me while I made the tomato sauce.

Now, we're almost ready to start cooking. Before we make the sauce though, the tomatoes need to be peeled and seeded (unless you have a food mill). It's a fairly simple process:

How to Peel & Seed Tomatoes
  • Bring pot of water to rolling boil.
  • Meanwhile, make an "X" on bottom of tomatoes.
  • Throw into boiling water, 30 seconds - 1 minute (no more!)
  • Fish out with slotted spoon, dunk into bowl of ice water, 5 seconds, fish out.
  • Peel back skin with fingers. Chop in half, scoop out seeds with small spoon. Chop up remaining flesh for sauce.

I let my peeled, seeded, and chopped tomatoes sit in the refrigerator over night until the next day when I was ready to make the sauce.

It's the next morning and I pull my tomatoes out of the refrigerator. I begin by boiling water to sterilize the mason jars. Remember to follow these tips. While I wait for the water to boil, I start making my sauce.

The recipe below has been adapted from Bon Appetit. I cut everything in half to make a smaller, more manageable batch. It is important to use bottled lemon juice, not fresh squeezed, because the bottled version has a consistant acidity level that is crucial in keeping away the botulism.

Fresh Tomato Sauce
Bon Appetit, October 2008

Makes about three 1-pint jars

6.5 lbs tomatoes, peeled, seeded, coarsely chopped (about 10 cups), divided*
1/2 cup finely chopped onions
1/2 tbsp salt
3/4 tsp dried basil
3/4 tsp dried marjoram
1/2 tsp dried rosemary, crushed slightly
1/4 tsp black pepper
sugar (optional)
3 tbsp bottled lemon juice
  • Combine 2 cups tomatoes and next 6 ingredients in large stockpot or skillet. Stir over medium-high heat until tomatoes begin to release juice, 5 minutes. Bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer until mixture is thickened, stirring frequently, 20 minutes. Add remaining tomatoes. Increase heat to high and bring to rolling boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to medium. Simmer until mixture is reduced to about 6 cups, stirring frequently, 30 minutes. Season with more salt and pepper, and with sugar to taste, if desired.
  • Pour 1 tbsp lemon juice into each of 3 hot clean 1-pint glass canning jars. Spoon sauce into jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Remove air bubbles. Wipe jar threads and rims with clean damp cloth. Cover with hot lids, apply screw bands. Process jars in pot of boiling water 35 minutes. Cool jars completely. Store in cool dark place up to 1 year.
Sterilize jars and lids

Make the sauce

Fill jars with sauce, place lid, tighten screw band, boil to process.

Et voila! The final product.

August 21, 2009

Handmade Apron

Presenting my new handmade apron! I love it! It fits well, looks great and does it's job. I bought it from a seller on (my new addiction!). The site is basically an Ebay for all things handmade or vintage. Anyone can set up shop. They do charge a small listing fee, though. If I was craftsy - which, sadly, I am not - I would totally do this! You could find some really great, unique stuff on there. I spend hours just browsing, and browsing, and browsing...

August 17, 2009

BBQ Chicken Pizza

Making pizza at home is easy! It all starts with the pizza dough, then pile on anything your heart desires. Don't be put off by the barrage of recipes that follow. If you don't want to or don't have time to make toppings from scratch, use store bought items: BBQ sauce, a rotisserie chicken (shred at home), mozzarella cheese, etc. It's also a really good way to use up left over sauces and lunch meats you have sitting in your refrigerator. But I like to make things from scratch at home so here are the recipes I used:

Super Simple Pizza Dough
(one med-sized pizza, about 4 slices)
from SmittenKitchen

1.5 cups bread flour (or all purpose flour)
1 tsp salt
3/4 tsp active dry yeast
0.5 cup lukewarm water, plus 1-2 tbsp more
1 tbsp olive oil
  1. In a large bowl: mix together flour, salt and yeast. Add water and olive oil and stir until all liquid is absorbed and a ball of dough forms. Add 1-2 tbsp more water if dough is too dry to form a ball.
  2. Turn dough out onto well floured work surface. Knead 1-2 minutes until dough is smooth. Lightly oil same bowl used to mix dough, return dough to oiled bowl and turn to coat all sides in oil. Cover with plastic wrap or clean kitchen towel and let dough rise in warm area until doubled in size, 1-2 hours.
  3. Turn dough out onto floured surface. Gently press air out and roll into a ball. Return to bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise another 20 minutes.
  4. Preheat oven to its highest temperature. If using a pizza stone (optional), preheat stone in oven as well. Roll out dough onto well floured surface using floured rolling pin, very thinly for a crispy pizza, and top with whatever. To transfer pizza to stone, use a large plate, slide pizza onto plate then slide pizza from plate onto stone. Could also use a baking sheet (which I did) instead of a stone: sprinkle baking sheet with a little flour (or corn meal if you have it) and roll out dough right onto baking sheet, top with whatever, and pop into oven. Bake until cheese has browned and crust is blistered and crispy, 10-15 minutes.
This recipe can easily be doubled to make two pizzas. Use 2 baking sheets (or stones), placing them in the top and bottom third of the oven. Half way through baking, rotate the pizzas for even baking.

Brown Sugar & Coffee BBQ Sauce
(about 4 cups)
from Bon Appetit magazine, Sept '09

*I didn't have any molasses so substituted maple syrup instead. Still came out well but next time will probably try it with molasses. Also, this makes a lot of sauce so if you plan to make just one pizza, halve the recipe.

2 tbsp olive oil
1 3/4 cup white onions
6 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tbsp minced & seeded jalapeno chile
0.5 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
2 tbsp chili powder
2 tbsp molasses (or maple syrup)
2 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
1 tsp ground cumin
1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup freshly brewed strong coffee or 1 tbsp instant espresso powder dissolved in 1 cup hot water
  1. Heat oil in large saucepan over med-high heat. Add onions, garlic and jalapeno. Saute until onions are tender, 7 minutes. Add brown sugar, chili powder, molasses, cilantro and cumin. Stir until sugar dissolves. Stir in crushed tomatoes, broth and coffee. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until sauce thickens slightly and is reduced to 4 cups, stirring often, about 35 minutes. Season sauce to taste with salt and pepper.
Roasted Chicken Breast
(about 3 cups, shredded)

2-3 split chicken breast, bone in, skin on
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp dried herbs (Italian mix or Herbs de Provence)
salt & pepper
  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Coat chicken in oil and sprinkle liberally with salt & pepper and dried herbs. Roast, skin side up, 35-40 minutes. An instant read thermometer should read 160F when inserted in the middle. Remove from oven and let cool before shredding.
The BBQ sauce and chicken can be made while waiting for the dough to rise. I shredded the chicken and mixed it with a little BBQ sauce. I spread some more sauce onto the rolled out dough, then spread the chicken out on top and topped with mozzarella cheese. Bake the pizza 10-15 minutes then top with arugula and bake another 2 minutes until wilted. For an added kick, sprinkle on some red pepper flakes. YUM!

August 10, 2009

Julie & Julia the Movie

It's not a chick flick. Yes, the two main characters are women, but it's not a chick flick. It's about two people who are at a crossroad in their lives, not really knowing what to do with themselves (hmph, sounds oddly familiar...). In the end, they find salvation and purpose in cooking. It's a movie about the the joys, disappointments, triumphs and deliciousness of cooking and butter....

I couldn't think of an actress better suited to play Julia Child than Meryl Streep. Cheers to her dead-on portrayal of this eccentric but beloved icon of cooking. Amy Adams on the other hand... I couldn't decide whether I didn't like her performance or if I just didn't like the character she played... Nevertheless, its a great movie to see (or rent when it comes out on DVD). Hysterically funny at times, continually inspiring.

The movie keeps fairly true to the two true stories it's based on. The Julia Child story comes straight out of her autobiography, My Life In France. The book centers around the years she lived in France and chronicles the trials of learning how to cook at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, the production of her seminal cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and how she went on to become an iconic t.v. personality. The Julie Powell story is based on her actual blog, The Julie/Julia Project. She doesn't blog anymore but her site is still up and running for those who are curious. A bit of warning though, it's pretty "primitive" so reading old entries requires backtracking using the calendar option... She's also got a book floating out there somewhere (basically her blog in book format).

Makes me want to cook my own way through Julie Child's cookbook... OK, maybe not everything in the book, and maybe not in one year, but eventually - there's a lot to be learned from that lady. I will definitely pick up a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (gasp! I don't already have it? I know...) and pretend to know what I'm doing. Bone a duck, anyone?

See the trailer here.


August 7, 2009

Blueberry Lemon Cheesecake Rectangles

I've never made a cheesecake before. And I was definitely a little intimidated, especially since the realm of dessert usually requires precision and exactness - none of that "eye-balling" and "season to taste" stuff. But it couldn't be that difficult, could it...?

After making these blueberry lemon cheesecake rectangles, my opinion is that cheesecake ain't so difficult after all! Well, as long as you don't really care what they look like. Taste was the number one concern here.

The original recipe called for a 9x9 inch square pan, which I didn't have. But I did have a 8x11 inch rectangular baker. Same square "inch-age", so why not? Worked out perfectly, actually. And, of course, after reading the reviews I tweaked it a bit: added 2 tbsp butter to the crust and subtracted one lemon. After baking for 12 minutes, the crust wasn't quite done so I popped it back in the oven for a few more minutes. Didn't dust my cheesecake with powdered sugar.

The smell of the graham cracker crust baking was ridiculous! I was very tempted to just gobble up the crust without making the rest of the cheesecake. I didn't, thank goodness. The blueberries were baked just enough that they softened into the filling, but didn't completely disintegrate and still gave a little pop! when bitten into. Next time I might make a blueberry puree and swirl it into the cream instead of using whole berries, especially if I use my frozen berries. And now, the recipe:

Blueberry Lemon Cheesecake Rectangles (or Squares or Whatever)
(at least 8 servings)

6 tbsp butter, melted. Plus more for greasing the pan (un-melted)
9 graham crackers
2 tbsp sugar
1/8 tsp ground cinnamon

16 oz cream cheese, room tempearture
2 eggs
1 lemon, zested and juiced
0.5 cup sugar
1.5 cups fresh blueberries

To make the crust:
  • Preheat oven to 325F.
  • Grease bottom and sides of baking pan, 8x11 or 9x9, with the extra butter. Line with parchment paper, leaving some overhang so you can easily pull the cheesecake out later.
  • In a food processor, process the graham crackers, sugar and cinnamon until finely ground. Slowly add the melted butter and pulse until fully incorporated, should be moist but still loose. Dump into prepared baking pan.
  • Using clean fingers, press and compact the crust into the pan, working from the middle outwards until you have a solid base and sides that are 0.5-1 inch high.
  • Bake 15 minutes. Remove and let cool completely before pouring in the filling. Remember to turn off your oven while the crust cools!

To make the filling:
  • Preheat oven to 325F.
  • In a food processor, blend cream cheese, eggs, lemon zest, lemon juice and sugar until smooth. (At this point, if the crust is not cool enough to fill, cover filling with plastic wrap and leave in refrigerator until ready to use).
  • Pour filling into cooled crust and cover with blueberries. Berries will sink slightly.
  • Bake for 35 minutes @ 325F. Center will still be jiggly when removed from oven. Let cool completely on counter. Refrigerate at least 3 hours or until well chilled.
  • Using the parchment paper overhang, gently lift cheesecake out of pan and slice into desired sizes.
Happy baking!

August 6, 2009

Father's Office Burger, Imitation

After watching a marathon of Man vs. Food I was dying for a greasy burger. In-n-Out would have done the trick, but sadly, there are none anywhere near me :( McDonald's is right across the street (talk about temptation knocking at your door) and a Big Mac might have quelled my appetite but definitely would not have satisfied my taste buds. Plus, I would have just felt really gross, not to mention guilty, afterward. So what is a girl to do?

Make your own burger!

Now, what kind of burger to make? When I think of the perfect burger, only one comes to mind: the Father's Office burger. Oh baby... juicy, sweet, salty, deliciousness... taste bud heaven.

I won't even pretend that my burger comes anywhere close to the greatness that is the F.O. burger, but it did make me happy and was completely worth all the effort I put into it. And if you don't feel like spending $$ on a burger, try making these at home for you and some friends - you'll save money and be completely satisfied.

I did a lot of research, going through dozens of foodie blogs and recipe sites. In the end, I didn't find any one perfect recipe but this is what I learned about burger meat:
  1. DO NOT use preformed patties or ground beef. Preformed patties are made from poor quality ground meat that is compressed into a round shape, making them dense and chewy. Instead, buy quality beef chuck or brisket and grind at home in a food processor (or ask your butcher to grind it for you).
  2. Fat makes a difference. Ideally, you want an 80/20 ratio, meaning your meat is 80% fat free. Anything more and the beef will turn out dry and lose a lot of its flavor. If you're not being health conscious, try a 70/30 ratio for an even juicier and more flavorful burger.
  3. Be gentle! When forming the patties, don't squish all the air and water out of them. Instead, gently roll the meat in between the palms of your hand and lightly pat into a patty shape, about 1/2 inch thick. When cooking, resist the urge to squish the patties down with a spatula.
  4. Get chilly. If you've formed your patties correctly, you'll have a loose, fluffy patty of delicious beef. To help the patties hold together while they cook, chill them in the freezer first for 20 minutes.
  5. Get hot. To get that crispy char on the outside of your burger, cook over a very, very hot outdoor grill or cast-iron skillet if making these indoors.
Now that we've got the patties down, the next issue is toppings. F.O. tops their patties with a hearty dollop of salty sweet caramelized onions and melty gorgonzola cheese (or is it gruyere?). The onions take some time to cook down but can be made while the patties are chilling in the freezer. For the cheese, I used blue cheese but any strong flavored cheese, like gruyere or gorgonzola, will do. The best way to melt the cheese if you're cooking on a grill is to cook one side of the burger, flip it over, top with cheese, then close the lid while the other side of the burger cooks. If cooking indoors, do the same thing but tent the skillet with foil if you don't have a lid. If you decide to top with a tomato slice, use only very ripe tomatoes so the burger isn't watered down. For the final touch, I topped the burger off with a handful of crunchy, peppery arugula.

For the bun, I tried my hand at these Light Brioche Burger Buns. They were a little denser than I thought they'd be but were still very delicious and were strong enough to hold the burger together. I didn't think to measure the buns for size so they turned out a lot bigger than my burger patties. Next time, I'll just make smaller buns.

So what are you waiting for? Get cooking! Have one final cookout before the summer ends!

Beef Burger Patties
(makes 4 patties, 1/4 lb each)

2 lbs chuck or brisket
3 tbsp olive oil, plus more for grill
0.5 cup finely chopped onions (optional)
salt and pepper
  1. Place meat, olive oil and onions (optional) in food processor and pulse break down the meat and ingredients and just blended. Don't over work the meat.
  2. Divide the meat in half, and the halves in half to make 4 patties. Gently roll the meat in between the palms of your hand then lightly pat into a patty 1/2 - 3/4 inch thick. Don't squish.
  3. Cover with plastic wrap and chill in freezer 20 minutes before cooking (put don't let freeze). If not cooking immediately, chill in fridge instead and pull out when ready to cook.
  4. Prepare grill or heat cast iron skillet to high. Brush the patties with olive oil then season liberally with salt and pepper on both sides. For med-rare, cook 3 minutes on one side. Flip. Top with cheese, cover, and cook another 3 minutes.
  5. Slide onto bun, top with caramelized onions, tomato and arugula. Serve immediately.

Caramelized Onions
from Barefoot Contessa

2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp unsalted butter
2 large yellow onions, peeled, sliced in half rounds
1/4 tsp dried thyme
2 tbsp sherry wine vinegar (or white vinegar)
1 tsp salt
0.5 tsp black pepper
  1. Heat olive oil and butter in large pan. Add onions and thyme, toss to coat. Cover and cook over med-low heat, 10 minutes, stirring occassionally.
  2. Remove lid and continue to cook another 25-30 minutes until golden brown. If onions are cooking too fast, lower the heat.
  3. Add vinegar, salt and pepper and cook another 2 minutes, scraping up brown bits from pan.
Read more about The Perfect Burger and All Its Parts, an article from the New York Times.

August 5, 2009

Blueberry Muffins

First thing I made with the blueberries? Muffins! Yum :)

Recipe that follows is slightly adapted from Ina Garten's recipe for blueberry muffins. After reading some of the reviews, I took their advice and added an extra half cup of blueberries. Too many! The problem with adding more berries is that when they cook in the oven, they don't hold their shape but disintegrate into the batter. This makes the muffins deliciously gooey but too many berries clustered together makes a gigantically gooey mess!

Next time I make these, I'll stick to the recommended 2 cups of blueberries. I would also add some kind of citrus, like lemon zest or a splash of orange juice to give it a little more pop. Anyway, this is a good basic batter you could use to make other kinds of muffins, just sub the blueberries with whatever else you want. Let me know if you come up with some interesting combinations :)

Blueberry Muffins
(makes about 24 cupcake sized muffins)

1.5 sticks unsalted butter at room temperature
1.5 cups sugar

3 extra large eggs at room temperature

1.5 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 cup plain vanilla yogurt (or sub with sour cream)
1/4 cup milk

2.5 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt

2 cups fresh blueberries, rinsed and dried

  • Using a hand mixer, cream butter and sugar together in a large bowl until light and fluffy, and sugar has mostly dissolved into the butter. 5 minutes.
  • Add one egg at a time to the butter mix, and whip until each one is fully incorporated before adding the next. Then work in the vanilla, yogurt and milk.
  • In a separate bowl, mix together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add to cream mixture in thirds, mixing until the flour is just absorbed before adding the next third. Don't over beat the batter or it'll become tough and doughy.
  • Gently fold in blueberries with a spatula. Scrape bottom of bowl to make sure all the flour is completely incorporated.
  • Preheat oven to 350F. Line a 12 well muffin/cupcake pan with paper liners.
  • Scoop batter into lined pan, filling just to the top. Bake in preheated oven for 25-30 minutes until lightly browned on top. To test if muffins are done, stick a toothpick into the center. If it comes out clean, it's done!
  • Let cool in pan until cool enough to handle. Remove from pan and let cool completely.
Tips: 1) To keep blueberries from sinking to the bottoms of the muffins, lightly coat them in flour before adding to the batter. 2) You may also want to lightly grease the rims of each cupcake well (if not using a non-stick pan) to prevent the tops from sticking when they bake over.

Jason took a dozen to work to share with his office mates. The other dozen are still in the refrigerator. I eat them with my morning coffee or whenever I need a snack. They could probably also be frozen for later use, then thawed and reheated in the microwave - although I've never tried this but am very curious to see if it works. Let me know how they turn out if you decide to freeze!

Happy baking :)

August 3, 2009

Blueberries, Blueberries and More Blueberries!

Over the weekend we headed out to Virginia Beach in search of a little blueberry farm advertised as "you-pick". And, boy, did we pick our little hearts out!

Pungo Farm actually sells all kinds of produce, not just blueberries. But the "you-pick" season around here for blueberries and thornless blackberries only lasts between July and August. More and more farmers are converting patches of their farm land into you-pick patches. Pick everything from strawberries to peaches and pecans. This way, the farmers save on paying laborers to pick the berries and they're selling their product at the same time: you come, you pick, you pay. It's cost and effort efficient and also makes for a delightful, wholesome weekend outing. :)

The humidity was high that day, but thank goodness for the overcast skies. We spent about an hour and a half at the patch and came home with 8lbs of blueberries! At $1.79/lb + tax (less than $15 for 8 lbs), it was a steal! Supermarkets usually sell a pint (3/4 lb) of blueberries for $3.50! I know 8 lbs sounds like a lot of blueberries (and oh boy it is!) but they're so incredibly delicious, ridiculously healthy and extremely versatile that I wouldn't mind having buckets of it laying around.

To find a "you-pick" farm near you, check out Don't you love it when a web address says it all?

Tips for picking your own produce:
  • Call ahead to make sure it's prime picking season and inquire about operating hours, pricing and payment options. Don't be afraid to call around to find the best price/lb deal.
  • Wear bug spray, sunblock, sunglasses, floppy hat. There are lots of bugs and its hot out! Also, beware of large spiders that spin their web in between branches!
  • Bring picking buckets! Some farms provide containers but others do not. You'll also need something to transport all the goodies home (i.e. cooler)
  • Get down, deep and dirty! The best, juiciest and fattest blueberries were deep in the center of the bushes. Most people just pick from the outer branches so the berries deep in the center a left alone to fatten and ripen. Make the most of your trip by getting down and dirty in search of the best berries!
Now I'm faced with the yummy dilemma of disposing of all those blueberries. So far I've frozen 2 pints for later use and made blueberry muffins (technique and recipe to follow in a later post). Other projects I have in mind are: blueberry lemonade, blueberry lemon cheesecake squares and blueberry jam. Any other suggestions or unique recipe idea? Sharing with neighbors is a good option too but let's leave it as a last resort for now... I'm protective of my blueberries :)