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Back-to-School Freezer Fillers 1: Basil Pesto

29 Aug

My darling son starts kindergarten this week. Yikes!

And I go back to the classroom to teach next week. Double Yikes!

Drying blanched basil

I look upon school food with deep suspicion; I haven’t spent the last five years nurturing a good and healthy eater only to surrender him to the deep fryer as well as the public education system. And for myself, I refuse to waste $10 a day or more eating lunch out when I can eat better for less in the comfort of my office, listening to Pandora and checking my emails. Continue reading


Everything Must Go! How to make a mad-mixed pasta sauce to eat now/freeze for later)

22 Aug

We are drowning in abundance. It happens every August if you garden or belong to a CSA; there are so many tomatoes, so many peppers, so much zucchini….it all gets lost in the fridge faster than you can cook it!

So, with pick-up coming the next day and a fridge full of last week’s haul getting ugly, I took as much as I could and cooked it down into sauce – some for now and some for the freezer, in small containers that will make a fast meal when school starts and dinner needs to be now and lunch needs to be ready the night before. I have freezer-packing panic!

Blanche! (Tennessee Williams moment)

Here is an Everything Must Get Used Before Our Next Pick-Up tomato sauce recipe. I used SunGolds, cherries, paste tomatoes, slicers, heirlooms, anything that had been sitting all week getting sad.

How-to for blanching tomatoes follows the recipe….

Everything Must Go Pasta Sauce

3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil

1 Cup onion, chopped

6 cloves garlic, chopped

1 red bell pepper, chopped

2 green peppers, chopped

3 carrots, chopped

3 stalks celery, chopped

(Optional bits and bobs: half a zucchini, a bit of eggplant – bung in anything that will cook down soft and not mess up the overall color too much — chopped small).

6 lbs tomatoes (paste tomatoes preferred, but I used an incredible mix), cored, blanched and peeled*

1 Tbs dried oregano and thyme (2 Tbs if using fresh)

¼ Cup red wine

½ tsp salt (or to taste)

Heat olive oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot at medium high until liquid and fragrant. Lower heat to medium and add the following vegetables one at a time, stirring to coat before adding the next: onions, garlic, peppers, carrots, celery. Cook at medium (or lower if you have time) until vegetables are soft and translucent, at least five minutes. Add tomatoes and bring to a boil. Add herbs and wine and lower to a lively simmer. Cook down for at least 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. The more you cook it, the smoother it will get, but also the more dense. Add water 1/4 Cup at a time as desired.

(Optional step: Using an immersion blender, liquefy the sauce to desired smoothness)

Correct seasoning and serve over pasta/freeze for later! Will keep three months in the freezer.

To blanch, keep reading!

A pile of peels

*To blanch and peel tomatoes: Bring two quarts of water to a boil. Meanwhile, core the tomatoes (take out the stem and white core with a paring knife) and prepare a large bowl of ice water. When the water boils, drop tomatoes in. In two minutes (or less) you will see the skin begin to peel back or split. Remove each tomato as this happens and drop in ice water. When tomatoes have cooled,  take them out of the ice water and peel (the skin should come off easily). They are then ready to cook down, or freeze in freezer bags for later use (later can be as long as next spring! and you don’t have to peel them if you are freezing for later use).

Albóndigas Variation (Meatballs: Eat some now, freeze some for later)

28 Jun

You would think that I came from hunger.

I stockpile like a squirrel in autumn. (And like squirrels, I sometimes forget where the hell I stockpiled my treasures, but that is another matter for a day when we are discussing organization. Today, we are not). I don’t feel safe unless there are plenty of foodstuffs laid by, whether for unexpected guests, an emergency supper,  the coming of The Apocalypse, or the nuclear winter. I’m a Cold War baby and that’s how I roll.

Sauté onion and garlic in a saucepan, drop in frozen meatballs and a tin of crushed tomatoes with your preferred herbs and spices and in 20 minutes of lively simmer – gorgeous sauce for spaghetti and meatballs!

There’s nothing I like more than a pantry full of stuff with which to make meals, except a freezer full of stuff that is already made (by me, of course, because the supermarket has freezers full of simulated-food garbage I won’t pay for, cause it’s  simulated food garbage I won’t eat).

To freeze, place cooled meatballs in a freezer bag. Lay the bag flat on a plate and stick in freezer so the meatballs don’t freeze stuck together. When completely frozen through, remove plate, shake the bag to unstick meatballs, squeeze air out, and leave bag in freezer. Use within three months (or before freezer burn sets in!)

Thus, this meatball recipe – a variation on my dad’s excellent meatballs. We call them albóndigas and like to make them neutrally flavored for freezing, so that whatever the occasion you can drop them in an Italian-style tomato sauce, serve them with buttered noodles, make a meatball sandwich, stick them with toothpicks and call them hors d’oeuvres, do whatever, adding your favorite seasonings later.

Cheese, please!

Use some hot off the stove, and freeze the rest. You never know when they will save your life….

Cloudy, with a chance of meatballs!

Albóndigas (Variation on Pedro’s Albóndigas)

5 cloves garlic, peeled

1 generous Cup onion, chopped

2 Tbs olive oil

1 Cup mixed fresh herbs (or 4 Tbs dry), such as basil, oregano, thyme, marjoram, parsley

2 tsp Old Bay Seasoning

1 tsp salt

3 lbs ground beef (you can substitute 1lb of pork for 1lb of beef)

2 whole eggs (optional)

1 cup breadcrumbs (plain, or seasoned with similar herbs to those you chose above)

Whir garlic, onions, olive oil and parsley in a blender or food processor until minced fine. Add herbs, Old Bay, and salt and pulse a few times until it forms a paste.

In a large bowl place meat, seasoning paste, optional eggs, roasted red pepper, and bread crumbs. Mix well so that breadcrumbs are evenly distributed. Using your hands, roll into balls about 1.5 inches across. You can dip your hands in water to keep from sticking.

Heat 2 Tbs oil in heavy skillet at medium heat until the oil flows like water and a meatball dipped in it sizzles softly. Fry several at a time (use tongs to turn quickly) browning on all sides, then lower to medium low and cook for about six minutes, shaking the pan and turning meatballs occasionally. When they are cooked through, cool on paper towels. Can be frozen for three months in an airtight container.

Filete de pescado entomatado (Fish filets in spicy creole sauce!)

4 Jun

In the supermarket the other day, Leandro asked for fish for lunch. This is not in itself odd…everyone in this family is island-born somehow, we all love fish, and he is a huge fan of River Monsters on Animal Planet (which I strongly encourage, because I think Jeremy – the mad fisherman — is quite hot and much better to watch with my son than Diego the animal rescuer – why, why, why do he and his bloody cousin, Dora the Explorer, have to shout everything they say? –  or Phineas and Ferb – who are quite sweet, but not nearly as compelling as flesh and blood Jeremy and his sunburnt, craggy-faced, understated British delivery, rod-wielding self ).

So I picked up some wild caught tilapia to accommodate him, and because I suddenly got a strong craving (antojo) for fish in salsa criolla.

Fortunately, I had all the ingredients in – aside from the fish, it’s a pantry dish, and double fortunately, Leandro loved it, so happy, happy! Triple fortunately, it can be adapted to chicken and shrimp too, so keep that in mind! I’m happy, hope you’re happy too…

I served it with spinach pasta, on the boy’s request…I definitely would have preferred polenta, but who has time for that at 1 p.m. with no lunch ready?

Filete de pescado entomatado (Fish filets in spicy creole sauce)

1 Tbs extra virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

½ Cup roasted red peppers (yellow or green are fine too!)

Pinch hot red pepper flakes, optional

8 oz can Spanish-style tomato sauce

8-10 pimiento-stuffed green olives, sliced

1 generous tsp capers, drained indifferently

½ -1 lb tilapia filets (or other flat whitefish)

Salt and pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in a large sauce pan at medium high until liquid and fragrant. Add onions, stir to coat, and lower heat to medium. After five minutes, add garlic and peppers and pepper flakes, if desired. Cook an additional 5 minutes, until vegetables are tender, then add tomato sauce, olives and capers and cook at a lively simmer for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, lightly salt and pepper tilapia filets on both sides. When sauce has cooked until the oil is beginning to separate from the sauce, lay filets on the sauce without filets touching one another.

Cook for about 4 minutes, then turn filets carefully (they will fall apart if you are not careful) and cover with sauce, cooking another 4 minutes or so (check for doneness – opaque flesh – with a fork). The genius of this recipe is that the fish won’t dry out if overcooked!

Serve with rice or atop polenta.

Pasta al Tonno II (Black olive variation – freezeable!)

8 May

A while back I tried out a pasta with tuna recipe on my son. It had green olives and capers, as well, so we are not talking about subdued flavors off the kiddie menu. He loved it, because he is not a kiddie menu type of kid (except for the macaroni and cheese and those portions are anyway TOO SMALL) so I decided to try another variation (actually the one I first learned from Susana Villanova in Italy, way back when and still one of my favorites) AND an experiment.

I saved half the sauce to see if it would freeze well.

Add or subtract olives as you see fit!

Leandro thought it was great the first time and had seconds, plus lunch the next day! Two weeks later, I defrosted the second pint in the fridge and made it up for a dinner. Success! It was just as good, if not better, and I got a dinner and lunch out of it for the little guy.

Fast, cheap, and hearty! Easy too, except for trying to keep him from using his hands and then wiping them off on his clothes….This will be a new emergency staple (notice – all of these are pantry ingredients except maybe the onion – which is pretty much a pantry item around here!)

Good for boys and girls and grown-ups too!

Pasta al tonno II (with black olives)

1 lb of long flat thin pasta (I like fettucine, but linguine or thick spaghetti will work fine; half this if you are going to freeze half the sauce for later)

2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil

1 small to medium onion, chopped fine

28 oz can crushed or peeled and chopped tomatoes

6 oz can of light or white tuna (I use water packed, but you can use oil-packed if you drain. I do not drain the water-packed tuna)

20-30 pitted black olives, sliced

Teaspoon of dry oregano/parsley/basil or Tbs fresh (optional)

Salt to taste

Prepare pasta according to package directions. Drain and set aside.

Heat oil in a  medium pot on medium-high until fragrant. Add onions, stir to coat and lower heat to medium low. Allow to soften — about five minutes. Add tomato and bring to a simmer – about five minutes. Add tuna and olives, salt and herbs to taste and allow to cook for 5-10 minutes (15-20 if you have time). Mix into cooked pasta and serve.

If you plan to freeze half the sauce, put in a freezer-safe container. It will stay nice at least a couple of weeks.

Mayo-Ketchup Gets a Much-Needed Makeover (with Chipotle!)

4 Mar

“We totally just licked the bowl!”

I had promised my friend Ashley and my son a “tostones-for-dinner” Friday night and, since I had the plaintains I was ready to go. Ashley had decided to learn to make them, so I set her up with the assembly line of garlic and salt water, hot oil, plates covered in paper towel and tostonera (See Tostones! for the how-to of this Caribbean riff on French fries) and got ready to relax with a bit of the fizzy stuff.

Then I mentioned that Puerto Ricans usually dip tostones in mayo-ketchup – mayonnaise and ketchup stirred together. Without hesitation Ashley said “That sounds like it would be great with chipotle and lime,” and since I had it all in (plus garlic) a new creamy, spicy, lick-the-bowl delicious dip was born. And it was so quick that I still got to drink that glass of fizzy in relative peace….

You. Are. Gonna. Love. This.


(play around with the proportions to suit your taste)

1 Tbs prepared mayonnaise

1 Tbs plain yogurt (nonfat or lowfat are fine)

1 Tbs ketchup

1 tsp chipotle in adobo (minced)

1 tsp lime juice

1 clove garlic, minced fine

Pinch salt, if desired

Mix all ingredients in a bowl and serve with tostones or other fried, crispy tidbits.

Pasta al Tonno – tuna, olives, and capers in red sauce

14 Jan

Back in the 90s, pasta was the staple food of single women and gay men. “The Italians don’t get fat and they eat it every day,” was part of the reasoning (not getting fat being one of the particular obsessions of single women and gay men for reasons that are probably obvious).

Then there was the speed and efficiency of pasta; if you can boil water and saute garlic (or open a jar), you can probably put together a pre-club, pre-booze meal even while doing your pre-club ablutions and outfit selection (and mixing a pre-club cocktail — or two — while blowdrying).

Finally, pasta was a perfectly acceptable dish to serve guests for a dinner party; if you grated your own Parmigiano Reggiano and the sauce included mushrooms — and there was plenty of wine –, why you were practically a gourmet chef! What could be more right?

Pasta al Tonno – one of the fastest pasta dishes known to man. Tuna and olives (green or black!)

Then The Dark Cloud of Carbohydrate Catastrophe descended upon single-woman-and-gay-mankind.

The devious Italians had tricked us by using less sauce, lighter sauce, only having one serving, and actually walking places to stay thin. We flocked to the safety of sliced steak and mesclun salad to contain our belly fat.

Now that I am a mom, pasta is back in my life. The aforementioned speed and efficiency is critical, the leftovers-for-lunch potential unparalleled, and so is pasta’s ability to be the receptacle for so many healthy vegetables that might otherwise languish on the side of a little kid’s plate, a line in the sand of Who-Is-Really-In-Charge-Here Beach, a combustible place where any parental victory is likely a Pyrrhic one.

But for a long time I was pretending not to eat the pasta I was making for Leandro. I say pretending, because, as so many moms, I was tasting to the point of having no meal left to serve at the table and finishing whatever he left on his plate – you know, all the bad little mommy habits that lead to the dreaded belly fat and the matronly figure before one’s appointed time.

So enough of the bullshit and the pretending. I am making pasta dishes that I like and eating them with my son like the civilized human being that I am (and hoping to once again have that slim, single-pasta-eating-woman of the 90s figure).

This is one of the fast dishes I learned to make in Italy (where I lived for two years, acquiring pasta skills for the 90s), slightly modified to reflect my Latin pantry. I made it for Leandro for the first time this week and he loved it and I loved it and BASTA! Enough talk – here’s the recipe!

Pasta al Tonno I (serves four; cooking and prep 20 minutes)

1 lb. pasta of your choice (this sauce clings and is also chunky, so most medium shapes – long or short – will suit)

1 Tbs extra virgin olive oil

½ Cup onion, chopped fine

(2-3 anchovies packed in oil, optional; use paper towels to sop up excess oil)

28 oz can crushed tomatoes

10 pimiento-stuffed green olives, drained indifferently and sliced

2 tsp capers, drained indifferently

5 oz can tuna packed in water, not drained (you should drain it if using tuna packed in oil)

Salt to taste

Cook pasta according to package directions.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a medium-large saucepan at medium high until oil is fragrant. Add onions, stir to coat, then lower heat to medium-low. When onions are translucent, add optional anchovies, breaking up with your spoon. Add crushed tomatoes and stir to mix. Stir in olives and capers and simmer for five minutes. Add tuna (with water from can), stir to combine and break up. Simmer for an additional five minutes. Add cooked pasta to saucepan and stir to combine. Salt to taste and serve. This dish doesn’t really require grated cheese, but go ahead and try it with Parmigiano Reggiano if you like! Serve with crusty bread for dipping.

Freeze! The Lazy (or clever) Cook’s Guide to Preserving Tomatoes

5 Sep

This was the year I would start preserving and canning…at least that’s what I swore when I laid down the money for a canning pot and associated equipment at Walmart a couple of months ago (Walmart being the new Woolworth’s; it is where you will find a lot of the old-fashioned domestic arts type of stuff that Woolworth’s used to carry back in the day).

Well, canning with heat didn’t happen, or at least hasn’t happened yet and doesn’t look like happening any time soon. But I have still been making an effort to preserve some of the flavors of summer for the colder months in a less time-consuming and sweaty way. Regular visitors will remember a creole tomato sauce I made and froze for later, for example

But at this time of year, with all the vegetables we have and the time to work with them running short due to school, I had to shorten even the shortcuts. So I blanched and froze sauce tomatoes for later.

All you have to do is

1) take your farm fresh, ripe tomatoes, wash and core the stem area (you don’t have to go all the way down; just take a cone out),

2) throw them in boiling water for a minute (until they start to split)– 30 seconds for smaller tomatoes — and then

3) plunge them in ice water for about five minutes for large tomatoes and a couple of minutes for small.

Et voila! Freezer-ready tomatoes. Some people peel them at that point; I sometimes do and sometimes don’t. You will have to do it when you thaw them later, as the skins get chewy in the freezer. Some people don’t even blanch them, but I do like to set the flavor and freshness and I think blanching does that pretty well. Anyway, once they are cool, all you have to do is

4) put them in a freezer bag (quartering them is optional), squeeze out the air, seal and label them. Stick them in the freezer and they will keep 6-8 months and will be suitable for sauces and soups (not salads, as the texture will get mushy over time.

Right now I have a few pounds of San Marzanos, a pound of plum tomatoes and about four pounds of whatever yellow tomatoes it is that I am getting from the farm. I am going to be soooooo, sooooo, sooooo happy to make fresh sauce or minestrone with them in the dark days of February when my arms are about to fall off from shoveling snow!

Recommended tomatoes are Roma, Brandywine and plums, as they make great sauce!

Fresh Tomato Sauce – Criollo-Style!

27 Aug

We anticipate a lot of flooding from Hurricane Irene, but the inundation I have been dealing with is far more pleasant: tomatoes. At Restoration Farm pick-up on Thursday, Farmer Dan’s dad, Daniel Holmes, heard I intended to make sauce and came up with four generous pounds of “seconds”: tomatoes that were harvested but don’t look pretty enough for distribution; a little bruised, maybe split, over-ripe – glorious grabbing for a peasant-hearted person. I was eager to take them, then of course got home and thought…oh s**t, I have to do these like, now, or what’s  the point?

And then I wasn’t sure how well my food mill would work – it seems to be missing a piece  – but I was in NO MOOD to blanch, peel and seed all these smaller tomatoes before cooking, so I went for it, just quartered them and dumped them in the pot. Luckily for me, I was able to rig the food mill to work, but if you are wondering what to get me for my birthday…(an egg timer would be equally welcome)

So, here is a very simple recipe for tomato sauce that tastes just like what my grandmother and her sisters used to make, often cooked with chopped eggplant or chicken thighs on the bone…I am not quite sure what I am going to do with my quart of sauce – it is in the freezer where it will keep for a few months, but I suspect that I will soon be misting up with nostalgia for my abuela over a bowl of eggplant and this sauce over rice.

If you are looking for an Italian style sauce, substitute the sofrito with a couple of sprigs of fresh basil (I may actually be doing that this afternoon with another batch while we still have electricity ) and add julienned basil at the end of cooking.

This sauce can be made anytime, substituting tomatoes from a can, but it is at its most fresh, light and charming when you take advantage of really ripe tomatoes.

This is pasta sauce the way my grandmother used to make it

Fresh Tomato Sauce – Criollo-Style

2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil

4 cloves garlic, minced

4 lbs ripe tomatoes, quartered if you have a food mill, peeled, seeded and diced if you don’t

¼-1/2 tsp sugar

4 Tbs homemade or prepared sofrito or two ice cubes worth if you have frozen (

Coarse salt, to taste (you’ll be adding it by the half teaspoon)

In a heavy-bottomed 3-quart saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat and add the garlic. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, 1-2 minutes. Do not allow to burn.

Add the tomatoes, sugar, sofrito and ½ tsp salt and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low (a gentle simmer) and cook, stirring often until thickened. I simmer at least 30 minutes, but juicier tomatoes take longer.  Taste and add salt, as desired.

If using a food mill, use the medium blade. The peeled and seeded tomatoes will break up on their own, but you can run through the blender for a smoother texture.

Makes about 1 quart.

Party Snacks: Oven-Charred Tomatillo, Tomato and Hot Chile Salsa

22 Aug

If you are lucky enough to get a handful of tomatillos in your CSA share or find them in your grocery store, this recipe for a small amount will make your tastebuds very happy (or scream in agony if you overdo it on the hot peppers) and won’t take you very long at all.

There are very few commercially prepared salsas that I like; most are too sweet or too tomatoe-y or just boring, so making my own makes a lot of sense. Once you see how easy tomatillos are to char, you will probably become adventurous with your own flavor combinations.

Tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica) is indeed in the same family as the tomato, as well as the ground cherry (or cape gooseberry), which it actually resembles more, in looks, if not flavor. Native to Mexico, tomatillo has green or sometimes purple fruit, surrounded by a husk that gets papery as it ripens; it has always reminded me of a Japanese lantern.

When you buy, look for firm fruit with the husk still on (they will keep for a month in a paper bag). When you buy green ones, avoid any that are yellowish.  To prepare them for cooking, remove the husk and wash off the stickiness on the skin.

Although tomatillo is most often used for salsa verde (green sauce), I used purple ones in this recipe. I charred them under the broiler with red tomatoes and mixed them together for a deep and satisfying color.

Roasted Tomatillo, Tomato  and Chile Salsa

7-8 tomatillos, husked, rinsed and cut in half

Tomatoes of your choice, in an equal amount to the tomatillos, sliced in half (if using cherry-types) or chunked to the same size as the tomatillo halves

1 fresh hot chile pepper of your choice (I use jalapeño)

2 Tbs red onion, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 Tbs cilantro, chopped

1/8 tsp lime juice

1/8-1/4 tsp coarse salt

Place tomatillos, tomatoes and whole chile pepper on a baking sheet and broil, turning once (carefully!) with a spatula when the tops start to char (my sturdy, but not so high-powered toaster oven took 10 minutes on each side {!} but a stronger oven could do the job in half the time, so watch out!)

When the vegetables are charred, let them cool until you can peel them (over a bowl to catch the juices). Discard peels and add tomatillo and tomato to bowl. Also peel the pepper and BE WARNED: this is a small amount of salsa, so you don’t want to go overboard on the heat. I use only half a jalapeño and remove the seeds and it is still pretty searing on the tongue. So…add roasted chile at your discretion/peril.

I break my salsa up with a fork – unnecessary if you are going to use a blender at the end. Stir in remaining ingredients. For a smoother texture, pulse a few times in a food processor or blender (I prefer chunkier and I hate extra equipment to wash, so I skip it). Garnish with cilantro and serve with tortilla chips.

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