Summer Loving: Tomato Tarts

“It’s the best time of the year!”

If you have children, had children, or simply remember being a child, you know that this time of the year is filled with the rush of buying needed school supplies, the excitement (for the children) and exasperation (for the parents) of replacing worn or outgrown clothing and shoes, and either the sadness or the joy, depending on the type of children and parents, of going back to school.

I’m one of those parents who is always sad when the new school year begins because I prefer the lazy days of summer when the children and I don’t need to rush anywhere, can play games, and no one is stressed by homework and relational angst. So, when school resumes I need to find ways to cheer myself up, and fortunately for me, this is also the time of year when some of nature’s best gifts present themselves.

I’m talking about tomatoes. Large, fresh, sweet, home or local farm grown, deep red, yellow and even purple organic tomatoes. True fact about me: I only eat large tomatoes in August and September when I can get them fresh from the garden. I will not purchase store tomatoes which have yet to fully turn their color and have very little taste. Life’s too short to insult my taste buds.

So, when tomatoes are in season, I make as many different types of dishes as I can because I know it’ll be another year before I can enjoy their taste again. One of my family’s favorite dishes is tomato tarts. A simple crust, layers of lovely, tasty fresh tomatoes, and an egg custard. I recently made some tomato tarts using fresh tomatoes to serve at a brunch for my husband’s family forest, and they were an absolutely hit. Fortunately, I had made several of them so that when people went back for even thirds, we had enough!

Now, a warning: Yes, you can make these tarts with any tomatoes, but you have to trust me when I tell you that there’s nothing like the sweet taste of a freshly picked tomato to enhance these tarts. So, if you can, swing by your local farm and get a basket full. Your taste buds will thank you!

Tomato Tart

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cup your favorite flour (I use gluten free flours like garbanzo or fava bean or oat or sorghum but whole wheat works, too)

1/2 tsp ground onion powder

1/4 to 1/2 tsp salt (your taste preference)

1/2 tsp dried oregano

1/8 tsp black pepper

1/3 cup safflower oil

3 tbsp your favorite milk (cow, soy, flax, quinoa, rice, etc…)

3 eggs

1/2 cup your favorite milk (cow, soy, flax, quinoa, rice, etc…)

1/4 tsp black pepper

1/2 tsp dried oregano

Fresh tomatoes

salt, pepper and oregano

Cooking Instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Mix the flour with the onion powder, salt, oregano and pepper.
  3. Whisk the safflower oil with the milk until it’s creamy. Pour into the flour mixture and stir with a fork until a dough ball forms.
  4. Press the crust into a 8 or 9 inch pie pan, using your clean hands to form an even crust along the bottom and sides of the pan. Set aside.
  5. Whisk the eggs with the milk, pepper and oregano. Set aside.
  6. Thinly slice the tomatoes, allowing some of the juices to drain out in a colander. Then layer the tomato slices in the prepared crust, sprinkling some salt, pepper and oregano on each layer before putting on the next.  How much you put in is up to you, but I like to layer them up to the top of the crust.
  7. Carefully pour the egg custard over the tomato layers. If you find that you’ve layered so many tomatoes that your egg custard doesn’t cover the tomatoes as you’d like, whisk another egg with a tablespoon of milk and add it.
  8. Bake in the preheated oven until the eggs are set. How long will vary on how thick your tomato layers are as well as which type of milk you ended up using.  I suggest you set the timer for 15 minutes and go from there. The longest it’s ever taken for me is 30 minutes.

 

Autumn Fruits: Easy Marinara Sauce

website tomato sauce

“Are you going to do something with those tomatoes?”

A couple of weeks ago, my sister-in-law generously gave me several pounds of home grown tomatoes, the last picked of the season before the weather became cold. I was thrilled, but then my son became ill, and a week was lost at the hospital and helping him to recover at home.

Over the weekend, my husband looked at the tomatoes still taking up space on our counter, and asked, “Are you going to do something with those tomatoes or am I going to have to compost them?”

The idea of composting all those lovely tomatoes horrified me, so I quickly grabbed a cutting board and went to work….

Folks who have been reading the blog for a while know that I’m a big fan of the least amount of effort for great results. So, what’s something easy one can do when you have pounds of tomatoes and no idea what to do with them? Marinara sauce.

Marinara sauce is just a sauce made from tomatoes. If you make up a huge batch, though, you can freeze it and use it in a variety of ways: the base for a thicker spaghetti sauce, sauce for pizza, in Spanish rice, for ratattouille, the base for a cocktail sauce, for soups, to top enchiladas, in Sloppy Joe’s, the list is pretty never-ending. And what’s lovely is that unless you’re allergic to tomatoes, it’s allergy friendly, too – no nuts, dairy, egg, gluten, sugar, peanuts, etc….

Easy Marinara Sauce

  1. The Tomatoes: I simply cut the tomatoes into fourths and cook them as is, seeds, peels and all.
  2. The Flavoring: Whatever you’d like. I usually throw in about eight to 10 whole garlic cloves, two purple scallions quartered and a chili pepper.
  3. The Herbs: Whatever you’d like. I like basil, oregano, and thyme. Use dried herbs. If you want fresh herbs, those can be added when you actually use the marinara sauce for a recipe.
  4. The Pan: I have a lovely Circulon pan which is 12 inches in diameter and three inches deep which I use for making marinara sauce. I recommend a larger, shallower pan over a deeper but smaller pot, which is the use recommendations. The reason? Because the shallower pan allows all the tomatoes to cook down quickly without you needing to continually stir to get the top tomatoes down to the bottom where the heat source is.
  5. The Cooking: If you cook the tomatoes in the shallower pan, you only need to cook the tomatoes, with a lid on, for about 20 to 30 minutes.
  6. The Consistency: If you want a chunky marinara sauce, simply let the cooked tomatoes cool as is. If you like a smoother marinara, puree everything up in a blender or food processor. If you don’t like the seeds, strain them out after pureeing. If you want a thicker marinara sauce, add tomato paste or cooked, pureed vegetables like squash or carrots or pumpkin which also add another flavor dimension.
  7. The Storing: Marinara sauce will keep for weeks in the fridge and for years in the freezer. To store in the freezer, make sure the sauce is completely cooled and then put the sauce into freezer friendly containers or bags. I prefer to put two cups of sauce into freezer bags because that’s the amount I tend to use for most recipes and because the bags will then lie flat in the freezer, taking up less space.
  8. The Use: If you know ahead of time you want to use frozen marinara sauce, simply take the containers or bags out of the freezer the day before. If you decide at the last minute to use sauce, the sauce easily defrosts as it cooks in the microwave or in a pan.

 

Cooking Techniques: Ratatouille

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“Can we PLEASE have vegetables for the rest of the summer?”

My children and I just returned home from a whirlwind trip, visiting many relatives and friends within a four state radius. While we enjoyed being with the people we loved, we ate a lot more meat than we are used to eating. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, we ate meat at everyone else’s homes, because they either ate more meat in general than we do or because they thought they were giving us a treat by cooking meat.

Still, I laughed in surprise to hear my middle child practically begging me to purchase only vegetables when we stopped at the grocery store on our way home from our trip. I asked her if there was anything in particular she wanted me to make for dinner that evening when we arrived home, and she promptly answered, “Ratatouille.”

For any folks unfamiliar with ratatouille, it’s a wonderful vegetable dish originating from France. The main vegetable ingredients are usually eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini and peppers, though recipes may vary. It makes for both an excellent side dish or a main entree. My children like to eat it sprinkled with reduced fat shredded cheese and with a side of nice, crusty whole grain bread.

I love to make it in the summer time when we can pick the vegetables fresh from our garden. It’s a light and refreshing meal for a hot, summer day, especially if you simply cook it quickly on the stove top or in your crockpot, both of which don’t heat up your kitchen too much.

Ratatouille Information:

1. Cooking Methods: There are a variety of ways to make ratatouille, and if you google it you’ll see that many chefs actually are very particular about the best method for making ratatouille. I have tried all methods and find that there are pros and cons to each.

The most used method is to simply saute the vegetables in a pan on the stove top. This is nice because you can make the dish quickly for a family that is complaining that they’re “starving”.  In addition, it requires very little additional oil to saute. You need to be sure, though, to cut all the vegetables into sizes which will saute equitably and to cook them in order from longest cooking to shortest so you’re not serving a ratatouille which has overcooked zucchini with undercooked eggplant.

Another method is to roast the vegetables. What’s nice about roasted vegetable ratatouille is that all the pleasant, sweet tastes of the vegetables come out when roasted. The downside is that you usually need to roast the vegetables separately or precisely time the addition of each of the vegetables to the dish, both of which take time. As well, in the summer time, your kitchen will heat up quickly at the high temperatures needed for roasting. You’ll also find that you need a bit more oil to keep the vegetables from sticking to your pan as they roast.

A third method is to simply put your vegetables into a crockpot to slow cook over time. This method is extremely useful if you’re going to be out all day and want something done when you arrive home. The crockpot does make for a softer ratatouille, though, unless you’re home to take it out as soon as you see that the vegetables are at the slightly firmer texture you want. This method, however, does completely cut out the need for any fat which is nice for folks who need to watch their fat intake.

A fourth method is baking the ratatouille in the oven as a casserole. I like to do this when I’m going to have company and don’t want to be cooking instead of chatting. You simply layer the vegetables into a casserole dish and bake the entire casserole at once. This method is convenient and easy. It does, however, make for a moister dish because the liquids from the vegetables won’t evaporate like they do when you saute the vegetables. If, however, you like cheese with your ratatouille, layering the vegetables with the cheese makes for a very tasty casserole.

A fifth method is to layer the vegetables like you would for baking in the oven, only you do so in a pot and simmer the ratatouille over the stove top instead. This doesn’t warm your house as much as using the oven would, and it doesn’t require the constant watch and stirring that sauteing the vegetables does. The results, however, are more soupy than the other methods.

2. Main Vegetables: Eggplant is the base for ratatouille. You want a nice firm eggplant which isn’t under ripe or over ripe, though. When you press with your finger into the skin of the eggplant, you should leave an imprint which slowly comes back to shape. If your indent goes deep and doesn’t press back, it’s a bit riper than you might want. If you press and it’s hard, leaving no indent, it’s not ripe enough. A ripe eggplant will have a nice glossy purple skin with a bright green cap. Eggplant with bruises or dark splotches are to be avoided.

To cut eggplant for ratatouille I recommend peeling the eggplant first, then slicing into 1/4 inch rounds which you then cut into 1 inch squares which are a good size for both cooking and eating. You should cut your other vegetables up first before you cut your eggplant, though, because eggplant starts to brown pretty quickly after it’s been cut.

For your zucchini and squash, I recommend using smaller ones over the larger sized versions. They’re tastier, sweeter, moister, and less seedy. If you only have larger sizes, though, simply scoop out the seeds and cut the zucchini and summer squash into bite size pieces.

If you’re using the smaller sized zucchini and summer squash – think 6 inches in length – I recommend cutting them in half and then slicing them into 1/4 inch half moon shapes. These cook quickly and provide nice bite size eating pieces.

For peppers, you can use whatever pepper you like, but I prefer the sweeter bell peppers. One, the taste complements the eggplant well, and two, using different colored peppers (red, orange, yellow) makes for a prettier ratatouille. I recommend cutting the peppers into 1 inch square pieces so they cook readily with the other vegetables and are easy to eat.

3. Other Additions: Some people believe a ratatouille should only have eggplant, zucchini, squash and peppers. Others like to add more ingredients. It’s really up to you.

We like the versions which add mushrooms so if we have mushrooms on hand, we’ll use them. I usually slice white button or cremini mushrooms into 1/4 inch slices for adding to the ratatouille.

Another nice addition if you want to add protein is beans. Chick peas, cannellini beans, and black-eyed peas are all tasty in a ratatouille. And some people even like to add cooked chopped chicken, though, as a family we don’t really make it that way.

4. Tomatoes: Ratatouille always uses tomatoes. Purists will say you should only use fresh tomatoes which you peel, seed and dice yourself. I must admit, it’s rather delicious to make ratatouille with fresh tomatoes. I, however, tend to use dice tomatoes which I’ve frozen or get in a can, because it’s faster, more convenient, and simpler. For my tastes, I prefer the tomatoes to be petite-sized diced tomatoes because they blend better with the other vegetables, but larger sized dices tomatoes are fine, too.

5.  Seasonings:  Ratatouille will most always call for onions, garlic, basil and oregano, but from there recipes vary. Some add more herbs like thyme and parsley. Many call for salt and pepper. A few like to mix things up and call for a bit of red pepper or balsamic vinegar.

I find that using fresh herbs gives the ratatouille the best taste, but often I use dried herbs because that’s what I have in the house and on hand. If you’re using fresh herbs, be sure to add them at the end of the cooking. If you’re using dried, add it near the beginning of the cooking time.

For the garlic, you’ll find that recipes call for different ways of preparing it. Some say to use slivers. Others call for minced garlic. A few will suggest roasting the garlic first. Occasionally recipes will tell you to add smashed garlic. It really depends on your tastes and your time.

Roasted garlic is delightful in a ratatouille but then you have to take the time to roast it. Mince garlic incorporates more evenly throughout the ratatouille. Slivers give you more of a garlicky bite. Smashed garlic exudes more of the flavor.

As for salt and pepper: I rarely add salt, but using a small amount will bring out the flavors a bit more. I always add pepper because I like pepper but if you don’t want the pepper to overpower your other flavors.

6. Oil: Ratatouille usually calls for olive oil. The flavor of olive oil goes exceptionally well with ratatouille. Sometimes, though, recipes will call for another type. I would recommend sticking to a plant based oil which is a bit healthier for you and using as little as you can to keep the fat intake to a good level. My preference is to use an extra-virgin olive oil but most any olive oil works well and tastes good.

Quick and Easy Sauteed Ratatouille

Ingredients:

1 tbsp olive oil

1 cup mushrooms, washed and sliced into 1/4 inch pieces (can omit if wanted)

2 to 3 peppers (yellow, red and/or orange; varying the colors is prettier), seedede and cut into 1 inch squares

1/2 cup chopped onions (frozen chopped onions work wonderfully)

one eggplant, about 8 inches in length and 4 inches in width

6 to 8 zucchini, about 6 to 8 inches in length, cut in half and then into 1/4 inch half moons (if using larger sizes, scoop out the seeds)

6 to 8 summer squash, about 6 to 8 inches in length, cut in half and then into 1/4 inch half moons (if using larger sizes, scoop out the seeds)

1 tbsp minced garlic

2 tsp dried basil or 1 to 2 cups loosely packed fresh basil

1 tsp dried oregano or 1/2 to 1 cup loosely packed fresh oregano

1/4 to 1/2 tsp black pepper, according to your tastes

3 cups petite diced tomatoes (if using canned, that’s about a 28 oz can)

Cooking Instructions:

1. Prepare all the vegetables first, washing, peeling, seeding and chopping and have them ready on hand to cook.

2. Heat olive oil for about 30 seconds in a large size pan over medium high heat or in a wok or in a deep dish griddle at 350 degree heat.

3. Add the mushrooms, peppers and onions to the olive oil and cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently.

4. Add the eggplant and cook for another 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.

5. Add the zucchini and squash and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant is greenish-purple.

6. Add the tomatoes, basil, oregano, garlic and black pepper and cook for 6 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender. (If you want a soupier ratatouille cook with a cover on. For a thicker ratatouille saute without a lid.)

7. Serve with reduced fat shredded cheddar cheese and crusty bread.