If you do not get giddy with excitement around this time of year, you are just not from the South and I don’t know what to do with you. It’s tomato season. After an eight-month drought, those cheery cherry red orbs are back again.
The only tomatoes I eat from about late October to early July are from a can because they’re picked when they’re ripe. I won’t bore you with my rant about supermarket tomatoes. But in a nutshell, they are picked green by what amounts to slave migrant labor and blasted with chemicals to turn them red. It’s the vegetable (actually, tomatoes are a fruit) equivalent of adding sugar to almost every processed food. By the way, did you know Wheat Thins have sugar in them? My favorite cracker and now it’s on the banned list. Thank God Triscuits are still pure.
But I digress. So most Southerners go into tomato overload around this time of year. There’s always the obligatory first tomato sandwich of the year. The always popular caprese salad. And tomatoes just sliced, salt and peppered and served alongside Silver Queen corn and fried okra. The perfect summer vegetable plate. Add the cornbread, please.
But even we – the Peoples of the South – tire of tomatoes after a spell. So it’s then that I start roasting them, which concentrates their sweet flavor and turns them into something entirely different. Chop them up and add them to fresh pasta with butter and herbs. Sprinkle on a little freshly grated Parmesan. Yes. Roasted tomato and onion jam on toast points topped with bacon crumbles. Why thank you, I think I’ll have another. A roasted tomato slice on a burger? Add sauteed mushrooms and there’s so much umami on that bun that it can barely get through the door.
There’s no recipe really for roasted tomatoes. However many you have, just slice them and put them on a foil lined rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with a little sugar and add salt and pepper. That’s it. A couple hours in the oven and you are good to go. Summer.
Slice the tomatoes in thick slices and place on a foil-lined cookie sheet with a rim. Drizzle liberally with extra-virgin olive oil. Sprinkle with a small amount of sugar. Salt and pepper to taste.
Bake at 300 degrees for several hours or until tomatoes have shriveled and started to turn brown around the edges. Don’t throw away the olive oil! It’s now infused with tomato flavor and is wonderful as a pasta sauce with a little balsamic vinegar.
Given the contorted anguish of my last post, I present to you an example of simple is best. I learned a long time ago that the Italians understand that pasta is a dish unto itself and whatever sauce you apply to it should be exceedingly spare.
I’ve also learned to grow herbs in pots by the driveway because every time I’ve attempted to plant them in my yard, the deer and rabbits make quick work of them. For some reason, pots confound them I am happy to report. So I have pots of parsley, oregano, cilantro, thyme, basil and mint. Kind of like the colors of flowers, you cannot get herbs to clash. They all just love each other in whatever combination they’re in.
This literally takes 10 minutes to make and it tastes like a million bucks.
9 ounces (1 package) fresh linguine, such as Buitoni
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
Parmesan cheese, grated with a microplane
Combine the chopped herbs in a bowl.
Heat 1 tablespoon of butter in a small saute pan. Add the shallot and saute for about 5 minutes or until it is soft but not brown.
Bring a 2-quart pot of water to the boil. Add the fresh linguine and cook for two minutes. Drain and return to the pot. Add the remaining two tablespoons of butter, olive oil and lemon juice. Combine and let cool slightly.
Add the herbs and shallots. Mix well, plate and finish with a showering of Parmesan cheese.
I try to keep King Daddy provisioned at all times when I am called out of town. I literally count the plastic containers of leftovers in the refrigerator to make sure he will not starve. I realize this is my failing. I have conditioned King Daddy to expect to be fed at all times, whether I’m in town or not. I think that might be called enabling.
So I was out of town on a super secret project that I will reveal to you at the proper time and I call KD on my way back just to report that I am still alive. “The refrigerator is empty,” he says wistfully. I think he might have over-eaten a bit, but I do not call that to his attention. “That’s fine,” I tell him. “I’ll cook supper when I get back.”
Have I mentioned to you that it’s pouring down rain and there are tornado warnings? I am thinking grilling a steak is just not an option. So when I get back to Brentwood I head to my beloved Publix for the single best invention of the 21st century – rotisserie chicken (and yes, you greedy people, there’s a recipe coming for repurposed rotisserie chicken).
Rotisserie chicken has saved my life many times. First of all, you cannot tell it’s not homemade. You can take that chicken right out of the paper bag, plop it on a platter and tell a huge fib that you made it yourself for a dinner party. Of course, I have never done that. It also makes quick work of a casserole, which most people don’t realize takes more time and dishes than a country club buffet. And like Sister Schubert yeast rolls, I can’t make it any better or cheaper. That is my definition of a revolutionary idea.
And an added bonus is that even King Daddy cannot eat an entire rotisserie chicken in one sitting. So his anxiety level due to the vast spaces of emptiness in the refrigerator is greatly reduced because now, once again, there are leftovers.
Shred chicken and set aside. Melt one tablespoon of the butter and add the mushrooms. Saute with a little salt and pepper until well browned. Add the marsala and reduce any liquid in the pan. Remove the mushrooms and add the onion, sautéing until tender. Add the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds. Combine the mushrooms, onion, garlic and thyme and set aside.
Melt two tablespoons of butter in a saucepan. Add the flour and whisk for about a minute. Ad the milk, cream, broth, lemon juice and nutmeg. Continue whisking until the sauce thickens slightly. Salt and pepper to taste. Note: This will be thinner than a regular cream gravy but it’s all good. The warm pasta will absorb much of the sauce.
Cook the pasta until it is al dente. Mix the pasta with the chicken, mushroom mixture and sauce. Mix the Parmesan and the breadcrumbs. Put the chicken mixture in a casserole dish and top with the cheese/breadcrumb mixture.
Bake at 450 degrees for about 20 minutes or until the casserole is bubbling.
I have to write this quickly because Jim Cantore from the Weather Channel is in town and the Peoples of the South are terrified! Jim Cantore only travels to the most dangerous and deadly weather events. It’s all over my Facebook page. Dammit, Jim Cantore chose Nashville over Minneapolis, where they’re getting 17 feet of snow. But it’s obviously going to be catastrophic because Jim Cantore has already announced that once the weather gets bad – buckets of rain and straight-line winds – he will broadcast inside the Country Music Hall of Fame. Jim Cantore never goes inside.
OMG, he just Tweeted: AT THIS TIME we are sub severe in middle TN. What does that mean – sub severe? Does that mean highly dangerous but not quite severe? I’d better get my Solo cup filled up with Chardonnay. This is going to be a long night.
By the way, if you want to see the greatest weather live shot ever, click here. It’s Jim Cantore applying his knee to a sensitive spot on a stupid kid running into his live shot in Charleston. It’s hilarious.
So this recipe is perfect because it only takes 20 minutes, which is about how much time you have until the power goes out. I have turned off all the computers but this one and am writing like the wind so I can shut this down. I have flashlights at all the vital stations in the house – bathrooms, bedroom and refrigerator so I can discern the box wine in the dark. I will turn on the Weather Channel and watch Jim Cantore valiantly risk his life in the lobby of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Ya’ll take care.
The very kind Ashley Bartner from La Tavola Marche e-mailed me all the way from Italy (I’d like to think those e-mails take longer to get to Nashville than the ones from Knoxville) to say that she and Jason would be happy to let me post the links to the recipes I learned on Sunday (and if you have no idea what I’m talking about, just scroll down one post).
So, here’s the recipe for Verdure Gratinate, which were those tasty baked vegetables (I’d eat the onions all day long) and the Pasta alla Norcina, which Jason said some people have told him looks like Hamburger Helper. It does not taste like Hamburger Helper, let me assure you.
Verdure Gratinate – Baked Vegetables with Bread Crumbs
So here are my notes on these recipes. First, I didn’t really love zucchini before this recipe and I don’t love it now. Too bland. BUT! The onions were friggin’ fantastic and I’ll do this recipe again with onions and peppers. I learned something about pasta and sauce for the Pasta alla Norcina. Jason practically crawled through the camera to implore us to cook the pasta until it’s almost done and then throw it in the sauce to finish it. I’ve always been scared to do that, but I did it because I didn’t want Jason to have a conniption fit. He was right. What a difference. That last little bit of cooking time in the sauce makes those noodles just drink it up. I don’t have a picture of the Pasta alla Norcina because King Daddy ate every last scrap of it before I could get the camera out.
FYI, the recipe calls for “sausage”, which is open to a lot of interpretation. Jason uses homemade sausage which, sadly, is not in my refrigerator. So I bought hot Italian sausage from my beloved Publix. The Italians are laughing at me right now. I know there’s no such thing as hot Italian sausage in Italy. If you really want to stay true to your roots, use Tennessee Pride.
If you want to sign up for a $5 cooking class, here’s the link. Jason and Ashley will send you the recipes so you can cook along with him. The beauty of this concept is that you can diligently follow along, or have a leisurely glass of wine while you’re not. I did both.
Verdure Gratinate – Baked Vegetables with Bread Crumbs
That is a complete lie. I am not in Italy. But through the magic of the internet, I took an Italian cooking class today and the chef was in Italy. Live from his kitchen at La Tavola Marche, an agro-tourism inn and cooking school in Piobbico, Italy. Jason Bartner is the chef and his wife, Ashley, creates all their social media. I feel as though I know these two expats from the United States because they’ve kept me company in the car for three years. Their Podcast from Italy is an audio journal of their life in the rural Italian countryside (look it up on iTunes – it’s worth a listen).
Of course, right now King Daddy and I cannot afford to visit Jason and Ashley in person. We’ve almost got Dammit Boy out of college so the only travel we are doing is to the Daily’s for a pack of cigarettes and to the liquor store for box wine.
When I was a kid, long distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive and rare. Today, I spent all of $5 to take a cooking class from a professional chef halfway around the world. And $14 for ingredients. I made Verdure Gratinate and Pasta alla Norcina in my kitchen watching Jason live from Italy at 10 at night his time. He didn’t even yawn once. I would not be able to teach a cooking class at 10 at night due to excessive box wine consumption.
Jason in the kitchen – that lamp-like looking thing is a second camera for close-ups of the cutting board
The menu was simple, as I am learning most other cultures prefer to the over-wrought, ingredient-laden dishes we like to make in America. I would give you the recipes but I paid my five bucks and you did not. It wouldn’t be fair. And King Daddy will not like the fact that his Pasta alla Norcina (Pasta with Sausages and Cream) only has 6 ounces of meat to a pound of pasta. That is not the King Daddy way, but it is the Italian way and, dammit, King Daddy will just have to adapt.
Ashley – she’s from Seattle so she’s all excited about the Super Bowl
So I like these two crazy kids who ventured to far-off Piobbico. I do want to visit them some day and make homemade pasta, feed the chickens, pick vegetables in their garden and go with them to the festival of the week (there’s one every week in Italy; one more reason to move there). If you want to visit them, check out their blog or visit their cooking class page on tumblr.
King Daddy is not a pasta person. He’ll eat pasta if it’s put in front of him. But he won’t smile very much. Me – I could live in Italy and eat nothing but pasta three meals a day. In which case I would look like Luciano Pavarotti. To me, the real key to great pasta is to not glop on a bunch of sauce. In Italy, sauce is a mere suggestion.
The next key is to cook the pasta al dente. I know I have shared Harold McGee’s revolutionary way to cook spaghetti before, but it bears repeating. You don’t need to boil the water. You don’t need six gallons of water, either. Al dente just means “to the tooth” – the spaghetti just needs to be slightly chewy and definitely not mushy. That’s so Franco-American.
Melt the butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and sauté them until they are deeply browned. Add the cream, lemon juice and Parmesan cheese. Continue cooking until the sauce thickens. Season the sauce with salt and pepper to taste.
In another saucepan, add enough water to cover the dried pasta along with a teaspoon of salt. Heat the water over medium high heat and add the pasta (no need for the water to boil). Gently move the pasta around with tongs as the water heats up. The pasta will cook as the water heats, approximately 10 minutes.
Add the pasta to the sauce and combine thoroughly.
King Daddy is not a good teacher when it comes to things he knows a lot about, such as computer technology and leather working and carpentry. He tends to jump ahead a few steps and then gets a tad frustrated when the student – usually me – ends up confused and slightly defensive.
I realized the other night that I may not be the best teacher either when it comes to the few things I know a lot about, like cooking. King Daddy is always kind to want to help in the kitchen. He likes chopping and he does it with great gusto. Sometimes I leave a few steps out. Like a few weeks ago I was making a stir fry and I gave him examples of how to slice the zucchini and crookneck squash (okay, it’s a Southern stir fry). I assumed he would follow the same general shape when he did the onions as everything in a stir fry should be chopped into equal sizes. I didn’t turn around for 30 seconds before he’d chopped that onion into infinitesimally tiny pieces.
So a couple nights ago, I had some mushrooms and a package of tortellini and I told him to saute the mushrooms in a little butter. To King Daddy, a little butter is…oh…a stick. Once again, I had just turned around for 30 seconds. I considered offering my thoughts. But all I said was, “You’d better crank up the heat.” King Daddy did alright. He added some white wine and I advised him to throw in some garlic and lemon juice. And then, so I could write a recipe, I made it again today. With half the butter. But King Daddy’s version sure was good.
Tortellini with mushrooms and white wine butter sauce
4 tablespoons butter
12 ounces of Portobello mushrooms, ends trimmed and sliced
¼ cup dry white wine
1 clove of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
Juice of ½ lemon
Salt and pepper
1 9-ounce package of fresh three-cheese tortellini (such as Buitoni)
⅓ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Melt the butter over medium high heat in a large skillet. Add the mushrooms and sauté them until they begin to release their juices. Add the white wine and garlic. Continue cooking until the mushrooms have given up all their liquid. Add the lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.
Bring two quarts of water to a boil in a medium sauce pan. Add the tortellini and cook for 4 minutes, stirring frequently. Drain and add the mushroom mixture to the tortellini. Serve and top with the freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Don't follow the package directions, which say to boil for 7-9 minutes. Four minutes is enough. The tortellini will be mushy if you boil them longer.
King Daddy is not a pesto person. He’s not a pasta person, either. Now that I’m thinking about it I have no idea why I married the man. What do we have in common? In fact, and this is the truth, he just looked at the photo above without reading a single word I had written, and said: “You can have mine.”
Noah is a pesto and pasta person, bless his heart. He still calls them “green noodles” because that’s what he labeled basil pesto and pasta as a kid. But Noah has now selfishly moved away to begin his own life instead of living upstairs in his room forever. I would like to digress for a moment to say it would be totally pathetic if my son came down from his room to get a Dirty Martini and then went back up to play World of Warcraft. I miss him terribly but I am a realist.
Flat iron steak with arugula pesto
So I am now the only one in the house who loves this combination. Which brings me to arugula, which makes an even better pesto than basil and I discovered it completely by accident. You know how you buy a whole bunch of something to use 1/4 cup in a recipe you’re trying and then you realize you have a bushel of whatever it is left? I did that with arugula. Waste not, want not and I made arugula pesto. If you like a slightly bitter, spicy green, this is for you. I combined it with pasta for one Meal for One (I hope King Daddy reads this and feels sorry for me). And then I added it as an accent to flat iron steak because King Daddy will eat dog poo with steak.
But don’t be like King Daddy, hating on the pesto. Be like me. I’m more fun.
Arugula pesto - a different twist on the usual basil version.
6 cups arugula stems removed
1 medium garlic clove
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Combine the arugula, garlic and pine nuts in a food processor. Process until finely chopped. With the processor running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil. If the mixture looks too dry, continue adding additional olive oil until the mixture turns into a sauce.
Put the pesto in a bowl and add the sherry vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the Parmesan cheese. This pesto can be refrigerated for several days.
I seriously would have paid $1 million for these a week ago. That’s how starved I was for a real homegrown tomato.
This has just been a horrifying summer so far. I am having tomato disasters everywhere I turn. So, it started when I couldn’t find my beloved black cherry tomato plants at the Home Depot. I looked at Lowe’s, too. Nothing. So I decided to order some black cherry tomato seeds from the Internet. I will just start my own plants from seed! No. Actually, I did. OMG, does it take a long time to grow a tomato from seed. So, after about a month, I had six plants the size of sewing needles in my handy dandy seed starter sitting by the window near the kitchen. And I left the plastic top off one day, just for a few seconds. The cat ate them.
Plan B. Forget the black cherry tomatoes. I will just plant some regular tomatoes. I buy beautiful strong tomato plants. I plant them. Within days, some horrifying fungal material has sprouted around the plants. They die. Plan C. I will plant more tomatoes. Surely this could not happen twice. It does. Oh, well. Never mind. I will not grow tomatoes this year because now it is late June and surely there will be some at the farmer’s market. There are not. How can there be no tomatoes in late June?
Finally. I found them on Saturday at the Franklin Farmer’s Market. I practically elbowed an elderly woman using a cane aside to get to them. I had no shame. None at all. And I wasn’t alone. Long lines formed at the few stands that had tomatoes. The anxiety was palpable. What if I get to the head of the line just as the last tomato vanishes? I bought more than I needed. So far, I have had three tomato sandwiches, an entire basket of cherry tomatoes and just some plain and delicious slices with a sprinkling of sea salt and pepper.
Next up: Pasta with cherry tomatoes. And then roasted tomatoes for spaghetti sauce. And a caprese salad. And…
Showcase this summer's tomato beauty in a simple pasta dish.
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Juice of one medium lemon
1 ½ cups sugar plum or cherry tomatoes
4 ounces sliced mushrooms
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup additional extra virgin olive oil
½ cup crushed garlic-flavored croutons
8 ounces thin spaghetti
Heat olive oil over medium heat. Add lemon juice, tomatoes and mushrooms. Salt and pepper to taste. Saute the tomatoes until their skins begin to split and the mushrooms until well browned. Take off heat and add additional olive oil.
To prepare pasta, heat a large enough sauté pan to hold the spaghetti plus water to generously cover. Salt water liberally and heat over medium high heat. When water is hot, add pasta, stirring frequently to separate strands of spaghetti. Continue cooking until pasta is cooked to al dente. The water need not boil for the pasta to be cooked through.
Combine pasta with tomato mixture and sprinkle crushed croutons over the top.