Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Picking the Perfect Tomato

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If you had told me a year ago that come next March, I would be nine months pregnant with my very own bouncing baby belly, well, I would have laughed at you. Moi? Pregnant? Doctors have been telling me for YEARS that's never going to happen. I have been blessed cursed given an especially infertile body. Since I was about 16 the message has been clear: NO BABIES. I always thought that when the time came for children, I would just skip the whole heart-rending saga of failed rounds of fertility treatments and adopt.

This does have something to do with tomatoes. I promise.

Have you ever eaten a perfectly ripe heirloom tomato, picked that very morning? I think a ripe heirloom tomato is sure proof that God loves humankind. If we could all just stop fighting wars, destroying the planet, wrecking the economy, and grow tomatoes instead, I think there would be more peace on Earth. The perfume is so sweet, the texture so melting, the taste so intensely pleasurable it's (forgive me) orgasmic. Eat a plate of them, and you'll want to lean back in your chair, close your eyes, and moan with pleasure.

And that's exactly what I did when I ate THE BEST TOMATO SALAD EVER in my life. We were in San Francisco for a week, and we were eating at a restaurant in North Beach. It was early August so we sat outside under twinkly lights drinking California red wine and watching what seemed like the the whole city walk by. And then, this salad: perfectly ripe, thinly sliced red, yellow, orange and black heirloom tomatoes, drizzled with olive oil and mild vinegar, chopped fresh basil and crumbled blue cheese. Really, a very simple salad. But the tomatoes. Oh, the tomatoes. They were blissfully good. There was a lot of sighing. Quite a lot of happy contentment. Maybe even some moaning. And at the end of the night we staggered arm in arm back up the hill to our hotel, tipsy and happy and at peace with the world.

And that was the night the baby was conceived.

Infertile woman conceives baby? Infertile woman eats BEST HEIRLOOM TOMATO SALAD EVER? Coincidence? I THINK NOT. That was one, powerful salad folks. Never underestimate the potency of fresh, local food.

(See? I told you babies and tomatoes had something to do with each-other.)

Since then I have been craving that salad, not only for its magical fertility properties, but also because it was just so good. You know what I found? A good tomato is hard to find. In fact, it's almost impossible to find a really perfect, heirloom tomato. Supermarkets don't carry them. Farmer's markets are better bets, but not always reliable. No: the only was to pick the perfect heirloom tomato, to have it fresh and alive and glowing for your table, is to grow it yourself.

So that's what I'm going to do. And you should too.

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Picking the Perfect Tomato: Grow Your Own

Tomatoes can be grown anywhere, in almost any climate. And you don't need to have a big yard or live on a rural farm to have some fabulous tomato plants. If you live in a small apartment in the middle of the city, you can still grow tomatoes. All you need is a sunny spot (maybe your deck, patio, rooftop, or a sunny window), some seeds, and an an EarthTainer, which you can make yourself with supplies from your local hardware store.

I myself have a yard, but I'm going to be using the EarthTainers, if simply because they are so simple to use and conserve water so efficiently (we are in a drought, after all!). I am also going to be buying my tomato seeds from TomatoFest.com. I'm not affiliated with this website in anyway, I just think they are a great, local company, and I really love what they are doing! They have a fantastic selection of heirloom tomatoes seeds, with great pictures and descriptions of each variety. They also have some great pages on how to plant and cultivate your seeds, and how to care for and maintain your plants.

So, what will be growing in my garden this summer? And what should you grown? Well, it depends on what you want, how ambitions your plans are, and how much space you have. I myself want a good variety of salad tomatoes: reds, oranges, yellows, and blacks. I also want a few kinds of cherry tomatoes. Lastly, I love, love, love making my own marinara sauce, so I want a few kinds of "paste" tomatoes so we can enjoy homemade pasta sauce all winter.

Below, I am going to share what I am ordering, but if you are feeling overwhelmed by all the possibilities and don't know where to start, TomatoFest.com offers a bunch of different seed collections, including a Short Season Collection for those growing in cooler climates, a Children's Seed Collection full of varieties sure to please kids, and a Patio Seed Collection of varieties most suited to growing in containers in limited spaces.

I myself want some really fabulous gourmet heirloom tomatoes, and I've got the space to grow A LOT of kinds, so I'm going to be ambitious this summer. (What I really want is a full garden, but being nine months pregnant, I don't think I am up to digging up the law this year and tending an enormous garden with a newborn. So tomatoes is all I get for now).

First, I want the classic heirloom tomato: the brandywine. Brandywine varieties are offered by most heirloom seed companies, and most strains seem to date from the 1880's and/or Amish country. I think I'm going with the Brandywine OTV..

I'm also going with the Black Zebra and the Green Zebra tomatoes, the yellow beefstake Hillbilly tomato, and the Amana Orange.

For Cherry tomatoes, we are going with the Blondkopfchen yellow tomatoes, and Camp Joy red cherry tomatoes.

Finally, for canning and sauce making I am going with the classic Amish Paste and the Italian San Marzano Redorta, as well as Costoluto Genovese. Finally, for making sun-dried tomatoes I am going with Principe Borghese.

So, that's me! (What? You're still here? Bravo!) How about you?

Also, this is part of the "Fight Back Friday" event over at Food Renegade. Enjoy!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Gluten Free Girl Scout Cookies - Thin Mints!

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Once upon a time in a faraway land, I too was once a wee little girl scout. And like any good little girl scout, I sold my fair share of girl scout cookies.

No. Wait a minute. I sold WAY more than my fair share.

In fact, being the competitive, over-achieving fiery little red-head that I was, I sold thousands and thousands of boxes every year. I sold so many boxes of girl scout cookies that (gasp!) they gave me awards and my whole troop went to Maui for three weeks, free. (That's a true story btw. My troop really did go to Hawaii off the proceeds from our cookie sales. Twice!).

I've always loved girl scout cookies, and I bet you do too. And those little girls hawking their totally over-priced cardboard processed confections? Irresistible little salesmen. No wonder Thin Mints are the best selling cookies in America after Oreos and Chips Ahoy! It's the marketing.

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The thing about girl scout cookies is, those processed factory cookie-like-substances are totally crammed with hydrogenated trans-fats, preservatives, and kooky unpronounceable ingredients. Definitely not natural. Certainly not healthy. And if you can't eat gluten like me? Well, you try explaining to an adorable 9 year old girl scout that you can't buy her cookies because the cookies will kill you. It's no fun. You can't even eat the stupid cookies as a midnight secret indulgence.

UNTIL NOW! I came home the other night to Nate, watching TV, covertly eating his way though a box of thin mints. I had a surge of the familiar "it's not fair!" feeling wash over me. Because it's NOT fair. Some people get to eat boxed $5 girl scout cookies. And some people don't.

Some people get to eat these instead.

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I think these people are luckier, because these cookies are as good as the "real" thing. In fact, I think they're better. A light crunchy cookie, dipped in rich minty chocolate. They taste fantastic, and as an added bonus, better for you. So, here you go! Enjoy the recipe! I know I did.

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Gluten Free Girl Scout Cookies - Thin Mints!
by me

makes 25 - 30 cookies
Active time: 30 minutes
Total time: 4 hours

I struggled to get a good recipe for these cookies, and I started by trying to adapt some of the other "home-made" girl-scout recipes out there (some of which call for box cake mix! Ug!). The results were.... awful. Some recipes just do not work gluten-free. Nate and I agreed the first couple of batches tasted like grainy mint flavored dog biscuits.

After enough failed batches, I finally decided to just start from scratch and make my own recipe. I wanted a cookie with the crunch and lightness of the original, but, you know, without the wheat. These cookies? Fantastic. The chocolate? Wow.

Please keep the following two rules in mind:

1. USE GOOD CHOCOLATE. My first batch, I used cheap milk chocolate. Big mistake. So yucky. Please, learn from my mistakes.

2. Mint flavoring and peppermint oil are NOT the same thing. You MUST use peppermint oil (I found some at the health food store), because mint extract/flavoring have alcohol and water in them which = seized up chocolate. And that just leads to tears and ruined chocolate. Please learn from my mistakes and get this!

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INGREDIENTS
2/3 cup brown rice flour
2/3 cup sweet rice flour
4 tbs cocoa powder
2 tbs corn starch
1 tsp baking powder

1/2 cup butter (1 stick), room temperature
1 cup + 1/4 sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp mint extract (or peppermint oil)
1 egg

1 lb fine quality semi-sweet chocolate
1 tsp peppermint oil


First, mix together your dry ingredients - the brown and sweet rice flours, cocoa powder, corn starch, and baking powder.

In a stand mixer, beat butter on high until pale and creamy, about 2 minutes. Add in sugar, and beat on high until smooth, another 2 minutes (this aerates the dough and keeps it from getting too heavy).

Add egg, vanilla extract, and mint extract, and continue to beat until egg is incorporated, and batter is light and smooth, 2-4 minutes.

With mixer on low, fold in flour mixture until just combined. You can even stop the mixer once large crumbs form, and mix the last bit by hand with a spatula. You don't want to overmix, or the dough will become too heavy. Dough will be soft and pliable.

Remove dough from mixer bowl and place on a piece of wax paper, form into a log about 1" thick, and roll it up in the wax paper. Set in freezer for 1-2 hours, until dough is very firm (or, you know, however long you want. Make these next year if you want).

Are we back yet aleady? Ok! Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

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Pull your dough out of the freezer, and cut it into thin slices - no more than 1/4 on an inch thick.


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Line a cookie pan with parchment paper. Bake for 12 - 15 minutes. Cookies should be crunchy, but not burned.


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Get out your fancy chocolate. Can you tell I really splurged?


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Melt the chocolate in the microwave in 30 second increments, until it's smooth, stirring between sessions. Add 1 tbs peppermint oil (NOT mint extract. Mint extract bad! Will make chocolate seize and get hard).


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Now place a cookie in the chocolate.


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Gently turn the cookie over so it is coated with chocolate.


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Pick the cookie back up with a fork, and gently tap the fork against the side of the bowl, so any excess chocolate dribbles back into the bowl.


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Place cookies onto parchment paper, and let dry (you can refrigerate them or freeze them to help the chocolate faster).

Enjoy!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Healthier Beef Stroganoff

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I was talking on my mom to the phone this evening when she offered to bring me some chicken soup. You may or may not recall, but I have a cold. A bad cold. A cold so bad abd miserable that it could very well be, well, a man cold. Can I please get someone to give ME a little bell, rub my head, and say "poor little bunny?" Please? hello? Hm.

Anyway, she offered to bring me some soup, but when I told her that I had just bought a ton of stuff to make beef stroganoff because I had to have some, she dissolved into laughter. Back in the day, one sweltering August night when my mom was 40 weeks pregnant with me, my due date actually, she woke up in the middle of the night and HAD TO HAVE BEEF STROGANOFF. And well, pregnant women have craved crazier things. So she got up, in the middle of the night, and started cooking. And cooked for hours.

An then she went into labor.

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And she kept cooking. There was NO WAY she was going to go to the hospital without finishing that stroganoff. She didn't even tell my dad she had gone into labor, because if he knew he would, I don't know, take her to the hospital? Because she was having a baby? I guess she just really wanted that stroganoff.

I never knew about that story, but I guess the apple doesn't fall far from the tree: since I have been pregnant I have suddenly been hit with crazy beef stroganoff cravings, even though I haven't had it in years and years. In fact, the last time I had this dish I didn't even like it: It was heavy and starchy and flavorless. It was the epitome of heavy 1950's cooking, with big chunks of meat paired with heavy starches and fats. No veggies. No flavor. No complexity.

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This recipe is different. It's an updated version of the old classic and it packs a lot of punch. In the old days you used a big chunk of cheap meat and braised it for hours to tenderize it, then you slathered it with sour cream and plopped it on top of some egg noodles. Here we use a more tender cut, but we use less meat and more mushrooms, and we sear it quickly. The sauce is really rich and complex. It's so good I almost want to forgo the meat altogether and make this vegetarian. And finally, I am serving it over whole grain brown rice noodles with broccoli. Gluten-free, and better for you!

Now let's just keep our fingers crossed that I don't go into labor the next time I make this!

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Healthier GF Beef Stroganoff

Adapted from Bon App├ętit
Serves 4 - 6
Cooking time: 30-40 minutes


Ok! You will need this stuff:
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You need 1 lb brown rice fusilli (or other small curly noodle) 1 lb broccoli florets, 1 lb baby bella mushrooms (or other small brown mushroom, such as crimini) 3/4 lb tender beef such as tenderloin, 1/2 cup butter (1 stick), a yellow onion, fresh dill, beef stock (use GF vegetable stock if you can't find GF beef stock), sour cream, dijon mustard, and congac.


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I have this problem where I forget to put stuff in the picture. So please, don't forget the congac. It's like a secret weapon. Get a baby bottle if you have to, or you can substitute sherry or vermouth. But really, this ingredient MAKES the sauce.

Ok! First, prep your ingredients. This dish cooks fast, and you will be very sorry if your onions are burning while you are quartering a lb. of mushrooms. So!


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Cut the mushrooms into quarters. Really big ones can be cut into slices.


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Chop up 1/2 of the yellow onion


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Now salt and pepper your beef, and trim off any excess fat.


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And slice into small pieces, about 1" - 2" long.


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Heat 2 tbs of butter in a heavy skillet, until the butter bubbles and froths, and just starts to get golden. We want it hot. Then add the beef in a single layer. You don't want the pieces touching. Cook in batches if you have to.


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Cook the beef until one side has just browned, then flip the pieces over. You want them to be caramelized on the outside, but only medium on the inside, so it stays tender. Once they are browned on both sides, remove the beef from the pan and set aside in a bowl or on a plate.


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Add 2 tbs butter and the chopped onion to the pan. Scrape up any browned bits left over from the beef. Cook for 2 minutes, until the onions are golden. Then add the mushrooms. The mushrooms will begin to release their water. Let cook until the water has mostly evaporated, about 14 minutes.


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Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to a boil, and cook the noodles until al dente. I like to throw the broccoli in during the last 2 minutes of the cooking the noodles. Strain, and add 4 tbs of butter.


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Mix it all up, and set aside.


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By now our mushrooms have simmered down. Let's add 1 cup of beef stock. If you can't find any GF beef stock, it's ok to use vegetable or chicken.


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Now for the SECRET INGREDIENT. It's cognac. It's SO GOOD. Please don't skip, if at ALL possible. Really.


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Let the broth and cognac boil down until the sauce just coats the mushrooms, about 14 minutes.


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Now add 3/4 cup sour cream and 1 tbs Dijon mustard. I was going to use yogurt.

But I chickened out.

Sorry.


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Remember the beef we made? Add it into the sauce now.


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Top with 1 tbs chopped dill. Let sauce simmer a bit to warm up the beef, but not TOO long. We want it to stay tender.


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Serve atop of the buttered noodles/broccoli.

Enjoy!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Lemon Cheesecake Disaster

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I think I have a nemesis.

It's Cheesecake.

It hates me.

I CANNOT WIN!

I'm going to go wallow in the pits of despair now. Goodbye FOREVER. Really.

Ok, maybe not. But seriously, I tried to make cheesecake today. I was so excited about sharing this lemony cheesecake with you. It took me three weeks to assemble all the ingredients (not because it was especially exotic. More because I am disorganized and could not seem to get 4 boxes of cream cheese together). And it was a total disaster. And you know what? Cheesecakes have always been a disaster. They crack, they burn, they sink in the middle, they don't gel up, the water bath breaks through the foil and turns the crust into goopy goo. Le sigh.


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I'll spare you the gory blow by blow, let's just say that everything that could have possibly gone wrong did. The texture was too soft, it burned, the crust was soggy, blah blah blah.

Well, better luck next time I guess. :(

Monday, March 9, 2009

Giada's Salmon Al Cartoccio, or, Salmon Baked in Foil

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I don't even know how to start this blog post. Should I start with the fact that I come from a salmon lovin' family? (I do). Or the fact that Nate hates salmon passionately? (He does). Or that I read somewhere that Omega-6 fish oils help prevent stretch marks? (I wish).

Ok, let's start here: I have an announcement to make. I'm pregnant! And by that, I mean, I am REALLY, REALLY pregnant. Like, eight and a half months pregnant. Surprise!

These days it's getting so I can't even do the dishes without my baby belly bumping into the counter, and there has been more than one picture where the belly has snuck into the bottom of the frame. Sneaky, sneaky belly. It's subversive, I tell you.

The reason we are cooking salmon today is today I was examining the baby belly in the mirror, and in one of those horror moments (cue the violins and the shrieking), I realized that a red angry line had snaked it's way across the bottom of the belly. Yep. That's right folks. I HAVE STRETCH MARKS. Well, I have one stretch mark. It's actually not even that big. It's actually only about 3mm long. BUT STILL. IT'S THERE. With six weeks left to go, I suddenly have visions of a tiger striped abdomen dancing through my head and the spectre of never being able to wear a bikini again (ha! Because I TOTALLY put my fat-tuesday-chocolate-cookie-loving tush in bikinis ALL THE TIME before I got pregnant. OR NOT.)

Anyway, back to the point. After some frantic "stretch mark prevention" googling, I learned that besides generously anointing the belly with bio-oil, drinking lots of water, and submitting to laser surgery, you can supposedly ward off stretchmarks by eating lots and lots of fatty omega-3 fish oils.

Friends, that I can do.

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I bring you Giada's Salmon Al Cartoccio. So flaky. So tender. So flavorful. The first time I made this I was really skeptical about salmon and tomatoes together. Don't be. It's really good. And is the foil really neccesary? Oh yes it is. The salmon cooks by steaming in the foil. That's where the tenderness comes from.

So whether you need to ward off some stretch marks like me, or if you just want the health benefits of Omega-3's and lycopene, Mmm, this is a great recipe.

Giada's Salmon Al Cartoccio

Every time I make something to show you, I am always amazed by how simple it is. Is this really all that goes into this meal? You bet. So. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

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You will need 4 salmon fillets (I used two and saved 1/2 the sauce for next time), 1 14oz can of FIRE ROASTED tomatoes, 2 shallots, 1/2 a lemon, olive oil, oregano, thyme, kosher salt, and cracked pepper. Like my decorative rug? It's hiding my dryer.

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Start with this. You don't have to buy any particular brand, though I do like that this one is organic. I hear Hunt's makes some mean fire-roasted tomatoes too. Try them. They're the best.

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Drain the tomatoes of excess water, and put them in a small bowl.

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I love shallots. Use them if you can get them. They really do make this taste special.

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Now chop those shallot up finely, and add them to the tomatoes.

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Now it's time for some olive oil. Put in 2 tbs of olive oil.

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Then add the juice of 1/2 a lemon. I love this lemon juicer. Does anyone know where I can find another one? Mine's wearing out.

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Now add 1 tsp oregano and one tsp thyme.

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And don't forget 1 tsp salt and some cracked pepper.

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Now mix all that goodness up. You are done with the sauce!

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Now take your salmon filet and put it on a piece of foil. Drizzle it with a bit of olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

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Top generously with the tomato sauce. Mmmm..

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Fold the foil up into little airtight packets and stick them in the over for 25 minutes.

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Open carefully - It's hot!

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Plate and enjoy!