Oh my goodness, it’s August! July came and went like a freight train of heat, humidity, and tomatoes
right through the middle of my life. Wow.
Today marks the first day of school for all the kids and teachers in my town, and with that, the start of my third year gone rogue. No back-to-school anxiety shooting through the roof, no list of Things to Do that will not get beaten until June, no Saturday sweat sessions trying to get my classroom together in time. No new sets of pretty colored markers, no reunions with teammates, no time spent writing 20 promising names on clothes pins, posters, notebooks, and name tags. It still feels kind of strange to me- not to be in the midst of it, greeting a new crew of children whose lives I hoped to inspire (who would ultimately inspire me)- but I am thankful for the level of peace that I feel and the guts I had to summon to walk away. I am also thankful to know that so many of my friends are still carrying the torch, and saving the world one kiddo at a time.
“Well, we just have one question: are you putting nicotine in the food? Crack? All of your dishes are addictive! We love them all! The Mexi lasagna was a huge hit with everyone, those sandwiches were delicious, and the tofu was cooked perfectly! Everything was fantastic, as usual…”
“Thanks so much for being flexible with us! You have helped me and my family in so many ways by providing (and delivering!) such delicious, healthy meals…”
“Thanks again so much for being the food fairy last Sunday after our long drive. The meal was perfect and thoughtful — so nice to have something fresh and fabulous…”
Nowadays, it’s notes like these that light up my face and remind me that I am still making a difference in folks’ lives- just in a different way.
This past Sunday, Adam and I took our sweet time getting to the market. We knew that our focus for the week would be tomatoes, and we have those in spades. We didn’t need to gather much else, so we really just spent some time at Jackson Lowe’s table with Mecca, Adam, and Silas.
This farming family has gorgeous tomatoes coming out their ears,
along with huge watermelons,
and crisp green bell peppers.
We did stroll on by Crack in the Sidewalk Farmlet’s table
and snag some of their silver skin garlic.
It really has little silver sparkles all over the paper! So much fun!
And I was delighted to see Luca in his farmer’s hat
on our way out. He and Lauren of Le Tre Lune always make me smile.
Adam, the muscles of our family, had to make several trips to the car to haul all of our loot. And we had a plan…a plan to make a tomato pie, a southern tradition full of tomatoes, cheese, and mayonnaise layered into a pie crust.
As we are apt to do, we added our own flare- caramelizing onions,
and crisping up bacon
to spiff up our Italian-influenced tomato pie.
We spent our entire Sunday evening in the kitchen, as usual, creating, building flavors, and snapping photos. We roasted a whole chicken.
We employed ingredients lovingly, stratifying our pie…
I even stuffed green peppers, which shall remain pictureless, since they looked so sad and brown upon completion, I deleted all the evidence.
And in the end, I’ll be frank, I was disappointed. The tomato pie, revered by many in the South, is not my cup of tea. Despite our serious efforts to drain the liquid from the tomatoes and compose an actual “pie”, what we got was a big ole’ oozy mess.
The pie crust refused to stay attached to any of the filling. The flavor to me- was like something Paula Deen might make, but on steroids. The tomatoes were not enhanced and shown-off. Instead they felt muddled. The chicken was delicious. But the rest, a pret-ty sad showing.
I share this with you NOT just to write what promises to be the longest blog post in America, but to let you know that we all have tricky times in the kitchen. And because I swore I would share my journey in food. At the end of Sunday night, I had a moment that was remarkably similar to an epiphany I had last summer and wrote about in good and plenty: a story of tomatoes. The date of that post was July 20, 2011- almost exactly one year ago.
I was making it all too complicated.
My whole shtick is to cook fresh, simple food that showcases the season’s treasures. Instead of covering up the tomato, I needed to make it the star. I needed to simplify. I needed to strip on down to the basics. I started Monday morning with just that.
This is the first way I ever loved a tomato. On a bagel with cream cheese and maybe some cucumber.
Growing up, I didn’t like tomatoes except when they were cooked in sauces. So, when I was about 21 and living at my parents’ beach house for the summer, I began slicing big, beautiful New Jersey tomatoes and laying them out on the toaster oven pan. I’d sprinkle them with dried Italian seasonings like parsley and oregano, along with granulated garlic, salt and pepper. Then, I’d bake them for a few minutes in the toaster oven and place them on my bagel, loving their sweet juiciness. This was my breakfast routine for a while. But, as time went on, I did less and less cooking and dressing up of my tomatoes, weening myself off of the doctoring, until I finally embraced them raw by the end of that summer. My love affair with the tomato has only grown since then.
As luck would have it, I only had one client on my docket for Monday, giving me the opportunity to start over. I decided to cook these clients a full dinner- one that really took me back to my roots.
The first chicken dish I ever made that was truly delish. I was about 23 and had zero kitchen knowledge, but somehow, my intuition was blooming way back then. I give you Herb Cream Cheese Stuffed Chicken Breast with Homemade Tomato Sauce, Polenta Cakes, and Roasted Squash.
This sauce is exactly what I needed to make- simple and tomato-centered. It is a variation of my mother’s, and it doesn’t always look exactly the same, but here it is in its most stripped-down, basic, rooted form. I’ve turned out three pots already this week.
7 or 8 large tomatoes plus 1/2 a pint of sun gold baby tomatoes (any variation of tomatoes you have on hand)
1 vidalia onion, diced
1 green pepper, diced (neglected to place it in this photo)
3 large mushrooms (or a handful of smaller ones), diced
6 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 heaping T dried Italian seasoning
1 T sugar
juice of half a lemon
big handful fresh parsley leaves, chopped
2 sprigs basil leaves, ribboned or torn
I always start by drizzling olive oil into a large pot and turning the heat to medium low. I add my diced onions and a pinch of salt and start a big pot of water to boil.
As the onions soften, you have time to dice up your peppers and mushrooms
and make an X in each of your large tomatoes with a sharp paring knife. (You can also peel your tomatoes without making the cuts, but they take a few minutes longer in the boiling water for the skins to begin to peel.)
Once the onions look clear and soft, add your peppers and mushrooms to the pot.
You can turn the heat up to medium and just stir occasionally as the mushrooms break down and release their juices.
Once your water is boiling, add your tomatoes to the pot.
You can do this a few at a time if your pot isn’t large enough to accommodate all of your tomatoes together. Within the first 2 minutes or so, you will start to see the skin cracking.
When each tomato splits, remove it to a bowl of ice water to cool.
Next, you simply pull away the skin like you would a peel from a banana, starting from that X on the bottom.
Chop those tomatoes and place the whole lot of flesh, seeds, and tomato water into a bowl.
If you’re using grape or cherry tomatoes, I’d cut those in half at this point.
Now, to your pot of veggies, you can add your garlic
and stir to incorporate it. After about a minute, carefully add your bowl full of chopped tomatoes. Then, add your dried Italian seasonings, sugar, lemon juice, and a good pinch of salt and pepper.
Stir it all up,
and let that baby simmer. Prepare yourself for your house to smell intensely wonderful for the rest of the day. Stir the sauce now and again, and give it a taste after about 30 minutes. Adjust seasoning if necessary. You should really only have to add a bit more salt or a touch more sugar to bring out the flavor of the tomatoes.
On to the chicken…although bone-less, skinless chicken breast doesn’t boast much flavor, it’s the first cut of chicken I ever utilized. When stuffed and cooked just to 165°, it can be tender, juicy, and yummy.
All you need is:
1 package cream cheese or Neufchatel cheese, softened
3 cloves garlic, pressed
the zest of a lemon and half the juice
a pinch of red pepper flakes
small handful flat leaf Italian parsley leaves, chopped
several basil leaves, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
Just mix all of those goodies up and taste. Adjust seasoning to your liking.
Preheat your oven to 350°. Trim up your chicken breasts and grab a long, thin, sharp knife.
You want to slice a pocket very carefully into your chicken. I find it easiest to start at the top right side and make a slit. Then, continue to make little slices with your knife, moving toward to opposite side, while pulling the pocket open with your left (or non-cutting) hand. Go slowly and methodically. If you slice too deeply or too low, you’ll blow out a whole in the bottom of the breast. I don’t cut all the way down to the pointed tip, just to about 3/4 of the way down.
(Hope you can see what I mean. Taking photos of raw chicken and trying to illustrate a point while by yourself is more than a little tricky!)
Season the chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. Then, use a tablespoon to stuff each breast with the cream cheese mixture.
You lift the top flap, place a spoonful in there with the spoon facing up, and use the top flap to kind of scrape the cheese into the pocket.
Then, you can press down the top edge and try to keep the cheese on the inside. It’s harder to explain than it is to execute!
Place chicken in an oven-safe pan, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle on some paprika from above. Roast for 30 minutes, or until an internal meat thermometer reads 165° in the thickest part of the chicken and the juices run clear. Remove the chicken to a platter and let it rest for 5 – 7 minutes before serving.
This dish would be perfect served over pasta, but my clients are avoiding gluten these days and aren’t loving the Quinoa pasta option. So, I opted for polenta cakes instead- also Italian and yummy. I will save you another long story about my drama with polenta/ grits for now. I may actually write a whole post about it one day, since it’s a topic that has vexed me for months. Suffice it to say that stone ground yellow grits = polenta. And, so you can make polenta soft (just like regular grits), or you can chill the polenta in a pan and cut it to bake or fry.
My grits start with 1 T butter and 2 cloves minced garlic over medium heat.
Once the butter melts and the garlic begins to sizzle around the edges, add 2 Cups milk and 2 Cups water.
With your liquid in the pot,
you want to WHISK in 1 Cup of stone ground grits- or coarse corn meal.
Bring the pot up to a boil,
and then add a good pinch of salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer for about 15 – 20 minutes. You want to stay close by, so you can stir occasionally to prevent the grits from sticking to the bottom of the pot. When your grits are nice and thick and the grains don’t taste too crunchy in your mouth, it will stick to a spoon without falling off.
Then you can add about 1/2 Cup of Parmesan cheese or Pecorino Romano if you like. You can skip the cheese too.
Then, taste and adjust seasoning to your liking.
Spray a glass dish with some cooking spray and then simply turn your polenta out into the pan.
Cover with foil and place in the fridge to chill for at least 3 hours or overnight. (You’ll want to make these early in the day or the day before you want to serve them.)
Once solidified, you can use a biscuit cutter or a knife to cut your polenta into whatever shape you like.
The excess polenta around the edges of your rounds will turn right back into regular grits when warm- so don’t discard! You want to take these guys straight from a chilled state to a hot, nonstick skillet with a tablespoon of butter or a good drizzling of canola oil.
Brown for a few minutes on each side over medium high heat and then drain on a paper towel-lined plate.
When the chicken came out of my oven,
I cranked the temperature to 425°, cut one zephyr squash into half moon shapes, and tossed them in olive oil, salt and pepper. I roasted for about 6- 7 minutes, tossed them, and then let them brown a little bit and become just crisp-tender.
All that was left to do was finish off the sauce! I let mine simmer for at least an hour, but the key is to let it thicken up and give it time enough for the excess liquid to evaporate.
Break out your handy-dandy stick blender and puree away. You can make it as smooth or as chunky as you want. Some folks like to mash the tomatoes with a potato masher or a fork- or just leave it as is.
I prefer to blend it, but to leave some of the chunks for authenticity and texture. Once blended,
add your freshly chopped herbs. Give it one last slurp and make any necessary tweaks to seasoning. It should taste super fresh and straight up tomato-y. The kind of sauce that makes you want to grab a baguette and start dunking, in a private room. Rich in goodness, but not heavy. No frills- all summertime. Now it is your sauce to do with whatever you deem wonderful.
For this particular dish, I placed my chicken on the plate with two slices of polenta and a handful of lightly browned zephyr squash. I topped the chicken with that tomato-licious sauce and FINALLY, I was satisfied.
I packed up this meal for my long-time clients
and took it over to their home. I also brought along a big container full of extra sauce, which my client told me he will be dipping everything in this week. At the end of this tomato journey, I went home and reflected…feeling much better than I had the night before.
About an hour later I got two separate texts- one from each of my client couple- a rare but beautiful happening on a Monday night:
“Yes yes yes. So damn fresh and soooooo delicious. Thanks!”
“Yummy! Good stuff!”
Ahhh, a dinner well-received and eliciting cuss words of celebration. I felt like I achieved my goal of showcasing the simple beauty of the tomato, dialing it way back to my earliest inspirations. As I said, I have made several pots of simple tomato sauce this week, tossing it with pasta, peas and asparagus, giving it to friends, and freezing it to enjoy at a later date. An eggplant awaits me in my crisper…I can sense that it will be breaded and fried and blanketed in tomato sauce. I’ve also been utilizing my tomatoes straight up on sandwiches, on pizzas,
in green salads, in Greek garbanzo bean salads with feta and radishes, in corn and black bean salads, you name it. But, I’m not smothering the tomatoes, I am letting them shine and being thankful for their simple, sweet, tangy glory.
Here’s to positive kitchen times for you- and I hope that maybe something I’ve shared will inspire you to keep it real in your cooking life too.
Happy cooking and eating to you.