Monday, July 30, 2012

Fresh Tomato Sauce for the Lazy Cook

I have always believed that the way to make real tomato sauce is to slowly cook fresh peeled tomatoes, sautéed peppers and onions, plus fresh minced herbs, while channeling an Italian grandmother and sipping a glass of red wine. This past week I discovered there’s a much simpler, lazier way.

Summer has been trolling along in a very unproductive way for me. I’ve barely kept up with the weeds, my running mileage is way down on account of the fact that I hate running when it’s hot and humid (and it’s been six-bajillion degrees and balmy for two months now), and you’ve probably noticed I’ve been neglecting my blogs a bit. No excuses really, just enjoying my kids, my family, my friends, and my air-conditioning. 

So, back to my discovery. In a moment of guilt, I decided that I needed to get my act together and plan some menus so that our dinners would no longer be a mad scramble or a everyone-fend-for-yourself affair as has been most of our meals this summer. I planned pasta with fresh spaghetti sauce for Thursday because our tomatoes are just starting to ripen. Great idea, problem was that I got distracted by a writing deadline, laundry caught on the line in a sudden thunderstorm, and my elderly dog who was struggling more than usual. These were all things that honestly necessitated my attention.  

It was 5:30 when I had time to get dinner going, and we had to be out the door for a kid-activity by 6:30. No time for fresh sauce. Or was there? 

I picked six beautiful tomatoes and decided I didn’t have time to peel them, so I simply cored and seeded them and threw them in the food processor. I processed the tomatoes until no more skins were evident (children are opposed to skins on most fruits and veggies).

I pulled out an onion and pepper and ran to the barn for some garlic cloves that I’d left to drying along with my plans to braid them by their green stalks like I saw on a farm visit last season. (It’s too late now, I discovered as the green stalks are brown and crispy as fallen twigs, alas, maybe next year).  

There wasn’t time to sauté the veggies, so I threw all of them in the food processor along with a handful of fresh basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, and a tiny bit of tarragon. I processed this mess until it was an unrecognizable brownish mass that looked a bit like dog barf. (see pic) I suppose I could have chopped them finely, but that would require a longer cook time and my kids tend to turn their noses up at recognizable vegetables. 

I threw the red and brown purees in a pot on the stove with some salt, pepper, and a can of tomato paste (for thickening) and ten minutes later I had delicious fresh sauce! Really it was beyond yum. The only complaint at dinner came from my oldest who said the sauce was too sweet! Can’t believe I’ve wasted so many hours of my life peeling tomatoes and cooking down my pasta sauce! I think all those Italian grandmas just wanted an excuse to hang out in the kitchen.

I plan to experiment next time by adding some red wine, more garlic, and maybe one of my flavored olive or grapeseed oils. Now that I know it isn’t an all afternoon commitment, I’ll be brewing up fresh sauce on a regular basis.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Magical Beans

Beans, beans, good for your heart, the more you eat, the more fiber and protein you’ll get! OK, so it doesn’t have the same ring as the grade school chant. But those kids were on to something. Beans are good for your heart, and you body too. They are packed with vitamins, minerals, and protein.

I’m going to confess right up front that I am not a bean eater. Never have been. For some reason the pasty texture of a cooked bean, provokes my gag reflex. I can eat green beans (love ‘em), soy beans (they’re fine) and rattlesnake beans (taste like a cross between a sugar snap pea and a green bean and they look like tiny rattlesnakes), but please don’t ever offer me lentil soup or black bean salad. I’ll force it down, but it won’t be pretty. And I want to eat beans. They are one of the power foods. 

My oldest son likes beans so much he eats them cold right out of the can for an after school snack. When he was little he loved kidney beans. He refused most types of meat (except hot dogs, but they don’t really count), so we loaded him up with beans. They were perfect for his little fingers and I didn’t have to cut them in two like his grapes to avoid the “oh-my-god-is-he-gonna-choke” element of feeding small food to small people. 

I love growing beans in my garden. First off, they are crazy-easy to grow. So there’s a great rate of return on your investment. That’s why kindergarten teachers plop them in to the Dixie cups every spring. They’re pretty much a sure thing. This also makes beans an easy organic crop. The price of organic beans isn't that much higher than conventionally grown beans.

You can plant them in the spring, early summer and again in the late summer for a fall crop. I’ve never had much luck with the late summer because the beetles and bugs have laid claim to most of my garden by September. Still, it’s worth trying.

I plant skinny, delicate French filet green beans. Delish. They’ll provide an ample harvest for two or three weeks. They’re low maintenance too. A few runs through weeding as they get started and then they will shade themselves well and deter other weeds.

My other favorite beans to plant are Rattlesnake beans which are runner beans. The difference between “bush” beans and “runner” beans is that you need to provide some kind of climbing structure for your runner beans. I have a neighbor who ties neat vertical strings for her beans to climb. I make a teepee. I make this teepee myself, even though on pretty much every other construction project I defer to my handy husband. This happened quite by accident a few years ago. He never seemed to get around to my building my teepee. So one day I said, "to heck with him," trooped out to the woods, and chose several sturdy fallen branches I tied them together with baling twine I had in the barn. It looks very rustic and real-gardener-like. I love my teepees. The beans are pretty good too.

Once I planted black beans and dried them, but the time it took for them to ripen and then dry, plus the effort it took to shell them was truly too much for me. Besides, beans are cheap. Dried they cost only pennies per serving, and canned, they are still a great deal.

If you’re eating beans for fiber, you’re best bet is navy beans with 9.6g of fiber in a half a cup. Wow. And soybeans are the best for iron with 4.5mg per half cup. Lentils provide nearly half your daily dose of folate, so they’re a good choice too.

One last great bean fact – they last for years when stored in air-tight containers. Archaeologists have even found viable beans while digging, so if you’ve got some beans you bought a year ago when you were on a “health kick”, don’t toss them. And if you never got around to a garden this summer, consider popping a few bean seeds in a pot. You’ve got nothing to lose. Beans grow amazingly quick, certainly that was the inspiration for Jack and the Beanstalk. Kids will enjoy their progress and who knows, maybe they’ll eat one too. Especially if you spin a tale of your own magical beans.