November 06, 2007

Tomato Trivia

In the beginning, tomatoes grew as wild, cherry-size berries in the South American Andes, but the fruit, as we know it today, was developed in Mexico where it was known as tomatil & traveled to Europe by boat with the returning conquistadors.

Upon arrival in Italy, the heart-shaped tomato was considered an aphrodisiac, thus tomato in Italian, poma amoris, means "love apple." Before modern canning methods were available, Italians dried tomatoes on their tile roofs for use in winter. Nowadays, sundried tomatoes (pomodori secchi in Italian) are not as popular in Italy as they are in the US where they have quickly become a favorite of home cooks.

Up until the end of the 18th century, physicians warned against eating tomatoes, fearing they caused not only appendicitis but also stomach cancer from tomato skins adhering to the lining of the stomach. On September 26, 1820 Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson proved tomatoes non-poisonous & safe for consumption when he stood on the steps of the Salem courthouse & bravely consumed an entire basket of tomatoes with no adverse effects. His grandstanding attracted a crowd over over 2,000 people who were certain he was committing public suicide. North America's love affair with the tomato was off & running.

Botanically speaking, the tomato is a fruit & can be further classified as a berry since it is pulpy & has edible seeds. In 1893, an importer claimed the tomato as a fruit in order to avoid vegetable import tariffs imposed by the US. This dispute led to the Supreme Court ruling for taxation purposes that the tomato be classified as a vegetable, since it was primarily consumed in the manner of a vegetable rather than that of a fruit.

No other vegetable or fruit is more widely used nor consumed than the tomato. The tomato is the fruit of choice for 85 percent of the 30 million home gardeners. Each man, woman & child in America consumes almost 80 pounds of tomatoes every year.

California is clearly number one nationally in processed tomato production, growing 9 out of every 10 tomatoes processed in the US. California's tomato season is in its peak from July through September when harvesters run 24 hours a day. The season, however, actually runs a full 6 months, beginning in June and running all the way through November.

California sun-dried tomatoes are the ultimate ingredient. Tomatoes are washed, sorted, cut & placed on redwood trays to dry naturally under the California sun. The result is a brilliant red, intensely flavored ingredient. Sixteen pounds of fresh tomatoes are used to produce one pound of sun-dried tomatoes! Imported or dehydrated tomatoes cannot deliver the exceptional flavor perfected under the California sun.

October 10, 2007

Pumpkin 101

The pumpkin originated in central America. It isrelated to squash, cucumbers & cantaloupes; & is a member of the vine crops family called cucurbits. Although the pumpkin is often grouped into the vegetable family it is technically a fruit. The name pumpkin originated from "pepon" - the Greek word for large melon.

Native American Indians grew pumpkins for food long before any European explorers arrived. Columbus carried pumpkin seeds on his return trips to Europe, but the pumpkins were used to feed pigs. Long before the discovery of corn, Native Americans depended on pumpkins to help them through the lengthy winters. Over the centuries, they found many ways to enjoy the sweet inner meat of this nutritious winter squash: baked, boiled, roasted, fried, parched or dried. They added pumpkin blossoms to soups & stews, turned dried pumpkin pieces into rich flour and munched on the seeds as a tasty snack.

  • Pumpkin seeds have been found in ancient Asian ruins & in prehistoric cliff dwellings in Colorado. Native Americans called pumpkins "isoquotum squash".
  • They flattened strips of pumpkins, dried them & made mats. Native Americans used pumpkin seeds for food & medicine.
  • In early colonial times, pumkins were used as an ingredient for the CRUST of pies, not the filling.
  • Colonists sliced off pumpkin tips; removed seeds and filled the insides with milk, spices & honey. This was baked in hot ashes and is the origin of pumpkin pie.
  • Pumpkins were once recommended for removing freckles & curing snakebites.
  • This fruit is 90% water. They range in size from under one pound to over 1,000 pounds. The largest pumpkin ever grown was 1,689 pounds.
  • Pumpkins are used to make soups, pies & breads. The largest pumpkin pie ever made was over five feet in diameter & weighed over 150 pounds. It used 80 pounds of cooked pumpkin, 36 pounds of sugar, 12 dozen eggs and took six hours to bake.
  • The Connecticut field variety is the traditional American pumpkin. Eighty percent of the pumpkin supply in the US is available in October.
  • Pumpkins are used for feed for animals.
  • Pumpkin flowers are edible.

PUMPKIN SEEDS can be roasted as a snack. Scoop seeds out of pumpkin. Seperate & discard pulp. Thoroughly wash seeds, then spread them out onto a cookie sheet. Sprinkle generously with salt. Put into oven and bake at 350-degrees for approximately 20 minutes. Check every five minutes & stir, adding more salt or to taste. Once the insides are dry, the seeds are done. WARNING: When checking, allow your sample to cool before tasting!

PUMPKIN PUREE? Select a ripe & firm medium-sized pumpkin. Cut open the pumpkin and remove the seeds & strings. Cut the pumpkin into 4-to-8 pieces. Place the pieces of pumpkin onto a large baking pan that you have lined with aluminum foil. Bake in the oven at 375-degrees for 1-1/2 hours or until the pulp is soft. Remove the pulp from the rind with a spoon & discard the rind. Blend the pulp until smooth with a blender, food processor or mixer. To create a really thick puree, place the pulp into a cheesecloth & squeeze out any excess water.

September 23, 2007

Homemade Tortilla Chips 101

Who isn't familiar with a tortilla chip? Although invented in Los Angeles in the late 1940s, tortilla chips are considered to be Mexican food. A tortilla chip is made from a tortilla - corn tortillas are usually used, but some folks prefer chips made from flour tortillas. The tortillas are cut into wedges which are then fried or baked (for a more healthy alternative). Gourmet food shops are likely to also carry tortilla chips made from more exotic cornmeals - such as blue or white.

Nothing could be better than homemade tortilla chips! They usually disappear faster than the homemade salsa. Better yet, you have total control over the level of salt and spices.

Before getting started, you need to make two decisions.
  • First, do you want corn tortilla chips or flour tortilla chips? Corn tortilla chips are great with spicy foods like salsas and bean dips. Flour tortilla chips are better with sweet dishes such as fruit salsas or a cream cheese dip.
  • Second, are you going to fry your chips or bake them? Among those that preferred baking their chips, reasons for the preference related to health and ease.
Now go out and buy a package or two of your favorite tortillas. Or go all out and make your own tortillas.

Fried Tortilla Chips: Get out a sharp knife or pizza wheel and cut each of your tortillas into pizza-shaped wedges. To speed things up, stack the tortillas in groups of three or four and cut at one time.
Fry your wedges in vegetable oil over medium-high heat for about a minute until golden brown and crispy. Use a slotted spoon to pull the chips out , then place on a plate lined with paper towels to drain. While the chips are still hot, salt to taste.

Baked Tortilla Chips: Lightly brush both sides of your tortillas with your preferred oil - either vegetable or olive (another option is to spray your baking sheets with a nonstick spray like Pam). Before baking you will need to cut your tortillas into wedges and season. There are two ways of getting the job done - your seasoning for the chips is a major factor.

Spice, then Slice: Once your tortillas are coated with the oil, sprinkle them lightly with your selected seasoning(s)/topping(s). Get out a sharp knife or pizza wheel and cut each of your tortillas into pizza-shaped wedges. (Depending on what you've sprinkled on the tortillas, it might not be possible to stack them in groups of three or four and cut at one time.) Place the wedges in a single layer on your baking sheets.

Slice, then Spice: Get out a sharp knife or pizza wheel and cut each of your tortillas into pizza-shaped wedges. To speed things up, stack the tortillas in groups of three or four and cut at one time. Place the wedges in a single layer on your baking sheets,then sprinkle lightly with your selected seasonings.

Place the wedges in a single layer on your baking sheets. Bake for 10-to-15 minutes in a 350 degree oven, until the chips are crisp and light-golden brown. Flip the chips over halfway through the baking time. When baking your chips for the first time, keep a careful eye on them during the last 5-7 minutes as ovens cook differently - they burn easily.

Suggested Seasonings for Your Baked Tortilla Chips: Corn chips are great with just a little salt or seasoning salt. Flour tortilla chips also work well with salt.....but try them with sugar to satisfy that sweet tooth.
  • Salt (table salt or sea salt)
  • Chili powder
  • Salt & chili powder
  • Salt, chili powder & onion powder
  • Chili powder, garlic powder & cumin
  • Cumin, chili powder & salt
  • Cumin, oregano & paprika
  • Paprika, cayenne & chili powder
  • Salt, red pepper, cumin & curry
  • Chili powder, salt, crumbled dried oregano & Monteray Jack cheese

More Variations for Your Homemade Tortilla Chips
--Brush the top of each chip with fresh lime juice; then lightly sprinkle with chili powder and salt. (Slice, then Spice Method)
--If you love hummus, consider substituting pita bread for your tortillas..........and making pita chips. Yum!

Gourmet tortilla chips, anyone?
--Crush 1 or 2 cloves of garlic and mix with olive oil before lightly brushing the tortillas. Sprinkle the chips lightly with salt and bake.
--Finely chop fresh herbs of your choice (such as cilantro, dill, basil, parsley) with olive oil before lightly brushing the tortillas and baking.

Feeling like a sweet treat?
--Lightly brush flour tortillas with butter before baking. Once they've cooled, sprinkle with powdered sugar.
--Lightly brush flour tortillas with butter, lightly sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon, then bake.
--For the chocoholics out there, lightly brush flour tortillas with butter before baking. Once they've cooled, sprinkle with a mixture of powdered sugar and chocolate milk powder. 

August 26, 2007

Grilled Fruits 101

Any fruit - even watermelon! - can be grilled. Firm fruits (like apples, pineapples and pears) are easy to grill. Softer fruits (like peaches, plums, oranges and mango) require more attention when since they cook quickly and, if overcooked, become mushy. Basically, the softer fruit need only be heated, rather than

How to Prepare Your Fruit:

  • To prepare most fruits for grilling - such as plums, apples, peaches, apricots and pears - simply cut in half and then remove the pit or core. Pineapples and oranges do best if cut into ½ inch slices. Unpeeled bananas and plantains can be grilled whole or split in half lengthwise. Firm melons can be cubed or cut into
    wedges. Smaller fruit, such as strawberries,should be left whole.
  • Once your fruits are cut and exposed to the air they can turn brown quickly and lose nutrients, so prepare them right before grilling.
  • Fruits can be grilled with their skins on. In fact, for softer fruit - such as peaches and plums - the skin helps hold them together and maintain their shape.
  • Larger pieces of fruit can be placed directly on the grill. Smaller pieces and soft fruit can be placed on skewers or in a grill basket. (If using bamboo skewers, remember to soak them in water for at least 20 minutes to prevent them from burning).
  • Baste your fruit lightly with melted butter or a vegetable oil - or spray your grill with a non-stick cooking spray - to avoid having your fruit stick to the grill.
  • Grill your fruits on an indirect heat (i.e., use coals that have begun to die out or place your fruit on the outer edges of the grate). Be sure to clean your grill with a wire brush before cooking your fruit (the delicate flavor of the fruit would be overpowered by any remaining flavors of your steak or fish).
  • Their high water content can make your grilled fruit VERY hot. Avoid serious burns to your mouth by letting the fruit cool before eating.

Ideas to Get You Started:

  • Baste your fruit with butter or oil, then sprinkle lightly with cinnamon to enhance its flavor.
  • Lightly brush pineapple slices with olive oil, then sprinkle with a little salt to intensify the flavor.
  • To add a little extra sweetness, sprinkle a bit of brown sugar on your fruit immediately after removing it from the grill. Or try turbinado sugar.
  • You chile heads out there might prefer to sprinkle your grilled fruit with some chile powder.
  • Top your grilled fruit with some yogurt for a great breakfast! Grilled apples are great with pork or chicken; try peaches or nectarines with fish. Most fruits work well with lamb.
  • Grilled peaches and pineapples make a nice side for a grilled steak. Or try dicing them and using them for a fruit salsa!
  • Brush your pear with lemon juice; when grilled, add to a green salad.
  • Grill your lemon halves for a few minutes before squeezing them onto your grilled fish.
  • Once you have your plums halved and pitted, basted with oil, honey and orange juice. Seal in heavy duty foil and grill for 5 to 10 minutes.
  • Mix blueberries, strawberries and halved peaches; baste with lemon juice and sprinkle with brown sugar. Seal in heavy duty foil and grill. Yum!
  • Got leftovers? They can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two days and served warm or chilled (as a side dish or dessert).

Ideas to End Your Meal:

  • Grilled fruits are a perfect dessert for your barbeque. They make a great topping for your favorite vanilla ice cream (or frozen yogurt).
  • Or serve that grilled fruit with cheese and crackers. If you're a chocoholic (like me), add some dark or bittersweet chocolate.
  • Crack a coconut open and slice into wedges. Grill for a total of 10 to 15 minutes, making sure to lightly brown both white sides. Once it's cooled, dip the coconut into melted chocolate (of course, I prefer dark). It reminds me of one of my favorite candy bars.

August 11, 2007

Hail to Herbs

According to Wikipedia, herbs are seed-bearing plants without woody stems, that die down to the ground after flowering. They have a variety of uses, including culinary and medicinal. Culinary herbs typically make use of the green, leafy part of the plant, whereas medicinal herbs make use of the roots, flowers, seeds, root bark, inner bark, berries and sometimes other portions.

Usage: Culinary herbs are probably the most useful to herb gardeners. They have long been used to add flavor to soups, stews, dressings, sauces and salads. Because of their intensity, they are generally added in small quantities. Culinary herbs used most often include parsley, sage, chives, thyme, savory, marjoram, and basil.

For centuries, medicinal herbs have been thought to have curative powers. Pharmacists kept them in dried form for year-round use. Herbs were the principal, if not the only, medicines used in many countries. Although not used as often today due to advanced medical technology, some herbs have been recognized to have healing properties.

Availability: Herbs are available in dried or fresh forms. Some,like chives, are also sold frozen. Fresh herbs can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days - wrap in a dampened paper towel and seal in a zip-lock bag. Dried herbs are available year-round, and have a stronger, more concentrated flavor than the fresh herbs. Store dried herbs in an airtight container and keep in a cool, dark place for up to 6 months.

Growing & Harvesting: People have grown their own herbs for thousands of years. They are small in size, making them ideal for indoor herb gardens or other places where space is at a premium.

Regardless of how you preserve them, most herbs are at their peak flavor just before flowering so this is the best time to pick them. Cut shortly after the the morning sun, just after the dew has dried, as the herbs are most potent then. Never pick herbs in wet or humid conditions. Wash herbs, with the leaves on the stems, lightly in cold running water to remove any soil, dust, bugs, or other foreign objects. Drain thoroughly on absorbent towels.

Preserving: Freezing is the best way to preserve herbs. Although freezing and infusing in oil or vinegar are better methods of preservation, many gardeners prefer drying because of ease.

Freezing: There is an easy freezing method. Chop the leaves and place 1 Tbsp. into each section of an ice cube tray. Add 1 Tbsp. of water to each section, and freeze. Once frozen solid, place your herbal ice cubes in a plastic bag or other airtight container. Take out as many "cubes" as needed when you are cooking - do NOT refreeze herbs!

Infusing: Preserve your herbs in olive oil or vinegar, either individually or as mixed herbs. It is not the herbs themselves that are preserved, but rather the flavour and aroma since these are rapidly absorbed by the liquid. These are great for flavouring salads, sauces and other dishes.

Drying: To air-dry, cut the sprigs several inches in length and remove the bottom leaves to expose a few inches of bare stem. Gather into small, loose bunches---allowing room around the leaves for air to circulate. Using string or rubber bands, tie stems together very tightly since stems will shrink. Hang the bundles upside down in a dark, warm, dry, well-ventilated place (an attic is ideal). Leaves are ready when they feel dry and crumbly (about 1 to 2 weeks). To keep the dust and bugs out of your herbs while drying, place a paper bag over them. Just make sure they are tied in bundles small enough so they aren't touching the sides of the bag when covered. Tie the end of the bag closed. For ventilation, punch air holes in the sides.

Herbs can also be dried by simply laying them on a rack in a dark cupboard for a few weeks. Open the doors periodically to prevent moisture from developing. When they are dry enough to rustle break them into small pieces and store in airtight containers.

If no such place is available, dry your herbs in the oven! Cover a rack with aluminum foil and lay your herbs atop it in a single layer. Set the oven to its lowest temperature and place the rack in the oven. Leave the door of the oven slightly ajar for air circulation. Turn the herbs every 1/2 hour until they are dry and crumbly.

Your microwave can even be used to quickly dry the herbs! However,use caution and check your microwave manual for cautions regarding drying herbs. Arrange a single layer of herbs between 2 microwave-safe paper towels. Microwave on HIGH for 2 to 3 minutes; checking frequently to make sure they are not scorching. If herbs are not brittle and dry, microwave on HIGH for another 15 seconds. A dehydrator or a flower press are other options to drying your herbs.