How to: Make Homemade Tomato Sauce from the Garden

Tomato Zeal (noun): an April/May induced state of fervent excitement for growing tomatoes that causes people to have 2-3 times as many plants as needed without foreseeing the future consequences of an amount of tomatoes that becomes unsustainable to stay on top of.

I am a victim of tomato zeal.  Every year.  Last year, I grew 4 tomato plants, moderately sustainable.  This year, the zeal possessed me to plant 8.  Yeah, I know, 8 plants for 2 people.  The main way that I convinced myself that I could handle this many tomatoes was to learn how to make fresh tomato sauce from them.  I can make tomato sauce from a can of tomatoes, but all freshness?  That was a challenge that I couldn’t pass up.

So, a little research entailed.  A 2009 article from the San Francisco Chronicle (“From Vine to Freezer”) helped me get the basic technique and proportions, then, the sauce went with the imagination.

This recipe is perfect for using up unloved, neglected tomatoes or brand new ones.  In short, it is the best way to temper tomato zeal.

Printable: Homemade Tomato Sauce from the Garden

We’ll start with tomatoes.  The rounder the easier it will be to take off the peel, but heirlooms have an unbeatable flavor.  In the end, the peel comes off even the wild-shaped ones.

This one is old.  Perfect for tomato sauce the ultimate don’t judge a tomato by its peel.

To get the peel to come off easier, we have to score each tomato.  This means make and X with a knife on the bottom.  (If you have a food mill, you can skip this step.)

X marks the spot.

Some larger heirloom tomatoes may need a 6-pointed star because they are too good for an X.

We’re going to dunk these tomatoes in boiling water for about 45 seconds.  Just enough to blanch them.

The peel will start to roll up, the tomato may look like it’s about to burst.  Kind of like this.

That’s your cue to take ‘um out with a slotted spoon and place them in a colander to cool off under running water.  It sounds obvious, but we don’t want to use our hands to peel tomatoes that are recently out of boiling water.

Run the tomatoes under water to cool them.  Then take off the peels starting at your X/score mark.

Set the peeled ones on a LARGE cutting board that you can fit inside a cookie sheet.

Why the cookie sheet?  It traps the escapists juices that inevitably wonder off while you chop the tomatoes up, and we want to keep everything (except the the peels and cores) that these garden joys offer us.

I realized I needed a cookie sheet in the chopping process and lifting up pound of tomatoes with juice running over the sides was not a clean process.

We want to take out the cores of the larger tomatoes.  The cores of the small ones can stay in- don’t make too much work for yourselves.

Chop them up.  Doesn’t really matter how.  This is a forgiving recipe, and besides they will all just disintegrate into sauce anyways.

Tomatoes peeled, cored, chopped.  Check.

Everything else is pretty easy from here on out.

Dump the water from the tomato blanching process and use that giant pot to make your sauce.

Saute 1 onion in olive oil until the color becomes opaque and translucent, about 3 minutes.

Dump in chopped tomatoes.

Don’t forget about the juice that trickled over the edges of the cutting board that you ingeniously captured with the cookie sheet.

Press 4 cloves of garlic into the pot.

Add herbs.

And honey.  For a hint of sweetness.

Mix everything well and bring to a simmer for 1.5 to 2 hours.  It’s good to make a lot of tomato sauce in a batch so you rarely have to do this looooong simmering process once.

Now go do something important around your house- like attempt to conquer the laundry.  Or shirk your chores and cuddle down with a great book.  Guess what I did…

Every 20-30 minutes, about the length of one chapter, check on the tomatoes.  Mix them so the bottom doesn’t burn.  The sauce thickens as it cooks.  It’s done when you can stand your spoon in it, a monument to handling your tomato zeal with finesse.


Cucumber Salad with Ginger and Mint

Have you ever read a Day in the Life of a Dog and Cat?  I love it!  It makes me laugh out loud every time I read it, and as a dog owner, I can completely relate to everything being a dog’s favorite thing.

Ginger is my new favorite thing.  If I had a tail, ginger would make it wag.  I love its sweet spiciness and freshness.  Ginger has an ego; no matter how little of it you put in, it will always get noticed.

This salad is a winner for summer produce.  Cucumbers are producing like it’s the end of the world (I suppose for them it is since they are annuals), so are the peppers.  Fresh ginger  gives the soft flavors of cucumber and sweet pepper a little wake-up call.

Printable Recipe: Cucumber Salad with Ginger and Mint

Don’t close your eyes…you might miss the making of this salad; it’s that fast.

Start with olive oil and rice wine vinegar in your salad bowl.

Rice wine vinegar is ideal because it acts like a secondary character- letting the cucumbers, peppers, and ginger take center stage.  It has a tangy sweetness to it.  Other possible variations- keep it light- apple cider vinegar or white vinegar.  I think balsamic would be a little too heavy, but that’s just me.

We’re going to use a microplane to grate in a 1 inch piece of ginger.

There’s a lot of goodness that hides behind the grater.  Give it a good tap on the bowl or use your fingers to get every last fresh bite.

Don’t forget to sniff the ginger.  It smells like childhood.

Sprinkle on salt and pepper.

Add your sliced cucumbers.

And a diced up sweet pepper.  Forgot the picture because the ginger mesmerized my sense of smell and rendered me frozen for a few minutes.

Grab some fresh mint, and stack up the leaves.

Sniff it because you just can’t help yourself.  (If you have a tail, wag it because the smell of mint is happiness.)

Roll up your mint leaves-

We’re going to chiffonade these as best we can by cutting them into little ribbons.  It just looks prettier than if we rough chopped them.  Though, of course, to each his/her own.

If you have it, add in the juice of 1 lemon to help the mint and cucumber retain their gorgeous green color.  I love that green- it sings.

Mix well.  Serve at room temperature.  Taste summer.

Chilaquiles Verdes

Not Chee-la-qwee-les.

It’s Chee-la-kee-les, and for every Mexican grandmother or mother in the world, there exists a different recipe for them.  What are chilaquiles?  Fried tortilla strips (or triangles) cooked in salsa often mixed with other meat, eggs, or vegetables.  Not only are they a great way to use up old tortillas (though new ones are fine too), but allegedly they cure hangovers too.  Not that I would have any experience with that.

There’s a spectrum for how people like their chilaquiles.

Very soggy–soggy–somewhat soggy–somewhat crispy–crispy–very crispy.

And yes, there exists shades of gray between each of these categories.  I like mine somewhat soggy, otherwise I’d just be eating chips and salsa.  If you want crispier options, see the note at the end of this post.

Printable Recipe: Chilaquiles Verdes

You’ll need some Salsa Verde first.  Click the link if you don’t know how to make it, but the printable recipe also explains how to make fresh Salsa Verde in step 1.  Basically pulse tomatillos, onion, garlic, cilantro, salt, and jalapenos until it liquifies but not so much that it becomes one uniform green salsa; we want to be able to see the bits and pieces.

Next, prepare the tortillas.  I’ve got 12 here, approximately 3 per person.

Cut them in half.

Then make strips from those halves about 1/2″ wide.

If you prefer triangle over oddly shaped rectangles, you can do that with your tortillas.

Heat up 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil over high heat.  Add half of the tortillas strips.

Move ‘um around to make a single layer.  As best you can.

Now DON’T TOUCH for 3-4 minutes.  They are frying up, edges start crisping, but some parts stay soft.  After 3-4 minutes, move them around with a wooden spoon and continue cooking for 3-4 minutes.  Cook longer for crispier tortillas, but you may also have to use more oil.

Drain them on a paper towel and sprinkle on salt.

Repeat with another 1/4 cup of oil and the rest of the tortillas.  Set the just barely crisped tortillas aside until the last moment of cooking when we will put them in at the end to maintain those bits of crunch.

Now, let’s attempt to make chilaquiles healthy.  It is not an oxymoron.  We’ve got zucchini.

And a sweet bell pepper.  This is a gypsy pepper.

We’ll saute this yumminess for 3-5 minutes.  Please use the same pan you fried the tortilla strips with, unless you like to do dishes.

Add the Salsa Verde and swish it around to coat everything.

Cook for another 3 minutes so some of the excess water can evaporate out.

When you are ready to serve, add the tortilla strips.  This way parts of the strips will retain their crispiness integrity, but the softer parts will soak up the Salsa Verde.

Coat the tortilla strips with vegetables and Salsa Verde.  Cook a couple minutes until heated through.  Eat as needed to alleviate hangovers, I mean to use up leftover tortillas.

Variations: Add tofu, cooked meat, scrambled egg, or top with a fried egg for a more substantial meal.

Note at the end of the post: For crispier chilaquiles, use tortilla chips or broken tostada pieces, or fry the tortilla strips in smaller batches and in more oil.  Don’t mix the fried tortillas and salsa until the absolute last minute you want it, unless you like your chilaquiles very soft.

Salsa Verde or Tomatillo Salsa or Green Salsa

I couldn’t make up my mind what to call this post.  Do I use the Spanish?  Will that alienate people?  Offend people?  Confuse them?  Make them try to say it out loud with awful accents?  Oh, well, ni modo.

Green Salsa, Salsa Verde for the true Mexican food aficionados or Spanish speakers, is a tangy salsa based on tomatillos which are small green tomatoes wrapped up like a present in a husk.  These are not under ripe tomatoes, but rather a firm tomato that must be cooked to eat, or if kept raw, liquified into salsa.

Printable: Salsa Verde

Here’s the short version.  Pile all tomatillos, onion, cilantro, garlic, salt and jalapeno into the food processor (tomatillos on the bottom) and pulse 15-30 times to the beat of a great song, like “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” until it looks like this.

Here’s the longer version.

Remove the husks by taking the stem end of the tomatillo and pushing the fruit out.  Like so.

After a whole pound of these, actually after like 2, your fingers will get sticky which is fine, just don’t go around touching everything in your kitchen.

Wash them (and your hands, please) thoroughly and rub with your fingers to remove any excess film from the husks.

Good tomatillos come in a variety of sizes, so use your best judgement for how to cut them.  We want the pieces to be approximately the same size.  Halve the small ones and quarter the larger ones.

Place the tomatillos at the bottom of a food processor.  A food processor is ideal because it will still leave the salsa having small bits and pieces, giving it a thick consistency.

If you don’t have a food processor, a blender will work too.  No blender?  Really?  OK, break out the mortar and pestle.  Don’t have that either?  You poor soul.  Don’t worry I won’t leave you out from the fun.  Go outside and find 2 rocks- one like a bowl and the other like a pestle.  Make sure to wash them really well.

Roughly chop up 1/2 an onion.  Yellow, red, white, doesn’t matter, we’re equal opportunity here.  Whatever you have on hand.

Rough chop a good handful of cilantro, about 1/2 cup.  Don’t be afraid of the stems, that’s where the goodness is.  Just cut off the stem tips.

Or, you can waste your time just breaking off the leaves, if that’s your preference.  This is a free country/recipe.

Now make sure to dice up 2 key ingredients very small: the jalapenos (with gloves if you can, otherwise don’t rub or touch your eyes for awhile)

and the garlic (with a press)

Don’t forget 1/2 teaspoon of salt.

Now, pulse everything together to a good song, like “Livin’ La Vida Loca.”  Make sure to scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula.

Here’s the Salsa Verde at about 15 pulses, when I scraped the sides down.

Another 15 pulses (“Upside, inside out, she’s livin’ la vida loca…”)

And we’re done!  Easy, huh?  Just don’t cut yourself while cleaning the food processor blade.

If you’re going to make Chilaquiles Verdes, resist all the temptation to gobble up the Salsa Verde with tortilla chips.  I know it’s hard, but sometimes, we have higher purposes for things.

No Bake Stuffed Peppers

It’s HOT and the last thing I want is to have my oven going for 45 minutes to an hour baking a stuffed pepper.  This recipe makes life much easier.  The peppers get seared in hot olive oil, giving them a roasted flavor in less then 8 minutes.  Though a word of caution- there’s lots of spattering oil, so keep a healthy distance.  The stuffing is a basic meat-potato-tomato one that cooks up very quickly.  Your choice if you want to use ground beef or a package of spicy seasoned ground tofu for a vegetarian option.  This recipe is inspired by an empanadas recipes from The Passionate Vegetarian.  The pepper preparation method is also from this book.

Printable: No Bake Stuffed Bell Peppers

1.  Start with prep.  Boil 1 large or 2 small potatoes in water until done.  If you are using ground beef now is the time to cook it and set it aside until needed.
2.  While the potatoes cook, prepare the bell peppers by searing them in hot oil.  Click here for the step by step tutorial.
3.  Saute 1 diced onion and 2 diced jalapeno (seeds and membranes removed for less heat) in the left over pepper-oil.
4.  Mix in 2 teaspoons of ground cumin and 3-5 cloves of minced garlic, depending on preferences or the number of vampires in your neighborhood.

5. Add in the cooked ground beef or 10-ounce package of spiced ground tofu.
6.  By this point, your potato should be finished cooking.  Chop into approximately 1-inch pieces.  Some of the skin may fall off.
7.  Spoon in 1/2 can of tomato paste and enough water to help you disintegrate the paste with a wooden spoon.

8. Gently mix in chopped fresh parsley and cilantro.  Season with salt and pepper.

9.  Heap each pepper half with 1/4 to 1/2 cup of stuffing.  Serve with a garden salad or rice.

How to: Prepare Peppers for Stuffing

This method of preparing peppers for stuffing comes from one of my favorite cookbooks, The Passionate Vegetarian by Crescent Dragonwagon.  This is a stove top method that cooks the peppers until they reach a sweet spot, crunchy, but not raw.

This method is better than baking peppers in the oven for a few reasons.  First, it maintains, even enhances the color of the pepper, deepening its color and speckling it with some blackened spots.  Second, peppers are in season during the summer, and who wants an oven on for 45 minutes to an hour to bake peppers?  Third, it speeds up the stuffed pepper recipe.

A recipe for this preparation: No Bake Stuffed Bell Peppers

Caution: this method involves LOTS of spattering oil.  Be careful when moving the peppers in the hot oil.

ALWAYS PREPARE YOUR PEPPERS BEFORE STARTING ANYTHING!  The oil they cook in becomes this sweet pepper infused treasure of taste for the stuffing.

Here are some tools you need to start with: long tongs and a plate with paper towel to drain excess oil.

Once you start cooking the peppers you will not be able to do anything else, so prepare ahead of time.

Start with peppers of any kind.  I’ve got red bell peppers here, but feel free to substitute any sweet pepper.

Cut them in half, length-wise, leaving the stem on helps hold together the pepper when it’s brimming with stuffing.

Using a small knife, remove the seeds and white membranes.

Although your fingers work just as well.

Sometimes baby peppers start to grow inside another pepper, and these should be taken out as well.

Heat up about 1/4 cup of olive oil over high heat.  Wait for it to get very HOT.  This takes about 5 minutes.

Using tongs, place 2-3 pepper halves, CUT SIDE DOWN, in the oil.

It will go wild.  See all the bubbles?  Hot oil is meeting a watery vegetable (sweet peppers).  Stand back and be thankful that you have long tongs.

Sear the peppers for 3-4 minutes per side.  You will start to see the overall color deepen and become brighter, but around the edges you’ll notice a more cooked color that’s lighter than the rest of the pepper.  Using your long tongs, flip the peppers over in the oil.

Again, stand back as much as you can from the spattering.  (I look like I’m in an awkward yoga pose whenever I prepare these peppers.  My arm holding the tongs is stretched out, while the rest of my body leans as much as it can in the other direction in an attempt to avoid spattering oil.)

Sear the other side for 3-4 minutes also.  Remove from heat and drain on a paper towel.  You want bits and pieces of the pepper blackened for a roasted flavor.

Repeat the process with as many peppers as you have.

Don’t forget: the oil you’re searing the peppers in will take on roasted pepper taste; use it in your stuffing.  Also, the cooling peppers will release juices; try to save as much of this juice as possible and use it in your stuffing.

Here’s the oil, color browned with flecks of sweet pepper juice.

Homemade Chili

Who doesn’t love those cook once for several meals recipes?  This is ingenuity at its best.  One recipe, 3 meals.  Did I mention that these were camping meals? Though, of course, they don’t have to be.

This chili recipe is one of those cook once for several meals, and it is an ideal time saver for camping.  When camping you don’t have to sacrifice a delicious meal because you have to cook over a fire or only have a 2 burner camping stove.  From my mother-in-law, Pat, an all-star camper, I’ve learned that all you need to do is a little bit of preparation.  The day before we headed out, I cooked up a batch of this chili.  While camping, it became the key ingredient for 3 dinners.  I kept it in a tight fitting Tupperware in our cooler.

First night: Classic chili with toppings: cheese, green onions, and tortilla chips for dipping

Second night: Chili Dogs.  Roast the hot dogs over the campfire until the casing has cracked and the juices leak out and sizzle.  Lightly toast the bun over the fire as well.  Top the hot dogs with chili beans, cheese, green onions et al.

Third night: Stuffed baked potatoes.  Cook potatoes by the campfire by wrapping them in 2-3 layers of aluminum foil.  They take between 30-45 minutes, and you have to remember to flip and move them around so they evenly cook.  (Warning some parts may burn, just cut those off)  When potatoes are fork tender, cut them in half.  Pile on the remaining chili and any other toppings of your choice.

I hope you’re going camping soon because we all need to get away for a few days and sit chatting around a campfire.

Printable Recipe: Homemade Chili

You’ll need one large pot so you can minimize clean up.

Start with browning 1 pound of ground beef.  Since we don’t eat ground beef very often, when we do, I like to buy 100% grass-fed beef.  The taste is much more flavorful and heartier.I love using this gadget, I call it my ground beef breaker-upper.

Also add 1 small diced onion.

Cook these over medium heat until just barely browned, 7-10 minutes.

Since grass fed beef generally has more fat content, I drain it by placing paper towels in a colander in order to soak up the excess fat.  If you’re using beef that has a 10% or less fat content or really like the fat, you can skip this step.Eewww, gross.  That’s why we’re throwing it out.

Using the same pot, add about 1 tablespoon of olive oil and saute some of the veggies that require more cooking time: red pepper and carrots were what I had in the fridge.  Cook these over medium heat for 3-5 minutes.  Add 5 cloves of minced garlic.  It sounds like a lot, you can always use less.  In my house, we are flavor junkies, so we like lots of garlic.

Add the beef back to the pot.

Open a 28-ounce can of diced tomatoes and dump it all into the pot.  I only had a can of whole tomatoes on hand, so I had to break them up with my fingers before adding them in.  Here’s hoping your pantry is more prepared than mine.

Here’s what we have so far.

The secret to good chili is spices.  My preferred ones are cumin for smokiness, chili powder to make it taste like chili, and dried oregano for earthiness.

You cannot make chili without spices.  If all you have on hand is chili powder, at least add that in.  If you don’t have anything, now is the time to go to the store and get some.  We cannot move forward in a chili recipe without spices.

Drain 1 14-ounce can of red kidney beans (pinto would be good too) and add it to the chili.Your chili will be thick.  Some people like it this way and others, like me, need more juices. I added 1 cup of water plus 1/2 of a 6-ounce can of tomato paste.  You can’t just add water to chili without bringing in some flavor.  A small can of tomato sauce would be a nice substitute.

Do some soul-searching and figure out how you like your chili.  Don’t take it personally if someone criticizes your chili and thinks it needs more or less liquid.  Chili is one of the most personal dishes one can make; be especially careful when serving Southwesterners; they are VERY opinionated about their chili and every Southwesterner I know likes to share his/her opinion whether you are listening or not.

If you’re trying to use up zucchini from you garden this is a good time to chop it up and add it in.

Simmer the chili for 20-30 minutes.  The flavor only gets better with each day which is why it’s perfect for taking on a camping trip.

Sorry no end photo- I was getting sleeping bags, tent, and other camping gear ready.