Tomatoes 101

I don’t even know why we eat tomatoes in the winter. If any of you have read Barry Estabrook’s fantastic book “Tomatoland,” it’ll convince you to never buy another tomato grown in Florida (or really, any commercial tomatoes at all).

That leaves us with late summer market tomatoes, and they’re so much better than the tasteless, mealy, pink-fleshed things we call tomatoes in the grocery store that you’ll never look back. 

I put heirloom tomatoes in a salad at the wedding I catered recently and had someone talk my ear off for 10 minutes about how good the tomatoes were. “But they taste like tomatoes!” Yes, yes they do. 

Varieties: Heirlooms come in a few categories: Commercial Heirlooms, Family Heirlooms (I wish my family had heirloom tomato seeds!), Created Heirlooms, and Mystery Heirlooms. The main premise of heirlooms is that the seeds have been passed down for generations, or are varieties that have occurred naturally or have been in circulation for over 50 years. 

Appearance & Buying: Heirlooms can come in all kinds of colors, from flame orange to greenish to purple to bright yellow to mottled and striated. They’re more delicate than store bought tomatoes, so don’t squeeze them too aggressively or they’ll bruise (and be careful getting them home!). Just buy tomatoes that are firm, but not rock hard, with no soft spots or bruising. 

Storage: Do not, I repeat, DO NOT refrigerate your tomatoes. It ruins the flavor and texture. Store on the countertop and they should be fine for a few days. 

As a reformed tomato hater turned tomato lover, I invite you to tomato week! 


My entry into the Great Tumblr Book Search, sponsored by Chronicle! To demonstrate my concept, I’m recapping Grapefruit Week in one gallery. 

Ingredient by ingredient, season by season, teaching the art of home cooking through simple, visual recipes. Instead of prescribing every spice down to the quarter teaspoon, these recipes encourage readers to experiment and taste as they go – the best way for any cook to learn. And with basic preparation notes for each featured ingredient, home cooks should have all they need to experiment with new dishes, make the most of what they find in the fridge, and learn to love the kitchen. 

Tarts and quiches are another great way to feature vegetables, or to clean out your fridge. I had a handful of minced chives left over from an event, so I decided they’d make a nice mild oniony complement to the chard and goat cheese. 

I made a cornmeal shortbread crust, which means you can just press the crust into your tart pan instead of rolling it out. Since I’m a bit messy, this is a big plus to avoid flour on all surfaces of my kitchen. Here’s the recipe for the crust. 

Cornmeal Crust

½ c. white or yellow cornmeal (fine ground, not polenta)
¾ c. all-purpose flour
¾ t. salt
6 T. unsalted butter, cut into ¼ - inch cubes and frozen for several minutes (the colder the better)
4 - 5 tablespoons ice water

Whisk together cornmeal, flour, and salt. Add butter and incorporate with a pastry cutter or by hand, until the butter is in very small pieces. (note: I used to do this in a food processor, but found my butter always ended up too finely incorporated, making my dough tough.) Add ice water and stir with a wooden spoon until the dough is no longer dry (it should hold together if you pinch it). Press evenly into a 9 - 10" tart pan with removable bottom, and par-bake for 15 minutes at 375 before adding the filling. 


The trick to crepes is making them aggressively thin (it only takes a few tablespoons of batter, and swirl that pan!) and using a non-stick or very well-seasoned pan so sticking is not an option. They only take about 30 seconds to cook on the first side and then flip for another 15 seconds or so. Just like pancakes, the first one will probably be messed up but that’s just your sacrificial crepe (it still tastes good). I forgot how easy they are, and how yummy some creamy, garlicky mushrooms are spooned on top. 

This amount of crepe batter will make about 8 crepes, depending on the size of your pan. You could easily double it and refrigerate your leftover crepes. They warm up in seconds in a dry pan and then you can have crepes for breakfast AND dinner! 

Herb oils are a cinch to make, and are a wonderful finishing element to have on hand. 

Cilantro oil is awesome drizzled over soups (like gazpacho!), on top of scrambled eggs, or whisked with lemon juice or vinegar to make a vinaigrette. You shouldn’t cook with herb oil because heat will affect the flavor, but think of it as the finishing touch. 

Cover and keep in the refrigerator. It’s best if you use herb oil within a day, or it will lose its potency and within a few days it will go bad.

Cilantro 101

I know, cilantro is polarizing. The only reason I accept that people might not love cilantro as much as I do is that their aversion is supposedly genetic. Cilantro-haters can’t help it, so I forgive them.

Many of the cuisines I love the most use cilantro frequently – Mexican, Thai, Indian, Middle Eastern. Cilantro has a wonderfully bright flavor that enhances and complements the strong spices often found in those cuisines. 

Cilantro / Coriander: Technically the plant is called coriander. Here in the US, we call its fresh, leafy version cilantro, and the dried seeds coriander. In other countries, the fresh herb is also known as coriander. 

Storage: Cilantro has a tendency to go bad quickly. My most successful storage technique is to wash it upon bringing it home and dry it as well as possible (in a salad spinner if you have one). Wrap in a couple of paper towels and store in a large ziplock bag, with the air pushed out. 

From root to leaf: The entire cilantro plant can be used for cooking – its pungent roots are often used in Thai curries, its stems are tender enough to chop up along with the leaves, and its seeds have a lemony, mildly spiced flavor.

WTF is Culantro?: Apparently another plant called culantro (also known as Mexican Coriander) exists, which is related in flavor but looks like a leafy aloe plant. I have yet to come across culantro, but when I do, I will be sure to report back. 

Cilantro haters, step aside!

Strawberries 101

Fresh, ripe, local strawberries are so indulgent they don’t even seem like they could be real. I think strawberries are one of those fruits that are just not worth eating out of season. The flavor, the juiciness, the scent just don’t compare. For that reason, I’m perfectly content with frozen strawberries until they start showing up in the market each spring. 

They may be a bit on the pricey side, but they’re worth it, and so much more pungent than the pale, gigantic berries you’ll find in the supermarket. 

Buying: Look for strawberries that are vibrant in color and have a strong aroma. Avoid any that are bruised, and look through your berries to make sure none are beginning to mold. Remove any offenders and your strawberries will last much longer. 

Plant ovaries: Yep, plants have ovaries, and that’s what we think of as fruit. But the fleshy parts of the strawberry is technically not the fruit – the tiny seeds that dot the skin of a strawberry are actually fruit (ovaries), each of which contains a seed. 

Mythology: I love how food plays such a strong role in mythology across cultures. In Greek myth, strawberries originated as heart-shaped tears from Aphrodite, who wept at the death of her lover, Adonis. They’re also associated with Freya, the Norse goddess of love and fertility, and the Seneca tribe sees them as a symbol of spring, rebirth, and good health. 

Strawberries, here we come! 

I discovered the wonder of shishito peppers at a fantastic tapas place called Boqueria. They’re a little tricky because mostly they’re mildly spicy but every once in awhile you’ll get a really hot one. A bit of a fun gamble, and as long as you’ve got some crusty bread and crisp white wine to cool your mouth down you’ll be fine. 

This is one of the easiest little appetizers ever, and a great start to a summer meal. 

Fennel 101

Fennel used to grow wild in my front yard. I remember pulling my bike up to the giant plants, picking off a few fronds, and chewing on them. Oddly I hated the flavor of licorice back then, but somehow the fennel fronds were enough of a novelty that I didn’t mind.

Now it’s one of my favorite ingredients. Fennel is actually an herb, with a root bulb that we eat as a vegetable. It has a mild, sweet, anise / licorice flavor that’s more pronounced in the seeds than the bulb. 

Mythology: When Prometheus stole fire from the lightning of Zeus, he hid it in a hollow stalk of fennel. Dionysus also holds a fennel staff known as a thyrsus, which is topped with a pine cone. 

Parts & Pieces: The entire fennel plant, roots to fronds, can be used. The fronds can be used in pestos, chopped and tossed in salads, or used as a garnish. The stalks and bulb can be eaten raw (very thinly shaved), roasted, braised, grilled, you name it. Extra fennel bits are also a great addition to homemade stock. Fennel seeds can be toasted and ground, used in sausage, or included on homemade crackers or in seeded bread. There’s even such a thing as fennel pollen, which is actually the fennel flower, which is pricey but the most potent part flavor-wise.

But I hate Licorice: The fennel bulb is one of the least licorice-y of licorice-flavored foods and beverages out there, which include anise seeds, tarragon, ouzo, and absinthe, among others. If you think you hate licorice, try roasting fennel with olive oil at 425°F until tender and caramelized, and tossing with lemon and parmesan cheese. It’s mild, sweet, and so, so faintly licorice-y you may become a convert.

Onward with fennel week! 

Mushrooms 101

I hesitate to even write a 101 instructional post about mushrooms, the most mysterious of (sometimes) edible vegetation. I am fascinated by mushrooms, their great underground networks, their refusal to be cultivated except for a very few varieties. I had a friend in middle school who said if she could eradicate all mushrooms from the earth, she would – that’s how much she hated them. I admit at the time mushrooms were not number one on my list of favorite foods, but I’ve since come to appreciate their earthy umami and occasionally unusual texture.

I think the first time I realized how complex mushrooms really are is while reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

“…we don’t know the most basic things about mushrooms…The mushroom is the "fruiting body” of a subterranean network of microscopic hyphae, improbably long rootlike cells that thread themselves through the soil like neurons. Bunched like cables, the hyphae form webs of (still microscopic) mycelium. Mycologists can’t dig up a mushroom like a plant to study its structure because its mycelium are too tiny and delicate to tease from the soil without disintegrating…All of which makes mushrooms seem autochthonous, arising seemingly from nowhere, seemingly without cause.“ 

So I will keep this brief.

Storage: Keep mushrooms in paper bags in the fridge for up to a few days. Do not wash until ready to use – rinse quickly and dry quickly, or for larger mushrooms, just wipe with a damp cloth. Most cultivated varieties you’ll find in the grocery store are pretty clean anyway.

Truffles: Black truffles, known as "black diamonds,” can cost upwards of $1,200 a pound, and require truffle-sniffing pigs or dogs to discover them. Climate change may be making them scarcer too, so start saving your cash now (but not truffles - as they age they lose weight and therefore value).

Wild Mushrooms: Unless you’re a trained expert, don’t eat mushrooms in the wild. They could kill you. 

I’ll be focusing on recipes that use mushrooms that are fairly easy to find in the grocery store, like cremini, hen-of-the-woods, and porcini.