Posts Tagged ‘tomato sauce’

A homemade tomato sauce, spring vegetables, and garden beginnings

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

Spring Pasta by lkwm on dRc

“I would like to have a garden,” my husband said to me shortly after we were first married.

“Whatever for?” I thought to myself; “There is a grocery and a farmer’s market less than a mile down the road where I can easily buy anything we need, and I have little interest in tilling the ground in my spare time.”

So, like the congenial newlywed I was attempting to be, I said little, and figured this too would pass, as well intended ideas often do.

Cabbage in sunlight

However, come early spring of that first matrimonial year, lo and behold, Brian went out and bought stacks upon stacks of seed starting trays, a pile of organic starter soil bags, and a whole host of seeds – many of which I had never heard nor seen the likes of in all my days.

Yellow pear tomatoes, purple okra, champagne bell peppers, and the most delectable yellow cucumbers, were just a few introductions made.

He pulled out old, dusty card tables and set up camp in the basement, since he was duly cautioned against “starting seeds” in the proper living spaces of my our new nest, with large florescent lights clipped to the innards of our floor joists, lit to nurture and grow the nascent seedlings.

Spring pasta

“What is it that makes you want to start the plants from seed?” I asked, all the while thinking to myself, “The nursery down the street is full of perfectly happy little plants already weeks ahead of these babies, ready and waiting for someone to give them a loving home in the fertile soil of their garden.”

It’s fun to watch things grow,” Brian replied, “Isn’t it amazing that we put the tiniest little seeds in the soil, gave them light and water, and now they are already seedlings? Look at how they lean towards the light. Don’t you just love them?”

Garden broccoliGarden broccoli

Before long, the weather was warming and the seedlings were growing impatient for a new, roomier home in the great outdoors. I still have vivid memories of standing out in our yard that first spring, virgin soil beneath my feet, shovel in hand, fighting back tears as I painstakingly tried to “turn” the dirt beneath.

It is important to know how to grow your own food,” I could hear Brian saying.

Since that time, we have grown wiser, and now Brian rents an actual tiller each spring to help with the hard labor. He calls the garden “Laura’s garden,” but really it is his, and always has been.

Sure, I make trips to the nursery with him, pick the heirloom seeds I want, and the ten new varieties of tomatoes I am compelled to try each summer, I pick some produce, but mainly, I eat the garden – which is why Brian says it is mine.

Garden broccoli in hand

The garden expands each year, last year covering a good 750 square feet with radishes, turnips, corn, tomatoes, eggplant, okra, oodles of hot peppers, mustard greens, lettuces, onions, potatoes, carrots, squash, green beans, bell peppers, sunflowers, all the herbs you could dream of, butter beans, kale, Swiss chard, honeydew, strawberries, watermelon, peas, broccoli, spinach, cucumbers, zucchini…even luffa.

We still have plants growing from the seedlings of that first garden – Greek oregano, sage, cayenne peppers, yellow and orange pear tomatoes.

It’s taken time and perspective to grow on me, but our garden is something I now cherish and eagerly anticipate each year as the last frost of winter gives way to warm sunny spring days. This year we were surprised with forgotten carrots, broccoli, and cabbage emerging from beneath the winter leaves. I have never tasted such sweet carrots, such tender, mild broccoli.

Brian is right, there is nothing like the taste of food from your own garden.

Garden carrotsGarden carrots

With so many spring vegetables coming into season, and planning to take a meal to a friend who just had a baby, I decided to make a pasta with homemade tomato sauce and spring vegetables.

The sauce is a simple saute of onion and one lone carrot in a good glug of olive oil, followed by a gentle simmer with satiny smooth textured San Marzano tomatoes. You could stop here and have yourself one beautiful homemade tomato sauce. But since it is spring, and spring’s bounty is at hand, why not add fresh artichokes, asparagus, spinach, fava beans, and young English peas, simmer another quick spell, and toss it all with a favorite pasta and gratings of fresh parmesan? It just seems like the “fitting” way to do tomato sauce this time of year, as my grandma Ruth would have said.

This sauce tastes bright from the carrot, tomatoes and vegetables, but still maintains a full bodied flavor due to the infusion of olive oil into the onions. I loved it, and I hope you do as well.

Spring pasta

Tomato sauce with olive oil, onion, and carrot

1 28 oz. can whole Itailian Roma style, plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzanos*
1 medium onion finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
sea or kosher salt to taste

Saute onion and carrot in the olive oil till soft and onion is translucent, about 5-7 minutes. Add Tomatoes and simmer for at least 20 minutes, or until sauce is thickened to desired consistency, breaking tomatoes apart with a wooden spoon. Serve over warm pasta with freshly grated pecorino romano cheese

Pasta with spring vegetables
Adapted liberally from Williams Sonoma’s Savoring Tuscany

1 lb. pasta, preferably rigatoni*, cooked according to package directions to al dente, adding 1-2 tablespoons coarse or rock salt to boiling water, pasta water reserved
1 recipe for Tomato sauce with olive oil, onion, and carrot
1 or 2 large fresh artichokes, tough outer leaves pulled off and cut down, hair removed, and heart cut into slices (optional)*
1/2 cup of shelled English peas
1/2 cup young, tender shelled fava (broad) beans or lima beans
1 1/2 cups stemmed spinach leaves, coarsely chopped
12 asparagus spears, tough ends removed, cut into 1 inch pieces
Sea or kosher salt to taste
freshly ground Parmesan cheese

Prepare the tomato sauce according to the above recipe, adding the artichoke pieces (if using) into the simmering sauce at the same time you add the tomatoes. Begin cooking the pasta, taking care to salt the water and reserve at least half a cup of pasta water once pasta has finished cooking.

Once artichoke slices are tender (10-15 minutes), add the other vegetables and cook in the sauce another five to ten minutes, or until vegetables are cooked and tender.

Toss the sauce with the warm pasta, using small additions of the reserved pasta water to loosen the sauce and achieve desired consistency. Wait to season with salt and pepper (I prefer this sauce without pepper, as the vegetable flavors seem to stand out more this way) until finished adding desired amount of pasta water, as the water should be somewhat salty itself. Serve with the cheese sprinkled on top.

Notes: You may use any pasta for this recipe, though rigatoni or other “forkable” pasta is preferable to the spagetti you see in my pictures. I made it with rigatoni the first time, but was too rushed to take pictures, and only had spaghetti noodles in the house the second go round.

Look for Italian San Marzano tomatoes in the specialty Italian section of your grocery store. I have tried many Italian Roma tomatoes, and none break down and create a smooth, satiny sauce as well as the San Marzanos.

The fresh artichokes are nice in this dish, though they take a bit of work, so you may omit them if desired. I would not substitute canned, since canned artichokes are preserved in vinegar and would alter the entire flavor profile of the sauce. I did add some mushrooms in at the same time as the artichokes the first time around, and they were very good. Really, you could add just about any vegetables you like – or chicken (I added lemon rosemary chicken in the first batch) or shrimp, for that matter.

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Posted in Main Courses - Vegetarian | 26 Comments »

Favorite meatballs with spaghetti

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Favorite meatball sitting squat and beautiful by lkwm on dRc

I made these meatballs just for you. Really, I did. They are one of my go to comfort foods in the dead of winter, which we’ve been experiencing around here in Virginia this week, and I really wanted to share them with you.  I discovered this recipe rather haphazardly in a Williams-Sonoma magazine a few years ago, and I dare say these are the best meatballs I’ve eaten, whether by my own hand, or at a restaurant.  Now I can’t speak for the future, since I believe it is a terrible shame to ever close one’s mind to change and improvement – or in this case – new and future recipes, but what I can tell you is:  these meatballs are GOOD.

Garlic and parsley by lkwm on dRc

They may not be neat. Or pretty. They are not fancy, or uber-organic lowfat - though you could make them quite organic, if you chose. But they are good.

Beaten egg by lkwm on dRc

I make them for company. I make them for B. I make them for me. I just make them. Sometimes I get a meatball craving and nothing else will satisfy – not bolognese, not lasagna, not marina – just meatballs. And spaghetti.

Home made bread crumbs by lkwm on dRcBreadcrumbs in measure by lkwm on dRc

I like to make my own bread crumbs – so simple really, but not strictly necessary. If you decide to give it a whirl, all you have to do is grab some bread on hand, any bread, and give it a buzz in a food processor or mini chopper. But I started making these with regular plain store bought bread crumbs long before I picked up many of my current fancy tips and habits, and I have nothing but feelings of warm nostalgia towards those lovelies.

Chopped parsley by lkwm on dRc

I haven’t told you much about my little boy, J. He is wonderful – a love story that caught me off guard and delights me each day. He loves to watch mommy cook, and chop. He wishes he could hold the knife. We got him a play kitchen for Christmas, complete with adorable petite wooden pots and pans, but he still prefers our huge and heavy stainless steel. clang. Clang. CLANG. love.

Meatball ingredients in bowl by lkwm on dRcBreadcrumbs on board by lkwm on dRc

I did not eat meatballs as a child. My beloved mother, ever conscience of her family’s fat intake, was not likely to whip up weekday meals with any kind of ground beef pork mixture involved. And it was the 90s, when lowfat was the current low carb. But I am a bit less particular, as is she, these days. Now it’s about balance and moderation.

Placing cheese into meatball by lkwm on dRcSealing cheese into meatball by lkwm on dRcPerfect little meatball by lkwm on dRcMeatballs sitting pretty by lkwm on dRc

Did I mention that these are stuffed? Guess not. That’s because I only recently started doing this, even though the recipe has always called for it. I always thought, oh fuss – extra work. But once I tried it, it really is hardly any extra work at all, and it makes for quite an impressive meatball – if you decide to have company over, or just want to wow your sweetheart.

Meatballs browning in olive oil by lkwm on dRcSizzling meatballs by lkwm on dRc

There is something so soothing about a good spaghetti and meatballs. I hope you try these, and that they warm you and those you love from the inside out.

Favorite meatballs in sauce by lkwm on dRcMeatball up close by lkwm on dRcCheesy meatball by lkwm on dRc

Favorite meatballs with spaghetti
adapted from Williams-Sonoma
serves 10-12, may be reduced in increments of 1/3

1/3 cup milk
1 cup fresh bread crumbs (I have used both fresh and plain store bought bread crumbs successfully)
1 lb each ground pork, veal and beef (this is often labeled as “meatloaf mixture” at the store – I often use 2/3 beef, 1/3 pork)
1/3 cup minced fresh parsley, plus more for garnish
3 eggs, lightly beaten
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 3/4 tsp. kosher or sea salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper
1/3 lb. mozzarella, provolone, or fontina cheese cut into 1/2″ cubes (optional)
About 6 cups tomato sauce (I promise a post on a home made sauce recipe in the future, till then, I have tried and recommend this one, or use 2-3 jars of your favorite store brand)
2 lb spaghetti, cooked al dente and drained
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano for serving

In a large bowl, combine milk and bread crumbs. Add meats, 1/3 cup parsley, eggs, garlic, salt and pepper. Mix briefly with hands. Form into 2″ balls. If using cheese, seal a cube into center of each ball. In a large skillet (biggest you have) set on medium high heat, heat 1/2″ (I use about 1/4″) oil until shimmering and almost smoking. Brown meatballs 1 minute per side (I end up doing about three turns) taking care not to crowd the meatballs in the pan. If you are making the full recipe, you will need either two pans or to do this in two rotations.  Transfer to paper towel-lined tray.

Discard oil in pan. Pour tomato sauce into pan; bring to simmer over medium-high heat. Add meatballs, reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until cooked through, 25-30 minutes (recipe says 30, but often mine are done after 20 minutes and they are best not overcooked, so slip a knife into one early and check for doneness). Uncover; cook 10 minutes more (again, I sometimes cut this back to about 5 minutes once meatballs are cooked through). Serve over pasta with cheese and extra chopped parsley.

Note: Since this makes such a large amount, I often reduce the recipe by 2/3 which ends up yielding about 8 meatballs. Other times I reduce it by 1/3 or make the full amount and freeze a portion of the meatballs after they are fried in the oil, but before simmering in the sauce.  They cook and reheat beautifully right out of the freezer when placed in sauce and finished according to the recipe (increase cooking time and check for doneness).

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Posted in Main Courses - Meat | 18 Comments »

Chicken tikka masala + a happy birthday

Saturday, January 9th, 2010

Chicken tikka masala plated

I wonder if I still know how to write – of course I know how to type letters and words, which then make sentences and so on, but I mean really write? Or maybe I just wonder if I can still write like myself – like the self that used to fill pages and pages with words that were pictures that were the stories that painted my life and reflected my soul. Education, society, convention, adulthood, the uncontrollable in life have all taken stake in the empty pages of the journals I have kept toting around for the last decade. So, I’m not quite sure how I feel about all this writing, but what I do know is that I just ate a fat fried brown organic egg on a plate with leftover maple syrup on it from our last minute dinner of french toast (yes, I took a break after cooking nonstop the past couple of days), and it was one of the best eggs I’ve ever had. I also know that Tuesday was my dear friend S.’s birthday, and she loves Indian food and chocolate, so that’s what she got, because it was her birthday, after all.

Ginger, spice, lemon, yogurt in sunlight

S. is the therapist I interned under during my last two semesters of grad school.  She runs her counseling practice out of her nineteenth century Victorian home on Main Street in downtown Smithfield, Va (like Smithfield Ham, yes).  I would sit in on client sessions with her for training in addition to seeing clients myself and do various odds and ends administrative tasks such as scheduling and confirming appointments, helping with treatment plans, and making deposits.  I drove forty minutes to be at S.’s house at 7am in the morning two days a week to do required supervision, which with S., amounted to doing yoga in our pjs in her bedroom before the first 8am client or walking up, down, and around Main Street (still in pjs) in countless repetitions, discussing cases, or whatever else was deemed urgent at the time.

Mixing spices into yogurt

I started bringing my stovetop espresso maker with me in the mornings and cappuccinos after the 8am client became a morning ritual.  Soon S. became obsessed with my little espresso device and proceeded to buy at least six different types of stovetop espresso makers.  You really can’t compete with S., she always wins. Some days I would come home exasperated saying to my husband, “You won’t believe what S. said to me today! The audacity!”  His response, “I would have said:  this, or that, or whatever,” and I would say, “No, first of all, she is evaluating me; second, I really think we can be friends once this is all over with.”  It has been three years since that internship, and S. is a treasured friend – so thankful.

Cutting ginger into a cube for gratingUsing latex gloves while cubing raw chicken

Last year I made chicken curry for S.’s birthday and packed it up in the car along with four month old little J., and took the birthday dinner to her house. This year, we decided to celebrate at my house, since taking a 16 month old child to someone’s house for dinner and having to leave at 7:30 due to your child’s escalating hyperactivity and exhaustion is not exactly a recipe for a relaxed, celebratory dinner amongst adults.

Ingredients for chicken tikka masala tomato cream sauce

I decided to make chicken tikka masala from a recipe I’ve been using for several years. There are many variations to the spicing in this dish, and I cannot attest to them all since this is the only recipe I’ve tried so far, but I can attest to this one saying it is very good and tastes similar to the chicken tikka masala I’ve tried at many Indian restaurants. Chicken tikka masala is not a completely authentic Indian dish, but rather a Brit-Indi (my made up word) creation. Chicken tikka is a traditional yogurt spice marinated and grilled Indian dish that the English adapted to their tastes by dousing in sauce. Normally, I tend to be a purist in these types of matters (except I really do like Tex-Mex), but this match really works, so why argue?  The Brits love their Indian food, and I hear that this tops their list of favorites.  It certainly is at the top of mine.

Blooming spices in butter

An important step in Indian cooking is sauteing the spices (called “blooming”) in oil or butter until fragrant before adding other ingredients. This wakes the spices up by toasting them and allows their flavors to infuse the oil and thus the flavor of the rest of the dish.

Pouring cream into tomato sauce

One of the most intimidating things about cooking a new type of dish for me is having to go out and buy a bunch of ingredients and spices I do not have on hand and do not normally work with.  I remember it took me several months to try this dish for that very reason.  Grate fresh ginger?  Marinate chicken in yogurt – really?  Grill on skewers and then put in a spicy tomato cream sauce? Yes, really, and it is wonderful. I’ve found that grating ginger is quite simple if you cut the sides away to make a manageable, skinless block with which to work.  I also like to use latex gloves when handling raw meat. Who wants to touch raw meat? Not me.

Grilling chicken tikka skewers

I must really love S., because it has been especially cold in Va. this week, and I still went outside and grilled the chicken on our old little Weber. Of course I shouldn’t forget that it is S. who mail ordered fake grass spray and painstakingly sprayed dead brown spots green all over her lawn in order to throw me the most lovely garden baby shower not too long ago.  I told you, you can’t compete with S.

Chicken tikka being added to masala sauce

The grill flavor and charred chicken bits add both complexity and texture – I like to sear the outside of the chicken and leave the insides a little undercooked to finish cooking in the pan with the sauce, thus ensuring the chicken remains tender and not overcooked. For starters, we had roasted red pepper hummus with cilantro and pita chips, and for dessert, a decadent chocolate cake I made the night before. Incidentally, my husband and I try to let our son taste everything we eat, providing it is safe for his age, and as it turns out, roasted red pepper hummus and cilantro is a big hit.

Roasted red pepper hummus with cilantroChocolate birthday cake

S.’s friend M. also came.  Here are S. and M., with S. in the foreground – both looking as young and beautiful as ever.  Happy birthday, friend.

S. and M. on S.'s birthday

Chicken tikka masala
Adapted from

1 cup yogurt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1.5 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1.5 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1.5 teaspoons sea salt or kosher salt
3 boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into bite-size pieces
4 long skewers
1 tablespoon butter
1 clove garlic, minced
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded, ribbed, and finely chopped (add reserved seeds and ribs for more heat at end if desired)
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons paprika
1 (8 ounce) can tomato sauce
1 cup heavy cream (I often use half & half)
sea or kosher salt to taste
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1. In a large bowl, combine yogurt, lemon juice, 2 teaspoons cumin, cinnamon, cayenne, black pepper, ginger, and salt. Stir in chicken, cover, and refrigerate for 1 hour. Do not marinate for longer than 1 hour, as chicken can become over seasoned. If using wooden skewers, cover in water during this time to help prevent burning when on grill.
2. Preheat a grill for high heat.
3. Lightly oil the grill grate. Thread chicken onto skewers, and discard marinade. Grill until juices run clear, about 5 minutes on each side.
4. Melt butter in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Saute garlic and jalapeno for 1 minute and then stir in 2 teaspoons cumin and paprika and saute until fragrant, about 1 more minute. Stir in tomato sauce and cream. Simmer on low heat until sauce begins to thicken, about 15-20 minutes. Add grilled chicken, and simmer till chicken is completely cooked and warm, 5-10 minutes. Taste and add salt to taste, if needed. Transfer to a serving platter, and garnish with fresh cilantro. Serve with basmati rice and whole milk yogurt to cut heat, if needed.

Note: I like extra sauce to mix with rice, and usually increase the sauce recipe by one half.

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Posted in Indian | 14 Comments »