Monday, August 30, 2010

Pomodoro!, Pulcinella and the Glory of Summer Tomatoes

As noted previously here on The Crispy Cook, some blogger buddies and I were offered the chance to review copies of the new book "Pomodoro! A History of the Tomato in Italy", by David Gentilcore (NY: Columbia University Press, 2010) and we decided to put together a little blog event to roundup our thoughts about the book and to celebrate the tomatoes we all crave every season. If you would like to join us, please feel free to blog up something (including a recipe for a dish featuring tomatoes) and leave a comment below by our deadline of September 13, 2010 and I'll include you in the roundup.

Reading Professor Gentilcore's lively prose was a treat. I have enjoyed absorbing details of history through other food-centric volumes (Mark Kurlansky's "Cod" and Salt" are particularly good reads) and Pomodoro! was an entertaining romp through many centuries of Italian history. The tomato is not native to Europe, but was imported from the New World in the mid-16th century as a botanical curiosity for aristocratic gardeners. It was considered a plant that would dampen one's bodily humors and was not incorporated into everyday Italian cooking until the 1800s, when peasant women began sun drying tomatoes and tomato paste to supplement their farm incomes.

The struggles among Italy's various principalities and regions leading up to unification of Italy in the 1860s saw a general shift in prosperity from South to North. The proud Kingdom of Naples was reduced to a provincial capital and Neapolitans were mocked as bumbling, pasta-munchers in nationalist newspapers. Being poorer meant that Southern Italians ate less meat and more vegetables, and tomatoes soon zoomed to the top of the food pyramid.

Gentilcore's book has other interesting chapters about how the development of tomato varieties swung back and forth between Italy and the U.S. and how the waves of Italian immigration to America developed new tastes back home for tomato-heavy recipes. The chapter "The Autarchical Tomato", about how Mussolini's government used the tomato and home cooking iconography in its Fascist propaganda is similarly eye-opening, and overall the book is a great combination of scholarly detail and engaging writing that chronicles how the tomato slowly became an integral part of Italian culture.

Having some Neapolitan ancestors, the short description in the book about the commedia dell'arte stock character of Pulcinella, who represents Naples with his ever-present pot of macaroni, intrigued me to learn more. Commedia dell'arte is a stylized form of comic street theater which features masked actors and which flourished in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. Many characters originally developed to represent different regions, and Pulcinella, with his long-nosed black mask, oversized floppy clothes and sugarloaf hat, became a Neapolitan trickster type, who, when he wasn't loafing around gorging on macaroni, carried a cudgel to beat people with. If you've even seen a Punch and Judy show you'll see how Pulcinella evolved into the long-nosed evil assaulter, Punch, in English puppetry traditions. There is a Pulcinella Museum in Acerra, which would definitely be high on my itinerary if I get to visit Italy someday. In the meantime, I sketched a merrier version of the pasta-loving Pucinella to be my tomato muse in the kitchen.

And now to turn to the glories of the pomodoros, or golden apples, the tomatoes of summer! Ah, the beauty of a bowl of fresh garden tomatoes. It is the season when our family indulges in simple tomato sandwiches, tomato and cucumber salads, tomatoes tucked into pretty much every supper dish and our kitchen counters are filled with colanders and bowls of tomatoes awaiting canning and freezing.

I always grow at least 10-12 plum tomato plants in our home garden. They are meaty and fabulous for preserving, either as sauce or slow-roasted in the oven with salt, pepper and olive oil and then packed into freezer packs with fresh basil leaves. The other tomato varieties we like for immediate eating include whatever red and yellow varieties are offered as seedlings from the farmer around the corner and this year that included Striped German, a yellow and red heirloom variety with heavy fruit and some Supersteak and Celebrity tomatoes. And of course tomatoes need basil and garlic for neighbors, so I think my garden is fairly Italianate these days.

Since I already had put up some canned tomato sauce and spicy salsa this summer I thought I would attempt canning some tomato barbecue sauce. In honor of my saucy, spicy new friend Pulcinella, who also endears himself to me with his high-pitched voice and tendency to hop around like a chicken (pulcinella means little chick in Italian), I present this sweet and tangy tomato barbecue recipe:

Pulcinella's Barbecue Sauce

-adapted from the 1990 Ball Blue Book

8 quarts tomato puree
(I use my 4 quart crock pot to cook down cored, chunked tomatoes pretty much every night during tomato season. I turn the crock pot off in the morning and when things have cooled, I run the tomatoes through my food mill to get rid of seeds and skin and it makes a wonderful puree)

3 large onions, peeled and rough chopped
2 green bell peppers, seeded and rough chopped
2 red bell peppers, seeded and rough chopped
1 bunch celery, leaves and all, rough chopped
2-3 hot peppers, seeded and rough chopped (wear gloves)

1-1/2 cups brown sugar
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 Tbsp. dry mustard
2 tsp. cayenne pepper
2 tsp. dried red pepper flakes
2 cups cider vinegar

Cover onions, bell peppers, celery and hot peppers with water in a pot. Bring to a boil. Lower heat and cook, covered, until vegetables are softened. Puree through food mill.

Put pureed veggies and tomato puree in large stock pot and bring to a boil. Lower heat to medium and keep at low boil until mixture thickens down to about half.

Stir in remaining ingredients and simmer, stirring occasionally to keep from scorching, until sauce is nice and thick, about 2 hours. Season to taste with salt and add more hot pepper flakes if Pulcinella advises you to.

Pour into sterilized pint jars, leaving 1/4 inch head space. Cap and process in a hot water bath for 20 minutes.

Makes 7 pints.

This is a slightly sweet barbecue sauce that is great for marinating vegetables and slathering on grilled zucchini slabs and portabella mushrooms. Pulcinella advises that it tastes great on roast chicken too.

I hope this post piques your interest in learning more about the history of tomatoes and seeking out Gentilcore's book, "Pomodoro!". You can read an interview with the esteemed author over at The Boston Globe and be sure to check back here after September 13th for the roundup of tomatoey posts.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Puerto Rican Rice and Beans

Over at the Regional Recipes blog event the month's theme is the food of Puerto Rico and what can be more appropriate to cook up than the National Dish of Arroz Con Gandules, or Rice and Pigeon Peas. I am always on the lookout for another rice and beans recipe to add to our repertoire and this luscious dish turned out great for dinner and reheated for our lunch over the course of several days.

I had never tried pigeon peas, but our supermarket carried a green variety under the Goya brand. They were not a bright green like pigeon peas shown on the label, but were a more drab brownish gray. However, they have a nice earthy taste and Goya handily provided a recipe for Arroz Con Gandules right on the can which I used as a springboard for my own vegetarian version using more of the veggies sproinging out of the home gardens. Pigeon peas are protein-rich legumes are grown all over the tropics and are featured in many different cuisines. Indian cooks make a lot of recipes with pigeon peas, or toor dal, so I knew I wanted to play around with this new (to me) legume.

For a traditional Puerto Rican Arroz Con Gandules one would add a little bit of chopped ham or bacon, but I souped up my vegetarian version with extra seasoning and some chopped green olives.

Arroz Con Gandules, Garden-Style

2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
2-3 frying peppers, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
5 plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped
2 packets Sazon Goya con culantro y achiote (the Goya website says it gluten-free)
1 (15 oz.) can green pigeon peas, drained
2 cups rice
4 cups water
4 Tbsp. parsley, chopped
Chopped green olives for garnish

Heat oil in large heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add onion and saute until translucent, about 4 minutes, add peppers and garlic and cook another 2-3 minutes, stirring. Add tomatoes and cook another 5 minutes. When vegetables are softened, add Sazon Goya, pigeon peas, and water.

Bring to a boil. Lower heat, add rice and simmer, covered, until rice is cooked, about 15-20 minutes. Try to resist the temptation to stir the rice during its steaming or it may become gummy. Season with a little salt and pepper to taste.

Garnish with chopped parsley and chopped green olives. A squirt of hot pepper sauce is also nice.

Makes 6-8 servings.

The Regional Recipes roundup will occur after the August 31 deadline and then our hostess Joanne will announce the next country we will be visiting. Previous editions of Regional Recipes have looked at the cuisines of Ethiopia, Ireland, Greece, Vietnam, and other nations, and the roundups really give a nice overview of the flavors and foods of these different countries. Can't wait to see our next destination.

I am also sending a bowl of this delicious dish to Simone of Briciole, who is hosting this month's edition of My Legume Love Affair, a monthly blog event that highlights the various legumes of the world, including my new favorite, pigeon peas. My Legume Love Affair is the brainchild of Susan, the Well-Seasoned Cook, and her blog contains all the archives of past MLLA rounds so you can spend many hours looking at the various ways cooks around the globe cook with these wonderful peas, beans and pulses.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Cook the Books Club: Climbing the Mango Trees and Picking the Beans with Madhur Jaffrey

The combo of daily sunshine, just enough rain and warm nights has produced a vegetable explosion in our home gardens this season, and the Crispy Cook has been pretty good at keeping up with the harvest by canning and freezing and cooking up armloads of tomatoes, basil, broccoli, cabbage, zucchini and peppers. I cut back on the number of plants (especially those super-fertile summer squashes) and the variety of veggies we usually grow, devoting about half of our garden space to garlic after seeing how successful that went with last year's first garlic harvest.

But I forgot about how prolific bean plants can be.

I usually grow one or two kinds of string beans each year and this year it was just half a seed pack of wax beans (those yellow string beans that are easier to spy on the green bean plants, I grew the Carson variety) that went into the ground in early summer. The bean plants just went wild this summer and it seemed like no sooner had I picked a colander full of crisp yellow beans, then there was another cluster hanging from the plants. My favorite way to enjoy wax beans is in a salad with tomatoes but after making this excellent dish several times, I turned to my cookbook shelf for more beany inspiration.

Since our foodie book club, Cook the Books, is currently reading Madhur Jaffrey's book "Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India" (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), I turned to her wonderful "An Invitation to Indian Cooking" (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973). This is one of my most well-loved cookbooks since purchasing a paperback copy in a used bookstore many moons ago when I was first living and cooking on my own. I have since upgraded to a nice hardcover edition since my bespatterings and cracking of the spine beat up my original copy. I can recommend it wholeheartedly as a great introduction to the cuisine of Jaffrey's Delhi hometown, especially for American cooks who want to familiarize themselves with Indian ingredients and cooking techniques.

I found the perfect recipe to make: Green Beans with Onion Paste, which really deserves a much more glamorous name as it is redolent of so many spices. The beans are infused with so many levels of flavor as they slow cook in their tomato and onion gravy and it makes a hearty vegetarian meal over rice. Try it over basmati rice for extra fabulousness.

I have made the recipe twice now to rave reviews from my family. It is a slow food dish, requiring a good bit of time in the slicing of the beans, the sauteeing of the onion paste and spices, and then a bit of simmering, but the result is exquisite. You'll also creating a bit of work for the dishwasher, but they will lulled into submission when you make them this dish. Make a double quantity if you have a ton of beans, as I did and you'll have lots of great leftovers to savor.

Back to Jaffrey's memoir. At Cook the Books, participants read a book and then blog up a review and cook a dish inspired by their reading. I've already sung my praises of Jaffrey's great bean recipe, so now here are my thoughts about "Climbing the Mango Trees". Jaffrey provides another great introduction to Indian culture for Western readers with this autobiography. I learned so much about the complexity of modern Indian history from reading about her interesting family.

The Jaffrey clan lived as an extended family of up to 40 people, ruled by Babaji, the grandfather, in a sprawling orchard estate outside of Delhi in northern India. The Jaffreys were Hindus in this part of British India that was ruled by Moghul leaders that were Muslim, so the combination of cultures and religions during the 1930s-50s is interesting to read about. The family was well-off, so that servants cooked the meals. While little Madhur grew up to become a well-known food writer (and actress), she never spent much time in the family kitchen, though her childhood food memories are vivid indeed.

I was particularly enchanted by her description of a wintertime confection that an elderly lady dressed all in white used to bring by for a breakfast treat. Daula Ki Chaat was made by taking rich milk and mixing it with dried seafoam. The Lady in White would then ascend to her roof top and leave little terra cotta cups of this mixture to chill in the night air. In the morning, if the collected dew was in just the right amount, she would froth it up, adding a little sugar, dried sheets of milk and shavings of pistachio nuts. How's that for magical food?

Another evocative passage was about summer mango parties, which her mother called "sweetenings of the mouth", that were held to celebrate successful school exams. Madhur's mother would invite the family to sup on ice cream, rasgulla (cheese balls in syrup) and juicy mangoes and the image of them all whiling away a hot afternoon with jasmine in their hair, trying to avoid drips on their immaculate white saris and kurtas, has stayed with me.

Ms. Jaffrey provides plenty of other wonderful food-infused memories throughout her memoir, which ends when she leaves India by ship to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in faraway London. That is where she began to pine for a taste of home, and where her adventures in cooking them up from her mother's handwritten recipes would begin. I look forward to reading what I hope will be another installment of this interesting and extraordinary life.

You can join me in reading, cooking and blogging about this wonderful book by the Cook the Books deadline of Friday, September 24, 2010. My CTB cofounder, Deb, of Kahakai Kitchen, is hosting this round and you can find out the details about how to participate on the Cook the Books website. Perhaps you will be inspired by the collection of treasured family recipes provided at the end of the book to join us at our Cook the Books roundup.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Z is For Zucchini

It is high summer here in upstate New York and it requires a couple of colanders to make the rounds of the garden each day, harvesting the abundance of vegetables and herbs that are flinging forth from the Crispy Garden. Zucchini plants are always fecund producers, so we've been enjoying lots of sauteed grated zucchini with butter, garlic and basil, zucchini stewed with tomatoes and basil and loading up the freezer with packages of grated, squeezed out zucchini so we can get our summer squash fix in the depth of winter.

While I've made other zucchini relishes and pickles before, I had never tried making a classic bread-and-butter pickle recipe using my garden squash bounty, but since we had a let up in the hazy, steamy weather this past week, I boiled up a vat o' water and got into canning mode. After perusing my canning library for inspiration, here's what I made:

Bread and Butter Zucchini Pickles

14 cups zucchini, trimmed and sliced into 1/4 inch slices

1/2 cup pickling salt

6 cups white vinegar

3-1/2 cups sugar

4 tsp. brown mustard seeds

2 tsp. celery seeds

6 dill heads

Layer zucchini slices with pickling salt in a big ceramic bowl. Cover with water, cover and let stand for at least 2 hours.

Drain zucchini and rinse salt off with cold water. Pat dry.

Make pickling brine in a large stainless steel or porcelain sauce pot. Combine vinegar, sugar, mustard and celery seeds. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Lower heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add zucchini slices and stir to coat with brine. Cover pot and let stand at least one hour (or overnight).

Sterilize 6 pint canning jars in a big hot water bath. Bring zucchini slices in brine to a boil and then pack into hot jars, popping in a dill head in each (I pop them in the middle of the jar). Fill jars to within 1/2 inch of top of each jar. Tap gently to remove bubbles, then seal and process in hot water bath for 10 minutes.

Remove from hot water bath and leave to seal by themselves overnight. Refrigerate any jars that haven't sealed properly.

Makes 6 pints.

These pickles came out very well. The zucchini is nice and snappy after the salting and the brine is sweet and tangy like a good sweet pickle should be. Perfect.

For other zucchini harvest ideas, take a look at these recipes from the Crispy Vault:

Zucchini Trifolati

Zucchini Pizza on Gluten-Free Crust

Spicy Zucchini Relish

Stuffed Grape Leaves with Zucchini and Cilantro

Cream of Ratatouille Soup

Spinach-Zucchini Soup with Fennel Seed

Nightshade Ragout

Zucchini Tonic

I'm sending this vegetable contribution over to Katie at EAT THIS!, a fellow gluten-free food blogger and gastronomic adventurer who's hosting this week's round of Weekend Herb Blogging. You can find out more about this weekly food event at the Australian headquarters of Cook (Almost) Anything At Least Once. Look for an interesting roundup of vegetastic recipes and posts after the Sunday deadline over at EAT THIS!