The Real Food Journal
It’s officially the tail end of tomato season, where I live. So there is a twinge of pre-nostalgia as I savor the last of the best tomatoes of the year. The heirloom tomatoes are at their peak, as they finally finish ripening and hang heavy on the vine. Contemplating these tomatoes, so lovingly created by backyard gardeners faithfully saving the seeds from the best tasting tomatoes, you feel the past leading to the present. All those gardeners tended, tasted, and took the time to preserve these varieties.
You really have to thank them.
It’s the same with ancient grains, when you think about it. People grew these grains thousands of years ago, and saved the seeds.Genetic material always changes, as plants recreate it year after year, but they are still ancient stock. One of my favorite ancient grains is green-wheat freekeh. We usually call it freekeh, for short, but the full name includes the “green-wheat” part. Freekeh is made by harvesting green, unripe wheat, then roasting it in the husk, before removing the inedible chaff that encases the seeds. That process infuses the grain with a smoky, nutty flavor, on top of the wheaty qualities of bulghar. I’ve got a few recipes for it in the recipe index.
So heirloom tomatoes and ancient grains seem like a perfect match. Both carefully saved for their deliciousness, shepherded to us by a thousand hands. So I made these Heirlooms Stuffed with Freekeh and Pesto.
I’m using gorgeous Cherokee Purple tomatoes, streaked with dramatic deep tones. They are a symphony of sweet, tart, tomato-ey bliss. Since the freekeh is also so full of unique flavor, I wanted a simple, fast recipe to show them both off. To get every bit of the tomato magic, I took the extra step of straining the juicy pulp inside the tomatoes to use it in the cooking liquid for the ancient grain. I also saved the bits of flesh from inside and chopped them up, adding them to the grain as it cooked.
If you have ever scooped the seeds out of the tomato and thrown them away, you may be surprised to learn that the liquids inside the fruit are actually highest in umami. The clear, pulpy part is where the glutamic acid resides, which gives us that lovely, meaty, umami feel in our mouths. You can read more about that here. So as long as I’m cooking my whole grains with liquid, I might as well harness that bit of molecular magic.
A quick pesto was just the thing to bind the grain just a little, and give it some Mediterranean flair. Toasted almond slivers bring the nuttiness of the grain to the fore, and a few extra give you a crunchy garnish for the top. Whole grains have so much flavor, you need some punchy seasonings to pair with them. Timid pinches of dried out herbs just won’t cut it, when you go whole grain. Fresh basil, plentiful jolts of garlic, and these flavor-bomb tomatoes are just the companions who won’t get pushed into the shadows.
I don’t have to tell you that whole grains are at the core of a healthy lifestyle. With the amazing variety of whole grains out there, you can try a different one every week. I’m convinced that green-wheat freekeh is going to continue to gain popularity, for the smoky, nuanced flavor and chewy texture. If you don’t fall in love with it, you can always try this recipe with sunny yellow millet, or sweet, comforting pearled barley.
Eating ancient grains and heirlooms will certainly give you some old-school energy and a zip in your step.
Heirloom Tomatoes Stuffed with Freekeh and Pesto
The most common kind of freekeh on the market is a chopped, coarse chunk, but you can also find whole seed versions. The whole kind will take longer to cook, so check the package for instructions. Any grain that takes longer will need more liquids, just to cover the evaporation.
4 medium heirloom tomatoes
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, minced
1 cup freekeh
2 cups fresh basil
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons slivered almonds, toasted
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 sprigs fresh basil
Slice the tops from the tomatoes, and carefully scoop out the contents of each tomato into a bowl. Pick out the flesh, leaving the juices and seeds. Mince the flesh and reserve. Strain the juice and seeds in a fine strainer, allowing the juice to fall into a measuring cup. Press the pulp and seeds with a spoon, scraping and pressing until the remaining seeds are almost dry.
In a 1 quart pot, heat the teaspoon of olive oil for a few seconds, then add the minced shallot and stir. Over medium heat, let the shallots soften and turn golden as you stir. Add the minced flesh from the tomatoes. Stir and add the freekeh, and let toast for a few minutes. To the strained juice, add water to make 1 3/4 cup. Stir into the freekeh in the pan and turn the heat to high. When the pot boils, cover and reduce to low. Cook for about 20 minutes, then check to see if the liquids are all absorbed. When the grain is tender, take off the heat. Fluff and uncover to let cool.
While the grain cools, put the basil, garlic, and 1/4 cup slivered almonds in the food processor and grind. When the contents are finely minced, add the salt and olive oil. Process until smooth.
Stir the pesto into the cooled grain, then stuff the mixture into the tomatoes. Place each on a small plate and garnish with the remaining toasted almonds and a basil sprig.
Every precious, sustaining bite of food that we take is the result of a team effort. Many people worked to plant, raise, ship and process each and every ingredient. But one of the most important team players is the honeybee. Pollinators make plant foods possible.
Our pollinators are in trouble. In 2014 alone 40% of the bee population died. Lack of open spaces and flowers to feed on, pesticides called neonicotinoids, and mites are all contributing to the loss of bees. The White House recently announced a plan to help save the bees, and I posted a video of it below.
I had the privilege of visiting the White House last Spring, and saw the White House bee hive and garden up close. It’s a small hive, but it makes a statement.
What can you do? My personal effort has been to plant large swaths of my yard with pollinator-friendly plants, all neonic free. For people with yards or decks or balconies, this is a fantastic way to help the bees. It’s also incredibly rewarding. We enjoy the profusion of flowers, the native plants grow with very little help, and we get to spot visiting butterflies, bees, and birds.
I even hatched out a Monarch in my office, and then set it free.
But back to the bees. We need them, and one of the reasons we raise and care for them is the honey. Humans have been in love with honey since pre-history. Honey would have been the first concentrated sweetness that people got to taste, in a world of small, not so sweet fruits and gnarly tubers that would eventually be bred to be sweeter. That explains a risky enthusiasm for climbing trees and courting bee stings. Our very first alcoholic drink, Mead, was probably an accident, a natural reaction of honey, water, and free-floating yeasts. That must have been a popular discovery.
So for my celebration of Honeybee Day, I made a summery, quick recipe that features honey. I buy local, raw honey, which has many nutritional bonuses that refined sweeteners lack. I do boil the honey in this recipe, which mutes some of its health benefits, but the Vitamins and Minerals will remain.
Investing in honey from small operations with hives on farms throughout the region is a way to vote for the bee. These farmers keep the bees in small colonies, allowing them to fan out over the surrounding area. That is good for everyone, including the honey lover.
When we buy good, raw honey, we get all the terroir of a good wine, since the bees infuse the flavor of the plants they pollinate into a concentrated elixir. This sweet, fruity summer roll is a vehicle for the subtle flavors of honey, alongside some tangy-sweet, juicy plums. I bought the plums from the same Farmer who sells me honey at the Farmer’s Market. It’s entirely possible that the honey came from the bees who pollinated the plum blossoms.
I like this technique for glazing the tofu, because it is easy and fast. Instead of marinating, you just heat the oil and honey in the pan, and roll the tofu around in it as it cooks down to a golden glaze. I used salt, instead of soy sauce to keep from covering up the pure honey flavor, but for an Asian umami boost, you could try some shoyu or tamari in the glaze, instead.
Fresh mint, and tender rice noodles with a kiss of honey and lemon, and some pea shoots made up the rest of the filling. I stirred up a honey and peanut sauce with some red pepper flakes, for a simple and easy dip.
Honeybee Day is a good time to think about what you can do to help the pollinators. There are so many good causes, and many issues that need our attention, I know. But we need our sweet, hardworking bees, and they need our help.
If you want more info on what you can do to help honeybees, click on this link to National Honeybee Day.
Honey Glazed Tofu and Plum Summer Rolls with Honey Peanut Dip
The Summer Roll, with a tender rice paper wrapper, is fragile. Once you make your rolls, you should cover them with a wet towel, and eat right away. If you must wait, put the rolls in a wide storage tub, with space between them, and cover them with wet paper towels, then cover tightly. They will last up to 24 hours.
Makes 12 Rolls
14 ounces firm tofu
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/4 cup honey
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup honey
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons grated ginger
1/4 cup tamari soy sauce
1/4 cup smooth peanut butter
4 ounces rice noodles
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 bunch fresh mint leaves
12 small plum
12 9 inch rice paper wrappers
Bring a pot of water to a boil for the noodles. Wrap the tofu with a towel and press to take out the excess moisture. Slice the block in half into two rectangular planks, then slice both into six strips. Reserve.
Pour the canola oil and honey into a large saute pan and heat over medium high flame until it starts to bubble. Carefully place the strips in the pan and use a metal spatula to move them gently so they don’t stick. Turn the pieces every couple of minutes, until the honey is covering the tofu and starting to brown. Reduce heat as needed to keep from burning. When golden brown, transfer to a plate and let cool.
In a small saucepan, heat the honey with the pepper flakes and ginger until it bubbles. Whisk in the tamari and peanut butter and bring to a simmer, then transfer to a bowl. Reserve.
Cook the rice noodles, then drain and wrap in a smooth towel to dry. Transfer to a medium bowl and toss with a tablespoon of honey and lemon.
Prepare a lasagna sized pan by filling it halfway with hot water, and place a towel next to it on a cutting board.
Tear the mint leaves from the stems, and cut the plums in thick slices.
Soak two rice paper wrappers. When they are just softened, transfer to the towel. On each, place a few mint leaves in a line along the center. Place sliced plums alongside the mint, and put a slice of tofu on the mint. Place a small handful of rice noodles on top, and a few sprigs of pea shoots. Fold in the sides and fold up the bottom, and roll up each summer roll. Place on a plate. Keep going until all twelve are done.
Cover the finished rolls with wet towels until serving.
Serve rolls with the peanut sauce.
I have a confession to make. I make salsa often. It’s a fallback plan on weeknights, when there are tomatoes or fruit ripening on my kitchen window sill. Chop a few tomatoes, a jalapeno, use up that half bunch of cilantro that will just go bad in the fridge.
And it is a quick recipe that serves as both the vegetable and the sauce at dinner. With chips, over potatoes, in a wrap with some leftovers, the salsa is the fresh element that makes a lazy cook look like she cared enough to chop something.
But this week, I tried shaking up my usual mess of fresh vegetables. I had a large amount of cilantro, and wanted a more substantial dip.
So, I made a puree of the cilantro with pine nuts, garlic, lime juice and olive oil. This thick paste formed a matrix of deliciousness, which held my precious little tomatoes in suspension. Instead of the usual juicy, light salsa, I had a thicker, heftier version.
We loved it.
If the mere thought of all that cilantro makes your skin crawl, you may be one of the people who doesn’t have the enzymes in your saliva that process it. It’s an accident of birth, and there is nothing you can do to make yourself like cilantro, if you think it tastes like soap. My condolences. You can always try this with fresh mint.
If you like the citrusy, light flavor of cilantro, you are in luck. Cilantro is not just an essential herb in Mexican, Indian, and Pacific Rim cookery, it’s a powerful cleanser. Herbal practitioners recommend just 1/4 cup of packed cilantro per day to help the body shed any stored heavy metals, like mercury, lead and aluminum. You can get testing done to see if you have detectable levels, if you are concerned. I figure that eating generous amounts of cilantro is just a good way to keep the inevitable pollution around me from doing as much damage.
Plus, it’s delicious. Any quick recipe is suddenly elevated by a handful of fresh, tender cilantro leaves.
I just happened to have an assortment of sweet, ripe grape and cherry tomatoes, which have the benefit of not melting into the pesto as quickly as chopped regular tomatoes would. A zippy squeeze of lime and some garlic and you have a riot of flavor.
So when you are looking for a tasty way to show off your favorite summer tomatoes, try this salsa. It’s a speedy formula for a summer meal.
Cilantro Pesto Salsa
This salsa keeps for about a day, the thick pesto will be thinned by the juices that will seep from the tomatoes. You can always use full sized tomatoes, just always use the tomato with the best flavor.
2 cups fresh cilantro leaves
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup pine nuts
1 tablespoon lime, more to taste
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound assorted grape tomatoes, coarsely sliced
3 large jalapenos, seeded and chopped
In a blender or food processor, combine the cilantro, garlic and pine nuts and grind to a paste. Add the lime, olive oil and salt and process until smooth. It will be thick.
Chop the tomatoes and jalapenos and put in a medium bowl. Scrape the cilantro pesto over the tomatoes, then fold in gently. Taste and add more lime if you think it needs it.
Serve with chips, over roasted potatoes, or in burritos.
I don’t grow very many tomatoes, but the ones I do get are very, very special to me. During this brief end of summer heyday, my 10 assorted heirloom tomato varieties ripen in waves, giving me these meal-sized assortments of tomato heaven. Today’s haul was about three pounds of the most true tomato essence that I will get my hands on all year.
I’m not a great gardener. My tomato plant selecting skills consist of going to the farmers market or the local organic garden store, looking at the heirloom plants, and picking a variety of colors. I do lean toward the plants with the shortest number of days to maturity. We dig out the soil in our tomato boxes, pile in a generous amount of home-fermented compost, and plant them.
Some years we tie them up, some years, I just let them act like the sprawling vines they truly are. We water, and hope for the best.
Of course, freshly picked, vine ripe tomatoes are the best, so all our hopes come true, as long as there isn’t an obscenely early frost. It is Minnesota.
These tomatoes are in a special class, and I always try to put them in a dish that really lets their truth shine through. Overwhelming all that true tomato greatness would be a waste, as appealing as it might be to douse them in Zinfandel and slow cook them.
This is the season of the simple tomato sandwich, the tomato and basil salad, and the off the cuff salsa that you can eat sitting on the deck.
So I have a fall back pasta sauce, which relies on the slight acidity and intense flavor of great oil. You can do it with good olive oil, or walnut oil, whatever really tasty oil you have. Not coconut oil, for this one, as it will stiffen up and separate from the tomatoes. But otherwise, nuts, seeds, all make tasty oils. Pick one that is made from roasted nuts, if you can find it. The use the nut in the gremolata.
It’s just too simple, just chop some garlic, douse it in oil, and toss in the tomatoes and some basil and kale. The kale will also benefit from some marination, becoming tender and sweet.
The only trick is to squeeze out a little of the juicy centers of the tomatoes, so that they don’t make the whole affair too soggy. If you don’t want to do that, you can always throw in a handful of whole wheat breadcrumbs to soak them up. That would be so authentically peasant that it qualifies as an artisanal action.
So while the tomatoes, basil and oil all marry with the garlic and kale, you can cook your pasta and drain. Angelhair only takes 2 minutes, so don’t rush. You should also make the hazelnut gremolata for the topping. I keep toasted and skinned hazelnuts in the fridge, since they are such a handy way to make salads and pastas interesting. If you don’t, you can pan toast over low heat until the skins start to fall off, then put in a thick kitchen towel and rub the skins off. It’s worth the effort.
The chopped hazelnuts and parsley form a crunchy topping, which stands in for the usual dusting of Parmesan. Of course, you can add cheese if you want to. But there’s plenty of protein and salty richness in the nutty topping, too.
Summer is short, so we may as well romance the fruits of the season. It will be time to slow-simmer a pot of sauce soon enough.
Marinated Heirloom Tomato, Hazelnut and Basil Pasta
1/4 cup toasted hazelnut oil
2 fat cloves garlic, chopped
2 pounds heirloom tomatoes
1/2 cup packed fresh basil leaves, slivered
2 cups shredded baby kale
For the Gremolata:
1/4 cup toasted and skinned hazelnuts
1/4 cup parsley leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest
8 ounces whole wheat angelhair pasta
Put on a pot of water to boil the pasta and salt it generously.
In a large bowl, mix the hazelnut oil and garlic.
Chop the tomatoes, squeezing out some of the seeds and juice as you transfer them to the bowl with the hazelnut oil. Add the basil and kale and toss to coat.
On your cutting board, chop the hazelnuts and parsley, then mix them on the board, sprinkle with the salt, and zest, and chop finely to mix. Transfer to a small bowl.
Cook the pasta in salted water and drain well. Add to the bowl with the tomatoes and toss to coat. Taste and salt as needed. Serve sprinkled with the hazelnut mixture.
It’s officially sweetcorn season, a time of year when by vegetable drawer is packed with a dozen plump ears every time I visit the farmers market. 12 ears of corn, two people, you do the math. We go on a bit of a corn binge.
It’s an annual bacchanal of corn love. Maybe it’s because we both grew up in Illinois. We just love the seasonal bounty, simply boiled, tossed on the grill, or shaved off the cob for all sorts of dishes. I’ve posted some regular faves on the blog in the past, including my Fast and Tasty Corn Saute and a Raw Corn and Mint Salad, even a Korean Style Corn Pizza.
This week, I was pondering my pile of fresh ears and I saw another seasonal star, languishing on the windowsill. Yes, I had stocked up on some fragrant, blushing peaches at the store, and they were ready to go. It was a thrill to cut into one, as they were just on the edge of over-ripe, heavy with sweet juices. Luckily, they were not too soft, and had not succumbed to any of the many sad disasters that can befall soft fruit. One minute, they are rock hard, the next, mealy and brown inside, you just never can tell how it will go. So this time, I hit the jackpot.
The truth about peaches, is that you can’t really tell whether they have been handled properly. To shop carefully, look for peaches that are not green, but that have yellow backgrounds with a pink blush. The blush is where the sun hit the peach. Fruit that is picked green and rock hard will never ripen. It should be more “tennis ball” firm, at the most. Those mealy peaches that look just fine but turn out to be lumpy and rotten inside? Those were over-chilled at some point in their journey to you. They emerged from that traumatic event looking like innocent little peaches, but they were already ruined when you bought them.
Grr. Big peach growers have a little tool called a “penetrometer” that they use to gauge the ripeness of the peaches at picking time. I guess that is more scientific than just squeezing them.
So, my lovely, smooth textured and ripe peaches were even more exciting, since I was steeling myself for the possibility that they would be duds, like the last batch.
That probably reveals something about my outlook on life. Prepare for the worst, celebrate when good things happen? At least with peaches.
With a ripe, juicy peach in hand, I had a sudden flash of inspiration. Why not put the lush, juicy peaches and crisp, sweet corn in the same dish? With a creamy dressing, the corn would seem fruitier next to the peaches. The peaches would be even more sensuous and tender with the bright corn kernels exploding alongside.
The herbal hit of fresh basil was a good foil for all the sweet, creaminess. A quick spike of red chiles kept it from getting too comforting altogether. It just needed a zing of citrus to balance the super-sweet peaches, and a generous grating of lemon zest did the trick.
You can go vegan with the coconut milk option, which is even better with Thai Basil, and a tablespoon or so of fresh lemon juice. For my yogurt loving friends, you can rely on the acidity of your fave fermented milk product.
So go ahead, take a gamble on some peaches. You’ll do best when you buy local and know your farmer. All that chill trauma happens when they are in trucks from far, far away. Hedge your bets and buy from the closest peach trees, and buy slightly soft, not rock hard.
Of all the gambles you might take in life, this one is worth taking. You win, great peaches, you lose, well, it can go in the compost.
Peach and Sweetcorn Salad with Basil and Chiles
Sweet, tangy peaches make a perfect foil for crunchy sweet corn. Vegans can use the coconut milk and lemon juice option, or even a prepared non-dairy yogurt. It’s just so easy.
4 ears sweetcorn, about 2 cups kernels
4 peaches, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup fresh basil, slivered
1 cup coconut milk or yogurt (if using coconut milk, stir in a tablespoon of lemon juice)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest
3 tablespoons honey or agave
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 large red chile, minced
Set up a steamer for the corn kernels. Cut them off the cob and steam for about 2 minutes. Just barely cook them, they will stay sweet and crunchy. Let cool. Chop the peaches and basil, put in a bowl, add the cooled corn.
In a medium bowl, stir the coconut milk or yogurt, lemon zest, honey or agave, salt and chile. Pour over the peach mixture and stir gently. Serve chilled.
There are few things better suited for each other than a hot, humid summer day and a watermelon. In a sign that the Universe loves us and wants us to be happy, the peak season of the watermelon is in perfect sync with our need for something just exactly like a watermelon.
At the precise moment when we are sweating away our precious bodily fluids, a magical green orb appears, filled with delicious, hydrating fruit. If you have ever grown watermelons, they really do seem magical. A few little seeds go into the dirt, and a spindly vine somehow produces giant, heavy fruit. Tomatoes look like a pale effort by comparison. Cucumbers? Move over, the big fat ball of sweet water is here.
Watermelon is such a tasty treat, you’d probably put it in the category with candy, not health food. Just keep thinking that way. But it’s actually in the latter group.
Dig into that juicy, sweet watermelon and you are loading up on Vitamin C, A and antioxidants like Lycopene. Combining all those with lots of fiber makes watermelon a good deterrent to cancer. Lycopene is recommended for both heart health and to prevent prostate cancer. The evidence for watermelon as a boon to heart health has been mounting, and watermelon extracts have actually been shown to reduce blood pressure.
Eating plenty of vitamin C is one way to keep asthma under control, along with all the other good things C does.
Choline is an anti-inflammatory nutrient that is high in watermelon, and the Vitamin A and C combo is good for healthy, happy skin. So watermelon appeals to my vanity, as well as my tastebuds.
There’s even an amino acid called L-Citrulline that prevents muscle soreness, so the melon actually helps ease all the muscle aches that come from working in the garden. One theory says that the Citrulline is converted to arginine, which is really good for your arteries and heart health.
When fully ripe, the brilliant flesh of the melon delivers Beta Carotene, another powerful antioxidant.
Yet again, a food that is absolutely delicious and also really nourishing at the same time. One of my favorite things in the world, a win-win of fun and function. Yay watermelon!
So while I can bury my face in a stack of watermelon slices with the best of them, occasionally I like to make something out of it. Watermelon Gazpacho is a tasty way to play a little savory and sour with all that sweetness. Cucumbers are also supreme hydrators (and good for that skin!) and they slip effortlessly into this simple soup.
This is more of a Mexican-style Gazpacho than the Spanish and the Spanish-inspired ones I have posted in the past. This one could easily be served with corn chips, if you were in that kind of mood. You could even add a jalapeno, although it might start to tip into salsa territory. Some crusty bread will do, too.
It’s a wonderfully refreshing little soup. Easy, cooling, and fortified with just enough olive oil to keep it from being a beverage. If you want to make more of a meal of it, don’t hesitate to garnish with diced tofu, crumbled feta, or sliced, toasted almonds.
I used about half of a seedless red watermelon. You can certainly use an old-school big watermelon, which will have a bit more melon flavor but, you do have to deal with seeds. I chopped everything up in small pieces, then pureed just enough of it to make a frothy soup base to envelop all those tasty chunks. Drizzling in the olive oil as the blender whirred made the olive oil go into suspension, enriching every bite.
The whole process took minutes, and I still had half a melon to eat solo. It was perfect for a fast meal on a hot day, with a hefty chunk of whole wheat bread.
Now is the time to indulge in as much watermelon as you can make space for in your fridge. Eating seasonally never tasted so sweet!
As I mentioned above, you can always add some weight to this soup with cubed tofu, toasted sliced almonds, crumbled feta, even white or black beans. Serve with a hunk of crusty bread, or corn chips, whichever is easier. Because this is all about EASY.
4 cups watermelon, diced
1/2 large cucumber, diced
1/2 small red bell pepper, diced
2 tablespoons finely chopped red onion
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons cilantro leaves, or fresh mint leaves
Chop the watermelon in small pieces, and put it in a medium bowl. Save the juices as you go, adding them to the bowl. Peel, seed and finely chop the cucumber, red bell pepper and red onion and add to the bowl. Add the salt and lime juice. Stir to mix, then transfer about 1 1/2 cups to a blender and puree, pouring in the olive oil with the machine running. Stir the puree back into the bowl with the chopped watermelon. Serve garnished with cilantro or mint.
Last week, I posted a recipe for smoked oyster mushrooms and bruschetta, inspired by the mushrooms that I found at the farmer’s market. Well, my market bonanza was not limited to amazing mushrooms, not by a long shot. I also scored some tiny new potatoes. These babies are not the 2-3 inch long B-sized behemoth new potatoes, but the true marble sized beauties that really embody new-ness. Freshly dug, their papery skin and barely-there eyes called out to me.
And I wanted to smoke them.
You see, I’ve been seeing smoked potato dishes on the menus of cutting-edge restaurants when I travel. Some puree a smoked potato with cream, while some smoke a naked potato and use it as a component in a multi-element dish.
At home, I rarely make a multi-component dish, with painted sauces and little piles of laboriously crafted food. Or should I say, never.
Sorry to burst your bubble, if you thought that food writers and chefs spend their time tweezing and drizzling on a weeknight.
At home, with just me and the sweetheart who gamely eats all my experiments, I don’t have to work that hard. So when I decided to infuse these perfect little potatoes with smoke, I knew that I was going to hold back any impulse to get fancy. I had to let the smoke lead the way.
So I boiled the precious potatoes whole, in salted water. Standing over the pot with a paring knife, I started poking at the littlest ones within five minutes, just to make sure I didn’t overcook. It’s kind of a sorting game. Stare into the pot, pick the smallest potato, spear it with the knife. It’s done, put it in a bowl. Look for the smallest potato in the pot, spear it, repeat.
Forget your troubles, stare into the pot and poke potatoes. This process is good for you.
Once the potatoes were tender and cooled off slightly, I halved them all. Put them in an old pan with olive oil and salt, and tossed them to coat.
I got the smoker chips going (see description in last weeks post) and put the pan on the grill, off the heat. These don’t need to cook, just soak in smoke. Once the smoke was really rolling, I just turned off the grill and left them there with the lid closed.
In the interest of simplicity, I wanted a light vinaigrette. I just whisked up a bit of fresh lemon and olive oil, and chopped a beautiful golden heirloom tomato. A few scallions, and a sprinkle of coarse salt and smoked paprika.
Like I said, holding back the impulse to overwhelm the little potatoes. No aioli, no handfuls of herbs. No spice. Just smoke, with a bright note of lemon on top, and some juicy tomato.
Yup. Smoking potatoes is a summertime pastime. Once you have them all infused, you can use them in all sorts of things, from a carb-lovers pizza to a veggie medley with some sauteed sweet corn and peppers. A light coat of mayo would be delicious, too, with some crunchy celery. Bash them with a little creaminess from butter or oil, and you can simply salt and pepper and dig in.
So soak some chips and get smoking. It’s a neat trick that delivers plenty of flavor, with minimal work.
Exactly what we need for summer!
Smoked New Potato and Heirloom Tomato Salad
Soaked wood chips for the grill
1 pound teeny new potatoes
extra virgin olive oil and salt for the pan
1 large heirloom tomato, chopped
2 large scallions, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
A sprinkle of smoked paprika
Set the grill up to smoke. Take the grate off and get your smoker chip box ready to go, then preheat the grill on high until it is hot. Dump the soaked and drained chips in the box and close the lid, turn off the side that is not directly heating the chips. All you want is for those chips to smolder. Check every 10, to see how the smoke is, sprinkle a little water on if it starts putting out wisps of smoke. Once it is putting out visible smoke, put the pan of potatoes on the cold side of the grill and shut the lid. Turn the heat down under the chips once the smoke is seeping out the sides of the grill. Open occasionally jut to drip some water on the chips.
When the chips are fully smoky, turn off the heat and let the potatoes soak in the smoke for at least 30 minutes, lid closed.
Let the potatoes cool, then put them in a bowl with the tomato and scallions. Whisk the lemon and olive oil with a generous pinch of salt. Pour the dressing over it all and toss gently, then serve sprinkled with smoked paprika and more salt.
Summertime is a time for simple food. I know my summer will be brief and intense, so it’s more important to bury my fingers deep in the soil of my garden, or walk along one of the lushly overgrown creek banks than to spend time fussing over elaborate meals.
That’s where the grill comes in. For me, the whole point of using a gas grill is to smoke my food. So I soak my chips, get a glass of something cold, and mind the grill while it infuses deep, smoky umami into my food.
I get why people love the grill. Don’t be fooled by attempts to make it look difficult, it’s really just standing around outside while the fire does the work. Summertime!
So, I love to pop by the farmer’s market and pick up perfectly ripe, fresh vegetables and smoke them. I’m lucky that the St Paul Farmer’s Market has a mushroom vendor, Tom Peterson of Birch Creek Farms. Every Saturday, you can select from his pick of the week, ranging from the familiar baby portabellas and shiitakes, to more exotic pink oyster mushrooms and morels. He even sells chaga tea.
This week, he had a delicate variety of an oyster mushroom-like mushroom he called a Paho, I think. To a myco-phile there is a very important distinction there, but to you, me and most people, this is an oyster mushroom, so don’t worry about finding this specific variety to make the recipe.
I’ve written about smoking tomatoes on the grill in a past post, click here to read about infusing umami with smoke. Umami is that elusive hard-to-describe savory, meaty quality that comes from certain amino acids and chemicals in all food, not just meat. It’s a good thing to harness when you want to make vegetables more satisfying and exciting.
Mushrooms are a potent source of umami chemistry, too. It’s the glutamate, present in all mushrooms, and even more concentrated in dried mushrooms. In this way of cooking them, the mushrooms will become concentrated and shrunken, and infuse with smoke, making them into true umami-bombs.
So, I soaked some hickory chips for an hour, and pulled the mushroom clusters apart. A drizzle of olive oil, some salt and pepper, and I was good to go. I took the grate off the grill, positioned my rusty smoker box in the bottom, and got out a silicone mat I bought for cooking vegetables on the grill. It’s just a perforated mat, to keep things from falling into the fire. You could use a grill wok, basket, or construct a foil tray to hold the mushrooms.
Once the fire was hot, I dumped the wet chips in. This is the point where you need patience. Close the grill and wait for smoke. The wet chips take a while to get smoldering. You don’t want them to be dry and burn up right away, you want a slow smolder. This is when you do a little weeding, drink a little iced tea, and hover in the yard until you smell smoke.
Once there is smoke, you can sprinkle a little water on to make it smokier. Turn off the heat on one side of the grill and put the grate on, then the mat or wok on the cool side. Put the mushrooms on and close the lid. Keep the lid closed as much as you can bear. Every ten minutes or so, check on the smoke, turning it down if you have good smoke production, and sprinkling with a few drops of water just before closing the lid. After about 20 minutes, the mushrooms will look slightly shrunken and browned. Turn off the grill, close the lid, and move the mushrooms right over the chips. Let them infuse for another 20-30 minutes.
Now you have a super flavorful ingredient that you can use in all sorts of fun ways. I made a bruschetta, but a pasta, pizza or panini would be equally fantastic. A bowl of soba with sesame and greens, topped with smoked mushrooms? Yes please.
Smoked mushrooms are easy, and you can throw extra on and freeze them, too.
Smoked Oyster Mushroom Bruschetta
8 ounces oyster mushrooms
extra virgin olive oil
coarse salt, freshly cracked pepper
3 cups soaked woodchips, I used hickory, apple would be good too.
1 whole wheat baguette
1 medium tomato, diced
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, slivered
Spreadable cheese- I used Miyoko’s Truffle Cheese and Triple Creme with Chives, but you can use your choice of soft cashew cheese or chevre
1. Preheat the grill and prepare for smoking (see above.) Separate the mushrooms, toss with olive oil and salt and pepper.
2. Smoke the mushrooms.
3. Slice the baguette and toast it- extra points if you brush it with olive oil and grill it. Spread with your cheese and top with tomatoes, basil and smoked mushrooms, sprinkle with a little more coarse salt. Serve immediately.