Easiest Tomato Sauce

I feel like stock trader yelling “Buy, buy, buy!!!”, but it’s the tail end of tomato season and I just figured out the best-tasting, easiest sauce I’ve ever made. And good thing, too, after I indulged my “but it’s on sale!” tendencies and bought 63 pounds of tomatoes (in my defense, I thought it was only 40, but nope, 63).

End of tomato season

Since I first tried canning tomatoes based on the National Center for Home Food Preservation process, I’ve been trying to find ways to streamline things. This year was no exception and resulted in the easiest, least messy, most hands-off method yet. So easy that I honestly don’t know why I’d ever do it any other way ever again. Here’s how it works:

Wash tomatoes, quarter, roast, peel, roast some more

Congratulations, you’re done. Once the tomatoes are cooked, you can put them through a food mill or a blender, leave them in chunks, freeze or can them or eat them with a spoon.

Start to finish

The basic difference between this and the NCHFP method, which most every canning or preservation book or website use: oven versus stovetop. And that makes all the difference. I’m talking about one pan, almost no mess, and minimal waste versus multiple simmering pots and pans, bowls of ice water, a mess across my counter, piles of tomato scraps, and hours of splattering and stirring.

Quartered and cored

Yes, I sound a little like that infomercial with the guy who can’t eat a bowl of popcorn and hold a soda at the same time, but I swear, this really is so much easier. This method eliminates the three things I hated most about the traditional method of processing tomatoes:

  • The boiling water/ice water peeling step. It inevitably makes a mess (they never peel easily for me and coring and cutting that little X in whole tomatoes is a pain), takes more time and attention, and means more stuff to clean. I hate cleaning.
  • Less watery sauce in less time. Getting 20 pounds of tomatoes to a good sauce consistency takes a solid half a day on my stove and makes a righteous mess. See above re. cleaning.
  • Constantly being at the stove. Granted, the oven method isn’t totally hands-off, but it requires much less babysitting than a simmering pot. Heck, when I made these last night I put them in the oven then read a book. OMG.

Easy peel

This also tasted better than any other tomato sauce I’ve made. Combining the large surface area of a roasting pan with dry heat of the oven (if you have a convection oven, so much the better) means the water in the tomatoes evaporates faster and more effectively than in a pot simmering on a stove. And that means much more concentrated tomato flavor in less time than it would take on a stove. Plus, especially if you use a large sheet pan like the dark one above, the sugars start to caramelize around the edges as the water cooks off, adding incredible depth, richness, and sweetness to the sauce.

The best, easiest tomato sauce

I’ve already eaten this on pasta, as a base for baked eggs, and finished off that little bowl standing at the counter with a spoon. I cant wait to use this in chili, to make tomato soup with grilled cheese, spaghetti and meatballs….Do you think it would be totally crazy if I bought more tomatoes this weekend?

Easy Tomato Sauce
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Peach-Plum Pie + Extra Flaky Pie Crust

Out of all the season transitions, summer-to-fall seems to bring the most incongruous pairings at the market: peaches and pumpkins, corn and apples, blueberries and plums. But when I have a bunch of end-of-season peaches languishing in the fridge from the market two weeks ago and come home with a 30-pound bag of plums because, well, I’m me, I need to figure something out PDQ. It’s a good thing peaches and plums share common ground with all the good fall spices–cinnamon, cloves, brown sugar, brandy–in one of my favorite pies.

I love these colors
Peach-Plum pie

Any discussion of pie also has to include my new favorite pie crust. If there was a graph to measure the likelihood of pie based on “How badly I want pie” and “How much energy I want to spend” (…I had a whole witty thing here but it started to involve terms like “inverse proportionality” and “negative slope” and then I was looking for graph paper and made a literal pie chart in Excel and started debating if it was more appropriate as a bell curve and getting high school math class flashbacks. Let’s just pretend this paragraph was as infinitely clever as it was in my head. But I’m still including the pie chart.)

Pie chart

In any case, sometimes I’m just too lazy to get out eggs and vinegar and baking soda and ice and pastry cutter and a bowl, and then I don’t have pie (and for those who say “food processor!”, I hate cleaning the thing more than I like using it). And no pie on account of laziness is sad. This recipe is flour, butter, salt, water, a pastry board, and my hands and feels like markedly less effort. Less effort required=more pie.

Butter, lard, flour, water, salt
Butter, lard, flour
Flattened fats

The method is somewhere between traditional pie dough (cutting the butter into the flour until it’s in small bits that turn into small layers in the dough when it’s rolled out; also known as a short dough) and puff pastry dough (many, many thin layers of butter are created through many, many rounds of careful rolling, folding, and chilling; a.k.a. laminated dough).

Fraisage/short dough
Crumbles of butter, flour, and lard

In this process, big chunks of butter get mashed into the flour with your hand, creating large flakes (a variation on a technique called fraisage–my French lesson for the day) followed by a few rounds of rolling/folding to create more flaky layers. It’s even easy to work with as an all-butter crust, which has always given me trouble because the butter gets soft so quickly. I still like using a bit of lard in place of some of the butter for flavor, though.

Nice big butter piece

The beauty of this method is that it’s nearly impossible to overwork, rolls out beautifully, and creates the flakiest pie crust I’ve ever had, a delicious, edible lovechild of traditional pie crust and puff pastry. Which is to say, it’s really, really good.

As for the filling, it’s is based on one of my favorites from a few years ago. Peaches were such an obvious addition that I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me sooner. As much as they’re a sign of summer, peaches are also the perfect fruit to transition to fall as they work so well with all the flavors associated with the season: cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cardamom, brown sugar, brandy. This recipe has them all, plus streusel. Everything is better with streusel.

This smells so good
Sweet, spiced chutney to thicken the pie

For whatever reason, peaches and plums aren’t a fruit combination I see much, but it’s a shame as they work so well together. It’s definitely a pairing I’ll be using more often.

Pretty fall colors
This is going to be good
Peach-plum pie

(And as for that 30 pounds of plums? There’s been plum gin (of course), plum-vanilla vodka, Chinese plum sauce, pickled plums, plum jam, plum cake (more on that next week), and, of course, pie.)

Extra Flaky Pie Crust and Peach-Plum Pie Continue reading

Damson Plum Gin

It’s easy to like ripe, red strawberries, peaches that leave your hands and face sticky with juice, watermelon that tastes like a bite of pure summer. They don’t need anything but a sunny day for perfection. The fun ones for me, though, are the fruits that are unassuming, that don’t look or taste like much at first; the ones that need a little coaxing, maybe a bit of fuss, to really shine. But, oh, when they do, their flavor is enough to rival the most perfect of strawberries. And, in this case, they have the added bonus of a cocktail at the end.

Ready for sipping

Damson plums, like my other favorite stonefruit, sour cherries, fall into the “unassuming” category. Barely bigger than a large cherry with dusty deep blueish-purple skin, Damsons have hardly any flavor when eaten raw. Pop one in your mouth and all you’ll taste is sour, but give them some time and attention and you’ll be rewarded with the most plum-y tasting plum you’ve ever had, rich with flavor and deliciously, mouth-wateringly tart. It doesn’t hurt that their skins impart the most gorgeous color to anything you make with them.

Plums, sugar, gin

I mentioned this recipe off-hand last fall, but it was so good it really deserved its own post. It was a happy discovery to learn that Damson plums are related to sloes (as in sloe gin), which is as simple as combining gin, sugar, and fruit and waiting a few months. For the longest time, gin was not something I was a fan of. Someone once described it to me as “like drinking a pine tree;” considering one of the essential elements in gin is juniper berries, that’s not too far off. Happily, this woodsy flavor is actually a perfect complement to the plums.

Pretty purple infusion

What I’ve discovered about gin, too, is how widely the flavors can vary beyond the juniper base. Hendricks is known for flavors of rose and cucumber; Few, a local Chicago brand, has vanilla and citrus; I’m intrigued by the mix of herbs and spices in St. George’s “botanivore” gin. And honestly, this is good even if you only shell out for the low-shelf stuff.

Handy place to keep your recipe

Since the flavors of gin vary so widely, this is a fun recipe to make a few small batches and compare them come winter. Last year I particularly liked the rose flavor of Hendricks with the plum, and I have another two gins I’m giving a try this year. When it’s ready right around holiday time, this makes a gorgeous and delicious cocktail when you mix a bit of the gin with sparkling wine. Make more than you think you’ll need now, it’ll disappear faster than you realize.

Damson plum gin

Now if anyone has some ideas for what to do with a whole bunch of gin-soaked plums, I’m all ears!

Damson Plum Gin
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Slow-smoked ribs

Wasn’t the 4th of July, like, a week ago? This summer seems to have blown by faster than any in recent memory, though my globe-trotting lately hasn’t helped. Regardless, with a few more days of near-90’s in the forecast, I will happily use the long weekend ahead as one last excuse for cramming every last bit of summer in, including one last batch of ribs on the grill.

Pretty pink smoke ring

As much as I’ve used my grill over the past two summers, these ribs marked the first time I’ve ever actually slow-smoked meat and I’ve been kicking myself for taking so long to do it. I have my favorite ribs I’ve made for years, since before I even had any outdoor space to grill them, but these…these are my new go-to when I want to show off.

What you'll need

Here’s the thing: Chicago has so many great restaurants, high-end to dive, and a lot that are known for good barbecue, but, to be honest, I’ve never had any barbecue that’s blown me away. Some has been good, but more often than not it’s been a game of too much chew or not enough, drenched in sauce or none at all, tastes like a burnt log or not even smoked.

These ribs are what I’ve been craving, the ones Goldilocks would have picked as “just right” if ribs had been the main course instead of a bowl of porridge. They have just enough pull without being fall-off-the-bone (a quality that’s completely over-rated when it comes to ribs, by the way), a good amount of flavor from the smoke and the rub but you can still actually tell that you’re eating pork, a little sweet and spice and the best little burnt bits from a final brush sauce and a quick blast of heat from a hot grill.

Rub bark, much better than bark on a tree

For better or worse, when the end of summer is in sight I inevitably feel like I’m running out of time–time for beach lounging, porch sitting, eating all the peaches and corn and berries and tomatoes, cooking (and grilling) all my summer favorites, time just to be in the sun. I know it would be better to focus on the things I managed to do in the past four months–planted and grew a garden; taught a class; traveled to Barcelona, Paris, London, Boston, Cleveland, New York; stocked my freezer, cupboard, and liquor cabinet.

Yes, the bottom rack is a little overdone

That said, I’m writing this sitting in the sun on my porch, a pot of tomato sauce with herbs from my garden simmering on my stove (at least some of which is destined for the pizza dough that’s headed for the grill shortly), a big bowl of fresh gazpacho ready for lunch, peaches and plums and fresh corn and tomatoes and watermelon all ready for eating, and a batch of those ribs on the very near horizon. When September starts like this, I really can’t complain.

Slow-Smoked Ribs
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You guys. I’m struggling to find the words. Tuesday’s class was the most tangible and immediate validation of my purpose for this blog, for nearly everything I do involving food: to give people the confidence to try something new in the kitchen, to show that cooking doesn’t have to be this big, intimidating, scary thing.

Digging in

At the beginning of the class I asked who had eaten paella–nearly everyone raised their hand. Who’s made paella? One, maybe two hands went up. But by the end, every one of the 24 people in the class (plus the amazing volunteers who cooked the “teacher’s” paella) could say yes, they’ve made (amazingly delicious!) paella. And they could all do it again, too!

Watching each group proudly unveil the beautiful meals they created at the end of class, the impressed comments from their classmates–I wanted to give them all a hug and say “Look! You made that!” Everyone sitting together to share conversation and food (and wine, there were some amazing sangrias at the table) had me mentally shouting “YES. This is what’s it’s about.” (I mostly restrained myself on the shouting and hugging; I only had one sangria–a much-appreciated glass beautifully prepared and with a pretty little lemon twist by one of the groups.)

Saying hi to my first class
Lindsay arranging the final dishes

There were so many moments like that during the class, but this might have topped them all–one of the students came up to me at the end and told me she was really excited to try this at home. Then she said, “Honestly, I’ve had a paella pan sitting in the back of my closet for years and I’ve never used it. Now I have a reason!” Again I had to restrain myself from becoming a crazy hugging person, but I did tell her, “Yes!! You can totally do this!!”

Happy students
Ready to get started

And the comments on the feedback forms–I want to frame them, and not for my own ego. The best comments said that this intimidating dish was actually easy, that they tried or learned something new. Two of my favorite moments from the class were showing everyone a whole cuttlefish and walking around to let people smell smoked paprika, and it’s so rewarding to know that the class got something out of those moments too.

And I learned something in preparing for this class! I’ve never cooked cuttlefish before this week, but I love the stuff now (it’s like calamari, but thicker so less chance it will overcook). I added some to a salad last night and it was amazing.


For me, personally, there was a moment too. As anxious as I was in the days leading up to the class, as soon as I got to the kitchen and started setting up–it’s cliché, but I felt my nerves melt away. I know my way around a kitchen and a cutting board, I know how to cook.

Beyond the actual cooking portion of it, the years of practice I’ve had running web presentations at my day job were also surprisingly helpful. The speaking came easy because I knew the story I wanted to tell. I knew how to handle questions and figure out if it bore repeating to the whole group; I could troubleshoot my slightly burned garlic or pans that were heating unevenly without panicking. There are definitely things that will improve with practice (like actually remembering I have a pan on the stove before the garlic burns), but for a first time, it couldn’t have possibly gone any better.

Paul, one of the excellent volunteers I had helping me

I also cannot say enough good things about the volunteers who did so much of the prep for the class (roasting the red peppers to steaming the seafood to cutting the cuttlefish and all the meat), who pretty much cooked “my” paella when I was busy teaching, and washed all the dishes. They (and Lindsay and Becky from PGP, who also get credit for most of the pictures) made the class happen without me feeling frantic. If you have a kitchen skill you want to share, Peterson Garden Project is the place to do it.

Making sangria for the volunteers

I’m already brainstorming more class ideas (and I want to do this one again too!) and can’t wait to share more with all of you.


Paella Continue reading

Pan con Tomate

(Only a few spots left for my paella class on August 11! Sign up here or get a sneak peek at the class here.)

Why does bruschetta get all the toast-topped-with-tomatoes-and-olive-oil love? Nothing against half of my heritage, but the Spanish version, pan con tomate, deserves some attention too.

Pan con tomate

Tomatoes seem to be taking their sweet old time to get in gear this year, but with one lone tomato hanging out on my counter and having eaten my fill of tomato and lettuce sandwiches (for now anyways, I’m still planning a grand BLT with everything either grown or made by me. Yes, including the bacon and the mayonnaise), pan con tomate seemed like a perfect option. It helps that I’m obviously on a Spanish food kick lately.

Tomatoes, bread, garlic, oil, salt

Everyone’s pretty familiar with bruschetta at this point–toasted bread (where bruschetta gets its name) rubbed with garlic and usually topped with diced tomatoes, sometimes basil, and drizzled with olive oil. That’s the idea anyways. The concept has become so diffused that it seems like anything on a piece of bread shows up as bruschetta on a menu or in a Google search. Pan con tomate, on the other hand, at least requires tomatoes to be part of the equation.

Bread on the grill is the best

Instead of dealing with my complete inability to ever keep the pieces of tomato from falling onto my clothes or the floor when I eat bruschetta (or requiring me to use a knife and fork, which is equally awkward), pan con tomate has you rub a tomato in all its juicy splendor right into the crusty bread. That is, of course, after a clove of raw garlic has been rubbed all over the toast that would, in any other application, tear up the inside of your mouth but instead grabs onto tiny bits of garlic. Rubbing the tomato into the bread is the messy part in this version, but it’s kind of fun. And at least more of the tomato has a fighting chance of getting to my mouth.

Rubbing the garlic
Mushing the tomato

Think this sounds like a recipe for soggy bread? Well…you’re not wrong, but if you toast it enough (or use day-old or slightly stale bread, which this is ideal for), the tomato juices soften the top and edges enough so that you aren’t risking a mouthful of tiny cuts with each bite. The inside of the bread retains some welcome texture and chew and, unlike bruschetta, which is more often just a vehicle for its toppings, pan con tomate actually melds the bread, garlic, and tomato into one delicious bite.


Top it with a generous drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkle of flaky salt, add a gin and tonic (I saw more of these than of glasses of sangria in Barcelona), throw in a sunset view, and you’ve got about all I need on a summer night (with apologies to anyone who talked to me after dinner. Only in hindsight did it occur to me that I essentially ate several raw cloves of garlic.). Ok, maybe a salad or some slices of good Spanish cheese, ham, a spicy dried, cured meat…I’m sorry, where were we? Right, tomato bread.

Pan con Tomate, or Tomato Bread Continue reading

Paella in Barcelona (and I’m teaching a class!)

Remember that Barcelona trip I took back in April? There were honestly so many amazing things about it that I’ve struggled to put them all into words, but considering I’m teaching a class about part of the trip in two weeks, I figured now was a good time to share at least one story!

Paella, ready for eatingNice view

For the first vacation I’ve taken completely on my own, I left most of my time open for wandering, but I wanted a few things planned to give me a little direction. That’s how I spent three hours learning to cook paella from an amazing teacher in her home with a dozen other eager (and hungry) fellow students from all over the world. It was by far one of the best parts of the trip and one I would do again in a heartbeat. (Update: Want to know how the class turned out or looking for a good paella recipe? Check it out!) Continue reading

Elderflower Obsessed

Of the many things I love about my weekly farmers market trips, discovering new ingredients to play with might be the best of them all. Those discoveries led to my not-so-slight obsession with damson plums; my incessant crunching on a vegetable that most resembles something from a 1950s outer space comic book, kohlrabi; and the displacement of arugula as my favorite not-lettuce salad green by the lemon-y, spinach-y flavor of sorrel (which now also tops my list to plant in my garden in spring). One of the best discoveries so far this year, though, was a basket of these beautiful, and beautifully fragrant, flowers. Forget damsons, this year’s obsession? Elderflowers.

Handful of flowers

Elderflowers are the flowers used to flavor one of my favorite liqueurs, St.Germain. (The guy selling them kept telling me and a fellow curious buyer that’s its most commonly used to make a delicious and healthy tea. Personally, I like the liquor idea better.) Five quarts of flowers and a few half-gallon jars later, I had myself some projects.

If you, like me, are unfamiliar with elderflowers…you’re actually probably more familiar than you think. At least around Chicago, elderberry bushes are surprisingly common decorative shrubs. They’re what end up staining the sidewalks (and, more often than not, my car) dark purple from dropped berries come mid-summer. But before the berries, flowers. Incredibly sweet-smelling, almost cloyingly so, delicate sprays of creamy white flowers.

A little bit of Googling led me to two ideas that seemed like good places to start: elderflower simple syrup and elderflower-infused vodka (essentially the starting point for making my own elderflower liqueur). Some citrus in the form of lemon and grapefruit (and a little extra citric acid for good measure), a pretty pink variation with some extra juicy strawberries, and I’m pretty much set for all my homemade soda and fancy cocktail needs this summer (and fall, winter, and next spring).

Elderflower syrup

The syrup is dead simple and utterly delicious. The grapefruit and lemon add a little bit of tart to balance out the could-be-too-flowery flavor of the steeped blossoms, but the flavor is bright, sweet summer all the way. The booze is still brewing, but, after I strain the flowers and add a good amount of sugar this week, I anticipate lazily watching more than a few summer sunsets under its influence. (And if you have any flowers left that you simply can’t cram into any other projects, elderflowers make very pretty ice cubes to fancy up your porch drinking.)

Elderflower soda

Elderflower Syrup and Elderflower Liqueur Continue reading

Spice-Rubbed Beer-Steamed Wood-Smoked Chicken

Usually when I share a recipe, I try to photograph important steps along the way or some part of the process that strikes me as particularly pretty. Trust me when I say this is the only picture of this recipe you need:

Golden brown and delicious

If you’re looking for the summer equivalent of fall and winter’s roast chicken, like smoked things, and have some beer hanging around, make this. This was one of those random dinner experiments that turned out miles beyond what I had hoped for. I was trying to make beer-can chicken, but my grill lid isn’t high enough to have the chicken stand up, so…I took the beer out of the can and put it under the chicken instead. And figured, what the heck, soak some wood chips in the beer while I’m at it. It looked gorgeous and tasted even better. I may have snuck a wing off this guy while I waited for my asparagus to grill.

I’ve made this with two different spice mixtures (a BBQ rub and a jerk spice rub) and two different kinds of beer (honestly just ones that have been kicking around my kitchen for far long–yes, I’m also that mythical person who has leftover wine). I’m planning to try this with cider next time and a spice blend like baharat or zatar. There are pretty much infinite variations and it can be as simple or as adventurous as you like. For a simple summer dinner (and great leftovers) with minimal prep, though, this cannot be beat.

Spice-Rubbed Beer-Steamed Wood-Smoked Chicken Continue reading

Chive-Cheddar Biscuits

Now that the flowers of my chives are put to work, on to more immediate gratification–biscuits.

Cheesy, chive-y layers Chive bouquet

I will eat biscuits (really, bread in any form) with anything and love them flavored with everything. For my overload of chives, I finely chopped a good handful of the chives I cut back along with two big handfuls of grated cheddar cheese and a few of the chive flowers for good measure, the hard blossom end plucked off and the flower sprinkled in. They were spectacular, perfect under a layer of spinach and an over-easy egg.

Curlicue of cheese Chopped chivesand an errant blossom Layers of color Biscuitt dough

With all the herbs I’ve planted, herb biscuits are going to be a great option to stash in the freezer for any future biscuit emergencies (…don’t look at me like that, that’s a real thing). I plan on doing at least one sweet biscuit with the lemon verbena (doesn’t that sound good as the base for a strawberry shortcake?) and another cheesy variation with the thyme (gruyere, perhaps?). Rosemary and black pepper biscuits would be amazing along side lemon chicken.

Baked biscuitChive bouquet

Chive Biscuits Continue reading