Fried Green Tomatoes, Sort Of

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Fried red and green tomatoes with a few pieces of fried, unctuous chicken skin for garnish ….. yum ……

When I was 14 years old, I read a book called Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg. It opened my eyes for various reasons.

For one, it was a mainstream account of a burgeoning and joyful lesbian relationship, which at the time, I had absolutely no knowledge of. I like to think it started the seeds of framing in my mind to accept the fact that everyone in the world would not always be a carbon copy of me and that would be okay, because, folks, LOVE IS LOVE.

For two, it showed me the power of stories. The entire narration is basically centered upon a middle-aged housewife named Evelyn who visits a woman in a nursing home weekly just to sit by and silently receive and witness another ill woman’s stories about her life that have long come to pass as she enters the years in which she will finally succumb to the inevitability of death. It branded within me, the idea that stories shared are nuggets of gold, and feeders of empathy, and bridges that build worlds I still, excitedly, have yet to know.

But the third most resonant thing for me was in the title. Fried Green Tomatoes. Ha? Who would eat unripe tomatoes? I was particularly fascinated with this culinary item and put it on my “to-eat” list, which had been boiling in my teens, ever since I went to my best friend Sylvie’s house one night and had frog legs and red wine at fifteen, proffered by her French chef father at midnight after returning from his post at one of the most iconic French restaurants near my childhood home. The whole experience made me reek with the redolence of difference and what that can do, as in shoving a wedge into reality, for a person more accustomed to Midwestern casseroles and all things cheese.

In any case, the first time I actually tried fried green tomatoes was at a down-home BBQ place in the low-nethers of Boston with an ex-boyfriend who insisted on getting the catfish and hushpuppy combo. I agreed, but also ordered a nice side plate of the fried green tomatoes. It was weird taking a train to a tony side of the famous Paul Revere city, only to duck into a shanty that held a mass of people slinging fish and grease to eat upon picnic tables thrown out for the occasion, yet we did. Everything was great, but my favorite was the fried green tomatoes, served fluffy with a coating that was crunchy yet allowed for the inner juices to roam without sogging in every single bite. Hard to explain. But I will try. A touch of crunch hits the teeth, followed by a warm sensation as the acid from the tomato swarms, then all get embroiled in the coating’s sweet embrace.

So, that was my experience, the one I was going on in my annals of lovely meals. But then, the Cute Gardener stepped in. Last night, I entered the kitchen and saw his pre-ripe tomatoes on the counter. Are you making fried green tomatoes, I asked. Yes, his answer was swift, but his body demeanor proved otherwise, I could tell he was trying to figure out the rest. Cornmeal, I stated, and I have milk in the fridge.

What resulted was a magnificent array of purple tomatoes and green unripe unknowns – each smothered in the same batter which felt like a blanket wrapped around the tongue before the inner juice, exquisite itself, put out a world of its admiring taste buds. YUM, I gave up the rest of my bacon-laden gnocchi, and even the remains of a phenomenal salad just to stuff my mouth with whatever spare part I could of those fragrant and soul-affirming deep fried tomatoes.

Easing Into Green

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“Plant-based diet” has become the catchphrase for eating well and living long in contemporary society. Whereas old-school models of eating centered on a now arcane food pyramid, today’s healthy-minded people know the trick to feeling good and maintaining a disease-free body lies in eating green. But how does one forego meat,  cheese, and sweets (mostly) without growing bored of the same old steamed veg or the variations on a tossed salad? The answer lies in finding creative ways to mix the healthy with the craved, in a ratio where the bad stuff lies low and the good stuff looms high, but the taste still remains.

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Non – Lettuce Salads

I like to keep bulk, non-perishable ingredients like dried fruit, nuts, seeds, hemp hearts, and chickpeas in my cabinets so that I always have fun, textural salad adornments at hand. Then, I pluck whatever produce is in the garden, or whatever vegetables are most abundant and cheap in the grocery store, and chop them up and add. Mingle this all with a simple vinaigrette made by shaking two parts oil to one part vinegar in a Mason jar and some small bits of sin for flavor in the form of crumbled feta cheese. Over 50% of the salad is green. A small percentage is fat. The toppings are various forms of superfoods or grains. And the possibilities are endless enough so you could eat a non-lettuce salad every day simply by following the seasons. One of my favorite combinations is below.

Squash and Cucumber Salad

¼ raw zucchini diced
¼ raw cucumber diced
¼ c. dried chickpeas
1/8 c. dried barberries
1 oz. diced feta

Toss all ingredients together.

Dressing:
1 tbls. olive oil
½ tbls. red wine vinegar
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. dried marjoram

Whisk all together and pour on salad.

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Green Sandwiches

Similarly to the non-lettuce salad concept, is the non-meat sandwich concept. To me, there is nothing better than a great piece of high quality, bakery bread with layers of fresh veggies and a good piece of cheese.

My special trick with these sandwiches is to always have a jar of homemade pesto on hand to use in place of mayonnaise. The richness makes the meal heartier and the herbs and nuts I use pack lots of antioxidant power into lunch.

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Homemade Herbal Pesto

1 large bag cilantro
1 large bag basil
¼ c. pepitas
½ olive oil

Blend herbs in a food processor until minced. Add the pepitas and blend until relatively, uniformly minced. Continue to pulse while adding oil in a slow stream until the mixture reaches your preferred consistency. I tend to like mine chunky and less liquid, but it is a matter of personal taste.

Idea: This pesto is remarkable as a base on a soft piece of Jewish rye, layered with havarti and melted under a broiler, and then topped with ripe, halved, grape or cherry tomatoes.

Chez Panisse-Inspired Strawberry Salad

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My bucket list in life vacillates from year to year. Things like hot air ballooning fall off as I age and become more protective of my life. Things like “visit Ibiza” turn into “visit the South of France” as my tastes evolve from the love of nightlife to a more refined love of charming small towns and foreign flora. But one thing that has remained on my list for decades is Chez Panisse, the Berkeley, California restaurant owned and operated by sublimely seasonal chef Alice Waters. As far as chefs go, her style of cooking fresh, simple and delicious food from seasonally available, local sources has always matched my palate’s deepest hankerings for the good, the true and the natural.

A week ago, I was able to check Chez Panisse off my list when the Cute Gardener and I stopped in for lunch on a dappled sunny afternoon. Seated upstairs in the wooden, arts-and-crafts movement dining room, we enjoyed a taste of the famous roast chicken, a duck confit, fried green onions, smoky roasted tomato soup and a nectarine galette with the brownest, crispest crust I’ve had yet. But one small dish, a starter salad dressed in tomato vinaigrette was the biggest source of inspiration for me. It made me want to stretch my own capabilities from my normal salad dressing fare at home, which typically consists of an emulsion of shallots, garlic, lemon juice, vinegar and oil. It made me want to stretch my creativity.

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This morning our garden was full of growth so I decided to create something new with Waters’ philosophy in mind. I took what was fresh and available: avocado, purslane leaves, Asian greens, green grapes and strawberries. Then as the greens dried from a quick wash, I looked around in my pantry to see what might make an unusual dressing. A stray bit of goat cheese caught my eye and I decided to make a sweet summer dressing using the strawberries in a puree. To the puree of cheese and berry, I added lemon juice and olive oil and voila! I had a new vinaigrette, silky smooth and sweet with just a bit of tang.

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The unctuous creaminess of the dressing was calling out for avocado. And all that was missing was some texture so I added sunflower seed, whole grapes and chopped strawberries for variation on top of the greens. The purslane leaves, who many ignore as a mere garden weed, made for a beautiful garnish but also a nice dose of Omega 3s.

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As I ate my salad, it felt good to know that very little labor or resources had been drained in the making of this dish nor were there any pesky chemicals or genetic modifications to my fruits and veggies. Best of all, the ingredients had come from my own home—both backyard and pantry, in the spirit of grow your own.

Return to Jade Mountain

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Although I found Venice Beach a bit pretentious as a living environment (think earthen rich hippies touting their extreme health and spirituality who are first to run for the bathroom door, compact mirror and rolled twenty dollar bill in hand, when a vat of cocaine is whipped out at a party), I definitely miss the health food stores and restaurants. In a two-block radius, there were more choices in organic cold pressed juices, fresh nut milks, and creative, raw food options than I had seen prior or since.

One of my favorite places was a communal grocery store and deli, which sold fare by locals. This included vats of pickles, cured meats, cheeses, and a wicked sardine sandwich on oiled crusty bread that I still crave. But my most frequent purchase there was the Jade Mountain smoothie. It was a clear plastic cup filled with a gargantuan pile of algae-green, icy, slush that tasted (and smelled) like standing under a waterfall after a day of wicked hiking. It also gave me a boost that lasted hours–not the seedy kind that surges falsely through you from prescription or illicit drugs, but the kind that bubbles through your every cell, wakening the body’s electric flow.

I have finally managed, after a few years worth of attempts, to recreate something in my home kitchen that comes close in both taste and feel.

Jade Mountain 2.0

1 frozen pear
1 tsp. moringa leaf powder
1 tsp. maca powder
1 tsp. bee pollen
½ in. slice ginger
1 c. filtered water

Combine all in a NutriBullet and blast away. Sprinkle some extra bee pollen on top to make it pretty!

The Last Tomatoes of Summer

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In his famous poem, Ode to the Tomatoes, Pablo Neruda describes summer as a time when “The street filled with tomatoes, midday, summer, light is halved like a tomato, its juice runs through the streets.”

The juice certainly runs through our household as the Cute Gardener cultivates various breeds. It is a time when whole buckets full are brought in from the garden and Saturday mornings teem with the scent of a simmering pot stuffed to the brim. Hours later the reduced, seething lot will be pressed through a sieve into jars that will last us throughout the year as we liven pasta sauces and pressure cooker braises of hearty pork and beef. Lambs shank will soften for musky one-pot meals and chicken breasts will turn Mediterranean swimming in bright red stews spiked with black olives and herbs.

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We spend many warm season noontimes in the vein of Neruda where “…unabated, the tomato invades the kitchen, it enters at lunchtime, takes its ease on countertops, among glasses, butter dishes, blue saltcellars. It sheds its own light, benign majesty.”

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This majesty comes in the form of simple dishes where the tomato is star, untainted by complicated preparation but extolled for its purity. We dice cucumbers and toss them with diced, plump Cherokee tomatoes, feta and olive oil for light salads. Or sliver yellow grape tomatoes with bits of avocado, panko breadcrumbs and arugula. Or slice bulging marzanos for Swiss cheese and rye sandwiches, adorned with nothing but a few flakes of Maldon salt.

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But my favorite, the sun dappled heirloom arrives fat and orange with the innards a world unto itself. Cut in half, it reveals a universal starburst of veins that Neruda’s description merrily befits …”the tomato, star of earth, recurrent and fertile star, displays its convolutions, its canals, its remarkable amplitude and abundance, no pit, no husk, no leaves or thorns, the tomato offers its gift of fiery color and cool completeness.”

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These vivid cross sections make for excellent layers of a dressed down quesadilla, juicy slabs atop a spare bed of cheese, swathed within a thick and fluffy tortilla.

And when we’ve exhausted all options there is nothing better than chopping up the remains of the harvest into grand tubs of fresh salsa to be enjoyed, daylong, with crisp triangles of white corn chips.

The Last Strawberries of Summer

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In our household, it is my job to take care of the strawberries every summer. So for about a month spanning from April to June, I spend my mornings at the crack of dawn stepping through the strawberry bushes that swarm the backyard planter. I peer beneath leaves for the plump, ripe fruit and pick whole bins full, constantly being frightened by the leaping grasshoppers that also call the plants home. I wash and de-stem and load them into Ziploc bags for the freezer after eating the finest specimens for breakfast plain or on top of yogurt and hearty grains. The frozen bags become fuel for morning smoothies that last long into the warmest days. Come August, I start hankering for a different way to utilize the last berries—the runts and rejects, frozen stiff into bricks.

This year I remembered a visit I had to my friend Elizabeth’s Venice Beach bungalow last year. She was breezy and in love with a German baker who had just flown back to Europe after a month spent in the throes of love on the beach where they had nested in her seaside home cooking and dancing. The last remnants of his presence were seen in a small crystal jar of refrigerator jam he had made before his departure. The sweet strawberry concoction was creamy with the scent of vanilla and we had shared it on fluffy white biscuits with our tea.

So, duly inspired, I found a Cook’s Magazine version of the refrigerator jam and made it for myself this year with the last remnants of my garden bounty. It was the perfect sized amount to savor for a week upon toast as I said goodbye to the sweet fruit until they sprout again.

Strawberry Refrigerator Jam

1-1/2 pounds of strawberries, hulled and cut into ½ inch pieces (3 cups)
1 c. sugar
3 tbls. lemon juice

  1. Place metal spoon in freezer to chill. Combine strawberries, sugar, and lemon juice in large saucepan. Bring to boil over medium-high heat, then reduce to medium. Mash fruit with potato masher until fruit is mostly broken down. Simmer vigorously until fruit mixture thickens and spatula leaves trail that does not fill immediately, 15-20 minutes.
  2. To test for proper thickness, remove saucepan from heat. Dip chilled spoon into jam and allow jam to run off spoon; jam should slowly fall off spoon in one thickened clump. If jam is runny, return to medium heat and simmer for 2 to 4 minutes before retesting. Transfer jam to jar and let cool completely. Cover with tight-fitting lid and refrigerate for up to 3 weeks.

The Fleeting Days of Corn

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Tiny rows that look like pale yellow baby teeth greeted me as I carefully shucked the corn brought in from the back yard a little over a week ago. This year’s harvest was bountiful—having for the most part escaped the eager teeth of gopher and rat—nearly twenty stalks lay at my feet in the backyard. I yanked the bushy tuft of reddish hair atop each ear and quickly yanked the green husk down to reveal the gorgeous crispness inside. One after another into the waiting bucket before the Cute Gardener would tenderly slice the kernels from the cob in the kitchen—half remaining for a summer salad lunch and the other half to be frozen for later in the year when we might be tweaked by particular cravings of the long lost summer. Before emptying the bucket, I snatched an ear and bit into its crisply sweet top, typewriter-chewing my way around its circumference in the way that a garden pest might. It was too irresistible not to try a piece of the vegetable raw, fresh from the garden and at its optimal best.

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As we enjoyed our salads later, naked and spent cobs simmered on the stove in the first of what would be hours toward making a concentrated corn stock verging on syrup for experiments in the future. Would we try it out in a loose corn bread, whip it into a soufflé of some sort or use it as a base for chowder? We would decide later. For now, in our bowls a tumble of lukewarm kernels were playing nice with a casual toss of minisculely-diced avocado, cucumber, and basil chiffonade and the slightest drizzle of oil. Just enough to coat all the ingredients but not too much lest the corn not be the star of the show—a show that is so fleetingly seasonal that it offers one or two weeks of crop at the most, something to be savored and enjoyed in those lucky years when the moles in their bunkers and holes decide to share with us humans who have so painstakingly grown the wares.

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Experiments in modern day sautéed pork succotash ensued for dinner followed by another fresh luncheon salad tumbled with tomato but I fear our supply is now running low. I can only see only three spindly stalks from my office window bending in the heat like taffy, tired from bearing the brunt of such abundance.

Nobody Does It Better Berry Crumble

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Nobody does it better
Makes me feel sad for the rest
Nobody does it half as good as you
Baby, you’re the best
-Carly Simon

This time of year as temperatures rise over 90 degrees and our Saturday morning hikes are accompanied by mild cursing beneath our winded uphill breaths, there are exquisite, juicy rewards waiting for us at the end of the day. In the afternoon, after the sun has done its plumping of all the glories in our garden, I go into the backyard to pick strawberries and the Cute Gardener heads to the side of the house where berry brambles dance along the wooden fence. There, he chooses the fattest purple boysenberries, (or blackberries or raspberries on years when they are also abundant) bountiful and ripe, for an after dinner crumble that wins the prize as my all time favorite dessert.

Sure, there are dark chocolate ganaches in five star restaurants that make me quiver and butterscotch pot de crèmes always on menus to tantalize my tongue. Of course, there are also foie gras candy bars in indulgent Las Vegas supper clubs and tiny little macarons in rose, pistachio or Earl Grey flavors in Beverly Hills bakeries that never fail to call my name. But there is simply nothing more sublime than a simple berry crumble made in our kitchen by my man with the green thumb.

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The CG has perfected the crumble, which differs from pies, tarts and cobblers in its very design. First, nothing more than a perfect pile of boysenberries mixed with a minimal amount of sugar, cornstarch and a zing of squeezed lemon is placed into a ramekin. Then a nice little dough beret of ground peanuts, pecans and brown sugar is made to place on top, that when baked turns into a crunchy, chewy crust. After a torturous hour or so of waiting for the crumble to cool, we dive in with two spoons and enjoy the decidedly peanut butter and jelly like goodness as warm berries pop in the mouth, swimming in a tart syrup that induces merriment.

With so many berries we are oftentimes prone to enjoy a crumble two nights in a row. It is a shame to freeze them, which we have to do in order to preserve the large harvest, so we feel perfectly validated in having more than our normal share of dessert during this seasonal period. I will be sad to see them go in another few weeks.

The Fried Squashes of June

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This time every year the Cute Gardener and I struggle to use the last few butternut squashes that remain from the bountiful Fall harvest. By now we’ve exhausted our mental inventories of dishes like roasted butternut, butternut gratin, butternut pasta, mashed butternut instead of potatoes, butternut cream soups and smooth butternut purees, and diced butternut chunks in everything from pilafs to lentils. We have also used the best of the bunch and are left with the tiny runts, the scrawny, skinny long ones and the discolored strays that are more diluted in flavor than is normal. It is only natural that we would resort to the oldest trick in the book that makes any food taste good. The CG breaks out a huge pot and his oil and deep-fries a batch up for us. Paired with some local tamales from the Latino masa maker in our neighborhood, fresh cabbage from the garden and diced avocados from the backyard tree, the fried butternut is a sweet and crunchy natural adornment that combines sweet with savory. Even for a girl like me, who mostly eschews fried food in lieu of healthier options, it is hard to resist the combination of sweet squashes and an expertly blended fry coating that is mixed with care and creativity.

Which brings me to mention another specialty recently discovered this month suddenly awash with fried squash.

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Every time the CG and I travel to the desert to see my family, we take the opportunity to eat dim sum in Monterey Park. This past weekend while habitually betting on a new place Mama Lu’s, we stumbled upon a dish called Fried Seaweed Pumpkin. With memories of fried butternut fresh in mind, I ordered the dish. At first I was certain the pumpkin would be wrapped in seaweed as a salty coating and then fried. What we received instead was a plate towering with plump pieces of rich, dense fried kabocha squash—the Asian gourd that is like a cross between pumpkin and butternut. It also has a rind that looks very much like seaweed so it’s no surprise those creative Chinese would imaginatively instead of literally name this dish. I loved it, although it was so filling that I could only down three pieces with the rest of the already plentiful dim sum items we had ordered. I took the rest home with me and although the fry coating had wilted in the fridge overnight, it crisped immediately back up after spending five minutes in a 360-degree toaster oven. The kabocha was even better the next day dipped sparingly into dark mushroom soy sauce.

Forget the old saying, “When in doubt throw it out.” My new motto is, “When vegetables threaten to go dry, all you need is a quick flash fry!”

The Awesome Alchemical Avocado

IMG_9146Our avocado tree is flush with fruit this November!

The Cute Gardener and I have been talking recently about the word “awesome”—something that has become completely overused and diffused in contemporary society. We, as well as the rest of the human population, seem prone to give everything from the latest episode of Gotham to the morning drops of dew on a leaf to a brand new pair of shoes that moniker. David Sedaris has joked that if anyone in his presence says the word awesome, they immediately owe him a dollar towards the proverbial tip jar. There was a great TED Talk by comedian Jill Shargaa on this topic recently called “Let’s put the awe back in awesome.” In it, she says, “When you use the word awesome to describe the most mundane of things, you’re taking away the very power of the word. So in other words, if you have everything, you value nothing. There’s no dynamic, there’s no highs or lows, if everything is awesome.”

One aspect of my life where I have completely overused this word is with food. The butterscotch pot de crème at Gjelina is awesome. The lamb neck at Bestia is too. But every pork belly that I have met in the past year is not, even though I have most likely gushed that word out after each forkful being the pork whore that I am.

The very definition of awesome is “inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear; causing or inducing awe.”

The one food that instantly comes to mind for me that fits this definition is the avocado. I have an overwhelming feeling of reverence for it because there is nothing quite like it—it stands alone in the fruit world as its own breed. Rough leathery skin surrounding smooth, oily and edible flesh and a large stone is not exactly what we think of when we hear the word fruit. Yet there it sits classified in a sea of sweet or juicy things on its own in the lone wolf color of green that for its genus sisters and brothers typically denotes “unripe.”

The “admiration” part of the avocado comes when it is mashed and used for its texture, which again, defies traditional classification because it is not quite cream, not quite butter, not quite pulp and not quite puree, but a silky unmistakable combination of all four. Without this unique and discernable texture, the world may never have known the fantastical deliciousness of guacamole.

IMG_9144But the truly “inducing awe” aspect of the avocado comes when it is used in a way that seems to completely go against its grain, as an additive in smoothies. There is something magical that occurs when an avocado is whipped with cold ingredients that completely mystifies. It turns everything into an ambrosial form of ice cream that is lusciously whipped yet densely creamy which lacks the customary avocado taste yet maintains its undertones of sumptuous richness. Since discovering this, I have gone completely smoothie crazy. My latest favorite recipe below is just the tip of the iceberg in this avocado awesomeness.

PEPPERMINT CHOCOLATE AVOCADO SMOOTHIE

1 cup almond milk
½ frozen banana
¼ avocado
2 tablespoons Ovaltine or cocoa powder
1 teaspoon organic maca powder
4 mint leaves
Bee pollen to sprinkle on top

Throw everything in a Nutribullet or other type of blender for 20 seconds and voila!