Salvaging my tomato crop: salsa verde

Green tomatoes

Green tomatoes

Folks, I love my adopted city San Francisco, I really do. I love its hills, its fog, its MUNI and its BART, its rolling jagged windy roads, even its urinaceous sidewalks (with reservations). But really, if there is one thing San Francisco simply cannot pull off, it is ripening a frigging tomato.

And yet, in a textbook example of insanity, I keep growing them year after year, hoping that this will be the year when a perfect storm of global warming and sheer willpower will turn those multitudes of green globes red. Wouldn’t that be nice. But no, San Francisco does not oblige. First, the bush grows wildly, flowers and fruits luxuriantly, and the little berries grow into globes. But they stay green. Even my backyard squirrels sniff at them.

So I have a bush full of green tomatoes, and an impending case of late blight nipping at my heels. If I don’t rescue my green tomatoes now (some with a faint blush on them), I will lose them to the greasy blackness of blight.

So I harvest them, and now I have a basket full of green tomatoes. What do I do with them? So now we come to the fun part. There are certain options. Here is Salsa Verde, in my next post I will explore another one.

Tomatoes, sorted

Tomatoes, sorted

Salsa Verde

California is replete with Latin American culture and food, for which I am very grateful. It is hard to describe the tastiness of pairing earthy rice and beans with these ‘sauces’ or salsas — some cooked, some fresh; some red, some green. One of my favorite ways to dress a Mexican meal is with the triumvirate of guacamole, salsa fresca and salsa verde. The ‘verde’ means green, and usually the color is imparted by the tomatillo, which is a cousin of the tomato, but green tomatoes do just as well.

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Salsa verde

  • 2-3 cups diced green tomatoes
  • 3 big cloves garlic minced
  • 2-3 green serrano chilies minced
  • 1/2 cup onion cut into small dice
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons minced cilantro
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice

Put everything except the cilantro and lime into a pot and bring to a boil. Cover and cook on medium-low heat for about 10 minutes. Uncover and check if it looks mostly liquefied, if not, cook for another 5-7 minutes. Mash roughly, add cilantro and lime, cook covered to meld flavors for another 5 minutes.

Serve as a side with chips or any Mexican meal.

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The welcome home salad

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What better way to end a trip — come home to a garden with lettuce spilling out of its borders, waiting to be picked. I picked some of the arugula and some frisee and made a giant salad, which was definitely a relief after airport food. The standard dressing I use is the epitome of simple, but there is a technique to it, so file this under ‘basic methods’.

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Step 1: Salt

Salt the greens lightly, and toss it around with your fingers. You could use tongs but there is no implement quite as blunt, rubbery, strong, and with as fine control as your fingers.

Step 2: Oil.

Pour some good, green-tinged xtra virgin olive oil around on the greens. How much? Well, just like distance can be measured in light-years, I can tell you the amount of oil in seconds — for a big bowl of greens, squirt oil for around ten seconds. Once again, toss with your fingers. What this step does is coat the greens with the oil, and thereby, the grains of salt are trapped under the sheen of oil, and the seasoning has been captured; and will not easily slip off the greens into a super-seasoned pool in the bottom of the bowl.

Step 3: Vinegar.

I used balsamic. Sprinkle about five seconds (half of the oil) of balsamic vinegar on the greens and toss with your fingers. Considering that the oil is already coating the leaves, the vinegar will bead up on them (oil and vinegar don’t mix), and create little bursts of flavor.

Step 4: Accessorize.

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Scoop the greens into bowls and add your choice of toppings. We used one avocado, cubed; and cherry tomatoes, halved. Please do halve them; the juicy insides absorb flavors better than the plastic peel on the outside; and when you’ve got good olive oil and good balsamic, that is a good thing. Place them on the bed of greens.

Hat tip: Nick Stellino, the TV chef.

Stemming the tide of mustard greens

When we first brought our mustard seedlings home, they were petite and unassuming. Planted them in the ground, and given San Francisco’s freakishly warm weather, we soon had curly monsters threatening to swamp the house. Naturally we set about consuming them as fast as we could.

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Mustards after a lot of rampaging

Harvested an entire meal’s amount to make Punjab’s famous ‘sarson ka saag’, which means ‘greenish pulpy thing made out of mustard’. It was good, but made not a whit of difference in the amount of curly monsters in the garden.

Soon we were eating sarson ka rice, sarson ka pasta, sarson ka…everything.

On the way, I learnt an important lesson about cooking mustard greens that the Punjabi chefs learnt thousands of years ago. Unless you cook and puree the mustards, the curls in the leaves — which are quite tough, by the way — will interlock and will not separate, and you either get a mouthful of mustards all clumped together, or you get none at all. Pureeing after cooking makes them luscious and even. So here is the basic technique for the Punjabi sarson ka saag, and then my other variations.

Sarson ka saag

Step 1: is the most important:boil and puree.

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Mustard greens washed and chopped

Rinse, roughly chop a bunch of mustard greens. Put them in a pot with a quarter cup water, salt, half an onion, roughly chopped, two green chilies, roughly chopped, and a quarter cup chopped cilantro. Bring to a boil, cover, simmer and cook for about fifteen minutes, or until the mustards are no longer bright green. Cool for a few minutes and puree in a blender, although there is no need to make it completely smooth.

Step 2: Seasoning

I couldn’t tell you if every villager in Punjab uses this set of seasonings, but this is what I used, and it was good. I heated two tablespoons of ghee in a small thick bottomed pan on medium-high. Then put in a teaspoon of cumin seeds and 3-4 cloves of garlic, minced. Also half a teaspoon or more of red chili powder. Once they sizzle and the garlic looks cooked (not browned), put in two tablespoons of besan (chickpea flour) and stir. I think the more typical ingredient here is cornmeal so if you have that, use a quarter cup of that instead. Allow the besan (or cornmeal) to roast in the oil for a few minutes. Then empty the seasoning into the mustard puree and stir.

sarson ka saag - mustard greens puree

sarson ka saag

Step 3: Simmer a little longer

Check for salt and add more if needed. Simmer a little longer to meld the flavors and fully cook the besan. Sprinkle some lemon juice over the top (inauthentic ingredient alert). Serve with roti/chapati.

Sarson ka pasta…bucatini with mustard greens

Step 1: boil and puree

Here I boiled the greens with just a quarter onion and some salt. After about fifteen minutes of simmering, I roughly pureed them in a blender. Keep it aside.

Step 2: Seasonings

For the oil, I used about four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Heat it in a large pan on medium. Without waiting for it to heat, put in four large cloves of garlic, minced; three anchovies from a jar; and a few sprinkles of cracked red pepper. The anchovies, as they cook, will melt into the sauce, and add a delicious umami, proteiny flavor. Wait till they sizzle; break up the anchovies with a wooden spoon; then empty the pureed greens into it. Simmer gently, stirring, for a few minutes

Step 3: Pasta

Meanwhile, get a big pot of salted water to boil; once it boils, put in half a pound of bucatini (this is enough for a dinner for two). Wait till it is almost done to al dente, then fish out the pasta with a pasta spoon and put it into the greens along with a few good sized ladles of the pasta water. Use your judgment here — if the greens aren’t saucy enough, add a little more pasta water. Stir nicely to break up the clumps of mustards to combine with the pasta water and turn it into a sauce. Remember the sauce has to coat the pasta, not remain in clumps at the bottom. Stir to cover the pasta with the greens, cover the pot and simmer for just a minute or two. Turn off heat; pour some fresh XVOO on the top, and parmesan shavings if you like, and serve.

This makes a wonderfully light green sauce for the pasta that looks as nutritious as it, in reality, is.

Roasted fennel

I have no idea why I planted so much fennel. We don’t much care for it in salad, and although my daughter loves chomping on the seeds, I’m not going to let it go to seed, because it is a noxious weed in California. So why did I do it? There’s all the fennel, waving in the breeze (hi fennel!) that I have to do something with.

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Last afternoon I pulled out one entire plant, mostly to allow the mint hiding under the fronds to get some some sun. Cut out the leaves and the roots, and this is what I was left with: 3 bulbs.

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Don’t they look like three buddies? The short and stout one, the tall and skinny one, and the one right in the middle? Slice them up an eighth of an inch thick, and you end up with this:

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I love how pretty the insides are — the symmetrical petal shapes that emanate out of the center. I focused on one particularly pretty slice below:

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This is one of those recipes where I wasn’t sure what I was going to do until I had done it. I knew baking in an oven was involved, salt and olive oil too. So I started with that. Rub a few teaspoons of XVOO all over them with your fingers. Sprinkle with some salt to taste. Then, squirt a few squirts of lemon around. Now for juicy vegetables roasted in this way where one expects some browning, some crunch on top is desirable. I went with cracked coriander seeds (just pulverized a bit, not ground up completely); and, scanning the pantry shelves, I saw almond meal, so I used that as well. A teaspoon of cracked coriander sprinkled on top, and a teaspoon of almond meal spread around. This is what I ended up with.

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Into the oven it goes. Set to bake at 425 F, for 20 minutes. This is what comes out:

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In retrospect, I could have gone higher on the oven temperature, perhaps 450 F next time?

It made a very nice vegetable side for two. It would also be great on pizza or focaccia. The fennel was still a little sweet and crunchy on top. I loved the lemon but it does make it a little intense, so if one prefers less intensity in flavor one could leave it out.

Oh — and this recipe would be great with belgian endives — a similarly juicy and crunchy vegetable.

A way with greens

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How does one cook greens? There are many, many ways to make an insipid, gray mess, and an equal number of ways to undercook them so one is chomping on fibrous stems, peeling them out of one’s teeth. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have them nicely cooked, with a requisite amount seasoning, and maybe — dare one hope — a roasty flavor that you get when vegetables are delicately charred?

Yes, there is a way. The problem with throwing chopped up greens into a saute pan with oil is that they are usually so moist, that instead of being charred, they steam. Good in its way, but no comparison to that elusive charred flavor.

The secret of this recipe is that one dry-sautes the greens in a hot, flat pan, with no oil in it. Do that first, until the greens are bone-dry and starting to show brown spots on the stems at least. That is where the charred flavor is hiding. Once you see that, and smell the roasty aroma, put in your cooking fat, the salt, the spices, and there is no way to go wrong.

Step 1: Collect, wash, chop the greens.

An kind of medium-hearty greens would be ideal. What that I mean by that is, not collards — they probably take too long to cook. And not spinach or arugula, since they will turn to minimal slime in no time. That leaves the broad middle spectrum of kale, mustards, rapini, chard both red and white, and some older radicchios and endives if one enjoys a slight bitterness. I know I do. Nowadays some grocery stores (of the better kind) carry a braising mix, which is a smattering of greens too old to be salad. This way with greens is ideal for the braising mix.

Wash them nicely and chop into half-inch long strips.

Step 2: Dry-saute

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Heat a wide, thick-bottomed pan on high heat. I use one of All-Clad’s saute pans, with a stainless steel interior. Calphalon will work but is not necessary, and do not use teflon. You don’t want non-stick, you want stick. The greens can go on the pan even before it has started heating up.

At first the greens will be piled high. Soon the layer at the bottom will start to wilt and shrink. Use tongs or those handy pincer-tools too turn them over every minute or so, until all the greens have had their tryst with the heat, and have wilted. The moisture from washing is also evaporating away. As they get to be bone-dry, they will start charring. If you used a cruciferous green (kale, mustard, rapini) you will start to smell that sulphuric smell of roasting broccoli, which I love.

Greens, when they are wilted:

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Step 3: Oil and seasoning.

At this point, the pan is very hot, and any oil poured on it will immediately sizzle. Clear a little spot and put in a few tablespoons of cooking oil. Before sauteing the greens in it, put in your seasoning. There are various combinations that work well together.

1. Red chili powder and half an onion, chopped

2. Mustard seeds (half a tablespoon), garlic, red chili flakes

3. Just lots of black pepper, lemon juice on top

Once the seasoning cooks in the oil, all that is left is to stir the greens to coat them with the hot oil, add salt to taste and cover, while continuing the cook on a gentle flame for a few minutes until the greens are done.

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