Thursday, August 23, 2012

Season of Tomato-Love Casserole + Low-carb Notes

Here it is—Summer's Best Baked Tomato dish. 

It's tomato love time, and if you have the love, and are almost tired of Caprese and other raw tomato dishes, give this baked tomato casserole a whirl. I first tasted it at a potluck, where several people were drooling and swooning and smacking their lips and talking gibberish.

I think my friends Kelly and Dave brought it, made from their fresh Grants Pass, OR tomatoes. Anyway, it has become a summer highlight for PK and me. PK loves tomatoes so much that he eats them for lunch with mayo and maybe some cheese and then he's good until dinner, when tomato-something is the main dish. As of today, our first major harvest, tomatoes have taken over the kitchen and the back porch. Soon they will occupy the freezer and the pantry. And, of course, a top spot in our culinary hearts.

The morning's harvest. The tomatoes are mostly HUGE Brandywines, as large as the sizable cantaloupe on the upper left and the spaghetti squash on the lower left. A few of these giants are also split, meaning they need to be used pronto.  No problem! The basis for my fave tomato dish is right here—fresh, sweet, juicy heritage tomatoes.

Summer's BEST Tomato Casserole

3-4 large ripe tomatoes, more if tomatoes aren't notably large. I used 3 hyper Brandywines.
1/2 large onion
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 cups grated cheddar/jack or other cheeses
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil, plus whole leaves for topping beauty
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375
Use a 9X13 casserole dish, not aluminum. No need to grease the pan.
Trim and slice tomatoes and place in a colander to drain while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
Thinly slice the onion. Use a cooking onion, not a sweet one such as Walla Walla.
Combine the cheeses with the mayo and chopped basil.

Everything but the tomatoes.....before mixing. 
Don't freak out about the fat! This is basically a low-carb dish, so you're doing all right.

Layer the tomatoes and the sliced onion.
At this stage, salt and pepper to taste. Next, add half the cheese/mayo/basil mixture. 
Ready to pop into the oven with the second layer plus the basil-for-beauty effect.
 The chopped basil-for-flavor is mixed into the cheese/mayo combo.
Those big leaves are for show, which means they're  optional.
Bake for 30 minutes at 375 degrees in a pre-heated oven. Casserole will be slightly browned and bubbly. It is SO good. Get out your bib!

The entire dinner, left to right: heavenly baked tomato casserole; sauteed mixed veggies and chicken  topped with chipotle sauce; fresh melon with diced spearmint; marinated cukes and onions. I love summer!!!

In the wings, the first of a 6-week tomato harvest ready for processing. 

Low Carb Notes

A fat-phobic vegetarian friend (I love her!) asked about vegetables and carbs. She said (something like) Don't all vegetables have carbs? If you're eating low carb, how can you eat so many vegetables?

Yes,  of course all veggies have carbs, but in varying proportions. Corn and potatoes explode with carbs, onions are kinda dangerous, and parsnips, turnips, beets, sweet potatoes, winter squash and others are to be consumed in moderation. But chard, broccoli, kale, zucchini, lettuces, and many other greenish veggies  are low in carbs and can be heaped on the plate with lots of butter and/or salad dressing and consumed without guilt.
This is the low-fat/low-carb divide. You can eat a thick slice of bread or a baked potato without butter or sour cream or anything  else to make it taste good. You will get a butt-load of carbs and a couple hours later, depending upon what else you ate, you'll get slammed with a blood sugar dive. And then you'll be hungry for more carbs. You may even get the shakes.
Conversely, you can load a plate with a mountain of greens, cooked or not, pile on cheese and/or meat, salad dressing, mayo, butter or other fat, and two hours later, you won't be hungry at all. In fact, it'll likely be five or six hours before you feel compelled to eat. The blood sugar highs and lows don't run the diet program, and they don't run your life.
As for tomatoes.....they seem to occupy the middle ground in carbiness. (thank you, Stephen Colbert, Mr. Truthiness)  A small tomato, according to the Atkins chart has about 4.5 carbs. I'd guess the large Brandywines have at least 15 carbs - roughly equivalent to a slice of bread, minus the fiber in the tomatoes.

I'm not an expert, but have read a lot and done this low-carb thing for 10 years. This much I know. I will feel better and more satisfied (and weigh less) eating a huge tomato with a generous hunk of cheese or other fat  than a sandwich of nearly any sort.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Caprese Salad Deluxe (plus low-carb notes)

Low-carb notes follow this scintillating ($10 word!) recipe for embellishing a traditional summer salad.
A full meal for one. Caprese salad decked out with fresh peppers, sweet onions, and lots of cheese.

PK has been away for a few days and I lived it up, eating fresh from the garden and not cooking much. Not that he wouldn't be fine with a big salad for dinner, which we have at least once a week year around. I predict  he'll be jealous of this beefed up, so to speak, super summer salad and dang! I'll have to make it again.
INGREDIENTS - This is for one person for a satisfying meal, no other dishes. It would be sufficient for two-four as a starter for a dinner with more courses.
 One large fresh tomato, preferably a heritage type. This is a Brandywine, one of the first of the season. If your tomatoes aren't this big, use two. Or three.
One fresh large sweet green/red pepper A bell pepper would work, and so would a more picante variety.
One quarter SWEET onion, such as a Walla Walla. Don't use a regular cooking onion.
Olive oil, generously administered
Generous handful of fresh basil
One small ball of fresh mozzarella cheese
A couple ounces of feta or other cheese, crumbled. I used a goat/sheep cheese combo. Delicious.
Pepper flakes to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Drizzle of balsamic vinegar
Smoked salt to taste

Slice the tomato and place in a colander for a few minutes to drain some of the juice. Most Caprese salad recipes call for large round slices of tomatoes, but this one is different. Bite-sized pieces are best. 

Arrange tomato pieces on a plate and sprinkle with smoked salt. Yes, smoked! In the absence of such a luxury, just use sea salt or lemon-flavored salt or something other than just plain table salt. Drizzle on a bit of balsamic vinegar. Reduced balsamic would be best, but I didn't have any. Don't overdo it with the vinegar. A tablespoon or two.
Slice the onion and pepper. Slice the fresh mozzarella and crumble the feta, if using. Tear the basil
Assemble veggies on a pretty plate. 
Add the cheeses. Add the basil.(missing from this photo. See photo of complete salad at the top.) Drizzle with olive oil, and don't worry about using too much. I'd say at least a quarter cup. 

I ate the whole thing! And after I took this photo, I drained the smoky tomato juices right into my eager upturned mouth.  A small piece of dark chocolate and a nice glass of pinotage later, I'm ready for anything.
 Which will be going to bed with a book. Sigh.

Here they are! The low-carb notes!
I'm not a scientific low-carber. I go on general principles that include:

  • No bread
  • No pasta
  • No potatoes
  • No corn or corn products
  • No sugar 
  • Few, if any, grains (screw the popular "healthy whole grains" theory)
  • Lots of berries and green veggies and tomatoes, in season
  • Meats 
  • Cheeses
  • Fats (the good ones, including coconut, flax, and olive oils) 
  • Nuts and seeds
So. Even though I have these so-called principles, I am a human being with many flaws and weaknesses and also potatoes and corn in the garden. When I say "no potatoes, no corn" I am not necessarily thinking of what's growing within striking distance.

 A few days ago, I was forced to harvest all the corn because it was ready. 
So beautiful and innocent looking, that corn five minutes off the stalk. 
Then I had to process and freeze it. PK is out of town, remember? That entailed blanching, cooling, then cutting the kernels off the cob. In so doing, I happened to finish off the corn on many cobs. I enjoyed this very much. Smack, smack. 
 The same day, I had for dinner leftovers that included fried veggies including potatoes.

A couple days later, I stepped onto the scale. Four pounds. Unbelievable. I am, as I already knew, a carb-sensitive person. PK is not carb sensitive in that he does not gain weight when he gets a big hit in a scone or doughnut or full-sugar piece of pie. On the other hand, he gets the shakes about an hour later and feels like crap. So, in his own way, he is carb sensitive. The potatoes and corn don't seem to bother him.  I really don't want to gain weight, so I'm going to have to forego those delicious spuds and corn, for the most part. Moderation and discipline. Why do we grow corn and potatoes? Ask PK. That skinny corn-and-potato-loving bastard. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Tomatoes are finally here! But, like youth, will fade fast.

A beautiful sight to behold. Our FIRST ripe tomato—a brandywine! We've been staring at it for days. And finally, last night, we devoured it in a Caprese salad.  Two more came off the vines today and now it begins. Tomato season!
Every mid-August I think this: Youth and beauty are fleeting. So pathetically brief. The garden demonstrates this in fast-forward. (By contrast, humans take much longer to decline, although it seems just a season or two since I was young and pulsing with hormonal power and developing into a sturdy adult who would require decades to fully fade. I am making steady progress, by the way—an unavoidable fate, which I regard without humor but with interest.)

A month ago, the garden was in its glory with nary a hint of decline. Every day it got bigger, better, more robust. No more. In the short term, it's good because the peppers, eggplants, onions and even the tomatoes have initiated their death dance by pumping sugar into the fruits of the their vines, branches, and bulbs. But alas, fall approaches in stealth form, hiding in August's heat and haze. Yellow leaves are present. Hollow green beans. Hideous numbers of squash bugs. Brittle things.

This sunflower tells the tale. Its leaves have been ravaged by finches  and birds are starting to peck at the seeds. In a couple weeks, the yellow fuzz will be gone, the seeds exposed, and bird havoc will ensue full force. But, of course, we cultivate flowers for the birds and the bees and our enjoyment. So what do we expect? 
Here too is evidence of decline. The leek flowers are turning into seed heads, their lovely lavender is gone. I'm going to have to replace my blog cover photo.

However! As the most robust growth subsides, the serious high-summer harvest begins. Last night's dinner:
The first Caprese salad, simple cuke and onion salad, roasted ratatouille, a fantastic  potato/cabbage casserole, and corn on the cob.  

PK ate corn for dessert!

The first ratatouille of 2012. OMG, as the texters say. This is roasted, not fried, and here's a recipe from  a  couple summers ago. Roasting is way easier and superior in taste to laborious sauteing. 

We finally have enough corn to put some away. This is destined for the freezer.

Part of the potato harvest. It's been 100 degrees or so here for a few days with more oppressive heat forecasted These spuds need to get into "cold storage", which means our pump house. But it isn't really that cold in there right now.
By the way, if you have landed on this site because of my previous low-carb posts and preaching, please forgive my lapses. PK insists on growing potatoes and corn, and it is difficult to resist this garden candy. I do have ways to abate potatoes' blood-sugar spiking effect, mostly by using with lots of low-carb veggies. But mostly by eating small quantities. Small potatoes, as the saying goes. Happy harvest!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Beyond Guacamole — Avocados and Chocolate!

Grandson Noah didn't hesitate to dig in to avocado/chocolate/peanut butter pudding. And he is a picky picky two-year-old.  Noah, darling, would you like some mashed avocado? Or would you rather have chocolate pudding?
What a great nutrition trick to play on a finicky toddler!

I can't believe I'm writing about avocados when the garden is shooting out cannon loads of food directed right at me, the primary food preserver and cook. It's scary to go out there. I feel like I need a machete near the zucchinis as they grow preposterously overnight, and now the eggplants, corn, peppers, squash, melons, and green beans are heaving and humping in obscene waves toward the kitchen. But yet, I'm obsessed with the avocado thing I recently discovered. 

In California a few weeks ago, PK and I stopped at the Mendocino Cafe in the California coastal burg of the same name. Like so many California eateries, this little restaurant holds fast to the California Code of Cuisine: fresh, local, organic, sustainable, free-range poultry, grass-fed beef, wild-caught seafood—and everything plated in pricey style. Yada, yada, yada. Hello, California! You big food snobs. Answer your email, OK?

Note: I contacted the Mendocino Cafe for their chocolate tart recipe, but got no response. What's wrong with those people? Not even a "Sorry, can't help you." 

I rarely make desserts, let alone order them in restaurants. But when our waitress delivered a sliver of chocolate tart to an adjacent table, I lifted off my chair and began sniffing. Very unobtrusive sniffing, of course. Who would notice such shy but elongated craning?

The person about to devour the tart noticed and said, "You wouldn't believe how good this is, and it's made from avocados!" True. I didn't believe it. (As unlikely as cauliflower pizza crust) So I bought a slice, ate it pronto, and WOW! It was creamy, sweet,  deeply chocolate, and utterly fantastic. In addition—and this is a huge low-carb bonus—the crust was made from ground walnuts (or some other nuts) and shredded coconut.  I couldn't wait to get home and try this no-bake avocado marvel.

I found the recipe below at Raw Food Made Easy and tried it. It was absolutely wonderful, and tasted a lot like what the Mendocino Cafe served. But it was also more than PK and I could eat over several days. And it was more fuss than I like, what with making a crust and all. So I decided to keep it on file to make for special occasions until I thought about our impending visit to see our picky-eater two-year-old grandson. Then I went into adaptation mode.

A chocolate avocado/peanut butter pudding adapted from numerous avocado-based chocolate desserts found online. It is thick, rich, packed with nutrients and almost craven. Yes, craven!  

Noah gets into avocado/chocolate pudding big time. 

Mo! Mo! He's saying, even though he's stuffed.  Got a picky eater? And a few minutes?
 Bring home a few avocados, some cocoa powder, natural sweetener and drag out the food processor. 

Simple ingredients for a no-cook super nutritious and  delicious pudding, pie filling, or frosting. 
Please see the recipe for Chocolate Mousse and Shortbread Crust from Raw Food Made Easy before proceeding with my recipe. If you're making a special dessert for guests, go with the Raw Food's version. It is fantastic. My recipe is simpler and easy to adapt to your own tastes.

Nutty Chocolate/Avocado Pudding or Pie Filling

3 medium to large ripe Haas avocados (or 4-5 smaller avocados) to equal 1.5 cups, mashed
1/4 cup liquid sweetener such as agave nectar, maple syrup, or honey
1/2 to 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1.5 teaspoons vanilla
2-3 tablespoons peanut butter or almond butter
1/2 cup water (or less)

Peel and pit the avocados and process briefly in a food processor.  Add the next four ingredients and process just until smooth. Add water to thin according to your intended use. I added very little water and used 2 tablespoons of peanut butter. The recipe I was consulting called for almond butter, which I didn't have. I substituted peanut butter, and it tasted great. Taste after processing and add sweetener, water, or nut butter to taste. Top with fresh berries and/or a little cream. Offer as a creamy chocolate pudding to a picky toddler and enjoy the deception. The kid will love you for it.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Forget Pesto Pasta and Bring on the Pesto Green Beans!

Pesto pasta used to be near the top of my go-to dinner list. Since giving up pasta in my quest for low carbness and the accompanying blood-sugar serenity, I have cast about for substitutes. Green beans! Who would have thought?
Pesto green beans are a super good way to enjoy the seasonal treat now in abundance. 
Ok. In my last post,  I got so carried away with the greatness of our green bean crop, that I accidentally published the post before it was finished and neglected to include the promised recipe, a failure which was pointed out to me by a reader. It is good to have a reader.
Now, in the leisure of correcting my error, I can include not one but two great green bean recipes. Lord knows I need them as I spent an hour in the garden this morning picking yet another eight pounds of beans. The refrigerator bulges with beans, chard, blackberries, cucumbers, and enough zucchini to compel zucchini averse-neighbors to block entry to their porches during the night.
Eight pounds. Every two days. Never had such a bean crop. Blue Lake and Malibu varieties.
Pesto Green Beans with Cherry Tomatoes
Fresh green beans, a generous handful per person
Prepared pesto, preferably without cheese added
Cherry tomatoes, halved, to taste
Shaved or shredded fresh Parmesan cheese to taste, optional
Salt and pepper to taste
Red pepper flakes, optional

Rinse and drain the beans. Remove the stem ends and cut beans into 2-3 inch lengths. Place in a nonstick skillet and cover with water. Cover and boil gently for about 7 minutes. You want the beans to be tender/crisp. There's a moment when the flavor comes through and the beans are tender, but still bright green and toothsome.
Stir in prepared pesto. I make my own, most of which I freeze, and I leave out the cheese until I use the pesto. Costco sells decent pesto, if you don't feel like making it. Commercial pesto already has cheese, though, so be careful to just stir it in to heat but not cook.
If you're using non cheese pesto, sprinkle shaved or shredded Parmesan on top and arrange cherry tomato halves on top.

Pickled Dilly Green Beans with Garlic and Red Peppers

Truth be told, I processed this batch in the pressure cooker. The texture isn't nearly as crisp as when done in a boiling water bath, and I will leave the pressure cooker in storage for the next batch. That would be tomorrow's batch.
3 pounds fresh green beans
2.5 cups white vinegar, at least 5 percent acidity - buy the pickling kind
2.5 cups water
4 tablespoons pickling salt, which means non iodized and minimal additives
5-10 medium cloves garlic (I use two per jar) 
1 teaspoon dill seed per pint jar
1 teaspoon mustard seed per pint jar
1 teaspoon red chili flakes per pint jar, OR one fresh or dried serrano or cayenne pepper per jar


  1. Get your boiling water bath canner ready and sterilize five regular-mouth pint jars.
  2. I wash the jars in hot soapy water, rinse thoroughly, then place into a 250 degree oven.  I remove jars from the oven one by one as I fill them, then place immediately into the waiting water bath pot filled with enough water to cover the jars.
  3. Combine the vinegar, water, and salt and bring to boil to dissolve salt. Keep hot.
  4. Place lids in a small saucepan to simmer.
  5. Clean the beans and trim so that they'll fit into the sterilized jars.
  6. Place the garlic, dill, pepper flakes or peppers and mustard seeds into the jars first. Then pack tightly with upright trimmed beans.
  7. Cover beans with hot vinegar/water/salt mixture. You should have about a half inch of headspace
  8. Place lids and screw bands on jars and settle carefully into boiling water bath. Jar lifters highly recommended!
  9. Cover and process for 10 minutes

  1. Clearly out of control beans.