Sunday, September 20, 2009

Rainbow Tomato Sauce

I had so many ripe tomatoes, and hadalready consigned so many overripe ones to the compost pile, that I was determined to make some tomato sauce today. None of my tomatoes are the traditional sauce type, typically Romas, which are meaty and less juicy than slicers, but I figured I could still make a passable sauce.

Here are maybe two-thirds of the tomatoes after being dunked in boiling water to loosen their skins.

When full, this bowl holds 24 cups. It got full. Here are most of the peeled and coarsely chopped tomatoes before going into the stock pot. It almost looks like a fruit salad. I really wasn't sure what color the sauce would end up being with so much yellow and some green tomato in the mix, though I knew it wasn't going to be a rich, dark red.

Here's a glimpse into the tall pot while the sauce was cooking; you can see that the sauce was a reddish orange with chunks of distinct red and yellow tomatoes and green and dark purple flecks of basil. I first sauteed a large yellow onion, finely chopped, and several cloves' worth of garlic paste in some olive oil. Then I added the tomatoes and several tablespoons of chopped basil (three kinds) and lemon thyme from my garden and some dried oregano, bay leaves, sea salt, and freshly ground pepper. Later I decided to add a small can of tomato paste to help it thicken up. The sauce simmered all afternoon, making Dave comment that the house smelled like his (Italian) Aunt Frances's house did in his youth -- high praise. I tried smashing all the chunks of tomato with my potato masher, but that wasn't as effective as I wanted it to be, so I later resorted to the blender to even out the texture somewhat. I pureed several batches of the sauce in the blender and returned them to the pot, thus making a thin but chunky sauce into a somewhat thicker and less chunky (but still kind of chunky) sauce. I was careful to search for and remove the large bay leaves before running the blender so shredded pieces of the tough but aromatic leaves wouldn't catch in anyone's throat.

Here was the result - more than a gallon of sauce to eat on pasta with meatballs tonight and to put away in the freezer for several more meals. Nice!

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Using Up Tomatoes

I hadn't gone out to pick tomatoes in several days, so today there were most of a colander's worth of cherry tomatoes and several full-size ones of several varieties that were ready to be picked. Quite a few were overripe on the vine, in fact, and went straight into the compost pile. Also I was surprised to find this large summer squash hiding under the leaves. My zucchini plants wilted suddenly a couple of weeks ago and now you can hardly even see where they were, but the yellow squash plant is still vigorous and is suddenly churning out new babies like crazy. Maybe it's this warm weather we've been having lately. The huge pink-and-yellow tomato stem-side down next to the squash is one of the Striped Germans that are so pretty to look at.

The Striped German, a Tasty Evergreen, a Green Zebra and a couple of more generic red tomatoes got chopped up and mixed with chopped green onions, chopped cilantro, a small jalapeno pepper finely diced while wearing rubber gloves, lime juice, salt, and pepper to make a large batch of fresh salsa that will make a nice topping for quesadillas or grilled meat.

I decided to try to preserve more of the cherry tomatoes for later eating (I recently dried some in the oven). I followed a simple recipe for sauteed cherry tomatoes which was meant to be eaten immediately as a side dish, but decided I would freeze it in several batches.

After weeding out a few I had picked that looked a bit too mushy, I nearly filled a souffle dish with halved cherry tomatoes. I also picked some basil, thyme and parsley from the garden.

Into a large frying pan went 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil and when it was hot the tomatoes followed. After just a few minutes of sauteeing, I added some garlic puree and when that had become fragrant I added the chopped herbs, salt and pepper and took the mixture off the heat.

When the sauteed tomatoes had cooled, I filled 3 small containers with the fruit (or vegetables, if you prefer) and their copious liquid and put them into the freezer to enjoy on a fall or winter day. I'll try to remember to report on how they are when we get around to eating them.

I still have several more tomatoes ready to eat, and plenty more on the vine. Maybe nine tomato plants was a bit too much, but it's a wonderful situation to be in!

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Food Culture: Turn Off the TV and Cook!

The most useful thing we can do – if we care about food and where it comes from and how it’s grown and prepared and what’s good for us and what tastes good, and if we want to sift through all the contradictory and overlapping claims about health benefits or environmental degradation or sustainability – is unplug the television set, because for the most part, the food traditions that were gaining a foothold in various regions of the United States have been in steady decline since the growth of TV as the national communications medium at the end of WWII and continue to the present day.
So says my wise blog friend Patrick at Duck Fat and Politics. It's an important, eloquent post, and it's not just about TV. It's about apple pie and sweet potatoes and ginger beer and not allowing our food heritage (not to mention biodiversity) to be lost. Read it all here (on the Eat Local: Just Food blog) or here (on Duck Fat and Politics).

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Oven-dried Cherry Tomatoes

I've so enjoyed the amazing Sun Gold cherry tomatoes from my garden this summer that I thought I'd try saving some for later in the year. On Saturday I dried some in the oven in the simplest way: washed them (here is a mix of the Sun Golds with some good-but-not-as-wonderful red grape tomatoes), cut them in half, and set them cut side up on a baking tray I'd brushed with olive oil. I didn't salt them or sprinkle them with herbs, though one can do that.

After about four hours at 210 F. the tomatoes above had turned into the tomatoes below. That wasn't a scientically determined length of time, and was too long for some of the smaller tomatoes. While most were still somewhat soft and leathery, some had actually turned brown and crispy -- tomato chips!

Here (below) is a closer view of tomatoes after drying. I let them cool, scooped them into a one-quart zip-lock bag, and popped them into the freezer. It seemed a remarkably small amount of dried tomatoes for such a large tray, but it's certainly several recipes' worth. They can be rehydrated in hot water, broth or wine, and then soaked in olive oil if desired.

I'd never tried drying anything before, so please don't consider me an expert in this! Next time, I think I'll pack the tray fuller, start checking them sooner, and remove ones that are done while leaving others in to get more drying time. Or maybe I should invest in a food dehydrator, which is probably more energy-efficient and operates at a lower temperature than my electric oven.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Afternoon at Carlos Avery WMA

For our Labor Day birdwatching outing, we decided to head north of the Twin Cities, to Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area - a large (23,000-acre) natural area that I had never been to. A wildlife management area is an area of habitat managed primarily to support game for hunting, but certainly such habitats support many additional species as well. One of our first spots of the day was a large hawk at the top of the tree below.

Our first instinct was that it was an osprey - it looked huge, and had a white breast and dark wings, which would be consistent with an osprey. But when we looked through the scope it was clear that it was not.

The rusty blush to the neck and white underside from breast to tail were key points we noticed, and while we haven't definitively identified it, we think it may be an immature Swainson's hawk, though these are generally seen somewhat further west. We welcome comments from those more expert than we are. We had four field guides out while looking at the photos and still could not come up with a definitive ID, even though Dave has taken a hawk identification class. Frustrating!

A bit later, while wending our way around the ponds (called pools) of the area, we saw this kingfisher fly overhead. We stopped and walked for a bit and it kindly sat long enough that we could get a photo.
Here's a view of one of the lakes in the area. This was fairly typical of a lot of the area - lots of marshy wetland (currently fairly dry), some pools and lakes, and some open grasslands and woods as well.

Further along we got this great view of a great blue heron somewhat camouflaged in the reeds.

Here it was hunkered down with its neck retracted in a S shape. I haven't seen herons without their necks extended before.

Here it is, fully extended again. Herons are so primeval looking!

While we didn't see a lot of birds today, we did see lots of dragonflies. They seemed to be everywhere we went. There is a huge amount of habitat at Carlos Avery that we didn't see today. I expect we'll be back again another time.

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Saturday, September 5, 2009

Fall Bird Migration Season

Migration season can be a great time to go birdwatching, as birds often flock together to make the trip, increasing the concentration of birds in an area and thereby making it easier to spot something - sometimes a great many somethings. Fall migration is often taken at a more leisurely pace than spring migration, when birds are anxious to reach their breeding habitat and stake out territory, so you're less likely to have them all blow through over a short period. Shorebirds, hawks and warblers are some categories of migrating birds to watch for, though I'm sorry to say that for many shorebirds their migration season started weeks ago and they are long gone.

I'm a great fan of shorebird-watching, myself. The ones we see around here, like the greater and lesser yellowlegs, are relatively large (though many shorebirds are small) and tend to stay in one spot for a while, grazing for food on mudflats or in very shallow water. Warblers, being insect-eaters, tend to dart constantly from one branch or tree to another. Many of them are lovely little birds and a treat to see, but one tends to get a stiff neck from looking up and trying to track birds as they fly overhead.

On the other hand, as my resident bird expert notes, finding shorebirds is more hit-and-miss, in part because of changing water levels year to year that turn an area that is a nice hospitable mudflat one year into a swimmable pond another year. The warblers tend to return more predictably to the same wooded areas.

Duck migration occurs somewhat later in the fall (waterfowl-hunting season in Minnesota starts October 1, not coincidentally). Ducks are a great place to start birdwatching, as again they are large enough to spot fairly easily and although they can certainly be spooked into flight (or into diving), at least they don't flit!

Radar reports provide good insight into bird migration patterns. Yes, radar can actually pick up the air disturbances caused by groups of birds and show areas of greater activity. A Minnesota blogger who regularly posts the latest bird/radar reports is Roger at Minnesota Birdnerd, who I had the chance to meet on the recent Birders Who Blog, Tweet and Chirp outing. The radar map he's got on his latest blog post (which I've borrowed here) shows concentrated activity along the North Shore, the upper St. Croix, and the La Crosse area. He predicts the potential for good birdwatching this weekend, with pleasant weather and light winds (no roaring winds out of the north to drive the birds onward).

We haven't made our weekend plans yet. Maybe we'll wander over to Lake Byllesby, where we've sometimes had very good luck seeing shorebirds and pelicans (and one notable osprey). Maybe we'll just head out and see where our instincts take us. It's fall migration time for birdwatchers, not just for birds.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Prairie and Sky

Here are more photos from the St. Olaf college natural lands taken Saturday morning. The St. Olaf wind turbine dominates the landscape if you're looking anywhere in its general direction. The two wind turbines in Northfield, one here at St. Olaf and the other owned by Carleton College but standing on land slightly east of town, have come to be iconic symbols of this small city.

The tall prairie grasses (I believe Big Bluestem is what we're seeing here) bent and swayed in the breeze.

Light purple wildflowers in the aster family and goldenrod were common, as well as plenty of other plants I can't identify, like the greenish spikes below.

Can anyone tell me what these huge spikes are? They must have been close to ten feet tall. I have seen similar things on a much smaller scale, but have no idea what they might be.

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