Friday, December 2, 2011

ode to tomatoes (+ salsa + lasagna!)

Oh, you shiny, red beauties. I think that I must have some Italian blood in me (not that you can tell it, with the red hair, pale skin, and freckles) because I love tomatoes with everything. And I mean E. VERY. THI. NG.

Witness Exhibit A above, which was my breakfast one day last week: a bowlful of grape tomatoes, splashes of balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil, and a sprinkling of sea salt and pepper (there was also a poached egg and a slice of toast to go with it). Another favorite breakfast: thick slices of salted tomato on toasted sourdough bread with mayo and bacon - how I love using the crust to swipe up those pink splotches of mayonnaisey pulp that drip onto the plate!

For years, with the zeal of a fanatic, I have proselytized to D about the joys of tomatoes - he likes them cooked but hates them rawto the point where it's a minor miracle when he concedes to having enjoyed raw tomatoes in something. A few years ago, he admitted that he had eaten a slice of tomato on a sandwich from Zoƫ's that was delicious and looked as beautifully red, in his words, "as a piece of raw tuna." (From an avowed carnivore, this is the highest praise.)

In the middle of winter I always think wistfully back to that brief, shining month or so when the end-of-the-summer tomatoes came in. When D's parents came down for a visit late last summer, I begged them to bring me a little bag of my favorites, Grainger County tomatoes from Tennessee. I hoarded those plump, tangy, pulpy fruits for several weeks, eating them slowly one-by-one until I finally had to finish off the last one, regretfully cutting out a sizeable rotten chunk before the whole thing went bad. Hence, while it would be an understatement to say I merely "appreciate" a ripe tomato, I can also manage all right with what's available in the off season. I often eat romas in the winter because they're your best best for a firm tomatoeven when they look anemic and taste a little mealyand they form a nice base for what I call my "winter salsa" (so named because I can make it even in the cold months when pink tomatoes are all you can find at the grocery store). Happily, this ends up tasting surprisingly summeryespecially if you serve it with some tortilla chips and a beer.

winter salsa
half a white onion
1 garlic clove, minced
juice of 1 lime
2 jalapenos, stemmed & finely minced (remove seeds if you like it milder)
1/4 to 1/2 cup cilantro leaves
1 tbsp ketchup
1 to 2 tbsp. olive oil
4 to 5 small romas, halved and pulp & seeds removed
1 can no-salt diced tomatoes
1/2 tsp salt
a few grinds of black pepper

Put all ingredients in small food processor. Pulse (don't blend or puree) a dozen times or so, or until it gets to be the texture you like. If you like the texture chunkier, be sure and mince or finely chop the ingredients you wouldn't want to get a huge bite oflike the garlic and the chilesbefore you add them to the processor. If you're pureeing it, you can just throw everything into the processor in chunks.

Recipe note: The peppers are the variable in this recipe. I have made this with lots of different pepper combos, but two jalapenos, one with and one without seeds, seem to be the magic formula for a mild-to-medium batch that should suit everyone at a party. If you're making it for someone speciallike the heat-seeker I'm smitten with, for instanceand want it spicier, substitute (in ascending order of hotness) a fresno, serrano, or habanero pepper for one or both of the jalapenos. Good luck!
Five Minute Tomato Sauce:
This won't last long enough
in your fridge to go bad.

Finally, let me offer another glorious incarnation of the tomato: consider my obsession with Heidi Swanson's Five Minute Tomato Sauce, which I've mentioned before in this blog. I am in awe of this recipe because there's some spooky gestalt quality to it: when you first read the ingredient list, you'll probably think to yourself, "Uh-huh, okay, cool. Plain tomato sauce." But no. It tastes like the middle of summer and is the most delicious, bright, simple, and yet completely satisfying tomato sauce ever. And also kind of spicy. (This part you can adjust, by the way. The original recipe calls for 1 1/2 teaspoons of red pepper flakes, but if you use that much, this will definitely turn out way more arrabbiata than tomato sauce. I recommend sticking to somewhere in the neighborhood of 1/2 to 1 teaspoon if you like it in the subtly kicky to pleasantly fiery range.) Another thing to love: as with winter salsa, you can make this sauce year-round. Like, super easily. In five minutes. Heidi doesn't lie. Seriously, use crushed (not diced or whole) tomatoes and follow her cooking directions to the letter, and you won't be disappointed.

I could eat this sauce plain with a spoonon several occasions, I havebut here are a few other places where I've used it: on homemade thin-crust pizza; tossed with Parmesan and gnocchi; in an invention that I call Eggs Bene (which I promise to post soon); and finally, in this eggroll-wrapper lasagna.

I first read about the possibility of using eggroll wrappers instead of lasagna noodles a few years ago, and it immediately struck me as brilliant. The hardest part about making a batch of lasagna is the multi-step process that includes boiling the noodles to just shy of al dente, and then part-draining them and keeping them wet while you assemble the dish. It's messy and a lot of trouble. Eggroll wrappers come straight out of the package, get quickly scored in half, and can promptly be layered over the cheese and tomato sauce in your baking dish. I've made eggroll wrapper lasagna five or six times, each time with slightly different variables, and here is the best version so far. I added a little sour cream (Greek yogurt would be a fine substitution here) and milk so that the cheese filling is creamier, but if you like your lasagna drier, you can go with just the cheeses. Either way, between the cheesiness and the spicy-tomatoey-citrusy sauce, this is a pretty darned good lasagna.

eggroll wrapper lasagna
one batch Five Minute Tomato Sauce
1 container (15-oz.) part-skim ricotta cheese
1 egg, lightly beaten
several tablespoons of milk
1/4 cup sour cream
7 to 8 eggroll wrappers (Nasoya brand is good), sliced lengthwise in half
1 c. shredded Italian-blend cheese
1 c. shredded mozzarella
1 c. shredded Parmesan cheese
1 to 3 fresh basil leaves, chopped
2 to 3 sprigs fresh oregano, chopped
5 to 6 stems fresh thyme, stripped
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. freshly ground pepper
4 to 5 leaves basil, chopped

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. In a bowl, mix together 1/4 cup of Parmesan, a cup of mozzarella, milk, sour cream, ricotta, egg, basil, oregano, thyme, and lots of ground black pepper.

Choose a small, square baking dish in which you can neatly fit 4 strips of eggroll wrapper. Dip out a scant 1/2 cup of marinara sauce and spread it in the bottom of the dish. Place a single layer of eggroll wrappers on top of that. Spread some of the ricotta mixture over the wrappers, and then sprinkle some of the mozzarella, Italian cheese, and Parmesan over that. Spread another scoop of marinara on top of that, and then repeat layering until you’ve used all ingredients, ending with a thin layer of ricotta mixture, marinara, and then a sprinkling of Parmesan and mozzarella on the very top. Grind some more black pepper and sprinkle some dried oregano over it.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes uncovered, until brown and bubbly on top and heated through. Let stand for 5 minutes before cutting, and then sprinkle some chopped fresh basil over the top.

Oh, honey.

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