Friday, August 26, 2005

Heirloom Tomatoes from Laguna Hills Farmers' Market Posted by Picasa

Tomatoes of Heritage

The community garden, nestled at the edge of the city, was a veritable beehive of activity. Grandparents talked enthusiastically with each other, proudly displaying visiting grandchildren and garden produce to each other.

One particularly precocious young lad of about ten years of age attentively followed his grandmother’s conversation with her adjacent garden-plot renter. “Oh, we can’t wait each day to see if any of our tomatoes are ready to be picked,” said Grandma. Stooping over to pluck a striped, green tomato from the fuzzy vine that left its pungent aroma on her well-worn gardening gloves, she added, “It’s always such a pleasure to find well-ripened ones.”

The adjacent gardener furrowed his brows. Perhaps Grandma had developed a recent case of color-blindness. Or maybe she had just been out in the sun a little too long. Or possibly she was making a batch of fried-green tomatoes? How could he stop her from picking those still-green tomatoes from their vine-y support system?

The attentive ten-year-old boy noticed the other gardener’s concern. “Oh, it’s alright Mr. Jones,” he whispered brightly, “these are grandma’s green zebras and they’re a heritage!” At that comment, of course, the concerned gardener’s eyebrows shot up to the very top of his constantly-receding hairline! Green zebras? Heritage?

But Grandma and grandson were in completely-correct gardening form. They had researched their topic and were ready, able and competent. In fact, they had spent many happy afternoons together, during the preceding winter as powder-dry snow swirled around the windows, poring over seed catalogues and Internet sites, in search of a half-dozen heirloom tomato varieties for their garden plot.

This year, they were going to get back to basics, focus on the tried-and-true, celebrate some heritage of days gone by. The search was difficult, though. Lack of sources, lack of variety was not the problem – there were so MANY interesting options that it was just so very difficult to choose! They wanted to order all of them!

But, choose they (finally) did and as summer approached, seeds were planted in indoor trays, then seedlings were set out into the garden when the weather was favorable. And, ever since that late-May day, Grandma and grandson had shared a special outdoor project that produced lifetime memories, in addition to glorious tomatoes, that were especially their own -- their memories of heritage!

“The Heirloom Tomato Project,” as their effort was named by the 10-year old, grew out of a visit that they had made to the local farmers’ market the previous summer. As they strolled the wide aisles, they had been captivated by one stall in particular. For, arrayed on the stall’s table, were tomatoes of every description except the usual! In fact, there were none of the usual, fire-red, uniform globes of supermarket fame.

Rather, this display of tomatoes had been slightly reminiscent of a “seconds sale” at the local pottery factory. Rather than smooth, thick skins – the kind that allows supermarket tomatoes to be picked before ripe, then travel thousands of miles from growers, and then sit patiently on the shelf for days, all the while LOOKING lovely but having never developed a full, ripe flavor – these oddball varieties had unusual shapes and fragile skins. They came in all sizes. And there were colors from pink to purple to yellow to green and gold – oh yes, and some reds as well!

The farmer at the market stall had been friendly and smiled knowingly at the grandmother and grandson. He could see the spark of interest in their eyes (those large, smiling brown eyes that so resembled each other’s) and knew that they wanted to know more. Their rapt attention, as he explained the basics of heirloom tomatoes, was very gratifying to him.

The oldest tomato variety in America has been grown consecutively for 600 years. It happens to be a small, pear-shaped tomato that is red in color. To qualify as an officially-designated “heirloom” variety, though, a tomato need be grown unchanged (maintaining the identical size, flavor, texture and color characteristics) for “only” fifty years – in many cases, by the same family. And that of course, is where the “heritage” comes in! Passed from generation to generation, the heirloom tomatoes have been kept in their original form and format -- rather than hybridized or cross-bred again and again to produce those supermarket globes.

As a result, the true flavors, which different significantly from each other, are maintained in each heirloom variety. Some are quite pungent and tart, high in acid content. Others are milder, some almost fruitlike (yes, yes, the Ingredient Sleuth is aware that all tomatoes ARE fruits, not vegetables) in their sweet flavors. Some are particularly juicy, others firm.

“Imperfections” such as splits (called “cat faces”), bruises or belly-button-like protrusions are common and often cause people to shy away from the heirlooms. Ironically, those very same shape irregularities are an indicator of a likely heirloom variety – an important piece of ingredient-sleuthing information. The farmer suggested that, when looking for a flavorful tomato experience, one think “lobes” rather than “globes.” The extra pockets and indentations in heirloom tomatoes simply mean that THESE varieties are in their original format – not in the hybridized format. (Can’t you just hear the “heirlooms”, upon observing the made-over “supermarkets” saying playfully, “Hmmm, it looks as if THEY had some work done!”).

With names like Purple Cherokee, Pink Caspian, Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Mister Stripey, Pineapple, Green Zebra, Abe Lincoln, Super Sioux, Goose Creek, Persimmon – even one variety named Julia Child – heirloom tomatoes seem to have personalities of their own, even before tasted. One variety, called Northampton Italian, is elongated in shape and is often mistaken for a pepper. (To read more about varieties and sources for heirloom seeds and free seed catalogues, see You can even subscribe to “The Heirloom Gardener” magazine or to a free heirloom e-mail newsletter.)

Because of their thinner skins and resultant shorter shelf life, heirloom tomatoes are meant to be enjoyed soon after picking. And therein lies the explanation for the scarcity of them in supermarkets. Heirlooms are not happy when transported thousand of miles to a supermarket. Rather, local sourcing, close to the location of the tomatoes’ growth, is ideal and brings farmers’ markets, farm stands and backyard gardens to the forefront of the heirloom tomato scene.

So, to find good heirloom tomatoes, it seems that one has to look for them in the fresh air! Many farmers’ markets and farm stands allow free tastes, to help facilitate awareness and spread the heirloom gospel. There the little beauties will be, in all their colorful glory -- and never, never will they have been subjected to (gasp!) that flavor-killing refrigerator!

Heirloom tomato festivals are held from coast to coast in the United States – and are especially popular in areas in which truck gardening and small farms are common. California, Missouri and New Jersey are particular heirloom tomato hot spots! The Hollywood (CA) Farmers’ Market, in fact, will hold its annual “Peak of Summer Tomato Festival” this Sunday (morning), August 28th. And then, on September 11th, the annual Tomato Festival will be held in Carmel, California and will feature 300 tomato varieties for tasting. A quick Internet search for “heirloom tomatoes” and “festival” will undoubtedly produce festival opportunities in other locales.

Grandma and grandson couldn’t have been happier with their newfound knowledge or with their peak-of-season harvest. Their heirloom planting project was a success and their shared interest was a delight to both. Because heirloom seeds retain their complete character profile, the gardening duo happily harvested seeds to dry for next year’s planting -- feeling even more thrifty than usual! Of course, they already have plans to place another order for some additional varieties as well!

Whether planning your own next-year’s garden, taste sampling at an outdoor stall or just jumping in to buy a few, ripe heirloom tomatoes of your own to enjoy with dinner, maybe there is an “Heirloom Tomato Project” in your future too!

Friday, August 19, 2005

Alhambra's Generalife Garden Ponds Posted by Picasa

The Soup of Seville -- via Sheboygan!

The Generalife Gardens at the Alhambra Palace near Granada, Spain are a splendid sight. Verdant, lush vegetation covers hillsides and terraced, level areas. In the geometric, structured gardens, archways are covered with roses of many colors. Their exotic scents blend and waft through the air.

Birds flutter overhead, attracted to the beauty, twittering to each other in a flurry of activity. Water, including river and streams and fountains, babbles everywhere. Tourists from around the world smile and murmur in delight.

The Moorish emirs of Granada wanted to recreate the Garden of Eden at this location. They diverted a river to provide water and set in place a garden of visual, olfactory and culinary delights. Generations of visitors have been appreciative of their efforts.

In this corner of Spain, today’s Andalusians continue to recreate the Garden of Eden – in a soup bowl! Gazpacho is Andalusia’s best-known dish and probably originated in a different format (no tomatoes or peppers, which came to Spain after Columbus “sailed the ocean blue” to the “New World”) during the time when Spain was part of the Islamic world in the Middle Ages.

Today, the most-familiar versions of gazpacho are probably those from Seville and Cordoba. However, most cities and towns throughout southern Spain’s Andalusian region have their own, slightly-different versions. The common, distinctive ingredient among all the versions was, and is, bread. Originally, like so many wonderful dishes, gazpacho was peasant food. It was eaten by workers in the fields: vineyards, olive plantations, citrus groves, wheat fields and cork (tree) farms. It was field-travel friendly – and still is today!

Gazpacho was popularized outside of the Andalusian region in the 19th century and finally worked its way to popularity in northern Spain around 1930. It became quite fashionable there and continued its wanderings worldwide as the 20th century progressed. How many of us, after visiting Andalusia, return home with visions of hillsides in our hearts and yearnings for gazpacho in our taste buds? The Ingredient Sleuth, for one.

The following “gazpacho interlude” comes from the wonderful, new book BIRO: EUROPEAN-INSPIRED CUISINE by Marcel Biro and Shannon Kring Biro (Gibbs Smith, Publisher, 2005):

"Marcel Biró’s Gazpacho

Originally a laborers’ dish, Gazpacho was the standard fare of Andalusian muleteers who carried it in earthen pots on their travels. Today the soup contains vegetables and differs from city to city within Andalusia—each version claiming to be the original. Arguably, the first recipe came from Córdoba and consisted of bread, garlic, olive oil, and water. Today Córdoban Gazpacho is thickened with cream and cornmeal. In Jerez it is garnished with raw onion rings, and in Malaga it is made with veal bouillon and sometimes garnished with grapes and almonds. In Cadiz Gazpacho is served hot in the winter, and in Segovia it is flavored with cumin, basil, and aïoli.
This recipe is inspired by that of Seville, a city that, of course, also lays claim as home of Gazpacho.

Serves 6

1 pound vine ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
½ cucumber, peeled and chopped
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 small yellow onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 cup breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 cups tomato juice
½ teaspoon dried leaf marjoram
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Purée all ingredients in a food processor or blender. You may need to process it in two batches. Blend until the soup is the consistency you favor. Some people prefer chunks, others a completely smooth soup. I prefer my Gazpacho somewhere in between: with some bite and the consistency of heavy cream.
2. Pour the soup into a large stainless bowl, cover, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. When the soup is well chilled, adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

Gazpacho is traditionally served with a selection of garnishes including chopped hard-boiled eggs, chopped cucumber, chopped onion, chopped green and black olives, and diced green bell pepper. This soup is therefore best served family style, and I prefer to use earthenware dishes, as the recipe was originally prepared in clay bowls.

Quick Tip: Other uses for Gazpacho
I’ve used Gazpacho leftovers as a pizza sauce, a warm pasta sauce, a sauce for a goat cheese tarte flambée, a cold and warm garnish, and even as a cocktail sauce by adding a bit of horseradish. Be inventive with this versatile soup and know that the longer you keep it, the more complex and intense the flavor will become."

*Copyright Note*: Marcel and Shannon Biro specifically authorized this excerpt and recipe reprint, by the Ingredient Sleuth, in this posting.

A huge part of the pleasure of any travel experience is the representative food of the visited location. This book steps right up and puts the know-how to recreate those dishes into the reader’s hands.

For me, this gazpacho is filled with my memories of Andalusia. As I taste the soup's bright, fresh and snappy flavor, I am transported to Alhambran gardens and striking hillsides and flamenco performances with bright, fresh and snappy music – sometimes I even jump up and do a little fancy footwork of my own in celebration!

The book’s recipes are representative of the favorite regions in which Marcel Biro has worked: southern Germany, Alsace, Tuscany and Andalusia. The recipes are meant to take you to – or back to – those wonderful destinations as you cook up the wonderful dishes at home.

As one of the youngest chefs in European history to achieve the title Master Chef de Cuisine, he is acclaimed for winning several coveted European awards, for his accomplishments in Michelin-starred restaurants, and for his dedication to demystifying classic cuisine.

As a European Certified Chef Instructor, Biro has fed those with a hunger for professional culinary knowledge throughout France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Hungary, Italy and the United States. He has worked at internationally acclaimed restaurants and was personal chef to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Biro is host of the new national PBS (Public Broadcasting System) reality cooking series “The Kitchens of Biro.” He is also chef/owner of Biro Restaurant and Wine Bar and of O – a Biro Restaurant, both in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. In addition, the Biros (Marcel and Shannon) offer a bonanza of culinary events and activities (see for culinary enthusiasts. Trips to Europe, cooking classes, entrepreneurial consultation and more are available.

Mr. Biro came to appreciate the value – the precious nature – of good ingredients at a young age, in East Germany. He has based his career on bringing wonderful, healthful ingredients to new heights in dishes that will be available to all. What really warms the heart of the Ingredient Sleuth is the following sentence from the book’s introduction (reprinted with permission) as Biro says:

“Whether you prepare the recipes as outlined or put your own unique spin on them – which I encourage – I hope that you take a moment to really touch the ingredients, to inhale their wondrous scent, and to appreciate their beauty. In my life and career, I have come to fully comprehend the value of freedom and the great privilege I have to work with food. For me, it is an honor never to be taken for granted.”

Friday, August 12, 2005

Aceto Balsamico di Modena

10-Year-Old Balsamic Vinegar from Trader Joe's

“This one is bright and quite sharp, with a definite acidic hit in the back of the mouth,” said Blondielocks. “I will sprinkle it on roasted vegetables and stir-fries and make some tasty marinades, maybe some sweet-and-sour sauces with it.” And Mama Bear agreed.

“Oh, this one is richer, with a sweeter finish,” Blondielocks purred. “It will be perfect for my salad dressings and to deglaze the pan with dark, woodsy juices after searing some lovely, tender meat.” And Papa Bear concurred.

“Oh my, oh my!” Blondielocks crooned. “This one is so thick, dark, full-bodied and sweet that I may have to sip it straight from the bottle! And there is only sweetness, no sharpness at all.” And Baby Bear knew that THIS was the one for him as well. “Hooray, hooray,” he cheered, “let’s put a few, thick drops on ice cream, melon, Parma ham, figs, strawberries and such!”

Blondielocks and the three bears (apologies to Goldilocks, but the usual porridge story just wouldn't do, for THIS table fable!) couldn’t have been more correct and in tune with current tastes. Balsamic vinegars are being tasted and enjoyed far-and-wide today. Just last week, the Ingredient Sleuth was browsing at one of the larger Williams-Sonoma ( cookware stores and discovered a tasting bar that offered free samples of a variety of balsamic vinegars (and olive oils too!). There were even bread cubes available to cleanse the palate between tastes! How delightful!

Traditionally, balsamic vinegar (aceto balsamico) has been made only in and near the small, medieval city of Modena in the northern part of Italy’s Emilia Romagna region. Trebbiano grapes (and sometimes Lambrusco grapes), which are local to the area, are soft-pressed to produce “must” that is filtered, left to stand and then cooked in large pans over open wood fires.

Kept at a simmer for up to twelve hours, the grape sugars begin to caramelize, creating a rich, brown syrup. The syrup is then placed in wooden barrels to begin its aging process. Different woods are used and impart different colors and flavors to the juice; oak, juniper, ash, mulberry and cherry are commonly used.

Every wooden barrel has a small, gauze-covered trap that permits controlled evaporation of the must’s liquid juices. As the liquid inside the barrel reduces, flavors and colors intensify. After about one year, the must is transferred to a smaller barrel and may be mixed with fermenting musts from other, older “batches” of grapes. Unique flavor profiles are obtained by combining batches from earlier harvests. This combination of multiple years’ juices precludes the “dating” of balsamic vinegars, as of a certain year's grape harvest, in the way that wine vintages are dated.

The process of removal of the fermenting must to smaller and smaller barrels (sometimes of different woods), and the combining with different batches, is repeated year after year. As time passes, the vinegar becomes thicker and heavier.

To obtain the status of “tradizionale” and be certified as meeting the requirements of the Modena consortium governing balsamic vinegar, the aging must complete at least twelve years. Given the inability to date the vinegar as a certain year’s vintage, this consortium-controlled rating allows the purchaser to be ensured that the youngest must contained within the vinegar will be at least twelve years old.

Tradizionale at 12 years of age, and extra vecchio which may be as much as 25 or 50 years old, are the ultimate in balsamic vinegars. Rich and silky (and expensive), the thickest of them coating a spoon like honey, they are not an everyday condiment but are used sparingly, sometimes dispensed drop-by-drop.

For hundreds of years in Italy, and as recently as the mid 1900s, balsamic vinegar was produced in rural homes around Modena, each family storing enough for its own use in the attic (the Modena climate producing just the right temperatures in the attic to enhance the fermentation). Often, the precious vinegar was part of a bride’s marriage-dowry. One begins to wonder if pre-engagement balsamic tastings were part of the courtship process!

It was only in the 1980s that balsamic vinegar became a fashionable ingredient worldwide. The demand for it continues to grow. Recently, another area of the Emilia Romagna region has begun to produce its own balsamic vinegar, thereby creating the inevitable food-angst between Italian towns (an Italian “food fight,” as it were). Reggio, the balsamico newcomer to the west of Modena, offers its vinegar under the term aceto balsamico tradizionale di Reggio Emilia. In response, Modena’s producers are now fighting to receive Protected Geographic Indication (IGP, as it is termed in Italy) from the government for the process.

Although few of us will have the opportunity to taste such rarity on a regular basis, the attention garnered by this top-of-the-line version of balsamic vinegar seems to be raising the profile (and quality) of the “lesser” versions as well. Termed aceto balsamico di Modena (without the tradizionale or extra vecchio designations), they are made in much the same manner, but the barrels are larger, wine vinegar is added before the fermentation and the aging process is shorter, with no transfer from one barrel to another. Cheaper balsamics are matured for up to 12 months, mid-priced versions for up to 18 months and higher-end varieties for up to four years.

Increasingly, nicely-aged vinegars are showing up at quite-reasonable prices. The vinegar in the accompanying photo, in fact, is routinely available at Trader Joe’s stores. It is from Modena, Italy and has been aged for 10 years. For the Ingredient Sleuth’s money (and you know how carefully she shops!), this vinegar is delicious in a great breadth of dishes and works very nicely in the higher-end scenarios as well.

The word "balsamic" itself, used to describe this vinegar, is a derivation of a word meaning "balm" and "restorative." Over the centuries, balsamic vinegar has been viewed as an aid to digestion as an enhancer of appetite. (Whose eating experience WOULDN'T be improved when it just tastes so good?)

So, if the ideas in Blondielocks’ techniques with balsamic vinegar appeal to you – or better yet, if they strike you as something strange from another world – the sleuth encourages you to give them a try. There are brave new worlds of tasting to be attempted and savored. Already, Blondielocks and the three bears are on-board!

Bon appetit!

Friday, August 05, 2005

Cool as a Cucumber, Even in August!

Hothouse Cucumber

"I say, old chap, have you had your cucumber sandwiches today?" A quick glance at the clock indicated that, indeed, it was almost past the normal tea time.

"Rather, on such a warm day, it would be exceedingly lovely to pop over to the pub, don't you agree?" was the reply.

Hmmm, tea time or pub time. Cucumber sandwiches with tea OR chips with a pint of ale. How to choose -- on a scorching summer day in England's countryside.

In days of old, this decision dilemma may have prompted a lengthy discussion of the merits of each approach, followed by the ultimate selection of one or the other alternative. It seems reasonable to conclude that cucumber sandwiches' popularity may have suffered in the process! In today's world of fusion cooking (and eating), cucumbers have become mainstream. They MAY even be found, in their cucumber-sandwich format, in the very same establishment that offers pints of ale.

Hothouse cucumbers, in particular, have hit the culinary circuit in a big way. Also called European or English cucumbers, they have crisp, juicy flesh and thin, edible skin. They have only a few (or no) tiny seeds and are typically 12 to 24 inches in length. Some people report that hothouse cucumbers are easier to digest (as a result of the lack of seeds) than regular cucumbers.

Grown in a controlled, greenhouse environment, the fruit of the hothouse cucumber develops without need for pollination of the vine's blossoms. This is the reason that few seeds form within the fruit. Of course, in no time at all, this methodology could be quite limiting to the future existence of the variety! Seeds are still needed to plant new vines!

In order to produce seeds for future hothouse cucumbers, growers partition a selected group of vines that will be raised specifically for seed production. Flowers on these vines ARE pollinated. While the resulting cucumbers will not be of the same high flavor and crispness as the un-pollinated fruits, the bounty of seeds they yield will produce vines capable of producing the very same high-quality, unseeded cucumbers when grown in greenhouse conditions.

At harvest, hothouse cucumbers are packaged immediately in transparent, plastic film in order to retain their moisture, crispness and flavor. This method, rather than the application of wax approach taken with most cucumbers, allows the skin to be used -- no peeling required -- and significantly extends the usable, tasty shelf life of the cucumber.

Preparation options for hothouse cucumbers are also extensive. They are excellent for use raw, in salads, sandwiches, salsas, drinks, sushi and hors d'oeuvres -- and as refreshing dippables -- because of their crispness and eye-appeal (thanks to that usable border of thin, dark-green skin).

Because of their firm texture and subtle flavor, hothouse cucumbers also are well-suited to cooking and are often used in a similar manner to zucchini. Their delicate flavor when cooked pairs especially well with fish and poultry. Braising, sauteing and steaming are common preparation methods. They may also be halved and hollowed out to form"boats" and filled with meat, vegetables or breadcrumb stuffing before baking in a bit of stock or broth. The mild flavor of cooked cucumbers blends well with a post-cooking addition of herbs such as dill, mint, tarragon or basil.

As August begins, the Ingredient Sleuth is happy to provide a recipe for a spectacular chilled cucumber soup. It comes from the equally-spectacular new book, COOKING AT HOME ON RUE TATIN, Harper Collins Publishers, June 2005, by Susan Herrmann Loomis.

This great new cookbook carries on Ms. Loomis' reputation for delicious cooking that manages to be down-to-earth sensible at the same time as elegant. How DOES she DO that? Many people make the trip to her home-based cooking classes in the town of Louviers, France, on Rue Tatin (Tatin Street), to find the answer to that very question. Others are simply thankful that she puts pen to paper, hands to computer keyboard, to share her culinary thinking with all of us who read her books from afar.

In COOKING AT HOME ON RUE TATIN, Ms. Loomis provides much more than ingredients with associated assembly instructions. Recipes are paired with brief stories that relate to people, places and events from her own town and regions throughout France. As we read, we glimpse the interactions with merchants, growers, farmers, fishermen -- and most rewardingly, friends in all these categories -- that have inspired each dish and contributed to its enjoyment. We peek into the interrelationships that produce great food and good friends -- enhancing the entire food experience.

For more info about the book, Ms. Loomis' cooking courses and her other books, see


6 servings

· 2 long firm European or Asian cucumbers (about 2-1/4 pounds; 1kg 120g total), chilled, peeled, halved lengthwise, any seeds removed, and coarsely chopped
· 4 small fresh onions, or 6 scallions, white part only
· 1 cup (250 ml) heavy cream or half-and-half, preferably not ultrapasteurized
· Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
· ¼ cup firmly packed flat-leaf parsley leaves
· 6 fresh mint leaves

1. Place the cucumber in food processor fit with a steel blade, and process.
2. Add the onion and process until the mixture is a frothy puree. Add the cream and process to blend. Transfer to a bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper.
3. Mince the parsley and mint together and stir them into the soup. Cover the soup and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving, and up to overnight (8 hours).

*Copyright Note*: Susan Herrmann Loomis specifically authorized this recipe reprint, by the Ingredient Sleuth, in this posting.

In a word, this soup is COOL! This is true in both the literal sense of the word and in today's lighthearted vernacular (as in "that's way cool soup, dude!"). Each and every ingredient has a cool and refreshing flavor component; the exquisite combination of the ingredients is brightly-refreshing and smooth, all at the same time.

Ms. Loomis says that the soup was inspired by a friend who readily admits that she doesn't like to cook -- but LOVES to eat! The recipe is simple, delicious and won't work up any extra heat in the preparation. Now THAT'S COOL!

Bon appetit!