Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Oh those Tomatoes!

Ode To A Tomato

There’s nothing like biting into a ripe and juicy tomato!  I remember as a child sitting in the backyard on a warm summer day with my mom sharing wedges of tomatoes sprinkled with just a pinch of salt and pepper. The juice dripping from our chins, and even though I had it all over my shirt, with each bite, we didn’t have a care in the world.  This morning, I made my husband and I a Turkey sandwich with lettuce, mayo and tomato. I had picked two ready to eat tomatoes at the store last night, which is a feat since most of the tomatoes in the grocery store are never as ripe as they should be.  I had already made his sandwich when I realized that the addition of the tomato would make the sandwich. And I was right - this tomato had extraordinary flavor - bursting with the exact amount of sweetness and acidity.  I mean POW! The flavors exploded in my mouth and possessed an exuberant level of brightness on the palate. It transported me back to that warm summer day with my mom. Is it interesting that little things like the taste of a tomato can recall your memories in a matter of seconds? 

I found myself wanting to chuck the rest of the sandwich ingredients and just have a tomato and mayonnaise sandwich. Not wanting to waste what I had started, I did make my own turkey sandwich and let me tell you, it was g-o-o-d! That little splash of red added an incredible layer of flavor.

Tomatoes are one of those fruits, or vegetables, (whichever way you classify them) that is an essential ingredient. They’re perfect in salads, sauces, tossed with pasta, or served simply with basil and fresh mozzarella. I can’t imagine a life without them.  I am inspired to go out and plant a few different varieties in my backyard, although, I have not had much success in the past. Every time I’ve started a plant, it always dies. But my husband will tell you that I am not afraid to keep trying... it’s one of the traits about myself that I kind of like having. 

Ripe tomatoes are the bomb... however, a unripe tomato, with the exception of green tomatoes are nothing more than filler. These little ruby gems add depth and richness to dishes.  We have to thank the Spaniards for discovering these South American treasures during their colonization of the Americas.  It is said that Spanish explorer Cortés may have been the first explorer to transfer tomatoes to Europe in 1521. Although, there are discussions that Christopher Columbus may have taken them back as early as 1493 – I’m not one to say who’s right or wrong, I’m just thankful that these explorers had the smarts to realize the importance of tomato.    A couple of interesting “Tomato” facts: Tomatoes were not grown in England until the 1590’s, in the Middle East, the tomato was introduced to cultivation in 1799, in British North America early references of being grown was in 1710 when herbalist William Salmon reported seeing them in what is known today as South Carolina.  One of my favorite revolutionist Thomas Jefferson had them in Paris and sent seeds back to America. He was an American genius and probably one of the first true sustainable farmers in the early days of America. But that’s for another blog.  {Historical references are from}

So now that I’ve gone off subject a little, to get back on track, one of my all-time favorite tomato recipes is my Bruschetta. It’s really a simple recipe...

Bruschetta Sara-style
5 to 8     Ripe Tomatoes – diced
5 to 6     Fresh Basil Leaves – Julienne
2 – 3       Cloves Fresh Garlic
Balsamic Vinegar
Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper to taste  
3 or 4     Fresh Mozzarella Balls
1              Baguette sliced

Dice tomatoes (I remove most of the seeds), place in a strainer and sprinkle with salt. Toss and let rest for 10 minutes. The salt will draw out most of the moisture.  While the tomatoes are resting, cut basil leaves into julienne strips, mince garlic and with tomatoes toss in a mixing bowl. I drizzle about two tablespoons of balsamic vinegar over the mixture, then add about a quarter cup of Olive oil. It all depends on how much ingredients, but I try not to drown the mixture in liquids. Unfortunately, I do not have a written recipe, so I eyeball adding the liquids.  I marinate the mixture in the refrigerator for a minimum of 1 hour to let the ingredients meld together.  While the mixture is macerating, I slice the baguette, and lightly toast on both sides in a low temp oven. 

To serve: top baguette slice with spoonful of bruschetta mixture, top with slice of fresh mozzarella and place on a cookie sheet. Once all the slices are completed, I bake in a 350° for 5 to 10 minutes to warm mozzarella.  This is a “heavenly” appetizer, I’ve found my guests can’t get enough... I usually have to make extra and have them waiting in the wings, because, they are always the first to go.  My husband loves this, says it’s one of my best dishes.  I can’t say for sure what makes this dish, the tomatoes have a co-starring role with the Fresh Mozzarella, both are super stars in their own right. But the garlic, basil, balsamic and the oil play superior cast members, without all the ingredients it would be okay, but not an award-winner. (Can you tell that I’m still in Oscar mode?)

I hope this dish will razzle-dazzle your guests. It’s a great appetizer; we usually have a carpet picnic with a bottle of wine and some candles.

Well, that’s it for today, I hope that in some small way, I’ve inspired you to go get some ripe tomatoes, and cook something extraordinary for yourself or someone special.

One more interesting fact... The French referred to the tomato as Pommes d ’Amour, (love apples) because they believed them to be an aphrodisiac. Vive l'amour !

As my French amis would say “C'est juste que bon” - (It’s just that good)

Monday, February 20, 2012

Cracker Pork Chops and Onion Rice - A little taste of home

Mama's Cracker Pork Chops and Onion Rice

Growing up I don’t remember designated food nights with my parents such as Meatloaf Monday or Chicken Thursday. From what I recollect, in the morning my mom would see what was in the freezer and pull something out that she wanted to make... simple as that. There are a few staples that she made almost every night, but that’s for another time. I promise I’ll share soon... I have to tell you that my mom and grandmother are the inspiration for my love of food. So many happy memories of being in the kitchen with them, watching them create a plate of good food. The kitchen was the heart of our home. Everyone – me, my mom, aunts, and cousins would be chopping, mixing, stirring while the men my dad and uncles would usually be in front of the TV watching some sort of ballgame. The smells were divine, my cousins and I would be chomping at the bit to eat.

So, to this week’s entry... it’s dedicated to my Mom, who was a marvelous cook. Shirley Ann... This is for you.  Did I tell you she was a wonderful cook?  I swear I could taste the love she had for us in every bite.  My mom was raised on a farm in Missouri, although she was very glamorous and sophisticated. Her style of cooking was passed down by my grandmother Flora Bell. It was comfort food with style. Let me tell you Paula Deen has nothing on these women.

One of my most favorite meals my mom made for my dad and I was her Cracker Pork Chops and Onion Rice dishes. Simple, fairly easy to prepare and the result is fall off the bone goodness with a mixture of wondrous rice.   I have a friend that likes to give me grief about Mid-westerners' no knowing how to cook, that only people from New York know how to cook good food. I personally think he is wrong, but he is entitled to his own opinion.

To start with the pork chops the recipe is just a few simple ingredients, pork chops, chicken stock, eggs and saltine crackers. That’s is, of course with the addition of oil to cook, my mom always used canola oil, but now I tend to cook with Olive Oil.

I start with center cut bone-in pork chops. They have the right amount of fat to meat ratio and I think the marrow in the bone infuses that extra flavoring that boneless meats just can’t.  I think the cracker crust is the magic ingredient for this dish... I do a combination of fine and course cracker meal in the blender. As a side note, I have tried the salt-free version, but I find that it makes the dish a bit bland. The added plus, no additional salt!  Another secret to a successful and succulent pork chop is the browning process... you have to get a good brown crust on the meat. Dipping in the beaten egg first, then the cracker meal and finally in the medium-to-medium high heat. I find the cooking time is about 3 minutes on each side. Once you have browned all the chops, the next step is to place them in a Pyrex dish and pour about half of the can of chicken broth over the chops. Cover with aluminum foil and bake in 350° oven for about 40 minutes. Last ten minutes, pull the aluminum foil to reduce the broth for a bubbling deeper finish. 
Cracker Pork Chops:
4              Center Cut Pork Chops
2              Eggs – beaten
2 C.         Cracker Crumbs – blend of fine and course textures
1/2 to 2/3 C.       Chicken Stock or broth
2 T. Olive Oil

Dip chops in beaten eggs. Then cover with cracker crumbs, and brown until an umber color. Place browned pork chops in Pyrex dish and pour chicken stock over meat. Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 350° for 45 minutes. Last ten minutes, remove foil and finish. 

Okay, there’s the thing about this dish... The cooking process and the elementary ingredients make this dish incredibly tender; it just falls off the bone. It’s juicy, extremely tender and “Just that Good”! I can’t explain it, but with every bite, I am back at the dining room table with my mom and dad.

Alright, the other dish that makes this one memorable meal is the rice dish. There’s no real name for it, my mom always called it rice, I call it Onion Rice, only because there are four ingredients... cup of Jasmine Rice, one can of Campbell’s French Onion Soup, one can of Campbell’s Beef Consume and a tablespoon of butter. That’s it! These four ingredients build a side dish that is comforting, warming and deep with flavor. My mom use to use a whole stick of butter, but my husband suggested that I cut down to make it less oily. That’s not an enticing description I know, but honestly, you can’t have the pork chop dish without this rice dish. No other carb dish will suffice.  The dishes meld into a plate full of down-home comfort. The recipe is below.

Shirley’s Onion Rice
1 can      Campbell’s Beef Consume
1 C.         Jasmine Rice
1 T.         Butter
Combine ingredients in a cover dish. Stir once and bake at 350° for one hour - Told you it was simple!

Any vegetable will do, for this particular meal, I made broccoli with a pat of butter and squeeze of lemon. The citrus adds a little zest to the alluring meat and rice dish.

As a child, I drank ice milk with my dinner, but now that I’m “grown-up”, a nice glass of Chardonnay elevates this Midwestern meal to an elaborate dinner. I uncorked one of my new favorites, Seth Cripe’s Lola Chardonnay from Saint Helena, California. Seth is a friend of mine and I was excited to try his newest grape elixir.

I hope that you will try this dish with your family and friends. My wish is that this meal will become one of your favorites and staples as it is for me.  

As I always say, “It’s Just that Good”! - SRQ Foodie 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Chicken Enchiladas

Sorry, for the delay friends... not that anyone is reading my blog.  It’s been a few hectic weeks since my last posting. Work has required much of my attention, and frankly, I haven’t been able to muster the energy to cook. I know, I’m bad, but I am sure that anyone out there who has a demanding job, family, or community commitments has indeed experienced the same absence of vigor.
I did find the time and energy to recreate a dish that I’ve been craving for a while. I am a big fan of Chicken Enchiladas; there is a wonderful restaurant here in Sarasota (Mi Pueblo) that makes the best interpretation of this ethereal entree. If you want to go, Tuesday nights are a great night to do it; they have a roaming Mariachi band that strolls from table to table performing for the guests. The music combined with the Mexican fare is a recipe for an entertaining evening.  I haven’t had the time or opportunity to go recently, so I decided to make the Chicken Enchiladas myself. I’ve roamed the internet trying to find a recipe that was close to Mi Pueblo’s. It took a while, but I finally found one that seemed close. (Recipe below)

I was so excited that I had at long last found a recipe that I thought was similar. It was close, but no cigar (or living in Southern Florida, no Cuban).  Okay, maybe part of the problem was – that it wasn’t Mi Pueblo. Actually dining at the restaurant adds to the culinary experience. The music, the décor, the authentic service, experienced professionals in the kitchen; all those components together complete the dining experience.

So on to my night making Chicken Enchiladas. Let me start by saying that shredding chicken is a slow and boring process. Started using a fork, but that didn’t last long. My fingers were the best tool possible. I strongly suggest making the chicken ahead of time – shredding hot chicken can be painful. I’m not a professional; I still have sensations in my fingers. 

Once the shredding was completed, I started on my “Mise en Place” as the professionals say (everything ready and in its place). I chopped my onions, measured out the cheese – sour cream – butter, flour and chicken broth. I bought a small can of chopped green chiles, but I thought the pieces were a bit big, so gave them a run through with my knife.   I mixed up the chicken, onions and cheese, set them aside and began working on the sauce. The whole process once the preparations were completed was fairly simple.  Oh, I forgot to mention the corn tortillas – I opted for the oven method versus the frying method and it worked okay. One thing I will have to work on is my rolling technique; it is lacking just a smidge.   

After everything was ready to go, I poured the sauce over the cheese. I deviated from the actual recipe a little; I added more cheese to the sauce, because my Mexican restaurant’s sour cream sauce is in fact cheesy.  After some time in the oven, our dinner was ready to eat thank goodness, cause after all the work; my husband and I were hungry.  My accompanying dishes for dinner were traditional refried beans, with an avocado-iceberg salad. It was a nice change from the standard rice and beans.   

After all that work, the enchiladas were just okay. Definitely not Mi Pueblo’s - but not horrible.  As I was eating, I realized that there were no spices in the dish other than the chiles... and that made the dish lacking. Chatting with a co-worker Nicole, she said that when she makes hers, she adds cumin, coriander and chili pepper. I will make this again, but with some alterations such as the spices, that Nicole recommended.

Here’s the recipe... I suggest you play with the ingredients, or if you have your own suggestions, I look forward to trying them.


One boned chicken, skinned, and diced (I used three chicken breasts)
1 doz. corn tortillas
1/2 c. cooking oil
2 c. shredded Monterey Jack cheese
1/4 c. butter
3/4 c. finely chopped onion
1/4 c. all-purpose flour
2 c. chicken broth
1 c. dairy sour cream
1 (4 oz.) can diced green chilies

In large bowl, combine cheese, onion and chicken. Fry tortillas in large skillet, one at a time in hot oil for 15 seconds each side (spread newspaper or paper sack for draining tortillas as you cook them.) Spoon chicken mixture on all twelve tortillas, roll up and place seam side down in large baking pan.

In saucepan, melt butter, blend in flour, add chicken broth, and cook until mixture thickens and bubbles. Stir in sour cream and green chilies. Cook until heated through, but DO NOT BOIL. Pour sauce over tortillas and bake at 425 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes. Serve piping hot.

Bottom line, this recipe for Chicken Enchiladas was not “just that good”, but I have confidence the next time, with the proper experimentation it might be. Let’s be honest, not every recipe is an Oscar winner on the first run, but the more you try, the better your chances are for a winning dish. Practice makes perfect.

Until our visit... Happy cooking!