"Gardening" by Leslie Contreras Schwartz + Italian Stuffed Tomatoes

Stuffed Tomatoes with Arborio Rice and Potatoes

My cookbooks have a new home. 

You see, summer snuck up on me for one rather monumental reason: we moved. The whole thing was somewhat unexpected, and the short story with the happy ending is we found a new place to call home and moved in record time (10 days to be exact). I'm tired just typing that. 

The unpacking, naturally, took a bit longer.

June was also the month spent reviewing the copyedits for my cookbook, so this season I've been all about simple cooking, and revisiting some old favorites. 

Because my cookbooks look all fresh and perky on the shelf, I've taken to pulling them down one by one, flipping through a section or two, and cooking my meals for the week from what I find inside. I'm so glad I've started doing this again. 

Italian Stuffed Tomatoes

The most recent cookbook I've lost myself in is Rachel Roddy's My Kitchen in Rome. This one I was eager about from the start. It seems like so long ago now that Rachel announced she was even writing a cookbook, and I couldn't wait to order my copy. Sadly, we had to wait even longer for the U.S. version to arrive, but it was worth the extra months.

My Kitchen in Rome beautifully written, truly. My remarks here likely do not do it justice. You should know that if you find yourself on the couch one afternoon, you will be transported to Italy and your heart might ache just a little bit when you realize you are actually not there.

But that is where food does its magic work, because I've been calling myself a Roman for the past couple of weeks by spooning beans over bread and stuffing the first tomatoes from my farmers' market. I've also been reading some poetry. Not as much as I should be, but enough to stumble across this lovely little poem

 


Gardening

by Leslie Schwartz

There is too much work:
the turning of soil,
the watering, and pulling
the bright green weeds that choke
and curl the fruit. I want only
the joy, the taste of tomatoes
pouring down my lips,
the sun on my throat.
I like the soil under my nails
but I feel forsaken, tricked.
I watch the garden fester
and dry out, the tomatoes
small and weakening in
the cracked bed. It is like my daughter,
who one day draws picture after picture
of rainbows, bursting hearts, spells “love”
backwards, sideways, forward, then
for days lies on the couch blinking
at television or just talking to herself,
her sister. Too much work, this joy,
the colors of fruit, the frothy soil,
too much sun and magic. We all
need retreat, to rest, to feel
sometimes that it will come to us
by itself, a heavy plate that
says this is all yours.

 

from FUEGO by Leslie Contreras Schwartz © 2016; ISBN:  978-0-9965231-5-8;
Saint Julian Press. Reprinted with permission from the author.


I can't think of a more perfect poem for the summer, and for my own particular season in life. First, wanting only the joy. I'm certain we all want this, though we're well aware of how life works. There are joys, then disappointments, then more joys, then a rough day, then a splendid one. This is the way of it. But I love how profound the ache is here, as if the speaker is on the brink of just giving up entirely, being ruthlessly honest.

Next, at the very end, the lines about needing to retreat, rest, to "feel sometimes that it will come to us / by itself." As someone for whom self-care is of the upmost importance, I resonate with these lines so much. Even when the tomatoes are ripe, and our days are filled with "sun and magic," it can all feel like too much work. Even the joys. Some days, this is true, but the poem ends on a hopeful note, doesn't it?

A hope that whatever it is we need most will find us when it's time. It's certainly a message I need to hear today, and perhaps I'm not the only one.

Italian Stuffed Tomatoes with rice and potatoes

Adapted lightly from My Kitchen in Rome by Rachel Roddy

This makes a wonderful, leisurely lunch or light supper, but as Rachel is kind to remind home cooks, "good stuffed tomatoes do indeed come to those who wait." There is a fair amount of waiting with this dish. Waiting for the tomato shells to drain, waiting for things to bake, then waiting for the dish to rest and settle and cool down a bit. Do not begin this dish without knowing what's required, which, more than anything, is simply your time and a bit of care. I halved the recipe and used four tomatoes instead of eight, but you can certainly double this for a crowd or ample leftovers.

Serves 2

4 firm, large tomatoes
Salt
1 plump garlic clove, finely chopped
4 basil leaves, torn
5 tablespoons Arborio rice
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus some extra for the potatoes
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound Yukon potatoes, peeled

Cut the tops off the tomatoes and set them aside. One by one, hold the tomatoes over a bowl and scoop out their insides by gently scraping the interior with a spoon. Let the flesh, seeds, and juice fall into a bowl. Sprinkle a bit of salt in the cavity of each tomato, then place them cut-side down on a clean tea towel or paper towel-lined cutting board so excess liquid can drain.

Blend the tomato flesh, seeds, and juice in a blender; pout into a large bowl. To the tomato liquid, add the garlic, and basil. Next, add the rice and olive oil. Season generously with salt and pepper; stir. Leave to sit at least 45 minutes.

Cut the potatoes into 1-inch long matchsticks. Pout the potatoes into a bowl, pour a little oil over them, and sprinkle lightly with salt. Toss with your hands until well coated.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the hollowed-out tomatoes in a lightly greased baking dish. Spoon the rice inside until they are three-quarters full, then put the tops back on. (Sadly, I completely forgot to do this!) Scatter the potatoes around the tomatoes and bake for 1 to 1 1/4 hours, or until the tomatoes are soft and beginning to shrivel. The rice should be plump and tender, and the potatoes soft and golden. Allow to sit for 30 minutes before eating. Pour yourself a glass of white wine while you wait.


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August Food Haiku Winner + Heirloom Tartine with Garlic Creme Fraiche

There are many ways to use a tomato. All summer long I eat them in pasta, toss them on pizza, make soup and even squish them whole between my teeth. Almost always, the simplest preparation is the best one, especially in these hot summer months. (The simplest recipe of all might be to grate a tomato over grilled bread, something I read in Saveur many years ago.) 

Now, I happen to live in a town that knows a thing or two about toast. Avocado toast, in particular, might as well be a prerequisite for brunch menu's in Los Angeles. It's everywhere, and I love it. Sqirl has a particularly good one. On the bottom is a thick slathering of creme fraiche spiked with garlic, which is where I got the idea. I actually licked my fingers the first time I had it. And when you find something that striking, It's especially nice to make in your own kitchen, especially if the restaurant is clear across town, and you can't just drive 45 minutes in one direction to get garlic creme fraiche whenever you very well want to.

So. On top of this slightly spicy and effortlessly creamy spread are slices of ripe heirloom tomatoes sprinkled with pepper and flaky salt. That's it. It's all you need, really. And this month's winning food haiku pairs so nicely.

Sarah's poem perfectly captures the allure of an August tomato, and the voters agreed. My favorite phrase is "grew sunlight." It's such a lovely description, don't you think?

Eat This Poem August Haiku Winner

HEIRLOOM TOMATO TARTINE WITH GARLIC CREME FRAICHE

This is one of those summer-on-a-plate types of things. Juicy, plump tomatoes, bread, and a bit of this assertive spread. I can eat it all afternoon. 

Serves 2

1/4 cup creme fraiche
1 plump garlic clove, grated (about 1/2 teaspoon)
Kosher salt
Freshly cracked pepper
2 slices rustic bread, cut 1/2-inch thick
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large heirloom tomato, sliced
Flaky salt, for finishing

Stir the creme fraiche, garlic, a pinch of salt, and a few grinds of black pepper. Heat a grill pan over medium heat and drizzle the bread slices with oil, spreading it around with your hands, covering both sides. Grill the bread for 2 to 3 minutes per side, or until sufficiently golden. Slather a layer of creme fraiche over the hot bread, and as it begins to melt and the scent of garlic plumes, cover with a few tomato slices. Finish with a pinch of flaky salt and serve.

Haiku Contest Finalists | August 2016

Usually the cherry tomatoes arrive first, followed by plump heirlooms, and later in the season, I carry home pounds of tender Roma's for fresh tomato sauce. (I even buy 25 pound boxes from a nearby farm over Labor Day weekend, which you can read about here.

August is easily one of my favorite months to cook and eat in, and the three haiku's below are perfect accompaniments to the season. Vote for your favorite before Monday, August 15th! 

August Food Haiku Finalists from Eat This Poem

Submit Your Vote

Something to rely on

Beans and Rice
As life goes on, time isn’t the largest thing to think of,
it’s the smallest.
Growing, going
in drought or monsoon, mold or blight —
what is the rice if  not alive?
— from "Rice-Field Road at Dusk" by By Suji Kwock Kim

I've become one of those weekly recipe rotation people. You know, someone who makes the same thing over and over again.

The first reason for this is because I haven't been as diligent about meal planning ahead of time, so come Saturday morning I'm scrambling to fill in my notebook before heading to the farmers' market. In those moments it's easier to flip back and see what I've made in weeks past rather than open a cookbook.

Also, there is predictability of it. When I'm busy during the day and don't want to spend an hour prepping in the kitchen, it's useful to be familiar with the dish or the method, so come dinner time I don't have to rely on a recipe.

I actually meant to tell you about this recipe weeks ago. OK, months ago. I've been making it nearly every week since March, when I first read about it in blogger Amelia Morris's memoir Bon Appetempt. This was one of several middle-of-the-night-feeding books I'd read to pass the time while I pumped at 3 am.

It's the simplest of recipes, perfect for easy memorization and even easier mealtimes. And it's really become something to rely on. Beans and rice. I immediately know what I need (rice, beans, a can of coconut milk, cilantro, and avocado), how long it will take (just shy of 20 minutes), and the outcome (satisfaction). It also tastes fantastically good, especially thanks to the creamy coconut milk and hint of cumin.

Beans and Rice

When I'm not reading my kindle in the middle of the night, I'm usually scanning my Facebook feed or browsing the New York Times app, which makes me more and more nervous of late. It seems so many mornings I wake up to more devastating news, home or abroad, and occasionally I've considered ignoring the news altogether to simply avoid it the onslaught of fear and confusion that follows.

But there's only so much of that we can do. Besides, it doesn't actually protect us, the not knowing. It's still difficult, though, feeling simultaneously numb to news stories yet helpless to do anything. Simultaneously fearful about the world my son is growing up in yet optimistic about the future. I'm not the first mother to grapple with this, certainly. My parents questioned the world they brought me and my brother into, too. Every generation has its struggles, so at least there is some comfort, however slight.

So a recipe like this, or any recipe you cling to for ease and reliability, can be a small way to tame the chaos. It gives you something to control, something to manage when the world is unpredictable. 

Beans and Rice

AMELIA'S RICE AND BEANS

In her memoir, Amelia shares this was one of the first meals she made without a recipe after a coworker from Panama described the dish. Truly, after you make it once or twice, you'll see how simple it is to remember all the ingredients and measurements. The original recipe calls for black beans, but I've gotten in the habit of using pinto, and finish it with tomatillo salsa, sour cream, avocado, and a mound of tortilla chips on the side.

Serves 2 generously

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 (13.5 ounce) can light coconut milk
1/4 cup water or vegetable stock
1 cup white basmati rice
1 (15-ounce) can pinto beans, drained and rinsed
1 teaspoon ground cumin
For serving: Tortilla chips, salsa, sour cream, sliced avocado chopped cilantro, lime wedges

Heat the oil in a wide skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and saute for 4 to 5 minutes, until softened and the edges are beginning to brown a bit. Add the garlic and saute just until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes more. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper. 

Add the coconut milk, water, rice, beans, and cumin; stir to combine. Once boiling, cover the pan and reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Simmer 16 to 18 minutes, or until the rice is plump and the liquid has evaporated. Remove from heat and let rest for 10 minutes.

Scoop into bowls and adorn with toppings.

July Haiku Winner + Peach and Pistachio Crumble

Peach and Pistachio Crumble

Peaches arrived at my farmers' market in June and they came as they always do, like a flood. One Saturday there are maybe a few crates of peaches, and the next tables overflow with stone fruitsnectarines, three kinds of plums, and juicy apricots. Many times I stand paralyzed, unable to decide what to fill my bags with for the week, but on a recent visit I had already decided on peaches destined to bake and bubble underneath a tender crumb of oats, pistachios, and sugar.

Peach and Pistachio Crumble

I've been drinking tea from August Uncommon Tea this season, and one of its summer releases is called Dark Iris, a rich oolong with notes of peach, lime, and pistachio. I first sipped it while interviewing these fine folks for Issue 6 of Life & Thyme. They are my favorite kind of peoplepassionate, welcoming, and creative. We had the best morning tasting tea and talking about boiling temperatures, flavors, and the modern tea revolution.

When I chose peaches as the theme for July's food haiku contest, I knew I wanted to create a recipe inspired by the flavors of this irresistible tea. This dessert made its way to a dinner party a couple of weeks back and I came home with nothing left but a few dried scraps of crumble around the rim of the baking dish, so I'd say it went over well.

Peach and Pistachio Crumble
Peach and Pistachio Crumble

And let's get to the contest, shall we? Congratulations are in order for Helen McLaughlin, whose powerful haiku cuts straight to the heart, and won over Eat This Poem voters!

July 2016 Food Haiku Winner

PEACH & PISTACHIO CRUMBLE

I use this crumble topping interchangeably with stone fruit this time of year. It goes wonderfully well alongside apricots, plums, or nectarines. 

Serves 6 to 8

For the peaches
4 pounds peaches
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup granulated sugar

For the crumble
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup pistachios (divided and chopped)
1 cup whole-grain flour
2/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Core and dice peaches into 1 to 2-inch pieces, then place them in a large bowl. Add the granulated sugar and lemon juice; stir to combine. Pour the filling into a large baking dish.

Pulse the oats, 1/2 cup of the pistachios, and flour in a high speed blender until finely ground; pour into a bowl. Add the sugar, salt, melted butter, and remaining 1/2 cup pistachios. Stir until moist clumps form. Scatter the topping over the plums and nudge it around with your fingers until well covered. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until golden. Serve with ice cream or freshly whipped cream.

Peach and Pistachio Crumble
Peach and Pistachio Crumble

Haiku Contest Finalists | July 2016

Stone fruit is finally in season again, so this month we're celebrating all things peach! Read the lovely finalists below, and vote for your favorite haiku by Friday, July 15th.

July 2016 Food Haiku Finalists

Submit your vote!

[Book Ends] My biggest cookbook fear


Book Ends is an occasional series where I share a bit about the cookbook writing process. For even more behind-the-scenes details, plus weekly inspiration for your writing life, subscribe to the newsletter.


I know things are hectic when an entire week goes by and I realize, on Friday afternoon, I never made a cup of tea. It has been one of those weeks, repeatedly, since the end of May, and for reasons almost entirely outside of my control. Such is life, right? 

It had been some time since I sent in my cookbook revisions, and in early June, a yellow padded envelope arrived from my publisher. My book was inside, copyedited. (Big sigh.) One version was printed with the tracked changes, the other without, and I’m currently in the process of reviewing all the notes and making a few final changes before sending it back. The polite letter stacked on top strongly warned this would be the last opportunity to make any significant modifications, for once the book enters the design stage, there’s no going back.

Some authors might be terrified of this kind of moment. A few years ago, I probably would have been, too. But this book has been such a long time coming, I can’t help but feel relief and enthusiasm, mostly.

The last time we talked about the book, I told you the most surprisingly thing about editing was the difficulty of getting back into the swing of things. I had emotionally detached myself after sending the manuscript in, and was basically asked to jump in all over again. A few of those feelings surfaced again for this round, but not as strongly. In fact, I’ve been really delighted by the whole process.

You see, this writing life is often a struggle. Even when we declare ourselves to be writers, when we are actually writing, and feel compelled by a story that needs telling, we still doubt. We still question ourselves. 

But then we have a moment. It might be an hour, or a day. The length of time doesn’t matter so much as the feeling of being entirely happy about our writing.

We need these moments to keep going.

One fear I had about book writing is that because the path to publication is quite long, I was concerned that by the time the book arrived in my hands, I wouldn’t love it as much. I would have moved on from the poems and recipes, or disliked my writing. All the self-doubt was swirling around and around.

But I don’t fear this anymore, because re-reading my copyedited manuscript has filled me with a lot of joy, and even some pride. I’ve worked on this book for almost four years. I’m really, really proud of it. I’ve put my best work inside. I’ve saved stories for these pages. I’ve made the recipes more times than I can count. I’ve created what I hope to be a sacred conversation between me and everyone who reads it. The poems are meaningful, and moving.

Writers, we need these good feelings. It is not selfish or indulgent to be proud of our work. It is a reminder of the goodness writing brings to our lives.

So even in the midst of my sideways spring, during a week I didn't drink one drop of tea, I sat down at my dining table and spread out the manuscript. I was reading only the poems, matching them to the original printing, to check for errors. I flipped three pages aside, then realized this was the type of task absolutely perfect for tea. And I finally turned my kettle on and let the water boil, and I passed the time, poetry swirling in my heart, finally glad about something.

The Spice Chronicles


“Autumn flings her fiery cloak
over the sumac, beech and oak.”

-Susan Lendroth


I have a lot of spices.

Or, I had a lot of spices. It was time to take an honest look at the jars in my spice drawer, and curate my collection a bit. 

My purging was conducted in the name of food writing, actually, because I've debuted a new bi-monthly column over at Life & Thyme, called The Spice Chronicles. You'll find me cooking my way through my spice cabinet, and the first installment features sumac.

My pal Antonio (and editor-in-chief of Life & Thyme) paid me a visit last month to shoot the photos, and here are a few lovely images from the afternoon. For the pumpkin hummus and garlic flatbread recipes, head here.