Lots of tomatoes, lots of tomatoes! The season is definitely winding down, but the tomatoes are still fabulous and plentiful. When I find my kitchen is full of them at this time of year, I just quarter and throw them in a roasting pan with onion and garlic and a splash of olive oil.
And, then, I can make all sorts of tomatoey things. But my favorite right now is tomato basil soup. When the tomatoes come out of the oven, I throw them in the blender with some stock and basil. I then stir in some plain yogurt or half and half, adjust the seasonings and have a delicious early fall soup.
Tomato basil soup
2 cups quartered fresh tomatoes (you can also use canned tomatoes)
2 T. olive oil
½ onion, coarsely chopped
1 clove garlic, coarsely chopped
2 c. broth (chicken or vegetable)
½ cup minced basil
½ c. half-and-half, coconut milk, plain yogurt or pureed cannellini beans (optional)
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 375. Film a roasting pan with some of the olive oil. Toss in the vegetables, drizzle with the rest of the oil, and roast for about an hour, stirring occasionally. The longer they roast, the more caramelized they become (which is good!).
Remove from the oven and cool slightly. Add basil and puree with a hand or countertop blender. You can puree it until smooth or leave it somewhat chunky. Stir in half-and-half or another cream if you wish and season to taste with salt, pepper and even cayenne if you want a little spunk. Pour into bowls and garnish with garlic croutons, scallions, feta or goat cheese, or parmesan.
My food dehydrator’s been cranking almost continually for the past few weeks and I intend to keep it going through the fall. Right now I’m drying herbs. I have fairly large stands of thyme, basil, rosemary, sage, oregano and marjoram at my disposal, so I’m shearing them every couple of weeks. I’m filling jars with plentiful herbs for cooking and gifts.
It’s been so long since I’ve purchased herbs, I thought I’d price dried herbs in the grocery store. I was totally shocked at how expensive they are. For example, a small one-ounce bottle of dried thyme was about $3.00. I have about a pound of thyme already dried, so that makes my thyme (and time) worth about $48.00!
Saves money and is fresher than storebought
Herbs are so very easy to grow and preserve that it seems a shame to waste money on purchasing them, especially because you don’t even know how fresh they actually are. By drying your own, you have the luxury of the freshest of herbs, and you can simply throw them away every year as you fill your jars with newly dried herbs.
Herbs are easy to grow
Almost all herbs except basil are extremely drought-tolerant, and they actually produce better flavor if somewhat stressed. So, find the harshest planting spot you have, and your herbs will thrive. They are all disease and insect resistant and need no fertilization or dividing.
If you don’t have a dehydrator, dry them in paper bags in a dry, airy spot out of direct light. The top of the fridge is ideal. Store dried herbs in glass jars in a dark cupboard.
Some herbs to try
Here are only a few – there are oh, so many more):
Dill is an annual herb with early pungent leaves followed by flowers and seeds which are all useful. Dried dill leaves and flowers are excellent flavorings for fish, potato salad and egg salad, and the seeds are classic for flavoring pickles. Try crushing the seeds and adding to rice pilaf with ground garlic – amazing! Let a few seeds scatter themselves and you’ll always have dill in the garden.
Thyme is a perennial, woody plant with tiny, tangy leaves. Shear the soft new growth. It will send up new growth that you can shear repeatedly through summer. Mix thyme with goat cheese for an outstanding spread for sandwiches or as a dip for fresh vegetables. Rub into a pork loin or beef roast. For a variation on a theme, seek out lemon thyme for a wonderful treat.
Basil is an annual herb that comes in every size and shape, from tiny spicy globe basil to huge sweet Genovese, the classic basil for pesto and bruschetta. This one does need lots of water.
Chives – perennial oniony herb with leaves and flowers for drying. Pull apart blossoms and dry the individual florets. Add to a baked potato or top focaccia with them.
Lemon verbena has become a favorite. Tea made from the dried leaves is delicious. I’ve always grown it as an annual in the midwest, but here in the south, I’m hoping it will be perennial.
Rubs and marinades
One of my favorite things to do with dried herbs is to combine them in marinade or grilling rub mixes. Mixing them up ahead of time makes delicious dinner prep pretty easy.
You can use these as a dry rub for grilling meat or vegetables by brushing with olive oil and sprinkling with grilling mix.
For a marinade, add a tablespoon to ¼ cup olive oil and ¼ cup vinegar of choice. Mix in zip lock bag with chunks of potatoes, zucchini, peppers, green onions, etc. Let marinate for 30 minutes. Grill vegetables; heat leftover marinade and pour over vegetables. If you marinate meat, brush with the marinade while grilling but discard any left over.
Basic Grilling Mix
1 T. oregano 1 T. basil 1 t. garlic powder 1 t. thyme
For specialty mixes – start with the basic grilling mix and add the ingredients listed. Feel free to add other herbs and seasonings to make it your own.
Mint Herb Mix
Use on potatoes, lamb or fish
1 T. mint 1 T. marjoram 1 T. tarragon 1 t. lemon balm
Italian Herb Mix
Use for pizza on the grill, on grilled potatoes for potato salad, on chicken breasts
1 t. rosemary 1 t. chili flakes
Herbed Ranch Mix
Use on salmon, grouper or mahi mahi, grilled potatoes, zucchini, yellow squash
1 T. dill 1 T. ground black pepper
For meats, vegetables and potatoes
1 t. sage ½ t. ground chili (or to taste) 1 T. paprika 1 t. rosemary 1 t. black pepper
Ever wonder about those interesting curled shoots coming off the garlic plants? These are the lovely flower heads of the garlic bulbs. They are delicious and are actually a vegetable on their own as well as a mild garlic seasoning. Unlike the fiery flavor of garlic bulbs, they have a sweet flavor that is a mix of garlic, leek and onion, and a texture not unlike asparagus.
Scapes grow out of the center of hardneck garlic, usually starting in early June. It’s best to harvest them when they are young, usually right before they make a huge curl, as they tend to get tough the longer they stay on the plant.
You will be doing the garlic a favor by pinching out the scapes since leaving them on the plant reduces the size of the garlic bulb below and makes the bulbs less storable.
Check out farmers’ markets
Scapes are available at farmers’ markets now and will probably be around a couple more weeks. They store quite well in the refrigerator so when you find them, pick up a few and give them a try. They are delicious grilled or chopped fresh for a salad, frittata or stir fry. Or, blend them into hummus or pesto, or puree them and mix into softened sweet butter for a delectable dressing for sweet corn. They are also scrumptious when pickled.
Garlic Scape Pesto
½ c. garlic scapes
2 c. fresh basil leaves, oregano, parsley, lemon balm or any combination you desire
¼ c. nuts (pine, walnut, pecans)
1 ½ t. salt
¼ t. pepper
½ cup olive oil
3 oz. Parmesan
Combine all ingredients except oil and cheese in blender or processor. Add half the oil. Process while adding the rest of the oil. Stir in cheese and toss with hot cooked pasta or rice. If you have plenty of scapes, consider making the pesto and freezing it in ice cube trays or flat in a freezer bag. Leave out the cheese until ready to use. You can simply break off a piece for a quick lunch.
Pesto over hot pasta couldn’t be a simpler, more healthy meal (or over rice or on a baked potato). Traditional Italian pesto is made of basil, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic and parmesan. It’s delicious, but at the risk of offending my Italian cook-friends, I’m going to give you some riffs on traditional pesto, to make use of whatever is harvestable.
Pestos are infinitely adaptable
Pestos can be adapted to just about any flavor you like, and will give you a good shot of serious vitamins when added to soups, stews or pastas. I’ve also heard the term “green smash” used for a pesto-like sauce made with herbs which is a beautifully imaginative way to present it.
Greens make great pesto
Greens such as kale, beets, Swiss chard or Asian mizuna, are prolific producers, so you will almost always have more greens than you can eat in summer. One of the easiest ways to preserve them for winter eating is in pesto.
Simply wash and stem the greens, and toss in the food processor with a couple of cloves of garlic, some olive oil, a handful of roasted nuts (pine, almond, walnut, pecan, pistachio), fresh basil or other herb of your choice, salt and pepper. Punch up your pesto with roasted peppers, sun dried or fresh tomatoes, roasted winter squash or roasted carrots.
Prepare for the freezer
Puree the mixture and put in a plastic freezer bag. Squeeze out all the air and flatten the bag to freeze. This way, you can simply break off chunks to use without having the thaw the entire bag. Alternatively, you can freeze in ice cube trays or single portion bags. Don’t add cheese until you plan to use the pesto – it doesn’t freeze well.
Toss with pasta, rice, potatoes
For a quick lunch or dinner, thaw the pesto and toss with pasta or rice and add a generous helping of high-quality grated parmesan, romano or asiago cheese. You can embellish with chopped tomatoes, fresh slivers of red onion or anything else that catches your eye. Add silken tofu or plain Greek yogurt to any pesto when serving for added nutrition.
I’ve listed a classic pesto recipe below but check out the recipe page for chard, red pepper and garlic scape pesto recipes.
3 cloves garlic
2 c. fresh basil leaves
¼ c. nuts
1 ½ t. salt
¼ t. pepper
½ cup olive oil
3 oz. Parmesan
Combine all ingredients except oil and cheese in blender or processor. Add half the oil. Process while adding other half the oil. Stir in cheese as you serve.