Posts Tagged ‘tomatoes’

Tomatoes in my blood – colorful late summer salad

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

After a seemingly never-ending winter in Chicago and two great hot and sunny months in central and south-eastern Europe I’m back for a second year of cooking and food shopping in Chi-town, among other things. Hopefully the new season will be better than the first, though unfortunately the props are still the same – an almost non-existent kitchen in the hallway and even less counter space. But I smuggled deep round baking trays for holiday pita and banitsa (Bulgarian stuffed filo dough pie) and some Balkan sage and thyme, so there are improvements in the kitchen after all.


I spent half of July and all of August on the Bulgarian sea coast, starting the day with thick slices of tomatoes on buttered toast, continuing with tomatoes and feta salad for lunch, and ending it with more tomatoes and roasted long peppers or eggplants in tomato sauce, or stuffed zucchini with tomatoes, or nibbling cherry tomatoes straight from the vine, or… you get the picture.

The sun ripened tomatoes from my aunt’s garden are the second reason I go back to Bulgaria every summer – the first being my family and friends. The fact that my parents live ten minutes from the sandy beaches of Varna – the best city in the country – is also a big plus.

I’ve never found better tasting tomatoes – heavy, meaty, sweet. Bulgarians are crazy about their tomatoes, and most of them will grow their own in every available plot. August will be dominated by tomato topics such as the prices on the market, a disease threatening the crop or the extinct local varieties.

The pungent sweet fruits will even overshadow yet another cabinet crisis or new corruption scandal and everybody’s weekends will be spent not on the golden beaches, but plucking or watering the mighty tomatoes. Growing, eating and canning tomatoes is our national sport. And though I’ve been living abroad for many years now, I’m more than happy to participate in those late summer games. By September I have tomato juice flowing in my veins instead of blood, and my kids do too – after all, they are half Bulgarian.

Back in Chicago, I got to enjoy the latest crop from my mother-in-law’s back yard. That started my quest on farmers’ markets. I found reasonable tomatoes – not as sweet and aromatic as my aunt’s, but the best so far on this side of the pond – at Lincoln Square’s Tuesday market (on the parking lot by the Western Brown Line El stop). The price, $1 per pound, was also reasonable, and I went home with several varieties – Roma, regular red ones and very tasty yellow globes.

At home I made a colorful salad, adding pear-shaped yellow cherry tomatoes from my mother-in-law’s yard (they grow like crazy till late October). Though basic, it’s a beauty, and could lift your spirits for the whole day. On the market I also got sweet long peppers, so I had to use them too. This salad really depends on the flavor of the tomatoes, so make sure to use really good ones.

Never ever keep tomatoes in the fridge. They have to be eaten at room temperature or you are going to miss a lot of their aroma and sweetness. Choose specimens that are heavy for their size and rather hard, and please do use your nose – they should smell of sun and grass not fish and cardboard. I usually don’t peel them and don’t deseed.

Colorful tomato salad

  • 2 red tomatoes
  • 2 yellow tomatoes
  • 1 handful of cherry or grape tomatoes
  • 1 handful of yellow cherry tomatoes or any other crazy looking ones, if you can get some, otherwise more regular ones
  • ½ medium red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 long sweet pepper ( I used a banana pepper)
  • a few sprigs of garden mint or cilantro (coriander) or basil – chopped
  • balsamic or red wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil
  • salt

Slice the tomatoes as you like – I like country-style chunks, bite size. Slice the pepper into rings. Place all the vegetables in a salad bowl, sprinkle with salt, a little vinegar and a nice splash of olive oil. Mix carefully not to smash the tomatoes too much and sprinkle with the fresh herbs of your choice.

Serve immediately with crusty bread or sourdough baguette to soak up the juices. I, being Bulgarian, will usually add crumbled feta cheese, but the salad is perfect even without it. Eat in the garden or on the porch if you have one, with a cold fruity white wine, to keep the summer for a little bit longer.

Spring on the plate – Lebanese tabbouleh

Friday, April 10th, 2009

According to some sources, spring has appeared in some parts of the Northern hemisphere. Apparently it missed Chicago, but as it’s April, a little illusion on the plate wouldn’t hurt, so I thought of tabbouleh. This Lebanese fresh herb salad is my cheering-up-the-gray-days staple and a good excuse to chop away my winter sorrows. The very sight of bunches of mint, parsley, dill and cilantro (coriander) on the kitchen counter makes me smile. The green color and fresh aroma help me forget the snow, the cold and the wind and the bite of the bulgur wheat shakes off the lethargy as does the lemon juice that it has soaked in.

The combination of the fresh greens with chopped tomatoes, cucumber, red onion and crunchy bulgur wheat is addictive. I use fine cracked bulgur from my favorite Middle Eastern store, Alkhyam Bakery at 4744-46 N. Kedzie Ave, corner of Lawrence. Before using always go through the wheat and throw out any dark grains. For the tabbouleh, you never soak it in hot water, but in a mix of lemon juice and cold water – it should keep a crunchy bite – and besides, it will soak up the juices of the salad.

You can make tabbouleh for two or twenty two, but it has to be eaten the very same day. If you leave it to soak for too long you’ll lose the crunchiness of the wheat and freshness of the herbs. The best way to serve it is spooned on Romaine lettuce leaves – you roll it and eat with your hands.

Another rule is to keep the proportions right – forget the versions with cous-cous or so much bulgur that the dominant color is yellow. It has to be green, with little specks of wheat and red tomatoes and a strong lemony taste.

Use the smallest and crunchiest cucumbers you can lay your hands on. Surprisingly for me this was the hardest ingredient to find here. Usually it was the fresh mint, but in Chicago cucumbers smaller than a baseball bat are the really tough to find. The best so far are the ones called Persian or mini. They cost a fortune, so sometimes I give up and go for the smallest and hardest monster I can get.

Once you work out proportions that really work for you you’ll be hooked. Here are mine:

Lebanese tabbouleh

(enough for 4)

  • 1 cup coarse bulgur wheat
  • 2 bunches flat leaf parsley, chopped (about 2-3 handfuls)
  • 1 bunch dill, chopped (about 1 handful)
  • 1 bunch mint, chopped (about 1 handful)
  • 1 bunch cilantro, chopped (about 1 handful)
  • 1 medium red onion, chopped
  • 2 medium size plum tomatoes, chopped


  • 2 handfuls cherry tomatoes – quartered
  • 2 small cucumbers, chopped
  • juice of one lemon (lime)
  • cold water
  • salt, black pepper
  • 1-2 tbsp olive oil (optional)

Place the bulgur in a bowl, pour half of the lemon juice and enough cold water over it to moisten it thoroughly and let soak for 15 minutes.

In a big bowl combine all the greens and vegetables. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, add the rest of the lemon juice and mix well. Squeeze all the water from the bulgur and add to the bowl. Mix once more and adjust the seasoning. The Lebanese will stop right there and serve the salad, but I like to add olive oil. Combine the salad ingredients no longer than 30 minutes before serving to avoid the bulgur getting too soft – it will keep absorbing the juices in the bowl.

Tabbouleh is great as part of a mezze plater or with roasted meat and fish. It’s my party pleaser and back yard grill staple. Some warm pita will go well with it too.

Comfort me with…whatever (Spaghetti with pesto, garlic and cherry tomatoes)

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

It’s official – January of 2009 was the coldest in two decades for the Chicago area. The snow is frozen hard, the sidewalks are icy and the wind is extremely hostile. I don’t think Chicago and I had a good start.

This week I’m into comfort food mode, trying to lift my spirits and struggling to stop the shivering. I always believed in simple, fuss-free dishes that uplift your mood with their smell and taste. Hour-long glaze and sauce reductions are not for me. I’d rather spend a few hours in the kitchen preparing several different dishes, than laboring over some complicated haute-cuisine extravaganza. So yesterday’s dinner was spaghetti with homemade pesto, garlic and cherry tomatoes, and today’s lunch – crab sticks, orange and mayo salad served with parsnip, green pea and Parmesan paste over toasted bagels.

If I hadn’t left my pasta machine behind, I would make the spaghetti myself. Nothing can beat homemade pasta – it has a different, more springy bite and the eggs add extra flavor. Once you learn how to make it and have a machine, it’s really easy. I love dealing with dough – getting it together and kneading it is one of the best stress relievers I know. Homemade pesto is also easy and way better than the stuff from a jar. As always with simple recipes you get the best results when using good quality products and even better when you make most of them yourself. I did cheat this time – the pesto was from my mother-in-law, but made from the basil she grows in her backyard, so I don’t feel guilty. It’s not easy to find fresh basil in winter, but you can play with the ingredients. I’ve made parsley pesto and mint pesto, as well as combinations of both. I would also use walnuts instead of the expensive pine nuts with very good results. Make more than you need and store in a jar in the fridge or freeze in small containers – it’s a great fast fix for vinaigrettes, roasted vegetables or even soups. I prefer handfuls to cups for measuring leafy greens and herbs – it’s a more helpful estimate when you are shopping for them, as bunches vary in size. It also saves time – no last-minute dashes to the store – and you end up with no wasted rotten greens in the fridge.

Spaghetti with pesto, garlic and cherry tomatoes (serves 4)

Ingredients for the pesto:

  • 3 handfuls fresh basil, tough stems removed (or the same amount flat leaf parsley)
  • ½ cup olive oil – not too strong, as it’ll overpower the taste of basil
  • ¼ cup pine nuts (or walnuts)
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1-2 tbsp lemon juice
  • salt
  • 1/3 cup finely grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano

Dry roast the pine nuts (or walnuts) in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium high heat, stirring constantly, as nuts tend to burn fast, until slightly brown and the aromatic oils begin to be released – about 1-1 ½ minutes. Place all the ingredients, except the cheese, in a food processor and process until smooth. If you don’t have a food processor (I don’t), use a standing or hand blender. Add the cheese and taste. Add some salt if you want, though the cheese should be enough. If you like it more sour – add extra lemon juice. No need to be slavish about this recipe – you can adjust it to your own taste. I’m sure there are as many pesto variations in Italy as people are making it.

Ingredients for the dish:

  • 1 pound spaghetti (best you can afford)
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and mashed to a paste
  • 2 handfuls cherry tomatoes, about ½ pound – cut in half
  • extra Parmesan or Pecorino Romano

Set the table, with the extra cheese, a salad, if you’ve made one, and plates, as you have to serve the pasta the minute it’s ready. Cook the spaghetti in plenty of boiling salted water (it should be really salty – try it and you should taste the salt) over high heat. Start trying the pasta after 4-5 minutes if using store bought – it’s hard to guess the time it needs to get to that al dente stage with different brands. When it’s tender but still firm, whatever that means to you, drain, but don’t run under cold water. Pour the pasta into a big bowl, add at least 4 tbsp pesto, the mashed garlic and tomatoes, and mix well. Serve immediately with extra Parmesan and more pesto if you wish.

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