Basil

I like and appreciate all herbs, but adore basil. It is one herb I must have in my garden. We grew a large container of this wonderful herb and I always looked forward to harvest time. Picking the leaves is pure pleasure, they are loaded with volatile oils responsible for its intense aroma; holding a handful heavenly.

There is so much to like, even love about basil. It’s distinct taste and aroma is a feast for the senses, and this little herb is rich in a variety of important nutrients. It’s an all around winner in my book. Basil flower blossoms are great added salads so don’t neglect to pick them.

Varieties of Culinary Basil

Italian Leaf Basil – a good all around basil, use fresh and for pesto.

Lemon Basil – bright, clean, citrus-lemon scent, and this plant attracts bees!

Mammoth Basil – sweet full flavor, grow the largest of all basil leaf varieties.

Marseille – a French basil variety with extra large leaves that offers a sweet, yet strong flavor.

Red Rubin – tastes like sweet Italian, has large smooth deep burgundy leaves 3 – 4 inches long, and is a great variety for flavoring oil and vinegars.

Sweet Genovese Basil – considered the best for pesto.

Thai Basil [Siam Queen] – has an intense licorice-basil flavor, great in Asian dishes.

Growing Basil

Basil is an easy to grow annual – which means it only lives through one season – that typically blooms in July and August. Sow seeds directly into the ground or in a large terra cotta pot situated in an area where it will receive plenty of direct sunlight.

Basil likes rich soil, so use compost when planting and use mulch for established seedlings. It does best in well-drained soil that is kept moist but not over watered.

Starting this plant indoors is an option, if the weather outside is too cold. When the weather permits, transplant (this plant is very forgiving when uprooted) or transport the container it grows in to a sunny spot outdoors.

Help create a full bushy plant growth with generous leaf production by pinching back any flower blossoms and picking the leaves from the plant often.

Nutritional Profile and Benefits of Basil

This little herb is loaded with powerful antioxidant and contains:

Beta Carotene | Calcium | Dietary Fiber | Iron | Magnesium | Manganese | Phosphorus | Potassium | Vitamin C | Vitamin K

Selecting and Storing Basil

Pick young fresh basil leaves from your garden or buy big, fragrant, bright green color leafy bunches at a farmer’s market or grocery store.

Here are a couple ways to store fresh basil:

    • Place the basil, stem side down in a glass of water and be sure to change the water every other day. It is suggested to cover the leaves with a plastic bag secured to the glass with a rubber band but I usually don’t cover mine. Store in the refrigerator up to a week.

or

  • Rinse and pat dry fresh basil leaves and trim the stems short. Place the leaves between two paper towels and place in a large plastic bag and refrigerate up to four days.

Preparing Basil for Later Use

When basil season is long over and you have a craving for this delicious herb, drying or freezing it are two great ways to preserve it for later use during winter months.

Dried Basil

Drying basil using a dehydrator is a great way to preserve extra fresh basil to use as a spice. You will need to do the following:

    • Washing the basil right after harvesting or purchasing.
    • Remove the leaves from the stem.
    • Allow the leaves to air dry for about 30 minutes or pat dry with a paper towl.
    • Place the leaves in a dehydrator, spreading the basil out on a dehydrator rack in single rows (do not pile the leaves on top of each other).
    • Keep enough space between each leaf so there is good air circulation.
    • Rotate the tray a few times through out dehydrating.
    • Dehydrate for 8 to 10 hours or until the leaves are completely dry (to avoid mold).

or

Dry basil the good old fashion way by hanging a bunch in a dry, dark, cool location until thoroughly dried.

Dried basil keeps well for months when stored in a cool, dry, dark place in a lidded glass jar, a spice tin, or a plastic bag. Always remember to label and date the container.

Tip: Store dried leaves whole and crumble or crush the leaf or leaves as needed. This help retain more basil flavor from the leaves.

Freeze Basil

Another great way to lock in the freshness of basil and have it available long after summer is over is to freeze it.

  • Wash the basil leaves and remove from the stem
  • Place the basil leaves in a food processor with ingredients to make a pesto
  • Fill ice trays with the pesto and freeze.
  • Transfer frozen pesto cubes into a freezer container or bag that has been labeled and dated
  • Place in the freezer and use as needed.

Serving Suggestions

Basil is one of those herbs that combine well with a long list of foods. It is an invaluable herb in cuisines across the globe, and is a predominate herb in Mediterranean, Italian and Thai cuisines. It is a natural accompaniment to all tomato dishes, and a principal ingredient of pesto sauce. It goes well with garlic, onions, eggplant, cashew nuts, cabbage, chili peppers, lemon, zucchini, cauliflower, curry, parsnips, and cabbage, to name several, and could definitely be an ingredient in a sweet dessert – depending on the variety of basil.

Don’t’ forget about basil flower blossoms, they are a great addition to salads.

Fresh Spicy Basil Pesto

One easy to make, incredibly delicious, and well regarded recipe that is perfect for using all the lovely basil that grow prolifically during this time, is basil pesto.

While prepping the bundle of fragrant basil leaves to make this recipe, my mother walked in the kitchen and affirmed how good it smelled. “There is nothing like the smell of basil”, she said. Oh I agree, and I’m sure most everyone else agrees who has encountered the scent of this fabulous herb.

As far as pesto is concerned, there is nothing like the timeless goodness of a delicious batch made with basil. Depending on the ingredients at hand, you can keep it simple and use the classic ingredients, or you can get creative with ingredients that aren’t classic in a pesto, but make a great one nonetheless.

Traditionally, basil pesto recipes call for pine nuts but any of the other nuts or seeds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds, or sunflower seeds. Basil is, of course, the star green for this pesto recipe but other greens like spinach, arugula, parsley, cilantro, and other greens can be used in combination with basil for added nutritional value.

The tools needed to make this recipe are few – a food processor, a sharp knife and a cutting board. If you do not have a food processor, a mortar and pestle and a little arm work will get the job done.

Fresh Spicy Basil Pesto

This particular recipe is tailor made to suit my taste and preference of the moment. Combining both black pepper and cayenne pepper give this pesto a spicy kick. For another spicy alternative, use one of the varieties of fresh chili peppers, like jalapeño or serrano. I prefer my pesto a bit on the oily side and this is when I indulge in a little extra olive oil, feel free to reduce the amount.

1 cup fresh basil
1 cup fresh spinach
½ cup pine nuts, unroasted
3 large garlic cloves
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon black pepper, fresh ground
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Add the basil, spinach, pine nuts and garlic to a food process and pulse a few times to chop and mix the ingredients. [If you are using larger nuts, like walnuts, and they are not already chopped, add them to the food processor first, pulse them a few times to chop before adding the basil, spinach and garic]. Scrape down the sides of the food processor with a rubber spatula, if necessary.

Add the remaining ingredients – sea salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper. Slowly add the olive oil in a constant stream while the food processor is running. Add more sea salt and pepper to taste, if desired.

Makes about 1 cup

………………………………………………………………………..

Preserving Fresh Basil For Later Use

Want a taste of summer when it’s not? Try freezing basil pesto or the basil leaves in a little olive oil to preserve and enjoy later.

Here are three options:

Option 1: Make the pesto. Fill ice trays or cupcake pans that have been greased with a little olive oil with the pesto and freeze. Remove the pesto cubes from the tray/cupcake pan and store in a freezer container or bag.

Option 2: Lightly coat basil leave with olive oil, place in a freezer friendly container or bag [make sure to squeeze as much air from the bag as possible], and freeze.

Option 3: Puree basil leaves and olive oil in a food processor, transfer the puree to a freezer container or bag and freeze.

Note: Both options 2 and 3 are great for preserving basil for use other than making pesto.

Artichoke

When I laid eyes on these beauties, I thought they were some type of unique flower. After careful examination, it was clear what they were, but I also got confirmation from my friend, who saw the questioning look on my face, that they were artichokes.

 

Come to find out an artichoke is technically a flower. A single artichoke is the unopened flower bud of the plant Cynara scoymus – a relative of the thistle family.

 

Until my recent trip to Oregon, I had only seen artichokes piled one atop another on shelves or in baskets at Whole Foods or farmers markets. I hadn’t seen an entire artichoke plant up close and in the garden, and had no idea it is a tall spectacular plant.

 

Varieties of Artichokes

Artichokes range in size and color – from green, to red, to purple. It seems hard to imagine but amazingly there are over 140 varieties of artichokes, and less than a third from this number are produced commercially. That’s a whole lot of variety and for the sake of the length of this post I’ll focus on a few.

Globe Artichoke or French Artichoke – has a delicate rich flavor, is green in color.

Lyon – has a mild flavor, is a large round green artichoke with compact leaves, and is heavy for its size.

Campania – has a mild flavor similar to the Lyon artichoke, is large and red in color, in fact it is said to be the largest red artichoke of all the red varieties.

What about Baby Artichokes?

I assumed baby artichokes were a different variety but I’ve learned otherwise. They are a smaller version of larger artichokes, and both come from the same single plant. The smaller “baby” artichokes are located on the lower part of the plant. The large leaves shelter it from receiving lots of direct sunlight, in a way stunning its growth, and this contributes to their smaller size. Also the inner fuzzy portion of the choke does not develop in smaller or “baby” artichokes.

Nutritional Profile and Benefits of Artichokes

It was a surprise to learn that artichoke is an antioxidant powerhouse, and is an excellent source of vitamin C and is a good source of protein. Artichokes also have anti-inflammatory and anti-allergenic properties.

Artichokes contain the vitamins and minerals:

Calcium | Dietary Fiber | Iron | Magnesium | Potassium | Protein | Vitamin C

Selecting and Storing Artichokes

Look for artichokes that are heavy for its size, that squeak when squeezed – pressing the leaves against each other should produce a squeaking sound – and have leaves that are tight and compact. These are signs of a fresh artichoke. Avoid artichokes that are wilting, drying or have mold.

If you are fortunate to have an artichoke plant, you probably already know how to harvest artichoke, but for those who don’t, harvest artichokes while it is still green and before the pedals open.

Store fresh artichokes unwashed in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to a week.

How to Prepare Artichokes

Wash the artichokes under cool running water. Pull off the toughest outer lower petals and trim or snip off any sharp leaf tips off of the outer leaves. Snap or cut the stalk off at the base and remove the tough fibers running into the base where possible.

To gain access to the artichoke heart, gently pry the leaves open and pull out the central cone of thinner leaves to reveal the inedible fibrous ‘choke’ [the ‘choke’ generally is not present in smaller baby artichokes]. Carefully scrape out the choke with a teaspoon. Be careful to leave the artichoke heart in tact.

To avoid discoloration, rinse the artichoke heart with acidulated water – which is simply water with a squeeze of lemon juice or a little vinegar.

Serving Artichokes Raw

The variety doesn’t seem to make a huge difference when it comes to eating raw artichoke it’s the freshness that is key.

The meaty part of the leaf is edible and most people discard the stem but it is edible and is said to taste just like the artichoke heart.

Artichokes are a versatile vegetable well suited as an ingredient in a variety of recipes. Enjoy the artichoke hearts whole, or enjoy it and the other parts marinated, pureed, or shaved. Serve it as a salad, as an ingredient in a salad; make a soup, an appetizer, or a dip with it.

Don’t throw away those artichoke leaves. You can infuse them in water to make tea!

 

I had to get a picture of this! I bought the artichoke you see in the above photo at the grocery store and when I arrived home, I set it on the table, and that was where it stayed for a couple weeks.

One afternoon my husband saw something purple growing from its center. I couldn’t believe it was blooming! I still have this amazing artichoke. It is displayed in a thin tall vase of water. The purple flower has receded inward a bit, but it still looks healthy and vibrant. I think I will plant it and see what happens.

Artichoke Paté

 

A trip to the farmer’s market in L.A. was planned with the hope that I would find different varieties of artichokes but circumstance wouldn’t allow me to get there before they closed so my sister came to the rescue.

Normally she doesn’t shop for fresh artichokes so I gave her instructions [from what I’ve learned] on how to choose a fresh young artichoke. A girl on a mission, she visited two farmer’s markets and even stopped by Whole Foods and when the search was over she ended up with a bag of standard green globe artichokes – two large, four medium, and eight babies [baby artichokes that is].

She warned me that some of the artichokes were prickly. Some do have thorns on the tip of their petals and others don’t. There was one particularly devious artichoke that got me a couple times. If you take a close look at the above photo, on either artichoke, you will see on the tip of the petals a brown thorn. That is what you should beware of so handle with care when an artichoke sports thorns.

Artichokes are not impossible to work with but, work is required to get at the prized heart, which is what I was after to make this recipe. My sense of adventure didn’t waver after trimming, peeling, and sometimes tugging the petal of ten artichokes. Let’s just say I needed the practice at getting to the heart of the matter.

I sampled a couple pieces of the fresh raw artichoke hearts. It has a mild taste with a faint nutty flavor [at least this is what my taste buds told me]. I had a few recipe options but preferred the simplest of them since all the work went into excavating all those artichoke hearts.

Artichoke Paté

Embellish on this paté by adding any one or a combination of these ingredients: capers, chopped celery, cucumbers or bell peppers, shredded carrots, or add a little heat with a sprinkle of cayenne or some jalapeno or other hot peppers.

8-10 small artichokes
1 cup green olives, pitted
1/4 cup pine nuts, unroasted
2 large garlic cloves, peeled
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped or 1 teaspoon dried
1 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped or 1 teaspoon dried
Pinch of sea salt and pepper
Combine all the ingredients in a food process. Process and the scrape down the sides of the bowl and continue to process. Repeat until the mixture is at the desired consistency for the paté. Chill at least 30 minutes before serving.

This recipe is best served fresh but can keep up to three days in the refrigerator. Bring this paté to room temperature when ready to serve.

 

Serving Suggestions

  • Spread on dehydrated crackers.
  • Spread on leafy greens with your choice of toppings and fold to make a sandwich. I made a one using romaine hearts, spread the paté on the leaf and topped with sliced cherry tomatoes ~ fresh and delicious.
  • Stuff into fresh mushroom caps, cherry tomatoes, or celery stalks.
  • Try it as a dip with assorted veggies like carrots and cucumbers.
  • Scoop on a bed of mixed salad greens for the first course of a meal.

Shiitake Mushrooms

I adore mushrooms. I like the texture of mushrooms and they taste delicious. Even as a child I eat them without complaint. The mushrooms I grew up with were the white button mushrooms. Later, through the pages of Bon Appetite and Gourmet magazines, I discovered brown mushrooms and from there a whole world of mushrooms.

Have you ever foraged for mushrooms? It’s great fun. It is a popular pastime in Europe, in fact, the countryside of France is where I first foraged for mushrooms, with friend who knew which ones to pick. Now when I forage for mushrooms, it’s either at an open market or the produce section of a grocery store.

Most mushrooms I enjoy, but one inparticular is my favorite. It is revered both as a food and medicinal herb, it’s the valuable Shiitake, pronounced – she-TAH-kay. This member of the fungi family of edible mushrooms also goes by the names black forest mushroom, Chinese black mushroom and fragrant mushroom.

Nutritional Profile

Raw foodists, vegans, and vegetarian benefit greatly from shiitake, as it is one of the few non-animal sources of vitamin B12, and is one of a few known natural sources of vegan and kosher vitamin D (vitamin D2). Other bonuses, shiitake is low in calories, high in vegetable proteins, fat free, very low in sodium, contain both essential and non-essential amino acids, vitamins & minerals.

Shiitake mushrooms contain:

Calcium | Copper | Ergothioneine | Fiber | Flavonoids| Iron | Magnesium | Manganese | Phosphorus | Polysaccharides | Potassium | Protein | Selenium | Trypotophan | Vitamin B1 [Thiamin] | Vitamin B2 [Riboflavin] | Vitamin B3 [Niacin] | Vitamin B5 [Pantothenic Acid | Vitamin B6 [Pyridoxine] | Vitamin B9 [Folate – Folic Acid] | Vitamin B12 [Cobalamins] | Vitamin C | Vitamin D | Water | Zinc

Selecting

Shiitake are available year-round and are sold fresh and dried at farmer’s markets, Whole Foods stores, and in Asian markets. They range in color from tan to dark brown and the shiitake caps have a soft, spongy meaty texture.

Fresh shiitake ~ look for firm, spongy caps that are dry. Avoid mushrooms that are withered, with bruises, pits, or feel or look slimy. If possible, give them a sniff test. They should smell pleasant and earthy.

Dried shiitake ~ commonly sold in preserved packages. You may also consider drying your own mushrooms with a dehydrator.

Storing

Fresh shiitake mushrooms can keep for up to 14 days when stored in the refrigerator in its container or in a paper bag.

Store unopened packages of dried shiitakes [or any type of dried mushrooms] or store in an airtight container in a cool, dry area away from light exposure.

Preparing

Consider investing in a soft mushroom brush to brush away any clinging growing medium from fresh mushrooms, otherwise simply wipe them with a damp paper towel.

To reconstitute dried mushrooms, soak them in water for 20 – 30 minutes.

Culinary Tips

  • After reconstituting dried mushrooms, don’t throw out the water! Reserve it to use in soups, to enhance sauces, or use other ways in other recipes.
  • Equivalents: 1 pound fresh mushrooms = 3 ounces dried.
  • Dried shiitakes have more of an intense flavor than fresh shiitakes.
  • Do not soak fresh mushrooms, they are extremely porous and soak up water like a sponge.
  • Salt release the water in mushrooms.
  • Avoid using a lot of salt or soy sauce when using shiitake mushrooms. Shiitake is rich in glutamates so they are naturally enhanced with sodium.
  • To preserves any dried mushrooms, use several not too old bay leaves to retard and/or eliminate spore development.
  • Substitutes for Shiitake in recipes: crimini mushrooms, enoki mushrooms, straw mushrooms, chanterelles, porcini mushrooms, white mushrooms, oyster mushrooms, baby bella, or a combination.

Kiwifruit

A close look at the inside of a green kiwifruit, isn’t it stunning…

 

… and the golden kiwifruit is just as gorgeous.

 

Photography from WikiMedia Commons

… and look, another intriguing kiwifruit! This one is new to me and I’ll definitely be on the look out for this gem. Have you heard of red kiwifruit?

 

If a green and a golden kiwifruit were side-by-side, would you be able to distinguish the two? It is easy to tell them apart, see the photo above to help illustrate the difference. The green kiwifruit is fuzzier and symmetrically oval and wider while the golden kiwifruit has smoother skin, an elongated oval, or teardrop shaped, with a pointed nub on one end.

They both have their own delicious flavor. Golden kiwifruit is much sweeter and softer in texture in comparison to the green kiwifruit, which is tart with a firmer texture.

Varieties of Kiwifruit

Hayward is the most common kiwifruit variety found in the produce section and grown in backyard gardens. Here is a list of various varieties of kiwifruit.

Abbott
Allison
Dexter
Elmwood
Hardy
Hayward
Jenny
Monty
Silvervine
Tewi
Vincent

… and the list goes on.

Nutritional Profile and Benefits of Kiwifruit

The whole kiwifruit, skin included, is a treasure trove of nutrients, fiber, antioxidants, and contains the following vitamins and minerals:

Copper | Dietary Fiber | Magnesium | Manganese | Potassium | Vitamin A | Vitamin C | Vitamin E

Kiwifruit is an amazing health promoter that benefits the heart, eyes, colon, and contributes to our health in many other wonderful ways.

Selecting and Storing Kiwifruit

Select unblemished kiwifruit that is firm to the touch. Test its ripeness by holding the fruit between your thumb and forefinger and give it a light squeeze, it should yield to the pressure.

Store kiwifruits at room temperature anywhere from 2 days to a week. For prolonged storage, keep in the refrigerator. To soften or speed up ripening, place kiwifruits in a bag with an apple, banana, pear, or other ethylene-producing fruits for about a week or until ripened.

Freezing Kiwifruit

Here are three ways to freeze kiwi for later use.


1)
The whole kiwifruit can be frozen, but first you’ll want to remove the fuzzy hair by rubbing it off. Remove the kiwifruit from the freezer and peel the skin while the fruit is still frozen.

2)
Slice the kiwifruit to desired thickness, arrange in a single layer on a cookie sheet, and freeze. Once frozen, place slices in an airtight freezer friendly container. Remove the amount of slices you need, allow to thaw at room temperature or in the refrigerator.

3)
Puree the kiwifruit along with 1 tablespoon each of agave and fresh lemon juice, in a blender. Pour the fruit puree through a large sieve to remove any seeds, pour the strained puree into a freezer friendly container, and freeze. This is an excellent way to store kiwi puree for later use in making drinks, desserts or fruit sauces.

Remember to date and label those containers.

Serving Suggestions

One of the simplest ways to enjoy kiwifruit is to cut it in half and scoop out the delicious pulp with a spoon. If you plan to do a little more with it, there are a number of ways to prepare this wonderful fruit.

Anyway you chop, dice, quarter, or slice it, kiwifruit is delicious. Remember the entire fruit is edible, so if you want the maximum nutritional benefits, rinse it and bite in. You may find the golden kiwifruit more palatable than the green because it has far less fuzzy hair, if any at all. If you like green kiwifruit but aren’t keen on the fuzz, simply rub it off and enjoy.

You can prepare kiwi in any number of ways, either as a sweet treat or in a savory dish. I love the idea of making kiwi into a savory dish so I’ll be experimenting in the kitchen. I hope to have a new and tasty recipe to share in my next post but until then, eat your kiwifruit.

Green and Gold Kiwi Sorbet

I don’t own an ice cream maker, though I did consider purchasing one this summer, I decided to pass on the idea (maybe next year) and continue using a simple technique to make ice cream and sorbet that has so far worked for me. The technique? Prep and cut the fruit into small pieces, freeze it, and then process the frozen fruit pieces in a food processor with any other ingredients the recipe calls for, and serve or refreeze. That’s it! The food processor does the churning work for me.

Both of these sorbets are a light and refreshing treat to enjoy anytime and are so good and healthy, and loaded with vitamin C. Green kiwifruit has a tangy tartness while the golden kiwifruit has a sugary sweetness. I prefer my sorbet lightly sweetened, if at all. I used just enough agave nectar to do the job, though feel free to use more agave if you like yours on the sweeter side. I like the bit of crunch and the attractive appearance the black seeds give each scoop.

Green Kiwifruit Sorbet

I used the tangy tart citrus flavor of lime juice to compliment the tart flavor of the green kiwifruit and used lime zest to harmonize with the natural color of this sorbet.

6 green kiwifruit [about 2 ½ – 3 cups], ends cut, peeled, chopped
¼ cup agave
¼ cup fresh lime juice
½ teaspoon lime zest
Wash, peel, and cut kiwifruit into small pieces. Spread chopped kiwifruit pieces on a cookie sheet and place in the freezer until frozen. Place frozen kiwifruit pieces, agave nectar, lime juice and lime zest in a food processor and process until creamy. At this point you can serve immediately as a soft-serve sorbet or pour the sorbet into a container with lid and return to the freezer for about an hour or so to firm up or until ready to serve.

Serves 4

Golden Kiwifruit Sorbet

Citrusy lemon compliments and balances the natural sweetness of golden kiwi and the yellow sprinkles of lemon zest blend nicely with the pretty golden pastel color of this sorbet.

6 golden kiwifruit [about 2 ½ – 3 cups], ends cut, peeled, chopped
¼ cup agave
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
½ teaspoon lemon zest
Wash, peel, and cut kiwifruit into small pieces. Spread chopped kiwifruit pieces on a cookie sheet and place in the freezer until frozen. Place frozen kiwifruit pieces, agave nectar, lemon juice and lemon zest in a food processor and process until creamy. At this point you can serve immediately as a soft-serve sorbet or pour the sorbet into a container with lid and return to the freezer for about an hour or so to firm up or until ready to serve.

Serves 4

* * *

Note: For those of you who own an ice cream maker, wash, peel, and cut the kiwifruit into small pieces and puree, along with any other ingredients called for in the recipe, in a food processor. Pour the kiwifruit puree into the ice cream maker and process according to manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer to a freezer friendly container, cover, and freeze until solid, at least 3 hours. Allow the sorbet to soften at room temperature about 30 minutes before serving.

Summer Tomatoes

 

I thought I was a rare bird, one who gets excited about fresh produce, but my husband gets just as excited, which makes grocery shopping together a lot of fun.

Both of us love tomatoes, especially Peter, he likes to eat them every day with practically every meal. We were eager to grow our own so we could enjoy fresh-from-the-garden summer tomatoes right from our own backyard. We dug up the earth and buried seeds against the advise from those who claimed tomatoes don’t grow well here. They were right it seems. Our tomato plants didn’t do well at all. We only had a few half-way decent tomatoes and many tiny cherry tomatoes. Maybe we’ll have better luck next year.

 

So our tomato fix comes from famer’s markets, Whole Foods store, our local health food store, and the organic section of the grocery store near us. We’re like two wide-eyed kids when we see all the gorgeous varieties of tomatoes on display.

A tomato is not just a tomato; it is something special and has magnificence. I love the way the Europeans romanticize tomatoes through the name they give it. In Peter’s country, the Hungarians call tomatoes paradicsom meaning paradise, the French call it pomme d’amour, meaning love apple, and the Italians call it pomodoro meaning golden apple. Americans, well, we certainly aren’t as lyrical, but depending on what part of the country you’re from, one might say tuh-MA-to, and another tuh-MAH-to.

 

Varieties of Tomatoes

There are more than 1,000 varieties of tomatoes grown in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Sizes and shapes vary from small cherry tomatoes to big beautiful heirloom tomatoes. You’ll find a colorful assortment from shades of red, green, orange, yellow, purple, and there are even stripped tomatoes too. As for flavor, they generally have a subtle sweetness mixed with a subtle bitter-acidic taste, though some tomatoes are much sweeter than others.

Some varieties of tomatoes

Cherry – tasty little one-inch tomatoes come in a variety of colors.
Cluster – red, yellow, orange tomatoes [5-6] solid on the vine.
Heirloom – cultivars of tomatoes handed down from generation that come in many varieties.
Roma – firm smooth-skinned, pink to red in color.

 

Nutritional Profile and Benefits of Tomatoes

Tomatoes are a delicious and health-giving food that is extremely rich in antioxidants, especially beta-carotene, lycopene, vitamin C, and vitamin E, making the beneficial fruits for the cardiovascular system, and some form of cancer. It is rich in potassium and contains low levels of sodium, which makes it helpful with high blood pressure and fluid retention issues.

Nutrients found in tomatoes

Beta-carotene | Calcium | Carbohydrates | Chromium | Cooper | Dietary Fiber | Iron | Lycopene | Magnesium | Manganese | Molybedenum | Potassium | Protein | Tryptophan | Vitamin A | Vitamin B1 [thiamin] | Vitamin B2 [riboflavin] | Vitamin B3 [niacin] | Vitamin B5 [pantothenic acid] | Vitamin B6 [pyridoxine] | Vitmain B7 [biotin] | Vitamin B9 [folate-folic acid] | Vitamin C | Vitamin E | Vitamin K

 

Selecting and Storing Summer Tomatoes

As a general rule and depending in variety, the best tomatoes have a bright or deep rich color, are well shaped, plump, have a sweet fragrance, smooth skin, and yield to slight pressure, with no soft spots, wrinkles, bruises, cracks, or decay marks.

Store tomatoes at room temperature away from direct sunlight. Depending on how ripe they are, they should keep in this condition up to a week.

If you need unripe or not ripe enough tomatoes to ripen quickly, place them in a paper bag with a banana or apple. The ethylene gas emitted from these fruits helps speed up ripening the tomato.

If you have overripe tomatoes, store them anywhere in the door compartment of a refrigerator. When ready to use allow the tomato to rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes. This helps to regain the tomatoes maximum flavor and juiciness.

Tomatoes in any form [whole, chopped, or pureed] freeze well.

Serving Suggestions And Recipes

  • Stuff cherry tomatoes to make as an appetizer.
  • Make a tomato platter with sliced tomatoes topped shredded basil, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, and sprinkled with pine nuts.
  • Puree tomatoes in a blender to make a soup.
  • Sprinkle dice tomatoes in soups and salads.
  • Add a tomato to your next vegetable drink or make fresh home-made tomato juice.
  • Make a big batch of tomato salsa

Stuffed Heirloom Tomatoes

I love all types of tomatoes, but this season I made it a point to become more familiar with heirloom tomatoes. The variety of colors is spectacular, and some even have patterns, like these [pictured above] I used for this recipe. These tomatoes make a pretty presentation.

Here I used a nut-based mixture but the sky is the limit for making a delicious mixture to stuff tomatoes. For easy entertaining, make a platter full of stuffed grape or cherry tomatoes to serve as an appetizer, or use medium to large tomatoes – like I did – to make a meal of it.

Stuffed Heirloom Tomatoes

4 large heirloom tomatoes, washed, tops cut off, and center carved out
2 cups cashew nuts, soaked and rinsed
2 cups kale, washed and torn into small pieces
1 cup fresh parsley, washed
3 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
¼ cup onions, peeled and roughly chopped
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and pepper to taste
Season the inside of each tomato with a pinch of salt and pepper, and set aside. In a food processor, add all the remaining ingredients [cashews, kale, parsley, garlic, onions, extra virgin olive oil, sea salt and pepper] and process until thoroughly combined. Stuff each tomato with the cashew-kale mixture.

Serve garnished with fresh parsley leaves.

This recipe can be made a day in advance, cover and store in a refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit

Prickly pear might be considered an “exotic” fruit to some folks, but where I live, it is commonly available. This plant, Opuntia ficus-indica grows wild throughout the American southwest and I’m also a stones throw away from Mexico, where it has been a staple of their diet for thousands of years. I find prickly pear, especially at this time of year, readily available in grocery stores, health food stores, and at farmer’s markets from farmer’s who grow them, and for the first time, I finally tried this noteworthy fruit. It was a learning experience in every sense of the word.

During one of my shopping excursions, I picked through a pile of this cacti, examining and holding them in my hands, all the while asking questions and chatting about them with the produce guys. One of the guys offered to give us a sample and wandered off to get a knife. Meantime Peter was concerned that I was handling these cacti so freely and warned me to be careful. I didn’t feel anything sticking me, the skin looked smooth and free of any dreadful thorns or what-not, so I didn’t think much of it and said it was okay. Well, I paid for it later.

The produce guy returned with a knife and cut open a prickly pear. The insides revealed a beautiful vibrant red color flesh. He handed us each a slice – me, Peter, the other produce guy, and a curious shopper – and we all had a taste. I couldn’t quite put a label on the flavor at first, but after really tasting it, the closest comparative flavor would be to a watermelon, but more subtle, almost bland, yet sweet. My trusted produce informants explained that the flavor depends on the variety of prickly pear cactus, and that the range of flavors can be similar to strawberries, watermelons, citrus, figs, bananas, honeydew melons, and kiwifruit, with a much less acidity. Prickly pear is full of seeds, and I’m told these seeds have use, more on that later. Needless to say, a few of these prickly fruits ended up in my shopping cart.

On the way home, I felt the first couple of prickly stickers poking from my hand. I didn’t know what to call those nearly invisible pokey things until I did a Google search and found they are called “globins”. Throughout the day, I would get pricked with yet another globin in another area of my hand. Tweezer surgery was very necessary to rid myself of those annoying globins. On that note, be careful when handling these pretty prickly fruits. Next time I shop for them, I’ll try using one of those plastic bags to handle the fruit. They don’t call them prickly for nothing.

 

Prickly pear cactus is like a fruit and vegetable rolled up into one plant. It has two different edible sections, the pad and the pear. The pad of the cactus, or nopal, is considered the vegetable part, and the prickly pear, also known as tuna, Indian fig, or cactus pear, is like a fruit. The prickly pear grows from the cactus pad, it is first a flower blossom that protrudes from the pad (nopal), and when the blossom fades, it produces the edible fruit.

Depending on the variety, this fruit is available from early spring through late fall, but September through November is the best harvest time for eating fresh ripen cactus pears.

Prickly Pear Cactus Fruitsphotography by Stevetoearth.

Nutritional Profile and Benefits of Prickly Pear Cactus

Even since the time of the Aztecs, before the spanish people came to conquer Mexico, they said prickly pear was good for any kind of disease. – Dr. Maria L. Fernandez

The fruit, like other cacti, is a succulent and is mostly composed of water. Prickly pear provides essential nutrients. It is a source of carbohydrates and is an excellent source of antioxidants, having substantial amounts of vitamin C. Also, I found in comparison that prickly pear and aloe vera have a lot in common.

Some of the health benefits associated with prickly pear:

  • Immune support
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Helps manage cholesterol

Some of the nutrients found in prickly pear cactus:

Flavonoids | Pectin | Vitamin A | Vitamin B | Vitamin C

Selecting and Storing Prickly Pear Cactus

If you plan to harvest any part of the cacti, the fruit or the pad, please wear heavy-duty protective gloves.

Choose prickly pear cactus that is firm with a bright red skin. When the fruit is ripe, it is best to store it in a refrigerator.

How to Handle and Peel Prickly Pear Cactus

Have a bowl of cold water, tongs, paper towels, and a vegetable peeler handy.

  1. Place the prickly pear cactus in a bowl of water to clean, and this also help remove some of the spines.
  2. Remove the fruit with tongs.
  3. Use the towels to hold the fruit while peeling it with a vegetable peeler.

Serving Suggestions

  • Prickly pear pulp can be pushed or mashed through a strainer to make a fresh sauce, a puree, or vinaigrette.
  • Use to make a drink or in smoothies by placing the peeled fruit in a food processor or blender with filtered water, process/blend and pour through a strainer to remove any seeds.
  • Make a prickly pear sorbet or popsicles.

How To Use The Seeds From Prickly Pear Cactus

The seeds can be dried and ground into flour, interesting. I love the versatility of natural foods. I haven’t tried this yet, but I’ll soon pick up more cactus pears, save the seeds, dehydrate them, and see what happens. I’ll keep you posted.