Cooking, Eating, and Diving In

“I just have to dive in.” That’s what I’ve been telling myself and others I meet when I tell them about my new food adventure. I’ve been wanting to do cooking demos and share my joy of cooking and mealtime with other people for quite a while. This week I finally just dove in and hosted my first pop-up dinner demo. It went remarkably well, with a few hiccups of course, and I’m excited to do another one!

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My Granny Garrison with my Aunty Sue, cooking away. That could very well be a tomato in Granny’s hand.

I’ve loved to cook and eat for as long as I can remember. Some of my first memories in the kitchen were with my maternal grandmother, preparing elaborate holiday meals as she had me roll out sugar cookie dough to keep me in the kitchen, yet occupied. I remember her exploring a German menu, cooking schnitzel and sausages and homemade sauerkraut. I remember in the summers when she’d let me, my brother and each of my cousins choose and prepare our very own menu for dinner one night. Cooking and mealtime was special, revered, almost sacred. You took your time and prepared everything with love and care.

So when my best childhood girlfriend sparked an idea about doing cooking demos in my house, I was intrigued…skeptical, too, but intrigued more so. “Would anyone really want to watch me cook?” I wondered. Would they want to come into MY home; listen to me gush about fresh tomatoes or my advice about seeking out local food? Perhaps the biggest question for me was a bit more practical — could I make a business of this?

Back to “diving in.” I hosted a small group of people who I knew shared my love of cooking and food, whom I trust to give me good, honest feedback and whom I happen to like, too. And they helped me answer those questions plus a whole bunch more. Based on their insight and feedback, I think I might be on to something. I would have never found that feeling that I just might be on the right track if I’d just sat on the side of the pool, dangling my feet in the water. Diving in is the only way for me to figure some things out.

I’m going to host another pop-up dinner demo in the coming weeks, and just like the inaugural event, I’m going to do a beta demo, applying what I learned from the last one and refining some more before I officially launch. In exchange, I’m looking for good, honest feedback and help securing future paid events. To give you an idea of what to expect, here’s my menu from the first event:

Prosciutto melon bites with fresh basil

Fresh End-of-Summer Gazpacho 

Seasonal greens with roasted fig vinaigrette, shallots, blue cheese and walnuts

Julia Child’s Roast Chicken 

Macerated peaches in rum and honey over vanilla bean ice cream

I dove in. I’m still treading water, but I’m in it. If you want to be a guinea pig at my next dinner or you’re interested in learning more, subscribe to this blog or send me a private email at jen@jenssidedishes.com. I’d love to welcome you into my home and my kitchen.

Tomato Abundance? Make This Easy, Fresh Sauce.

How was that Gazpacho? Delicious, right? So my Gazpacho recipe caused you to go nuts at the farmers market and you bought 23 tomatoes for a recipe that only needed two, all because those tomatoes were bright, plump and colorful. You couldn’t resist. I’ve so been there. Now, what do you do with the 21 other tomatoes you bought? As delicious as they are, you can only eat so many BLTs. I totally get it.

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Sauce is a great way to use less-than-perfect tomatoes. Just cut out the bad parts.

Take those lovely tomatoes and make some sauce. Once you prepare, cook and eat fresh marinara sauce, you will never (and I mean never, ever) buy the jarred kind again. Just like the Gazpacho recipe, my homemade tomato sauce requires some prep work, but it is otherwise easy to make. As an added bonus, your kitchen smells ahhhhh-mazing.

The beauty about homemade tomato sauce is that your quantities and measurements don’t have to be exact for the flavor to be amazing. You just need to start with great tasting fresh tomatoes and you’ll be fine. So grab those 17 extra tomatoes (you’ve had at least four BLTs, right?), and let’s get sauced.

Fresh Tomato Sauce (as you read my blog and my recipes, you’ll notice I call most summer recipes “fresh,” because that’s the only way to be!)

  • 10 or more ripe red tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup of good extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 cloves of garlic, crushed and then minced
  • 1 Tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 teaspoon of dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon of dried basil

First, you gotta peel the tomatoes. I know, I know, it’s a pain, but important. Boil enough water to submerge your largest tomato in a medium sauce pan. While you’re waiting for your water to boil, take the tip of a sharp knife and cut a shallow “x” just through the skin on the bottom of each tomato. Scoring the tomatoes makes them easier to peel if you’re wondering why you need to mutilate your tomatoes before you kill them much like a serial killer.

Once the water is boiling, drop three or four tomatoes, or as many as will fit, into the water. Leave the tomatoes in the boiling water for about 30 seconds. Remove them with a slotted spoon and set them aside to cool. Continue until you’ve finished with all your tomatoes.

Grab a big bowl and your sharp knife. Holding a tomato in one hand, and remember that “x” you put on each tomato? Using your sharp knife, grab a flap from the “x” between your thumb and your knife blade and gently pull the skin off. It should come right off. Cut out the core of the tomato, too. Do this over your big bowl to capture all the juices and other tomato bits. Discard the skin and squeeze the tomato in your hand to crush it slightly. Drop it in the bowl and repeat with all your tomatoes.

Once your tomatoes are peeled, crushed and juicy in your big bowl, grab a dutch oven or medium stock pot and put it over medium heat. Add the olive oil and heat it up. Once the oil loosens a bit and easily swirls at the bottom of your pan, add the minced garlic. Cook over medium heat for one to two minutes or until fragrant, being careful not to burn it (burned garlic is bitter and brown – yuck!). Then dump the entire bowl of tomato goodness into your pan. Add sugar, salt and pepper, bring to a boil, and then reduce heat to a simmer, and let that thing go. I usually simmer it for at least an hour, but you could go longer depending on how thick you like it. The longer you cook it, the more it will reduce and intensify the flavors. After about three hours, though, your returns diminish.

As you simmer your sauce, you’ll notice the tomatoes break down. I’ve made this sauce and left it chunky at this point, but I’ve found that most people (especially my kids) like a smoother sauce. Grab a hand-held immersion blender and blend the sauce directly in your pan to your desired consistency. If you don’t have a hand-held, let the sauce cool a bit and throw it in a blender or food processor. Return it to your cooking pan. Add the dried herbs and more salt and pepper to taste. 

Now you’re ready to ladle that sauce over whatever you want: fresh pasta, chicken parmesan, zucchini, sausage, you name it. Or you can freeze it or can it if you’re especially ambitious. Either way, you’ll have fresh tomato sauce in January, and you’ll forget all about the time it took to peel all those tomatoes.

I freeze my sauce in quart-sized bags. I ladle the sauce into two-cup portions and pour into the plastic bag. I lay it flat in the freezer, so it’s not a big frozen blob when I want to use it. To thaw it, I remove directly from the freezer, run it under hot water for about a minute, hit it against my counter to break it up, peel back the plastic bag and warm it directly in a small sauce pan. Easy, peasy, and oh, so delicious!

A note on using fresh herbs vs. dried herbs. A lot of fresh summer herbs (I’m looking at you basil and oregano) turn brown, gross and flavorless when exposed to the heat of cooking. If you’re going to eat the sauce right away, you can add fresh herbs to each plate after you’ve ladled the sauce onto whatever you’re eating. Otherwise, for flavor and appearance, it’s best to use dried herbs in this recipe.