Simple Tomato Soup

Turning summer’s fresh fruit into a warm fall soup
As the first day of Autumn has come and gone, I’m knee-deep in garden cleanup, preparing it for the long winter months ahead. Before removing the tomato plants from the garden, I picked the last tomatoes—the kings of the summer garden—and was inspired to make them into a warming fall soup to chase away the chill of the autumn air.

This version of tomato soup that I’m offering retains the tomato’s fresh flavor and will remind you more of a summer gazpacho, but it’s a warm, milk-enriched version that, when paired with good bread and a green salad, will be the star of a fall evening meal.

I started by washing the tomatoes and cutting off the stems. Then, I puree them in the food processor with no scalding water or peeling involved. I took two green and one red bell pepper from the garden and two small onions and processed these into a separate puree.

I covered the bottom of a stockpot with good olive oil and allowed it to heat before adding the pepper and onion puree. I sauteed this mixture for about five to eight minutes, constantly stirring to avoid burning. I then added the tomato puree and allowed it to come to a boil and finished it by turning the heat back to a simmer for about 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, I added whole milk until the bright red color turned to a golden orange, reminiscent of the turning autumn leaves, and reheated without allowing it to come back to the boil. Salt and black pepper to taste was all the seasoning required.

Fresh tomatoes, peppers, and onions combined with minimal processing, and a short cooking time allows the fresh tomato flavor to shine through, and wholesome milk adds a richness that helps warm the body and soul.

I hope you enjoy this rustic dish as much as I did, and I look forward to hearing from you about your fall activities in both the kitchen and the garden.

Make a Hot, Savory Turkey Soup for a Cold, Unruly December

The kitchen fire crackled away this morning as I lingered over both a cup of coffee and my plans for this week’s kitchen activities. The cooler weather, along with the root vegetables and cold-weather greens I found at the farm stand, has inspired me to enjoy more stews and soups on my table, and this morning’s planning included how to do just that.

The Thanksgiving celebration also adds to my larder the inevitable treasure of leftovers that I plan to make into one of my favorites—a hearty turkey soup. Not only is homemade turkey soup delicious, but it is, I believe, a great example of how the soup pot is the foundation of a well-run kitchen. I’ll use the soup pot to take full advantage of the farm root crops and greens and the remains of the holiday leftovers to turn all into a nice, hot soup that will soothe my soul and my frugal nature.

The first step, after the celebratory Thanksgiving meal, requires me to make sure all the leftover turkey and any soup-worth vegetables are packed away. The next step is to pick any remaining meat from the turkey carcass and add that to our supply of leftovers. Don’t forget to reserve any pan drippings and/or broth from roasting the turkey, as these can all be used in the soup as well.

I then take the entire carcass and place it in a stockpot with a single onion cut in half, two carrots peeled and cut in half, and one stalk of celery cut in half. I do not take a lot of time preparing these vegetables as I am using them only to flavor the broth and will not be using them in the final soup. Cover the contents of the pot with water, and when this has come to a boil, reduce the heat and allow to simmer for about two to three hours.

When the pot of broth has finished its three-hour simmer on the stovetop, allow it to cool, and strain through a colander to remove the vegetables and turkey carcass. The remaining broth will be a rich and nutritious base for this savory soup.

Now, with the broth completed, we can move on to the actual preparation of the soup. I begin with two onions, four stalks of celery, and four carrots that I clean and chop into bite-size pieces. These vegetables can be sautéed in a preheated soup pot with a little olive oil until just starting to soften. At this time, I add my turkey meat that has been chopped into bite-size pieces, any vegetables left from the holiday celebration, and the farm stand produce, which can include sweet potatoes, chard, spinach, turnips, carrots, and kale. Also, frozen or canned corn is always a welcome addition.

I now add the broth and any saved pan drippings from the roasting of the turkey, and bring the pot to a simmer. At this time, you can add pasta, egg noodles, rice, barley, or lentils to enhance the already flavorful and rustic soup.

I would suggest enjoying a bowl right out of the pot before saving a couple of servings in the refrigerator for later in the week or for lunches and before freezing the rest. This great soup is perfect for dinner by the fireside or for a quick, hot, savory meal that will be required to get you through December’s holiday preparations. 

An Italian Way With Tomatoes

As the heat and humidity of summer settle over the landscape, the vivid red of sun-ripened tomatoes begins to peek out from among the green tangle of vines. And, in my opinion, the greatest season of the year is upon us. Tomatoes ripened by the summer sun are a gift, and one must do everything required to enjoy this short but prolific seasonal delicacy. In addition to enjoying fresh tomatoes in sandwiches, salads, and the all-American BLT, you can also capture this seasonal flavor through canning. It’s a way to preserve a small but glorious bit of summer’s essence after the season passes.

My tomato preservation and canning adventures from past years have included spaghetti sauce, whole peeled, and juice. This year, I was inspired to try a recipe that I found in Honey from A Weed, the culinary cult classic penned by Patience Gray during the middle years of the twentieth century. Ms. Gray, an Englishwoman, spent her life defining not only the path of women within the workforce and single motherhood, but also identifying and establishing many of today’s culinary trends, like seasonal cooking, fresh whole foods, and elements of the farm-to-table and slow food movements. This book recounts her life living and cooking in the Mediterranean, specifically Greece and the southern part of Italy. Patience not only weaves a wonderful story of her life and culinary experiences but also documents many simple and ancient recipes and techniques that support a close-to-the-earth lifestyle.

Home-made bread rubbed with garlic and sprinkled with olive oil, shared – with a flask of wine – between working people, can be more convivial than any feast.

Patience Gray

This old-world approach toward tomato preservation intrigued me, and I was not disappointed by the simple technique and the unbelievable results that it produced. Once again, quality ingredients combined with a simple approach and light hand within the context of the process results in a product that satisfies and contributes to the joy of living a good life.

I have outlined below my slight adaptation of the original recipe as recorded by Patience but believe the results will not disappoint.

Take ½ bushel of very ripe plum tomatoes. Wash them thoroughly in cool water, and place whole in a large stockpot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, and cook until the tomatoes are soft; then cool.

When cool, process the cooked tomatoes to remove the seeds and skins; this will produce a rather thin, pulpy tomato puree. I use a commercially available tomato processing device, but a food mill or chinois could work just as well.

Clean and sterilize glass canning jars, and place into each a slice of onion and a sprig of garden-fresh basil. Bring the processed tomato puree to a boil, and ladle into your prepared canning jars, leaving appropriate headspace. Wipe clean the rim to assure a good seal.

Process the filled and capped jars to the specification required of your canning approach—either water bath or pressure canner. Many online and print resources are available to aid you with processing times for both methods.

This ½ bushel of plum tomatoes produces approximately 6 quarts of a very fine quality tomato product that will become a pantry staple and the basis for many a delightful sauce, soup, or casserole.

When the warm, sunny days of summer fade into the cool days of fall and dismal days of winter, you can open your pantry door for a little reminder of the summer past, its goodness, and the promise of spring to come.

Cherry Pudding or Clafoutis???

A slightly cool summer morning recently found me in the garden at Cow Hill Cottage checking on the progress of the forthcoming bean crop as well as keeping the weeds at bay. The quality of the light and sounds and aromas that surrounded me transported me back to my childhood and memories of my maternal grandmother “Nan” as she was known to her grandchildren.

A talented farm wife, mother, and cook, Nan’s home was always open to welcome one and all, and her kitchen was never found to be bare of some delicious offering. This particular summer morning my thoughts were drawn to memories of Nan’s Cherry Pudding made with ripe sour cherries and served with milk and sugar, which was my grandfather’s approach to most desserts, including fruit-filled Jell-O, if you can believe it.

Nan’s Cherry Pudding recipe was passed down through her family—the Kellys—hailing from the Walnut, Nook, and Half Moon areas of Juniata County. Although I have found that the tradition of Cherry Pudding and other fruit-filled puddings to be commonplace within Central Pennsylvania, my real surprise is the origin of the recipe—a French recipe—that I came upon while researching desserts for my original restaurant some years ago.

The simple recipe that follows is a part of the food tradition of the former Limousin region of France. Known for its rich farming history and a variety of oak harvested from its bucolic forests that is used to make barrels for the aging of brandy, Limousin is located in the south-central area of France, and its Clafoutis (Kla-foo-TEE) has been a classic dessert of the region for hundreds of years.

Purist insist that a true Clafoutis is made from only cherries—and un-pitted ones at that—as they believe the pits impart an improved cherry flavor throughout the dessert. The dessert is traditionally served warm with a generous sprinkle of powdered sugar over the top as the pudding is removed from the oven. Although similar desserts are made with other fresh summer fruits, the proud people of Limousin would consider these non-cherry varieties to be a Flaugnarde (a baked French dessert resembling a large pancake) and not a true Clafoutis.

No matter what you call it, or if you subscribe to the pitted or un-pitted cherries, I believe you will agree that it is a perfect summer dessert and one of the many pleasures in a simple life well lived.

I have shared two recipes below for your enjoyment. The first is my family’s Cherry Pudding, and the second is a traditional Clafoutis. Please feel free to add to this culinary story with your comments and observations.

Cherry Pudding

Ingredients:

2 Large Eggs

1 Cup Sugar

1 Tablespoon Melted Shortening

1 Cup Milk

3 Cups Flour

1 Teaspoon Baking Soda

1 Quart Pitted Sour Cherries or Other Fruit of Your Choice

Soften butter to grease the baking dish.

Method:

Mix all ingredients and pour into a well-greased baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes until a cake tester inserted into the pudding comes out clean.

Serve with powdered sugar or sugar and milk.

Clafoutis

Ingredients:

1 Pound of Cherries

½ Cup Sugar

1 Cup Flour

4 Tablespoons Butter, melted

1 Pinch Salt

3 Eggs

1 Cup Milk

2 Tablespoons Butter (to grease the pan)

3 Tablespoons Sugar (for the garnish)

Method:

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Remove the cherry stems.

Grease a round 10-inch pan with butter and arrange the cherries.


In a bowl, cream the sugar and eggs. Then add the flour and salt. Stir in melted butter. Then pour the milk and stir to obtain a light and smooth dough. Pour the mixture over the cherries.


Bake the Clafoutis for 40 minutes.

Sprinkle with sugar as you take the Clafoutis out of the oven.

Serve warm or cold.

Simple Seasonal Pasta—A Non-recipe

Simplicity is often the key to perfect satisfaction, and without a doubt, a simple pasta toss of seasonal vegetables prepared with a light hand is a simple delight.

Sunday evening, while taking a late stroll through the garden at Cow Hill Cottage, I found the first sugar peas of the season hanging thick on the vine. These sweet jewels of early summer, combined with the last of the spring asparagus, was all that I needed for a perfect Sunday supper.

No recipe is required; I chopped the asparagus into bite-size bits and threw the peas and asparagus into a pan for a quick sauté in olive oil until just soft but with a slight bite remaining (al dente). Into the sauté pan I added the pasta directly from the boiling pot, al dente as well, and combined the mixture with copious amounts of freshly grated Parmesan cheese, a large knob of butter, and, of course, salt and pepper.

As I sat on the porch enjoying my meal and the early summer evening, I could only reflect on how the very best of life often can be found within the context of simplicity—like a seasonal pasta in a life well lived.

What simple, tasty pasta dishes have you thrown together lately?

Rhubarb—Rooted in History, Sweetened with Sugar

This past week I spent a good amount of time traveling the byways of Central Pennsylvania as I enjoyed a week of vacation in pursuit of one of my many interests—fly fishing.

I fished a few days in the northern tier of the Commonwealth on the Pine Creek and its tributaries, Slate Run, Little Pine, and Cedar Run. During the latter part of the week, Scott Bubb, the Winemaker at Seven Mountains Wine Cellars, and I whiled away the warm spring days fishing the famous Penns Creek.

Throughout my travels to and from various fishing locations, I could not but notice the proliferation of rhubarb tucked at the edge of almost every garden that I passed. In fact, I would venture to guess that rhubarb may be one of the most popular garden plants in Pennsylvania. I myself have a large plot of it in the corner of the kitchen garden at Cow Hill Cottage.

Rhubarb has a storied history. It’s an actual lesson in human history itself within the context of mythology, natural healing, and culinary culture. First documented as a medicinal plant in China as early as 2700 BC with the root used as a laxative, it traveled via the silk road into Europe and eventually to the British Isles. Also, one cannot exclude from this discussion the view of the early Persian Culture that the human race itself sprung from the lowly rhubarb seed.

From a culinary point of view, rhubarb has a long tradition of being the basis for many a sweet dish, with Strawberry Rhubarb Pie and Stewed Rhubarb being two of the most common. But from an Eastern European point of view, it was often paired with meats and other savory dishes. In fact, the tradition of its use in sweet desserts is so ingrained in the American culture that the United States changed rhubarb’s classification from a vegetable to a fruit in the late 1940s.

At Stonefly Café, we feature local rhubarb as a unique wine produced by Seven Mountains Wine Cellars, and it’s the basis for our Rhubarb House Churned Ice Cream and Rhubarb Cream Brulé.

For those of you who want to add this storied perennial to your garden, I give you the following basic cultivation and harvest tips:

What to plant. Choose a variety that suits your climate. Ask a knowledgeable person at your local garden center or greenhouse for the best local varieties. Or, follow the long-held tradition of sharing planting materials, and ask a neighbor or fellow gardener to allow you to have a start from their plot.

When to plant. You can plant rhubarb crowns in early spring or in the fall when the roots are dormant.

Where to plant. Rhubarb grows best in climates where the ground freezes during the winter. It likes full sun and well-drained soil. Allow adequate room when planting as rhubarb plants can measure up to 4 feet wide and tall.

How to plant. Prepare a large hole, about the size of a bushel basket, and fill almost to the top with rich compost or rotted manure. Place the crown in the center and cover with 1 to 2 inches of manure and compost. Mulch with 2 inches thick of straw, compost, or shredded bark.

How to maintain. Give the plants lots of water, as this is key to producing tender stalks. Apply a generous layer of manure around the plants annually to assure a bountiful harvest, and maintain a good mulch around the base. Dig and split the rhubarb roots every five or so years while the plants are dormant in early spring or fall.

How to harvest. Give rhubarb one growing season to establish, and then begin harvesting in the second year. Once the stalks are 12 to 18 inches long, cut at the base. Leave at least half the stalks on the plant each time so they continue to add growth. The typical harvest period is 8 to 10 weeks from April through June.

My favorite rhubarb cake recipe follows, along with several tempting toppings. What’s your favorite rhubarb recipe?

Rhubarb Cake

Cake:

2 tsp Soft Butter

1 Cup Sugar

1 Egg

2 Cup Flour

1 tsp Baking Powder

½ tsp Baking Soda

½ tsp Salt

1 Cup Buttermilk

2 Cup Rough Chop Rhubarb

Streusel Topping:

¼ Cup Flour

¼  Cup Sugar

2 tbsp Melted Butter

Vanilla Sauce:

½ Cup Butter

¾ Cup Sugar

½ Cup Evaporated Milk

1 tsp Vanilla Extract

Method, Cake:
Cream Butter and Sugar

Beat in the Egg

Add remainder of dry cake ingredients

Add the Buttermilk

Fold in the chopped Rhubarb

Fill a well-greased 9-inch square cake pan.

Method, Streusel:
Combine streusel topping ingredients and sprinkle over cake batter in pan.


Bake at 350 degrees F for 40 to 45 minutes.

Method, Vanilla Sauce:
Combine the Butter, Sugar, and Evaporated Milk and bring to a boil, cooking and stirring 2 to 3 minutes until thick.

Remove from heat and stir in the Vanilla Extract.

Serve cake with Vanilla Sauce on the side.

Spring Tonic Season Dandelion, Nettle, and Burdock

The rhythms of the natural world serve as our constant companions throughout this journey we call life. When living a simple lifestyle, immersed within the meter of the seasons, we often find this essential connection to our natural world more poignant when experiencing spring’s renewal process.

An essential element of this seasonal renewal is the spring tonic.

I have asked my neighbor and friend Sue Burns to share with us her knowledge of the herbal and natural healing world. I find Sue’s perspective on herbal, holistic, and natural health to be firmly based within a context of thoughtful consideration and practical advice.

As an introduction, Sue’s bio follows, and I hope that you will enjoy her insight into the seasonal rituals of the spring tonic as much as I have.

Sue is a Certified Holistic Nutrition Consultant and Certified Holistic Health Educator. She holds degrees from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Clayton College of Natural Health, and Hawthorn University. Through the Mt. Nittany Institute of Natural Health, she participated in an herbal studies program under the direction of Jennifer Tucker. For seven years, she was the Nutrition Educator for Curves Fitness Center in Mifflin and Juniata Counties, facilitating weight management classes and healthy living workshops. Before retiring, Sue offered holistic nutrition consultations and classes via her business, Nourishing Journeys. In addition to her family and friends, the joys in her life include cooking, reading, and travel. She lives in Reedsville with her husband Rich. They have two grown daughters and three grandchildren.

Spring Tonic Season Dandelion, Nettle, and Burdock, OH MY!

The spring-cleaning bug bit me recently. In response, I began purging post-dated items from our food pantry, a chore with no reward except the smug assurance that our spices are now arranged in alphabetical order and that five-year-old sleeve of crackers from a Christmas gift basket no longer litters a shelf.

In my haste of wanting to finish this mundane task, I knocked a small rectangular box to my feet. Ah, yes, I smiled, looking at its contents. This was surely a message from Mother Nature and her emerging spring season, for within the container was dandelion root tea! The perfect spring elixir to chase away my sluggish cabin fever. It was time to put the kettle on.

As I was sipping and savoring the earthy blend, I recalled fond memories of early spring days many years ago. My grandfather lovingly tended a large, organic vegetable garden long before it was trendy to do so. The first greens to emerge from the corners of the lawn and between the rows of onions and peas were tender dandelion leaves. Some gardeners call them weeds, but my grandfather called them “delectable.” He taught me how to harvest the delicate leaves carefully. I would then tote them into their kitchen and, with the help of my grandmother, proudly serve them as the “spring tonic” that she touted was “good for what ailed you.”

Turns out, my grandmother was right.

Many years following my dandelion-plucking days, I found myself once again foraging for “spring tonic” herbs while part of a class of novice wild crafters expertly guided by herbalist Jennifer Tucker. This time, we were on an expedition for not only dandelion but also nettle and burdock. Jennifer explained that the pesky weeds of nettle, burdock, and dandelion are actually powerful, detoxifying herbs. Concentrated in both their leaves and roots are high levels of healing nutrients. Oh my!

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

In addition to giving our energy level a boost and restoring our immune system for overall health, dandelion can reduce blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol. Dandelion wards off inflammation while its root gives our liver a much-needed spring cleaning.

Nettle (Urtica dioica)

I learned the hard way to identify nettle. Although its leaves resemble plants in the mint family, its telltale sting is not forgotten; thus, wear gloves when harvesting. While its leaves are harsh, the healing benefits from this herb are nothing but soothing. It is nettle I reach for when feeling run down or a bit frazzled. Due to seasonal allergies, the month of August is bearable for me only because nettle is my daily companion. I also depend on its anti-inflammatory properties to help with the aches of arthritis. Traditionally, nettle’s key uses are that of a detoxifying and cleansing herb, and it combines nicely with burdock and dandelion as well.

Burdock (Arctium lappa)

According to medical herbalist Andrew Chevallier, “burdock is one of the foremost detoxifying herbs in both Western and Chinese herbal medicine.” Similar to dandelion, burdock also has anti-inflammatory properties. It also cleanses the liver, gall bladder, blood, and kidneys. Burdock is a great lymphatic and adrenal gland stimulator. With a tuned-up lymph system, we build a stronger immunity. Burdock is a great defense against chronic urinary tract infections and kidney stones and has antibiotic and antifungal properties. Rarely is burdock used on its own. Often it is combined with other herbs, such as dandelion, to balance its strong cleansing actions.

Obtaining the herbs

If you are feeling confident and are seeking an adventure in the flora and fauna of your area, you can forage for spring tonic herbs. Both the leaves and roots can be used, making these plants very versatile. For details of harvesting and preparing, check out the resources of Rosemary Gladstar and Susun Weed for step-by-step advice. 

However, if you want the benefits of these herbs without the digging, you can easily access these herbs at your local health food store or online. For the most part, they will come in the form of teas or dried herbs. Tinctures are great and readily available, too. I find them to be a quick and easy formulary for getting your tonic “on the run.” In addition to decoctions, tinctures, and teas, and except for fresh nettle leaves, the herbs mentioned in this article can be eaten fresh as a side dish or in smoothies and soups. Fresh nettle leaves must be cooked first to remove the “sting.” It is also important to harvest your herbs from areas free from chemicals and pesticides.

Here are some retail sources that I like for spring tonic herbs:

Once you have your herbs, it is time to steep a comforting and healing brew. Here’s how:

Spring Tonic Tea

1 Tablespoon each of:

Burdock Root

Dandelion Root

Dandelion Leaves

Nettle Leaves

Red Clover Blossoms (optional)

Begin making a decoction by placing the burdock and dandelion roots in a saucepan; add one quart of water; bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain the herbs from the liquid.

Place the fresh dandelion leaves, nettle leaves, and red clover blossoms into a quart jar.

Pour the strained hot root decoction over the fresh herbs and steep for 30 to 60 minutes. The longer it steeps, the stronger the tea. Enjoy hot, at room temperature, or iced. This is also delicious blended with fruit juices.

Follow grandma’s wisdom, spring means more than a time to clean out our pantries. It is also time to put the kettle on and “come clean” from the inside out.

Another bit of wisdom: It is wise to consult your health care provider before using herbal supplements. Be especially cautious if you are taking prescription medication as there may be side effects.