Roasted Asparagus with Creamy Tomato Sauce

Asparagus
Nothing really sings of spring like Asparagus. The little stalks, poking up so proudly, and tasting so very green are the essence of all that is springtime. Asparagus was a seasonal vegetable before eating seasonally was cool – I remember eating lots of asparagus during my childhood, but only in the springtime. (Do not speak to me of the horror that is frozen asparagus or – shudder – CANNED asparagus. Part of the point of asparagus is its texture – that perfect balance between crisp and yielding with just a tiny snap as your teeth close on the stalk.

Raw Asparagus
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Back to Basics: Homemade Salad Dressing

Vinaigrette 101
Despite what my husband thinks, I do try to avoid foodie preciousness. I’m short on time, like everyone else, and I make liberal use of shortcuts in my cooking. I get that premade ingredients make cooking easier and more accessible. But there are some things that making from scratch is such a deeply ingrained habit that I wouldn’t think of buying them premade. For example: I never buy bottled salad dressing.

Salad dressing may not seem like a hill to die on, but homemade is so simple (once you know how), and it tastes so much cleaner. It’s free of the gums and sugars and preservatives you get in even high-end bottled dressing. And it’s pretty infinitely variable.

Making salad dressing has become like breathing to me, but as I’ve been trying to put my feet up lately and assigning the salad making task to the husband, I realized that it’s not universal knowledge. The key is knowing what ingredients to use and what ratio to use them in.

I didn’t always grow up on homemade dressing. Sure, my mom always made Caesar from scratch, and my dad was a dab hand with blue cheese, but I remember a parade of bottles of Italian dressing marching through my childhood. Then balsamic vinegar came on the scene, and we started to dress salads with oil and vinegar. But it never had the feeling of “salad dressing.” I remember sitting at a little cafe in the South of France one summer when I was in high school, and wondering why my oil and vinegar dressing wasn’t like the perfect vinaigrette you find on every green salad in France.

And then I discovered the secret.
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Preserving Summer — Tomato Jam

Sweet Tomato Jam

How on earth is it the end of August? Labor Day is just around the corner, but I still have so much summer to get in! We haven’t gone to the beach, or made s’mores, or even gone to the Hollywood Bowl. And I need to get in several more hours being lazy in the hammock. I feel like I’m turning into one of those old people who is constantly exclaiming about how fast time passes, but it does. This summer has passed in the blink of an eye.

When I was a child, the summers stretched into infinity. I don’t know if it was that each summer was a greater proportion of my life, or if it was just that I had more time to slow down, visit the library, stretch out on the grass with a book, and let time stop.

Sweet Tomato Jam

The Nuni is in that childhood stretch of time passing slowly, and she so badly wants it to charge on, full speed ahead. In the past few weeks, the Nuni (who will turn four in less than a month) has adopted a new persona, and has told anyone who will listen that her name is Polish (as in making silver shine, not as in Pope John Paul II), and she is seven. Those two things are intertwined. Of course, it is moments like this that make me want to stop time, to preserve forever the moment when my daughter is on the cusp of childhood, and nothing sounds better than being seven.

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The Care and Keeping of Strawberries

Springtime is strawberry season! And even though the strawberries aren’t quite there yet (the heavy rains we’ve had in California have really impacted the flavor), that hasn’t stopped me from buying and eating pounds of them — I’ve loved them since I was a baby. For your reading pleasure, below are 10 things you may not know about my favorite fruit.

Strawberries

1. Strawberries are grown in every state in the US, but 88% of the strawberries sold in the United States are grown in California.
2. The best strawberries come from Harry’s Berries, in Oxnard. Don’t believe me? My cousin works for Thomas Keller, and she told me that Chef Keller orders Harry’s Berries for his New York restaurant.
3. Strawberries carry a heavy pesticide load, so look for organic berries, or pesticide free (Harry’s aren’t organic, but they do grow without pesticides)
4. The best way to eat strawberries is straight out of the basket and slightly sun warmed until your fingers are stained pink from the juice.
5. The second best way to eat strawberries is dipped in creme fraiche and turbinado sugar. Strawberry shortcake and pavlova tie for third.
6. If you have some supermarket strawberries that are less than perfectly red and sweet, slice them up and toss them with a little balsamic vinegar and brown sugar. This enhances the color and the flavor.
7. The best way to store strawberries is in a sealed glass jar. They’ll last at room temperature for a couple of extra days, and in your refrigerator for over a week. However, though they maintain their texture and don’t spoil, the flavor does dissipate.
8. The fragrance and flavor of strawberries depends on a balance of acid and sweetness. When you cook strawberries, they yield a lot of juice, lose some color, and lose a lot of that acid which makes the flavor so balanced. Always add some acid in the form of lemon juice or vinegar when you’re cooking strawberries, but most of the best strawberry dishes use raw strawberries.
9. If your strawberries have mushy spots and you don’t really want to eat them, slice them up and throw them in a jar with some sugar and top with rum, vodka or brandy. The alcohol and sugar will preserve the berries in the refrigerator almost indefinitely, and the resulting concoction is fabulous over ice cream, yogurt, or eaten straight out of the jar with a spoon.
10. Homemade strawberry jam is absolutely divine. I like to add some balsamic vinegar to balance the sweetness (wrinkle your nose, but the flavors are so complementary you won’t even know it’s there) and a little black pepper for some floral warmth (the Italians eat strawberries with balsamic and black pepper. Try it!). You also get that June Cleaver Americana satisfaction of putting up your own jam. I promise that you’ll never go back to Smucker’s again.

<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/amusebouches/5613931241/” title=”Strawberry Jam by The Domestic Front, on Flickr”><img src=”http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5144/5613931241_a514460bd8_b.jpg” width=”860″ height=”1024″ alt=”Strawberry Jam”></a>

Strawberry Jam with Balsamic and Black Pepper
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Cook time: 
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Serves: 1 pint
 
Ingredients
  • 3 lbs whole strawberries, hulled (if you like a smoother texture, you can chop or slice the berries. I happen to like big sweet slugs of strawberry in my jammy syrup.)
  • ¾ lb granulated sugar
  • 4 T balsamic vinegar
  • ½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 packets commercial liquid pectin
Instructions
  1. Combine sugar and berries in a large pot and heat over a medium high flame, stirring frequently.
  2. Add pectin according to the package instructions.
  3. Skim off foam as it rises to the top.
  4. Test for set (after about 15-20 minutes) by dropping a spoonful on a cold dish and seeing if it holds together to your satisfaction -- I like a soft set, but others like a firmer set. If you like a very firm jam, you might want to use 2 packets of pectin. If it's not set, keep cooking and stirring, and test periodically until it is.
  5. When the jam has set, ladle into hot, sterilized jars. Leave ¼ inch space between the top of the jar and the lid.
  6. Close lids tightly, and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. (Make sure the jars are completely submerged in the boiling water). Let cool, and remove rings for storage (if you remove the rings, you'll know if a jar has lost its seal and needs to be eaten immediately or thrown away. ) Jam is a pretty low-risk canning operation, due to all the sugar and the acid, both of which act as preservatives.
Notes
I didn't use the pectin in the pictured jam, so my jam is a bit runnier than I'd ordinarily make. It tastes divine though, and is perfectly acceptable on toast with a little ricotta, on yogurt, on a spoon ...