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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

To Market, To Market to Buy Everything Fresh

Sundays in the Palisades, Wednesdays and Saturdays in Santa Monica, these are good days because that's when we go to the local farmers' markets. Most neighborhoods in LA have a farmers' market one day of the week. Southern California is blessed with a climate that allows us to enjoy dozens of varieties of fresh flowers and a wide selection of vegetables all year long.

My first experience with non-Southern California produce happened when I moved to Rhode Island. At the local supermarket, the produce section looked like a science experiment. The tomatoes were the worst. Most of them were pale green and trapped under a tightly sealed plastic wrap. I picked ones that had a reddish tinge, thinking they were more ripe. My friend informed me, knowingly, that the tomatoes were red because they'd been gassed. I was happy when I moved back to LA.

The summer will always have the best tasting produce, but what I saw at our local farmers' market this week looked great. For the easiest meal, winter or summer, lunch or dinner, nothing beats grilled vegetables, seasoned with olive oil, sea salt, and freshly ground black pepper.

Because vegetables take so little work to prepare, a feast is easily within reach: roasted tomatoes, grilled broccoli, carrots, eggplant and corn on the cob in the summer, steamed artichokes with melted butter. There is no more satisfying meal.

Grilled Vegetables

Cut the broccoli into bite sized pieces. Peel the carrots and cut them into slabs ½" x 1". Slice the egg plants in half. Husk and clean the corn on the cob, but leave them whole. For all the vegetables, the recipe is the same: drizzle them with a little olive oil and season with sea salt and black pepper, put them on a grill, and turn frequently.

Preparation Time: 15 minutes. Cooking Time: 20 minutes.

Steamed Artichokes

Delicious as an appetizer or a side dish, artichokes are healthy and easy to make.

2 large artichokes, washed
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
¼ cup sweet (unsalted) butter, melted

Trim the stem and snip off the sharp ends of each leaf with kitchen shears or household scissors. Put 2" of water into the bottom of a large pot. Put the artichokes in the pot on top of a steamer. Cover and cook on a high flame. After 30 minutes, use tongs to pull a leaf off one of the artichokes, and taste to see if it's done. If not, add 2 cups of water and cook for another 10 minutes, taste another leaf, and continue cooking until done.

Serve with melted butter and sea salt.

Serves 2. Preparation Time: 5 minutes. Cooking Time: 30-50 minutes.

Oven Roasted Whole Tomatoes

At the farmers' markets there are always vendors who want to sell their over-ripe tomatoes at half price, so you can buy a lot.

4-5 lbs. whole tomatoes, washed, stems and blemishes removed
4 garlic cloves, peeled, julienned
Olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Place the tomatoes on a baking sheet lined with a Silpat sheet, parchment paper, or tin foil. Put several garlic slivers in the top of each tomato. Season with sea salt and black pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and roast in a pre-heated, 350 degree oven for 1 hour.

1 tomato serves 1 person as a side dish with grilled chicken breasts, Italian sausages, or a steak.

Preparation Time: 10 minutes. Cooking Time: 1 hour.

Roasted Tomato Sauce

Peel off the skins and discard. If you want to use the tomatoes in a stew or as pieces added to pasta, tear them apart with your hands, collecting everything in a bowl. Save the liquid in the roasting pan. Some of that is the olive oil, but most of it is a flavorful, clear liquid given off by the tomatoes as they cook. Add the liquid to the bowl.

If you want a smooth, thick sauce, run the tomatoes through a food mill. You'll have a quart of high-quality tomato sauce.

Preparation Time: 15 minutes.

Pasta Sauce

To make a good pasta sauce, the liquid has to be reduced and flavor has to be added.

1 quart roasted tomato sauce
4 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
1 medium onion, peeled, finely chopped
1 cup Italian parsley, washed, finely chopped
6 mushrooms, brown or shiitake, washed, thinly sliced
½ cup bacon, finely chopped (optional)
2 cups homemade chicken stock (optional)
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, washed, finely chopped
¼ teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
1 teaspoon olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Sauté the garlic, onion, parsley, mushrooms, and bacon (optional) until lightly browned. Add the tomato sauce, oregano, and cayenne. The chicken stock adds a sweetness and another layer of flavor, but if you want to stay meat-free, the chicken stock is optional.

Simmer for 30 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent the sauce from burning. Taste and adjust the flavor by seasoning with sea salt. Use the sugar if the sauce is too acidic. Stir and simmer another 30 minutes, then refrigerate overnight. Reduced, you should have 2 pints of sauce. When reheated, taste and adjust the flavors again.

The sauce will keep for several days in the refrigerator or weeks in the freezer.

Preparation Time: 10 minutes. Cooking Time: 75 minutes.

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