Archives for posts with tag: tomatoes

Last time I posted here I was admiring the volunteer forest of tomatoes that had sprung up in the backyard. I even sat out there one day and tried to capture what it felt like to sit in the tomato forest. I treated it as a forest, too, left the understory on the ground. I did clip out non-bearing branches quite often, and the plants produced new shoots as soon as I could clip them off. I tended the chard, giving what water I could save from boiling pasta and washing vegetables. I watched the kale flower — I don’t care much about this kale, a gray-green variety that a friend gave me, so I was not overly concerned.

I should have been concerned. I did notice when I went out to dole out water to the chard that the kale was alive, shimmering with pests, but I didn’t care if the pests took down the kale plant. My chard was healthy and kept making new chard plants. One section of tomatoes had beautiful crowns of blossoms three feet above the ground. I began to think we might eat our first ripe tomato by the last day of May. We did. We cut it in half and had a little ceremony for the first fruits of the summer.

Later, after a rare rain and some cloudy days I noticed white specks in the tallest section of tomatoes. I thought it was mildew brought on by the damp. I hoped for sunny weather to dry it out and was not concerned.

I should have been concerned. The white specks turned out to be aphids and I am now battling to save what I can of the tomato plants. I prune them savagely, losing unripe tomatoes and blossoms with every cut of my shears. I save bath water, impregnate it with organic lemongrass soap and blast away for hours at the besieged plants. I toss the prunings into an old pot with waste water, submerging them to kill aphids and eggs. I pluck every yellow or brown or decayed leaf from the ground, clearing the understory of aphid hiding places. I was out there many hours Monday and yesterday afternoon. And then I had to take a break. I was exhausting myself and the aphids were continuing to spread and reproduce.

I looked up various remedies. I knew lady bugs ate aphids. I found out that it takes 1500 lady bugs to clean the aphids off one plant, that they usually fly away within forty-eight hours and you usually need two batches just to be sure. Lady bugs were out, unless I could buy them by the truckload.

Hard sprays of water from a hose are supposed to blast aphids off the plants. We are in a major drought here and only water with waste water. We do not have a gray water system. Using a hose is out. It’s up to me and my clippers and spray bottle. Sigh.

But then today I woke up to steady rain! Rain! Not only would it strengthen and nourish the plants and soil, but aphids hate it. After a late breakfast I found myself out in the garden with my clips and sprayer, dressed in a shift and a pair of old sandals, enjoying the rain on my skin. I worked for nearly three hours, worked until my back could take no more. I came into the house, thinking I would have lunch. Instead, I drank two quarts of water and headed back into the rain to treat more branches.

I worked again until I could work no more. I hung my soaked shift in the bathroom and put on a robe. I had a belated snack of leftover cornbread, a few tomatoes and two cups of tea. I had promised Johnny an early dinner, so I could not linger out in the garden.

Now the rain has stopped, but the battle will continue.

My mistake was in not seeing that everything is connected. The aphids that were destroying the kale would move to the tomatoes, or the conditions that were producing a banner crop of aphids that feed on kale could produce tomato-eating aphids, too. My second mistake was not investigating the first white specks more thoroughly, not turning leaves over to look. By the time I realized what was there, the infestation was in full swing.

My yard gave me the tomato plants, more than I would have ever planted on my own. I envisioned a bigger crop than I have ever had. with tomatoes for drying. for pasta sauce, for eating raw, tomatoes for my friends and family. So far, I have delivered half a basket of green tomatoes to my friend Elaine and we have half a basket of ripe cherry tomatoes on our kitchen table. There are many green tomatoes still on the vine and many months left in tomato season. There are only so many hours a day to devote to aphid warfare, however, and I don’t know what I will save.

I think of my friend Celi, a full-time farmer. She has lost animals and bees and, undoubtedly, plants as well. She is growing her own food. I am trying to grow some of mine, tomatoes and chard. I’m still using last year’s butternut squash from this very garden. I admire anyone who grows organic food successfully. I read about plants aphids hate and think perhaps I will plant mint everywhere (I have one small pot of it). Maybe I can learn to propagate mint plants from stem cuttings.

Just two weeks ago I was admiring the indefatigable tomato plants, producing shoot after shoot. I was thinking that they were teaching me how to continue in all circumstances. I could just as well admire the indefatigable aphids, who only want to live and reproduce, but I’d rather have tomatoes than aphids.

Hello. It is the last day of March and I have moved again: on March 21 I moved out of my mother’s house and back to San Leandro. I am still unpacking things and rearranging them — I can’t remember where everything went last time around, although I remembered the locations of all of the pieces of furniture. As I settle into the house and take up routines of cleaning and cooking I find myself thinking a lot.

These are the kinds of things I think. “I want to make some bread. I don’t have any whole wheat flour. I have oats and cornmeal and molasses and white flour. I can make anadama bread. If I make double amounts of the cornmeal mush we can have cornmeal pancakes for breakfast tomorrow. If the oven is on to bake bread, I should roast a butternut squash from the cache that I grew last year. We can have that tonight with baked beans and fresh bread.” Then I bake bread and roast squash, saving the squash innards in the freezer for some future batch of butternut squash soup. Using the oven to prepare more than one dish at a time is something I learned from my mother in her kitchen.

I think about the garden. Because I am going on a short trip to New Mexico in late April I do not want to start seedlings or plant anything new outside until I get back. The garden, however, had plans of its own. Forty tomato plants have started themselves from the smushed remains of last year’s tomatoes, tomatoes that fell off the huge Sun Gold vine. Many of them decided to grow between the tiles of the only paved area in the yard, although some have reasserted themselves in the soil by the fence where I planted them last year. The largest of the patio tomatoes is now in flower. We will have to wait to see what we get because Sun Gold tomatoes are hybrid tomatoes. I had also planted Amish paste tomatoes and Principe Borghese. It remains to be seen if any of them have come up in the tomato forest. The chard asserted itself as well and formed two healthy clumps in a boggy area near the shed. So far my gardening activities have been limited to weeding, cutting down dandelions and thistles and teasing out oxalis from the stems of the chard. I cut chard everyday to eat, adding it to pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, kalamata olives and feta or scrambling it into eggs with scallions. I think, eating from the garden, that I would like to plant some lettuce soon, maybe some radishes for variety, and then I remember that I am going away in less than a month and it would be better not to plant anything until I can be here to tend the garden.

I think about what I need and what I don’t need. At certain points in unpacking I declare “I don’t need any more stuff.” Then I realize I haven’t seen my set of biscuit cutters (“Maybe they are in the cookie-cutter tins by the kitchen bookshelf”) or my dough cutter. Because two of my bookshelves sit in the kitchen as a makeshift pantry and china cabinet respectively I have to edit the books that I display on the bedroom shelves. Last time around I consigned the short story collections to the shed. This time I have them out, but I am thinking they will be boxed up once again so that I have room for music books and volumes of poetry. Another strategy is to place books I have bought but have not yet read on a high shelf and to ask Johnny, who is tall, to get them down as I need them. Tomorrow, my “day off” I will face the book-sorting issue: last time I rearranged the books three times before I was satisfied.

When I spill water on the floor I am full of desire for a new, more effective mop and a large batch of cotton rags. When I think of making soup I covet an immersion blender, or, at least, a working regular blender. When I bake bread in conjoined loaf pans I remember the nice set of bread pans I saw at a thrift store in Berkeley and wonder if they are rust-proof and if they are still there. I make mental lists of groceries: whole wheat flour, lemons, sour cream, cinnamon sticks. Whenever I put something away in some inconvenient place I think, “Is there a better place for that in the kitchen?” (or the bedroom, or the bathroom).

As per the last time I moved I cannot find my camera battery on the evening that I write this blog post. If I find it soon I will perhaps add some pictures of the tomato forest.

Anadama Bread

In a saucepan combine:

1 and 1/2 cups water

1 tsp salt

1/3 cup cornmeal

Stir constantly until cornmeal thickens and bubbles. Pour into mixing bowl.

In a glass measuring cup, measure 1 and 1/2 Tbsp of corn oil or soft shortening. Add to cornmeal mixture.

In that same greasy measuring cup, pour 1/3 cup molasses. Add molasses to cornmeal.

DO NOT WASH THAT CUP YET. Into that molasses-smeared cup, put 1/4 cup water. Pop it in the microwave for a few seconds until lukewarm and add 4 and 1/2 tsp yeast. Stir with a fork until the yeast dissolves.

In another bowl measure 4 cups sifted flour.

Either go away and leave cornmeal mixture to cool to lukewarm and then add dissolved yeast OR start adding flour to the cornmeal mixture, which will help cool it. When the mixture is lukewarm add the rest of the flour and the dissolved yeast and begin to knead the dough. You may have to add more flour to overcome the stickiness of the molasses. I like to turn the dough out of the bowl and knead it on a lightly-floured  wooden surface.

When the bread is smooth and no longer sticky, add 1 Tbsp butter or oil or shortening to the mixing bowl and place the dough in it again. Cover with a dampened and warmed linen or cotton towel and leave to rise in a warm place until doubled (over an hour). Punch down. Let rise again (about half an hour).

Grease a bread pan or pans and shape dough. This recipe makes a good-sized round loaf or four small loaves. Preheat oven to 375 Bake for forty to forty-five minutes until nicely browned. Remove loaves from pans and let cool before slicing.

This September there have been a couple of sightings of my old vegetable garden in San Leandro. First I heard that butternut squash had taken over the entire yard. I asked about the beans, but my informant hadn’t seen any beans. Then I got an email from someone else, explaining that my garden had fed her all summer, that she had eaten green beans and tomatoes and butternut squash and given beans and squash away to neighbors of hers. I am happy that people were able to eat the produce I grew since I could not eat it myself. I still longed for some of those butternut squash and put in a call to my former landlord to ask if I could pick some squash (Johnny is away for the time being).

Poblano peppers.

Poblano peppers.

Meanwhile in my new container garden here in foggy Kensington one of the poblano pepper plants has finally fruited and a single principe borghese tomato is slowly turning red in the sunny days of September. The other tomato plants are full of pale pink and green Amish paste tomatoes and more borgheses and a mystery tomato from my sister-in-law’s Vallejo garden, currently a two-tone green job. Will the tomatoes ripen before the plants die? Before it rains? Will I bring the green tomatoes inside to ripen? Will I make a green tomato chutney? Stay tuned for the October tomato and pepper report.

The landlord called back. He said, “I know who planted that garden” and granted me access to pick produce there. When my friend M. and I drove out we found the wildest of gardens: all of the hard surfaces had been obscured by foliage. Squash vines snaked everywhere: from where I had planted them along the back fence line they had crossed the entire yard and begun to climb up the back stair. All paths and spaces between rows had vanished and I had to step carefully through unripe squash to remove ripe squash from the vines that also bore squash blossoms, tiny green squash and full-sized green squash.

Buried beneath green leaves ripe principe borghese tomatoes crept along the ground close to the house while ripe Sun Gold cherry tomatoes lurked in the understory and green ones grew through the side fence. Some of the weeds I had worked to eradicate found new openings where the green beans had been. I cut the three small heads of purple cabbage that I had planted in February, but left chard and kale growing by the back fence. I did not find any Amish paste tomatoes or basil or pepper plants in the tangle, but I could not reach large portions of the yard in the amount of time I had. I did find some dried bean and pea pods, picked what I could and shelled about half a cup of mixed black-eyed peas and pinto beans while I waited on the BART platform to go home. M. hauled most of the butternut squash we picked in the trunk of her car, but I carried a token specimen in my backpack. along with a Tupperware container of tomatoes and the shelling beans.

Butternut squash.

Butternut squash.

As I write this, I am roasting principe borghese tomatoes in the oven with olive oil and a little garden mint*. Pinto beans and black-eyed peas are soaking together in a big pot. Small slices of peeled butternut squash share the oven with the tomatoes. I propose to make a soup to honor my gardens, here and there, the honorable labor I did, the lovely San Leandro sun and fertile soil, the strong heirloom seeds that survived my inexpert care and the lack of rain,  the compost of coffee grounds, egg shells, tea bags and the occasional chicken head. I will flavor the soup with chiles to honor the poblano plant and its late-borne fruit.

The local library has recently yielded up treasures, including The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Making Music from the Heart and The Heart of Zen: Enlightenment, Emotional Maturity, and What It Really Takes for Spiritual Liberation. I read them and write about them and work at becoming aware of my habits and my reactive emotional patterns, watering my life with sitting meditation and compassion meditation in the hope of bearing sweeter fruits from new seeds while extracting learning from the old bitter ones. I begin to advertise writing practice classes again — perhaps this time I will find more students. I continue to practice music and to busk in the BART station and Farmers’ Market, practicing gratitude and patience, saying with Leonard Cohen each day, “And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before The Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but ‘Hallelujah.'” I wish you all a fine fall.

Principe Borghese tomatoes.

Principe Borghese tomatoes.

* This is the first year I have raised this variety: they are very pretty, about the size of cherry peppers, but I don’t especially care for their flavor, either eaten raw or oven roasted — they are not sweet enough to suit me, but they are a drying tomato so I will dry some and report back about that next month. It may be that I just have not discovered their secret(s). I had wanted a paste tomato, a drying tomato and tomatoes to eat raw and chose accordingly from recommended heirlooms. Plus, I had to have the Sun Gold hybrid cherry, the most delicious tomato I have ever tasted (Those I grow every year).

“Some of the time, not all the time” says the Dylan song “Hanging Out the Clothes.” That’s how I feel about cooking. Sometimes I love thinking about cooking, perusing cookbooks, thinking about flavors. Sometimes I am inspired by a particular ingredient from the Farmers’ Market down in Berkeley or a glut of foraged blackberries. Sometimes I just want to put the closest thing in my mouth and be done with it.

Original watercolor painting shows Greek-style salmon and ingredients.

Greek Salmon. 12″ x 12″ gouache on paper. Sharyn Dimmick.

There is a special pleasure in cooking for someone when you want to please them. Our most recent foray to Canned Foods Grocery Outlet fetched us some wild caught salmon from Washington State. Standing over the freezer case, eying the fish, I ask Mom, “Does Bryan eat salmon?”

“I think so,” she says. “Does Johnny eat salmon?”

It is rare for Mom to bring up Johnny in conversation. He’s only been over to the house in the past three weeks: although I’ve known him much longer than that, he never had reason to come up here before last month.

“I don’t know,”I said. “I’ll ask him when I see him.” In the meantime we bought the salmon filet, enough to feed at least four people.

Johnny and I schedule our visits in advance. We live a good distance away from one another and public transit schedules are not conducive to spontaneous trips to see one another, so, instead of dropping in on each other all of the time we schedule visits and try to spend a significant amount of time together when we get together.

We bought the salmon on Tuesday and Johnny was coming over on Thursday night. When he told me he liked salmon, I made a dinner plan: I would make the pear tart tatin that he once wanted to elope with (He’s mine, pear tart!), microwave some fresh green beans, bake some red potatoes and cook the salmon in foil topped with seasonal vegetables: cherry tomatoes, orange bell peppers, kalamata olives, basil, a little feta — basically a Greek salad without cucumber thrown on top of the fish. Everything except the green beans could cook in the same oven and, with a little prep work I could have an easy dinner that was festive and delicious.

In the morning I made pie crust for the tart and put it to chill. In the afternoon I took the salmon out to thaw, laid it on foil on baking sheet and oiled the skin-side with a little olive oil. Then I went to work on the pears, peeling, coring, slicing, putting them to soak in a little dark rum, sprinkling ground cardamom over them. I made the caramel in a cast iron skillet, arranged the pears on top, rolled out the top crust. I preheated the oven, adding a handful of potatoes on the side. Then I snapped beans and cut up half a basket of red cherry tomatoes, and a large orange bell pepper. I tore up a few basil leaves, plucked a handful of pitted olives from a jar, diced a small cube of feta and I was ready to go, scattering all that on top of the salmon. The minute Johnny arrived I put the tart and the salmon in the hot oven and told him we had a half hour to ourselves before I had to mess with food again.

I can’t remember what we did for that half hour. He might. He set table for me in the dining room because the breakfast room was a mess and I did not want to excavate the table. I had him test the fish a few times because I don’t cook salmon often. All told, we cooked the fish for perhaps 40 minutes in a 400 degree oven. Brother Bryan arrived home just as it came out and we all sat down to eat.

Johnny and I liked the salmon so much that I scrambled the leftovers for breakfast with eggs and we ate them with the last slices of the pear tart tatin — have to get rid of that stuff quickly since Johnny has threatened to run off with it.

Yes, I am still here (I haven’t decamped for France again), but I thought you might enjoy a special tomato season treat, a guest post from my friend Deborah Sandler.

Deborah Sandler has enjoyed California’s bounty of fresh local food since arriving here in 1979, and swears never to live anywhere else because the food is so good.  She loves to cook and to feed people, and often tells her guests, “Nobody goes hungry at my house!” Deborah is a Farmer’s Market freak, often attending at least two a week, year round, rain or shine, on the lookout for whatever is in season and at its best.  Tomatoes are one of her favorite foods, and she shares one of her tomato recipes here.  When she isn’t cooking, she sings, and practices family law (while making sure to bring her office-mates lots of fresh food, because nobody goes hungry in her office either).

Original watercolor painting shows platter of tomatoes, olives, basil, feta cheese.

“My Somewhat Famous Tomato Platter.” (after Deborah Sandler). 8″ x 8″ Acquarelle on Paper. Sharyn Dimmick.

Tomatoes are finally in season!  I yearn for them during the winter, and sometimes am seduced into buying hothouse tomatoes that look lovely but do not have the texture or zing of the real thing.  When you bite into a tomato that has been locally grown, recently picked, and never refrigerated, the flavor is huge and unmistakeable.  When I was growing up on the East Coast, tomatoes came wrapped in plastic, colored a sickly pink, four to a package, all exactly the same size and shape, firm and tasteless.  I lived in the suburbs, and didn’t know anyone who was growing tomatoes, so it was quite rare that I got to taste a real tomato.  That changed once I moved to California.  Many of the restaurants featured amazing tomatoes in their salads, and friends actually grew some in their yards.  I had no idea a tomato could look, smell or taste like this!  In recent years, heirloom tomatoes have appeared all over the place, stunning in their profusion of shapes, colors and flavors.  Their names are poetic and whimsical – here are just a few examples from one web site that sells seeds for them, and from my  local Farmer’s Markets:  Arkansas Traveler, Banana Legs, Bloody Butcher (ew!), Cherokee Purple, Black Russian, Dingwall Scotty, Green Zebra (and yes, these have stripes), Halfmoon China, Hank (hey, that’s my dog’s name!), Jersey Devil, Berkeley Tie-Die, Brandywine, Mortgage Lifter, Mr. Stripey, Nebraska Wedding, Yellow Pear, and Stump of the World.

I live in Contra Costa County in the San Francisco Bay Area, about 30-45 minutes inland from the ocean and from San Francisco.  For those not in California, that means that the climate here is far different from that in San Francisco.  Where the City might be 62 degrees and foggy on a summer afternoon, here it may be over 100 degrees and sunny.  We get some of the San Francisco fog, but not much.  The down side is that our winters are colder, foggier, and danker than those in San Francisco.  We are only an hour from the Central Valley, which runs down through the center of the state, and where much of the nation’s produce is grown.  Even closer is Brentwood, a major agricultural area just to the east of us, that features plenty of U-Pick farms and orchards, as well as farm stands.  Because our local weather is so warm, plenty of people around here grow their own produce, and some even sell at the local Farmer’s Markets.  Here is a partial but by no means exhaustive list of Farmer’s Markets within 15-30 minutes of my house:  Martinez Sunday morning (I think this is now year-round), Martinez Thursday mornings, Concord Tuesday afternoons (year round), Concord Thursday evenings, Pleasant Hill, Lafayette, Moraga, Danville, Orinda, Walnut Creek Saturdays at The Shadelands and Sundays on Locust Street (more on these below), Martinez at the Contra Costa County Regional Medical Center, Walnut Creek Kaiser, Concord High School, and the list goes on.

My favorites are the Walnut Creek Saturday morning market at The Shadelands, and the Walnut Creek Sunday morning market on Locust Street.  Both are very large, with over 40 vendors,  and both are year-round.  The Saturday market is only a few years old but already bustling with happy patrons.  The Sunday market has been there over 20 years, and most of that time I’ve been there.  The vendors there have watched my kids grow up, and know me well as one of their regulars.  At The Shadelands, my favorite tomato vendor is Swank Farms, which has several tables strewn with all sorts of heirloom tomatoes every week.  At the Sunday market, I like Roseland Farms, where the seller has numerous flat boxes of heirlooms sorted by color.  He also is one of the very few vendors that sells San Marzano tomatoes, one of the world’s best cooking tomatoes.  These last weeks sitting out on the table, cook into very flavorful sauces and soups, or can be sliced into salads as firm yet flavorful dependable little oblong beauties.  Roseland Farms also has a big pile of cherry tomatoes of all kinds, and you can grab them by the handful or pick them out one by one.  The Shadelands market had a map with push pins, showing the location of each vendor, and how far away their farm is from the market site.  The average distance they come is only 89 miles.  The average distance food travels to our supermarkets is 1,500 miles.  The map had a sign on it reading, “Choose the food less traveled!”

Here is one of my favorite things to do with tomatoes.  This is my somewhat famous tomato platter.  Amounts are approximate.  I made this up, and it doesn’t have official amounts of anything.  Mess around with this as much as you want, and change it to your taste. The secret is the freshness of the ingredients.  And do not ever refrigerate tomatoes – it destroys their flavor!  Slice several heirloom tomatoes (as many colors as possible) onto a large platter in several layers.  You can make patterns of color or just do it randomly.  Chop up a handful or two of feta cheese and sprinkle that over the tomatoes.  Then sprinkle a generous handful or two of olives over that.  Lately I use mixed Greek olives from Whole Foods, and I recommend you not use olives from a jar – get fresh ones from an olive bar if you can.  If you have fresh heirloom cherry tomatoes in several varieties, sprinkle a handful of those over the top. Then chop up a generous handful or two of fresh basil leaves and sprinkle that over the top and around the platter.  The vinaigrette I use is homemade, and is quite tart, so you may want to try it separately before using it here, to adjust for taste if you want. This reverses the usual proportions in a vinaigrette, and has 2 parts vinegar to 1 part oil.  1-1/2 T best quality olive oil, 3 T red or white wine vinegar, 10-15 shakes of salt, 10-15 grinds of fresh ground pepper or 3 or 4 shakes of coarse ground black pepper, 2 or 3 shakes of granulated garlic, 2 or 3 shakes of dried mustard. Mix thoroughly and pour over the tomato platter, serve immediately.

Painting of Bengan Bharta and Ingredients.

Bengan Bharta. 8″ by 8″ gouache and watercolor pencil. Sharyn DImmick

When I was in my last year of college at U.C. Santa Barbara I lived in an apartment on Pardall Road with a roommate from Thailand and one from India. I had just come from a year as an exchange student in Ireland and was happy to serve as a cultural interpreter as necessary for Karuna and Padma. I also reveled in the exposure I got to Thai and Indian foods and recipes. I ate my first dosa and raita, my first green papaya salad, and got hooked on both cuisines, so, keeping a seasonal and local focus, I sometimes make forays into Thai and Indian cooking.

For me, that requires cookbooks, although I can fake Thai soups and noodle dishes by now (some of you may have seen the peanut sauce recipe recently). I own Charmaine Solomon’s “The Complete Asian Cookbook” and Shanta Sacharoff’s “Flavors of India,” but my favorite Indian cookbook comes from Berkeley’s own Ajanta restaurant: it’s called “Ajanta: Regional Feasts of India” by Lachu Moorjani. Ajanta is simply the best Indian restaurant I have ever eaten at (I have never been to India). Moorjani cooks with what’s in season, rotating regional dishes through his menu each month. If you can go once a month, go, but take other people with you so that you can sample each monthly special.

This week the CSA from Riverdog Farm contained about three pounds of tomatoes, a pound of bell peppers and two purple and white speckled eggplants. When tomatoes and eggplants come together in the fall, I like to make baingan bharta or bengan bharta, an Indian dish of chopped roasted eggplant simmered in a sauce with fresh tomatoes, ginger, onions, a green chile, paprika, turmeric, cumin seeds, coriander and cayenne. I loved this dish the first time I tasted it, right out of the Tasty Bites package, but thanks to Moorjani I now know how to make my own from scratch.

Without further ado, Moorjani’s recipe, followed by food notes from me where I explain a few minor adjustments I’ve made and give some procedural information.

Baingan Bartha (Pureed Roasted Eggplant with Onions, Tomatoes and Spices)

2 large round eggplants, about 1 pound each.

6 Tbsp oil (I used between 2 and 3  of peanut oil — more on that later)

2 tsp cumin seeds

2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped ( I mince mine and don’t bother to peel it)

1 hot green chile (serrano or jalapeno), chopped

3 medium onions, peeled and chopped

6 medium tomatoes, chopped

4 tsp paprika

1/2 to 1 tsp cayenne

2 tsp turmeric

2 tsp coriander

2 tsp salt (I cut it down to one)

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

I began by turning on the oven to 400 degrees, pricked my two eggplants with a fork and let them roast while I had a cup of tea and checked my email. When I pulled them out of the oven and set them on the stove to cool I peeled and chopped my onions and pulled my ginger out of the freezer where I store it. I hacked a slit in it and let it thaw slightly while I chopped a previously roasted green chile (just because I had it — if I hadn’t I would have used a raw one, but I have made this before). By the time I had chopped all of those onions, I could get the knife through the ginger and minced it while I heated 2-3 Tbsp of peanut oil in a big skillet over medium heat. When the oil shimmered, I measured out my cumin seeds and threw them in, quickly adding the ginger and chile, then the chopped onions. I cooked all that over medium heat for about 10 minutes while I chopped a monstrous 1 and 1/2 pound tomato, green in color, not in ripeness, and a smaller red tomato. I threw in another tomato I had roasted yesterday (waste not, want not, and this is a cooked dish). It was lovely to see the soft green, bright red and reddish violet of the vegetables before they cooked down. I cooked the tomatoes for five minutes.

While my tomatoes cooked I measured my salt and spices, scanting the salt and using the smaller amount of cayenne specified. Then I stirred the spices into the tomato mixture and turned to my now-cooled eggplant, stripping off the skin and chopping it finely.

If at any time my onions, eggplant, or tomatoes had begun to stick to the pan, I would have added a little more oil and turned down the heat a notch. This time I didn’t need to do either. Tomatoes, onions and eggplants vary in their water content, so you never know. Also, many cooks use more oil than I do, so I never accept oil measurements at face value unless they are in cake recipes and in cake recipes I might substitute  yogurt for some or all of the oil.

About this time I put on a pot of water for brown rice — I can’t tell you how much water because we measure it by sticking our index fingers into the rice pot and measuring water to the first joint. I can tell you that I have large hands and long fingers, as does my mother, who originated this technique and that we have cooked rice in the same pot since I can remember. The finger measurement is good for one cup of rice, brown or white: I used brown basmati. When the rice was in the pot I scooped the chopped eggplant into the skillet, scraping the bottom with a spatula to check for browning, It was fine, so I left it to go upstairs and ask Mom what she wanted instead of cilantro, which I was out of. I then went out to the garden and picked a combination of Thai basil and mint. I stirred the Thai basil into the eggplant and left the mint minced on the cutting board in case Mom didn’t want any. The recipe is good with cilantro, but one of the house rules here is that we do not go to the store for one ingredient: instead we make do, substitute, cook something else if necessary.

While the rice cooked and the baingan bharta finished cooking, I made a smoothie out of a nectarine, some buttermilk and a small handful of almonds. Because I was eating it with Indian food, I crushed a few cardamom seeds in a mortar and pestle and added them. Had I been at Ajanta I would have finished the meal with cardamom gelato and a pot of chai — and we would have gotten kabuli naan (flat bread with cashews) because my Mom is addicted to it. She would have ordered lamb and I would have browsed through the specials before making my decision.

If you are local, or visiting Berkeley, or, really, anywhere in the Bay Area, you should eat at Ajanta at least once. You will find it on the internet at http://www.ajantarestaurant.com. Moorjani sells his cookbook there, as well as a box of Indian spices, including some hard to find ingredients. This duo makes a fabulous present for the would-be Indian cook and the winter holidays will be here before you know it.

Painting Note: For more information about “Bengan Bharta” or any other original painting, please contact me here.