The Lazy Cook Makes Pasta Sauce for the Coming Year

My mother taught me to can. Not to cook mind you, well, not directly anyway. That was my sister’s thing. I was the official “guy” of the house; fixing the lawnmower, changing the oil in the cars. I didn’t start cooking until I was away from home.

But canning enough food for the coming year requires more than two people, so I helped prep vegetables, wash jars, tend the cooker and in general take orders while staying out of the way.

And over the years I watched my mother drag out her canner, can a batch of something and put it away. A few weeks later when another batch of something was ready, she would drag it out again.

When making pasta sauce this was not nearly lazy enough for me. Tomatoes are fickle. Too little rain means they wait to flower and fruit. A lot of rain often means blossom end rot and few tomatoes. Sporadic rain means batches of randomly ripe tomatoes.

So the Lazy Cook came up with a plan. We are lucky enough to have the space for an upright freezer; as many farms and rural households do. So as the tomatoes ripen, into the freezer they go. And when the season is through, you can bring them all out at once and make a weekend of it.

Freezing the tomatoes has the added benefit of making them easy to peel. Spending a lot of time up to my elbows in raw tomatoes irritates my skin. If I can dip the frozen fruit into boiling water for a few seconds, the skin slips right off and I can cut out bad spots and chunk them with relatively little mess.

Yes, it’s cold; but much less messy. Besides, there will be plenty of time to warm hands once the cooking starts.

This year, I’m trying out Amish Paste Tomatoes. They are an heirloom variety, so if they make a tasty sauce, I’ll just keep planting them as I need them in the future with no fear of Monsanto coming in and busting up the joint.

Many people add sugar to their sauce to offset a bitterness that can arise in the process of cooking away the excess liquid that regular tomatoes often have. Adding sugar is unnecessary and, frankly, an affront to the tomato. Here are some ways to avoid this, which are also conveniently lazy:

– Use sauce tomatoes which are less juicy. Roma, Amish Paste and quite a few other varieties are less watery.

– Use a sweet onion in your sauce. I use Vidalia onions; and a lot of them. It’s almost impossible to get your sauce too “onion-y” with these. Sometimes, if I want a different flavor, I’ll sautee the chopped onions to the point of crisping the edges. Sometimes I just dump them in raw. Add a few grated carrots too.

– Roast your sauce. Yes, Roast Your Sauce. Best lazy move I ever made.

You’ll need enamel pans or Corning ware. I end up stacking pans on dishes on pots in my oven. The very occasional stirring becomes more complicated, but on the whole it’s much easier. I have yet to burn a batch of oven-roasted sauce, unlike some of my early stovetop batches.

Turn your oven onto its lowest setting. I use propane and have a newer stove, so the lowest oven temp I have to work with is 170 degrees. My last stove’s lowest setting was 120 degrees. I miss that oven. Because, in this case, the slower you can cook the sauce, the better it will taste. So it might take all day, but you won’t have to stand over a hot stove. Unless you want to stick around because your hands are still cold from dealing with frozen tomatoes.

The sauce ends up with this amazing sun-dried flavor. Not a hint of bitterness even though I don’t remove the seeds. (Lazy)

Roast a batch, adding your spices in somewhere along the line. I tend to wait until it is almost “done”. My logic is: some spices don’t like extended cooking. Because I’m going to have it boiling in a canner for another 30 minutes with an additional hour to cool off, the flavor will have plenty of time to release. This allows me to make individualized batches. I just have to remember label them properly after the jars are cooled.

Put the roasted sauce in a suitable (non-metal) container and stick it in the fridge. Repeat until all tomatoes are processed. Then you can re-warm the sauce to a suitable temperature for the canning process.

If you decide to freeze it, reconsider when to add the spices. I make no promised here, as I’ve never tried freezing sauce.

Have fun.

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Chicken Breast Strips crusted in Fresh Basil, Almond Flour and Brined Green Peppercorns

(a gluten free recipe)

You know how these things go.

This started out as black cracked pepper on Chicken Strips, but I realized I had some fresh basil. You really have to keep the basil pinched back or it heads off and gets leggy, fast! Half of it is already flowering; which tells you that in addition to being a lazy cook, I’m also a rather lazy gardener.

So, it turned into Fresh Basil Chicken Strips.

About mid morning, in the process of transferring the 48 ounces of Duke’s Mayonnaise (the ONLY mayonnaise, in my humble opinion and no, I WISH they were giving me a kickback) from the wretched plastic containers they’ve started using (what the hell were they thinking?) to mason jars I had to find some room in the over-packed fridge and came across a jar with about a cup of almond flour.

The Lazy Cook is allergic to casein and the Mister has a family history of Celiacs Disease; with some degree of sub-clinical symptoms, so almond milk and rice milk are the creamy beverages of choice.

Rice Milk is fairly easy to find and not as expensive as the less available (in a small southern town) almond, so I bought some in bulk and put it back. It has come in handy for the Chard Almond Loaf.

So, as it is with the Lazy Cook, it turned into Chicken Strips crusted with Fresh Basil and Almond Flour.

Then I found the brined green peppercorns……

The Lazy Cook is an adventurous eater. And there is a fantastic Hmong Market in the city nearby. They carry all the standard Asian foodstuff, plus the in-store kitchen makes treats like the “rice bombs” (as we call them) wrapped in fresh bamboo leaves. But I digress.

Initially I picked up the brined green pepper corns because they looked interesting. That’s it. I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about. They’re from Thailand, out of Bangkok via Chicago. Go figure.

The flavor is an interesting mix of green citrus zing from the immature corns, with the expected spice of pepper and a slow heat that lingers on the lips and tongue for a bit; and obviously the salt.

I am pretty sure that the citrus notes from the peppercorns will play nicely off the smoother, deeper basil flavors. We shall see.

So, in the end, it became Chicken Breast Strips crusted in Fresh Basil, Almond Flour and Brined Green Peppercorns.

Here’s the plan:

Once the chicken is thawed, I’ll pat it dry with a paper towel after setting the oven to 350.

While the oven is heating up, I’ll brush on some of the basil mayonnaise I made this morning (which started this whole mess) and roll the strips in a mixture of almond flour, chopped fresh basil and slightly crushed green peppercorns.

Sorry the only measurement I can really give you is a cup of almond flour to a pound of meat. The basil mayo is just a suggestion. Any oil will do: olive, coconut, lard. Or leave damp with the juices if you are watching the cals. (Me? I scoff at cals)

With the fresh chopped basil, I’d stick with around 1/8 cup. Dried, I’d use a couple of tablespoons.

Not all of us have a Hmong market nearby, so pepper on-hand options: powdered black- to taste, but I’d say about 1 generous tablespoon. Coming to the South from the Northern regions, the Mister said he’d never seen so much black pepper used in his life.  And to keep the citrus note, sprinkle a little lemon or lime juice on before coating it.

Cracked pepper, use more, but keep it coarse.

With the green, I’ll end up using about 2 tablespoons.

Because I want this to remain fairly “dry” (rather than sitting in the “broth” the chicken processors inject into the meat) I’ll space it out on a baking sheet (or tin foil or one of those enameled pans with the raised center panel….whatever you’ve got on hand) With just the thinnest dab of grease so it doesn’t stick.

Cook for 20 to 30 minutes depending on your oven type, altitude and so on. But check it after 20 to test for doneness vs. dryness.

I’ll serve this with white rice and some black-eyed peas I made up for the Barley-SouthWest Salad (which the Mister found quite tasty) and a fresh sliced tomato topped with a dab of basil mayo. I’ve got some young carrots from the garden. I might steam them slightly, roast them in some coconut oil then toss them in a slightly sweet wheat-free tamari (also courtesy of the Hmong market) while the chicken is cooking.

If I had my druthers, as we are want to say in these parts, I’d use brown rice, skip the legumes and have a cucumber, onion and tomato salad, from today’s garden pickin’s or use a green veg instead; steamed Asparagus with garlic butter springs to mind. But, alas….

As with all the Lazy Cooks recipes, there are no guarantees. Only adventure.

Back to The Lazy Cook

The Nights of Blackberry Dumplings

The blackberries are ripe. It is that time of year.

Blackberries

Blackberries

Unlike the clockwork regular and finely parsed schedule of humans, blackberries and indeed all of creation, have their own state-dependent agenda.  Not enough rain? Well, slow down and wait.  Not enough sun? Pretty much the same.

But a hard, sour knot of berry after 2 days of brief showers, can transform into a glorious and fleeting taste of wine and oak and summer.  That same berry after 3 days of moderate rain becomes a soggy, flavorless mush.  So, if we mere humans want to taste the nectar that is a perfect berry, it is on the berry’s rather particular schedule and not ours.

Usually, and in my own experience, berry picking is a group activity.  There are many reasons; safety being the common concern.  Copperheads, water moccasins, various spiders, toxic insects, rabid animals, are all dangers the berry picker needs to account for.  So, as one picks carefully and studiously through sharp tangles for that perfect, fat berry, a barely conscious rhythm of silence and signal is maintained.  Long spans of almost perfect, concentrated silence broken by a voice, a need to reconnect with others in the safety of the tribe.

These vocalizations are usually minor comments on the exquisite flavor of a particularly irresistible berry, discovery of a bountiful vine, curses thrown at briars, unsteady footing or the ubiquitous and irritatingly plentiful Junebugs.  For all the ire they draw in the berry patch, Junebugs are the most likely creature to be secretly envied by the berry picker.  It seems that the entirety of their brief life is taken up with sitting in the warm summer sun, eating the sweetest and ripest of the blackberries and in their seemingly endless procreation.  If forced, in some future attempt at karmic balance, to reincarnate on the insect level returning as a Junebug is at the top of the list.

Sometimes, by chance or by choice, berry picking is done in solitude.  Usually,  and in this instance, early in the morning.  Unlike the group pick with it’s monkey mind, monkey chatter, the lone picker is left exclusively in the company of mist, bird calls, dogs waiting patiently to be offered a bit of too ripe berry and the heavy, fruit laden vines.

As I pick, I fall into a decades long body memory of practiced regularity.  And in the unthinkingness of concentrated continual motion, I feel my consciousness begin to shift, ever so slightly toward opening.  And in those liminal moments, I invariably begin to ponder the grinding of snail shells on rock.

In certain tribes the shaman’s apprentice at his upper levels, is taught to induce a trance state by increasingly simple means.  This is after he is taught the more familiar, more traditional methods:  chanting, drumming, dance.  The blunt instruments, if you will.  After that, it is a matter of fine-tuning one’s perceptions, of understanding exactly the moment when the veil begins to part and transition into the imaginal space is possible.

Without fail, each method of trance induction involves engaging as many of the senses as possible.  As if focusing each part of your conscious mind and each part of your body into this one, singular activity directs your physical brain to produce the brainwave state known to us as alpha; a sort of light functioning trance state where movement and action are possible and for the shaman who is working with a patient, desirable.

Of the many ways this state can be achieved, the one we are probably, and unknowingly, familiar with is sitting by a waterfall.  With it’s rush of sound, smells of oxygenated air, water and mud, the feeling of moist earth beneath us and the whisper of mist on skin.  We feel light and easy and relaxed.  We feel good, but we can’t say exactly why.

In another, it is the grinding of a snail shell on rock.  The white noise of steady grinding, the rhythmic motion of the body, the smell of nacre flinting off stone, the weight of the body given to the arm and into the hand as it grinds.

For me, picking berries in the morning solitude is very much like this.  Full of deeply concentrated movement, careful, focused attention, the flux of insulated quiet and sharp birdsong.

Those moments of near opening, of being on the threshold of that other, unreal space, allow the mind to draw connections, to have epiphanies, to make discoveries.

And so, on this morning of quietly and studiously picking berries, as I have over many years and many decades, it occurred to me, unbidden, that in the innocence of my childhood, I had no realization that we were gathering the food that would help us survive in the harder months. It wasn’t as if my mother ever said to me,  “We must pick these berries so we will have enough food to eat come winter.”.  Although it was exactly the case on those rare occasions when blackberry dumplings and sweet tea were all of dinner.

To a child, blackberry dumplings for dinner was having desert without having to suffer though collards with vinegar.  Again.  Unlike the nights with only fried fatback and biscuits;  which were a little more obvious in their poverty.

Fatback is a 2-inch thick, 4-inch wide, 5-inch long slab of pork fat with a bit of the skin left on top.  Usually used for seasoning or to gather grease for frying other food.  It is cut into strips of ¼ inch and fried thoroughly.  The resulting strip of salty fried fat with the crunchy skin rind can be eaten, and usually was in our household, as a side to greens of any sort.

Some nights, not many, but enough to create a memory, there was fatback and biscuits for dinner.  It could have been the set of my mother’s mouth that told us complaining would be pointless.  It was what there was. However on the nights of blackberry dumplings, it is possible that as children, we were so taken with the idea that we did not notice the intent or reason behind the novel treat came down to a lack of anything else to eat.   A quart of sugar-sweetened blackberries, self-rising flour, pork fat and water.  Filling and, as it stands, nutritious enough.

I’m sure if, today, you could summon my mother’s spirit to ask, it would never have occurred to her that she was teaching me a survival skill by educating in the ways and means of blackberries.  Nor in taking me to the garden, nor in forcing me to pick and clean and can on those days when all I really wanted in the world, was nothing more than to be in the woods packing with the dogs, catching crayfish or building dams across a shallow neck in the creek.  She was simply doing what her sharecropper parents taught her to do.  Garden and pick and preserve and survive.

Yes, over the years I kept gardening, kept picking and cleaning and canning.  But more after the fashion of Marie Antoinette, who had one of her country estates turned into a sort of royal theme park.  This was constructed with guest hovels for visitors replete with various livestock housed in the shacks.  Here, she and her guests played “peasant” on holiday.

Like Marie’s peasantry, gardening and canning were activities that amused me; gave me pleasure.  Things that I could do at my leisure.  That would have no real impact on my life if it rained too much, or not enough.  Or if the rains flooded and washed away all my cropland.  Or, as once happened to my grandfather, hail destroyed an entire fresh planting  and I had to find money, sell the cow or go into debt to buy more seed or I would not be able to pay my lease with crops and my family would not eat come the hard winter.  One cannot survive on fatback and blackberry dumplings alone.

It has taken me years of leisurely tinkering to learn the skills that seemed innate in my mother:  how to plant just so, when best to water, who is unhappy in the plot and why, where the worm that has been gnawing on the tomato vines is most likely hiding and finding him before he strips the plant bare.

And I suppose, in the end what concerns me, what has prompted these blackberry musings is a pondering on the future of food.  And the future of a people that need it to survive if the rains continue to wash away our cropland or the wheat rust spreads or the price of oil makes the shipping or buying food from stores untenable.

How will they learn?  Who will be their teachers, their guides?

We have lost so much along the way.  Forgotten too much.  Having grown up without want, without fear, without danger, we believe we are invincibly safe.  And in thinking so, we have strayed from the safety of the tribe.  Wandered off to pick in a sunny patch where gathering is much too easy and it seems for all the world that a time without plenty can never possibly come.

But we have forgotten the snakes.  We have forgotten the winter.