Friday, June 5, 2009

Fresh Basil, Tomatoes, and More

By Millicent K. Brody

No matter the size, if you have a sunny patch of land somewhere near your residence or place of business, (even if it’s a windowsill or fire escape), do yourself a favor and grow yourself a few tomato and basil plants. Never mind that there’s not a spot of dirt anywhere...grow your plants in pots.

"Tomatoes can grow anywhere there is a concentration of sun,” says David Williams, a partner in Williams Nursery in Westfield and President-Elect of Gardens of America. As a gardner for 45 of his 47 years, Williams brags that the sale of his tomato plants paid for his college education. He also suggests using fertilizer geared only for vegetables.       

“Fertilize your vegetable plants every 3 or 4 weeks,” he advises. “Remember, the average tomato plant growing in direct sunlight is able to yield about 50 tomatoes.”

I might agree with those statistics, and the fact that tomatoes can grow anywhere...except they’re not able to grow in the fresh soil I put down each year at our house. Alongside our front steps is what some would call a window box. Given the right environment, it could easily produce a bumper crop of tomatoes, peppers, and basil. The problem is, before any of these wondrous plants reach fruition, they became a smorgasbord for our resident bunnies, chipmunks, squirrels, and skunks.     

That is why I’ve started a porch garden. 
“To grow tomatoes outdoors, you’ll need a pot with a circumference of at least 12 inches,” continues Williams. “The bigger the pot, the more tomatoes you’re apt to yield. I’d also suggest not using soil that is already in the ground. Get yourselves a couple of bags of potting soil, and enjoy the fruits of your labor.”
If you’re growing tomatoes and basil, add a couple of red and green peppers and look forward to preparing your very own “Garden Pizza”.
For starters, pick up a pre-baked pie shell and fresh mozzarella cheese. Slice and lightly sauté red and green peppers, zucchini, and tomatoes in olive oil. Carefully layer the fresh vegetables in the prepared pie shell. Top with your favorite tomato sauce. Thinly slice fresh mozzarella cheese, and, together with basil leaves, alternate as a topping. Bake in a 350 degree oven about 10 or 15 minutes, or until the crust turns golden brown.

Basil, like many herbs, is also easy to grow in pots. My fresh basil is busy growing on my windowsill.  
“I snip the basil and add it to my sauce, or serve it with mozzarella cheese and tomatoes in a salad,” says Arlene Fine of Morristown.  “I also enjoy preparing this most unusual, refreshing recipe,” she adds. “It calls for fresh peaches, a Vidalia onion, basil leaves, sugar, and balsamic vinegar. 
Into a medium-size bowl, slice four ripe peaches. Slice and add a medium-size Vidalia onion. Add a handful of chopped basil leaves (about 4 or 5). Add 1 teaspoon sugar and balsamic vinegar to taste. Let sit for an hour or more. Serve with your favorite poultry recipe. 
Perhaps you’d like to share one of your favorite home-grown recipes? Please let me know your favorites.

Happy Growing Season!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Smell of Home? Not Yet

By Maureen C. Petrosky

As an admitted serial mover (a.k.a serial redecorator) my hunt for our “forever” house continues. With an endless stream of mini billboards boasting homes for sale you’d think I’d be giddy with open houses. Lately though, something wicked has been lurking in the walls, floorboards, and curtains of what could have been our dream homes. With toxic mold all the worry and radon tests bumping up closing costs, sellers somehow seem to overlook the indelible damage of their scent. Every house has one, and I’ve learned you have to be attracted to it, almost the same as you are to your mate.

I grew up with a cat, Ribbons, as our very first non- reptilian pet. The current furry member of my family is our dog, Petey. As we think about our next move, I am hyper-sensitive to the people who will be traipsing through my front door. I want them to think it smells like their “forever” home, not like a pet or last night’s dinner. I am so discouraged, disappointed, exhausted, and frankly emotionally drained from the house hunt. I can’t fall in love with another home only to find the strong scent of cat pee comes with it. I have to say, I am shocked by all the cats. Whatever happened to the family dog? Too much work I guess, just easier to let a cat pee in the house than go for a walk with man’s best friend. I’m not down on cats but the smell of their litter boxes is messing with my house hunt, not to mention my wine.

I love Sauvignon Blanc when the sun’s out, and unfortunately it is true that some of these sips smell like cat pee. I know it sounds like a leap but I swear I learned this at The Culinary Institute of America- and they know what they are talking about. I was shocked the first time we swirled a Sauvignon Blanc and the words cat pee were used to describe it, but for some it’s definitely there. I can’t take it anymore, just the association of Sauvignon Blanc and the thought of those beautiful old homes tainted by a seemingly harmless feline (in some cases several). So I’m off the stuff completely (at least this weekend), and it only took one sip of this Pinot Gris to convert me.

Ponzi Vineyards, Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley, 2008, $17 This is a truly decadent white under $20! The minerality is awesome and the long lingering finish will have you swooning for your next sip. Think of a fresh baked pear tartlet sprinkled with lemon zest as you swirl and sip. A perfect pick for warm nights or a picnic at the beach.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Time to Get Your Hands Doughy

By Brianne Harrison

With money tight, gas expensive, and new salmonella scares cropping up every month, it seems, more and more people are going back to growing, making, and preserving their own food. The New York Times recently devoted a considerable amount of space to a story about the recent renaissance of canning and preserving—skills that, until recently, were mostly associated with the days of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Unsurprisingly, classes have begun cropping up to help modern-day foodies rediscover these skills. A Toute Heure in Cranford, a restaurant devoted to the “locavore” ideals, has started up its own Cooks’ Classes, which are hands-on and designed to help modern-day cooks learn skills like preserving and baking that they can use in their home kitchens. Coming up on June 8 is a class on bread. Bread making is often unfairly thought to be extremely difficult and time-consuming. Yes, it does take several hours to make bread, but most of those hours don’t involve the chef at all. Knead the dough, and leave it to rise for two hours while you run your errands, take the kids to soccer practice, or watch a movie. And the kneading process itself is a great stress relief—something most of us could use these days!

A Toute Heure’s class will cover the basics of breadmaking, and participants will create their own “mother” dough starter and experiment with flavorings and dough types. Everyone will leave with recipes they can try at home. Not bad for a two-hour class.

An upcoming class in July will cover pastry making, and the younger members of your family can check out the kids’ class and farm tour in August. Kids will learn where their food comes from and how a farm works and will help prepare a healthy meal that will be served family style at the end of the class. They, too, will walk away with recipes and ideas for cooking with locally sourced vegetables.

For registration information, contact A Toute Heure, 908.276.6600,

Monday, June 1, 2009

Bringing Tuscan Craftsmanship to Central Jersey

By Pat Tanner

I have been enamored of Greg and Suzanne Evans’ home furnishings shop, Tuscan Hills, since it opened five years ago in a charming two-story spot at the corner of Nassau and Harrison streets in Princeton. From day one the Evanses featured handcrafted furnishings, accessories, and gift items from small, family run businesses in Tuscany and Umbria - most not previously exported to the U.S.; all made using centuries old techniques that reflect both classical and contemporary design esthetics as well as impeccable craftsmanship.

In April the Evanses relocated their showroom a few miles up the road to a light-filled, expansive spot in an historic building on Route 27 in Kingston, where they have much more room to spotlight such treasures as Busatti table linens, hand-painted Deruta ceramics, hand-forged iron furniture, cutlery from the same family who supplied knives and swords to the Medici family, and a sparkling collection of art glass, crystal, and stemware from equally unique sources. (A set of contemporary champagne flutes from Tuscan Hills is one of my most cherished possessions.)

For appropriate fare to accompany Italian wines at the opening celebration of the new showroom, Greg and Suzanne called upon their good friend and client, Andrea Di Meglio, one of two brothers who own Luca’s restaurants in Somerset and Flemington. The Di Meglios were among Tuscan Hill’s first customers, buying antique wall sconces - and eventually tables and chairs - for their restaurants. Below is a recipe for one of the hors d’oeuvres Andrea Di Meglio featured.

For more information on Tuscan Hills – including their associated business of renting restored villas in Tuscany – visit

Andrea Di Meglio, Chef & Co-owner, Luca’s Ristorante

For the topping:
12 ounces burrata cheese, cubed
1/2 pint cherry tomatoes, cut in fourths
1 roasted red bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 tablespoon capers
1-1/2 tablespoons sun dried tomatoes, chopped
3 tablespoons chopped basil
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, unfiltered
1 tablespoon balsamic reduction
Salt and pepper to taste
8 1/2-inch-thick slices Italian bread
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil, unfiltered
1 tablespoon chopped basil

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a bowl, combine all topping ingredients except salt and pepper. Mix gently and season with salt and pepper. Brush olive oil on sliced bread. Place in heated oven and toast about 3 minutes, or until lightly browned. Spoon bruschetta topping onto toasted bread and garnish with fresh basil. Makes 8 pieces.