Chef Courtney Contos gives a presentation at the Brownell Library in Essex Junction about how to use the bounty of tomatoes and zucchinis harvested this time of the year. / MARIANA LAMAISON SEARS, for the Free Press
Written by Mariana Lamaison Sears, Free Press correspondent
ESSEX JUNCTION — Wondering what to do with the bounty of tomatoes and zucchinis from your home garden? If setting a ‘Veggies 4 Sale’ table on your front porch is not a solution, you might want to hear some ideas from chef Courtney Contos.
As part of the adult summer program at the Brownell Library in Essex Junction, the Vermont-based culinary consultant and educator gave a talk and demo earlier this month to share with library patrons some of her simple-yet-delicious recipes.
“Cut them in wedges and add basil and real good balsamic vinegar. They are perfect together,” Contos said, talking the crowd through making her tomato and peach salad recipe, which she called “divine.” Peaches are in season now, she said, and some good ones from Pennsylvania are sold at local farmers markets. Some Vermont farms also are trying to grow peaches, she said.
Contos’ presentation was based on the premise that “food tastes better when it’s in season.” The former executive chef instructor for the Cook Academy at The Essex Resort & Spa said she avoids eating tomatoes and blueberries in winter, unless the tomatoes are turned into tomato paste, for instance, which can be frozen and used in the cold months.
“It’s unexplainable,” Contos said to describe the sweetness of her homemade tomato paste, which she shared with the audience. Tomato paste is an easy way to use extra tomatoes, a great staple for cooking many dishes, and it can be refrigerated for up to six months, she said. One scrumptious use: Spread the paste on toast and top with feta cheese and olive oil as an hors d’oeuvre.
Another simple way to use to two pounds of ripe, juicy tomatoes is the Panzanella salad, which Contos prepared for the group. A few ingredients mixed with the tomatoes — such as red onions, garlic, basil and croutons — make this salad a fresh and unique-tasting garnish to go with any chicken or steak dish or by itself.
“I have not met anyone who doesn’t like this salad,” she said.
The salad can vary according to what’s available for the cook, adding arugula, salad greens, mint or different dressings every time. “Recipes are just guides,” Contos said.
Zucchinis are as practical and versatile as tomatoes. Proof: the zucchini chocolate-chip cookies Contos brought and shared with library patrons. Unless you’re told, you wouldn’t guess one cup of finely shredded zucchini was mixed in the cookie dough.
Zucchinis also can be sliced to layer lasagna, grilled along with any favorite meat, shredded for risotto, cut in half and stuffed, and combined with eggs in quiches, frittatas or omelets. “Zucchinis love eggs,” Contos said.
Neighbors Christina Reider and Cynthia Jane Burrill of Essex Junction attended the presentation to learn how to use the tomatoes they are growing for the first time this year. Burrill said she wanted to learn how to preserve tomatoes, but she learned much more.
“I loved all that I learned,” she said. “It was way better than I expected.”
Organic Tomato Paste
makes about 1 cup
6 pounds organic tomatoes
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus 2 tablespoons
sea salt to taste
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Chop the tomatoes, add the 1/4 cup olive oil, and place over high heat in a 12-inch skillet. Season lightly with sea salt and bring to a boil. Cook, stirring, until very soft, about 15 minutes.
2. Pass tomatoes through the finest plate of a food mill, leaving seeds and skins behind. Rub a rimmed 13-by-18 baking sheet with 2 tablespoons olive oil and spread tomato puree evenly over sheet. Bake, turning the puree over on itself occasionally with a spatula, until most of the water evaporates and the surface darkens, about 3 hours.
3. Reduce heat to 250 degrees and cook until thick and brick-colored, about 20–25 minutes. Store sealed in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to one month, or freeze for up to six months.
2 pounds ripe, juicy tomatoes, large dice
1/4 cup minced red onion
2 cloves pressed garlic
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3-4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint (optional)
2 cups arugula (optional)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Parmesan, for shaving
In a bowl, combine all the ingredients, leaving croutons for the end. Serve by itself, or divide two cups arugula among plates and top each serving with an equal amount of tomato mixture. Using a vegetable peeler, shave some Parmesan cheese on top.
Zucchini Chocolate Chip Cookies
original recipe from Barbara Kingsolver
makes about two dozen
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup honey
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup finely shredded zucchini
10 ounces chocolate chips
1. Combine first five ingredients in one large mixing bowl. In a separate, small bowl, combine next five ingredients, then blend into the liquid ingredients in the first bowl. Stir in the zucchini and chocolate chips.
2. Drop spoonfuls onto a greased baking sheet, flatten with the back of a spoon and bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes.