Tomato Butter, Tomato Spreads and Pasta Variations made with Sun-Dried Tomatoes

Exploring Ways to Use Sun-Dried Tomatoes

by Cyndy Crist

HeathGlen's sun-dried tomatoes
HeathGlen's sun-dried tomatoes

I think that Sally Schneider’s wonderful blog, The Improvised Life, has had a real impact on me.  I’ve had both of her cookbooks, A New Way to Cook and The Improvisational Cook, for years, but her almost daily dose of blog posts has heightened my awareness and appreciation of her approach to creativity in the kitchen and in life. More and more, I find myself looking at recipes as sources of ideas for cooking rather than “the way” to prepare a dish.  Or, said another way, as starting points rather than itineraries.

Take sun-dried tomatoes.  I’m seldom without them and usually have some packed in olive oil and others in their “natural” state in a jar or zip lock bag (for detailed information on how to dry your own, visit Dorothy’s farmtojar blog, which is associated with this blog).  Too often I’ve only used  sun-dried tomatoes when a recipe I wanted to try explicitly called for them.  Now, I’m thinking about an array of possibilities, starting with three general approaches – butters, spreads, and pasta.  And the more I let my mind wander, the more ideas are popping into my head.  Here are just a few.  Continue reading “Tomato Butter, Tomato Spreads and Pasta Variations made with Sun-Dried Tomatoes”

Smoked Tomato Martini Recipe from Farm to Jar

This post has been moved to my other blog so as not to get dinged for putting duplicate posts up.  It’s a great recipe and it’s from me, but I decided to have its home over at the more general blog.  Here’s a photo if you’re interested.

smoked tomato martini rimmed with tomato salt

Spring Planning Tips for Growing the Best Tomatoes in an Urban Garden

by Cyndy Crist

Let’s face it:  for those of us who live in the city, it can be tough to grow our own tomatoes.  While some are fortunate (and ambitious!) enough to have plots in community gardens, many of us are limited by the shade cast by mature trees and building density. Happily, demand for locally grown produce has led to an explosion of farmers’ markets that make it easy to buy locally grown fruits and vegetables that we can’t grow ourselves.  Still, there’s nothing quite like eating a tomato straight from the vine. With a little research and a bit of imagination, any urban dweller can enjoy some grow-your-own garden bounty.   Here are some things to consider if you want to rise to the challenge of growing your own tomatoes.


As the song goes, let’s start at the very beginning. 

Planning Tip #1:  Decide the optimum location in your garden to grow your tomatoes.  Here, the first thing to consider is the tomato’s need for “full sun”, which at a  minimum is six hours daily and preferably eight or more. If your tomatoes don’t get enough sunlight, they simply won’t produce the beautiful fruit that is the whole reason for growing them.  This isn’t a “nice to have,” it’ a must! 


Planning Tip #2:  Determine how much space you have.  Most tomatoes are naturally sprawling plants that are initially compact but soon are filling cages or spreading across the garden. Such varieties obviously need plenty of room to thrive. But some tomatoes are determinate varieties, which means they’re programmed (by nature or hybridizers) to grow only to a certain size. Good determinate varieties include Principe Borghese, a prolific plum variety, and Green Grape, a cherry tomato whose fruit is tangy and beautiful.  Bush Champion is a determinate hybrid  tomato that has been bred to grow well in pots.


Planning Tip #3:  If you decide to grow tomatoes in pots, select a variety that is well-suited to this application.   Sometimes you can solve your space (or full-sun) problem by growing tomatoes on decks, patios, and balconies.   Good choices for containers include Bush Champion, a hybrid determinate tomato, and Red Currant, an heirloom cherry tomato.  Continue reading “Spring Planning Tips for Growing the Best Tomatoes in an Urban Garden”

A Few Easy Recipe Ideas to Satisfy Those Tomato Cravings in the Middle of Winter

By Cyndy  Crist    

For those of us who love good tomatoes, not the kind that look pretty but have no taste, winters can be pretty frustrating.  Although canned or frozen tomatoes can be used in pretty much any cooked dish, they don’t give you that great, earthy taste of summer.  I have found a few ways to get pretty good tomato flavor, even on the coldest, snowiest day, using fresh cherry tomatoes, preferably organic.  Perhaps because of the smaller size, they simply don’t seem to be as lacking in either flavor or texture as their “full-sized” cousins.  And it may just be my imagination, but it seems to me that grape tomatoes are the best choice of those available in the winter.

Here are three of my favorite ways to enjoy fresh cherry tomatoes in the dead of winter (or any time of year when good, fresh, local tomatoes aren’t an option).

Oven-roasted cherry tomatoes. 

Roasting is one of the easiest and most delicious ways to prepare tomatoes with great, deep flavor, and there are lots of variations to try.  Start with a pint or two of tomatoes, some decent olive oil, some good salt (I like Maldon for a little crunch), and pepper tossed together in a roasting pan or tray.  Then choose an oven temperature and use a little creativity to get the results you want.  Here are a few options:

  • For something similar to sun-dried tomatoes, slow-roast them at 225 degrees for up to 3 hours.   You’ll find a great description of this approach and ideas about how to use slow-roasted tomatoes in Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan, one of my favorite recent cookbooks.  Although many know Greenspan primarily for her baking cookbooks, this volume leaves no doubt that her skills aren’t limited to the oven.
  • For tomatoes that retain more shape and moisture, roast them at a higher temperature for a shorter period of time.  Roasting at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes will give you lots of deep flavor, while roasting at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or more will yield a “gentler” but still tasty result.
  • Vary the flavor with your choice of herbs or seasoning. Whole sprigs of fresh rosemary or thyme work well, while dried oregano or torn or shredded leaves of basil tossed with the tomatoes will give you a more traditional Italian flavor.  Garlic can add great flavor, but you’ll need to take care that it doesn’t burn.  To enhance caramelization, toss in a little sugar.

Tomatoes roasted at a higher temperature for a shorter time are great as a side dish, while any variation is great with eggs (stirred into a scramble or folded into an omelet or frittata) or served with roasted meat or chicken.

Cook’s Note: Don’t waste your best extra virgin olive oil in this recipe.  The high heat will diminish the great flavor for which you’ve paid a premium, so use your best EVOO in salad dressings and to drizzle on finished dishes and keep a less expensive one on hand for roasting.  

Tomato-basil salad   

This one is as easy as it comes.   Toss the tomatoes, whole or halved, with thin strips (chiffonade) of fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. If you want, you can add a splash of good vinegar (preferably red wine or balsamic) or some fresh lemon zest for a little brightness.  If basil is too pricey this time of year or unavailable, many other green herbs are fine substitutes.   Another option is to toss the tomatoes with pesto and/or with some fresh mozzarella.

For best flavor, let your tomatoes sit on the counter for an hour or so before eating.  These are great as a snack or side dish or tossed in a salad.

Cook’s Note: Because refrigerating tomatoes destroys their flavor and texture, make only enough of this salad to consume the day it is made.  Also, make a mental note now to take advantage of the glut of late summer basil at farmers’ market to turn into pesto to freeze for cold, winter days when a sunny taste of summer is especially welcome.  My favorite recipe is in Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking; she tells you specifically how to get the best results if you’re going to freeze your pesto

Sauteed tomatoes 

While roasting cherry tomatoes deepens their flavor, sautéeing them in a pan is quick and easy and retains fresh taste.  You can use butter or olive oil for this one, or a combination of the two.  Any number of herbs work well in this dish.  Oregano and basil are most traditional, but dill, l’herbes de Provence, savory, or marjoram are also good.  For a “south of the border” flavor try adding a little chile and cumin.

For more complexity of  flavor, sauté chopped onions, shallots, and/or garlic in the oil before adding the tomatoes, or stir in a little cream at the end of the cooking time for richness.  These are great spooned on top of chicken, steaks, pork chops, or fish, tossed with pasta, or used in just about any dish that calls for canned tomatoes.

Cook’s Note:  The last time I made these, I used smoked olive oil, a product I’d never tried before, and I was blown away by the flavor it added.  I bought mine at Williams-Sonoma and have seen it offered by Amazon and Open Sky, but it’s also available on-line directly from the producers, The Smoked Olive.

The Urban Gardener’s Favorite Seed Catalogs

Where Can I Find That?  Favorite Seed Cataolgs and Websites

by Cyndy Crist

I’m an urban gardener,growing things in a small city lot in Saint Paul, MN, that is largely shaded by two-story homes and old trees, so as the seed catalogues begin arriving in December, I try to restrain myself.  While the romantic in me pictures a lush potager full of heirloom tomatoes, Genovese basil, French melons, and more right outside my back door, the pragmatist reminds me that it would be crazy to buy hundreds of seeds when I have so little space in which to grow them.


Still, there are many reasons to peruse and enjoy seed catalogues, including getting information to inform purchases at local markets, and a garden box full of partial seed packets from previous years provides evidence that my internal, practical voice doesn’t always win the argument!  As a result, I’m pleased to share with you some favorite seed catalogues, all of which are also available on the internet, and a few reasons why each has made my list.  My comments reflect input from other Master Gardeners in Minnesota as well as my own experience.  I hope you’ll find something of value here.  Happy reading!


John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds.  John Scheepers is a great source for high quality seeds whose website is inspiring from the minute its oh-so-attractive screen comes up on the computer.  The catalogue provides excellent, clear information about planting and growing fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers along with useful gardening tips and featured recipes.  The illustrations are great and the website and on-line catalogue easy to navigate.  A great selection of high quality bulbs are sold on a separate website (  Check out the seeds and request a catalogue at .


Renee’s Garden.  Renee Shepherd has long been one of my favorite sources for  “heirloom and gourmet vegetable, flower, and herb seeds,” first sold under the name Shepherd’s Garden and now Renee’s Garden.  Although the selection is smaller than some of the other catalogues featured here, the illustrations are enticing, the quality is consistently good, and the choices outstanding (I’m especially intrigued by one of this year’s new selections, “Mandarin Cross” Japanese Slicing Tomatoes).  Some seeds come in two- or three-variety combos, which is great for an urban gardener with limited space (examples include a Red and Yellow Mini Pear Tomato combo and a trio of Black Krim, Sweet Persimmon, and Costolluto Genovese tomatoes). You can see it all at <> .


Johnny’s Selected Seeds.  This catalogue is frequently mentioned by Minnesota Master Gardeners who grow fruits, vegetables, and flowers from seed.  The website and catalogue are easy to shop by type of plant (e.g., tomato, bean, or melon) as well as by such categories as heirloom, organic, AAS winners, “easy choices,” etc.  Plant descriptions are accompanied by good photos, and the website includes videos on useful topics like pruning tomatoes, growing guides, a seed calculator, and a blog offering growing ideas.  Although for me it doesn’t have the aesthetic appeal of some others, the quality is first-rate and it’s a great source worth a visit at .


Seed Savers Exchange.  Seed Savers is widely known for its mission of preserving plant diversity by encouraging gardeners to save seeds and thus help maintain the wide array of plants that were grown before factory farming and mass marketing began to seriously narrow the choices of plants, seeds, and produce available in the U.S.  And what a variety the Seed Savers catalogue has to offer!  For example, they sell more than 80 kinds of tomato seeds, and for much of what is on offer, a shopper can choose the number of seeds s/he wishes to purchase (sometimes as few as 25).  The site includes good photos and growing information, and this year they are launching a new webinar series. Find Seed Savers Exchange at .


The Cook’s Garden.  Focused on serving “Gourmet Gardeners,” Cook’s Garden Seeds offers a gardener with limited space the advantage of being able to purchase organically grown plants as well as seeds.  A growing calendar is useful, but search categories are limited (for example, there is no way to search specifically for heirlooms).  Once at the top of my list, the catalogue is neither as distinctive nor as beautifully illustrated as it was when it was owned by Shepherd and Ellen Ogden (it’s now owned by Burpee’s and it’s catalogue largely mirrors their catalogue).  Still, it is a reliable source for the home gardener and can be found at .