Rush Hour

It's spring and that's always a great time to think about gardening and fresh produce. This year, it carries a special significance for many people that are trying to be frugal in times of need. Instead of turning to greasy convenience food or cheap takeout, take the opportunity to get some fresh air and enjoy some fine food while saving money on your grocery bill.

A simple patio garden can put a couple fresh salads on your table each week during the growing season, if you plan them right. Consider planting items that are difficult to find in the store, are expensive when you do find them and are fairly easy to tend to in a home garden. Heirloom tomatoes are an excellent example of something that grows beautifully in a small plot or container garden and don't particularly travel well, so they are fairly expensive when you can find them in the market. While they are excellent when added to salads, I'm a huge fan of slicing them just from the garden, adding a little salt and eating them over the sink! They also transform a simple grilled cheese sandwich into a thing of beauty.

Another fun item to work into your garden plans is eggplant. Available in multiple shades and shapes, it's a great addition to stir-fries, ethnic curries and Middle Eastern dishes. A good plant will provide you with an abundance of fresh produce that you can work into any number of dishes. Eggplant, when roasted, also does a great job of standing in for meat in vegetarian dishes. It can add a smoky, hearty texture to a wide variety of dishes.

In the spirit of home gardens everywhere, I leave you with a couple great recipes highlighting just these two fresh and frugal options. If you simply can't manage your own garden, plan trips to your local farmers' markets and market stands. They will have super fresh produce available and are likely to undercut the prices offered by grocery stores that have had the same items shipped from far away.

As always, I encourage you to share your recipe ideas and comments. You can always post comments using the forms provided in the articles or email me directly at . Enjoy!

Heirloom Tomato Tart

  • 6 medium-sized heirloom tomatoes - washed and sliced 1/6-inch thick
  • 1 tsp. fine-grain sea salt
  • 1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter - well chilled + cut into 1/4-inch cubes
  • 2 c. grated Parmesan
  • 2 T. ice cold water
  • 2 T. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup slivered basil

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Place the tomatoes in a single layer on a double-layer of paper towels and sprinkle them with about 1 teaspoon of salt. Top the tomatoes with another layer of paper towels and press gently. Let the tomatoes sit there until you are ready to use them.

Place both the flours, butter, and Parmesan in a food processor and pulse quickly about 25 times. With a few more pulses, blend in the two tablespoons of ice water. The dough should stick together when you pinch it between two fingers. Pour the dough into the tart pan. Working quickly, press the dough uniformly into the pan by pressing across the bottom and working towards the sides and up to form a rim. Place in the refrigerator and chill for 15 minutes.

Pull the tarts out of the refrigerator and poke each a few times with the tongs of a fork. Cover each tart with a square of aluminum foil and fill generously with pie weights. Place them on a baking sheet and slide them onto the middle rack in the oven. Bake for 15 minutes, pull the shells out of the oven and very gently peel back and remove the tinfoil containing the pie weights. Place the uncovered tarts back in the oven, weight free, and allow to bake for another 10 minutes, or until they are a deep golden brown in color. Remove them from the oven and sprinkle with a little shredded Parmesan (this will act as another barrier to the tomato liquid). Let them cool to room temperature before filling.

Just before serving, arrange the tomato slices in a concentric pattern inside the tart shell. Drizzle with your best quality extra-virgin olive oil, and sprinkle with the slivered basil. Serve at room temperature.

  • Yields: This recipe will make one 9 or 10-inch tart OR five 4 1/2-inch tarts.
  • Preparation Time: 1 hour

Ratatouille Salad

  • 1 (12 to 14-ounce) eggplant - cut into 1/2 inch-thick rounds
  • 1 zucchini - quartered lengthwise
  • 1 red bell pepper - cut lengthwise into 6 strips
  • 1 medium onion - cut into 1/2 inch thick rounds
  • 3 T. garlic-flavored olive oil
  • 2-3 tsp. balsamic vinegar
  • 2/3 cup crumbled feta cheese

Place the eggplant, zucchini, red bell pepper and onion on a baking sheet. Drizzle with the oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper; turn to coat.

Broil or grill the vegetables until tender and tinged with brown, turning frequently, about 6 minutes for the eggplant and zucchini and about 10 minutes for the red bell pepper and onion. Transfer the vegetables to a serving platter and sprinkle the top with vinegar and cheese immediately before serving.

  • Yields: 4-6 servings
  • Preparation Time: 25 minutes