click to enlarge Tomato water makes a light and bright Bloody Mary.
Tomato water makes a light and bright Bloody Mary.
Salt can do more than add flavor and sparkle to recipes and fresh summer produce. Thanks to the power of osmosis, salting and draining fruits like cucumber, zucchini or tomatoes can have a transformative effect on the finished product. Foods with a high water content often benefit from an extended period of salting because it draws out significant quantities of liquid in an effort to balance the levels of salinity around it. This is helpful if you're looking to prepare a crisp cucumber salad or grill succulent slices of summer squash. Salting is also an ideal step to take when putting up tomatoes for the freezer because it helps prevent the plant cell walls from rupturing from the water inside expanding as it freezes, resulting in a meaty rather than mushy product with concentrated flavor. Prepared in this way, frozen tomatoes maintain much of their fresh texture and still taste like summer even after months in the freezer.

As a bonus, the liquid that is drained off the salted produce is an ingredient worth having in its own right. Use drained zucchini or tomato water to cook pasta or use in place of vegetable stock, or to make a surprisingly light and bright Bloody Mary. When we prepare large batches of chili sauce or ratatouille, I'll chop up and drain gallons of tomatoes, resulting in many quarts of drained tomato water which I package like broth and store in the freezer. It's a staple ingredient in my kids' favorite Spanish-style brown rice and a smart nutritional combination as well. Brown rice is rich in iron, which is more easily absorbed by our bodies when it's combined with foods rich in vitamin C, such as tomatoes.

Use a teaspoon of salt per quart of prepared produce and mix it well before placing it in a nonreactive colander set over a bowl. Refrigerate for several hours or, ideally, overnight, stirring once or twice, until the product will have reduced by about half. For quick weeknight applications, salted veggies can be spread out on a paper towel for 30-40 minutes to pull out water before sautéing or roasting. It's important to remember when using salted produce to adjust or omit any additional salt in the recipe as necessary. This process can be applied to sweet as well as savory applications. Sugar draws out water just like salt, so tossing cut peaches or berries with a little sugar and a pinch of salt and then draining is a great way to concentrate flavor when making a cobbler or fruit pie. The drained fruit juice can be reduced in a pan over the stovetop and added back into the recipe, or left as is and used in cocktails or other fruity drinks.

Tomato Water Bloody Mary

6 ounces tomato water

2 ounces vodka or tequila

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon dill pickle juice

Grated horseradish, celery salt, Worcestershire, and Tabasco to taste

Fresh herbs to garnish

Combine the above ingredients and mix well then pour into a tall glass filled with ice. Garnish and serve.

Zucchini and Rice Noodle Stir-Fry

2 medium zucchini cut into ½-inch dice

1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt

4 ounces wide rice noodles

2 tablespoons neutral oil

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 bunch scallions, sliced into ½-inch lengths

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon grated ginger

1 tablespoon sesame oil

2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce

Herbs such as Thai basil, cilantro and mint

Sprinkle the zucchini with salt. Arrange on a paper towel and allow to drain for 30-40 minutes. Meanwhile soak the rice noodles in a bowl of warm water for 30 minutes to soften, then drain and set aside. Stir-fry the drained zucchini with the bell pepper and the oil over high heat in a wok or skillet until they begin to soften, then add the scallions. Cook one minute, then add the garlic and ginger and cook one minute more until they just begin to sizzle, then add the sesame oil and soy sauce. Stir to combine, then add the drained noodles and mix well. Top with fresh herbs and serve.

Fresh Tomato Risotto with Bacon and Cheddar

2 ½ cups chopped tomatoes (peeling optional)

1 ½ teaspoons salt

3 ounces bacon, diced

1 medium onion

1 cup Arborio rice

3 cups water

4 ounces best quality white cheddar, grated

¼ cup minced scallions or chives

Mix the tomatoes with the salt and allow to drain in a colander set over a bowl, refrigerated, for several hours or overnight. Be sure to save the drained liquid.

Heat the water and reserved tomato liquid in a small saucepan on a back burner. Place a heavy-bottomed nonreactive saucepan over medium-high heat. Fry the chopped bacon until crisp, then remove it from the pan with a slotted spoon and set it aside to drain on a paper towel. Add the rice to the hot fat in the pan and cook until the rice becomes opaque and just begins to brown. Add the diced onion and a tiny sprinkle of salt and continue to cook until the onions just begin to soften. Add 1 cup of hot tomato water to the rice mixture, stirring continuously, and cook until the water has been fully absorbed. Add another cup of tomato water and repeat the process until most of the water has been used up and the rice is just al dente (avoid overcooking). Turn off the heat and add the drained tomatoes and cheddar, stirring until the tomatoes are warmed through. Stir in the chopped bacon just before serving and top with the minced scallions and additional cheese if desired. Serve immediately.

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