Recipes and photography by Hetty McKinnon
To say that this year has been the most extraordinary of our lives would be a flagrant understatement. However, to scramble the famous words of Charles Dickens, during these worst of times, there has also been the best of times. As we navigate life in isolation, we have learnt to appreciate the small things – waking up naturally each morning without having to rush three children out the door, making dumplings with friends via a group video chat, and sitting down for lunch every day with my kids. Home is, now more than ever, our buttress, a cocoon from the chaos of the world outside.
As days bleed into one another and time blurs, my one constant has been family and food. While cooking all day is not that far from my normal day-to-day as a recipe developer and food writer, the way I cook right now is very different. Today, as our pantry takes center stage and creativity and flexibility become key tenets of everyday cooking, there is a sense of fearlessness in the kitchen. If a recipe calls for cauliflower, substituting with tofu doesn’t feel like a stretch at all; making lasagna with tortillas is perfectly acceptable, and leftover odds and ends of homemade bread are not wasted, but are rather transformed into a hearty soup. In many ways, the way we are cooking right now harks back to the time of our grandmothers when frugality and practicality were always front of mind. Back then, much like now, recipes revolved around pantry staples and making the most out of everyday ingredients.
So, while this time in isolation has been unsettling, I have found myself feeling incredibly nostalgic about the food I ate as a child. I grew up in a traditional Cantonese household where my mother cooked big flavored savory dishes using scant ingredients, and my father brought home bright produce from the local markets every day, where he worked. Along with mangoes, peaches, plums and all the fruits and vegetables imaginable, we also feasted on the plumpest, juiciest beefsteak tomatoes. I would each them whole, taking a voracious bite straight into them as one would eat an apple. Recently, I was reminded of this treasured childhood food memory when I tried a Juicy Beefsteak® tomato from Village Farms – at first bite, as the tomato juice slid down my chin and arm, I was instantly transported back to my mother’s kitchen.
The joy of beefsteak tomatoes is their simplicity. They are brimming with flavor, and achingly juicy, perfect for creating effortless meals that allow the zesty hum of tomatoes to shine.
Often fresh tomatoes may benefit from some salting to bring out flavor and juice, but with Village Farms beefsteaks, this is not necessary. These tomatoes are firm, juicy and bold, perfect for slicing and using in laid-back salads. This beefsteak tomato salad with crispy chickpeas and lemon tahini is a party for your taste buds. The zingy flesh provides the perfect canvas for the spiced crispy chickpeas and the earthy lemon tahini sauce. This salad is effortless to prepare but big on flavor, a quick meal which is also full of nutrients.
While fresh tomatoes exemplify casual laid-back fare, roasted stuffed tomatoes encapsulate rustic charm. Gemista (or yemista) is a Greek dish of stuffed vegetables; tomatoes and peppers are most common, but you could also use eggplant, zucchini, and even onions. While I adore gemista, I rarely make it at home. For me, it’s a dish to enjoy when I eat out. However, these long days in isolation have given me a new appreciation for dishes that I wouldn’t normally cook. In many ways, this is the perfect isolation recipe – there are a few steps, but they are all simple and all of the ingredients are either pantry staples or easily adaptable.
Here, I’m stuffing my succulent Village Farms Juicy Beefsteak® tomatoes and Sweet Bells® peppers with an herby feta rice, but you could also use this as an opportunity to use up any leftover vegetables in your fridge – zucchini, carrots, or eggplant would be nice additions to the rice filling. Juicy tomatoes with a firm flesh are key for this dish, as the flesh, seeds and juices of the tomatoes are all used to flavor the rice, while the vegetables cook in a fresh tomato puree. I love to add peppers to the mix as they make substantial and sturdy vessels for the rice, while retaining their beautiful floral shape when baked. Village Farms sweet bells peppers are wonderfully sweet (as its name suggests!) and when roasted, they provide a lovely mellow fruitfulness which perfectly complements the tangy tomatoes.
Peppers are such a great everyday food in our home – my kids love to consume them raw, dipped into hummus as a snack, while roasted peppers drizzled with vinegar is one of my favorite things to add to hearty grain salad. Even though this gemista is roasted, this dish effortlessly embodies the liveliness of summer produce, a perfect meal to celebrate flavor-bursting produce during these long, languid days.