January Tomatoes?

These are some of the last of the coastal tomatoes and the tiny one is the last from my garden.

These are some of the last of the NC coastal tomatoes and the tiny one is the last from my garden.

     January is always a difficult time for those of us who love to garden in Western North Carolina.  It’s too early to start seeds for most summer crops and with recent single-digit temperatures, many fall food crops are severely limited.  When I visited Heart & Sole Gardens yesterday, it was painful to see frozen bok choy and other greens that were viable just a couple of weeks ago.  Thankfully, I was able to peel back frozen arugula leaves and harvest some tender salad and although most of the kale, mustard and turnip greens were too bitten to eat, I was able to pick a nice basket of young leaves from those plants.  The spinach was almost untouched by cold temperatures and I happily gathered that green in another basket and dug a few green garlic bulbs. 


Bok Choy did not survive the January freeze.

Bok Choy did not survive the January freeze.

            Back at my home, I used the last fresh tomatoes Richard and I purchased during our late fall trip to the NC coast and made a sauce.  Although too much wet weather this summer made for a poor tomato crop in my area, the fruit we bought at the eastern market was still nice.  I know they were grown with “conventional” methods, i.e. added chemicals, and they are not heirloom fruit, but I know the farm where they grow and they are sort of local and in January, I am very thankful for these tomatoes.  Recently, spots began developing on the skin and I knew it was time to “use it or lose it,” so I cut the tomatoes into sections and placed them in a pot to cook on the stovetop over low heat.  When the tomatoes were completely soft, I allowed them to cool and then used a potato ricer to remove the skins.  I put the pureed tomato sauce in a smaller pot and added onion and garlic granules, dried basil and oregano, and sea salt and a few grinds of black pepper.  After the sauce cooked for a couple of hours, it reduced to about 1 ¼ cups. 


            I picked up some beautiful baby and portabella mushroom caps at our local supermarket and decided to serve those with the tomato sauce for our dinner.  Since I also had fresh baby arugula leaves, I thought they would make a nice addition to a mushroom “pizza.”  With a fresh spinach side salad, it was a perfect meal for a cold January night.  Use a small, pointed spoon, such as a grapefruit spoon, to remove the mushroom gills from the portabella caps, taking care to keep them intact. 


Fresh green garlic bulb next to chopped baby bellas.

Fresh green garlic bulb next to chopped baby bellas.

Portabella Pizzas with Fresh Tomato Sauce

8 ounces baby bella mushrooms, chopped

4 portabella mushroom caps, stems and gills removed (compost stems and gills)

2 tablespoons minced garlic (I used about ½ bulb of fresh)

½ cup chopped onion

3-4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

¼ cup dry white wine

1 ¼ cups tomato sauce

¼ cup pickled eggplant (optional)*

¼ cup chopped kalamata olives (optional)

4 slices fresh mozzarella cheese

1 cup fresh arugula leaves

¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper, to taste

In a large skillet, heat 1-2 tablespoons olive oil and then add onions and garlic, cooking until translucent, about 2 minutes.  Keeping skillet hot, add wine and stir.  Cook until vegetables are almost dry, stirring often, about 3-4 minutes.  Push vegetables to the sides of the skillet, making a well, and add chopped mushrooms, shaking pan to level them over the heat.  Cook mushrooms until they begin to brown, (about 6 minutes), and then stir to combine them with the onions and garlic.  Add eggplant and olives, if you like or any other ingredients you normally enjoy on pizza.  Stir in the tomato sauce and lower heat.  Simmer about 3-4 minutes and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Remove skillet from heat.

Making a well in the skillet allows the onion and garlic to cook while the mushrooms brown.

Making a well in the skillet allows the onion and garlic to cook while the mushrooms brown.

In a separate skillet, heat remaining olive oil over medium high heat and add portabella caps, top side down.  Oil will quickly absorb and caps will lightly sear, 1-2 minutes.  Do not cook underside (the side that will hold filling).  Remove caps from pan and place on baking sheet covered with foil, parchment paper or nonstick baking mat. 


Portabella mushroom pizzas hit the spot on a cold January night.

Portabella mushroom pizzas with fresh arugula hit the spot on a cold January night.

Fill caps with sauce and top with mozzarella cheese slices.  Bake in a preheated, 375 degree, oven for about 12-14 minutes, until cheese begins to brown.  Remove from oven and set oven to broil.  Top each mushroom with ¼ of the fresh arugula leaves and sprinkle ¼ of the Parmesan cheese over each.  Briefly broil in oven until cheese just melts, 1-2 minutes.

For a non-vegetarian dish, ground beef, venison or sausage, browned, may be added to the tomato sauce mixture. 

*During their season, I preserve fresh eggplants in a mixture of olive oil, vinegar, peppers, herbs and spices.  Stored in the refrigerator, we often use the eggplants in a variety of dishes or just eat them from the jar.  Refrigerated eggplant should be removed from the fridge prior to using to allow the solidified olive oil time to return to a liquid state.