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Sun Dried Tomatoes

Renee-Lucie BenoitDrying tomatoes in the sun is the easiest way to preserve your tomato bounty if you live in a hot dry climate like I do. I live in the San Joaquin Valley of California, the relative humidity in summer hovers around 15%, and there are days upon days of cloudless sunny skies. The temperature is usually in the high 90s or low 100s, starting in June and going through August, so it's the perfect climate for dried figs, tomatoes, and raisins. Today, I'm going to show you how I dry tomatoes.

First, pick your fleshiest, least juicy, most tasty tomatoes. I chose Roma tomatoes. Around here they grow like gangbusters, and you'll see truckload upon truckload headed down the road for the canning factory. Trust me when I say you'll be eating Roma tomatoes grown in the San Joaquin Valley next time you pick up a can of tomato sauce or paste this winter when you're making your spaghetti sauce from scratch.

I can dry my tomatoes in one day out in the sun. I put them out in the morning and take them in at night, perfectly dried.

Chop your tomatoes into quarters, and then again, so you've got a sliver of tomato about a half inch thick. Scoop out the seeds and whatever pulp there may be. With a Roma there will be very little pulp. Lay them on a grid tray on a cookie sheet for safety (so they don't fall on the ground by accident. I also line my cookie sheet with parchment paper, but it's not 100% necessary. I just do it so my cookie sheets are easier to clean.) Space the slices so they don't touch each other. It's important for there to be air circulating all around so they dry faster.

fresh sliced

Then, using some kind of wire (I use some old fencing material I found laying around in our "not-junk" pile), make a wire cage that fits over your cookie sheet that also gives head room. This is to support the cheesecloth — which comes next — so it doesn't touch the tomatoes and stick to them. I attach a canopy of one layer of cheesecloth to the wire frame with clothespins, and then I set them in the full sun. The cheesecloth keeps flies and other insects or birds from destroying your handiwork.


If where you are is more humid, it might take more than one day. Just remember to take them in at night. The cool night air might cause them to get moldy, and that would be very frustrating. You may also try finishing them in a very slow oven (around 200 degrees).


When they're leathery, but not crisp, I put them in a jar and cover them with a good, quality olive oil. They'll keep like that for months in the fridge.

You can add herbs to the oil/tomato mix. Dried basil or oregano and garlic work really well. A little salt and pepper wouldn't hurt, but is not necessary as you can season your ingredients when you put them in a recipe.

Homemade Root Beer: Part Three

Renee-Lucie BenoitAfter two tries at making old-fashioned root beer with herbs, I had to admit to some experiment fatigue. I just wanted to have some success to guzzle down with abandon on a hot day. If only I could get some success, I would promise to go back to making it from scratch! I sure have been learning a lot, and I've gotten a much greater respect for brew masters of old! How did they persevere?

The first experiment yielded a good flavor but lousy color. The second experiment yielded great color but lousy flavor. So I decided to cave and try a less nostalgic experiment to see if it were at all possible to come anywhere close to both good flavor and good color.

I got ingredients and a recipe from our local home-brew shop. The recipe used an extract, sugar, and champagne yeast, so there would still be an element of risk. I wanted my root beer to have a small fizz and a head of foam, and to achieve that I need to ferment it. The fizz in this recipe was not going to be from alcohol. It was going to be from carbon dioxide.

Here's what I did:

For 1 gallon of root beer I used ...

• 1/8 teaspoon champagne yeast
• 1 tablespoon root beer extract (I used Homebrew Root Beer Extract from Rainbow Flavors in Osage Beach, Missouri)
• 2 to 2-1/4 cups white sugar
• enough filtered water to make 1 gallon

Note: filtered water is important in making fermented drinks. Water that has fluoride or chlorine in it is going to interfere with the fermentation.


1. Dissolve 1/8 teaspoon of champagne yeast in a cup of warm water (98 degrees feels just slightly warmer than your finger; not hot, not cold. Our core body temperature is around 98.6, but our skin temperature is less.) Let the mixture stand 5 minutes or longer to dissolve, and stir thoroughly with a non-reactive spoon like wood or stainless steel. Store whatever yeast you have not used in the fridge.

2. Shake the extract bottle to mix. Combine 1 tablespoon of extract and 2-1/4 cups of sugar with enough warm filtered water to dissolve the sugar (also store whatever you have not used in the fridge). After dissolving, I tasted it and I think it was too sweet, so I'd go with 2 cups next time.

mix sugar

3. Add the dissolved yeast to the sugar/extract mixture. I used a gallon-sized pitcher that had been sterilized. Now, add warm, filtered water to make one gallon. You can taste it at this time. Warning: don't double dip the spoon or you'll introduce germ laden saliva. At this time you can add more sugar if you like it really sweet. Take care how much you add, of course, as it can't be taken out if you add too much.

fill water

4. Fill sterilized bottles and leave at least 2 inches of air space at the top. I used my grolsch style bottles with the rubber and metal clip top. Filling it all the way will not leave any room for the carbon dioxide that will build up. You could have a popped bottle. I saw it happen when my dad made his own beer. Also, bottles need to be sealed or the brew will be flat or sour from bacteria that might get in.

5. Turn the bottles gently to check on their side to check for leaks. If there are no leaks, set the bottles somewhere where they are at room temperature for 3 or 4 days. Then, put them somewhere cooler, like a basement or apartment fridge, set on 50 degrees. I'm told if you can age it at least 2 weeks then the flavor will be better, but I'm going to check mine in 3 days because I'm impatient. Also, as natural carbonation takes place a little yeast deposit will form on the bottom, so be careful when pouring it to avoid getting this in the glass. It can give the drink an "off" flavor. Refrigerate after opening.

After 3 days, this is what I got. Lots of effervescence and pretty decent flavor. It didn't taste like A&W root beer so my husband was not completely won over, but it was cold and satisfying. We'd just been out planting our pomegranate trees and I was hot! It tasted good to me! There was a slight yeasty flavor, but it was the most like classic-root-beer taste of all my experiments. Now, with this success under my belt, I am all primed to try the ingredients of the first experiment with the ginger bug of the second experiment as my fermenting agent. Bottoms up!


Chili Verde: In Memoriam

Renee-Lucie BenoitI offer this recipe in honor of my best friend Georgia Williams, who just passed away from a brain tumor. She was 62 years old. She was also my partner in horses for 30 years, and I will miss her very much. Chili Verde was her signature dish. She always made it to give away to someone in need.




• 3 cups of chicken broth (I use Better Than Boullion)
• 1 pound of tomatillos, husked and halved (I used little ones, but big ones work, too)
• 1 bunch of green onions chopped (3-4)
• 1-1/2 cups cilantro (packed)
• olive oil
• 6 garlic cloves, peeled
• 4-pound pork shoulder, trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes (I used a lean cut of meat)
• 1 tablespoon cumin seed
• 1 large onion
• 3/4 cup roasted and peeled Anaheim chili (any MILD chili)
• 2 teaspoons dried oregano (preferably Mexican)
• 1 pound potatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes (Yukon Gold are nice, but I used my homegrown ones. I also pre-steamed them so they were already cooked.)


1. Prepare the tomatillos by turning on the TV to some non-riveting program, and then sit there while peeling each tomatillo by hand. Of course, the TV is not necessary as peeling the tomatillos in silence is a very meditative process. The husks come off easily but will leave your hands sticky, so have a towel nearby. Don't wipe your eyes. The tomatillos are not noxious, but the sticky substance will not be good to get in your eyes. Rinse the tomatillos under cold water. Set aside.


2. Prepare Anaheim chili's by oiling them and putting them on a roasting pan in a 325 degree oven. You can also fire-roast them over a BBQ grill. When the skin turns brown or blackens a little, let them cool and then peel the tough outer skin off. Chop up the soft inside. Set aside.

roast chilis

3. Puree 2 cups of chicken broth, 1/4 of the tomatillos, green onions, cilantro (stems are OK), and garlic in a blender. Set this aside. We'll call it salsa verde (which means "green salsa").

green salsa 

4. Brush a heavy pot with oil. Heat it over medium heat. Sprinkle your cubed meat with salt and pepper. Then, working in small batches, brown your meat. Put the meat aside as you brown it until it's all done. If there's a lot of fat in the pot, pour some off until there's only a small amount. If you use lean pork, you may have to add oil.

brown meat

5. Then add your onion to the pot and sauté until it is soft. Sprinkle your cumin seeds over the onions and cook until onion is golden brown and not burned. Add remaining tomatillos and cook until soft and maybe browned in a few places. Don't let it burn.


6. Add the pork with juices back in, and add 2 cups of the green salsa, 1 cup of broth, chilis, and oregano. Cover and simmer over medium-low until pork is tender. About 2 hours. You can also put the whole shebang in a crock pot and let it simmer all day.

Note: This is really good re-heated, so if you want to make it a couple days ahead that's purr-fectly okay.

in pot

7. When to add potatoes:

I pre-steamed my potatoes, so after about a couple of hours of cooking the stew, I then add the potatoes. They just need to absorb the flavor, so you don't need to cook the heck out of them. If you've used potatoes that hold their shape, they won't disintegrate (like baking potatoes would).

8. Stir in remaining green salsa, season with salt and pepper, cook another half hour.

9. This is good over rice, with tortillas, in tacos or burritos.


Homemade Root Beer: Part Two

Renee-Lucie BenoitIn my first root beer post I found that the kefir culture didn't give me the results I wanted. I found that I had made a decent probiotic root beer flavored drink that did not come close to classic root beer in color and fizziness. The flavor was kind of a root beer flavored water-y kefir. I wanted a drink close in flavor and color to root beer I remembered from my youth.

So I made a few consultations with people I knew were familiar with fermented drinks and found that kefir culture was not the best for the classic taste. I was counseled to try ginger bug and a more simple ingredient combination. I got this recipe from Wellness Mama. Then I modified it for my own kitchen.

Here's what I came up with:

First you need to make a Ginger Bug. Don't ask me where that name came from. I think it's a shortened way of saying Lacto-Fermented Ginger Starter.

Ginger Bug Ingredients

2 fresh ginger roots — about 1-1/2 inches long; peeled unless using organic and then you can use it with the skin on
1/2 cup white sugar — has to be white otherwise the fermentation will not work properly
2 cups filtered water
quart size mason jar
rubber band

Cut a chunk of ginger root and grate it to make 2-3 tablespoons of grated ginger.




Put the ginger in the mason jar and add 2-3 tablespoons of white sugar.


Add 2 cups of filtered water.


Don't use water that has chlorine in it. The chlorine will kill the fermentation critters.

Stir with a non-metal spoon and lightly cover with cheesecloth held in place by a rubber band.



Then for five days add 1 tablespoon grated ginger and 1 tablespoon of sugar once a day and stir. It could take a few days more than five for it to work. What you're looking for is a sweet yeasty ginger smell with fizzles/bubbles at the top.  If mold appears on the surface throw it away and start again. If you make sure your utensils are all clean and sterilized you will more likely be able to avoid mold. If it takes over a week to ferment throw it away and start again. Also don't ferment it next to kombucha or sauerkraut or any other lacto-fermented stuff. They will "cross pollinate".

Ginger Bug is good for many homemade sodas. If you want to try it out on other recipes on down the line you can let it rest in the fridge until you're ready. Just add a teaspoon of grated fresh ginger and 1 teaspoon of sugar every week. When you're ready let it come to room temperature and start feeding it again.

OK, now is the time to start the actual root beer. The even easier part.

Root Beer Ingredients

1/2 cup sassafras root bark
1/2 teaspoon wintergreen leaf
1 cup cane sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1 tiny dash of ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup homemade ginger bug
Optional: pinch of hops, pinch of coriander, pinch of allspice, up to 1/4 cup lime juice, a few juniper berries (leftover from the first experiment)

Put the sassafras root bark and wintergreen leaf in a large pot big enough to hold 3 quarts of filtered water. Add the spice if you decide to use them. Add 3 quarts of water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain through cheesecloth into a large pitcher to remove the herbs. Then while it is still hot add the sugar and molasses and stir with a clean spoon until it is dissolved. Let cool until just room temperature (not hot, not cold) and add the 3/4 cup ginger bug (strain it through cheesecloth to remove the particles of ginger) and vanilla. Also add lime juice at this time if you decide to try that. I did. I added all the ingredients listed. Transfer to grolsch type clean sterilized bottles. You know, the ones with the wire clasp on the lid. Let the bottles sit at room temperature for a few days but check after two days for carbonation. Right away my bottles started to get a mottle-ly "foam" on the surface but I let them sit. After 2 days I opened one carefully and it did have a little "pop" but not too much. I smelled it and decided that it only vaguely smelled like root beer. The molasses was not an undertone. It was dominant. Then because I was not sure what the foam-y stuff was on the top I made a command decision. I threw it away. It did not smell like we wanted it to and even though botulism is rare in these kinds of things the concern we had put us over the top.

I remember reading a story Ruth Reichl told about her mother. Ruth Reichl wrote a great memoir about her life, the beginnings of California Cuisine and her days as editor in chief at Gourmet magazine. She said (and I paraphrase) "My mother was always trying things out on my dad. She'd say here try this and he would dutifully open his mouth and let her spoon the stuff in. Invariably he'd wrinkle his nose and spit the stuff out. Mother would say yes, I thought it was going bad."

So, not wanting to do a Ruth's Mother on my husband I decided to throw it out.

Here's a picture of what we got. Does it look benign to you?


You might ask why would I offer a recipe that I threw out in the final analysis? I offer it because if you do it right and your result does not have any suspicious things about it I'm sure that you can get a lacto-fermented healthy drink that is good in its own right. I want you to know my whole process so you can learn from it and decide what you want to do.

Root Beer Part Three comes next.

Homemade Root Beer: Part One

Renee-Lucie BenoitI don't know about you but one of my greatest pleasures growing up in a hot and humid mid-western town was going to the A & W Root Beer stand on a summer night. Everybody was there and the carhops came out to your car and the huge mugs were frosty and the liquid inside them sublime.

My grandmother wouldn't drink it, though. "It's beer," she said. She was a teetotaler.

"But Grandma," we said, "it's not beer. It's just a word."

Never mind. She was stubborn and she was adamant. We didn't know any better but back in the day and probably her day root beer was actually beer and a little bit alcoholic. It was known as "small" beer. Very little alcohol but alcoholic none the less. So Grandma was not far off.

I did a little research and found that in the days when water was so filthy as to be toxic some people started wondering why the rich were so healthy compared to the poor. It turns out that rich people never drank water but always wine or beer. Water was all poor people had to drink for the most part. So a movement began in Belgium to create a cheap beer that poor people could afford and had a low alcohol drink so children could drink. This as known as "small beer".

Small beer is less than 2% alcohol. The alcohol in it acts as a preservative and germ killer. Boiling to blend the flavors further kills bacteria and germs. It is then cooled and fermented with yeast. The yeast is what creates the alcohol and the bubbles.

I decided to try a purist approach and go from scratch without the benefit of store bought extract. The process turns out to be easy but I wasn't sure how it would turn out. Will it taste anywhere near like A&W? My guess is no but that isn't going to stop my experiment. I decided to use kefir culture to ferment the beverage because I had it. It might turn out that I've made a good probiotic beverage. We'll see. But I'm not sure my husband will be willing to try it if it doesn't have the characteristics he's used to. No matter. Dang the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

I found all my herbs at The Herb Room in Santa Cruz, California. I was able to buy small amounts so if the experiment fails I won't have pounds of herb leftover.

Makes about 2 liters


• 1/4 cup sassafras root bark
• 1/4 cup winter green leaf
• 2 tablespoons sarsaparilla root
• 1 tablespoon licorice root
• 1 tablespoon ginger root
• 1 tablespoon dandelion root
• 1 tablespoon hops flowers
• 1 tablespoon birch bark
• 1 tablespoon wild cherry tree bark
• 1 teaspoon juniper berries
• 1 cinnamon stick
• 1 cup unrefined cane sugar
• 1 packet kefir starter culture


1. Bring two and one-half quarts filtered water to a boil and stir in sassafras, sarsaparilla, wintergreen, licorice, ginger, hops, juniper, birch and wild cherry bark. (I use our well water. It has been tested to be bacteria free and, of course, it has no additives.)  Reduce the heat and simmer for twenty minutes.

2. Turn off the heat and strain the herb liquid through a colander lined with cheesecloth into a clean pitcher. Make sure you use a pitcher that won't break when you pour the hot liquid in it. (For my next batch I think I am going to source a large stainless steel pitcher. I broke my glass pitcher even though I pre-heated it.) Stir the sugar into the hot liquid until it dissolves. Allow it to cool to room temperature. Once the sweetened liquid has cooled, stir in the kefir starter culture. The kefir culture will make the liquid "milky" so don't be disturbed. Then pour into individual sterilized bottles. Mason jars that have a glass lid with wire fasteners would be good. (Just don't boil the rubber gasket.) Leave at least one inch head space in each bottle. Don't fill it to the top. There needs to be room for the fermentation gases.


3. Allow the root beer to ferment for three to four days at room temperature, then transfer it to the refrigerator for an additional two days to age.


Here's my final result 5 days later. Definitely fragrant milky brew. No effervescence to speak of. Tasty vanilla sassafras quality. But not a keeper.


Back to the drawing board in Part Two. In Part Two I'm going to use a ginger bug instead of kefir culture. I'm also going to try a different configuration of ingredients.

Just think of how interesting it must have been when people were discovering something new. What new thing have you discovered recently?

An Old-Fashioned Housewarming

Renee-Lucie BenoitWe've been on our new homestead for three months now and things have settled down pretty well to the point that I am now considering hosting a Traditional House Warming party. We'll probably have a barbecue in our backyard and invite all the neighbors and all our old friends who have kept up with our peregrinations.

When I was a kid growing up in Iowa every time a new family moved into the neighborhood all the wives and mothers were johnny-on-the-spot with a pie or banana bread or some such goodie to welcome the new family to the neighborhood and then get to know them. This is where the traditional house warming party was so wonderful an event. The new family would get to know their neighbors and the neighbors would get to know them. Everyone sat around and ate the potluck dishes the neighbors brought and the new family would show everyone their new home.  Advice was given. Favors were offered. It is a lovely tradition and I would like to see it happen more.

Along with the food, little gifts are also customary. The idea, of course, is that the new homeowners could probably use the items and if they already have them they might appreciate having new things that aren't all worn out. They just spent a bundle on the down payment and insurance and most likely repairs so little gifts will be greatly appreciated. Something for the new house or something to be enjoyed during the party are customary.

In the olden days the housewarming party was symbolic but also literal. Of course, no one had central heating in those days and houses were warmed by wood fires in the fireplace or woodstove.  Each guest would bring firewood as a gift so the new home owners would have plenty of wood to burn. There was no harm in the fact that they also believed that a warm house repelled evil spirits. It was important to have the house properly prepared for habitation.

Here's another tradition that I've heard of. My cousin from North Carolina tells me of a Southern get-together known as a "Food Pounder". At a Food Pounder guests bring the new homeowners a pound of food such as cheese, cornmeal, flour, sugar, or any other staple needed to stock the new home's pantry. Nowadays even canned goods or fresh foods are proper.

Housewarming Gifts

Bread, salt and wine are traditional housewarming gifts.  In the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" we hear George and Mary Bailey speak these words when they first occupy their new house:

Mary: "Bread, so that this house may never know hunger. Salt, so that life may always have flavor."
George: "Wine, that joy and prosperity may reign forever."

Other ideas might include:

Small appliances such as toaster, blender, juicer or wooden spoons.
Home-cooked food or local restaurant gift card.
Flowers or plants.
A bottle of champagne.
Assortment of local baked goods.
Scented candles.
Homemade tea towels or potholders.
Scented soaps.
Tea or coffee.

Now as soon as I've set the date I will let you all know and I look forward to seeing you!


Photo by Fotolia/idea_studio

Mi Encantada Crazy Chicken

Renee-Lucie BenoitHere's a super easy summer chicken dish to grill outdoors and help keep the kitchen cool. I was introduced to a version of it when I went to a local fast food restaurant that served Mexican food. Of course, they would not share their recipe so to the best of my ability I came up with a my own version and, if I do say so myself, I like it even better.

Crazy Grilled Citrus Marinated Chicken


1 chicken, quartered (or 3-4 chicken breasts depending on how big they are or 4 chicken thighs)
1 tablespoon mild chili powder
1 tablespoon mild paprika
2 teaspoons cumin powder
About 1/2 to 3/4 cup of orange juice, fresh or frozen (if you use fresh grate the skin, too)
Juice of 3 limes, fresh or reconstituted
1 teaspoon of sugar
8 - 10 garlic cloves (or less if that's too garlicky for you) finely chopped
1/2 bunch coarsely chopped cilantro
2-3 tablespoons of olive oil
1/2 cup beer or pineapple juice (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste


Put chicken in a glass or ceramic dish. Don't use metal because the orange juice will react and give it a funny taste. Mix all the ingredients together and stir well. Pour the marinade over the chicken and turn it to coat all the pieces. Let it sit on the counter for no more than an hour then put in the refrigerator for 24 hours if you can. The flavors are more robust if you do but if you're ready to eat sooner at least marinate it for an hour or two.


Grill your chicken over a hot grill according to what cut of meat you have until it is golden brown and crispy.

Garnish with sprigs of cilantro and serve with lime wedges for squeezing. I like a fresh tomato and green bell pepper salad with chopped scallions on the side.