In Praise of the Honest Tomato
It’s tomato season again, and for the next couple of months, we can indulge one of our favorite passions. But cookbooks are often confusing for those of us who live in Louisiana. I can’t count how many times I’ve read the admonition that a recipe should only be made in late summer when tomatoes are in peak season. That’s good advice for those who live in northern sections of the country, but by then our weather will be too hot for tomatoes. So now is the time to seize the day.
Proust had a madeleine to jog his memory, but if your parents or a neighbor tended a garden, your muse is likely a ripe red tomato that you twisted off the vine and ate on the spot, juice dripping off your chin and running down your arm. A sprinkle of salt would have been a welcome addition, but since you were sweating profusely from the heat, your lips, which were already salty, probably provided all the seasoning you needed.
The details in those memories either grow dim or else they multiply with imagined embellishments over the years, but run-of-the-mill commercial tomatoes picked green and ripened with gas aren’t sufficient to call up the past. There is neither joy nor memory in a supermarket tomato, only sadness and disappointment for what might have been.
But when you taste an honest tomato – an old variety that has ripened on the vine, with a taste that holds sweetness and acidity in perfect balance – all those memories come flooding back and you think that there could be nothing finer, more delicious or awe-inspiring than that warm tomato eaten out of hand. For the brief time when our tomatoes are in season, you eat them throughout the day for their utter deliciousness – and perhaps with a hope of recapturing the pleasures of your past.
For the most part, no recipes are needed in order to enjoy local tomatoes. All you need is some coarse salt and, if you wish, a few grinds of the pepper mill. Or make a sandwich with crusty bread, mayonnaise and sliced tomatoes. Or build your sandwich on French bread liberally doused with olive oil and layered with tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil leaves. Or, yet again, combine tomatoes with olive oil and the cucumbers and bell peppers that are also in season for an utterly delicious and refreshing salad.
But when you have an abundance of tomatoes from the garden or the farmers market, there are many tasty ways to make the most of your bounty. Here are a few of them.
Tomatoes Stuffed With Crabmeat
A quick and easy way to enjoy two of the season’s tastiest ingredients. No cooking required.
4 medium tomatoes
2 cups crabmeat
6 tablespoons mayonnaise
4 teaspoons chopped parsley
4 teaspoons snipped chives
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cut off the tops of the tomatoes, and, using a small spoon, scoop out the pulp and seeds. Lightly salt the tomatoes, and turn them upside-down on paper towels to drain for 30 minutes.
Combine the crabmeat, mayonnaise, parsley, chives and lemon juice. Season to taste with salt, black pepper and cayenne. Stuff the tomatoes with crabmeat, mounding the tops. Serves 4.
The South is well-known for its devotion to fried green tomatoes, but ripe tomatoes can also be battered and fried. The result, which is very different from frying the green variety, is quite delicious in its own right.
4 medium, firm tomatoes
1 cup low-gluten, self-rising flour, such as White Lily
2 egg yolks, beaten
1 cup cold sparkling water or club soda
Vegetable oil for frying
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
Slice the tomatoes a half-inch thick, and, using a small spoon, remove the seeds and soft pulp. Place the tomato slices between paper towels to dry. Combine the flour, egg yolks and sparkling water, and mix lightly with a fork. The batter will be lumpy.
Pour oil about a quarter-inch deep in a frying pan, and heat. Dip the tomato slices in the batter, and fry, without crowding, until browned, about 90 seconds. Turn the fritters, and cook on the other side until browned, about 1 minute. Remove the fritters, and drain on paper towels. Repeat with the remaining tomato slices, adding additional oil if needed. Season with salt and pepper. Serves 4.
A savory pastry topped with fresh herbs, this simple dish is in tune with the season.
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold butter
3 to 4 tablespoons ice-cold water
1 to 3 ripe tomatoes, depending on size
1 tablespoon olive oil
Pinch coarse salt
3 tablespoons snipped chives
1/4 cup flat Italian parsley leaves
10 to 12 basil leaves
In a mixing bowl, whisk the flour and salt to combine. Cut the butter into small pieces, and add it to the bowl. Using a pastry cutter or two knives, cut the butter into the flour until it resembles coarse meal. Add the water 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing it in with a fork, until dough forms. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, form into a ball, and press into a disc. Wrap in wax paper or plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Slice the tomatoes a half-inch thick, and place the tomato slices between paper towels to dry. On a floured surface, roll out the dough to fit an 8- or 9-inch pie pan. Position the dough in the pan, and cut off excess dough. Place the tomato slices in the pan to cover the dough. Bake on the bottom shelf of the preheated oven until the crust is nicely browned, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the pie to a cooling rack for 20 to 30 minutes. Drizzle the tomatoes with olive oil, and sprinkle with coarse salt. Scatter the chives, parsley and basil over the tomatoes. Serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 6.
Sometimes written as “maquechou” or “maque-choux,” the origins of this dish are as uncertain as its spelling, and I have yet to see a convincing explanation for the name. Regardless, it is a delicious way to use the tomatoes, corn and bell peppers that are in season now. Many families make it in bulk and freeze portions for the coming year.
4 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bell pepper, seeded and chopped
4 cups corn
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
Coarse salt and cayenne pepper
In a heavy casserole, melt the butter and cook the onion, garlic and bell pepper until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the corn and tomatoes; season with salt and cayenne; cover; and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the corn is tender, about 10 minutes. Adjust seasonings. Serves 4 to 6.