Tomatoes Have Arrived!
August 16, 2015
Tomatoes are everywhere this week. They are in the CSA bag. They are at all the stalls: quart boxes of cherry tomatoes (black-red, yellow, orange, bright red, or all mixed together, irresistibly ); singles of heirloom tomatoes to be bought by the pound, their deep indentations and splits a vivid contrast to the cloned look of the field tomatoes, piled in pyramids of uniform red globes.
Right at the start I have to say that tomatoes no longer taste like tomatoes. I don't know how to account for this. Depleted soil? Our collective concern for appearance over taste? Or simply my own aging taste buds? Whatever it is, I feel that I haven't tasted a real tomato in years.
Still, my innate tomato-love draws me to them every August, even though I've given up hope of re-experiencing the Ur-tomato of my childhood.
As I waited this summer for them to appear in the markets, I dreamed of the ways I would eat them, and doing so made me aware of how very plebeian my tastes are, at least where tomatoes are concerned. I have no shame about this, but I just want you to know not to expect anything fancy here.
First of all, I hungered for a BLT. It had been a year since my last one (Bless me, Father, for I am even now committing the sin of lustful gluttony). I had a good sandwich bread on hand. The bacon had been purchased with BLTs in mind: thicker-cut than the pre-packaged bacon. I don't use mayonnaise, instead making my own non-mayo dressing of yogurt, Dijon mustard, and a bit of mango chutney. All I needed, in order to make this year's first BLT, was a big fat field-grown beefsteak tomato. And there they were, piled high at the market.
To make my first BLT of the season, I cut a half-inch-thick slice from the center of that big tomato. Before landing it onto my toasted bread, however, I spread one slice of the bread with the non-mayo mixture and the other--are you ready for this?--the other with peanut butter. I will not be dissuaded from my view that without peanut butter a BLT lacks depth. Try it. It is a remnant of my childhood, and it is delicious.
Here's how the stacking went: peanut butter toast topped with tomato topped with bacon topped with leaf lettuce that frills outside the edges of the sandwich. And then the remaining slice of bread, spread with the non-mayo dressing (you can use mayo if you like) to close off the sandwich. I cut it in half carefully, then opened my jaws wide and enjoyed to the fullest the first BLT of the season.
So that's how one of my pre-season dreams came true. How else did I envision using the crop from mid-August to the end of September?
My second favourite tomato-based sandwich: one slice of bread, spread with Dijon mustard or mayonnaise, not too thickly. One giant bread-sized half-inch-thick slice of tomato. Thin slices of Cheddar cheese, enough to totally cover the tomato. Broil this, or bake at 450 degrees, until the tomato is hot and slightly softened and the cheese has melted. In the best cases, some of the cheese has slipped off the tomato and made its way to the pan, where it crisps and browns. Don't fail to move those crispies to your plate along with the sandwich. If you like, you can top this with a few slices of bacon (cooked separately)—but I ration my bacon intake, and I'd rather use it in a BLT.
When I lived in the Southern U.S. for eight years, I learned about the 'mater sandwich: bread (not toasted), mayo, tomato slice (thinner than my preferred half-inch), salt, and another bread slice. Cut in quarters and eat. One of my daughters eats tomato sandwiches at least twice a day during the season, and I think she could cheerfully eat nothing but that for a month.
The next tomato must-have is the summer salad (perfect for lunch) of a whole large-ish tomato cut in quarters from top to bottom—but not all the way through to the bottom. You gently press the quarters open to make a space into which you pile tuna salad or chicken salad—or salmon salad or meat salad or egg salad. Serve this on very lightly dressed leaves of lettuce and you have a full meal.
Tomatoes sigh for carbs. To illustrate this, here's my favourite tomato-season pasta dish. In a large bowl combine chunks of ripe tomato (at least one tomato per head), salt and pepper, minced green onion and/or garlic (optional), a lot of torn basil leaves (plus chopped fresh parsley if you want), and a couple of glugs of olive oil per person. This you can prepare ahead of time, though I reserve the basil leaves until serving time. (Include some pitted and chopped black olives if you like, preferably the dry-cured kind.)
When it's time to eat, make a pot of pasta. This can be spaghetti or another long-guy, but I prefer short and stubby for this dish: penne, orichietti, or even elbow macaroni, if that's what you have on hand. The pasta should be Italian and good. As soon as it has cooked, drain it well and dump the hot pasta into the waiting bowl. Stir well, add sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste, and serve immediately. The hot pasta tempered by the cooler tomatoes makes a perfect (and very quick) room-temperature summer pasta dish. Add this to your repertory.
And for additional proof that tomatoes love carbs, make a panzanella, the Italian tomato and bread salad. Cut crusty bread into chunks. If the bread is very fresh, dry it out in a low oven for twenty minutes. Then put them in a bowl and sprinkle them with enough water to moisten them well. Let the bread stand for twenty minutes or so, then squeeze it out to remove excess liquid (which you discard). Put the bread together with chunked tomatoes, green onion, diced red pepper, cucumbers, basil, and a dressing of red wine vinegar and a lot of good olive oil.
I serve these dishes in rotation during the tomato months, along with the occasional Salade nicoise (and we'll discuss that another time), until there's nothing left in the market but pumpkins and spaghetti squash--a whole new experience of vegetables to love.