Juicy, Versatile and Satisfying
I recently spent a week eating in restaurants. I was on a short summer vacation in a nice place that had some excellent chefs. But I quickly tired of eating someone else's cooking. I got weary of the fuss, of the garnishes, of the extra salt that made my ankles swell. Plus when you're in an unfamiliar city, as I was, even good-to-great restaurants can become a game of chance. By the end of the week I was experiencing the odd sensation of being hungry at meal-time yet having no appetite.
Because it's summertime, I also wanted to be eating food that's in season instead of from a menu put together months earlier. I was craving tender green vegetables, soft lettuce leaves, messy fruit desserts, and most of all -- a just-picked tomato. One of my most powerful taste experiences was the first time I ate a tomato right off the vine. My mother had a small vegetable garden in our backyard and hoping she wouldn't notice, I took a slightly orange, still-ripening tomato off the carefully staked plant. It was still warm from the sun when I bit into it, breaking through a tender skin into soft flesh and a juicy, gelatinous packet of seeds that were full of acidic flavor. That moment was decades ago but I don't think anything has ever tasted so perfect. Everyone's got their own madeleine and that tomato is mine.
When I reached an age that gave me complete control over what I ate, I began an annual summer search for the perfect tomato. My rational side knows this is all about sense memory and no tomato can ever again taste that good. Still, every July I begin the hunt. A few years ago when heirloom tomatoes became stylish I thought this was the answer. After all, anything that was that ugly -- and that expensive -- had to taste amazing. Maybe some do, but not any that I bought. I tried growing apartment-sized tomato plants but produced nothing that you'd dare eat. I even bought a New Jersey tomato at Fairway and put it to warm on a window sill, pretending I just snapped it off the vine. How dumb is that?
These years of buying and tasting have produced a tomato repertoire. If, like me, you're filling your kitchen counter with summer tomatoes, here are some ideas for what to do with them:
- Tomato sandwiches made with thick slices of soft white pullman bread, a thick slice of beefsteak tomato, a generous spread of home-made or Hellman's mayonnaise, and a sprinkle of sea salt. Eat immediately using two hands.
- Naples Tomato Salad made of chunks of tomato mixed with equally chunky pieces of crunchy vegetables like celery, kirby cucumbers, and radishes dressed in the tomatoes' own juices, a pinch of mint, and extra virgin olive oil. See our recipe.
- Gazpacho. Whether you prefer chunky or smooth, mellowed with ground almonds or spiked with sherry vinegar, gazpacho is one of Spain's great gifts to civilization. I seem to use a different recipe every time I make it, but one of my favorite finishes is to keep it chilled with a scoop of savory Tomato Sorbet. See our recipe for this spicy frozen treat -- made with both canned and fresh tomatoes.
- Make a simple salad of tomatoes with a drizzle of good balsamic vinegar, your best extra virgin olive oil, and a pinch of sea salt. This works with cherry tomatoes, heirlooms or plain New Jerseys.
- Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato Salad. Cook pieces of your favorite bacon (I love the Schaller & Weber double-smoked cut in thick slices). Let cool and then break into 1-inch pieces and toss with a bowl of tender lettuce leaves, slices of red and yellow tomato, a drizzle of your favorite vinaigrette and a pinch of sea salt.
- Fresh Tomato Salsa made with diced tomato, red and green peppers, red onion, minced jalapeno, garlic, cilantro, salt, and a teaspoon or so of extra virgin olive oil. Let sit for a while for the juices and flavors to combine. Great as a side to any simply cooked fish.
- Panzanella salad combines tomatoes with pieces of day-old bread. Mario Batali has a great recipe and we've added a link to it below.
- Pasta with Uncooked Tomato Sauce. Perfect at room temperature on steamy summer nights. See our recipe.
Perhaps the best way to eat a tomato is standing in your kitchen, with a dish of sea salt at hand, leaning over the sink as the juice runs down your arm. Trying to again be eight years old, tasting the summer sun.