Mutiny on the Bounty

Suburban bounty

Suburban bounty

I am convinced that the compulsion to plant a garden and grow things is hard wired into us. Is this a good thing? You tell me. Growing things requires an array of talents. For some the talent lies in acquiring the needed real estate. For some the talent lies in understanding what plant life needs so that it is properly nurtured. It is a wonderful thing to be able to walk outside of one’s door, snip a few things, and feed soul and family.

You’d think Mother Nature could have made it a little easier. I know that gardening as represented by Ina Garten on TV—that brand of gardening where you grab a shiny little pair of clippers, sweep through a pair of French doors into your garden (“Isn’t it faaabulous?”) and end up with pesto –is a fiction drawn by the video editor’s magic wand.

Real gardening is that little patch of dirt you cleared away in the back yard. That little three-by-three square next to the fence where you got the dirt under your fingernails, sprinkled in the seeds from their skinny paper envelope, that sandy oasis in a desert of concrete that you checked on and fussed over each day for weeks, practically willing the first shoots to peek through the dirt. My Aunt Sarah had a garden like that, and the bounty was celebrated and boasted about and washed and eaten with relish…or as relish.

I do not make this statement from first-hand knowledge. I am a city dweller and as such my horticultural endeavors do not extend far beyond a small juniper tree that sits in my kitchen window. Mr. Juniper Tree, whose specialty seems to be looking pretty, will not be brewed for homemade gin, and is resolutely not staying for dinner.

Still, there comes a day early in the August of each year when the bounty of my non-city dwelling friends’ gardens appear on my kitchen counter. I am blessed. I am also compelled to ask, “How many damn tomatoes can I eat?”

I take comfort in knowing that the tomatoes in their tattered ShopRite bags appear before me because the people who grew them asked that same question. I am therefore, the beneficiary of bounty overrun. The tomato equivalent of the bargain book aisle at Barnes and Noble. I am the vine-ripened “Mikey likes it!” The average suburban tomato vine is seemingly so abundantly fecund, that I often feel people who want to plant a garden should get the same warning as the little kid who keeps asking Mom and Dad for a puppy: “It’s not just for Christmas, it’s for every day.”

If I were a member of a previous generation I would likely be readying canning jars and the related equipment needed to “put up” the tomatoes for winter. Back in the day that was how you ate tomatoes in the dead of winter. But I am a child of the space age: I can get anything I want, any time I want it. So the question is: what do I do with all these tomatoes now? Tomatoes look grand on my kitchen counter for a couple of days, but beyond that I’ll need to write place cards for the fruit flies that will start feasting on them. I have to act now. Or as my Aunt Sarah would have said, “RIGHT now.”

(Aunt Sarah, who is no longer around to defend herself, would nevertheless agree that she was successful at growing tomatoes not because of a green thumb but because the vines were intimidated by her.)

One of the reasons people grow their own tomatoes is that they usually do taste better than the ones you buy in the supermarket. This is mostly true, so for the first few days I eat sliced tomatoes with a few crackles of sea salt, and herb and garlic goat cheese—my preference because I find mozzarella a bit bland and goat cheese is easier on my stomach.

After I’ve had enough of sliced tomato salad, I make sauce—or gravy, as my Italian friends call it. This requires a bit of refined technique and the proper ingredients. Feel free to use this technique when cooking anything Italian. It starts with a generous dose of garlic, really good Extra Virgin Olive Oil, fresh oregano, a piquant, crumbly, Parmesan cheese, and, the most important item of all (and this is indispensible): Sergio Franchi. If listening to him sing “Volare” and “Quando, Quando, Quando” doesn’t put me in the right mood, doesn’t make me feel Italian, then I skip the project and have Chinese food. What can I say? The man was a god.

After I have made sauce—uh, sorry, gravy—I move on to a savory Tomato Tart. This is humble, farmhouse-style convenience food: make it Sunday, and you can eat it cold from the fridge for the rest of the week.

If I have been lucky enough to have been the recipient of cherry or grape tomatoes, then this confirmed old teetotaler reaches for the vodka bottle. I don’t know what it is about them, but I seem to sleep very well after eating cherry tomatoes that have been marinated in vodka. This was a party hors d’oeuvre standby about twenty years ago.

But for pure versatility Tomato Cobbler or Tomato Crisp is, I think, the best way of finishing off the tomato bounty. Of the two the cobbler is the more labor intensive, but, for your trouble, is also more satisfying. This is really just a bigger version of grilled, breadcrumb-topped tomatoes. I bake this in a soufflé dish. Toss four or five quartered tomatoes with some minced garlic, a bit too much grated Parmesan cheese, a few snips of fresh oregano, and salt and pepper into the dish. Top with some biscuit dough for a cobbler. To make it a crisp, omit the biscuit dough and substitute a generous handful or three of cracker crumbles mixed with just enough softened butter so the crumbles hold together in loose clumps. Bake in a hot oven until the top is browned and everything is bubbly. Easy, yes?

The fun there is experimenting with different kinds of crackers, although if you are a hopeless snacker (like me) you’ll end up eating the crust and realize that you are losing interest in the tomatoes.

And after all those tomatoes, that shouldn’t come as a surprise, should it?

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