Posts Tagged ‘Tomatoes’

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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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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As Seen On TV!

Tomato Tart

Tomato Tart

Attention infomercial marketers: I am your perfect audience. Well, kind of. Let me explain.

It is frighteningly easy to get me to sit and watch an infomercial. Just the other day I tarried in front of the TV for a screening of Joan Rivers’ latest epic “Great Hair Day”, which consists of a little comb and make up set that allows those stricken with thinning hair to “camouflage” the thin spots. I couldn’t tear myself away.

Cathy Mitchell and the Xpress Redi-Set-Go cooker? Who wouldn’t love to live in a house where the kitchen has a series of what are basically little round waffle irons that will cook you a restaurant-quality steak in minutes, a freshly baked chocolate cake, and a breakfast tortilla – all without ever having to turn on your stove?

The one that truly rings my bell though is the Topsy-Turvy tomato growing “system” (“system” being one of the infomercial marketer’s key buzz words.) This wise invention will allow you to grow tomatoes anywhere, upside down, basically turning a tomato plant into a hanging plant. You water the top of the plant which is now the roots: the fruit are now at the bottom. If I recall correctly, the infomercial even shows the plant hanging on a typically urban fire escape like we have here in the Big Apple.

I just can’t believe that whoever wrote that ever lived in New York City. Even if you are lucky enough to have a building Super or landlord who will look the other way while your tomato plant trots them out of compliance with fire laws, the squirrels will nab your tomatoes before you can say, “vinaigrette.” (New York City squirrels are notoriously smart. It’s just a matter of time before one of them runs for Mayor. Buh-dum-dum.)

Sadly, here’s where I go lacking as an infomercial audience member: I never order anything from these shows. Call me cheap, or discerning, as long as you spell my name correctly. I did once order a set of environmentally-friendly cookware from Home Shopping Network, opened the box, immediately closed the box and sent them back. (Money back guarantee. Need I say more?)

Anyway, living in New York you really don’t need to grow tomatoes on your fire escape, as we have several excellent farmers’ markets. Buying tomatoes at a farmer’s market is my version of the Topsy Turvy, and – to quote many an infomercial – that’s not all: I also get to support folks who are trying to make a living as farmers.

This past weekend I was able to find an ample supply of heirloom tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes are grown from older seed stocks than those that produce the usual perfect round red fruit to which we’ve become accustomed. My purchases included a variety that looked like a variegated red oblong balloon that had been slightly overinflated and a big plump variety whose sunny yellow practically screamed, “Summer!”

I’m usually pretty good at buying only what I think I will eat within a day or two, but enthusiasm – and hunger – must have gotten the better of me. I can only eat so many salads and slices of tomato with mozzarella. I needed to use up my excess.

I decided a Tomato Tart was perfect for this exercise. While Tomato Tart shares DNA with pizza, it is actually closer in temperament to quiche, but really it is just a gratin in a tart crust. Kind of simple and the type of thing you can eat hot from the oven or cool with a salad for a refreshing dinner on a stinky hot summer night.

Because I can’t resist fiddling with what is likely already good enough I decided to channel a collaboration between my (imaginary) ex-hippie Italian Grandmother, and Alice Waters. (Imaginary) Grandma created a semolina pastry crust (the semolina again adding a bit of sunny color to the proceedings) and Alice Waters added a bit of locally-produced Goat Cheese to the white sauce that serves as a glue holding the tomatoes in the crust.

Because the heat has made me a little lazy (or unmotivated?) I made a crust that didn’t need to be rolled. The semolina crust is by nature sandier than a normal crust, so I just dumped it from the mixing bowl into the tart tin and pressed it evenly around with my fingers and the flat bottom of a measuring cup.

If calling it a Tomato Tart seems too “frou-frou” for your tastes, feel free to call it a Tomato Pie. I baked mine in a French tart tin, but you can use a rectangular baker or Pyrex lasagna dish and get the same result.

Don’t be afraid of salt with the tart: tomatoes and salt are well known for collaborating happily. Use a softer salt like sea salt: mine has a liberal sprinkle of flaky sea salt, and a snowy drift of good grated Parmesan on top before baking (or reheating) will add a bit of brine too.

Now, will someone explain to me how “HD Sunglasses” work? (Just saw them on TV.)

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Click here for the recipe for Tomato Tart.

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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