It’s rare that I get stopped in my tracks by a recipe these days, but this was one of those times.
I was browsing at our local bookstore in Montreal when I came across a book I hadn’t seen before: Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy. I thought, “Oh, cool. Deborah Madison’s got a new cookbook out.” But when I flipped the book over the price sticker indicated that it had been published in 2013. “That’s strange,” I said to myself. “I never noticed anything about this book when it came out.” As it turned out, Michelle had never heard of it either.
Michelle and I read a number of food magazines. We keep a pretty close eye on the latest cookbook releases, but here was a book that had totally slipped us by. And this was not just any cookbook. Here was a book that a) was written by one of the prominent cookbook authors of our time; b) was published by one of the top houses for cookbooks and food literature: Ten Speed Press; c) features photographs by the dynamic duo of Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton, who are two of our absolute favourites, and among the very best in the business; and d) is book devoted to understanding, growing, and cooking vegetables (and features over “300 deliciously simple recipes”) that was released at a time when vegetable-centric and vegetable-forward cuisine was just beginning to sweep the food world. Who knows? Maybe we’d just missed all the hoopla.
Then I started to leaf through it, and I was immediately impressed by its encyclopedic take on the vegetable kingdom, it’s beautiful photographs and layout, its fresh, often imaginative, and highly tantalizing recipes, and its enormous value to both gardeners and cooks, and especially those of us who garden to cook. The book breaks things down according to twelves families of vegetables:
The Carrot Family: Some Basic Kitchen Vegetables and a Passel of Herbs
The Mint Family: Square Stems and Fragrant Leaves
The Sunflower Family: Some Rough Stuff from Out of Doors
The Knotweed Family: Three Strong Personalities [sorrel, rhubarb, buckwheat]
The Cabbage Family: The Sometimes Difficult Crucifers
The Nightshade Family: The Sun Lovers
The Goosefoot and Amaranth Families: Edible Weeds, Leaves, and Seeds
The (Former) Lily Family: Onions and Asparagus
The Cucurbit Family: The Sensual Squashes, Melons, and Gourds
The Grass Family: Grains and Cereals
The Legume Family: Peas and Beans
and The Morning Glory Family: The Sweet Potato
Each chapter is as captivating and fascinating as the last, and, not surprisingly, Madison excels when it comes to establishing linkages across families, providing inspiration for how to successfully combine edible plants from different families, as well as from the realm of fruit. [Note: This cookbook is entirely vegetarian, and all the better for it. For a book like this, which is so focused on gardening, meat-based recipes would just be a distraction. Plus, there are plenty of other cookbooks that do that and do that well.]
And then I came across that recipe. Actually, I noticed the photograph first.
It was a perfectly composed overhead shot that was highly colourful and just a bit mysterious. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was gazing upon, or what the recipe entailed, but it involved a beautiful array of heirloom tomatoes, and it looked good. I scanned the opposite page. “Comforting Tomatoes in Cream with Bread Crumbs and Smoked Salt.” That’s what the recipe was called. As I began to make my way through it, I was a bit stumped by what I was reading, and I was happy to see I wasn’t alone. Madison begins her recipe by explaining its origins, and she, too, was stumped by it the first time she encountered it:
A friend once told me that her comfort food, and her only one at that, was a dish of canned tomatoes cooked in cream which she poured over toast. I struck me as odd at the time, but I’m now in the same camp. It’s a perfect indulgent lunch for a day when tomatoes are irresistible.
Of course, this being a book that’s all about growing your own—or at least acquainting yourself with your nearest farmer’s market, so you have access to a wide variety of vegetables at their peak of ripeness—Madison’s take on her friend’s comfort dish doesn’t involve canned tomatoes. This is a dish to be made “when tomatoes are irresistible,” when field tomatoes are ripe, juicy, and plentiful.
Well, at the time I was reading this local field tomatoes were still nowhere to be found—it was late June, after all, and we live in a Northern zone—but I knew they’d be here soon, and, in case you haven’t noticed, that time is now.
This recipe also calls for garlic and basil. Again, the time is now. Local hard-neck garlic is available again, and fresh, local basil is easy to find, if you’re not growing your own.
How did Madison update and improve her friend’s favourite comfort food? How did she transform it into an ode to late-summer seasonality? Let’s see…
Comforting Tomatoes in Cream with Bread Crumbs and Smoked Salt
4 tbsp heavy cream, preferably Vermont cream
1 clove garlic
1 fresh basil leaf
8 oz ripe tomatoes, preferably a mix of the ripest, tastiest heirloom varieties you can find
fresh bread crumbs toasted in olive oil until trip
smoked salt* and freshly ground pepper
Warm the cream with the garlic and basil in a small skillet over gentle heat. When it comes to a boil, turn off the heat and steep while you prepare the tomatoes.
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Score the tomatoes on the blossom end (the “bottom”), then drop them into boiling water for about 10 seconds. Transfer them to a bowl of cold water to cool, then peel. Cut the tomatoes into quarters if large, into halves if smaller.
Add the tomatoes to the pan, along with a generous pinch of smoked salt and some freshly ground black pepper. Turn the heat back on and allow the cream to bubble over the tomatoes and mingle with their juices for 2 to 3 minutes.
Ladle into a bowl. Adjust the seasoning, if need be. Scatter the bread crumbs generously over the tomatoes. Devour, making sure to have some delicious bread close at hand to sop up all the juices with afterwards.
[this recipe based very, very closely on a recipe by the same name that appears in Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy]
It’s hard to explain just how good this dish is. There’s a simplicity, and purity, and genius to it that’s breathtaking. If you’re a true lover of fresh tomatoes at the height of season, this is the dish for you. If you’re a true lover of fresh cream, all the better.
If you’re still a little mystified by the combination, think of the pleasures of a fine rosé sauce, but one where both the tomatoes and the cream have more of an assertive presence. Even better, think of the pleasures of eating a fine, ripe burrata—one that’s been allowed to come to temperature—with the ripest, freshest, most delicious tomatoes you can find, some torn basil leaves, and some freshly baked bread. You know how you’re left with that delicious cream mingling with the tomato juices? You know how good it tastes when you run a piece of crusty bread through there? Is it all starting to make sense?
The first time we tasted Madison’s “Comforting Tomatoes” we were completely beside ourselves. Maybe the two of us are just the ideal audience for this dish. Maybe it was specifically the combination of our local, organic Vermont tomatoes with local, organic Vermont cream that made the difference (we had intentionally waited to make this recipe in Vermont, so that we had access to a pint of Kimball Brook heavy cream). But this was the single best thing either of us had tasted in quite some time. Madison describes it as a “perfect indulgent dish,” but I’m not sure I entirely agree. It was, quite simply, a perfect dish. It was one of those exceptional dishes that was entirely satisfying. And, in fact, it was a dish that lingered with us for hours afterward, even after we’d had our main dish (which was definitely no slouch, either). Even after we’d had dessert.
You’ve been warned.
* Don’t skip out on the smoked salt. If you don’t smoke your own, look for Maldon smoked salt, which is a very fine product, indeed.