The Time is Now 1: Tomatoes

 

It’s rare that I get stopped in my tracks by a recipe these days, but this was one of those times.

fig. a:  veg lit

fig. a:  veg lit

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. 

fig. b:  tomatoes & cream

fig. b:  tomatoes & cream

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.  

fig. c:  heirloom time

fig. c:  heirloom time

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

Serves 1

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.

aj

*  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.

Out of the Archives 4: Eat Your Greens, pt. 2

Here's another must-read/must-see/must-try from the archives.  It first appeared 5 years ago to the day, on November 13, 2010.  As was the case in 2010, now's the time--there are plenty of green tomatoes around, and you can often get them for a song.

fig. a:  time to fry

fig. a:  time to fry

There are still some real green tomatoes kicking around. In fact, depending on where you live, there might still be loads of them. And, along with making your own chowchow, frying them is a pretty great way to make use of the last of the tomato harvest. But even if you find that the green tomatoes in your area have already disappeared, all is not lost. As the Lee Bros. point out, your standard supermarket tomato is effectively a green tomato--it certainly was picked green (generally, very green). So you may need to add a bit of lemon juice and some salt to your sliced supermarket tomatoes to coax out a little flavor and approximate the wonderful, citrusy tartness of a true green tomato, but fried green tomatoes are a classic Southern side that you can make pretty much all year long. If you want to make the real deal, however, and I strongly advise giving them a try, local green tomatoes were still available here in Montreal this week. And their bright, tangy flavor this late in the year made it feel like we were cheating the approach of winter somehow. If only for a moment.

Note: you also need some decent cornmeal to make these fried green tomatoes, and good cornmeal can be hard to find in the Montreal region. The best brand we've been able to locate around here is Indian Head Stone Ground Yellow from Maryland, available at Aubut

fig. b:  B Bros.

fig. b:  B Bros.

Even better is Beattie Bros., which is owned by the same parent company, but produced in North Carolina. Though, as far as we know, you can only get Beattie Bros. in the States.

Fried Green Tomatoes

3 lbs green tomatoes
3 large eggs, beaten
3/4 cup whole milk
3-4 cups peanut oil
3 batches fry dredge (recipe follows)
kosher salt, if needed
lemon juice, if needed

Core the stem ends of the tomatoes and slice them in 1/4-inch slices. Set aside. Whisk the eggs and milk together in a broad, shallow bowl.

Pour the oil in a 12-inch or 14-inch skillet (3 cups of oil will suffice for the 12-inch skillet; 4 cups should do for the 14-inch skillet, and the 14-inch skillet will make the task of frying 3 lbs of tomatoes much, much faster--ultimately, whatever size skillet you use, you need an oil depth of about 1/3 of an inch). Heat the oil over medium-high heat until the temperature on a candy thermometer reaches 350º-365º.

Heat the oven to 225 degrees. Set a baker's rack on a cookie sheet on the top rack.

Divide the dredge between two small bowls or shallow baking pans. Taste the tomatoes. "They should have a bright tartness like citrus fruit." If they don't, sprinkle the slices with salt and lemon juice (if you're using supermarket tomatoes, this additional lemon and salt will be necessary). Press 1 tomato slice into the first bowl of dredge on each side, shaking any excess loose. Dunk in the egg mixture, then place in the second bowl of dredge, coating both sides, and shaking any excess loose, before placing the slice on a clean plate. Repeat with more slices until you've dredged enough for a batch (roughly 8-10, if you're using the 14-inch skillet). With a spatula, gently transfer the first batch of slices into the hot oil, taking care not to create splatter, and making sure your temperature continues to hover between 350º-365º.

As the first batch cooks, dredge the second batch according to the directions above, while keeping a watchful eye on the first. Once the slices have fried to a rich golden brown on one side, roughly 2 minutes, flip them carefully and fry for another 2 minutes or so, or until golden brown. Transfer the fried tomatoes to a plate lined with a double thickness of paper towels and leave them to drain for 1 minute.

Transfer the slices to the baker's rack in the oven, arranging them in a single layer, so they remain warm and crisp. Repeat with the remaining slices until all the green tomatoes have been fried. Serve hot with Buttermilk-Lime Dressing (recipe follows).

All-Purpose Dredge

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3 tbsp stone-ground cornmeal
2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

In a medium bowl, sift the flour, cornmeal, salt, and pepper together twice. Stir. Use as directed.

This is a great all-around frying dredge. The Lee Bros. use this very recipe for everything from chicken, to fish, to fried green tomatoes.

Buttermilk-Lime Dressing

3/4 cups whole or lowfat buttermilk (preferably the former)
5 tbsp freshly squeeze lime juice
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 tbsp honey
1/2 cup finely minced basil
1/4 cup finely minced green onions
1/4 cup finely minced parsley
1/2 tsp salt, plus more to taste

In a small bowl, whisk the ingredients together until thoroughly combined. Cover tightly and store in the refrigerator not more than 2 days.

[these recipes are based very, very closely on ones that appeared in The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook]


These fried tomatoes make for a fantastic side with any number of dishes, Southern or otherwise. We love 'em with seafood, but then we've been known to have them with barbecue too, and I could easily imagine having them as part of a Thanksgiving dinner. Leftover fried green tomatoes taste pretty outrageous on top of a leftover pulled pork sandwich, too. Especially if you drizzle a little of that Buttermilk-Lime Dressing on top. Just take a look:

fig. c:  deluxe pulled pork sandwich

fig. c:  deluxe pulled pork sandwich

Oh, and speaking of Thanksgiving and the Lee Bros.: if you haven't had the pleasure of reading Matt and Ted's New York Times exposé on Marilyn Monroe's stuffing recipe from 1955-6 (as it appears in Fragments, a just-published collection of previously unreleased Monroe ephemera), you really should. Not only is it a great read, but Marilyn's recipe is both mysterious (ground beef? Parmesan? City Title Insurance Co.?) and tantalizing. Just look at that picture. Just look at that recipe

aj

p.s. Looking for "eat your greens 1"? You can find it here.