We food writers like to make the simplest things much more complicated than they need to be, although I concede that learning new ways to use those simplest of ingredients is great, too. Consider the tomato. It’s tomato season just about all over the country and right now I’m in New Jersey, the state in which I grew up eating red, ripe Jersey tomatoes. It’s really the generic name given to a portfolio of varieties including the Ramapo and the Rutgers (which had 60 percent of the commercial tomato market in the US from the 30s to the 60s). We ate them like apples when I was growing up, with a sprinkle of salt, just bite in and have a napkin handy for all the juice and seeds.
Heirloom tomatoes abound, too, like Mule Team, Hillbilly and Brandywine. Sun Golds abound as do Black Cherry and Green Zebras, all shapes, sizes and colors. Locally-grown tomatoes just bust out “summer” in so many ways. When I was a kid if we weren’t biting into one, we’d slice them up and make a sandwich with just white bread and Hellman’s mayo. I still do that and just moments ago, my mom brought out a container of a new mayo, Heinz Deliciously Creamy Mayo made from cage-free eggs. Apparently, my step-dad heard it’s as good as Hellman’s so we had a bit of a taste test and I was shocked to find it really is a Hellman’s rival. It looks like they’ve added just a teeny-tiny bit of mustard to the mix. Mind blown.
Slice up a tomato and top it with a good sea salt and some black pepper, or my latest “on all the things” obsession, truffle sea salt. Expand upon that with a drizzle of good olive oil. Go even further with a touch of balsamic vinegar. Add slices of fresh mozzarella and shredded basil leaves. OK, that’s as far as I’m going.
Yeah, right. You’re getting more. I have so many more tomato recipes in my quiver, I just can’t help myself.
Chef James Haller, cookbook author, memoirist and owner of the legendary Blue Strawbery restaurant in Portsmouth, NH, which opened back in 1970, gave me the best grilled cheese sandwich advice a few years ago and I adapted in for my own technique for making my favorite version, the grilled cheese and tomato sandwich. The key is to butter each side of the bread before placing it into the hot cast iron skillet. Create the sandwich by placing a slice of bread on your cutting board and topping with cheese of choice and then slices of ripe tomato. Top with second bread slice and butter that on the outside. When your skillet is hot, flip that sandwich butter side down into the pan. Butter the top slice. Allow the bottom slice to brown and flip the sandwich over. Press the sandwich with your spatula and cook bottom until golden brown. Remove from skillet, slice into triangles and dip into tomato soup.
And that should be this tomato soup made with fresh tomatoes and a touch of cream:
Simple Cream of Tomato Soup
¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter
12 sprigs of thyme and sage, bundled
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
¼ cup tomato paste
32 oz. fresh tomatoes, chopped
1–2 teaspoons sugar, divided
1/2 c. heavy cream
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Melt butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add bundled herbs, onion, and garlic. Cook until onion is soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Increase heat to medium-high and add the tomato paste. Continue cooking, stirring, until the paste has begun to caramelize, about 5 minutes.
Add tomatoes, 1 tsp. sugar, and 10 cups water to pot. Increase heat to high, then simmer. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until the liquid reduces to about 8 cups, about 50 minutes.
Remove from heat and let cool. Take out the herb bundle and purée soup in a blender until smooth, in batches if necessary. Return it all to the pot, add the cream, then simmer again for about 15 more minutes. Season with salt, pepper and the rest of the sugar.
Ok, just two more recipes. As a side dish or as a meatless entree, tomatoes gratin, simply baked or sauteed with some cheese on top, are yet another great way to enjoy our locally grown tomatoes. Just be sure to cook them lightly to retain some of the firmness. And the roasted tomatoes are great for enjoying in the backyard with a chilled Sancerre. It’s all just so simple.
Tomatoes Gratin, Italian Style
4 medium tomatoes, cut in 1/2
2 T. butter, melted
1 t. Minced garlic
1/4 c. shredded Parmesan
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Place tomato halves on foil lined baking sheet and set aside.
In a small bowl, combine melted butter, garlic, and shredded Parmesan. Season tomato halves with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Spoon the butter and cheese mixture over the tomatoes. Roast tomatoes in preheated oven for 10 to 12 minutes or until golden brown.
And here, they’re simply oven-roasted:
2 1/2 lb. red and yellow cherry tomatoes or Roma.
2 T. olive oil
2 T. balsamic vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced
1 t. kosher salt
1/2 t. freshly ground black pepper
2 T. fresh basil
Crusty bread slices for dipping and sopping
Line a 13x9x2-inch baking pan with foil. Remove and discard stems from tomatoes and wash. Pat dry and then arrange tomatoes in a single layer in the pan.
Whisk together oil, vinegar, garlic, salt and pepper in a bowl and pour over tomatoes. Toss to coat. .
Bake, uncovered, in a 400 degree F oven for about 15 minutes or until the tomatoes are soft, the skins splitting. Stir once during the cooking.
Transfer the tomatoes to a serving bowl. Drizzle the balsamic mixture from the pan over the tomatoes and sprinkle with snipped basil. Serve warm with the bread to dip into the juices.
— Rachel Forrest is a former restaurant owner who lives in Austin, TX. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org