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September 22, 2006

You say tomato

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Has nature ever created anything more delicious than a perfectly ripe tomato?  I think not.

And yet, with the possible exception of the peach, there is no other produce I can think of that is so hard to find at its ripe, flavourful best.  You know the story: your typical tomato in your typical North American Megamart is green and hard as a golf ball.  Slice it open and the flesh inside is mealy and tasteless, suitable, at best, as a garnish on a sandwich, and even that's a stretch.

That tomato is the crowning glory of mass-market, industrial food production.  Smothered in pesticides in the field, picked while green, then gassed within an inch of its life, and somehow available fresh year-round, this lipstick-covered pig is then devoured by consumers who value looks over flavour.

What's a tomato-lover to do?  For this tomato-lover, the solution is to ask everyone you know with even a modicum of greenspace if they grow tomatoes, and, if they do, to see if you can snag a few for yourself.  Then, limit truly rapacious tomato consumption to late summer and early fall, when tomatoes are actually in season.  Come fall, it's time to go canned (but that's a separate post).

If you're really lucky, you may even have Italian friends whose fathers have massive backyards and a green thumb.  Thank God I do.  My friend and co-worker, Carlo, also known as "my best friend" come late-August, is just such a person.  For the past two summers, he's stopped by my desk every few days with a massive bag of homegrown, organic, vine-ripened tomatoes.

Now, a fresh, ripe tomato demands to be the star of whatever dish it ends up in.  This is not the time or the tomato to contemplate a couple of slices as a garnish on a sandwich.  Nope, you've got to seize the moment -- eat the damn thing on its own like an apple, or, if you're like me, consider a salad.

There are two tomato salads Rachel and I turn to when in possession of great tomatoes.  The first is a salad we discovered in Madrid last year, and it's so simple there's really no need for a recipe.  It's composed of large wedges of tomato, dressed with best quality olive oil and sherry vinegar to taste, then garnished with tuna packed in olive oil and several generous pinches of large-grained sea salt.  Aside from the unmistakable flavour of ripe tomato accented by the richness of oil and the bite of sherry vinegar, this salad is unforgettable because of the salt, which should be chunky enough to add the occasional crunch to the dish.  We loved this dish so much we returned to the bar in which we discovered it the very next night.

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The second salad is an Italian classic, insalata caprese, a dish as wonderful as it is simple.  How ingredients so basic -- tomato, basil, buffalo mozzarella, olive oil, and a little salt and pepper -- can work so well together is a form of culinary alchemy.  It seemed the obvious dish to make when Carlo stopped by my desk one morning with yet another bag of tomatoes and a small bushel's worth of basil.  There really is nothing quite like the creamy sweetness of buffalo mozzarella and the herbaceous accent of basil to complement the perfect tomato.

How sublime.  How fleeting, too.  The best of the tomatoes are gone now.  We're back to scrounging for the "best available tomato" when we buy groceries, and even then the tomato is likely to play no more than a supporting role in a sandwich.

There's a lesson in all of this, I know, and it has something to do with seasonality, patience, and the rhythms of nature.  Those are all hollow consolations, really, because they will never compensate for ten long months without great tomatoes.

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Comments

Scott at RealEpicurean

A very simple dish yet one which never fails to work.

A classic.

Jill

This post almost made me reconsider my stance on tomatoes. I have to admit that even I would enjoy both of the tomato salads you mentioned despite the fact that I grew up in the 'Tomato Capital of Canada' and have long professed my dislike for them. Maybe I need to give them another chance....

sam

Your insalata caprese looks wonderful. A simple elegant salad and a thoughtful meditation on the tomato.

Gourmet

Rob!!! You stop the work with blog??? It's all right??
And your holidays...
Great pics!!
Bye
Sandra

Tam & Laura

We just picked up some "blushed tomatoes" at the Portabello Road market - something between sundried and fresh, and a great fix for winter tomato cravings.

Doug Stewart

My wife has been making the tomato and mozeralla recipe for years. However, it only really tastes good in summer time with really ripe tomatoes. The great thing about simple recipes like this is that the excellence of the raw ingredients comes out; the down side is that if the ingredients aren't top then it really shows. No fancy dressings or sauces to hide the short-falls. In winter time, the tomatoes just aren't good enough.

One minor suggestion: core the tomatoes, as the centre is too hard to really enjoy.

We can't get buffallo mozzeralla here, only the ordinary kind (from cow's milk). Is the taste difference as big as I've heard?

cookiecrumb

Aw, man. Don't taunt me. Too early.
I had some tomato salsa atop a chicken tostada yesterday in a restaurant. The tomatoes were pastel, and tasted of fish. I had to scrape the whole pile off.
Meanwhile, other patrons at this restaurant were descending on the salsa buffet table, scarfing up huge quantities of this perversion.
Taste your food, people! Jeez.

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