You say tomato
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.
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.