A chef friend once told me that his favorite food is a perfect, ripe tomato. It’s hard to argue with that.
A tomato has it all: a startling amount of flavor packed into a drop-dead gorgeous package. Soft, but not too soft. Firm, but not too firm. Just juicy enough. And when cooked, it goes great with spaghetti. For that matter, you don’t have to cook tomatoes for them to go great with spaghetti.
Try dicing one raw, tossing it with olive oil, red wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar, and serving it with basil leaves over hot pasta.
Tomatoes are perhaps best enjoyed in very near their purest form: in a tomato sandwich. Popular throughout the Southeast, tomato sandwiches are a couple of slices of juicy tomatoes and a slice of sweet onion on squishy white bread (such as Wonder Bread) slathered with plenty of mayonnaise and seasoned with salt and pepper.
The bread has to be squishy to soak up the juice and to provide a subtle sweetness to balance the tomatoes’ acidity. And to be appreciated to its fullest extent, the sandwich should be eaten while standing at the sink. Trust me, it tastes better that way.
Other tomato recipes are just as good, but before we get to them we first have to clear up something. Yes, a tomato is technically a fruit. It has seeds. It comes from a flower. Therefore, it is a fruit.
But let’s face it. You don’t put it in a fruit salad. You don’t serve it with whipped cream for dessert. You don’t put it in a smoothie with pineapples and mangoes.
No, you slice it and stick it on top of a hamburger. For all intents and purposes, a tomato is a vegetable.
So I put it in a tart. But not a sweet tart; that would be the sort of a tart you would make with a fruit-fruit, instead of a vegetable-fruit.
And it was marvelous, well worth serving to company. Admittedly, it took a bit of work because I made my own crust (and to be perfectly frank, I made my own crust twice because I am not notably deft at making crusts or, apparently, following directions). But it was well worth the time and effort. Even the two crusts’ worth of effort.
This tart combines a small amount of shredded Gruyere cheese and Dijon mustard, which is topped with rounds of tomatoes and slices of Camembert cheese. But I couldn’t find the Camembert at two stores, so I just gave up and used brie.
Either way, it was wonderful. You can’t go wrong with brie.
Equally as wonderful was the big batch I made of tomato soup. Naturally, you’d think that any soup made with fresh tomatoes would have a particularly fresh taste, but everyone who tried this version was amazed at just how fresh a flavor it had.
It was so good, a grilled cheese sandwich next to it would feel ashamed.
There appear to be three main reasons why this tomato soup is so stunning. The first, of course, is the fresh tomatoes, and lots of them – I used eight to make 10 cups of soup. The second is the use of a lot of onion and a few cloves, giving unexpected depth as a counterpoint to the brightness of the tomatoes.
And the third reason is that it uses a roux. Nothing like a hearty infusion of fat, carbohydrates and calories to pep up a soup. You don’t taste the roux, and the soup does not even seem all that rich. But it tastes so much better than ordinary tomato soup, and I’m guessing the difference is the roux.
After making two dishes that required some work, I turned my attention to a fast and easy side dish that brings out the best in a tomato.
Chefs have long known that tomatoes and balsamic vinegar are a natural pair, like gin and tonic or like chocolate and bananas. With this dish, you just sauté wedges of tomato in butter until they start to soften, and then add balsamic vinegar and some minced shallot. The vinegar blends with the butter – and tomato juices – to form a rich glaze that is not too sweet.
The tomato slices still taste fresh and vibrant, but they are tempered by the balsamic vinegar. It’s an elegant dish that takes almost no work to make.
And, finally I made Moroccan stuffed tomatoes, which are simply tomatoes that are stuffed with cooked rice, then topped with a Moroccan sauce called chermoula, finished with bread crumbs and then baked.
It’s the chermoula that makes the dish. It is an intriguing sauce, often used as a marinade, that I had not heard of until recently.
Picture this: Mashed garlic blended with cilantro and parsley, spiced with a bit of paprika, cumin and cayenne, all immersed in a mixture of olive oil and lemon juice.
Typically used with fish, chermoula also goes well with vegetables, particularly sweet vegetables such carrots and beets.
Sweet vegetables. In other words, vegetables that are like fruit. No wonder they are perfect with a tomato.
Recipe adapted from Bobby Flay, via the Food Network
For the tart dough:
3 cups all-purpose flour
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
Kosher salt and black pepper
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
4 tablespoons ice-cold water
For the tart:
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 cup grated Gruyere cheese
4 plum tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch slices, seeds removed
6 ounces Camembert or brie cheese, sliced into 1/8-inch strips
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
1/2 clove garlic, finely chopped
For the dough: Combine the flour, butter and some salt and pepper using a pastry blender or 2 knives until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Mix in 2 tablespoons of the oil and the water just until the bottom of the mixture begins to cling together. If necessary, add 1 more tablespoon of oil. Gather the dough into a ball and flatten into a disc. Wrap the disc in plastic wrap and chill for 30 minutes.
For the tart: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Roll the chilled dough into a 14-inch circle and place into a 12-inch tart pan, preferably with a removable bottom. Chill in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.
Spread mustard over the bottom of the tart shell. Sprinkle the Gruyere evenly over the mustard and alternately place the tomato and Camembert or brie slices over the Gruyere. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 30 minutes.
While the tart is baking, mix together the olive oil, basil, parsley, thyme and garlic in a small bowl. When the tart has baked for 30 minutes, brush the top of it with 3 to 4 tablespoons of this mixture and return to the oven to bake an additional 5 minutes. Reserve the rest of the oil mixture for future use.
Allow the tart to cool briefly before serving. Serve warm.
Per serving: 533 calories; 37 g fat (17 g sat.); 69 mg chol.; 12 g protein; 38 g carb.; 1 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 252 mg sodium; 168 mg calcium.
Moroccan stuffed tomatoes
Recipe adapted from “The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone,” by Deborah Madison.
4 medium firm, ripe tomatoes
4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup finely chopped cilantro
1/3 cup finely chopped parsley
1 1/2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for drizzling
Juice of 2 large lemons
2 cups cooked rice (from 1/2 cup uncooked rice)
1/4 cup bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly oil a gratin dish or baking dish (do not use aluminum, which may pit and give the tomatoes a metallic taste). Cut the tomatoes in half around their equators and gently remove the seeds with your fingertips.
To make the chermoula, a Moroccan sauce, pound the garlic with the salt in a mortar until smooth. Add the cilantro and parsley, and pound a little more to bruise the leaves and release their flavor (if you don’t have a large enough pestle, transfer to a bowl and lightly pound with the mortar or a wooden spoon). Stir in the paprika, cumin, cayenne, olive oil and lemon juice.
Fill the tomatoes with the rice and spoon the chermoula over the top. Alternatively, mix the rice and chermoula together, and fill the tomatoes with that mixture. Place in the gratin dish and sprinkle bread crumbs evenly over the top. Drizzle with more olive oil and bake 30 minutes. The tomatoes will be soft, so remove them carefully from the dish.
Per serving: 561 calories; 16 g fat (2 g sat.); no cholesterol; 10 g protein; 94 g carbohydrate; 5 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 646 mg sodium; 72 mg calcium.
Tomatoes glazed with balsamic vinegar
Recipe from “The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone,” by Deborah Madison.
1 1/2 pounds ripe but firm tomatoes
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 plump shallot, finely diced
Salt and black pepper
Core the tomatoes, then cut them into wedges about 1 1/2 inches across at the widest point.
In a skillet large enough to hold the tomatoes in a single layer, heat the butter until it foams. Add the tomatoes and sauté over high heat, turning them over several times, until their color begins to dull, about 3 minutes. Add the vinegar and shallot, and shake the pan back and forth until the vinegar has reduced, leaving a dark, thick sauce. Season with salt and plenty of pepper.
Per serving: 93 calories; 6 g fat (4 g sat.); 15 mg cholesterol; 2 g protein; 9 g carbohydrate; 6 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 12 mg sodium; 22 mg calcium.
Garden-fresh tomato soup
Adapted from allrecipes.com. Recipe is easily halved.
8 cups chopped fresh tomatoes, peeled and seeded, about 8 medium tomatoes
1 large onion or 2 small onions, sliced
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 sprig fresh thyme or a pinch of dried, optional
6 whole cloves
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
4 teaspoons granulated sugar
In a stockpot, combine tomatoes, onion, garlic, thyme (if using), cloves, and chicken or vegetable stock. Bring to a boil, lower temperature to a simmer, and cook 20 minutes. Remove sprig of thyme, garlic and as many of the cloves as you can easily find. Blend (in batches, if necessary) or run through a food mill. Put mixture in a large bowl.
In the empty stockpot, melt the butter over medium heat. Stir in the flour to make a roux; cook while stirring until the roux is a medium brown, about 10 minutes. Gradually whisk in a bit of the tomato mixture, so that no clumps form. Stir in the rest of the tomato mixture. Season with salt and sugar, and adjust seasonings to taste.
Per serving: 256 calories; 12 g fat (7 g sat.); 30 mg chol.; 9 g protein; 30 g carbohydrate; 15 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 1,223 mg sodium; 53 mg calcium.