The mighty tomato
If tomatoes had vintages like wine grapes, this year would be the vintage of the century in this neck of the woods. We went a little crazy back in the spring, buying a full dozen heirloom tomato plants for our small city garden; and to my surprise and delight, they're all thriving.
The first bright red beauty came on exceptionally early, just after the middle of June, and the full onslaught was under way by the week after the Fourth of July. We've got dense, plummy Romas, old-fashioned Brandywines and Boxcar Willies, and an heirloom variety called Mortgage Lifter that produces massive, meaty beefsteak tomatoes that weigh up to 2 pounds each.
We're harvesting them by the bucket, we're eating tomatoes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and we're not tired of them yet. Still, if you'd like to have a few, drop on by with a sturdy grocery bag, and I'm sure we can accommodate you.
I confess that I've been a little braggy about all this, and some of my online friends in the Northeast and West have probably gotten tired of hearing me talk about it as they wait impatiently for their puny little green globules to ripen. But the rest of the nation is catching up now, and barring environmental disaster, most parts of the Northern Hemisphere should be awash in fine, locally grown tomatoes from now until frost.
Accordingly, we've declared <b>The Mighty Tomato</b> as "Ingredient of the Month
" for August in our online FoodLovers Discussion Group, where we'll be talking about tomatoes, comparing notes and sharing recipes all month and welcome you to log in and join us.
We're interested in familiar recipes (your variations on BLTs, tomato sandwiches, tomato sauce, <i>caprese</i> and <i>pasta alla salsa cruda</i>, for instance), but if you can come up with creative new ideas to help stave off boredom - even main-dish courses that use tomatoes as the central ingredient - you'll gain an extra round of applause.
Last night, for instance, I fashioned a cool, no-cook dinner, making small <i>capreses</i> (inch-square slices of beefy tomato seasoned with salt, pepper and a drizzle of good olive oil, a leaf of fresh basil and half of a small <i>boconcini</i> ball of fresh mozzarella), then turning them into bite-size finger-food treats by wrapping each into a neat package with thin-sliced prosciutto.
Another day I got a little more adventurous with the following recipe, which takes the basic concept of <i>pasta alla salsa cruda</i> - hot spaghetti tossed with cool, raw diced tomatoes, onions and garlic - but turns it Asian: I fashioned an East-West salsa of fresh tomato chunks with Japanese flavorings, tossed it over tender cellophane noodles and topped the result with "croutons" of crisp pan-fried tofu dice.
Asian-accented salsa cruda
INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)
<B>For the noodles</B>
2.5-ounce package cellophane noodles (bean threads)
1 tablespoon Japanese soy sauce
<B>For the salsa</B>
2 or 3 small tomatoes or 1 large beefsteak tomato
1 small or 1/2 large cucumber
1/2 Vidalia or other sweet onion, enough to make about 1/2 cup (120g) chopped onion
1 or 2 large cloves garlic
1-inch (2.5cm) length fresh ginger
1 1/2 tablespoons (20g) peanut oil
1/2 tablespoon rice-wine vinegar
1 teaspoon (5g) sesame oil
<B>For the tofu</B>
8 ounces (240g) firm or extra-firm tofu
1 clove garlic
1/4-inch length fresh ginger
1 tablespoon peanut oil
1. THE NOODLES: Remove the noodles from their packaging. You may wish to either break the dry, brittle, Shredded Wheat-like packet into several smaller chunks before cooking or snip them into shorter strands after, as they're very long and can be a little hard to eat unless you break them up. Bring a pot of lightly salted water to a boil, turn off heat, and put in the noodles. Let them soak for 15 minutes. Drain through a strainer, then return to a pot of boiling water and allow to simmer for another minute or two. Drain and "shock" with cold water to stop further cooking. Put them in a bowl, toss with the soy sauce and juice of 1/2 lemon, and put in the refrigerator to cool.
2. THE SALSA: Cut the tomato into 1/2-inch dice, and peel and cut the cucumber into similar-size pieces. Peel and mince the garlic and ginger and chop the scallions. Heat the peanut oil in a skillet or saute pan and cook the minced garlic and ginger over medium heat until it's translucent. Remove from heat and stir in the tomatoes and cucumber. You don't want to cook them, just leave them with the cooked vegetables so the flavors will blend. Stir in the rice-wine vinegar and sesame oil, and season with salt and pepper to taste.
3. THE TOFU: Cut a block of firm or extra-firm tofu into fairly large (3/4-inch) dice. Wipe a large, nonstick skillet with just enough peanut oil to coat it. Put in a smashed garlic clove and piece of fresh ginger over medium-high heat until they sizzle and become aromatic. Put in the rinsed and drained tofu and saute, turning gently from time to time, until they're pale tan and crisp. Discard the garlic and ginger and serve immediately, while they're hot.
4. ASSEMBLY: Put the cellphane noodles in chilled bowls, top with the salsa and garnish with the crisp-fried tofu. Dinner's ready!
These subtle Asian flavors call for a crisp, refreshing summer white or even a bone-dry rosé. A Grüner Veltliner would hit the spot, as would a fuller-style Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio; it made a fine match with the robust <B>Henry Estate 2004 Umpqua Valley Pinot Gris</b> from Oregon.