Some of you may have followed my Country Kitsch column in the now-defunct Towne Crier newspaper, or Tales of the Scrawny Gourmet for the Catskill Chronicle. You might recall my admission that I …
Some of you may have followed my Country Kitsch column in the now-defunct Towne Crier newspaper, or Tales of the Scrawny Gourmet for the Catskill Chronicle. You might recall my admission that I didn’t eat a raw tomato until I was in my early 30s. When I was growing up and encountered a tomato, it was not vine-ripened, or ripe at all. The supermarkets sold mealy, tasteless versions and we did not live anywhere near farms. I vaguely remember my dad waiting for summer and waxing poetic about “Jersey beefsteaks,” though I don’t know how or when he came across them.
I married when I was 28 and my agricultural-minded Israeli husband was appalled at the state of tomatoes available. At some point in our six-year union, tomatoes imported on the vine began popping up at the grocery store and he took some solace there, but he wasn’t ecstatic, and I was still wary.
It wasn’t until my sister Janet and I had a summer rental of a nasty little damp cottage in White Lake that I planted Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes in a large, cracked plastic container I found in the owner’s decrepit storage shed (along with the advertised “boat” that had to be inflated with a bicycle pump). Near the end of our stay, the tiny tomatoes turned bright red. I will forever remember the taste of that first tomato as it burst in my mouth. The purity of flavor was phenomenal and addictive.
Back in the city, I regularly visited the Union Square farmers’ market, a dozen blocks from my apartment. In the summer I was introduced to dozens of types of tomatoes. Eventually, heirloom seeds were discovered, and earnest farmers planted them in an effort to supply Manhattan’s elite restaurants. Thus, we were all privy to these strange, misshapen, amazingly delicious tomatoes. Simplicity in preparation was touted as key. Slice, plate, drizzle with your best fruity extra-virgin olive oil and a bit of aged balsamic vinegar. Garnish with torn basil leaves and finish with flaky sea salt. Thickly sliced (or torn) crusty country bread was a perfect accompaniment, but even better was to serve the tomatoes and bread with a milky, oozing ball of fresh mozzarella, in what is known as Caprese salad in Italy. I could eat that every day of summer.
I started a small garden surrounded by wire fencing about a dozen years ago. We were still weekenders then and it was difficult keeping on top of it. I had to hire a neighbor’s son to water during the week while we were in the city. I grew a great variety of herbs and a few tomato plants. One year I added cucumbers and did well with them. I favored slim, small Persian cucumbers or Kirbys. I had to keep a keen eye on them and actually dip my head beneath the enormous leaves to make sure I was catching the vegetables before they grew to grotesque proportions.
Over the years, I found the yield and quality of my garden to be hit or miss. It rained too much or didn’t rain at all. Was the soil lousy? Should we try composting? I added more tomato plants once we moved up here permanently but was often disappointed in the flavor (or lack thereof), or in how little the plants produced. I dutifully planted orange and yellow marigolds at the base of all the plants to ward away pests and diseases. They were healthy, but not necessarily delicious.
Janet, a woman of great organizational skills, began to keep a journal, complete with a drawing of the garden and what and when we had planted. There were notes on the yield of the different varieties and on their taste. And then we began composting and adding the compost to the garden every spring. The situation began to turn around and the plants did better.
I do not grow from seed. I buy my tomato plants from Anne at Domesticities and the Cutting Garden in Youngsville. She and her husband, Fritz, start their plants early and when I pick them up, they are huge, well over a foot. This year I have had a bumper crop. I have more tomatoes than I know what to do with. Anyone who visits gets a doggy bag of mixed tomatoes from tiny ultra-sweet Sun Gold cherries to big, red Beefsteaks. Ah, those Beefsteaks are great, almost as good as the Brandywines.
So far this season I have made cherry tomato clafouti for brunch; Caprese salad for breakfast; fresh tomato salsa and chips; skewered cherry tomatoes, mozzarella and basil leaves for guests stopping by for cocktails; puff pastry tomato pie (topped with fresh herbs) for dinner; spicy gazpacho as an appetizer; and an all-time favorite: Italian panzanella salad. While I crisp cubes of ciabatta or country bread in the oven until crunchy, I fill a big bowl with chopped tomatoes, diced cucumbers, minced red onion, sliced celery, and basil leaves, sea salt, and freshly ground black pepper. I whisk up a piquant vinaigrette, pour it over the vegetables, and let them sit for a while to release their juices and to let the flavors mingle. When the bread is ready I throw it into the bowl, toss it once or twice, and serve it immediately. Some of the bread stays crunchy like a crouton and some soaks up the amazing tomatoey juice. The definitive summer meal for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The only thing better is eating a tomato out of hand, picked warm and kissed by the sun.
Panzanella (Bread Salad)
2 - 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar, or more to taste