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The tomato ceremony


If you are an antsy person, as I am, the wait for the annual planting season can seem interminable. Where we live in Sullivan County, one generally doesn’t put trowel to earth until the first week in June for fear that a stray frost may unexpectedly hit and kill your newly planted herbs and vegetables.

Every summer I plant six or seven varieties of tomatoes, usually heirloom and sometimes (or not) organic. I have been doing this for more than half a decade, and each year’s crop is a complete surprise. It is based on many factors: the quality of our soil, too much or not enough rain, the temperature and certainly, luck.

Some years, friends commiserate that “the powers that be” reduced their output to a few measly specimens. Other times I seem to be the only person who couldn’t grow a single tomato, like the time I mistakenly, ignorantly, used wire twister seals instead of cloth strips to tie the unruly vines to the stakes, resulting in dozens of broken branches fallen to the ground and fruit that never got a chance to mature. Speaking of which, another summer the weather was so cold that by the time my tomatoes were turning red, they became mealy and tough as though they’d been refrigerated.

I try new types of tomatoes each summer. The names alone are enticing. This year I planted Lemon Boy, Purple Prudence Eggs, Umberto, Sun Gold Cherry, Early Girl (not), Camp Joy and Brandywine. The beautifully colored Sun Gold cherries were the first to ripen, and my sister Janet and I did what we always do. We had a “tomato ceremony” of the first picked.

I sliced the tiny yellow-orange tomato in half and we clicked, as though making a toast, and simultaneously popped our respective halves in our mouths. Sweet as could be. We repeat the ceremony each time a different variety produces fruit. It’s a tradition I take seriously, and we judge each tomato as we sample it. Some are utterly delicious and others disappointingly bland. Who knows why?

When I’ve been lucky enough to have a good yield, I make tomato salads virtually every day. Sometimes I slice the fruit and splay the discs on a large platter. Other times I cut them into chunks and pile them in a shallow bowl. Always, I season them with good, fruity extra-virgin olive oil, aged balsamic vinegar, sea salt and fresh basil from my garden. Crusty bread to soak up the juices is a given, or I’ll make a Tuscan panzanella bread salad with cubes of crunchy toasted ciabatta bread, perfectly ripe tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, sweet red onion, and celery doused with olive oil and red wine vinegar.

I cook multi-colored cherry tomatoes in a skillet in a nice amount of high-quality Italian olive oil until they burst, then toss them, along with cubed fresh mozzarella and torn basil leaves with al dente pasta, such as shells or penne that have been drained a moment earlier. Or, I’ll marinate raw, chopped tomatoes, basil and diced fresh mozzarella in oil, balsamic vinegar and a good pinch of salt, and when they’ve macerated for an hour and are swimming in their juices, I’ll toss them with hot pasta for an ultra-fresh height-of-summer, room-temperature pasta dish, almost a pasta salad, but infinitely deeper in flavor.

For brunch I’ll make a tomato clafouti, also with cherry tomatoes. This is a savory take on a baked French dessert of fruit, traditionally made with black cherries, arranged in a buttered gratin dish and covered with a thick flan-like batter. The warm tomatoes’ taut skins burst in your mouth, releasing their sweet flavor. And finally, a visually striking dish is a French tomato tart, made in a flash, using store-bought puff pastry for the shell. The dough, rolled into a rectangle, is briefly baked, then spread with a thin layer of Dijon mustard and topped with plenty of shredded Gruyere cheese. Laid over the cheese are sliced tomatoes, slightly overlapping each other. Then, the best part: a mélange of finely chopped fresh garden herbs such as rosemary, thyme, parsley, chives, tarragon, basil and sage. Whatever you have on hand will do; the more the better. The tart is popped in the oven and eventually emerges looking and tasting magnificent. The only ceremony, now, is to pour some chilled, crisp white wine into goblets and dig into a dish celebrating the best of summer’s prized tomatoes.

Tomato tart with puff pastry crust

Serves 4

1 sheet of frozen puff pastry, defrosted for 40 minutes

6-7 medium-sized firm ripe tomatoes, thinly sliced (enough to cover the crust in one layer)

¼ cup mixed fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme, basil, chives, tarragon, Italian flat-leaf parsley, sage, etc.)

2 – 2 ½ tablespoons Dijon mustard, preferably grainy or a mix of plain and grainy

¼ pound Gruyere cheese, grated on the large holes of a hand-held grater

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 375°. When the puff pastry is soft enough to handle, unfold it and lay it out on a lightly floured board. Using a rolling pin, gently form the dough into a large rectangle, approximately 12 x 10 inches, and place on a baking sheet lined with a sheet of parchment paper. Fold over the edges all around, about ¼ -½” thick, pressing firmly with the tines of a fork to form a rim. Prick the pastry bottom thoroughly with a fork. Bake the pie shell for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool for five minutes. With a pastry brush or the back of a spoon, spread the mustard evenly over the crust. Lay the grated cheese over the crust, covering it completely. Lay the sliced tomatoes over the cheese, overlapping slightly. Sprinkle generously with the herb mixture, salt and freshly ground pepper. Bake for 20 minutes. Let sit for three or four minutes before slicing into wedges or rectangles. Serve with a mixed green salad, if you like.


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