Monday, April 16, 2012

Solving Tomatoes

While we wait for our gardens to grow and farmers markets to stock up on the real thing—a perfect, vine ripened sweet tomato—there are those if us who still need a good tomato now.  What look very much like ripe tomatoes are masquerading in grocery stores this very minute but none of us are really fooled.  They may be red, they may be soft, but they just miss the mark and we all have the taste bud sense to know it.

My mother used to say that the great benefit of modern food distribution in America is that we all get to eat a tomato.  The only problem is, it will not taste like a tomato.  She used to resort to canned peeled tomatoes for salads when she sought that sweet red flavor in February.  Years later, the winter supermarket can provide tomatoes on the vine and greenhouse grown globes but still the flavor is a little sapless. 

I have two solutions that will bridge the gap until summer provides for us tomato fans.  Fried Red Tomatoes and Roasted Tomatoes.  Both concentrate the flavor of the red-looking but green-tasting fruit to bring out the right balance of sweetness to acid. 

Roasted Tomatoes
are like sun-dried tomatoes you make in your oven except you don’t go quite so far as to actually dry the tomatoes.  Just dehydrated enough to concentrate the flavor.  Preheat the oven to 350˚F, cut tomatoes in half or in thick slices and lightly dust with a few grains of salt and if they look very under-ripe upon slicing, the merest wink of sugar.  Place tomatoes on a aluminum foil lined roasting pan coated with a thin film of olive oil and bake 30 minutes for halves, 15 minutes for slices.  Allow tomatoes to cool then use in sandwiches (drain on a paper towel), sauces, vegetable dishes and salads.  We topped halves with chopped black olives, capers, red pepper, red pepper flakes and a smear of pesto then ran them under the broiler with some grated parmesan cheese.  These were great eaten politely with a knife and fork but exquisite on a slab of rustic homemade bread.  Ultimate bruschetta. 

Fried Red Tomatoes are perfect when you suspect your tomatoes will rot from the inside before they come near to ripening on the kitchen windowsill.  Last year, while visiting family in North Carolina and sampling fried green tomatoes at every restaurant where I could find them, I learned the secret to a good fried tomato that photos in magazines and cookbooks had blinded me too.  All the pretty pictures show thick tomatoes with a golden crust.  But everywhere I enjoyed a good fried green tomato, the slices were no thicker than a 1/4 inch.  The thickness, or rather thinness, makes all the difference. 

Slice firm tomatoes, coat them with fine cornmeal spiked with salt, black pepper and a little oregano, then fry in a scant amount of vegetable or olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat, flipping once*.  Throw that into your BLT with a red pepper mayonnaise until the vines are ripening near you. 

* Most recipes have you dip lightly floured tomato slices in some buttermilk or an egg wash to help the cornmeal stick better.  Recommended if you have the patience but not absolutely required for this version.  Also, if you don’t have fine cornmeal, use bread crumbs.