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IN THE KITCHEN : A Tomato Tune-Up

August 04, 1994|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES FOOD MANAGING EDITOR

The air is all aswelter and downtown smells like somebody's old sock. But I'm happy. My tomatoes are finally coming around.

It's been a long summer. Until last week, where I live in Long Beach--about as close to the ocean as you can be and still remain unfashionable--has been under daily cloud cover until noon.

We did have a brief shot of hot weather a couple of weeks ago, which sent the tomatoes sprinting toward perfection. But along came the clouds, cooling them off at the last minute. The result was tomatoes that may have looked great--deep red and shiny--but were pink inside, with the particular cottony texture of grocery store produce and a vague taste that is kind of like catching a glimpse of a really ripe tomato that has just turned a corner.

Just think: All the work of home-grown, but none of the flavor.

It didn't help matters that one of my co-workers, who lives in the desert, keeps bringing in absolutely delicious cherry tomatoes. He has so many that he carries them in plastic shopping bags and leaves them on a central table where anyone can grab as many as they want. I eat my fill and then take some home. Lightly sauteed with a little olive oil, garlic and basil, they are perfect when served with grilled meat.

It's easy to be a good cook when you have good produce. That's one of the main reasons for starting a vegetable garden in the first place. But take away the raw materials--for whatever reason--and you've just got to work a little harder.

And one of the things I've learned in the last couple of weeks of harvesting sub-standard tomatoes, is how to make the most of every scrap of flavor. Along the way, I've picked up a couple of tricks:

* Remember that tomatoes thrive in heat and hate cold. That applies not only to fruit on the vine, but also those that have been picked. If you need to be told again: DON'T PUT TOMATOES IN THE REFRIGERATOR. The cold stunts their flavor. At the same time, warming tomatoes in the oven improves the taste of even fairly pallid specimens. In fact, you can make a pretty good pasta sauce from not-very-good tomatoes by simply roasting whole tomatoes in a 350-degree oven until they collapse of their own weight. Then run them through a food mill to remove skin and seeds. That will beat all but the best canned tomatoes you can find.

* Just as cooks once reflexively added a bit of sugar to tomato dishes to make up for the lack of sweetness in inferior produce, I add a bit of balsamic vinegar. Not only does the trace of sweetness help, but I find the tang is much more important in giving a full, bursting flavor to these half-acid tomatoes.

You can use these tricks by themselves or in concert with other techniques. One of the most common, of course, is stuffing tomatoes full of flavoring. These can be either hot or cold, as simple as bread crumbs and garlic or extremely complicated. The Italian food magazine A Tavola, for example, ran a story listing 22 different recipes for stuffed tomatoes, including everything from fried fish and quail's egg (for some reason called a hamburger) to wild rice and mussels, salmon eggs and whipped cream, and even cold crab souffle.

Of course, the shape of the tomato makes it a perfectly handy receptacle. But beyond that, the stuffing also serves as flavoring. And heating stuffed tomatoes melds flavors together, making the sum much greater than the parts.

In a curious way, this dish is inside-out. I love melted mozzarella and think it goes wonderfully with the earthy, briny flavors of a tomato sauce made with anchovies, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. All we're doing in this recipe, is putting the cheese inside the sauce rather than under it. Wow. Think about that for a while.

Just try not to break a sweat.

STUFFED TOMATOES 6 medium-sized tomatoes Balsamic vinegar Salt Freshly ground pepper 6 anchovy fillets, preferably salt-packed, rinsed well and cut in half (about 2 ounces) 6 balls fresh mozzarella (about 7 3/4 ounces) 1/2 cup bread crumbs 2 cloves garlic, minced 2 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh basil Extra-virgin olive oil

Slice 1/4 off top of each tomato. Using melon baller, remove most of seeds and pulp, being careful not to damage sides of tomato.

Sprinkle inside of each tomato with few drops balsamic vinegar, dash salt and dash pepper. Do not over-salt as anchovies are naturally salty. Cross halves of anchovy fillets in bottom of tomato. Place ball of fresh mozzarella in each tomato. Place tomatoes on baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees until mozzarella softens (do not let tomato collapse), about 20 minutes.

While tomatoes are baking, combine bread crumbs, garlic and basil in small bowl. When mozzarella has begun to melt, spoon bread crumb mixture over top of each tomato. Drizzle with olive oil and broil until brown. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

196 calories; 605 mg sodium; 37 mg cholesterol; 11 grams fat; 13 grams carbohydrates; 12 grams protein; 0.84 gram fiber.

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