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Stars of the Garden, Stars of the Table

September 19, 1996|FAYE LEVY | Levy is the author of "Sensational Pasta" (HP Books) and of "Faye Levy's International Vegetable Cookbook" (Warner Books)

At this time of year, I feel like we're in tomato heaven. The heady aroma of tomatoes greets us as soon as we go out into our vegetable garden. As we pick the fruit from the amazingly tall vines, our greatest delight is to eat tomatoes on the spot. Their luscious, intense flavor makes them a real treat. And what an incredible array of colors!

This year, just our second of growing vegetables, we are feasting on delicious, sweet, neon-orange cherry tomatoes called Sungold, beautiful bright yellow pear tomatoes, brilliant-red Sweet 100 tomatoes and tiny heirloom yellow tomatoes named Golden Pearl. We have 18 other varieties, from currant-size to enormous beefsteak types. Some came from seeds that we ordered from catalogs, others came from nurseries and a few just sprang up by themselves and gave us our earliest tomatoes.

You don't have to grow tomatoes to enjoy them as they should be--naturally ripe and juicy. Farmers markets feature a good tomato selection. In the produce markets, tomatoes are abundant, reasonably priced and available in more varieties than ever. Even standard supermarkets feature vine-ripened and yellow tomatoes.

Although we are growing other vegetables, the tomatoes are the stars of the garden. Naturally, we tend to build our meals around these gems. We eat them as snacks, appetizers and accompaniments. Our green salads have become green and red salads. Our vegetable stews keep turning into variations of the Mediterranean standby, ratatouille, in which the vegetables simmer in an herb-accented tomato sauce, and our pasta dishes are graced with our own rooftop sun-dried plum tomatoes.

It's no secret that pasta is the tomato's perfect partner. One of our favorite supper dishes is pasta dressed with an herb vinaigrette and a selection of diced tomatoes. The dish is light, quick and very easy to make, as the only cooking needed is to briefly boil the pasta. Even though it's a salad, you can enjoy it warm or cold.

I love to play with the salad's colors and flavors. Sometimes I use tomato pasta (either spirals or noodles) and red tomatoes, both fresh and sun-dried. The dish then has shades of red flecked with the green of herbs. On other occasions, I use plain egg noodles and yellow tomatoes. For a wildly colorful result, I use every hue of tomatoes that I have along with tricolored pasta. Flavored with garden-fresh basil, tarragon, parsley, chives or any mixture of these herbs, this entree is a celebration of the exuberant tastes of late summer.

TRIPLE TOMATO PASTA SALAD

1/2 pound dried tomato spirals or fusilli, tomato noodles or tricolored noodles

Salt

4 to 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon herb vinegar or wine vinegar

Freshly ground pepper

1 pound ripe tomatoes, diced

1/3 cup chopped oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes

2 tablespoons chopped chives or green onion

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil or 1 teaspoon dried leaf, crumbled

A tomato extravaganza, this salad combines fresh tomatoes, tomato pasta and sun-dried tomatoes. You can make the salad a day ahead for serving cold or serve it warm as soon as the pasta is done. If you would like a richer salad, add cubes of 1 large ripe avocado, 1 to 2 cups shredded cooked chicken or 1 cup small dice of feta, fontina or mozzarella cheese.

The sun-dried tomatoes are packed in a flavorful oil; you can use 1 or 2 tablespoons of it for part of the dressing, as long as you leave enough oil in the jar to cover the remaining tomatoes so they will keep.

Cook pasta, uncovered, in large pan of boiling salted water over high heat, stirring occasionally, about 7 minutes or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain. Rinse with cold water and drain well. Add 1/4 cup oil, vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well. Add fresh and dried tomatoes.

A short time before serving, add chives, parsley and basil. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add more oil if needed. Serve warm or cool.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

366 calories; 179 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 15 grams fat; 51 grams carbohydrates; 11 grams protein; 1 gram fiber.

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