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Saving the Best for Last

After a summer of glorious tomatoes, a final pleasure.

September 25, 2002|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even the grandest of pleasures have a way of becoming pedestrian when they are too easily available. There's no better example than tomatoes in September.

Just a few months ago, even the barest hint of a really ripe tomato was enough to make us faint with anticipation. Today it's distressingly easy to pass by an entire mound of them at the farmers market and think, "Not those again." For cooks, this is the time of year that separates the men from the boys. It's easy enough to be a genius in June; getting the same reaction in late September takes inspiration.

A couple of weekends ago, my wife and I were visiting my daughter at college in the far northwestern corner of the state. We do this a couple of times a year and it has become a ritual that one night I cook dinner for all of her friends. (Actually, it's one of my favorite parts of the visit. There are no more appreciative eaters than college students.)

So Saturday we went together to the farmers market they have on the town square. While she worked her weekend job making balloon sculptures for kids, I foraged. By the end of the morning, every little girl in town had pink balloon butterfly wings and every little boy a sword and scabbard. I had kale to braise with garlic, green beans and tiny new potatoes for salad, and some spindly celery that was perfect for dressing with anchovies, garlic and olive oil.

And, yes, tomatoes. Tomatoes by the bagful--Brandywines, Beefsteaks, Early Girls ... green tomatoes, yellow tomatoes and even some that were nearly purple. I picked a half-dozen or so of the most interestingly shaped and colored ones and sliced them up for a platter salad, topped with thin pale rings of red onion. But most of them I saved to stuff.

Stuffed tomatoes are not only delicious, there is also something definitively homespun about them. They're the culinary equivalent of an old-fashioned quilt: something beautiful you've stitched together out of scraps of things you just happen to have lying around.

There are all kinds of ways to stuff tomatoes. When it's very hot, I might make a light lunch from a salad of smoked fish and mayonnaise I've spooned into a hollowed-out raw tomato. This is also good made with something as everyday as canned tuna, or maybe some of that grilled chicken left over from Sunday.

Cooking the tomato concentrates its flavor, turning it from a handily shaped receptacle into the focus of the dish. Stuffings can be as simple as bread crumbs rubbed with garlic and parsley, or some cut up bits of mozzarella mixed with a couple of chopped anchovies.

Or you can get more elaborate. I've got a soft spot for tomatoes stuffed with rice. That's partly because they taste so good, partly because the process is so curious. The two factors are connected.

I use raw rice to stuff tomatoes and it cooks with only the moisture that comes from the tomato--no water added. This takes longer than cooking rice the normal way; while that's usually done in 15 to 20 minutes, it takes nearly an hour inside the tomato. But the flavor more than makes up for the little bit of extra time and effort.

It's important to remember that this dish needs to be warm or hot when you serve it. Chilling rice after it is cooked firms up the hard starches. This is called retrogradation, and it's a similar process to that which stales bread (it's also the reason you chill rice before stir-frying it--the extra-firm grains won't break up into mush the way just-cooked ones will). If you've refrigerated leftover stuffed tomatoes, warm them in a 350-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

Season the rice however you want. Instead of prosciutto, use fresh sausage you've browned or even dried salami that you've minced. In fact, even though this recipe is improved by pork products (just like almost everything else in life), you can leave them out entirely to make a vegetarian entree. Just amp it up with chopped herbs--basil, oregano or mint--and fold a little cheese into the filling.

Follow the basic guidelines to get the amounts right. A half-cup of raw rice will stuff about four big tomatoes or six smaller ones. And do be sure to baste the tomatoes a couple of times while they're cooking. The first two or three times I tested this recipe, the very top layer of rice dried out and was crunchy. A drizzle of oil and spooning some of the cooking liquid over the top solved that problem.

You can even use this recipe to stuff zucchini. You know, if you're completely sick of tomatoes.

*

Tomatoes Stuffed With Pine Nuts and Prosciutto

Active Work Time: 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

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