Saturday, September 3, 2011

Tomato and tomato and tomato

So Julia Child had her Sole Meuniere and Chairman Kaga had his yellow bell pepper, but I think for a lot of people it's the first taste of an in-season heirloom tomato that makes them realize the real potential of food. At least, I know that in 2007 I sent an e-mail to my friend Gustavo waxing poetic about a plate of green zebra tomatoes--I think the word "sobbing" was used--and then two years later I was scanning through a couple food blogs in the middle of August and I realized, "Oh, that thing about tomatoes? That was a very foodie thing to say. Okay."

A lot of my friends have been posting pictures of their tomato plants on Facebook and to be honest it makes me so jealous that I just want to get on my bike and ride to their house in Alamo or wherever and rip all of their tomato plants out of the ground and pull all of the tomatoes from the vines and gorge myself on their fruits, and then, after I have filled my belly, to strip naked and roll around on the pile of soil and vegetable detritus. That's about how much I enjoy the taste of a summer tomato right off the vine, still warm with sunlight and ebbing life.

I had tomato plants last year and the year before, so I know just how good it can be. Unfortunately, this year my apartment hunt and subsequent move just about prevented me from getting any plants in the ground in time. Luckily, I have a quite excellent substitute in tomatoes from Lucero Organic Farm, which I've loved ever since discovering them at the farmer's market by my old apartment on Shattuck. Somehow amidst an array of stands charging $3.99, $4.50, $4.99, even up to $5.99 per pound for heirloom tomatoes, Lucero lets customers mix-and-match a rainbow of absolutely delicious heirlooms for the almost absurd price of $2.99 per pound. Seriously, I think they are just throwing away money, or throwing sun golds into my mouth for free like I'm some sort of tomato-chomping boss from Legend of Zelda and my weak point is my uvula, then hit me with the Giant's Hammer while I'm stunned.

The Bay Area sometimes gets some flak for encouraging a food culture that shies away from actual manipulation of food: "That's shopping, not cooking." However, I think most people in the world would agree that the best way to enjoy a peak-of-the-season heirloom is raw, sliced up, with just a little salt on top to coax out the juices. Do whatever you want to the other ingredients around it, but leave that tomato warm and intact. And never, ever stick it in the refrigerator, under punishment of death, or Waters torture.

Today I'm going to explore three things that you can do with a tomato, a piece of bread, and a few other ingredients. I can promise that all of them are delicious and all of them cost less than $12. Jean-Georges Vongerichten ambience not included.


Tomato Panzanella

Slice a variety of tomatoes into chunks and salt them generously. Cut some good bread into one-inch chunks, toss it with a little oil, and stick it in the oven at 300 F (you don't have to preheat the oven if you don't want). Smash up a few cloves of garlic and place them in a pan on a stovetop with some olive oil. Cook over the lowest possible heat on your stove.

Okay, now chill out for about 20 minutes. Maybe come back after 10 minutes and make sure to stir and shake everything as appropriate.

Back already? Okay. Now the salt has extracted some juice from your tomatoes, your bread is nicely toasted but not too crisp, and your oil has turned into garlic oil.

Remove the bread to a large bowl. Pour off the juices from the tomatoes and make a salad dressing out of those juices and twice their volume in garlic oil (an immersion blender makes this way easy). Adjust the dressing with salt and vinegar if necessary. Toss the bread cubes in the salad dressing and grate a lot of black pepper on top. Now wait five minutes.

During those five minutes, cut some basil into chiffonade and shred a bunch of hard Italian cheese (parmesan, pecorino). Toss the bread cubes with most of the cheese, basil, and tomatoes, as well as a handful or two of arugula.

Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with some remaining cheese, basil, and tomatoes.

This was truly fantastic and it might be my favorite way to eat summer tomatoes, because I've made a great version three years in a row. The garlic oil just gets a little sour, hot, and bitter to complement the sweet tomatoes, but the real star is the bread cubes--crunchy, warm, toasted, but still chewy and bursting with dressing in every bite.


Tomato on toast

Slice some tomatoes into thin slices and salt them.

Fry a piece of bread in olive oil over medium heat until it's crispy. Rub it with a clove of garlic while it's still hot. Set it aside. Cut some basil into chiffonade.

Now fry an egg in the same olive oil you used to fry the bread. While that is going on, arrange your plate in the following way: toast, basil, tomato, salt and pepper. As soon as the egg is done, place it on top, add a little more basil, salt, and pepper, and go for it.

I don't know how much I have to say about this... I think my friend Tina's paraphrase on my entire blog is "a runny egg makes everything extra delicious." Which, you know, is true. If you haven't tried frying bread in olive oil... seriously, don't make toast any other way ever again. You might set toast on fire.


Fried egg in breadcrumbs with tomatoes

Slice some tomatoes into thin slices and salt them.

Take your bread and make breadcrumbs--either use a food processor or just chop it a lot. Cook a fried egg in breadcrumbs a la Judy Rodgers with a little thyme in the breadcrumbs.

I misunderstood Judy's/Zuni's recipe the first time I saw it and ended up making a sort of weird condiment out of thyme breadcrumbs and red wine vinegar. Well, I think it's even better than the suggestion of pouring sizzling vinegar over eggs.

Arrange as above... and, you know, chiffonade some basil for good measure. Make sure your last bite looks like this.


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