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Beyond the Beauty

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There’s no arguing that heirloom tomatoes are beautiful. The same fruits banished from supermarket shelves, because they were too soft-skinned, too small, too large and too otherwise old-fashioned to endure conveyor belts and refrigerator cases, made their way back to retooled markets because of their thrilling range of colors and shapes.

Tour the stalls of a farmers market or wander the aisles of an upscale supermarket anywhere in America from August to October, and the displays of heirloom tomatoes are so bright they make Joseph’s Technicolor Dreamcoat look as dull as wet tweed.

We not only love the rainbow displays, we expect them. But we have yet to embrace the greater story behind that blush of colors. This is a range of textures and flavors that almost renders the visual kick of heirlooms irrelevant.

Heirlooms come so tart they could supplant vinegar in a salad dressing, so sweet they are halfway to pie filling or begging to dive into a pot to be made into a thick winter jam. Slice into the steaky, purple flesh of a Black Krim, slip a cook’s bite on your tongue, and you could swear it was already dressed. This tomato wants nothing but taking to table, fast, before you devour it.

“I don’t think anything creates the frenzy that tomatoes do,” says Maryann Carpenter of Coastal Organics, which sells both heirloom tomatoes and favorites such as Early Girl at farmers markets. “Our business kicks up a notch or two in summer when we have tomatoes--it’s our busiest time of year.”

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Of course, chefs can’t resist them either. Coastal Organics sells to more than 30 chefs every week, who buy tomatoes by the case. One, Josiah Citrin, creates a tomato tasting menu every year at Melisse in Santa Monica.

“The different varieties, flavors and textures are wonderful,” he says. “I can create a whole menu of eight courses using tomatoes.”

That menu, Celebration of Tomatoes, costs $95 a person and includes a lobster ceviche with Green Zebra tomatoes, a chanterelle risotto with roasted heirlooms and foie gras poached in a tomato consomme. Citrin loves tomatoes so that he’s growing them on the roof of the restaurant.

Evan Kleiman, the chef of Angeli Caffe on Melrose Avenue, is so enamored of Costoluto Canestrino, an Italian sauce tomato with distinctive ruffled lobes, that for the past three years she has brought back packets of seeds for farmers to plant. She describes her crusade as a “mission from God.”

“They are the best sauce tomatoes I’ve ever tasted,” she says. “They don’t have much water, but enough for meaty, juicy flesh that breaks down very quickly in the pan, leaving a sauce of great color, flavor and consistency.”

Jean-Pierre Bosc, the chef at Mimosa in Los Angeles, supplements his restaurant supply with tomatoes from his garden. One of his favorite dishes is a tart of roasted tomatoes and pistou that practically sings with summery flavor.

The Times Test Kitchen isn’t immune to this seasonal tomato fever. Over the past week, we created recipes that celebrate pure tomato flavor--you’ll find no overwhelming additions of cheese or herbs or cream here.

For instance, our soup is made by simply skinning fresh tomatoes and saving every last drop of their juice, so every last bit of flavor arrives in the bowl. Because the soup is pureed, it looks and tastes as rich as if it were made with cream, yet it has none. It would also be beautiful made with yellow tomatoes.

Our heirloom tomato salad is so easy--heirlooms need little to shine. Just cut them into thick chunks, toss them with a vinaigrette and fresh arugula, and add a sprinkling of fleur de sel and cracked black pepper. The result is juicy and tangy with a bit of crunch--perfect for a hot summer day.

We also loved cookbook author Ana Thomas’ recipe for Charred Tomatoes With Garlic and Olives. Rich and concentrated, it’s like a tomato butter. While it would be good with crusty bread, we couldn’t resist it plain, so powerful was the fresh tomato flavor.

Of course, if you’d rather not cook, there are even simpler ways to enjoy great tomatoes. Rub a half of a ripe tomato on a toasted garlic baguette. Drizzle a beautiful platter of sliced heirlooms with a bit of olive oil and sprinkle with a good salt. A favorite dish, of course, is insalata Caprese: slice tomatoes, arrange them on a platter with fresh mozzarella and basil leaves and then just add a little olive oil, salt and pepper.

Or you can grill some tomato halves, sprinkle them with fresh herbs and Parmesan, and you have good complement for steaks, fish or poultry.

Just be sure to start with good tomatoes, and don’t let them linger. Ripe tomatoes should be eaten within a day or two, and should never, ever, feel the chill of the refrigerator. Or that precious flavor will be lost.

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Times staff writers Emily Green and Jennifer Lowe contributed to this report.

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Garden Tomato Soup

Active Work Time: 35 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 55 minutes * Vegetarian

From Donna Deane, director of the Times Test Kitchen.

3 pounds tomatoes

2 tablespoons butter

1 small onion, finely chopped

2 teaspoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon celery seeds

1 teaspoon salt

Cracked pepper

Basil leaves, for garnish

Bring a small pot of water to boil. Make an “x” with a knife in the bottom of each tomato then add them, a few at a time, to the pot. Cook 30 seconds to 1 minute. Remove the tomatoes and place in a large bowl of ice water, then peel and core. Cut the tomatoes in half horizontally. Squeeze the seeds from the tomatoes into a strainer set over a large bowl. Press against the seeds with a spoon to extract the juice; add enough water to the juice to measure 1 cup. Set aside the juice and discard the seeds. Dice the tomatoes.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook until tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and reserved juice. Stir in the sugar, celery seeds and salt. Bring to a simmer. Cover and cook about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Puree the soup in a food processor or blender until smooth. Season with the cracked pepper to taste. Pour into serving bowls and garnish each serving with a basil leaf.

4 servings. Each serving: 130 calories; 675 mg sodium; 16 mg cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 18 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 3.65 grams fiber.

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Heirloom Tomato Salad

Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 15 minutes * Vegetarian

From Mayi Brady of the Times Test Kitchen. Fleur de sel, a sea salt, is sold at specialty markets and well-stocked supermarkets. The tomatoes will release their juices right after tossing; serve this with crusty bread to soak up the juices.

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

3 tablespoons Sherry vinegar

1 small shallot, minced

1 tablespoon minced chives

3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt, pepper

3 pounds heirloom tomatoes, mixed colors, cut into big chunks

3 cups arugula, loosely packed

1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel

Cracked pepper

Whisk together the mustard, vinegar, shallot and chives. Whisk in the olive oil until the vinaigrette is slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Place the tomatoes and arugula in a large bowl and toss with the vinaigrette. Lightly sprinkle with the fleur de sel and pepper to taste.

6 servings. Each serving: 110 calories; 276 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 11 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 2.56 grams fiber.

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Charred Tomatoes With Garlic and Olives

Active Work Time: 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes * Vegetarian

From “The New Vegetarian Epicure” by Anna Thomas (Knopf, $30). These slow-roasted tomatoes, allowed to char twice, have a terrific intensity of flavor. A bowl of these tomatoes, a bowl of hummus and some pita bread make a great appetizer. Or, serve them with a simple crusty bread.

4 pounds red tomatoes

5 cloves garlic

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

Salt

6 to 8 Kalamata olives

Heat the broiler.

Place the tomatoes on a baking sheet, and put them directly under the broiler. Watch them carefully: As they blister and the skins turn black, turn them over. When the skins are pretty well charred, about 3 minutes each side, remove the tomatoes from the oven, peel off the skins (they will almost fall off), and trim out their stem ends.

Cut the tomatoes into large pieces and put them back on the baking sheet. Peel the garlic cloves, cut them in half if they’re very large, and scatter them among the tomatoes. Drizzle the tomatoes with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and sprinkle them with 1 teaspoon of salt. Turn the oven down to 400 degrees and set the tomatoes on the middle rack. Check them every half hour, and as they start to show little charred spots again, stir them up, mixing the blackened spots in.

In about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, you should have a thickened mass of tomatoes, flecked with dark bits. Remove this from the oven, give it another stir, taste, and add salt only if needed.

Spoon the tomatoes into a shallow serving bowl, smooth the top, and drizzle the remaining tablespoon of olive oil on top. Remove the pits from the olives and chop the olives coarsely. Sprinkle the chopped olives over the tomatoes.

About 2 1/2 cups. Each tablespoon: 16 calories; 33 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 0 saturated fat; 2 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.35 gram fiber.

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Mimosa’s Tomato Tarte Tatin

Active Work Time: 40 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 2 hours * Vegetarian

This is from Jean-Pierre Bosc of Mimosa in Los Angeles.

PISTOU

2 cups firmly packed basil leaves

8 cloves garlic

2 tablespoons Parmesan

2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons pepper

1/4 cup olive oil

Combine the basil, garlic, Parmesan, salt, pepper and oil in a food processor until a paste forms, 1 to 2 minutes. Adjust seasonings.

TARTE TATIN

1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme

2 tablespoons chopped garlic

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon pepper

1 tablespoon sugar

1/4 cup olive oil

About 12 plum tomatoes

1 (10-inch-square) sheet puff pastry, thawed at room temperature 20 to 25 minutes

3 cups salad greens

Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Combine the thyme, garlic, salt, pepper, sugar and olive oil. Spread over the bottom of a jellyroll pan.

Blanch the tomatoes in boiling water 30 seconds, then remove to a bowl of ice water. Slip off the skins and cut the tomatoes in half lengthwise. Place cut-side down on the pan; bake until softened, 1 1/2 hours. Remove from the oven.

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Use a cutter 4 1/2 inches in diameter to cut 4 circles from the pastry. (You can also use a glass, or cut a 4 1/2-inch circle from cardboard.) Place on a baking sheet. Poke each a few times with a fork. Bake until golden and puffed, 12 to 15 minutes.

Place 4 (5-inch) squares of wax paper on a baking sheet. Place a 3 1/2-to 4-inch cake ring on each square. Using a slotted spoon, divide the tomatoes among the rings, skinned-side down. Spread 1 tablespoon of Pistou over each.

Place the tomato rings in the oven and bake until heated through, 10 minutes. Top each ring with a circle of pastry. Return to the oven and bake until heated through, 2 to 3 minutes. Slide a spatula under each tart, lightly hold the top, and turn over onto the center of a plate. Remove the wax paper and the rings (careful, they will be hot). Serve each tart surrounded by the greens.

4 servings. Each serving: 358 calories; 2,448 mg sodium; 2 mg cholesterol; 31 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 18 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 3.59 grams fiber.


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