The Time Is Ripe
It’s one of life’s simple pleasures, biting into a perfectly ripened tomato. Eaten on the spot and still warm from the sun, a tomato dripping with its juices so succulent and sweet, it is the season’s best reward.
This legendary vegetable (botanically it’s really a fruit but now classified as a vegetable) is, without question, one of the most popular foods in the world. And the peak of the season affords us an abundance of hedonistic pleasure when devouring a perfectly ripe tomato.
In our quest to seize our prize, over 40 million Americans are growing their own as an alternative to the bland sameness of hybrid tomatoes. The local farmers’ markets, Sonoma’s Patch self-serve garden on 2nd St East, and roadside stands yield a vast variety to tantalize the taste buds and tease the eye. Lucky us, we’ve re-discovered the heirloom tomato, satisfying all of our senses with superior flavor, color, texture, and fragrance.
Heirlooms are the old-fashioned varieties nearly forgotten in corporate agriculture’s desire to create a more commercially viable tomato. Unlike the supermarket hybrids, heirlooms are flavor-focused not process driven. The seeds of heirlooms, passed down through the generations, preserve the characteristics of the parent plant from which it was harvested.
The finest tasting tomato is one that has been ripened naturally in the sun and on the vine—ideally slowly so as to fully develop its flavor. (You’ll find “vine-ripened” tomatoes at the supermarket that still have the vine attached to further the ripening process. Factory farmed, they bear little resemblance to what the proud gardener knows as a tomato.) Limitless in its culinary uses, the perfect heirloom tomato salad is truly a sum of its parts. One only need ideally ripened tomatoes, a drizzle of fruity olive oil, a shake of salt and freshly ground black pepper. A salad so satisfyingly delicious, it needs no vinegar since the ripe tomatoes carry their own perfect measure of acidity. Or slice the meaty beefsteak and layer with fresh mozzarella, a dash of aged balsamic vinegar, and a chiffonade of fresh basil.
Choose tomatoes that feel heavy for their size and flesh that is firm but gives slightly when pressed gently. Blemishes are harmless but the fruit should smell loamy and “green.” And never refrigerate which adversely affects the taste and texture. To fully enjoy summer’s reward, invest in a good quality serrated knife and a “tomato shark” (looks like a melon baller with teeth), an inexpensive tool indispensable for coring tomatoes.
The time is ripe. The season is now. Harvest and enjoy!
Roasting the tomatoes creates an enormous deepening of flavor. This perfect summertime soup, it’s equally delicious served cold with a dollop of crème fraiche.
Roasted Tomato and Basil Soup
½ cup balsamic vinegar
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 pounds ripe red tomatoes, cored and cut in half salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ bunch fresh basil leaves, shredded salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1. In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, oil, and 3 cloves garlic. Place the tomato halves in a shallow baking dish and drizzle with the oil mixture. Season with salt and pepper. Roast the tomatoes in a pre-heated 375-degree oven until the tomatoes have softened, approximately 30 minutes. Set aside.
2. In a large stockpot over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the onion and 3 cloves garlic and cook until the onion is tender, approximately 5 minutes. Add the stock, sugar, red pepper flakes, and roasted tomatoes with their juices. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer until the tomatoes are very tender, approximately 30 minutes.
3. Using a food mill or a hand-held blender, puree the soup. Stir in the basil and season with salt and pepper, to taste. Serve hot or cold. Enjoy!
Originally created to use up day-old bread, you’ll need no excuse to make this hearty salad. Few ingredients marry as well as ripe tomatoes and basil. And few combinations conjure up the taste of summer such as these.
Panzanella -Tomato Bread Salad
½ pound Italian bread loaf, cut into 1-inch cubes
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced salt, to taste
4 to 5 ripe Heirloom tomatoes, cored and cut into ½-inch cubes
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
8 ounces blue-veined cheese, crumbled
½ bunch fresh basil leaves, shredded
¼ cup red wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard
½ teaspoon sugar
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1. In a large bowl toss the bread cubes with 3 tablespoons oil and 3 cloves garlic, and season with salt. Spread the cubes on a baking sheet and bake in a pre-heated 350-degree oven until browned, approximately 15 minutes. Set aside.
2. In a large salad bowl, combine the tomatoes, onion, cheese, and basil. In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, 1 clove garlic, mustard, sugar, and ½ cup oil. Add the toasted bread cubes to the salad bowl, toss thoroughly with the vinaigrette, and season with salt and pepper, to taste. Let stand for 30 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.