A Note from the Chef
I think there’s nothing more delicious than a tomato picked at the height of its flavor, and perfectly prepared into one simple, exquisite dish. For me, no ingredient is better equipped for this culinary challenge than a tomato, plucked from its vine just when its juices threaten to burst through the skin forming a crack, as if in testament to its efforts.
Now is the time to celebrate the tomato in all its varieties. Every year at this time I’m so thrilled a tomato actually tastes like a tomato that I go a little crazy, but I just can’t help myself. It’s tomato season in the Northeast and for the next several weeks as they begin to ripen on local vines, I intend to eat as many as I can because – unless I move to a warmer climate – I won’t have this particular pleasure again until next year, so I get a little greedy.
I start my feast by preparing a variety of simple dishes that require little or no cooking. I want to eat them raw, cut in thick slices, drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. And when I want something different from this simple preparation, I can add other ingredients that complement – without masking – its starring role; thinly sliced red onions, finely minced garlic, slivered basil, chopped parsley or oregano, bits of kalamata olives, filets of roasted bell peppers or anchovies, sliced raw jalapeños or fried hot peppers, and of course fresh mozzarella.
Besides its obvious culinary delights, the tomato is a divine elixir, a gift from the gods, rich in lycopene, a powerful antioxidant which neutralizes free radicals before they cause damage, thus warding off everything from wrinkles to heart attacks. Who needs to bother with skin care and heart pills when we could just eat tomatoes?
My love affair with this tasty and medicinal fruit has emotional and philosophical benefits for me as well, making it necessary to have at least one vine – even if it’s in single pot on the porch – to care for. Every touch releases the aroma that instantly conjures up the memory of my childhood garden, where I walked between rows and rows of tall vines tied to heavy wood stakes making me feel like I was on a farm instead of wandering in a suburban backyard. And I get a clear picture of my father on his knees, bending over, tenderly caring for them; tying loose branches heavy with ripening fruit, removing yellow leaves, nurturing their growth, and so I can get nostalgic…even a bit melancholy.
Or possibly I’m smitten because whenever I look at a snarly tomato – the ones the market labels “ugly” and charges extra for – I’m reminded that it’s the imperfect tomatoes that taste the best. It helps me accept my own imperfections. Or maybe I’m just being Italian, with a cultural habit of thinking too much.
Whatever the reason for my fascination with tomatoes, right now I plan to indulge in a feast devoted to them. Hope you do too.