Garden beauty: That first tomato is worth the wait

HAPPY EATER

August 03, 1994|By ROB KASPER

As tomatoes go, it was no prize. It was small, about the size of a silver dollar. While it was reddish, it was not exactly the Susan Sarandon of tomatoes.

But it was my first tomato from the garden, and that gave it status. First tomatoes and first children usually get an inordinate amount of attention. Especially if they are late arrivals.

This one was. Everybody else I know who grows tomatoes seemed to have been harvesting them for weeks. My tomatoes were late. Traditionally I plant tomatoes on the third Saturday in May, which is easy to remember in Baltimore because it is the day the Preakness Stakes horse race is run at Pimlico Race Course. But this year I was a little slow getting out of the gate and, instead of planting on Preakness Saturday, I got the plants in the ground sometime between Memorial Day and Father's Day.

Some of the plants were grown from seeds in a bedroom window by my kids. These home-grown plants did fine when they were living under the protection of our roof. But once they got out in the bug-eat-plant world of the garden, many of the bedroom-raised plants bit the dust.

I also bought some tomato plants at a garden supply store. I got the feeling that buying plants from a store was frowned upon by the serious, know-the-heritage-of-your-tomatoes crowd. But I was not as interested in tracing the lineage of tomatoes, as I was in having some to slice into juicy hunks. And these store-bought plants looked big and hardy. Finally, some of my tomato plants were volunteers. They just sprang from the ground. It was one of these volunteer plants that produced the first fruit of the season, a cherry tomato.

I washed the prize off and thought about the proper way to serve it.

I could give it the basil and olive oil treatment: The tomatoes are sliced, put on a plate with fresh basil leaves, then sprinkled with extra virgin olive oil. Eating this dish always made me feel like I was in Italy, sitting at a cafe overlooking the Mediterranean, even if I were really sitting in Baltimore slapping at mosquitoes.

Two more of my favorite things to do with tomatoes are to put them on a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich, or on top of a soft crab sandwich. Man, that is living!

If I were feeling artistic I could stuff the tomato with some goat cheese. Not only did the flavor of the goat cheese go well with the juicy tomato, it also looked classy. If I were feeling democratic, I could stuff the tomato with tuna fish. That is a tomato dish popular with the masses, or at least with the masses at our lunch table.

The trouble was that most of these dishes required big, fat tomatoes. And I had a cherry tomato. I found a promising recipe for cherry tomato pasta in the cookbook for kid's written by California chef, Alice Waters, "Fanny at Chez Panisse" (HarperCollins $20). But it called for 2 cups of cherry tomatoes. There were more cherry tomatoes ripening in the garden, but only one was ready now.

So I took the solo cherry tomato to the kitchen sink, washed it off with water, and popped the tomato in my mouth. It was so ripe that some its juice shot out of my mouth and onto the kitchen counter. It had that remarkable, sweet, warm flavor of a home-grown tomato. It was the flavor I had been waiting months to taste. I howled with delight.

One of my kids heard the commotion and asked what I was so excited about. I told him I had eaten a terrific tomato. He was disappointed to hear that there were not any more around for him to eat.

But I promised him that soon that would change, that soon the days of terrific tomatoes would be upon us.

Alice Waters' Cherry Tomato Pasta

Serves 4

2 baskets cherry tomatoes (about 5 cups)

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

fresh basil or parsley

salt and pepper

3/4 to 1 pound dry linguine

While a big pot of water heats to boiling, prepare the tomatoes. Slice tomatoes in half, put them in big bowl, and add olive oil and vinegar. Chop some fresh basil or parsley and add to tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Stir and let sit.

Cook the noodles and drain them, then add to bowl of tomatoes. Mix well and serve on plates, spooning tomatoes and juice over noodles.

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