Tomatoes: Home-grown Happiness

ROB KASPER'S MARYLAND

September 03, 1995|By ROB KASPER

Basically the world can be divided into two camps, those who never tire of home-grown tomatoes, and those who do.

I'm in the first camp, the tomato huggers.

I will admit that by late summer, the sensation of pressing willing lips to warm tomato skin has become more of a familiar pleasure than the novel frolic it felt like a few weeks ago. But it is still something I enjoy.

I will also admit that familiarity can lead to taking certain liberties. Such as throwing tomatoes. In early September a soft tomato that would have been judged a keeper in early July becomes a ready candidate for a tomato toss. Hurling rotten tomatoes at distant targets, some moving, some not, is one of the fringe benefits that comes with a summer of toiling in a garden.

A few weeks earlier, when the weather was mild and the crops delicate, you wouldn't consider such raucous behavior. But after putting up with the excesses of a Maryland summer -- the searing heat, the aggressive bugs, the impudent weeds -- you are ready for some rough-and-tumble.

These days tomatoes come out of the garden in heavy waves. They fill up kitchen windowsills like new Toyotas stockpiling on the docks of Dundalk. An abundant, colorful supply awaiting demand.

In such flush times it is easy to take tomatoes for granted. So the other day, in an exercise to guard against complacency, I caressed a locally grown Beefsteak and cataloged the many charms of Maryland tomatoes.

Like a true beauty, a home-grown tomato is in its glory in a simple setting. Slice it, cover it with a little olive oil, a few basil leaves and some salt and you have a classic.

I grew up eating sliced tomatoes at summer suppers. To this day, no matter how much corn on the cob or steamed shrimp I have eaten, I still can't resist polishing off the last tomato slices that sit invitingly on the serving plate in front of me.

I like salt on my tomatoes. It is a habit that goes back to my days as a high school football player. In the last weeks of August my football team practiced twice a day. One practice was held in the morning and the second in the late afternoon. The idea was to get the team in shape before school started. Many high school teams today have a similar schedule.

I came out of these practice sessions exhausted, thirsty and craving salt. At home I would plop down in the kitchen and suck on whole tomatoes sprinkled with salt. I didn't know it at the time, but the salt and tomato juice were helping replenish my body's electrolytes, which had been depleted during the rigors of football practice. Raw tomatoes and salt was the sports drink of the 1960s. My football-playing days are over, but my taste for salty tomatoes still runs strong.

Passion is a personal thing, but for me the twin peaks of summer pleasure involve tomatoes. The first would be the bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich served for lunch with a tall glass of iced tea on a screened-in porch.

The second would be the soft-crab sandwich served in a similar location, with a similar beverage, and like the BLT, topped with a slice of home-grown tomato that is oozing juice. I prefer to eat these sandwiches barefoot. It is easier to curl your toes with pleasure when you aren't wearing shoes.

I also like home-grown tomatoes in sauces and salads. Their rich, red presence electrifies the ingredients around them. When the home-grown tomatoes are missing, the sauce or salad runs a good chance of being a dud.

From time to time I investigate new things to do with tomatoes. The other night, for instance, I tried to dry them, slowly, in the oven. I took out a baking sheet. I covered it with thick slices of tomatoes. Some recipes call for using plum-shaped roma tomatoes. But I used plain old, circular-shaped Big Boy and Beefsteak types.

I brushed both sides of the slices with olive oil and salt and put them in an oven that had been heated to 200 degrees. The tomatoes cooked, or dried out, at this low heat for four to six hours.

I didn't think about it at the time, but I could have put them in the oven to cook overnight. The oven's low temperature would not heat up the house. And the languorous cooking pace seemed to fit that of a summer's night. That is what a lot of us do on hot nights, bake slowly for hours.

The tomatoes emerged from the oven dry and with a nutty flavor.

Oven-dried tomatoes could be keepsakes, something you store in sealed jars and bring out, on special occasions, to liven up sandwiches.

I ate them right off the baking sheet. I considered them dessert tomatoes, a late-night indulgence.

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