Jaws threaten ripe tomatoes, and they're not always yours

August 12, 1998|By Rob Kasper

BEING A LONG-time believer in the theory that your tomatoes ripen as soon as you go on vacation, I visited my garden as soon as I got back in town from a week at the beach.

Sure enough, the tomato plants that a week earlier had been chugging along in the slow lane had hit the accelerator while I was gone. Clusters of ripe tomatoes were now hanging out in spots that had once been green and leafy.

Surveying the harvest, I spotted two fat ones that looked like the best of the crop. They were big Beefsteaks. Each had a wide body. They were two-fisted tomatoes, too much to hold in one hand. Before picking them, I stood above them, admiring the view, anticipating the bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches they would yield.

I reached down to grab the plump, sensuous bottom of the bigger one, and made a startling discovery. This was a bottomless tomato! The top looked red and inviting, but the bottom was gone. When I checked out the other promising beauty, the same thing happened. From above, the tomato looked voluptuous, but once I got my hands on it, I discovered that most of its body was missing.

Some critters had gnawed at the ripe tomatoes, leaving only their tops. I had heard of something similar happening to deep-sea fishermen. A guy would be reeling in a big tuna when suddenly a shark would chomp on the hooked tuna, leaving the fisherman with only a tuna head. That is what these critters - voles, groundhogs or some kind of tomato shark - had done to me.

The attack of the tomato sharks left me fuming. I stomped around the garden with hoe in hand, looking for culprits. I found none. Nonetheless, I issued a warning to all varmints within earshot. "When you're messin' with my tomatoes, you're walkin' on the fightin' side of me."

I gathered a bucketful of other good-looking, ripe tomatoes and kept these smooth-skinned treasures under a watchful eye. I take my tomatoes seriously because they are a crucial ingredient in the bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. The BLT, when properly made, is a serious contender for the title of best sandwich in the world.

The bread used to make a BLT matters; it has to have substance. And using better bacon, especially the smoked stuff, along with some homemade mayonnaise, does increase overall BLT bliss. But nothing adds ecstasy to the BLT like the presence of home-grown, dripping-ripe tomatoes. Unlike other ingredients in the BLT, these tomatoes are available only a few weeks of the year.

August is the high season for such tomatoes, and recently I have been making BLTs every day. The other night when I ran out of bread, I even made a bacon, lettuce and tomato salad.

At this pace, I may tire of BLTs, and my ardor for tomatoes might wane. But right now I am hot for the home-grown beauties. I love their flavor, and I vow to fight the tomato shark or any creature that gets between me and them.

Warm BLT Salad

Serves 6

6 thick slices bacon, preferably apple-smoked, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 large head lettuce (curly escarole or 2 heads frisee), torn into 2-inch pieces, washed and spun dry

4 large ripe red tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch wedges

4 green onions, thinly sliced

Cook the bacon in a large frying pan over medium heat, turning occasionally, until golden and crisp, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the bacon and drain on paper towels.

Drain all but 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat from the pan. Add the olive oil and stir together. Return the bacon to the pan and warm gently over low heat. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the vinegar. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Place the lettuce, tomatoes and green onions in a salad bowl. Toss with the vinaigrette and serve immediately.

- From "You Say Tomato" by Joanne Weir (Broadway Books, 1998)

Pub Date: 8/12/98

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