The very best tastes are also the cheapest

Entertaining

Entertaining: Late-season tomatoes enrich an easy first course.

September 02, 2001|By Betty Rosbottom | Betty Rosbottom,Special to the Sun

While standing in front of a bin of peaches in a local market, I heard a voice behind me. A mother, shopping with her youngster, was looking at the huge display of late-summer produce and in a very matter-of-fact voice offered this wisdom: "When the price is low, the flavor is high." She was teaching her child an important lesson: Buy fruits and vegetables in season, when they cost the least but taste the best.

I follow this philosophy myself, especially when entertaining, and did so this past weekend. We invited another couple whom we had not seen for several months to come for Sunday night supper. I purchased ingredients for this simple meal the day before at the farmers' market in the center of our small New England town. I bought two pounds of small yellow squash and zucchini for 50 cents a pound. A bunch of just-picked arugula set me back $1.25, the same price I paid for a substantial bouquet of flat-leaf parsley, and a bag of ripe tomatoes was a little more than $2. I picked up corn-on-the-cob for $3 a dozen.

At home I used my purchases to compose a menu. I halved the squash lengthwise, drizzled pieces with olive oil, then roasted them. The corn was boiled and served piping hot with pats of butter, and the arugula was prepared as a salad dressed in a shallot vinaigrette.

I was most pleased, however, with the dish I created with the tomatoes. After cutting them in half and scooping out the seeds and flesh, I filled the shells with a mixture of ricotta and grated Parmesan cheeses, chopped parsley and a sweet hint of nutmeg. This cheese mixture, a filling used for some types of tortellini, worked beautifully encased in the tomatoes. A sprinkling of rich, golden brown bread crumbs and chopped parsley added color and texture to the finished dish.

I offered the tomatoes along with the other vegetables as a garnish to garlic- and rosemary-scented broiled lamb chops, but they would be just as good served with roasted chicken or grilled steaks. Or you might like to include them as a side dish at a late-morning brunch where they could accompany a platter of scrambled eggs and bacon.

Late-Summer Tomatoes Stuffed With Ricotta, Parmesan and Parsley

Makes 8 servings

4 ripe medium tomatoes, 6 to 8 ounces each (choose tomatoes that are ripe but not soft)

1 1 / 4 cups part-skim ricotta cheese, drained of any liquid

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese, preferably Parmigiano-Reggiano

6 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

salt

1 / 4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 egg yolk

2 teaspoons unsalted butter plus extra if needed

1/3 cup fresh bread crumbs, made from best-quality white bread

Wash and dry tomatoes. Remove and discard stems. Halve tomatoes horizontally, and, with a teaspoon, scrape out and discard or reserve for other use all pulp and seeds from each half so that you have clean, hollow shells. Turn halves upside down on dinner plate to drain while you prepare the filling.

In medium mixing bowl, combine ricotta cheese, 1 cup of the Parmesan cheese, 5 tablespoons of the parsley, 1/2 teaspoon salt and the nutmeg. Mix well with fork to blend. Taste and season with more salt if needed. Mix in egg yolk.

Line baking sheet with aluminum foil and butter it with 1 teaspoon or more of butter. Arrange tomatoes, hollow sides up, on the sheet. Salt cavities of tomatoes generously.

Fill each tomato half with about 1 / 4 cup filling, mounding filling slightly in center. Sprinkle tops with remaining 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese. (Tomatoes can be prepared 3 hours ahead. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature 30 minutes before baking.)

Heat remaining 1 teaspoon butter in small, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add bread crumbs and cook, stirring constantly, until crumbs are deep golden brown, about 3 minutes. Transfer to bowl. (Bread crumbs can be made 3 hours ahead. Leave at cool room temperature.)

When ready to bake, remove plastic wrap from tomatoes if they have been prepared ahead. Place baking sheet with tomatoes in oven. Bake at 400 degrees on center rack until cheese filling is hot, 10 to 12 minutes. Watch carefully to make certain tomatoes do not overcook and start to split. Remove from oven and cool 5 minutes.

Arrange tomatoes on serving platter. Top each generously with some toasted bread crumbs. Sprinkle each tomato with some of remaining 1 tablespoon chopped parsley.

Betty Rosbottom writes for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

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