Garden tomatoes a joy to eat

August 10, 2005|By ROB KASPER

WHEN TYPICAL August weather makes us miserable, our tomato plants are loving life. A steamy 80-degree night, like the ones we have suffered through lately, is a tomato plant's equivalent of an afternoon delight.

Thriving in the heat, tomatoes have been ripening in waves, coming in like a thundershower. As soon as you finish polishing off one bucketful of garden-grown tomatoes, it is time to go out in the garden and harvest the next.

A mitigating factor in my tomato-harvesting routine is that this year I planted many heirloom tomato plants. These are the prima donnas of tomatoes. They have thin skin, subtle flavors and unusual colors. They produce at their own pace.

This means one week they can overwhelm you with love and the next week give you nothing but a cold shoulder. Or, they can be temperamental, delivering a bounty of prized beauties early in the season, then wilting in the stretch toward Labor Day.

Having been caught short in previous summers, I backed myself up this year by also planting some conventional tomato plants - proven producers such Big Boys, Better Boys and Early Girls.

In the opening weeks of tomato season, I was plucking heirlooms, the Cherokee Purples, the Brandywines, the Mr. Stripeys. I knew that in a few weeks, even if these heirlooms slow down, I would have plenty of backup tomatoes. You can't have too many tomatoes in August; once they get up to your eyeballs, you make sauce.

You have to keep pace with the tomato harvest because if you don't bury your beak in the ripe tomatoes, other critters will. Already this year my tomatoes have provided meals to birds, ants and no-see-ums nibblers, creatures that come in the garden at night and nibble on the ripe bottom of the fruit.

Whipping up tomato dishes is easy early in the season. Then you are so starved for a taste of a true tomato that eating simple sliced tomatoes satisfies you. There is little that rivals eating a ripe tomato in the middle of the garden.

The other day, a steamer, I had such a treat. I sliced off a portion of a Cherokee Purple that some ants had starting feasting on. I washed off the surgically treated tomato with a blast from the garden hose, and I chowed down. Sweat was running down my back and tomato juice was streaming down my chin. It was August in Maryland.

Some of the heirloom tomatoes I picked were so ripe they were bursting, popping out of their delicate skins. At home, I sliced those and served them as a side dish in a Sunday supper of barbecue ribs, green salad and corn on the cob.

The next night, more tomatoes were sitting on the kitchen counter so they were on the supper menu again.

This time I tried a fancier treatment, stuffing them with a summer succotash made of corn and chopped bell peppers. That is what Thomas Keller, the chef who turns out perfect food at the French Laundry restaurant in California and Per Se restaurant in New York, did with his heirloom tomatoes. I read about this treatment in the August issue of Food & Wine magazine.

My re-enactment of Keller's stuffed heirloom creation was not perfect. I left out the lima beans, an ingredient in the stuffing that the chef said was crucial.

I left out the limas because I couldn't find any. Not fresh ones. I checked the Sunday morning farmers' market in downtown Baltimore, I called a couple of grocery stores and a produce stand or two. Nobody had the beans.

This is a problem super chefs like Keller don't seem to face. A woman whom I spoke with at Pahl's Farm Stand on Bedford Road told me I was too early. Lima beans, sometimes called butter beans, won't be in the market until the fall, she said.

Even without the beans, the stuffed tomatoes were a joy, the kernels of corn and the peppers providing a pleasing crunch to the sweet, soft flesh of the tomatoes.

When the lima-bean harvest comes in, I can try the dish again, this time with all the recommended ingredients. If the summer routine holds, I still should have plenty of tomatoes in the garden and still should be looking for plenty of ways to dispatch them in the kitchen.

Stuffed Heirlooms

Serves 4

2 large ears of corn, kernels cut off

8 firm, ripe heirloom tomatoes

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing

salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

1 tablespoon unsalted butter (divided use)

1 medium bell pepper, finely diced

1 1/2 tablespoons snipped chives

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the corn and boil until tender, about 3 minutes. Drain the corn, transfer to a bowl and let cool.

Slice off the bottom of each tomato so it sits flat. Using a knife, cut around the center of each tomato to form a core that can easily be removed once the tomato is baked.

Brush the tomatoes with olive oil and set them in a large pie pan. Season with salt and pepper and roast until tender, about 5 minutes. Let cool slightly, then spoon out and discard the centers to make room for the succotash.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet, melt 1 1/2 teaspoons of the butter in the 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Add the bell pepper and cook over moderately high heat until crisp-tender, about 3 minutes.

Add the corn and cook, stirring for about 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in the remaining butter and chives. Season with salt and pepper. Spoon the succotash into the tomatoes and serve warm or at room temperature.

- Adapted from a Thomas Keller recipe in August 2005 "Food & Wine"

Per serving: 181 calories; 5 grams protein; 8 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 24 grams carbohydrate; 7 grams fiber; 8 milligrams cholesterol; 19 milligrams sodium

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