Some bright spots in the garden: the first tomatoes

August 02, 2006|By ROB KASPER

As I walked toward my vegetable garden the other day, I thought I saw a flash of red amid the dark-green leaves of the tomato plants. My pulse quickened.

Sure enough, when I pushed back the leaves, I spotted them - the first ripe homegrown tomatoes of the season. I yelped with joy.

We gardeners are, by necessity, zealots. How else could you explain our long hours toiling in the broiling sun, our incessant battles with bugs and our willingness to spend large sums of money to grow vegetables we could buy for a few bucks at a farmers' market?

All these hard truths of garden life fly away like a flock of blackbirds at the sight of bright red tomato flesh. When our tomatoes start to ripen, we feel that the gods of good fortune are smiling upon us, that our ship, as well as our crop, has come in.

Flavor is the main reason you grow your own tomatoes. The tomato I popped in my mouth right there in the garden was still warm from the afternoon sun and was blessed with richer tastes and textures than any tomato I had eaten this summer.

But there are other reasons as well. One is ritual. When you grow your own tomatoes, you try to get in rhythm with nature. Sometimes nature does not want to join in this dance. The weather can be too hot, too dry or too wet for good growth. But the first ripe tomatoes of the season signal that the mood has shifted. Now the good times and good meals will begin to roll.

From now until October, tomatoes will be on the supper table. Some nights they will appear in tomato tarts, some nights as the topping on a homemade pizza, some nights in a warm BLT salad.

Moreover, down the road, there will be serious sauce-making sessions. The fruits of the field will be squashed and turned into a thick, red sauce. The sauce will be frozen in small, flat, plastic packets, packets that will be retrieved on cold February nights to add delicious warmth to a spaghetti sauce.

As I picked the first ripe tomatoes of the season, I admired their skin. So smooth, so warm, so inviting. These were not the high-tone heirloom tomatoes; they will arrive later in the season. Instead, these were ordinary beefsteaks, Better Boys. Yet as often happens, in gardens and cocktail parties, the first to arrive are greeted with excessive, if genuine, enthusiasm.

As I carried the ripe tomatoes home, I considered various ways to fix them for supper.

I could serve them as crostini rossi, or "red toast." In this dish the tomatoes are chopped up, mixed with garlic, parsley, olive oil and thyme, then spooned onto slices of sourdough bread that are cooked quickly in a 425-degree oven or on the barbecue grill.

I could core the tomatoes and stuff them with a mixture of canned tuna, onions and chopped nuts. Stuffed tomatoes are summer stalwarts.

Appealing as they seemed, these two dishes would have cloaked the flavor of the tomatoes with other ingredients. For the first meal of the season, I wanted a dish that was pure tomato.

So to celebrate the arrival of homegrown tomatoes, I simply sliced these big red beauties, tossed on a few basil leaves and sprinkled them with sea salt and olive oil. They had clean, almost citrus flavors. They tasted terrific and familiar, like the juicy morsels served during many summers past.

We had the sliced tomatoes with a roasted pork tenderloin and salad. At the end of the meal there was some leftover pork, but the tomato platter had been licked clean.

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