Polishing off last of tomatoes

November 05, 2008|By ROB KASPER | ROB KASPER,rob.kasper@baltsun.com

Late-season tomatoes are a difficult sell. They are not gorgeous. Spotty, misshapen, with fissures on their skin, they would be described, if they were children, as having faces that only their mothers could love.

Yet in this, the shank of their season, they draw attention from me and the fruit flies. The fruit flies circle the tomatoes that sit on a kitchen counter, looking for soft spots. Only days before, the tomatoes had been on the vine, catching a last bit of sunshine before biting cold and fading daylight shut down production. In the warmth of the house, they redden, ripen and sprout more leaks than a campaign press bus.

I suspect other folks are going through a version of this autumnal ritual of saying goodbye to the vegetable garden, or at least to its good parts. It is true that greens and other cool-weather crops can produce for a few more weeks. But the succulent stuff, the vegetables that taste like sunshine, have faded and we, their warm-weather companions, are searching for dishes that will give them the proper send-off.

This gets complicated because, in addition to being ugly, late-season tomatoes don't have immediately winning flavor, at least not compared with the nectar of summer fruit. You can't just slice them and toss on a little basil, mozzarella and olive oil. Late-season tomatoes, like life's late bloomers, need help to show off their strengths. Like cakes, cookies and - as the wicked witch in "Hansel and Gretel" would say - small children, they benefit from time near the heat of a fire.

So the other night, as the temperatures dipped and a cold rain pelted the windows, I experimented with ways to say farewell to my favorite crop. I considered making tomato sauce, but the freezer was already full of sauce.

The traditional treatment of frying partially ripe, breaded tomato slices in a skillet did not appeal to me. It seems to me that the secret to tasty fried green tomatoes is to cook them in lard. There is little on this earth that does not taste better cooked in lard. But while this technique appealed to my head, my heart, in particular my likely to-be-clogged arteries, nixed it.

Instead, I tried two new tomato dishes. One smothered chicken in tomatoes and spices, such as cumin and coriander, and baked it in a 400-degree oven.

The other called for brushing thick slices of tomatoes with olive oil, sprinkling them with salt and pepper, then grilling them over a moderate fire. Once they are done, you remove the skin from the slices and sprinkle them with torn basil and freshly grated parmesan cheese.

The chicken recipe gave me the option to substitute canned tomatoes, but I was determined to use my bruised, unattractive, yet fresh supply.

Grabbing a knife, I went to work on the tomatoes. I sliced off the ugly parts and removed the soft spots. In some cases, this surgery meant I ended up with little more than a handful of tomato meat. Still, the yield was impressive: 2 cups of multicolored, juicy fruit that covered spicy chicken breasts.

With the cumin and coriander, this dish had a Moroccan feel. The spices were strong; the tomatoes added juice. Rather than a big, wet goodbye kiss to tomato season, this dish delivered a subtle smooch.

I wanted a bigger, bolder payback for all those hours I spent weeding and watering in the garden.

So the next night, under not exactly balmy conditions, I was out in the backyard, with the grill fired up, ready for the finale, a tomato roast.

As I carried the tomatoes from the counter, a swarm of fruit flies followed. The flies circled the cutting board where I sliced the tomatoes. But when I headed toward the great, cold outdoors, the flies vamoosed. I figured I would not see the likes of them until next summer.

Standing in the dark of the October night, I wore a thick coat as I grilled the last of my summer crop. The tomatoes were a little mushy when they came off the grill. When I tasted their rich roasted flavors, and their fire-scented sweetness, I felt like a proud parent and got mushy as well.

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