By John Houser III, Special to The Baltimore Sun
4:58 PM EDT, July 17, 2012
The arrival of tomatoes at the farmers' market is the high point of the summer growing season. It brings with it a treasure-trove of jewel-colored fruit that span the spectrum from bright green to dark purple and come in shapes that defy geometric reason. Heirloom tomatoes with names such as Green Zebra and Black Krim deliver a range of flavors from tongue-twisting tartness to luxurious, smooth sweetness.
They don't need much in the way of preparation to shine, and that's why most chefs don't mess with them much at home.
"I like to grill my tomatoes" says Rashad Edwards, executive sous chef at Phillips at the Power Plant. "After the tomatoes are grilled, I add fleur de sel and first-press olive oil. It can't get any more simple." For him it's the combination of "smokiness and char from the tomatoes, the flavor of the salt and sweetness of the olive oil" that make it his go-to at home.
Henry Hong, general manager at the Waterfront Kitchen in Fells Point, is reminded of his youth when he talks about tomatoes. "When I was a kid visiting Korea, tomatoes were a rare and expensive treat. During the summers when I was there, my family prepared them in a way I've never seen before or since, really: just roughly chopped, in a big steel bowl, mixed with some ice and sugar [and] treated like a fruit, like dessert! It was amazing."
He added that "sugar sometimes dampens flavors, but for tomatoes it blows flavors up when used judiciously. And after eating the [tomato] chunks, ... the sweet, ice-cold tomato water that's left, drunk straight out of the ice-cold steel bowl [is] possibly one of the most refreshing liquids on earth. Some tomatoes, especially certain heirlooms and yellow varieties, are [so] low in acid and high in sugar as to make them impractical for savory applications. Instead of forcing a square peg into a round hole, take advantage of these characteristics and use in sweet applications."
These three recipes try to maintain the integrity of tomato's flavor while highlighting the many ways it can be prepared. Here, you will find it used raw, cooked and distilled to its essence. So enjoy as many tomatoes this summer as you can, but be quick about it. Because although tomato season is a time for happiness, it also means that summer is halfway over.
Mixed tomato cocktail with oregano & basil simple syrup
"Tomato water is a great ingredient," says John Reusing, owner of Bad Decisions in Fells Point. "Tons of flavor but blends well with a variety of spirits or beer. The reason you won't see tomato drinks at many places, even cocktail places, is because tomato water has a short shelf life, and most people are too scared to try a drink with it. However, if someone is making a tomato cocktail, [they should] give it a try; they might be surprised how great that flavors shine through."
That is what this cocktail is based on. The herbaceousness of the tomato comes through in the water that is extracted through pureeing and straining. The flavors are balanced with syrup infused with oregano and basil, lemon juice and a combination of gin and vodka. It's a refreshing yet sturdy drink for a hot summer night. Substitute ginger beer for the vodka and gin for a teetotal version.
For the tomato water:
5 pounds mixed tomatoes, the more varieties the merrier
1 teaspoon kosher salt
For the basil/oregano simple syrup:
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup oregano
1/2 cup basil
For the cocktail:
4 ounces tomato water
1 ounces basil/oregano simple syrup
2 ounces gin (I used Hendricks)
1 ounce vodka (I used Skyy)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
sprigs of rosemary and cherry tomatoes for garnish
To make the tomato water, puree the tomatoes (in batches) in a food processor. Pour into a strainer that is lined with four layers of cheesecloth and set over a large bowl or stock pot to drain. Every 30 minutes, squeeze the cheesecloth to get as much water out of the tomatoes as possible. After two hours, you should have about two quarts. Refrigerate the tomato water until needed.
To make the basil/oregano simple syrup, bring sugar and water to a boil. Turn off the heat and stir in the basil and oregano. Let steep until cool. Strain.
To make the cocktail, combine ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake until frothy (40 shakes) and strain over ice. Skewer a few cherry tomatoes with the sprig of rosemary and place into the drink for a garnish. Stir.
Tip: Mix the tomato solids left in the cheesecloth after making the tomato water with 1 stick of soft butter and 1/2 teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of freshly ground black pepper. Use this tomato compound butter on thick country bread or as a sauce for noodles.
Panzanella, the Italian salad using stale bread, is one of my summer favorites, but it always seems that there is too much bread. So this version pares down the bread, leaving just enough to soak up the wonderful tomato juices as well as the vinaigrette without becoming too dry or too soggy. The key is really stale bread. Buy a baguette (they're tougher than Italian loaves), eat half (using the tomato butter from the cocktail recipe) and put away the other half for a day or (even better) two. As always, don't be afraid of the anchovies. They add a ton of flavor — and not the fishy kind. They're the key to this powerful vinaigrette. The fresher the tomatoes are in this recipe, the better. Make this after you get back from the farmers' market and enjoy a taste of summer for lunch.
Makes: 10 servings
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon (a good pinch) freshly ground black pepper
3 anchovy fillets mashed to a paste
1 clove garlic planed or smashed to a paste
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
8 ounces stale French baguette (1/2 loaf, cut into 1/2-inch cubes)
1 cucumber, peeled and cubed into 1/2-inch cubes
1/4 red onion sliced as thinly as possible across the length of the onion
1 stalk of celery sliced thinly on the bias (diagonally)
2 pounds mixed tomatoes (the more varieties the better), chopped into medium chunks
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
Mix the first seven ingredients together in a deep mixing bowl. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil while whisking vigorously to create an emulsion that will stabilize your vinaigrette. Add the rest of the ingredients and toss to combine. Let the panzanella sit for 10 minutes to blend, toss again and serve.
Tip: For a more complex panzanella you can use half French baguette and half pumpernickel for the base.
Cast-iron pan-grilled cherry tomatoes and sausage
This recipe is a show-stopper. Bring a hot cast-iron pan to the table with smoky sausage bathing in bubbling tomato juice, and watch as your friends regard you as someone with mystical powers. They don't need to know that this is a ridiculously simple recipe, and one that can be interpreted in many ways. The sausage can be changed, the tomatoes can be any variety, and the herbs can be whatever you have on hand (as long as they're fresh). I normally serve the finished product of cooked sausage and stewed tomatoes over a thick slice of toasted country bread to catch the tomato/sausage liquor that is fortified with oregano and rosemary. You can also use polenta, rice or mashed potatoes as a base. You can also cook this inside, starting on the stovetop and then moving the pan to the oven once the tomatoes have popped.
Makes: 8 servings
3 pounds Polish or mild Italian sausage in one long link or two shorter links
Two pints of cherry tomatoes
1 head of garlic, separated into cloves with the paper still on them
2 large sprigs fresh oregano
2 large sprigs fresh rosemary
12 fresh bay leaves
extra virgin olive oil
Line the bottom of a cast-iron pan with the cherry tomatoes. Dot the tomatoes with the unpeeled garlic cloves, spacing them evenly around the pan. Place the rosemary and oregano sprigs on top of the tomatoes so that they form a single layer. Wrap the sausage into a coil and place on top of the tomatoes, garlic and herbs. Tuck the bay leaves into the sausage coil at equal intervals, making sure that a bit flares out of the top for visual appeal. Anoint the sausage with a few large glugs of olive oil. Place onto a hot grill and cook over hot coals or high heat until the tomatoes start to burst. Move off direct heat and cover the grill, baking the sausage for 30 minutes (400 degrees if you're using an oven). If you would like to smoke this dish, you should add smoke in the last 10 minutes. Move the pan off the heat and let it sit for 10 more minutes before cutting into it. Serve a chunk of the sausage, tomatoes, juice and garlic over your base of choice (bread, rice, polenta or mashed potatoes). To eat the garlic, set it aside to let it cool enough to touch it and squeeze the soft garlic out onto your plate.
Tip: Add a soft-boiled egg to this dish to blast it into the stratosphere.
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