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Tomato season fizzles at its close


Finally it is heavy tomato time. After weeks of waiting, the Beefmasters, the Mr. Stripeys, the Brandywines and the Big Boys are ripening. Right with them are the cherry tomatoes, the yellow pears, the Sweet 100s and the little red tomatoes shaped like grapes.

As with many garden crops, the supply has been wildly inconsistent. At first the ripe tomatoes trickled in. Each time a tomato turned pink, I reacted like a proud papa. The tomatoes don't go into their serious ripening mode until you go on vacation.

This year, for instance, the only garden tomatoes I had eaten were a few cherry tomatoes. Then at the beginning of August, I went to the beach. When I came back a week or so later, not only were the plants heavy with large, ripe fruit, but they were also signs that during my absence some fruit had rotted on the vine.

A shriveled tomato represents weeks of labor lost. At least that is how you feel early in the season. Late in the season, when ripe tomatoes seem to be arriving in the garden by the boxcar, you could care less about one measly slacker.

The other day, for instance, when I was on in the garden filling up a 5-gallon bucket with tomatoes -- wide-bodies on the bottom of the bucket, followed by a layer of medium-size guys, topped with layers of the little fellows -- I came across a couple of carcasses. Instead of mourning their demise, I just tossed them on the compost pile. In August when you got to get the crop in, your sentimental side dries up.

I also think that this summer, with all its rain and cool weather, has produced unusual tomatoes. They have big bodies, and plenty of supple flesh, but they lack "shazam!" that distinctive, out-of-body experience that comes from eating terrific homegrown tomatoes. This year's tomato crop has been good, but, unlike previous years, none has put me in orbit.

I still crave them. And as I emptied the 5-pound bucket of fruit, I began thinking up ways to enjoy this year's crop. Soon I had sliced some and sprinkled them with olive oil, basil and sea salt. Later I smeared some on homemade bread and enjoyed a sliced tomato sandwich served on tomato-soaked bread. Of course I paid homage to the bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich, one of life's primal joys and I think one of the reasons tomatoes were put on this earth.

After I had my fill of these traditional tomato treatments, I turned as I usually do to cookbooks. I was seeking new recipes. I found one in Ainsley Harriott's "Barbecue Bible" (DK Publishing, 1997). It called for slicing beefsteak tomatoes in half, sprinkling them with olive oil, oregano, salt and garlic and black olives, then cooking them on the barbecue grill. It was pretty good the first time I tried it. I am sure it will taste even better the next time and the next time and the next time I try it. This looks like one of those recipes I will keep using until the tomatoes run out.

Marvelous Fire Tomatoes

Serves 6

6 firm beefsteak tomatoes

4 tablespoons olive oil

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano (or marjoram)

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

12 pitted black olives, finely chopped

Cut the tomatoes in half and place rounded-side down in a shallow dish.

Sprinkle each with oil, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper and set aside for an hour or so until you are ready to finish them on the grill.

Sprinkle the tomatoes with chopped olives and cook them indirectly -- that is with the coals on one side and the tomatoes on the other -- with a medium hot fire until tender, about 10-12 minutes.

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