Cheers, jeers for cherry tomatoes

The Baltimore Sun

It is heavy tomato time. The summer has been hot, dry and quirky, but the plants that somehow survived this year's drought are pumping out fruit in September. Farmers' markets are flooded with a variety of heirloom tomatoes, as is my garden.

Some of these are cherry tomatoes, a type of tomato that alternately delights and enrages me. This summer I was pleased to make the acquaintance of Sun Gold, a cherry tomato that has an orangish hue, is about as big as a quarter and has a pleasing, low-acid flavor.

I also grew some Black Cherry tomatoes, which are plump, about the size of a silver dollar, and have a faintly smoky taste. But the real find of the tiny-tomato front has been the Lime Greens. These fellas are about the size of a dime, turn white when they are ripe and deliver both sweet and citrus flavors.

The aggravating part of growing cherry tomatoes is picking them. They are a pain. Their small size makes them hard to spot and the ripe ones like to "hide" from you as you bend over and try to harvest the crop. Another favorite tactic of the cherry tomato is to dive off the plant, disappearing in the undergrowth, as soon as it is touched.

This happened to me repeatedly on a recent afternoon. There I was, squatting next to tomato plants, my knees creaking, my brow sweating, my fingers chasing cherry tomatoes as they fled my grasp.

When I got back to the house, I was sunburned and dirty, but I also was toting several big bags of fresh tomatoes - some cherries, some full-size.

I had a few "leakers," tomatoes that were so ripe their skins had burst, spilling juice. Those quickly became lunch, part of a BLT sandwich. The rest were placed on various perches around the kitchen. It made for a pleasing view. When surrounded by mounds of homegrown tomatoes, I feel wealthy.

These feelings soon fade, as do the tomatoes. A contest emerges between you and the fruit flies to see who can get to the ripening tomatoes first.

I was in the thick of such a battle the other day when I came across a recipe for a three-tomato salad. It was in Jonathan Waxman's new cookbook, A Great American Cook. Waxman, who once worked for Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., long has been a proponent of cooking with fresh, regional ingredients.

"That is the cornerstone of the way I cook," Waxman said from Barbuto, his restaurant in New York's West Village. Waxman splits his time between the New York restaurant and one in California's Sonoma County, the West Country Grill.

While the salad recipe is simple, he said, its success depends on using top-quality tomatoes and extra-virgin olive oil.

Lately, he has been buying tomatoes at a farmers' market in New Jersey. "I was there the other day, and a farmer showed me a stack of tomatoes about as high as a two-story building," he said.

Waxman insists on using extra-virgin olive oil, never canola oil. He recommends buying it in small, half-liter bottles. The small bottles are more expensive than the larger vessels, he said, but buying small amounts reduces the chance of the olive oil's going bad as it sits on a shelf.

When making vinaigrette, he always puts the vinegar in first, then the olive oil. "A common problem with vinaigrettes is overdoing the vinegar," he said. By adding the vinegar first, then the oil, and tasting along the way, you lower the chance of putting in too much vinegar. Moreover, Waxman said, if you add the vinegar after the olive oil, the vinegar "tends to slide off."

When making the three-tomato salad, I rolled out some of my most colorful and overripe produce. A big Cherokee Chocolate tomato produced thick, purplish slices that I placed on a salad plate next to two bright slices from a large, very soft Yellow Brandywine.

I cut a handful of cherry tomatoes in half, a mixture of Sun Gold and Black Cherry, and few Sweet 100s. I wanted to use some Lime Greens, but my wife had already polished them off. I sprinkled the cherry tomatoes over the slices of Cherokee Chocolates and Yellow Brandywines. I tossed on a few shredded basil leaves, then poured on the vinaigrette.

With my fork in the air, I paused to admire the view. The plate looked like a photo spread found in a magazine for soft-tomato lovers. The dish tasted even better than it looked, a rich mixture of tomato flavors juices playing off the olive oil.

I have a feeling I will be making this salad again, after more trips to the garden to pick the remaining tender tomatoes, and to chase the elusive cherries.

Three-Tomato Salad

Serves 4

1 pound tomatoes, mixture of currant, cherry and larger tomatoes

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon good red-wine vinegar

1/4 cup basil leaves, green or purple

sea salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

Slice the cherry tomatoes in half; slice larger tomatoes into quarters or eighths. Leave tiny currant tomatoes whole. Arrange the larger sliced tomatoes on 4 plates, alternating colors. Scatter the currant and sliced cherry tomatoes over them.

Whisk the olive oil and vinegar in a small bowl. Sprinkle the salads with basil leaves and salt and pepper to taste. Spoon on a little of the vinaigrette at the last possible moment.

Serve at room temperature; never chilled.

From "A Great American Cook" by Jonathan Waxman

Per serving: 139 calories, 1 gram protein, 14 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 4 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 6 milligrams sodium

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