Our beloved Tomato!

Thursday, August 18, 2011 21:55
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One of our monthly emails a few years ago was all about the tomato (click here to read) – while it was very informative, our resident Chef (Silvia) has a way of expressing her feelings about foods that is quite unique. Here our her thoughts on our beloved tomato…..and a few recipes!

“I think there’s nothing more delicious than a tomato picked at the height of its flavor, and perfectly prepared into one simple, exquisite dish. For me, no ingredient is better equipped for this culinary challenge than a tomato, plucked from its vine just when its juices threaten to burst through the skin forming a crack, as if in testament to its efforts.

Now is the time to celebrate the tomato in all its varieties. Every year at this time I’m so thrilled a tomato actually tastes like a tomato that I go a little crazy, but I just can’t help myself. It’s tomato season in the Northeast and for the next several weeks as they begin to ripen on local vines, I intend to eat as many as I can because – unless I move to a warmer climate – I won’t have this particular pleasure again until next year, so I get a little greedy.

I start my feast by preparing a variety of simple dishes that require little or no cooking. I want to eat them raw, cut in thick slices, drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. And when I want something different from this simple preparation, I can add other ingredients that complement – without masking – its starring role; thinly sliced red onions, finely minced garlic, slivered basil, chopped parsley or oregano, bits of kalamata olives, filets of roasted bell peppers or anchovies, sliced raw jalapeños or fried hot peppers, and of course fresh mozzarella.

Besides its obvious culinary delights, the tomato is a divine elixir, a gift from the gods, rich in lycopene, a powerful antioxidant which neutralizes free radicals before they cause damage, thus warding off everything from wrinkles to heart attacks. Who needs to bother with skin care and heart pills when we could just eat tomatoes?

My love affair with this tasty and medicinal fruit has emotional and philosophical benefits for me as well, making it necessary to have at least one vine – even if it’s in single pot on the porch – to care for. Every touch releases the aroma that instantly conjures up the memory of my childhood garden, where I walked between rows and rows of tall vines tied to heavy wood stakes making me feel like I was on a farm instead of wandering in a suburban backyard. And I get a clear picture of my father on his knees, bending over, tenderly caring for them; tying loose branches heavy with ripening fruit, removing yellow leaves, nurturing their growth, and so I can get nostalgic…even a bit melancholy.

Or possibly I’m smitten because whenever I look at a snarly tomato – the ones the market labels “ugly” and charges extra for – I’m reminded that it’s the imperfect tomatoes that taste the best. It helps me accept my own imperfections. Or maybe I’m just being Italian, with a cultural habit of thinking too much.

Whatever the reason for my fascination with tomatoes, right now I plan to indulge in a feast devoted to them. Hope you do too.
Chef Silvia

Simple Tomato Salads
The summer salad we served most often from my childhood garden was randomly diced tomatoes (core and imperfections removed – bite sized pieces) mixed with thinly sliced red onions and basil, seasoned and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. We ate it along with a hunk of rustic bread to lap up the juices. It’s still my favorite. However, after eating tomatoes this way a few times, I decided to add a few things. I had a container of red and yellow bell peppers I roasted the other day so I pulled out a few filets of yellow peppers along with a few kalamata olives that I tore in small bits as well as a thinly sliced raw jalapeno. I mixed all this together, let them mingle a bit while I poured myself a glass of shiraz and sliced a hunk of fresh bread, which is a treat in itself but mandatory as an accompaniment to a tomato salad.

Warm Penne Salad
This flavorful dish was a customer favorite at my former Connecticut restaurant, Biscotti. The reason it tasted so good was because it married two classic dishes, pasta with butter and cheese and a brushetta topping, melding the heat of one with the coolness of the other. For this dish, opposites do attract. You can customize it to your liking but this is how I make it.

For the Topping
3 – 4 “ugly tomatoes” (depending on size)

½ cup seedless kalamata olives – cut in half

1 cup diced fresh mozzarella (medium dice)

4 – 6 large fresh basil leaves – slivered

Drizzle of extra virgin olive oil (about ¼ cup or to taste)

Season to taste with sea salt and freshly ground pepper

For the Pasta
1 lb penne (use small shapes like a mini penne or other small cut so the pasta doesn’t overwhelm the “sauce”)

¼ cup olive oil + 1 stick butter

1 clove fresh garlic – finely chopped

Freshly grated pecorino or parmesan cheese (to taste)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley (optional)

Cook pasta according to package directions and drain.

In the meantime, in a large sauté pan over medium heat, add the oil and garlic. Sauté for a few moments until the garlic begins to turn golden. Add the cold butter in pats (this will prevent the garlic from burning and ruining the sauce). Once the butter has melted remove from the heat, and mix with the penne. You can add the pasta to the pan if it’s large enough (this is best) or pour the sauce over the pasta in a separate bowl. Add in freshly grated cheese according to taste, finish with fresh chopped parsley if you like, toss and spoon onto individual plates. Top with the tomato mixture and

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