Birth of a blog, and Tomatoes
So this it it . Finally, I start this blog. Its been brewing for ages, and I can’t wait any longer, for better or for worse.
And, no, its not about soup. I’m “soupnancy” because the label is old enough that it stuck. It came from my years at the Tavern, when I was making 30 litres of soup a day, all kinds. People liked my soup, and I also happened to be somewhat of a tyrant in the kitchen. So when the Seinfeld Soup Nazi episode aired, it wasn’t long before my nickname was coined. I still love soup, but there’s much more on my mind today. I just couldn’t think of anything else to call my blog.
My blog will be about food, cooking, and I whatever I feel like writing about; there’s no real agenda
Today, its tomatoes .
It is harvest season, tomatoes and everything else is in abundance, but the days are numbered. Of all the fruits and vegetables, tomatoes are the hardest to let go for me. I feel an urgency to take full advantage of the last of the season, so I’m doing my tomato dance, cooking up a storm, canning, and savoring every last, fresh taste. Sure, we have hothouse varieties off season that are getting better every year, as well as a reliable supply of good canned tomatoes year round, but its not the same. I’m allowed to make a deal about late summer tomatoes.
I love tomatoes because they seem to have it all. Mainly, they are lively and sweet. I appreciate acidity in food, in wine (and in sourpatch kids). Like most North Americans, I like sweet too. I love vegetables more than any other food group (ya, ya, I know it’s a fruit, but that’s botanist talk). So, obviously, I like that vegetal taste that wine people talk about, which is very present in tomatoes. Of course, I love salt and pepper too, and I can’t think of another place where they shine so brightly.
A perfectly ripe tomato has it all in balance: fresh acidity, sweet juiciness, fleshy meatiness. Tomatoes are great on their own, raw or cooked, and almost everything goes with tomato. Oh, and its great for you; it is an anti-oxidant with its anthocyanins, lycopene, its good dose of Vitamin C; it also provides minerals, like potassium and the all important fibre.
Long cooked tomatoes bring body and umami (glutamate, ie. yumminess) to a preparation, they also add color to stocks and stews. They refresh the palate in cassoulet, they form the base of many sauces we couldn’t live without (ketchup, cocktail sauce, bbq sauce, salsa, spaghetti sauce... ) Even in cocktails, how about a delicious bloody caesar at a 5 à 7? Physically, they are a beauty to behold. Artists paint them, they adorn tablecloths, wall paper, tapestries and aprons. They pretty up salads and buffets, we put them in bowls on our dining tables for a centerpiece. They once garnished breakfast plates across the land, which made perfect sense by the way, tomatoes being the ideal condiment for an egg. I don’t know how they got bumped off by the ubiquitous orange slice in today’s restaurants, and I could strangle whoever is responsible. Anyway.
With all these qualities, I don’t understand how anyone wouldn’t love tomatoes. Its not like they give you gas or get stuck in your teeth, allergic reactions aren’t common. Yet I do know a guy who hates them, actually I dated him. I guess no one is perfect. But it’s strange, he is open-minded, has a good palate, eats just about everything else, but he doesn’t get tomatoes. Otherwise he is a fine fellow, pretty normal. He does grow them, and will eat them cooked, maybe there is hope for him yet.
In my tomato life, a climax certainly was meeting Jerome Plante, whom many now know for his heirloom varieties. I worked with him at L’Eau à la Bouche where we were privelaged to serve his tomatoes in a myriad of ways. A big hit was the tomato salad with watercress, truffle, and sheep’s milk cheese. Every week was a different treat, we couldn’t keep all the kinds straight.....Brandywine, beefsteak, zebra, ...even these mini wild tomatoes, they were all knock-outs. I hear that he was at Jean Talon this summer, so his fabulous tomatoes were accessible to anyone, not just select chefs.
Now, I’m mostly cooking with what comes from our own garden, or from this farmer next door named André Cormier. I might not have the same wide variety or expertise as Jerome, and I’ll surely go back to him one day if he’ll have me. But while I can, there’s something about standing amongst the vines, smelling that intoxicating, floral, green tomato aroma, watching them ripen, while swatting at flies and picking them myself. I let them sit on the counter a day to ripen, and so that I can admire them everytime I walk by. Then it’s time to eat or cook them up.
Over the years, I’ve used tomatoes ten zillion ways: in confit, in terrine, tomato gelée, tomato sorbet, tomato foam, you name it. Nowadays, I couldn’t be bothered. My favorite ways with tomatoes are the simplest: in a sandwich or salad, in fresh salsa, in a quick cooked tomato sauce, in ratatouille or chutney, fresh and fast-cooked with mussels, clams or oysters. I also really like them roasted or provençale, that old classic with breadcrumbs on top that I once dismissed as boring.
My favorite ways with tomatoes
Tomato salad with crinkleroot oil, smoked sea salt and greens, maybe some cheese or a poached egg to take it up a notch.
-Slice tomatoes, drizzle them with some good olive oil. I use crinkleroot oil (wild horseradish) for its arugula like bite. Sprinkle on some sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper, a few chili flakes. Dress the greens the same, but with restraint, adding a splash of a good vinegar like balsamic or sherry. Add some fresh mozzarella or some Reggiano, any good cheese. If I want to make it more substancial, I’ll add a poached egg or some garlic toast, some smoked duck or some lardons.
Fresh tomato salsa, “tortilla soup”, and gaspacho
-Halve and seed tomatoes, squeezing out excess juice, and dice. Add some minced shallot, some freshly chopped coriander, a squeeze of lime and/or red wine vinegar, salt, chili, pure or in the form of tabasco, some olive oil. You might want to add a pinch of sugar depending on your tomatoes.
-When I’m alone, I don’t seed or juice them. It makes for watery salsa, but when I’m done, I have this tasty liquid into which I like to dump all the bits of chips from the bottom of the bowl to make “tortilla soup”. It makes a snack into a meal, perfect for midnight after a shift, in front of the TV.
Fresh tomato sauce
-Generally, I prefer a quick cooked tomato sauce, that has that fresh tomato taste, with lots of olive oil. Sometimes, I’ll pump up the mirepoix (vegetable) ratio, add wine, more seasoning, and cook it longer, if I want something more complex, or if I’m adding meat.
-In any case, start by sweating some onions. I usually add a bit of minced carrot and celery, some red pepper. Then garlic, a touch of white wine, good vinegar or lemon juice. Then the spices. I use chili, fennel seed, thyme and oregano. Then go in the tomatoes. Canned is fine, although I usually use half canned, half fresh. If you don’t like skin, then blanch and peel your tomatoes, seed them if you want. You might not want to use all the juice, especially if you won’t be cooking it long. Stick in a bay leaf, even a cinnamon stick if you’re feeling adventurous (particulary good with a pork based sauce). Simmer for 30 min or 1 hour, longer if you’re doing a big batch. Pull out the aromats, douse with a good measure of good olive oil, salt and pepper, and blend.
-With this base, you can play around.....
-add anchovy, olives and capres
-add bacon and mushrooms, (and cream or not)
-add beans, extra peppers and pork or not, spices (cumin, chili, oregano, thyme, cinnamon)
-add curry, yogurt, shrimp or chicken, coriander and coconut
-add tarragon, lemon and cream for mussels, any seafood or chicken
Roast tomatoes as a topping for fish, pasta, even meat
-Halve tomatoes (preferably Roma), toss with olive oil, garlic cloves, herbs of choice, and roast on a baking tray at 400F for 30 minutes. Pull out, peel off the skins if you want, and serve along with the pan juices to dress up fish, meat, pasta or eggs.
-You can do this over a very low heat (160-200F) for hours, and then you have confit, use in the same way.
-Degorge (slice and salt) your eggplant for at least half an hour. Wipe dry.
Dice up all your vegetables ( 1 onion, 1 eggplant, 2 zucchini, 1-2 red pepper). Mince up 1 celery stick, a couple of cloves of garlic.
-In your big pot, sweat an onion, add a little minced celery, one or two diced bell peppers. Then goes in some minced garlic, some chili flakes, some cumin seeds, maybe some fennel seeds, some thyme, a little rosemary. Deglaze with a ½ cup or so of red wine, and a good shot of red wine vinegar.
-On the side, in a frying pan, saute your eggplant in a good measure of olive oil, toss into big pot. Sauté zucchini in more olive oil, and add to ratatouille. Add a good pinch of salt, sugar and pepper, and allow to simmer for 30min-1 hour. Throw in some fresh basil, and rectify seasoning.
-serve hot or cold, with couscous, pasta, lamb, sausage, eggs or poultry... anything