A lot has changed since then.
Traveling and working in professional kitchens have broadened my horizons and expanded my sense of adventure in trying different foods. But if there’s one food that, above all others, aided me on my way from mid-range picky eater to taster of almost anything, it is the tomato.
To be more accurate, the tomato that helped me along this culinary journey is actually two tomatoes. The first was that all-too-common orangy-pink throwaway — that mealy, watery disc that served as a ballast for sandwiches and burgers.
That first tomato was the one I was forced to eat when, at dinner at a school friend’s home, I was told of the “Eat It or Wear It Policy,” which my friend’s parents enforced at the table. So, with much salt and grimacing, I got down that whole slice of supermarket tomato, but that was the last one for a long, long time.
After that, I could never understand why my parents got so excited about eating a sliced, Jersey tomato in August, because I’d never let one get near my mouth. I didn’t know at the time that that was the second tomato — the one I would not try for years, the one that is a celebration of everything summer and local.
When I did get a taste of real tomato, I couldn’t get enough!
When a tomato is fresh and full (you can feel the heft of all the juices inside when you hold one in your hand), it can be as refreshing and comforting as biting into a crisp autumn apple.
A great tomato contains as much sunshine as the corn that everyone anticipates when summer is coming. You really can taste the season in the sweetness mixed with acid, which is why the tomato lends itself so well to solo acts, as well as playing back up to other dominant flavors.
These days, cooks search the world over for new techniques, technologies and gadgets; they seek out the latest, rarest ingredients. And that is all very exciting. But look at the simple, home-grown (or close to home-grown) tomato, and you’ll find centuries of tradition and innovation, all packed inside that thin skin.
Since that first taste of a real tomato, I get reinspired by the simplicity and versatility of one of summer’s best fruits. Maybe I’m trying to make up for lost time, or maybe I want to share the harvest of tomatoes with those already in the know. And, quite possibly, there will be a newcomer who’s not yet tasted all the potential inside the tomato. Whatever the reason, it’s a pleasure to get so much out of something so simple.Caramelized Cherry Tomatoes
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
12 cherry tomatoes, preferably with stems
1 Tbsp. marjoram leaves, sliced
1 Tbsp. fresh sliced basil leaves
coarse sea salt to taste
Put the sugar and water in a small nonstick, sauté pan. Dissolve sugar in water over medium heat, stirring occasionally.
When sugar is dissolved, turn heat to medium-high and let caramelize to hardball stage (check this by dipping a spoon in pan and dripping some caramel into a glass of cold water. If hard little balls of sugar form, then it’s the correct temperature).
While the sugar is caramelizing, spear tomatoes through the top onto wooden skewers. When sugar has reached the correct temperature, lower heat and dip each tomato quickly into pan, making sure to coat it entirely.
Place each tomato on a lightly oiled plate. Sprinkle with herbs and salt before sugar cools.
Set aside to cool completely and serve as a starter to a meal.
Serves 6 (snack-size).Tomato, Parsley and Feta Salad,
6 large tomatoes, preferably a variety, cored and peeled
1/2 lb. block of good feta cheese, diced in 1/2-inch dice or crumbled into medium chunks
1/2 red onion, sliced thinly
2 cloves garlic, sliced thinly or minced
1/2 cup parsley leaves, half sliced, half whole
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup red-wine vinegar or to taste
salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste
To Peel Tomatoes: Boil a large pot of salted water. Core each tomato and score bottom skin with an “X.” Carefully place tomatoes in the boiling water for 5 to 10 seconds. Remove to a bowl of ice water for a few minutes. The skin should peel away easily.
Cut each tomato in four or six sections (depending on size) and scrape out the seeds (you can reserve them for sauce or discard).
While Waiting for Water To Boil: Marinate feta, onions, garlic and sliced parsley with the olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. This can also be done 1 to 2 hours ahead of time so flavors can stew.
About 15 minutes before serving, toss tomatoes in with the feta mix. Adjust seasoning.
To Serve: Arrange salad on 4 plates (serves 4). Garnish with the whole parsley leaves.A Twist on Gazpacho
6 large, very ripe tomatoes, chopped roughlyFor Garnish:
1 cucumber, peeled and chopped roughly
1-2 large cloves of garlic
1/4 cup red onion, sliced
1/4 cup parsley leaves
1/4 cup basil leaves
1/4 cup quality sherry vinegar
hot sauce to taste
salt and pepper to taste
extra-virgin olive oil
garlic toast (optional]
In a large bowl, mix together all ingredients except garnishes. Marinate for at least 1 hour.
In the food processor, purée the marinated tomato mixture in batches. Place a large, double layer of cheesecloth in a bowl.
Pour purée into cheesecloth. Gather ends of cheesecloth and tie with twine, leaving enough so that you can hang the cheesecloth from a faucet over the sink. Allow the liquid from the purée to drip into a large bowl. You can give the bundle a gentle squeeze every now and then to make sure all of the liquid is drained.
After an hour or so, transfer the bowl of liquid to the fridge. Chill well. Garnish with some of the solids from the cheesecloth.
To Serve: Pour “gazpacho” into chilled bowls; drizzle with olive oil. Serve with garlic toast topped with remaining gazpacho solids and the seasoned avocado.
Serves 4 to 6.
Daniel Stern, former executive chef of Le Bec-Fin, is a Philadelphia-based chef. You can find him at: www.diningdifferent.com .