Saturday, September 20, 2008

Tomato Safari (among other things)

Please excuse the hysterics of the last post. I reserve the right of digital publishing to delete all records of my disproportionate response to the rightful existence of a parallel web presence to mine...

Before we re-enter the beautiful complexity of the vegetable universe, I would like to ask if we would for a moment consider David Foster Wallace, who passed away last Friday. It is easy to be put off by the superlatives that crowd around his name, his reputation as a giant philosophical brain, a Major Writer of Our Time, a postmodern genius, our generation's literary insurance to the legacy of Joyce and Pynchon, but once one reads his writing, these distancing labels fall away and we are left with a hilarious, brutally critical, brilliant, and continually curious writer who makes one want to keep the conversation going indefinitely, both with others and alone with the voices that muse along in our heads. He's also an engaging and subtly nuanced reader of his own work, and I recommend his book-on-tape version of the essay collection Consider the Lobster, which I checked out at my local branch library (the aural solution to his infamous footnotes is entertaining). McSweeney's has been gathering together people's stories of their encounters with Wallace and his work that you can read/add to here. You can also read recent appreciations at The New York Times and The Guardian.

[Commercial break: Smooth your hair and smile brightly in your hand-mirror as we switch gears...]

Turning now to produce, September is the sweetest month in northern California, bringing golden weather and mouth-watering tomatoes to the land. Tomatoes used to disgust and outrage me while I was growing up, and I blame my immature palate and early encounters with mealy, watery tomatoes eaten out of season. I eventually learned to stop worrying and love the tom, even popping cherry tomatoes without cringing. (Oh, stop it, I'm just talking about tomatoes!)

In this high tomato hunting season, there are a seemingly endless array of tomato varieties and colors. After that rhino tom sighting in my room, I caught a pair of red zebra tomatoes cozying up to the magical zebra cat that perches on my bathroom window ledge (topmost photo and below). Keep an eye out for its fraternal twin, the green zebra tomato, at a farmers market near you, though these red ones came from Rainbow Grocery.

I've been especially excited about the $3/lb. tomatoes from Watsonville's Tomatero Organic Growers, which has stands at the Alemany and Noe Valley farmers markets, among others. Their early girl dry-farmed tomatoes are sweet like strawberries. I also daydream about the early girls of Dirty Girl Produce, which are on offer at the Ferry Plaza market. Dry farming means the tomato seedlings are watered when first planted but not after they begin to bear fruit, so that their flavor becomes super concentrated and super delicious. The early girls are the small round ones in the tomato party two photos up.

While I lamented not having planted sun-gold cherry tomatoes in the backyard this year, my mom called wanting to pass on some of the heirloom tomatoes that her friend Lanh had grown on her land in Sonoma.

"You want one or two?," she asked me on the phone.
"Um, boxes? One," I answered.
"No, tomatoes."
"What? Just one or two of them?"
"Katrina, you don't understand, these tomatoes are huge. Each one is the size of a bowl." Her voice escalated with each italicized word.

We arranged a clandestine drop-off, and I met my big, fat tomato, looking content in its cardboard box. Back home, it plopped with a heavy thud onto my kitchen island. Hoping to astound you with its relative size, we embarked on a whirlwind photo shoot involving the various denizens of my kitchen neighborhood:

I began to get a little too attached to my giant tomato, to the point that I would gaze at it on my countertop day after day, thinking that no dish was good enough for my tomato. Finally, it began to look a little droopy and weary of this world, so, without further ceremony and nary an onion tear, I chopped it up and combined it with some green, yellow, and red tomatoes from Tomatero into a nice, juicy pasta sauce.

Another tomato idea is dicing them up for a sautée with bell peppers, onions, and herbs to ladle over fish. In the dish pictured above, I pan-fried halibut in butter and boiled some fingerling potatoes tossed with herbs as a side dish. My all-time favorite tomato preparation, though, aside from just eating them raw, is roasting them until they get crispy on the outside and melty-steamy on the inside.

Try this at home:
- Pre-heat the oven to 400˚F.
- Halve the tomatoes and toss them in a bowl with salt, pepper, olive oil, and a handful of minced herbs (basil, oregano, thyme, mint, whatever grows in your herb garden—yes that's an Alice Waters-esque assumption that you grow things as well as cook and eat them).
- Arrange your tomato paradise in one layer on a baking pan
- Pop it in the oven and sip your Chianti for 30 minutes (use your judgment and carbon preference to add or subtract time)
- Et voila! Eat as a dish on its own, lay over slices of fresh Italian or French bread, cook further in a sauce pan to go with pasta, or make into a tomato soup.


Stephen Dodson said...

On your sub-topic of David Foster Wallace tributes, I also enjoyed yesterday's A.O. Scott's piece: BTW, where's the tomato love for your brother?

Katrina D. said...

Thanks for the link. I think Thao clearly knows who appreciates unusual produce in this family.