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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Taming the Tomato Jungle

(Originally published in The News Review on September 2, 2014) Recipe links:  Gazpacho, Bruschetta

It's a jungle out there! In my garden, that is. The tomatoes have taken over, toppling the flimsy wire cages that were supposed to contain and support them. I got a late start getting my tomatoes planted this year, but I've got a bumper crop now. I'm drying tomatoes to use in soups and stews, roasting tomatoes and packing them in jars of olive oil (stored in the freezer) for dipping bread into or adding to winter salads. I'll soon be canning tomatoes and tomato juice and freezing purée.

We grow our own because tomatoes ripened on the vine taste the very best. You can find excellent locally grown tomatoes with exquisite flavor in all shapes, sizes and colors at markets throughout the county. There are heirloom varieties in shades of rosy pink and purple to almost black. Look for green striped tomatoes, yellow and orange tomatoes, pear-shaped tomatoes and tiny cherry and grape tomatoes. And don't overlook the Roma or Italian plum tomatoes. Bright red and oblong, they are meatier than the juicy “slicing” tomatoes. Roma types, and San Marzanos in particular, make especially good tomato sauce.

My husband eats tomatoes the way some folks eat apples; he just picks one out of the basket and bites right into it. My son loves a great bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. My favorite way to eat tomatoes? Dress them with basil, garlic, olive oil and balsamic vinegar and pile them high on a crusty baguette slice. Bruschetta is meant to be an appetizer, but to my mind, if it's made with good bread and tomatoes at their peak, I can make a meal of it.

How about some soup? Everything you need for gazpacho, a cold tomato and vegetable soup, is in season right now. Cucumbers, peppers, garlic, and onions blended with your perfectly ripe tomatoes become a refreshing first course for these hot summer nights.

Both of the following recipes include vinegar. Bruschetta is traditionally made with dark, slightly sweet balsamic vinegar. I like to use apple cider vinegar in gazpacho, but I've also use rice vinegar. Just the other day I was picking up a gallon of apple cider vinegar and noticed that the store brand was more expensive than the famous name brand vinegar. 

Thinking that was odd, I took a moment to compare the labels. Turns out, the name brand vinegar is “apple-flavored” vinegar distilled from grain. (I'm not sure if that would affect someone who is gluten-sensitive.) It also contains natural flavor with caramel color. The store brand's only ingredients are apple cider vinegar diluted with water to 5% acidity. 

The flavored type would be fine for filling my homemade fruit fly trap. When it comes to what I eat, I always go for the real thing.

Gazpacho

Gazpacho
makes about 6 cups


Gazpacho is basically a liquid salad. It takes only minutes to prepare, but the soup needs to be chilled for several hours or overnight, so plan ahead. You can adapt the texture from chunky to smooth to suit your personal preference. Any variety of tomato or a combination works well.

2 pounds tomatoes, about 8 medium, cored and quartered

1 medium cucumber, ends removed, cut into large chunks*

1 red or green bell pepper, stemmed and seeded

1 small red or yellow onion, peeled and cut into quarters

1 clove garlic, peeled

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

1 ½ teaspoons sea salt or to taste

freshly ground pepper to taste

croutons and fresh basil for garnishing

Combine all ingredients except the croutons and basil in a blender or food processor and process to desired consistency. Chill several hours or overnight. Adjust seasonings to taste. Serve in chilled bowls garnished with croutons and fresh basil ribbons.



*If the cucumber is organic, I don't bother to peel it.

Basil Ribbons

To create basil ribbons (to “chiffonade” the basil) for garnishing the gazpacho or bruschetta, rinse fresh basil leaves and gently pat dry. Stack the leaves on top of each other on a cutting board. Beginning at one of the pointy ends, roll the stack into a tight cylinder. With a sharp knife, carefully cut the roll into thin slices.
Homemade Croutons

Don't let those heels no one likes go to waste. Turn them into crunchy croutons for garnishing soups, salads and casseroles.


Cut bread into 3/4-inch cubes. Place in a large bowl and drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with fine sea salt to taste and toss very well. (You can also add a fresh-pressed clove of garlic, but it really smells up the house when the croutons are toasting.) Could also use seasoning salt, onion powder, etc. Spread on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes or until crisp and golden brown, stirring occasionally. Use immediately or let cool and then store in an airtight container.



Note: If I were doing a very small amount, I would just sauté the bread cubes in a little olive oil in a pan on the stove.

Bruschetta

Bruschetta
makes four servings of two slices each

5 – 6 Roma tomatoes, (about 1 ½ cups, diced)
2 cloves garlic, peeled
8 to 10 fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
¼ teaspoon salt
8 slices crusty French or Italian bread
optional: freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino-Romano cheese

Core and quarter the tomatoes. Remove seeds if desired. Drain in a colander for a few minutes to remove excess juice. Place in serving bowl and add 1 of the garlic cloves, finely minced or pressed, the olive oil, vinegar and salt. Add drained tomatoes and mix well. Let stand at room temperature while you prepare the bread slices.

Cut the bread on the diagonal into ½-inch slices. Toast on both sides on the grill, stove or under the broiler until the surface is crispy but the center is still a bit soft. Cut the remaining clove of garlic in half and rub across one side of each slice of toasted bread.

Just before serving, snip the basil into pieces with kitchen shears or cut into ribbons. Arrange bread slices on a platter and divide the tomato mixture evenly on top. Garnish with the fresh basil. Add grated cheese if desired. Serve immediately. 

Basil Ribbons

To create basil ribbons (to “chiffonade” the basil) for garnishing the gazpacho or bruschetta, rinse fresh basil leaves and gently pat dry. Stack the leaves on top of each other on a cutting board. Beginning at one of the pointy ends, roll the stack into a tight cylinder. With a sharp knife, carefully cut the roll into thin slices.


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