by Donna Marie Zotter
It never seems like summer until August arrives. Finally, the season’s best is showing up at the markets; the gardens that have been nurtured for the past few months slowly begin to yield their bounty. It’s hot. It’s steamy. The days are long and abundance is the emerging theme.
For me, it’s a time of quiet celebration. I manage to make time for lazy afternoons at the beach; I indulge in endless evenings with friends, filled with gaiety, good food, and outstanding wines. I treasure stolen moments romping through other people’s gardens. It is one of my summer joys — after all, I’m a chef. I’m inspired by the promise of the earth’s bounty, especially when I see a garden full and ready to explode with a harvest of deliciousness.
But there is something about tomatoes that brings a wry smile to my face; the plants hanging heavy with fruit become a kaleidoscope of color in a bath of sunshine. I think to the days ahead when the plants are so lush and abundant that it takes little more than an outstretched palm to encourage the fruit to fall from the vine. The warmth, the sweet juices, and that undeniable fragrance of the tomato — if there is a defining moment of summer, at least in my world, this is it.
That moment, at least in these parts, is still a few weeks away. But the quiet celebration of summer never seems to elude my childlike spirit. The outdoors scream for activity, and beholding the first tomato is as good an opportunity as any for a parade.
Yes. The ritualistic romp around the yard holding the summer’s first red globe high in the air, dancing and marching to laughter and excitement: the Tomato Parade. This is always a bit ironic (I’m not sure about your garden, but the first tomatoes I’ve been privy to are usually small, sort of sad looking first attempts), but nevertheless worth celebrating.
It is these firsts, or supposed “ripe” tomatoes we’ve all been relegated to purchase at our grocery store, that inspire this month’s recipes. They are designed to maximize the flavor of the tomatoes regardless of when they arrive in your home. For sure, nothing will ever replace those joyfully ripe, just-picked, late August tomatoes that explode with juice and flavor. But along the way to there, a little flavor pull will certainly maximize your enjoyment.
Wherever you are in tomato season, concentrating flavor by a slow, low-heat roasting is a magnificent way to coax out a tomato’s flavor. Nevertheless, the thought of a long slow roast during the dog days of summer is enough to send even me running from the kitchen. But an oven set at a low enough temperature so as to keep my kitchen fairly temperate and left to work its magic during the course of a day? I’m all for that.
Once the tomatoes have been slow-roasted and their flavors concentrated, use olive oil as a preservative, which essentially recreates the technique of confit or confiture. The combination of flavors in this salad works brilliantly. The abundance of ripe watermelon that is available now and the concentrated flavor of tomato are exquisite together; the subtle, but oh-so-important structure provided by the flavor of fennel and vinaigrette are not to be underestimated. The contrast of the fennel and the acidity of the vinaigrette are the platforms from which the other flavors leap, not to mention the important textural component of the shaved, iced fennel. If you are looking for a stunning composition of flavors to call summer, you might want to stop here.
That’s not to ignore the compelling (but soon to be ubiquitous) heirloom tomato, with its endless varieties. Naturally, if you have them available, by all means indulge; nothing screams summer like the variety and flavors they offer.
Sourcing your heirlooms is a bit of an effort, to be sure, but once found, they should be treated to an elevated status. Perhaps even a parade is too trite for these regal creations.
Recipe: Tomato & Nectarine Timbale
The level of preparation and presentation selected for these historic goddesses is reminiscent of a long story, full of characters and personalities. Again, as with the confit, the ripe summer nectarine and the spicy-sweet syrup are flavor elements that keep the range of tomato flavors from dispersing over the palate. In the end, you are left with a concentration of spice, sweet, and tang, and a perfumed tropical essence that is so unexpected and unusual it will stop you in your tracks — or dinner conversation, as the case may be.
For an overview of the tomatoes available in your local supermarket and farmers markets, see our Tomato Primer.
Photos: Kelly Cline
Donna Zotter is the founder and executive chef of There’s A Chef in My Kitchen, a portable culinary school in Harrisburg, PA.