In season, local tomatoes are such tearjerkers.
Every summer tomato lovers, me among them, nearly fall to their knees and weep with joy when reunited with these sorely missed, multicolored friends.
We pick up right where we left off. The tomatoes come to dinner with such amicable buddies as basil, fresh cheese, and fruity vinegar. Sometimes they arrive nearly naked, on a simple but rich puff-pastry throne.
But even as we enjoy their company, we prepare almost tearfully for their inevitable departure by obsessively buying them up - the cherries, the heirlooms, large and small ones, yellow, red, orange, purple, green, bumpy or smooth.
Wistful as tomato lovers are in these fading days of summer and its produce, we realize that we were blessed this year - relatively speaking, that is.
Tomato-wise, last summer was the pits.
"Then we had lots of cool, wet weather. This summer stacked up pretty well [against that]. It got too hot at some points, but tomato farmers like it on the dry side because they can always irrigate," says Pete Nitzsche.
Nitzsche is county agricultural agent with the Rutgers Cooperative extension of Morris County, N.J. His research focuses on the flavor in tomato cultivars.
Nitzsche says this year's tomato crops are a week or two early, but most New Jersey tomato farmers plant multiple crops so they have a supply until the first frost.
Tim Mountz of Happy Cat Organics in Kennett Square calls this the year of the "tomato tsunami."
"It's been hot and dry, and tomatoes love the heat. We've been harvesting 1,000 to 1,500 pounds of tomatoes a week on our five acres," he reports.
Happy Cat produces 200 varieties of tomatoes and sells them, their seeds, and lots of other produce.
"We went to a party recently and I chopped 13 varieties, mixed them with a little olive oil and sea salt. That's all," says Mountz.
Nearly unadorned, they "tasted like summer sunshine," says Mountz, who has been growing tomatoes for 15 years and never eats them out of season.
"The best way to eat a tomato is to stand out in the field with a friend in the sunshine and eat them whole with the juice running down your chin," he adds wistfully.
I get his point. But still, I feel a need to fiddle.
Perhaps purists such as Mountz consider it heresy, but I have made curried tomatoes developed by chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken for many years, many times with heirlooms fresh from the farmers market.
Even though the flavors added to the tomatoes are assertive ones, the dish is ridiculously superior to one made with pale, out-of-season fruit. The juices are rich and pungent, good enough to eat by the spoonful or over, say, a mound of couscous.
Sure, it's great to eat a tomato like an apple, but as with so many fruits and vegetables that share peak seasons, tomatoes, mangoes, peaches, and basil pair well, as proven by the recipe for Tangy Tomato and Mango Salad.
But maybe the best way to pay homage and say "see you next year" to true tomatoes in these last days of summer is to accept the season's unripe green ones as gifts. Fry them up to add crunch and tartness to a mound of sweet tomatoes studded with goat cheese and dressed with a sprightly vinaigrette.
I'm choking up just thinking about it.
Tangy Tomato and Mango Salad
Makes 10 servings
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 large shallots, thinly sliced
2 cups thinly sliced basil leaves
10 medium tomatoes (3 pounds), sliced 1/4-inch thick
3 large, ripe mangoes, peeled, pitted, and sliced 1/4-inch thick (peaches may be substituted)
1. In a small bowl, combine the red wine vinegar with the olive oil; season the dressing with salt. Add the sliced shallots and 1 cup of the basil and toss well.
2. Arrange the tomatoes on a platter and top with the mango slices. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 cup of basil leaves and serve.
Per serving: 116 calories, 2 grams protein, 16 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams sugar, 6 grams fat, no cholesterol, 66 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Makes about 3 cups or 6 servings
1 1/2 pounds tomatoes, peeled, cored, and roughly chopped; if using cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1 bunch green onions, white and green parts, sliced diagonally
3-5 serrano chiles, with seeds, sliced diagonally
3/4 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon coarse salt
2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger
2 tablespoons finely minced or pureed garlic
1 tablespoon black or yellow mustard seeds
1 tablespoon cracked black peppercorns
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 teaspoon turmeric
3/4 cup olive oil
1. Place tomatoes, onions, and chiles in a glass bowl or plastic storage container.
2. In a saucepan, bring vinegar to a boil. Add sugar and salt. Cook until dissolved, about 1 minute. Remove from heat and reserve.
3. Measure ginger, garlic, mustard seeds, cracked peppercorns, cumin, cayenne, and turmeric onto a plate and place near the stove. In another saucepan, heat oil until smoking. Add spices and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until aromas are released, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in vinegar mixture.
4. Immediately pour over reserved vegetables. Mix well, cover with lid or plastic wrap, and refrigerate a minimum of 3 days. Makes about 3 cups or 6 servings.
Fried Green Tomato and Red Tomato Salad With Goat Cheese and Basil Vinaigrette
Makes 6-8 servings
2 large ripe beefsteak or heirloom tomatoes, cored and sliced 1/2-inch thick
1 teaspoon sea salt, plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
2 tablespoons sugar
1 large egg
1/2 cup well-shaken buttermilk
Canola oil for frying (about 1/2 cup)
4 large green tomatoes, cored and sliced 1/2-inch thick
1/2 pint grape or small heirloom tomatoes (such as Sungolds or Sweet 100s), halved lengthwise
4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled (about 1 cup)
Sweet basil vinaigrette (see note)
8 fresh basil leaves, julienned
1. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Line a baking sheet with paper towels.
2. Arrange the ripe tomato slices in one layer on a large platter or on individual plates. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
3. Stir the flour, cornmeal, sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper in a small bowl.
4. Whisk the egg and buttermilk in a separate small bowl.
5. Pour oil into a large skillet to a depth of ¼ inch and heat over medium-high heat to about 375 degrees, or until the oil sizzles when you drop a small amount of flour into the skillet.
6. Dip each green tomato slice in the egg-buttermilk mixture to coat both sides. Dredge them in the flour mixture. Using tongs, place each in the hot oil, working in batches and being careful not to crowd the skillet. Fry until each side is golden brown and crisp, about 2 minutes for each side. Turn only once. Transfer each to the prepared baking sheet to drain. Place the sheet in the oven as each batch is fried.
7. Arrange the fried tomato slices on top of the fresher ones. Scatter the small tomatoes over all and sprinkle with the goat cheese. Drizzle with ½ cup of the vinaigrette and top with the basil strips. Season with additional salt and pepper and add more vinaigrette to taste. Serve immediately.
Note: To prepare the sweet basil vinaigrette, whisk a half cup of balsamic vinegar, the juice of one lime, 5 to 7 julienned fresh basil leaves, and salt and pepper to taste in a small bowl. Slowly add a half cup of extra-virgin olive oil, whisking until incorporated. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste. Use immediately or refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 1 week. Makes about 1 cup.
Per serving (based on 8): 323 calories, 7 grams protein, 28 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams sugar, 23 grams fat, 37 milligrams cholesterol, 466 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 60 tartlets
All-purpose flour, for rolling
1/2 pound all-butter puff pastry (available in freezer section of supermarkets)
30 cherry tomatoes (about 1 pound), halved crosswise
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, plus more for garnish
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 pound fresh ricotta cheese
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Position racks in the middle and upper thirds of the oven. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the puff pastry to a 9½-by-17½-inch rectangle. Using a straightedge, trim the pastry to the baking sheet and poke all over with a fork. Top the pastry with another sheet of parchment and another baking sheet. Place in oven and bake 25 minutes on the middle rack, until golden. Remove the top baking sheet and parchment and continue to bake the pastry until it is lightly browned and dry, about 10 minutes longer. Slide the paper and pastry onto a rack and let cool.
2. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, put the halved cherry tomatoes on a large rimmed baking sheet, cut side up, and bake on the upper rack for about 15 minutes, until softened slightly. Let cool.
3. In a food processor, puree the ricotta cheese until very creamy. Spread the ricotta over the cooled pastry and season with salt and pepper. Arrange the roasted cherry tomatoes, cut side up, on the ricotta in 5 rows of 12. Sprinkle lightly with fresh thyme. Using a long knife, cut the pastry between the tomatoes into 60 squares. Transfer the tartlets to platters and serve at once.
Per tartlet: 34 calories, 1 gram protein, 2 grams carbohydrates, trace sugar, 2 grams fat, 2 milligrams cholesterol, 23 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.