Welcome to my kitchen

A while ago, I realized I was serious enough about bread baking to stop diddling around with the 3-packs of yeast from the grocery store, or even the small jars for a small fortune. So I pulled up my big girl pants, and ordered "A Pound Of Yeast". It's in my freezer, and I use it regularly, and I guess that makes me "A Baker". Even though I always said "I can't bake". So, join me on my journey, and let's see what that pound of yeast makes, and where we go next....

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

When Life Gives You Tomatoes….You Eat Really Well

Isn’t that picture just the epitome and embodiment of Summer ?  A huge, (and I do mean HUGE, that puppy weighed in at over a pound !), vine-ripened beefsteak tomato, dripping with dew (OK, full disclosure, that was water from my having rinsed it before I cooked with it, but still, it *could've* been dew).

Here’s a shot of that monster in my hand, so you can get an idea of how gimogeous this thing really was.

It was truly massive.  *AND* it had flavor, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

I love tomatoes.

No.  Let me qualify that.

I love tomatoes that have ripened on the vine, and have been grown carefully and fed and watered regularly, and have had lots of sun and lots of care.  Tomatoes that are soft and sorta squishy, and that spew juice all over your counter when you cut them.  Tomatoes that are warm from the sun, that you rinse off and slice and inhale as is, or on bread, or in a Caprese salad, or over pasta.  Or that you just bite into on your way from the garden to the kitchen, the juice and seeds dripping down your chin, and over your hands.  The tomatoes that explode with sweet, tangy, acidic, tomato-y flavor, and fill your mouth with tomato joy.  The tomatoes so full of that lovely “jelly” interior they remind you of one of those fruit gel candies called "Pâtes de fruits”.

*THOSE* tomatoes (and these) I love.

I most assuredly do NOT love those supermarket cotton balls with the mealy, tasteless centers, the ones you could pitch a major league baseball game with, the ones that are picked totally green and gassed with ethylene oxide to turn their skins a pale imitation of the deep red color we expect, but which will never, ever achieve the glory that is a REAL tomato.

*THOSE* tomatoes I loath.

I’ve grown tomatoes before, and while they’re not particularly a difficult plant to grow and harvest, like anything alive, they need some care and some fussing with.  And, due to some health/mobility issues, I can’t work any kind of a garden in the ground any longer.  I could probably get DOWN to sit by the bed and work it, but it’d take a sky-hook crane to get me back up.

A couple of years ago, I tried one of those “topsy-turvy” tomato growing things.  It was….not a success.  I put the thing in the same spot (a narrow bed by my driveway, with a Western exposure, against a light stucco wall) where I’d successfully grown tomatoes (albeit in the ground) before.  The plants (I had three of them in the hanging baggy thingy) started out great guns.  And rapidly faltered.  I had only used really easy-to-grow cultivars I’d successfully grown in the ground in previous years, so I thought it was going to be a slam dunk.  Not so much.  I think I got a total of 20 tomatoes out of the 3 plants that year, and they were small, fairly tasteless and generally not stellar.  I think the soil in the bag got too hot, and steamed the roots when I watered them.  In the plastic, there was no way for the soil to "breathe".  Plus I don’t think there was enough soil in the baggy thingy to support 3 full plants, even though it had 3 ports for planting and the instructions indicated it could support all three.  The bag was unwieldy, it was hard to water and fertilize, and as I said the yield was dismal.  It finally went into the trash and recycling bins as was appropriate to the parts of the contraption.

For the next few summers, I tried to make do with tomatoes from the local farmers’ markets, Trader Joe’s “Heirloom” tomatoes (which are actually pretty decent, not top tier, but not bad….) and lately from my CSA, The Growing Experience.

This year, though, I was determined to grow my own.  I had an unused, huge PVC pot, which had previously held a rose bush, so I knew it was plenty big enough, I had the tomato cage/support gizzies, all I needed was the soil and the plants.  Which, I promptly obtained in mid-Spring.  I planted, I caged, I watered, I fertilized, and I waited for the succulent harvest.

It started out really well, and then took a dramatic turn to disaster land…….

Well, not total disaster.  But it was close….

Again, one of the cultivars I planted this time was one I’d grown before very successfully, “Better Boy”.  It’s supposed to be early bearing, and give about baseball sized fruit.  It cruised along beautifully, just beautifully.  It was blooming, it was setting fruit, I was a happy girl, envisioning tomato sandwiches and BLTs and BLATs (“A” equaling avocado, these sandwiches being about as close to Nirvana as *I* will ever get) and all sorts of early "tomato-y" nummies.  The other plant was a “Beefmaster” (doesn't that sound like the name of an Ahhh-nuld Schwarzenegger character??).  One I’d never grown before, but I wanted a later harvest plant, and I wanted some beefsteak-type tomatoes.

The Better Boy, as I said, started out fantastically.  I think I picked my first ripe tomato from it in mid-June, and it was loaded, just loaded with fruit at that point.  The Beefmaster, however, had yet to set any fruit.  It *was* flowering, but the flower stems would wither at the place where they met the main stem and they’d drop off before setting fruit.  I was flummoxed.  Not to mention furious.

Off to the interwebs.  Apparently……the flowers weren’t getting pollinated.  Hmmmmm.  Several web sites suggested “diddling” (no lie !) the flowers to help the pollen spread.  Sort of like tomato IVF I guess.  So “diddle” I did.  And sure as you-know-what, Mr. Beefmaster started to set fruit.  YAY !

However, meanwhile, some gnatty/aphidy/sucky thing infested the Better Boy, and started draining the life out of it.  Unfortunately, I was so caught up in “diddling” the Beefmaster, I didn’t really notice until it was too late, and the plant started to yellow, drop leaves and die.  I tried to blast it with a dilute dish soap solution (another interwebs suggestion), and when that didn’t work, some “organic” insecticide, but sadly, for our Better Boy, I was too late.  I cut off all the couple dozen or so fruit it had on it, and had some yummy fried green tomatoes from a few.  There were about 6 more that were close enough to ripe when I had to cut them off the dying vines that they did end up being fine ripening on the counter.  The others…..if I only had a compost heap….

I did manage to save Ahhhh-nuld, errrrr, the Beefmaster from the gnatty/aphidy/sucky things though, and it’s still chugging along, still flowering and setting fruit !  Even without “diddling” !  Mr. Beefmaster was the source of the 1-pound monster, although the fruits in the later harvests haven’t been quite so….overachieving.  They’re still plenty tasty.

Shall we get to some recipes then?  (Yeah, I know, ‘bout damn time Roberta…enough about your tenuous gardening skills…..look, I just wanted you to understand how precious these tomatoes are to me.)

PLEASE NOTE---with the exception of the actual “recipe” for homemade mayonnaise that I’ll give you in a moment, NONE of these dishes are actual “recipes”.  Please think of them as methods or techniques.  While I’ll show you pictures of what I did (mostly ‘cuz they’re purdy…what’s not to love about a juicy, chopped or sliced tomato), you should, you really should use these descriptions as a starting point for your own explorations.

The whole point of “cooking” (actually closer is “preparing”) food in the bounty that is Summer is working with what’s fresh, and ripe, and succulent and plentiful and what sounds and tastes good to you.  Look at what’s at the farmers’ markets and put dinner together from that.  Think about what you get in your CSA share and make some delicious food out of that haul.  Don’t like basil?  No problem.  Use rosemary.  Hate cucumber?  Not an issue, use zucchini.  This is the time to let loose and go outside the box.  It’s too hot and sticky to think too much and fuss too much.  Go with your instincts….

OK.  First up, the most sublime use of the tomato (in my not-so humble opinion, at least).  Ladies and gentleman, I give you….(insert drum roll)

The GLORY that is The Tomato Sandwich.  Maybe not much to look at, but such a wonder to eat.

No lettuce, no bacon, no avocado.  Just good, flavorful bread (not too crusty though, you don’t want to use a hacksaw to break through the bread, since the tomato’s so soft), good mayonnaise, salt and just a whisper of pepper.

Some people like the soft squishy “W- brand” bread for this.  Me, I like a little more body.  I usually use Trader Joe’s “Tuscan Pane” but if I have a home-baked loaf or a French boule or pane rustico hanging around, I wouldn’t send it home without a flirtation and a dinner invitation.  Not a baguette and not sourdough please.  One’s too crusty and too small and the other’s got too much of a prominent flavor on its own.  This sammich is all about the tomato, even the mayo (much as I worship the great god Best Foods) is secondary.  Toast the bread lightly (again, you don’t want to have to chisel your way through the sandwich), and spread one side with the mayonnaise.  Slice the tomato about 1/2-inch thick, then sprinkle with coarse salt and just the slightest hint of freshly ground pepper.

Take a bite and go to a really, really happy place.

Of course, homemade mayonnaise makes it transcendent, and is SO easy to make, you should give it a go.  Here’s my favorite recipe:

Garlic Mayonnaise
From Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything
Makes 1 cup

1 egg or 1 egg yolk (I use the whole egg)
Dash cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1-4 peeled and smashed cloves garlic
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1C extra-virgin olive oil, or combination of neutral (canola, vegetable) oil and olive oil (I usually use 1/2 olive oil and 1/2 vegetable oil, since I find all olive oil too strong)

Place egg, cayenne, mustard, salt, pepper, garlic, lemon juice and 1/4-cup of the oil in the jar of a blender or food processor (I have the best luck with a mini-food processor that has a 3-cup capacity).  Turn on the machine, and blitz all to combine.  With machine running, drizzle in the remaining oil in a thin, steady stream.

After you’ve gotten in about half of the oil, the emulsion will thicken, and you can add the balance of the oil a bit faster.  If, at the end, it’s thicker than you want, add a bit of warm water, with the machine still running, or stir in a bit of cream  or sour cream by hand.  Taste, and adjust seasonings to your palate.  I always end up adding the rest of the lemon’s juice, but don’t be tempted to add it all up front.  It’ll make your mayo too thin.  Keeps in the fridge, well covered, for up to a week.  Stellar for fresh artichokes too !

Or for your BLT or BLAT sammiches.  OK, I’m not going to insult your intelligence by telling you how to make a BLT or even a BLAT.  Just get good bread (the above “Tuscan Pane” does stellar duty here, too, sturdy enough to hold up to the heavy-“duty-ness” of a BLT or a BLAT, soft enough not to cut your mouth to ribbons when you bite into it), good bacon and good mayo.  Build and swoon.  Who needs side dishes?

Of course, the classic for dead-ripe tomatoes is the Caprese salad.  Sliced tomatoes, alternated with slices of fresh mozzarella cheese, drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, sprinkled with basil shreds and dusted with salt and pepper.

Well, for me, semi-classic.  For me, at least when *I* make it, the mozzarella gets in the way, and the olive oil makes the whole thing too heavy.  Plus the balsamic slips and slides off, and combines with the juice the tomatoes naturally give up when you salt them, and make the whole gamish a slippery mess.

So….I simplify.  Or adapt.  Or adjust.  Or somethin’.

First off, I ditch the mozzarella.  I never end up eating it at home.  When I’ve had Caprese salad at restaurants, I usually do.  I dunno if I overload on the mozz, or the stuff I buy is poor quality, or what.  But at home, it always gets tossed.  So why bother with it?  Then I ditch the olive oil.  Again, to me it overwhelms the freshness you want, and makes the dish gluggy.  (HEY !  There’s another one of those technical terms I toss out regularly !)  And I go really, really light on the pepper.  To me, the basil is plenty peppery enough.  But the most important change I make, and what YOU should try, is to reduce the balsamic to a syrup.

Get a bottle of balsamic vinegar.  DO not buy the $50 a bottle variety for this application, you’ll be wasting your hard-earned money.  DO buy something a bit better than the cheapest out there, because, as always, when you concentrate something by reducing it, you will notice all the nasty tastes in it even more than it its natural state.

Dump the entire bottle of the vinegar into a small saucepan, and set it over a moderate flame.  Bring the vinegar to a boil, reduce the heat and let it simmer until it gets to a syrupy consistency.  It will continue to thicken as it cools, so don’t let it go too far.  It will burn.  Keep an eye on it, and set a timer.  Depending upon the volume you start with, your stove top and your pan, it may take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.  Keep an eye on it.

When the vinegar reaches the consistency you want, pull the pan off the heat, and let it cool.  Pour it into a pitcher, cover it well, and stash in the fridge for future use.  It will keep for quite a while.

It will thicken considerably in the cold, but become more liquid as it warms to room temp.  When you pour it over your sliced tomatoes (and mozzarella if you choose to use it, and it IS your choice), it will cling rather than run off and pool weakly at the bottom of the plate.  This is a good thing.

We’re also gonna use the balsamic syrup in this:

That’d be bruschetta.  More of that “Tuscan Pane” bread (homemade or extra crusty works really fine here, but “Tuscan Pane” is what I had), this time brushed with olive oil on both sides and tossed onto a hot charcoal grill for a minute or so on each side until it’s nice and toasted and beginning to char a bit.  You could also do this under the broiler, but who wants to turn on the broiler in August?

Rub one side of the toasted bread with a clove of garlic while the bread is still pretty hot.  Just take the garlic in one hand, and rub on the craggy surface of the bread.  The roughness of the bread will essentially "shred" the garlic while you're rubbing it around.  You'll be amazed at how quickly that clove of garlic disappears into the bread.  That right there, with a sprinkle of coarse salt, is probably the best garlic bread you’ll ever eat.  The garlic oil gets into the interior of the bread, and just becomes more than what you think it should be.

Take that garlic bread to the next level by rubbing the garlic’d side with the cut side of a ripe tomato, making sure the juice saturates the surface of the bread, and the pulp and jelly remain on top of it, and you have what the Spanish call “Pan con tomate”.  And it’s pretty much one of the best things you can put in your mouth.

But we’re going to go to even the next level with this bruschetta.  Take one of your glorious, juicy tomatoes and chunk it up into a medium-sized dice.  Don’t worry about the peel or seeds.  The peel will be irrelevant and we want the seeds and jelly, because, in this instance, the juice is a GOOD thing.  The tomato juice will make the dish.  To the tomatoes, add some basil you’ve cut into thin slivers by rolling the leaves together

and cutting across them.  Really, a true fancy technical term here, this is called a “chiffonade”.

Drizzle in some of that balsamic syrup, some salt and pepper (again light on the pepper, the basil packs plenty of that flavor profile)

mix and let sit for a bit for the juices to develop and the flavors to mingle.  See how that syrup clings to the tomatoes rather than just pooling at the bottom?  That’s what I’m talkin’ about babe.

Here’s the mix after it’s sat for a bit.  LOVE those juices, that’ll soak down right nicely into that toasty, charry bread.

You could add more minced garlic to the mix ifn’s you wanted to, but there’s plenty of punchy garlic flavor from the bread rubbed with the raw cloves.  Up to you, though, totally up to you (and whoever is going to be dealing with you and your garlic burps all night).

The next two dishes are variations on a single theme; pasta with a fresh, uncooked tomato sauce with herbs and melty cheese.  YUM.  Simply yum.

First we have pasta with tomatoes, basil and mozzarella:

And then we have pasta with tomatoes, cilantro, jalapeños and jack cheese:

The principle for both of them is identical, as is the method.  Only the players change.  For one you need (no duh), basil, fresh mozzarella, olive oil, tomatoes (here’s where I used Mr. Monster Beefmaster), garlic, salt and pepper.

You’ll also want pasta and some Parmesan or Romano cheese, finely grated.

For the other, you’ll want tomatoes, olive oil, a jalapeño or two, cilantro, garlic, Monterey Jack cheese, salt and pepper, pasta and that Parmesan/Romano cheese.

The greenish-purpley looking tomato in this group actually came from The Growing Experience, not from my backyard.  I’ve been getting a haul from them, too.  Hence the plethora of tomato techniques (not that I’m complainin’.  I’ll be longing for these days about January 8, 2012).

For this type of sauce, chunk up the tomatoes into a pretty large dice…about 1-inch cubes.  You can pull the seeds out if the tomatoes seem excessively watery, or leave them in.  Up to you.

If you’re going to seed them, the easiest way is to cut them across the equator and then use a small spoon to scoop out the seeds and jelly.

Put the tomatoes into a non-reactive (glass, ceramic or hard plastic) bowl.  Then chunk up the cheese into about 1/2-inch cubes.  You can use any type of cheese that will be nice and soft and melty in these dishes.  I think a Fontina would be lovely with the basil in place of the mozzarella, or a Mexican queso blanco, asadero or Oaxaca would certainly work in lieu of the Monterey Jack.  The key is that you want the main cheese to get soft and supple from the warmth of the pasta when you dump it into the sauce.

Here’s the diced up Monterey Jack:

Mince up your seasonings (garlic, jalapeño, etc.) fairly finely.  Remember, they’re going to be raw, and it’s really not terribly pleasant to chomp down on a 1/2-inch chunk of garlic or hot pepper.  The jalapeños should be seeded.  You want subtle, background heat in that one, not blow your socks off.

Shred the herbs.  For the basil, remember Mr. Chiffonade from the bruschetta exercise:

For the cilantro, it’ll be a bit finer than that, simply because you’re starting out with smaller leaves.

Dump the herbs into the bowl, add some olive oil (use a good quality one here, please, again, it’s being eaten raw) and salt and pepper.  Add some finely grated Parmesan/Romano cheese, and stir it all around.  Let it sit for a while (at least half-an-hour, and up to a couple) while you cook your pasta.

OK, I realize this is confusing.  All together now:

Olive Oil
Fresh Mozzarella
Fresh Basil
Additional Parmesan for service

Olive Oil
Monterey Jack
Fresh Cilantro
Jalapeño peppers
Additional Parmesan for service

Quantities are totally dependant upon how many servings you want !  Rough estimate, for 4 servings, 1 to 1&1/2 pounds tomatoes, roughly 1/3C oil, 3 cloves garlic, 6 ounces soft cheese, 1/2C chopped/shredded herbs, 1/4C Parmesan (1-2 T jalapeños), 1 pound pasta.  Look at the sauce after you’ve put it all together to combine the flavors, and see if you want more oil, and taste to see if the seasonings are what you want.  It’s all about your taste.

OK, back to the dish.  Your sauce is standing by and your pasta is cooking.  You want a short, stubby pasta, since this is a chunky, rustic sauce.  Penne, fusilli, orecchiette, or farfelle would all work well.

Drain the pasta, and put it back in the pot on the turned-off burner.  Dump the sauce over the pasta, toss, and slap a cover on it.

Let that stand for about a minute to soften the melty cheese and blend the flavors.  Then serve with the additional Parmesan/Romano.  So simple, and soooooooooooo soulfully satisfying.    The contrast of that fresh, sweet tomato with the warm pasta and the melty cheese (and the crisp, piquant jalapeño if that’s the route you take) is just brilliant.  Tastes good at room temperature too, for leftover lunch the next day.  Just pull from the fridge an hour or so before you want to eat it.

All rightie then, we’re in the home stretch.  Just two more tomato-y delights to go.

I mentioned Fried Green Tomatoes earlier.  I think (in fact I’m pretty damn sure) those are mostly a Southern delicacy.  I surely had never even heard of them until the movie came out in the early ‘90’s (“Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Café”).  A delightful movie, you should check it out if you haven’t seen it, but I digress as usual.

At any rate, fried green tomatoes sounded intriguing, but I had certainly never seen green tomatoes for sale in any local MegaMart.  Tomatillos (which *ARE* green, but *not* tomatoes) certainly.  But green tomatoes, no way.  The first time I grew tomatoes on my own, I knew I had to try fried green tomatoes.

They’re………maaaaahhhvelous.  Simply maaahhhvelous.  Worth growing tomatoes (with all the associated tsuris) just to get a couple of batches of these little gems.  No pictures at all of these, the brain clearly wasn’t connected to the rest of the body the day I made them, but they’re so dead-bang simple, I don’t think visuals are much needed.  This method is based on a recipe from the August/September 2011 issue of “Cook’s Country” magazine.

Take some unripe, (green) tomatoes, wash, core and slice them 1/4-inch thick.  Put them on some paper towels and cover with more paper towels.  Let them sit for about 20 minutes, then pat them dry really well.  Blitz some cornmeal around in a food processor or blender until it gets finely ground.  That’ll take about a minute.  For 1&1/2 pounds of green tomatoes, you’ll process 1/3 cup of cornmeal, and add that to another 1/3 cup, along with 1/3 cup of flour.  Season to taste with salt, pepper and cayenne.  Put that mix in a pie pan or shallow dish.  I added some dried thyme to punch up the herbal aspect a bit.  In another pie pan, mix 2/3 cup buttermilk (or milk soured with some lemon juice or vinegar, about 1&1/2 teaspoons to the 2/3 cup) and an egg.  Start heating some oil in a large skillet.  One at a time, dip your tomato slices into the buttermilk mix, then into the cornmeal, pressing them down so the breading sticks.  Transfer to a rack to dry and set a bit.  Fry until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes per side, and drain on another rack set over a clean baking sheet.

These are the bomb.  They are so good, and unlike many fried green tomato recipes, the breading actually sticks to the tomato slices.  Some Southern cooks gild the lily by serving this with cream gravy, and while I’ve never done that, I’m sure it would be delicious.  Artery-clogging, and heart attack-inducing, but delicious.  Hmmmmmmmmm….I may have to try that next……maybe a gravy made with bacon drippings…..bacon...tomatoes...jus’ sayin’ !  Remoulade sauce (which is what I used) works really well also.  Or just au naturel.  Pretty darn tasty that way too.

Oh yeah.  Please, let these cool a few minutes before you try to eat them.  Nothing, but NOTHING retains heat like the jelly inside a green tomato.  As always, don’t ask how I know…..

OK, onto the last of the Tomato Ex-trav-a-ganz-O !  (Good thing, too….I’m getting’ really tired, and this article is getting’ REALLY long….you still with me???  THANKS !)

Tonight’s dinner needed this stuff, and a little more:

That’d be tomatoes (HUH????  Tomatoes???  Quel surprise !), a hunk of cucumber, a small hunk of onion, a lemon, garlic, some fresh basil, jarred roasted peppers (more on them later), capers, Kalamata olives, red wine vinegar, some chunks of marinated feta cheese, some romaine leaves and oh….yeah….anchovy paste.

WAIT !!!  COME BACK !!!  Don’t leave now.  Hang with me.  Trust me.  You will not know there’s the *A* word in this dish.

Oh yeah, we need some bread, too.  That same “Tuscan Pane” makes another return appearance here, because we’re making panzanella !  Yep.  Panzanella.  The ultimate refrigerator cleaner-outer.  You got leftover cheese?  Throw it in.  Some grilled meat that needs to be used?  Fair game (as would be *actual* game…).  Veggies looking a little forlorn?  Trim off the icky bits (if it’s not ALL an icky bit) and use what you can.

But not those jarred roasted peppers.  They, somehow, in the month or so since I’d opened them had turned into a pretty spiffy science experiment.  Never quite saw colors of fuzz like that before….

Not wanting to experience the joys of the intestinal distress that comes with food poisoning, nor willing to further the development of a new species of mold, *THEY* went down the garbage disposer, followed by a dose of boiling water and bleach, and the jar to the recycling bin.  In my panzanella, we used pepperoncini instead.  A good substitute.

Start by taking some of that hearty, crusty bread, and loping off most of the crusts.

For just me, for a main course, I used 3 full slices of the bread, crusts removed, one full and one smaller “end-ish” slice with the crusts on.  You do want a bit of textural contrast, but you also want to be able eat the meal without resorting to that chisel action.  Cut the bread up into about bite-sized pieces, and throw them into a large bowl.

Toss them with a goodly amount of olive oil, and I added some garlic powder, some dried Italian herb mix, and a tiny bit of both salt and pepper.  Toss them around, making sure the bread gets well coated with the oil, and then spread the bread onto a baking sheet in a single layer.

Hellooooooooo Mr. Skanky baking pan.  I missed you !

Toss Mr. Skanky and the bread into a preheated 400° oven.  That’s the only non-summer friendly step to this meal.  The little kitchen got really, really, really hot.  Even with the exhaust fan running, the windows open and another fan in the living room blowing into the kitchen.  So I went outside and futzed with the laundry !

And had an adult beverage (gin and tonic, very cooling).

After about 10-15 minutes, the bread cubes were starting to brown and crisp.  We don’t want them to get too crunchy, we want them still sort of pliable so they’ll absorb the dressing to come.  By the way, we just made homemade croutons, ifn’s you’re wanting some of them.

Set those aside to cool a bit.  Now we’re going to make the dressing.  In the bottom of a large bowl (I used the same one I tossed the croutons in, why dirty another one?), mix some pressed garlic, some red wine vinegar, some lemon juice and the anchovy paste.  The original recipe (which I took from Tyler Florence’s Eat This Book), calls for 2 garlic cloves, 3 anchovy fillets, 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, the juice of half a lemon, salt and pepper to taste and olive oil (strangely no quantity given) for 4-6 servings using an entire loaf of bread.  I roughly halved it for me and my 4&1/2 slices of bread.  If you’re using the anchovy fillets, mash them together with the salt and garlic on your board, with the back of your knife, to make a paste.  Since I didn’t want to kill an entire can of anchovies for one-and-a-half of the leeeetle feeeeshies, I used the paste and skipped on by.  The paste, which comes in a small tube, much like a toothpaste tube, is a great way to get the taste of anchovy without opening a tin of them, and wasting most.  It keeps in the fridge forever.

Re:  Anchovies.  You seriously will not know they’re in the dressing.  Most people’s image of anchovies is the crispy, “hairy” (from the fine bones) and very strong-tasting little fishy things on top of a bad delivery pizza.  In applications like this, or in a pasta sauce, or a casserole, they simply dissolve into the background and give you a richness and saltiness and depth that you really can’t put your finger on, but you would miss if it weren’t there.  They do NOT taste “fishy” in dishes like this.  If you do use the canned fillets, rinse them under cold running water, and that will also help to mellow them out.  Seriously.  Give them a try.  You won’t regret it.

So, here’s the dressing ingredients in the bowl before the addition of the oil:

Drizzle in the oil while whisking until you get a taste you like.  Err on the side of a bit too much oil, since your tomatoes are acidic and will give up juice into the dressing when you add them.  Also use a *very* light hand with the salt, since we’ve a) salted the croutons, b) the anchovies/paste are salty, c) the capers are salty and d) the Kalamata olives and feta I used are also, you got it, salty.

Chop up all your veg (tomatoes, cucumber, onion) into fairly large pieces.  The original recipe said to pretty finely mince up the cucumber and onion, but I would have preferred them larger.  If you use the jarred roasted peppers, tear those by hand, as well as the basil.  Again, fairly large pieces on those.  The capers can be left whole, or chopped a bit, and the olives should be pitted and chopped.  If you’re using the feta, crumble it a bit, or chop into about 1/2-inch chunks.  A nice addition (very VERY nice, actually) is some chopped or torn celery leaves.  I didn’t use them this time, and I wish I had.  They add a nice contrasting bitterness and freshness to the salad.   And it needed WAY more onion, cuke and pepperoncini than I used.  Tonight’s version was a bit one-note.  Still good, and still satisfying, but I’ve made better.  I also think cutting the supporting veggies a bit larger (cuke and onion) would have helped with that balance.  The accents however (olives, capers and pepperoncini) were fine in small dice.

Anyhoooo, after you’ve got the dressing and the add-ins done, dump your croutons into the bowl,

and toss it all around to get everything coated in the dressing.

You can serve it immediately, or let it sit for literally a couple of minutes.  Too long, and the croutons will start to get soggy.  But you do want them to absorb some of that savory, salty, umami-rich dressing.  The contrast between the crispy bread, and the soft tomatoes and the crunchy, cool cucumber is just wonderful.  It’s an explosion of flavor and textures in your mouth, and the very essence of what simple summer food is all about.  And the dish changes and evolves as you eat it, the bread becoming more soft and moist as it sits in the dressing, and the entire dish becomes more complex as the flavors continue to blend.

By the way, even though I had this as my main dish (with some fruit for dessert, gotta love Summer !), panzanella could easily be a side dish to a grilled piece of chicken, fish or meat.

That’s my Ode to The Tomato.  In all the lovely iterations I can think of, although I’m sure that you all can come up with more.  I’d love to hear them…..

A couple of other notes….you may notice a, shall we say, formidable amount of raw garlic in these dishes.  Yep, you’re gonna have heavy-duty dragon breath, because there’s copious amounts of garlic and it’s mostly raw.  You should also plan on serving these same dishes to anyone you’re going to be close to for a couple of days.  And you should be prepared for a not-insignificant amount of garlic burps for the first few hours after you’ve indulged.  But indulge you should, because Summer, and Summer flavors, are not for the timid !

Now, if only it didn’t seem so self-abusive to make fresh tomato soup in August….


  1. Awesome tomatoes and great classic simple prep ideas. Trade you some lovely basil for a few 'maters ;)

  2. Next time I see you Heidi, I'll come bearing 'maters for sure ! I have my own basil, though, a nice full plant I got at TJ's about 2 months ago, cruising along happily on my patio table. Tomatoes and basil, now if that isn't a match made in Heaven, I don't know what is.