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Posts Tagged ‘ethylene gas’

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I used to hate fresh tomatoes. Growing up in New Jersey, that was as heretical as blasting Conway Twitty music on the street outside the Pony.* I said it anyway, though. And to be fair, the supermarket tomatoes I grew up eating were hardly flavorful. Grown strictly to withstand shipping and handling, picked unripe and hit with ethylene gas**, they were pink, watery, and a bore on the taste buds.

Then maybe eight years ago I had a fling with an heirloom tomato and became even more smug in my distaste of remotely grown fresh tomatoes. Heirlooms taste like the berries tomatoes are: tender and richly flavored.

Yesterday I walked into Asbury Park for lunch—well, for the makings of it. First I stopped by a local organic farm stand run by a woman in a floppy straw hat. When I picked up one of the two tomatoes on display, I asked if she had raised them herself. She said she had, and warned me that the tomato I held ‘wasn’t perfect.’ I gave it a little squeeze, and a tiny bit of juice oozed out. It was probably two hours off the vine, a youngster in a new town. I told her I don’t care about perfect, and bought it.

Then I went to the bread stand run by a gregarious Roman guy. As he talked to customers he sliced up narrow anchovy-provolone sandwiches, casually handing bits to passers-by.*** Sold me two rolls for a buck. ‘Thank you, sweet dahling!’

Then I walked home, stopping by the lake to pick some wild mint.

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The tomato sandwich with basil is a time-honored thing, and for good reason. I figured mint and basil are cousins, so I’d give that a whirl. Picked a bunch—some for my sandwich, more for my friend who loves to cook and wouldn’t look at me the way the anti-Conway-Twitty crowd would. It takes a rare person, Jerseyan or not, who will not look at me askance for eating plants I picked by a lake. She is one of them.****

I sliced up the roll and gutted it a bit—I don’t like too high a bread-to-filling ratio—and added a slice of Trader Joe’s addictive mozzarella, a little bit of mayonnaise, and kosher salt. The juice from the tomato mixes with the mayo and makes the bread a little soppy, but that’s a plus.

You can try to build a quicker, better, cobbled-together summer sandwich than this, but it won’t work. Okay, maybe if you use two slices of cheese. I’m reasonable.

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*That’s bad. Trust me on this one.

**You’re smacking your lips at that image, aren’t you? I shouldn’t tease so.

***Several turned up their noses; I almost bit his hand off.

***This just occurred to me: the friend I mention is one of three good friends who are first-generation kids (Filipino, Italian, and Japanese). I find in cases such as this there is a stronger connection to where food comes from, and less of a tendency to be afraid of it. Kind of fascinating.)

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Growing up, I’d only eat tomatoes in ketchup or in sauce—never fresh. I don’t know if it’s because in the 1980s heirloom tomatoes weren’t as prevalent as they are now or because my family pretty much stuck to Foodtown’s beefsteak variety, but I found any fresh tomato on our summer table to taste, well, boring. Even the celebrated Jersey tomato didn’t do it for me; it tasted like a wet gym sock.

Now I wait through bleak Novembers, raw Januaries and rainy Aprils for heirlooms, and I get them organically grown from Silverton Farms in Toms River.

Heirloom tomatoes are old varieties that didn’t make the homogenous cut for supermarket stocks. The ones you see there were bred to withstand the rigors of shipping and sitting on a shelf for days or even weeks. “Ripened” not by way of sun and time but by way of ethylene gas (yum, right?), let’s just say they weren’t bred for flavor.

The tomatoes on this page, on the other hand, are grown the way they always have been. No messing around with the natural order of things means their natural flavors and characters remain intact.

Silverton’s first batch is ready in July and the season continues through September. Variety and abundance are at their peak around now. They come in shades ranging from crimson and canary yellow to pink, dusky purple and even brown. They’re fragile, allowed to sun-ripen. And they taste the way they always have…for centuries. Pretty comforting, and pretty incredible.

These red ones below, ‘Juliet’, are shaped like plum tomatoes but are smaller and have an acidic, bright flavor that works well with almost any recipe you’ve got, from cooked down into sauces to cut up onto a pizza to chopped up into salads. Use these when you make panzanella, that glory of mid- to late summer.

Get out a big bowl, cut up day-old Italian semolina bread into 1-2″ pieces, sprinkle with cold water until somewhat tender, and put the pieces into the bowl. Add cucumbers, cut to about the same size (I cut out the seedy centers first), and white onion. Mix in salt and pepper, and add olive oil and red wine vinegar until it’s fairly well coated, even a bit saturated. Taste and see what it’s lacking. Fix. Last, rip up a handful of fresh basil leaves and throw that in. Toss and serve. It tastes even better the next day if you are lucky enough to have any left over.

The yellow guys below, ‘Sungold’, are cherry tomato-sized, candy-sweet like the berries they are, and are my favorites to use in a spicy pasta dish. I love a good paradox.

Heat up some water for your fettuccine in a stockpot, and while that’s coming to a boil, cut a quart or more of the Sungolds in half. Put them in a big, wide saucepan over medium heat. Add olive oil (extra credit if you can get a hold of some oil that’s had chilies steeped in it for awhile), salt, pepper, minced fresh garlic, and red pepper flakes, all to taste. In a little saucepan, heat some more olive oil until it’s crackling but not smoking. Then add a couple of handfuls of fresh bread crumbs, left over from any old bread. Stir it now and again until it’s golden and a bit crispy. Take it off the heat. Cook the pasta, drain it, and plunk it into the wide saucepan with all of the other goodies. Toss it together, then add a few torn fresh basil leaves. Load up a bowl for yourself with the pasta, then sprinkle some of the bread crumbs on top. Killer.

I admit with some shame that I don’t know the names of the varieties below. But I can tell you the best way to enjoy them.

Take two slices of white bread (even the lame squishy kind will do, although a denser white bread is best). Slather mayo on both slices, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Cut one of these voluptuous mamas into quarter-inch slices. Use a serrated knife to make it easier. Hold a slice up to the light. This is an essential step; you need to see exactly what a marvel of nature this is.

Layer one or two tomato slices onto the bread slices. Salt it, close it up, slice your sandwich in half, find yourself a soft chair in a very quiet part of the house, and chew slowly.

I promise you—it doesn’t get any better than that.

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