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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

You Say Tomato . . .

Celebrating—and devouring—the fruits of summer’s end

By B.A. Nilsson

Once upon a time you could press baskets of overripe tomatoes into service by hurling them at horrible performers, but with the death (or dearth, I suppose) of live entertainment, that excess fruit now is relegated to trash or compost.

In our house, late summer started with a trickle of ripening cherry tomatoes, a trickle that soon became a flood. We keep them in a bowl on a kitchen counter and pop them like candy, which is what they might as well be classified as, so sweet and flavorful are the little boogers. But we can’t nibble them fast enough, so they’re migrating into any number of dishes.

Most of which require that they be cut in half, a duty I perform with a razor-like Japanese chef’s knife. The tomato halves can be lightly salted and tossed with balsamic vinegar and chopped fresh basil, which is enjoyable enough right there. Throw in some fresh mozzarella balls and you’ve got a classic appetizer—but, as we’re discovering, they can be paired with plenty else, and much of what I suggest below applies to these cherries as well as their larger counterparts.

My favorite breakfast is a sauté of halved cherry tomatoes (salt, pepper, basil and oregano) folded into a dish of scrambled eggs touched with sharp cheddar. If that sounds too healthful, throw in some sautéed pepperoni slices.

We planted some standard-issue seedlings early in the summer, and the bounty from just those few plants has turned spectacular. The small red balls look like Christmas lights, and not only are the large tomatoes plump and ripe, they’re also relatively unmarred by the surface crust that too often grabs hold.

Which means that they look great in salads. One of my favorites is also the simplest: slice the big ones, halve the slices, then toss them with thinly sliced Bermuda onion in oil and vinegar, seasoned with salt and pepper and, optionally but deliciously, basil. To my palate, that basil-tomato pairing never palls.

Every dinner I prepare is preceded by the question: How many of these damn things can I persuade my family to eat tonight? I use sliced tomatoes in place of melon on a dish that also includes thin-sliced prosciuto or a similar cured meat. I served a plate of burgers with sliced tomatoes alongside. Being in a rush, I grabbed pesto from the fridge, thinned it with olive oil, and spooned it atop the tomatoes, which turned it into a stand-alone dish that was consumed quickly.

Any vegetable that crosses the stove now gets its measure of added tomato. I recently steamed a head’s worth of cauliflower florets, then gave them a quick sautée with rough-chopped tomatoes and ponzu, a version of soy sauce that includes lemon flavoring.

A curry of potatoes and peas got a tomato juice base, while farfalle with pesto was tossed, at its finish, with a bounty of red ripe chunks.

Of course, the monarch of summer soups is gazpacho, which celebrates its variety of fresh ingredients. Tomatoes need to be peeled for this dish, and there are two methods. Best-known is the plunge, in which you throw a bunch of tomatoes into a pot of boiling water long enough to loosen the skin. This has the undesirable effect of heating the tomatoes too much for my taste, so I use the singe. Spear the tomatoes, one by one, on the end of a long-handled fork, and thrust them into the open flame of a gas stove until they crackle and the skin starts to blacken and separate. Cool the tomato a bit and the skin peels off easily—and the tomato remains cool inside.

A purée of gazpacho components is not for me. I’m of the rough-chopped camp, so I hand-cut the tomatoes, onion, garlic, red and green peppers and cucumbers. Add chopped fresh cilantro and season with salt and pepper and cumin. Although the tomatoes you chop will supply a goodly amount of the liquid, you’ll want to dedicate several more to juice production alone. Or go in the other direction: Make it without excess liquid and serve it as a salad.

For all their culinary ubiquity, tomatoes had a bad rap for a while. First grown in South America, probably in Peru, they traveled the world as imperialist explorers literally enjoyed the fruit of their pickings. They were a big hit in Spain and Italy in the 16th century, but when they hit England they were judged poisonous, probably because of their resemblance to other members of the nightshade family. Not entirely erroneous logic: You don’t want to nibble the tomato plant’s roots and leaves.

A canard that persists is that tomatoes reacted with the pewter off which many ate their meals back then, leaching lead into the food and doing in the diner—but lead poisoning takes too long to indict any single food.

In any event, by the mid-18th century, tomatoes gained enough of a footing in Great Britain and its colonies to become part of daily fare by the end of that century.

So, you decided to make the salad version of the gazpacho and now have all this lovely fresh tomato juice at hand. I think we know what to do.

In a tall glass, pour about a half a cup of chilled tomato juice. Squeeze in the juice of half a lemon. Add a tablespoon of Grey Poupon mustard, a couple of dashes of Worcestershire sauce, a healthy shot of Tabasco and salt and pepper to taste; add a jigger of vodka and garnish with a fresh celery stalk. That’s the flavor of summer.

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The tenth annual Saratoga Wine and Food Festival takes place Sept. 10 through 12 at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, and features a joint celebration with the Fall Ferrari Festival. Friday’s big food event is a 7 PM “Live on Stage” gala replete with food and wine experts. Day two has a trade tasting and seminars from 11 to 1, a Grand Tasting and Ferrari Auto Show immediately thereafter, and a 7 PM after party. Then there’s Sunday’s 11 AM jazz brunch, featuring the presentation of “best in show” a70 wards for automobiles, food and more. The full package is $250, and various events are variously priced. For dinners and live on stage events, call 584-9330, ext. 122; for the Grand Tasting, call 587-3330 or go to . . . The fifth annual Little Italy Streetfest takes place from noon to 9 PM, Sat., Sept 11., in Schenectady’s Little Italy on North Jay Street. Singer-actor-winemaker Gianni Russo (of The Godfather fame) will sign bottles of his wines at Cornell’s and then sing a set with the band Happy Daze that evening. The event also features a homemade wine tasting competition, an Italian cookie-baking contest, and food from seven area restaurants, from pasta and pasta fagioli to panini, pizza, and Italian pastry. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.

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