Lycopersicon exculentum

by Don Curto

tomato-153272_640At the considerable risk of being inconsiderate of your knowledge of Latin botanical terms for common items, I will remind you that the title of this piece, lycopersicon esculentum is the name for the common tomato. And, one of the problems with today’s tomato is that it is too common.
The first word designates the family (nightshade) and the second tells us that despite the fact that many nightshade members are poisonous, this one is edible (esculent = edible). I suppose the next time you are invited to a dinner party, you might, upon tasting the first course, exclaim with gusto “Wow, esculent!” This might free you from attending future parties.
The historical story of the tomato has traveled from it being labeled as a poisonous but beautiful plant, to a tax-avoiding fruit, and now, for more than a century a taxable vegetable by Supreme Court decision in the 1880s. Nonetheless, the tomato is the second most popular vegetable in America (the potato is first) and enjoyed by millions all over the world.
By now, almost everyone knows the tomato probably originated in Central America (or South America), migrated to Europe and was small and possibly yellow in color. It was used as an ornamental plant at first as there was fear it was poisonous. It seems those great eaters and developers of interesting food, the Italians, were the first to see the benefits of the tomato and the first to eat and cultivate it. Except for some locally grown Beefsteak varieties, those grown and canned in Italy still are the best in the world. The Italian Marzano variety outranks all other canned tomatoes for flavor.
Returning to the commonness of today’s tomato, I say again: that is the problem with the beautiful vegetable. Over the decades, the tomato has become so popular that producers devise ways to keep it on the national market all year long. For a very long time, the tomato was seasonal. Here in the limited-resource U.P., tomatoes were available in July, August and September, maybe. Those of us who came from families who knew their stuff about extending the eating season would wrap green tomatoes in newsprint and keep them in a cool, dark place. Sometimes, in my family, we had “ripe” tomatoes for Thanksgiving dinner. They weren’t as flavorful as those just picked from the garden, but compared to what is available in today’s supermarkets, they were first class.
Growers of our tomatoes have worked to make the product withstand the rigors of long travel. And they have been modified to hold shape, firmness and color for a very long time. The use of ethylene gas in the “ripening” process permits storage at the distributor level of green tomatoes, which are then “ripened” to your order. All this is sort of disgusting, but it does keep something that looks like a tomato on the market all year long. The hydroponics really don’t even look much like a real tomato, though there is a variety from Canada which looks pretty good, but disappoints when eaten.
The worst sin involving the use of these things is committed by the cooks in otherwise good restaurants who slice these things (I am unable to call them tomatoes and the program in my computer blocks that use) very thin and put them on salads as though they were an edible food product. Following that is the next worse sin committed by the customer who eats the damn things; occasionally these customers are in other venues world class critics. Go figure.
So, what course is open to those of us who love good tomato taste when the fresh vegetable is not available? There are some dishes using the not-so-good whole tomato and many recipes using the great canned tomatoes that are available on the market year-round.
With an imperfect out-of-season tomato, try this recipe from Elizabeth David, that British food writer who made French cooking better than it is normally. In all the recipes in the remainder of this column—which are from famous cookbook writers—I have changed things, shortened the instructions, but give credit to the originator.

TOMATOES A LA CRÈME

from An Omelette and a Glass of Wine
Take two whole, nicely shaped red tomatoes from the supermarket. If you eat them raw they will disappoint, but here you will be pleased.
Core them. Cut them in halves, lengthwise. In a frying pan big enough to fit the four halves, melt a lump of good butter on medium heat. Put them cut-side down, puncture the rounded sides in several places with a small sharp knife to let the heat get to the insides. Heat them for about four or five minutes, depending on their size, but do not brown or blacken them. Now turn them over and cook them for about ten minutes. Again, do not blacken them. Now turn them once more with the cut side down again and the heated juices will run out. After this happens, turn them once more with the cut side up and pour about two or three ounces of very thick whipping cream around them, mixing it with the hot juices. It must be cream and it should be as thick as you can purchase. Take them from the pan and put on a heated plate, pour the sauce over and eat while very hot. Can something this simple, with so few ingredients, be superb? As we say in the U.P., “you betcha.”
Patricia Wells has a way of taking something generally complicated and making a simple, but tasty variation. This one is a good example.

PROVENCAL ROAST TOMATOES

This is best made with perfect tomatoes, but it works well with what is available, up to and including the mostly terrible Roma or plum-shaped tomato we find in our stores. (There are great plum-shaped canned tomatoes we will get to in some following recipes.) This is the most simple recipe for roast tomatoes that I know of.
Needed equipment: a shallow baking dish to hold the tomatoes in one layer. A frying pan that will take intense heat to sear the tomatoes. Run the oven up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Core and halve the tomatoes lengthwise. Heat a small amount of olive oil over moderately high heat in the frying pan. When the oil is hot, place as many tomatoes as will fit cut side down. If you crowd them, they will steam and not sear. Sear them without moving until they are dark and almost caramelized. About four minutes in the hot pan.
Transfer the tomatoes cooked side up, to the baking dish. You can overlap them a little since they will shrink as they bake. Season them lightly with salt; sea salt is best. Remove the pan from the heat and deglaze with a good red wine vinegar or you can use a fine white wine vinegar from Spain as I do.
Pour the deglazing liquid over the tomatoes and sprinkle with some mixed herbs. Ms. Wells recommends fresh parsley, rosemary, tarragon and basil. I suggest you use sparingly the dried version of these herbs except for the Italian parsley, which you must chop very, very small so that it won’t spoil the eating, but yet give the dish a nice contrasting green color.
Place the baking dish in the middle of the hot oven and cook, uncovered, until the tomatoes are soft, shriveled and even a bit black around the edges, about thirty minutes.
These can be served hot, warm or at room temperature, but they are best hot or warm.
Next, we look at some Ratatouille recipes. But note that wherever tomatoes are called for in any of these dishes I have elected to use canned, peeled whole tomatoes.
I tasted and tested four tomato varieties. I rejected two out of hand because of the heavy use of salt: Pine Cone whole peeled and Econo’s house brand, Our Family. Any tomato flavor is so dominated by the salt it is useless. This is a shame because I can remember when I thought the Pine Cone brand was a pretty credible canned tomato.
There are two brands imported from Italy. Rega San Marzano tomatoes and Rega regular brand with basil added. Both are whole, peeled, pear-shaped and have salt among their listed ingredients, but it is listed last and not noticeable as a separate ingredient. As far as I know at this writing, both of these are available only from Andriacchi’s store in Ishpeming and are expensive. The Rega regular tomato with basil costs only one half what the San Marzano tomato costs, but is as flavorful. I suspect the regular brand is in fact a San Marzano tomato slightly less uniform and colorful. They are very good, however. They are the best buy if you want top quality. It is shameful that the Dei Fratelli brand from Ohio, which has been performing very well with other labels, is spoiled completely and really not even a good choice because of the heavy addition of sugar, which affects the taste of the basic recipe.
I selected Ratatouille because it really is a vegetable stew or Ragout Nicoise and is a main course supper meal with good bread. To my taste, there are very few all-vegetable main courses as satisfactory as this dish.
Patricia Wells’ Speedy Ratatouille uses only the zucchini and the tomatoes, leaving out the onions, pepper and eggplant. I made this dish and it is pretty good, but does not pass as real ratatouille. So, in another pan, later, I cooked a medium Vidalia onion, chopped and a medium eggplant, cut into cubes and added to the first dish. Came out fine. For all of my variations of this dish I used canned tomatoes, chopped and used without their juice.
More than forty years ago, I was given a cookbook entitled The Art of French Cooking, published first in France after WWII then translated into English and published here in 1958. My edition is dated 1962. It is a lavish book with recipes and menus as far back as 1820—hundreds of illustrations in both color and black and white. It has long been considered the Bible of French cooking (I found one listed on the Internet for $84.95). I suggest that with a little change and a minor clarification, the brief recipe in this cookbook can be the perfect base for your own version of this fine dish. After all, the classy name Ratatouille only represents a vegetable stew with zucchini, sweet green pepper, onion, eggplant, tomato and very little in the way of spice beyond garlic, salt and pepper.
From the “food bible”: Brown one sliced onion and three sliced sweet peppers in oil in a frying pan. Add two crushed tomatoes and four zucchini and four small eggplants cut in round slices; season with salt and pepper. Brown well. Just before removing from the stove, add some chopped parsley and garlic.
You already have noticed that no fine amounts are given for anything. I suggest you use some canned, good tomatoes and add them after you do the eggplants (use a medium sized one, not four). The important thing about this dish is you can do it any way you wish. You can add more or less tomato, for instance. In the time when this recipe was written, it was assumed that cooks had some skills and some sense of proportion for the amounts of each ingredient. Good luck on this easy and wonderful dish.
There is a note in the book that says sometimes small new potatoes are added to this dish. The potatoes should be fried with the onions and peppers. This makes a great vegetarian supper or lunch.
I have a friend in Menominee, Mike Kettu, who is a fine mushroom hunter, and each year he manages to help feed my mushroom needs. I print the following short report on a recent hunt he did for me because it is so remarkably thorough about the state of the woods and uses so few words. Mike is a retired school teacher.
— Don Curto

Don
Went out Thursday after a report that some mushrooms had arrived. Found 2 nice black morels, morchella angusticeps, at Farm, where we used to live, and one small one at Devil’s Creek, a spot north of here which can be the motherlode for chanterelles in July/Aug. Probably walked 8 miles and drove 80 mi for 3 mushrooms.
The woods are filled with hepaticas, a few blooming trout lilies, and bloodroot. Found one devil’s urn. No other fungi. At Devil’s Creek, the wild leeks are about 1/2 of their mature size. As usual, they are profuse.
Wild strawberries are just leafing. No sign of trillium or orchis. Apple trees are just beginning to bud. Daffodils at Farm are in full bloom in the sunny areas and just beginning in the woods along with scylla and a few crocus along the pond. Saw a beautiful 16-inch garter snake and 6 painted turtles on a log by the pond and 6 or 8 wood ducks. There were sandhill cranes making a lot of noise but I didn’t see them.
Oddly, only one wood tick. — Mike

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