Another interesting aspect of tomato’s rise to popularity was the debate whether it should be classified as a fruit or a vegetable. While this might seem trivial to most, its classification was greatly important to those who first grew it commercially because of taxation and import tariffs established to protect American vegetable growers. The issue went all the way to the Supreme Court which, in 1887, ruled to classify it as a vegetable subject to import quotas and taxation. This decision was reaffirmed as recently as 1981 when the USDA declared it a vegetable so that eating ketchup would count as vegetable consumption in school lunch programs nationwide. Be it a fruit or a vegetable, today tomato is America’s favorite garden plant and an important part of its agricultural industry.”
– David Trinklein, Associate Professor of Horticulture, in Missouri Environment and Garden
Buenos Aires – First, I think we’re back up and operating here in the world of computers. Dell came through, in a round-a-bout way. Back to the standard outsourced to India technical support and an hour online with someone who wouldn’t deviate from their script and couldn’t decide if he was allowed to help me – not that my computer isn’t still under warranty, but I’m not currently in the U.S. and he’s only supposed to help people there, even if my warranty has overseas coverage. He finally decided that he couldn’t help me, told me to contact Dell Argentina, and logged off. Needless to say furious, I called Dell Argentina, which is also outsourced, but only to Panama, got a tech support guy on the phone who managed to not only calm me down in a matter of a minute or so, but took only ten minutes to figure out that my hard drive was slowly crashing. He recommended that I back up anything I needed or wanted, and he’d get a technician out to replace the hard drive and keyboard (which had a couple of keys that were not always clicking through, he figured he may as well get both handled at once). The technician arrived the second morning after, replaced the parts in under five minutes, and was on his way. I was slightly less than thrilled that his only job was replacing the parts as I had stacks of system reinstallation discs that I wasn’t sure what order to use them in or exactly if they’d work – nor did he stay around to even test if the keyboard or new hard drive worked, he simply replaced them and left. So, kudos to Roman in Panama, and not so much to Jayanthi in India or David here in Argentina… but at least I figured it all out with a bit of trial and error, and although I’m sure I’ll come across things I don’t have anymore (like my photo editing program which had been a downloaded purchase – so apologies on photo quality until I re-do that)… and, hopefully all will swiftly return to its usual abnormal.
Now, to the tomato. There are a couple of types of dinners that are my favorite to prepare. My true favorite – more for a group of friends than for a planned dinner, is a sort of mystery basket dinner. Everyone brings a couple of ingredients and I have to figure out a couple of things to make from them. I’ve done those a few times – usually with a couple of other chef friends – and we just have fun playing in the kitchen – it’s sort of our version of the Iron Chef challenge – to each other. My next most favorite is the one ingredient menu. Not that there’s only one ingredient in each dish or something, but that there’s a central ingredient that’s used in every dish – we did that here at Casa S for our chocolate dinner and our champagne dinner. What’s fun for me is that I get to think about that ingredient in ways that I might not have before, and also to get to present it, and have others start thinking about it in ways that they never have.
Needless to say, some of our guests for this last weekend seemed nervous about the idea of an “all tomato” dinner. I think that we pulled it off… We started off with a variation on a dish I’ve made before – a smoky tomato cheese tart. The crust is simple – take some good quality whole grain crackers and crush them to crumbs, then add curry powder, paprika, chili powder, turmeric, and cayenne pepper – not to much of any of them, just enough to give it some zip, and a bit of melted butter to moisten it all. Bake for ten minutes just to firm it up. Meanwhile, blend about 15-16 ounces of cream cheese with 4 ounces of blue cheese, 3 tablespoons of tomato paste, 3 tablespoons of flour, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, a teaspoon each of smoked salt and smoked paprika. Pour over the crust and bake for ten minutes at 450°F, then turn the heat down to 250°F and continue baking for about 45 minutes – until firm in the center. Cool and serve with greens and topped with some sliced scallions or chives.
Next up, I’d read about a charred tomato pesto over on Stephencooks. The idea intrigued me and I decided to make a charred tomato gazpacho. Given that I was aiming for a soup rather than a sauce that was going to be used in limited quantities, I decided to hold back on the charring a bit, and just brown the tomatoes. I used some beautiful vine ripened tomatoes, cut them in half, basted them with olive oil, fennel seed, oregano, basil, thyme, and some garlic – as Stephen suggests – and put them in the oven on maximum with the convection blower going – it didn’t take long to blister them, then I flipped them over and did the same on the other side. When they were done I pureed them in the blender, charred skin and all. Meanwhile, I diced up some cucumbers, green peppers, red onions, and minced some garlic. I added the tomato puree to it, a bit of red wine vinegar and olive oil, and just enough water to get the consistency I wanted, then seasoned it with salt and black pepper.
Last February, in The New York Times, Peter Meehan reviewed a restaurant, Giorgione 508. The restaurant sounded interesting, but one thing in particular caught my eye – “The ricotta and marjoram ravioli in a sauce of burst cherry tomatoes, peas and butter ($14) is a knockout, as good as ravioli anywhere in the five boroughs.” I made a note of it, figuring one of these days I’d try making something like that. I was wandering the Mercado del Progreso looking for different sorts of tomatoes (unfortunately not the best season for a wide variety, but I found a few), and happened across a couple of large crates of zucchini blossoms. I immediately changed my mind about the ravioli and decided to stuff the zucchini blossoms instead. The filling was a simple mixture of good ricotta with fresh marjoram, salt, and white pepper. I cleaned and stuffed the blossoms, laid them out in a baking dish, and baked them with a little olive oil drizzled over the top. The sauce, I decided to go very simple to let the tomatoes shine through – I simply put the cherry tomatoes in another baking dish – so that they were only one layer, tossed in a good quantity of butter, sprinkled them with salt, and baked them in a low oven until they “burst” – the skins split and they get all nice and soft, but still retain their shape. I ladled the sauce over the blossoms to serve. I liked this dish enough that, well, it was my entire dinner.
One of my cooking school teachers, many moons ago, gave me a recipe for a sun-dried tomato and picholine olive salsa that I’ve made many times as a quick and easy spaghetti topping. I decided to use the salsa as a topping for some good pork loin, roasted to just medium well. The salsa is just chopped sun-dried tomatoes (oil packed or reconstituted dry ones), olives – in this case I used some good arbequina olives that I found, a bit of red onion, olive oil, salt, and chili flakes. The little drizzle of green oil on the plate was mostly for color, but packed a little extra zip as well – poblano oil, made with some fresh poblanos that I found at the market. To make the oil, just blend the seeded and stemmed poblanos with some olive oil on high speed for a couple of minutes, then strain through a fine strainer or cheesecloth. Tasty and colorful.
Dessert made with tomatoes? Why not? Years ago I made a tarte tatin using peeled and seeded plum tomatoes and black walnuts that was delicious. But, I’d been forewarned about nut allergies by a couple of folks coming this past weekend, so that one was out – plus, I wanted to try something new. I decided on a custard made with the plum tomatoes, and, in partcular, and for no reason other than it popped into my mind, a brown sugar custard. Blended together: ¾ cup of brown sugar, 3/8 cup of white sugar, ¼ teaspoon salt, 5 eggs, four peeled and seeded plum tomatoes, and 1 teaspoon of vanilla. When completely smooth, I added 3½ cups of scalded milk (bring to just a boil, then take off the heat). I poured the custard into ramekins and baked in a 400°F oven in a water bath until firm, about 25-30 minutes. Cooled and then chilled, and served topped with a sauce made of melted brown sugar with a little butter added. Really, give it a try – the vanilla and tomato work beautifully together… and after all, despite Ronald Reagan’s claim, we do know that the tomato is really a fruit…