Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Pommes d'Amour

Pommes d'amour, "love apples," is a French nickname for tomatoes. This time of year, my relationship with tomatoes tends toward love/hate. Of course, I love the intense, summery flavor of heirloom tomatoes ripened on the vine. The first tomato-basil salad of the season is a rite of passage. But by late August, certainly by mid-September, when they're no longer a novelty, when the air cools and other, more autumnal flavors beckon, the bounty of pommes d'amour can become, well, not hateful, but certainly a bit burdensome.

Platters of them sit on the counter, some have split and leak juice, clouds of fruitflies amass, the kitchen smells funny. It kills me to toss them, though; at some of the tonier farmers' markets in town, a specimen like this voluptuous Big Rainbow, gone soft at the bottom, would set you back five bucks! As I haul another bowl out to the compost, my mind rings like a cash register.

Some folks can tomatoes, or freeze them whole, or make sauce. I have to say, I do not crave tomatoes in mid-winter. My palate has come around to the idea of seasonal eating to the extent that I delight all winter in squash, in sauerkraut, in the roots we've stored, the hardy greens that last in our Minnesota garden sometimes into January. But there are times when some brighter notes are welcome, so each year I do preserve some tomatoes, and this is my favorite way to do it:

Tomato Gratin

This is so simple I scarcely dare call in a "recipe." For this version I took about five pounds of tomatoes, a mix of all the types in the photo above, which included Black Krim, Brandywine, Green Zebra, Big Rainbow, and others. I cut out the stem end, and just with a paring knife, open the tomato and squeeze out most of the seeds. But don't fuss with this part; just seed very quickly, and then simply tear the tomatoes into pieces and drop them into a big, wide gratin dish, like you see here:

Then drizzle with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, and slice a couple of big cloves of garlic over it, if you like, and some herbs, also optional, but I usually add a good bit of basil and thyme.

Then pop it in the oven, fairly low: 325 or if you have convection, 300 convection. In 20 minutes or so give it a stir--the herbs will float to the top so you need to push them back in. Then just let it cook until it is reduced by about half. This will take around three hours. Stir every half hour. At the end it will look like this:

Pull out the thyme twigs. The skins are still in there. Some may be a little tough; most will have softened sufficiently. You can turn this into a smoother sauce by running it through a food mill. I don't bother. I freeze it now in pint containers, and when it's frozen pop out the frozen bricks and store in a plastic freezer bag. Then you've got sauce for pasta or pizza, embellished with some sauteed onion and garlic and a splash of wine, say. And it can be used to add bright tang and color to stews and soups. Or, just smear it on some good bread, top with a little grated cheese, and run it under the broiler.

That sounds really good. Is it time for lunch yet? Dang it, 8:21 a.m. Well, who says you can't have pizza toast for breakfast?

Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw

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