When my mother was in her 80s she still grew tomatoes that could be featured on the cover of Bon Appétit. She would give us more than we could eat, pass them out to neighbors, eat her weight in them and cook and can the rest.
I didn’t inherit her gardening skills, but the love of fresh garden tomatoes remains at the top of my list of culinary gems. Because they come and go so quickly, I clear my routine meals of anything that doesn’t include them. I prefer using them in recipes that don’t require cooking, but I have a few favorites that call for minimal cooking and still deliver that wonderful fresh taste.
I call it the “Creole” taste, although any tomato grown in Mississippi River-washed southern Louisiana soil qualifies for the title. My mom grew Big Boys, Beefsteaks and others, all with that sweet taste and perfect texture. The problem with shipped-in tomatoes is that the texture often is ruined. They are bred to ship and defy that juicy-yet-firm goodness of the Creole. So there’s nothing to do but enjoy them while they’re here.
Best yet, grow your own. It is now too late for this harvest, but you can soon plant a fall crop. My husband, Doug, tries his hand, and we usually get a few to-die-for returns. He remembers as a boy going with his parents to buy tomatoes by the bushel at farmers’ markets in Memphis. On returning home, his mother made a relish using red and green tomatoes, lots of onions and just the right seasonings to “put up” jars stored in their basement for year-round enjoyment. Relish is especially good in summer to accent field peas and other fresh vegetables.
I do have my tomato recipe favorites. One came from the original The Silver Palate Cookbook (1979), another from a daughter’s boyfriend who lived in Mexico and my version of La Madeleine’s tomato-basil soup.
Julee Rosso’s and Sheila Lukins’ remarkable first cookbook was a textbook to me during my years of fancy dinner parties when I added upscale dishes to my roots of Deep South and Louisiana cooking. Their recipe for linguine with tomatoes and basil should only be used with fresh Creoles and basil from the garden. The authors first experienced it when they were guests in a beautiful home on Sardinia. The pasta and tomatoes are enhanced by pieces of Brie melting over warm pasta. Instead of linguine, I use fettuccine and prefer it freshly made. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made this recipe and how many copies I have passed out to friends.
My trips to Italy convinced me that the best spaghetti sauce on earth is made from fresh tomatoes. Using the same concept as the Palate recipe, I like chopped fresh tomatoes and fresh herbs (especially basil) with a good Parmesan or Romano grated over steaming hot pasta.
If Italian is my preferred food nationality, Mexican is a close second. One day we were grilling in the yard with a daughter’s current interest on hand when he offered to go to the store and prepare his pico de gallo. He didn’t last long, but his recipe did. Although there was nothing in writing, we’ve copied it to taste for a good 12 years.
And, finally, who doesn’t love La Madeleine’s tomato-basil soup? No wonder, I said, when I read a recipe attributed to the restaurant chain. A bowl contains more calories than I need to eat in a day. (I don’t consider anything I read on the Internet to be set in stone, so it may not have been the restaurant’s recipe.) But my imitation is pretty good, even with the calories cut. The secret? Fresh Creole tomatoes.
7 large Creole tomatoes
1 Tablespoon extra-virgin
1/2 cup chopped onions
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 14.5-ounce cans chicken
1 teaspoon salt
25 turns on a peppermill
15 basil leaves, chopped
1 cup half-and-half
1 Tablespoon butter
To peel tomatoes, heat a large pot of water to boiling. Drop in tomatoes in for 10 seconds and remove. You can do this in batches. Cool for a few minutes, cut out stems and peeling will slide off easily. Roughly chop tomatoes.
In a medium pot, heat olive oil and sauté onions and garlic for 1 to 2 minutes. Add tomatoes, chicken broth, salt and pepper. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes.
When soup has cooled enough to handle, place in a blender with basil leaves and purée. You may have to do this in two batches, depending on size of blender. When mixture is puréed, return to pot. Stir in half-and-half and butter; heat but don’t boil. Serve hot or chilled.
Tomatoes and Basil
4 ripe large tomatoes, cut in
1 pound Brie cheese, rind
removed, torn into
1 cup cleaned fresh basil
leaves, cut into strips
3 garlic cloves, peeled and
1 cup plus 1 Tablespoon
best-quality olive oil
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground
1 1/2 pounds fettuccine
Fresh grated imported
Combine tomatoes, Brie, basil, garlic, 1 cup olive oil, 1/2-teaspoon salt and the pepper in a large serving bowl. Prepare at least 2 hours before serving and set aside, covered, at room temperature.
Bring 6 quarts water to a boil in a large pot. Add 1 Tablespoon olive oil and remaining salt. Add the linguine and boil until tender but still firm, 8 to 10 minutes.
Drain pasta and immediately toss with the tomato sauce. Serve at once, passing the pepper mill, and grated Parmesan cheese if you like.
Serves 4 to 6.
Pico De Gallo
4 large Creole tomatoes,
peeled and chopped
3/4 cup cleaned cilantro
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped Mexican
chilis such as jalapeño
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon salt
Juice of 1 lime
1 avocado, peeled and
Peel tomatoes by dropping them in boiling water for 10 seconds. Cut out stems and the peels should slide off easily.
Mix all ingredients together and serve with tortilla chips.
*You can vary the peppers according to taste. For example, jalapeño is very hot, so you may want to use less. Poblano is mild, so you can use more. A combination is good. Anaheim peppers, which originated in New Mexico and are sometimes called New Mexico peppers, are another mild option. It is optional, but good, to roast peppers first. To roast, place peppers directly over flames on your stove’s burners.
Turn, roasting, until peppers are black. Put peppers immediately into a small brown paper bag and close the top. Let peppers steam for 5 to 10 minutes. Use a knife or paper towel to rub off blackened skin.
Serves 4 to 6
Creole Tomato Festival
The annual Creole Tomato Festival at the French Market will celebrate Louisiana’s produce and farmers June 9-10. Cooking demonstrations, the sale of fresh Creole tomatoes and seminars will feature local chefs.
The festival is combined with the Louisiana Cajun-Zydeco Festival and the Louisiana Seafood Festival, all of which stretch six blocks from Jackson Square to the Flea Market. Events are free.