Seeing Red

There’s only one thing better than eating a red, ripe Creole tomato and that’s growing one. To the urban “farmer,” the tomato is first and foremost in the vegetable garden. The love of the tomato dominates June menus and outdoor markets revel in their displays of bright red, often misshapen and huge tomatoes. Best of all, they’re sweet – I believe the years of Mississippi River deposits of rich soil is what makes them that way.

Long before university scientists “improved” the Creole tomato (one that’s grown here), southeast Louisiana tomatoes had that sweet taste and firm texture. Now they excel in other virtues, such as prettier shapes and better transportability, but I miss those tomatoes that looked like funny faces or kidneys.

Still, you can find the real thing among those coming fresh out of Plaquemines, St. Bernard and other low-lying parishes. If you can’t grow your own, look for roadside stands and farmers markets. I always like to drive down south of New Orleans where I know the tomatoes were harvested that morning and pick up some okra, squash and other early summer veggies along the way. I usually buy too much and spend the next week struggling to cook it all before anything spoils. I’ve been known to turn down a dinner invitation because the eggplant or green beans wouldn’t last another day in the refrigerator. But how often do you get the good stuff right out of the ground?

The French Market has honored the Creole tomato for years with an annual festival. This year, it’s scheduled for June 14-15. Chefs will demonstrate their best tomato dishes. Bands, Mardi Gras Indians and dancing tomato girls will parade, with food booths lining the Farmers Market serving tomato dishes. Creole tomatoes and pedigreed seedlings will be on sale. Plus, kids can plant tomatoes and decorate their pots.

Chefs do wonderful things with the local tomatoes. Some stack them in “Napoleons” and others fry green ones and blanket them with shrimp remoulade.

Galatoire’s executive chef Brian Landry says he uses only Creoles in the restaurant’s tomato dishes during the season.

“I think it’s one of the best tomatoes available to us and it’s always nice to get a product of such high quality and support the local farmers at the same time. It’s a win-win situation.”

 Although Galatoire’s sticks to its traditional menu for the most part, he tried a tomato special at the Baton Rouge Galatoire’s last year that was so popular, he’ll serve it there and in New Orleans this year. It is a Creole tomato and local watermelon salad with fresh basil and dandelion vinaigrette.

“That dish went over extremely well,” he says. He also garnishes grilled fish and smothered okra with “tomato water,” a clear pink broth made by straining tomatoes overnight and seasoning the juice with salt, pepper and light balsamic vinegar.

“Customers ask for Creole tomatoes. The biggest thing is flavor. It’s such a sweet, juicy tomato. It’s just like a really beautiful piece of fruit.”

Tomatoes are at the heart of New Orleans cooking. We put them in jambalaya and gumbo. In Cajun Country east of us, tomatoes are left out of these dishes, one of the differences that distinguishes Creole from Cajun cooking. Not that they don’t love tomatoes in Lafayette, New Iberia and St. Martinville as much as we do. They just use them a little differently, stuffing them with rice or pairing them with crabmeat in a casserole.

 But the best, and my favorite, way to consume the ripe tomato in its peak season is sliced with the simple adornment of salt and maybe pepper, maybe even with extra-virgin olive oil and a dash of vinegar. In my book, the next best way is with fresh mozzarella cheese and fresh basil. Chefs have simply elevated this to a stacked “Napoleon,” which is charming and creates a whole lunch entrée.

Otherwise, serve it on a platter, alternating tomato slices and mozzarella slices, decorated with whole or chopped basil leaves and a drizzle of olive oil.

I plan to eat tomatoes everyday until the blazing summer sun sucks the energy out of all our beautiful flowers, delicious vegetables and me. Then I will resort to staying indoors, with the air-conditioning on 72, and dining on cold soups and salads. I won’t even look at those store-bought tomatoes shipped in cold storage from California. I will rely on my early-summer memories of Creole tomatoes on my plate every night and plan to plant some of my own next spring.

2 large Creole tomatoes
1/4 pound fresh mozzarella
Several stems fresh basil
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup high-quality salad vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper

Slice tomatoes about 1/3 inch thick. Place a slice on each of 2 salad plates, then a slice of mozzarella, then several basil leaves. Make 2 more layers and drizzle with as much dressing as desired. To make dressing, whisk the vinegar and mustard together in a small bowl. Gradually pour in the olive oil, continuously whisking. Add salt and whisk until smooth. After adding dressing to Napoleons, place a few basil leaves around the plate and grind pepper lightly over all. Serves 2.

1 1/2 pounds okra
1 pound Creole tomatoes
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons flour
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup water
1/4 pound andouille sausage,
      cut in fourth-inch rounds
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon Creole seasoning
Several turns on a pepper mill
1/2 teaspoon sugar

Rinse okra and pat with paper towels. Slice off the stem and discard. Slice the okra pods into 1/2-inch rounds.

Peel tomatoes by dropping one at a time into boiling water for 15 seconds. Remove and cut out the stem. The peeling with slide off with the help of a knife. Chop tomatoes.

In a medium saucepan, heat the oil and add the flour. Over medium heat, make a brown roux, stirring constantly. Add onions and garlic and cook until soft. Add water, okra, tomatoes, sausage, salt, pepper, Creole seasoning and sugar. Cover and simmer over low heat for about 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serves 6 as side dish.

Shrimp remoulade:
1 bag crab boil
Salt and cayenne pepper to taste
Lemon wedges
2 pounds large shrimp
4 tablespoons ketchup
1 tablespoon fresh horseradish
1/2 cup Creole mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon Tabasco
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 cup virgin or extra-virgin
      olive oil
1 rib celery, chopped
2 tablespoons minced parsley
3 green onions, chopped

Green tomatoes:
1 1/2 pounds green tomatoes
1 cup flour
1 egg, beaten
1/4 cup milk
1 1/2 cups cornmeal
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup vegetable oil

To boil the shrimp, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add crab boil, salt, cayenne and lemon wedges. When the water comes to a boil, add shrimp. Bring back to a boil. Boil for 1 minute, turn off heat and let shrimp soak for 10 minutes. Drain and cool.
To make remoulade sauce, mix in a blender the ketchup, horseradish, Creole mustard, lemon juice, Worcestershire, Tabasco and vinegar. Add the olive oil gradually. Add salt and cayenne pepper to taste. Add the celery, parsley, and green onions and blend for about 2 seconds, leaving some small pieces. This sauce can be made 1-2 days in advance.

To fry the tomatoes, slice them 1/4 inch thick. Set up three small bowls, one with flour, one with egg and milk combined and one with cornmeal seasoned liberally with salt and pepper. In a large, heavy skillet, heat oil to medium-hot. Dredge tomato slices first in flour, shaking off excess; next in the egg mixture; then in corn meal and fry on both sides until medium-brown. Do not overcrowd skillet.

To serve, place about 3 tomato slices on each plate with dollops of shrimp remoulade on each. Serves 4 as a lunch entrée.

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