I’ve written many times about those first tomatoes; the kind, as I said, that “we wait all year for: just cut up in big chunks in a bowl, with a pressed clove of garlic, a whole lot of torn basil, a pinch of sea salt…Some people doll them up: a splash of balsamic vinegar, say, some good extra virgin olive oil, or a little minced green chile for heat. Okay, fine. But me? Not here. Not now. Not the first full flush of summer tomatoes. No need for fancying them up, not yet, any more than there is need to cook them. ”
But there comes a time when, while not surfeit of tomatoes plain or plain-ish, especially some of the gorgeous heirlooms (like the Brandywines) — the tomatoes so very lush and plush, dense of flavor and texture, that nothing can perfect them and it seems a sin to try — one is ready to doll up the mighty fine but not transcendent summer tomatoes. The usually less expensive ones my favorite farmstand calls “field tomatoes.”
Wondering about the difference, in both flavor and price, between heirlooms and field tomatoes? Heirlooms plants are generally less prolific, each plant bearing fewer tomatoes. Field tomatoes, grown from more modern seed varieties, have been bred for big yield — that yield comes first, before flavor. If you have two tomato plants, and one yields 3 gorgeously flavorful tomatoes of one variety, and another yields 15 or 20 that are quite good but not over-the-top, well, the latter is just going to be cheaper than the former.
So. Here’s what I did last summer and am doing again this year. And mind you, it’s still pretty simple and the tomatoes remain uncooked, seductive and raw.
I’m doing flavorings mixed-and-matched from Gil Marks’s wonderful book Olive Trees and Honey, a cookbook just about as seductive as a summer tomato.
Banadora is a tomato salad from Uzbekistan, more properly not Uzbek but Bukharan, a term which “refers to all the Jews of Uzbeki and Tajikistan,” as Marks says. Because the banadora contained optional cilantro, an herb I adore, and raw scallions, which always make me happy, and diced green pepper (so excellently crisp and sweet when local this time of year), when I first read the recipe I couldn’t wait to get into it. But… he also offered three variations: Israeli, Moroccan, and Indian, with green chiles instead of bell peppers.
I liked elements from all of them, and yet I knew the staggering amount of oil he called for would not be to my taste, nor the quantities of oil and vinegar or lemon juice. I wanted the tomato-ness to come through clearly, loudly, the other elements merely backing them up in celebration. Too much oil so would not do this, as far as I was concerned.
I knew this not because I’m such a smarty pants, but because I’ve been cooking a long time and have grown both highly culinarily literate and aware of my own tastes and prejudices, and, over time, have learned how to taste mentally before I actually make something.
I also knew I would like the tomatoes in different shapes… perhaps according to their colors.
And not bell pepper or chile: I wanted both.
And, with a box of fat oval bright yellow cherry tomatoes and a couple of excellent field tomatoes, and a thriving herb garden, my direction became clear.
I sliced the large field tomato, and lay it in slices on a plate.
I coarsely chopped about half the yellow cherry tomatoes, and mixed them with about:
2 tablespoons finely minced parsley
2 tablespoons finely minced cilantro
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar (I might well have used lemon juice, but was out of lemons)
1 clove of pressed garlic
3 scallions, derooted and trimmed, sliced in thin circles
1/2 spittingly fresh firm green bell pepper, diced
1/2 fresh jalapeño or serrano or other green chile, very finely diced (optional, but unless you hate hot stuff, please don’t leave it out)
a pinch of coarse salt
I tossed all this together and then piled it on top of the sliced red tomato.
And then I got out my pepper-mill and ground a whole bunch of coarse black pepper over the whole thing.
The first year I did this at breakfast, thinking I would have it as part of lunch.
But then I tasted it. And ate half immediately.
This is my second banadora year. I have enjoyed it with slices of dense wholegrain toast, smeared with feta, ricotta or hummus. I am already anticipating this year’s version over the chilled not-grain-but-taste-grain-like seeds I have been craving lately: will scoop it over a chilled combo of cooked millet and quinoa.
I can already taste how good it will be.