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[whitespace] Hot Tomatoes

It won't be long before backyard bounties burst into ripeness

By Sara Bir

A tomato out of season can be a most spiteful fruit, a ghastly aberration with a mealy texture, unconvincing color, little discernible flavor, and as unnaturally hard as the ass of a woman who spends too much time at the gym on the StairMaster. And yet eat out-of-season tomatoes we do, all fall and winter and spring, in salsas, on burgers, and atop salads. We love tomatoes so much that our impatience gets the best of our appetites, perhaps because a tomato's watery tang is the epitome of freshness, a thing we crave in the steely winter months. Tomatoes, when they are good, are very, very good. But when they are bad, they are horrid.

When tomatoes are very, very good--as in homegrown, backyard tomatoes--they are also prolific, to the point that some gardeners throw up their hands to the overabundance and let the fruits ripen to a seeping, rotten squish on the vine. And to all of you people who do just that, I am jealous. I look at the red and orange and yellow orbs languishing in your garden, and I want to come rescue them.

I even did, once or twice (or maybe six times), plucking a tiny handful of diminutive cherry tomatoes from the plants that some law office down the street from my house had put in front of their practice for, I assume, decoration. No one from the office had been picking the fruits steadily ripening just beyond their door, and I finally got to the point where, facing a dismal tomatoless meal alone, I gave in and sneaked away with four or five. There in the upturned palm of my hand, they were so perfect and delicate and fragile, more precious than a tiny cargo of shrunken Fabergé eggs.

I took them home and subjected them to my all-time favorite tomato treatment: tomato eggs. Which is really just scrambled eggs with tomato, but since I like my scrambled eggs on the soft and custardy side and rarely expose them to the pan for more than 30 seconds, the tomatoes are just heated through and still maintain their sweetness, their earthy acidity blanketing the willing canvass of egg.

The reason I steal tomatoes from strangers' yards for tomato eggs is that I grow no tomatoes myself. I am a hypocrite, stricken not with a black thumb but a thumb marked with whatever color the color of laziness is. Someone has always grown my tomatoes for me, and yet I long for tomatoey bushels and all the glories they imply: panzanella, gazpacho, salsas and relishes galore, and a never-ending succession of tomato eggs for lunch.

Summer is heaven for tomato fanatics, and now is almost our time. As you read this, a green tomato is turning gold or red or a greener, watermelon-striped green. It's happening all over--go put your face to the dirt and you can feel it, the fertile rumbling of all those nubile tomato fruits, yearning for the pluck. In a day or a week or even a month, neighbors, co-workers, and farmers markets will have rainbow-hued heirloom tomato gems, ridged bulbous things giant as a grown man's fist, and itty-bitty currant tomatoes just a hair larger than a hummingbird's egg. And they are all just waiting for you to use them up!

Anyone feeling particularly determined and resourceful can put their tomato bounty to good use with a round of home canning or in a batch of ketchup, a very tomato-intensive concoction (it takes about five pounds of fresh tomatoes to make four cups). Or you can just casually incorporate tomatoes into every meal of the day, which is not difficult at all since tomatoes are so adaptable. Tomato eggs for breakfast, a sandwich with a big, juicy, perfectly round cross-section of tomato in the middle for lunch, and a tomato salad with dinner. Just remember to eat them soon, while they are still hot from the sun and rife with the taste of summer.

Tomato Bread (Pan con Tomate)

This Catalan dish, a Spanish staple, delivers deep satisfaction in its utter simplicity. Big, fat, almost mushy garden tomatoes are best suited for pan con tomate, as they smear across the bread so willingly. It's a bit of an unrefined notion, but I like that pan con tomate is so rustic that you don't even bother with slicing the tomatoes. There's some kind of primal glee in mutilating them over the bread. You can serve this as a tapa, although if you are alone and feeling very lazy, a couple slices of tomato bread make a lovely and wholesome, if high-starch, lunch or dinner.

Broil or grill a thick slice of white country-style bread until it is nice and toasty. (Traditionally, tomato bread is grilled over a wood fire, but to sate our modern, erratic cravings for tomato bread, it cannot always be thus.) Rub the bread with a peeled garlic clove. Cut one very ripe red tomato in half and smear the cut side of the tomato across the surface of the toast. Drizzle the whole affair with a fruity olive oil, season with salt (unrefined sea salt elevates tomato bread to a whole other level) and pepper, and eat. Ha! It's really good, isn't it? I told you.

Tomato Eggs

The acidic sweetness of the tomatoes breathes life into otherwise humdrum eggs. With a slice or two of toast, you are in for a heavenly meal. Properly made tomato eggs look like puke, even if you cook the eggs lightning-fast so that they are creamy and soft. A lot of good foods look like puke, though.

Put a skillet over high heat. Break the two or three eggs into a bowl, season with salt and pepper to taste, and whisk until nice and homogenous. Add a few teaspoons of olive oil to the skillet, allow to heat, and add one large or several small chopped tomatoes. Cook, stirring, for about 30 seconds or until the tomatoes start to release their juice and begin to look slouchy. Add the eggs and cook, scrambling as per your own preference. Turn out onto a plate and top with any or all of the following: a few dashes of Tabasco, crumbled feta cheese, and a generous pinch of the Middle Eastern herb blend za'taar. Mmm! Heaven! The Lord will now smile upon you, seeing you have wed the bliss of eggs and tomato.

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From the July 18-24, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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