Every season has a star ingredient, a golden child that hogs all the attention like a precocious, cute nephew at a family gathering. For summer, that vegetable is undoubtedly the tomato, the universal symbol of summer and seasonal eating.
Whenever people relentlessly attempt to hammer home the idea eating the “now” of the season, chances are they will point to the tomato, and rightfully so. There are few better examples of the delicious potential an ingredient can have at its seasonal peak, nor more sad instances of its misuse out of season than the tomato.
Tomatoes are a New World fruit — yes, fruit — that work like a swimsuit or flip-flops, they can really only be enjoyed for a certain segment of the calendar, and mother nature will let you know when that time is.
A tomato, like a swimsuit, is a sad and frigid experience to behold in January, so just don’t do it. You’re better than that. When July rolls around and the temperatures are pushing towards triple digits, that’s when the story changes and the tomato floodgates open.
Now is the time when we start to see tomatoes of all colors, shapes and sizes springing forth from vines to market tables, simply begging to be eaten. Of course, once the tomato season begins, you can find yourself inundated with this star of the nightshade family, overwhelmed with the spoils of its prolific season.
One can only have so many tomato salads and BLT’s before fatigue sets in. No problem, a bit of creativity in the kitchen is the key to keeping things interesting and spicing up your relationship with the summer tomato.
One major benefit during this time of the year is the sheer number of different types of tomatoes available. A large, ripe, juice dripping heirloom tomato lends itself to much different dishes and preparations than a firm, slightly tart green tomato.
Where the former can be enjoyed raw with not much more adorning its supple flesh than a good olive oil and fresh mozzarella, the latter green tomato is much better enjoyed fully cloaked in a crispy crust and lightly fried to bring out its many virtues. The two couldn’t be more different, yet both are as tantalizing a flavor on your tongue as you could possibly want.
Another way to mix up your tomato game is to play with one of its many different characteristics like texture and water content. While these vary from species to species, I don’t often like to cook ripe summer tomatoes unless it is going to bring out new dimensions in the fruit.
One way I tend to do this is to slowly cook it over low heat, allowing the liquid to gradually evaporate, thus concentrating the flavor. Of course, you wouldn’t be mistaken if the words low and slow had your mind wondering to barbecue and its elusive muse — smoke. As we’ve talked about with other vegetables like beets, smoking is a technique that can unlock new layers of complexity in fruits and vegetables.
Slowly smoking gently eases the moisture from the tomato while taking in the aroma of the burning wood, giving the tomato a truly unique Kansas City makeover. It can be used for any number of applications, from a salad, side or main dish to a soup or sauce.
This smoked tomato vinaigrette takes the subtle flavor imparted by smoking and the natural sweetness possessed by tomatoes, marrying perfectly with the richness olive oil and sharp flavors of sherry vinegar. There are few things it won’t impart its charms upon, once you taste it you’ll fast find friends for its bright smoke infused flavor.
Try it on something simple and comforting like the humble southern staple of fried green tomatoes, making for a crunchy, unctuous and light dish of pure summer bliss.
Smoked Tomato Vinaigrette
This sauce is as versatile as it is delicious, the smoke adding a faint hint of Kansas City BBQ to a classic vinaigrette. Try it as a dressing or drizzle it on to finish dishes. For a thinner consistency, strain the vinaigrette through a fine mesh strainer to remove any remaining solids.
Makes 2 cups
2 medium ripe tomatoes, halved
1 1/2 to 2 cups extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup sherry vinegar, or red wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
To smoke tomatoes: Set up a smoker with wood or wood chips — Hickory or Applewood work well — over low heat, 250 to 300 degrees. If using a grill, use soaked wood chips and keep the tomatoes over indirect heat away from the fire. Place tomato halves cut side up, sprinkle with sea salt and smoke for 60 to 90 minutes, or until the tomatoes begin to lightly dry out and take on a nice, smoky flavor.
To make the vinaigrette: In a blender jar, add smoked tomato halves, crushed garlic, sugar, salt, smoked paprika and black pepper. Pulse for 15 to 30 seconds to break down the tomatoes and mix the ingredients. Add the sherry vinegar, blending on medium speed and slowly add the olive oil in a steady stream to create an emulsification. Continue blending 30 to 60 seconds until the vinaigrette comes together in a nice, medium thin consistency. Pour into a squeeze bottle and refrigerate.
Fried Green Tomatoes
If you want to keep this dish vegan, you could replace the egg wash with a half cup coconut milk and two tablespoons ground flax seed or vegan egg substitute.
Makes 4 servings
2 to 3 medium to large green tomatoes, sliced 1/4-inch thick
2 cups AP Flour
2 eggs, or vegan substitute
2 cups Panko Breadcrumbs, or homemade toasted bread crumbs
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon sea salt, plus more for finishing
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons fresh basil, sliced thinly
1/2 cup grapeseed or olive oil, for frying
Set up a classic three plate breading station with, in order: flour, egg wash and bread crumbs. Mix the teaspoon salt, black pepper and cayenne into the flour. Dredge the tomato slices in the flour, knocking off excess, then into the egg wash and finally into bread crumbs, pressing down lightly to ensure an even crust. Repeat with remaining tomatoes and put on sheet tray until ready to fry.
Heat a large cast iron skillet over medium high heat, then add oil and heat to 370 degrees or just before smoking. Shallow fry green tomato pieces for 2-3 minutes, turning and frying another 2 minutes or so. Finish tomatoes with sprinkling of sea salt. Serve with the smoked tomato vinaigrette and basil.
Tyler Fox, personal chef/event caterer who emphasizes ‘nose-to-tail’ cooking philosophy as well as vegan and local/farm to table foods.