The other evening, driving home from work, I stopped at Andy’s Produce. They had a bin of heirloom tomatoes right at the front corner of the store. Tomatoes are one of the best things about summer. Beyond how great they taste, the vine-ripened (or, as I like to call them, “real”) tomatoes conjure up great childhood memories of our garden. Well, it was my dad’s garden. When I was little I would “help” him water, especially the tomato plants. I loved the mineral-like smell of the plants and playing in the cool mud; picking the little pear and cherry tomatoes straight off the vine and eating them. Sun-warmed, they popped when I bit into them, squirting sweet warm juice into my mouth. The powdery tan dirt would turn the color of chocolate milk when I poured water into the shallow channels alongside the rows of pungent green plants, and I would come into the garage with streaks of drying mud on my legs. Tiny frogs that had hatched as tadpoles in the drainage ditch in the back yard would cling to the stalks or jump onto my hands. They were leaf green or tan, with black lines around their eyes, their heads and backs burnished with gold. Sometimes a frog would hang from a leaf, one long leg dangling, like a ballet dancer posing. Sometimes I would find a tomato worm, segmented, bright green and black, and my dad would take it away because it ate the leaves. I don’t know how much help I was, but I had fun.
Oh, and tomatoes taste really good, too.
Andy’s had some Black Krims, the purplish tomatoes that are ruffled and look like turbans, some Caro Rich yellow tomatoes, and a host of reddish, orange and other yellow heirlooms that I didn’t recognize. I picked up one that was pale blush orange in color and tasted the best of the bunch I got; clear tomato taste, a little sweet, not acidic at all. They all had the aroma of a tomato that ripened in the sun, not in a truck or in a refrigerator somewhere, not a single one was mushy.
Fruit or vegetable? Botanically, the part of the plant that we eat is a fruit, technically a berry; however in 1893 the US Supreme Court declared the tomato a vegetable. Does the Supreme Court trump science? The question arose because of a tariff dispute so the real question is, in America, whether commerce trumps science, and we all know the answer to that one. Vegetable it is, then. My mom used to sprinkle sugar on her tomatoes, so clearly she was in the “fruit” camp. I tried this once, didn’t like it. My dad put salt on his and I liked that better; salt enhanced the acidic, almost citrus-y flavors.
In the old days, people thought tomatoes were poison. This might have been because they are part of the nightshade family. The strong acidity might have given people that impression also; I don’t know.
Anyway, late summer brings one more reason for living; fresh tomatoes to eat out of hand like an apple or grapes; in salads, cooked in sauces; and the ultimate flavor experience, the late-summer bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwich. Can life get any better?
(Real bruschetta requires seeding and chopping tomatoes which I am a) too lazy to do and b) never successful at. This version is faster and still pretty yummy).
1 baguette or loaf of good crusty bread. I used Bennett Valley Bakery’s country sourdough last time
Several medium sized sun-ripened tomatoes
Good olive oil
Four cloves fresh garlic, (or to your taste) peeled and minced. Leave one clove whole.
Grated fresh Parmesan cheese
Preheat over to 375 degrees.
Slice the bread slightly on the diagonal so that you get bigger pieces. There were two of us; I did eight pieces, but it was all we were going to have for dinner except salad. Arrange them on a baking sheet. Brush each slice with olive oil and cut the whole clove of garlic in half; rub it over the slices of bread. Sprinkle the minced garlic over the bread being sure you get some on each slice. Put the bread in the oven for about 5-7 minutes until it gets crunchy.
Slice the tomatoes into medium slices, maybe about one-eighth of an inch.
Make a “chiffonade” of the basil. I love that term. Now that I watch the Food Network, I know what it means. Stack your basil leaves, largest on the bottom to smallest on top and then roll them length-wise like a cigar (or you may have other smoke-able material you roll. Like that). Then slice through the roll, creating little ribbons of basil. You can chop those in half or quarters if you want. Slicing releases the licorice-like aroma of the basil; it’s wonderful.
When the bread comes out of the oven sprinkle it lightly with parmesan. Add slices of tomato to each bread slice, then basil and then another sprinkle of cheese. In this version, the cheese on top doesn’t melt, with gives the bruschetta a slightly different texture and flavor. Eat and enjoy.
This is an easy recipe to change up by substituting fresh mozzarella for parmesan, or melting a soft cheese like jack or fontina onto the bread before you add the tomato. You can also add tarragon or oregano or other herbs. I just happen to think that there’s something about fresh tomato and fresh basil that is magical.