After only a week away, I found a state of explosion. You can see the results up there: tomatoes of every size and hue, giant mottled heirlooms, tiny red cherries and orange sungolds, some odd yellow plums and giant pastes. I was grateful not to find fruit rotting on the vine, but I did manage to pick a good fifteen pounds in about as many minutes.
The problem with such bounty is that if you’ve got that much ripe at once, you’ve got to use it all. Now. After last summer’s non-starter of a tomato harvest (oh, the heartbreak of pulling all those blighted babies) I cannot bear to let any fruit go unappreciated. Thanks to sister Margaret, I’ve got the religion of tomato junk; I’ve made and frozen a good ten quarts so far. The amazing Dorie Greenspan taught me about slow roasting, and I freeze those babies, too. I make a mean caprese salad for lunch, as though it’s nothing at all, and often, I just slice and eat them, sprinkled with some Maldon salt and a drizzle of great olive oil. This is all so, so, good. But as our wind picks up and the temperature drops (yes, here in the northeast, this is already happening–sob!) I want something more.
I want a dish that uses up some of the other vegetables I have in absurd abundance. Something warm, and nearly, but not quite, hearty. A dish that might be intended as a side, but is so substantial it can hold its own as a main.
In my repertoire, I have three recipes that fit this bill, recipes I return to every summer. One is more or less my creation; the other two are by others, chefs whose work I study and adore. At the risk of excess (hopefully not the wretched kind), I offer three suggestions for non-sauce, non-salad enjoyment of tomatoes: a caramelized onion and tomato tart; a tomato, onion and potato gratin gently adapted from the inimitable Suzanne Goin, and a dead simple, impeccably delicious zucchini, eggplant and tomato gratin from none other than Julia Child and Jacques Pepin. As Julia would say, Bon Appétit!
Onion Tart with Gruyere and Tomato
This was inspired by something I adored as a child. When I was four, my father briefly moved us to Blackburn, England, for a short assignment in the local branch of the company he worked for back in Chattanooga (yes, I spent half my childhood in the deep south, but that’s a whole other story.) This part of England at the time–maybe it still is?– was heavily industrialized, not very pretty, but to me, the trip, which lasted a few months, was a grand adventure. We went to Beatrix Potter’s farm, visited London, but the part I really remember is how much I loved the food at the residence hotel (called the White House–really!–where we lived.) And this is when English food was considered boiled to death, unseasoned pap, long before Jamie Oliver, Rose Gray, Nigella Lawson et. al. I particularly craved their cheese and onion flan, a kind of quiche, but with just enough egg to bind it, and lots of cheese and onions, and their apple pie, served with unmentionably thick Devonshire cream. I used to lick my plate. The fact that I loved the onion flan was apparently of particular amusement to the staff and other guests of the hotel. A few years ago, I concocted this homage to my rarefied childhood tastes.
4 large onions
2 T olive oil
1 t dried thyme
1 recipe of your favorite dough for a savory tart (I use ‘Rich Tart Dough’ from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Anything, but omit the sugar; when the dough is done, roll it out and press into a 10 inch tart pan with a removable bottom)
1/2 cup grated gruyere cheese
1 large tomato, sliced thin, seeded, and then sliced again into strips
2 eggs, lightly beaten
Preheat the oven to 375 F.
Slice the onions crosswise and then into very thin slices. You should have 5 or 6 cups of sliced onions. Heat the olive oil in a dutch oven, and then add the onions, cooking over medium heat until they turn a nice golden brown (but don’t let them stick to the bottom of the pan–keep stirring so they stay nice and soft as they brown.) It will take 20 minutes, maybe 30– enough time to make and chill the dough, if you’re making it (see below.) When they’re soft and a nice caramel-y brown, not too dark, remove the pan from the heat.
Put one third of the grated cheese in the bottom of the prepared tart pan. Add the onions, then another layer of cheese. Pour on the eggs, covering the pan evenly. Add the tomatoes, then a final light layer of cheese. Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until both crust and top are golden brown.
You could certainly not make a scratch crust for this; a prepared crust or probably even pizza dough would be good. But if you have a food processor, crust is really easy, and Bittman’s recipe has the advantage of not needing a lot of chilling time (10 minutes in the freezer before you roll it; 20 minutes in the freezer before you bake it) and not needing prebaking. And if you like to cook, or especially if you’re learning, that cookbook is fantastic. Check it out.
Julia and Jacques’ Summer Vegetable Gratin
(adapted from Julia and Jacques Cooking At Home, Knopf, 1999)
1/2 c extra virgin olive oil (you may want a bit more or less, according to taste)
1 large or 2 medium eggplants, about 1-1/4 pounds total
1 T herbes de Provence
1 t coarse salt
2 medium zucchini, about 1 pound total
3 or 4 ripe tomatoes, about 1 pound total
1/2 t freshly ground black pepper
1 cup fresh bread crumbs, not too finely ground
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Put the rack in the lower middle level of the oven and preheat to 400F. Smear the baking sheet generously with 1/4 cup of olive oil.
Trim the ends of the eggplant and slice on the diagonal into 1/2 inch thick ovals. Lay the slices on the sheet, press, to coat with the olive oil, and then turn over. Arrange them in a single layer on teh sheet and sprinkle on 1/2 teaspoon each salt and herbes de Provence.
Bake for about 15 minutes, until the eggplant slices are soft and a bit shriveled; allow to cool briefly. Leave the oven on if you will be baking the gratin right away.
Meanwhile, trim the ends off the zucchini and cut lengthwise into slices no more than 1/4 inch thick. Core the tomatoes and cut into slices 1/4 inch thick. Core the tomatoes and cut into slices 1/4 inch thick. Spread out the slices and sprinkle them lightly with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.
Rub 1 teaspoon olive oil all over an 8 quart gratin or other shallow baking dish. Sprinkle a teaspoon of the herbes de Provence over the bottom of the dish.
Lay one or two eggplant slices, lengthwise, against one narrow end of the dish. Arrange a long slice ortwo of zucchini in front of the eggplant, then place 2 or 3 tomato slices in front of the zucchini. Keep alternating this way to fill the pan, arranging each new row of slices so the colorful edges of the previous row are still visible.
Mix together the bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese and a teaspoon of the herbes de Provence. Add a tablespoon or two of olive oil, then toss and rub it in with your fingers to coat the crumbs but keep them loose. Sprinkle the crumbs evenly over the vegetables and drizzle the rest of the oil over all.
Place the dish in the center of the oven and bake for 40 minutes, until the vegetables are soft, the uices are bubbling and the top is a deep golden brown. Serve hot, directly from the baking dish. (It’s also good cold the next day, though the nice crisp contrast of the breadcrumbs is lost.)
You can make this ahead; just omit the drizzle of olive oil, and cover the prepared gratin tightly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for up to several hours; just before baking, put the drizzle olive oil on.