Just like the changing of the seasons themselves, the life cycle of a garden is predictable, yet invariably astonishing. It seems so improbable that such tiny seeds could ever be filled with life and produce edible fruit that it truly takes me by surprise, every single year, when I can reach out and pop that first tiny cherry tomato into my mouth. It’s the most natural process on earth and still it tastes like magic.
The first few harvests repeat this very same process; the wonder, the amazement, and the adoration of such impeccably fresh produce growing right in my backyard. Doing anything more than just eating the little red gems raw, still warm from the sunshine, seems like a crime against vegetables. Then, like clockwork, the tomatoes start to take over. There’s never more than a half-dozen working vines out there, and yet they’re suddenly producing more tomatoes than I know what to do with. Now it doesn’t sound like such a bad idea to get them into the kitchen anymore.
Adding a short but intense blast of heat contributes a beautiful char to the tiny tomatoes, introducing a slightly smoky note and concentrating their inherently umami flavors at the same time. The midsummer heat makes it a bit challenging to enjoy hot tomatoes though, so after chilling them down, they became the star ingredient in a salad inspired by one of my favorite stews: Posole.
Admittedly, I had never eaten hominy cold before, or outside of the classic soup for that matter, but it proved a delightful addition to this Tex-Mex mixture. Flavorful like fresh corn but more toothsome like miniature gnocchi, those chewy kernels lent the blend a heartiness akin to pasta salad, without all the gluten.
Speaking of those predictably unpredictable seasons, almost as soon as I had my picnic set up and ready to enjoy in the great outdoors, the sky decided that was the perfect moment to open up and begin to pour. Thus, I can now speak from experience to say that this salad does indeed keep well, for up 3 – 4 days in the fridge, and it’s even tasty when eaten warm.
While tomatoes are still plentiful and at their peak, celebrate the season with a unique preparation. It may be tough to sacrifice such perfect specimens, but I promise that the leap of faith will pay off in even bigger flavors.
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“A world without tomatoes is like a string quartet without violins.”
Laurie Colwin, Home Cooking
“It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato.”
“A cooked tomato is like a cooked oyster: ruined.”
Andre Simon, The Concise Encyclopedia of Gastronomy
“Home grown tomatoes, home grown tomatoes
What would life be like without homegrown tomatoes
Only two things that money can’t buy
That’s true love and home grown tomatoes.”
John Denver, Home Grown Tomatoes
(Photos taken at the first annual tomato tasting at Ambler Farm.)
Scrolling across the top of the screen like a slowly spreading poison, the headline “Severe Frost Warning” stops me in my tracks. Every gardener tempts fate near the end of a prolific growing season, pushing the elements to squeeze out the very last drops of warmth and sunshine. Sure, we’re firmly enmeshed in November now, but temperatures rebound and swing wildly for weeks to come. There could still be more produce to reap yet. I’m no gambler though, so the imminent threat of dewy ice crystals sinking their teeth into fragile leaves set off alarm bells. Save the tomato babies! Don’t let the poor things freeze to death!
Hastily plucking all the immature green orbs and thus severing them from their nurturing vines does present a new, obvious problem. Unripe tomatoes can be coaxed to soften and blush to a redder hue with a bit more time on the counter, but with my luck, the stubborn things will refuse to cooperate as nature intended. Half will likely remain just as hard and inhospitable as the day they were picked, while the other half will simply give up the fight early and rot.
Well, not this year. This time, embraced for the astringent, punchy fruits that they are, every last one will be eaten and devoured. Pickled and preserved, this year’s premature harvest will be cherished as if the timing was intentional.
Sticking largely to traditional additions, the goal was to infuse my green cherry tomatoes with a fresh, brightly flavored brine while still yielding a comfortingly familiar sour snack. My dad grew up enjoying larger pickled green tomatoes served on the relish tray all through childhood, either sliced or quartered, but always present no matter the season. His approval will be the ultimate test, so whether or not they pass muster is yet to be seen. Truthfully, I can’t speak to the end results yet, as fresh tomatoes will still need at least a week to attain pickled perfection, but this is a recipe that can’t wait to be shared. Quickly, before the first frost, gather up your own green tomatoes and let them shine with what they already have to offer. With a tiny bit of prep and planning, you’ll have delightful little salty, sour additions to cocktails (best Bloody Mary ever, anyone?), salads, appetizers, and everything in between.
Botanically incorrect but poetically true, the French demonstrated great wisdom when they named tomatoes “love apples.” What savory fruit is more beloved than the tomato, across all continents with favorable growing climates? Watching their vines twist upwards towards the sky, reaching out for the sun’s warmth, it’s only a matter of time before flowers come, begetting tiny green globes. Initially sour, unpromising at first glance, they slowly swell larger, growing juicier and sweeter with every blush. Even if you’re not a gardener and don’t watch your own tomato babies mature from seed, it’s impossible not to fall for them.
Now that real tomatoes have returned to markets, little by little, it’s about time I shared my recipe for tomato pie. Though initially created only for looks to fulfill a photography assignment, and inspired by a less than attractive recipe with highly processed ingredients, it didn’t take much work to create something worthy of the fresh tomatoes that fill it.
Brightened up with additional herbs and garlic, subtle seasonings make a world of difference in banishing blandness, all while still allowing the tomato to take center stage. It’s the kind of recipe that’s so simple that only the best ingredients will do, because you taste each and every one of them. Don’t even dream of whipping this one up in the middle of January- A winter tomato is nowhere near as lovable.
2 Unbaked Classic Crusts (page 36 of Easy as Vegan Pie, or Your Favorite Recipe), 1 Lining an 9-Inch Pie Pan and 1 Unrolled
1 8-Ounce Package Vegan Cream Cheese
2 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
1/2 Teaspoon Lemon Zest
1/2 Teaspoon Dried Basil
3/4 Teaspoon Dried Parsley, Divided
1/4 Teaspoon Dried Oregano
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
3 Tablespoons Cornstarch, Divided
3 – 4 Firm, Slicing Tomatoes
3/4 – 1 Cup Vegan Mozzarella-Style Shreds
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees.
Place the cream cheese in a large bowl and thoroughly mash in the garlic, zest, dried herbs, salt, and pepper. Stir until the cream cheese is smooth and all of the seasonings are well-distributed. Smear the mixture evenly across the bottom of your crust-lined pie pan, smoothing out the top as best you can. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of the cornstarch over the exposed surface.
Slice your tomatoes to about an 1/8th inch in thickness, and remove the watery seeds. Arrange the slices over the cream cheese layer in concentric circles, overlapping and fitted together as closely as possible. Continue stacking them until they reach the brim of the pie pan. The final amount will depend on the size of your tomatoes and how seedy they are. Sprinkle the final tablespoon of cornstarch over the tomatoes, and then top evenly with your cheesy shreds.
Roll out the second piece of dough on a lightly floured surface to 1/8 inch thick. Use a sharp knife to cut a few vents in the center. Gently drape the dough over filling, and trim so that there’s still about 3/4-inch of dough overhanging the edge. Fold and roll the excess under the bottom crust, pressing the edge to seal it, and crimp decoratively as desired.
Tent with aluminum foil and bake for 25 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 350 degrees, uncover the pie so that it can brown, and bake for a final 25–35 minutes. Let cool for at least 20 minutes before digging in. The pie can be served at any temperature, but best when warm.
Makes 8 – 10 Servings
A good recipe is never fully finished, even if it’s tested, printed, and published. Rather than static pieces of history, indelible for generations to come, the most trustworthy formulas still evolve as they change hands. An overabundance of new recipes and effortless access to them through the internet has sadly degraded their value, but each recipe should be considered a living thing, needing care and attention, not to mention an occasional grooming.
One mere flicker of an idea is all it takes to start the wheels rolling, and in my case where the process often stalls. Idea overflow is a common, but happy problem to deal with, so flavor combinations or concepts are initially filed away into little text documents, sprinkled across two hard drives. If they survive long enough to be found again, and still resonate, only then do they have a fighting chance of being born. Thus, cleaning up the bulging recipe depository on a slow day, I came across the seeds for a promising recipe that just barely escaped oblivion. Tucked away in the dark for half a decade, it seemed that they might never be planted.
= Quinoa Diablo
A cryptic reminder that only I would understand, the tiny spark that could start a bonfire, this one wasn’t about to get away again.
Fleshing out the concept with black beans, roasted red peppers, and red beets for that vibrant hue, it began to grow, turning into the smoky, spicy, and brilliantly ruby red side dish I knew it could be. Though it can easily steal the spotlight on any dinner plate as is, the idea just didn’t seem complete yet. It still had more evolving to do.
When large, brawny beefsteak tomatoes went on sale the next day, I knew I had my answer. This quinoa pilaf was meant to be stuffing all along! After excavating the cores, those cooked pearly grains slipped right in; a perfect fit. Tucked in by a light, cobwebby blanket of shredded “mozzarella,” a kiss of heat from the oven finally brought everything together.
Tomatoes splitting down the seams but still holding strong, they were tender enough to cut with a fork. Quality, burstingly ripe tomatoes are what make all the difference here.
Though my itch to “finish” the recipe is satisfied at long last, I know that it’s no where near done yet… I can only wonder, what spin will the next hungry cook put on it?
Quinoa Diablo Stuffed Tomatoes
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Medium Red Onion, Diced
1/8 Teaspoon Salt
1 Teaspoon Light Agave Nectar
2 Cups Vegetable Stock or Water
1 Cup Dry Quinoa
1 Medium Red Beet, Peeled and Diced
1/3 Cup Sundried Tomatoes, Julienned
2 Tablespoons Balsamic Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Smoked Paprika
1/2 – 1 Teaspoon Chili Powder
1/4 Teaspoon Red Pepper Flakes
1 15-Ounce Can Black Beans, Rinsed and Drained
2 Medium Roasted Red Peppers (1 12-Ounce Jar,) Diced
Handful Fresh Basil, Chiffonaded
To Assemble (Optional):
4 – 6 Large Beefsteak Tomatoes
1/4 – 1/2 Cup Shredded Vegan Cheese
First, caramelize onions by heating up the oil in a medium saucepan along with the chopped onion. Sprinkle with salt and drizzle with agave. Keep the heat on medium-low, and stir periodically, until the onions become golden brown and aromatic. Be patient; this could take as long as 30 – 40 minutes, but adds the rich, flavorful backbone to the whole dish.
Meanwhile, heat the stock or water in a separate medium or large saucepan over medium heat. When boiling, add in the quinoa, red beet, dried tomatoes, vinegar, and spices. Turn down the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for 15 minutes, or until all of the water has been absorbed. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the beans and roasted peppers. When the onions are properly caramelized, mix them into the quinoa as well. Sprinkle with basil and add more salt to taste, if necessary. You could stop here and serve immediately while still hot, or…
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and line a rimmed baking sheet with foil.
Use a sharp paring knife to remove the core from each tomato, and then dig out the watery seeds and guts with a grapefruit spoon. Turn the hollowed-out tomatoes upside down over a wire rack while you work on the rest, allowing any remaining liquid to drain out.
Place the empty tomatoes on your prepared baking sheet, evenly spaced, and fill them to the top with the quinoa mixture. Pack it in lightly so that it there are no voids inside and all of the tomatoes bake evenly. Sprinkle your vegan cheese of choice over the tops, and bake for about 20 minutes, until the tomatoes are fork-tender, the skins are splitting, and the cheese has melted.
Top with additional fresh basil and enjoy!
Serves 4 – 6 as main; 8 – 12 as side