“TOMATO, TOMAHTO, LET’S CALL THE WHOLE THING OFF.”
“No more tomatoes,” instructed one of my doctors a few years ago. I called it “my summer without tomatoes” when it was new, but it’s been going on for several years now. How can an Italian chef manage such a thing, I ask myself, how can life be so cruel? My doctor thought “My Summer Without Tomatoes” would be an interesting title for a book, but I wasn’t so smitten, as I was trying to adjust to the loss of something central to my palate and my culinary identity. It’s been several years without a marinara sauce, a mozzarella, basil and tomato salad, or even slow-roasted little pear tomatoes sprinkled with fresh thyme, olive oil, and a sprinkle each of sugar and sea salt, just for starters.
Necessity being the mother of invention, or discovery, at least, I went out into the world in search of options. I eventually discovered that a friend whose son had a severe digestive problem could only tolerate yellow tomatoes, and so I took my lead from her and have been experimenting and enjoying them nicely, ever since.
Yellow tomatoes are less acidic, making them more appropriate for my condition, although they are harder to find and more expensive than the common red ones that gardeners are desperate to get rid of at the end of the growing season, so you will find them in the more expensive section of the market. But they are very delicious, with their own unique tangy flavor, and as so often happens they provide a silver lining to my red tomato restriction. My sauces, salads, salsas and soups have a new taste; Almost everyone is surprised by the flavor. Bolognese meat sauce made with fresh yellow tomatoes is my favorite. The local farm stand provides me with some bruised ones at a substantial discount and I am back turning out tons of (yellow) tomato sauce.
It’s not that tomatoes of a different color are such a foreign idea, though. My Mississippi grandmother’s fried green tomatoes were always a delight. They were simple enough — slices of green tomato dipped in buttermilk, one of her favorite foods, and then coated with fresh bread crumbs. I modify the recipe, of course, and use panko breadcrumbs, which she would never have heard of, as well as a little Parmesan cheese, which is more Italian than Southern. But the saying “Rules are made to be broken,” is a fundamental principle in my cooking, and my life. My friend Jessica gave me a half dozen green tomatoes that she rescued from her garden last week, and Monday I made green tomato jam which I will stuff my deviled eggs with. Hard-boiled eggs, yolks smashed with a little mayo and a few spoonfuls of the jam. Everyone loves this sweeter egg experience!
Often I find, especially this time of year, some bargains on tomatoes. I wash them and place them in a plastic bag and freeze them until I feel like making a large amount of sauce. My grandsons love lasagna and they never complain or notice that I have substituted a good, bottled red sauce. A friend who I met at the grocery store the other day commented that I am such a good grandmother to make such a labor intensive dish. Wrong! Well, yes, I am a good Noni but it isn’t because I make them lasagna. Just so she’d realize how easy it is, I shared the recipe with her right there in the market.
Place a few spoonfuls of sauce on the bottom of the pan followed by three or four of the lasagna noodles (I use the new, fast kind that don’t have to be boiled and drained) followed by a big scoop of ricotta cheese mixed with a few cups of pre-grated mozzarella, two beaten eggs, a handful of grated Parmesan, a sprinkle of salt. Place a large spoonful of the mix on each lasagna noodle, then keep going until you have three-layer lasagna, gently pressing the noodles to mash down the ricotta. On the top layer, cover with sauce and sprinkle with parmesan. Tightly fit with tin foil and bake about an hour at 325 degrees. Make sure there is a good amount of sauce in between as the moisture will help tenderize the noodles. You can do this the day before and it heats up very nicely the next day. The process takes less than an hour, tops, not counting baking time, of course.
In a tribute to my mom, I like to make her stuffed tomatoes with rice. Remove the center of the tomato and chop well, including the juice, mixed with olive oil, freshly chopped flat leaf parsley, a teaspoon salt, Parmesan cheese, chopped garlic and two cups of rice. Fill the center and mist all the tomatoes with olive oil. Place in a 2-inch deep pan, pour in a few tbsp. water on the bottom of the pan, cover tightly with foil and bake at 325 for 45 minutes. Remove foil, mist with olive oil and bake another 10 minutes. Serve with a mixed green salad and top each with a few grilled shrimp.
Bolognese meat sauce with yellow tomatoes
Of course you can use red tomatoes, as well.
Using a heavy bottomed pan heat a few tbsp. olive oil.
Add three chopped garlic cloves and four tbsp. chopped bacon or pancetta. Stir to slightly cook, without browning.
In a food processor place two carrots, two ribs of celery and a small onion. Pulse to chop several times. Add to pan and saute several minutes, stirring often.
In the food processor, chop four or five large tomatoes with a few sprigs of chopped flat leaf parsley. Add a sprig each of fresh thyme and rosemary, then a pound of ground pork or beef or a combination of the two.
Brown all over, stirring well. Lower heat and after 20 minutes add a third cup of white wine, red or Marsala wine.
Lower heat further and simmer another several minutes adding a little chicken or beef broth to thin the sauce a little.
Add ¾ cup of heavy cream and simmer another five minutes.
Toss with pasta and a good handful of Parmesan cheese at serving time.