You’re going to think we’ve gone off the deep end with more posts about tomatoes, but I can’t help myself. Cy and I stopped at a farmers’ market in southeastern Pennsylvania on Tuesday and bought some heirloom tomatoes that are just magnificent. (We had planned to stop in New Jersey for some fabled Jersey tomatoes, but that didn’t work out). Perfectly ripe, they’re a real treat.
No surprise, of course. But every year it’s like we discover great tomatoes all over again. It got me thinking about tomatoes and why they taste the way they do. And it occurred to me that tomatoes and wine grapes have a lot in common:
- Both wine grapes and tomatoes have sweetness and acidity, and both of these components are necessary for a proper flavor balance.
- Both have a lot of flavor in the skin and in the layer just inside the skin. If you peel a raw tomato, it just doesn’t taste as good as a tomato with the skin on it. So if you’re making sauce with fresh tomatoes, cut them up and cook them with the skins for a little while, then strain the skins and seeds out and continue cooking. Really, it’s a lot more flavorful that way.
- Sometimes with both very ripe tomatoes and earthier red wines you can get a fleeting sensation of meatiness. That “umami” component of flavor is present in tomatoes and some red wines. If you’ve ever had a really good, thick, long-cooked meat sauce, you know that it tastes even meatier than you might expect it to even with not a lot of meat in it. Cooking concentrates the meaty flavor, which is why tomato paste is a go-to ingredient for adding depth of flavor.
Of course, for people who don’t like raw tomatoes, August can be sheer torture since raw tomatoes show up in practically every restaurant menu item. It seems odd that some people who love things with cooked tomatoes in them don’t like raw tomatoes, but I discovered the reason years ago.
As a chemical engineer fresh out of college I worked for a large consumer products company in food product development. The product I worked on was spaghetti sauce in a jar. Our gimmick was adding texturized vegetable protein (TVP) as a meat substitute. Not for health reasons (this was 1982, after all) but because the powers that be thought we could make this more cheaply than a jar of sauce and a pound of ground beef. That turned out not to be the case, and the product never made it to market.
But we learned a lot about our ingredients, including tomatoes. One summer day a dump truck full of tomatoes arrived at the loading dock. We crushed them up (picture a stand mixer about six feet tall) and started loads of experiments to determine basics of color, flavor, and texture. We prepared samples for the gas chromatograph, which breaks down mixtures into their component parts based on boiling points.
We discovered that there are three broad ranges of flavor extracts in tomatoes. The middle boiling range extract smelled fruity and tomato-y, and we figured this was what we might be able to use to adjust the flavor of the canned tomatoes we were using in our product. The high boiling range smelled kind of grassy, not unpleasant, but not like tomatoes either. You’ll find both these kinds of flavors in all tomatoes, including cooked sauces.
But the low boiling range smelled like ultra-concentrated wet dog. Really awful. I mean so bad you had to leave the room awful. It came off at a temperature lower than the boiling point of tomato sauce, so it doesn’t show up in sauce or even in canned tomatoes (which have to be cooked at least a little for processing). But it’s still there in raw tomatoes. And although there’s not a whole lot of it in any one individual tomato, there are obviously people who are sensitive enough to the flavor that they just can’t stand raw tomatoes. Just as there are people who don’t like cilantro because it tastes like soap to them.
So for you folks, sorry, but this week’s recipe is one you’ll have to pass by. Our friends Ken and Steve made us Ina Garten’s Summer Garden Pasta with cherry tomatoes they bought at that same Pennsylvania farmers’ market. It was delicious and a perfect summer meal. But it takes a long time, since Ina has you macerate the halved cherry tomatoes for four hours to release their liquid. Large ripe tomatoes don’t need that much time to soften up, so I have made my own version using them instead.
Cut the tomatoes in half, gently squeeze them with your hands over a large bowl to catch the juices, then cut the flesh into large pieces and add them to the bowl. I cut back on the garlic and added some red onion and oregano, plus a little bit of balsamic vinegar which enhances both the sweetness and the acidity of the tomatoes. Ken and Steve served the pasta with some spears of fresh cucumber which made a nice crunchy counterpart, so I’ve diced up cucumber and added it to the tomatoes. It only needs to sit together for an hour at most before you add the pasta. And I substituted thin spaghetti for angel hair pasta, because angel hair can absorb a lot of liquid in a very short period of time.
We had white wine with the pasta, but a red will do nicely too. Try Domaine la Croix des Marchands Gaillac Red. It’s a blend of Syrah along with Duras and Braucol, grapes that are local varietals in the Gaillac appellation. (Albi, the city that figures so prominently in DaVinci Code legends, is in the Gaillac region, so you can feel historical and conspiratorial at the same time). It’s a perfect everyday summer red. I can’t promise it will banish the wet dog (or reveal hidden secrets), but you’ll like it anyway!
5-6 large, ripe, fresh tomatoes (2.5 to 3.5 pounds), cored
1 large cucumber, peeled, cut lengthwise in quarters, and seeds removed
2 cloves garlic, minced in a garlic press or grated on a microplane
Half of a medium red onion, finely minced
½ cup very good olive oil
About a tablespoon of very good balsamic vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1-1/2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
A handful of fresh basil leaves, minced
1 teaspoon fresh oregano, minced
1 pound thin spaghetti
Cut the cored tomatoes in half through the equator. One at a time, hold each half over a large bowl, and squeeze gently to release the liquid and seeds. You can get more out with a teaspoon. Set the tomatoes aside, and add the olive oil, two teaspoons of balsamic vinegar, the minced garlic, minced onions, the oregano, and some salt and pepper to the bowl. Dice the tomatoes up into about half-inch pieces, and add them. Then cut the cucumber quarters into quarter-inch slices and add them to the bowl. Mix everything well and let it sit for about an hour. Taste it when you put the pasta water on to boil and add salt, pepper, or more balsamic.
About 20 minutes before the hour is up, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add about a tablespoon of salt, then cook the spaghetti until it’s just done to your liking. Remove about a cup of the pasta cooking water and put it in a shallow baking dish to cool quickly. Drain the pasta and add it to the bowl with the tomato mixture. Add the cheese and basil and stir everything together. Let it sit for a minute and add some pasta water if the mixture seems too dry. Serve right away.