Just Tomatoes and Salt
I thought I’d relish these last official days of summer with some tomato love (a bit of melon love too) before the chill sets in and we begin to endure the long wait til next year’s crop. Celebrating these last harvests of summer produce also offers some great inroads into thinking about the connection between field and school and farm to table cooking in general.
Implicit in the school’s close partnership with the farm - and in the name itself - is a commitment to local, sustainable, farm to table cooking. “Farm to table” - whatever vaguely snobbish and expensive connotations that brings to mind; say, getting a full history of your chicken’s, whose name you know, lavish lifestyle prior to eating - is actually about simple cooking which lets beautiful produce and animal products shine. Most basically, it’s the idea that ingredients should taste “of themselves” and that cooking should primarily accentuate these flavors. (Keep in mind that this doesn’t even begin to cover the myriad ways farm to table eating is more sustainable, can help to support your local farmers/economy, and is better for you).
Working at the cooking school, farm to table can often be more adequately described as “farm to mouth” eating: enjoying watermelon, scooped with a spoon directly from its rind (to be pickled later), black seeds spit into the compost bucket near your work station. Wiping juice from your chin - there’s no juice actually there, you used a spoon, but this watermelon is so good you do so anyway out of summer habit - your only thought, “wow, that tasted like...watermelon.” And you mean it. It takes me back to childhood summers, newspaper spread on the dinner table, a dozen ears of corn split between the four of us (using those tiny corn-shaped picks to hold the cobs), thickly sliced tomatoes dressed only with salt, and a peak summer watermelon for dessert. Deep red, sweet, juicy. “Watermelon-y” in all of the best ways; all the ways that watermelon is so rarely itself when purchased out of season or when transported cross country prior to eating.
The farm to table ethos feels especially embodied in a soup we made for distribution at our farmer’s markets made from Sungold tomatoes. For those unfamiliar, Sungolds, sweet as candy with just a touch of tangy acidic bite, are the varietal of cherry tomato which reminds you that tomatoes are in fact berries, despite Supreme Court classification. The taste of these tomatoes is what you’re dreaming of in March, weeks after you’ve finished your last jar of canned tomatoes and months before your first summer haul.
This soup though: I’ve already told you half of the ingredients. The other? Salt. Just tomatoes and salt, roasted until the fruit had burst, and blended. One of the best, and least snobbish, tomato soups I've ever had. Deep red, sweet (you’d have thought we’d added sugar), a touch of acidity (you’d have thought we spiked it with sherry vinegar), and utterly refreshing when served cold. Peak summer in a cup. Or bowl, or 15 liter Cambro, or whatever sized vessel will satisfy your craving for the tomatoes we’ve all waited a year for.
Tomatoes, Salt, and just a bit more…
This inclination toward simplicity, borne out of a respect for produce and an appreciation of natural seasonal flavors, doesn’t necessarily mean we’re exclusively biting directly into our fruits and serving veggies only blended with salt.
A tomatoes course in my first week here, a part of our Summer Produce series, demonstrated how more involved dishes - when compared to “just tomatoes and salt” soup - with multiple components and techniques can still accentuate beautiful ingredients and celebrate seasonality.
A highlight for many in the class, Seafood Salad with Tomato Water, is particularly representative of such a dish. The tomato water, like the soup, is pure essence of tomato. To prepare, the fruit is blended with salt and pepper, sugar and vinegar to taste and depending on your tomatoes, and hung in a cheesecloth over a bowl. The translucent liquid that fills the bowl over the next 8 hours is like a tomato consommé - rose gold, liquid summer.
That tomato water is then used as the base of a seafood infused broth, steaming mussels, then shrimp, and finally squid. The seafood is reserved and chilled, and the now briny tomato broth is simmered until slightly thickened, then cooled. To finish, balsamic and white wine vinegars are added to the concentrated broth and all is emulsified with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. The seafood is tossed in this vinaigrette with chopped Persian Cucumbers for crunch, and a mix of fresh herbs - flowery basil and grassy dill in our case, but experiment with cilantro, mint, chives, chervil, etc. - for freshness.
In this case, the additional components - the brininess of the seafood, acidity of the vinegars, and the green herbaceousness - all harmonize in service of the sweet, juicy, August tomatoes. Close your eyes while taking a bite and you’ll find yourself transported to the seashore.