Some years ago, thoroughly fed up with the "tyranny of the calendar" as I called it, I asked people "what defines spring for you?" I asked this because it was "officially" the start of spring, and it was very, very cold and very, very wet. So all of our, ahem "newscasters," were making fun of the weather, along the lines of "this is SPRING?" So I asked a bunch of people when it was "spring" for them.
The answers were all over the place. And none of them referred to the calendar. Some were as poetic and romantic as "when I see the first crocuses in my garden," and some as pragmatic as "when so and so releases his spring line." But everyone "marks time" as it were, with something different.
For me, it's summer when the first local field tomatoes come in. And they're here. And it's time to rejoice, because there are few things in the world that are better than red, ripe, field grown tomatoes, or even better, ripe heirloom tomatoes, which aren't necessarily red.
For Italian cooking, people think of the tomato as "sacrosanct," and associate all things tomato with Italy. The fact is, however, tomatoes are very recent additions to Italian cooking, relatively speaking. When Columbus left Genoa, and went to Spain, and then came to "America," there were no tomatoes in Europe. Explorers brought them back from Mexico. Indeed, if you look at the word for tomato in Italian, it is "pomodoro" which is, literally, "golden apple," or "golden fruit" to some people. That should tell you something. One, of course, is that the first tomatoes were yellow. The second is that people , at least in Europe, did not know what to make of them. There are wonderful stories about how people were afraid of them, how they thought they were toxic, how they ate the leaves rather than the fruit, and so forth. Do a search on Amazon and get some of the books, it really IS a fascinating subject. But in any event, I would argue that, if Italians were not the first with tomatoes, they certainly brought the art of cooking them to a level that is hard to beat.
Except, today, I'm giving you a French recipe for tomatoes.
The tomatoes I was able to get at the market were beefsteaks. These are the big red ones that we all knew as kids. If you were lucky enough to have a garden, you would wait, impatiently, until they ripened, and then bring them to the table, where you might have been lucky enough to get a tomato sandwich. Just squishy white bread, mayonnaise, and slices of ripe tomato. Remember that? Sounds pretty good to me, even now. And later in the year, when the heirlooms are abundant, I will be serving salads of just different heirlooms, cut up, served with basil and champagne vinaigrette. I only do it at peek season, and if you're lucky enough to be invited to those dinners, thank your stars. I love you very much.
But to the recipe, ah yes. Tomato confit. This recipe is ubiquitous, to be honest, and I don't know why people don't make it. I think they're afraid of the large amount of olive oil that goes into it. They should get over this. You don't HAVE to eat the oil, and if you DO eat it, you can mete it out in small portions. That's what I do. I will put a bit of it in a soup, or use it as the basis of a salad dressing, or what have you. The tomatoes take some time to cook, but there is no work involved in this. And the resulting product is so useful. You can use it as a sauce on pasta, or you can put it on toast, or mix it with eggs, or put it on top of meat (like in a veal cutlet milanese), or just plain , by dipping into it with a spoon or a knife and fork. Here's what you do. And I really, really, REALLY urge you to make it. Or if you don't want to, see if you can get on my good side, and I'll make it for you.
Get a big baking dish. I have a fondness for doing this recipe in a 9x13 glass pyrex dish, probably because it can hold so many tomatoes. Then, squeeze in whole tomatoes, and don't be afraid to crowd them. I made it today and I fit twelve of them in, tightly. Then - and here's where people gasp - pour in enough olive oil to come about 1/3 of the way up the tomato, or even to 1/2. Put in about six cloves of peeled, whole garlic, and sprinkle basil all around it (you can use the whole stem for this preparation, if the plant is small. If not, take the leaves off). Sprinkle about a hefty teaspoon over the tomatoes, cover the pot with foil, and bake this for 45 minutes, at 325. Then, take off the foil, and bake for another thirty minutes.
At this time of year, when the tomatoes are still fairly firm, they will retain their shape, burst their skin a bit, and put out some liquid into the oil, but not much. By late summer, you'll get more of a collapse, and more liquid in the oil. It's all good. Let it cool, and store the tomatoes.
I'm told that, if you cover them completely with oil, you don't have to refrigerate them. I've not tried that, so I cannot vouch for it. But what I CAN vouch for is how tasty they are. My favorite way of eating them is, in fact, on a plain piece of toasted country bread, maybe with a bit of ricotta on top of that, but maybe not. And I just LOVE them chopped up on pasta. When you do the chopping, if the skin doesn't please you, slip it off. They're very easy to peel now.
Ok, I've said it at least three times, and now I'll say it again. MAKE THIS DISH. You will really be glad you did.