Food & Drink

It’s summertime, and the search for the perfect tomato can be elusive

Raw tomato sauce over pasta makes for a refreshing summer recipe.
Raw tomato sauce over pasta makes for a refreshing summer recipe.

My dad left the farm when he came back from World War II, but the farm never left him. He didn’t really have the time or the space for a full-fledged garden, but no summer went by without planting tomatoes. He treated those tomatoes like a first-born child, nurturing them to ripeness.

These were the tomatoes I grew up on, the taste that I associated with a great tomato.

After his death, I finally had some room to plant some tomatoes, and like many things that children don’t ask their parents about before they are gone, I never asked him what type of tomatoes he planted. I would usually go with him to the garden shop to buy the plants each year, and I remember names like Better Boy and Beefmaster, so I started with those. While good, they just weren’t the same.

The tomatoes I remembered were gnarly globes of tomato explosions, but still, what I was planting was better than the grocery store ones. So I accepted them but still wondered about his. Mom couldn’t remember, so each summer it was Better Boys and Beefmasters. They still made a hell of a tomato sandwich.

Probably a decade so or more, there was an Heirloom Tomato Salad on the menu at the now-closed Magnolia Grill. There was that explosion I remembered and more with so many different colors and shapes. I asked chef/owner Ben Barker about the types. Of the list, one jumped out: German Johnson. That was it! The words from my dad bounced back into my memory.

I rushed to the State Farmers Market to look for them, and back in the back of Debra Lee’s booth was a box full. She was the only vendor to try to sell them. I bought a couple, went to my car and bit into one like an apple. There it was, that wonderful taste memory of my father’s tomatoes that had been gone for years.

Thanks to farmers like Alex Hitt and Craig LeHoullier, who is known as the Tomato Man, we have more great tomatoes than ever. Hitt took a chance by growing the finicky heirloom varieties, and LeHoullier made sure that seeds were saved from the old-school types. LeHoullier is also responsible for rescuing and naming the Cherokee Purple, my second favorite tomato.

Thanks to LeHoullier’s work, and the ever-increasing number of farmers growing heirloom tomatoes, you should never have to suffer through a so-so tomato. They really are the best gift of the summer. OK, I would add field peas and bi-color corn to that list, too. Meat to me just seems not as important this time of the year.

When doing this recipe, which was shared by LeHoullier, choose a mix of tomatoes for the most outstanding flavor and visual appeal. Most any pasta will work for the dish, but I like forms such as penne or similar types. Everything in the dish is driven by the quality of the ingredients, so don’t use a substandard olive oil or cheese with the heirloom tomatoes. Fruity olive oil is best (think southern Italy or California). The trick to this sauce is to let the tomatoes shine.

A couple of things about buying heirlooms that will make you a better customer at the farm stands. Heirloom tomatoes are fragile. As you are making your choice, be gentle with them because they bruise easily. Expect to pay more for them. The plants don’t produce what hybrid tomato plants do, and they are finicky. Understand the farmer’s labor.

This recipe is really awesome and so simple.

A quick note on last month’s column. White Acre peas are in the farmers’ markets. If you can’t find them, substituting Dixie Lees or Crowders will work just fine. And thanks for all the emails filled with your love stories about the humble field pea.

What a great season to be eating.

Fred Thompson is a Raleigh cookbook author and publisher of Edible Piedmont magazine. Reach him at fdtfx1@earthlink.net.

Serve with: A really simple summer salad with a creamy dressing. Check the archives for my Green Goddess dressing recipe. It would be an excellent choice.

To Drink: Summer is a great time to drink a Rosé.

Raw Tomato Sauce over Pasta

2 cups tomatoes, chopped into bite-size pieces

1/4 cup olive oil

2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

10 to 15 leaves of basil, torn

Salt and ground pepper, to taste

Cooked pasta (penne recommended)

Parmesan Reggiano, grated

Place chopped tomatoes in a large bowl; we use a mix of colors and flavors, including cherry varieties. Add next four ingredients, stir well and cover. Let the tomatoes sit at room temperature for several hours.

Cook the pasta of your choice until al dente. Drain and add to the fresh marinated tomatoes. Serve with plenty of grated Parmesan cheese.

Yield: 4.

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