Normand Laprise is co-owner and head chef of Toqué! in Montreal.
The tomato season is either almost at the door or already here, depending on where you live. And this period of the year is the perfect time to ask yourself whether you have the proper tools in your kitchen. Too many times have I seen young cooks or foodies totally crush tomatoes because they did not have the right knife. Or if it was right, it was in need of a good sharpening job.
A good knife is probably the most important culinary tool, and yet one of the most neglected. There are many specialized knives available, but in my opinion you don't need too many to be efficient. Versatility is the key word here.
I think that you can do a lot of work with just two simple knives. First, the all-purpose. It's a knife with a curved blade, to allow a rocking motion on a cutting board for a more precise cut. Second, I like a knife with a long thin blade, especially for tomatoes. They are perfect to cut through tough skin and delicate flesh. In general, I favour Japanese knives because they are well-balanced, with superior, hard blades and acute cutting angles.
With such jewels, maintenance is not only important, it is essential. I often sharpen knives myself but when needed, especially during the busy season, I send my favourite ones to Guillaume De L'Isle at L'Émouleur in Montreal, who sharpens by hand on Japanese water stones. As he explains on his website, this technique allows for a gentle sharpening, which translates to less material ground off, which in turn means that the knives will last much longer.
At home, I hand wash my knives with soap and water and never, ever, put them in the dishwasher. Seeing one of them in there still upsets me - although the entire family is well aware of that now!
If you want to replicate the following recipe, bear in mind that a sharp knife - and fresh locally grown tomatoes - are essential.
4 large whole tomatoes
3 tablespoons chardonnay vinegar
5-6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
8-10 slices of crisp bacon
8 tablespoons homemade mayonnaise
Grated parmigiano reggiano
Coarse bread crumbs
A few sprigs of basil
A small bunch of chives
Salt and pepper to taste
Lightly make a small cross mark on the bottom of each tomato. Blanch in boiling water for a few seconds and then cool in ice bath. When cooled, gently peel skin and pat dry. Next remove the hard centre of each tomato with an apple corer. Take a thin slice off the bottom of the tomato just so it sits flat and stable. Then take each tomato and make 4 even slices horizontally. Spread the slices on a tray or clean work surface. Drizzle each slice with the vinegar and extra virgin olive oil and season liberally with salt and pepper. Set aside the top slice of each tomato until the last step. Spoon a few teaspoons of mayo and place some herbs on each slice (you can use different herbs from the garden - be creative!). Break up bacon into smaller pieces and divide on tomatoes, sprinkle breadcrumbs and parmesan on each. Finish by "reassembling" the tomato very carefully from the bottom up. Once the tomato is whole again, with a piping bag, fill the centre with mayo. Gently transfer on a plate and spoon just a little bit of extra virgin olive oil on the top and finish off with a light sprinkle of salt.