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We used to grow our own tomatoes, but discovered that the constant fight with animals and our own inadequacies as vegetable farmers did not justify our meagre crop. Much better to buy them at farmers' markets. For those few juicy August and early September weeks, we indulge in nightly tomato treats.

I believe tomatoes should be served simply when they’re this good. Now, they are at their best warm from the sun. In the following recipes, tomatoes are the main ingredient. Their vibrant, sunny flavour will banish all memories of the Styrofoam tomatoes we eat the rest of the year.

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The best tomato salad | Grilled heirloom tomato salad pizza | Alison’s tomato pizza | BBQ tomatoes | Gazpacho | Tomato and goat cheese tower | Pasta with red and gold cherry tomatoes | Tomato sandwiches | Panzanella | Preserved cherry tomatoes


But before we get to cooking, a primer on tomato varieties:

Heirloom tomatoes are the best for no-cook eating. They are older varieties; the seeds have been saved over the years to continue to produce tomatoes with excellent flavour. Not all heirlooms sold in grocery stores are really heirlooms; best to buy now from farmer’s markets. There are many different varieties, colours, and shapes, so find the ones you like best. For the best tomato salad, mix several varieties.

  • Beefsteak tomatoes are popular in Canada. They are large, slightly flattened and have fleshy walls. Beefsteaks are stars in cooking and make excellent eating. They freeze well.
  • Round tomatoes, of which there are many varieties all with similar tastes, are medium sized, and good for eating and freezing. If they have a white rim inside, they will have no taste. There are too many cardboard tomatoes out there during the year, so feast on the fresh ones now.
  • Plum or Roma tomatoes are elongated, thick-fleshed and less juicy than other tomatoes. Because of their texture, they are excellent for cooking, canning and drying.
  • Cherry tomatoes are small, round, and good for eating, barbecuing, and garnishes.
  • The trendy tomato today is the yellow, low-acid cherry tomato. They usually have sun in their name and make a beautiful garnish as well as a spectacular nibble.

Notes for buying and preparing:

Look for tomatoes that are heavy for their size; they are the juiciest. They should be firm and unblemished with no cracks on the surface. A few scars on the stem end are acceptable, but yellow or green scars are not.

  • Field tomatoes are sun-ripened and grown outdoors; hothouse tomatoes are grown in a controlled climate under glass. The best tasting tomatoes are vine-ripened field tomatoes. Eat fresh while plentiful or preserve them by drying, freezing or cooking in sauces and soups.
  • Store ripe tomatoes at room temperature if they are to be eaten within a few days. Unripe tomatoes should be placed in a sunny windowsill until they redden. Do not refrigerate unripe tomatoes because they become mealy.
  • Slice tomatoes with a serrated knife because it grips the skin more easily. Place the tomato stem side down and cut through it vertically. The slices retain more juice than cutting more traditional horizontal way.
  • Peel tomatoes by making a small slit in the skin, then immersing them in boiling water for 30 seconds. Run under cold water. Slide the tip of a knife under the skin and it will peel off easily. Many cooked tomato dishes call for peeled tomatoes because the skin will come off during the cooking and become chewy and unattractive. Often, I ignore this if it is not for entertaining.
  • Core tomatoes by cutting around the stem and removing it. Seed tomatoes by cutting in half crosswise. Squeeze the halves gently over a bowl and the seeds will fall out.

The best tomato salad

Serves 4

Excellent tomato salads use simple but high-quality ingredients. No acid is needed with great tomatoes. They have enough on their own. If you are using a lot of yellow tomatoes, which are less acidic, then a touch of sherry or balsamic vinegar or lemon juice will heighten their taste. The addition of fresh mozzarella makes this a Caprese salad.

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I usually buy an assortment of tomatoes because they give the salad a range of tastes.

  • 4 juicy ripe tomatoes, heirloom or not
  • Kosher salt
  • 3 to 4 tablespoon of the best olive oil you have
  • Basil leaves for garnish

Additions

  • Buffalo mozzarella or burrata cheese
  • Sliced vidalia or red onions
  • Pesto
  • Crumbled ricotta
  • Olives
  • Capers

Slice tomatoes and lay on a platter. Sprinkle with salt, olive oil and a grind of pepper. Garnish with basil leaves. Serve as is or include any or several of the additions.


Grilled heirloom tomato salad pizza

Serves 4

What could be better that a tomato salad on melted cheese with bread? Try shaved fennel over the tomatoes or add olives or even anchovies.

  • Arugula pesto
  • 2 cups packed arugula
  • 1 teaspoon chopped garlic
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan
  • Pinch dried chili flakes
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Pizza

  • 1 750 g package store-bought pizza dough, thawed if frozen
  • ¼ cup cornmeal
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • ½ cup arugula pesto
  • 2 250g containers fior di latte (fresh mozzarella), sliced
  • 3 or 4 heirloom tomatoes, thinly sliced
  • Maldon or other finishing salt
  • 8 basil leaves, torn

Combine arugula, garlic, Parmesan, and chili in food processor. Pulse until coarsely chopped. Add oil in a steady stream with food processor running until pesto is smooth, scraping down as needed. Season with salt and pepper.

Preheat grill to medium high, about 450 F. Sprinkle cornmeal evenly onto the back of two baking sheets without sides. Reserve.

Cut pizza dough into quarters to make one pizza per person. Roll out each quarter on a lightly floured surface to ¼-inch thickness. Shape does not matter. Place 2 pizzas on each baking sheet. Brush each with 1 tablespoon olive oil and spread on 2 tablespoon pesto. Top with cheese slices.

Oil grill. Slide each pizza onto grill. Close lid and cook for 3 to 6 minutes or until crust is golden and grill marks appear on the bottom. Remove from heat and place tomatoes in circles over the cheese. Sprinkle with finishing salt. Drizzle each pizza with remaining olive oil. Finish with a shower of basil leaves. Serve immediately.


Alison’s tomato pizza

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Serves 4

Allison Budd, a good friend of mine, made this pizza when we visited her in Kelowna, B.C. Allison was originally a caterer in Toronto – her popular firm was called Allison Cumming Catering. You can either bake this or serve it unbaked, more like a big bruschetta. Either way is scrumptious.

  • 1 12-inch pre-baked pizza base
  • 680 grams tomatoes
  • 170 grams goat cheese, crumbled

Dressing

  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup chopped basil
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Preheat oven to 400 F.

Combine garlic, olive oil and basil. Season with salt and pepper and set aside. Core tomatoes and thickly slice.

Place pizza on a heavy baking sheet. Brush pizza base with garlic oil. Place tomatoes in circles around base. Brush with more oil. Sprinkle with goat cheese. Drizzle with more oil and season with salt and pepper.

Bake for 20 minutes or until cheese has melted and tomatoes are hot.

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BBQ tomatoes

Serves 2

These are Mark McEwan’s famous barbecued tomatoes, which he serves at family barbecues. The tomatoes are delicious on their own or as a separate side dish for any kind of grilled meat.

  • 2 medium-sized, ripe tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon chopped garlic
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 teaspoon thyme leaves

Cut out stem and cut tomatoes in half horizontally. Combine olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper, and thyme leaves. Brush over tomatoes. Grill over medium heat, beginning with the cut side down, until slightly charred on both sides, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Tomatoes should almost be molten.


Gazpacho

Serves 4 to 6

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My mother loved gazpacho and she would make this version every summer when the tomatoes were ripe. I like it because it stays true to a Spanish gazpacho, using sherry and sherry vinegar. There is no cooking and hardly any chopping and it produces a soup that is refreshing and tasty. Really ripe tomatoes make the best soup.

  • 2 cups seedless English cucumber, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 4 cups fresh tomatoes seeded and chopped
  • ½ red pepper, diced
  • ½ yellow or orange pepper, diced
  • 1 teaspoon chopped jalapeno pepper
  • 2 tablespoons sherry
  • 1/4 cup sherry vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons chopped garlic
  • 1/2 cup chopped Spanish onion
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • Hot pepper sauce and salt to taste

Garnish

  • 1 cup croutons
  • 1/2 cup chopped cucumber
  • ¼ cup chopped red onion
  • 2 tablespoon chopped coriander

Place cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, sherry, sherry vinegar, garlic, onion and olive oil in food processor or blender. Puree until smooth, but still with a little texture. Chill for at least 4 hours. Taste for seasoning. Place garnishes in small bowls and let guests help themselves.


Tomato and goat cheese tower

Serves 4

This dish looks fabulous, but is really just a tomato salad. Use a firm goat cheese so tomatoes can sit on top of it. Here, the vinaigrette is also made with tomatoes.

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Vinaigrette

  • ½ cup cherry tomatoes, seeded
  • ½ teaspoon ground coriander
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons chopped basil
  • 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Salad

  • 4 medium heirloom or other tomatoes
  • 225 grams aged goat cheese
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 12 basil leaves

Combine vinaigrette ingredients and purée in food processor or blender until smooth. Reserve.

Use a serrated knife to slice tomatoes as thinly as possible. Cut goat cheese into 8 slices.

Drizzle some vinaigrette over goat cheese. Top each slice of goat cheese with a few slices of tomato and drizzle with a little vinaigrette. Use the second slice of goat cheese and a few more slices of tomato. Drizzle over more vinaigrette.

Use basil leaves to surround the salad and decorate plate with any leftover vinaigrette.


Pasta with red and gold cherry tomatoes

Serves 8 as a first course or 4 as a main

Hot pasta and cold sauce make a splendid first course or side dish with a simple grill. Thin spaghettini is the best choice, but angel hair would work as well.

  • 4 cups cherry or other tomatoes, quartered
  • ¼ cup slivered basil
  • 1 teaspoon chopped garlic
  • 4 anchovy fillets, diced
  • 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 450 grams spaghettini
  • ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan

Toss tomatoes with basil, garlic, anchovies, vinegar, oil, and salt and pepper in a large bowl. Marinate at room temperature for 2 hours.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add spaghettini, return to a boil, and boil for 10 minutes, or until the pasta is al dente.

Toss the cold sauce and the hot pasta together. Sprinkle with Parmesan and serve immediately.

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Tomato sandwiches

Makes 4

The best summer sandwich. Although I have suggested sourdough, I also like them on junky white sandwich bread.

  • 4 ripe tomatoes
  • ½ cup mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons pesto
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 4 slices sourdough bread

Slice tomatoes thickly. Combine mayonnaise and pesto.

Spread 4 slices bread with pesto mayonnaise. Overlap slices of tomato. Drizzle with olive oil and season with lots of salt and pepper. Top with remaining 4 slices bread.


Panzanella

Serves 6

This is one of my favourite summer dishes for entertaining. Essentially bread and tomatoes, it represents the taste of summer. Make the salad ahead of time, but don’t dress until about 30 minutes before serving to give the bread a chance to soak in some of the juices. If you let the tomatoes stand in a strainer for 15 minutes, any juice can be tossed in the vinaigrette. There are all kinds of panzanella, you can add grilled peppers and cucumber (preferably the crisp Persian kind), anchovies and chilies, but I like the simplest one. Top with grilled chicken for a superb summer main.

Bread

  • 4 cups sliced sourdough or other baguette cut in 2.5-cm chunks
  • 3 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 small clove garlic crushed

Salad

  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 small clove garlic, crushed
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 heirloom or other juicy tomatoes
  • 1 cup chopped red onion
  • ¼ cup chopped Italian parsley
  • 2 tablespoons slivered basil
  • ½ cup pitted green olives, quartered
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 400 F. Combine olive oil and garlic. Toss bread with olive oil and bake for 7 to 10 minutes or until a light brown. Reserve.

Combine mustard, garlic, vinegar and lemon juice. Whisk in olive oil. Reserve.

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Seed tomatoes into a bowl. Strain seeds, keeping any tomato juice. Dice tomatoes. Mix bread with any tomato juices and ¼ cup vinaigrette. Let sit for 30 minutes. Toss together tomatoes, onion, parsley, basil, olives, and remaining vinaigrette. Season with salt and pepper.


Preserved cherry tomatoes

This quick preserve lasts a few weeks in the refrigerator. It is great for topping steak or chicken, and enhances salmon when served beside it. It also makes a splendid hors d’oeuvre when it tops garlic toasts.

Toss cherry tomatoes left whole with olive oil, then salt. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake at 300 F for an hour or longer until the cherry tomatoes collapse. I sometimes add whole garlic cloves and toss them together.

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