The way to improve upon tomato perfection


Fire and Smoke Gazapacho. (Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
Columnist, Smoke Signals August 14, 2012

Sometimes, revelations come from the most unexpected circumstances.

One night a few years ago, I was sitting with a longtime friend named Marion in her childhood home in New Jersey.

She was there from Baltimore to help care for her hospitalized mother. My wife and had driven up to visit.

After spending the afternoon at the hospital, we were back at Marion’s house, where she made martinis exactly as she recalled her mother making them. She filled a cut-crystal highball glass with ice, poured two “fat fingers” of Beefeater gin, a “mite of vermouth, a little water to make it last longer,” and three olives. Stirred.

We talked about her childhood, her “mommy,” as Marion always called her, our families, and some larger topics: health, and how we live our lives. After a pause, Marion asked, “What are your five favorite foods?”

Perhaps the cocktails loosened the evening enough to pop such a question. Maybe it was the need to change the subject. Whatever the case, the exercise engaged us both for quite a while. Could “cheese” be an answer, or was a person required to choose a specific type? What about enchiladas — a certain filling or style, and only that filling or style?

But when it came to one item, there were no questions, only understandings. A summer tomato.

“Of course.”

“Luscious.”

“Tomato-y.”

“Yes.”

“Yes.”

“‘Another martini?”

Oh, we could have parsed tomatoes. Brandywine, Purple Cherokee, beefsteak. Yada yada. There was no need.

We knew what we meant: the flavor of summer. Perfection.

So, here’s a question. Do you leave well enough alone if it’s perfect?

My answer: If you grill or smoke a tomato, you haven’t made it imperfect. You have just made it a different kind of perfect.

That’s my thinking when I place a beautiful, ripe, perfect tomato over a fire. I must say, I’m conflicted before I do so. Part of me simply wants to slice into the tomato, gaze upon its gorgeous color while beads of juice form, and, after sprinkling a little salt on a wedge, bite into it. Another part of me, though, can’t wait to place the plump fruit on a grate over the fire where, inevitably, the hot embers will blister its skin and scar its flesh.

That branding is the point, of course. The char adds dimension to the tomato’s essential tomato-ness.

Although a smoldering fire changes some foods (from raw to cooked, like ribs), to a tomato the distinctiveness doesn’t so much transform as transport. It keeps the tomato but takes it somewhere else.

Not all tomatoes are created equal. Big and meaty, tiny and delicate. You can grill every last one of them, but you need a plan.

Choose firm tomatoes. The grill’s heat will turn an overly ripe tomato into mush. It’s fine, texturally, if a tomato is slightly underripe, but you won’t get the fruit’s full flavor.

For teardrop and cherry tomatoes, slice off the tops and put them in a vegetable basket so they don’t fall through the grate. Or alternate them, red and yellow, on a wooden skewer. Grill for a few minutes, then apply olive oil and salt to make a fabulous side dish.

Large tomatoes (about eight ounces or more) are great when cut in half horizontally, grilled on both sides, then used as a platform for chevre and herbs, added while on the grill or afterward. They can be wood-smoked for about 20 minutes and used for a tomato-based salsa as well. (If you’ve never had a charred-tomato salsa, by the way, you are missing out; just use your favorite salsa recipe, but substitute grilled or smoked tomatoes for raw tomatoes.)

Tomatoes are just as versatile on the grill as they are off it. But of all the dishes that can be made with charred or smoked tomatoes, cold tomato soups have a fire-and-ice quality I’m crazy about.

For those, I use juicy tomatoes that weigh 12 to 16 ounces each. I inspect them closely for soft spots and bruises. I make sure they feel hefty in my hand.

At home, I rinse them, core them and slice off the bottoms so they don’t roll on the grate. Depending on my mood, I’ll either cut the tomatoes in half or smoke them whole. Sometimes I do both: grill, then smoke.

That is what I do for gazpacho. The singed and smoky tomatoes create an intoxicating bouquet, the aroma of the grill mingling with the flavors of the garden. Because I want to keep the basic flavor of the classic summer soup intact, I don’t smoke any of the other ingredients.

My new favorite is a pretty, two-toned soup, also served cold. I use big, meaty types of whatever looks good among yellow and red varieties, such as Golden Jubilees or Golden Sunrays and Purple Cherokees or Brandywines. They get a wash of pecan wood smoke for about 30 minutes before I puree them, keeping the colors separate.

I like the dual colors for what I initially thought was a single reason: presentation. Ideally, you would pour the red and yellow soups simultaneously into a cocktail glass for a striking contrast. But it doesn’t always turn out that way — at least, not for me. Sometimes, they just slosh together, resulting in a single rose-hued blend.

The first time this happened, my heart sank. That’s when I discovered a second reason: taste. The acidic yellows and sweet reds combine with the whisper of smoke, creating a palate-essay on the notion of perfection.

RECIPES:

Grilled and Chilled Tomato Soup

Fire and Smoke Gazpacho

Shahin’s column appears monthly. His Smoke Signals blog runs Tuesdays on All We Can Eat. Follow him on Twitter: @jimshahin. He’ll join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.

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