Tomatoes with a shell, a master stroke


Caramelle di Pomodoro (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

An occasional series in which staff members share a recipe that we turn to time and again.

So much for this series’ claim above the byline. I’ve made Alex Levin’s amuse-bouche recipe only twice since it popped into my e-mail a few weeks ago, but I can tell it’s destined for favored ration status.

What a sweet surprise: The shiny coating on toothpicked cherry tomatoes is no mere gloss of olive oil but a thin shell of golden melted sugar that crackles in a single juicy bite. A few sea salt flakes and basil ribbons on top skew the taste ever so slightly to the savory side. Their name sounds like the lead in an Italian soap opera: caramelle di pomodoro, and the effect of the tomatoes reminds me of Michel Richard’s tromp l’oeilerrfic chocolate grapes.

Levin’s the pastry chef at Osteria Morini on the Southeast waterfront, but what made him think to gild those particular lillies?

“One of my mentors used to encapsulate things in caramel,” Levin told me. “It works well with any kind of sphere or square, really.” He has been experimenting the past year-and-a-half; for example, Levin dips mini-orbs of frozen hazelnut butter into just-boiled caramel, which soften the insides to a peanut-buttery state. “I looked at a tomato about six months ago and thought, why not?” he says.

They’re not meant for Super Bowl snacking. A plate with one or two, plus complements of good Parmigiano-Reggiano and softly tangy goat cheese, is all you need.

There’s a hitch. Cherry tomatoes are at their peak when Washington is at its most humid and sticky. That kind of weather can turn the cherry tomatoes’ sheen into the stuff of emergency dental appointments. “It’s going to get a little sticky in the summertime — it’s just the nature of it,” Levin says. To preserve the intention, the chef suggests serving them right away, or placing them in an airtight container, then wrapping that box in plastic wrap to serve them an hour or so later.

The perfectionist in him prefers to avoid the forming of a foot, or pooling of caramel on the underside of the fruit. To do that, one must reheat the molten liquid every few minutes, so it remains at its thinnish consistency. Thicker caramel will almost assuredly stay sticky.

A single practice run of the recipe might be all that’s required to master an even, thin coating on every cherry tomato. And with the pleasant weather we’ve enjoyed of late, the odds for success are in our favor.

Bonnie S. Benwick has the job most envied among cocktail-party conversations. If they only knew ... Cook with her each week at Dinner in Minutes: washingtonpost.com/recipes.
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