In Italy, as here, the tomato enters its fUll glory in summer. Through most of the year, canned plum tomatoes go into long-simmered sauces used in everything from pasta to pizza to stews. Now those cans languish on the pantry shelf and Italian cooks turn instead to summer specialties made with only fresh tomatoes.
Cooking fresh plum tomatoes briefly with aromatic vegetables and herbs creates a sauce with a lighter, more delicate flavor than winter versions, in which the odori are typically saute'ed first. Uncooked olive oil or butter, added to each portion of pasta after saucing, retains all its flavor.
Splendid salad tomatoes begin to appear at summer meals. Sliced tomatoes, surrounded with arugula or other salad greens, and dressed with a vinaigrette to which a few capers have been added, are one of the simplest and most delicious preparations. Another classic is tomato slices sprinkled with fresh basil and alternated with slices of fresh, creamy mozzarella; again, a touch of vinaigrette finishes the dish.
Americans tend to think of a good tomato as a red tomato. Thus, it comes as a shock to a first-time visitor to Italy, upon ordering a tomato salad, to see a plate of green-mottled tomatoes rather than the ripe red slices expected. But, Italians believe that the ideal salad tomato is firm and partly green, with less acidity and a more pleasing texture than an entirely red tomato.
Just one proviso: For full flavor, the tomato must be ripened on the vine to the right stage of red streaked with green or yellow. This is easily accomplished when you grow your own tomatoes; suspicions that less-than-ripe tomatoes purchased from a supermarket or vegetable vendor were picked green may be justified, however. If you decide that completely red tomatoes are a safer bet, at least avoid those that are soft and overripe.
Two other kinds of summer tomato dishes, a Tuscan bread salad called panzanella and stuffed tomatoes, are made with fully ripened, red tomatoes. Even here, however, Italian recipes caution against using tomatoes that are too mature.
Panzanella, a salad based on bread and tomatoes, is in a class by itself. It's easy to tell when the tomato season has arrived in Tuscany, because one begins to overhear shoppers in the market arguing over the respective merits of their family recipes for this traditional dish. The key ingredients in panzanella are tomatoes, onions and bread, and some recipes also includelettuce, peppers and cucumbers. The tartness of capers helps balance the sweetness of the tomatoes. Sometimes tuna or anchovies are incorporated as well, but this produces a panzanella that is too spicy and heavy for some tastes.
My favorite version of panzanella is really a cold, thick soup rather than a salad. It is similar to gazpacho, but lighter and more refreshing because fresh basil rather than garlic provides the dominant flavor. The recipe given here tells how to make the soupy version, as well as an orthodox rendition heavy on bread. It also offers an alternative, croutons, to the necessity of making or purchasing bread that will stand up to soaking in water. The result will not be as interesting as true panzanella, but better a delightful improvisation than a failed classic.
Italians stuff salad tomatoes with just about everything, from tuna to mushrooms to shellfish. Sometimes the tomatoes are served raw, after being scooped out and filled. Or, as in the recipe given here, they are cooked. POMMAROLA (Summer Tomato Sauce) ( 6 servings)
This recipe is adapted from one in Giuliano Bugialli's "The Fine Art of Italian Cooking."
2 1/2 pounds fresh, very ripe plum tomatoes
1 medium-sized red onion
1 large carrot
1 celery rib
1 small clove garlic
4 to 5 sprigs Italian parsley
2 to 3 leaves fresh basil
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste
Parmesan for serving Extra-virgin olive oil or butter for serving
Slice the tomatoes in half. Cut the onion, carrot and celery into small pieces.
Place the vegetables, along with the garlic, parsley and basil, in a stockpot. Simmer, covered, very slowly for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. The tomatoes will release their juices, precluding the need for additional liquid. Pass ingredients through a food mill (alternatively, pure'e them in a blender or food processor, and strain).
Season with salt immediately before serving. After the sauce has been spooned onto each serving of freshly cooked pasta or gnocchi, add pepper, grated parmesan cheese and a little extra-virgin olive oil or butter.
Variations: Add a selection of fresh vegetables, cut into small pieces and saute'ed gently in butter, to the sauce at the last minute for serving over pasta. Lightly saute'ed shellfish such as small shrimp, scallops or crab meat are another possible addition; if using shellfish, omit the parmesan. PANZANELLA (Tuscan Bread Salad) (8 servings)
Made this way, panzanella resembles a cold soup more than a salad. For a more orthodox version, double the proportion of bread.
4 large salad tomatoes, red but not overripe
1 mild red onion
1 cucumber, peeled and seeded
1 green bell pepper
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons capers (optional)
4 lettuce leaves, not iceberg (optional)
10 or more leaves fresh basil to taste
3 to 4 slices stale Tuscan bread (recipe follows), or any coarse, firm bread (either white or whole wheat)
Drop tomatoes in boiling water about 15 seconds, remove and plunge into cold water. Slip off the skins and cut the tomatoes in half. Holding each half over a strainer placed over a large bowl, squeeze out the juice and seeds. Discard the seeds. Chop the tomatoes, onion, cucumber and green pepper into medium dice and add to the juice in the bowl. Add oil, vinegar, salt to taste, and capers (if desired). Mix thoroughly and chill an hour or more.
Just before serving, tear the lettuce into small pieces and the basil into still smaller pieces. Stir into the vegetable mixture.
Test a slice of the bread by soaking in cold water until soft, then squeezing gently to remove excess water. Try to crumble the bread between your fingers; if it crumbles evenly, almost flakes, the bread has the right consistency for panzanella; crumble all of it into the panzanella, stir gently and serve immediately. If, on the other hand, the bread sticks together in a sodden mass, discard it and proceed to the next step.
Cut crust off the remaining bread and slice into cubes or squares (if bread is too stale to slice without breaking, substitute fresh bread). Fry the bread pieces slowly in olive oil until crisp. Drain and sprinkle croutons on top of the salad as a garnish. TUSCAN BREAD (2 loaves)
Eat one loaf freshly baked and let the other go stale for making panzanella.
1 cup warm water
2 tablespoons yeast
6 cups unbleached white flour (or 4 cups white and 2 cups whole wheat)
1 large pinch salt
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups water
1 tablespoon olive oil
Pour warm water into a small bowl, sprinkle yeast on top and allow to sit about 10 minutes. Measure flour and salt into large mixing bowl or food processor bowl and blend in yeast mixture. Measure out cold water if using a food processor or warm water if mixing by hand. Add only enough additional water to form a dough that cleans the bowl. Knead on a lightly floured board or in the food processor until dough is elastic and ceases to be sticky. If using a food processor, knead by hand a few minutes at the end.
Spread olive oil over bottom and sides of bowl. Turn the dough in the bowl until coated lightly with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in size (about 1 1/2 hours). Turn dough out on a lightly floured board. Sprinkle top of dough with a little flour if sticky. Let dough rest about 10 minutes, then divide into 2 portions and gently pat each into a rectangle about 10 by 6 inches. Roll each lengthwise in jellyroll fashion and pinch edges together to make a seam, turning the ends under as you shape the loaf. Place both loaves on a cookie sheet sprinkled with cornmeal and let rise about an hour.
When dough is almost ready, turn the oven to 425 degrees; turn the temperature down to 375 degrees as you put in the bread and cook 55 to 65 minutes until brown on top. ITALIAN RICE-STUFFED TOMATOES (8 servings)
8 large, firm, fleshy salad tomatoes, red but not overripe
8 tablespoons rice
2 cloves garlic
4 to 6 sprigs parsley (preferably the flat-leafed, Italian variety)
6 large leaves fresh basil (or 1 teaspoon dried)
2 sprigs fresh oregano (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
Salt and pepper to taste
9 tablespoons olive oil
Cut off each tomato top about one-quarter of the wAy down. Scoop out the pulp from both parts into a strainer placed over a bowl. Set the strained juice aside. Cut out the tomato stem core with a sharp knife. Measure the rice into another bowl. Mince garlic, and snip herbs with shears into small pieces and add to rice. Season with salt and pepper, and mix thoroughly.
Smear 1 tablespoon olive oil on bottom of a flat baking dish (not aluminum) and arrange tomatoes in the dish. Divide rice mixture among the tomatoes; each will be about 1/3 full. Spoon 1 1/2 tablespoons reserved juice over the rice filling of each tomato. Sprinkle most of 1 tablespoon olive oil over each tomato, replace top and dribble remaining oil on top. Cover, and cook at 350 degrees about 50 minutes or until rice is done. Serve warm or cold.