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tomatoes and pesto—a peasant pleasure

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15 August 2005

tomatoes and pesto—a peasant pleasure

HEIRLOOM TOMATOES, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

This afternoon, for lunch, Kim made sandwiches for all the students at Hugo House. And not just sandwiches, but these: fresh mozarella cheese; roasted heirloom tomatoes; and homemade pesto. All of it grilled on Essential Bakery rosemary diamante bread. When I walked into the kitchen to help carry the food down to the cafe area, my nose quivered with excitement. And then my heart sank.

I love that bread. It's crisp and doughy and perfectly light. Laced with whole rosemary leaves, it's topped with coarse sea salt. Crunch, and then wonderful softness. In fact, I loved that bread so much that a dear friend of mine used to leave loaves of it in my mailbox when I was feeling low.

For a brief moment, I missed the chance to eat what everyone else was eating. I hung my head a little and moped.

But not for long.

Because, when I was just on the verge of saying, "Oh, don't worry, I'll walk up to Madison Market and buy myself some lunch, Kim put a bowl in front of me. A beautiful bowl, full of bliss. Coarsely chopped heirloom tomatoes, chunks of fresh mozarella cheese, and dollops of homemade pesto. A perfect peasant Italian lunch. The pungent sweetness of basil rose up to greet me. The mozarella still tasted of the fresh milk. And the tomatoes. Oh, the tomatoes.

There's something deeply satisfying about a tomato in August. Juicy as peaches, with a soft bite of tang. Malleable, so they meld into everything well. And meaty, something to chew on. Where would I be without thick, garlicky pasta sauce? In fact, last evening I was biking along the Burke-Gilman trail, and an urgent smell from an upstairs apartment I passed in a flash snaked into my nose: tomatoes sizzling in olive oil and garlic. I nearly fell off my bike. I love tomatoes.

But not just any tomatoes. Most pallid fruit sold in grocery stores today are more like tight little balloons filled with red food coloring. Tasteless, mealy, and just plain depressing. But that's what we get for eating tomatoes in January. Why can't we just eat fresh tomatoes as they are available, savor them fully, then move onto the parsnips and squashes of autumn? Well, I intend to do that this year, as I have already started. Eat local. Eat fresh. Eat food grown by individuals rather than corporations.

Lately, I've been buying heirloom tomatoes in season from Kittitas Valley Greenhouses. These friendly people have a booth at the Ballard Market on Sundays, and sometimes the Magnolia Market on Saturday. I bought a pound of these striped Tigerella tomatoes on Saturday (pictured above), and I've been slobbering over them ever since. Maybe I'll make some salsa soon. It's just good to buy a pound of tomatoes from the man who grew them on his trees, cared for them, and carried them to me in Magnolia. (Oh, I suppose there were probably a few more people involved besides him.) Nothing in a supermarket could ever taste so good.

Some people don't like tomatoes. They do come from the deadly nightshade family (eggplants and potatoes too), so for centuries, people mistakenly believed they were poison. And then some thought they were aphrodisiacs, so go figure. There's a great story that people in the new United States were so frightened of tomatoes that they refused to eat them for a century, growing them only as decoration. The man who convinced people to eat tomatoes was one Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, who spread the word that he would eat an entire bucket of tomatoes on the steps of the courthouse on a day in September. (Maybe he grew tomatoes commercially? Or just a tomato freak.) Thousands of people gathered to watch him ingest the poison and collapse in front of them. I wonder if they were secretly disappointed when he lived? Anyway, the story goes that this finally convinced Americans that they could eat tomatoes.

Sadly, there's no real historical fact to back up this story, even though it has been told for decades. Probably apocryphal. But it doesn't really matter, does it? I do love a good story.

And we do know that the tomato came originally from the Andes, the birthplace of so many foods we take for granted. When I lived with the CFP, I was editing the gardening book of the girlfriend (GCFP). She never did finish it, because she didn't know how to do it without me. And there were endless hours of doldrums, working on the care tips for dahlias. But I was always thrilled to research the history of certain foods. The history of food is the history of humanity. And knowing where your food comes from makes it that much better as well.

All that is fact. What matters most is that the simplest meal—tomatoes, cheese, and pesto—made me giddy with happiness. Summer sun washing in through the windows, and I'm nothing but taste sensations for a few moments. I felt loved.

It doesn't take much to make each other happy, does it?


I just started making fresh pesto this summer. Why have I waited so long? It's easy as pie, and just as satisfying. I usually just throw some basil, olive oil, pine nuts, and parmesan in the food processor and scoop up some on my fingers. But recently, I found this recipe in The Best Recipe. This godsend of a book was put out by American's Test Kitchen, which is the persnickety group of people who try every single recipe 43 different ways, just to make sure we have the best taste. Not only that, but they also write little essays before each recipe, explaining what they were trying to find, and why some permutations failed. The final recipe is always the one they deem best. And believe me, every single recipe I have made out of this book has been spectacular. In the case of the pesto, they're going for a true taste of basil, with a slightly subdued garlic. It's great. There's a new edition out now, and I don't know if they still have the pesto recipe in it, so here it is:

3 medium garlic cloves, threaded on a skewer
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons fresh parsley leaves
7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

1. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Lower the skewered garlic into the water. Boil for 45 seconds. Immediately run the garlic under cold water. Remove from the skewer. Peel and mince. (If you're making pasta right after, save the water for it.)
2. Toast the nuts in a small, heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently, until just golden and fragrant. (Should be about five minutes.)
3. Place the basil and parsley in a heavy-duty, quart-size bag. Take out your meat tenderizer and pound those poor little herbs until they are bruised. (Ouch. That sounds bad.)
4. Place all the ingredients except the cheese in your food processor. Pulse. Pulse. Pulse. When the goop is smooth, scrape down the sides of the bowl. Transfer the mixture to a small bowl, mix in the cheese, and add salt to taste. (I use sea salt, of course.)
5. Eat. And moan with pleasure.

Eat the pesto right away. If you want to keep it for a few days, cover the bowl with plastic wrap. If you want to keep it for longer, then pour the pesto into ice trays. Freeze, then transfer to a freezer bag. When you're cooking, you can just pop in a cube of frozen pesto and watch the summer appear again.


At 12:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 9:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh yay, comment spam. That's almost as distasteful as actual spam. Is there gluten in Spam? I bet there is.

I am amazed at the lunches there at HH. How do I get into one of these classes?


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