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Today: Capturing all of tomatoes' greatness, to the last drop.
Tomatoes may be the most fickle of summer produce. Year-round, you can probably find an acceptable zucchini or eggplant or cucumber, if you really couldn't wait. Frozen sweet corn suffices. And does anyone really miss just-picked okra when it's gone?
But a ripe tomato will never be right, unless it's hot outside and has been for a good long while. Why else would we dedicate the better part of a grocery aisle to canned tomatoes in every form?
So you can't let a single good one escape. When you're not packing your BLTs with slabs of the best ones, or spooning brown butter over them, Sarah Leah Chase has a good place to stick them: Scalloped Tomatoes.
The result is a bit like making a simply perfect tomato sauce, then eating a big bowlful without the distraction of pasta.
It's mostly tomatoes, sharpened with a little garlic and basil, with just enough bread tossed in to sop up the juices. And some cheese on top, because cheese is always good on top. Merrill called it "hot panzanella".
Ina Garten loved it, adapting it herself, although she toasts the bread cubes in olive oil instead of bacon fat. To each her own fat. Deb Perelman from Smitten Kitchen puts a poached egg on top. And it was sent my way by FOOD52er chefpatty (thanks for the tip!).
Often we think of scalloped dishes (a.k.a. gratins) only in terms of potatoes, which grasp onto any liquid they can find and thicken up of their own accord. But juicier vegetables can be gratinéed too -- you just need a plan for all that liquid. You can salt them to draw out what you can, or throw in some par-cooked grains -- or, as you see here, bacon-toasted croutons.
Unlike the slow-roasted family of tomato recipes, in which they are gradually transformed into candy, this one is cooked at high heat, and barely so. It tastes like little more than a fresh, ripe tomato, warmed up. Chase even adds two tablespoons of sugar to the casserole to compensate, but I've decided that you don't need it.
On that note, I have a few other recommendations:
-- Chase calls for romas, but use the best tomatoes you can find -- beefsteak will be juicier, but not problematically so. Throw in another handful of bread cubes if you want.
-- Use a skinny baguette, so you get more cubes with crusty edges -- they're fun to bite into.
-- And finally, don't go crazy with the cheese and basil -- you want this to be all about the tomatoes. Pack the basil into its half cup lightly and, if you're developing a thick layer of cheese on top (this will depend on your baking dish), just stop. Eat any extra cheese or feed it to the dog.
Adapted slightly from Cold Weather Cooking (Workman Publishing Company, 1990)
3 tablespoons bacon fat (or olive oil)
2 cups (1/2-inch diced) French bread, preferably a crusty baguette
16 plum tomatoes, cut 1/2-inch dice, about 2 1/2 pounds (or the best tomatoes you can find)
1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 3 cloves)
2 tablespoons sugar (optional -- we skipped it)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup julienned basil leaves, lightly packed
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].
Photos by James Ransom