The tomato and I have a lousy relationship. One of us is always turning up in the wrong place, making for awkward silences and furtive glances across the table. Tomato growers are a proud bunch, whether they were grown in USDA certified organic top soil and watered exclusively with hand-harvested morning dew or they came from a $19.95 Topsy Turvy, it’s a lose-lose situation for a tomato hater. Why isn’t she eating her tomatoes? They’re garden fresh, vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes. Doesn’t she know what she’s missing?
As it happens, I do. And organic shoppers aren’t much better, boastfully pointing out the Black Brandywine tomatoes (ever so carefully selected from the farmer’s market that very morning) that have been lovingly sliced and presented with all the pomp and circumstance required of a fresh heirloom tomato salad.
My strained relationship with the king of cook-out accoutrement began at an early age, probably in my grandmother’s garden. I imagine myself being force-fed the crown jewel of the garden, just picked and thus hot, pouting as the stupid thing bled slimy, seedy (stinky) tomato guts down my face. (The rejection of the home-grown tomato was an offence for which my grandmother has never entirely forgiven me). The same scenario repeated itself in kitchens, restaurants and backyards, my parents doubtlessly envisioning a future in which I would eat tomatoes like apples and thank them for their tireless work in convincing me of the virtues of the noble tomato.
Try as they might I just never took to the raw tomato. While the raw tomato and I are at odds with one another, I’m on much friendlier terms with the tomato’s dressed up cousins, the ones which have been prepared in some way- roasted, grilled, marinated, sun-dried etc.etc., but the raw tomato is the bane of my novice foodie existence. Even when politely asked to hold the tomatoes, my burgers and sandwiches are invariably delivered slathered in mushed tomato slices, tingeing the entire sandwich with the soily, watery taste of tomato long after the offending slices have been removed.
This is a much more delicate task when a friend or family member has prepared a feast in which the piece de resistance is a culmination of tomato adoration: The Caprese salad. You can’t really enthuse about your best friend’s homemade Caprese salad and only eat the mozzarella. There’s just no way around it. The tomato is flagrantly un-prepared, daring you to besmirch its’ name by not taking a bite of the sun-ripened, olive oil-drizzled, basil topped goodness. So, not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings, I take a bite. Although the miniscule speck of tomato I ingested was overpowered by the admittedly overzealous fork-full of mozzarella and basil that accompanied it, it was delightful.
I’ll continue my flirtation with raw tomatoes- occasionaly and sparingly- but for now, I think I’ll stick to the tomatoes I know and love, the ones that are in homemade pasta sauces, bruschetta and salsa, the tomatoes that are roasted to glorious perfection on a brick-oven cooked Margherita pizza (it hasn’t escaped me that it’s esentially a cooked Caprese salad), even the tomatoes of the lowly V8 juice, only perhaps spruiced up with vodka and Tabasco. To you raw tomato lovers out there: I’m working on it. In the mean time, keep in mind that I don’t judge you for not liking spinach.
With that, I offer my (and my mom’s) recipe for homemade Puttanesca Sauce, chock-full of tomatoes. Don’t let the anchovy paste put you off. It’s delish.
Puttanesca Sauce, serves 4
¼ c. olive oil
1 c. chopped onion
6 cloves minced garlic
2, 28 oz. can diced tomatoes (the ones that are seasoned with basil and onions are good. You can also dice up your own home-grown varietals if you so desire).
1 c. Kalamata olives, pitted and halved
½ to 1 can tomato paste (I wouldn’t necessarily recommend making your own tomato paste, no matter how divine your tomatoes are).
3 tbsp. capers
2 tbsp. anchovy paste
½ dried crushed red pepper flakes
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
1 lb. penne pasta cooked al dente (or whatever kind of pasta suits your fancy)
In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft and slightly caramelized, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic and cook and additional 2-3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and remaining ingredients and simmer until the sauce has thickened and slightly reduced, about 45 minutes. Adjust the seasoning (salt & pepper) to taste. Cover and set aside.
Serve with penne pasta, crusty bread and Parmigiano cheese (and plenty of red wine).