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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Tomato in Winter

When Kevin dropped off the perishables remaining in his cabin's refrigerator before he left to return to California recently, it was as if California itself was dropped at my door. Beautiful fresh lemons and limes, most of a dozen eggs from Carrie's birds at Petals and Beans, some fantastically fruity grape tomatoes and, with the very scent of summer itself in the midst of winter, fresh basil peeked out from one corner of the bag.

The next day, while Kevin was 'enjoying' driving through western Nebraska in the snow, I opened my refrigerator to that same summery-mint scent of basil. I thought of tearing a few of the leaves into a salad and then I remembered the grape tomatoes.

The flavors of summer
It seems odd to me to cook with fresh tomatoes in the winter, mainly because grocery store tomatoes at this time of year rarely taste anything like tomatoes. And also because if you grow your own during those few steamy months when they thrive in the northern garden (or more likely the greenhouse, this far north), you may have dozens of jars of canned tomatoes, salsas, sauces and relishes in your pantry, as I do, and don't often consider buying them in the winter.

The siren song of these remarkably fragrant fruits called for one thing alone – the freshest of tomato sauces over a small, twisted pile of Cappellini with a quick shaving of Parmigiano Reggiano on top. Fast, light, fresh and amazingly delicious, this is also an inexpensive meal and can be tossed together for one person or a crowd. If you think you don't have time to cook fresh food, here is proof positive that you can.

Fresh Tomato Basil Sauce
This is normally a quick fresh-from-the-garden summer dish. If you can find fresh tomatoes that taste like fresh tomatoes in the winter, this sauce will transport you back in time to a warm summer day. It is best with just a touch of good Parmigiano Reggiano cheese shaved on top.

2 Tbsp Pure Olive Oil
1 medium Shallot, julienne sliced or Sweet Yellow Onion
3 cups rough chopped Fresh Tomatoes
½ tsp Crushed Garlic
Kosher Salt and Fresh Ground Black Pepper
4-6 Fresh Basil leaves, julienned

Heat the olive oil in a medium saute pan or saucepan. Add the sliced shallots and saute until softened but not browned.
Add the tomatoes.
Ready in a flash
Cook over medium-high heat until the tomatoes begin to soften. Add the crushed garlic and a little water, if needed to keep the sauce from sticking.
Taste and season with salt and pepper. If you wish, use a potato masher to press the tomatoes in the pan and break up the fruit, or leave it 'chunky'.
In the last few minutes of cooking, turn the heat to low and add the basil.
Serve over cappellini (angel hair) pasta and shave some Italian Parmigiano Reggiano cheese on top.
This is the ultimate fast food. By the time the pasta is finished cooking, your sauce should be finished. 

Ingredient Notes:
  • For as much press as “XVOO” has received in recent years, it is a delicate creature and should really be reserved for salad dressings or other fresh preparations. It is not intended to be heated. Save your money and buy 'Pure' olive oil for cooking, which will withstand a little higher temperature without losing its flavor.
  • Make this dish only with fragrant, flavorful tomatoes and fresh basil. This dish is all about fresh flavors. Any type of tomato is fine.
  • I love crushed garlic for the way it dissipates into the sauce instead of leaving little hot 'bits' of garlic in a dish as minced garlic does.
  • Italian Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is arguably the best of its kind on earth. It is not inexpensive but you only need a little of this hard grating cheese to add spectacular flavor to delicate dishes. And save the hard rind! You can use it to give richness to soup, stock or sauces. Ditch that nasty, powdered, fake 'cheese' that's been sitting in your refrigerator door for months.
  • Why use Kosher salt? Here's a test. Taste a little kosher salt. Tastes like salt, right? Now taste table salt. Taste like chemicals? That's because it is, in large part, chemicals. Using a purer product will give your food fresher flavor. Your body won't lack for iodine or 'anti-caking agents', I promise.

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