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Good Riddance to Summer's Tomatoes

Filed under: Looked Into   Tagged: , , , , , , ,

Jonathan Taylor writes:


At the markets here in New York, there are still plenty of tomatoes to be had, but you can tell the season is on the wane. Thank God. I am tired of summer's tyranny of ingredients over the cooking process, of avoiding actual cooking due to the stifling weather—and simply tired of all the tomatoes, however delicious for eating raw or cooked into a simple pasta sauce.

It is time, in autumn, to reacquaint ourselves with the civilizing process. A tomato dish that I made both Saturday and Sunday is the way to bid a fond but firm farewell to the tomato, and submit nature to the genius of cookery. In other words, the tomatoes are cooked with cream. It is also a recipe whose modest nature and brusque expression are foreign to the didacticism and the sentimental mugging found in so much food writing these days.

First, the recipe, and then some notes on its source:

Tomates à la crème

Take six tomatoes. Cut them in halves. In your frying pan melt a lump of butter. Put in the tomatoes, cut side downward, with a sharply pointed knife puncturing here and there the rounded sides of the tomatoes. Let them heat for five minutes. Turn them over. Sprinkle them with salt. Cook them for another 10 minutes. Turn them again. The juices run out and spread into the pan. Once more turn the tomatoes cut side upward. Around them put 80 grams (3 ounces near enough) of thick cream. Mix it with the juices. As soon as it bubbles, slip the tomatoes and all their sauces onto a hot dish. Serve instantly, very hot.

In 1967, Elizabeth David wrote an article about French cookbook author Edouard de Pomiane for the London Sunday Times that was also published in Gourmet in March 1970 (perhaps it can be found in the new Gourmet iPad app?), and in David's 1984 collection An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. It includes those verbatim instructions of Pomiane's for tomates à la crème.

As David notes of the dinner menu that Pomiane presented tomates à la crème as a part of, it is "a real lesson in how to avoid the obvious without being freakish" and "how to start with the stimulus of a hot vegetable dish." Even once I had just read the recipe, it was easy to picture as a canonical bistro classic. But that was not the case; David wrote that it "makes tomatoes so startingly unlike any other dish of cooked tomatoes that any restaurateur who put it on his menu would, in all probability, soon find it listed in the guide books as a regional speciality." But the Pomiane attributed the dish to his Polish mother, and David notes that many of his techniques are actually traceable to Central European cooking—"thereby refreshing French cookery in the perfectly traditional way."

David was also out to praise Pomiane's way of food writing: "courageous, courteous, adult. It is creative in the true sense of that ill-used word, creative because it invites the reader to use his own critical and inventive faculties." Like her own writing it, it resists promiscuous superlatives, emotional self-indulgence and much cant surrounding authenticity: "He passes speedily from the absurdities of haute cuisine to the shortcomings of folk cookery, and deals a swift right and left to those writers whose reverent genuflections before the glory and wonder of every least piece of cookery-lore make much journalistic cookery writing so tedious."

A more practical virtue of the tomates recipe is that it will come in handy even when you're not up to your ears in Greenmarket heirloom tomatoes. Those will certainly make the dish better, but it is also a recipe that can make something much more presentable out of inferior supermarket tomatoes. Take Julian Barnes's word for it:

I didn't much trust this: the quantity of butter was imprecise, the strength of the gas unspecified. Further, it was mid-February, so the best tomatoes I could find were pale orange, frost-hard, and pretty juice-free inside. I fanatically observed the approximations of De Pomiane's recipe, while chucking in a little salt, pepper and sugar in the tiny hope of not disgracing the kitchen ... and the result was unbelievably good - the method had somehow extracted richness from half a dozen fruits that looked as if they had long ago mislaid their essence.

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