When I first heard about eating seasonally and locally, I thought it was great idea -- in the same way that I thought trying yoga and getting around to opening a retirement account and settling down with a nice Jewish girl sound like great ideas. Fabulous, really, excellent and ... I'll get around to it.
But one day, in cooking school, my friend Charles burst out of class, running to find me in the cafeteria. "Dude," he said. "You have to go to the storeroom. Now." Minutes later, I was standing in front of a rack of tomatoes, rocket-tail red and gumball orange and still warm from the field. A minute after that, I was cursing involuntarily, sputtering, "Holy %@ing #$@! Jesus #@!*& Why didn't anyone tell me tomatoes could taste so good? #*@&%!"
That is the power and the beauty of a great local tomato. Left to actually ripen on the plant instead of being plucked hard to survive weeks of shipping, it develops a universe of flavor, way beyond the flat vegetal tartness of freighted out-of-season tomatoes. Some are sugar-sweet, some take on salty notes, some have a citrusy sharpness, and the good ones just bomb you with umami -- that complex "fifth taste" that people liken to the satisfying aftertaste of meat, mushrooms or aged cheese.
And so I stopped eating generic shipped tomatoes, unable to bring myself to accept such a wan imitation of the real thing, like trying to make out with a photo of an old girlfriend. (I actually saw someone do that once, and I cried for him.) And so, every year, I practice the art of anticipation, as the chef Helene Kennan says. I wait and wait and wait, until after tomatoes come in Florida, then Mississippi, then north Alabama ... until the roll of their season finally hits me in New York. And then there is very little I do with them that one could call "art," unless you're talking about performance art in which I cover myself in them.
So this is one of the things I like to do with superb tomatoes other than just stuff them in my yaw -- a sauce for pasta that consists of hardly more than the sweet juices of the tomatoes themselves, a handful of greens for variety, and the gentle bite of a few raw onion slivers; a dish that would fit as well in a picnic as on a tablecloth. It requires just a touch of work and enough time to boil pasta, but it also means that for several agonizing moments, you'll have to continue practicing the art of anticipation. After all, it is a little disingenuous for me to say that this sauce takes minutes to make, because really it takes all year.
Summer tomato pasta with greens and shaved onion
Serves 2-4, depending on how serious you are about tomatoes
- 2 ½ pounds of the ripest tomatoes you can find (a mix of varieties is really nice)
- 2 loose handfuls of tender young arugula or flavorful greens of your choice (about 2 cups, but whatever)
- ¼ cup shaved red onion or shallot, as thin as you can cut it
- 1 pound spaghetti or linguine
- Extra-virgin olive oil, to taste
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Red wine vinegar, to taste (optional)
- Parmigiano cheese, to taste (optional)
- Boil a gallon of water in a large pot, and make it taste salty (not unpleasantly salty, but distinctly salty). When the water comes to a full rolling boil, add the pasta and stir.
- While the water is heating, cut half of the tomatoes into roughly ½-inch chunks and put in a large salad bowl. Coarsely chop the rest, and don't forget to tip the cutting board to get all the juice in the bowl too.
- Season the tomatoes generously with salt and pepper, and pour in a few glugs of olive oil. Taste them. Hey, save some for the pasta! If they're sweet and delicious but could use a little tartness, give them a little lick of vinegar.
- Lay arugula and then onion or shallots on top of the tomatoes, spreading out the onions so they're as close to lying in one layer as possible. Now wait for your pasta to finish cooking. You can't steal any more tastes of the tomato, because the layering is important -- the heat from the pasta that you'll dump on top will wilt the greens and just barely cook the onions, mellowing them out. Right about now is when I start really failing at the art of anticipation and scream obscenities at the pasta to finish cooking.
- When the pasta is finally done, al dente, (You son of a #@&$!), drain it well in a colander and immediately dump it in the bowl, spreading it out so it covers the vegetables evenly. Bite your lip and let it sit undisturbed for two whole minutes and try to distract yourself by shaving Parmigiano on top. Mix it together well -- really stir it up to stretch the melting cheese and coat the pasta in juice and oil. Give it a taste, adjust with salt, pepper, vinegar, or olive oil if you'd like more richness, and serve immediately.