"There are no seasons in the American supermarket. Now there are tomatoes all year round: grown half way around the world, picked when it was green, and ripened with ethylene gas. Although it looks like a tomato, it's kind of a notional tomato, I mean, it's the idea of a tomato."
I heard this passage at the beginning of the documentary Food, Inc. and wrote in the notebook I had brought with me: "notional tomato" (quotation marks included). I then looked up "notional" in my dictionary and learned that its antonym is "actual." Actual tomatoes, fruits that, besides looking like tomatoes, taste like tomatoes, are now in season, and all I can say is: "carpe diem" -- get locally grown tomatoes and enjoy them.
A few weeks ago, in front of a plate of pasta with roasted small plum tomatoes, my husband declared solemnly that tomatoes are his favorite food. While I myself would not go that far, I have been a tomato lover for as long as I remember. Wandering around the vegetable garden of some acquaintance, picking a tomato or two and eating them immediately was a favorite pastime of mine when visiting the countryside as a child (I grew up in Perugia, a city in central Italy). This preference for tomatoes au naturel caused my father and my aunt Lucia to wince: "At least put some salt on them," they'd say. What for? was my response.
I twisted a tomato off the vine, brushed it with my hands, inhaled close to its skin, then bit into it, diving into a fresh aromatic pool that spoke of the earth and of the sun. Eating a tomato was a multi-bite affair, and squirting juice and seeds on my hands, face and clothes was part of the enjoyment. I don't remember seeing small tomatoes in the vegetable gardens I roamed as a child: I remember meeting those varieties when I moved to California.
Within the context of smallness, there is variety in both size and shape. If the sight of pear-shaped tomatoes doesn't bring a smile to your face, what will? The color palette goes well beyond red (in Italy, we say rosso come un pomodoro literally "as red as a tomato") to include colors like yellow-white, golden orange, red-brown. A pint of mixed cherry tomatoes at the farmers' market intrigues the eyes, before engaging the palate. And the names please the ear: Black Cherry, Brown Berry, Isis Candy and Sun Gold are just a few examples.
When selecting a pint of small fruited tomatoes, you can choose between mixed and single-variety baskets. Several two-way comparisons on my part have all ended with the verdict that I like all the varieties I have offered to my taste buds, each with its own look and its own personality.
Cherry tomatoes make a perfect snack, with the caveat that once you start eating them, it's difficult to stop. If I leave a bowl containing cherry tomatoes on the kitchen counter, it becomes empty within a few hours -- a state of affairs for which my husband and I share responsibility. So, if I want to prepare a dish with them, I need to make sure I hide the quantity I need.
Summer tomato salads have always been a favorite of mine. In the Caprese salad, tomatoes are paired with mozzarella (fior di latte). From the initial idea I had of preparing a Caprese salad with cherry tomatoes, it was a short distance to one that would include also the bite-sized mozzarella called "ciliegine" (ciliegia is Italian for cherry). I never realized that plan, though, because I immediately decided I would first roast the cherry tomatoes (something I have been doing a lot this tomato season).
Here's the procedure I follow to oven-roast cherry tomatoes: Heat the oven to 350 F. After removing the stems, cut each tomato in half lengthwise and place in a bowl. Toss the tomato halves lightly with a bit of salt and olive oil and some slivered basil leaves. (I still like my tomatoes without salt, but I don't expect people to agree with me.) Arrange the tomato halves in one layer, cut side up, on a baking sheet lined with a silicone mat and bake them for 45 minutes. (Check after 40 minutes.) A few minutes before the oven timer is set to beep, cut some bite-sized mozzarella in half and put them in bowls. Take the baking sheet out of the oven and delicately spoon the tomatoes over the mozzarella. Optionally add a touch of olive oil and/or a bit more slivered basil. Serve immediately. Roasting intensifies the tomato flavor, and the hot tomatoes soften the mozzarella. The result is a dish that has been featured regularly on our dinner menu this summer -- and there is yet no indication of palate fatigue.
I have omitted quantities because those can be varied according to your taste and the number of people sharing the dish. I serve it as part of a multi-course dinner -- for the two of us, I roast a pint of tomatoes and allocate about 10 "ciliegine" per portion. I also go light with the basil, based on my personal preference regarding the balance of flavors. You can adjust each element according to your taste. (And you can use sliced mozzarella balls instead of the bite-sized ones.)
Roasted cherry tomatoes can be used in many ways. Another example, I have been using them atop crostini. In that case, I skip the basil and add the leaves of a few sprigs of thyme to the halved tomatoes when I toss them with olive oil and salt before roasting. A few minutes before the oven timer is set to beep, I toast thin slices of (my homemade) bread. As soon as the tomatoes come out of the oven, I spoon them on the warm toast points and serve immediately. Again here, adjust quantities as needed to make enough crostini for your guests.
Caprese Salad with Oven-Roasted Cherry Tomatoes and Ciliegine
mozzarella "ciliegine" (bite-sized)
salt, to taste
slivered basil leaves
Heat the oven to 350 F.
Remove stems and cut each tomato in half lengthwise.
Toss tomatoes with salt, olive oil, and basil.
Arrange tomatoes, cut side up, on a baking sheet.
Bake tomatoes for 45 minutes.
Meanwhile cut mozzarella balls in half and arrange in bowls or on small plates.
Spoon roasted tomatoes over mozzarella.
Optionally add a touch of olive oil and/or a few shreds of fresh basil.