The rich selection of tomatoes offered these days at the local Farmers' Market set in motion a walk down memory lane that took me back to a summertime meal featuring pomodori col riso (rice-stuffed tomatoes), one of my mother's signature dishes. Part of its allure can be attributed to the fact that it is a baked dish. When I was growing up, the turning on of the oven by my mother was always a harbinger of delicacies to come. As mentioned in a previous column ("Table Talk," March 1), my mother uses her oven only rarely for its intended function (in between it moonlights as storage space for a number of lids). But enough on my mother. On to the tomatoes.
And tomatoes are clearly the protagonists of pomodori col riso. I recommend starting with four of them. Multiply the recipe as needed. Choose tomatoes that are meaty, ripe, firm, round and of comparable size, each weighing 1/2 lb. or so. Making the dish takes four steps: preparing the tomatoes, preparing the stuffing, preparing the potatoes and putting it all together.
Wash the tomatoes and cut a 1/2-inch slice off the top. Keep the top close to the tomato from which it was separated, since later on they will be reunited. Using a melon-baller, carve out the pulp, leaving the tomato shell intact. Work over a bowl to collect the pulp, juice and seeds. My mother uses a food mill to purée the tomato pulp and separate the seeds for removal. I don't have a food mill, so I use the food processor to purée, then a 7-inch strainer to separate the seeds. This step takes a bit of patience: Using a wooden spoon, I stir the pulp and at the same time push it through the mesh. Regardless of the method, the seeds and bit of pulp that are left behind are discarded at the end.
Add the following ingredients to the puréed tomato pulp: one tablespoon of parboiled rice and half a teaspoon of olive oil for each tomato, a quarter cup of chopped fresh parsley, 5-6 shredded leaves of basil, one big or two small cloves of finely minced garlic, salt to taste and a sprinkling of freshly-ground black pepper. Stir well and set aside. The seasoned tomato pulp smells delicious, which is an advance on the reward the final dish will bestow upon you.
A word about the rice. Parboiled (a.k.a. converted) rice is steamed under pressure before being husked. In the process, the grains absorb the husk's water-soluble nutrients. When cooked, parboiled rice is firmer and less clingy than white rice, characteristics that make it a good choice for pomodori col riso . Before making this dish, I had never looked for parboiled rice in a grocery store. Thanks to my friend Christine, I found Uncle Ben's. I use the long grain variety.
Considering that potatoes are the third main ingredient, one would expect the name of the dish to recognize their presence. But I guess that would make for a long name. In any case, the potatoes are there, a pound or so of the baking kind (that usually means two potatoes). Peel them and cut them into pieces. I quarter each potato lengthwise, then cut each piece into 1/4-inch-thick slices. The resulting pieces are relatively small and easier to stir when they are in the baking pan, around the tomatoes. Put the slices in a bowl, sprinkle them with salt and pepper to taste, then turn them with a spoon. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Generously spray a 13×9-inch baking pan with olive oil and place the un-stuffed tomatoes in it. Use the seasoned tomato purée with rice to fill the hollowed-out tomatoes. Since the rice tends to sink, stir the mixture each time before lifting up the tablespoon. If you forecast that you will end up with extra stuffing, make sure you allocate all the rice and save the leftover liquid. Cover each tomato with its top. If you lost track of the correct pairing, don't worry — the tomatoes won't complain about mismatched hats.
Spread the potato pieces around and between the tomatoes to form an even layer. If you have leftover tomato pulp, distribute it over the potatoes. Finish with some olive oil sprayed over all (or drizzled, if you don't have a sprayer). Put the pan in the oven and bake. The smell wafting from the oven keeps you company for most of the waiting period and reassures you that something delicious is forthcoming.
The rice will absorb the tomato juice as it cooks. As the baking proceeds, the tomatoes release some juice into the pan. Every 15 minutes or so, stir the potatoes so that they are moistened by the juice, but be careful not to break the tomatoes while stirring the potatoes. A tomato may split anyway while baking. This usually happens after the stuffing has already set, so it does not result in a spill. Simply provide extra support to the tomato when you lift it from the pan to avoid a total breakdown.
After 45 minutes, taste the potatoes and estimate how much more baking time they will need. When they are ready (soft and tomato-flavored), taste also a bit of rice to verify that it is cooked (it should be), then stop the baking. This recipe serves four as a side dish. If you increase the number of tomatoes and/or the quantity of potatoes, you will need a bigger pan.
A rice-stuffed tomato looks quite pretty when placed on a plate, hugged by a half-moon of golden potatoes. Another beauty of this dish is that it can be served immediately out of the oven, or after it cools down a bit (some people even like it cold). My walk down memory lane arrived at a welcoming spot: tasty potatoes and fragrant tomatoes filled with flavored rice. Summertime and the living is easy, thanks to an abundance of tomatoes at the Farmers' Market and to a mother who taught me something wonderful to do with them.
Pomodori col Riso
4 ripe, firm tomatoes, about 1/2 lb. each
1 Tablespoon parboiled rice per tomato
1/2 teaspoon olive oil for each tomato
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 big or 2 small cloves of garlic, finely minced
5-6 shredded basil leaves
1 lb. baking potatoes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Cut a 1/2" slice off the top of each tomato.
Carve out the tomato pulp leaving the tomato shell intact.
Using a food mill or food processor, purée the pulp.
Separate the seeds and discard.
Add rice, olive oil, parsley, garlic, basil, salt and pepper to pulp: stir well and set aside.
Peel potatoes, quarter them lengthwise and cut into 1/4"-thick slices.
Salt and pepper potatoes to taste.
Preheat oven to 375 F.
Oil a 13×9" baking pan and arrange tomato shells in it, evenly spaced.
Fill the shells with seasoned tomato purée; cover tomatoes with sliced-off tops.
Spread potato slices around and between tomatoes.
Sprinkle leftover tomato purée over potatoes.
Bake 45 minutes or more, stirring potatoes every 15 minutes or so.
When the potatoes are cooked, verify that the rice is also ready, then stop the baking.
Serve immediately or save for later.
Note: Start time for the Sept. 9, Slow Food dinner at Café Brio discussed in last week's Table Talk has been changed to 3 p.m. For ticket information call 826-1224 or 443-2364.