Tuesday, September 02, 2008

While they're still fresh: Tomatoes, Provençal Style

It's late mid-summer and ripe tomatoes are still coming in. A dish that takes advantage of -- requires, really -- the freshest, reddest, ripest fruit is Provençal-style roasted tomatoes, 'Tomates provençale' (toe-'mott pro-vanh-'sahl). Fresh tomatoes from the garden or the local farmers' market are the way to go for this one. Don't even bother with supermarket tomatoes trucked in from across the country.

A number of years ago Thomas, a teenager from the south of France, spent three summers with us in Atlanta. While overall he adored the freedom and freshness of being in the US and on summer vacation, he constantly craved the summer specialty of his mother, Sylvie, who came from Marseilles: roasted tomatoes with an herb and crumb topping.

I learned to make it, respectably I thought. But for Thomas it was close yet never quite rang the bell. I subsequently tasted tomates provençale in the south of France prepared by Sylvie herself, and Thomas was right. It was the richness of the Mediterranean tomatoes that made the difference.

The recipe serves six as a side dish.

Tomates Provençale (Provençal Roasted Tomatoes) Tim

6 medium sized, ripe tomatoes, as red as possible, or 12 smaller ones
Salt for sprinkling (plus sugar may be needed)
4 tablespoons unseasoned dry bread crumbs (or 8 tablespoons freshly prepared bread crumbs)
2 medium scallions (green onions), or 1/2 of a very small onion
1 tablespoon parsley
3 large fresh basil leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
A pinch of cayenne or several squirts of hot pepper sauce
3 tablespoons grated Romano or Parmesan cheese or 4 tablespoons grated gruyère
3 tablespoons olive oil

Slice the top off each of the tomatoes so that the stem is removed and a wide flat tomato surface is exposed. Cut out any green core areas. Place the tomatoes, cut side up, in a baking dish in which they can later be served. Sprinkle the cut surface generously with salt. If the tomatoes are not fully ripe, sprinkle each with a large pinch of sugar. In a food processor (or with a chef's knife on a cutting board) mince the scallions (including the greens) or onion, the parsley and basil, using on and off pulsing. Mix with the bread crumbs, salt, pepper, cayenne or hot sauce, cheese, and olive oil. Gently pack equal amounts of the seasoned crumb mixture onto each of the tomatoes. Bake, uncovered, at 350 degrees 40-45 minutes or until the tomatoes are thoroughly heated and the topping is beginning to brown. Serve in the baking dish. Handle the tomatoes carefully when serving, since they are very tender.

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