These days the tomatoes are getting ripe. We've been eating cherry tomatoes from the back garden for a couple of weeks now, but the big ones -- Brandywines and Better Boy, and some volunteers that have turned out to be a monstrously large, faintly striped variety -- are just coming in.
The thing about fresh tomatoes is that you don't have to cook them to enjoy them. Slice and eat. You can gussy them up with some olive oil, fresh basil, salt and pepper, even sugar (eek!) but you needn't. When the zucchini come in, there is always the question of what to do with them all. Tomatoes are more user-friendly.
But even though simple is dynamite when it comes to the fruity orbs, tomatoes are also terrific in a torrent of uses. Tomato: A Fresh-from-the-Vine Cookbook (Storey, $16.95), by heritage-variety champion Lawrence Davis-Hollander is a celebration of tomatoes from salsas to desserts, and if you love cooking with them, it's a useful addition to your cookbook shelf.
The book is illustrated with 19th Century-style line drawings, as if from old Farmer's Almanacs or seed catalogs, although there's a section of color photos tipped into the middle. (That restraint has doubtless kept the price of the book down.) Interspersed with the recipes are sidebars of tomato history and lore that are quite interesting -- not a substitute for lush color photography if that's what you're into in a cookbook, but worth reading.
Many concern heirloom tomato varieties. You will soon come to learn more about champion tomato breeder Alexander Livingston, who bred some of the tastiest varieties that are still around today. Chefs and foodies name their top ten tomato varieties. Tomatoes are given rock star status...and when you're biting into a perfect caprese salad, it's easy to concede that tomatoes deserve it.
The recipes themselves are often uncomplicated yet feel fresh and new. Spaghetti with Slow-Roasted Tomatoes, Basil and Parmesan Cheese is simplicity itself, but the instructions on proportion from Chef Jody Adams from Rialto, in Cambridge, Mass., help. There are plenty of intriguing old-fashioned treatments... I love Egg in a Tomato Nest" ("serves one") which is what it sounds like, and an improvement over the old campfire trick of cooking an egg in an orange peel, and however strange this might sound, I like the Dr. Seussical "Green Tomatoes on Toast." The tomato tart recipe was not an improvement over my favorite tomato tart recipe, though, and the Chaiwalla Savory Tomato Pie needs something besides mayo to provide zest.
The main dishes, where something else (beef, chicken) is the star of the show and the tomatoes play a supporting role, are to my mind are much less interesting than the side dishes, where tomatoes retain top billing.
I can't wait to try the dessert recipes -- Tomato Custard Pie and Candied-Tomato Tart with Five-Spiced Hazelnut Crust at the top of the list.
Fortunately there are a lot of tomatoes still on the vine in my backyard.