I don’t grow very many tomatoes, but the ones I do get are very, very special to me. During this brief end of summer heyday, my 10 assorted heirloom tomato varieties ripen in waves, giving me these meal-sized assortments of tomato heaven. Today’s haul was about three pounds of the most true tomato essence that I will get my hands on all year.
I’m not a great gardener. My tomato plant selecting skills consist of going to the farmers market or the local organic garden store, looking at the heirloom plants, and picking a variety of colors. I do lean toward the plants with the shortest number of days to maturity. We dig out the soil in our tomato boxes, pile in a generous amount of home-fermented compost, and plant them.
Some years we tie them up, some years, I just let them act like the sprawling vines they truly are. We water, and hope for the best.
Of course, freshly picked, vine ripe tomatoes are the best, so all our hopes come true, as long as there isn’t an obscenely early frost. It is Minnesota.
These tomatoes are in a special class, and I always try to put them in a dish that really lets their truth shine through. Overwhelming all that true tomato greatness would be a waste, as appealing as it might be to douse them in Zinfandel and slow cook them.
This is the season of the simple tomato sandwich, the tomato and basil salad, and the off the cuff salsa that you can eat sitting on the deck.
So I have a fall back pasta sauce, which relies on the slight acidity and intense flavor of great oil. You can do it with good olive oil, or walnut oil, whatever really tasty oil you have. Not coconut oil, for this one, as it will stiffen up and separate from the tomatoes. But otherwise, nuts, seeds, all make tasty oils. Pick one that is made from roasted nuts, if you can find it. The use the nut in the gremolata.
It’s just too simple, just chop some garlic, douse it in oil, and toss in the tomatoes and some basil and kale. The kale will also benefit from some marination, becoming tender and sweet.
The only trick is to squeeze out a little of the juicy centers of the tomatoes, so that they don’t make the whole affair too soggy. If you don’t want to do that, you can always throw in a handful of whole wheat breadcrumbs to soak them up. That would be so authentically peasant that it qualifies as an artisanal action.
So while the tomatoes, basil and oil all marry with the garlic and kale, you can cook your pasta and drain. Angelhair only takes 2 minutes, so don’t rush. You should also make the hazelnut gremolata for the topping. I keep toasted and skinned hazelnuts in the fridge, since they are such a handy way to make salads and pastas interesting. If you don’t, you can pan toast over low heat until the skins start to fall off, then put in a thick kitchen towel and rub the skins off. It’s worth the effort.
The chopped hazelnuts and parsley form a crunchy topping, which stands in for the usual dusting of Parmesan. Of course, you can add cheese if you want to. But there’s plenty of protein and salty richness in the nutty topping, too.
Summer is short, so we may as well romance the fruits of the season. It will be time to slow-simmer a pot of sauce soon enough.
Marinated Heirloom Tomato, Hazelnut and Basil Pasta
1/4 cup toasted hazelnut oil
2 fat cloves garlic, chopped
2 pounds heirloom tomatoes
1/2 cup packed fresh basil leaves, slivered
2 cups shredded baby kale
For the Gremolata:
1/4 cup toasted and skinned hazelnuts
1/4 cup parsley leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest
8 ounces whole wheat angelhair pasta
Put on a pot of water to boil the pasta and salt it generously.
In a large bowl, mix the hazelnut oil and garlic.
Chop the tomatoes, squeezing out some of the seeds and juice as you transfer them to the bowl with the hazelnut oil. Add the basil and kale and toss to coat.
On your cutting board, chop the hazelnuts and parsley, then mix them on the board, sprinkle with the salt, and zest, and chop finely to mix. Transfer to a small bowl.
Cook the pasta in salted water and drain well. Add to the bowl with the tomatoes and toss to coat. Taste and salt as needed. Serve sprinkled with the hazelnut mixture.