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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tomato Essence: An Experiment

Michael and I recieved an invitation to join friends for a fun day filled with food and laughter at the lovely hilltop secluded  home of a dear friend. Magical. Everyone was asked to bring something burstingly fresh to share and enjoy with beautifully prepared lamb. What a wonderful challenge this time of year when fresh everything is everywhere.

During the past month or so, Michael and I have eaten fresh tomatoes almost every day.  We can't get enough of them. We've enjoyed them in every possible form.  I didn't think there was anything else I could possibly do with  a perfectly ripe humble sweet tomato. I thought I'd covered the bases....until the garden party.

As an experiment, with caution thrown to the wind coupled with a bit of culinary insanity, I set out to explore the complexity and  essence of uber fresh market tomatoes.....and serve it up as a unified whole.  Crazy.  Really.

I couldn't visit the farmers' market at all last week. I'm still in a weird withdrawal mode about that, I might add.  Michael did our shopping.  I gave him a very basic wish list as a guide for procuring my needs and wants.

* 2 heirloom green tomatoes
* 2 heirloom yellow tomatoes
* 2 heirloom black tomatoes
* 2 heirloom red tomatoes

When I arrived home from work, I found a paper bag filled with baby green zebras, black brandyvines, great whites, cherokee greens, red beefsteaks, and big orange stripes.  Wow.  Tomato heaven.  I was ready to play.

Hold onto your hats.

Tomato Water.
There are several methods for creating tomato water. Although somewhat similar, they vary in preparation.  Not wanting to miss a  beat, I combined them all. After slicing a few wedges from each of the tomatoes, I covered them and set them aside while I chopped the remaining tomatoes into 1 inch pieces.  Working in batches, I pureed them in a blender and poured the pulp into double lined unbleached cheesecloth. At that point, I hit my first glitch because I hadn't thought past that step. 

I knew the tomatoes were supposed to drip and drain, releasing their flavorful juices.  It didn't occur to me exactly how I was going to manage that in my kitchen.  Kitchen twine is usually a very basic thing to have hanging around, right?  I didn't have any, so I used bright red Christmas ribbon to tie the buldging  tomato pulp-filled cheesecloth bag together. 

After stacking 4 thick law books on the counter a foot apart, I placed two copper Moroccan kettles on the books for needed height, placed a bowl between the books, slid the ribbon tied bag through a rolling pin, secured the rolling pin handles onto the copper kettles, and stared at my ridiculous contraption. When Michael wandered into the kitchen and caught a glimpse of our new kitchen art, he laughed. We both did. We had to.

But, it worked. 

 The pure tomato essence slowly started to drip through the cheesecloth. As tempting as it was to squeeze the bulbous bag of pulp, I allowed it to slowly drain,  drip by drip,  for eight long  hours.  Yep.


Tomato Powder,
Ok. I was knee deep in my tomato experiment.  There was no turning back. I climbed to the edge of sanity and jumped.   I really wanted to juxtapose the tomato water with an extreme opposite. Tomato powder was the perfect weapon.  I lugged Thomas Keller's The French Laundry Cookbook from its lofty perch and got familiar with his simple method for making tomato powder.

"Squeeze the tomato pulp in a towel to extract any excess moisture.  Line a microwave tray with a piece of parchment paper and spread the tomatoes out in a thin, even layer.  Microwave on low power for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the pulp is completely dried, but maintains its color.  Let cool to room temperature,  Grind the pulp in a coffee or spice grinder until as fine as possible.."

Easy. After blanching a large red beefsteak tomato in boiling water for 10 seconds to release the skin, I peeled it, removed the seeds, and diced  the pulp.  I tumbled the pulp into double lined cheesecloth and squeezed every ounce of liquid from the tomato. It seemed funny, after spending  all of those cold winter months longing for juicy summer tomatoes, I was squeezing the life out of an innocent tomato. 

I placed the tomato pulp on parchment paper, slid the plate into the microwave, set the timer for 40 minutes, and took to my couch.  I should have known not to trust the simplistic seductive power of Thomas Keller.  Awash in my tomato powder glee, I overlooked "...microwave on low power".  Thankfully, Michael put out the fire and cleaned  up the mess.

I repeated the process using low microwave power, staying close to my dehydrating pulp the entire 40 minutes. Aside from an occasional spit and flare up, it worked.  I ground the dried pulp into powder, set it aside, and took a deep breath.

As a riff on mayonaise-topped tomatoes, I made a quick lemon chive aioli to accompany the fresh tomatoes.

I plated the gorgeous tomatoes with a sprinkling of  red Australian sea salt and cracked Tellicherry black peppercorns. After topping the  aioli with the tomato powder and snipped chives, I slid the aioli filled ramekin next to the tomatoes.

With a simple garnish of thinly sliced cucumber spears, I filled small parfait glasses with the tomato water and nestled them in soldier-like fashion alongside the pitcher. Crazy.  Each sip of tomato water tasted  like freshly picked profoundly ripe sun warmed tomatoes. Mysteriously delicious.
While the sliced tomatoes needed nothing to boost their glory, the intense tomato powder paired nicely with the bright lemon chive aioli, giving the fresh  tomatoes an earthy depth.

My tomato experiment was a blast. Great fun. Was it a bit of trouble?  Hell, yes.
Would I try it again?
In a heartbeat.

It was worth every adventurous second to capture and enjoy
the true essence of fresh  tomatoes.

1 comment:

Ruth Anne Flear said...

Thank you for posting this great experiment. Dying to try this since seeing it in he Thomas Keller French Laundry cookbook.