Tomatoes on my mind


Now that the first spring veggies are arriving in the market, I can’t keep my mind from leaping ahead to August, when the heirloom tomatoes will be at their peak. I can’t wait for those vine-ripened beauties to reach my plate. Of all the summer produce, they’re my favorite.

It’s been too long since I’ve tasted a great tomato, fresh off the vine and still warm from the sun. But I’ve come up with a substitute to keep my cravings in check until the real thing arrives in the markets – roasted canned tomatoes.

Before you scoff, consider this: The best canned tomatoes have a depth of flavor you never find in the hot house tomatoes or those that were picked green in Mexico and trucked north. They’re picked ripe and rushed to the cannery. The texture suffers in the canning but that doesn’t matter so much if you roast them, which eliminates much of the excess moisture and concentrates the flavor.

The idea came to me when I was having dinner with a friend at Valeriano’s in Los Gatos. A winter caprese salad was on special for the evening and we were curious, so we decided to split an order. The kitchen had roasted roma tomatoes before layering them with mozzarella and pesto. The salad was so good, we cleaned the plate.

If hot house romas could turn out so well, I reasoned, why not try roasting tastier canned tomatoes? The results were terrific. The key is to start with top quality canned whole tomatoes. Imported San Marzano tomatoes from Italy worked well, but so did less expensive domestic tomatoes. I liked the organic whole peeled plum tomatoes from Muir Glen. Meaty plum tomatoes are essential. Other varieties tend to be too watery.

Teamed with slices of creamy fresh buffalo mozzarella and an arugula pesto adapted from John Ash’s “Cooking One on One,” (Clarkson Potter, 2004), the roasted tomatoes made a great spring variation on the familiar caprese salad. Arugula, tamed with pine nuts, brought bright, peppery flavor to the plate. And, unlike the usual basil pesto, it did not darken while standing.

Now, maybe I can hang on until August.

Serves 4

1 28-ounce can whole, peeled tomatoes
About ½ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided use
Sea salt
2 large cloves garlic, peeled
3 cups lightly packed arugula leaves
3 tablespoons pine nuts, lightly toasted
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan
Freshly ground pepper
4 ounces fresh buffalo mozzarella, sliced thinly

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Lightly oil a large baking sheet or line with parchment paper.

Carefully drain tomatoes, being careful not to tear them while removing from can. (Don’t worry if some of them are not intact. You’ll have enough even if you lose one or two.) Slice each tomato in half vertically and place halves, cut side up, in rows on the baking sheet. Drizzle with about 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Roast for 2 – 2½ hours, until tomatoes have begun to dry and brown lightly around the edges. You may want to cook them a little more or less, depending on your taste.

While the tomatoes are roasting, prepare the pesto. In a small pan, warm garlic cloves and 1/3 cup of the olive oil over low heat until the garlic is soft and golden, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Place the arugula, pine nuts and cooled garlic and olive oil into the work bowl of a food processor or blender and whirl until smooth. Transfer to a small bowl and stir in Parmesan. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

To serve, alternate slices of tomato and mozzarella on a plate. Dot with pesto, drizzle with a little more olive oil, and finish with a sprinkling of good sea salt.