Less is more when it comes to serving tomatoes

Cooks from Provence relish August's ripe, red bounty, simply prepared.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    The mile-long farmers' market in Arles, France, is in the heart of Provence.
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Late-summer tomatoes are perhaps the most celebrated crop of the year – even more than springtime asparagus or June strawberries. A tomato at any other time of year is so bland and mealy that the canned alternative is downright appetizing by comparison. When August finally arrives and bright-red, flavor-packed, juicy tomatoes start to fall off the vine, aficionados savor every bite the way a child delights in an ice cream cone on a hot day.

Tomatoes force us to eat closer to home and more in harmony with nature's rhythms. They rebel against today's era of convenience when one can find Brazilian peaches in Maine or Floridian oranges in Spain, and, for that, they are a darling of today's fast-growing "eat local" movement.

The late-­summer tomato is perhaps no more prized than it is in southern France, where, for centuries, Mediterranean cooks have unselfconsciously practiced the art of seasonal eating and cooking. At outdoor farmer's markets, particularly those in the sun-drenched region of Provence, tomatoes in numerous sizes and varieties are as ubiquitous as those beloved fields of lavender and sunflowers in the surrounding countryside. Vendors practically give away their abundant supply of tomatoes at a price even attractive to an American, who, these days – thanks to the weak dollar – must typically subscribe to a look-but-don't-buy approach when shopping in France.

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After snapping up a kilo (about 2.2 lbs) of tomatoes for a mere euro (about $1.40), one wonders how best to prepare them in true French fashion. A simple salad of chopped tomatoes drizzled with vinaigrette and sprinkled with salt and freshly ground pepper is a French favorite. But of course, the French like to get fancy now and then and perhaps especially after several weeks of preparing tomato salads, tomato sandwiches on just-baked baguettes, and thin-crusted pizza topped with thinly sliced, garden-fresh tomatoes.

For those occasions when a salad or sandwich simply won't suffice, French cooks might whip up a tomato tart or quiche, but most often they call up a classic: Tomates à la Provençal.

After sampling this popular dish at cafes along the Mediterranean coast, I realized that no recipe for Tomates à la Provençal was quite as good as that of my French mother-in-law. Monique served this dish one evening alongside roasted leg of lamb and potatoes au gratin, and I'd never forgotten how beautifully the flavors and textures melded.

Monique learned to cook at her mother's knee in Algeria, formerly a French colony. It was a fertile country, where she could step out her door and pick lemons, clementines, olives, and, yes, tomatoes. Cooking has since been her passion, and today, her family happily devours everything she makes.

But they often joke that it's impossible to duplicate her recipes, not only because she's got her own special touch, but also because she rarely uses a cookbook, and she follows the little-bit-of-this and a-lot-of-that approach in the kitchen. So with a "bonne chance!" they wished me well in my attempts to jot down Monique's recipe for Tomates à la Provençal.

In addition to this challenge, I had a few other strikes against me: My French is only intermediate, and her English is nonexistent, plus the fact that, if she gave me precise measurements, they would be in metric, rather than in the pounds, cups, and teaspoons I was used to.

But somehow, I succeeded in extracting her recipe, and I only needed to give it a try in my own kitchen.

Turns out, Monique's recipe is pretty close to the original. She makes it two different ways: with or without bread crumbs, depending what she's serving along with the dish. Some French cooks opt to stuff their tomatoes with goat cheese instead of topping them with bread crumbs – but not Monique. She's not a fan of chèvre, and she'd also rather eat her cheese at the end of the meal.

Nonetheless, herewith is her basic recipe and several variations, each of which will soon have you eating like a true Provençal. All you need now is a boule court to while away the time when your dish is in the oven!

Tomates à la Provençal

6 large ripe tomatoes

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 garlic cloves, minced

1/4 cup flat-leaf (Italian) parsley, chopped

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Remove remains of stems, and cut tomatoes in half crosswise, perpendicular to stem end. Gently squeeze out seeds and juice, leaving the rest of the tomato intact. In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil. Place tomatoes in pan, cut side up, and sauté for about three minutes. Turn them and sauté another two minutes. In a small bowl, mix garlic, parsley, salt, and pepper. After tomatoes are sautéed, transfer them to a casserole dish and loosely fill them with the garlic mixture. Put them in the preheated oven for 30 minutes, until they are soft but still hold their shape. Serve tomatoes hot or at room temperature. Serves 6.

Variation with bread crumbs:

Add 1/2 cup of good-quality dry, white bread crumbs to the garlic mixture and then loosely stuff tomatoes.

Homemade bread crumbs can be made with 2 to 3 pieces of good-quality white bread toasted and then run through a food processor.

When cooking, be sure that bread crumbs don't burn. They should only become golden brown.

Variation with goat cheese:

Add 1/2 cup of good-quality goat cheese (chèvre) to the garlic mixture and then loosely stuff tomatoes.

Another variation, a favorite of Julia Child:

After tomatoes have baked, add 1/2 cup grated Gruyère cheese and return tomatoes to the oven for about 1 minute, just enough to melt the cheese. – Jennifer Wolcott

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