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Less is more when it comes to serving tomatoes

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

By Jennifer WolcottCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 12, 2007

The mile-long farmers' market in Arles, France, is in the heart of Provence.

Jennifer Wolcott

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ARLES, FRANCE

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.

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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.

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.