I was strolling with Christopher Boswell in the vegetable gardens of the American Academy in Rome, where he is the chef, when he saved me from a rookie mistake.
It was late May. I had just devoured the fava-and-chicory soup he served for lunch. I mentioned my plan to make it as soon as the legumes came into season in New York in June.
“Don’t do it,” he cautioned as he split a fat pod from the fava patch, exposing beans as big as his thumbs. “You have to wait until late in the season when the favas turn starchy, like these. The first young beans are too crisp and tender.”
But Boswell’s point was larger than that. “Good cooking is about understanding the life cycle of your ingredients and knowing how to get the best out of them.”
This sentiment, that there are seasons within seasons (call it microseasonality), is the latest paradigm for chefs and home cooks who keep a sharp eye on the calendar.
Take the tomato. The first specimens in early summer are hard and green and mildly acidic. Late-season tomatoes are often overripe and overly soft, gaining sweetness but losing texture. End-of-season tomatoes come full circle back to green, not ripening fully before falling off the vine.
In need of something to do with my tomato haul from the farmers market, I set out to make three dishes that showed them off at different stages of ripeness.
I took softball-size green tomatoes and fried them up, pairing them with a bacon remoulade spiked with pickled green tomatoes (store-bought, but homemade ones work if you are so inclined).
Perfectly ripe tomatoes were baked into an herbed, cheese-laden tomato crostata with a cornmeal crust.
Then, for my oozing, overripe tomatoes, I followed the chef Wade Moises’ lead. At his restaurant, Rosemary’s in New York, he uses past-their-prime specimens to make a vinaigrette.
Green and Wax Bean Salad with Spicy Tomato Vinaigrette
Makes 4 servings.
1⁄2 lb green beans, trimmed
1⁄2 lb yellow wax beans, trimmed
1 overripe large tomato
1 TBS red wine vinegar, or to taste
1⁄4 tsp kosher sea salt, plus more as needed
1⁄4 C extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1⁄4 C thinly sliced pitted kalamata olives
1⁄3 C torn fresh basil leaves
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Fill a large bowl with ice and water. Drop green and wax beans into boiling water for 1 to 3 minutes or until just tender. Drain and immediately transfer to the ice bath. When cool, drain and dry with a towel and place in a large bowl.
Cut tomato in half across its equator and squeeze out seeds (use for another purpose or discard). Using the largest hole on a box grater, grate the tomato flesh. Discard skin and transfer grated flesh to a medium bowl. You should have about 1⁄2 cup. Stir in vinegar and salt, then stir in olive oil and garlic.
Add just enough vinaigrette to coat beans, add olives, then toss well. Let sit for at least 10 minutes (and up to 4 hours) before serving with torn basil.
Tomato Crostata with Honey-Thyme Glaze
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
For the crust:
125 g all-purpose flour (about 1 C), more for rolling out dough
75 g fine cornmeal (about 1⁄2 C)
1⁄4 tsp fine sea salt
10 TBS cold unsalted butter (1 stick plus 2 TBS), cut into small cubes
35 g grated extra-sharp cheddar (about 1⁄2 C)
For the filling:
11⁄2 lbs different-colored tomatoes, sliced 1⁄4-inch thick (or halved if cherry or grape tomatoes)
1 tsp kosher sea salt, plus a pinch
2 TBS cider vinegar
1 TBS honey
1⁄2 bunch fresh thyme sprigs, plus 2 TBS chopped fresh thyme leaves
2 TBS olive oil
3 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
65 g extra-sharp cheddar, grated (about 1 C)
Black pepper, to taste
1 lg egg
Flaky sea salt, like Maldon
Make the crust: In a food processor, briefly pulse together flour, cornmeal and salt. Add butter and cheese, and pulse until mixture forms chickpea-size pieces (three to five 1-second pulses). Add ice water 1 tablespoon at a time, up to 6 tablespoons, pulsing occasionally until mixture is just moist enough to hold together. Form dough into a ball, wrap with plastic and flatten into a disk. Refrigerate at least 2 hours.
Meanwhile, line a rimmed baking sheet with a double layer of paper towels. Spread out tomato slices in a single layer. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt and let sit for at least 1 hour and up to 3 hours.
In a skillet over medium heat, combine vinegar, honey and thyme sprigs, and bring to a simmer; let simmer 2 minutes, then transfer to a bowl. Wipe out skillet, then add olive oil and garlic. Cook garlic for 2 to 3 minutes, or until it is golden and caramelized. Remove garlic and finely chop. Reserve garlic oil.
Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Lightly flour a work surface and rolling pin. Gently roll out dough to a 1⁄4-inch thickness, dusting with flour if dough is sticking. Transfer dough to baking sheet and return to fridge for another 20 minutes.
Heat oven to 425 degrees. Pat tomatoes dry with paper towels. Brush tomatoes with honey mixture (reserve the thyme sprigs). Leaving a 3-inch border, distribute cheese, garlic and half the chopped thyme leaves on center of crust. Add black pepper to taste, then layer tomatoes in an overlapping pattern, maintaining the border. Drizzle garlic oil over tomatoes, sprinkle with remaining thyme leaves and lay the reserved whole thyme sprigs on top. Gently fold crust up around tomatoes, making a 2-inch border.
In a small bowl, whisk egg and 1 teaspoon water. Using a pastry brush, brush egg wash over crust and sprinkle top of crostata with flaky salt. Bake for about 35 minutes, until pastry is deeply golden brown. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Fried Green Tomatoes with Bacon Remoulade
Makes 6 servings.
For the bacon remoulade:
1⁄2 lb bacon (about 6 thick slices)
1⁄2 lb pickled green tomatoes, finely chopped, plus pickling liquid
1 TBS minced fresh chives, plus more for serving
1 egg yolk
1⁄4 tsp coarse kosher salt
1⁄2 C neutral oil, like grapeseed, safflower or canola
1⁄4 C olive oil
For the fried tomatoes:
1 tsp coarse kosher salt
1 tsp black pepper
3 lg unripe green tomatoes, sliced 1⁄4-inch thick
11⁄2 C all-purpose flour
4 lg eggs, beaten with a splash of water
11⁄2 C cornmeal
Hot sauce, for serving
In a large nonstick skillet over high heat, cook bacon until crisp, about 6 minutes. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels. Reserve the bacon grease.
In a small bowl, combine pickled tomatoes and chives. Crumble in bacon. In a medium bowl, combine egg yolk, 1 tablespoon green tomato pickling liquid (or lemon juice), 1 teaspoon cold water and 1⁄4 teaspoon salt. While whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in neutral oil and olive oil until sauce begins to thicken into mayonnaise. Add more pickling liquid to taste.
Finely chop 1⁄2 cup of the pickled-tomato-and-bacon relish and mix it into mayonnaise to make remoulade. Save remaining relish for serving.
Sprinkle 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper over green tomatoes and set aside. Put flour into a shallow bowl, the eggs into another shallow bowl, and the cornmeal into a third. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Add tomatoes to flour one or two at a time. Coat all over, shake off any excess and transfer to eggs. Dip both sides in eggs, shake off any excess and transfer to cornmeal. Press tomatoes into cornmeal until well coated on both sides, and then transfer to baking sheet. Repeat with remaining tomatoes.
Heat the nonstick skillet with the bacon grease over medium heat. Line a baking sheet with paper towels or a paper bag. When grease is hot but not smoking, add tomatoes to pan in batches of three to four. Cook 2 to 3 minutes per side, or until golden brown. Transfer to baking sheet and sprinkle with salt. Serve with remoulade, bacon and pickled green tomato relish and hot sauce.