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Red delicious

Tomatoes took a pounding last year, but Florida's crop has rebounded nicely, and there's no better time to enjoy them.

By JANET K. KEELER
Published March 23, 2005


  photo
[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
This Garden Tomato Tart makes a flavorful accompaniment to scrambled eggs or omelets, or even chicken or shrimp salad.

A few months ago, we lamented the sad state of tomatoes.

Hurricanes in Florida, rain in California and bugs in Mexico formed a perfect storm that drove prices up and quality down. In November, suppliers were asking $85 and more for a 25-pound case wholesale. Sandwich shops charged more for slices. Consumers had sticker shock.

Thankfully, that was then. Today, South Florida tomatoes - beefsteak, roma, grape and Uglies - are abundant and delicious. That 25-pound case? Going for less than $14, depending on the size of tomatoes. Retail prices are better, but still tomatoes aren't cheap. The vine-ripe variety was $2.99 a pound last week.

"Quality is excellent right now," says Les Harrison of the Florida Department of Agriculture. "Florida tomatoes are at the top of their game."

Sounds like a good time to feature tomatoes on our tables, especially at Easter, when many people mark the day with brunch gatherings. Tomato dishes are good for parties because many can be served cold or at room temperature.

Typical Easter offerings include ham, lamb, asparagus and eggs, and we love all of those, especially asparagus. But cool, wet weather in California, which produces about 95 percent of the nation's supply of asparagus, has slowed crop growth, according to the state's Farm Bureau.

We will see a 75-cents-per-pound dip in price, to $2.49, this week for Mexican asparagus. We aren't likely to see much asparagus from California in time for Easter; more may arrive in April.

Nature has given us tomatoes this Easter, so we make tomato juice. Or something like that. It's wise to celebrate local tomatoes when they are in season, because we sure as heck complain a lot about tasteless, hard tomatoes in the summer. That's when those folks from up North brag about Jersey tomatoes, and rightly so.

The tomato is a fruit of the vine, though we popularly consider it a vegetable. It's one of those super-good-for-you foods that's loaded with lycopene, an antioxidant that fights the diseases of aging. Research shows that cooking tomatoes increases lycopene.

Recipes that don't need much liquid may call for seeding the tomatoes. To do that, cut tomatoes in half and gently squeeze out the seeds.

Sheila Lukins, one-half of the famous Silver Palate catering team, raises a glass to ripe tomatoes in her Celebrate! (Workman, $19.95). She even suggests serving brilliant red tomatoes on chartreuse or yellow-gold dishes.

What we like best is her Garden Tomato Tart, though we tinkered with the recipe to ensure a cooked puff pastry. Tomato lovers will adore this recipe because the flavor of the fruit intensifies as it cooks. A drizzle of olive oil, ribbons of fresh basil, plus salt and pepper enhance the bright tomato taste, rather than masking it. These are the flavors and colors of Provence, without the cost of an airline ticket.

One box of Pepperidge Farm frozen puff pastry makes two 8-inch tarts, enough to feed eight to 10 people when served as a side to fluffy scrambled eggs, omelets or even chicken or shrimp salad.

In our experiences, frozen puff pastry is a better topper than base. Our first attempt at the tart resulted in limp, raw dough under cooked tomatoes. The second time, we blotted sliced tomatoes on paper towels and cooked the pastry for 10 minutes before arranging tomatoes on top. In that 10 minutes, the pastry turned lightly gold and puffed to about 2 inches; slight pressure deflated it.

The tart cooked 20 more minutes with the circular arrangement of tomatoes. The crust cooked through and held the tomatoes' weight well. Let the tart sit for about 10 minutes before serving.

We sprinkled fresh basil on top, but the tart can also be served with a dollop of pesto, homemade or store-bought.

Crab Louis is another delicious way to serve ripe tomatoes. Tangy wedges of tomato, along with hard-boiled eggs, are part of the garnish for crab salad. You can use Thousand Island dressing, but we recommend the dressing in the recipe that accompanies this story. Minced green olives and scallions plus chili sauce, mayonnaise and horseradish, among other ingredients, provide a jazzy backdrop to sweet crab and tomatoes.

If you like, substitute local shrimp for crab to keep the Florida theme going. Ask for Florida shrimp specifically at the seafood counter. Peel and boil it, then chop roughly before dressing. You can also stuff tomatoes with either crab or shrimp salad.

Diced tomatoes are delicious in cooked eggs, or broil halves sprinkled with seasoned bread crumbs. Both are tasty ways to get another serving of vegetables, or fruits as the case may be, into your diet.

A luscious, rustic presentation from Celebrate! involves roasting whole tomatoes still on the vine with minced garlic, olive oil and salt and pepper. This will take about 25 minutes at 400 degrees. Remove from the oven and place rounds of goat cheese around the tomatoes; roast for an additional five minutes. Don't melt the cheese.

Pass the plate at the table for everyone to scoop out a tomato, a round of cheese and some of the juice, all to be eaten on slices of crusty bread.

In Florida, we celebrate spring differently from people who live in colder climates. For them, spring is the beginning of better weather; for us, it signals the end is near. Soon humidity will add insult to tasteless tomatoes picked before their prime.

All the more reason to enjoy tomatoes now.

- Janet K. Keeler can be reached at 727 893-8586 or krieta@sptimes.com

Garden Tomato Tart

2 sheets frozen puff pastry, thawed according to package directions

2 large egg yolks

2 teaspoons vegetable oil (not olive oil)

4 or 5 ripe tomatoes, sliced 1/4-inch thick

1/2 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Kosher salt

Freshly ground pepper, to taste

1/4 cup fresh basil, sliced in ribbons

Position rack in the center of oven and preheat to 400 degrees.

Place puff-pastry squares on pieces of parchment paper cut to fit your baking sheets. Using a salad-sized plate as a guide, trim each sheet to form an 8-inch round. Transfer the papers with the pastry on top to baking sheets. Prick pastry all over with the tines of a fork.

Make an egg wash by whisking the egg yolks, vegetable oil and 2 teaspoons water in a small bowl. Brush egg wash lightly over the pastry. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and press slightly to deflate.

Leaving a 1/2-inch border around the edge, arrange the tomato slices in overlapping circles on the pastry round, covering the surface and tucking a slice in the center.

Drizzle each tart with 1/4 teaspoon olive oil and sprinkle each with 1/4 teaspoon sugar. Season with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper.

Bake until the tarts are golden brown, about 20 minutes.

Sprinkle with ribbons of basil and serve immediately. Each tart will serve 4 as a side dish.

Source: Adapted from "Celebrate!" by Sheila Lukins (Workman, $19.95).

Crab Louis

Dressing:

1 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup ketchup-based chili sauce

1/4 cup minced scallion

2 tablespoons minced green olives

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon bottled horseradish

Salt and pepper to taste

Salad:

11/2 pound jumbo lump crab meat

Iceberg lettuce, shredded

Capers

Tomato wedges

Hard-boiled egg

Lemon

To make dressing, whisk mayonnaise, chili sauce, scallion, green olives, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, bottled horseradish, and salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Pick over crab meat, then divide among four plates lined with shredded iceberg lettuce. Garnish with capers and wedges of tomato, hard-boiled egg and lemon, and serve with dressing.

Makes 4 main-course servings.

Source: Gourmet magazine.

Tomato, Mozzarella and Basil Salad

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1/4 teaspoon English dry mustard

1/8 teaspoon sugar

2 large vine-ripened tomatoes, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices

3/4 pound fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

6 to 8 large fresh basil leaves, sliced thin

To make dressing, whisk olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic, mustard and sugar. Use at room temperature.

Arrange sliced tomatoes alternately with cheese slices on a platter. Season with salt and pepper, and drizzle with dressing. Sprinkle basil ribbons all over.

Serves 4 to 6.

Source: Adapted from Gourmet magazine.

Tomato Artichoke Rice Salad

1 6-ounce jar marinated artichoke hearts

2 tablespoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

3 cups cooked, cold rice

3 large (11/2 pounds) tomatoes, seeded, diced and drained

1 cup finely chopped red onion

1 can 5.75-ounce pitted whole black olives, drained and cut into quarters

1/4 cup chopped parsley

Drain artichoke hearts, reserving marinade. Roughly slice artichoke hearts lengthwise; reserve. Combine lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper. Beat in reserved marinade.

Gently combine dressing with rice, artichoke hearts and remaining ingredients. Serves 6.

Source: California Tomatoes.

Sliced Tomatoes With Blue Cheese and Pine Nuts

3 large (about 11/2 pounds) tomatoes, sliced

1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic

2 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts

2 ounces blue cheese

1/2 tablespoon chopped parsley

Slice tomatoes and arrange, overlapping, on a platter. Mix garlic with oil and drizzle over tomatoes. Sprinkle with pepper and pine nuts, and top with crumbled cheese and parsley.

Let sit at room temperature 15 minutes before serving.

Serves 4.

Source: California Tomatoes.

[Last modified March 22, 2005, 09:38:05]


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