And thus continues my homage, my elegy, my song of praise for the humble tomato…
It all started when I was very young. My grandfather on my Dad’s side was a farmer who grew field corn, probably used for things like animal feed, corn oil, and maybe even high-fructose corn syrup, who knows. But I prefer to remember him for the huge vegetable garden that he grew every year. We’d go out to the farm for the day and return home with brown paper sacks brimming with tomatoes, corn, and maybe some zucchini or cucumbers. The tomatoes and corn were the standouts, though; we’d boil up the corn, slather it with butter, dust it with salt and eat it with a big pile of sliced tomatoes. This is still my favorite summer supper, although now I usually add a simple green salad and some good bread to soak up all those tomato juices. I also have fond memories of helping my grandpa out on summer Saturdays at the Charlotte farmers’ market when I was 8 or 9 years old. I don’t know how much he really needed my “help”, but I would bag up the corn for the customers and get paid (I think?) a dollar an hour, money that went to candy purchases or my sticker collection.
It’s been over 20 years since I had one of my grandpa’s tomatoes, so now I have to make do with what I can get from the area farmers. Plotting out the fate of my remaining Eastern Market haul of tomatoes, I came across an unusual-sounding recipe in the Zuni Café Cookbook (one of my favorite cookbooks) for a layered tomato-and-bread “pudding” that was a riff on the summer berry puddings popular in England. The concept is that you take white bread and berries (or in this case tomatoes), put them in a bowl with a weight on top, and the bread absorbs all the fruit’s juices and becomes compact and sliceable. I’ve never had the berry version, but stale bread and tomatoes seems to be a winning combination (think gazpacho, pappa al pomodoro, panzanella…) so I was game to give it a try.
The pudding turned out to resemble a “structured” panzanella, tasting very salad-wannabe with its piquant sherry vinaigrette and bits of shallots and herbs. Judy suggests basil, but wanting something a little different I used thyme and rosemary and was pleased with the results. If the idea of soggy bread just doesn’t do it for you, I urge you to try it; you just may become a convert. I thought Judy’s panade (another mushy stale-bread recipe) was odd the first time I tried it, but now make it regularly. For efficiency’s sake, I think in the future I’d just make the more rustic panzanella if cooking for myself, but the layered presentation is certainly prettier if you have guests to impress.
Summer Tomato Pudding à la Judy Rodgers printer-friendly version
about 2 1/2 lbs very ripe tomatoes (if you can get heirlooms, the color variations make for an even more attractive dish)
8 oz. day-old bread, sliced into 1/4 inch slices
1 cup olive oil
3 tbs sherry vinegar (or sub red wine vinegar)
1 clove garlic
1 medium shallot, minced
1/2 a small cucumber (about 3 oz), peeled, seeded and diced
about 1/4 cup minced fresh herbs of your choice
salt and pepper
Preheat the broiler. Put the bread in a single layer on a couple cookie sheets and run under the broiler until lightly browned (on one side only). Cut the garlic clove in half and rub all the toasted surfaces with it. Brush the nontoasted side lightly with water and place in a bag to steam and soften.
Whisk together the oil and vinegar; set aside. Slice the tomatoes in half lengthwise, place them cut sides down, and slice thinly. Pick out the shoulders and bottom end pieces and chop them. Place them in a mesh strainer, salt them, and squish them through the strainer over the vinaigrette to release their juice; discard. Add any juice that collects on the cutting board to the vinaigrette as well.
Build the pudding in a dish or bowl with a capacity of about 1 1/2 quarts. You’re going to be weighting down the pudding, so choose a dish into which a flat object such as a plate or lid will just fit. Start with a layer of bread, cutting or tearing it so it completely covers the bottom of the dish without overlapping. Continue with a layer of tomatoes, overlapping those very closely like shingles. Sprinkle on some shallots and herbs and a touch of salt and pepper, then drizzle on a few tbs. of the vinaigrette. Add another layer of bread, pressing down to encourage the tomatoes to release their juice. Repeat layers, ending with a layer of tomato. You should have a few spoonfuls of vinaigrette left over; save this, along with any leftover herbs, shallots etc. for garnish. Poke the pudding randomly with a skewer or a meat fork.
Cover with parchment paper or plastic, then place a plate or other flat object on top, and weight it down with cans or whatever you have handy (you’ll want a weight of at least a couple pounds). Set aside at room temperature.
After about an hour, remove the weight and check the pudding by sliding a knife down the side of the dish; the pudding should ooze. Taste the juice. If it seems too dry, drizzle some more vinaigrette over the top and down the sides. Press the pudding again until ready to serve.
To serve, remove the weights, run a knife around the edges, and invert the pudding onto a serving plate, rapping the bottom of the dish if it won’t release. Present whole, and then cut into wedges (I found a serrated knife works best). Garnish with any remaning sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs (or, if you like, a few scattered cherry or grape tomatoes).