Tomato Talk

The juice of summer

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

When summer is in full swing on a farm, each meal is an elegant response to some burning questions: How do we feed an army of hungry bodies, without too much kitchen work or cleaning, while using as many “free” ingredients as possible?

Over the course of a summer, a farm kitchen becomes a lab for the evolution of culinary elegance. Visitors bring their own recipes, which take up residence in hospitable kitchen ecosystems, like the one I walked into the other day.

I was there to learn about a salad called heirloom tomato juice, but first I had to get past a table laden with two steaming platters of rice noodles tossed in chimichurri, thick as pesto. The noodles were unevenly tossed, with some patches that were almost pure green, and with scattered flecks of caramelized carrots and pieces of grilled fennel, broccoli and yellow squash.

“It was a way of getting rid of too much parsley,” said my farmer friend Josh. Having spent time in the Peace Corps in Thailand, he knows his way around a fried noodle.

Also on the table: a large bowl of romaine leaves, tossed with onions that had been soaked in saltwater. The lettuce and onions were drizzled in olive oil and “cheap white vinegar.” It had the fingerprint of a mutual farmer friend, and Josh confirmed it was indeed her recipe.

But I was there for the heirloom tomato juice, a salad that happens to be the most elegant way to juice an heirloom tomato.

First, Josh sliced a couple of English cucumbers—the long, slender kind we sometimes see wrapped in plastic. It has to be this and only this kind, he stressed. Not the cucumber-shaped slicers, even from his own farm, or the pointy picklers, no matter how crispy. None surrender their juices like an English.

“I’m not shy with the salt,” he said shaking copious amounts onto the cukes that had been chopped into half-inch rounds. “People enjoy it. It makes things taste good. And it brings out the juice.”

Then he added thin slices of a quarter of an onion. It must be a Walla Walla, or similar sweet, spicy salad onion. He teased apart the thin rings in the bowl into a layer atop the cucumbers, and gave it a good stir. Then he added three cups of heirloom tomatoes, in chunks about the size of a pack of dental floss.

There is a little more leeway with the tomatoes. They should be heavy, ripe heirlooms. Cracked and ugly tomatoes are welcome, and the darker, the better.

When the three principal ingredients had been chopped and added to the bowl, Josh poured in a half-cup of olive oil and a fourth of a cup of balsamic, and stirred. “Let them hang out and get to know each other for a few minutes,” he said.

A moment later, he announced, “It’s already making juice. I can see it coming up.”

The cucumbers were sinking in a rising sea, so fast you could almost see it happening.

When Josh ran out to the greenhouse, I started gulping it down. The juices were thick but non-pulpy, softly tangy and salty, thoroughly satisfying and delicious, like drinkable gazpacho.

By then the tomatoes had all but vanished, as had the onions. The cucumbers remained, like bones in a pot of simmering stock, having already given their best stuff to the juice. Eat them anyway.

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