A SUMMER CHRISTMAS

20180514_EPV_Summer316.jpg

by Sanford D’Amato, Photos by Dominic Perri, Food Styling by Joy Howard

You know that feeling that you would get as a child on Christmas Eve—kind of jumpy, excitable, and restless as the anticipation builds? That’s how I feel at this time of year as I go through the farmers’ market. Those feelings accelerate after Memorial Day while viewing the astonishing array of flowering plants and vegetable sets. Beautiful? Yes. But there is nothing to eat!

In our garden I’ve tilled, I’ve planted, I’ve fertilized and watered, and just when I think I can’t wait any longer, they appear. It starts with tiny red Sweet 100s and Yellow Teardrops, on to the dark orange Sungolds and those formidable giant Beefsteaks, all pulling down the vines as they gain heft. Yes, I’m talking about tomatoes.

I revel in every type of vegetable and fruit, but tomatoes define summer for me. There is never a day when there is not a plump beauty calling me from our kitchen counter. One of my favorite preparations is a throwback classic from my first days in cooking: a salad-stuffed tomato.

The stuffed tomato should be the perfect lunch, a self-contained package of summer. Over the years when I’ve ordered a stuffed tomato—always during the summer season—I should be cutting into an intensely red, fragile bowl that yields and weeps with rich, sun-ripened tomato juiciness. But it usually just scowls with a hard-edged, dry, mealy-ness. After I pick out all the filling, usually chicken salad, the tomato goes back to the kitchen with its sturdy, useless walls intact.

I made my first stuffed tomato when I was a 19-year-old lunch apprentice at a small steakhouse in Milwaukee. The main bulk of my job entailed tending to the extensive salad bar that accompanied the lunch and dinner entrées. My days were filled with cleaning and cutting lettuce and vegetables, preparing eight salad dressings, and helping the chef with plate setups for lunch. The day of the week I lived for was Monday, the one day of the week I could suggest a special to the chef. My very first suggestion was meant to impress the chef: a stuffed tomato. Years before, I had viewed one at a local department store lunch counter and was spellbound with the magnificent knife work that had to be mastered to make the zigzag “crown look” around the rim. The first one I made was delicately placed on a large leaf of iceberg lettuce and mounded high with homemade tuna salad and a dusting of chopped parsley. I naively felt like I had turned an artistic corner in my fledgling career.

Today, my tomato is filled with grilled and chilled shrimp and cucumber salad that is bolstered with large-grain Israeli or pearl couscous. It is dressed with tomato center dressing made from the cut-out center of the ripe market tomato cradle. The acidity from the seeds adds a tart counterpoint to the sweet shrimp and the full-flavored grain.

Get yourself to the farmers’ market when tomatoes are ripe and plentiful and fill your basket. This is not only the perfect time, it is the only time during the year to try this or other fresh tomato recipes. If you’re like me, as you sit down to dig in with the sun shining and the Valley in full bloom, you’ll just know that Christmas actually arrives twice a year.

SEARED SHRIMP, GRAPE AND ISRAELI COUSCOUS–STUFFED SUMMER TOMATO WITH TOMATO CENTER DRESSING

For 4

1 pound fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined, each shrimp cut in half along the vein line

2 teaspoons ground ginger

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

⅜ teaspoon kosher salt

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup green grapes, washed, drained, and cut in half

1 cucumber (8 ounces), peeled, cut in half horizontally, seeds removed, and each half cut in ½-inch slices

Israeli Couscous (recipe follows)

¼ cup fresh mint leaves, chopped

4 large ripe market tomatoes, top cut off; scoop out tomato without cutting into sides or bottom flesh and reserve centers

Tomato Center Dressing (recipe follows)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place a large sauté pan over high heat. Mix the shrimp in a bowl with the ginger, pepper, salt, and oil. When pan is hot, add the shrimp and sear for about 30 seconds per side, turning over with tongs, until shrimp are just cooked through. Transfer to a plate and refrigerate to cool.

When cold, mix the shrimp with grapes, cucumber, mint, and couscous. Add half of the Tomato Center Dressing and mix well. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.

Lightly season the insides of each tomato with salt and pepper and stuff each with a portion of the shrimp/couscous salad. Divide the remaining salad onto 4 plates. Place 1 tomato in the center of each salad. Garnish plate with the remaining dressing or serve on the side.

the Israeli Couscous

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 small onion (4 ounces), diced

1 bay leaf

½ cup dry white wine

Zest of 1 lemon

1½ teaspoons kosher salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1¼ cups unsalted chicken stock

1 cup Israeli or pearl couscous

Place a small saucepot over medium-high heat. When hot, add the oil, onion, and bay leaf. Sauté, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the wine and lemon zest and reduce to almost dry. Add the pepper, salt, and stock and bring up to a boil. Add the couscous and bring up to a simmer. Cover and cook until tender, 5 to 10 minutes. Drain any remaining liquid, place couscous in a bowl and refrigerate until needed.

the Tomato Center Dressing

¾ cup reserved tomato centers

¼ cup fresh lemon juice

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon chopped shallot

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

Place all ingredients together in a blender. Blend until smooth and emulsified. Reserve cold in refrigerator until needed.