Island Bites: The stuff of summer

DAVID LAPHAM PHOTO | Tomato and zucchini — a taste of Provence on the East End.

DAVID LAPHAM PHOTO | Tomato and zucchini — a taste of Provence on the East End.

It’s hard not to accept credit for your cooking in the dog days of summer — even if you don’t deserve it. Summer fruits and vegetables are approaching peak ripeness right about now and require little or no preparation in the kitchen. One night in August a few years ago, I had some unexpected friends show up for dinner. I didn’t have much in the fridge aside from some good hamburger meat, but I did have some beefsteak tomatoes and onions from Pete’s farm stand.

So, I thinly sliced and arranged them on a plate to accompany the burgers. I topped the tomatoes and onions with nothing more than sea salt, freshly ground pepper, a drizzle of grassy olive oil and a splash of balsamic vinegar.

The next thing I knew, I had a flash mob of gushing diners in my kitchen claiming it was best dish they’d ever had and asking if I’d be willing to share the “recipe.” If only it was always this easy!

I make that preparation every summer and get the same reaction every time. I usually cave in and take the credit, but that really belongs to the vegetables and the dedicated farmers who grow them.

Tomato lovers should be especially exuberant these days. By mid-August, local tomatoes are ultra-ripe, heavy with juice and bursting with flavor that almost qualifies as sweet. And the many heirloom varieties add vibrant color to salads and side plates. On the occasional cool evening, I make tomatoes Provençal to accompany grilled meats or fish.

This classic dish from the Provence region of France is nothing more than tomatoes stuffed with seasoned bread crumbs and baked at a high temperature for 12 to 15 minutes. I give the recipe my own twist by adding finely diced, sautéed zucchini to the bread crumb mixture. The result is a nutritious combination of two seasonal vegetables — in one tasty package.

I’ve mentioned bread crumbs in previous Island Bites columns, but let me stress again how satisfying it is to make your own (see Chef’s Note below). They keep perfectly well in the refrigerator for a week or so but can also withstand freezing for much longer periods of time.

Bon appetit!

Tomato and Zucchini Provençal

Serves 4  |  Prep time: 35 minutes 

4 large beefsteak or heirloom tomatoes of various colors

1 small yellow or green zucchini, diced

2 cups bread crumbs

2 tablespoons dried oregano

2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

Pinch salt and pepper for salting tomatoes and cooking zucchini

4 sprigs basil for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 450. In a saucepan, heat olive oil over low heat and add diced zucchini (along with pinch salt and pepper). Cook until very soft, about 15 minutes. Set aside. On a cutting board, cut off top 1/3 of each tomato and a small amount on the bottom if necessary so each sits upright. With your fingers, gently remove seeds and juice from each, leaving pockets for the stuffing. Sprinkle inside of each tomato with salt and turn upside down on a plate lined with paper towels to remove excess moisture, letting sit about 20 minutes. In bowl, combine bread crumbs, oregano, Parmesan and cooked zucchini. Include any excess oil from pan used to cook zucchini. Mix ingredients together and gently stuff into tomatoes with either a spoon or your hands. Place stuffed tomatoes on sheet pan and place in oven for 12 to 15 minutes. Remove and serve with optional basil garnish.

Chef’s note: To make your own bread crumbs (which I strongly recommend), just pulse pieces of leftover or fresh bread in a food processor with a good pinch of salt and pepper until finely ground. For variations, add Parmesan, oregano, thyme, rosemary or other fresh or dried herbs.

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