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Food - Chef Nick Oltarsh's 'Tomato'

One Midtown Kitchen's chef reflects on summer's favorite red fruit

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Simple recipes are always the best:
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?* Ripe tomato, washed, cored, and sliced into thick rounds

?* Plenty of high-quality extra virgin olive oil - don't use the cheap stuff!

?* Kosher salt or sea salt, whatever you prefer

?* Fresh ground black pepper, from a pepper mill, not a plastic container

?* Toothsome and crusty bread to soak up the juice on the plate

?* Torn fresh herbs, your choice; most people prefer basil but you have lots of good choices

?* Eat right away - no refrigeration allowed and leftovers forbidden

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The tip of my right index finger got lopped off because of a tomato. I bear no grudge and, indeed, I still have an affinity for the round, red fruit.

The scene is Long Island and my grandparent's garden circa 1974. It was dusk and I was innocently helping my grandfather prune the tomato plants. He had one of those menacing garden shears that Freddy Krueger would use if he were into horticulture. He asked me to point to the vines that needed pruning and I obliged. As a 5-year-old I suppose I did not have the wherewithal to withdraw my finger and he was an older man with poor vision, so he accidentally chopped off the tip of my finger. I was rushed to the hospital; there was a lot of blood and my parents were really, really angry with my grandfather. I don't remember a thing. The tip of my right index finger is now shorter than its left counterpart, and it lacks the swirly lines that are typical of a regular fingerprint — mine is more like a gnarly splotch of melted flesh. But I can still slice a tomato no problem, and pretty much do so all the time.

My culinary pursuits, and my fellowship with tomatoes, began at a young age. My mother adored big, red vine-ripened tomatoes and ate them with copious amounts of cream cheese, a habit I happily and unfortunately have appropriated. What a delicious combination, albeit indecently and recklessly caloric in the quantities of cream cheese my mother used. She also ate tomatoes with stinky raw onions, a union that my younger self found both repulsive and embarrassing. Ironically, I now love nothing more than a bagel with a ripe tomato and a nice thick slice of raw onion.

My mom was a great cook, but my grandmother had the mentality and presentation of a professional chef. I always looked forward to dinner at her house. I vividly remember the vegetable garden behind her Long Island home, a solitary rising rectangle of soon-to-be-eaten vegetation surrounded by a backyard of horizontal grass. The prickly squash stems lay low to the ground on the left and the tomato vines coiled up and around the wire mesh that supported them on the right. Just before dinner, she would pick ripe tomatoes from the garden, slice them in robust juicy slabs, and serve them with endive, sea salt, and extra virgin olive oil.

Outside of food, travel is one of my greatest pleasures and tomatoes have meandered their way through my wanderings as well. In Barcelona, the ubiquitous Catalan dish pa amb tomaquet made for a strong start to many a memorable tapeo: mean and crackly toasted rustic bread — the kind that both stings and feels good on the roof of your mouth — rubbed with pungent raw garlic and a tomato, all smashed, seedy, and soft crimson. Wandering about a farmers market in Russia's Saint Petersburg, rotund wooden barrels of tangy pickled green tomatoes flanked the vendors' tables. Brawny Russian women in itchy wool sweaters and cheap plastic aprons doled out the dull emerald-colored orbs, gleaming with pickle and, despite their dull color, zippy in flavor. On the Italian Riviera, the small town's fishing dock in sight, a repast of sliced tomatoes layered with salt-cured briny fish altruistically — almost shamelessly — bathed with peppery extra virgin olive oil. Lastly, at a Georgia farm, surrounded by jumbo hovering bumblebees, a spread of sun-warmed heirloom tomatoes laid out on a wooden picnic table served with Duke's mayonnaise and soft and simple white bread.

I remember the first time I saw an heirloom tomato. I was in my 20s and working as a cook in a New York City restaurant. A farmer brought a packed flat of misshapen green, yellow, and burgundy tomatoes into the kitchen where I worked. Some were stretched and long as if pulled like putty, others bumped, grooved, and cracked. I immediately appreciated their polychromatic pulchritude. They were weighty for their size, like miniature black holes, and when sliced, the knife was slick with a clear and seedy juice; a pleasing sheen reflected off the cut edge of the tomatoes. Thus began a two-month obsession for me in which every dish I conceived had to have heirloom tomatoes in it: sliced, juiced, poached, confited, puréed. My fixation was actually sort of weird but, then again, moderation in everything except ripe summer tomatoes, no?



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