Summer’s star ingredient shines bright

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Fresh ripe tomatoes are the essence of seriously simple dishes. Whether in a zesty tomato salsa, a multi-colored tomato gazpacho or as a first course, sliced and layered with fresh mozzarella and a drizzle of olive oil, the fresh raw summer tomato never disappoints.

Recently I have found myself at the local farmers market perusing the tomato bins. I love to taste the many varieties available now. Beefsteaks remain one of my favorites, but there are also heirlooms, offering exotic flavors and colors.

I find heirloom tomatoes are best served raw. Heirloom tomatoes are old-fashioned varieties that grow best in a small farm environment because they are more delicate. They have thinner skins and can’t take a lot of handling. They have a flavor profile with a spectrum from tart to super sweet. And if you love sandwiches, try toasting some fresh sliced country bread, spread it with a thin layer of mayonnaise and top with sliced tomatoes.It is one of my favorite ways to enjoy this star ingredient.

Beefsteak or Roma tomatoes hold up better for cooking. They have a tougher skin and can withstand high heat roasting, sauteing or grilling.

The first time I ever tasted baked tomatoes was at a restaurant called Tetou in a little town in the south of France called Juan les Pins. The meal is still vivid in my mind: almost-burnt, caramelized tomatoes with a touch of thyme presented in a pottery gratin dish. This was a taste memory I just had to re-create.

Through the years, I have experimented with this dish and the following is the result of many experiments with oven-baked tomatoes. I have found that using a ceramic gratin dish like the kind made by Le Creuset or Staub gives the best results for evenly caramelized tomatoes.

You can serve these tomatoes for just about any meal. I like to serve these at a brunch alongside scrambled eggs. At lunch I will serve them at room temperature along with other salads. For dinner they are a marvelous accompaniment to grilled fish, chicken or beef.

Tomato Tips:

Remember to store tomatoes at room temperature. If they are not quite ripe, store them in a sunny place to hasten the ripeness.

Tomatoes vary widely in the amount of juice they exude, so just add a bit of water if you find the pan is dry during roasting.

These can be made up to eight hours ahead and kept at room temperature. Serve at room temperature, or reheat the dish in a 325 degree oven for about 15 minutes.

Baked Herbed Tomatoes

6 large beefsteak tomatoes, halved

1 teaspoon sugar

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the topping:

1/4 cup coarse fresh breadcrumbs or Panko crumbs

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme

2 tablespoons olive oil

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Oil a 9- by-13-inch ceramic baking dish. Arrange the tomatoes cut-side up so they fit snugly in the dish. Sprinkle the sugar evenly over the tomatoes. Drizzle the oil over the tomatoes, and season with salt and pepper.

Bake for 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 hours or until browned and slightly shriveled. Halfway through the cooking time, poke the tomatoes with a fork to help release some of the juices. Spoon the juices over the tomatoes a few times as they cook. After the tomatoes have cooked, use a bulb baster to remove the excess juices into a small saucepan; reduce on medium heat for about 5 minutes or until slightly thickened. Reserve.

Combine the breadcrumbs, parsley and thyme; taste for seasoning. Sprinkle the topping evenly over the tomatoes. Drizzle the olive oil on top, along with the reserved reduced juices. Bake another 20 to 30 minutes, or until the tomatoes are crusty golden brown. Serve immediately or at room temperature. Serves 6.

Per serving: 143 calories; 10 g fat (1 g saturated fat; 63 percent calories from fat); 14 g carbohydrates; 8 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 77 mg sodium; 2 g protein; 3 g fiber.

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