Thursday, October 4, 2012

Madame Phillips' Provençal-style tomatoes



I spent the entirety of my stay in the Antibes area. My mom had just come from Le Lavandou and didn’t show any interest in going back, so I’ll have to hit up Jo’s seaside shack some other time.  To be honest, I didn't really feel the need to be elsewhere.  In the very early morning, my uncle Guy and I would walk down the hill into a bakery on the edge of the old town to buy bread for the day, then wander back up the hill with me clutching warm bread and trying very hard not to nibble on the ends.  The roads that early were usually flanked with tons of people out for a run (tourists) or out biking (more tourists).  Then we’d have breakfast outside on the villa’s flagstone patio - toasted baguette, fresh butter that actually tastes like butter ought to taste, with groseille jam and espresso.

Mom is a late sleeper, so my uncle and I spent those mornings having breakfast alone.  He recently turned 80 and is an avid storyteller – when prompted -  and relayed some of his memories about WWII.  The family lived in the Bouches-du-Rhône area of Provence, in between the train station of Miramas and the airbase of Istres; my grandfather, tired of the constant aerial bombardments and food shortages, uprooted the family and moved everyone north to Burgundy. When they first arrived in that small town near Auxerre and as they were walking from the train depot to the hotel, Guy remembers  the first thing they could see were loads of hams and salamis hanging from the window of a butcher shop.  My grandmother, unused to abundance of available food, exclaimed, “Mais, c’est le pays de Cocagnes!” (Cocagnes being a mystical Eden-type paradise where one wants for nothing and things are aplenty).   Guy’s first taste of brioche is carved into his memory as the best brioche he’s ever had, though he admits that it probably can’t have been all that good since the flour was coarsely ground in a coffee mill. His very first orange which he got for Christmas that year – he had no idea what it was, but for the rest of the day took his time eating it, pieces of orange peel tucked between his gums and his cheeks, savoring every moment of it.  Since my grandfather passed away long before I was born, I never knew any of these stories, and never thought to ask my grandmother much about the war when she was alive; so it was a huge pleasure to hear him talk about the old days.

my uncle Guy, waiting for lunch to be served.

The rest of my trip was much the same, wanderings down to the daily covered market, wanderings in the late afternoon for a swim in the Mediterranean, which is much chillier than I remember it to be, but that’s probably because I’m used to swimming in the warmer Atlantic. We ate mostly at home, with my mom doing the cooking. At first, she refused offers of help from me, almost as though she didn’t really trust my cooking skills.  But I persistently stayed by her side trying to figure out her ways, such as why her ratatouille tastes better than mine even though I follow her recipe (I still don’t know – maybe it’s because she cuts her vedge into really big chunks and not the smaller cuts that I do?).   Like breakfasts, lunches were eaten outside as well, with obligatory rosé wine, more bread, usually a large salad with pungent vinaigrette, and some other entrée dish.  Mom made Provençal-style tomatoes a few times – actually, we had tomatoes at every meal, whether a tomato salad, in ratatouille (which my family calls “bohémienne” even though it’s really technically a ratatouille), or tucked away inside the cavities of whole grilled fish.

I managed to smuggle home some of the local pink garlic  – US customs didn’t take it – or should I say, I didn’t own up to it and kept a very straight face when customs asked me if I had any fruit or vegetables in my bag.  The papery skins of the garlic are pink, while the flavor is much stronger and earthier than the garlic you can find around here.  I’ve been using it in nearly all my dishes since I got home, but usually only a fraction of what I’d normally use, since it’s more powerful.  Mom used it in her baked tomatoes, and I use it in this recipe.  I also use a few pinches of herbes de Provence, which is not necessary, but I use it since I have an abundance of it from hitting up the spice vendor at the market, plus a tub of my Dad’s own made from drying his own herbs.

my Dad's own herbes de Provence blend


This recipe is more of a guideline than anything, and I’ve written it in the French style, where there ingredients are not listed at the beginning of a recipe but instead incorporated in the text, so hopefully you’ll play along.  I think I’ve mentioned before that my mom doesn’t measure a thing, just pours stuff in and lets the magic happen. The older I get the more I have been leisurely not measuring things (except for baking, where a laid-back approach is unadvisable and you owe your success more to science than to magic). I used 3 tomatoes because that’s what I had handy around the house, but feel free to adapt to however many tomatoes you want to make. Usually two tomato halves serve one person.

Mme. Phillips’ Provençal-style tomatoes

Cut tomatoes in half through the equator (I forgot to take a picture of this, so you are all subjected to my doodle). Salt them liberally then place them cut side down in a sieve or fine mesh strainer and let them drain for about 20 to 30 minutes.  You can skip this salting and draining step, but it does help get some of the liquid out in advance.

doodle


Heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a nonstick pan over medium high heat.  Place the tomatoes cut side down into the pan and let them sear and caramelize for about minutes. Remove them with a spatula or slotted spoon and place them into a baking dish.  

You should have some tasty tomato bits on the bottom of your pan, so splosh in a tablespoon or two of either balsamic or red wine vinegar and use a wooden spoon to scrape up the tomato bits and incorporate in the vinegar. Let this cook for maybe a minute, the pour over the tomatoes in their dish.




Mince up some parsley (about ¼ cup when you’re done mincing) and toss into a small bowl along with a big fat clove of garlic that you’ve minced up, ¼ cup of breadcrumbs ( I use panko, but use whatever you want;  Mom uses breadcrumbs from day-old baguette), a couple of pinches of herbes de Provence (if using), a couple of pinches of kosher or sea salt, and a couple of pinches of ground black pepper.  Toss in a couple of teaspoons of olive oil and mix it all together.  Liberally coat the top of each tomato with this seasoning and drizzle each with a teensy bit of olive oil.



Toss into a warm oven – maybe 300 degrees F to start with – keeping an eye on it so that the top doesn’t burn.  If it cooks too quickly, turn oven down to 275 F and let it sit there for an hour or so – the longer, the better because the tomato will confit and caramelize on itself and the flavor will get all concentrated. I’ve seen recipes where they tell you to toss the tomatoes in the oven for a short period of time, but that doesn’t work for me. Low and slow is the way to go here, so hopefully you’re not in a rush.

Your kitchen should smell ridiculously good by this point. Remove from the oven and serve hot, warm, or room temperature. 

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