When summer finally hits its stride, you begin to understand Italian food. What’s all the fuss about? Think figs, arranged on a pretty plate and drizzled with honey, perfect peaches macerated in white wine and strewn with lavender, freshly picked, fat asparagus, peeled, steamed, doused with fruity olive oil and topped with finely shaved shards of Parmigiano-Reggiano. This is heady stuff. Food for kings. At its core, Italian food only asks for simple ingredients at the peak of perfection served up without fuss. Ingredients now available in the good ol’ USA at your local farmers’ market.
We pay the farmer more than the grocer and we should. They work hard to bring their gardens to us. We could live on their vegetables for months on end. And maybe we will. What more do we need? Zucchini still warm from the field, beets smelling of the earth they came from, delicate greens and lettuces that, once washed will last for weeks on end in the fridge if we don’t eat them first.
Our backdoor neighbor once handed me a head of lettuce he had just picked from his garden. He couldn’t see the car out front, motor running and crammed to the gills with suitcases, beach chairs, and surfboards. I didn’t have the heart to refuse him, so I hastily ran into the kitchen, rinsed off the grit and toweled off every little drop of moisture. Packed in a heavy plastic bag lined with paper towels, that lettuce greeted us upon our return from vacation with smiling, tender leaves, fresher than any grocery store excuse for lettuce encased in cellophane.
I’d like to go to Italy this summer, but it’s not in the cards. No matter. I feel my heart swell to a few stanzas of Puccini in this blissfully simple assembly of sun-warmed tomatoes, fragrant olive oil, fresh basil and parsley and a few hunks of good bread. Carpe diem! Get thee to a farmer’s market!
Serves 4 as an appetizer, 2 for lunch
1 large ripe tomato, at room temperature
1/2 pint multicolored cherry tomatoes, cut in half, or in quarters if large
A small handful of basil leaves, torn in pieces
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped parsley
Feur de sel or Maldon sea salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, peeled
4 (1/2-inch thick) slices from a rustic loaf of bread
1. Core the tomatoes and cut them in half horizontally. Hold each half over a bowl and gently squeeze to release the seeds and excess juice. Discard the seeds and juice. Dice the tomatoes in small (3/8-inch) pieces and transfer them to a bowl.
2. Stir the cherry tomatoes, basil, parsley, salt, pepper, vinegar and 3 tablespoons of the olive oil into the bowl of diced tomatoes. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Leave them to marinate while you toast the bread.
3. Adjust an oven rack 4 inches from the broiler element and turn on the broiler. Set the bread on a baking sheet and broil for 20 to 40 seconds on each side, or until toasty. Watch carefully. The bread should be crisp and golden on the outside and still a little chewy on the inside. If you happen to be grilling, toast the slices on the grill.
4. Give each warm toast a couple of swipes with the garlic clove and drizzle with more olive oil. Spoon the tomatoes and their juices over the bread. Be prepared to swoon.