​La Cucina Frutteto (The Orchard Kitchen)

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Running a kitchen, raising a family, and dreaming of Italy
by Susan Accetura

If months had mascots, September’s would surely be the apple. Symbolizing the beginning of fall, the gift for the teacher, and all things cool and crisp. This summer has been anything but cool and crisp. The scorching and waterless July turned supple green lawns into flaxen crisps. Blossoms wilted and gardens stalled. This is pure botanical conjecture, but perhaps the lack of rain drove the roots deeper, so when the August rains finally came, they were stronger than ever….like a drought-hardy vineyard rootstock. The September symbol, this year at least, might just have to be the Love Apple.

Centuries ago, the tomato earned the nickname of Love Apple. Some say the tomato was originally misclassified into the nightshade family, which included the aphrodisiacal mandrake root. There’s theory that when the Moors brought apples to Europe from Africa, the Italian ‘pomi dei mori’ (‘apples of the Moors’) may have morphed into ‘pommes d’amour’ (‘apples of love’) in French. While we can hardly imagine Italian food without tomatoes, the fruit, originally from Peru, didn’t arrive in Italy until the 1500’s. Happily, whatever the history, the plants are currently producing abundantly in our New England gardens.

The simplest tomato cookery involves no cooking at all: slide up to the nearest plant. Pick. Eat. If you want to get fancy, slice it or dice it and add some fresh basil and a sprinkle of good salt. (Tomatoes want salt. Damp, coarse crystals harvested from the waters off of Sicily are particularly fantastic, but any salt will do. In a ‘pinch’.) To make a traditional caprese (kah pray zay) salad, add fresh mozzarella to the tomatoes and basil, and season with salt, a drizzle of olive oil, and an optional splash of balsamic vinegar. (And not to get too brackish, but sweet, mild and creamy fresh mozzarella likes salt, too). Your red, white and green caprese combo can easily be added to a pizza, pasta, panino or mixed with eggs for breakfast.
For many families, September means back to school, back to lessons, back to practices, back to busy-ness. When the days are still hot (and sometimes overscheduled) but the nights are getting cooler, make the most of cooking in the evening for meals over the next few days. If you find yourself grilling chicken for dinner, make some extra for lunchtime salads. If you go through the trouble of turning on the oven for baked mac and cheese or any sort of casserole, make an extra pan for another night and pop it in the freezer. And if you find yourself with a supply, of juicy, ripe, delicious tomatoes, assemble a big tray of Pomodori al Riso – Tomatoes with Rice.  They’re quite simple to assemble, require zero time standing by a hot burner, and they taste even better at room temperature, the next day. 

This recipe is easily doubled, tripled or multiplied based on your tomato supply….just keep the ratios about the same. It’s very forgiving. It also just happens to be gluten free, dairy free and vegan, and substantial enough to be the main course.
6 medium to large ripe round tomatoes
2 cloves of garlic, minced
Small handful of fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
½ cup (8 tablespoons) of arborio or carnaroli rice (or whatever rice you have)
4 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into small chunks
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil
Rinse your tomatoes then cut off, and save, the tops (they will become lids). Carefully scoop the flesh out of the tomatoes, catching all of the juices and pulp in a bowl. (A grapefruit spoon or a melon baller work particularly well for the task.) If you’re a purist, you can pass all of this tomato goodness through a food mill to make a smooth puree and eliminate all of the seeds. Or, simply give the larger chunks a quick chop and call it a day.
Add the garlic, basil and rice to the bowl of tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper, and a generous drizzle of olive oil. Let bowl sit while you get potatoes ready.
Put the potato chunks into a 9×13 pan, drizzle with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Nestle the tomato shells into the potatoes so they are standing upright.
Give the tomato-rice mixture a stir, then spoon it into the tomatoes. Keep the top third of the tomato shells empty, or they might burst when you roast them. Extra filling can be stirred into the potatoes.
Put the ‘lids’ back on the tomatoes, drizzle with a bit more olive oil for good measure, and throw the whole pan in a 375 degree oven for an hour or so. They may take longer, and that’s ok. Once the oven is on, you should go outside and enjoy the evening air with a cool beverage of your choice.
Test them after an hour, if rice is still too al dente, give them a bit more time. Tomatoes will slouch and blister a bit as they cook – take it as a sign of happiness. Let them cool for at least 30 minutes before eating. Store cooled tomatoes in the fridge and enjoy the next day. They are quite delightful aside a fried egg for breakfast, as a tasty first course, or with a simple salad for lunch or dinner.
September holds three entire weeks of summer, so move over MacIntosh, we’ve still harvesting Love Apples.