Tomatoes are for eating! (A recipe for tomatoes that don’t suck.)

21 Sep

Although living in Southern California means access to pretty good tomatoes pretty much all year long, there’s no beating those big sweet beasts of summer. The heirlooms at the farmers markets call out with their awkward flesh and promise of juicy goodness. Even the fake-looking grocery store versions eat well solo with salt and pepper at this time of the year.

Of course, tomatoes in these parts haven’t always been so tasty. (Maybe anywhere, but I’m familiar only with So Cal.) I didn’t really take to tomatoes until my late teens, early 20s when I had my first homegrown beauty that erased the taste of every mediocre mealy-fleshed tom I’d ever tasted.

I can remember back to my youth, to restaurant side salads ruined because of THAT one seed left behind by the unwanted tomato slice I’d always forgot to ask be left off. Tucked into a booth at Bob’s Big Boy with my mom and sister for an after-league-bowling meal, I’d stare at that bright red seed spoiling the vast creamy goodness of the coating of Big Boy’s own blue cheese dressing. The taste memory of those nasty things haunts me still.

But that was then and now we have tomatoes of every stripe and variety — and they sometimes grow in our back weed patch when the blight doesn’t get them first. Otherwise, it’s off to the farmers market (or even those plastic tubs of mildly decent heirlooms from Trader Joe’s) for real honest-to-God good tomatoes. It’s still kind of a wonder the wide variety of fresh produce that’s available to the masses compared to the mid-70s/early 80s.

For these specimens, there is this dish. It was one of the first I ever made back when realizing that I really, really enjoyed cooking. Snagged off the early days of the world wide web, it’s a recipe that’s become part of the Johnson Kitchen Canon and gets eaten several time when tomatoes are at their absolute best. As with many dishes, it’s pretty good when tomatoes are OK, but kind of of sucks when there’s nothing but those uniformly red softballs available at the grocers.

So Fresh Fresh Fresh is the key for all the ingredients. And if you can’t get fresh — say with the mozzarella or balsamic — go for quality. It absolutely pays off with the first bite. This dish is meant to be eaten at room temperature so keep it outa the fridge. The cold will do the flavors no justice. Heating, however, kind of works for any leftovers you may have.

NOTE: Though these pictures show grape tomatoes, I don’t recommend it. While they’re certainly sweet and flavorful enough, I’ve found there’s too much skin in the finished product and it gets kinda chewy. These were from a garden bounty that needed to be eaten.

(Apologies in advance for the pictures. Still working out the kinks in my technique and I’m a huge sucker for high saturation filter on most iPhone camera apps.)


  • Five to seven FRESH (if you can), SWEET (if they are) tomatoes, chopped
  • A big fistful of fresh basil leaves, julienned or finely chopped*
  • One pound good, whole milk mozzarella diced into 1/2 in. cubes
  • Three tablespoons GOOD balsamic vinegar (really, it makes a difference)
  • One half cup chopped black olives
  • Salt/freshly ground pepper to taste
  • Three quarter cup GOOD olive oil
  • Five to six cloves garlic, minced
  • One pound spaghetti or linguini noodles

1. In a large bowl (glass works best and looks nice too) combine chopped tomatoes, basil, mozzarella, balsamic, olives — salt and pepper to taste. I got heavy on the pepper because I like the punch it give it. Mix well and let sit, about an hour is good, but two is better to let the flavors get it on.

2. Cook your pasta the way you like to cook your pasta. While it’s cooking jump into the next step.

3. Pour olive oil and minced garlic into small skillet or sauce pan and warm over medium-heat. Don’t deep fry the garlic — this isn’t the county fair — just slowly warm the olive oil and garlic for about four-five minutes. If the garlic starts to brown, it’s too hot. The idea is to flavor the oil and keep the garlic as supple as possible. If it gets crunchy it tastes kinda crappy.

4. OK, here’s where it comes together. After pasta is al dente, drain and mix it into the tomato/basil/whatever mixture and thorough stir. Next, pour in garlic-infused oil into pasta/tom mixture and continue to toss and stir. Get that stuff good and mixed up. Season to taste.

5. Serve immediately and enjoy.

Drink: If memory serves me, the O.G. recipe suggested a Valpolicella to go with, but I’ve found that just about any good red wine works. Really, we’re just talking about a good homey meal here. As with most things in life, a good red wine makes this that much better.

* Depends on how you like it. I usually finely chop. For a great easy method for julienning (word?) check this out.


4 Responses to “Tomatoes are for eating! (A recipe for tomatoes that don’t suck.)”

  1. ribshots September 21, 2012 at 9:41 pm #

    tomatoes are gross, but in this recipe they seem easy to flick out of the bowl once served … OK, you can bring some over. Thx.

  2. nobodywalksinlongbeach September 22, 2012 at 12:07 am #

    be a good boy and eat your tomatoes.

  3. apacketofchipsontheceiling September 22, 2012 at 10:29 am #

    Bob’s Big, that takes me back!

  4. nobodywalksinlongbeach September 22, 2012 at 7:04 pm #

    It does doesn’t it? A few years back a company reopened a Bob’s by us in Long Beach, complete with the statue and everything. Ate there once. It was terrible! Sometimes nostalgia is better.

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