Paying Homage to the Amazing Jersey Tomato
By David G. Pass | July 28, 2022
About a decade ago, when I worked at a restaurant called Ella’s Fine Food and Drink in Westerly, Rhode Island, the chef there always made sure to work with the local farmers to bring in the best quality tomatoes during the late summer.
I remember serving these brilliantly red, impossibly ripe tomatoes, which had been barely dressed in a light tomato vinaigrette with edible flowers to my guests and feeling an intense sense of pride because I reasoned that a good chef knew exactly how to supplement, cultivate, and highlight the flavors from a seasonal ingredient, but a great chef knew how to let that ingredient just shine on its own. It was a profound realization for me given the sophisticated complexity of a menu that otherwise showcased Asian-French Fusion parading as New American Cuisine. Looking back even now, leaving it alone seemed much harder than making it more complex.
Growing up in southern New Jersey, it was hard not to notice that tomatoes are an important resource–if not culinarily, then economically–to the state. It would be hard to contest the claim that New Jersey has some of the best tomatoes on the planet, and I am always inspired in August to try and find a way to pay homage to this quasifruit.
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In the spirit of celebrating all things Jersey Tomato, I have put together two recipes, which both follow the tradition of the Caprese Salad–that maddeningly simple, tri-colored dish from the island of Capri–but each of them does so in a completely different way. It is a way of letting the summer season close by honoring some of the most gorgeous examples of produce New Jersey has to offer the world, and a way of demonstrating how such a simple, unpretentious recipe can be drastically polarized and pushed in two different directions to create an entirely unique experience. The first recipe embraces the braising technique of a dry heat and a wet heat, but inverts it by having the tomatoes first sauté in a pool of olive oil and garlic and finishes in the broiler to provide some char.
The second nods to the traditional Caprese salad in grilled cheeseburger form. Each preparation invokes the spirit of the Caprese Salad, but both of these dishes land in completely different places to create a beautiful variety on a late-summer classic. Serve with a medium-bodied red such as the Predator Zinfandel, which would tamp down some of the acidity from the tomatoes while also standing up to the char on the beef. Let’s give our attention to the Jersey tomatoes–before their brief, beautiful time has expired, and we have missed another fleeting moment to savor their vital importance.
Braised Tomatoes with Burrata
2 pints cherry or grape tomatoes
6-8 oz burrata cheese
⅔ cup Olive Oil
½ tsp salt
4 large basil leaves, chiffonade
6-8 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Crusty bread, toasted, one-inch
• Heat the olive oil in a skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat.
• Add the tomatoes, salt, basil, and garlic and cover with a lid. Allow to braise for 20 minutes, then remove the lid and remove the skillet from the heat.
• While it’s hot, set the skillet under an oven broiler. Broil, just until tomatoes begin to char, about 5-8 minutes, watching them closely!
• Arrange the burrata on a large plate. While it is still hot, spoon the tomatoes over the burrata. Season to taste and serve warm with crusty bread.
1 lb ground beef chuck
1 lb ground beef sirloin
2 Jersey tomatoes, sliced
8 oz fresh mozzarella, cut into 6
2 cups basil leaves
¼ cup toasted pine nuts
1 garlic clove
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus
more for brushing
¼ cup grated Pecorino-Romano
Freshly ground pepper
6 Brioche hamburger buns, split
• In a food processor, combine the basil with the pine nuts and garlic and pulse until the pine nuts are finely chopped. Add the ½ cup of olive oil and process to a paste. Add the grated Pecorino and pulse to combine. Season the pesto with salt and pepper. You should have about 1 cup.
• Transfer ¼ cup of the pesto to a bowl. Add the ground chuck and ground sirloin and a pinch of salt and gently knead to blend. Form the mixture into six 4-inch patties, about ¾-inch thick. Brush the burger patties lightly with olive oil.
• Light a grill and oil the grates. Grill the burgers over moderately high heat for 3 minutes. Flip the burgers, top them with the mozzarella slices and close the grill. Cook for 3 minutes longer for medium-rare burgers. Grill the buns until lightly toasted, then spread some of the pesto on the bottoms. Top with the burgers, the tomatoes and the remaining pesto. Close the burgers and serve right away.
David G. Pass teaches literature and film at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. He earned a PhD from Brandeis, a master’s from Carnegie Mellon, and a bachelor’s from West Chester University. He lives in Rocky Hill, and has a passion for good food and wine.