Pomodori gratinati al forno (tomato, oven, heaven)

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Wait ten minutes and your kitchen smells like heaven.

For the longest time, I thought of this as a summer dish. Perhaps because I was conditioned to seeing my mother-in-law bring in a haul of tomatoes from her garden and work her magic on them. Then I saw the error of my ways—the utter foolishness of denying myself the pleasure of pomodori gratinati al forno–oven-roasted tomatoes–in the off season. 

Yes, of course, there are tomatoes and there are TOMATOES. The latter variety being those brilliant red, sweet, juicy globes grown in your own backyard. I’m sure if you worked at it, you could taste the difference between oven-roasted summer tomatoes and oven-roasted off-season industrial tomatoes. (I’d like to have that job.)

Off-season industrial. I mean these:

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Vine-ripened, probably hydroponic, somewhere between a marvel and mistake of modern science. If they are oven bound, they suffice. Better, these guys are sturdy and thick-skinned, which prevents them from turning to mush after a couple hours in the oven.

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Slice them in half and scoop out the seeds. Salt them and fill their cavities, not packing, more like generously dusting, with this breadcrumb filling.

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Look for plain breadcrumbs. None of that Italian seasoning already added. You want to control your destiny. In a food processor, to a cup and half of plain breadcrumbs add a handful of flat parsley leaves, a couple cloves of garlic, and 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil. Activate said food processor to chop, mix, blenderize your filling.

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Into the oven they go. In restaurants in my wife’s region of Italy (Emilia-Romagna), these tomatoes (and eggplant and zucchini done similarly) are usually on the menu. And they are usually barely cooked. It’s a simple matter of production capacity and volume. They’re good. Home-cooked are better. The longer an oven-roasted tomato is in the oven, the tastier it is. So at 350 I’ll give them 2 hours cooking time. Last night at 325 they were in the oven for almost three hours. What a fragrance. Wait for it. Wait ten minutes and your kitchen smells like heaven.

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I usually let them come to room temperature. But I try not to wait too long to serve them because I want the breadcrumb mix to still be crispy when I lift an oven-roasted tomato to my mouth and eat it all in one bite.

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 What flavor. What texture. I’ll have another. And another.

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