Boy, was I wrong.
Wrong about local tomatoes that are coming into the farmers’ markets right now, gorgeous, firm, red, both sweet and acidic beauties that I’m using to bake alla gratinata.
Wrong because in the off season, I content myself with hydroponic vine-ripened tomatoes that do have a little flavor, that are firm enough to be transported who-knows-how-many hundreds or more likely thousands of miles to get the local Kroger, firm enough to withstand 120 minutes in the oven at 350 F and miraculously retain their shape and make a pretty good graté. But the local tomatoes are besting the vine-ripeneds this summer, blowing them right out of the oven.
I am so SO grateful to my mother-in-law for feeding me these things after I married into the family, so grateful my father-in-law retired and put his thumbprint on the recipe (more oven time, more olive oil), also grateful to my wife’s cousins in Spadarolo at whose incomparable restaurant, Trattoria Delinda, one day I stood in the kitchen and watched them preparing tomatoes to go into the oven.
These tomatoes, cooked in the oven, are a staple at local restaurants in my wife’s region (San Marino, Rimini, Santarcangelo, San Leo, Verucchio, Torriana, Montebello), usually prepared with zucchini and eggplant, loaded with the garlic- parsley-breadcrumb pesto. The difference making them at home makes is: more oven time. The longer you cook them (especially the tomatoes), the more concentrated the flavor becomes. Do they look burnt? They are not burnt. They are like sun-dried tomatoes, except not leathery the way those can be. Herewith, anyway, the process. You can do this at home. Or you can call me up and come over for lunch.
Cut the tomato in half. Scoop out the seeds. Salt the tomato.
In a food processor mix a cup of unseasoned bread crumbs with a fistful of Italian parsley (easy on the stems), two cloves of garlic, and two tablespoons of olive oil. Grind, mix, blast. Make a pesto.
Lightly spoon pesto mix into crevasses of the tomatoes and brush the pesto over the surface. Don’t pack it in. The tomato will want to sag. Give it space.
On a shallow baking sheet, lay the tomatoes on parchment. Bake at 350 F two hours. Then take the tomatoes out and lightly drizzle olive oil over them. Return to the oven for 30-45 minutes.
Remove and rest them 15 minutes. Eat the tomatoes. Are these good cold? Yes, within 12-18 hours you have a tomato flavor bomb, a T-bomb.