Monday, August 4, 2008

Heirloom Heaven

Tomato-Basil-Balsamic Sorbet: I've gotta find a shorter name for it!

I’m loving myself again after momentarily hating myself.

The first time I ever heard of heirloom tomatoes, I made jokes about finding wrinkly, old, dried out veggies stashed in grandma’s attic (my grandmother kept EVERYTHING, so that was a possibility). But with the first enticing bite, I knew they were something extraordinary with which I was destined to become good friends. They typically set me back about $7 or $8 a pound, so for reasons of both economics and sheer pleasure, I refuse to ever let one go bad.
By yesterday, however, I had let several go seriously soft (I never refrigerate them, since the extreme cold damages both flavor and texture.). So after I kicked my own tush around the house for a few minutes for being a lazy, wasteful git, I decided to try making sorbet with those too-soft-for-anything-else specimens of culinary indulgence.

I’ve seen plenty of tomato sorbet recipes and always thought they sounded interesting, so this was a great opportunity to give tomato sorbet a try. Technically, the tomato is a fruit, right? So it stands to reason—to me, anyway—that a really well developed, fresh one would have great dessert potential.

With the heirlooms, I knew there would be loads more flavor, so I wanted to build my recipe carefully and take maximum advantage of them. I dug up a basic sorbet recipe and then—as I always do—changed it entirely. Mainly I look to recipes as a starting point, just to get the basic ratios right. Then I climb into my cockpit, toss the recipe over the side and start executing all sorts of mid-air acrobatics. It’s great fun playing in the kitchen, isn’t it?

For a sorbet, I knew it would be essential to use only really really ripe tomatoes—and never hothouse. I needed a few extras to complete the full two pounds, so I grabbed a couple of tomatoes a friend with an organic garden had given me. They had that intensity of flavor that improves whatever they’re near. I made up the simple syrup, and while it cooled, I peeled the tomatoes, which handle beautifully when they’re this ripe, and put them through the food mill.

I’m convinced that this was one of the factors in the sorbet turning out so well. The mill doesn’t thrash everything to death the way a blender or food processor does, and it expresses maximum pulp and juice without letting the seeds pass through. I also strained every last bit of juice that remained after the peeling and seeding, and even squeegeed the juice from the cutting board—I wanted it all.

Then I chopped the fresh basil finely, so there would be no strands catching on the mixing arm of the ice cream maker. And I used a really high-quality balsamic vinegar. Not the extra vecchio traditionale I’d spent a mortgage payment on in Modena, but something almost as exceptional. It was sweet, smooth and complex, without the tonsil-seizing aggressiveness of the cheap (and fake) stuff. And I added the barest pinch of salt, something I never see in sorbet recipes. It’s a great flavor balancer, so I figured, why not give it a try?

The resulting sorbet is something I’m exceptionally proud of. It has a wonderfully complex flavor, the most sophisticated thing I’ve ever conjured up on my own. Complex but not kitchen-sink busy. The natural sweetness of those overripe tomatoes, along with the sweetness of the balsamic, rein in the one-dimensional sweetness of the sugar. In spite of all that sweetness, it’s not too sweet. And in spite of there being both tomatoes and balsamic vinegar in the sorbet, it isn’t terribly acidic. The flavors are well balanced, and the sorbet has a nice harmony on the tongue.

Plenty of tomato sorbet recipes call for basil and perhaps balsamic, but I think four things helped me produce a really great sorbet: using heirloom tomatoes, including a primo balsamic, adding that hint of salt and gently milling the tomatoes.

Maybe extreme cold is damaging to a fresh tomato, but when I took that same tomato and made sorbet from it, something wonderful happened. Because of the cold? In spite of the cold? I’m trying not to overanalyze it. I want to simply enjoy it.

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