BY CHEF JOHN BESH
It's Creole tomato season, and boy are they delicious!
The Creoles of my childhood were ugly and deformed, split to the point of bursting. Picked the day they went to market or set on the windowsill to wait for whichever meal came next — that’s what these tomatoes were good at. Creole tomatoes should be eaten warm, right off the plant, a thing I still look forward to like a child. I’m not saying that I don’t love herbs and fancy cheeses, but a good ol’ ripe Creole doesn’t need any help; it just needs to be eaten.
The Creoles of my childhood were all grown in the St. Bernard or Plaquemines parishes, which flank the Mississippi south of New Orleans pretty much all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. That fertile farmland was formed by hundreds of years of rich silt deposits that the mighty Mississippi brought downstream. Cattle, a gift from the king of Spain, and brought here in 1779 by the Isleños, or Canary Islanders, once grazed on these same lands. Descendants of the Isleños still grow many of our Creoles today. This rich soil, with its low acidity, makes our tomatoes particularly sweet tasting; our moderate climate gives us a gloriously long growing season.
Much mystique surrounds the identity of the famed Creole tomato. Turns out it is not so much a variety as an idea of a tomato, evoking a memory of the field-picked, just-ripe tomatoes of our childhood, before hybrids and industrial farming took the flavor away. Experts say the definition comes down to geography: any red, ripe tomato grown in
the state of Louisiana, but most often in the southeast in the parishes along the Mississippi, can be deemed a Creole. It can be grown from any seed variety, such as the Celebrity, favored by Jim Core, or those newer, hardier varieties, like Amelia and Christa. Historically, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes were tomato central, but following Hurricane Katrina the area shrank to the upper Plaquemines.
Today, more than 250 growers cultivate the almost 500 acres of Louisiana that are dedicated to this buxom fruit so fundamental to Creole cooking. The crops are mostly sold locally at wholesale warehouses, farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and supermarkets, and there is rarely enough of a surplus to cause a Creole ever to head out of state. Nowadays, some of us feel that the Creole is looking a little too pretty and uniform, but in general locals will tell you with pride that a Creole tastes the way a real tomato should.
Here are some of my favorite tomato recipes. As always, if you don't have access to Creoles, you can use any other ripe tomato; they're all bound to be beautiful this time of year. Click the name of the dish for a link to the recipe.
Eggplant, Summer Squash & Tomato Tian
The key to this Eggplant, Summer Squash & Tomato Tian is to precook the eggplant to remove any bitterness before assembling the tian. The proportions of the vegetables don’t matter much, though I love to mix the summer colors of zucchini, tomato, and golden summer squash. I make this tian when garden vegetables are at their peak ripeness.
Salad of Heirloom Tomatoes, Cheese, and Country Ham
When shopping for this Salad of Heirloom Tomatoes, Cheese, and Country Ham, don’t worry about finding the exact varieties I list here; just use the ripest local tomatoes you can find. For the most beautiful salad, look for a range of colors, shapes, and sizes. I love paper-thin slices of country ham, but prosciutto, jamón Serrano, or your favorite salami will work equally well.
If you don’t have the time or the inclination to peel the tomatoes for these Crabmeat-Stuffed Tomatoes, use the juiciest tomatoes you can find, slice and season them, top with the crabmeat and basil, and enjoy.
Terrine of Cherokee Purple Tomatoes
This Terrine of Cherokee Purple Tomatoes might seem somewhat involved, but it’s not much more difficult than those old-fashioned tomato molds that used tomato juice and gelatin. Here, we’re dehydrating the tomatoes slightly to intensify their flavor, then binding them together in a terrine — just an update on an old-time idea.
Traditionally a roux-and-tomato-based dish, Shrimp Creole in my new version has Vietnamese influences; it’s spicy and sweet, full of herbs and flavor. Any ultra-ripe tomatoes will work. The amounts given feed a typical Sunday supper at my house; for six to eight, halve the ingredients, but don’t worry too much: there’s a lot of forgiveness.
Chilled Tomato Soup with Tapenade
This Chilled Tomato Soup with Tapenade is the place to use the finest aged sherry vinegar to brighten the flavor of the ripest tomatoes. I love using old vinegar because its acids have mellowed and truly complement the tomatoes’ natural sweetness.
Recipes from "My New Orleans: The Cookbook" and "Cooking from the Heart: My Favorite Lessons Learned Along the Way," by John Besh / Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC