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The Tomatoes I’ve Been Looking For

August 19, 2016

It’s good to have modest goals. Modest goals are achievable. There are a lot of things that I wanted to do on this trip to Pennsylvania. However, we didn’t come down here for me. We came for the kids. But really, there was one thing that I wanted to do more than anything else.

So, that became my priority. All the other stuff got pushed to the side. And I’m okay with that.

You see, my mother-in-law grows tomatoes in her sunny and warm garden. And they are fantastic. Sure, they may be a little smaller this year than in the past. Still, they are firm, juicy, and packed with flavor. And, of course, deep red all the way through.

My plan was to try and gather the supplemental ingredients required to enjoy these home grown delights to the fullest, which in rural Pennsylvania is easier said than done. But these days, we have the help of one incredible local resource.

LIFeSTYLE is how the name of the shop is spelled. I suspect it’s pronounced “lifestyle” but I think it’s a play on “Life e Style” — a kind of Italian-English verbal mash-up. Anyhow, it’s a bona fide Italian gourmet market.

Once upon a time, I did an olive oil tasting here, before I had a deeper understanding of olive oils. And I remember not liking those bitter astringent notes that grow more and more prominent in better olive oils. While they may be a bit jarring when sampling the oil straight, those same elements make things like tomato salad totally sing.

This time I came better informed, and after tasting through oils from the cooler north of Italy to the hotter south, I found the one I wanted. Frantoio D’Orazio from Apulia had some great character and bitter backbone. There was an oil from Campania that I enjoyed a little bit more, but I had set a budget for this outing, and that bottle went slightly above my target. It’s also possible that it would have been too assertive for the delicate array of tomatoes and mozzarella I had in mind.

LIFeSTYLE also had fresh Mozzarella di Bufala imported from Italy as well. So we bought two balls.

I walked out completely forgetting that I was going to try and put together a panzanella. Naturally, they had good anchovies and salted capers too. Seriously, you have no idea how amazing it is to find all of this in this part of Pennsylvania. It’s a minor miracle.

Deciding to push my luck, I asked the proprietor if he knew of any place to get good bread.

I could read the look of pain on his face. It’s a look I know all too well. The closest place that makes something decent is apparently up near State College, more than an hour’s drive away. And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t consider making the drive for bread. Maybe we’ll be able to pick something up on the way home. Or perhaps it will be a future stop on our way down to the farm. Either way, I feel the need to make a pilgrimage there eventually.

Mrs. Fussy put together a gorgeous panzanella for lunch, using the best supermarket bread we could find. But it was my job to make the caprese. Since we paid dearly for our buffalo mozzarella, I wanted to present it in its best condition. So I gave it the Serious Eats treatment. That’s an hour in a hot milk and salt bath.

The end product was delicious. Especially with a little French sea salt.

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Did I have to spend over $100 to make this all happen? Maybe not. I suppose it could have been done for less. But man, this was money well spent. Everything was so delicious. And when you are keeping your ingredients simple, there is nowhere for inferior ingredients to hide. Using a more aromatic oil has a huge payout in a dish like caprese. And all the effort to refresh the mozzarella was also worth every minute.

Of course, if you’re in Albany, you can just hop over to The Cheese Traveler and Josh Coletto will make you a caprese salad for far less than $100. It’s on the menu for tonight and can be yours for just $9.

This is the time to get tomato crazy.

Speaking of which, I got a note from my old friend Farmer Gordon recently. I don’t think he’d mind if I shared part of it with you. He writes,

We make our own pizza sauce at 9 Miles East Farm year-round. But every year around this time we switch over to using our own freshly harvested tomatoes as the main ingredient for the sauce.

We rough-chop Pozzano tomatoes, cook down in the convection oven, then puree with garlic and a mix of fresh and dry herbs. That reduction really intensifies flavor: about 75% of tomato volume (namely water) is lost in the process. What’s left is pure tomato flavor.

The sauce is intentionally overseasoned from a classical standpoint but intensity is what we’re going for.

We overproduce sauce during the summer and store it in an offsite frozen storage facility to keep using local ingredients for as much of the year as possible.

Well, now I’m jealous of all of you who can make it to Eric’s Friday night cookouts or live within Gordon’s delivery radius.

Although, there is something fun going on next Saturday at The Enchanted City in Troy that might help even the scales. The long and the short of it is that I’ll be the chief justice for a culinary challenge with some of Troy’s great chefs in the scrum. And before the bout, I’ll be leading a bunch of Yelp Elites through the Troy Waterfront Farmers’ Market to come up with a basket of goods to present each chef before the battle.

Hopefully the Capital Region will have tomatoes that will be worthy of inclusion. But who knows. That’s part of the fun of farmers’ markets. We’ll just have to wait and see.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 19, 2016 10:15 am

    Panzanella is best made with stale bread, of course. If you’d brought some down it would be perfect by now. Make a note for next year.

    By the way, are you close to scrapple country? Do you have any tips for preparing it? This morning I had some with maple syrup and it was mighty fine.

    • August 19, 2016 12:35 pm

      Toasting your cubed bread is also very tasty – adds a nice char and a bit of crunch and holds up well to the oil/vinegar/tomatoes.

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