Finally, tomatoes. Not supermarket “tomatoes” that have been available all year, but real, imperfect, knobby, splotchy heirloom tomatoes–the succulent ones that drip all over your chin and leave the smell of tomato vines on your fingers. Finally.
As the first lovely load of local tomatoes appeared at my greenmarket, I thought about the recent salmonella (serotype Saintpaul) outbreak. Our food systems have become so complicated it’s no wonder that we have safety issues. Produce grown far from its destination is packed, shipped, unpacked and repacked, re-shipped, unpacked, and so on. Every part of the process not only consumes energy and materials, but allows exposure to many hands and facilities (and potential bacteria strains), and increases the difficulty of proper inspections. Perhaps more importantly, it makes it nearly impossible for much produce to be tracked to its source; not only for the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but for the consumer. It seems imperative that the FDA regain some control over safety issues, but just as important, or in response to their lack of doing so, eating locally grown produce seems more vital than ever.
The first case of salmonella in this outbreak was reported on April 10. It’s mid-July, over 1000 cases later, and authorities are still unsure about the source of the bacteria. The FDA has removed tomatoes from the do-not-eat list as of July 17, but not before a tomato backlash that left tomato farmers devastated. Plowed tomato fields and rotting crops in packing houses–a heartbreaking image in the face of world famine.
Of course all of these rotten tomatoes weren’t salmonella-tainted, but with little FDA procedure in place to accurately track food through the complicated maze of our food systems, we end up with, literally, tons of food waste. Consumers, restaurants and retailers aren’t willing to take the risk of eating/serving/selling tomatoes that don’t have a confirmed location source.
Now jalapenos have been added to the list of possible causes–although it’s suspected that, somehow, both tomatoes and jalapenos are responsible. The good news is that that there hasn’t been a newly reported case since June 26–so fingers crossed that is the end of it.
As consumers, what can we do about these types of food safety issues? We can sign a petition urging the U.S. Congress to implement real food safety reforms and pass comprehensive legislation. And we can eat food grown locally–take action by simply knowing where your food comes from. All I can say is that seeing those first tomatoes at the market was somehow so comforting to me. I was able to ask the farmer, “no need to worry about salmonella with these, right?” and he was able to say, “no worries, I grew them myself in Jersey.” Local food is the simplest pleasure, and these days, it seems the safest.
Heirloom Tomato and Bread Salad
All of this tomato talk, and those alluring heirloom tomatoes from the greenmarket, inspired me to think of tomato and bread salad. I am happy to eat summer tomatoes like apples, but toss them with some torn bits of bread, olive oil and sea salt–yum. After my third meal as such in two days, I thought I’d step it up a bit and try the Heirloom Tomato and Bread Salad recipe from the Sierra Mar Cookbook (Gibbs Smith, 2006) from the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, Calif. This cookbook is so beautiful it makes me want to cry–not only for the photography and recipes, but for the deep, unrequited desire for a long visit to the Post Ranch Inn! Anyway, it’s a great recipe, and makes me excited about a very long, local tomato season.
Grain Mustard Balsamic Vinaigrette
½ cup good-quality aged balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon whole grain mustard
2 teaspoons honey
1 tablespoon diced shallots
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup canola oil
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Place the vinegar, mustard, honey, shallots and salt in a mixing bowl and let stand for 15 minutes. Add the oils in a slow, steady stream while whisking constantly to emulsify; add freshly ground pepper.
4 cups whole grain bread (crust removed), cut into 1½-inch cubes
½ cup olive oil
Salt and pepper
2 pounds assorted heirloom tomatoes
Fleur de sel (or salt of your choice)
1 pound arugula
½ red onion, julienned
Shaved Reggiano Parmigiano
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F degrees. Toss the bread cubes in a bowl with the olive oil and season with salt and pepper and place on a baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes, or until browned and crunchy.
2. Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise and remove the seeds with a spoon; thinly slice.
3. Place the bread in a large mixing bowl and generously dress with vinaigrette; let sit for 2 minutes, allowing the cubes to soak up the dressing and soften slightly.
4. Cut the tomatoes into wedges and toss with bread cubes; season lightly with salt.
5. Add the arugula, onion, and cucumber; toss very gently, adding a little more vinaigrette.
6. Divide between plates and top with Parmigiano.