The word happiness has many definitions. For some, it involves cotton candy and peonies and babies that coo. For others, it involved ice cream, reruns of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and warm sun on your face in early March. I’m quite certain, though, that if you looked it up in one of those visual dictionaries, what you’d see is a pan of slow-roasted tomatoes.
I first tasted slow-roasted tomatoes one hot summer several years ago, the summer after I returned from working in Paris and before I moved to Seattle. I was in Oklahoma, staying with my parents for a few months, and one day, a glut of tomatoes from the garden sent us running for the cookbook shelf. Each spring, my father used to start tomato plants in tiny pots in the laundry room, and by mid-July, they were so big, so top-heavy, that they would droop over the driveway until he tied them to the fence. That summer was an especially good one. The fruits were sweet and fat, coming ripe by the dozen. We needed to get rid of a bunch of them all at once, so we set out for ideas. We’d scoured two shelves of cookbooks when we stumbled upon a technique called slow roasting. It called for the tomatoes to be halved lengthwise and put into a low oven for several hours, so that their juices went thick and syrupy and their flavour climbed to a fevered pitch.
Following the loose guidelines, we sent two pans of tomatoes into the oven, and six hours later, we opened the door to find them entirely transformed. They were fleshy and deep red, with edges that crinkled like smocking on a child’s dress. When we bit into them, they shot rich, vermilion juice across the table. We were sold.
Over the course of those few months, we must have roasted a half-dozen sheet pans’ worth. We ate them plain, straight from the pan, or with mozzarella and basil. We put them into sandwiches. We used them to sauce fresh pasta that my father had flattened with a rolling pin and cut into small, rustic rags. It was a very good summer. Which is a good thing, as it turns out, because it was his last.
One day that fall, when he was lying in the hospital bed in the den, he had a dream about the tomatoes.
"There were so many," he told me sleepily, staring out the window. “We must have grown ten thousand.”
I followed his eyes to the spindly patch outside. One could do much worse, I decided, than to go out that way, on a swan song of ten thousand tomatoes.
I think of my father now every time I see a flush of those red fruits. In honour of that summer, I try to slow-roast them whenever I can.
I make mine the same way that we did back then, but in recent years, I have begun to add a few pinches of ground coriander. It’s an idea I borrowed from a sandwich shop in Paris called Cos', where one of the offerings is tomates confites à la coriandre. I used to ask for them fanned atop a smear of fresh ricotta or goat cheese, and the bright fragrance of the coriander always seemed to give the tomatoes a subtle boost.
Slow-roasting tomatoes may take time and planning, but straight from the oven, it’s instant gratification. It’s almost impossible to keep stray fingers out of them. They’re like rubies in fruit form. And though they’re delicious plain, their sweet acidity also plays remarkably well with other flavours, especially those dishes at the rich, robust end of the spectrum. I’ve served them alongside cheese soufflés and plates of pasta with pesto. When teamed up with fresh goat cheese, basil, and arugula, they make for a delicious, if drippy, sandwich, and laid over the top of a burger, they’re like ketchup for adults. You can whirl them in the food processor with some basil and Parmesan and turn them into a pesto of sorts. You can even make them into a pasta sauce. Just slice a handful into a bowl with some capers, slivered basil, and sea salt, and add splashes of balsamic and olive oil. It’s the sauce we ate all those summers ago atop my father’s fresh pasta, and it works on pretty much any noodle that happens to land in the pot. And on nights when the stove is too much to consider, few things make for a happier picnic than a hunk of crusty bread, a wedge of blue cheese, and some slow-roasted tomatoes. You don’t even need a patch of grass. I can tell you from experience that the living room floor works fine.
With a little foresight, you can have them always in the refrigerator, ready and waiting. I’ve never been one to believe, anyway, that happiness can’t be planned. I think my father would agree.
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