I must say, I love August. Not for the heat. Not for the humidity. Not for the dried, brittle grass that crunches underfoot. Nope, I love August for one wonderful reason. Tomatoes. Gorgeous, plump fruits that smell of sunshine. Fat, juicy orbs of pure luscious goodness. I am not, of course, talking about tomatoes found in grocery stores, not even those that claim to be vine-grown and/or organic. I’m talking about the ones grown in the backyard. Carefully tended and watered through May, June, July, and into August. Each week and then month passing with great anticipation. Waiting and waiting for the first little, hard green tomatoes to appear, then watching and waiting as they grown and ripen, as that first blush of orange appears, almost imperceptibly, and then spreads and deepens, slowly, so slowly, until finally, finally, finally, one ripens to a deep red. And then, oh my, it is happily devoured. (Unless the rabbits get to it first, which sometimes happens.)
How to consume such succulent fruits? There are so many ways. My favorite? Eating one like an apple, with juices running down the chin and dripping onto the boards of the deck. If you’ve never eaten a tomato this way, you really must try it. Another favorite is a tomato sandwich. Mashed avocado smeared on one slice of bread, mayonnaise on another, with thickly sliced tomato layered in-between. Heavenly. For me, those two methods of consumption have always been the best. There is no need to dress-up real tomatoes, no need to alter them. Doing so seems almost criminal.
And yet, wouldn’t you know it, I’ve found an exception. Recently perusing a few recipes from Nigel Slater, I came upon his version of tomato laksa (which I subsequently altered). It intrigued me. Puree tomatoes with lemongrass, cilantro, hot peppers, and garlic? Simmer the paste with coconut milk and broth? Serve over tender soba noodles? Prepared in about 20 minutes? Yes, oh yes. Please. But wait…. I have to puree my beautiful lovelies? That seems almost unthinkable. And yet, I just had to try the laksa. And I am so very glad I did. It is indescribably good.
I first made this laksa about two weeks ago. Since then, I’ve made it three times more. Paulo and I just can’t seem to get enough of it. Indescribably good, as I said. So good, in fact, that I’ve been devising a way to prepare it once August is over, once those backyard, homegrown tomatoes are nothing but a ruby memory. I considered using store-bought fresh tomatoes, but off-season they aren’t particularly good. What is better, likely, is a 28-ounce can of high-quality organic termaters. I can keep a supply of them on hand in the cupboard, and make the laksa each and every time the mood strikes. A taste of August in the middle of winter.
Just a few cooking notes. If you have access to lemongrass, then absolutely use it. The subtlety and depth of its flavor can’t be duplicated. If, however, you don’t have an Asian grocery (or other source) nearby, then use the lemon substitute described below. Soba noodles are wonderful in this dish, but you can use whatever you wish. Next time I make it, I plan to serve it with brown rice. The broth is wonderful as soon as it is ready, but it is so very good, even better, after having sat for a while, or reheated the next day. Whatever you do, give this recipe a shot. You immediately will become happily addicted.
Fragrant Tomato Laksa
2 lb tomatoes
1 bunch cilantro (about 3 oz)
2 cloves garlic
2 stalks lemongrass, tender cores only (or the zest and juice of 1 lemon)
2 to 4 bird’s eye chiles (or other very hot chiles)
1 tsp salt
1 2/3 cups coconut milk (not low-fat)
1 2/3 cups vegetable broth
8 oz broccoli florets (or other veggies)
8 oz cooked chicken or tofu, cut into bite-sized pieces (optional)
8 oz soba noodles (or whole wheat thin spaghetti)
In a processor or blender puree the tomatoes, cilantro, garlic, lemongrass, and chiles into a smooth paste. Pour into a saucepan along with the salt, and simmer over medium heat until the puree has lost its rawness, about 3 minutes. Add the coconut milk and broth and simmer for another 5 minutes. Add the broccoli, along with the chicken or tofu if using. Continue to simmer until the florets are just tender and the chicken/tofu is heated through, about 7 minutes or so.
While the broth is simmering, cook the soba noodles in boiling water until tender. Drain.
To serve, put the noodles into individual bowls and ladle the broth over top. (The broth is also good served at room temperature, and is even better the next day.)