Monday, October 4, 2010

playing it (too?) simple

Last Saturday my friend Jo came over for dinner while our husbands were out galavanting at a bachelor party. The last time I cooked for her I made meatloaf, somehow forgetting that she was a vegetarian. Jo, being the kind person that she is, gamely took a few bites and said it was delicious. While that gesture didn't completely relieve my embarrassment, it did make me love her a little more.

This time I was determined to do right by my friend. I wanted to make a vegetarian meal that focused on tail-end-of-summer produce: tomatoes, figs, and basil. A long, leisurely dinner with one other person is one of the nicest ways to catch up and unwind, in my book. And because I was only cooking for two, I didn't have to worry about making enough food to go around. But maybe I didn't worry enough. 
I didn't want to make a smorgasbord of food, and in the end, I couldn't find all of the ingredients I wanted (namely figs) at the farmers' market. So I pared down my menu to a scalloped tomato dish and a simple salad of lettuce with mustard vinaigrette. Plus snacks and a dessert. Which all seems totally acceptable in writing, but something felt a little lacking menu-wise.
We started the meal with rosemary cashews, puff pastry twists, and drank a few Lillet and vodka cocktails. Everything was off to a good start. But something fell short with the main dish: scalloped tomatoes with croutons, an Ina Garten recipe. I discovered it on Smitten Kitchen, where there was a long list of comments praising and complaining about the dish. Some people swooned over it, others had all sorts of issues. The recipe sounds good in theory: a mixture of tomatoes, toasted croutons, and basil, baked until bubbling, kind of like a warm panzanella. But when I took a bite, it was a little soggy, as some of those commenters warned. Damn.

Both Jo and I had seconds of the scalloped tomatoes and Dan polished off the rest for breakfast the next morning. Clearly it was far from inedible but there was something a little 'meh' about the whole thing to me. At one point I looked at the table
and realized Jo and I were eating tomatoes, bread, and lettuce for dinner. Maybe I played it too simple?

Have you guys ever made things for company that just didn't turn out the way you expected?

Simple Saturday dinner for two
Lilet cocktails
Rosemary cashews
Puff pastry twists with pecorino and cayenne
Chocolate-hazelnut semifreddo

Scalloped tomatoes with croutons
Adapted a tiny bit from Smitten Kitchen and Ina Garten. Adjust the bread if you have extra juicy tomatoes, or do as I did, and reserve some of the juice to cut down on sogginess. Although I think sogginess is part of this dish's "charm."
(Serves 4 to 6 as a main course)

3 tablespoons olive oil
2 1/2 cups bread from a French baguette, in a 1/2-inch dice (I went closer to 3 cups, since my tomatoes were very juicy)
2 1/2 pounds tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch dice (I used beefsteak)
1 Tbsp. garlic, minced

1 Tbsp. sugar

2 tsp. Kosher salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup thinly slivered basil leaves, lightly packed
1 cup freshly grated pecorino cheese (or Parmesan)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Heat olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high. Add the bread cubes and stir so that they are evenly coated with oil. Cook cubes, tossing frequently, until toasty on all sides, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, combine tomatoes, garlic, sugar, salt and pepper in a large bowl. When the bread cubes are toasted, add the tomato mixture (reserving some liquid, if desired) and cook them together, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, and stir in the basil. Pour into a shallow (6 to 8 cup) baking dish and top with Parmesan cheese. Bake 35 to 40 minutes until the top is browned and the tomatoes are bubbly.


Casey@Good. Food. Stories. said...

Thank you, Lisa, for reporting back from the trenches of soggy dinners. I wasn't wowed by the description of that dish over at SK, so now I know never to attempt it. I prefer my croutons crusty!

Sarah from 20somethingcupcakes said...

I made that tomato dish this summer and everyone loved it! So much Dan questioned why I had made so little - it was the first thing gone! I think your menu is perfect. Too often I think I go overboard. Simple is the best way to go!

Unknown said...

Sogginess aside (and you're right I think it is part of the charm) the scalloped tomatoes look really good.

Daniel said...

There are few food combinations I like less than tomatoes and soggy bread, and yet strangely enough this made a very good breakfast.

Lisa said...

Casey: Me too. "Trenches of soggy dinners" made me laugh out loud. :)

Sarah: Thank you! I think this dish really depends on the type and ratio of tomatoes and bread. Somehow you must have struck a good balance.

Tender Branson: I did like the tomatoes, but they were really amazing greenmarket tomatoes so I don't think I could have screwed them up if I tried!

Daniel: High praise from someone who doesn't even like a slice of tomato on his sandwiches.

Dori said...

Growing up, as a side dish, my family made what they called breaded tomatoes. It was much simpler than this recipe, but sounds like it would taste similar. We simply opened a can of stewed tomatoes and added a touch of butter and sugar, and then tore up a couple pieces of bread and stirred together, in a saucepan. We cooked it until bubbly. It was actually pretty good, depending on how much sugar was added (not much is needed). The recipe for scalloped tomatoes with crutons sounds like a dressed up version of a fond childhood meal memory of family meals. It was one of the first things my mother taught me to cook.

Lisa said...

Hi Dori, thanks so much for sharing that memory. Your version sounds very similar--I think this might have more bread, though.


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