Discover more from Letters from Tuscany
Tomatoes for the summer
Two recipes and an interview with Martha Holmberg, author of Simply Tomato.
Welcome to Letters from Tuscany, an anchor to Italy, to the Italian table and our loud conviviality, the voice of a friend in the kitchen. This newsletter is a reader-supported publication. We share new recipes, stories, traditions, places to visit, the best gelato to try, and much more. I am Giulia Scarpaleggia, a Tuscan-born and bred food writer, cookbook author and cooking class instructor. I am a proud home cook. JulsKitchen.com is my blog, an archive of more than 700 free recipes: Italian, Tuscan, and seasonal recipes shared over more than a decade. You can find all the info for cooking classes in Tuscany. Cucina Povera is our sixth book that celebrates the best of the Italian resourceful, thrifty and inventive cooking tradition.
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Today’s newsletter might be one of my favourites since we started sharing our recipes and stories here on Substack. Consider this an end-of-summer gift.
I’m so proud to have her on Letters from Tuscany Martha Holmberg, a food writer who has authored or co-authored nine cookbooks: Her most recent one is Simply Tomato, 100 Recipes for Enjoying Your Favorite Ingredient All Year Long, published by Artisan Books (yes, we share the same publisher!)
I read and cooked from Simply Tomato during our two-week break in August and loved it to bits. The introduction feels like a manual for a recipe writer, but also like an intimate conversation where an experienced cook introduces a novice to the marvels of the kitchen, where she invites them to explore, to really make a recipe their own.
Recipes are accessible, written with a distinct, warm, friendly voice, colourful, and highly seasonal. They range from snacks, salads, and soups to pastas and risottos, main dishes, side dishes, and tarts.
The beautiful, inviting photos in Simply Tomato are all by our friend Ellen Silverman, who was also the photographer for the atmospheric photos of my first cookbook, I Love Toscana (You can read about our weeklong trip in Tuscany here).
As a recipe writer and developed myself, I was eager to ask Martha Holmberg if she could give us some tips on how to write recipes that are clear, understandable, relatable, and with a distinct voice. She generously shared her knowledge and talent, along with so much inspiration for the best seasonal cooking, all about tomatoes.
This quote from Simply Tomato perfectly explains why you must add this book to your cookbook collection: the generosity behind each recipe makes them work, and this will make you happy, too.
So rather than write my recipes striving for the strictest precision, I write them with plenty of descriptions, hints, tips, and guidance so that you have the knowledge you need to accommodate the differences between your life and mine. - from Simply Tomato by Martha Holmberg (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2023.
I also asked her if we could feature two recipes. You’ll find a unique recipe for fried tomato leaves with mozzarella and anchovies—the scent of tomato leaves is one of the most powerful memories of my childhood, so I was so intrigued—, and a recipe for a tomato and zucchini gratin that we already made a couple of times over the past weeks.
In the book introduction, you guide the home cook by sharing your thoughts on recipes. What made you so attentive toward home cooks and the novice in the kitchen?
Well, first of all, I AM a home cook! It’s true that I went to cooking school in France and am a professional food writer, but when it comes time to make dinner, I’m facing the same issues as any home cook: where to get good ingredients, how to find the time to cook, what to do if I don’t have a mandoline or fresh chervil or if my broiler is crappy…which it is.
I also have heard from literally thousands of home cooks during my years as both a magazine and a newspaper editor. My readers didn’t hesitate to write or call with their frustrations, so I gained a pretty good idea of people’s lives in the kitchen.
I’m also motivated because I want not only to make cooking easier for people, I want to make it more fun and more spiritually rewarding. As you know, Giulia, cooking a meal can be an act of creativity and pleasure, but not if you’re stressing about “what does ‘deglaze’ mean?”
You have a long, successful career in recipe writing. You authored or co-authored nine cookbooks, including a James Beard award winner. So I’d love to ask you three tips for a recipe writer: How can we make our recipes clear, understandable, relatable, with a distinct voice?
In terms of clarity, I try to remember my dad’s advice. He was a no-nonsense Navy officer, with an engineer’s brain. He used to say that when you give directions, don’t just make them easy to understand, make them impossible to mis-understand. Of course, this is easier said than done, but I do try to think like that. That’s why having someone else, not me, test my recipes is critical, and always revelatory.
When I’m actually cooking a recipe for publication, I look for “pain points” – moments during cooking when something might be tricky or confusing for a less experienced cook. I might tell them to pour off excess grease if their chicken is quite fatty (and be sure to save it for frying potatoes!), or to wipe out their sauté pan if the cooking juices get too dark before they continue with the next step of the recipe, or to stand back as they add the sherry vinegar to the hot sauté pan because if not, their sinuses will get quite a shock.
Later when I edit the recipe, I transport myself mentally back into the kitchen, sometimes even pantomiming the actions while I’m sitting at my desk. If anyone watched me, they’d think I was a bit loony, but it’s helpful to move through the process: where should your ingredients be before you start cooking, where are they going to go after you cook them? Should you leave them in the pan, transfer them to a plate, or maybe you need a larger platter so they can cool without being piled on top of each other. Anticipation is really important.
In terms of finding a distinct voice, the danger for a recipe writer is the temptation to use “recipe-speak,” that formulaic (robotic!) syntax and vocabulary that we see in so many recipes. Writing that way is efficient, because you can cram a lot of information in a small amount of text, but it’s neither expressive nor specific, so in the end, it’s not very helpful to the reader/cook.
If you can imagine yourself talking a friend through the process of making a dish, you’re more likely to find a natural, conversational voice, and don’t forget to add some encouragement! People often tell me that my recipes make them feel like I’m there with them in the kitchen, and that’s the best compliment.
In Simply Tomato, you are sharing 100 recipes to enjoy your favorite fruit all year long. Where is your passion for tomatoes coming from?
I have no idea! My dad’s parents were from Sweden and my mom’s grandparents from Ireland…neither are big tomato-centric cuisines, so I wasn’t inspired by my childhood meals!
I have always had at least a few tomato plants in my garden. Last year, I had 23! A bit over-the-top, but I let myself go crazy because of the book (my fiancé John is also a bit of a gardening nut, and he really got into a new trellising system we used).
But I think I’m so obsessed with tomatoes because a home-grown (or fresh from the farmer’s market) tomato in peak season is light-years better than one from the supermarket, so it’s truly a fruit to celebrate.
Not to mention that tomatoes are simply beautiful and sensual. All the colors and shapes and the silky, juicy flesh. That’s why I was so thrilled that Ellen Silverman could be my photographer, because her images are also very poetic and beautiful.
Which is your favorite way of having a perfectly ripe summer tomato? And what about a can of good peeled tomatoes?
For me, a perfect summer tomato becomes even more perfect when it’s sliced, layered onto a really good piece of levain bread, salted liberally, and then doused in excellent olive oil. Let everything sit for a few minutes so the bread drinks up the juices and olive oil…and then eat it while leaning over the sink.
And canned tomatoes are a miracle ingredient! Always at the ready in your cupboard, you can make a quick soup or sauce or use them as a braising liquid. The trick is to cook them long enough so they transform from sort of watery and acidic to thick and glossy and full of umami. And don’t forget the olive oil!
My husband doesn’t like raw tomatoes, but I absolutely love them. Which recipe would you suggest to me to try to convince him?
I’ve known people like your husband, and they are truly a mystery to me! I think he might enjoy my Tomato, Peach and Red Pepper Salad with Burrata (page 91), where the sweet peaches and creamy burrata will seduce anyone. Or maybe a dish in which the tomatoes aren’t as prominent, like the French Lentils with Cherry Tomatoes, Wrinkly Green Beans, and Smoky Almonds (page 110). The deep, meaty flavors of the lentils and roasted beans balance out the freshness of the raw tomatoes.
What would you cook for a late summer dinner for a group of friends?
I love building a menu with one type of meat or fish and then tons of room-temperature vegetable dishes, while always look so beautiful on the table. So maybe a platter of grilled, rosemary-rubbed rib lamb chops that’s surrounded by as many tomato-focused dishes as possible!
Tomatoes are so versatile, you can serve them a million ways and each one tastes unique. Now I want to have a party! Here are some suggestions for dishes from my book:
Add a fresh note with Sungold Cherry Tomato and Fresh Corn Salad (page 80) or a simple caprese with milky mozzarella and basil.
Bring in savory flavors with Susie’s Tomato and Zucchini Gratin (which is good both hot and at room-temp; page 206), My Time-Consuming-but-Worth-It Ratatouille page 207), or Long-Cooked Romano Beans with Tomatoes and Savory (page 202).
Farro Salad with Sungolds, Mint, Roasted Red Pepper, and Cucumber on Whipped Ricotta (page 102) would add some whole grains to the menu, and adding a pastry to the mix would round things out nicely, so either the Tomato Pissaladière (page 236) or the Tomato-Gruyère Galette with Walnut Crust (page 221).
Everything can be fully made ahead, or prepped enough that there’s not much to do once guests arrive.
And for dessert? A giant Pavlova filled with whipped cream and tons of peaches and berries. And no tomatoes!
RECIPE - Fried Tomato Leaves with Anchovies and Mozzarella
Excerpted from Simply Tomato by Martha Holmberg (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2023.
Makes 1 “sandwich,” OR as many as you like
1 egg, beaten
Extra-virgin olive oil, for deep-frying
1 nice anchovy fillet, blotted dry
1 sliver fresh mozzarella or other cheese
2 tender tomato leaves of roughly the same size (about 3 inches/7.5 cm)
Small lemon wedge, for serving (optional)
Set up a frying station: Put the beaten egg on a small plate and the flour on another, and line a third plate with a paper towel.
Pour about 1 inch (2.5 cm) of olive oil into a deep saucepan (something that will contain the hot oil even if it bubbles up a bit) and heat to about 365°F (185°C).
Sandwich the anchovy fillet and the sliver of cheese between the tomato leaves so they line up nicely together, pressing them lightly to stick. Dip the leaf sandwich into the egg, making sure it’s thoroughly coated in egg, and then dredge it thoroughly in the flour (your fingers will get messy, but you need to use them so you can pinch all the ingredients together).
Shake off excess flour and carefully slide the sandwich into the hot oil—stand back a bit as you do this, because the leaves will snap and sputter! Fry until golden brown on both sides, 1 to 1½ minutes total. Transfer to the paper towels to drain. Repeat with more leaves and filling.
Serve the tomato leaf sandwiches right away, while still hot, with a squeeze of lemon, if you like.
RECIPE - Susie’s Tomato and Zucchini Gratin
Excerpted from Simply Tomato by Martha Holmberg (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2023.
Serves 2 or 3
1 pound (450 g) firm zucchini, cut crosswise into slices
⅜ inch (1 cm) thick (cut on the diagonal so the slices have a larger diameter)
Extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme or rosemary (or a mix)
1 pound (450 g) firm slicing tomatoes, such as Early Girl, cut into slices ¼ inch (6 mm) thick
1 cup (100 g) finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
¼ cup (7 g) finely sliced fresh basil leaves
Preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C).
Toss the zucchini with about 2 tablespoons olive oil, ½ teaspoon salt, a few twists of black pepper, the garlic, and thyme. If the tomato slices are larger than about 2 inches
(5 cm) across, cut them in half.
Arrange a row of zucchini slices across a gratin or shallow baking dish, overlapping them slightly and standing them up on their edge; they’ll want to slide down, but as the pan fills, the vegetables will cooperate more. Next arrange a row of tomato slices, overlapping each other and the zucchini. Sprinkle with a big pinch of the Parmigiano and a pinch of the basil. Repeat with rows of zucchini and tomato, adding the cheese in between, until everything’s in the dish. You’ll probably need to scootch the vegetables tighter together, sliding them so they’re almost vertical rather than lying down in the dish, in order to get everything in, depending on the size of your dish. If you have any cheese and/or basil left, distribute it over the gratin.
Cook the gratin uncovered until the vegetables are tender and the juices are bubbling and browned around the edges of the dish, 30 to 40 minutes. Let the dish rest for at least 10 minutes so the juices redistribute and thicken; this rest will make the final consistency much better than if you ate it immediately. Serve warm.
Or Try This Idea
Per Susie’s original, slice a large onion, season it lightly with salt and pepper, and cook it slowly in olive oil until it’s very soft, sweet, and starting to caramelize, about 20 minutes. Spread the onion in the gratin dish, then proceed with the recipe.