I don’t make many demands around here, but today, I have to. So listen up. (Please.)
Get a pen and a piece of paper. Then write the following:
4 large tomatoes
1 yellow onion
Now, go to the grocery store or market or wherever, and buy everything you wrote down. Go on! And don’t forget to preheat the oven. Tonight, for dinner, you are having Luisa Weiss’s tomatoes filled with rice. (With a couple of potatoes on the side.)
This photograph hardly does them justice, but trust me: you are going to love these tomatoes. I say that as someone who doesn’t, under ordinary circumstances, even like tomatoes filled with rice. Prior to last night, my only experience with them was in the dining hall in college, which I would rather not talk about, and at a couple of banquets in hotel ballrooms, the kind with cottony chicken breasts and canned green beans and lighting that makes your eyes hurt. Tomatoes filled with rice were nothing to write home about – or to even finish. Come to think of it, the same goes for stuffed bell peppers. Lots of people love them, I know, but I’ve never had one that did much for me. When confronted with a stuffed pepper, I often find myself wishing that there were some cheese involved, or, if there is cheese, that there were a lot more of it. I find myself wishing, I guess, that there were something to tie the whole thing together: the rice, its seasonings, and their edible container. And, I don’t know. I kind of wonder why the pepper is there at all. I mean, why a pepper? Why? This, as you can imagine, has a tendency to lead to all sorts of existential questioning, which makes it very hard to get up in the morning, much less look happily upon a display of bell peppers at the market.
I think you see where I am going here. I was not hard-wired to love anything filled with anything. But I do now. And I, or we, have Luisa to thank.
If you have spent any time reading her site, you will know that Luisa has family in Italy, and that she visits them as often as she can, and that she has a way of writing about them and their cooking that makes you sigh contentedly, reach for a Kleenex, pick up the telephone and tell your mother that you love her, and turn on the oven, in that order. That is the highest praise I can give to anyone, and I mean every word of it. She also has incredible taste in food. She has never, ever, led me astray. So when, last year, she described her recipe for tomatoes filled with rice, an Italian classic, I had to print it out. Had to.
Sadly, this is not to say that I made it immediately, which I now greatly regret. I added it to my “to make” pile, but somehow, I forgot about it, and it was slowly buried under a steady influx of other clippings and print-outs. I feel awful about it. But this past weekend, when I was looking for a particular cake recipe, I pulled the pile down from its home atop the bookshelf in the hall and, after choking briefly on the dust, began leafing through it. I didn’t find the cake recipe, but about halfway down, lo and behold, there were Luisa’s tomatoes. As though on cue. Only a year late.
Which is how it came to pass that last night, I scooped the pulpy insides from a few fat tomatoes, briefly stewed said pulp with Arborio rice and herbs, spooned it back into the tomatoes, topped the whole thing with fresh breadcrumbs and an unflinching splash of olive oil, and, an hour and a half later, fell madly in love, and I now recommend that you do the same. In the heat of the oven, the tomatoes relaxed and sweetened, splitting voluptuously at the seams, their flavor concentrating and ripening. Inside them, the rice and tomato juices turned into something almost risotto-like: rich and fragrant, soft but thick, surprisingly creamy. And on top, the oiled breadcrumbs went crispy and toasted, a perfect foil for the spoonable slurry underneath. Luisa had mentioned the possibility of throwing some sliced potatoes into the pan too, so I did. And that – plus some red wine, some bread, and a plate of cheeses and salami – was our dinner. On a cool Sunday night in late September, it is very, very hard, I think, to do better.
I made my own breadcrumbs for this, but it’s not really necessary. It is nice, though. If you happen to have some leftover baguette lying around, or some crusty white bread or something like that, it will take you about 5 minutes. Just cut off the crust, cut the soft center into cubes, and whirl the cubes in a food processor until they are reduced to fine crumbs. (Only process a couple of handfuls at a time, though, or the motor of the machine could overheat.)
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Cut the tops off the tomatoes. Holding them over a bowl, scoop out their insides – flesh, seeds, and juice – and let it all fall into the bowl. Set the tomatoes in a lightly oiled 9”x13” baking dish. Then fish the flesh out of the bowl, and chop it. Return it to the bowl with the juice and seeds.
In a medium (2-quart) saucepan, warm a glug of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, and cook, stirring frequently, until soft and translucent. Add the rice, and continue to cook, stirring, for another minute or two. Add the tomato flesh, juice, and seeds – it may look like a lot, but add it all – as well as the water. Tear the basil leaves into small pieces, and add them too. Add a generous pinch or two of salt. Reduce the heat slightly, cover the pot, and simmer for 10 minutes. Taste, and if needed, add more salt.
Spoon the par-cooked rice mixture into the tomatoes. Top them with a sprinkling of breadcrumbs. Arrange the potato slices around the tomatoes in the pan. Give everything a good drizzle of olive oil. (You might want to flip and rub the potatoes a bit, to make sure that each has a nice coat of oil.) Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes. The tomatoes should shrivel a bit and release some of their juices, and the potatoes should cook through.
Cool for 15 minutes or so before eating, so that the tomato juices have time to settle.
Yield: 4 servings