Outside of summer, you will often see so-called-heirloom tomatoes in the grocery store. While memories of summer delicacies dance in your head, you'll buy some, only to inevitably be disappointed. Silly rabbit, it's just not time for such things. The impulse is easy to understand; it's like wearing shorts on that first, almost-warm day of the year, you're gonna regret it.
Since I'm by no means immune, I've concocted this cheat: Fire-Roasted Tomato Caprese. Roasting will turn bland early spring imposters into robust, flavorful delights. To match the altered palette of the cooked tomatoes, I pair it with a smoked mozzarella and use crispy, fried sage leaves in place of the traditional basil.
2 large, fresh heirloom tomatoes, cut into ½-plus slices, crosswise
1 small ball smoked mozzarella (approx. 6oz), cut into thin slices
2 cloves garlic, slivered
1 pinch crushed red pepper
coarse sea salt
handful of large, whole, fresh sage leaves (washed and dried well)
½ cup (or more) grape seed oil
Preheat the oven to 375˚. Cut some parchment paper into squares slightly larger than the tomato slices and arrange them on a cookie sheet. Sprinkle each with a little coarse sea salt. Place a tomato slice onto each square, dress it with olive oil, crushed red pepper and slivered garlic. Place the cookie sheet on a high rack in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until the sides are crinkled and the tomatoes are bubbling or even very lightly charred around the edges. (Side note, to sliver garlic, hold the bottom of a peeled clove and cut slices in it just short of all the way through. Then, cut once or twice in the opposite direction. Lastly, cut off the slivers loose at the base.)
Heat the grape seed oil over medium high, in a cast iron skillet—one small enough to give the oil a little depth (you want about ¼-inch deep). I use a pan lid that fits snugly over my cast iron skillet to try and contain the splatter. Make sure your sage is dried well, too: the more water the more it will spit violently in the hot oil. Once it's up to temp, add a few sage leaves, one at a time, using tongs to keep your hands away from any splatter. I'll lift the pan lid just enough to drop it in and close it immediately afterwards, dropping the leaves in from different sides of the pan, as I don't want them to get stuck together. They will spatter for 5-15 seconds. When they calm down, flip 'em 'round. If they don't cause much fuss on that side, pull them out with the tongs and set them aside, on a plate lined with paper towels to absorb excess oil.
If the sage is browing, turn the heat down a touch and work a bit quicker. They're fine brown—just a tad less herbaceous and, frankly, less visually appealing on the plate.
When the tomatoes are done, carefully lift a square and set it on the plate. You should be able to hold the tomato in place and slide the parchment paper out from underneath it smoothly—like a magician with a tablecloth. On to each tomato, add a slice of smoked mozzarella, then dress them with a couple of sage leaves and cracked pepper—maybe drizzle a tiny bit of the oil from the the skillet around the plate. I would probably leave the last hits of salt to each one's taste, as there's already some salt in the mix.
Given the recurring theme here, it only seemed appropriate to soundtrack this with Fire Music: the ecstatic meeting of point free jazz, black nationalism and gospel spirituals.