Although I wasn’t really aware of it as a young girl, I grew up in an area that offered the best of all worlds. Ours was a small’ish’ town, nestled between the tall buildings and bustling streets of Cincinnati to the north, and the wide open expanse of the blue grass hills of Kentucky just to the south. As a child, our summers stretched wide from Memorial Day all the way through to the other side of Labor Day. Attending summer school classes or participating in enriching lessons of various sorts just wasn’t heard of. Instead, my siblings and I slept until our bodies woke naturally, gathered around the TV with a bowls of cereal in hand, and watched cartoons and game shows before heading out just steps from our house to cool off at the public pool. Summer evenings brought only slightly cooler temperatures as we played under the streetlights way past school night bedtimes.
My memory is flooded with childhood recollections of evening rides in the country to escape the stifling heat of the city, ten cent ice creams from the Mr. Softie truck, and the sounds and flickering lights of crickets and fireflies as they sang and danced along side us until curfews called us into bed, to replenish our energy so we could do it all again the next day.
I could write a book on the summer days of my childhood, and maybe one day I will. If I ever do, expect a chapter dedicated solely to food memories. I would share about our neighbor’s peach tree with limbs that stretched across our shared fence, providing us with perfectly ripe and juicy fruit. And then there was the produce peddler who pulled down the alley to our back gate. To this day, I can recall the vegetal and sweet smells I inhaled upon entering the back of his truck. And in the chapter titled ‘Foods of My Childhood’ there would be copious amounts written on the topic of tomatoes. To entice you into buying that future book that I may, but likely will never write, I will share just a nibble of one such memory on the subject of tomatoes.
My grandmother, step grandfather, parents, and nine siblings all lived under the same roof. My step grandfather, who for some unknown reason we called Uncle Bob, had a dear friend named Charles. Charles was a man of looming stature, with field worn hands, and a deep but gentle voice. He emanated kindness. Charles had a farm just outside the city limits of our town, not more than a twenty minute drive away. Toward the later days of August, bushels of hand picked produce arrived mysteriously at our back porch door. My Dad and Grandma would work tirelessly to pickle and can for days, stocking our root cellar to the brim with chili sauce, pickles, green beans, sour kraut, and more. One particular summer evening brought revelation to where all those bushels of brightly colored vegetables had come from. My parents piled me and my siblings into the family car and drove us the short distance to Charles’ farm. Upon arrival, we were handed an empty bushel basket and ushered out into the fields. I only remember picking two different vegetables that evening, green peppers, which we called mangoes (it would be years later before I knew the reason that green peppers were referred to as mangoes), and tomatoes. My siblings and I found ourselves (salt shakers in hand) squatting between row after row of perfectly ripe and fragrant red tomatoes. Dusk had set in and we were desperate to pick all we could as quickly as we could. I’m doubtful of the progress we made, since for every one tomato we plunked into our baskets, another tomato went into our mouths. All these many years later, I can vividly recall that little girl, crouched between rows of green leaves dotted with ornament sized balls of red, sinking her teeth deep into the most perfect of tomatoes.
There is plenty of scientific evidence to support the connection between taste and memory, but even in the absence of that evidence, my experience in the field at Charles’ farm that summer would be convincing enough that taste and memory are inextricably linked. I will forever long to once again taste a tomato commensurate with those of my childhood, but I hold little hope that I will. It wasn’t just the outstanding quality alone of those tomatoes that created such a taste memory. It was my innocence. It was my unmarred taste buds. It was my lack of expectation as I bit into those red juicy fruits that enhanced their perfection. And, although I cannot go back, I can hold out hope that one day, I might once again find a tomato as memorable as those I ate that balmy summer night on Charles’s farm.
About this recipe: Cherry tomatoes abound wherever you look these days, whether at the farmers market, the produce section of your local grocery store, or possibly even in your own vegetable garden. The true inspiration for this tart however began with a goat cheese I found at my neighborhood Trader Joe’s. It was packaged as a four ounce log and came seasoned with Za’atar. I just couldn’t resist! I realize that everyone doesn’t have a TJs in their neighborhood, so a couple teaspoons of Za’atar added to four ounces of plain goat cheese would be a fine substitute.
Cherry Tomato Crostata with Goat Cheese and Za’atar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons za’atar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes and chilled in the freezer for 15 minutes (I used European butter)
2-3 tablespoons ice water
In the bowl of a food processor, pulse together the flour, za’atar, and salt to combine. Add the chilled butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal with some pea size pieces remaining. Remove the lid of the processor and sprinkle 2 tablespoons of ice water over the flour mixture. Pulse until the dough begins to come together. If it appears too dry, add the remaining ice water, one teaspoon at a time, pulsing after each addition, just until the dough begins to come together. Empty the contents of the processor onto a flour-dusted surface and gather into a ball. Flatten the ball into a disk and chill for at least 30 minutes before continuing. While the dough is chilling, prepare the filling.
3 1/2 cups cherry tomatoes, cut in half if very large
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon za’atar
4 ounces Goat Cheese with Za’atar
1 egg, beaten with 1 teaspoon of water
Sprigs of fresh thyme for embellishing the crostata, if desired
In a large bowl, toss together the tomatoes, olive oil, and za’atar.
Place the chilled dough on a piece of parchment paper measuring 14 inches in both directions. Place a second piece of parchment paper on top of the dough. Roll the dough into a circle measuring approximately 13-inches in diameter. Discard the top piece of parchment, and transfer the bottom parchment and dough onto a rimmed baking sheet. Chill for 10 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 425˚.
Working quickly so the dough does not soften too much, spread half of the goat cheese on the dough, leaving a two inch border all around. Place the tomatoes on top of the goat cheese. Bring the border of the dough over the tomatoes, pleating the dough as you go. Brush the edge of the dough with the beaten egg, and decorate the crostata with springs of thyme, if desired. Bake for 40-45 minutes until golden brown. Remove from the oven and crumble the remaining goat cheese over the tomatoes. Bake an additional 5 minutes.
Cool crostata for 30 minutes, cut and serve.