Sunday, June 21, 2009

You say tomato

B and I planted tomatoes a few weeks ago. We put them in big pots on our balcony, near a few smaller pots filled with herbs: two kinds of basil, rosemary, cilantro, and Italian parsley. I had low expectations when we planted the garden, as it's our first experiment in vegetable-growing in San Francisco. The summer in San Francisco is very different than the summer in Palo Alto, where we had our last vegetable garden a few years ago. (Oh, the prolific tomatoes! Oh, the even more prolific Romano beans! Oh, the Japanese eggplants!)

But enough about the glory of years past. This year we have two kinds of tomatoes: Sweet 100s, which are really delicious cherry tomatoes, and a varietal named San Francisco Fog. You can tell why I picked the latter at the nursery; the description of the SF Fog tomato states that it is "well-suited to coastal climates." Here's a picture of our petite garden.

The Sweet 100s plant is in the big pot in the foreground, doing quite well. It's grown a lot since we planted it, though clearly it still has some work to do before getting to the top of the ambitiously high cage around it. I fertilized this week, which should help. The San Francisco Fog has, frankly, been a bit of a disappointment. I'm not giving up hope yet, but the main stalk is awfully short. The weather has been sunny lately, as you can see, which is nice for me (and nice for J and other B, who just found out that they'll be moving to SF soon!), but maybe not optimal for a plant which apparently thrives in the fog.

I was sitting on the couch the other day when I noticed that the tomatoes on the balcony were making unusual shadows on the ceiling.

We actually have lots of interesting things on our ceiling. The aforementioned shadows, a few cracks (which thankfully don't appear to be growing), and, in our bedroom, an entire galaxy of glow-in-the-dark stickers. They were there when we moved in (I swear!), and we have no idea how old they are. Have I mentioned that I'm thirty? And that B is thirty-two? My brother had those same stickers on his ceiling when he was ten! Perhaps the funniest aspect to ponder is that our physician-turned-venture-capitalist landlord used to live in our house several years ago. Was he the one who couldn't live without the stars and comets every night before falling asleep?

Whatever planets you may have on your ceiling, the cosmos align in the recipe I offer you today. Our tomato plants haven't started producing yet, but I've had tomato recipes on my mind recently. I have also been thinking about fish, which Mark Bittman has been writing about in the NYT. It was only natural, then, that my mind turn to a super-easy recipe from Gourmet that showcases tomatoes and fish together. (A similar recipe, for those in turf instead of surf mindset, made the cover of Gourmet last summer.)

A lot of people I know are scared to cook fish, some because they think they'll over- or undercook it, and some because they don't want the house to smell like fish. To address the latter problem, I recommend turning on a fan and/or your stovetop hood, and for the former: make this recipe. It is nearly impossible to overcook. Wrap the fish up in aluminum foil with a delicious medley of garlic, tomatoes, capers, lemon, and thyme, and bake for just 10 to 15 minutes in the oven. Because you are essentially poaching the fish with lemon, tomato juice, olive oil, and its own fish juices, the resulting filet stays moist and melts in your mouth.

And the recipe works with almost any fish! The original calls for sea bass (verboten per Bittman), but I've also tried a number of different white-fleshed fish, including halibut (delicious), tilapia (delicious), butterfish (delicious!), and, tonight, cod (delicious, but less enjoyable because there were a lot of unexpected little bones; also apparently verboten per Bittman, but I bought it because it had the green Monterey Bay Aquarium sticker of approval at the market, so go figure).

This is a picture of the raw fish, before it was enclosed with the top piece of aluminum foil. I tried to take a picture of the cooked fish, but the steam being released from the foil packet made everything sort of hazy and foggy.

Maybe later in the summer we'll have enough tomatoes to make this recipe with our own crop, but for now we have to rely on some red grape tomatoes from the store and "Golden Nuggets" from our CSA box. The bright colors and unctuous texture make this dish appropriate for company, but the quick preparation time means that it can also be a weeknight treat. In the past, I have prepared everything up to the baking, and placed the foil-sealed fish in the fridge overnight. This recipe lends itself to variation, and I hope you'll experiment with it as I have. Enjoy!

Fish "en Papillote"

Serves: 4
Time: 20 min active, 35 min total

2 T. olive oil
3-4 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 c. sliced cherry tomatoes
1 T. capers, drained
4 boneless filets of fish, such as halibut, butterfish, or tilapia
salt and pepper, to taste
1 lemon, thinly sliced crosswise with seeds removed
6-8 sprigs of thyme

Preheat the oven to 400. In a medium-sized frying pan, heat the olive oil over moderate-high until hot but not smoking. Add the garlic, and saute for 2 min, stirring frequently, or until light brown and fragrant. Add the cherry tomatoes and capers; have a splatter screen handy, as they will sizzle when they hit the hot oil. Saute for another 2 min, or until tomatoes have wilted slightly, and then turn off heat.

Line a large rimmed cookie sheet with a sheet of aluminum foil. Pat dry each filet of fish, and place on the aluminum foil. Season with salt and pepper. Place slices of lemon over filets, then top with cherry tomato mixture and thyme. Place another sheet of aluminum foil over the prepared fish, and crimp the edges to form a sealed packet. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish, or until a thin knife plunged into the thickest part of the fish shows no translucency, keeping in mind that it's very difficult to overcook the fish with this preparation. It's prettiest served with the thyme and lemon, but no need to eat either.


  1. I say tomato.

    Have you ever tried growing them inverted?


  2. Nope, but I have always wondered exactly what a hydroponic setup would be like and if it's feasible at home.

    The tomatoes have grown SO much since that picture, and have lots of flowers (though no "swollen ovaries" yet, as B calls them).