Seasonal Pantry: Sonoma County tomatoes stand out in these simple salads, sandwiches

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Although there have been tomatoes at some of our farmers markets for a few weeks now, they are not local. The first Sonoma County tomatoes should be appearing soon, possibly as early as this weekend, from The Patch.

The Patch is Lazaro Calderon’s Sonoma-based farm, which he founded in 1996. The start of the 2019 season was wet and challenging and there were problems with tractors this year, too.

But the farm’s earliest tomatoes are nearly ready for harvest and that means we can enjoy our first BLTs of the season. In some years, we’ve waited until the end of July or even early August before our local crop was ready.

The Patch has a bounty of other crops as well, from beautiful red onions to carrots, zucchini and more. They attend several farmers markets a week, including the Wednesday and Friday markets (in the Luther Burbank Center parking lot) and the Sunday Sebastopol Market. They also have a farm stand, at 280 Second St. East, Sonoma, that is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

When the first tomatoes ripen, some of us fall on them like we might fall on a pool of fresh water after a long drought. My favorite way to enjoy the very first tomato of the year is as I did in my step-grandfather’s garden. When I was given permission to pick one, I would cup my hand around it, give it a tug, and then sit down right there next to the vine. A sun-warmed tomato is one of the most satisfying, sensual and voluptuous moments the season offers us.

After that first indulgence, it’s time for tomato sandwiches and BLTs and Caprese salad. As the season continues we move on to all manner of tomato soups, salads, fresh salsas and sauces. Come fall, we start thinking about all types of preserving, from canning and freezing to drying and fermenting.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Instead, let’s get ready for those first love apples. If you eat meat, get some good bacon — Black Pig brand is local, from John Stewart and Duskie Estes of Zazu — and slip into a supermarket for a small head of iceberg lettuce, essential for that first BLT. If you’re looking forward to the first Caprese salad of the year, make sure you have mozzarella fresca or burrata on hand, along with very fresh basil and good olive oil.

Today’s recipes, adapted from “The Good Cook’s Book of Tomatoes” (SkyHorse Publishing, 2015. $18.99), are some of my favorite ways to enjoy the season’s earliest tomatoes.

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This simple Spanish dish is perfect on a hot night. Or hot morning, for that matter. It is served throughout much of Spain in bars, cafes and restaurants, which sometimes include thin slices of jamon serrano or chorizo alongside.

Pan Tomate (Spanish Tomato Toast)

Makes 2 servings

4 thick slices sourdough hearth bread, toasted or grilled until golden brown, wrapped in a towel to keep warm

2 large garlic cloves, cut in half crosswise

2 small ripe tomatoes, such as Early Girl or Shady Lady, cut in half through their equators

— Best-quality extra virgin olive oil

— Flake salt (such as Maldon Salt Flakes, Murray River Salt, or Peruvian Pink Flake Salt)

Set a piece of toast on a plate. Hold half a garlic clove in your dominant hand, with the cut side facing away from you. Rub the garlic all over one side of the bread, pressing to release the garlic’s juices but not so hard as to tear the bread. Discard the garlic.

Hold half a tomato in your hand, with the cut side facing away from you. Rub it over the bread, pressing firmly so that all the juice and flesh is pressed into the bread. Discard the skin.

Drizzle the bread with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Enjoy and repeat.

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The sad Caprese salads of winter — honestly, why do restaurants keep it on the menu during winter and spring — should be gone now, though you’ll typically find the very best ones in your own kitchen, not in restaurants. You’ll want to have some good hearth bread nearby, for sopping up the delicious juices.

Insalata Caprese

Makes 4 to 6 servings

6-8 small to medium ripe tomatoes, cored and cut into 3/8-inch rounds

8 ounces mozzarella fresca, cut into 3/8-inch rounds, chilled

— Small handful of cherry tomatoes, quartered

3 garlic cloves, crushed and minced

6-8 medium basil leaves, torn into pieces

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

— Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt or other flake salt

— Black pepper in a mill

Arrange the tomatoes in circles on a large plate. Do not overlap them.

Tuck mozzarella slices here and there between the tomatoes.

Scatter the cherry tomatoes over the tomatoes and cheese, followed by the garlic and the basil.

Drizzle the olive oil over everything, season with salt and pepper, and enjoy right away.

Variation: Instead of mozzarella, use burrata. To do so, set the burrata in the center of a plate, and cut into it just a bit, so that the insides begin to ooze out. Cut the tomatoes into wedges instead of rounds and scatter them on the plate. Finish the salad as described in the main recipe and enjoy right away.

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This is a great dish to have in your repertoire if you have friends drop by unexpectedly. It’s fast and easy to prepare and absolutely delicious. Be sure not to move the tomatoes around after cooking them and use a very thin metal spatula to turn them, just once. If you manipulate them too much, they’ll be sauce; good sauce, but, still, sauce.

Simple Fried Tomatoes with Hot Bread

Makes 4 to 6 servings

6 large firm-ripe tomatoes (a beefsteak variety is best)

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

3-4 garlic cloves, crushed and minced

— Kosher salt

— Black pepper in a mill

2 tablespoons minced fresh herbs of choice

— Sourdough hearth bread, sliced and lightly toasted

Slice off the stem and blossom ends of the tomatoes; discard them or save them for another use.

Cut the tomatoes into ¼-inch thick rounds, slicing through the equator, not the poles.

Set a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat, add the butter and olive oil, and, when the mixture is hot, add the garlic and sauté 90 seconds. Add the tomatoes in a single layer, working in batches as needed. Cook without disturbing the tomatoes for 2 minutes. Quickly turn and cook, undisturbed, 2 minutes more.

Use a thin metal spatula to transfer the tomatoes to a platter.

When all the tomatoes have been cooked, pour the pan juices over them.

Season with salt and pepper, scatter the herbs on top, and enjoy right away, with bread alongside for sopping up both the tomatoes, if you like, and the juices.

Variation: If you want a little heat, add a minced serrano along with the garlic and use cilantro instead of mixed herbs.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including “The Good Cook’s Book of Tomatoes.” Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.com.

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