The French Countryside, Giant Tomatoes, and a little Peace of Mind.

Ohhhhhh, oh la la.  How the French countryside is such a wonderful juxtaposition to the stressful life of Manhattan-dwelling.  Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the excitement of this town, but going back to that greenery, the fresh smell of herbs filling the air, even on the largest of boulevards, the colorful open-air markets, the succulent wine pairings, the invigorating sunshine with no skyscrapers to block it… Yes.  Mother Nature does give “The City That Never Sleeps” a haughty slap in the face with this one.

It is funny how inspiration for recipes comes along, because while my journey did take me to Saint Emilion, the region in France infamous for its incredible caliber of wine, food, wine, medieval architecture, and more wine, it was not until I returned to the states that I realized I wanted to post about this particular recipe.

<–this is what I see when I hope off the train at St. Emilion.

<–only to walk by this on the way to town…

<–and then see (and drink fermented juice of) these…

<–and then eat this.

(Trust me) I will get to that pan seared olive-oil white fish with garam masala aubergines and vegetables I downed in St. Emilion soon, but the following conversation really struck my fancy.

I was waiting in line for a sample sale in Manhattan, still in this blissed-out state from my vacation abroad, and started talking with a very friendly gal next to me.  Turns out, she also worked for Time Out New York magazine, is also gluten-intolerant, and, wait for it, has also studied and lived in France for a year.  WHAT?!  That is neat.

The family she stayed with for her home stay in the Loire Valley, one of the many lush countryside regions in France, had an ever-plentiful garden, and the woman of the house was an ever-creative chef.  For dinner each night, they would go to the garden, pick out the largest tomatoes they could find, scoop out the guts, mix them all up with freshly-picked herbs and either cheese, rice, and/or meat, and pop them in the oven for 30 minutes.  Dinner. Was. Served.

What a paradise living situation, I thought.  And WHAT A GREAT IDEA!!!!, I screamed internally, as the taxis whizzed by me, and brought me out of the green breeze of the country and back to the rural exhaust of the city.  I MUST MAKE THEM AT HOME.

And so I did.  One with cheese, and one with meat.  Holy [French explitive], they both were amazing.

Here’s a simple recipe so you can do them at home.  You can use any FRESH herbs you fancy, but I really dig the sage, as it warms up that “pumpkin” tomato quite a bit.  It’s easy to do vegetarian or vegan, if you choose.  And is completely void of gluten, nuts, corn, soy, etc. 

Tomates à la Campagne 

2 tbs. olive oil

4 huge heirloom tomatoes, washed and dried (beefsteak will do in a pinch!)

12 fresh sage leaves, coarsely chopped

12 fresh basil leaves, chiffonade (meaning rolled up, and then sliced about 4 times, then unrolled…a fancy method and term for “chopped without bruising”)

4 sprigs thyme, chopped

1 tsp. sea salt

ground black pepper to taste

1 small onion, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 pound ground meat (beef, chicken, turkey, or pork will do!)* 

AND/OR 1 cup grated aged cheese (a nice sheep’s or goat’s milk cheese does really well here.  As does parmesan.)**

Preparation time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 25-30 minutes

Yields four “pumpkin” tomatoes.

1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Oil an 8×8 baking pan with olive oil.  Set aside.  Like you would a Halloween pumpkin, carve out the tops of the tomatoes into a circular top.  Also like you would a Jack-o-Latern, scoop out the guts of the tomatoes, making sure you do not puncture the skin.  Set aside the tomato shells.

2. Chop the tomato guts coarsely, and toss into a medium bowl.  Add chopped herbs into bowl, sprinkle with 3/4 tsp. sea salt, and mix until combined.  Blend in onion and garlic.

3. In a separate medium bowl, add remainder of salt and pepper to the ground meat.  Mix with hands until combined.*  Add to tomato-herb mixture, and combined until well-blended with a large spoon or your hands!  Optional: gently stir in grated cheese until combined.

4. Place the tomato shells into the oiled pan, and evenly distribute the tomato-herb-meat mixture into the shells.  Pack that in tight!  Top with the “lids” (tomato tops), and pop into the oven.  Cook for about 25-30 minutes, or until tomato skins begin to tighten a little, but not blacken.  Remove from oven, let cool for about 5-10 minutes before serving, and dig in!

*For vegetarian, either omit the meat and double the amount of cheese, or use 1 cup cooked quinoa, instead.

**For Dairy Bubble, either omit cheese, or use “Daiya” brand parmesan cheese.  

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