Part of what I love about cooking is attempting to answer the question, "What can I do with these ingredients?" in continually new and different ways.
When you eat strongly seasonally, you are almost forced to get better at painting with the colors you have, as there’s not as much cross-pollination to be done. While asparagus might be nice with a glaze of fresh tomatoes, when there’s asparagus, there are no local tomatoes, and when there are tomatoes, there is no local asparagus. So asparagus gets tossed with green garlic, and tomatoes, like these, get a partner of roasted onions.
It’s more challenging to come up with new answers to what’s for dinner with a smaller palette, but there’s a certain comfort to it too. Once you’ve learned the rhythm of a place’s harvests, you come into the same progression every year, and the same items make their regular appearance and then disappearance at the same pace.
I find it tends to raise a little nostalgia – each food’s arrival makes me think of arrivals past: what I was doing last radish season, last cherry season, last tomato season, last pomegranate season – and how I and my life have changed in relation to each of those times. It’s a bit like having two dozen New Years Days a year.
So what can be done with the same old tomatoes and onions, now that late summer is here?
This week, I had a pint of cherry tomatoes in the CSA box. Their tart-sweetness is great for salads, but I especially love them rolled around in a hot pan with a little oil and then smashed a bit to release their juices. They’re stronger-flavored than big tomatoes, and that plus their high skin-to-flesh ratio gives an unexpected flavor and texture to a cooked dish.
My inspiration for this dinner was a panir kebab I ate years ago at an Indian restaurant in Chicago. While obviously there are no kebabs in sight here, I wanted to capture the flavor I remembered of flame-roasted onion and crispy-outside chewy-inside cheese seasoned at the table with fresh lemon. I was also in the mood for curry spices, but not in the mood for something long-simmered – I wanted something very fresh-tasting.
So I broiled then roasted the onions, gently fried the panir (don’t try to speed it up by frying over a high heat – it’ll both stick and get tough – low and slow is the key to cooking cheese successfully), slumped the tomatoes in a little of the panir-frying oil along with some garlic, ginger, cumin and coriander, and finished it all with a generous squeeze of lemon juice and a hit of cilantro.
And not only was it good, it was a snap – it took me longer write this up than it did to cook it.
1 large red onion, roughly chopped
1 t. canola oil
1/2 lb. panir, sliced into 1/4 in.-thick pieces
oil for frying (to coat the bottom of a12-in skillet)
1 T. lemon juice
1/4 c. minced cilantro
1 pint cherry tomatoes, stems removed
1 fresh chile, minced (I had Santa Fe on hand, which are a bit hotter than jalapenos)
1/2 T. coriander
1/2 T. cumin
1 t. garlic, minced
1 t. ginger, grated
1/2 t. garam masala
salt and pepper to taste
Place oven racks in top and middle positions and preheat broiler. Toss onion with canola oil on baking sheet. Place under broiler and cook a few minutes then stir. Allow pieces to develop brown edges. When onion is browning but still crunchy, remove from oven, stir once more, and replace on lower rack. Allow to roast until tender-crisp then remove from oven and place in a large bowl.
Fry the panir over medium heat (patience!) until lightly browned. Drain on paper toweling for a few minutes, then place in the bowl with the onions. Add the lemon juice and cilantro and toss so the panir has an opportunity to absorb the flavors.
Drain the skillet of oil, and add back about 2 t. to the pan. Add the garlic and ginger and cook until they release their fragrance, then add the coriander and cumin to the pan and cook until they bloom as well. Turn the tomatoes into the pan and saute, allowing them to slump slightly with a few moments of cooking and then give them a light smash with a metal spatula to release their juice. When they’ve all been slumped and smashed but still retain their shape integrity, turn the tomato mixture into the bowl with the panir and onions and toss to combine. Sprinkle all with garam masala and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Makes two or three larger servings or four small ones.