Anne Zimmerman lives in and writes from the Bay Area. She is working on a book about the food writer M.F.K. Fisher.

A simple panzanella story

Start with perfect tomatoes

By
October 20, 2008

The tomato was called a jeune fille, and like the prettiest of young Parisian girls, these tomatoes were beauties. Small and round, they were bigger than pint-sized cherry tomatoes, but smaller than my fist. The color was vivid orange — not pumpkin, not citrus, but the lovely flame-colored glow that occurs only in tomatoes that are at their peak. We picked out several jeune filles, inquiring as we handled them about their flavor and sweetness.

“They’re good tomatoes,” the man behind the table said. “Slicers.” The tomato vendor was shrunken and bent. He sat hunched over, as though his stomach hurt. His dirty and yellowed hands clutched dollar bills and in front of him was a small, flat basket that held the change.

As M. picked out more tomatoes and paid for our goods, I surveyed the man’s vegetable stand. He had limited offerings. Tiny cherry tomatoes lay in a basket towards the front and behind them were other varieties, all with beguiling names: Brown Bettys, Brandywine, Early Girl, Pineapple. On the other side of the stand were foraged goods: mountain spinach that resembled oak leaves, wild garlic, shallots so small and round they looked like nuggets of gold.

I imagined the man’s past, where he lived, how exactly he got so haggard-looking, and most importantly, had he named the jeune fille? It seemed unlikely that this scruffy, mountain-man forager had named the tomato himself, but I like to think that he did.

Panzella salad is for lovers.

Later that night, we opened a bottle of Champagne and began to cook. It was a Saturday night, lovely and warm. We spread out our loot: the jeune filles and tiny orange cherry tomatoes, a larger beefsteak tomato, half a dozen red candy tomatoes. We also had a bag of arugula, garlic, shallots, and a large bunch of fresh fragrant basil.

M. worked quickly, slicing the tomatoes into jewel-sized bites, washing the arugula, mincing shallots, and adding olive oil and vinegar to create a dressing. I watched as he heated oil in a pan and placed three cloves of garlic into the sputtering, translucent sheen. They hopped and danced around the pan. He dropped chunks of walnut bread into the oil in batches, saturating but not soaking, warming but not burning. The bread crisped deliciously. All the while, we drank and laughed.

“Is it time yet?” he asked, wanting to know if I was ready to eat.

“Sure” I replied, my stomach gnawing just a bit.

He began to move more quickly, taking the bread from the frying pan and tossing it with the tomatoes, arugula, and dressing. He tore small leaves of basil into bits and deftly served two plates. The panzanella salad was a glistening pile of color and texture: red and green and orange, pools of juice and dressing, chunks of browned bread.

We raised our glasses and toasted. We were eating the simplest of meals created, I imagine, for when the bread was old, stale, or sour, and the produce blooming and beautiful.

“Here,” M. said “this one’s the best.” He held out his fork, a perfect bite of tomato resting there.

A jeune fille, I thought to myself as I tasted the tomato — sweet, salty, tender, ripe. And in that moment I wondered if that was how the tomato got its name — on a warm evening not unlike this one, when two lovers had decided to stay in, share food, and toast the night away.

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