Jackie and I are usually pretty disciplined about waiting for delicious ripe summer tomatoes, but this past weekend a farmers’-market bin full of bright-colored grape-sized tomatoes was too tempting to ignore. These small varieties are often reasonably good early in the season – or even altogether out of season when bought from a careful grower. So we scooped up about 3/4 pound (340 g) before continuing to scan the rest of the market for signs of summer. There weren’t many compared with what we’ll see in a few weeks, but we bought good, sweet spring onions and other alliums; juicy little turnips; a big bunch of mint; and a pile of imperfect but irresistible peas.
It was the tomatoes that we wanted for dinner, but in what form we did not know. It all became clear when we peered into the iced trays at the fish stand and saw two boneless portions of bluefish, one of our springtime favorites because of its soft but not texture-free flesh and its rich flavor. Obviously, we’d have bluefish with tomatoes and mint, details to be announced.
When I got the tomatoes home I found their texture to be just about perfect: juicy, with moist flesh – not a trace of cottoniness. But, not surprisingly given the early season, they lacked flavor; they tasted okay but would need a boost. Often, I provide that boost by halving the tomatoes and letting them stand for a while with salt and a touch of something acidic: vinegar or lemon juice depending on the dish. This time, I decided to take a different route and add a new flavor (and aroma), that of charring: always appealing on an outdoor grill, so why not in an urban kitchen?
A few minutes before cooking the fish, I rough-chopped a handful of mint leaves in the food processor, then tossed the whole tomatoes (previously rinsed and well drained and dried) with just enough olive oil to make them glisten: a generous teaspoonful is all that was needed. I heated a heavy 10-inch (25-cm) frying pan over high heat for a good minute, then added the tomatoes (the 12 ounces made a perfect single layer in the pan) and left them untouched for 90 seconds before peeking at one to see if its skin had begun to char and blister. It had, but the tomatoes needed another half a minute before I tossed them in the pan to turn them over – or rather, to turn some of them over: I was not about to flip them individually with tongs, which meant that some were more charred than others. That’s fine by me. Once tossed, let them griddle for another minute or so. Some may split open; that doesn’t matter one way or the other, so long as the juices don’t interfere with the charring.
I slid the tomatoes into the food processor with the chopped mint, added some salt and pulsed three or four times to roughly chop the tomatoes.
Now, I cooked the bluefish: Dry the fillets with paper towels, sprinkle with salt, and fry, skin-side down, for around two and a half minutes over medium-high heat with oil. That should brown the skin. Turn them over, lower the heat to medium, and add all the chopped tomatoes, which are now, in effect, tomato sauce. Simmer for another two or three minutes; you are both deglazing the pan and braising the bluefish. Poke the fish with a thin skewer (or cake tester); it should be very tender, and if it isn’t let it go for another half minute and try again. Bluefish is delicious when cooked thoroughly; I wouldn’t go for medium-rare here.
Use a spatula to move the fish to warmed plates; taste the tomato mixture in the skillet and adjust it with salt if necessary, then spoon it over and around the fish. You could add a spritz of lemon juice, but I found it unnecessary: this is more about savoriness than acidity, and the fish has given some of its flavor to the sauce, so there is plenty going on. We ate ours with couscous, and I can’t really think of a better accompaniment than that.
The charring – which was palpable but not extreme – did its job and heightened the interest of a batch of early-season tomatoes that might have been blah without it. It will be worth using this technique with tiny top-flight high-summer tomatoes too.