Guys, we should definitely, definitely talk about these. Here, I’ll go first: I think it’s essential that you not let another tomato season pass without making them. I realize that you might imagine rice-stuffed tomatoes to be something unappealing. Maybe you had a cold, stomach-turning one at a buffet wedding too many years ago that its squidgy horror should still be fresh in your mind, and yet. Maybe you cannot imagine why anyone would consider rice stuffed inside a tomato to be something noteworthy, being just rice and tomatoes, possibly two of the most generic foods out there. Maybe you’re waiting to hear what I dolled these up with to make them interesting — was there bacon or cheese or caramelized onions? Did I amp it up with whole grains or kale? Maybe I cooked an egg inside, like that one time? And maybe you’re going to be disappointed when I tell you that I added nothing, just about nothing at all, and that’s the best thing about them.
I started obsessing over rice-stuffed tomatoes a year ago. At the time, I loved them because they felt to me like the essence of simple Italian and Mediterranean cooking, this idea that you don’t need to lay 16 outside flavors onto things as simple as seasonal tomatoes and plain rice to make them taste amazing. You could coax the maximum flavor out of them with seasoning, by toasting the rice, by cooking them with a tiny amount of onion and garlic in olive oil then slowly in the oven. But, at the time, I never told you about them because they made me a little sad. At the time, I was moping that the family vacation to Rome — a place I imagined did a fine job with these throughout tomato season — we’d been trying to take for as long as we’d been a family had gotten postponed again due to all of those real-life things that have the nerve to get in the way of a good time. I mean, I know that sometimes as a grown-up you don’t get to do everything that you want, but I was starting to question the point of working all of the time and spending scrupulously if it didn’t, at least every few years, lead to things we really wanted?
Who knew what a year could bring? Certainly not me. A few weeks later, my son turned three, a few weeks after that, this cookbook I wrote came out, and I spent most of the fall in and out of cities* and TV and radio stations being consumed by it. January brought a month-long nap and then in February and March I was back at it again and decided that if I could make time for 29 awesome towns in five months, maybe the 30th one could be that vacation we’d always wanted, and we made it so.
That’s not all that’s changed. A year ago, I made these for dinner, thinking that my tomato-loving, rice-loving son would go to town on them and dinner harmony would at last be achieved. I can hear all the parents reading along, laughing. Of course, he wouldn’t touch them (tomatoes and rice must be separate or they’re terrifying, obviously). This year? He ate two, then two more for lunch the next day and yet another thing that seemed daunting/impossible/frustrating a year ago became distant history. Here’s to so much more of this, eh?
* Psst: Another mini-book tour announcement is coming late this week/early next!
Stuffed vegetables, previously: Couscous and Feta-Stuffed Peppers, Romaine Pesto and Egg-Stuffed Tomatoes, Stuffed Rond de Nice Squash, Roasted Stuffed Onions, Lebanese-Style Stuffed Eggplant, Sausage Stuffed Potatoes, and two stuffed cabbages, Alex’s Mom’s and Italian-Style. The first four on this list are vegetarian.
One year ago: Vanilla Custards with Roasted Blueberries
Two years ago: Roasted Tomatoes with Eggplant and Mint
Three years ago: Raspberry Limeade Slushies
Four years ago: Lighter, Airy Pancake
Five years ago: Blueberry Crumb Bars
Six years ago: Brownie Mosaic Cheesecake
As I mentioned above, you could deck these out with any number of compatible ingredients — crisped bits of proscuitto, mozzarella or pecorino cheese, olives or artichokes and more! Even I couldn’t resist straying from the pure tomato-rice-and-seasonings course with a clove of garlic and few tablespoons of minced onion, as well as a starchier risotto variety of rice. But I’m telling you, it needs none of these things to be late summer dinner bliss. The rice cooks inside the most clear-noted, pure tomato sauce you’ve ever scooped onto a fork and I want August to always taste like this.
Serves 6 as a side and 3 as a main. We had these with sausages, but they’d be equally good with last week’s kale salad and/or some salumi. Or, you can do this, which is the way it is done in Rome: Peel and cube a few Yukon gold potatoes, toss them with olive oil, salt and pepper. Arrange them in the baking dish around the tomatoes and bake them simultaneously. This not only keeps the tomatoes upright, it provides a delicious accompaniment.
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
Coarse or Kosher salt
6 medium-to-large (mine were 3 inches across, averaged 8 1/4 ounces in weight) tomatoes
Red pepper flakes, to taste
1/4 medium or 1/2 small onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
9 tablespoons arborio or another short-grained starchy rice
Few tablespoons chopped parsley, oregano or slivered basil (or mix thereof)
Handful breadcrumbs, if using (unless using gluten-free breadcrumbs, this will of course negate the dish’s gluten-free status)
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly coat an ovenproof baking dish with olive oil.
Prepare tomatoes: Cut the tops off the tomatoes and scoop out tomato juices, seeds and flesh into a non-reactive (i.e. just about anything but aluminum) bowl. I like to use a grapefruit knife to make the first cuts, then a spoon to remove the rest, but you can use anything you have around, being careful not to pierce the bottom of the tomatoes. Salt the cavities of the tomatoes and turn them upside down on a plate to drain.
Prepare reserve: Run scooped-out tomato flesh and juices through a food mill or pulse in a blender until coarsely pureed. Heat a large skillet over medium heat, then add 2 tablespoons olive oil, heating it too. Once hot, add onion, garlic and red pepper flakes, cooking them together for 2 minutes, or until onion begins to soften. Add rice and cook them together for about 3 minutes, or until rice toasts a little. Add tomato puree and bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to medium-low. Season with 3/4 teaspoon salt, then cover skillet with a lid, and let simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until rice is par-cooked. Adjust seasoning if needed.
[If using the potatoes, as mentioned in the Notes up top, prepare them while the rice simmers.]
Reassemble tomatoes: Stir fresh herbs into tomato-rice mixture. Arrange tomatoes right-side-up in baking pan then spoon mixture into tomatoes, filling them just 7/8 of the way to leave room for the rice to finish expanding. Coat with breadcrumbs that you can drizzle lightly with olive oil, if using, or you can replace the tomato lid on each (though, do not spend 10 minutes trying to match them back up, as I did last summer. It’s pointless.)
Bake: Uncovered for 30 minutes, until tomato walls are soft and the rice inside has finished cooking. Serve hot. Repeat again tomorrow.