Recipes and Stories

12 July 2011: Spanish Tomatoes

July 12, 2011

Tags: Historical Southern Cooking, Tomatoes, Spanish Tomatoes, Savannah Cooking

Marilyn's Spanish Tomatoes. Photography by John Carrington
The deadly heat of a Savannah summer is not for the faint of heart. The air gets so warm and thick with humidity that it’s actually sticky, which is how the summers here came to be nicknamed “Hot Mayonnaise Season.” This year, the hot mayonnaise air settled in early, taking me back to my first July in Savannah more than thirty years ago.

The heat that summer, like this one, was record setting and brutal. Anyone with the means to do so fled for Tybee (our local beach) or a mountain cabin. The rest of us braved it out as best we could and tried to pretend it didn’t matter.

We all had ways of dealing with that heat, but fans, loose cotton clothes, and extra ice in one’s bourbon can only do so much. To get through with grace involves a certain amount of psychology, and at that, my late friend and neighbor Marilyn Whelpley was an expert.

In those days, there were no VCRs. One actually had to plan around a fixed network schedule. When Marilyn learned that a local station was airing the winter holiday classic White Christmas in the middle of July, she asked me over to make an evening of it.

Despite the heat, she’d been putting up tomatoes that day (ripe tomatoes, like corn, wait for no one), and held back a few to make a pan-full of Spanish Tomatoes—simply peeled, cut into wedges, and simmered with a few slices of onion and sweet bell pepper. Served over rice with a bit of sautéed local smoked sausage on the side, its bright, fresh flavors renewed our heat blunted appetites as we watched that classic film about waiting for snow and pretended that cooler weather just around the corner.

Neither of us knew at the time that Spanish Tomatoes had deep roots in Savannah’s culinary past. It goes back at least to the late 1860s, when Mrs. Fred (Leila) Habersham, one of Georgia’s first known cooking teachers, taught it in the cooking school she ran in her mother’s home on the corner of Abercorn and State Street.

Mrs. Habersham sautéed each ingredient separately, layered them in a dish, and baked them until they were richly concentrated and flavorful. One student aptly noted in her notebook that they were “delightful to eat just so, or served for sauce, or as an entrée.”

Marilyn’s preparation was more streamlined, and while its flavors were not as concentrated, they were fresher and more direct, just right for a White Christmas supper on a searing July evening.

Despite the heat of that summer, I fell in love with this place and came back to live. Part of it was probably a passion for historic architecture, another part, the unique warmth of these people who have become a part of my life. Perhaps it had a little something to do a timeless seafood-rich cuisine that has become an indelible part of my own kitchen.

But maybe—just maybe, it owed more than Marilyn ever knew to the comfort of White Christmas and a plateful of Spanish Tomatoes.

Serves 4 to 6

2 pounds fresh ripe tomatoes
2 tablespoonfuls drippings or unsalted butter or olive oil
2 medium green bell peppers, stem, core, seeds, and membranes removed, thinly sliced
1 large Bermuda or yellow onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled and thinly sliced
Sugar
Salt and ground cayenne pepper

1. Blanch, peel, and core the tomatoes. Over a sieve set in a bowl to catch their juices, cut them into thick wedges and scoop out the seeds. Add them to the bowl with their juices.

2. Warm the drippings, butter, or oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the peppers and onions and sauté, tossing, until the onion is translucent and softened and the pepper wilted but still bright green, about 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their collected juices and raise the heat to medium high. Season well with salt, a pinch of sugar (if needed), and cayenne to taste. Bring to a boil.

3. Reduce the heat once again to medium, and simmer briskly until the juices are thick and the tomatoes are tender but not falling apart, about 20 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings, let it simmer half a minute longer, and turn off the heat. Serve warm.

To bake them as Mrs. Habersham did, position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 350° F. If the skillet isn’t ovenproof, at the end of step 2, transfer its contents to a lightly buttered wide 3-quart baking dish. Otherwise, just put the uncovered skillet into the oven. Bake until the juices are thick and the tomatoes tender, about 1 hour.

Comments

  1. July 12, 2011 11:51 AM EDT
    What a simple, yet lovely dish. I'm curious about using Bermuda onion instead of Vidalia or Walla Walla or Mayan. Is it because of the color, taste, or availability? Mrs. H
    - Dorothy Haase
  2. July 12, 2011 12:45 PM EDT
    The old recipes called for Bermuda onion and that's why I used it. Vidalia's were around and getting popular when I was first in Savannah, but Marilyn didn't use one of those that night. You could use a sweet onion, but they've got more moisture, so you'll need to sweat it out.
    - Damon Lee Fowler