Summer in Los Angeles, and the box grater, which I hang on an S hook with my pots and pans, gradually becomes my most precious kitchen tool. Not a knife, not a fancy pan, not a gadget I ogled in someone else’s kitchen, just that plain steel box grater with the horribly sharp handle that digs into my hand if I grip it too tightly, leaving a mark. But until tomato season ends, I grate every tomato I can: the bumped and bruised beefsteaks, half off at the grocery store, and the delicate heirlooms warmed by the sun at the farmers’ market. The ones I forget about and find again on the counter, soft, obscenely juicy and threatening to leak. The dark, almost purple tomatoes that ripen in my backyard — if I can get to them before the squirrels and the birds. At the grater, every tomato is the same: I make it a game to not waste a single bit of meat, to push my palm right against the metal and get down to a fine, translucent skin that curls at the edges.
The seeds and the juice run together, and even a slightly grainy tomato can be saved like this, its texture redeemed. With the tines of a fork laid flat, I stir in some salt, pepper and olive oil, and taste. Some very boring tomatoes will need a splash of vinegar, or maybe even a pinch of sugar, but most will surprise me, becoming absolutely drinkable. And there’s nothing wrong with drinking them, just like this.
But if I can resist, then that mix of seasoned, grated tomato, on a piece of nicely browned bread rubbed with a raw garlic clove, is a deservedly famous snack in Spain — pan con tomate. It’s the best thing to eat when it’s hot, and not just as a snack. I’ve found it’s also a meal, if I simply make enough of it. I let the extra oil and vinegar drip off a few fat, pickled white anchovies, if I have them, and lay those on top too.
The tomato pulp can be put to work every day in a different way.
The pulp can be put to work every day in a different way. A grated tomato with ripped-up basil leaves can be its own basic raw sauce. Season it with the same ingredients, just a little more aggressively, and it’s a salad dressing, maybe for more tomatoes, chopped this time, with cold Persian cucumbers and torn-up bread. Last summer, on one of my usual grated-tomato kicks, I poured it over pieces of fried paneer and felt like some kind of genius. I’ve rolled my eyes at wordplay on menus for years — the useless quotation marks, the jokey language — but despite that, I can’t help myself: I have to call it paneer con tomate.
Paneer is a fresh cheese, often curdled with lemon juice or vinegar, rather than rennet, and pressed into a block. It doesn’t go melty or stringy when it’s hot, so much as suck up what’s around it — perfect for underneath a sauce. The first time I made paneer con tomate, the cheese wasn’t homemade. I was working with a block of plastic-wrapped paneer from my local Indian grocery store, and it had been pressed hard so it was almost squeaky, smooth to cut, dry to the touch. This might not sound ideal, but it meant that it fried beautifully, getting crisp and brown all over while staying tender and bouncy inside. I poured over the grated tomato, and seasoned it with some popped mustard seeds and curry leaves bloomed in coconut oil, still sizzling hot, and put it on the table outside, on a very sweaty afternoon, for people to pick at. It disappeared within a minute or two, though no one asked for an explanation, which means I didn’t get to share its clever name, though it’s probably better that way.
I don’t make paneer from scratch very often, but when I do, it tends to have soft, loose little curds, not as good for frying. I’ve tried the same dish with homemade, but it sputters and spits hot oil and is much more likely to fall apart as you flip the pieces. Besides, if you’ve got fresh paneer, there’s no need to fry it at all. Crumble it up and grate the tomato directly on top — it’s good enough to eat with a spoon.
Recipe: Paneer con Tomate