Sunday, June 6, 2010

A Dream of Rome and Tomatoes

Have you ever tasted a dish in your travels that lives in your memory for years?

I’ve dreamed of juicy fat tomatoes stuffed and baked with warm garlicky risotto since Paul, our daughter Lexi and I strolled the Via Veneto in Rome and came across the sidewalk café at Harry’s Bar. That charming restaurant gained international fame when it was featured in director Federico Fellini's classic 1960 film La Dolce Vita.

In one of the glass cases we spied what would become my most lasting food obsession. Served slightly warm, they were soooo delicious we returned the next day to have the very same lunch. At home we tried over and over to duplicate them. No matter what we did, we never got it quite right.

Then, recently, Molly, the author of one of my favorite food blogs, Orangette, raved about a delightful new publication titled Canal House Cooking in which two talented women, Christopher Hirsheimer & Melissa Hamilton Irsheimer anShirpresent seasonal food. Inside their Volume No 1 on summer cooking I found a recipe that sounded promising. It turned out to be similar and very close, and now I after several test runs and some tweaking, these turned out today to be as succulent and delicious as I remember--the real deal.

Finding just the perfect fat and flavorful organic tomatoes are a challenge. I’ve lucked out twice—once at our local Saturday farmer’s market, and again at Mother’s, our local health food store.

Now Ted and I are so inspired we are doing something adventurous. After years of just talking about growing tomatoes, we bought a really cool and compact hydroponics system and, as you see, it seems to be working.

Here is our secret! Go to

Buy a Garden patch Growbox. We have 3. Each box grows 2 tomato plants. Use the recommended planting soil. Each Growbox will hold a 1.5 cu ft bag of E. B. Stone Organic Azalia, Camellia, and Gardenia Planting Mix. They suggest another brand but our nursery says customers have preferred this mix. We agree it's doing the job well.

You will need a Growbox Staking Kit from the same website for each Growbox. Just follow the directions and it goes together easily.

I'll show you my first big fat tomatoes and some tiny cherry ones when I harvest my first crop.

The poet Pablo Neruda shares our passion for tomatoes:

. . . the tomato,

star of earth, recurrent

and fertile



its convolutions,

its canals,

its remarkable amplitude

and abundance,

no pit,

no husk,

no leaves or thorns,

the tomato offers

its gift

of fiery color

and cool completeness.

And so does Dr. Oz, who tells us tomatos contain lycopene which has been shown to fight cancer. “But you can't just put a few slices in your salad to reap the effect. The tomato needs to be cooked in order to provide the most nutrients.” So, here they are at last. This way of cooking makes them simply sublime.

It may take years and years, but dreams do come true!


6 medium large tomatoes

3/8 cup Arborio or other short-grained rice

Handful of fresh parsley leaves, finely chopped

1 large clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon to drizzle over the tops

Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Remove stems carefully from tomatoes taking care not to pierce holes in the flesh.

Slice off the bottom quarter of each tomato (that is, the end opposite from the stem) and set those 6 pieces aside.

Working over a large measuring cup to catch all the seeds and juices use a serrated grapefruit spoon or other small spoon to carefully scoop out the interior pulp without piercing the walls of the tomatoes. Arrange them, cut side up, in a basking dish just large enough for the to fit snugly.

Lift out the large pieces of tomato pulp from the measuring cup and chop finely. Return the chopped pulp to the cup. You will have approximately 1 ½ cups of juice and pulp.

In a skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Add the rice and stir until it begins to turn slightly golden. Add the parsley and garlic and stir briefly, then add the reserved tomato juice and pulp. Cook for a few minutes to reduce the liquid slightly, and if you had more than 1 1/2 cups, cook a few minutes longer to reduce the liquid. Season well with salt and pepper.

Fill each tomato with the mixture to just below the rim. Place one of the reserved tomato bottoms on top each filled tomato. Drizzle the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over the tomatoes.

Bake 40 to 50 minutes until the rice is tender and the tomatoes are tender. Cool to room temperature. For the most succulent flavor, warm them a bit before serving.

To prepare in advance: These keep beautifully for days in the refrigerator! But do warm them before serving.


  1. Diana I have really enjoyed the emails from you and I am keeping all the receipes. I even stopped by your fav restrurant in Irvine to buy that cheese for your grilled cheese sandwiches. Yummy. You make everything sound so great. So happy I met you at the Follies and I still reflect on your book, Send Me Someone, that you gave me. It really effected me for a long time. I think of you often. Gerry Hardin

  2. Diana--this recipe looks great, I can't wait to try it! Those tomatoes that you saw at Harry's Bar are the best in September when they practically fall off the vines and every farmer around Rome brings them into town. People line up for blocks to get them. The ones at Harry's Bar just melted in your mouth. Have great fun with your crops!
    Chef Cathy

  3. Oh! Those tomatoes look divine.
    Have you tried the Caprese Calda at Canaletto Fashion Island's $5/everything Bar Hour?

    I'm sure yours would top those any day. I'll have to try this!