MY EARLIEST truly epicurean moment occurred as I was standing in nothing but swim trunks in my father’s backyard vegetable garden, my 8-year-old bare feet grounded in the soil as I held the only two objects in the world that mattered at the moment: a softball-size heirloom tomato in my right hand and a salt shaker in my left. With each bite, I found myself increasingly exhilarated by the red, fresh, earthy sweetness, warmed by the sun and brightened ever so slightly by a sprinkle of salt. Decades before I would have any formal teaching in gastronomy, common sense was all it took to experience the epiphanies offered by a ripe tomato: a delight worth waiting for, the most perfect produce of them all—summer’s climax.
Thanks to the greenhouses and ripening processes of modern agriculture (and the jet planes shuttling them from farms to tables all over the earth), tomatoes are available year-round. But as a friend of mine likes to say, the real-deal, in-season tomato is "an agreement between god and the month of August"—or September, when Portland vines go into overdrive. It’s a summer miracle that lasts for a fleeting moment before the leaves start to change.
John Taboada, chef and owner of Navarre, treads lightly around his heirlooms. "You don’t want to cook the perfect tomato," he says. "You don’t want to do much to it at all." Indeed, among Navarre’s most popular dishes is a salad of heirloom tomatoes and sliced fresh peaches spiked with basil, balsamic vinegar, and little more. It’s a heavenly wedding—after all, the only things as synonymous with summer’s end as heirloom tomatoes are ripe, luscious peaches. Acidity and sweetness strike the perfect balance, and with the basil adding a little grassy punch, this simple dish is an ideal accompaniment to summer grilling, and something that could lead a shirtless, shoeless 8-year-old to reach for a chef’s hat.