The two step-sisters

by Ari LeVaux

My corn and tomato plants bonded this year. It started when I planted them together. As both plants grew, the corn stalks formed a living tomato cage and guided the tomatoes upward. I wrapped tomato arms around corn plants, and the tomatoes hung on as the corn took off.

This arrangement recalls the “three sisters,” aka corn, beans and squash, a classic trio of traditional Native American crops that have been grown in close proximity for centuries. Each of the three sisters adds something to the success of the team. Beans, which have nitrogen-sequestering capabilities, fertilize the soil. Corn provides a trellis for the beans to climb. Squash shades the ground, improving water retention, blocking weeds, and even thwarting pests with the prickly spines on their stems and leaves.

When it became clear how much my corn and tomatoes enjoyed each other’s company, I began calling them the “two step-sisters.”

But while they grow well together, corn and tomatoes aren’t as perfect a match in nutritional terms as corn and beans, which together provide the complete array of amino acids necessary for a healthy diet. The combination of corn and tomatoes lacks the essential amino acid tryptophan. But flavor-wise, corn and tomatoes go together as naturally as chips and salsa. To demonstrate this delectable fact, I’ll give you a recipe for a tomato stuffed with corn salad. I learned it from one of my heroes, Kim Williams, a longtime NPR commentator who died in 1986.

Kim’s enthusiastic commentaries often focused on the pleasures and virtues of eating locally, seasonally and naturally, long before it was fashionable to do so. From her “spring tonic” of early-season weed salads through the huckleberry harvest of summer, the elk roasts of autumn, and the canned fruit of winter, her work is a celebration of home-grown, locally harvested food.

She also had an amusingly irreverent streak that appeals to my inner iconoclast. While dedicated to healthy eating, she was also an instinctive rebel, and embraced a lifestyle that included a moderate level of excess. This flexibility allowed her to make, practically in the same breath, seemingly disparate claims like, “If you have ever tasted bread made from whole flour milled that same day you will know what I mean when I say good bread needs no butter,” and, “You just don’t make fry-bread out of whole wheat flour.”

“I believe in ritual,” she explained, “and ritualistic eating. To use white flour and white sugar in celebration is one thing. To stuff our stomachs with it three times a day is a different matter.”

Kim’s mojo seems to have infected my sweetheart Shorty. On most days, Shorty considers mayonnaise a disgusting abomination, the very cream of Satan. Nevertheless, Shorty’s been bugging me all summer to make Kim’s stuffed tomato, which contains mayo. And she hasn’t even insisted that I make it mayo-free.

“To stuff our stomachs with it three times a day is a different matter,” Shorty says.

To make Kim Williams’ corn-stuffed tomatoes you need the following: One ear of sweet corn for every tomato. One big tomato for each person. The tomato should be reasonably round and normal-shaped. (Sharing of tomatoes is not recommended, in part because nobody will want to share theirs, but also because, like a hamburger, the corn-stuffed tomato is beautiful at first, but soon degenerates into a mess that only the mess-maker will find appetizing.)

Two tablespoons each of onion, basil and parsley, all chopped, per tomato. One tablespoon mayonnaise per tomato.

Begin by carving out a lid from the top of the tomato, jack-o-lantern style, and use a spoon to scoop out the tomato’s innards. Place the excavated chunks of pulp in a strainer to drain any excess water. Then chop the pulp.

Boil or steam the ears of corn until done to your liking and let them cool. Use a knife to cut off the kernels. (Alternately, you can use preserved corn.)

Mix the corn, tomato pulp, basil, parsley, onion and mayo in a bowl, and season with salt and pepper. Stuff this mixture into the tomato and replace the lid. If your tomato doesn’t want to stay upright, carve a flat spot on the bottom so it won’t roll away.

Keep your stuffed tomatoes in the fridge until serving time.

In the spirit of Kim’s exploratory, non-dogmatic culinary approach I’ve modified her recipe in one key way, by adding a strip of crumbled bacon per tomato.

The theory behind this modification is twofold. In my opinion the true essence of BLT flavor is the interaction between bacon, tomato, mayo and onion (yes, a BLT must contain onion). Including the bacon allows that magic to happen. And second, the addition of animal protein plugs the tryptophan hole, making this stuffed tomato not only completely delicious, but nutritionally complete as well. •



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