The earliest designs on summer tomatoes are always the raw ones: tomato sandwiches, tomato salads, tomatoes peeled and sliced and fanned out on a platter, glistening like something more carnal than vegetal. They are the preparations for which the supermarket counterpart offers no fair approximation, the ones the tomato righteous may forgo eight or nine months out of the year.
Less obvious is the thrill of cooked summer tomatoes. But there is glamour there, too: Think of a fresh tomato soup with its vivid sweetness and acidity, or a satiny sauce, slicking the plate and the lips in a high gloss. There’s the soft creaminess a single ripe tomato can lend to a simple vegetable braise, or the way overlapping slices brown, their sugars bittersweet, on the surface of a gratin.
I especially love setting them off in a pot of rice, the tomatoes and their juices simmering with the grains until every one is plump and stained red, and each ingredient seems to cast a brighter glow on the other.
Most contemporary recipes for this dish, a Southern classic that alternately goes by Savannah, Charleston, Lowcountry or Spanish rice, call for canned tomatoes. In the offseason, they are the superior option to fresh ones. But ripe, in-season tomatoes possess a sweetness, body and complexity of flavor that is rarely captured in a commercially canned product.
In the Southern rice lexicon, red rice is a pilau (or sometimes purloo, perlo or any of numerous other spellings), a pilaf-style preparation with Persian roots and probably African, French, Jewish and Spanish influences. Red rice, culinary historians propose, stemmed from the tomato-and-rice dishes — among them jollof rice in Senegal and thieboudienne in Nigeria — of West Africa, the homeland of the majority of enslaved Africans whose expertise in rice cultivation and preparation enabled the early Lowcountry rice industry and shaped its kitchen.
The earliest documented versions of what we know as modern red rice were simply called “tomato pilau,” noted the culinary historian and author Damon Lee Fowler, and the name “red rice” did not appear until the 20th century. And despite various prefixes suggesting a specific provenance for the dish, red rice proliferated up and down the Lowcountry coast, from South Carolina to north Florida. In particular, Fowler noted, “The connection with Savannah (Georgia) is mid-20th century and comes from a local restaurant who listed it on their menu as ‘Savannah Red Rice.’ Before long, pop-culture lore had it originating in Savannah, but of course it doesn’t. Both ‘200 Years of Charleston Cooking’ (1930) and ‘Charleston Receipts’ (1950) had recipes for it under that name and both predate the restaurant in question.”
Since those early documented recipes, red rice has retained a similar minimalism. Most recipes rely principally on tomatoes, onion and cured pork for flavor, with such occasional additions as herbs, peppers or shellfish.
Technique varies more widely, but every approach aims toward pilau’s defining characteristic: the cooked grains individually distinct and collectively fluffy, the grains moist but not sodden.
Some cooks prepare the rice entirely on the stovetop; others in a casserole in the oven; still others employ a combination of the two. One approach entails cooking the rice separately until fluffy and dry and then combining with a tomato sauce to bake further or not, but this method misses the opportunity — the point, I would argue — of infusing the rice with tomato flavor.
I favor the stovetop method for its time and dish economy, and because it doesn’t drive up the indoor thermostat so relentlessly as the oven. It requires attention and a little faith, but most important is committing to a few bits of best practice: Rinsing the rice flushes away the excess starch that can cause sticky grains, and toasting it both promotes distinct, separate grains and amplifies the rice’s nutty flavor. Leaving the lid in place while the rice cooks allows the steam to build and enables the grains to cook evenly. And resting the rice (traditionally called soaking) for 10 to 15 minutes after cooking allows the grains to compose themselves, to gather their starches and settle so that when you fluff the grains, they don’t break and clump.
In my version, I start with dead-ripe tomatoes, the ones that weep when pierced, whose juices are fluid enough to stand in for water or broth. There is onion to accentuate the sweetness of the tomatoes and green pepper to frame them, black pepper for its fruity, spicy backbone, and peanut oil, a common cooking fat in the South, for its lightly nutty bearing. I don’t include pork of any kind, and though my reason is dietary, I enjoy knowing that my grandmother didn’t either — a choice I assume she made to keep the tomatoes at the fore.
Later in the season, I may add thyme or savory, and last year I took to adding a fistful of sorrel, cut into ribbons, which melt into tart, silken wisps. These additions are always interesting, but thoroughly unnecessary. The tomatoes have enough to say.
1⅓ cups uncooked long-grain white rice
3 tablespoons peanut oil
1 small yellow onion, cut into small dice (⅔ cup)
1 poblano pepper or ½ green bell pepper, seeded and cut into small dice (⅔ cup)
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3½ cups fresh tomato purée (from 2½ to 3 pounds very ripe tomatoes; see note)
Use a bowl and a fine-mesh strainer to rinse the rice with several changes of water, rubbing the grains together with your fingers until the rice no longer clouds the water in the bowl. Drain the rice a final time, then spread it on a baking sheet to air-dry.
Heat the oil in a large, heavy pot over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, stir in the onion and the poblano or green bell pepper. Cook for 4 or 5 minutes, until the onion becomes translucent.
Stir in the rice to coat; cook for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently and reducing the heat to prevent browning the rice. It should smell nutty and begin to turn opaque.
Add the salt, black pepper and tomato purée; increase the heat as needed to bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover tightly and cook for 20 minutes, undisturbed.
Turn off the heat; keep the pot covered and let the rice sit for 20 minutes.
Use a wide spatula to gently turn the rice from the bottom of the pot, and fluff the grains with a fork.
Note: To make the tomato purée, core the tomatoes and cut them in half. Grate their cut sides on the large-holed sides of a box grater set inside a large bowl. Discard the skins; you will use the pulp and seeds and juice. Alternatively, peel and core the tomatoes, then run them through a blender on the lowest speed.
Nutrition information per serving — calories: 250; total fat: 7 g; saturated fat: 1 g; cholesterol: 0 mg; sodium: 370 mg; carbohydrates: 42 g; dietary fiber: 3 g; sugars: 6 g; protein: 5 g.