For the last 25 years we’ve spent a summer week in Hilton Head with our best friends from college, Tim and Jan. Playing tennis, exploring the island on bicycles, afternoon bocce games and evenings on the beach with Manhattans in hand; it’s a yin/yang of action and inaction. Our evenings on the beach are the high point of our day (remember the Manhattans), so most nights we prepare simple meals in our scantily stocked rental kitchen. But just because we’re on vacation doesn’t mean we take a vacation from taste.
You see, I stumbled upon some of the best tasting produce I’ve had all year on Hwy. 278, right in the middle of the island. Operated by a man with gentle eyes and what appeared to be his mother, their stand was an oasis of shade and cool in the 100 plus heat of midday. As I approached the stand, the elderly lady methodically shelled beans and dumped them into a plastic bin.
The gentleman was shy but his produce teased me closer. I picked up a furry peach and smelled it. A wave of heavenly peachy aroma enveloped me and I realized in that crystalline moment that I hadn’t smelled a tree ripened peach in a very long while.
I moved on to the cantaloupe. Same kind of aroma, only cataloupy.
Trying to keep my cool, I chose a few peaches, gently nestling them into one of the recycled Bi-Lo bags I’d brought with me but then my eyes wandered to the obviously home-grown tomatoes. They literally whistled and winked at me to pick them up and give them a light squeeze. I couldn’t take the produce porn any longer and I complimented the owners about the beauty and aroma of their fruits and veggies. I guess that doesn’t happen often down there. The lady calmly said something to the effect that it’s a good thing that someone grows gardens and I agreed.
We ate the juice dripping down our chins peaches as they were meant to be eaten…out of hand. The cantaloupe was probably the best I’ve ever had. It was wonderful cold and sweet first thing in the morning before tennis and the tomatoes were perfect. It’s always sad to leave the beach at the end of a good vacation, but I was especially sad this year to say goodbye to that produce stand. Thankfully our local tomatoes are nearly as tasty and since our return I’ve had a few that were close to being as good as their distant cousins down south. I helped them out with a little balsamic reduction, fresh basil and feta cheese and share the recipe below. In the meantime, I’m still searching for the perfect Ohio tomato, peach and canataloupe to thrill me like those at that stand on Hwy. 278. Where’s your favorite local stand? Please share!
Kitchen Counter Point: If your tomatoes aren’t the best of the best (or even if they are) try reducing balsamic vinegar for drizzling. The acids and sugars are heightened in the reduced mixture so it imparts a bit more zip than regular vinegar. The salt I call out for is fleur de sel. Translated as “flower of salt” it’s a bit pricey, but worth every penny. If you don’t happen to have any in your pantry, go ahead and use a sprinkling of kosher salt.
Tomatoes with Feta Cheese, Basil and Reduced Balsamic
1/2 cup cheap balsamic vinegar
3 ripe, local tomatoes, sliced
Fleur de sel to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled
About 10 fresh basil leaves, torn
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil for drizzling, plus more if you prefer
In a small saucepan, reduce the vinegar over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes or until it has reduced by half. It will thicken a little as it cools.
Arrange the tomato slices in a single layer on your favorite platter. Sprinkle over the fleur de sel and pepper to taste. Drizzle about half of the reduced balsamic over the tomatoes and then scatter the feta cheese over all. Top with the basil and a generous drizzle of olive oil. Eat immediately. If making the dish ahead, let it sit at room temperature for up to 1 hour. Do not refrigerate as the flavor of the tomatoes will fade.