Wine With . . . Tomato Bread Pudding
by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas
As the days grow shorter and temperatures drop, comfort foods have particular appeal for us. This is the season when we find ourselves yearning for simple, uncomplicated, easy to prepare fare that warms the body and soothes the soul.
Comfort food is often a one dish meal, something that translates into less menu planning, less mess, and less cleanup. According to a recent consumer study (Marketing Daily, July 30, 2009), while the urge to indulge in comfort food transcends socioeconomic differences, age variations may influence the foods we crave. Comfort food may mean different things to different generations: Gen-Xers, for example, often find comfort in fast foods, especially hamburgers and burritos, while Gen-Yers are more apt to scarf up ramen noodles (although apparently they too like burritos). Everyone finds solace in meatloaf, and mac’n cheese is another perennial favorite across generational lines. Also at the top of the list of foods that rank high on the American comfort scale are mashed potatoes, fried chicken, pizza, and Pho/Vietnamese beef noodle soup. (Who knew this last item had gone so mainstream?) Of all foods, cheese, either by itself or with bread or other starchy ingredients, elicits the most “passionate” response across generations.
Market researchers are not the only ones scrutinizing food these days. Science, it seems, also has taken an interest in the subject. The term “comfort food,” the journal Science Quarterly tells us, first entered Webster’s Dictionary in 1972, and is defined as “food that gives a sense of emotional well being” or “any food or drink that one turns to for temporary relief, security or reward.” Researchers have determined that such foods are particularly high in carbohydrates and fat content, and that they can in fact “influence a person’s mood.” Apparently the biochemical/ neurochemical mechanisms in fat and carbs bring comfort food, and the palatability of foods plays a major role in relieving negative moods and anxiety in stressful situations. In essence, the oral sensation of comfort foods may indirectly cause a feeling of pleasure in a person by triggering his or her “endogenous opioid peptide system”—AKA activating the “pleasure pathway.”
We recently turned to the biochemical/neurochemical mechanisms of fat (olive oil) and carbs (bread), and added cheese, the ingredient that everyone loves. For good measure we threw in the last of our crop of summer tomatoes and baked it all together until it was a crisp, savory amalgam. (We served this as a deliciously comforting main course for supper, with nothing more than a green salad to accompany it, but we found on another occasion that it also makes a fine side dish to go with roast meat.) We further activated our “pleasure pathways” by opening a selection of wines to go with our comforting tomato bread pudding.
TOMATO BREAD PUDDING
Serves 4 as a main course, 6 as a side dish.
Approximately 8 large tomatoes
½ cup olive oil (divided use)
Salt and pepper
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 round loaf of country bread (such as pain de campagne) or 1 baguette
1 teaspoon each fresh minced basil, rosemary and thyme
2 cups grated gruyère cheese *
Pre-heat the broiler. Slice the tomatoes in rounds approximately ¼ inch thick and lay them in a single layer on a platter or a couple of plates. Drizzle with about 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Let rest for 10-15 minutes or so. In a medium sized skillet, cook the onion in about a tablespoon of olive oil until it is soft. Stir in the garlic and herbs and cook a minute or so longer. Remove from heat. Cut the bread into slices about ½ inch thick; if using a baguette, slice it on the diagonal. Brush the bread slices generously on both sides with the remaining olive oil (adding more if necessary) and arrange them on a baking sheet. Broil until golden, about 1 minute per side.
Line an 8x11 baking dish with a layer of bread slices. Top with half the tomato slices, half the onions, and half the cheese, then repeat the process with more bread, the remaining tomatoes, onions and cheese. Pour all the juices that have accumulated from the tomatoes over the top, and cover with the remaining bread. (The dish may be made ahead to this point.) About 45 minutes before serving, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Press down on the top layer of bread to compact the pudding, then cover with foil and bake for about 15 minutes. Remove the cover and continue baking another 15 or 20 minutes, or until nicely browned and bubbly.
* You could substitute good, sharp cheddar for the gruyère, though this of course will change the flavor profile.
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We were unsure whether this would end up being more a white or a red wine dish, but after tasting six of each (along with a fairly disappointing rosé), we concluded that, in most cases, red is the color of choice with tomato bread pudding. This particular comfort food is simply too robustly flavored for most white wines to be able to strut their stuff. At the same time, reds with astringent tannins or heady doses of alcohol are themselves probably too heavy. Our favorite wines all seemed fairly soft or supple on the palate. They too were comforting!
One other thing unites the wines we’re recommending (a list that does include one white)—notable, but not aggressive, acidity. Perhaps because tomatoes are themselves quite acidic, the dish needs a wine that, in addition to a soft texture, tastes lively rather than languid.
Finally, we should note that we only sampled wines costing $20 or less. After all, part of the comfort of comfort food is affordability.