In September we feel the weight of the summer. For gardeners, it is a time of hot, sunny days punctuated with late evening watering sessions, themselves punctuated with mosquitoes and other pests. The first tomatoes arrived to much fanfare in July (or perhaps June, for those willing to gamble with frost dates). Favorite dishes have been made, and shared, and eaten as leftovers.
The ubiquitous tomato platter has been seasoned every-which-way, from basil, mozzarella and olive oil to cilantro, ginger and fish sauce. Burgers, pasta, eggs, and bread have all benefited from the Mighty Tomato, and life has never been so delicious. Gazpacho is spooned, slurped, and finally morphs into Bloody Mary mix and is given away.
And still they arrive. Whether dutifully harvested or hanging, split, like an overripe accusation, the tomato demands your continued commitment: September is the time to balance Now and Later, so that you can have your tomatoes and eat them, too.
Keeping up with tomatoes
Harvest ripe tomatoes every day. A line of tomatoes in a sunny windowsill is appealing—until one gets away from you and exudes tomato guts all over your interior. Store them at room temperature on a flat surface, such as a plate or platter. Visit the plate or platter every day, and eat or discard any tomatoes that are soft to the touch.
TRY THIS WITH TOMATOES!
Cubed and tossed with cannellini beans, capers, red onion, feta cheese and mint
Cubed and simmered with ginger, garbanzo beans, okra, cilantro and aromatic Indian spices
Cubed and tossed with croutons, fresh herbs, olive oil and parmigiano, then cooked in the oven until toasted and bubbly
Stuffed with tuna salad, pickled green-beans and topped with Nicoise olives and anchovies over a bed of lettuce
Layered into fresh-pasta lasagna with ricotta and mozzarella cheese, pesto, and salami
Even if a dish isn’t tomato-centric, it will benefit from these ripe lovelies—add chopped tomatoes to bean salads, to vegetable broth (to freeze for later in the year), to curries, to taco meat, to corn chowder. Tomato juice makes a lovely base for vinaigrettes, or a drink on its own—add horseradish, celery salt, black pepper and hot sauce and store in the refrigerator for your next Bloody Mary moment.
If you’re less the gardening type than an enthusiastic eater, it is worth shopping for some tomatoes to “put up” for winter, especially as the harvest arrives and prices plunge at the City Market. Most growers will offer you a case discount if approached in the right way—the last thing they want is to haul their haul home again.
Little tomatoes—the cherry and pear types—freeze well. Clean them with a towel (or water, as necessary). Spread them on cookie sheets to freeze, then store them in quart or gallon sized freezer bags. Look for Yellow Pear or Sun Gold Cherry (a perennial winner for flavor).
Among Roma-style varieties, recommended are: San Marzano (famed Italian tomato now being cultivated by brave growers), Striped Roma (red, yellow and green with burly shoulders), Juliet (petite but marked Roma shape—so sweet!)
Roma tomatoes can be frozen, but take the time to cut them in half and remove the stem end—that’s awfully hard to do once they are solid! Before popping the tray in the freezer, make sure they are reclining on their rounded backs so that their liquid is cupped inside them.
If dried tomatoes are more to your liking, take the same approach: Cut them in half, remove the stem end, and then lay them on their backs for a ride in a dehydrator or a 180-degree oven. Spritz the baking sheet or dehydrator rack with grapeseed oil or non-stick cooking spray so that liftoff is complete. Store dried tomatoes in a cool, dark place in sealed jars, or cover in oil and keep refrigerated for use.
Large heirloom types include recommended varieties Cherokee Purple, Brandywine, and Striped German. The complex flavor of heirloom tomatoes is difficult to preserve on its own, so invest your time in turning these beauties into a finished product. Any tomato can be run through a food mill to remove skins and seeds, and then frozen to serve as a “raw” tomato soup or sauce base.
Consider making a pasta sauce to freeze in quart containers (either plain, or with ground beef and pork for Bolognese, or with mushrooms and red wine), but be certain to let the sauce cool to room temperature before capping it and freezing it. Tomato sauce can also be canned (that is, packed into sterile jars and cooked in a boiling water bath), but consider following a recipe that gives firm quantity and timing guidelines for that procedure.
Tomato chunks may also be worth freezing in quart or gallon freezer bags; while their consistency will be affected by freezing, their flavor should be good enough to merit combining with dried chilies, lime juice and all the other salsa makings for a “fresh” wintertime salsa.—Lisa Reeder
Our kitchen columnist, Lisa Reeder, is a chef and local foods advocate and consultant. Read more about her at http://alocal notion.wordpress.com. Next month’s local ingredient: lamb.