September 2011: Your Kitchen

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When in Romas

The humble Roma tomato is easy to overlook at summertime markets. Let’s face facts—you’ve bypassed them a million times in the supermarket, so red and cheerful (even in the dark night of winter) that they seem to be imitating wax fruit. Amid the motley, knobbly heirloom tomatoes (Mr. Stripey! Cherokee Purple!) and the facile, sweet-as-candy cherry and grape tomatoes (Snow White! Black Cherry!), the lowly Roma may not even be on the table, but instead rests quietly in a box on the ground or in the trunk, patiently waiting for a kind soul to give it a good home in a glass jar.

recipe for success
Making Roma sauce
on the grill
• Check your propane supply—you’ll
want to run the grill for two to three hours.
• Choose your vessel—NO ALUMINUM OR CAST IRON. Ceramic must be rated for direct heat up to 500 degrees; enamelware is the best option.
• Create a buffer from the heat to avoid burning the bottom. A pizza stone or oven rack (or extra grill rack) atop the grill rack will work.
• Verify that the grill lid will close
with the vessel and lid inside. Make necessary adjustments BEFORE putting ingredients into the vessel.
• Cut Roma tomatoes in half (removing the small stem end) or in quarters. Add oil. Add to taste (some, not all): onions, garlic, shallot, bay leaf, ginger, curry, cardamom, pimenton, chile flakes, black pepper, salt, or balsamic vinegar. 
• Light the grill and bring to a temperature of 250 degrees or so.
• Keep two clean, thick dish towels and a long-handled spoon (wood is good as it won’t conduct heat) next to the grill. 
• Moderate sauce stirring required; if sauce is watery after one hour, remove vessel lid. Remember that the steam will be very hot—watch your arm hair!

Roma tomatoes are cylindrical in shape, with thick skin and pulp and a low water and seed content. Their vines are of the determinate variety, meaning that the tomatoes mature in one huge crop (up to 200 tomatoes per 4′ tall plant!) and then yield no more. 

Commercial tomato growers and processors cherish the prolific bearing habit and the proverbial “thick skin” of the Roma: The cylindrical shape withstands mechanical harvesting and packing, and shipping, and processing, plus it yields more pulp and less liquid per pound than round tomatoes. Finally, guess which tomato has a higher natural sugar content (and less acid) than other tomatoes? Be it ever so humble, there’s no tomato like a Roma for making and marketing ketchup and pizza sauce.

But wait, wait, wait—as so often happens, the exploitation of the Roma tomato is a product of our commercial food system. In fact, the very traits that have led to its overexposure are the selfsame reasons why you must take the time to get to know your Roma. 

In addition to yielding excellent sauces and pastes, Roma tomatoes are well-suited for use in fresh salsas and salads, and can be dehydrated with excellent results. They can even be sliced in half (remove the small stem end!) and frozen “on their backs,” then piled into freezer bags for use this winter. 

But the true transformation of the Roma happens in a slow-cooked sauce. Sweet pulp and hearty, meaty flavor combine to create an addictive substance—not unlike ketchup, really—that is an asset to any cook. Mix it into hamburgers or glaze a meatloaf with it! Mix it with mayonnaise and spread it on a sandwich! Sprinkle it with Old Bay and dip your onion rings in it! 

To prepare a tomato sauce that showcases the sweet, meaty flavor of Roma tomatoes, it is necessary either to peel the tomatoes (at the beginning) or to make use of a moulin or food mill (at the end). You see, the Roma has thick skin, including the interior “walls” that surround the seed cavities, which provide body and flavor and volume to the sauce, but must actually be separated from the chewy exterior skin. 

To remove skins at the beginning of cooking, immerse the tomatoes in boiling water for 15 to 30 seconds, then immediately into iced water to halt cooking. This rapid temperature change should cause them to expand and then contract, splitting the skin and drawing it away from the flesh. Once the tomatoes are cool, gently pile them in a colander to drain and dry (so that the sauce isn’t overly watery). When a sharp paring knife is used to remove the stem end of each tomato, the rest of the skin should be easy to remove. It is prudent to make your incision over a large ceramic or glass bowl so that any juicy drippings are captured and go right into the sauce.

Once the tomatoes have been freed from their skins, there are a couple of decisions to make. Firstly, how will you store this sauce? If making a sauce to store in water-processed jars in your pantry, please follow a recipe and instructions specifically for that project. (The Ball Company, maker of Ball canning jars, has a number of online resources at www.freshpreserving.com). If you prefer to have frozen tomato sauce on hand all winter, free up some freezer space and use numerous smaller containers fitting two to four servings each.

When it’s hot in the kitchen, consider making your Roma sauce on a propane grill—and of course the project can be combined with another grilling project to take advantage of some time and energy savings. Any smoke from other items being grilled will only make your Roma sauce more delicious.

Our kitchen columnist, Lisa Reeder, is an educator and advocate for local and regional food production in Central Virginia. She received chef’s training in New York and currently works in Farm Services and Distribution at the Local Food Hub.

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