In Season: Tomatoes!
By Linda Brandt Tanner
In the little saltbox home on Curtis Street where I grew
up, summers meant canning, camping tripsand more canning. In June, at the close of
school, my mother would begin by canning some of the early summer fruits and vegetables.
When the jeweled jars were lined up in precise order on the shelves in our garage, it was
time to begin packing for our camping trip in the Redwoods. When we returned, the real work
began: canning later summer fruits and canning tomatoes. I learned to be flexible during
those days of late summer: a days planned schedule would go right out the window if
my mother got a lead on a lug of tomatoes for a good price.
The kitchen scene that followed a good harvest made me
think of a doctor readying herself for major surgery. My mother would gather up all the
white flour-sack towels in the drawer, clear appliances off the kitchen drain boards,
assemble her paring knives, peelers, and wooden spoons, wash the canning jars, boil water
in the canning kettle, roll up her sleeves, tie on a faded apron, and set to work. Peeling
and stuffing each rosy tomato into its glass jar made for hot, messy work. I frequently
wanted to help, but tired of the job as soon as the tomato juice began to sting and
dribbled its way down my forearms: the result of my inept attempts to skin the slippery
things. Soon my attention would wander. The apron tied up under my arms would start to
chafe, my chair would keep slipping away from the counter, and I was happy to be put in
charge of boiling mason jar lids and seals. That was something I could handle.
I take special pleasure in sharing the details of my
romance with summer tomatoes. Their round plumpness, bursting with flavor and juice, tempt
me at every turn in the market. My husband and I eagerly consume pounds of them. The
tomatoes I love and seek today are the Heirloom varieties. They are grown on small
grower-owned farms from seeds that originated generations ago. These beauties are prized
for their vibrant color; full, rich flavor; and unique shapes. Just listen to some of
their names: Marvel Stripe, Stupice, Marmalade, Cherokee Purple, Brandywine, Green Grape,
and Red Currant and Yellow Currant.
The summertime farmers markets offer all these
Heirloom varieties. Gathered together, their varying colors form a patchwork quilt, with
colors of red, brick, burgundy, green-and-yellow stripe, red-and-gold marble, orange,
yellow, and even pink. I sample the different tomatoes with a critical tongue and an alert
"sniffer." Which has the right balance of sweet and tart? Which is more acidic,
deeply colored, and best suited for a particular dish or to enjoy on its own? At each
booth, I ask the same welcome question: "How can I find ways to use them all?"
My query results in the swapping of recipes, everyone eager to discover a new way to enjoy
this wonderful fruit.
Ive selected several favorites from this
summers bounty. I love the heavily juiced and meaty Marvel Stripe for its marbling
of yellow and red and perfectly balanced taste: sweet and tart. I use Marvel Stripes
liberally, delighting in their multicolors. Then there are the teeniest Currant tomatoes,
no bigger than a large pea, sold still clinging to their vines. These are perfection in
form, and I often use them to garnish a dish, allowing the tiny vine to create lacy
patterns on the plate.
All these babies deserve a special place on the table
and frequently are the main dish in some form or another. Or I gather several sizes,
colors, and shapes of tomatoes, and cut and arrange them on a platter in a way that best
displays their unique qualities.
I thickly slice the Marvel Stripe to reveal its
red-and-yellow-marbled flesh. The little green-and-yellow-striped Green Grape tomatoes, I
cut into perfect halves. The burgundy-fleshed Brandywine is most appetizing served in
meaty wedges. Around these, I toss a handful of the tiny red-and-yellow currant tomatoes,
with their green stems still attached. Just a sprinkling of kosher salt and freshly ground
pepper, or a dribble of aged balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil complete the
simple preparation. With such flavorful fare, heavy dressings are unnecessary. And
remember: serve tomato platters at room temperature (refrigerating changes the cellular
structure of tomatoes and dulls their flavor).
The tomatos versatility leads me down a path of
sumptuous flavors perfectly suited to summertime eating and enjoyment. As a cooling
refreshment on the hottest summer day, I whip up batches of gazpacho soup. I place five or
six ripe tomatoes in a blender, add a large clove of garlic, three to five scallions, a
peeled and seeded cucumber, a red bell pepper, a teaspoon of red pepper flakes or a diced,
fresh jalapeno pepper, a good handful of cilantro leaves, a dash of Worcestershire sauce,
the juice of at least one whole lime, and a dash of red wine vinegar. I whir it all
together and then add salt and pepper and a drop or two of olive oil. I cover this and
chill it thoroughly in the refrigerator. Gazpacho makes a bracing summer first course, as
the uncooked flavors of this soup are bright, clean, and refreshing. This one is meant to
be served cold.
A real summer nosh wouldnt be complete without
bruschetta. While youre gathered around the barbecue fire, slip thick slices of
peasant bread on the grill and toast them just until the edges are a bit singed and the
bread has developed a nice golden crust. Then rub each slice of bread with a peeled clove
of garlic and drizzle on a whisper of olive oil. Now comes the good part. Spoon on a bit
of chopped fresh tomato to which youve added fresh, torn basil, salt, freshly ground
pepper, and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Prepare the tomato mixture about an hour in
advance so that the tomato juices will mix with the vinegar. The important thing is to
begin with fine ingredients and let the simplicity of the food shine through: the perfect
approach to enjoying summer tomatoes.
This summer, I find myself relying on my recipe for
uncooked fresh tomato sauce (RADIANCE, Summer 1994), sometimes adding chunks of
creamy blue cheese to garnish my favorite pasta of the day (usually a handmade purchased
orecchette, or "little-ear-shaped," pasta). All the sprightly juices are
captured in the cradles of this pasta. This dish also travels exceptionally well to
For me, the all-time winner this summer is roasted
tomatoes. Roasting is a perfect way to enjoy tomatoes that ripen faster than you can use
them, which, in the hottest part of summer, can happen quite unexpectedly. In a large,
shallow ovenproof dish, put a layer of sliced red onion. Slice four or five cloves of
garlic over that. Drizzle this with a good olive oil, and sprinkle on kosher salt and
freshly ground pepper. On top of that, arrange slices of tomato, slightly overlapping,
using a mixture of colors if you like. Sprinkle all of this with olive oil and salt and
pepper and a pinch or two of sugar. Tuck in lots of fresh basil leaves for flavor (about a
half-cup should do), and bake in a 400 degree oven for at least an hour and a half.
The tomatoes will go through a marvelous transformation.
First they give up their juice, and there will be what looks like quite a bit of liquid in
the dish. Dont worry. This will evaporate as the tomatoes roast and their natural
sugars begin to darken and caramelize. They will also shrink down into a savory softness
that is just this side of heaven.
If you like, you can splash on a bit of white wine
during the last half-hour of cooking, or at any time during baking if the tomatoes look
likely to scorch. The desired end is tomatoes that are reduced and caramelized, with some
of their juices perfect for soaking into a fine piece of good bread. No matter how many
times I serve this simple summer dish, it is always received with ooohs and aaahs. The
presentation is gorgeous, the aroma mouth watering, and the taste addictive.
Roasted tomatoes are also great as an appetizer, served
warmish or at room temperature with a log of fresh goat cheese or a piece of feta to
spread on bread. These flavors also blend nicely with Kalamata or Nicoise olives, and
leftovers are perfect for tomorrows afternoon snack. This dish is spectacular on a
buffet table. At our annual Fourth of July block party this past year, we enjoyed roasted
tomatoes alongside citrusherb barbecued chicken. And two nights later, the same dish
made a savory complement to a mound of soft polenta.
For a similar but simpler preparation, I rely on broiled
tomatoes. Just top tomato halves with a mixture of fresh bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese,
minced garlic, parsley, and fresh basil. Drizzle all this with olive oil, and place it on
foil under a hot broiler until the tomatoes collapse a bit and the top is bubbly brown.
These can be eaten hot or set aside at room temperature and served later. I like these
broiled tomatoes with anything grilled. And the leftovers? Try crowning a thick slice of
baguette with a broiled tomato half and some of its leftover juices. Smash it all down a
bit into the bread, top with a teaspoon of olive oil and a thin slice of ham, prosciutto,
or cooked bacon, and enjoy. If you like anchovies, add those. This ones best
eaten at room temperature.
This summer, support the farmers market in your
community. Familiarize yourself with all the fabulous varieties of tomatoes you can find.
As the name Heirloom suggests, these summer tomatoes are dazzling. ©
LINDA BRANDT TANNER is one of a committee of passionate people currently
working on The Edible Schoolyard, a pilot project at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School
in Berkeley, California, which began in response to school lunchrooms closing down across
the country. Their goal is to teach youngsters respect for the planet and for one another
through on-site, hands-on experience in gardening and food preparation in a program that
will become part of the California school curriculum.