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In Season: Tomatoes!

By Linda Brandt Tanner

From Radiance Summer 1996

In the little saltbox home on Curtis Street where I grew up, summers meant canning, camping trips—and 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 day’s 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 farmer’s 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.

I’ve selected several favorites from this summer’s 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 tomato’s 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 wouldn’t be complete without bruschetta. While you’re 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 you’ve 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 picnics.

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. Don’t 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 tomorrow’s 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 citrus–herb 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 anchovie’s, add those. This one’s best eaten at room temperature.

This summer, support the farmer’s 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.


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