Kitchen Dispatch: Tomatoes
by Sarah West
Tomatoes are the darlings of the main-season garden—their aromatic foliage smells fervently of summer, and it is from that radiant tangle our favorite fruits emerge in colors and combinations seemly without limit. In truth, tomato plants grow like weeds, flopping and out of control. While we struggle to hold them to their trellising, they take their time setting green fruits that hang for what always feels too long before the first hints of ripening appear. Slowly, with a storyteller’s patience, they become our imaginings—a mythology months in the making that we pluck, relishing its smooth realness all the way to the kitchen.
What a show they put on, grandly occupying vast stretches of small gardens from May to October, only to offer relatively minor bounty (especially with the larger heirloom varieties) compared to a succession of root and salad crops. Some years I must forego tomatoes in my tiny backyard garden for the sake of rotation. But the tomato summers are always my favorite, and it is always worth their theatrics for this meal: a just-picked tomato carried in the gardener’s hand; zesty foliage and fruit’s rich perfume mingling.
Summer is ripe when tomatoes line the kitchen counter, spoils of market or garden awaiting transformation. Few countertop residents cause as much anxiety—truly vine-ripened tomatoes arrive already plump and soft, needing action. We know how to slice and dress them with basil and oil, slabs of fresh mozzarella. We know they make effortless sandwiches (now is the time for BLT’s), salads, and pizza toppings. We know they are perfect unadorned save a bright pinch of salt.
When we have done all that and the curiosity wants to stretch further, find new territory, tomatoes not only await, they demand our ingenuity. And what is more versatile than these sweet and savory globes? Melting or meaty, sour or satiny, their flavor easily concentrates or thins, and resonates with nearly anything the garden can throw at it. Like an agile partner, they know the tunes, they have the moves; we simply need to turn on the music.
Tomatoes respond well to low heat, their moisture reduces, sugars develop, without wiping out all of the fresh fruit’s complexity. Slow roasted tomatoes are delicious simply atop a slice of fresh bread, but hold their own among heartier dishes like braised lentils, grilled meats, eggs, or buttery tarts. Paste, plum, seedless, or ox-heart type tomatoes are best for cooking—their dense flesh and few seeds means they contain less watery juices that would dilute their cooked flavor.
To roast tomatoes, pick an afternoon where you have tasks around the house and set your oven to its lowest temperature. Drizzle halved or quartered tomatoes (depending on their size; thick slabs also work for larger tomatoes) generously with olive oil. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet in a single layer, cut side up, and sprinkle with salt; a small amount of sugar adds surprising fullness, and seasonings like thyme, oregano, or black pepper add depth. Stick them in the oven and forget about them until the smell becomes irresistible. Take a peak. Roast them until they are shriveled, softened, their color deepened, anywhere from 2-4 hours. Store covered in oil in the refrigerator for up to a month.
Tomato sauce can be a daylong project, or an impromptu supper, depending on your resolve. Home-preserved tomato sauce is a great treat in winter, and a long project in the heat of summer. If you do choose to go that route, consider saving the skins you’ve so painstakingly removed and dry them, as Amanda Hesser suggests in her book, The Cook and The Gardener, in the oven (again on its lowest setting) until they become dehydrated but pliable. Chop and use as a punchy garnish, or save in a sealed jar to add to the stockpot down the line.
Never completely savory or sweet, cooked tomatoes always end up a combination of the two. Tomato jam, an unctuous preserve for scones, tarts, or even sandwiches, displays this quality well. Made with sugar, like any jam, it is luxuriously sweet; underneath is a base strikingly green, harkening back to the florescent scent of the garden’s tomato brambles.
Fresh tomatoes are perhaps the sweetest form of all, especially those selected for this quality: cherry, pear, grape, and zebra-striped varieties make for syrupy mouthfuls without any embellishment. Or, Deborah Madison offers this simple preparation in her book, Vegetable Literacy, using cream to play up the fruit’s natural sugar:
Warm four tablespoons of heavy cream on low heat with a clove of smashed garlic and a fresh basil leaf until it comes to a boil. Set aside to steep while you peel a selection (about ½ pound) of fresh sweet tomatoes by dropping them for ten seconds in boiling water to loosen their skins. Place them directly in ice-cold water to stop them from cooking and slip off their skins. Slice and add tomatoes to the cream and bring to a bubble for 2-3 minutes. Season with pepper and salt (she recommends smoked salt) and serve covered in breadcrumbs or over a slice of toast.