My mother offered us her chunky homemade tomato soup in times of crisis, celebration, or, if you were lucky enough to meet her late at night in the kitchen, a secret sharing of midnight memories. When she no longer tended her own garden, my mother's best days were spent in search of an honest roadside stand selling truly homegrown tomatoes.
Right about now, your garden is probably flush with ripening tomatoes. You may even feel burdened by too much of good thing. So I've assembled these delicious ideas to help you enjoy your tomato bonanza without trapping you in front of a hot stove.
Let's start with a review of how to handle tomatoes after you pick them:
To prevent damage, don't pile your tomatoes in an airless container—baskets are ideal. Store fruits no more than two deep to avoid bruising and rot.
Tomatoes, including the greenest stragglers of the season, don't ripen best in the sun. For best results, wrap underripe fruit lightly in newspaper and store stem end down in a dark, dry, cool place (60° to 70°F). Check often.
Tomatoes taste best at room temperature. But if you are not able to eat them within a day or so after picking, you can refrigerate them for up to 5 days. There is a cost in flavor with any refrigeration, but allowing them to return to room temperature before eating affords some redemption.
To retain the most flavor from ripe fruit you can't use within a day or two, process it into fresh (uncooked) sauce or salsa. Either keeps for 7 to 10 days in the fridge; for best flavor, serve them at room temperature or warmer.
Puree and freeze extras for later use in sauces and soups. Easier still, freeze whole tomatoes, unpeeled, one or two to a freezer bag. They peel easily when defrosted and can then be passed through a tomato press or food processor.
Slice tomatoes from top to bottom, not through the center, to retain seeds and guarantee a tidy presentation.
I know, I know what Aunt Sophia says, but a tomato sauce cooked longer than 30 minutes will begin to lose flavor. Well, okay, meat-based sauces are the exception—the longer they cook, the better. Sophia knows that.
Cherry tomato kebabs skewered on rosemary spears, brushed with olive oil and briefly grilled (until they plump or begin to split) make a lovely and tasty garnish for grilled food.
Few herbs and spices don't complement tomatoes. The tried-and-true favorites are oregano, basils (all of them), dill, garlic, parsley, and thyme. But why not experiment by pairing different varieties of tomatoes with less predictable flavors? Match slices of your tomatoes with shredded leaves of pineapple or apple mint, tarragon, or sage. Lemon thyme leaves are my favorite flavor burst in tomato salads.
Tomato Towers. As a child, I loved making "little pizzas" by layering tomato slices, cheese, and herbs on a slice of heavy-duty bread and heating the tottering creation in the toaster oven. Today, my family eats these even for breakfast. Any cheese you fancy will do. My husband goes for more exotic blends—he loves blue cheese and mozzarella with as many tomatoes as the bread will bear (and then one more). My son squeezes cherry tomato "guts" over string cheese.
Cool soup. My Mexican version of the cold Spanish soup called gazpacho is basically double my Salsa Cruda recipe, with 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, an extra 2 to 3 tomatoes, hot peppers to taste, 2 cucumbers, and 1 red or green bell pepper—all pulsed briefly in a food processor and stirred into 4 cups chicken stock. It should be very textural. You can substitute tomato juice for the chicken stock. Serve chilled with a dollop of yogurt or sour cream.
Simply sautéed. Any tomato, at any measure of ripeness, sliced and sautéed with a curl o butter, a kiss of cream, and a sprinkling of Parmesan equals bliss. To gild the lily, add shards of your favorite fresh herb. Serve with a garden salad and fresh rolls for a light lunch worthy of... we won't name names, but you-know-who.
To add an intense burst of tomato taste to soups, vinaigrettes, sauces, or juices, use "tomato essence." You'll find recipes for this in many cookbooks—I've adapted the following technique from several sources. It yields about ¼ cup of tomato essence for every pound of tomatoes.
In a food mill, puree 10 pounds of very ripe red tomatoes; discard the seeds and skins. Place the puree in a large nonreactive pot and reduce it by one half over medium heat, taking care not to scorch the liquid. Strain the reduced tomatoes through a fine sieve or a strainer lined with several layers of cheesecloth. Clean the pot and then return the strained liquid to it. Reduce the mixture again, until you have about 4 cups.
Let the essence cool, taste it, and if it seems at all weak or watery, reduce again by one-half. Cool and refrigerate for up to a week. You can also freeze this essence, so it's ready for you to use whenever you want to enjoy the incomparable flavor of home grown tomatoes.
Tomatoes by the Numbers:
1 pound = two 4-inch tomatoes = 1 1/4 cups diced = 2 servings
Tomato sauce: tomato puree to which seasonings have been added. Marinara is a tomato sauce seasoned with onions, garlic, and oregano.
Tomato paste: concentrated tomatoes. You may substitute a homemade processed pumate spread (see below).
Puree: liquid from ripe tomatoes (not as concentrated as paste).
Pumate spread: dried tomatoes processed with olive oil to a spreadable consistency.
Ketchup: a thick tomato sauce flavored with vinegar, sugar, and salt, along with other seasonings. Once defined as a "vegetable" in school lunches.