When the temperature and humidity soar, I push them out of mind with dreams of summer tomatoes. Summer tomatoes became an obsession of mine during the 1984 Summer Olympics. My husband and I were house-sitting for a partner in the law firm where I worked. At the time we lived in a 1-bedroom apartment, high above a noisy thoroughfare. Decamping to a lovely home on a quiet street outside the city limits, with a garden, huge kitchen, and other “amenities” seemed like a vacation to us. For several weeks, we kept watch over the house and did small chores. I’m no gardener, but I did what I could to keep the garden happy.
One day I discovered that the garden contained a huge patch of cherry tomato plants. Almost overnight the tomato vines became heavy with small, ripe orbs. The harvest seemed to re-appear very day, no matter how many I picked. Realizing that they wouldn’t last until the homeowners got back, I gathered the day’s cherry tomato harvest into a bowl every evening after work, and ate them like popcorn or candy, watching the Olympics.
As the 2012 Summer Games roll out later this week, I’m dreaming of cherry tomatoes. I don’t have access to that garden anymore and can’t grow tomatoes in my own, small and shady backyard. But they are all around in the farmers’ markets and I have already started to enjoy this summer's tomato bounty.
My Favorite Fresh Tomato Recipes
This list does not include my 2 all-time-favorite ways to eat fresh tomatoes as they are hardly recipes: 1) small right-off-the-vine cherry tomatoes, and 2) larger tomatoes cut into thick slices for a tomato sandwich - simply tomato slices, great bread (semolina bread and sour dough are my favorites for this treat), and mayonnaise, perhaps with a bit of sharp mustard.
- My grandfather’s Greek salad – This weekend, I made a batch with chopped olives.
- Cherry tomato and cucumber salad, with or without scallions.
- Ratatouille – I am partial to the “old” New York Times version (which turns the vegetables in the recipe into a stew that gets even better the second day), but have also dabbled in newer versions that leave the vegetables more distinct.
- Tomato-based gazpacho with home-made croutons – One of my favorite versions is the Cooks Illustrated “Classic Gazpacho.” Even though it uses tomato juice in addition to fresh tomatoes, it has a lovely, fresh taste.
3 Tips for Storing and Using Fresh Tomatoes
- Storing - Generally, store fresh tomatoes at room temperature, away from sunlight. However, if you want to keep tomatoes for a week or so, you can store them in the refrigerator for a few days without significant damage to their taste, then bring them to peak ripeness on the kitchen counter or in a dish at room temperature. I learned this from Susan Hunt of Westmoreland Berry Farm and Market, a farmer I met at the Bethesday Central Farm Market. (In a previous post, I advised against refrigerating tomatoes. I haven't tried Susan's advice, but her produce is fabulous and she is just the type of sensible person whose advice I would try, even if it goes against conventional wisdom.) Wash tomatoes just before use.
- Peeling – A vegetable peeler with a serrated edge works, as long as the tomato is not too ripe. But in any event, you can easily peel tomatoes in boiling water. Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil, put the tomatoes in gently with a slotted spoon, let them sit in the boiling water for about 1 minute, then take them out and rinse them under cold water. When the tomatoes are cool enough to touch, pinch the skin with a fork or knife and peel – the skin will slide off. It’s best to do only a few tomatoes at a time, as the water should stay at a boil and you’ll lose track of the timing if you put in too many at once. If you wonder whether it is worth the effort to peel them, the answer is yes if the tomatoes will be left whole or in large pieces; the skin slides off during cooking, just as it does in the peeling method described above, and you’ll be left with peels swimming around in your sauce.
- Cutting - Use a sharp knife to cut tomatoes, preferably with a serrated edge for a clean cut. Watch your fingers! Even though you are rolling your eyes as you read this admonition, talk to almost any experienced cook and they’ll tell you about a trip to the emergency room caused by inattention or a slip when using a sharp knife.
Enjoy tomatoes while they are in season! What are your favorite ways to use them?