September. This is a special time of year, just right for the Queen of the Garden, the tomato. So enraptured have we become over this cousin to deadly nightshade that we have cultivated no fewer than 2,700 varieties of tomato, in a rainbow of colors and a seemingly endless assortment of sizes and shapes. Volumes of history have been written about it, Louis Armstrong sang about mispronouncing it, and everyone seems to know that people used to think it was poisonous (some actually are, and the leaves and stalks of most are toxic).
The tomato has been prized for its versatility, cherished for its supposed aphrodisiac qualities, and utilized as a projectile in Vaudeville. Those aerodynamic qualities are still exploited in Buol, Spain, where the last Wednesday in August becomes an orgy of tomato wallowing, ostensibly in honor of the town's patron saint, San Luis Bertran. Since the fight is usually a "boys vs. girls" affair, it rapidly becomes something of a wet T-shirt contest.
In this country we have come to be a bit more respectful of the tomato, but we do have our moments of degradation. Chief among these is the curious American obsession with eating out of season. This has resulted in those flavorless, mealy pink baseballs that are shipped green from Mexico, force-ripened with ethylene gas in train cars en route to Chicago, then passed off as tomatoes at your local grocery store in February. The tomato is one of those vegetables that, like asparagus, are best eaten during a particular season, and the season is upon us.
Now I know some of you are saying to yourselves, "But the tomato is a fruit!" Botanically, of course, you are right; the tomato is a berry, fruit of a vine, as is the sweet pea. Legally, though it is a vegetable. In 1893 the Supreme Court decided, in Nix v. Hedden, to stick with the "common language of the people" and call it a vegetable when it came to imposing duties on it under the 1883 Tariff Act. Not surprising, I suppose. After all, knowledge is knowing the tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not using it in fruit salad.
Some Basic "Rules"
It is a good idea to keep in mind some less codified rules regarding the tomato. Rule number one, as already alluded to, is do not eat them out of season.
Rule number two is do not refrigerate them. The cold disguises flavor in everything, which on a related note is why the good people of Anheuser-Busch recommend that you serve their product ice cold.
Rule number three is traceability -- know where it came from. Not only is it spiritually and culinarily rewarding to know the farm and the farmer that supplies your food, at the same time it is important to avoid the hyper-modified frankenfoods (yes, tomatoes are among them) that are already on grocers' shelves with nary a labeling regulation among them.
The best way to eat a tomato is straight from the vine, standing in the middle of your garden on a hot August afternoon. Munch on a leaf of nearby basil as an accent. If by any chance you can share this experience either with a child or with a lover, it can be quite enlightening for all. The strong aroma of a vine of ripe tomatoes combined with the delicious juices dribbling down the chin is as voluptuous as it is playful.
Perhaps the only thing that is more frightening to the tomato-loving gardener than a failed crop is an over-abundant one. One becomes terrified that all these jewels will go to waste, standing as a depressing and frustrating reminder of spring exuberance and drawing fruit flies on the compost heap. Well take heart, gentle reaper; there is plenty that can be done with all that red, green and gold bounty.
After you have eaten and shared all you can, it's time for the "puttin' up." There are three main ways to preserve tomatoes, each requiring varying levels of time, expertise and equipment. The most enjoyable way to go about any or all of them is to invite a few of your fellow gardeners over for a Saturday afternoon of canning, freezing and drying. If everybody brings their own excess and then works together on all the preparation, the time goes much faster and more pleasurably. In addition, you will have included the most important ingredient: Love.
When canning, one rule prevails: sanitation. Everything must be scrupulously clean and sterile. Also, accomplishing the correct acid balance will help protect the tomatoes flavor as well as preserving them. Use 2 tablespoons of lemon juice or ½ teaspoon of citric acid per quart of canned tomatoes. Always follow the instructions that come with your canning equipment. Also, my friend Sherri Vinton has a fantastic new book on the subject of food preservation: I highly recommend "Put'em Up!" for experienced or novice canners alike. Or turn to the old standby, The Joy of Cooking, for information on how to can safely. Do it right, botulism can be tough.
Sun dried tomatoes are a staple in my kitchens both at home and at the restaurant. While they do take a lot of time, very little of that time is spent with your attention being paid. It does require a few pieces of equipment and a safe, sunny spot away from critters like dogs or coons.
Most people choose roma tomatoes for drying, but any tomato will do. Core the tomatoes using a tomato shark, a handy gadget that is like a scoop with teeth, available at any kitchen store. Split the tomatoes in half lengthwise, gently squeeze out the seeds and water, and lay the tomatoes on a framed screen. An old window screen will do, as long as it is clean. Lightly salt the tomatoes, and then add some chopped fresh herb like rosemary, oregano or basil, and sugar if desired. Cover with cheesecloth or another screen, being careful that the top does not come into contact with the tomatoes. Set them out in a sunny but protected spot; often a deck or a rooftop works well. They may take anywhere from 4 days to 2 weeks, but they are worth it. Remember to bring them inside each night so that the dew does not spoil them.
OK, looking for the shortcut? Tomatoes can be dried in your overnight on the lowest setting of just with the pilot light burning. Core and cut them as before and lay them on a parchment-covered sheet pan. Add salt and herbs and place in the oven on very low overnight. These dried tomatoes do not have quite the same character as their more traditional sun dried siblings, but they are quite good nonetheless.
Another great way to use a multitude of tomatoes is to make and freeze a big batch of traditional tomato sauce. To begin, you must peel all your tomatoes. This is done by coring them with the aforementioned shark, then plunging them, a few at a time, into boiling salted water for 30 to 45 seconds. Remove them and "shock" them by immediately plunging them into ice water until they are cold enough to handle. Repeat this with all the tomatoes. The skin will loosen and be easy to remove with your hands or a paring knife. Crush these skinned tomatoes into a bowl by squeezing them with your hands. This whole process can be messy, but it is fun if you get a group of friends working together.
Once you have your tomatoes ready, then prepare (for every gallon of tomatoes)
2 red onions, minced
8 garlic cloves, sliced paper thin
¼ cup fresh chopped thyme
1 carrot, grated
Sauté these in olive oil over medium heat in a large saucepot until tender, being careful not to brown it. Add the tomatoes and stir, bring to a simmer and stir frequently over medium low heat for at least an hour, or until the consistency is like a loose oatmeal. Cool completely, then freeze in well-labeled Ziploc bags. Note the lack of salt: you don't want to salt it until you are ready to use it. The salt may taste great at that moment, but once you thaw, heat and reduce this sauce to use in your favorite recipe, it would become too salty.
A more refined version of that delicious tomato-basil combination is the famous Insalata Capriccio, or Caprese Salad. Tomatoes, sliced Buffalo milk mozzarella Extra-virgin olive oil Basil leaves Alternately layer thick slices of your favorite varieties of tomato (the classic uses Roma - but use what you like), with fresh Latte di Bufala or Buffalo-Milk Mozzarella, and basil leaves. Top this with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, good quality sea salt, and fresh cracked black pepper. To eat this is to be a little closer to God.
Incidentally, that basil should be nearby. Interspersing basil with tomatoes is a great example of "companion planting." The strong smell of the basil mixes with the smell of the tomato plants to confuse many would-be pests like aphids and whiteflies. Grow a wide variety of tomatoes, and grow them in a different part of your garden each year. Tomatoes are nitrogen hogs, and if you grow them in the same spot year after year, you will quickly deplete your soil.
To access a huge variety of tomatoes, visit the website of the Seed Savers Exchange.
If after all this you still have tomatoes left, bring them to me. I can never get enough.