“Strike,” they say, “whilst the iron is hot.” Or, in this case, pick when the fruit is ripe.
All over this fair country, not to mention most of the Northern Hemisphere, those all-too-few brief weeks we all wait for have arrived. Yes, it’s Tomato Time.
Of course, you can purchase tomatoes at your local mega-grocery-warehouse store 12 months of the year. That is not to say that those purchased anytime after September 30 or so will bear any resemblance to the real thing. To get a real tomato — one as red inside as it is out, a perfect balance of sweet and acid, juicy and heavy in your hand — this is your window. As in now.
Interestingly, the tomato — like many items in your typical produce section — has been severely compromised in quality over the years. Compromised to the point that it is difficult to get a great-tasting tomato unless you careen off-grid.
Of course, this has resulted from your garden-variety, agri-industrial culinary conspiracy. For several years now, the only tomato available from most corporate-super-giant-mega-valu grocers (not to mention Walmart) is a gassed-up fruit. That’s right: gassed. These days, with the near-total demise of the independent corner grocer, almost all tomatoes (not to mention most everything else you eat) are procured from exotic far-off lands like Florida and California, where the growing is less farming and more industrial in nature. Tomatoes are picked hard and green so that they can be shipped without damage. Realizing that few among us will actually eat green tomatoes unless they are battered and fried, something has to give. To turn them a palatable red color, the fruits are subjected to ethylene gas, long known and oft used to quicken the ripening process.
For the moment, let’s assume that ethylene gas is totally benign, with zero harmful effects to humans. For the moment.
The only thing that ethylene does for a tomato is to turn it red. A gassed tomato, while appealing to the eye, yields no flavor and a gross, mealy texture. You may wish to spend some three dollars and fifty cents a pound for an inedible mess, but count me out.
Out of season, I satisfy my tomato cravings with something out of a can. For example, Italian canned tomatoes (sold under the San Marzano brand) are delicious and easily a cut above such well-known American brands as Hunt’s. A recent taste test in Cook’s Illustrated gave the gold medal to Muir Glen, which cans an organic tomato.
It figures, though, that canned tomatoes — while a viable and preferred option from a taste standpoint — are not without issue. Tomatoes, being highly acidic, leach bisphenol A (BPA) from the lining of cans at a rate that is significantly higher than other canned products. The toxicity of BPA is still being debated, so if you are one who is uber-careful about chemicals in your system, consider yourself warned. As for me, I eat few commercially canned products anyway, so a little BPA seasoning isn’t a significant worry. I am more concerned about the spare tire forming around my middle, not to mention the growing amount of junk in my trunk.
But back to tomatoes — fresh, ripe, juicy tomatoes. Where I live, this is the time to get them, and the best place is at a farmer’s market or a roadside stand. That is, if you don’t have a garden patch of your own where you can DIY your own produce. Tomatoes would be my number-one crop if I could get them to grow in this cool, damp, maritime climate that I prefer. When I lived on Vashon Island and had a largish patch of productive soil, I devoted half of it to tomatoes. Just before harvesting my first batch for canning purposes (probably 25 pounds of splendid Roma “paste” tomatoes), I noticed some little soft spots on the ends of the fruit. A day later, the vines looked peaked, and three days after that, the entire crop was wiped out.
What the heck? I had never seen anything like it in my life. Turns out tomato blight is a big problem here. You need abundant sunlight and searing heat to effectively grow tomatoes, both of which are in short supply in what passes for summer here.
So instead of growing my own, I lurk at the local farmer’s markets and procure my fix from growers in Yakima. Last week, I got the most splendid juicy beefsteak tomatoes for just $1.49 per pound, and in a couple of weeks, I will buy a batch of Romas for even less. These I will turn into a lightly cooked tomato sauce, with fistfuls of garlic, some sweet onion, and perhaps some mild Anaheim peppers. This mixture will be frozen in plastic bags, because I am too much of a ninny to actually try hot canning. When thawed, some months into the future, it will be a little taste of summer.
There are about a million things you can do with lovely tomatoes (give or take). For example, on a family trip to Cinque Terre and Tuscany last summer, I became obsessed with a salad called Caprese. In classic Italian tradition, this salad is an exercise in perfect simplicity: succulent, sun-ripened tomatoes; torn fresh basil leaves; excellent (not to mention expensive) extra virgin olive oil; miniature spheres of buffalo mozzarella; sea salt and cracked pepper. So simple you can’t even call it cooking — it’s more accurately described as assembly — but it is refreshing and insanely delicious.
Cross over a range of mountains or two from where we were and you will find tomatoes Provençal, another splendid dish that recognizes the star of the show and never steals the scene with a supporting player. This is simply a mixture of breadcrumbs and whatever combination of fresh herbs you have on hand, which is packed into a large halved tomato with the seeds removed, then slow-roasted until soft. Veganism at its best — that is, sans political overtones.
While Italy and France are famous for their tomato preparations, a country that is less recognized for its efforts is Spain. Here in the land of pan con tomate (toasted bread rubbed with ripe tomato), inspired chefs are reenvisioning such dishes as tomato tartare and confit of tomato . . . you know, those old things. You would be surprised how easy some of these dishes are, not to mention how delicious.
This is the time, gentle readers, as summer slips slowly into fall. Before long it will be apples and chanterelles, but for now, it’s ‘mater time. Get thee to the local roadside stand and load up — don’t be shy. I’ll see you there.
Linguine with Fresh Tomato Sauce and Squid
Romas are good for this dish, but virtually any type or color will do. A mixture of red and yellow fruit yields a dish pleasing to both eye and palate. If you aren’t fond of or can’t find squid, shrimp would be an acceptable substitute.
Two lbs. sun-ripened tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and roughly chopped
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
Half a small onion (Walla Walla or Vidalia sweets are best), chopped
One Anaheim pepper, chopped
2/3 cup chopped fennel bulb (optional)
Fresh herbs, such as basil (necessary), oregano, thyme, marjoram (optional)
1 lb. cleaned squid, body cut into rings, tentacles included whole
To peel and seed the tomatoes, cut a small X into the end of the fruit opposite the stem. Plunge them into boiling water for a couple of minutes, until the skin is splitting and beginning to peel back. Remove and place into a cold water bath. When cool enough to handle, remove the skin, which should now peel off easily. Cut the tomatoes at the equator and carefully scoop out the seeds with a finger. Discard seeds and skins.
Sauté onion, garlic, fennel, and peppers with olive oil in a large sauté pan until softened but not brown, about four to five minutes on medium heat.
Deglaze pan with a shy cup of white wine. Reduce by half.
Add peeled, seeded, chopped tomatoes to the onion and wine mixture and bring to a simmer. Simmer on low until the tomatoes begin to soften. Tear basil leaves (or leave small ones whole) and add to the hot mixture along with chopped herbs. Salt and pepper to taste. If the tomatoes are very sweet, you might be surprised by how much salt is necessary. Add it gradually, so as not to overseason.
Before the tomatoes are completely falling apart, add the squid and cook until it’s just turning white — just a few minutes. Be sure to have the linguine ready before adding the squid to the tomatoes. Do NOT overcook the squid; it will turn rubbery.
Toss tomato/squid sauce with linguine and serve immediately with crusty bread and perhaps some grilled vegetables or a tossed salad.
I would drink any number of wines with this dish: crisp and clean Pinot Grigio, a chilled rosé, or even a lighter red like a Pinot Noir or Beaujolais would work fine.
Now, do me a solid and tell me your best recipe for ripe, in-season tomatoes. Or dish on your favorite farmer’s market or roadside stand. Don’t be shy. Dish!
And eat well.