There is something about late summer that I really love. The nights begin to cool down. The locusts call to one another in the overgrown grasses. Airplanes fly overhead and the sound is somehow deeper and more distant. By now gardens are in the throws of giving us sweet corn, green beans, carrots, new potatoes with tissue thin skins, sweet watermelon, and juice laden orange cantaloupe. The very things I ate most as a child. But nothing more so, than sun-warmed tomatoes.
As I’ve cooked over the years I’ve found myself stretching the uses and flavors of this savory fruit. And I’ve certainly developed something of an obsession for slicing an heirloom tomato and pairing it with fresh mozzarella and basil the day the tomatoes first appear at the farmer’s market. As one of the most universal and diverse foods, I think everyone has their own memory of eating some tomato driven dish. Over in the garden section, Brent and Josh have posted some of their own favorite tomato recipes fresh from the Beekman 1802 garden.
After a year of blight, 2010 has brought us a bumper crop. With origins in South America as small bitter berries growing on bushes, the tomato was spread around the world following the Spanish colonization of the Americas. It was many years before 1897, when soup mogul Joseph Campbell would bring us condensed tomato soup in a can to the American public.
Today tomatoes range in size from a fraction of an ounce to over 2 pounds. While the iconic tomato we’ve all come to know is red, they also come in yellow, purple, green, orange and black – sometimes mixing colors and bright stripes. There are quite literally thousands of varieties (I’ve read anywhere from 6,500 – 10,000) but some of the most common varieties and uses are:
• Currant Tomatoes – very small, about the size of a pea. They have a strong flavor and are great in salads.
• Grape Tomatoes – about the size and shape of a grape. They are sweeter than most tomato varieties and good in salads or eaten by themselves.
• Cherry Tomatoes – vary in size but are generally about the size of a bing cherry. They have a bit of a sour taste. They are usually used in salads or eaten by themselves.
• Pear Tomatoes – have the same basic shape as a pear, small at one end and fat on the other. They are about the same size as a cherry tomato and have a sweet flavor. Typically used for eating alone or in salads.
• Plum Tomatoes are oblong in shape and are thicker with less seeds than most other tomatoes. Roma is the most common variety. This makes them great candidates for stews, salsas, sauces and paste.
• Heirloom Tomato – An heirloom is generally considered to be a variety that has been passed down, through several generations of a family and most seeds are characterized as being introduced before 1940. There are many different varieties of heirlooms, but all are certainly prized for their superior taste and colorful characteristics.
• Beefsteak Tomatoes – The granddaddy of tomatoes and can weigh over two pounds but are usually around a pound or so. Generally meaty and thick they can be used for all types of cooking or garnishes.
• Tomatillos – A plant of the tomato family that when grown is surrounded by a paper-like husk. The husk turns brown and the fruit will be any number of colors when ripe. Tomatillos can by very inconsistent in flavor, with some being sour and others tasting mild and sweet. Tomatillos are the key ingredient in many Latin American dishes.
Most kinds of tomatoes have four kinds of tissue: a thin, tough cuticle or skin, the outer fruit wall, the central pith and a semi-liquid jelly and juice surrounding the seeds. The wall tissue contains most of the sugars and amino acids while the concentration of acid is in the jelly and juice. Many cooks who prepare the tomatoes for cooking by removing the seedy jelly and juice or the skin (as I did for many years!) are actually changing the flavor balance in favor of sweetness and also sacrificing some of the aroma.
Oven Dried Tomatoes
Sun dried tomatoes are useful in everything from stews to salads to pasta and pizza toppings. Drying them in your oven is not only super easy, it’s also super economical and brings that lovely sun warmed tomato taste to your cooking even in the depth of winter.
• 5 pounds (2.5 kg) Roma (oval) tomatoes
• Fine sea salt
Preheat oven to 200 degrees F. or the lowest setting possible. Trim ends of the tomatoes. Halve each tomato lengthwise. Arrange the tomatoes; cut side up, side-by-side and crosswise on cake racks set on the oven racks. (Actually any tomato can be dried and preserved. Plum and grape tomatoes should be sliced lengthwise, but its best to slice big round varieties across the axis.) Do not let the tomatoes touch one another. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Place in the oven and bake until the tomatoes are shriveled and feel dry, anywhere from 6 to 12 hours. Check the tomatoes from time to time: They should remain rather flexible, not at all brittle. Once dried, remove the tomatoes from the oven and allow them to thoroughly cool on cake racks. (Be careful, smaller tomatoes will dry more quickly than larger ones so test various sizes for dryness giving larger tomatoes more time.)
Also, you can easily store these in a zip bag in your pantry without any ill effects. They can also be frozen. For the first time this year I actually tried putting them in a couple of jars of olive oil. I was told that not only do they preserve the tomatoes well, but also you end up getting some great flavored olive oil for salad dressings and grilled bread!
Upturned Spicy Bloody Mary Martini
Bloody Mary’s were invented in 1920 by an American bartender named Fernand Petiot in Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, France. The original recipe called for equal parts of vodka and tomato juice.
Day 16 of the aforementioned Tomato recipes from Brent and Josh is for an awesome Bloodless Bloody Mary recipe. I’m not sure I can wait a whole week for the tomato water to form so here’s a bit quicker version that will still serve to impress. In my travels I ran across a Spicy Mary martini and found that I liked it best when I put some of the old and new worlds together!
• 3 to 4 Spicy Mary Cubes (see below)
• 2 oz Vodka
• Splash of lemon juice
• Splash of Tabasco
• Pickled okra, celery, lemon or Chile pepper for garnish
Ingredients for Spicy Mary Mix
• 12 medium vine-ripe tomatoes
• 1/2 cup water
• 2 ribs celery, coarsely chopped
• 1/2 small yellow onion, coarsely chopped
• 1 clove garlic, crushed
• 1 Tbs. sugar
• 2 tsp. salt
• 2 Tbs. lemon juice
• 2 Tbs. prepared horseradish
• 3 Tbs. Worcestershire sauce
• 2 tsp. celery salt
• 1 ½ tsp. Old Bay seasoning
First make Spicy Mary Mix for Spice Mary ice cubes. Remove cores from tomatoes and cut tomatoes into pieces. Place in large saucepan with water, celery, onion, garlic, sugar, and salt. Cover and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally for 20 minutes or until tomatoes are soft. Using a colander or sieve, strain tomato mixture into a large bowl, pushing on tomato pieces to extract all juice. Discard solids.
Return strained mixture to pot over low heat. Stir in lemon juice, horseradish, Worcestershire, celery salt, and Old Bay seasoning. Simmer uncovered for 10 minutes. Let cool.
Pour some of the Spicy Bloody Mary mix into an ice cube tray and freeze.
When ready to serve, put several of the Bloody Mary Mix Ice Cubes into a glass. Combine the vodka, lemon juice, and Tabasco in a cocktail shaker filled with ice shake vigorously, and strain over the Mary cubes. Garnish as desired. The longer you let the martini sit, the more the cubes will infuse into the drink!
Note: For any left over juice not made into cubes, simply refrigerate until serving. The juice may separate overnight and require additional stirring or shaking.