Smack dab in the middle of tomato harvest, some suggestions on the best ways to enjoy them
Everywhere you turn this time of year you will find local, farm-fresh tomatoes. I am sad to say that our home garden was not a priority this year. We only have a few plants that are minimally producing but I am ever thankful for the farmer’s markets and fruit stands throughout our beautiful valley that allow us all to get our fix.
Red, green, yellow, orange, purple, striped, round, oval, small, large, soft and firm, my family is not picky, just demanding. We love them all. Going to the fruit stand with my daughter is worse than visiting the candy aisle at the super market. She gets all excited and wants one of each color tomato shape and size, making me regret having not planted more tomatoes this year. How can I deny this request when she reminds me that tomatoes are a “mom-healthy option?” Culinarily speaking, they are vegetables, but I do continue to remind my two young challengers that tomatoes are, in fact, a fruit.
So it’s no surprise that every trip to the farmer’s market or fruit stand we end up with an overabundance of tomatoes. Tomato demands in our family are always high, however, I prefer to buy them fresh locally when they are in season. Tomato season does not last forever, so we like to get creative with them while we can. It was difficult, but here are my top 10 ways to prepare and eat a tomato:
1. Right off the vine!
Is there any comparison to a warm, sun-ripened tomato that has just come off the vine? I would argue no. No salt, no dressing, no mess. A tomato picked at its peak is a delicacy of its own.
2. Rayna’s tomato salad.
My daughter’s favorite and one she proudly makes all by herself has been named after her. Gather a variety of colorful ripe heirloom tomatoes (no duplicating colors here), roughly chop them and simply toss with your best olive oil (I like Olio Santo, California), coarse kosher salt and fresh cracked Tellicherry peppercorns. Makes for a simple snack or side dish. Be careful, there will not be any leftovers.
3. Caprese salad.
My family could have this at every meal during tomato season. So much so that I was sure to bring plenty of the ingredients on every camping trip this summer. Layer fresh mozzarella (not the rubbery kind), fresh basil leaves (whole or gently sliced) and ripe heirloom tomatoes in repeating rows. Lightly drizzle with your best olive oil, sea salt and fresh peppercorns. If you have a favorite slightly sweet balsamic vinegar, a little drop here and there makes a nice finishing touch.
Simple and nostalgic. Who can turn down a perfect BLT on a hot summer day? Lunch or dinner, I don’t care. Crisp or soft, I am not picky about the bacon as long as it makes an appearance. Lightly toasted or grilled artisan bread, butter or mayo (your preference), bacon, crisp tender greens, big slices of juicy ripe tomatoes and my mouth is watering. If you happen to have an avocado available, it would be a nice addition to the sandwich party.
5. Caprese panini.
Don’t even get me started! If you like the salad version, just wait to you sink your teeth into this sandwich. Two slices of artisan bread — a sourdough is good here, but not a strong one — buttered on the outside, layered with thin slices of fresh mozzarella, whole basil leaves and farmer’s market tomatoes, salt and pepper. Grill on a panini maker until the cheese tries to escape and the tomato juices sizzle. Grab a napkin and dive in. It’s hot out, I know, but you will be in heaven.
6. Tomato cucumber salad.
Like vinegar? If you like a little tang, this salad is for you. Chop firm but ripe tomatoes and toss with farm-fresh chopped cucumbers. Toss with seasoned rice vinegar and salt and pepper. Simple, addicting and refreshing. (Be sure to use seasoned rice vinegar, not unseasoned, which is too harsh).
7. Simple tomato sauce.
My go to for weeknight pasta dishes, pizza and calzones. A staple in our household and one I teach often in my cooking classes. In a large sauce pan, heat enough olive oil to generously coat the bottom of the pan. (Olive oil is part of the flavor here). When oil becomes warm add in a half-teaspoon of red pepper flakes. This is for flavor and a little spice, not so much for heat. Adding the pepper in the beginning will infuse the oil. Add 4 minced garlic cloves and sauté 30 seconds. Add 2-4 cups of fresh chopped (or pureed) ripe tomatoes, skins, seeds and all. Bring tomatoes to a simmer and cook until desired consistency, 5-10 minutes. Season with salt and fresh ground pepper and don’t forget a large handful of fresh chopped basil. Off the heat I add either a little pat of butter or a small drizzle of heavy cream to round out the flavor and make my taste buds happy. Toss over hot cooked pasta and top with cheese.
What would tomato season be without a few servings of fresh bruschetta? Tomatoes were meant to be intermingled with garlic and basil right? Have fun with color here and chop up your favorite garden tomatoes, toss with good olive oil, fresh minced garlic, thinly sliced basil, salt and pepper. Spoon the tomato mixture atop French bread slices and garnish with fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano. Take your time and savor each bite.
9. Grilled salsa.
Yes, grill your tomatoes! Grill all the salsa ingredients actually. Heat a grill over medium high heat (this can also be done in a skillet on the stove top). Grill 3-4 whole medium sized tomatoes, 4 peeled garlic cloves, and one whole jalapeño (optional) until hot and charred in spots. Hand chop charred tomatoes, garlic and jalapeño or pulse quickly in a blender/food processor until you have reached desired consistency. Season with salt, pepper and large handful fresh chopped cilantro. (If you are not anti-cilantro). The grilled flavor really makes all the difference.
10. Fried green tomatoes.
Rent the movie, fry the tomatoes and sit back and relax for a little fun. I was so excited to find large green tomatoes the other day at the fruit stand. My nephew pointed out that I selected unripe tomatoes. Little did he know! We were having a family gathering and it was the perfect time to have a little fun with the kids. Sliced quarter-inch thick, lightly dipped in buttermilk then tossed in an equal flour/cornmeal mixture seasoned with salt and pepper, these little beauties fried up nicely in just a few minutes on each side in vegetable oil. Crisp golden, tangy, crunchy and hot in the middle made for a great summer side dish.
I am sure there are endless ways to incorporate fresh garden tomatoes into your routine, so keep in mind some other tomato friendly ingredients to experiment with; arugula, lemon, bell peppers, onions, shallots, goat cheese, mozzarella, Gorgonzola, chilies, chives, mint, parsley, thyme, oregano, fennel, vinegars and watermelon.
Let’s get cooking!