Reveling in the season’s tomato bounty, from pasta sauce to easy preserving
Photo: April McGreger
Would a summer without garden-grown tomatoes really be summer at all? For me, summer is: tomatoes ripening on the windowsill; picking the hornworms off the tomato plants; a huge bowl of tomatoes on the kitchen counter; tomatoes at every single meal; farmer’s markets so packed with dazzling tomato colors and sensual shapes, they outshine the fresh-cut flowers.
I relish the first tomatoes of the season in their purest, raw form: tomato sandwiches, BLTs; cucumber-tomato salads; classic panzanella salad of tomato-drenched crusty bread, scented with intoxicating fresh basil and briny with anchovies & capers; and simple stacks of olive oil-drizzled, salted, jewel-toned tomatoes. But alas, the time comes when I want something different. Finally, it’s time to cook them.
My idea of tomato sauce was changed forever the summer that I spent on the Aeolian island of Stromboli off the coast of Sicily, gathering seismic data which would be the basis for my master’s thesis in geology. I was there to study geology, but it was the rich food culture of this tiny, isolated island that captured my imagination. In the tiny market in the village, deep-red cherry tomatoes hung from the rafters by their 4-foot plus brown stems.
The tomatoes were sold semi-dried, following an old Sicilian tradition of hanging small cherry tomatoes outside in the sun for three to four days after harvest to profoundly concentrate their flavors. My Italian colleagues turned these tomatoes into the quickest, easiest, most succulent pasta sauces that I had ever eaten. Using the sweet 100 or sungold cherry tomatoes from my own garden and farmer’s market produces a close approximation, and it remains the first cooked tomato dish that I turn to in the summer.
Following the Sicilian sentiment that excess water is the enemy of tomatoes, I have found the best tomatoes for this sauce are often grown by young farmers or new farmers who haven’t yet saved up the capital to put in an irrigation system. Without the irrigation, the farmer’s tomatoes may not grow as large or yield as much, but they will be the most delicious. Like wine grapes, you see, tomatoes benefit from a bit of suffering.
Briefly, I am content with impeccable fresh tomatoes and an intensely flavored, effortless, and fresh sauce. That contentment quickly subsides and every glorious tomato I pass by at the farmer’s market looks like a missed opportunity to preserve the pleasure for when the bounty ends. Lives get busy; summer vacations draw us away from our gardens and our kitchens; and yet, the seasons roll on. Before we know it, the seemingly endless supply of tomatoes will start to dwindle whether or not we’ve made time to capture these nuanced flavors for enjoyment beyond the dog days of summer. Months without a taste of the dark & smoky Cherokee Purple, the bright yellow Kellogg’s Breakfast, or the zippy striped Green Zebra seems unbearable and, thankfully, unnecessary.
I get to work putting a few pints by here and there. Similarly to the Sicilian semi-sundried tomatoes, large and juicy heirloom tomatoes can be slow-roasted in a low oven to reduce excess liquid, concentrate flavor, and increase acidity. Plus, we can keep the oven at such a low temperature that it doesn’t even heat up the house. As an added bonus, this method couldn’t be easier. There’s no peeling or seeding involved. Even if you don’t can them, they will keep covered in olive oil for several months in your refrigerator, where they will serve as your secret weapon. Chop for an instant pasta sauce; add zip to beans or soups; use as the basis for roasted tomato vinaigrette; pair with fresh mozzarella & a loaf of bread for a perfect picnic. The possibilities are endless, and the flavor is unparalleled. So what are you waiting for?
Roasted Heirloom Tomatoes
If you like you can pack different varieties of tomatoes in alternating layers in your canning jar, or you can separate them by color for more distinctive tastes and hues.
Makes about 3 pint jars
10 pounds heirloom tomatoes
1 head of garlic, cloves separated but not peeled
A couple of shallots, halved, but not peeled, optional
A handful of thyme sprigs
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2-3 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
Your favorite fresh herbs for tomatoes–basil, marjoram, or oregano
A few dried red chili peppers, optional
Line 2 sheet pans with parchment paper or foil. Preheat your oven to 250 degrees F.
Rinse your tomatoes, and slice them in half across their equator, or into thirds if they are particularly large. Line them on the baking sheet in a single layer, seed side up. Drizzle generously with olive oil. Scatter the garlic cloves, shallots, garlic, and thyme over the tomatoes. Sprinkle each tray of tomatoes with 1 teaspoon of salt.
Place the tomatoes in the oven and roast for about 6 hours, until much of the tomato juices have evaporated, and the slices have shrunk to about ½ their original size.
Let the tomatoes cool at room temperature. Then with a spatula transfer the slices to your very clean pint jars (wide mouth canning jars will be easiest to deal with.) Layer fresh basil, or your preferred herb, between the slices of tomato, as well as the cloves of garlic and shallots that you squeeze from their hulls. Leave about 1 inch of headspace at the top of each jar.
Choose your Preserving Method
• Short-term: top with a 1 inch thick layer of olive oil and a clean lid, and they will keep in your refrigerator for 3-4 months.
• Long-term: Top the jars off with a thin layer of olive oil, leaving a good inch of head space. Date the jars and place them without lids into the freezer. Because liquid expands as it freezes, it is best to let the jars freeze without lids first to be sure that the jars to not crack. After your tomatoes are frozen, you can top with clean lids, and they will keep for up to one year. Alternately, pack the tomatoes in quart freezer bags, date them, and keep them for up to 1 year in your freezer.
• Long Term Shelf – Pack tomatoes into sterilized jars, leaving about 1 inch of head space. Add 1 teaspoon of lemon juice or red wine vinegar to your tomatoes and top off with extra virgin olive oil, leaving a final 1/2 -inch of head space. The added lemon juice or vinegar increases the acidity of your tomatoes even further to prevent the growth toxins or bacteria. Top with sterilized lids. Line the bottom of a large pot or canning kettle with a folded dishtowel. Place your jars of tomatoes in the kettle on top of the dish towel at least ½ inch apart. Fill the pot with water until it covers the tops of the jars by at least one inch. Bring the pot of water to a low boil. Adjust the heat to maintain a steady simmer and process the jars for 30 minutes. Carefully remove the jars with a jar lifter and place on a clean towel to cool completely without disturbing. Store on a cool, dry shelf for up to 1 year.
Massimo’s Pasta Stromboli
Don’t skimp on the amount of olive oil in this pasta sauce and try to use a Mediterranean one with a nice, fruity taste. It really makes the dish.
Serves about 4
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 pints cherry tomatoes, such as Sweet 100 or Sun Golds, whole
2/3 cup of good green olives, such as Picholine
about 20 fresh oregano or marjoram leaves or about ½ teaspoon of either, dried
3-4 dried hot peppers, optional
A teaspoon of salt-brined capers, rinsed and chopped (skip if all you have are the pickled kind)
1 pound penne or rigatoni pasta
Bring a large pot of salty water to boil. Cook the pasta until al dente, reserving some pasta water.
While the pasta cooks, make the sauce. First, with the side of your chef’s knife, smash the olives and remove the pits. Set aside.
Then, heat a large skillet or sauté pan with the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly, for only about 15-30 seconds, until it just begins to color.
Add the tomatoes, oregano or marjoram (reserve a few fresh leaves for sprinkling at the end), pitted olives, capers and hot peppers, if using, and cook until the tomatoes just begin to burst, about 5 minutes.
Add the cooked pasta to the skillet and cook over high heat, stirring, for an additional minute to marry the flavors. Moisten with a tablespoon of olive oil and/or a bit of pasta water, garnish with the reserved herbs, and serve immediately.