Reap the benefits of summer tomatoes

Published on Wednesday, 23 July 2014 00:30 - Written by Christine Gardner, food@tylerpaper.com

We wait for months for the first beautiful and juicy, ripe tomato. It’s a favorite flavor of summer and then as soon as we take the first bite —there are so many around we don’t know what to do with them all.

Whether you grow them yourself, buy them at the grocery store, farmers market, or take advantage of a friend’s surplus. it’s that time of summer when tomato crops are coming in by the basket full.

It makes you wonder, in Jacksonville, which came first — the famous tomatoes or the equally profitable basket company?

My tomato plethora comes from planting too many plants. This is my first year to plant from seed and when you see those tiny little seeds you don’t think just one will produce a whole tomato plant —but now I know. I’ve learned many lessons this year about gardening — mainly about overplanting and underestimating the power of one tiny seed.

I planted five varieties of tomatoes — Italian Roma, Italian San Marzano, French Crimson Carmello, Black Cherry tomatoes and Italian Genovese. Most of the seeds came from reneesgarden.com. They offer a wonderful variety of heirloom, organic seeds that might be European in origin, but grown well in a variety of climate zones.

The Genovese and Roma were starter plants. Genovese are beautiful and delicious, globe-shaped, ribbed heirlooms that taste best when they ripen to deep red. Pick them when they are orange and they taste bitter.

The Romas came from someone who bought too many plants and he gave me four of his plants. That was plenty. Two would have been enough.

The Roma plants have produced the most tomatoes. However, most of the other varieties have been slow. Although the black cherry has started to come on strong in the last week, the others still need a few weeks.

My guess is that the slow production is from overcrowded plants or the cool spring temperatures that lasted through May. Time will tell — as flowers are still setting and look like they will continue to produce fruit through August.

So, the big question is what to do with all these tomatoes? I’ve been eating as many as possible, but a few bags a week go to friends. When I have an excess of the heirlooms I take them to the Ripe vegetable store at 12239 U.S. Highway 64 west to be sold.

I also have taken some of my Italian Romanesco zucchini to Ripe, and will maybe have some Peppermint Swiss Chard and a variety of eggplants to share, as well.

Fortunately, the tomato solution showed up in my inbox on Sunday morning — a recipe for Roasted Tomato Sauce that was easy, foolproof and yielded great results.

I simply spread whole Roma tomatoes

on a rimmed baking sheet – as many as I could fit on a 12 x 16 pan. It was roughly 40 medium-sized Romas. Then they are tossed in a small amount of olive oil, salt and sugar.

The tomatoes roast for one hour at 450 degrees. Then they are removed from the oven and cooled to room temperature. Cooling is important because some of the juices solidify and the skins and pulp have a chance to thicken and caramelize.

The next step requires a specific piece of equipment – a food mill. There really is no substitute unless you have an authentic tomato press, and those are even harder to find than food mills.

The food mill does a great job of separating the skin and seeds from the pulp. What’s great about this recipe is that most of the water from the tomatoes remains in the pan. The result is a thick tomato sauce that looks like it was poured from a can, but, even better, it’s fresh and at a peak of flavor.

I placed the food mill over an 8-cup measuring bowl. Then I spooned the whole tomatoes, straight from the baking sheet, into the food mill in small batches.

Here’s an important tip to ensuring a thick sauce – use a slotted spoon to place the tomatoes into the food mill. Leave all of the liquid that is expelled from the tomatoes in the pan. This yields a nice thick sauce that is not watered down.

I ended up with four cups of thick tomato sauce. The sauce can then go through the canning process, or simply freeze it in a zip top bag.

Four cups was perfect for a gallon size bag, which I froze flat to make for easy storage. I hope you will give this sauce a try. And let me know if you have other great ideas for using up your summer vegetable plethora.

I picked today’s feature story about the blueberries because blueberry farms are closing for the season and it’s always nice to have some on hand, whether preserved or frozen.

They are my favorite summer fruit and I am always looking for new ways to use them.

Echo Springs Blueberry Farm in Brownsboro is still open and they have blueberries ready for picking. Give them a call before you go. 903-852-5277.

Roasted Tomato Sauce

INGREDIENTS

7 pounds whole ripe tomatoes

2 tablepsoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon sugar

DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, toss the tomatoes with the olive oil, salt and sugar. Place in a single layer on a sheet pan lined with foil. You may need more than one sheet pan. Roast in the oven for 1 hour. In small batches, transfer the roasted tomatoes with a slotted spoon into the bowl of the food mill. Crank the food mill until all of the pulp has passed through the bottom and all that is left is skin and seeds. Turn the handle in both directions to make sure you are extracting as much juice and tomato flesh as possible. Once you have finished with the food mill, the tomato sauce can be placed in a large sauce pot and cooked over medium heat for 15 minutes, or until sauce has thickened and reduced to a texture you like. Add more salt or sugar to desired taste. You can cook it for an hour or even longer for a very thick sauce. (I did not do this step as I will use the sauce later in marinara and it will cook and reduce in that recipe.)

Recipe adapted from toriavery.com