Viva Tomate!

This just in: “Tomatoes are coming! You’ve written a lot about preserving, so how about some of your favorite fresh dishes as well as a thought or two on preserving tomatoes?”

It will be my great pleasure! I walked the tomatoes at Neighborhood Gardeners with Grant, and the smell is still fresh in my mind; to me, there’s nothing like the aroma of growing tomatoes that says ‘garden’ more. I envy y’all the amazing varieties you’re gonna enjoy, especially among the heirloom stuff that you’ll simply never, ever see in a store.

OK, so fresh stuff first:

With beautiful heirloom ‘maters, (Southern for Tomato…), you’ve simply got to do a dish or two that lets the fruit speak; here’s another fantastic amuse bouche.

Simply take a tomato or two of your favorite variety, slice them about ¼” thick, arrange on a plate, season with a little sea salt and a light drizzle of olive oil, and that is that – You don’t need anything more and this way, you really get to enjoy the depth and character of a truly good tomato!

Next comes sauce, because you simply must do this as well. This version is a take on a classic Pomarola, (Known over here as Marinara, this is how to really do it; nothing like the commercial crap out there…) There are a bunch of varieties, this is my take on a Sicilian style.


Salsa alla Pomarola

1 lb of tomatoes, blanched, cored, peeled and rough chopped (About ¾”)
4 or 5 sun dried tomatoes preserved in olive oil, (See below and make your own!)
5 or 6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 carrot, fine diced
1 celery stalk, fine diced
5 or 6 fresh basil leaves

Sauté garlic, carrot, and celery in olive oil until carrots are fork tender.
Add tomatoes, ½ cup white wine, 3 tblspns of olive oil and bring to a simmer.
Fine dice, grind or process your sun-dried tomatoes into a nice paste; add this to the simmering good stuff. Let the mix cook for 1 hour, covered.

Remove sauce from heat, and blend thoroughly, (Blender, food processor, or my personal fave, a stick blender, AKA boat motor)

Return blended sauce to heat, add 4 ounces of butter, and allow to simmer for about 15 minutes more.

Chiffenade your basil leaves, and grate some fresh Parmigiano, Pecorino Romano, or Asiago cheese.

Serve over angel hair pasta, garnished with fresh basil and cheese.

OK, how about a super simple, cool summer tomato dish?

Tomato – Avocado Salad

3 tomatoes, blanched, peeled, cored and diced
1 avocado, peeled and diced
1 small bulb Shallot, minced
Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper to taste

Combine tomato, avocado and shallot, mix gently in a non-reactive bowl. Add roughly 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve straight up, or with toasted Italian or French bread, lightly brushed with a garlic clove.

How about another, since we’re on a string of 100+ degree days down here? This is my take on an Spanish favorite:

Gazpacho Andaluz (Cold Tomato Soup)

2 pounds tomatoes, roasted, peeled, and cored
1 clove of garlic
½ Lemon Cucumber, peeled and cored
½ red, orange, or yellow bell pepper, roasted and peeled
½ cup day old bread, diced ¼”
¼ cup Olive Oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Salt and Pepper to taste

To roast your tomatoes and peppers, cut them in half, brush lightly with olive oil and put them on your grill or under a broiler until the skins start to blacken; pull ‘em out and let ‘em cool before prepping further.

Put the whole shebang in a blender or food processor, (Or have at it with the boat motor) until everything is smoothly blended. Place in a non-reactive bowl or container and refrigerate for at least 3 hours.

Serve with a dollop of plain yogurt in the middle of a cup or bowl of soup, and a nice piece of bread to wipe it all up with!

And finally, tomato desert, you ask? Absolutely… Keep in mind, technically, tomatoes are fruit, not vegetables, and as such, they make fine deserts indeed!

Tomato Granita

2 pounds tomatoes of your choice, (Naturally, go for something nice and sweet!)
1.5 tablespoons fresh lime juice, (FRESH, NOT bottled!)
¼ cup fresh cilantro
salt
Optional: For a version with zing, add a moderately hot chile of your choice, blanched, peeled and veined.

Blanch all your ‘maters, then peel ‘em and put everything into a blender, food processor, or have at ‘em with the boat motor.

After blending, run the mixture through a chinoise or strainer, (A chinoise, the conical metal strainer, is really perfect for this kind of thing and super handy for canning and preserving; get one.)

Pour your strained mixture into a glass baking dish big enough to allow the layer to be roughly ½” thick or so.

Set the dish on your freezer for around an hour, or until the mix looks frozen around the edges. Use a fork or small spatula to scrape all the icy part into the middle of the dish, then let it freeze some more. Keep repeating this cycle about every half hour or so until everything is frozen evenly.

Serve in a martini glass with a little sprig of mint.

You can easily prepare Granita the day before as well!

So, preserving, eh?

Well, here again, my favorites are canning and drying.

As for canning, while traditionally tomatoes are done via the hot water method due to their relatively high acidity, I think that pressure canning yields better and more intense flavor; also, if you’re canning tomato-based sauce, you really do need to pressure can for your safety.

There are lots of canned tomato recipes out there, so I won’t go into specifics about that, other than to say that you should certainly can tomatoes in your favorite styles; if you like the Pomarola, make a bunch and can it. I like to use several versions of tomatoes when I cook; sometimes I want whole, sometimes crushed, sometimes sauce, sometimes puree – If that’s the case for you, too, then can all your favorite versions and, this winter, enjoy a level of taste and quality no store will ever, ever touch!

Drying:

Sun dried tomatoes are a huge treat; nothing but the sun adds such intense flavor in them!

Slice your favorites ¼” thick and lay them out to dry, (Or use a dehydrator, if you must.) Dried tomato flake is a wonderful thing to have in your spice cabinet, so cut those slices into roughly ¾” pieces and dry those – You can add them to soups, stews, eggs, all kinds of things. Quarter or half your favorite variety, dry them and then preserve those in olive oil; they’re unbelievable on pizza, or with smoked chicken, basil and mozzarella cheese in a grilled sandwich. Finally, put dried tomatoes into a coffee grinder, (Do you have one of these just for spice? NO? GET ONE!! You can find used grinders for a couple of bucks at a second hand place; I keep two around just for spices – We all know that spice lasts longer and tastes better if kept whole; store yours this way and grind what you need when you need it; you get better flavor, longer lasting spice, and lower cost to boot.) Anyway, back to those tomatoes…. Grind them into powder, and you can add that to soup, stew, or to biscuit, pasta, pizza or tortilla dough for a fantastic flavor and a very cool look too!

This weeks other mail bag question: “you wrote about not using table salt for canning, what about for cooking? I see a lot of salts out there, is there really any difference?”

Short answer; ye Gods, YES! Excellent question and thank you for not letting me gloss over this; let’s talk about salt and pepper, since they’re the main go-to seasonings.

One of the main things about good restaurant food, or great restaurant food versus yours, maybe, is the nature and quality of seasoning. Great chefs don’t need nor use 14 things in one dish; they use 1 to maybe 4 or 5 max. The idea of seasoning is to enhance flavor, not overcome or mask it. Salt is incredibly versatile and absolutely necessary in cooking as far as I am concerned, and pepper runs a close second.

Notice that even in relatively sweet dishes, like the roasted corn salsa we made a while back, there is salt; this is because it definitely enhances flavor when used properly, and by used properly, I mean not overused!

That said, what salt you use matters a great deal. Treat salt no differently than any other ingredient; in other words, would you settle for a lousy cut of beef or veggies that weren’t fresh as you can get ’em? No, of course not, so don’t settle for sub-par seasonings either! Plain ol’ table salt is crap – NO flavor, treated with iodine, and terrible for seasoning and cooking. The bottom line is, If I have to buy salt from the grocery, I get either untreated sea or Kosher salt and so should you; read your labels so you know what’s really in there! I use good quality salt from a known source with nothing but salt in it; (Even Morton Kosher salt has prussiate of soda in it as an anti-caking agent; I neither need nor want that in my food, frankly…).

OK, on to the second part of the question, regarding the varieties out there and whether they’re worth it or not: Short answer, you betcha! I just went and counted, and I have 11, count ’em 11 varieties of salt in my pantry, including; curing, kosher, a couple varieties of smoked, (Alder and Mesquite), sea salt, sel de mer, Janes, Utah Basin, Murray River Flake, Hawaiian, and Black. Each and every one has a completely unique flavor profile that lends itself to certain styles and genres of cooking. For me, it’s a requirement; you don’t probably need that many, but two or three really good salts will serve you well and make your food taste that much better.

Similarly, plain ol’ black I-don’t-have-a-clue-where-it’s-from-or-what-variety-it-is pepper is junk. Pepper is a great baseline spice to add a little bit of zing to a dish without getting overboard or exotic; to me, good pepper is a must-have in, once again, more than one variety. Malabar or Tellicherry are great black peppers, with genuine flavor and consistent quality. That said, green, red, and white pepper have completely unique tastes that will go better with some things than black does. Our every day pepper here is a hand blended mix of all those colors and adds a really nice note to food. Once again, don’t buy it from the store; they may have it, but for what they charge for a tiny jar, you can and should buy a pound of good stuff online.

We’ll get into broad seasonings later on, but for now, suffice it to say that most of what you can get from the average grocery is crap and not worth your money. For dependable quality, you either have to go local with someone you know and trust, or buy online. Butcher and Packer and World Spice are tremendous spice resources; the quality is the best you’ll find anywhere, and the prices are seriously good; check them both out.

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