Tomatoes are calling: Are you answering?
by LeAnn Locher, PQ Monthly
Just because the stores are touting back to school specials and trucking out their Halloween décor does not mean summer is over in Portland. I insist it’s high time for summer produce, and that means tomatoes. Tomatoes didn’t start producing until July and August, and come September, they’re just now reaching their zenith. Lucky for us! Help extend summer well into the winter by enjoying them as much as you can now, and preserving some for later.
Eat tomatoes now
Classic caprese: slice fresh tomatoes, julienne fresh basil leaves, and combine on a plate topped with slices of the best mozzarella you can find. Splash some balsamic vinegar and olive oil on top, salt and pepper to taste, and you have the essence of summer on a plate. This right here is what I crave in February.
Fresh tomato soup: Fresh tomato soup tastes nothing like that crap in a can. Slice in half roma tomatoes, place face down on an oiled, lipped baking pan, add several whole cloves of garlic, fennel seeds, salt and pepper. Roast in a 425 degree oven for 45 minutes, or until the tomatoes have turned crinkly and began to brown on top. In a soup pot, add the roasted tomatoes and garlic and a container of chicken broth. Using an immersion blender, blend it all up, right there in the soup pot. Add fresh herbs from the garden — I like thyme, sage, and rosemary. If you like a little heat, throw in a pinch of red chili pepper flakes. Bring to a boil, then simmer until reaching the consistency you prefer (usually 20 minutes or so).
Tomato tart: Decadence and deliciousness, this is my favorite late summer dinner party food. Think of an upside down pineapple tart, but instead make with caramelized onions and cherry tomatoes. To make the Tomato Tart (inspired by Mark Bittman, New York Times):
Caramelized Tomato Tarte Tatin
Prepared pie crust
2 T unsalted butter
3 red onions, thinly sliced (yes, use all of them: it’s a lot, but delicious)
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon sherry vinegar
1/4 cup chopped pitted Kalamata olives
1 lb cherry or grape tomatoes (I also mix in slices of heirlooms from the garden)
1 T chopped fresh thyme leaves
Salt and pepper
1. Preheat oven to 425. Make your pie crust (sans sugar). Roll out into a 10-inch round and place close by your tart pan.
2. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and a pinch of sugar and cook, stirring, until onions are golden and caramelized (20 minutes). Add 2 T water and let cook off, scraping brown bits from bottom of pan. Transfer onions to a bowl.
3. In a clean, ovenproof 9-inch skillet, combine 1/4 cup sugar and 3 T water. Cook over medium heat, swirling pan gently (do not stir) until sugar melts and turns amber, 5 to 10 minutes. Add vinegar and swirl gently.
4. Sprinkle olives over caramel. Scatter tomatoes over olives, then sprinkle onions on. Season with thyme leaves, salt and pepper. Top with piecrust, tucking edges into pan. Cut vent on top of crust.
5. Bake tart until crust is golden, about 30 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes, then run knife around pastry to loosen it from pan, and flip tart onto a serving platter. Cut into wedges and serve immediately.
Preserve them now for savoring this winter
Slow roasted and in the freezer: The technique I described above for the tomato soup is also my favorite way to preserve tomatoes. Slow roasting them brings out the natural sugars and heightens their flavor, prepping them for easily creating sauce and soup bases all winter long. After roasting, let tomatoes cool, then slide them and their juices into freezer bags. Label and stack in your freezer.
Tomato jam: Spicy, sweet. and delicious, tomato jam is the perfect addition to a turkey sandwich or to the holiday cheese plate. Yes, believe it or not cinnamon, chili, and tomatoes do go together in an all around fantastic combination.
To make tomato jam (from foodinjars.com):
5 pounds tomatoes, finely chopped
3 1/2 cups sugar
8 tablespoons lime juice
2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon red chili flakes
Combine all ingredients in a large, non-reactive pot. Bring to a boil and then reduce temperature to a simmer. Stirring regularly, simmer* the jam until it reduces to a sticky, jammy mess. This will take between 1 and 1 1/2 hours, depending on how high you keep your heat.
When the jam has cooked down sufficiently, remove from heat and fill jars, leaving 1/4 inch of head space. Wipe rims, apply lids and twist on rings. Process in a boiling water canner for 20 minutes.
When time is up, remove jars from water bath and allow them to cool. When jars are cool enough to handle, test seals. Store jars in a cool, dark place for up to one year.
Tomato sauce: I’m not Italian but I like to think I am when canning tomato sauce. Loaded with herbs and fresh tomato flavor, jars of tomato sauce line my shelves promising brightness to winter days. Not sugary sweet or chock full of preservatives like the ones at the grocery store, I use sauce for homemade pizza, as well as a base for vegetables and browned ground turkey. My favorite recipe to use is from Barbara Kingsolver in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.
Learn from experience
If you’ve had success in your garden this summer, make notes now for next year. Speaking of, our tomatoes are producing! Here’s what I learned this year …
- Wait to plant. Just because Texans are planting their tomatoes doesn’t mean you should. Planting in early June meant my tomato plants weren’t shivering in our cool, seemingly endless springs.
- Give them some breathing room. I’ve been known to crowd a bed, and this year I didn’t. With eight plants in a 12-foot raised bed, everyone has room to grow. And they did!
- Red plastic sheet cover really does work. I had read the research and since it was a tested and proven advantage, I went for it. The red plastic really does work, reflecting the right light rays that specifically helps to grow tomatoes and strawberries. It may look weird, but hey, I’ll take it.
- Keep the watering on an even keel. Even though we spent a lot of time away and at play this summer, hiring our neighbor teen to water was wise. The plants never stressed out, and now they’re producing like crazy.
- Favorites this year? Chocolate cherry, red zebra, and yellow taxi: as delicious as they are beautiful.
LeAnn Locher is an OSU Extension Master Gardener who gardens in North Portland. You can reach her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sassygardener.