One Final Tribute to Summer, in a Pot of Sauce

I used to dream about San Marzano tomatoes, gladly shelling out three times the cost of a can of “regular” plum tomatoes for 28 ounces of pure Italian summer joy.  The low acid San Marzano variety is less sweet than other tomatoes, yielding an absolute superior flavor when used as the base for sauce.  They grow only in the small town of San Marzano, near Naples, and they are subject to the strict regulations of Denominazione di origine controllata that are used to certify authenticity of origin.

With all of this in mind, I was excited to be able to order San Marzano tomato plants for the garden this year.  They’ve provided a steady crop of plump roma fruit throughout the summer, and last weekend I harvested the last of the ripe tomatoes from the plants, along with a handful of basil.  The tomatoes sat on the kitchen island for a few days while I devised a proper way to say goodbye to summer.

As it turns out, the best use of San Marzano tomatoes will always be as the primary ingredient in sauce.  Since they are less sweet, and carry less moisture than other tomatoes, they’re not really the best thing to slice and eat like their larger beefsteak cousins.

I started by peeling the tomatoes (cut an ‘X’ into the base of each, place into boiling water for about 30-45 seconds, then hold under cold running water and strip the skin), slicing them in half to let the seeds drop into the sink.  I placed a generous mound of chopped garlic into a puddle of olive oil in a saucepan, letting that heat gently as I roughly chopped the tomatoes, tossing them into the pan once the garlic turned golden and aromatic.  A splash of white wine to the pan, then I let the whole thing cook slowly, breaking the tomatoes up with a spoon.

When we were ready to eat, I adjusted the seasoning of the sauce with sea salt, then added about a 1/4 cup of half and half.  It’s amazing to see and taste the differences between a plain tomato sauce and one that’s had a little dairy added to it.  Slivers of basil, stirred into the sauce at the very last minute, provided the perfect herbal companion.

And, at the time of this writing, it’s only three months before I can place my order for next summer’s tomato plants.  Until then, I’ll have to make do with what we’ve canned.

October 16, 2009   Comments

The Birth, Life, and Death of the Perfect Summer Tomato

Here’s an ugly confession: I’m very bad with keeping up with our garden.  I always begin the summer filled with great expectations of abundant crop yields, but by the end of July find myself with a box of bolted lettuce, cilantro that has since gone to seed, various weeds, and an eternal, neverending supply of mint.

With this firmly in mind, this year I built a second square foot garden exclusively for tomatoes and peppers.  I ordered a variety of tomatoes, some of which were cherry tomatoes for a deck box, from chileplants.com, which were shipped to me in the first week of June.  Overall, I planted four tomato plants in the 4-foot square box – two San Marzano plants, one Ramapo Hybrid (which was a substitute for the very popular Rutgers VFA) and one Mortgage Lifter, which produces particularly impressive beefsteak specimens.

As it turns out, I’m glad that I only planted four plants.  Given the rain that we’ve had (so much so that I never had to break out the sprinklers this year), the tomato plants thrived, growing outward in all directions.  They were relatively quiet during the first half of the summer, but a few weeks ago I noticed clusters of San Marzanos, and a fairly plentiful supply of Ramapo and Mortgage Lifter types.  Then, about a week later, the tomato plants really start to peak, yielding a bounty of robust red fruit at an alarming rate.  This required much discipline to remind myself to check the garden every afternoon to make sure we didn’t lose any to gravity.

On Sunday, we picked a particularly ripe Ramapo and let it sit on our kitchen island until yesterday, when we finally cut into it.  It turned out to be the most perfect summer tomato we’ve ever had.

Here’s the thing about tomatoes – so long as the skin remains intact, without any bruising or blemishes, a tomato will continue to ripen on your kitchen counter for several days without rotting.  As each day passes, the tomato will continue to concentrate its flavor, becoming a pure distillation of summer, barely contained by the thin layer of protection provided by its skin.  If you can time it just right, if you can abstain from eating it until the very last moment, when the essence of the tomato threatens to burst through its fragile shell, you will have one of the most memorable tomato experiences of your lifetime.

We decided to turn this perfect summer tomato into a simple meal of tomato sandwiches.  The preparation is as easy as can be, just layer freshly sliced tomatoes onto bread that’s been spread with mayonnaise, and top with some sea salt, black pepper, and sliced onion.  The sweetness of an ultra-ripe tomato plays nicely with the sharpness and crunch of the raw onion, and the sea salt just brings the whole thing together.  The result is an instant summer memory, one so strong that it will sustain you even through the darkest, coldest days of winter.

September 4, 2009   Comments

Yes, I Made The Ratatouille from Ratatouille

I stumbled across this photo while looking through my Picasa web album that serves as the host for all of the images on The Best Food Blog Ever.  I guess I uploaded it with the intention of writing about it and never did.  Since all I’ve seen for the better part of a week, when I looked out of my kitchen window, is not-melting-fast-enough piles of snow, I decided that it was time to write out-of-season again and try to pretend that we’re not weeks away from any true sense of spring.

In case this doesn’t look at all familiar, it is the dish from Pixar’s Ratatouille, which we’ve seen twice and absolutely love.  We had a dinner party planned, and I was inspired by the movie.  So, it was on one of those warm summer evenings last year that I got the crazy idea to try to replicate the titular dish from that movie.

The actual recipe that is represented here, and which appears in the movie, is Thomas Keller’s Confit Byaldi.  It’s a colorful mosaic of red, yellow, and orange peppers, tomatoes, Japanese eggplant, yellow squash, and green zucchini.

As would be expected, you spend the majority of your time in this recipe with the preparation and assembly – slicing all of the vegetables to an exacting thickness, then layering them in tight groups of seven colors in a spiral pattern in a roasting pan.  Beneath all of this is a simple tomato sauce accented with garlic, onion, and thyme, and the whole affair is liberally drizzled with a vinaigrette before being set into an oven for a couple of hours, then flashed under a broiler right before serving.

The result?  Sure, it’s pretty, but for the effort I probably wouldn’t attempt this dish again.  It takes quite a while to slice all of the vegetables (I used a truffle slicer, and even then it still took longer than expected), and in the end, the dish tastes exactly like its components – there’s no magical transformation, no ascension to some uber-level of otherworldly deliciousness, but then again Keller probably has access to better quality produce than I do.  It’s a great showcase for seasonal vegetables, to be sure, but you’d probably achieve the same overall taste with a quick chop, a saute in olive oil, and the addition of the same herb vinaigrette.

February 10, 2009   Comments

The Glorious Taste of Summer in the Dead of Winter

If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that we all tend to take a lot of things for granted.  Nowhere is this more true than with fresh summer produce, especially when we’re looking at single-digit temperatures with wind chills in negative territory.  Now, in the dead post-holiday slump that is otherwise known as January, summer seems so painfully lost in time, no matter if you are looking ahead or recalling last year’s crop.

It was with an immense sense of victory, then, that I snuck into my stash of canned tomatoes last week.  Having raided the local farm last August, we binged on fresh tomato sandwiches until we thought we would burst, and I slipped the last, best specimens into eleven Mason jars that were shuffled into a dark corner of the basement.  At that time, I told myself that one dark, bitterly cold day, I would thank myself for doing this.

That day, and many more like it, are upon us now.  I needed a sharp reminder of summer, something to get me through until the thawing frost gives way to new spring growth.  I wanted something simple and straightforward, so I went back to an old kitchen staple – spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce.

I dashed out into the yard, the frozen blades of grass crunching under my feet, and quickly snipped a few sprigs of thyme and a branch of rosemary from the garden, which is holding up amazingly well given the weather.  Hurrying back inside, I grabbed a Mason jar of canned tomatoes off of the bookshelf that we keep in the basement.

Starting with more than a few cloves of chopped garlic, set into a pan of olive oil over low heat, I set to making a simple pan sauce.  As the oil warmed the garlic and grew fragrant, I stripped the leaves off of the thyme and rosemary, coarsely chopping them and throwing them into the pan.  Just as the garlic began to color at its edges, I splashed in some red wine, then popped the lid off of the jar of tomatoes, shaking them into the pan.  A quick stir, followed by a gentle simmer for 45 minutes, yielded a garnet mixture that held the aroma of summer, its depth of flavor enhanced by the fall flavors of rosemary and red wine.

Dinner was as easy as boiling spaghetti and tossing the drained strands into the pan of sauce, with a small mound of grated romano to top it off.  Simple, restorative, and a reminder that no matter how cold, how barren the coming weeks become, summer will eventually follow.

January 12, 2009   Comments

My First Attempt at Canning is Not a Total Failure

Last year, shortly after all of the summer crops had given way to Halloween candy displays and holiday decorations, a coworker gave me a large black pot and metal rack for canning.  He told me that, just a couple of weeks earlier, he had ridden his motorcycle out into the Amish country, stopped at a roadside stand, and bought 35 pounds of tomatoes for seven dollars.  He made a bunch of sauce, but he’s more of a freezer and not a canner.  He suggested I might want to take advantage of the summer bounty by canning.

So, on the same day that we picked up our Halloween pumpkins from a local orchard, I also bought a set of Ball quart jars, jelly jars, and a canning accessory kit, all of which, along with the big black pot, were stowed in the dark corners of my basement.  Until last week, that is.

Having passed a few roadside stands in Lancaster County, at least one of which was overflowing with baskets of ripe tomatoes, I dug out all of my canning supplies and decided to make a go of it.  On Saturday, we stopped by a stand and I was able to pick up about four pounds of Roma tomatoes for four dollars.  I would have wanted more, but that’s all they had.  I’m still looking for the big tomato score.  Might be this weekend, might be next.

On Monday, after getting home from work, the first thing I did was fill the black pot with water and set it on the stove over the highest heat I could get.  I took my Ball jars, the lids, and the bands, and ran them through the dishwasher.  Then, I got to peeling the tomatoes.

Here’s the thing about canning – there’s a lot of heat going on in the kitchen.  For one thing, you’ve got this cauldron of boiling water.  Then you’ve got the jars, which you have to handle while they’re still hot out of the dishwasher.  Then you’ve got whatever liquid, be it water or syrup or juice, that you’re putting into the jars along with whatever you’re canning.  And, if you’re canning tomatoes, you’ve also got some more boiling water, into which you’re plunging the tomatoes to loosen the skins.

So, working from the pile of tomatoes, I took a knife and cut a small ‘X’ into the end of each one, dropping three at a time into the small pot of boiling water.  After 30 seconds or so, I fished them out with a pair of tongs and ran them under cold water, using my fingertips to peel away the skin, then dropping them into the waiting jars.  I had decided that, instead of using water as my liquid, I would use tomato juice, so I brought a saucepan of store-bought tomato juice to a boil and filled each jar with that.

I took the lids and screwtop bands out of the hot dishwasher as I needed them, and sealed each quart jar.  I put the jars into the black pot of boiling water (which, by the way, takes about forty minutes to come to a full boil, so you should put that onto the heat before you begin any tomato peeling), put the lid on, and processed the jars for about an hour and fifteeen minutes.

There were two important lessons learned from this, my first canning effort.  First, what would first appear to be a nice hill of tomatoes doesn’t amount to much when it comes to canning.  From the four pounds of tomatoes, I only ended up with enough to fill two quart jars – which made it seem like an awful lot of effort and water boiled for so little.  It really gets to be worthwhile if you’ve got the crops to process a full six or seven quart load, so for tomatoes this would be in the neighborhood of fourteen pounds.

Second lesson learned – I filled the jars too full.  When the processing time was up, I took off the lid to see that the boiling water had been tinged red by leakage, and when I took the jars out, one of them started seeping tomato juice.  I had initially thought that this meant my seals weren’t secure, but I left the jars alone and, as they cooled, the lids popped inward, indicating a vacuum seal.  I was still a little suspicious, but found some message boards on the internet that said that a vacuum seal was the most important factor, and, judging by the appearance of the tomatoes a week later, they seem to be just fine.

I’m still on the hunt for a massive tomato score before the end of this season.  We found a great Pick Your Own farm over the weekend, and managed to score some tomatoes, but many of the ripest were storm damaged, so we skipped them.  If the abundance of ripening green tomatoes were any indication, though, it looks like we may be able to go back in two weeks and harvest a full box.

September 4, 2008   Comments