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Tips for using tomatoes to their full advantage

Who really uses “just enough mayonnaise to bind” a salad? That’s what I was wondering as I folded what some would consider an illegal quantity of lovely mayo into some chunks of freshly cooked chicken. Better too much than too little, I told myself, because if you do follow those party-pooper recipe directives, then you’re headed for an uninspired outcome.

And my chicken salad is not that. It’s wonderful.

I start with a combination of thigh and breast meat (pulled from a lightly simmered whole chicken), tossed with a bit of minced green onion and fresh dill, then seasoned with some salt and freshly ground black pepper.

At this point, I eyeball the amount of mayonnaise the salad may possibly require to achieve a creamy, well-seasoned character and begin adding healthy globs until I’m satisfied the proper balance of chicken to mayonnaise exists.

That’s it. I call it my James Beard Approach to salad construction, because he had a similar philosophy. When it comes to chicken salads, only the best mayonnaise will do, and plenty of it. Plus, kitchen sinks need not apply. In his book “Delights and Prejudices,” on the subject of chicken salads, he observed that “nothing should overpower the taste of good chicken and good mayonnaise.”

I’d created this salad to complement a platter of backyard tomatoes; four different varieties: juicy slices of beefsteak, black Russian and roma, plus some plump little sweet baby girls. You should consider such a menu. Indeed, bringing together vine-ripened summer tomatoes and a creamy, understated chicken salad — plus a fine local bread and bottle of an Oregon pinot blanc or pinot gris — will elevate you to culinary genius status among your guests. That’s a promise.

So with tomatoes season underway, are you taking full advantage? I hope you aren’t refrigerating your crop. Storing tomatoes in the refrigerator really does undermine their flavor. If at all possible, just keep them on the counter and use as quickly as possible. Also, don’t be tempted to fling any of your tomato bounty into the freezer uncooked. After a month or two, most tomato varieties that haven’t had any heat applied to them will taste horrid. Cooking deactivates the enzyme that’s responsible for the transformation during freezer storage.

It doesn’t even have to be a long-term sort of cooking. Just a simple roasting or saute is enough to deal with that pesky enzyme. Then freezing becomes a great option for extending the harvest. In fact, it's every year around this time that homemade pasta sauces sound particularly good. Both as a way to zip up my late summer menus, and as freezer fare for the less bountiful months ahead.

So without further ado, here are a few delectable options for turning your fresh tomatoes into wonderful offerings for now or later.

Pesto Green Beans with Three Types of Tomatoes

This summer salad is great for buffets, picnics, potlucks and tailgates.

2 roma-style tomatoes, cored and quartered (or your favorite locally-grown heritage tomato)

1 cup halved yellow pear tomatoes

1/2 cup red cherry tomatoes

1/4 cup olive oil

3 garlic cloves, minced

1-1/2 pounds green beans, stem ends removed

1 cup pesto

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

1/2 cup additional grated Parmesan cheese to garnish

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Toss the three different varieties of tomatoes with the olive oil and garlic in a roasting pan. Roast for 20 to 25 minutes, until the tomatoes start to release their juices and begin to shrivel (NOTE: a delicious alternative is to roast the tomatoes over indirect heat on your grill with the cover on). Set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, bring a large saucepan of water to a boil, add the beans, and cook about 2 minutes, or until the beans are just crisp-tender and still a bright green.

Drain the beans and immediately plunge them into a large bowl of water filled with ice cubes to stop the cooking process and set the color. When chilled, remove the beans from the water and set aside to drain thoroughly.

Toss the beans with the pesto, Parmesan, and salt and pepper in a large bowl. When ready to serve, place the beans on a large platter, top with the roasted tomatoes, and garnish with the toasted pine nuts and additional Parmesan, and serve immediately. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Variations: As already noted, any types of tomato can be used. Or if tomatoes are not in season, eliminate them entirely and substitute roasted or sauteed red or yellow sweet bell peppers. This is great with the addition of grilled chicken.

— Recipe from “The Foster’s Market Cookbook,” by Sara Foster


Tomato, Mozzarella and Pesto Sandwich

Slice a baguette open lengthwise and brush the cut side of the bread with olive oil. Broil or grill until lightly toasted. Spread the inside of the baguette with pesto, then layer sliced tomatoes, sliced fresh mozzarella, mixed greens or arugula, and salt and pepper to taste.

— Recipe from “The Foster’s Market Cookbook,” by Sara Foster

Roasted Summer Tomatoes

Roasting fresh tomatoes until they're soft on the inside and beautifully browned on the outside concentrates their flavor. They come out of the oven gloriously golden and wrinkled and are wonderful gems to have on hand in the refrigerator and freezer for simple sauces and stocks. Roast just tomatoes and a dash of olive, or toss in some peeled cloves of garlic and a couple halved shallots, for even more flavor.

To roast fresh tomatoes: Core the tomatoes and halve if larger than 1-inch in diameter. Place the tomatoes in a lightly greased jelly-roll pan (or any baking sheet with sides). The cut tomatoes should be placed cut-side down. You can crowd the tomatoes but don't go beyond a single layer. Add the garlic cloves and shallots if using. Drizzle on a bit of olive oil. Roast in a preheated 375-degree oven until the tomatoes are well browned, which may take 1 to 2 hours, depending on the size and character of your tomatoes. When done, they will have collapsed and look quite wrinkled. Alternatively, consider roasting the vegetables over indirect heat on your grill, with the lid on. I have a wood pellet-fed grill (it’s called a Traeger and is built in Mount Angel, Oregon), which provides a wonderful smoke flavor to the vegetables.

Remove the roasting pan from the oven or grill and let the tomatoes cool. With a metal spatula or wide, flat-sided wooden spatula, stir and scrape the cooled tomatoes to dissolve all of the cooked-on bits of tomato. Scrape the tomatoes into the work bowl of food processor and process just until almost completely smooth (with a few chunks remaining).

Using 2-1/2 pounds of tomatoes (8 medium-sized) with 5 cloves of garlic and 2 large shallots will yield about 3 cups of sauce.

To freeze, ladle the sauce into freezer containers, leaving about 1-inch head space. Let cool completely, then attach lids and freeze.

Jan's Summer-In-A-Pot Winter Pasta Sauce with Southwest Options

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

3 medium onions, minced

3 medium carrots, minced

3 stalks celery, minced

1/2 cup minced Italian parsley

8 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced

6 pounds fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped to measure 3 quarts

1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced

2 cups dry red wine

1 cup beef broth

1/2 cup chopped fresh basil

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

2-1/2 teaspoons salt

1-1/2 teaspoons ground white pepper

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce

In a large, heavy-bottom pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions, carrots, celery, parsley and garlic and saute until the onions are softened, about 4 minutes. Add tomatoes, mushrooms, wine and broth, then bring the mixture to a boil, reduce heat to a gentle simmer. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour.

Remove lid, add the basil, rosemary, salt, pepper, sugar and hot pepper sauce, stir well and continue to simmer over medium-low heat until thickened, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Remove from heat and adjust seasonings, adding additional salt, pepper, sugar or hot pepper sauce to taste. Let the sauce cool slightly, then ladle into freezer containers, leaving 1-inch head space. Attach lids and freeze. The sauce will maintain good quality for up to 6 months.

To use as a spaghetti sauce with meat: In a large, deep skillet, brown 1 pound of ground beef (or chicken, turkey or mixture of beef and bulk Italian sausage). Drain off fat, then stir in 1 quart of the thawed pasta sauce, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes to allow flavors to develop.

Chicken alternative: To 1 quart of sauce, stir in 2 cups of cooked and shredded chicken. Bring mixture to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer gently, uncovered, for about 15 minutes to develop flavors. Serve over pasta or rice.

Southwest alternative: When preparing the full batch of sauce, omit the Italian parsley and basil; stir in 3 cups of fresh corn kernels, 2 cups of chopped black olives, 1/2 cup of chopped cilantro, 1 to 2 seeded and finely minced jalapeno and 2 tablespoons of ground cumin.

Makes about 4-1/2 quarts

Roasted Tomatoes and Peppers Baked with Herbs and Capers

4 big bell peppers, red, orange and yellow

About 2 pounds of ripe summer tomatoes (any combination you’re growing would be fine, from beefsteak to Roma)

6 flat-leaf parsley sprigs

12 large basil leaves, minced

4 plump garlic cloves, chopped

2 tablespoons capers, rinsed

12 Nicoise olives, pitted and coarsely chopped

3 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for the dish

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Roast the peppers until charred (see directions below). Set them aside while you prepare everything else. Then wipe off the blackened skin, pull out the seeds, and core and cut into wide strips. Trim off any ragged ends and set them aside for another use.

Score the ends of the tomatoes, then drop them into boiling water for 10 seconds. Remove the skins, halve them crosswise, and gently squeeze out the seeds. Cut the flesh into wide pieces.

Pluck the leaves off the parsley stems. You should have about 1/2 cup. Chop them finely with the basil and garlic, then put in a bowl with the capers, olives and olive oil. Season with about 3/4 teaspoon salt and some pepper to taste.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly oil a small gratin dish. Add the tomatoes, peppers and sauce and gently toss with your hands or two large spoons. Season with pepper.

Bake for 20 minutes. Serve hot or let cool to room temperature before serving. The mixture can also be packed into freezer bags or containers and frozen.

To roast peppers: Peppers can be roasted directly over a gas burner if you have one, or on a gas or charcoal grill. To do so, first pierce the peppers with a sharp knife in two or three places so they won't burst when roasted. Place whole peppers directly on the burner (or grill). Roast until the skin becomes very black and charred, turning frequently with tongs.

Alternatively, after piercing the peppers in several places with a sharp knife, you can broil them in the oven, just below the heating element. Turn as the skin blackens and continue broiling until the peppers are completely black.

— Adapted from "Local Flavors, Cooking and Eating From America's Farmers' Markets," by Deborah Madison

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com