Kitchen Call: Waiting for summer tomatoes
On a whim, I bought fresh peaches from the upscale produce store this week. They were not local in May, and I didn’t expect much, but the sight of them in the nearly continual rain made me long for summer. They smelled of roses. I took the risk and reaped the reward. They were sweet and topped my breakfast cereal making me look forward to the day.
Longing for summer in the cold rain brings on nasty colds and thoughts of August produce, especially tomatoes. Those fat globes of sunshine, smelling all bright and herbal and vine-y. So perfect with basil, layered in sandwiches, tossed in salads, boosting the flavor every other summer vegetable. But really, this is New England, and summer is still a long wait.
But still I need some tomatoes, not from a can. All winter and long into spring, I buy tiny sweet grape tomatoes and oval shaped plum tomatoes, marketed as romas. The name, roma, kind of draws you in. They are much sweeter than the round ones, shipped green and hard in order to arrive at their destination, a sickly shade of pink. In that vein, I have a few tricks to deal with those roma and grape tomatoes, to heighten flavor and get through until local farmers start picking their crop.
STORAGE: Keep either type of tomato in a bowl on the counter. They taste better at room temperature. Refrigerating a tomato kills it. And although these tomatoes traveled here in a refrigerated truck, you can bring back some of their flavor by keeping them away from the cold. The grape tomatoes will taste better in salads, and the roma tomatoes will taste better in sauce or other dishes.
COOKING: A roma tomato is easily roasted, first cut in thin slices, then placed on an oiled sheet pan. Heat the oven to about 400F. Sprinkle the tomatoes with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Add some fresh herbs, salt and pepper. Roast until just the edges are darkened, some would say burnt. This caramelizes the tomatoes and brings out their sweetness. Lay these on top of grilled or roasted meats for a tasty garnish. Use in stews and sauces. Tuck them into sandwiches.
Or, cut roma tomatoes in half crosswise. Set on an oiled sheet pan. Add salt and pepper and sprinkle with fresh or dried herbs. Sprinkle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and bake at 400F until the tomatoes start to melt. They will exude juices and make a very flavorful side dish, or vegetarian lunch with some crusty bread.
Another way is to cut those romas, again, in half crosswise. Squeeze out the seeds and the watery interior. Scoop out the pulp, leaving a decently thick shell. Cut a thin slice off each end so that the tomatoes stand upright in a baking dish. In a skillet, saute some chopped red onion or shallots and a chopped garlic clove. Stir in freshly grated breadcrumbs. Turn off the heat under the skillet. If you want, add some fresh oregano, chopped black olives and parmesan cheese.
Heat the oven to 350F. Place the tomatoes in a baking dish large enough to hold all of them. It’s OK to crowd them a little. Fill the tomatoes and drizzle the tops with olive oil. Bake at least 20 minutes up to 40, when the top should be browned.
The tomatoes can also be filled with a rice mixture or a chopped vegetable mixture. A meat mixture will be a little too heavy.
Add grape tomatoes to root vegetables, and thickly sliced onion, celery, radish, and/or fennel slices, that are roasting on an oiled sheet pan at 425F. Cut the tomatoes in half lengthwise. Toss them with a bit of olive oil. Halfway through the roasting process, when the more solid vegetables are beginning to soften, toss in the grape tomatoes and stir into the mixture. They will soften, start to caramelize and add a measure of sweetness to the rest of the vegetables.
HERB AND GARLIC BAKED TOMATOES
Makes 4 to 6 appetizer or side dish servings
You can change up the herbs as you like or add cheeses to the herb paste described here. This is meant to be eaten at room temperature.
15 fresh roma (plum) tomatoes
4 garlic cloves
1/2 cup tightly packed flat leaf parsley
1/4 cup full flavored olive oil
Fine sea salt
Fresh ground black pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
2. Split the tomatoes in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon.
3. Put tomatoes, split side up, on a lightly oiled baking sheet in one layer.
4. Mince the garlic and parsley together in a food processor. Add enough oil to make it a fragrant paste. Season with salt and pepper.
5. Smear about 1/2 teaspoon herb paste in each tomato half. Bake in the preheated oven for 30 to 40 minutes. Cool and serve.
— Linda Bassett is the author of “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai: Neighborhood Cooking North of Boston.” Reach her by e-mail at KitchenCall@gmail.com. Read Linda’s blog at LindABCooks.wordpress.com. Follow Linda for quick recipes on Twitter at @Kitchencall.