Tomato Time!

Summer’s sweet, long-awaited treasure, tomatoes are by far the most popular crop among American gardeners. There are hundreds of varieties of tomatoes, each one more unique than the next, with some heirloom varieties spanning almost every color of the rainbow. Certain varieties are adapted for a variety of uses, including slicing, canning, and salads. The large, meaty fruits of beefsteak tomatoes are especially popular for slicing. Italian or paste tomatoes are favorites for cooking, canning, and juicing. Sweet bite-size tomatoes in a range of colors are very popular for salads or as snacks. One thing they all have in common: when grown out of love from your own home garden, they are guaranteed to taste better than any you can get at the grocery store.

An assortment of heirloom tomatoes

An assortment of heirloom tomatoes

How do you know when they are ready to harvest? 
Tomatoes are ready to pick when they are plump, slightly firm (not hard), and have turned the desired color for the variety. They can easily be twisted off the vine if they are ripe, so if they don’t come off with a gentle twist, leave them on for a few more days. Try the smell test too; ripe tomatoes smell sweet and earthy (like tomatoes!) when you smell them at the stem base. In the fall, as soon as there is danger of frost, you will need to harvest all of the green, un-ripened tomatoes and bring them inside. Green ones will eventually ripen if kept in a warm place out of direct sunlight. To slowly ripen green tomatoes, and thereby extend your harvest, wrap them in newspaper and place in a dark, cool area (65-70 degrees F), checking frequently to make sure they don’t rot.

How do you store them?
There is one major rule of tomato storage: DON’T PUT THEM IN THE FRIDGE! Refrigeration will make your tomatoes flavorless and grainy, completely defeating the purpose of picking them fresh off the vine. The only time you should refrigerate them is if you have sliced into one and can’t eat the whole thing, in which case the sliced part will last, wrapped in an airtight container, for a few days max. Just leave your tomatoes in a bowl on the countertop at room temperature, making sure not to stack too many on top of each other or they will get bruised, and they can last up to two weeks. If some of your tomatoes are not fully ripe, they will ripen on the counter in a week or so. If you want to speed up the ripening process, you can put them in a bowl with a ripe banana or an apple; the ethylene gas emitted from the fruit will cause the tomato to ripen faster.

How do you cook them?
Certain varieties like large, meaty beefsteak or bite-sized cherry tomatoes are completely delicious eaten raw; either in a salad, or sliced up with some fresh mozzarella cheese, basil, a drizzle of olive oil and some salt & pepper. When preparing tomatoes fresh, you want to use a sharp serrated knife to cut them so you don’t crush the fruit, and take out the gelatinous seed mass in the middle (though some think that’s where the flavor comes from!).

Fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and purple basil, a simple summer side.

Fresh tomatoes, mozzarella, and green and purple basil – a delicious and simple summer side.

In addition to making salsa, tomato paste, or tomato soup, they can also be dried and stored in oil, converted into chutneys, relishes, or even ketchup. Although you can make tomato sauce and paste from any variety, many folks prefer the plum varieties (such as Roma), as they have less water content.

Candied cherry tomatoes, great on sandwiches!

Candied cherry tomatoes, great on sandwiches!

When processing tomatoes for paste or canning, you may want to remove the skin. To do this, cut a small ‘x’ on the bottom of the tomato and drop it into boiling water. When the skin around the ‘x’ begins to roll back (1-2 min), remove and drop in ice water. When cooled enough to handle, the skin should peel right off.

RECIPE:

There are a lot of recipes for red sauce, but yellow and orange tomato varieties such as Lemon Drop or Sun Gold make a wonderful sauce too!

Lindsay’s Golden Tomato Sauce
-makes 2 cups-

2 Tb. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ sweet onion, diced
4 c. yellow tomatoes, chopped
2 tsp. chopped fresh lemon thyme
1 tsp. chopped fresh oregano
1 tsp. sea salt
1/8 tsp. fresh cracked pepper
1 tsp. brown sugar
2 Tb. chopped fresh citrus basil (lemon or lime)

Heat olive oil in a small saucepan on med-low heat. Add garlic and onions, and sauté until onions are soft, about 5 min.

Add tomatoes, salt, pepper, thyme, oregano, and brown sugar. Turn heat to medium and simmer for about 35 min, until the tomatoes are broken down and the liquid is reduced. Should look like a chunky sauce.

Turn heat to low and stir in fresh chopped citrus basil. *At this point, you can puree it in a food processor or blender until smooth, if you like smooth sauces, or you can leave it chunky. Return to saucepan (if you pureed it) and continue cooking 5 more minutes. Enjoy with pasta!

Note: The citrus flavors of lemon or lime basil go nicely with the yellow tomatoes, however you can substitute any variety of tomato or herbs to make this sauce your own. You can also make a much larger batch, and freeze or preserve the sauce in canning jars for later use.