What's In Season: Tomatoes In Winter
Last week I had the fun of again being on The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC. This time I helped Brian kick-off a week-long series on the subject of bringing your lunch to work. Brian is a warm and welcoming person who loves food, although I'm not certain about his patience for being in the kitchen.
The ideas we discussed (not all mine -- most were from callers, listeners writing in, and, of course, from Brian) included make-ahead cold salmon, almond butter and jam sandwiches, and adding fresh vegetables to canned or boxed soup. I suggested strategies like buying an insulated lunch bag and a good thermos so your food still tastes good by the time you get it to the office, buying your lunch at the grocery store near your office instead of the deli, plus portable lunch menus like ones we've already offered here.
Saving money may have provoked our topic but I think we were also talking about returning the making of our meals back into our lives instead of relying on others to do this for us. The reality of daily cooking isn't always poetic and during these cold months the range of foods we cook can get narrower and narrower. Is it because the winter markets do not inspire?
I don't seem to be the only one stuck for ideas. The March issue of Gourmet arrive in my mailbox this weekend and its cover features a sandwich. I really love this magazine and respect Ruth Reichl and her team, but please -- can we do better than a sandwich? The inside contents aren't at all so Spartan, making the cover even more confounding. Much of this complicated economy is psychological and seeing a newsstand row lined with this photograph won't help. What's next? A bowl of gruel and a cup of water?
Just as I was wondering what might snap me out of my cooking doldrums I received a package from Beatrice and Martina at Gustiamo, a Bronx-based food wholesaler that also sells retail on-line. These women are warm and engaging in the way that when you meet them you want them to always be your friends. And they are passionate about their work, bringing artisanal Italian foods to the U.S. I opened the small box to find a jar and a tin, each containing Italian tomatoes.
The tin had an old-fashioned looking label featuring six dark red plum tomatoes, still on their stalk, hand-drawn as if by someone who knows more about tomatoes than art. Above the tomatoes is the name in script, "Il Miracolo di San Gennaro" -- the miracle of San Gennaro -- and below in plain lettering: "Pomodori." Most of the fine print on the label is in Italian but in English they note, "Ingredients: Entire tomatoes do not peel to you, in tomato juice."
These are unpeeled San Marzano tomatoes from the small village of Sant' Antonio Abate near Naples, cultivated in the farmlands on the lower slopes of Mount Vesuvius, and so fragile they must be picked and processed all by hand.
It took willpower to not immediately open the can, but knew I should at least have a recipe in mind before cracking the seal. Its companion was a glass jar filled with "Piennolo Vine Tomatoes," also grown in Vesuvian lava soil, these by a small, local producer named Casa Barone. At first it appears as if this is a tomato jam, but in fact the jar is filled with small, plum-sized organic tomatoes, flecked with little golden seeds and canned in their own sheer juice. You can't help but imagine a kitchen table surrounded by Italian grandmothers jarring the tomatoes grown in their backyards. This is how these tomatoes look, and this is how they taste.
I've long believed in the flavor superiority of San Marzano tomatoes so to receive this gift was both a surprise and a treat. Tasting them was as if to expect a Pepperidge Farm cookie but instead bite into a Pierre Hermé macaron. These special San Marzanos, grown, processed and shipped in small quantities, are not bargain priced but if you are someone who values exceptional ingredients -- a special tin of tomatoes can transform a simple pasta into a meal for your best company -- these are something to try. The “Miracle of San Gennaro” tomatoes are $15.00 for 28 oz. and the "Piennolo Vine Tomatoes" by Casa Barone are $22.50 for a 500 gr/1.1 lb. jar.
To honor her prized imports, Beatrice at Gustiamo offered a recipe for a simple sauce:
Place 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil in a sauté pan, add 2 cloves of garlic that you've peeled and smashed and cook at a medium low heat until the garlic just begins to brown. Add the tomatoes (about 2 cups), crushing with your hands, and also a pinch of salt. Simmer for 10 minutes maximum. Remove the garlic. While the sauce is simmering, cook your pasta (about 1 pound) and drain it 30 seconds before it is "cooked to your liking" because it will continue to cook after it's drained. Add it to the sauce, toss to combine and serve. Enough for 6 people.
"That's it. Nothing else," she wrote.
I saved the "Miracle" tomatoes for Beatrice's sauce but wanted something different to honor the jar of "Piennolos" so with these I made a Tomato Risotto. I served it with a broiled flank steak that I had briefly marinated in a mixture of red wine, olive oil, garlic, fresh rosemary and a little soy sauce. It was quick to cook and after a short rest (the steak, not me), I sliced it on the bias, placing the pieces on a pile of arugula that I had dressed in a lemon vinaigrette. See our recipe.
My tomato risotto was one of the best I've ever made or eaten: the Arborio rice became rich from the tomatoes' deep red flesh, leaving the tissue-thin and flavorful skins to add more color and detail, perfect for a cold night in February. If you're insecure about making risottos, you can read our article about its basic techniques.
Less you think I've lost my food budget judgment, you absolutely do not need artisanal canned tomatoes to make a wonderful sauce, risotto or other dish. Excellent canned San Marzanos can be easily found at many grocers for less than $3.00 a can and this is what is always in my pantry.
Fresh Tomatoes In The Winter
Being late February our seasonal produce is still dominated by Brussels sprouts and butternut squash but there are also ways to cook with fresh tomatoes. Just remember to limit yourself to cherry, grape and plum tomatoes because everything else is either hydroponic or shipped from halfway around the world -- and all are tasteless. Cherry and grape tomatoes may still travel a distance but at least they have great flavor both raw and roasted; plum tomatoes are usually tasteless when raw but roasting gives them intensity and richness. Just cut them into halves or quarters, place cut-side-up on a sheet pan, drizzle with a little olive oil and season with salt and pepper, and roast for about two hours at 225° F until they've shriveled.
Food writer Melissa Clark, whose work you may know from her always winning column in The New York Times, had this very appealing "Greek Kale Salad" with cherry tomatoes in Food & Wine magazine. We've added a link below.
I like cherry tomatoes in another winter salad, this one combining them with tender green beans, shreds of prosciutto, and a sherry vinaigrette. See our recipe and serve it with simple broiled chicken drumsticks to make an easy weeknight dinner.
If you're running out of patience for winter cooking, just hold on and open a can of tomatoes. Spring is less than a month away.