Celebrating Tomatoes

Summer's Most Popular Food

Celebrating Tomatoes

Summer's Most Popular Food

Remember all that rain we've been having this summer? One of the side effects of all that wet and cool weather is that a fungus is threatening this year's crop of New Jersey tomatoes, plus local potatoes. It's not a full-blown crisis yet, but it's a serious concern and local farmers are on high alert.

Phytophthora infestans. It's the same fungus that caused the 19th century potato famine in Ireland and it seems to have equal impact on both potatoes and tomatoes. There are fungicides that can inhibit or kill the fungus but of course, that would mean any treated plants would lose their organic status. Still, the fungicides would save crops for tomato farmers in New Jersey and on Long Island, and also for anyone lucky enough to have stakes of tomato plants in their back yards.

The tomato is one of my favorite foods. In the winter, when they're mostly tasteless, I satisfy my cravings with cherry tomatoes -- one of the best choices among winter produce -- and also plum tomatoes which I always eat cooked (usually slow roasted) and never raw. But come August and September, I'm in tomato paradise and will hunt for the best choices of New Jersey tomatoes for their big, robust flavor. Reading about this fungus threat is very upsetting -- upsetting for the threat to local farmers and upsetting for my plans to do my first tomato canning.

But last weekend I found my first New Jersey reds and while I'm grateful, I'm reminded how the whims of nature, like a soaking wet summer, can endanger our food supply. And this is without the man-made harm that's done with supersized carbon footprints, chemicals, and turning major acreage over to growing corn syrup.

Back to tomatoes. Our crops are fragile and the season is short so get them while you can. And enjoy the pleasure of eating them. If like me you'd be happy eating tomatoes every day, here are some ways to do so.

See our recipe database for most of these recipes.

Instead of sauce, you can also make your own tomato paste to use now or preserve for winter cooking.

How To Make Tomato Paste

2 pounds ripe tomatoes, preferably locally grown and in-season

  1. Have a large saucepan of water boiling.
  2. Have a large bowl of iced water standing by.
  3. Take each tomato and give a small score, an "X" mark, at the top. Place in the boiling water and count to 5 (as in "one Mississippi, two Mississippi, etc.) and using a slotted spoon, transfer to the iced water. You don't want to leave the tomatoes in the boiling water for too long because the heat will begin to cook the tomato and make them mealy.
  4. Using a paring knife and your fingers, peel off the skin.
  5. Remove and discard the core and seeds from each tomato. Transfer the remaining tomato pulp to the basket of a food processor. Purée until smooth. Depending on the size of your food processor and quantity of tomatoes you may need to do the puréeing in batches.
  6. Transfer the tomato liquid to a large saucepan. Bring to a boil and reduce to lively simmer, stirring often, and cook for about 20 minutes until the liquid has reduced to a thick paste. Watch the pan, especially toward the end of the cooking so that the tomatoes don't burn.
  7. Remove from the heat. Add a pinch of salt. Taste and add more salt if necessary but what you're going for is the intense taste of a tomato, not a sauce.
  8. Let cool. Transfer to small storage containers and refrigerate or freeze.

If canning, follow instructions from a reliable cookbook or instruction manual to safely complete the canning process.

What to do with tomato paste? Add it to chicken stock, couscous, beef stew, lentil soup, or any other recipe that will benefit from its subtle acidity and complexity. I plan to save mine to make one of my favorite pastas, a pantry dinner called Spaghetti With Tomato Paste and Garlic.  See our recipe.

A final remember: never refrigerate tomatoes. The chill will turn the flesh to sugar and the flavor will be lost and the texture will change. If you cut a tomato in half and want to leave it for the next day, cover the cut surface with a piece of plastic wrap and leave the tomato cut side down on the counter, out of the sun. It will taste better tomorrow if you store it that way than if you refrigerated it.

And let's keep our fingers crossed that our New Jersey tomato farmers run that fungus out of town.





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