Tomatoes' time to shine

Gardens are bursting with the lush, ripe beauties, so good any way you choose to slice them.

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Matt Spector makes a salad of tomatoes in a mix of types and colors at his Matyson restaurant.

If you garden, or have a neighbor who does, you'll find that you have a lot of fabulous, ripe tomatoes now - and some anxiety about using them to their best advantage.

Of course, there is no shame in simply slicing tomatoes, sprinkling them with sea salt, and eating them.

Plain.

A drizzle of olive oil is nice. Ditto a sprinkling of shredded basil.

Matt Spector, chef and co-owner of Matyson, off Rittenhouse Square, recalls his grandfather's Jersey tomatoes as "the best." He ate them with bagels, cream cheese and whitefish.

Tom Murtha, manager of Blooming Glen in Pekasie - a market farm and 155-member Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) organization - says he likes to slice tomatoes and put them on mayonnaise-coated bread, with a slice or two of cheese.

"At this time of year, when I think 'what's for lunch?' that's always the answer," he says.

And this from a man who has at his fingertips every type of heirloom tomato: Brandywine, Striped German, Aunt Ruby's German Green, Cherokee Chocolate among them.

There are good reasons to eat those tomatoes fresh from the vine. According to the August issue of Eating Well magazine, the Vitamin C content of tomatoes fresh-picked in season (June into October) may be twice that of those picked November to May.

And although some of that C is lost when tomatoes are cooked, heat makes their lycopene more available. Raw or cooked, their antioxidant activity is undiminished. They also are a good source of Vitamin A, potassium and folate.

The definition of "heirloom" for fruits and vegetables (the tomato is - as any fifth grader knows - a fruit) is open to some debate.

Local food historian William Woys Weaver, author of, among many volumes, 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From (Algonquin Books, 2000), says heirloom plants should have a history dating back at least 50 years.

He defines heirlooms as "open-pollinated" (naturally pollinated or non-hybrid) varieties that "have got plenty of history behind them."

Recent research indicates that hybrids, "constantly inbred" and developed for marketability, are 30 percent less nutritious than heirlooms "across the board," says Weaver.

Murtha describes an heirloom tomato as one that is meant to be vine-ripened and eaten soon after harvest, as opposed to plants bred for long shelf-life and hardiness to withstand shipping.

"Generally, heirloom varieties have less acidity," says Murtha. "I've often wondered if that's why they have a shorter shelf-life."

Andy Andrews, of Pennypack Farm in Horsham, who supplies heirlooms to many city restaurants and to members of his CSA group, said his bountiful tomatoes are part of every meal in season.

"We slice them, eat them raw, put them in salads," he says. "We have a lot of tomato meals at this time of year."

Because they all know the sad truth: The party is over in October. They won't be eating fresh tomatoes again till July.

So, as Andrews puts it, "You get your fill now."

Here are some ideas on how to avoid tomato burnout and show off the harvest to best advantage.


Many ways to use the garden's tomato bounty

1. Tomato "Napoleon": Slice a fat garden tomato into rounds, and layer with crumbled goat cheese or feta and a dollop of pesto. Drizzle with olive oil (or basil oil) and serve.

2. Uncooked tomato sauce: Drizzle a generous 5 cups of chopped tomatoes with 1/2 to 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. Add fresh chopped basil, oregano and parsley or fresh chopped tarragon. Let sit while you bring the pasta pot to a boil and cook a pound of pasta. Serve over the pasta, sprinkled with grated Parmesan.

3. Slightly cooked tomato sauce (a la Matyson's): Saute a chopped onion and some garlic until soft. Add 6 cups of chopped tomatoes and cook until the tomatoes begin to give up their juice. Stir in a large pat of butter and some fresh basil and serve on 3/4 to 1 pound of cooked pasta, with grated Parmesan.

4. Roasted cherry tomatoes: Place halved cherry tomatoes in one layer on a baking sheet with sides. Season to taste with salt, pepper, parsley, garlic, thyme, rosemary or whatever suits you. Strew some garlic slivers among the tomatoes. Drizzle with extra-virgin oil and balsamic vinegar and bake in a preheated 400-degree oven for about 30 minutes.

5. Oven-dried tomatoes: Slice plum tomatoes in half and set on racks over baking sheets to catch drips. Set your oven to its lowest setting, prop the door slightly open and dry the tomatoes 8 to 16 hours, depending on how leathery you like them. Store in a clean jar and cover them with olive oil. Cover and refrigerate.

6. Tomato water (a la Matyson's): Line a sieve with cheesecloth and place it over a large bowl. Chop tomatoes in a food processor and place them in the sieve. Allow to drip through the cheesecloth several hours or overnight. When finished, lightly squeeze the cheesecloth to release all the juice. (You don't want to get any pulp.) Chill the juice, and season with salt, pepper and a few drops of basil oil. Serve cold as a soup course. One pound of tomatoes yields a generous cup of "tomato water."

7. Pan Bagna: Slice an Italian loaf or ciabatta in half. Drizzle both halves with extra virgin olive oil, as much as the bread can absorb. Layer with thick tomato slices and some basil leaves or arugula. Other additions can include slices of roasted red pepper, canned tuna, sliced fresh mozzarella, and anchovies. Sprinkle with pepper. Let the sandwiches sit for a half hour to mellow.

8. Stuffed cherry tomatoes: Use a small sharp knife to cut off just enough of the tomato to be able to flick out the seeds with the knife point. Stuff with creamy goat cheese, herbed cream cheese, or with tuna pureed in a blender with olive oil and anchovies.

9. Tomato and olive salad: Toss halved cherry tomatoes with cubed feta, Kalamata or Nicoise olives, and chopped basil. (Adapted from Vegetable Harvest, by Patricia Wells, William Morrow.) Squeeze fresh lemon juice over all and sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

10. Fried green tomatoes: Slice 5 green tomatoes and soak for 10 minutes in 2 cups buttermilk. Dredge in a mixture of 2 cups cornmeal to 1 cup flour, generously seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and a dash of cayenne. Pan-fry in vegetable oil until crusts are crisp and tomatoes, soft. Turn once.

11. Rustic tomato salsa: By hand (a food processor will make this mush) chop 6 tomatoes, 1/2 onion, 1/2 yellow bell pepper, 4 scallions, and 2 cloves garlic. Toss together with 1 tablespoon cider vinegar, 1 tablespoon canola or sunflower oil, 2 teaspoons cumin, a pinch of cayenne and a squeeze of lemon juice. Serve ASAP with chips.

12. Champagne tomato salad: Marinate a finely diced shallot in Champagne for 1 hour. Slice tomatoes, arrange on a platter. Sprinkle with the shallot, salt and pepper and pour a little Champagne over all. (Adapted from Chez Panisse Vegetables, by Alice Waters; HarperCollins, 1996.)

13. Fresh tomato juice: Stem and halve tomatoes. Simmer in a stainless steel saucepan for 30 minutes. Strain through a sieve into a pitcher, pressing against the solids with the back of a spoon. Season to taste with salt and pepper and chill. Four pounds of tomatoes will yield about a quart.

14. Homemade cocktail sauce: Stem, seed and peel 1 pound of tomatoes and puree in a blender. Transfer to a sieve to drain briefly. Return to blender and add 3 tablespoons tomato paste, one to two tablespoons of prepared horseradish (to taste), a squeeze of lemon juice, a generous pinch of salt, and one or two teaspoons of sugar to taste. Stir in the zest of a lemon. (Makes about 1 cup.)

15. Tomato Aioli: Puree 1 large chopped tomato or 1/2 cup oven-dried tomatoes and 1 to 2 cloves garlic. Add a cup of homemade aioli or prepared mayonnaise, lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste.

16. Tomato Gratin With Crème Fraîche: Slice 6 fat tomatoes and place them in a single layer on a baking sheet with sides. Spread with 2 cups crème fraîche or sour cream. Sprinkle with zest of one lemon and 1/2 cup brown sugar. Broil until top begins to caramelize; but do not let it burn. Serve as salad or dessert; can also be served cold. (From The Tomato Imperative, by Sharon Nimtz and Ruth Cousineau, Little, Brown, 1994.)

17. Panzanella (Italian bread salad): Cut a 1-pound loaf of Italian bread into cubes and toast. Toss with 6 chopped ripe tomatoes, about 1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil, 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar. Add half a red onion, sliced, and a generous handful of chopped basil leaves.


Tomato Sorbet

Makes 12 small scoop-size servings

1 1/4 pounds garden-fresh heirloom tomatoes

2/3 cup granulated sugar

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

3/4 cup cold water

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

Several drops Tabasco

1. Rinse, core and quarter the tomatoes, collecting all their juice. In a blender, puree the tomatoes with the juice.

2. Press the mass through a fine sieve into a bowl.

3. Stir in the sugar, lemon juice, water, salt and Tabasco. Taste and adjust for seasoning. Chill thoroughly.

4. Transfer to an ice-cream maker and process to freeze according to the manufacturer's directions.

- Adapted from Vegetable Harvest (William Morrow)

Per serving: 50 calories, trace protein, 13 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams sugar, trace fat, no cholesterol, 99 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.


Matyson-Style Tomato Salad With Corn-Tarragon Vinaigrette

Makes 6 to 8 servings

For the vinaigrette:

1 ear fresh corn, shucked

3 tablespoons champagne vinegar

1/8 cup minced red onion

1 tablespoon minced tarragon

1 teaspoon honey, or to taste

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and cracked pepper

For the salad:

3 to 4 pounds tomatoes, mixed colors, types (grape, cherry, heirloom), whole if small, sliced if large

12 to 16 ounces arugula, rinsed and drained

Cubed fresh mozzarella or avocado (optional)

1. For the vinaigrette: Cut a thin slice from the thick end of the cob for a flat base. Stand the cob on that end in a shallow bowl. With a sharp knife, cut corn off cob. Reserve.

2. In a bowl, whisk together the vinegar, onion, tarragon, honey, oil, salt and pepper, to taste. Blend well. Stir in the reserved corn. Adjust seasoning, adding extra honey, if desired. If not using at once, cover and refrigerate. Whisk or shake the dressing vigorously just before serving.

3. For the salad: In a large, shallow bowl, combine the tomatoes, arugula and mozzarella or avocado. Toss gently and dress with the vinaigrette.

Per serving (based on 8): 239 calories, 3 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 22 grams fat, no cholesterol, 81 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.


Vermont Gazpacho

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 large ear corn, shucked

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 clove garlic, chopped

1/2 red onion, chopped

1 shallot, coarsely chopped

1/2 large cucumber, peeled, seeded, coarsely chopped

1/2 red bell pepper, seeded and coarsely chopped

1/2 yellow bell pepper, seeded and coarsely chopped

1/2 green bell pepper, seeded and coarsely chopped

5 to 6 cups roughly chopped fresh ripe tomatoes

2 tablespoons cilantro leaves, plus more for garnish

2 tablespoons basil leaves

1 ounce red wine vinegar

1 to 2 tablespoons Asian chili paste or hot sauce

1 tablespoon each: honey, orange juice and sesame oil (from toasted seeds)

1. Steam the corn for about 3 minutes. When cool enough to handle, cut a thin slice off the thick end of the cob, stand it on the cut end in a shallow bowl and, with a sharp knife, cut the corn off the cob. Put the kernels in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade.

2. In a skillet, heat the olive oil medium-hot. Saute the garlic, onion and shallot until soft, 7 to 10 minutes.

3. Use a rubber spatula to scrape the sauteed mixture into the processor bowl. Add the cucumber, bell peppers, tomatoes (and juice), cilantro, basil, vinegar, chili paste (or hot sauce), honey, orange juice and sesame oil. Pulse until well blended. Chill, taste and adjust seasonings.

4. Serve with extra chili paste or hot sauce. Garnish with additional chopped cilantro, if desired.

- From River Run Cookbook: Southern Comfort From Vermont, by Jimmy and Maya Kennedy and Marialisa Calta (HarperCollins, 2001)

Per serving (based on 8): 99 calories, 2 grams protein, 13 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 6 grams fat, no cholesterol, 23 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.