FOOD: Glorious red, ripe fruit of the vineTomatoes are a treasure. They work in salads, sauces and sides for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s no secret that tomatoes are a versatile food.
By: Jill Pertler, Living North Magazine
As a kid, I always thought tomatoes were a vegetable. I still think of them that way, even though botanists claim that because they have a fleshy material covering their seeds they are a fruit. I don’t care what anyone calls them: toh-MAY-toh, toh-MAH-toh, fruit or vegetable – so long as you call me to the table when you are ready to eat.
My love affair with tomatoes started early. My dad grew them in our backyard garden and my mom served them for dinner, sliced on a platter with just a little sugar or salt, depending on her mood. For a kid, it really can’t be any more perfect – or simple - than that. Maybe that’s why tomatoes are still my favorite food. Yeah, I like ‘em that much.
Tomatoes are one of the best, most versatile fruits and/or vegetables on the planet. As an added bonus, we can actually grow our own, right here in northern Minnesota.
But what type to grow? Your choice in the spring determines your serving and storage options come fall.
Beefsteak tomatoes are the big daddies of the bunch. They are large and round and great for slices on sandwiches. Plum tomatoes are often used in tomato sauces because they have a higher ratio of solid fleshy material to moisture. These are often sold as “Roma” tomatoes at the grocery store. Cherry tomatoes work well in salads or as a pop-in-your-mouth snack food. Yum! Small plum tomatoes that are the size of cherry tomatoes are known as grape tomatoes. Heirloom varieties are plants that were grown way back when, by our great grandmas and grandpas. They are not cultivated in modern large-scale commercial agriculture, but can provide a happy sense of nostalgia for the grower and eater.
I tend to choose a variety when picking my plants each year. The smaller tomatoes typically develop faster and that’s a good thing in a short season like ours. Larger tomatoes, like the beefsteak types, take longer to mature, but they are fun to pick – being so big and all. I always pay attention to the number of days each variety will take to reach maturity. I want to enjoy my first tomato salad before the first frost.
Ripening all your tomatoes
Those of us in the know, know that there is something very special about picking a red, ripe tomato off of the vine. The thought of it makes my mouth water. The truth of Minnesota, however, is that our season is short. If you are lucky, many of your fruits will ripen on the vine. This is best for flavor and texture. But, if a heavy frost is looming and you have a bunch of half or not-yet-ripe tomatoes on your plants, you will want to rescue them. They will be no good if frost-bitten on the vine.
Pick green tomatoes at the end of the season and place them out of direct sunlight (they can be in the dark) in cardboard boxes or brown paper bags, one to two layers deep. Tomatoes will ripen at 55 degrees or warmer. The warmer the temperature, the faster the ripening process. As tomatoes ripen, they release an ethylene gas, which stimulates ripening. To slow this, separate red fruit from the still green tomatoes every few days. To speed ripening, place green fruits into a bag with a couple of ripe tomatoes.
Ripe tomatoes are best when they are stored at room temperature, out of direct sunlight. In a pinch, tomatoes can be kept in the refrigerator, but they will lose flavor.
The average American eats 18 pounds of tomatoes each year. Everyone should love them. But, it is not an ideal world. There are actually anti-tomatoists who claim to have a distaste for the beautiful red veggie-fruit. For these skeptics I have just four words: Ketchup. Spaghetti. Salsa. Pizza. Even if you don’t want to enjoy the fruit raw, there are plenty of reasons to grow and preserve it for sauces and such.
For those of us so inclined, it’s best to eat what you can right away, and preserve the rest. If you organize things just right, you can enjoy the bounty from your home-grown tomato plants all winter long. You’ve got a number of preservation options at your fingertips – each with its own benefits and taste appeal.
Blanching and removing skins from tomatoes
This is the first step that most people take before freezing or canning tomatoes. There are some people who freeze their tomatoes with the skins on. They say they are easy to peel once thawed. I’ve always removed the skins first, using the method below.
In a large saucepan with water (enough to immerse your tomatoes) bring the water to a boil.
Fill a large mixing bowl with ice water.
Use a large slotted spoon to place each tomato in the boiling water so that they are fully immersed. Leave in for 30 – 45 seconds, until skins start to crack. Remove and place into ice water. Remove cores with a small paring knife. The skins should easily peel off.
This was the method used and preferred by my parents (and by osmosis, me). They always removed the skins and froze their tomatoes whole, but you can cut your tomatoes into pieces if you’d prefer.
Frozen tomatoes are good for sauces and cooking. They don’t retain their texture after thawing, so don’t work well for salads or slicing. You can freeze just about any type of tomato, but if you are going to peel them, bigger varieties work best. Beefsteak and plum are two that come to mind.
Place blanched tomatoes in a quart-sized zipper-sealing freezer bags. Remove as much air from the bag as possible. You can seal with a vacuum sealer or use a straw to manually remove the air from the bag. Frozen tomatoes can last for up to a year in the freezer.
I’ve never canned tomatoes, but my dear friend and artist Kim Wendlandt is a pro. She’s been canning for the last 18 years. I usually get to eat a portion of her bounty. Did I mention she’s a great friend?
Kim starts by sterilizing canning jars. This can be done by boiling in hot water or by running through a sanitization cycle in the dishwasher.
Next, Kim cleans her tomatoes and removes any stems. She then removes the skin from them using the method outlined above, except she skips the dunk in ice water. “I’ve always felt this was one extra and unneeded step in the process,” she said. “By the time I fill my counter with scalded tomatoes the first done are usually cool enough to handle.” She then places the peeled tomatoes into the sterilized jars. “While filling the jars, I use the opposite end of a wooden spoon to pack the tomatoes in the jar,” she said.
Fill the jars to within a quarter inch of the top. Add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice per pint of tomatoes. The USDA recommends bottled lemon juice over fresh. If needed, add liquid to fill the jar (you can use hot water or hot tomato juice). Sprinkle with about a quarter teaspoon of canning salt. Wipe the rim of the jar with a clean cloth.
Kim prepares the lids by boiling them in hot water. “I use tongs to take the hot lids out of the pan and place them on the tomato-filled jars,” she said. “I add the screw ring, being careful not to over-tighten.”
Next, it’s bath time – for the tomatoes, that is. The jars of tomatoes go into a water bath canner where they are immersed up to the necks of the jars and processed (boiled) for 40 minutes for pints, longer for quarts.
When Kim removes the jars from the water bath canner, she checks the lids to make sure they have sealed, by pressing on the center of each lid to make sure that it has pulled down and doesn’t move when pushed.Once cooled, label your jars and store in a cool, dry dark place. Use within one year.
While the traditional method of sun drying involves placing tomatoes outdoors in direct sunlight, the method can be completed in the oven. I’ve done it this way with much success.
Whereas larger tomatoes work well for freezing, the smaller varieties lend themselves to sun drying. I’ve used cherry tomatoes, but recipes I found often called for plum tomatoes.
Sun-drying involves removing the moisture from the fruit. This causes a decrease in volume, but not flavor. Sun dried tomatoes may be smaller than when they were on the vine, but they have a chewy texture and a flavor that is intense, sweet and tangy. As a general rule of thumb, about five pounds of fresh tomatoes is enough to make two cups sun dried. They work great in salads, tossed with pasta, as an addition to tomato sauces and anywhere else you can think to add them. Spray a baking sheet with nonstick spray. Wash and dry your tomatoes. Cut them in half (if working with cherries or small Romas) or slice them (if working with larger varieties) and place cut-side up on the baking sheet in a single row, so they aren’t touching. Some people remove the seeds after cutting. I’ve never done this, but you can if you have an aversion to tomato seeds. You can sprinkle the tomatoes with salt at this point; or skip this step if you are watching salt intake.
Place the baking sheet into an oven preheated to 150 degrees. If your oven doesn’t go to 150, use the lowest setting you have.
Now comes the hard part: waiting.
It takes hours and hours to sun-dry tomatoes. Be patient. The amount of time that yours will take depends on the water content of the tomatoes, the thickness of the pieces and how well the air circulates in your oven. This can take anywhere from six to 12 hours, so you might want to start the project in the morning.
Keep an eye on the drying tomatoes. You may have to flip them over or rearrange them on the baking sheet, if some seem to be drying faster than others.
When done, your tomatoes will have the consistency of fresh raisins: wrinkled and pliable.
Bring the tomatoes to room temperature (about 20 – 30 minutes) and transfer to quart-sized freezer bags. Store in the refrigerator or freezer for six to nine months.
Enjoying your tomatoes right now
You can’t freeze and can every tomato from the vine. That would be crazy, because they are better than good when eaten fresh. This recipe is my absolute favorite way (or at least one of my top ten favorite ways) to enjoy fresh tomatoes.
(bruschetta, if you are feeling Italian)
2 Tablespoons liquid from green olives
3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 Tablespoon vinegar
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
Finely ground black pepper to taste
Salt to taste
Whisk ingredients together.
Pour over tomato mixture (below).
Stir gently to coat.
8 medium tomatoes, diced
(you can leave the skins on)
1 cup (one can) black olives,
cut in half
1/2 cup chopped green olives
1/2 cup Feta cheese, crumbled
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
6 – 8 fresh basil leaves, chopped
1 pkg real bacon bits (optional)
1 medium onion, finely
In a large bowl, stir all ingredients together. Top with dressing (above). Refrigerate. Best if let to sit for at least 30 minutes to let the flavors meld.
• This is traditionally served with crusty French bread, although you can serve with crackers as a cold appetizer.
• Heat things up by placing bread slices on a baking sheet. Top with bruschetta salad and a sprinkle of mozzarella cheese. Broil until cheese melts.
• For a main course, our little “salad” works great on top of pasta. You can add pepperoni to the pasta as well, or not. Mozzarella cheese, too. Even chicken.
• Use as a topping for scrambled eggs, or as a filling for omelets.
• For a side dish, place frozen hash browns in a baking dish. Top with bruschetta and sprinkle with cheddar cheese. Bake in a 350-degree oven until heated through.
• Feel free to get creative and come up with your own options.
Tomatoes are a treasure. They work in salads, sauces and sides for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s no secret that tomatoes are a versatile food. They’ve got a reserved spot at my table any day of the week. Fruit? Vegetable? Who cares? In my opinion, tomatoes are good enough to be both.