Thursday, October 25, 2012

Tomatoes! Tomatoes!

The farm share is a classic double-edged sword. Sometimes you get vast amounts of certain vegetables for a whole host of environmental and climatological reasons and the challenge of using them all leads you to new techniques and new recipes and other times, Oh My God I cannot eat another fucking turnip! This year we got a lot of tomatoes. Not only did we grow them ourselves as we always do, but Steve had so many he was selling them by the box on pick up days. We bought them. Obviously, our experience with the tomatoes was more of the cutting the other guy edge of the sword and less of the accidentally lopping off your thumb edge, as tomatoes are a lot easier to use than turnips, especially given that much of our home cooking is in the Ameritalian tradition.

We had some typical responses to the tomato avalanche. Of course there were lots of salads, as there always are lots and lots of salad in the summer. We also made sauce, diced them and tossed them with pasta, and canned them. We also made salsa and froze it. (Yes, you can freeze salsa.) Here are a few things we did that might not be as typical, including the best fucking sauce I've ever fucking had.

Tomato Water Ice Cubes: A lot of tomato recipes call for you to take out seeds and all the congealed mystery ick that surrounds them and most of the time you just throw that stuff out. Instead, put it in a strainer over some kind of receptacle and let it drain. A pink, slightly thick liquid will collect, which I'm going to assume is called “tomato water.” Pour it into an ice cube tray and then put the cubes in a plastic bag in the freezer. These cubes have tons of uses. First, there simply is no other way to chill a Bloody Mary. I've tried a few other cocktails with them, but they are very nice in vodka or a martini. Second, because tomatoes have “umami” chemicals these cubes add a depth of flavor to a lot of other dishes. We added them to gazpacho to great effect. And to rice. Just replace some of the water with tomato water and the rice takes on an almost meaty flavor. The same goes with any kind of tomato sauce. By retaining the water, you avoid the seeds but don't lose any intensity of flavor. Really any dish that uses water, that doesn't have an inherent flavor conflict, will benefit by replacing some of the water with tomato water. And I'm sure there's a smoothy in waiting at some point.

Corn and Tomato Pie: Every now and again you throw a few key words into Google and it justifies (sort of) the gazillions of dollars it makes every year. What makes this recipe from Smitten Kitchen so successful is that it has a totally unique taste. It doesn't just taste like corn and tomatoes in a pie crust. The different sugars in the two vegetables combine into a unique flavor, one that manages to be sweet, while interacting with savory “it's dinner time” parts of your brain. It's a really cool, really delicious dish. And, because of whatever magic is in this pie, you could serve a salad with tomatoes on the side without risk of, I guess you'd call it, “tomato fatigue.” One of the challenges with avalanches of a particular vegetable, even a delicious particular vegetable, is that you get sick of the same flavor, even a delicious flavor, after a while. This recipe adds diversity to the same ingredient. (Also, you could just smother whatever in an appropriate cheese. A technique I, and my gout, personally endorse.)

The Best Tomato Sauce You Have Ever Had: I had the audacity to go away for a couple days for a book conference (yes, we have those), and the conference happened to coincide with our purchase of a 20ish pound box of San Marzano tomatoes. When I came back ‘riss had leftovers from her most recent experiment; pasta and some sauce. My brain melted from the awesome. Like the corn and tomato pie above, it was a totally unique flavor, with a tomato sweetness cut by a butteryness I've never tasted before (a butteryness, I should add, that came in sauce whose only fat content was olive oil). Obviously, you want to know how she made this sauce, though I'm not sure you can be trusted with such arcane knowledge. OK, my concerns over the time-span continuum aren't strong enough to counteract my need to brag, so here it is.

A whole bunch of San Marzano tomatoes. (You could use most other kinds, but I probably wouldn't use a fancy heirloom and you’ll have to bake them longer to condense the water.)
Olive Oil
Half an onion, diced
2-4 cloves of garlic, minced
Perhaps a dash of dried oregano or any other herb of your choice (like the overabundance of basil which coincides with tomato season)
Preheat the oven to 350
If using San Marzano tomatoes, half them perpendicular so that when you open it looks like each half has two compartments of tomato goo. If you are using regular tomatoes, cut the horizontal, scoop out all the seeds with your fingers and then cut them in half again, making quarters. Seed the tomatoes and retain the tomato water, (a small mesh colander over a bowl works great for this). Place the halved tomatoes face up on a baking sheet or pyrex dish. We put them on a silicone mat to keep them from sticking. Basically you want something that will be easy to clean burnt tomato sugar off of, since there’s a lot of it tomatoes and hot sugar is sticky. Sprinkle a little salt and pepper over the tomatoes and drizzle the top with a bit of olive oil. Bake for about an hour, rotating the pan in the oven halfway through to ensure even cooking, unless you've got one of those schmancy ovens with even heat all over. The astute recipe reader will probably notice that this really just a slow roast. At the end, the tomatoes look almost sun-dried. Given them a moment to cool and then extract them from the baking sheet and peel the skin. If there is a little bit stuck on the skin, it’s not a huge deal, you just want 85-95% of it gone so you get a smooth sauce.

In a blender or food processor puree the tomatoes with the retained tomato water. What you've essentially made is something one step removed from tomato paste. You've removed the water from the flesh in the tomatoes through the baking and then added the more intensely flavored tomato water to bring it back to sauce consistency. You can actually use this as a sandwich spread (great with rabe and provolone) or freeze it to use later.

Sweat the onion and garlic over medium heat, in a frying pan with a whole bunch of olive oil until the onions are softened and transparent but not browned. The olive oil is not just for frying the onions and garlic but also for thinning the puree to a sauce consistency and adding some fat to interact with the umami of the concentrated tomato flavor.

Add the puree the pan, whisking to combine it with the onions, garlic, and olive oil. If it is too thick add a little water until you've reached your desired consistency. Once at that consistency and warmed through taste it and adjust the seasoning with a little oregano, salt and pepper. You could serve this over an old magazine and a with a little grated cheese, it would be delicious.

Alternately, if you want to use it to make a vodka or wine based sauce, you put the alcohol over the onions and garlic and let the liquid reduce by half before adding the tomatoes.  (Or perhaps even some tomato infused vodka if you have any, which we do, because, if you've heard, we got a lot of tomatoes this summer. How do you make it? Vodka, cut up tomatoes, time and a strainer at the end.)

One of the great downsides to our modern American food industry is that most of us, most of the time, are never challenged by ingredients. We decided what we want and then buy whatever is needed to make that from the grocery store. But, none of the world's cuisines developed that way. All the traditional recipes came from people coping with the ingredients their climate forced on them. Furthermore, the greatest recipes, especially when you start cooking animals as well, are inspired by poverty, the need to make a tough cut of meat or a strange looking vegetable into something delicious because you have to eat it or starve. Obviously, ‘riss and I won't reach that point, but having the farm share has replicated, at least in a small, safe way, a part of that challenge, and I personally think our cooking has improved because of it.

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