By: Steve “Mo” Fye, Copy Chief | Photos By: Steve “Mo” Fye
“Cooking In Season” is a monthly column designed to help students learn to cook using locally available ingredients. Look for the next installment on squash in issue nine.
Students lucky enough to have the time to garden are likely inundated with tomatoes right now. Even those who are too busy for a garden probably have friends who are growing tomatoes and have a plethora of the lovely, juicy beauties.
Like zucchini and yellow summer squashes, tomatoes tend to give their fruits all at once, leaving gardeners with so much produce that they will push it on anyone who stands still long enough to accept a bagful.
That leaves the question of what to do with the bounty when it all hits at once. There are nearly endless uses for this beautiful gift of nature.
A way to take this staple vegetable (yes, technically tomatoes are fruits, but all fruits are vegetables, while not all vegetables are fruits) to a higher level of elegance is to make an “Insalata Caprese.”
In the simplest form, this “Salad in the style of Capri” is just sliced fresh tomatoes with slices of buffalo Mozzarella cheese and fresh basil, drizzled with olive oil. This easy recipe can be dramatically flavorful when made with garden-fresh tomatoes, basil just trimmed from the plant and a good Mozzarella and extra virgin olive oil.
There are many ways to tweak the recipe: Drizzle some fine balsamic vinegar on top; finish with a nice vinaigrette; or stack the cheese on thick slices of tomato and broil just until the cheese starts to brown and garnish with finely chopped basil.
A great way to deal with more tomatoes than can be used before they spoil is to make a sauce and freeze it. Take washed tomatoes, chop them up and simmer them with spices. Basil, oregano and thyme or marjoram make for a great sauce which can be frozen for a few months and then used as a base for pasta sauces or, with fewer herbs, be used in Texas chili.
Another efficient way to handle a surplus of tomatoes is to dry them. Drying tomatoes concentrates the flavors. The dried tomatoes are rich and sweet, with a pronounced sweet and savory flavor.
True sun drying is not recommended, as there is a risk of food-borne illness. Tomatoes have a high acidity and sodium level, which tend to discourage bacterial growth, but it is much safer to use a dehydrator or oven.
To dry tomatoes, wash them well and cut small tomatoes in half. Larger tomatoes such as beefsteaks or oxheart should be quartered. With a clean finger, wipe out the seeds and gelatinous membranes. These can be saved for making stock, composting or just discarded.
Flatten the sections of tomato and place in a dehydrator or on a foil-lined baking sheet. Dry the tomatoes in the oven on the lowest temperature setting for several hours. Alternatively, dry them in a dehydrator on a medium to medium-high setting.
The tomatoes should be leathery and shrunken when done. The drier the tomato, the longer it will last in storage, but it will take longer to reconstitute dehydrated tomatoes.
Dried tomatoes should be stored in a sealed container in the refrigerator or freezer. They can be readied for use by soaking in water, wine or oil. Sauces made with pureed, dried tomatoes are rich and satisfying, giving a sense of meatiness without adding the cholesterol and fat of animal products.
Tomatoes are among the most versatile and useful vegetables at our disposal. Students without a garden can visit the local growers markets or farmers market soon to get locally grown tomatoes and experiment.
The reward is lovely flavors and colors as well as a superior source of lycopene, an excellent and easily available anti-oxidant.