In Praise of the Tomato.

The Tomato is a wonderful thing.

Few foodstuffs are more wonderful. There are unlimited vistas to meals as you, the Cook, contemplate the beautiful round vegetable. (Okay, yes, I know, it’s technically a fruit. So sue me.) It goes with just about anything around, with the small exception of sugar. (Which is why I refuse to call it a fruit.) And even that—high falutin’ chefs have been known to make tomato desserts, but we just have to avert our eyes and courteously pretend we haven’t noticed. The noble Tomato has charms enough without being tarted up and led down the garden path of sweets.

Now I want to praise then noble Tomato.

Let me count the ways in which it can be (and is) prepared. Ah, tomatoes! They are wonderful raw: sliced thinly, scattered with herbs (marjoram, thyme, or torn basil…yum), perhaps a bit of sweet raw garlic, shallots, green onions…or sliced onions, white, yellow, red, or purple, lain on top…and then a little salt, preferably the flaky stuff. Sometimes a good grind of black pepper. And then the final anointing, depending on the sweetness or lack thereof of the basic tomato: olive oil alone. Olive oil followed by a squeeze of lemon or lime over the whole lot. Olive oil followed by a shaking of any one of a number of delicious vinegars. Or, if the tomatoes absolutely seem to demand it—and listen to them, as you get to know them, you will get to understand their needs—just a spoonful or two of sweet balsamic vinegar whooshed atop. Leave the tomatoes to marinate in that last. Spoon the vinegar over them from time to time as you wander past the platter. And then…enjoy.

Chop them up this way, add to them some chopped cucumber, a little minced hot pepper, some sliced sweet onion and mashed garlic, a bunch of minced herbs, and a little water or tomato juice to taste…and there it is, like Spanish magic, GAZPACHO.

As for the cooked tomato. I would scarcely have the room here or the time to list all the ways. You’ll have your favorites. Pasta sauce, of course, but in how many delicious variations! With garlic sautéed and then removed from olive oil before adding the tomatoes…and these last can be raw or canned. Canned tomatoes are probably one of mankind’s most profound inventions. They certainly have provided more definite happiness for humankind than just about anything else with the exception of indoor plumbing and modern dentistry. Canned tomatoes make me purr in the winter months. I make sauces, as above. Add a red pepper pod from time to time. Raw garlic chopped and added at the last moment. Anchovies melted into a mix of butter and olive oil before they’re added. This reminds me…raw tomatoes are great mixed at the last minute with a melting of said anchovies, chopped garlic, minced capers, chopped green onion and olives into said olive oil and butter. Add to linguine, toss with handfuls of green herbs. Parsley is nice. Parsley, come to think of it, is always nice with tomatoes.

But wait, I got off the subject of cooked tomatoes: Tomato/Onion/Garlic/Greens/Potato hash! Tomato sauce heated with whole eggs poached atop. Tomatoes and chilies cooked down to a sauce to top fried tortillas and a fried egg. A little cheese never hurts this one. Stuffed tomatoes!

Tomato soup!

And then, the stews and soups that hang their heads with pallid shame without their friend the tomato. But add them and wonder. Beef stew! Mushroom stew! Vegetable soup! Ratatouille!

Roasted vegetables!

Which brings me to the single most useful tomato recipe I have to offer. So useful, in fact, and so cherished in my own home, that it has featured in BOTH “Jam Today” cookbooks. Because I know some of the more informed, tomato-wise, of you are out there making mournful tsk-tsk noises, and wondering why I’m bringing all of this up, all of this about the Wonder of the Tomato, just right at the painful moment for tomato lovers everywhere when the beautiful, perfectly ripe, marvelously flavorful tomato of the summer/fall season is just about to disappear from gardens and markets everywhere. Leaving…what? The relatively pallid, some would even say hockey-puckesque hothouse tomatoes, or those transported from such far away climes that necessity dictated their being picked about a half a century too early for proper flavor.

But wait! There is hope (there is always hope). Because what you need now is a good recipe for OVEN DRIED ORGANIC ROMA TOMATOES.

(I should have mentioned that ‘organic’ thing sooner. Believe me, the kind of pesticides you find soaked all the way through your average store-bought tomato are nothing you want anywhere near the bodies of yourself or your loved ones. Not to mention near the bodies of the poor overworked souls who had to stoop to pick them, breathing in all those horrible fumes. I think the less we encourage the growth of nonorganic tomatoes, the better for everyone.)

Back to the recipe. I find you can get rather well priced organic Roma tomatoes, imported probably from Mexico, even in the depth of winter. All that’s needed to relieve them of their miserable cottony, untomatoey taste is a good long bout in a very slow oven. You want them cooked to the point where they are flexible, not dried out, but without any liquid remaining to go moldy on you later. Then they are extraordinarily sweet, and last an amazing amount of time in a covered bowl in your refrigerator, ready to be taken out and used in any number of ways: in salads, in soups, in stews, or even just mashed up and spread on a good slice of bread.

This is how:

Take as many Roma tomatoes as you want and split in half, leaving them connected a bit in the middle. Cover as many cookie sheets as you need to hold the tomatoes involved, and as your oven can stand, with foil. Put tomatoes on foil. Sprinkle with salt—coarse is my favorite here. Now you can either spoon a little olive oil over each one, or leave them plain. The first way makes a more unctuous dried tomato (you’ll probably never go back), but the real advantage is the olive oil helps them last longer in the refrigerator. However, if you’re dieting, or you want to use them right away and don’t want the oil, for whatever strategic reason, no worries, just leave it off.

Now put them the tomatoes the oven at a very low temperature, 200 or 250 degrees. You can leave them like that all night. In fact, all night is a very good amount of time. You’ll wake to the smell of deep red tomato (yes, it’s true, you can smell the color, at least I always think I can). Of course, they don’t NEED to be in all night, just a good four to eight hours…so for the latter amount of time, the lower oven temperature of course. Once they’re done to your liking (remember: flexible, chewy, not dried out and crackly), take them out, pile them in a bowl, cover, put in your refrigerator, and feel happy, once again, to have a supply laid-in of tomato goodness.

Then silently thank the tomato and the force that made it.

The Wonder of the Tomato. Whoever invented the tomato certainly knew one or two things about the joy of everyday life.




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