Kitchen Shrink: The homegrown tomato invasion

KITCHEN SHRINK:

"Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad." — Miles Kington

An old friend with an enviable green thumb called me the other day complaining that her homegrown garden was producing too many tomatoes. Even after gifting most of them to family, friends and neighbors she still had an abundance, and asked me what to do with all these lycopene powerhouses.

Once revered by the ancient Greeks as aphrodisiac "love apples," they were also conversely feared by medieval aristocrats as "poison apples" — which they indeed became when served on pewter serving platters because the lead in the metal alloy interacted with the tomato's acid creating a toxic brew.

Not all tomatoes are created equal; some are well-suited to be eaten raw, while others are best cooked. As a rule of thumb, tomatoes with high water content are best served in their natural state like beefsteak, vine-ripened, green doctors and gorgeous Technicolor heirlooms with fine lineage. Cherry, grape, red fig, plum and dry-farmed tomatoes are divine when cooked, caramelizing the natural sugars into a rich and robust paste, but they're pretty spectacular when eaten raw, too.

Raw tomatoes that are ripe yet firm, sliced nice and chunky enhance burgers, sandwiches, caprese and panzanella salads, along with assorted vegetable platters. Chop or dice them for salsas, chutneys or pico de gallos for dips or condiments enlivening grilled wild-caught fish or chicken. Concoct a Mediterranean bruschetta topping with a variety of heirlooms and olives, fresh basil and garlic with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and squirt of Meyer lemon juice.

Lop off the tops, scoop out the seeds and stuff the hollows of medium to larger-sized tomatoes with shrimp, salmon, crab or lobster salad. Pickle firm green tomatoes for a probiotic oomph. Construct a seafood ceviche cocktail with chopped tomatoes, sweet onions, jicama and a splash of vodka, or blend a batch of zesty, refreshing gazpacho like a liquid salad combining crushed tomatoes, hothouse cucumbers, red and green peppers, roasted garlic and a dash of hot sauce.

For a summer salad or appetizer, toss wedges of assorted heirlooms, including zebras, yellows, and purples along with chunks of watermelon, fresh basil leaves and a sprinkling of goat feta with a drizzle of olive oil and white balsamic vinegar.

The possibilities for cooked tomato dishes are almost limitless. Larger tomatoes grilled whole or halved, or smaller ones on a skewer until they form a crisp and tasty blister dial up any protein or grain.

Or deep-fry tart green ones for a southern flair. Enjoy a tomato basil bisque or a robust tomato-based seafood cioppino on chilly summer nights, or tomato melts on laid back afternoons. Try tomatoey grass-fed beef Bolognese, lamb ragus, or vegetarian marinara or creamy vodka sauces smothering thick pappardelle egg noodles, or layering lasagnas or ziti casseroles with both tomato sauce and slices.

Toss sun-dried or roasted tomatoes in pilafs, risottos or chunky pastas, top pizzas or flatbreads, or blend in frittatas or quiches. Prepare from scratch ketchups, barbecue sauces, and jams (see recipe). Spread this thick, rich sweet paste on toast, muffins or biscuits, or use to top your favorite ice cream or gelato for a splash of color and zing of flavor.

For more just desserts prepare a tomato-based cheesecake, sorbet or Popsicle, crème brulee, pound cake, quick bread or a green tomato crumble pie. Then wash it all down nicely with a spicy tomato juice, vegetable cocktail, or zippy Bloody Mary.

If you still have any tomatoes left whip up a tonic by blending pureed pulp with either aloe vera gel to ease tender sunburns, or lemon juice to calm irritated skin, and help fade fine lines.

Cook's tip: Raw tomatoes should be stored at room temperature in a bowl on the kitchen counter, (not refrigerated) until ready to use.

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Recipe: Tangy Tomato Jam

Ingredients: 2 pounds of low-water tomatoes, cut in chunks (Romas, cherry or grape); 2 tablespoons of acid (either balsamic vinegar or lime juice); 2 tablespoons honey; 1/2 cup brown sugar; 1/2 inch shredded fresh ginger; sea salt and cayenne pepper to taste.

Method: Add ingredients to a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer, stirring until the mixture thickens to desired consistency. Cool and store in airtight storage jars for up to two weeks.

Catharine Kaufman can be reached by e-mail: kitchenshrink@san.rr.com

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