Thursday, November 15, 2007

Winter Tomatoes

For the typical home vegetable gardener fresh winter tomatoes are just a dream. You can enjoy preserved tomatoes if you've grown an abundance of them and have the time and energy to peel and can and chop and cook and process and... well, you get the drift - it's a huge chore. I got over the urge to can tomatoes years ago. I will make my Lazy Cooks Tomato Sauce or simple tomato purees and store them in the freezer. Or I dehydrate tomato slices. Or, for the ultimate in preserving laziness, I just pop whole ripe tomatoes into the freezer. But I'm resigned to enjoying a juicy ripe tomato only a few months out of the year. I will not touch a mealy tasteless pseudo-tomato offering from the store, regardless of how pretty it might look and especially if it has been shipped from the other side of the world.

Now I've come across another method for enjoying homegrown tomatoes in the winter - not quite fresh but not really preserved either. Lynn Rossetto Kasper has a piece in her book The Italian Country Table about Pomodori d'Inverno of Puglia. Certain varieties of tomatoes are grown to be harvested in late summer - the entire plant is cut and hung in pantries or shady porches - the ripe tomatoes shrivel slightly but don't dry. The flavor supposedly becomes more intense as they hang. Imagine, what could be easier than cutting a plant full of ripe tomatoes and hanging them up! The basic requirements for this method are a dry airy place that stays somewhere between 45 and 60 degrees F. Lynn recommends small fruited varieties of tomatoes such as Red Currants, Sweet 100's Sun Golds, Early Cascades or Principessa Borgheses. I found some seed sources for Italian varieties that I think are the real deal - Inverno a Grappoli and Pomodori a Grappiolo d'Inverno. Here's another source for Grappoli d'Inverno. And a source for Italian Winter Grape. I also think that a determinate type of tomato would work best (as the Italian varieties that I found are) since they ripen all of their fruits at once.

So, it's November and I'm already dreaming about next year's tomato crop. But, I have to confess - the weather has been so mild that I'm still picking a few tomatoes from my plants - the Aunt Ruby's German Greens have been particularly tasty even if they are on the small side. Omar's Lebanese haven't fared as well since they have a strong tendency to crack at the least hint of rain so that they spoil before they get ripe enough. Although they do have some nice green fruits that I'm going to fry up using a recipe that I like from Food & Wine that has Parmesan in the breading.

And as for the Lazy Cooks Tomato Sauce. Take a large roasting pan and drizzle some olive oil in there - more or less to your taste. Slice a bunch of tomatoes in half horizontally and lay them cut side up in the roasting pan. Cut some onions into halves (or quarters if very large), peel and remove the root ends, and put them cut side up in amongst the tomatoes. I use about 4 parts tomatoes to 1 part onions. Peel some garlic cloves and tuck them amongst the tomatoes and onions. Tuck some basil leaves into the pan (or not), you can also tuck a couple of bay leaves or a few sprigs of thyme, or some parsley into the mix. Sprinkle with some salt and pepper. Drizzle with a bit more olive oil. Roast in a 350 degree F. oven until the tomatoes and onions are tender - about an hour or more depending on the size of the tomatoes and onions and how big your pan is. Cool, remove bay leaves or thyme stems if used. Pass through a food mill (much nicer texture than a food processor plus it removes the seeds and skins). Portion out into containers of whatever size you want. Cover and freeze. If you omit the herbs it allows you to season the sauce however you like when you use it. You can also just roast the tomatoes alone and pass them through a food mill for a simple tomato puree.

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