Scarlet Bonanza

Times Food Editor

It's easy to tell when backyard vegetable plots begin to bulge with an overflow of tomatoes. Panic sets in as many home gardeners suddenly realize they really don't know how to deal with the excess of success they are having. The end result is that our mail basket overflows too, with pleas for help in using these highly perishable garden favorites.

Tomatoes are truly a product of the Western world. Oddly enough, although they have been around for centuries, they only have been popular as a food in this country for the last 100 years or so. In fact, they had to travel to Europe and back before making the grade here. There even was a time when they were called "love apples" and were considered poisonous.

Somehow tomatoes still seem to suffer from an identity crisis. My trusty desk dictionary says that a tomato is "a red or yellowish fruit with a juicy pulp, used as a vegetable: botanically it is a berry." And since that covers just about everything a tomato might possibly be, I, for one, have no intention of delving one whit further into the pedigree of this popular produce staple. I'll accept its confusing status with equanimity so long as it continues to be available to enhance my menus the year round.

The No. 1 question asked by tomato lovers today is, of course, "Why don't today's tomatoes taste like they used to?" As any home gardener can tell you, it's quite possible to grow good tasting tomatoes. There are excellent varietal choices available to both commercial growers and home growers.

The commercial grower, understandably, however, is as interested in producing a tomato that will be sturdy enough to survive all the handling it takes to get it to market as in its flavor. At the same time don't think a commercial grower isn't interested in flavor. I've never met one yet that wasn't. If a supermarket tomato doesn't have reasonably good flavor, the consumer doesn't buy tomatoes the second time around. And that can hit a grower where it hurts, in the pocketbook. So most of the commercial tomatoes today, while maybe not as great in flavor as a good home-grown product, start out with the possibility of tasting pretty good. It's often what happens between the time they are picked and the moment you pop them into a plastic bag at the supermarket that makes the difference.

As anyone who has ever grown tomatoes at home knows, there is absolutely nothing as marvelous as the flavor of a beautiful red-ripe tomato still warm from the summer sun. It has a distinctive aroma that only enhances the taste. But a tomato picked at that stage in a commercial growing field would undoubtedly be paste by the time the truck got to the packing house. So the grower is going to pick the tomato you find at the market when it is mature, but still green or pinkish green in color. At this stage the tomato has some ripening to do, but if properly handled between the field and the market, it should develop the deep red color that is equated with a ripe tomato and an equally ripe, rich flavor.

The problem is that too often the consumer will discover that although the tomato he or she has chosen has a good color tone, the flavor is missing. And a good percentage of the time what has happened is that somewhere between the field and the supermarket produce bin, the missing flavor has been chilled into oblivion.

Once a picked tomato has been subjected to temperatures less than 55 degrees for any length of time, the ripening process is stopped and flavor loss begins. Ideally, picked tomatoes should be kept at temperatures between 55 degrees and 70 degrees until they are fully ready to eat. Unfortunately the consumer has no way of knowing whether a shipper or unwary warehouse clerk has, in order to keep tomatoes fresh, stored them in a commercial refrigerator that is too cold for them to survive.

So if you are growing tomatoes in your own garden, take a tip from some of the experts and keep the home-grown bounty out of the refrigerator until it's totally ripe. And if you really want a tomato to taste its best, eat it at room temperature rather than chilled.

As with most familiar foods, cooks are always looking for new ways to use tomatoes. The introduction to the American market of the Italian sun-dried tomatoes during the past few years has piqued the interest of many readers. The process of drying tomatoes is in no way a difficult one, but there are some things to consider before embarking on the process of preparing your own.

For one thing, if you are going to dry tomatoes the natural way by letting them sit in the sun for hours, you'll need to cover them with some sort of screening that will keep the bugs out but allow the sun to penetrate. Take the tomatoes in at night and put them out in the sun once again the next day until the drying process is completed.

We tried drying tomatoes both in the sun and in a low temperature oven and found there was very little flavor or texture difference, so if you don't live in a sunny spot, don't let that keep your from trying your hand at matching the wonderful Italian product.

There are advantages to preparing your own sun-dried tomatoes. A recent trip to Italy left me convinced that the American trend toward cutting back on salt had not, as yet, penetrated Italian borders. The Italian sun-dried tomatoes I've tried have been so salty I've had to rinse them off before I could use them. But in preparing my own, I've been able to control the amount of salt added. I've even prepared them without using salt, but it takes longer for them to dry.

In experimenting with matching the Italian product at home, we found that you really should use the Italian plum or Roma tomatoes. Home-dried ordinary tomatoes somehow lacked the rich flavor and chewy texture we were after, although they did taste good.

If you choose to dry tomatoes at home, you might want to borrow another Italian trick and pack them in a good grade of olive oil. Again, this is a simple thing to do. Just place the dried tomatoes in a sterilized jar, add a few sprigs of basil or rosemary or a clove or two of garlic or any other seasoning that appeals. Be sure there are no air bubbles in the jar and that the oil completely covers all the tomatoes or they may turn moldy. Cover the jar and keep it in a cool, dry place or in the refrigerator for a week or so and then begin to use both the tomatoes and the oil in any number of ways. If kept in the refrigerator, the oil will congeal, but it will return to its usual liquid state when allowed to sit at room temperature for a while.

A favorite use for tomatoes prepared this way in my household is to trim the crusts from thinly sliced bread and then pan-fry the bread until crisp and brown in some of the oil. This can be done ahead of time, if you like. Just before serving time, I drain some of the tomatoes and arrange them over the crisp toast and then slip the tomato-topped toast under the broiler just long enough to heat the tomatoes through. These make wonderful appetizers.

There are, of course, some wonderful uses for tomatoes that have survived the test of time. Everyone seems to have an old family recipe that was a favorite during childhood years. As some of these recipes were unearthed and memories refreshed, it was fun to see how things have changed.

Most of the recipes that were fondly remembered involved "putting up" tomatoes one way or another. And the recipes started out by calling for a bushel or a peck or a lug of tomatoes, quantity designations that most of today's cooks are totally unfamiliar with. Translated to modern recipe talk, it quickly became apparent that when people "put up" in the good old days, they believed in big quantities. Trying the recipes also showed that they really knew good food.

So if you have a huge crop of home-grown tomatoes or come across a good buy in the market, the accompanying recipes should provide a lot of good eating for some time to come.

DRIED TOMATOES

3 pounds firm ripe Italian or plum tomatoes (Romas)

1/2 teaspoon herb seasoning (oregano, basil or any herb combination) per tomato

1 teaspoon minced garlic

Salt, optional

2 sprigs rosemary or 1 tablespoon dried rosemary leaves, optional

1 1/4 cups olive oil, about

Choose tomatoes with even red color, no green or black spots. Wash tomatoes, removing stem ends. Slice lengthwise in halves. Squeeze gently to remove some of juice and seeds. Pat dry. Sprinkle with herbs, garlic and salt to taste. Dry tomatoes using oven or sun-drying method until about 2/3 dry.

To prevent molding, immediately place dried tomatoes loosely in 1 (1- to 1 1/2-pint) jar with rosemary sprigs. Pour in olive oil to cover tomatoes. Cover jars and store airtight in cool, dark, dry area or in refrigerator (olive oil will be cloudy). Use immediately or let stand 1 1/2 months for flavors to develop. Tomatoes will stay fresh as long as oil tastes fresh. Makes about 1 pint dried tomatoes.

Oven Drying Method:

Prepare tomatoes for drying as above and place halves, cut side down, on non-stick pans (do not use foil). Or arrange tomatoes on wire racks placed on pans. Bake at 300 degrees 3 to 5 hours or until dried. (Avoid overdrying since tomatoes become tough. If not dried enough, tomatoes will mold.)

Sun Drying Method:

Use shallow wood-framed trays with nylon netting, cheesecloth or screen bottoms. Dry in hot weather with relatively low humidity. Prepare tomatoes for drying and place squeezed and seasoned halves, cut side down, on trays. Cover trays with protective netting and place in direct sun raised from ground on blocks, bricks or slatted platform (there should be air circulating under food).

Dry tomatoes about 3 days, turning after half of time, to expose cut halves to sun. Bring trays into house or place in sheltered spot outdoors before dew rises after sundown.

JUDY ZEIDLER'S

OVEN-BAKED

TOMATOES

12 firm ripe Italian or plum tomatoes

Salt, pepper

Sugar

Fresh thyme

1/2 head garlic, crushed, unpeeled

1/4 cup olive oil

Cut cross on bottom of each tomato with sharp knife. Drop tomatoes into boiling water, remove and plunge into bowl of cold water. Peel and cut in halves. Squeeze juice and seeds out of each (reserve juice and seeds for stock, if desired). Sprinkle to taste with salt, pepper, sugar and thyme.

Place tomato halves, cut side down, close together on baking sheet. Place garlic cloves in between tomatoes. Sprinkle with olive oil. Bake at 300 degrees 3 to 4 hours or until dried. Tomatoes will look slightly burned on top. Cool. Place in single layer in glass dish and cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate up to 2 days. If keeping for more than 2 days, cover with olive oil, then plastic wrap. Refrigerate indefinitely. Makes 24 dried tomato halves.

BOBBIE'S TOMATO

RELISH

3 green peppers

6 medium onions

10 pounds tomatoes, peeled and chopped

1 to 2 jalapeno chiles, chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 1/4 cups sugar

2 1/2 cups vinegar

Grind green peppers and onions. Combine with tomatoes, chiles, salt, cloves, cinnamon, sugar and vinegar in stockpot. Cook until thick, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Ladel hot mixture into hot sterilized jars, leaving 1/4-inch head space. Adjust caps and process in boiling water bath canner 15 minutes. Makes about 3 quarts.

JOAN'S TOMATO

COCKTAIL

16 pounds tomatoes, cored and chopped

1/2 bunch celery, including leaves, chopped

1 large onion

1/2 teaspoon celery seeds

1 large green pepper, seeded and chopped

2 whole cloves

3/4 cup sugar, about

1 tablespoon salt, about

Combine tomatoes, celery, onion, celery seeds, green pepper and cloves in large kettle. Bring to boil, reduce heat and cook 20 minutes. Season to taste with sugar and salt and continue cooking 10 to 15 minutes longer, until vegetables are tender.

Run mixture through food mill to strain off skins and cooked vegetables. Return juice to kettle and bring to rolling boil. Pour into sterilized bottles and jars and seal according to manufacturer's directions. Makes 5 quarts.

TOMATO ICE

3 cups Joan's Tomato Cocktail or tomato juice

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon instant minced onion

3 tablespoons lemon juice

Dash salt

1/2 teaspoon crushed basil

Combine tomato cocktail, sugar, minced onion, lemon juice, salt and basil. Stir well to blend. Pour mixture into ice cube trays and freeze until mushy.

Scrape mixture into chilled bowl. Beat with chilled beaters until smooth, but do not allow ice to melt. Return to trays or small molds and freeze until firm. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

HOMEMADE CATSUP

1 cup white vinegar

1 teaspoon celery seeds

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

1 1/2 sticks cinnamon

1 teaspoon whole cloves

8 pounds tomatoes, cut into chunks

3 tablespoons salt

1 tablespoon chopped onion

1 cup sugar

Combine vinegar, celery seeds, mustard seeds, cinnamon and cloves in small saucepan. Bring to boil, remove from heat and reserve.

Place tomatoes, salt and onion in stockpot. Bring to boil and cook 15 minutes. Put through sieve, then boil juice down to half.

Strain vinegar mixture and add to juice along with sugar. Boil until thick, 45 to 60 minutes. Makes about 2 pints.

MRS. NYLANDER'S

MARINATED TOMATOES

8 large, firm tomatoes, peeled

1/2 cup chopped parsley

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons tarragon wine vinegar

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

4 teaspoons prepared mustard

Cut tomatoes into 1/2-inch slices and place in shallow serving dish. Combine parsley, garlic, salt, sugar, pepper, oil, tarragon wine vinegar, red wine vinegar and mustard in jar. Cover and shake well. Pour over tomatoes.

Cover and chill. Let stand at room temperature at least 20 minutes before serving. Makes 8 to 12 servings.

WALNUT-TOMATOES ITALIANO

4 large tomatoes

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

1 clove garlic, minced

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

4 ounces mozzarella cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Walnut halves

Remove stem ends of tomatoes. Halve vertically, remove pulp and reserve tomato shells. Dice pulp into 1/2-inch cubes.

Whisk vinegar and oil in bowl. Mix in basil, garlic, salt and pepper. Add tomato pieces and cheese and toss.

Cover and chill 1 to 2 hours. Toss chopped walnuts with tomato-cheese mixture and fill tomato shells. Garnish with walnut halves. Makes 4 servings.

EGGPLANT-STUFFED TOMATOES

2 cups diced uncooked eggplant

1 cup diced cooked ham

1/2 cup diced celery

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons chopped onion

Sour cream

6 large tomatoes

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Salad greens

Cook eggplant in boiling water only until tender-crisp, about 10 minutes. Remove from pan, drain and cool.

Combine eggplant, ham, celery, salt, pepper, onion and 2 tablespoons sour cream in large bowl. Mix lightly.

Cut off tops of tomatoes, remove centers and drain well. Stuff tomatoes with eggplant mixture. Sprinkle each with few drops of lemon juice. Top with sour cream. Serve on salad greens. Makes 6 servings.

TOMATO PUFF

2 slices bread, crusts removed

1/2 cup milk

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

5 tomatoes, peeled and chopped

1 teaspoon onion juice

Salt, pepper

4 egg yolks, lightly beaten

5 egg whites, beaten until stiff

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Paprika

Soak bread in milk, then stir to paste consistency. Melt butter in skillet. Add tomatoes and onion juice and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook and stir until blended. Stir in bread paste.

Remove from heat and stir in egg yolks. Cool. Fold yolk mixture into beaten whites and pour into well-greased 2-quart souffle dish or casserole. Sprinkle with cheese and bake at 350 degrees 35 to 40 minutes. Sprinkle with paprika and serve at once. Makes 6 servings.

SAUTEED TOMATOES D'AMOUR

6 large, firm tomatoes

Sour cream

1/3 cup milk

1 1/2 cups fine dry bread crumbs

2 tablespoons oil

Salt, pepper

Grated cheese, optional

Cut tomatoes into thick slices. Combine 1/3 cup sour cream and milk. Blend well. Dip tomato slices in milk mixture, then into bread crumbs.

Saute tomato slices in hot oil over medium heat until golden brown. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Top with additional sour cream and grated cheese. Makes 6 servings.

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