Summer always comes late to Southern California, but that seemed to be particularly true this year, as the cloudy gray days of June gloom stretched well into August for many areas. There was a good side, to be sure, but what we gained by not having to turn on the air conditioner was offset by the sorry state of our tomatoes.
In my garden, except for some precocious Sweet 100s, nothing became ripe until about a week ago. Then wham! all of a sudden, everything ripened at once. As a result, I am now swimming in tomatoes.
I’ve got more ripe Brandywines, Pink Cherokees and Black Krims than I can count. And every day seems a challenge to find yet one more way to use them up. Because this summer heat spell can’t last. I figure we’ve got probably until the middle of October to enjoy these tomatoes before the sun starts to fade and the fruit starts to shrivel.
So, in honor of this hurry-up harvest, here is a month’s worth of ideas for using tomatoes, plus a couple of full recipes to get you started.
1. Pa’ amb tomaquet: Split a baguette in half and cut it into 4- to 5-inch lengths. Toast the bread and while it is still hot, rub the cut side with a cut clove of garlic. Rub half of a seeded tomato against the bread, cut side to cut side, as if you were polishing the bread with the tomato. The bread will absorb a lot of tomato juice and soften slightly but stay crisp around the crust. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and season to taste with salt.
2. Pasta with fresh tomatoes: Cut cherry tomatoes in half and season with salt, pepper, olive oil, a little red wine vinegar and minced garlic and a pinch of dried red chile flakes. Cook bucatini, penne or another chewy dried pasta until tender. While the pasta is still steaming hot, dump it over the tomatoes. Stir quickly so the hot pasta will lightly cook the tomatoes. Stir in a bit more olive oil or, if you prefer, some fresh goat cheese, which will melt into the pasta.
3. Pasta with quickly cooked tomatoes (true marinara): Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat and saute a whole peeled garlic clove until lightly browned. Add peeled, seeded, diced tomatoes and cook until they begin to melt into a sauce. Cook spaghetti or another long dried pasta and when it is almost tender, add it to the tomatoes along with a ladle of the cooking water. Increase the heat to high and cook until the sauce thickens and coats the pasta. Remove the garlic clove, sprinkle with shredded basil, and serve.
4. Pasta with tomato sauce: Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat with minced garlic and diced carrots, celery and onion (half as much carrots and celery as onion). When the vegetables start to soften and turn color, add peeled, seeded, diced tomatoes (preferably plum tomatoes) and cook until they’ve thoroughly melted into a sauce. Pass the mixture through a food mill (or puree in a food processor) and return to the skillet. Serve with fettuccine or another fresh pasta topped with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
5. Tomato butter: Heat a stick of butter in a skillet with minced shallots and torn fresh tarragon. Cut cherry tomatoes in quarters and put them in a mixing bowl with salt to taste. If the tomatoes lack acidity, stir in a bit of red wine vinegar. When the shallots have softened, pour the butter into the tomatoes, stirring briskly to break up the tomatoes. Serve this over grilled or sauteed fish or gnocchi.
6. Tomato and white bean salad: Halve cherry tomatoes and put them in a mixing bowl with minced garlic and capers. Season with olive oil, red wine vinegar and salt. Set aside for a half-hour to macerate. In another mixing bowl, combine a can of rinsed, drained white beans and some slivered red onion. Add the tomatoes and stir to combine. Top with slivered basil. To make this a light main course, stir in a drained can of good-quality tuna.
7. True gazpacho: Soak bread in water to soften. Puree the bread and a clove of garlic in a blender until smooth. Add seeded, chopped tomatoes, a little peeled, chopped cucumber and a little seeded bell pepper and puree. Season with salt, white wine vinegar, a little cumin and either a little black pepper or smoked paprika. With the blender running, add olive oil in a stream until the mixture turns from bright red to orange. Pour the mixture into a bowl and whisk in just enough ice water to make a lightly creamy texture. Chill until ready to serve.
8. Crostini with goat cheese and tomatoes: Cut a baguette in 1/2 -inch slices and place them on a cookie sheet. Toast at 400 degrees, turning once, until they are well-browned on both sides, about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and immediately rub each slice lightly with cut garlic and drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle seeded, diced tomatoes with salt and pepper and just enough olive oil to barely moisten. Spread the crostini with fresh goat cheese and top with a generous spoonful of the diced tomatoes. Garnish with a sprig of basil.
9. Tomato salad with pickled shallots and goat cheese croutons: Slice a couple of shallots thin and cover them in a bowl with red wine vinegar to pickle for a half-hour or so. Cut tomatoes (a mix of colors and shapes is best) in thick slices and season them with salt, pepper, olive oil and the strained vinegar from the shallots. Spread crostini (No. 8) with fresh goat cheese. Arrange the salad in a low mound on a platter with the goat cheese crostini around the outside. Scatter the pickled shallots over top.
10. Tomato summer pudding: This is adapted from Judy Rodgers’ “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook.” Make a highly seasoned tomato salad (see No. 9). Oil a souffle dish and arrange a solid layer of crostini (No. 8) in the bottom. Spoon some tomato salad over that. Arrange another layer of crostini and spoon in more tomatoes. Repeat until all of the tomatoes are used, finishing with a layer of tomatoes. Lay a sheet of parchment or waxed paper on top and place a plate just big enough to fit inside the souffle dish. Weight the plate to compress the ingredients (a can of tomatoes works well!), and set aside until the crostini are well soaked with tomato juice, one to two hours.
11. Tomato confit I: Cut plum or cherry tomatoes in half lengthwise and squeeze out the seeds. Arrange them in a single layer in a baking dish (as many as you can, as they will shrink during cooking). Scatter peeled garlic cloves among the tomatoes and add enough olive oil to come halfway up the side. Bake at 400 degrees for a couple of hours until the tomatoes shrivel and are well-caramelized. These will store in the refrigerator for weeks -- terrific for adding to pasta sauces, garnishing grilled or roasted meat or fish or topping crostini.
12. Tomato confit II: This version isn’t quite as unctuous but has a more intense tomato flavor. Cut sauce or cherry tomatoes in half lengthwise and squeeze out the seeds. Arrange in a single layer on a jellyroll pan and season generously with salt, pepper and minced garlic. Drizzle over olive oil and roast at 300 degrees for a couple of hours until the tomatoes begin to caramelize.
13. Sauteed cherry tomatoes: In a large skillet, heat olive oil and a peeled clove of garlic over medium-high heat. When the garlic begins to color, add cherry tomatoes and sprinkle with thyme. Cook, shaking the pan, until the tomatoes split and blister. Season to taste with salt and a little red wine vinegar.
14. Spaghetti with tuna and spicy tomatoes: Saute chopped garlic, fennel seeds and dried red chile flakes in olive oil until fragrant. Add chopped tomatoes and chopped anchovy fillets and cook for a minute before adding best-quality canned tuna, along with the olive oil it’s packed in. Cook until the tomatoes and tuna break down into a chunky sauce. Season with red wine vinegar and serve over spaghetti.
15. Individual lasagna with slow-roasted tomatoes and pesto: Prepare tomato confit II (No. 12). Smear squares of cooked fresh pasta with a bit of pesto and place them on serving plates. Top with a generous spoonful of ricotta and spoon over some tomato confit. Top with another square of cooked pasta and more tomatoes. Return to the oven to heat through; serve immediately.
16. Stuffed tomatoes with garlicky bread crumbs: Slice the top one-third off large tomatoes and squeeze out the seeds. Place them in a baking dish so they fit tightly and season with salt. Grind cubes of stale bread with minced garlic and minced parsley and spoon the seasoned bread crumbs over top. Drizzle with olive oil and roast at 400 degrees until the bread crumbs are nicely browned.
17. Bacon and cherry tomato skewers: Cut bacon strips in thirds lengthwise. Wrap each bacon piece around a cherry tomato and thread them onto skewers. Grill over a medium fire until browned and crisp, about 10 minutes.
18. Braised whole fish with tomatoes, thyme and olives: Warm some olive oil, onion and garlic in a saucepan until fragrant. Add water, white wine, several sprigs of thyme, dried red chile flakes and salt and simmer. Arrange sliced tomatoes in a baking dish just large enough to hold a whole fish (such as Tai snapper). Scatter chopped pitted olives and minced parsley. Lay the fish on top. Bring the liquid to a rolling boil and pour it over the fish. Seal tightly with foil and bake at 350 degrees until the fish lifts easily from the bone. Remove from the oven and let stand briefly before serving.
19. Bread salad with tomatoes, cucumbers and arugula: Cut about one-half loaf of stale country-style bread into large chunks and soak in water to cover. Seed and chop tomatoes and put them in a bowl with sliced cucumbers, salt, pepper, olive oil and red wine vinegar. Set aside to draw the juice from the tomatoes. Squeeze the bread cubes dry and add them to the tomato mixture with some diced red onion. Scatter several good handfuls of arugula over top and stir to combine.
20. Tomato risotto with burrata: Make a plain risotto and when it’s done stir in peeled, seeded, chopped tomatoes off the heat. Chop one-quarter of a burrata ball and stir it in briskly until the cheese melts and gets stringy. Stir in slivered basil and serve while hot.
21. Tomato and grilled corn salad: Grill a couple ears of corn. Shuck them and cut away the kernels into a mixing bowl. Add halved cherry tomatoes or diced tomatoes and season with diced red onion, a little minced garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. Add a couple handfuls of arugula and toss well to combine. Arrange on a platter; use a vegetable peeler to shave Parmigiano-Reggiano over top.
22. Stuffed tomatoes II: Make the marinara sauce from No. 3, adding capers and a splash of white wine. Make the breadcrumbs from No. 16 and add four chopped anchovies and about one-third cup toasted pine nuts. Slice the top one-third off large tomatoes and squeeze out the seeds. Spoon the sauce into a roasting pan and arrange the tomatoes on top, so they fit tightly. Stuff the tomatoes lightly with the breadcrumbs; don’t pack it tightly or the stuffing will get pasty. Drizzle with olive oil and bake at 400 degrees until the tops are browned and crusty and the tomatoes are melting in texture. Serve hot or at room temperature.
23. Grilled sardines with confit tomatoes: Prepare tomato confit I (No. 11). Flavor olive oil with salt, minced garlic, dried oregano and red chile flakes. Season sliced cucumbers with salt and lemon juice. Arrange the cucumbers in a low mound on a platter. Dip cleaned sardines in the oil mixture and grill on the skin side until done, three minutes. Place them on top of the cucumbers and spoon over some of the confit tomatoes, including a little of the flavored oil.
24. Tomato salad with burrata: Make a tart tomato salad by seasoning chopped tomatoes with a little garlic, salt, black pepper, olive oil and a good splash of red wine vinegar. Cut a ball of burrata in quarters and place it in the middle of a plate, opened out like a flower. Spoon the salad around it and serve with crostini. This is also good made with halved cherry tomatoes that have been seasoned this way and then roasted in a hot oven just until they blister.
25. Peperonata: Saute peeled, seeded, chopped tomatoes with onion and olive oil. Add roasted, peeled bell peppers cut into strips. Stir in a splash of red wine and simmer until the mixture cooks into a marmalade. At the very end, stir in a sauce made by grinding a jalapeno, garlic, basil, parsley and olive oil to a thin paste. Serve hot or at room temperature.
26. Ratatouille: Saute onions in olive oil until they’re tender and transfer them to a big pot. Saute zucchini until tender and add that to the pot. Saute eggplant until tender and add that to the pot. Add peeled, seeded, diced tomatoes and red wine vinegar and cook until they thicken. Add them to the pot; heat everything through to combine flavors. Garnish with torn basil leaves and serve hot or at room temperature.
27. Scrambled eggs with tomatoes and basil: Adapted from Richard Olney’s “Simple French Food.” Cook peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes with a little olive oil and several peeled whole garlic cloves over low heat until the tomatoes are dry. Discard the garlic and add raw eggs beaten with butter and scramble until set but still moist. When the eggs begin to thicken, add a good handful of basil leaves.
28. Tomatoes stuffed with tuna: Make a tuna salad with best-quality canned tuna, blanched green beans, mayonnaise, capers and a generous squeeze of lemon juice. Slice the tops off the tomatoes, scoop out the pulp and fill with the salad. This is particularly good when made with smoked tuna.
29. Roasted cherry tomatoes stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies: Cut cherry tomatoes in half and scoop out the pulp. Place a small piece of anchovy in the cavity and top it with enough finely diced mozzarella to fill. Broil until the mozzarella melts and bubbles, about five minutes. Top with a small piece of fresh basil and serve immediately.
30. Tomato and bread soup: Adapted from Alice Waters’ “Chez Panisse Vegetables.” Cook minced onions and garlic in a lot of olive oil until soft. Spoon out about one-third of the onion mixture and add peeled, seeded, chopped tomatoes. Cook until the tomatoes are very tender and pass through a food mill. Return the tomatoes to the pan with the reserved onions and over very low heat, stir in enough fresh bread crumbs to thicken the soup. Stir in some basil and more olive oil. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Tips for tomato preparation
To peel a tomato, cut a shallow “X” in the blossom end, then blanch the tomato in a pot of boiling water just until the skin begins to peel away from the cut -- from five to 30 seconds; the timing will vary depending on the ripeness of the tomato. Rinse under cool running water. The peel should pull away easily. If it doesn’t, return it to the boiling water for a few more seconds and try again.
To seed a tomato, cut the tomato in half horizontally and squeeze; the seeds should pop right out. Do this into a strainer set over a work bowl and you can collect the gel that surrounds the seeds. This is the “tomato water” that was such a trendy ingredient a few years ago. It doesn’t really have enough flavor to use as a sauce by itself, but it is a nice extra when added back into a tomato dish.