It’s that time of year again when tomatoes are rolling into the house thick and fast!
I choose to grow only heirloom fruit and vegetables. Heirloom, or heritage, is a loose term for open-pollinated varieties whose seeds have been handed down through generations. Before seed companies, farmers and gardeners had to collect seed for the following year, and you can imagine how precious a commodity they were. Heirloom veg and fruit developed because of their taste as well as their reliability in certain types of climates, such as the colder summers in Russia. As far as tomatoes go, most commercial toms were developed not for their taste, but for their standardized size and “bounce-ability.” In the commercial veg trade, a tomato has to travel in bins on trucks without arriving at the supermarket bruised. This requires a tomato with a thick skin indeed. The skin is delicate on an heirloom and can bruise easily during shipping. I also like heirlooms because of their history. For example, a Kentucky-bred tomato called Mortgage Lifter was so named because its breeder sold enough of the delicious toms to pay off his mortgage (we all should be so lucky, right?). The Cherokee Trail of Tears Bean was carried by the Cherokee Indians when they were forced off their lands and marched to Oklahoma. Many of the people carried their native bean with them on the march, which became known as the Trail of Tears Bean. It grows well in hot, muggy climates and has a beautiful purple flower. The tasty beans can be eaten fresh or allowed to go to seed and then dried. I also like to grow heirlooms to help keep them from going extinct. Unfortunately, many varieties are in danger of just that. The dusty rosy brown Cherokee Purple is on the Ark Food of Taste, a program sponsored by Slow Food International that places delicious varieties of fruit, veg, and livestock, in danger of extinction, on its “ark.” The CP, with its earthy, smoky flavor, is one of the tastiest toms you’ll ever eat.
You can collect seeds yourself (which I will explain how to do on an upcoming blog post) and give them to other gardeners or family members. I have been growing a variety called Tommy Toe for years, which was given to me by the head gardener at Audley End in England. To purchase seeds go to Seed Savers Exchange: www.seedsavers.org. The photos are so beautiful on this site. It’s a great charity and the choices are endless.
A Sampling of my Heirloom Toms from left to right: Tommy Toe, Cherokee Purple, Coeur de Boef, Speckled Romano
I went away to a writer’s conference in New Jersey this weekend and came home to find many, many, many tomatoes in the garden. I love tomatoes any way I can get them, but a glut must be dealt with swiftly. So every tomato season I break out my tried and true tomato sauce recipe. It’s quick and easy, takes care of loads of toms, and you can savor the taste of your own home-grown tomatoes on the coldest winter’s day.
Roasted Tomato Sauce
Preheat oven to 450
Slice tomatoes in half and place cut side down in a large roasting pan. You can layer them if you have a lot.
Sprinkle a good pinch of kosher salt and sugar over the tomatoes along with a glug of olive oil (enough to cover the tomatoes but not so much that they are floating in oil).
Peel a few garlic cloves and tuck them around the toms.
Add fresh herbs such as basil, thyme, oregano, marjoram–whatever you like. You can leave the stems whole, you don’t have to chop them or pick the leaves off. You’ll remove the herbs after roasting so sometimes it’s easier to leave the stems whole.
Roast in the oven for about an hour or until the skins have darkened.
Remove from oven and cover loosely with foil (this will help steam the skins off).
When the fruits are cool, pull off the skins while the toms are in the pan (this is easy to do; they will slip right off. Don’t worry if you don’t get every bit off). Remove the herbs. You can leave the herbs if you like; just remember to take out the stalks.
Press the tomatoes through a food mill to remove the seeds. If the garlic is not burned and you want more of a garlicky sauce, you can push the garlic through the mill too. Scrape the pulp under the sieve as you go. You can collect the sauce on top of a saucepan or into a bowl. Make sure to pour all the juice from the roasting pan into the sieve as well.
At this point you can freeze the sauce you have. You can use it for tomato soup or for drinking or to cook it down into sauce when you have time. Or you can bring the sauce to a boil and simmer until it is reduced by half. Then pour in a few glugs of olive oil (however much you like), season if needed with salt or sugar. And that’s it. Freeze it in appropriate meal sizes, and then thaw, heat, and serve the sauce over pasta or in lasagna, or whatever you fancy. You can change this recipe up however you like. You can even leave out the herbs and garlic and just make plain roast tomato sauce. I do this if I’m going to make a simple tomato soup.