You Say Tomato, I Say TO-MAH-TO

However you pronounce it, the tomato is the superstar of the vegetable world (even if it actually is a fruit), the most popular and widely grown plant in our home gardens—and with good reason, when you discover how versatile it is. Here in the USA, more than 100 varieties of tomatoes are grown to suit your every need—whether you want to can tomatoes, use them in sauces and pastes and purees – or eat them raw. There is nothing on earth like walking out to your garden, picking a ripe tomato, brushing it off with your shirtsleeve – and biting into it! The second best way to enjoy a tomato might be to slice them and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  One of my favorite recipes is a marinated tomato recipe given to me by an Ohioan childhood friend many years ago when we were visiting relatives in Cincinnati.

Tomatoes are believed to have first been cultivated by the Indians of South America. Most food historians believe that tomatoes were probably first grown in Mexico and Peru (the name is derived from the Aztec xitomate or xtomatle depending on whose translation of Aztec you accept) though the picture is muddied by a 200 A.D. description by the Greek physician, Galen, of an Egyptian fruit which sounds very much like a tomato. However, most food historians concede the tomato’s South American origin.

Tomatoes are believed to have been brought to Europe by way of Mexico, probably by the conquistadors, where the fruit eventually found its way to Italy. The Italians called their early yellow variety of tomato “pomi d’oro”, or “apple of gold”.  However, it was regarded by the rest of Europe as an ornamental plant and, perhaps in a distortion of its Italian name, was called “pomme d’amour”, or  “love apple”.

Tomatoes were introduced into England in 1596 but were considered to be just ornamental plants. The vines were trained to grow on trellises where their bright colored fruit could be admired, but nobody ate the fruit.

Not until the 18th century did the tomato begin to achieve a place in European cuisine, although Elizabethans thought tomatoes were poisonous. The idea that tomatoes were dangerous is also most likely based on their being listed among the narcotic herbs in the deadly nightshade family by Pierandrea Mattioli, the Italian herbalist, in his herbal book first published in 1544. Mattioli called the tomato the golden apple and associated it with belladonna, henbane and mandrake.

Early colonists are thought to have brought tomato seeds to Virginia; however, no record of its culture exists before 1781 when Thomas Jefferson mentioned planting a crop. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 19th century that the tomato seems to have made it way to market to become a fairly common ingredient in the Creole cooking of Louisiana. However, until after the Civil war most Americans still believed tomatoes were poisonous. Actually, the leaves and stems are toxic so this is probably where this belief originated. (Curiously, the potato was also once thought to be poisonous. Like the tomato, potatoes were first grown in Europe as ornamental plants – some of the Presbyterian clergy in Scotland maintained that potatoes, since they were not mentioned in the bible, were not safe to eat).

According to the Wise Encyclopedia of Cookery, published in 1949 by Wm. H. Wise & Co (and one of my favorite reference books), the exact origin of the tomato is still in doubt.  Various legends say that it comes from Africa, from India, or from China. Some historians say that the tomato was first found in Peru where the Spaniards, searching for Inca treasures, saw it growing in gardens. Somewhere, some time ago, I remember reading about tomato seeds being found in caves in remote parts of South America.

If you’ve ever had a compost, you know that tomato seeds are the hardiest of seeds. Our compost, where we lived for 19 years, was over 15 years old; we dug from the bottom to fertilize our flowers and plants and were constantly surprised by volunteer tomato plants that sprouted up – in the middle of the marigolds, or where ever compost had been spread.

Got a glut of tomatoes in your garden? To paraphrase Wallace Windsor, the former Duchess of Windsor, you can’t be too rich or too thin…or have too many tomatoes! Here are some recipes to whet your appetite—or fill the pantry shelves.

CANNING TOMATOES

15 LBS tomatoes

boiling water

14 TBSP lemon juice, divided or 3 ½ tsp citric acid, divided

7  tsp canning salt, divided

7  1-quart canning jars and lids, sterilized

Dip tomatoes into boiling water until skins split; about 30 to 60 seconds; plunge under cold water and peel. Core; cut into half, if desired. Set aside. Add 2 TBSP lemon juice or ½ tsp citric acid to each jar; add tomatoes. Cover with hot water leaving ½” headspace. Add 1 tsp canning salt to each jar. Remove air bubbles; secure lids. Process in a boiling water bath 45 minutes. Set jars on a towel to cool. Check for seals. Makes 7 jars.

DRYING TOMATOES

Wash, quarter and blanch for about 5 minutes. Run through a food mill to remove skins and seeds. Strain out the juice through a jelly bag or several layers of cheesecloth. Use a little hand pressure to extract more water, then spread the remaining pulp on glass, cookie sheets or pieces of plastic. Turn the drying pulp frequently until it becomes dry flakes.

I made my dried tomato slices by simply slicing them very thin with a very sharp knife, and spreading them in a single layer on the racks of a dehydrator. I only washed and stemmed the tomatoes; I did not peel or seed them. When they were completely dry, I packed them into quart jars or ground them to a powder using a coffee grinder).

HOME CANNED TOMATO JUICE

20 LARGE RIPE TOMATOES

1 MEDIUM GREEN OR SWEET RED PEPPER, MINCED

2 LARGE ONIONS, MINCED

1 CLOVE GARLIC, CRUSHED (OPTIONAL)

2 STALKS CELERY, DICED

1/3 CUP SUGAR

¼ CUP LEMON JUICE

1 TBSP SALT

Combine tomatoes, green pepper, onions, garlic, celery, sugar, lemon juice and salt in a large heavy pot. Simmer covered, over medium heat, 35-40 minutes, stirring occasionally until tomatoes cook down to juice. Put tomatoes through food mill or fine sieve, forcing out as much juice and solids as possible.

Pour prepared juice into clean, scalded 1-quart jars. Process in boiling water bath 45 minutes. Makes 4 quarts.

TOMATO BUTTER

2 LBS red tomatoes, peeled and chopped

3 LBS green tomatoes, peeled and chopped

2 lemons, halves and thinly sliced (including peel) seeds removed

3 cups sugar

½ tsp ground cloves

2 TBSP minced fresh ginger root or crystallized ginger

2 TBSP chopped candied orange peel

In a large kettle, combine all ingredients. Bring to a slow boil and cook over moderate heat until thick, about 45 minutes. Ladle into hot sterilized jars and seal. Makes 3 pints.

TOMATO SAUCE

1 oz butter

2 lbs tomatoes, skinned, seeded and finely chopped

¼ – ½ tsp sugar

Salt and pepper

Melt butter in a heavy saucepan over low head. Add tomatoes and stir to mix with the butter. Cover and cook 5 minutes. Uncover and stir in the sugar. Partly cover the pan and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes or until tomatoes have softened and the sauce is thick. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Use immediately or cool and then refrigerate or freeze.

MEXICAN SALSA (CANNED)

5 POUNDS ripe tomatoes

3 cups chopped onions

1 ¼ cups chopped, seeded chili peppers

1 cup snipped fresh cilantro leaves

1 cup apple cider or apple cider vinegar

2 TBSP minced garlic

1 TBSP canning salt

5 pint jars with lids and rings, sterilized

Dip tomatoes in boiling water for 30-60 seconds. Plunge into ice water and slip off skins. Core and chop tomatoes.

In a large 6-quart saucepan, combine tomatoes and remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes or to desired thickness, stirring occasionally. Immediately fill hot jars with mixture, leaving ½” headspace. Carefully run a non-metallic utensil down the inside of the jars to release any air bubbles.  Wipe jar tops and threads. Place hot lids on jars and screw bands on firmly. Process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.  This makes 5 pints of a medium hot salsa.

BILL’S SKETTI SAUCE (WITHOUT MEAT, FOR CANNING)

30-40 lbs of tomatoes

1 cup chopped onion

Minced garlic cloves, about 5 or use garlic salt about 4 tsp

1 cup chopped green (bell) peppers

5 tsp salt

1 TBSP red pepper flakes

¼ cup chopped hot peppers (Bill uses banana peppers)

2 tsp black pepper

¼ cup virgin olive oil

¼ cup brown sugar; dark is best but light brown will work

Little chopped celery is ok, maybe ¼ cup

If spicy add another ¼ cup sugar or after it has cooked a few hours, add sugar to taste. Go through the usual preparation of the tomatoes (He means blanch, peel, and chop them); Put the tomatoes in a large pot; start with some in the pot at low heat and add all the rest of the stuff to the pot. Keep stirring frequently. Cook until at least half cooked down but Bill says he usually cooks it to about one-third cooked down. Don’t let it burn to the bottom of the pot; sugar will do this if you are not careful. It may take 16 hours or longer to boil down this far at low heat but high heat will burn unless you stir constantly

(*Sandy’s cooknote– I bet you could cook this down in a large turkey roaster, the kind that is like a giant crockpot – with the lid off so it reduces).

Prep the jars in the usual manner (*this means washing them in hot soapy water and then scalding the jars in boiling water). Bill adds a tablespoon of lemon juice to each of the jars. It wont affect the taste but helps keep the acid content high enough for canning. Bill uses a 20 quart pot to cook this in, and lo and behold (says he) it’s usually full when he starts and then he ends up with about 13 pints of sauce.

This is a lengthy and informal recipe but I have provided it exactly as it was given to me. Bill’s sketti sauce is also excellent poured over stuffed bell peppers. **

But, you say, you aren’t interested in  CANNING tomatoes and just want to know how to use some of them when your garden produces a glut of tomatoes (along with that glut of zucchini?) –

Here are a few recipes you can try:

ABSOLUTE SALSA (FRESH)

4 green onions, chopped (about 3/4 cup)

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

4 ripe plum tomatoes OR 2 regular tomatoes, seeded and chopped (about 1 1/4 cups)

1/4 cup peeled and diced red onion

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar

2 TBSP olive oil

1/2 cup chopped ripe olives

Salt & pepper to taste

6 dashes Tabasco (hot sauce) or 1/2 jalapeno pepper, chopped, with seeds

1/2 cup chopped fresh basil

IN A BOWL, combine all ingredients, except basil. Refrigerate until 1 hour before serving. Just before serving, add basil. Serve at room temp. Good with chips, grilled fish or chicken, or as an omelet filling or on deli meat sandwiches. Makes 2 1/2 cups.

EL TORITO SALSA (FRESH)

2 CUPS DICED TOMATOES

½ CUP DICED ONION

1-2 TBSP FINELY DICED JALAPENO PEPPERS

1 TBSP OIL

1 TSP VINEGAR

1 TSP LIME JUICE

½ TSP MEXICAN DRIED LEAF OREGANO

¼ TSP SALT

¼ CUP FINELY CHOPPED CILANTRO

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Check seasoning, add more salt if needed. Serve with tortilla chips. Ole!

FRESH TOMATO SAUCE

6 medium size tomatoes

4 unpeeled cloves or garlic

1 peeled onion, cut in half

Place tomatoes, garlic and onion on a cookie sheet with sides (or jelly roll pan) and bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and cool. When cooled, peel   tomatoes and garlic and puree in blender with onions. Simmer in saucepan on stovetop to desired consistency. Cool completely and freeze in plastic storage bags. Sauce may also be canned.

PAN GRILLED TOMATO SALSA

3 large meaty tomatoes, cored and cut into thick slices

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 TBSP Sherry vinegar or Balsamic vinegar

Salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Heat a large skillet, preferably cast iron or non-stick, over medium high heat, for about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, increase the heat to high and cook until lightly charred on one side, 3-5 minutes. Turn and cook the other side, very lightly, about 1 minute. If necessary work in batches to avoid overcrowding the tomatoes.

Combine the olive oil and vinegar in a large shallow dish and as the tomatoes are done, turn them into the mixture. Season and serve as a side dish or a sauce for grilled or roasted fish or chicken. Salsa can also be refrigerated for a day or two; bring to room temperature before serving.

“MAKE YOUR OWN” SALSA

1 LB RIPE TOMATOES (2 LARGE) SEEDED AND CHOPPED

½ CUP FINELY CHOPPED GREEN ONIONS

1 TSP MINCED FRESH GARLIC

1-2 TBSP FINELY CHOPPED HOT PEPPER (SUCH AS JALAPENO)

¼ C. CHOPPED FRESH CILANTRO

½ TSP SALT

JUICE FROM 1 LIME

Drain off excess juices from tomatoes; combine with other ingredients. The heat of the salsa depends on the type and amount of hot pepper you choose. Serve with tortilla chips.

One more recipe – this is a simple tomato recipe you can put together an hour before dinner time and it’s always good. My girlfriend Mary, in Cincinnati, gave this recipe to me – back in the 70s.

MARY’S HERBED TOMATOES

6 LARGE ripe tomatoes, sliced

1 tsp salt

coarse pepper

¼ cup finely chopped chives

¼ cup vinegar

2/3 cup oil

Sprinkle layers of tomatoes with herbs and spices. Cover with oil and vinegar (mixed) and let marinate an hour or more.

People sometimes ask me for my favorite recipes. Here are thre of my favorite tomato cookbooks.  One is “TOMATOES! 365 Healthy Recipes for Year-Round Enjoyment” by the editors of Garden Way Publishing. This is a nice spiral bound cookbook from Storey Communications, published in 1991. My favorite is “THE TOMATO FESTIVAL COOKBOOK” by Lawrence Davis-Hollander, also published by Storey Publishing in 2004, and it’s packed with recipes and historical tomato lore.The Third is an older book (1976) “THE TOMATO BOOK” by Yvonne Young Tarr but along with recipes there is a wealth of information on growing and preserving tomatoes.

Happy Cooking!

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