Summer Tomatoes

“It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while
eating a homegrown tomato.”

—Lewis Grizzard

Our summer gardens have transformed themselves throughout the years of my life, going from acres of land to a single, humble tomato plant. Whatever is growing at the moment is a joy to behold, whether it is a tiny seed or a vegetable or herb plant. I must say I enjoy observing the simple miracle of a plant growing, leaf-by-leaf.

One particular tomato plant holds a special place in my heart. It was in 1985; we had just returned from India and were setting up a house from scratch. It was late spring, and the season was fading into the warm, heady days of summer. We rented a townhouse in the Finger Lakes region of New York State, and I began working at a local newspaper. There was a small area on the side of the townhouse that contained an empty flowerbed. I visualized tomatoes growing there, but had to wait until my first paycheck to be able to buy the plants and soil. So, I spent the time getting the little spot and its tired soil ready for those plants. I tilled the area on my hands and knees using a large serving spoon, while meticulously removing all of the tiny stones. The two weeks I waited for my paycheck seemed like an eternity.

Then, I ran to the local store and bought three small tomato plants and some good garden soil. Getting those plants into the ground, stepping back, and seeing them sway in the summer breeze was something—even to this day—I will never forget. Every evening, after work, I’d water them with my soup pot. I spent the summer watching the plants transform from yellow flowers, to small green tomatoes, to perfectly vine-ripened brilliant red spheres. How simple and lovely it can be witnessing a tomato grow.

Chetna’s Tomato Mozzarella Salad
My friend Chetna makes this simple but elegant salad quite often when I stop by for dinner. She knows I like a light meal at night and this is perfect for a refreshing summer treat when fresh tomatoes and basil from the local farmer’s market are at their best. Serves 3-4.

2 C cherry tomatoes (different sizes and colors are nice), cut in half
1 C fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into small pieces
½ C black olives, pitted and cut small
½ C cucumber, cut small
5-6 basil leaves, slivered
¼ lemon, juiced
1 t lemon zest
2 T olive oil
2 T balsamic vinegar
½ t salt
Fresh pepper, generous helping

1. Mix salad ingredients, top with dressing before serving.

Garden Fresh Baked Herbed Tomatoes
Bake 400 degrees • 40 minutes

This dish is utterly simple and truly heavenly. It uses the tomatoes that are abundant in summer, and also gives one the ability to fresh-freeze the recipe in order to bring some sunshine to cold winter days when summer is just a faint memory. It combines the flavor of fresh tomatoes, herbs, and a touch of lemon. You can also use this dish as a side vegetable, or mix it with pasta as you would fresh tomato sauce.

5 large tomatoes, left whole
1 lemon, sliced thin
¼ C parsley
3 sprigs rosemary
3 sprigs lemon thyme
¼ C mint leaves
2 T olive oil

1. Mix ingredients in a large bowl. Toss well to combine.
2. Place the tomato mixture in a 13 x 9″ baking dish, bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees. Stir once after 10 minutes.
3. Turn on the broiler. Broil for 10 minutes until tomatoes begin to blacken.
4. Remove tomato skins.
5. Mix in a bowl, mashing slightly to extract the juice from the tomatoes, remove herb sprigs.

Red Pepper Lentil Tomato Soup
I love the combinations of red peppers and tomatoes, the addition of lentils add just enough protein to make this a full meal. Try this soup with whatever colored pepper (except green) you have on hand. Watch these few simple ingredients transform into a deep, elegant rainbow of liquid color. Serves 6-8.

3 red bell peppers, or various colors (red, yellow, or orange)
2 T olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced thin
2 C canned fire-roasted diced tomatoes, organic, if you can get it or any diced tomatoes
½ C brown lentils
8 cups vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to taste
Pinch ginger powder
¼ C low-fat milk or coconut milk
A few sprigs of fresh lemon thyme

1. Broil peppers in a 350-degree oven until blackened. Let them rest for ½ hour in a bowl covered with a towel. Peel, remove seeds, and chop.
2. Saute the onions in olive oil on low heat for 15-20 minutes until caramelized.
3. Add the garlic. Sauté for another few minutes.
4. Combine the sautéed onion/garlic mixture, broiled peppers, tomatoes, lentils, salt, fresh pepper, ginger, thyme, and stock, in a large pot.
5. Cook gently for 45-60 minutes until the lentils are soft.
6. Add milk or coconut milk. Cool for about 5 minutes.
7. Blend together until almost smooth.

Roasted Tomato Salsauce
This is my favorite cooked salsa, pleasantly spicy, not too much or too little. It’s great for picnics, so bring along some guacamole, a big bag of corn chips, and this dip. There’s not much else you need. Technically, this is both a sauce and salsa, so it can even be called a “salsauce.” This mildly spicy, sweet, yet tangy sauce can also accompany any veggie burger or tofu dish.

5 ripe large or 8 plum tomatoes
1 red bell pepper
1 pasilla pepper, deep green
2 cloves garlic (do not peel)
½ t cumin seeds
½ t coriander seeds
1 chipotle chili in adobo sauce

1. Position a broiler rack about 8″ from the heat.
2. Broil the tomatoes, peppers, and garlic until well blackened.
3. Place in a bowl, top with plastic wrap, let cool about 15 minutes.
4. Remove blackened skin from vegetables and garlic.
5. Heat seeds in a pan, dry roasting them for about 2 minutes until brown and fragrant, then grind into a powder (you could also use about ½ t of powder if you don’t want to go to the trouble of grinding it yourself).
6. Place all ingredients in a food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped.

Storing Tomatoes
To retain the best flavor, always store tomatoes at room temperature. I’ve found that tomatoes sold on the vine stay fresh the longest. Don’t remove them from the vine after bringing them home. If you need a tomato to ripen quickly, place it in a closed brown paper bag.

If you have a bunch of tomatoes that ripen at the same time, place them (whole or in chunks) in a heavy-duty zip lock bag. Remove the excess air; they will freeze well for up to four months.

The History of Tomatoes
Because tomatoes can be traced back to the early Aztecs in Southern Mexico (700 A.D), it is believed that the tomato is native to the Americas. It was not until the 16th century that European explorers were introduced to this vegetable. These travelers brought the tomato home with them, and it soon became adopted into kitchens throughout Southern Europe. The British admired the tomato for its beauty but believe that it was poisonous, since its appearance was similar to that of the wolf peach. The tomato was not regarded as a kitchen vegetable until shortly before the Civil War. However, from that point forward it became a staple throughout the world. For some time, there was a debate over the nature of the tomato: Was it a fruit or vegetable? Until the late 1800s, the tomato was classified as a fruit in order to avoid taxation. This was changed after a court ruling stating that the tomato is a vegetable and should be taxed accordingly. An interesting side note to the tax debate is that though used in cooking as a vegetable, scientifically, the tomato is actually a fruit.

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