The wind blows in thick, sweet scented air all summer long. These long hot days lead to cool nights filled with barbeques, lightning bus (depending on where you live) and memories with family and friends that will last a lifetime. Yes, these dog days of summer are certainly something we look forward to all year long. The suns out longer, the temperatures are warm (sometimes too warm) and our gardens are in full bloom. Probably one of my favorite things about the summer is gaining the ability to eat your meals outdoors. Not only that, but a plethora of food items come into season that open up both our diets but our pallets as well. Yes, summer weather and outdoor dining open up our at home menus to a host of seasonal fruits and veggies that can brighten your meals with both taste and color. But Brian, isn’t it too hot to cook in a warm kitchen during the summer? Why yes, yes it normally is (even with central air or window A/C units). But that doesn’t mean you have to eat salads all summer long. Don’t get me wrong, salads are great! I wrote a whole blog about growing lettuce for salads and included a variety of recipe ideas, Growing Leafy/Salad Greens, check it out if you’re interested. But there’s so much more to summer dining, particularly from your garden!
This week’s blog is going to be a little different than the rest in that I won’t be giving as much greenhouse or gardening advice. Rather I will be talking about one of my other passions, cooking, as it relates to your summer garden. Depending on what you’re growing this could be more or less applicable to you, so to try and cover the widest audience I’ll keep things kind of general and use a very commonly grown garden staple for my recipes. The humble tomato shall be the subject of this recipe based blog.
Let’s go tomato. It’s my opinion that most people will have at least one tomato plant in their garden, regardless of variety. It’s also my opinion that you should plant fewer tomato plants than you think because if you plant an indeterminate type and lose track of it, you’ll end up with more tomatoes than you know what to do with. It sounds like a good problem to have until you’ve smelled a rotting tomato. If you haven’t smelled one yet, trust me you don’t want to. Now we all know tomatoes are great additions to salads and sauces. There’s even the large percentage of humanity will eat tomatoes straight as they are, I am not one of them. In fact, I’ve only recently come around to the idea of bruschetta. Must have been a bad burger with far too thick a slice of beefsteak tomato completely overwhelming the thin patty as a child that set me down my path of avoiding the round red fruit, but I digress. Depending on the tomato you’re growing you can do a couple different things with them. Some tomatoes are better for sauces, some for salads, some for salsas and you get the point, different tomatoes do different things. Enough with the preamble, let’s get to it.
For Sauces: San Marzano’s, Roma’s and many other plum tomato varieties are the best for making sauces. Though they grow differently, that’s a different blog you can read here.
- For starters, when using fresh tomatoes, you will want to remove their skin. To do so you can simply submerge your tomatoes in boiling water for about 2 minutes, give or take. This won’t cook your tomatoes but rather help loosen the skin so it’s easier to remove. Remove the stems and seeds at this point as well.
- Next you will want to start cooking your onions using olive oil. Dice your onions into smaller pieces so they cook quicker and more even.
- This step is dependent on your taste preferences. If you want roasted garlic, cut the top off a clove of garlic and pour olive oil over the top and season how you see fit (I use crushed red and cracked black pepper and thyme). Wrap the affair in tin foil and cook in the oven for around 40-50 minutes at 400° Add the roasted garlic by squeezing out the cloves into the sauce just before its finished cooking. If you prefer using non roasted garlic, simply chop it and add it to the onions, sauté until fragrant.
- At this point you should add your tomatoes. Season using salt and pepper and a bay leaf at minimum (and anything else you like). Cover, lower heat and cook down until the sauce reaches your desired thickness while stirring every now and again. Should take at least 2-3 hours to cook out the excess water content of the tomatoes.
- Before cooking down you can add other ingredients to the sauce to add flavor and complexity. Cooking a chopped carrot with the onions can bring an earthy flavor that helps cut some acidity from the tomatoes. Peppers added in the same fashion can add flavor and some heat to the sauce depending on what you’re using, though I’d recommend using a Calabrian chili or something similar if possible to keep the flavor profile consistent with the region most of the ingredients originate.
- Roasting garlic and peppers can add a deeper flavor profile to the sauce, though it is a step you should take into consideration before you start cooking.
- At this point in time I normally hit the sauce with an immersion blender, but this is preference based as my girlfriend doesn’t particularly care for a chunky red sauce.
For Salads: This one gets trickier. Whereas plum tomato varieties are best for sauces due to their lower water content and lesser seed content, there is no perfect variety for salads. It’s mostly preference based, but I’m going to focus mainly on grape and cherry variety tomatoes.
- You can’t really go wrong with simple. If you have multiple types of cherry tomatoes you can make an easy simple salad. Simply cut the tomatoes in half and toss with rosemary, olive oil and some mild vinegar. Rice wine vinegar works well, but you can experiment as you see fit.
- Bruschetta is an undeniable classic. It can really be made with pretty much whatever tomato you have laying around. I’m not saying you’re going to earn a Michelin Star for cutting up a store bought generic tomato, but you also aren’t likely to regret your decision. For purposes of this blog, I’ll write a recipe using grape tomatoes. Start by dicing and sautéing garlic in a few tablespoons of olive oil. Remove from heat when garlic just starts to brown. Empty pan in a heat proof bowl to cool off. Cut the tomatoes in half, long ways and add to the bowl with the garlic and oil. Season to your liking and toss with some chopped basil. Cover and chill for at least an hour no more than two. In that time, slice and toast your bread of choice. Once cooled, portion the tomato mixture onto the toast slices and enjoy! *Balsamic glaze is a perfect addition to drizzle atop if desired.*
- As far as the “standard salad” is concerned, most people will go with cherry and grape tomatoes for many reasons. By standard salad I mean anything that is based off a bed of greens and doesn’t contain some sort of fruit, dried or otherwise. Essentially I speak of a house salad. Smaller tomato varieties are often preferred in homemade versions of these salads mainly, in my opinion, because they require less prep work. Most people will just wash them and toss them in, maybe cut them in half if they feel up to the extra slicing.
For Salsas: When I said that you can use pretty much any type of tomato for salads, it’s almost truer for salsas. Salsas, similar to sauces, can also be blended to desired thickness, but unlike sauces, they can be made without cooking. I’ve made a fantastic salsa with some heirloom tomatoes my mom grew one year, but I’ve also made some great salsas from the sungolds I grew on my deck. Salsas are much less getting the best tomato for salsa and more matching your tomato to its co-ingredients and preparation style. Some tomatoes pair better with raw salsa by just dicing it as one would making pico de gallo, while others are better gently heated and blended into a salsa you’d find out at a restaurant.
- For a satisfying and simple raw salsa grab yourself some tomatoes (shocking), garlic, a white or red onion, peppers of your choice, a lime and some of your favorite seasonings. Dice each component into similar sized pieces, aside garlic which should be cut about half the size of other components. Toss all the ingredients together in a bowl, adding the seasonings and lime juice. Try these simple steps a few times using different tomatoes, onions and peppers and you’ll be amazed how much that can change the flavor profile or your homemade pico.
- For a more nuanced and runny salsa, start the same by dicing your veggies, but then sauté your onions. You can even caramelize them if you really want to enhance the flavor, similarly you can choose to roast your garlic, tomatoes and/or peppers as well. If not roasting, cook in a pan with oil until fully soft and cooked through. Add all the components to a blender once cooked and process until you’ve reached your desired smoothness. Roasting or smoking any of the components will unlock some real hidden flavor. I’d also recommend adding some toasted cumin to really bring it all home. Toasted cumin is very easy to make and taste so much better than the store bought powder (assuming you have a way to grind it). In your local grocery store you can likely find cumin seeds in the Mexican food isle. Once you’ve obtained your cumin, put a frying pan on a burner dry (without cooking oil) over medium low heat and toss the seeds right on. Stir them around constantly until they begin to brown and become fragrant. At this point, put the seeds in your mortar or spice grinder and process them into a fine powder. Trust me, you won’t regret it.
I hope you all enjoy reading this as much as I did writing it! I’ll be back next week to let you know about the in’s and outs of your Greenhouse in the month August!