I sometimes measure the success of my summer by the number of tomato sandwiches I eat. Few things capture the essence of the season better. (Except perhaps a white peach. Or grilled, buttered corn. Or fresh blackberries with cream.) A really good tomato is like a vivid, voluptuous expression of the sun. With its perfect combination of sweetness and acidity and that taut skin that bursts to reveal juicy pulp, it’s a wonder we don’t often refer to it as what it is: a fruit.
When tomatoes were first introduced to Europe from the New World, they were known as love apples. The Aztecs called them xitomatl, meaning “plump thing with a navel,” and from there we got our word. Just one look at this astoundingly red fruit and you know it’s good for you, packed with powerful antioxidants, including cancer-fighting lycopene. Red is the color of blood, of passion, of ravishing ripeness. In the words of the late great food writer Laurie Colwin, “A world without tomatoes is like a string quartet without violins.”
Too many unseasonably chilly nights in our Eldred garden robbed us of our usual summer crop, so I’m even more grateful than usual for the bounty of the farmers’ market. But bringing home a greedy haul of tomatoes poses a dilemma, as they generally do not fare well in the refrigerator. The cold slows the ripening process and robs them of flavor, so it’s best to store them on the counter (unless they’re already very ripe, in which case you can store them in the fridge, letting them come back to room temperature before serving). Always keep tomatoes stem side down to prevent moisture loss through the stem end, but be mindful that any nicks or bruises are vulnerable to encroaching molds. This is incentive to process your tomatoes in a timely manner.
The most basic ways to preserve tomatoes include canning them whole and whipping up a big batch of sauce to keep portioned in resealable plastic bags and stored flat in your freezer. Use this all winter long for pasta, polenta, curries, meatballs—it’s the basis for so many dishes. Add some cream and it becomes a silky soup. Every year, I make a big batch of spicy tomato jam, loaded with fresh ginger, warming spices and jalapeño. Try slow-drying cherry tomatoes in a low oven until chewy and keeping them in a jar submerged in good quality olive oil. These are fantastic tossed into salad, with scrambled eggs, or added to macaroni and cheese. Or dehydrate slices of tomatoes until crisp and use a spice grinder to transform them into a tangy bright red powder that can be mixed into butter, combined with salt or sprinkled on everything from radishes to rice.
Of course, enjoy as many of your tomatoes fresh as you possibly can. For my ideal sandwich, I like thick slices on soft bread with mayonnaise and something green, like sprouts or lettuce. Another favorite trick is to take a ripe tomato, discard the seeds and puree it in a blender with some olive oil, sherry vinegar and a little anchovy. It makes a richly flavorful dressing for bitter escarole, spicy arugula, or thinly sliced fennel.
For the ultimate tomato treat, with the last of those gorgeous heirloom varieties, bake a simple tart. A sheet of puff pastry (store bought is easiest), a little cheese, some fresh herbs and thin slices of tomato meld together for a symphony of savory flavors. You’re certain to fall in love.
2 medium ripe tomatoes (or the equivalent in cherry tomatoes)
1 sheet frozen puff pastry
3 Tbsp. mayonnaise
1/2 cup grated sharp cheddar
1/2 cup grated mozzarella
Sea salt and ground cayenne
1 Tbsp. minced fresh rosemary
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
Preheat oven to 400° and line one baking sheet with a double layer of paper towels and another one with parchment paper.
Cut tomatoes into 1/8-inch slices. Lay the slices on the paper towel-lined baking sheet and cover with more paper towels. Allow to drain for 30 minutes to prevent the tart from getting watery. Meanwhile, remove the sheet of puff pastry from the freezer and allow to thaw at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Unfold the puff pastry onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and pinch closed any holes in the seams. Use a fork to prick the dough all over so it won’t puff up during baking.
Spread a thin layer of mayonnaise over the entire sheet of puff pastry. Sprinkle evenly with the grated cheeses. Arrange the tomato slices on top and season with salt and a little cayenne. Sprinkle the rosemary on top and finish with the Parmesan.
Bake for 30 minutes, until the pastry is golden brown and the cheese is melted. Remove the pastry from the baking sheet and cool it on a wire rack for 5 minutes. Cut into squares and serve.