Summer always comes late to Southern California, but that seemed to be particularly true this year, as the cloudy gray days of June gloom stretched well into August for many areas. There was a good side, to be sure, but what we gained by not having to turn on the air conditioner was offset by the sorry state of our tomatoes.
In my garden, except for some precocious Sweet 100s, nothing became ripe until about a week ago. Then wham! all of a sudden, everything ripened at once. As a result, I am now swimming in tomatoes.
I've got more ripe Brandywines, Pink Cherokees and Black Krims than I can count. And every day seems a challenge to find yet one more way to use them up. Because this summer heat spell can't last. I figure we've got probably until the middle of October to enjoy these tomatoes before the sun starts to fade and the fruit starts to shrivel.
So, in honor of this hurry-up harvest, here is a month's worth of ideas for using tomatoes, plus a couple of full recipes to get you started.
1 Pa' amb tomaquetPa' amb tomaquet: Split a baguette in half and cut it into 4- to 5-inch lengths. Toast the bread and while it is still hot, rub the cut side with a cut clove of garlic. Rub half of a seeded tomato against the bread, cut side to cut side, as if you were polishing the bread with the tomato. The bread will absorb a lot of tomato juice and soften slightly but stay crisp around the crust. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and season to taste with salt.
2 Pasta with fresh tomatoes: Pasta with fresh tomatoes: Cut cherry tomatoes in half and season with salt, pepper, olive oil, a little red wine vinegar and minced garlic and a pinch of dried red chile flakes. Cook bucatini, penne or another chewy dried pasta until tender. While the pasta is still steaming hot, dump it over the tomatoes. Stir quickly so the hot pasta will lightly cook the tomatoes. Stir in a bit more olive oil or, if you prefer, some fresh goat cheese, which will melt into the pasta.
3 Pasta with quickly cooked tomatoes (true marinara): Pasta with quickly cooked tomatoes (true marinara): Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat and sauté a whole peeled garlic clove until lightly browned. Add peeled, seeded, diced tomatoes and cook until they begin to melt into a sauce. Cook spaghetti or another long dried pasta and when it is almost tender, add it to the tomatoes along with a ladle of the cooking water. Increase the heat to high and cook until the sauce thickens and coats the pasta. Remove the garlic clove, sprinkle with shredded basil, and serve.
4 Pasta with tomato sauce: Pasta with tomato sauce: Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat with minced garlic and diced carrots, celery and onion (half as much carrots and celery as onion). When the vegetables start to soften and turn color, add peeled, seeded, diced tomatoes (preferably plum tomatoes) and cook until they've thoroughly melted into a sauce. Pass the mixture through a food mill (or purée in a food processor) and return to the skillet. Serve with fettuccine or another fresh pasta topped with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
5 Tomato butter: Tomato butter: Heat a stick of butter in a skillet with minced shallots and torn fresh tarragon. Cut cherry tomatoes in quarters and put them in a mixing bowl with salt to taste. If the tomatoes lack acidity, stir in a bit of red wine vinegar. When the shallots have softened, pour the butter into the tomatoes, stirring briskly to break up the tomatoes. Serve this over grilled or sautéed fish or gnocchi.
6 Tomato and white bean salad: Tomato and white bean salad: Halve cherry tomatoes and put them in a mixing bowl with minced garlic and capers. Season with olive oil, red wine vinegar and salt. Set aside for a half-hour to macerate. In another mixing bowl, combine a can of rinsed, drained white beans and some slivered red onion. Add the tomatoes and stir to combine. Top with slivered basil. To make this a light main course, stir in a drained can of good-quality tuna.
7 True gazpacho: True gazpacho: Soak bread in water to soften. Purée the bread and a clove of garlic in a blender until smooth. Add seeded, chopped tomatoes, a little peeled, chopped cucumber and a little seeded bell pepper and purée. Season with salt, white wine vinegar, a little cumin and either a little black pepper or smoked paprika. With the blender running, add olive oil in a stream until the mixture turns from bright red to orange. Pour the mixture into a bowl and whisk in just enough ice water to make a lightly creamy texture. Chill until ready to serve.
8 Crostini with goat cheese and tomatoes: Crostini with goat cheese and tomatoes: Cut a baguette in 1/2 -inch slices and place them on a cookie sheet. Toast at 400 degrees, turning once, until they are well-browned on both sides, about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and immediately rub each slice lightly with cut garlic and drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle seeded, diced tomatoes with salt and pepper and just enough olive oil to barely moisten. Spread the crostini with fresh goat cheese and top with a generous spoonful of the diced tomatoes. Garnish with a sprig of basil.
9 Tomato salad with pickled shallots and goat cheese croutons: Tomato salad with pickled shallots and goat cheese croutons: Slice a couple of shallots thin and cover them in a bowl with red wine vinegar to pickle for a half-hour or so. Cut tomatoes (a mix of colors and shapes is best) in thick slices and season them with salt, pepper, olive oil and the strained vinegar from the shallots. Spread crostini (No. 8) with fresh goat cheese. Arrange the salad in a low mound on a platter with the goat cheese crostini around the outside. Scatter the pickled shallots over top.
10 Tomato summer pudding: Tomato summer pudding: This is adapted from Judy Rodgers' "The Zuni Cafe Cookbook." Make a highly seasoned tomato salad (see No. 9). Oil a soufflé dish and arrange a solid layer of crostini (No. 8) in the bottom. Spoon some tomato salad over that. Arrange another layer of crostini and spoon in more tomatoes. Repeat until all of the tomatoes are used, finishing with a layer of tomatoes. Lay a sheet of parchment or waxed paper on top and place a plate just big enough to fit inside the soufflé dish. Weight the plate to compress the ingredients (a can of tomatoes works well!), and set aside until the crostini are well soaked with tomato juice, one to two hours.
11 Tomato confit I: Tomato confit I: Cut plum or cherry tomatoes in half lengthwise and squeeze out the seeds. Arrange them in a single layer in a baking dish (as many as you can, as they will shrink during cooking). Scatter peeled garlic cloves among the tomatoes and add enough olive oil to come halfway up the side. Bake at 400 degrees for a couple of hours until the tomatoes shrivel and are well-caramelized. These will store in the refrigerator for weeks -- terrific for adding to pasta sauces, garnishing grilled or roasted meat or fish or topping crostini.
12 Tomato confit II: Tomato confit II: This version isn't quite as unctuous but has a more intense tomato flavor. Cut sauce or cherry tomatoes in half lengthwise and squeeze out the seeds. Arrange in a single layer on a jellyroll pan and season generously with salt, pepper and minced garlic. Drizzle over olive oil and roast at 300 degrees for a couple of hours until the tomatoes begin to caramelize.
13 Sautéed cherry tomatoes: Sautéed cherry tomatoes: In a large skillet, heat olive oil and a peeled clove of garlic over medium-high heat. When the garlic begins to color, add cherry tomatoes and sprinkle with thyme. Cook, shaking the pan, until the tomatoes split and blister. Season to taste with salt and a little red wine vinegar.
14 Spaghetti with tuna and spicy tomatoes: Spaghetti with tuna and spicy tomatoes: Sauté chopped garlic, fennel seeds and dried red chile flakes in olive oil until fragrant. Add chopped tomatoes and chopped anchovy fillets and cook for a minute before adding best-quality canned tuna, along with the olive oil it's packed in. Cook until the tomatoes and tuna break down into a chunky sauce. Season with red wine vinegar and serve over spaghetti.
15 Individual lasagna with slow-roasted tomatoes and pesto: Individual lasagna with slow-roasted tomatoes and pesto: Prepare tomato confit II (No. 12). Smear squares of cooked fresh pasta with a bit of pesto and place them on serving plates. Top with a generous spoonful of ricotta and spoon over some tomato confit. Top with another square of cooked pasta and more tomatoes. Return to the oven to heat through; serve immediately.
THE CALIFORNIA COOK