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Vine-ripened tomatoes are all they’re cracked up to be

The end of summer gives us one of the season’s most luscious parting gifts: colorful, juicy, vine-ripened tomatoes.

Full of real tomato flavor, local varieties taste of summer itself – sun and grass and earth – all wrapped in a beautiful, gem-colored package. 

As a child walking through my uncle’s greenhouse, with tomatoes growing overhead in a fragrant arbor, the intoxicating scent of their vines cast a spell on me, and I’ve been hooked on them ever since.

This time of year, local growers offer so many tasty varieties in all kinds of colors, shapes and sizes. These tomatoes are grown for their flavor, not just solely for their yield, like many conventional varieties.

Too often what you find at grocery stores are tomatoes that have been bred for yield, uniformity and toughness, allowing them to travel long distances. They are bred to be picked while still green, then gassed with ethylene to trigger ripening after they are picked. They skip the flavor-developing stage on the vine, then are refrigerated and kept in darkness, which stops the process altogether. No wonder they often lack flavor.

If you’ve never had the pleasure of tasting a true vine-ripened tomato, you may not even know what a good tomato tastes like. Even the beautiful red tomatoes sold on-the-vine in grocery stores – which, I’ll admit, I’m guilty of buying during the winter months, because I can’t live without them, good or not – are generally not truly vine-ripened. Appearances can be deceiving. 

So head to your nearest farmers market, where tomatoes are really allowed to ripen on the vine and usually picked within hours of selling. The fruit receives most of its sugar content from the leaves, and when the tomato is bathed in sunlight, the fruit creates even more sugar, allowing its flavor to intensify and deepen. Served at room temperature, you’ll taste a tomato’s sweetness, acidity, fruitiness, umami and earthiness. If you pay attention, you’ll notice the flavors are quite nuanced.

Dan Jackson, of Jackson Farm in Spokane Valley, has been growing heirloom tomatoes for 16 years, experimenting with hundreds of varieties and selecting those that are the best-tasting and fitting for his land.

“Seed catalogues torment me with all their possibilities,” he said. “I enjoy taking a single seed, planting it and watching it grow into a mature fruit, and seeing how beautiful it is, because that’s what heirlooms are – they are beautiful.”

But there are challenges to growing them. “There is a lot more loss with these kinds of tomatoes due to their inconsistent shape and cracking, and they offer up far less yield,” Jackson said. 

Most of his tomatoes go to local restaurants and schools, but some can be purchased at the Main Market Co-op in downtown Spokane. His “Cherry Mix” features 10 varieties, including a black-shouldered stunner called Indigo Rose. Keep an eye out for his Georgia Streak, a large heirloom beefsteak tomato that’s sherbet in color, mostly yellow with a touch of blush. But it’s the red core inside that gives it the wow factor. That, and, of course, its flavor.

“They are meant to reach their peak on the vine, not on the shelf, and tender-skinned heirlooms are not bred to be shipped,” Jackson said. “Their flesh and skin are much too fragile for long-distance travel.”  

Best seek them out close to home – or grow your own. Jackson has tips for home-growers: “Plant tomatoes in the ground rather than in pots because their roots like to roam deep. Use organic fertilizer and water consistently to keep plants from becoming stressed. Plant where the sun can touch both sides of the plant, and make sure to tie them up, so the fruit stays off the ground.”

When thinking about next year’s crop, consider planting something different alongside your romas. One of my favorite varieties is Black Krim from Russia, near the Crimean Peninsula, where the warm air of the Black Sea make summers perfect for growing tomatoes. The blackish-red color gets even darker and more unexpectedly beautiful in hot weather, but it’s the flavor – tangy, rich and sweet – that really wows the palate.

Green Zebras, another favorite, are vibrant green tomatoes with deep lime-green stripes, making them – in my mind – one of the most visually striking out there. Inside, their flesh is bright green, deceivingly sweet, with a hint of spice and a very pleasant tartness. 

Sungolds are small but prolific cherry tomatoes, light orange in color. They don’t mind growing in my mostly shady garden, and their flavor is a good balance of citrusy tartness, with hints of orange and floral, and a pleasant sunny sweetness. 

The easiest way to enjoy a good, vine-ripened tomato is to simply slice it up and sprinkle it with a little salt. That’s really all it needs. If you want to get fancy, try a clean-tasting flaked sea salt like Maldon, and drizzle the slices with good olive oil. Serve them as a side, or – my favorite way – over toast for a simple breakfast, lunch or snack, embellished with a little balsamic vinegar, cracked pepper and fresh basil, if you like.

If you have the very fortunate problem of having too many ripe tomatoes, there are simple ways to preserve their incredible flavor. Last summer my neighbor gave me a jar of her delicious Tomato Jam. During winter, I pulled it out of the pantry and lathered up a meatloaf. It was divine.

Tomato Jam can be canned like most fruit jams, but try embellishing it with onion, garlic or ginger and warming spices like cardamom, cinnamon or nutmeg. 

Another easy way to preserve an over-abundance of summer tomatoes is to make a Roasted Tomato Sauce. Cut tomatoes in half or quarters and roast them in a 400-degree oven with olive oil, onion slices and a few garlic cloves on a large sheet pan. After 40 minutes in the hot oven, take them out, mash them a bit with a fork and add salt, pepper and herbs. Freeze the mixture in a Mason jar.

You could also make tomato soup this same way, thinning the mixture with water or veggie stock, and blending. Freeze this in Mason jars as well, pulling one out the next time you have hankering for a good old-fashioned grilled cheese sandwich.

Heirloom Tomato, Beet and Burrata Salad with Basil Oil

This twist on the classic Caprese features ripe tomatoes dressed with basil-infused olive oil. The sweet, earthy beets pair deliciously with the tomatoes, but it’s the creamy burrata that brings the whole thing together. Burrata, if unfamiliar, is similar in appearance to fresh mozzarella, but has a surprising creamy center similar in texture to ricotta.

2 balls of burrata cheese, cut into 1/2-inch slices

1 to 2 teaspoons basil-infused olive oil (option, recipe below, see note)

1 1/2 pounds beets, cooked, skins removed

1 to 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

Generous pinch flaked salt, plus more to taste

1/4 teaspoon cracked pepper

2 pounds heirloom or summer tomatoes

1 to 2 cups arugula or mizuna

Place burrata slices on platter and drizzle with a little of the basil oil. Cut the beets into slices or wedges, place in a bowl and toss with a little of the basil oil, balsamic, salt and pepper. Arrange them on the platter. Slice the tomatoes or cut them into wedges, then arrange them on the platter with a generous pinch of flaked salt. Toss the greens with a little basil oil and scatter overtop. Drizzle the whole platter with basil oil right before serving with good, crusty bread.

Note: If skipping the basil oil, which requires an overnight process, substitute ½ cup fresh basil ribbons and a drizzle balsamic syrup.

Yield: 4 servings

Basil Oil

4 cups basil, packed, small stems OK (or 1 cup Italian parsley)

1 cup olive oil

Pinch salt, plus more for the water

Blanch basil in a pot of boiling, heavily salted water for 20 seconds. Immediately strain, place under very cold running water, or an ice bath, until leaves feel cold. Gently wring out and place between paper towels, removing the water.

Place in a blender with the oil and a pinch salt. Blend until smooth, taking care to turn blender off if you feel it getting hot. Any heat will destroy the color. Blend until smooth, stopping and restarting if necessary.

Then, either place the blender in the fridge overnight, or place the oil in a bowl, and let it sit 6 hours.

Strain, using a fine-mesh strainer fit it inside a bowl. Pour the basil oil over it, giving the solids a mix now and then, or a pressing, to help release more of the oil. Once the oil is extracted (about ½ cup) pour it into a bottle with a pour spout, and keep refrigerated. This will keep for a couple weeks in the fridge.

Baked Whitefish with Roasted Tomatoes and Fennel Bulb

For an easy, one-pot meal, try this simple dish. The fennel and tomatoes are roasted in an oven-proof skillet until the tomatoes are bursting, about 30 minutes, then fresh fish – marinated with garlic, thyme and lemon zest – is nestled in the mix, and finished off in the oven. The combination of fennel and tomatoes is one of my all-time favorites. 

1 pound white fish such as cod, halibut, sable or bass

1 1/2 tablespoons, plus 1 teaspoon olive oil and more for oiling pan

3 cloves garlic, minced

Zest from 1 lemon

Juice of 1 lemon

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus a generous pinch

1/4 teaspoon cracked pepper , plus a generous pinch

1 tablespoon thyme , plus more for garnish

1/2 of a sweet onion, thinly sliced

1 fennel bulb, very thinly sliced

1 1/2 pounds cherry, grape or baby heirloom tomatoes

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut fish into 6 to 8 pieces. In a medium bowl, mix 1 ½ tablespoons oil, garlic, ½ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon pepper, thyme and lemon zest. Toss with fish, set aside.

In a lightly oiled baking dish, place onion slices on the bottom. Scatter sliced fennel over top. Drizzle with 1 teaspoon olive oil and juice from ½ lemon, and sprinkle with a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Top with tomatoes.

Place in the oven for 30 to 35 minutes, uncovered, giving a good shake halfway through. Place the white fish overtop, nestling among the tomatoes.

Drizzle the rest of the marinade over the fish and tomatoes. Place back in the oven, uncovered and cook 7 to 8 minutes or until fish cooks to desired done-ness. Remove from oven. Squeeze with remaining juice from ½ lemon, scatter with thyme and serve.

Yield: 4 servings

Linguini with Quick Fresh Tomato Sauce

The fresh tomato sauce comes together while the pasta is cooking, and the whole dish is done in 15 to 20 minutes. Keep it healthy, light and vegan, or for heartier appetites, add seafood right into the sauce, and top with finely grated Romano cheese.  It’s comforting, healthy and deeply satisfying. 

8 ounces pasta (linguini, spaghetti or angel hair)

3 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 onion, diced

8 garlic cloves, rough chopped

2 pounds juicy ripe tomatoes, rough chopped (about 6 cups chopped, reserve juice)

1/4 cup splash vermouth, red wine or white wine

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon fresh cracked pepper

8 to 10 basil leaves, torn fresh 

Grated Romano or Parmesan (optional)

Other optional additions: chili flakes, kalamata olives, capers, seafood

Set a big pot of salted water to boil on high to cook the pasta. While the pasta is cooking, make the sauce. In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add diced onions and saute 2 to 3 minutes until tender. Turn heat to medium. Add rough chopped garlic. Saute a few minutes until garlic is fragrant and golden. Add chopped tomatoes and all their juices and seeds. Turn heat up to medium high. Add vermouth or wine. Bring to a simmer and simmer 5 minutes until tomatoes begin to break down (at this point, you could add seafood). Stir in salt and pepper. 0Turn heat to low until pasta is cooked.

When pasta is cooked to al dente, drain and add it to the fresh tomato sauce, continuing to cook pasta on low for a few minutes in the sauce. Add basil leaves. Divide among bowls and top with freshly grated cheese and other additions, if using.

Yield: 3 to 4 servings

Rustic Tomato Galette

Use your favorite pie crust recipe to make this rustic free-form tomato tart with goat cheese and herbs.

2 leeks, cleaned and thinly sliced (white and light green parts only) 

1 tablespoon oil or butter

13- to 14-inch pie crust, or pâte brisée (See recipe below) 

1 cup crumbled goat cheese (or feta, gruyere or ricotta)

2 pounds tomatoes, mixed varieties

Salt, to taste

Freshly cracked pepper

1 tablespoon fresh herbs such as thyme or basil

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Saute leeks in oil or butter, over medium heat until tender, about 7 minutes, adding a bit of water if necessary. Set aside.

Roll out pie dough on parchment paper to 13 inches in diameter. Place parchment and dough on baking sheet.

In the middle of the dough, add crumbled goat cheese, leaving a 2- to 3-inch edge. Top with sautéed leeks. Begin layering tomatoes, slicing larger tomatoes into ½-inch slices, and cutting cherry tomatoes in half, layering tomatoes and herbs, and salt and peppering each layer as you go. You will need more salt if using riccotta verses a saltier cheese like feta. Top the galette with your cutest tiniest cherry tomatoes.

Fold up the edges of the dough to hold in the filling, crimping in spots to keep filling in place. It should resemble a circle, but it need not be perfect. Bake 50 to 60 minutes in the middle of the oven until golden and bubbling.

Let rest 10 minutes before slicing. Garnish with a few sprigs of thyme or basil ribbons.

Pâte Brisée

From Thomas Keller of Bouchon Bakery

2 cups, plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt

8 ounces cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes

1/4 cup ice water

Place 1 cup flour and the salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and mix to combine. With the mixer running on low speed, add the butter a small handful at a time. When all the butter has been added, increase the speed to medium-low and mix for about 1 minute, until the butter is thoroughly blended. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl. Turn the speed to medium-low, add the remaining 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons flour, and mix just to combine. Add the water and mix until incorporated. The dough will come up around the paddle and should feel smooth, not sticky, to the touch. Remove the dough from the mixer and check that there are no visible pieces of butter remaining; if necessary, return the dough to the mixer and mix again briefly. Pat the dough into a 7- to 8-inch disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, but preferably overnight. The dough can be refrigerated for up to 1 day or frozen for up to 1 month.

Note: If using for galette recipe above, use only ¾ of the pâte brisée dough recipe.

The Seasonal Kitchen is a monthly feature. Local chef Sylvia Fountaine writes about seasonal foods she’s making in her kitchen, sharing recipes and a passion for local foods. Fountaine is a caterer and former co-owner of Mizuna restaurant. She writes about home cooking on her blog, Feasting at Home, www.feasting athome.com.


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