From a Chef’s Perspective: Tomato Season!
It’s happening! The return of the local tomato is upon us here on the North Fork and I am PSYCHED.
I eat tomatoes like apples. Well, not really because that would be really messy and creepy. What I mean is, I eat as many as I can while they’re around. Before I chose to dedicate the rest of my life to all food & wine-related pursuits, I would buy tomatoes impulsively and indiscriminately not realizing that each variety has its own characteristics that make them very, very unique. Choosing the right tomato for a specific purpose is very important, and can make a world of a difference in the outcome of your dish.
When it comes to wine, tomatoes are so versatile! The old school may insist that red sauce must be paired with red wine but that is SO not the case. It really depends on what else you have going on. A simple tomato salad, bruschetta, or soup pairs very well with fruit-forward yet dry white wines and roses. A red sauce dish that includes seafood or poultry pairs quite well with medium to full bodied white wines (i.e., partially-oaked chardonnays or aromatic gewurztraminers). Once you start getting into beef, veal, and robust sausage territory then a red wine is definitely the better option. I once had a medium-spicy Penne Arrabiata with a glass of dry (yet fruity) Bridge Lane White Blend to put out the fire and I thought it was a really interesting and refreshing pairing.
Before we talk variety, let’s get a couple *really* important things down first…
Seasonality matters. A LOT. Where we are on the North Fork of Long Island tomato season starts in the beginning on August and can last until just about the end of September (if things stay warm enough and we don’t get any major overnight cold spells). The main problem with buying tomatoes out of season is that it had to be transported from far, far away. Which brings us to the next important point…
Local, is, crucial. Tomatoes are fragile, delicate fruits. They are a very difficult thing to transport without compromising their integrity when they are at their prime. A lot of huge farms pick them before they’re ripe (green, even…) and ship them like that. By ripening “off the vine”, and “in the truck” what could have been a sweet, amazing, juicy tomato is now kind of a weird grainy tomato-like flavored thing. Not good. When you buy a local tomato, it has been picked at perfection and has arrived to you as the best tomato that tomato can possibly be. And, it’s probably way nicer-looking, too.
The tomatoes in your fridge are crying. I’m not kidding. Take them out, and don’t do it again. Keep them on the counter on a plate, no bag, no fridge. If purchased at its prime a tomato can last 2-4 days on your counter before you should maybe start thinking about making some salsa. For very heavy tomatoes, especially heirlooms, keep them upside down so they are resting on the strongest part right around the stem (remove the stem if you have to for balance).
Finding the top tomato: Look for a deep color, and the tomato should smell, well, tomato-ey. Give it a quick smell, and look for that sweet woody aroma. When you press on it (gently, now!) it should have a little give but not be mushy or bruised. Some dry, brown “seams” may have formed and those are totally fine. If there is a lot of moisture around the seam or anything white – it’s probably mold and you should separate it from the bunch. The best way to bring it home is in a sturdy box. Most grocery stores will happily give you one of many boxes they would toss at the end of the day anyway.
Now let’s talk about what’s what and where it should go…
clockwise from top left: Beefsteak, Roma, Campari, Cherry, and Heirloom.
“Beefsteak”, Slicing and Globe – These are the most common (and the biggest) tomato variety. These are the big boys often found in the bigger supermarkets. These are meaty, with a high water content, and with little pulp so they are great for sandwiches. If you have not had a “Tomayo” sandwich before, you are missing out. Take two slices of good bread (preferably sourdough) and toast to light brown. Spread on some real mayo (none of that low-fat nonsense) and some thick slices of Beefsteak tomato. Salt, pepper, die happy.
Plum or Roma – These are the sauce & soup tomatoes. They are meaty like the former, except they have been bred to have a higher solids content. They still have a little pulp but these tomatoes are the only ones that can yield a paste. They are a bit more durable as well since they have a thicker skin and are generally more dense, so if you’re going to eat tomatoes off-season this will probably be your best bet for decent flavor. San Marzano tomatoes also fall into this category, and are essentially the Rolls Royce of plum tomatoes.
Campari – These are most frequently found on the vine in supermarkets. They are deep red, medium-sized, and really sweet. They have a lot of pulp, have a very low acidity and overall mealiness. They are great for roasting in the oven.
Cherry and Grape – They’re small, they’re cute, they’re irresistible. Best guilt-free snack ever.
Heirloom or Heritage – It is important to be delicate with these, they are super fragile. These tomatoes are extra special because they are “open-pollinated” or non-hybrid. They are grown from the seeds of the previous harvest and so forth, making them the real OG tomato. These tomatoes are by far my favorite because they are SO, SO flavorful. Heirloom tomatoes lack a genetic mutation that makes most varieties a solid red color. This mutation that makes tomatoes the solid-red color we expect also hinders the tomato’s ability to produce as much sugar as it used to. For shame. An heirloom tomato is by far the most flavorful expression of a tomato, and the most colorful. Their shapes are hilarious, and the color patterns can get pretty wild. They are best enjoyed on their own with a sprinkle of sea salt, in a simple salad, or in a sandwich.
TOMATO SEASON SOUP
TOMATO SEASON SOUP
This soup is magical because it’s “creamy” without actually using any cream. This also means it keeps longer in the fridge, and won’t upset your lactose-intolerant friends (like me!). Trust me, the cream won’t be missed. Best served with a grilled cheese sandwich and a glass of Bridge Lane Rose!
~8-10 pounds of in-season tomatoes (they don’t have to be in perfect. Your local farmstand may have a bin of “ripe and uglies” at half price, those are great for soup!)
Stale bread, 5 slices ripped up into small pieces (or 4 hotdog or hamburger buns) white bread is ideal, stay away from ultra grainy breads for a silky smooth soup.
Salt & Pepper to taste
(yup, that’s it.)
- Preheat oven to 400F. Start by removing the stems and any blemishes from your tomatoes using a small paring knife. After all the questionable areas are removed, cut your tomatoes into chunks. They don’t have to be perfect- remember we are blending this all at the end so no need to fuss over precision here.
- Place a colander over a large bowl. In two batches, put your chopped tomatoes in the colander and start to “hand press” all the juices out. You should continue pressing and squeezing until you have just tomato “meat” in the colander. (If you have any kids around, this is a step they will enjoy. Squishing tomatoes, YES.
- Reserve all the tomato juice run- off in a large saucepot, and put on medium-high heat. You want to reduce this by 50%, take note of the side walls of the pot to see where you’re at and take off the heat when you’ve reached your halfway mark.
- Spread all the tomato “meat” on a baking sheet lined with foil (for easy clean up after). Since I normally make like a million batches of soup at a time I go for those great disposable foil pans to save myself some sink space. Roast in the oven (top rack) until you see some slight charring, see photo below. Char is good- color is FLAVOR.
OK, now your juice is reduced 50% and your tomato meat is roasted. Homestretch!
- In a blender, place your ripped-up stale bread, and ladle in enough of your reduced tomato juice just to get it all soaked through. You don’t want too much residual liquid.
- Add your tomato meat (don’t overfill your blender, you can do this in two stages if needed.) and blend away! Add salt and pepper to taste. I like my soup really well blended and silky- but if you prefer a little chunkiness you can use your pulse setting to get it where you like it. You can add more tomato juice if you need to thin it out.
Store in airtight jars/tupperware in your fridge, or freeze in ziplock bags for later. If you would like to jar them for enjoying months from now, make sure to folllow the instructions on your favorite brand of jarring equipment to ensure it stays shelf stable.
Happy Tomato Season!
Director of Tasting Rooms