Many of us grew up back East, where hot summer days and many equally hot summer nights brought tomatoes to full ripeness by July. New Jersey — the summer-steamy “Garden State ”— was famous all over the mid-Atlantic region for the earliness and quality of its tomatoes.
Out here along the shores of coastal California, however, it’s a completely different story. Summer days may be sunny and hot, but nights bring blessed relief and temperatures in the high 50s or low 60s as the cold fogs from the ocean rush over the land.
This is great for sleeping and perfect for gently ripening crops of fine wine grapes, but it can take tomatoes seemingly forever to finally ripen in these conditions, as anyone who’s grown tomatoes in the west county can tell you. Even in the warm inland valleys, in places like Kenwood and Glen Ellen, it may be well into August by the time you get your first tomatoes.
But now it’s September. The days are still sunny and hot, and the nights may actually be a bit warmer as the fog is less penetratingly insistent. Now is high tomato season.
Yet it won’t be long before cooler weather starts cat-facing (scarring) those tomatoes and quality starts falling off. By the time winter gets here, we’ll be back to tasteless supermarket or hydroponic tomatoes in the stores.
And as we all know, nothing — absolutely nothing — beats the taste of a vine-ripened tomato, fresh-picked, still warm from its season in the sun. The time to capture summer’s tomatoey goodness is right now.
You’ll find great tomatoes now at markets like Oliver’s, Whole Foods and the Nugget markets in Sonoma and Glen Ellen, at purveyors like Imwalle Gardens in Santa Rosa and at our farmers markets everywhere around the county.
If I’m not growing my own, I buy tomatoes by the flat. And what kind of tomatoes depends on the uses I intend for them later on during the winter and next spring.
For plain tomato sauce, I choose Italian plum varieties like Roma and San Marzano. This sauce can be used as a base for winter-fresh spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce or other tomato-based sauces for Italian dishes like lasagna and manicotti.
And if your culinary traditions are from other Mediterranean countries like Portugal, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and North Africa, you’ll find this basic sauce useful, too. Heck, whiz some of this sauce into a smooth puree in a blender with a little cream and heat it to make a tomato soup, then serve it to the kids with a grilled cheese sandwich, and it’s as American as watching the Giants beat the Dodgers (except this year).
If you don’t mind delaying the work of making sauce until later in the year, just place whole ripe tomatoes in freezer bags and freeze them. When you thaw them out in January, the skins will slip off easily and you can proceed from there to use them as you wish.
When preparing tomatoes for canning, I drop them into boiling water for a minute or two, until I see a crack appear in the skin. Then I fish them out into a colander, run cold water over them, cut out the hard bit where the stem is attached, and easily peel off the skins from large round fruits.