Seasonal pantry: Sonoma County's early arrival of tomatoes calls for culinary review
For several years, those of us in Sonoma County played a waiting game when it came to local tomatoes. June would come and go without tomatoes and, for a couple of years, July also passed by without summer’s signature fruit. Finally, come early August, the harvest would begin.
This year, the first tomatoes appeared on local vines in May, earlier than just about anyone remembers. Even now, before July is here, it is getting hard to keep up. Unless winter arrives too soon with an early frost, it looks like we will have the longest tomato season in years.
It’s a good time to review tomato tools and techniques. Think of today’s column as “Tomatoes 101.”
Unless you grow your own tomatoes or have a neighbor who does, the first thing to understand is how to buy good ones. You’ll find the best at farmers markets and farm stands. Many local markets carry local heirloom tomatoes these days, but most refrigerate them, which degrades the tomato’s texture, turning it mushy, which is why fresh is better.
A tomato should be heavy for its size, with a feeling of heft when you hold it in your palm. Unless you will be making sauce right away, you want tomatoes that are firm ripe, not dead ripe.
Because taste, texture and qualities of different varieties vary so greatly from place to place, if you want a tomato for a specific dish, ask the farmer what he or she prefers. You don’t necessarily want the same variety for a Caprese salad as you do for a classic Mexican salsa, for example.
Once you get your tomatoes home, do not store them in the refrigerator or you will hasten their demise. Instead, set them on a flat platter, stem end down, with enough room between each tomato for air to circulate. Set the platter away from heat and direct sunlight. Stored this way, a tomato plucked from its vine at its perfect moment of ripeness will last three to four days at most.
If you end up with more tomatoes than you can use in this time frame, chop them, season them with a bit of salt and a splash of olive oil, and store them in the refrigerator, covered, for a day or two. Then use them to make salsa, soup, or sauce.
For dishes that call for sliced tomatoes, slice them horizontally, not vertically, parallel to their equators. For tomato wedges, cut the tomatoes through their poles.
If you want peeled tomatoes, pay attention: Do not drop them into boiling water, as most cookbooks and magazine articles recommend. The water cooks the first ⅛- to ¼-inch of flesh and dilutes the tomato’s flavor. Instead, use a direct-heat method, which concentrates flavors.
The easiest way for home cooks to do this is to turn a gas or electric burner to high and spear a tomato on the tines of a fork through its stem end. Hold the tomato as close to the heat as possible, and slowly rotate it as the skins blisters; it should take no more than 30 seconds for one large tomato.
Continue until all tomatoes have been blistered, and then use your fingers to peel off the skins. This is particularly easy to do with locally grown tomatoes, as their skins are typically thinner than commercial tomatoes grown for shelf stability.