Seasonal pantry: Sonoma County's early arrival of tomatoes calls for culinary review

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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.

Some tomatoes, especially Roma varieties, can be peeled with a vegetable peeler, and others, especially a bit later in the season, can be peeled using only your fingers; the skins come right off when tugged.

To remove the seeds and gel from a tomato, cut the tomato in half through its equator — peeled or not, depending on what you’ll be doing with it. Set a strainer over a bowl, hold the cut tomato in one hand and squeeze gently, allowing the seeds and gel to drop into the strainer. Use a finger to coax out stubborn seeds.

Stir the seeds and gel in the strainer to loosen any juice, discard the seeds and use the liquid in your dish or, separately, as a refreshing drink with or without salt, pepper, lemon juice and vodka.

Once you have peeled your tomatoes, you’re very close to having what chefs (and an increasing number of recipes) call “tomato concassé.” Don’t let the name intimidate you.

There are just two ingredients, tomatoes and salt. To make it, chop peeled tomatoes as finely as you can, and scoop them into a strainer set over a deep bowl. Stir in about a teaspoon of kosher salt and let sit for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring now and then. What is in the bowl is called tomato water; what is in the strainer is concassé. It is the building block of many recipes.

Two pounds of ripe beefsteak tomatoes yield about 2½ cups of concassé.

For recipes using fresh tomatoes from the Seasonal Pantry archives, visit “Eat This Now” at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

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If you’ve grown tired of the out-of-season Caprese salads served in restaurants year round, this one should revive your interest in the classic Italian dish.

Insalata Caprese with Burrata
Serves 4 to 6

1 burrata, 8 ounces
4-6 small (2-inch) cored tomatoes, preferably a mix of colors
— Small handful of cherry tomatoes, quartered
3 garlic cloves, crushed and minced
6-8 basil leaves, torn into small pieces
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
— Kosher salt or other flake salt
— Black pepper in a mill
— Basil sprigs, for garnish

Set the burrata off center on a large plate.

Cut each tomato into 6 wedges, cutting through the poles, not the equator. Scatter the tomatoes randomly on the plate. Add the cherry tomatoes.

Scatter the garlic over everything, followed by the torn basil.

Drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, garnish with basil sprigs and enjoy right away.

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Tomato butter is an easy and delicious way to add flavor to a variety of dishes, including grilled zucchini, steamed broccoli, braised broccoli rabe, sautéed or grilled cabbage, steamed carrots, baked potatoes, pasta, toast and certain sandwiches such as grilled cheese.

Tomato Butter
Makes about ¾ cup

½ cup tomato concassé (from about 2 medium ripe tomatoes)
1 small shallot, minced
1 stick (4 ounces, ½ cup) best-quality butter, in pieces
— Kosher salt
— Black pepper in a mill
1 tablespoon fresh snipped chives or 1 tablespoon minced Italian parsley, optional

Put the concassé and shallot into the work bowl of a food processor and pulse several times. Add the butter, several generous pinches of kosher salt and several turns of pepper. Pulse again, scrape the sides of the work bowl as necessary, and pulse a few more times, until smooth. Add the chives or parsley, if using, and pulse another time or two.

Scrape the tomato butter into a small glass jar and use right away, or cover and store in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days. Let rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes before using.

Michele Anna Jordan is author of “The Good Cook’s Book of Tomatoes”. Email her at michele@micheleannajordanc.om and visit her blog at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

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