Gardening on the high plains of Colorado is an unpredictable effort. Last year, hail destroyed my pumpkins, flea beetles ravished my broccoli, and corn smut attacked my corn. This year, my strawberries are looking downright melancholy. Thankfully, I can always count on a bumper crop of tomatoes.
Good thing too, since of all the vegetables I buy in the grocery store, commercial tomatoes are the ones I like least. In my opinion, store-bought lettuce is acceptable. Ditto for carrots and spinach. But I can’t stomach the mushy, flavorless counterfeits stores push to replace sweet, tart, mouth-watering tomatoes.
I’m not alone in my love of the homegrown tomato. Tomatoes are the most popular home garden vegetable, according to the University of Illinois Extension. This wasn’t always so. Tomatoes were considered toxic when Spanish explorers first introduced them to Europe. Perhaps it was their arresting color that gave them this reputation, or the fact that they belong to the nightshade family and do have toxic leaves.
Whatever the reason, tomatoes were grown as ornamental plants until the early 1800s. Thomas Jefferson planted and ate tomatoes at his home in Monticello. His daughters recorded many recipes using tomatoes. We can thank them for bringing tomatoes out of culinary obscurity.
If you, like me, are expecting a bumper crop of tomatoes, you may wonder what to do with all of them. As a child, I ate them from the garden whole, like a peach, with the juice running down my chin. I also eat them as my grandfather did—sliced thinly and sprinkled with a bit of salt and pepper. I remember many summer meals on my grandfather’s farm that consisted of nothing more than sliced tomatoes, homemade bread, and cheese. Farm food, he called it—simple and homespun. But read on for a few more of my favorite summer tomato recipes. Pick your tomatoes when they’re warm, fragrant, and ripe for the very best flavor.
Roasted Tomato Soup
Roasting the tomatoes gives them a sweet, smoky flavor that’s delicious in this light soup. It freezes and cans well, too.
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 6 large ripe tomatoes, quartered
- 1 onion, sliced thinly
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 4 cups chicken stock
- ¼ cup cream
- 2 tablespoons honey
Heat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Toss the tomatoes and onions with the oil and spread them on a baking sheet. Sprinkle them liberally with the salt and pepper. Roast the vegetables for 15 to 20 minutes, or until they’re slightly browned, but not black. Stir them frequently. Cool slightly. Puree the vegetables in a blender, adding a bit of chicken stock if necessary. Pour the pureed ingredients in a saucepan and add the remaining ingredients. Heat over medium heat, but don’t boil. Serve with a green salad and crusty bread.
Fried Green Tomatoes
When frost threatens, pick your green tomatoes and fry up a batch of fried green tomatoes with biscuits. Is there a better way to say goodbye to summer?
- ½ cup buttermilk
- 1 large egg, beaten
- ¼ cup flour, plus additional for dredging
- ¼ cup cornmeal
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
- Vegetable oil for frying
Combine the buttermilk and egg in a shallow dish. Sift the flour, cornmeal, and seasonings together in another dish. Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet. Slice the tomatoes about ¼ inch thick. Dredge them in plain flour. Dip them in the buttermilk mixture and then dredge them again in the cornmeal mixture. Drop them into the hot oil and fry for about 2 minutes on each side, or until each side is golden brown. The oil should be hot enough that the tomatoes fry quickly; otherwise, they become soggy.
Sweet and Savory Ketchup
If your kids are like mine, they consider ketchup a food group rather than a condiment. But, commercial ketchups are loaded with high fructose corn syrup, which I try to avoid. Make this homemade ketchup, and you know exactly what’s in it.
- 10 pounds ripe tomatoes (24 to 30 tomatoes)
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 cup distilled vinegar
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 teaspoons salt
- 2 tablespoons dry mustard
- 1 teaspoon whole cloves
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 teaspoon celery seed
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon molasses
Drop the tomatoes into a pot of boiling water for 30 seconds to loosen their skins. Drain and peel the skins away. Discard. Remove the cores with a knife and squeeze out some of the seeds and juice. Process the tomatoes and onions in the food processor until smooth. Combine the tomatoes and onions in a large stockpot and add the vinegar, sugar, salt, and dry mustard. Tie the cloves, cinnamon stick, and celery seed in a bit of cheesecloth and add to the pot. Simmer over medium-low heat until the mixture is reduced by half. This may take an hour or longer. Stir frequently so the tomatoes don’t burn. Remove the cheesecloth and discard. Stir in the cayenne pepper and molasses. At this point, you can freeze the ketchup, refrigerate, it or can it.
To can ketchup, ladle it into hot clean pint jars, leaving 1/8 inch headspace. Wipe the rims and place lids and rings on the jars. Process in a boiling water bath canner for 15 minutes. Increase the time by five minutes for every 5,000 feet you live above sea level.
I love the robust, sweet flavor of sun-dried tomatoes, but they’re awfully expensive in the grocery store. Instead, make them at home from your grape tomatoes. You can also dice larger tomatoes and dry them using the same method.
- 3 pounds grape or cherry tomatoes
Preheat the oven to 175 degrees Fahrenheit. Cover a baking sheet with a silicone liner if you have one. Spread the tomatoes on the baking sheet. Bake for three to four hours, or until the tomatoes are shriveled and almost dry. Cool and store in an airtight container. Use them straight from the container or soak the tomatoes in oil or hot water for 30 minutes before use. Drain well. Add to casseroles, pasta dishes, salads, or pizza.
While most tomatoes are high in acid, there are a few varieties that are not. Know what type you’re working with so as to know whether to water bath (high acid) or pressure can (low acid) your tomatoes. Also, when adding any other low-acid ingredient into a recipe (like the celery below), you must pressure can the mixture. The only exceptions to this rule are salsas and sauces that contain vinegar and can safely be processed in a water-bath-canner.
- 10 pounds ripe tomatoes
- 2 stalks celery, diced
- 2 onions, diced
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 3 teaspoons salt
Drop the tomatoes in a pot of boiling water to soften the skins. Peel, core, and quarter them, or dice them if you prefer. Combine them in a pot with the remaining ingredients and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.
Ladle the tomato mixture into hot, clean pint jars, leaving ½ inch headspace. Rinse the rims, add the lids and rings, and process in a pressure canner for 20 minutes at 10 pounds of pressure.
Quick Tips on Using Tomatoes
- When frost’s expected, pick all the tomatoes, including the green ones. Save only those that are full size and light green to yellow. Small, deep-green tomatoes won’t ever ripen. Place the light green tomatoes in a single layer in a box. Store them in a cool, dark place, such as your basement storeroom. Check them every few days or so. Within a few weeks, they’ll ripen perfectly.
- Plant several varieties for the best-flavored ketchups, soups, and salsas. Combining a sweeter variety with a tart heirloom gives a delicious depth of flavor to cooked tomato recipes.