Some fresh ideas on getting the most from your garden's bounty

A TASTE FOR TOMATOES:

September 01, 1999|By Joe Stumpe | Joe Stumpe,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

You've eaten them sprinkled with salt, sliced over salads and layered on enough BLTs to put Hellman's out of business. You've foisted them on friends and family, nagged neighbors and co-workers to take "just a few" home -- until the sight of you with a bulging grocery bag can mysteriously clear a room. OK, maybe it's not as bad as all that, but you are wondering how you'll dispose of the tower of tomatoes mounting daily in your garden. A typical tomato plant can yield 20 to 50 pounds of tomatoes a summer, with some varieties bearing twice that amount. Multiply that by a few plants and that's a lot of tomatoes, even for someone in love with the "love apple," as the Europeans once called the food.

Fortunately, there's no shortage of tomato recipes out there. As luscious as it is on its own, the tomato may lag behind only the onion in versatility when paired with other foods. It adds a splash of taste, primary color and nutrients to any dish: From South and Central America, where it originated, come fiery pepper-laden salsas. From the Mediterranean emerge sunny sauces, salads, soups, tarts and gratins, usually featuring garlic and olive oil. Even cooking from the Indian subcontinent uses tomatoes in condiments with yogurt and exotic spices. All of these approaches and more show up in the United States, where the tomato is the favorite garden vegetable grown.

Yet, some people who would not hesitate to open a can of tomatoes to make their own spaghetti sauce are reluctant to cook with fresh tomatoes. One stumbling block seems to be that sauces and other concoctions made with fresh tomatoes tend to be watery, with seeds and pieces of skin.

For many preparations, this is fine, even desired. However, there is a simple technique for achieving a thicker, "cleaner" product. First, bring a large pot of water to boil. Make a shallow X with a paring knife on the ends of the tomatoes you plan to use. Place the tomatoes in the boiling water for about 30 seconds, or until the skins begin to wrinkle. Transfer the tomatoes to cold water for a few seconds, then peel; the skins should come off easily.

To remove the seeds and pulp, slice the tomatoes in half and gently squeeze them in the palm of your hand, with the cut sides down.

That's all the heat required for many recipes. For instance, Mexican food aficionados insist that the fresh, uncooked nature of real salsa is what sets it apart from the bottled store-bought variety. Bruschetta, gazpacho and uncooked pasta sauces are other preparations that rely on the acidic quality of tomatoes, rather than cooking, to meld the flavors of their ingredients.

Tomato preparations run along a continuum, making total failure in the kitchen unlikely. Did your pasta sauce turned out too thin? Maybe what you've really got is cream of tomato soup. Too spicy? Think salsa. Other options for increasing your total pleasure intake from fresh tomatoes include canning and freezing. Most guidebooks say whole tomatoes and preparations with large pieces of tomato in them suffer in texture when frozen; canning is recommended instead.

Sauces that are close to a puree in texture are fine for freezing. One good way of using up tomatoes that may be too ripe for slicing is the quasi-canning method described in the recipe for chunky homemade ketchup.

Tomato lovers know there are really two tomato-eating seasons: the three months or so when ripe locally grown tomatoes are available, and the rest of the year, when tomato fans would just as soon use canned.

But with a little imagination, they can make the most of the tomato's moment in the sun.

Fresh Tomato Pasta Sauce

Makes about 1 1/2 cups

1 pound tomatoes, peeled, seeded, cored and chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

3/4 teaspoon each salt and sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

4 ounces pasta

In a food processor or blender, combine and process all ingredients, except pasta, to make a rough-textured sauce. Adjust seasonings to taste.

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain. Return pasta to pot and add sauce. Toss together over low heat about a minute to heat through. Serve with grated Parmesan cheese, if desired.

Variations:

add 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil; 1/4 cup chopped olives and 1 1/2 teaspoon grated orange peel; 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese and 3/4 teaspoon rosemary; or 3 tablespoons capers and 2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Gazpacho Andaluz (Cold Iced Tomato Soup)

Serves 6

2 1/2 pounds fresh ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped

1 green bell pepper, seeded and coarsely chopped

1 medium red onion, coarsely chopped

1 large cucumber, peeled, halved, seeded and coarsely chopped

5 to 6 tablespoons red-wine vinegar, plus extra to taste

3 large garlic cloves, minced

1 1/4 cups tomato juice

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 slice bread, crusts removed, soaked in water and squeezed dry

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

CROUTONS:

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

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