Fresh tomatoes from the Baltimore Farmers Market. (Photo and styling by John…)
The arrival of tomatoes at the farmers' market is the high point of the summer growing season. It brings with it a treasure-trove of jewel-colored fruit that span the spectrum from bright green to dark purple and come in shapes that defy geometric reason. Heirloom tomatoes with names such as Green Zebra and Black Krim deliver a range of flavors from tongue-twisting tartness to luxurious, smooth sweetness.
They don't need much in the way of preparation to shine, and that's why most chefs don't mess with them much at home.
"I like to grill my tomatoes" says Rashad Edwards, executive sous chef at Phillips at the Power Plant. "After the tomatoes are grilled, I add fleur de sel and first-press olive oil. It can't get any more simple." For him it's the combination of "smokiness and char from the tomatoes, the flavor of the salt and sweetness of the olive oil" that make it his go-to at home.
Henry Hong, general manager at the Waterfront Kitchen in Fells Point, is reminded of his youth when he talks about tomatoes. "When I was a kid visiting Korea, tomatoes were a rare and expensive treat. During the summers when I was there, my family prepared them in a way I've never seen before or since, really: just roughly chopped, in a big steel bowl, mixed with some ice and sugar [and] treated like a fruit, like dessert! It was amazing."
He added that "sugar sometimes dampens flavors, but for tomatoes it blows flavors up when used judiciously. And after eating the [tomato] chunks, ... the sweet, ice-cold tomato water that's left, drunk straight out of the ice-cold steel bowl [is] possibly one of the most refreshing liquids on earth. Some tomatoes, especially certain heirlooms and yellow varieties, are [so] low in acid and high in sugar as to make them impractical for savory applications. Instead of forcing a square peg into a round hole, take advantage of these characteristics and use in sweet applications."
These three recipes try to maintain the integrity of tomato's flavor while highlighting the many ways it can be prepared. Here, you will find it used raw, cooked and distilled to its essence. So enjoy as many tomatoes this summer as you can, but be quick about it. Because although tomato season is a time for happiness, it also means that summer is halfway over.
Mixed tomato cocktail with oregano & basil simple syrup
"Tomato water is a great ingredient," says John Reusing, owner of Bad Decisions in Fells Point. "Tons of flavor but blends well with a variety of spirits or beer. The reason you won't see tomato drinks at many places, even cocktail places, is because tomato water has a short shelf life, and most people are too scared to try a drink with it. However, if someone is making a tomato cocktail, [they should] give it a try; they might be surprised how great that flavors shine through."
That is what this cocktail is based on. The herbaceousness of the tomato comes through in the water that is extracted through pureeing and straining. The flavors are balanced with syrup infused with oregano and basil, lemon juice and a combination of gin and vodka. It's a refreshing yet sturdy drink for a hot summer night. Substitute ginger beer for the vodka and gin for a teetotal version.
For the tomato water:
5 pounds mixed tomatoes, the more varieties the merrier
1 teaspoon kosher salt
For the basil/oregano simple syrup:
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup oregano
1/2 cup basil
For the cocktail:
4 ounces tomato water
1 ounces basil/oregano simple syrup
2 ounces gin (I used Hendricks)
1 ounce vodka (I used Skyy)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
sprigs of rosemary and cherry tomatoes for garnish
To make the tomato water, puree the tomatoes (in batches) in a food processor. Pour into a strainer that is lined with four layers of cheesecloth and set over a large bowl or stock pot to drain. Every 30 minutes, squeeze the cheesecloth to get as much water out of the tomatoes as possible. After two hours, you should have about two quarts. Refrigerate the tomato water until needed.
To make the basil/oregano simple syrup, bring sugar and water to a boil. Turn off the heat and stir in the basil and oregano. Let steep until cool. Strain.
To make the cocktail, combine ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake until frothy (40 shakes) and strain over ice. Skewer a few cherry tomatoes with the sprig of rosemary and place into the drink for a garnish. Stir.
Tip: Mix the tomato solids left in the cheesecloth after making the tomato water with 1 stick of soft butter and 1/2 teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of freshly ground black pepper. Use this tomato compound butter on thick country bread or as a sauce for noodles.