WFAEats: Tomato Time

Jul 26, 2019

It’s here: peak tomato season! That’s when porch pots and backyard plots burst with tomatoes as tiny as grapes and bigger than grapefruit. Supermarkets and farm stands get overrun with them. Red, yellow, purple, striped, and speckled – they’re everywhere. And that can create a sticky situation.

When you just can’t stomach one more perfect tomato sandwich, what can you do?

Freezing is one option but only if you want to use the tomatoes in cooking. They’ll be hard as billiard balls when you take them out and too mushy for anything else when they defrost.

There’s canning, but that’s a whole lot of work in a steaming summer kitchen just to have soup or sauce in wintertime. One solution is a dehydrator that will slowly remove the moisture while preserving the flavors.

You can get a good result by roasting cut tomatoes sprinkled with salt on a pan in a 200-degree oven, but it will take at around three hours for small ones and up to eight hours or longer to shrivel up the larger ones. It’s possible to make an authentic “sun-dried” version if you’re willing to construct a rig with screens to hold the tomatoes off the ground and prevent critters from disturbing them.

If you decide to just cook up all the tomatoes on hand, be aware that the seeds can be bitter and many recipes tell you to remove them. It’s not difficult, just slippery business. Halve or quarter the tomato and scoop out the gooey seeds with a spoon or your fingers. You don’t need to worry about the seeds in the tiny ones. To peel a tomato, blanch it by dropping it into boiling water for a minute or so. Run it under cold water and the skin will slip off.

Isn’t it exhausting just thinking about all of that? This is when you want to bake a couple of tomato pies. These are popular around the South and unheard-of most anywhere else. That could be due to our extended growing season (and the fact that up north a tomato pie is a kind of pizza). No one officially lays claim to inventing this dish, which is all the more reason to make it your own with different varieties of the ingredients.

It’s simple. Slice up a few big, ripe tomatoes, salt them and let them drain a few minutes. Layer them in a pre-baked pie shell and sprinkle with some chopped onions and herbs. Combine your favorite shredded cheese with enough mayo to make it spreadable and smear it over everything. Bake at 350 until the cheese is bubbly and brown. Wait till it cools before serving so it firms up. It’s just as good after chilling overnight, but you won’t know that because there’s never any left.

By the way, a tomato is a fruit because it’s a seed-bearing structure formed from a plant’s ovary after flowering. Vegetables are the roots, leaves, or stems of a plant. (This means that eggplants and olives are also technically fruits, but we can’t address the confusion that could result from adding kalamatas to canteloupe.) The acid in tomatoes can trigger reflux and mouth ulcers. This seems both ironic and unfair, considering that the substance that gives tomatoes their color – lycopene – is a beneficial antioxidant that may improve heart health.

Both North and South Carolina are among the top ten growing states for tomatoes that farmers ship fresh to markets. But when plants keep blooming into fall home growers can be left with baskets of unripe fruit. Southern cooks have perfected the art of fried green tomatoes, but these are great for pickling, too. Make a quick, refrigerated version with vinegar, garlic and dill. Or try your hand at an Indian chutney with spices and sweetness.

Before we leave the topic of too many tomatoes, let’s mention some upcoming celebrations. Charlotte’s third annual Homegrown Tomato Festival is coming up on Saturday, July 27. It’s a benefit for 100 Gardens. That same day, the Matthews Community Farmers’ Market will host its Annual Tomato Tasting Competition. It’s also Tomato Day at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market.

But what happens after all of this, if we still have more tomatoes than we can manage to cook, eat, freeze, dry, put up, and pickle? A small town in Spain hosts “La Tomatina” each August, a festival where throngs of tourists and townspeople pelt each other with thousands of juicy, ripe tomatoes. It inspired celebrations in other locales including Colorado and Nevada. Just imagine it: the Tomatolina Festival. Or CharloToma. Maybe CaroMato. Obviously, this idea isn’t ripe for the picking just yet. But maybe next season.

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Amy Rogers writes WFAEats, a fun adventure where we explore all things tasty and tackle the meatier side of the food scene in and around Charlotte.