George and Ira Gershwin’s 1937 song “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” gets one thing right: “You like tomato and I like tomahto.” One of the most loved, used, and grown fruits, the tomato is also one of the most versatile. It can be consumed raw -- right off the vine -- or chopped and sliced in myriad salads. It can be dried, oven-roasted, baked into tarts, pureed into soups, milled into sauces, squeezed into juice, cooked into ketchup, or sweetened into jam. And it can also be frozen and canned to be enjoyed months later.
I learned about tomatoes and the art of growing them from my father. A backyard gardener, Dad grew an inordinate number of tomato plants on his fifth of an acre. And he somehow managed to grow impeccable, blemish-free two-to-four-pound tomatoes in his fertile garden. His favorite variety was Big Boy, a hybrid Burpee introduced in 1949.
Today, in my garden, I also grow almost too many plants, experimenting with new hybrids, old standbys, and many heirlooms. I’m always searching for that perfect, amazing, juicy, edible, usable fruit that the Italians so aptly named pomodoro -- or “apple of gold.” Like my dad, I too grow Big Boy, and also Better Boy, Early Girl, Beefsteak, Pink Brandywine, Green Zebra, Roma VF, and Mortgage Lifter, as well as several smaller cherry- and pear-shaped types.
For the effort growing tomatoes requires, the rewards are, in my mind, stupendous! Just take a cellar of coarse sea salt with you at harvest time. Pick a few of your very best. Sit down (the ground will do), sprinkle them with salt, take a bite, and enjoy the fruit of the gods!
Four Ways to Preserve
To get the most out of all the varieties I grow, I preserve tomatoes for use throughout the year. Here are four basic methods.
1. Oven-Dried Tomatoes
These add depth of flavor to any recipe. Use them straight from the freezer on pizzas and focaccias with your favorite cheese, or work them into pasta recipes.
2. Tomato Puree
Milling tomatoes makes a versatile base for soups, stews, and sauces, like simple marinara. Freeze the puree and you’ll be able to use it for up to a year.
3. Tomato Water
When milling tomatoes, don’t discard the pulp and seeds -- instead, save them to make tomato water. Packed with concentrated flavor, tomato water captures the essence of this summer fruit, giving dishes from cocktails to soups a sweet boost. Add a splash to a martini for a refreshing twist on the classic. Or freeze it into ice cubes to enhance a Bloody Mary. Pour in a few spoonfuls to perk up a salad dressing or gazpacho.
4. Tomato Confit
Slow-cooking tomatoes in oil, garlic, and herbs intensifies their natural flavor and perfumes them with aromatics. Try varieties like Early Girl, Noire Russe, and Better Boy.