tomatoes

Kitchen Confidence: Tip of the Week - Tomatoes

Tomatoes are so perfect right now - how can you walk past a farmers' market and not come home with a bunch?  

heirloom tomatoes

 

This week I polled fellow tomato lovers and promised to share a non-scientifically selected batch of top tips and recipes using this seasonal fruit. I got some very good advice, tips, and a couple interesting links.

My top picks:

  1. Storing:Do not place them in the refrigerator! This absolutely kills the flavor. Thanks Kurt!
  2. Freezing: Plum tomatoes are great for freezing whole. Get just-picked flavor even in the dead of winter. Chef Debbi shared this with me last year.
  3. Roasting: Plum tomatoes, cherry tomatoes can be slowly roasted in a 250 degree oven, rimmed sheet pan, few glugs of oil, some herbs if you like and some garlic cloves strewn about.
  4. Scraping: Freeze into a dessert or palate-cleanser. Make granita, or this really cool sorbet. Thanks Jane!
  5. Straining: Tomato water. Chop a bunch of tomatoes and place in a cheesecloth-lined sieve over a bowl. Let it rest overnight. By morning, you'll have clear, deeply tomato-y water. Use in cocktails, in aspic.

plum tomatoes

Tomatoland: a Thinking Person's Love Story

As a person that loves to read, a child who spent hours with her nose in dictionaries and encyclopedias, it pains me that I read so slowly. But I do so with relish and with great appreciation of the work that goes into good writing. It's no secret that Apples of Love get me hot. And, food justice issues get the lawyer in me riled up, too.

So it will surprise no one that I have just finished Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, nor that I love it and highly recommend it.

An Exposé, a Page-Turner

In parts, this reads like a David and Goliath legal battle page-turner. Other chapters will recall the best travel writing, where the reader feels the dust on your clothes and sun on your back. And much of it is a horrifying exposé that the best investigative journalism sheds light on.

No where does the book lapse into the hand-wringing exhortations that turn many away from activist organizations who may achieve good ends through questionable tactics. There are no gimmicky theatrics. No dogma. Just a well-researched, well-documented and exceedingly well-written story. Or stories, really, as Estabrook covers and pieces together elegantly years of research; weaving them all into a compelling read.

From the high mountain deserts of South America to modern slave quarters in fetid, repurposed shipping containers, to the greenmarket in New York City where chefs from tony restaurants pickup orders from cranky artisan farmers, Estabrook takes us on the Tomato Trail. He traces its botanical history, its bizarre place in Florida agriculture and introduces us to characters both evil and saintly.

  • Modern plant breeding has tripled yields, but produces fruits with a fraction of the calcium, Vitamin A, and Vitamin C, and fourteen tiimes as much sodium as the tomatoes our parents enjoyed.
  • Commercial tomatoes are responsible for more produce-related food-borne illness than any other vegetable. Your supermarket tomatoes even had a nice chlorine bath before landing on your sub sandwich.
  • The tomatoes you get in the supermarket, as well as the workers who pick them, are covered in a toxic soup of hazardous chemicals, like methyl bromide which is toxic to humans, the earth and the ozone layer. Horrendous and extremely rare birth defects were documented among the workers in tomato fields of Ag-Mart Produce.
So these ubiquitous supermarket orbs (whose shape is actually regulated!) are the product of slave labor, chemical warfare, grown in utterly barren soil, in dicey conditions. The only thing they have in common with tomatoes from your farmers' market or backyard are distant genetics. The kicker is that they don't even taste good. All "mature greens" as they are known are gassed with ethylene gas to induce a color change.

A Love Story, Too

Lest you think the book is too depressing to pick up, let me hasten to add that this is one of the most uplifting books I've read in a while.
How can it be after documenting all these travesties? I'm renewed by the stories of the otherwise unknown characters (I mean that in both senses of the word) in this book. The folks who get the work done. This book introduces us otherwise nameless folks; not only the field workers, struggling under inhumane conditions because it's the best opportunity they can see for themselves. It also tells the stories of the many people on the Tomato Trail, from the worker advocates, developing fair housing, fighting for a penny-a-pound wage increase, running child care centers for the workers. It also tells of people who are trying to find a better way, some of them succeeding.

Everything-but-certified Organic farmers, breeders trying to find a market for flavorful tomatoes, farm worker organizers, even attorneys fighting and settling the cases on behalf of the children born with birth defects to farm workers forced to work with unsafe chemicals. These are the people who would otherwise have remained anonymous to us. These are the stories I find uplifting, the sort of stories would seldom hear but for the work of people like Estabrook who is finally getting some recognition for his work, too.

In reflecting on this book and the people whose stories it tells, I kept thinking of Marge Piercy's To be of Use.
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.

Yes, this book is not just about our love for tomatoes, it is about the many hands, and backs, the tears, the blood, the efforts of all who research better ways to grow better tomatoes, those that grow them, that pick them, that pack them. It's a fascinating path tracing how our food systems have corrupted what is our most precious and beloved fruit.

To eat a perfect tomato changes you. To read this book does, too.

 

How to Make Corn Stock - Recipe for Summer -in-a-Pan

Don't you love one pot meals? My dishwasher does. And by dishwasher I mean my husband.

Actually, we both do dishes and are greatly aided by our Fisher & Paykel dish drawers (perfect dishwasher for our small family of two, it's divided into two separate units.) Any way you slice it, dishes are a drag. So, it's always great to find another recipe for a whole meal in one pot or one pan, yes?

Our Spelt-Corn Sauté with heirloom cherry tomatoes, scallion, poblanos.

 

Spelt is an old grain, think of wheat's great, great, great grandpa. It grows without needing as much chemical intervention and is slightly less productive than modern wheat varieties. It's great for fiber, phosphorus, manganese, protein and iron. It has a nutty chewy texture that plays well against the sweet pop of the corn kernels. Here, I soaked the spelt in water overnight and cooked it in sweet corn stock.

 

Making Use of Summer Abundance

We had fun helping folks come up with ways to reduce food waste in Jenni Fields' "Four Pounds" food waste challenge. One thing I like to do is to approach vegetables with the same reverence usually reserved for meats. "Itadakimasu" is a Japanese way of giving thanks for the sacrifice that went into one's meal. Why not respect our produce and the resources that went into it, too?

For me, Summer in New England will forever be associated with heirloom tomatoes and some of the best corn on the cob I've ever had. This coming from a Maryland girl where we reveled in Silver Queen and Butter & Sugar corn varieties is kind of a big deal, but there you have it. I'm firmly in the local is better camp here. In fact, one of the reasons Summer corn tastes so good here is that we get it at the farmers' markets the morning it was picked. Did you know that the sugars in the corn begin to turn to starch within minutes of it being picked? More than a quarter of the sugars turn to starch in the first day it's picked. So, buy your corn from the Farmers' Market near you and use it that day. If you cannot use it right away keep in a paper bag on the counter not in the fridge as cool temps speed up that starch conversion.

You could zip the kernels off the cobs and make corn stock. Blanch and freeze the kernels. (I always say I'm going to do this each summer but never seem to be able to resist eating this corn right away!)


Recipe: Summer Corn, Heirloom Tomato, Spelt - One Pot Meal

Ingredients:

  • 4 ears of corn
  • half a poblano pepper
  • 1 C spelt soaked the night before if possible
  • 2-3 scallions
  • Bacon (crisply cooked, completely optional)
  • Corn stock (see below)
  • ~1 C heirloom cherry tomatoes halved

 

Directions for corn stock:

  1. Cut the corn kernels off the cobs. The easiest way to do this is to place the cob of husked corn upright in a large bowl and use a sharp knife to separate kernels from cobs, reserve cobs.

    Tip: place a square of damp paper towel under the bowl to keep it from sliding. 

  2. Save the cobs and place in large saucepan, cover with water.

  3. Add 1-3 dried bay leaves, a pinch of peppercorns
  4. Bring to boil then reduce heat to strong simmer for about 20 minutes. 

    Corn cob stock on the boil.
  5. Cool, strain, and use or label & freeze.

Assembling the One-Pot Dinner

You can vary this according to what you have on hand. Here's how I made mine the other night. Tonight, I'm making a version including chicken, some leftover rice, and some black barley. See Ingredients above.

Putting it together:

  1. Cook the spelt in the corn stock and add water as needed.
  2. Drain into bowl, reserve.
  3. Wipe out the saucepan, add duck fat or light oil to lightly coat.
  4. Sauté poblano, wilt whites of onion, add corn.
  5. Add cooked spelt.
  6. Add chopped cilantro, and halved cherry tomatoes
  7. Sprinkle with crumbled bacon (if using)
  8. In the final moments, add a handful of spinach leaves. (Love the Olivia's Organic Baby Spinach).
I also added a bit of powdered ancho, some cayenne and a few generous grinds of black pepper.

Other Corn Inspiration