With all the blazing hot weather we’ve had, I came home from a few days at the beach expecting a garden full of ripe tomatoes. I was greeted by just the opposite.
Ripening seems to be going slowly, almost like what happens in the cool temperatures of late September and October. After doing some investigating, it turns out that the optimum temperature range for ripening mature green tomatoes is 70-75 degrees F. The further temperatures stray from that range, the slower the ripening process will be. And when temperatures exceed 85-90 degrees, ripening really slows or even stops. At high temperatures, lycopene and carotene, the pigments that give tomatoes their red and orange color, cannot be produced.
I also learned that while Yakima sunshine may be a boon for growing tomatoes, it’s not necessary for ripening them, once they’re mature. Increased ethylene synthesis is responsible for many of the processes that control ripening. That’s why supermarket tomatoes can be picked green, and stored in the absence of ethylene until just before marketing.
I’m not saying we have no tomatoes. I pulled my first-of-the-season tray of beauties from the oven this week, roasted in fragrant garlic and olive oil. I stumbled on this preservation technique several seasons ago. After trying it just once, I gave up canning tomatoes forever. I can’t explain why these tomatoes are so good. I just thank whatever mysterious alchemy is at work here, transforming even ho-hum tomatoes into an intensely sweet succulence luscious enough to scoop right off the tray and eat with a spoon.
Start with the ripest tomatoes. They ripen from bottom to top, but some heirlooms can ripen unevenly. You can pick them even if their shoulders are still a little green. Just set them on the counter for a few days to complete ripening. Never store tomatoes in the refrigerator. Not only does flavor suffer, but ripening enzymes are destroyed by cold temperatures in the refrigerator, just as they are in the garden.
I use 12-by-18 inch rimmed baking sheets, but any size pan will work. Chunk washed tomatoes into rough, 2-inch pieces. You can leave cherry tomatoes whole. There’s no need to peel. Something happens to the skins during roasting. They become meltingly soft and almost disappear.
Arrange the tomatoes in a single layer of pieces packed closely together, and top with a chunked sweet onion or two, and 6 (more or less) peeled garlic cloves. Season with salt and pepper. Add several liberal glugs of olive oil, enough to lavishly coat all the veggies, and toss with a spatula.
Roast in a 400 degree oven for about 40 minutes (cooking time will vary depending on the size of the pan and the juiciness of the tomatoes), stirring occasionally. They’re done when most of the juices have cooked down into thick, olive-oily syrup. The tomatoes and onions should be caramelized and getting a bit of char around the edges. Cool.
Freeze the roasted tomatoes as they are, or pulsed in the food processor into a chunky puree. Either way, this concoction makes a perfect pizza or pasta sauce. It’s a versatile base for a host of hearty winter soups, including lentil or white bean. Slather it on toasted baguettes and savor the flavor of summer in the depths of winter. The possibilities are endless. And since you’ve already done all the cooking before this sauce goes in the freezer, this is “fast” food at its finest.
If you don’t have enough tomatoes to roast by the tray yet, you can make salsa. I’ve been making it for weeks now, adjusting the recipe to accommodate whatever else I happen to be harvesting.
The basic recipe is to throw about 3 cups of ripe tomatoes in the food processor, along with a Walla Walla sweet onion, one bunch of fresh cilantro, and the juice of a lime. There’s one ingredient that’s non-negotiable. Add a 7.75-ounce can of “El Pato” brand hot tomato sauce. Look for it in a bright yellow can with a duck on the label, in the Mexican food aisle at most grocery stores. Pulse the ingredients to your preferred degree of chunkiness. Add salt and pepper to taste, and maybe a splash of balsamic vinegar. Lately, I’ve been adding fresh corn cut from the cob, peaches or nectarines.
It’s so simple, and once you taste it, you’ll be making this salsa all summer long.