Y’all, it’s officially summer and with that comes so many beauteous realities: warm weather, summer vacations, holidays galore, and as much sunlight as you could ever possibly want. But, probably most importantly, it means summer produce.
For me, my absolute favorite summer jewel at the farmer’s market is the tomato. Coming at you in all different sizes, varieties and colors, your possibilities are truly endless.
The tomato season varies by region, of course, but here in Washington, DC the tomato season starts in July and stretches until the end of September. Of course, you can get tomatoes all year round, but I’ve found that once I tasted a tomato that was truly in season, it was hard to go back. It’s not that they’re bad in autumn, winter or spring, just… bland. They don’t really add anything to the party. Smaller varieties like cherry tomatoes still have great flavor in the cooler months and are a great alternative. (Bonus: explode your brain with this genius way to cut cherry tomatoes all at one time!)
But today I’m talking about big, beefy beauties in all their glory. The tomatoes featured in this post are not necessarily at peak perfection: you can find bright-red lovelies in the store or at your farmers market just slightly later in the season, but I couldn’t help myself. Farmers markets are a GREAT place to find tomato variety – grocery stores often feature the smaller kinds and vine-ripened tomatoes, but the markets will have heirlooms, which vary in color and size and shape. These can be really fun to play with and add unexpected colors to your favorite tomato recipes.
I’m obsessed with summer tomatoes and eat them as often as possible in this delectable season. And raw is wonderful, but I love them best roasted. Even the slightest bit of heat will bring out the complexities of a tomato’s flavor. During the summer, I buy 10-12 tomatoes at the beginning of the week and roast two every single night I’m home. And gobble them up all by myself – James hates tomatoes. I don’t understand how that’s possible, but frankly, more tomatoes for me.
As I prepared to write this post, I realized that roasting tomatoes is incredibly easy, but there are a number of tips to keep in mind so that you can enjoy true tomato nirvana.
Head Amateur Tips for Roasting Tomatoes
Use the right tools:
When I cut tomatoes, it requires two knives: the paring and the serrated. I know, as soon as I did it last night I thought to myself: UGH this will turn people off! But I hope you don’t let it. When you think about it, cleaning tomato juice off two knives takes about 60 seconds total. And it is worth it.
Use your paring knife to cut the core out of the tomato. Just stab in by the core, about 2/3 of the way down, and work in a circular motion around the stem, tilting your knife into the center so that the removed core is a conical shape. I usually need to remove the knife and then insert again to slice the bottom off the cone so it can be lifted from rest of the tomato.
Then use your serrated knife to cut the rest of the tomato. The tomato’s skin is unique – it’s just tough enough to be difficult for a chef’s knife unless you have a super-quality, super-sharp chef’s knife. I do not. Cut your slices THICK – a regular-sized tomato yields about 4 thick slices.
My preferred seasonings, the ones I use every single night, follow:
- Herbes de provence
- Coarse sea salt
- Freshly ground pepper
- Roasted garlic olive oil
Herbes de provence is a mix of a hella ton of different dried herbs that are indigenous to the Provence region of France. The mix is exquisite and will transport you right to the Mediterranean coast, elevating every dish it touches. The key, I think, is that the blend includes lavender, which lends the most distinct flavor. It’s perfect mixed into breading for chicken, seasoning on steak, sprinkled on popcorn and, of course, melding with the glory of tomatoes for a heavenly dish.
The mix is a bit more expensive than other herbs at the grocery store (by $1 or $2) but it’s so versatile, it is absolutely worth it. I buy mine in bulk at Penzey’s Spices and it lasts me for months.
Herbes de provence loves garlic and will show off its peak flavors when “blossomed” in a little fat. For instance, when adding to popcorn, heat up your butter or olive oil on the stove and add the herbes de provence for 2-3 minutes. The flavors will sing! When adding to the tomatoes, I rub the herbs between my fingers as I sprinkle. The rubbing can release oils in the dried herbs and makes them more flavorful.
Freshly ground pepper: I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: pre-ground pepper is great, I’ve used it for years and I still use it occasionally, but the fresh ground pepper opens up the oils in the peppercorn for an entirely different flavor. I can’t live without it now.
Garlic-flavored olive oil pro tip – don’t get botulism:
For years, I was making my garlic oil at home. You take a head of garlic, de-skin the cloves and cook them very slowly (starting with cold extra-virgin olive oil on low heat) for about 20-30 minutes or until the cloves are the loveliest golden-brown. I’d eat the garlic cloves with a little salt and pepper – exquisite. Then I’d store the oil in a plastic container at room temperature.
I stopped this practice when I didn’t have my own kitchen for a few years (it does make your house smell like garlic, which I love, but apparently not everyone does), and about a year ago I tried it again. For whatever reason, I decided to store it in the refrigerator. When I looked at it next, the oil had thick white growths in it, which looked rather threatening. I looked it up and, lo and behold, the bacteria spores that cause botulism can occur and thrive in garlic oil – the less oxygen, the better for them. Geez – who knew something as simple and delightful as garlic oil could be that dangerous? I mean honestly – BOTULISM? I had been afraid my oil had spoiled, I was never expecting that!
(Apparently the chances of actually harboring botulinum spores in your oil are quite rare, but it freaked me out enough never to try it again. Here’s a pretty helpful article that shows ways to make oil at home with the proper precautions.)
So, I buy my flavored oils now, if I’m not going to use my homemade garlic oil at once. I like to buy flavored oils and vinegars in a small store called Olio and asked them why I got the weird growths in my oil – and why it doesn’t happen with their oils. They said their oils are flavored with a complex centrifuge process, so that no pieces of the garlic are actually in the oil when it’s bottled for you to buy in the store. You can also buy garlic oil in grocery stores pretty readily, but I’ve found the oils at this specialty store more delicious. There are lots of these Olive Oil Tasting Stores near urban areas – Alexandria, VA has two!
With tomatoes in mind, you can also use garlic powder or garlic pieces, but garlic burns easily and I don’t like to risk it: garlic-flavored oil for me, all the way.
Slow and steady wins the race:
Roasted tomatoes take a surprisingly long time. That’s why when it’s tomato season, I start my tomatoes as soon as I come in the door: shoes off, oven on. Preheat the oven to 400ºF, cut and season your tomatoes and get them in the oven. The tomatoes take about 45-55 minutes to roast to perfection.
I know – it’s a long time. But the taste – OH THE TASTE – makes all your waiting worth it. I recommend trying this recipe when you have a day off and can accomplish other things while the tomatoes roast.
I usually end up eating my tomatoes after I’ve eaten the rest of my dinner and it’s the perfect ending. You’ll notice that parts of the tomatoes have been become black – the black part is actually caramelization and may be the most delicious part.
I like to roast the tomatoes in a non-stick pan with a very good coating (not covered in aluminum foil) to savor all the juices and each blackened bit, which can often get caught in the ridges of the foil. The very good coating is for ease of cleaning – just a quick wipe with a soapy sponge is all it takes.
The uglier, the better:
We, as humans, are drawn to beautiful things and tend to shrink away from produce that looks wrinkled or with unfamiliar blemishes. With tomatoes, however, embrace the ugly. Vine-ripened tomatoes will not necessarily be beautiful, shiny spheres, but can have strange lumps and hardened beige scales. Heirloom tomatoes can take on 3 colors in one fruit and be so lumpy they look alien. Fear not! The stranger they look, the riper and more flavorful within.