Roasted cherry tomatoes–Who needs candy?

Though you may not have access to hundreds of luscious sun gold cherry tomatoes the way I do, fret not. You too can have awesome deliciousness.

Roasting a cherry tomato, even one that is store-bought, will turn a decent taste into an exceptional one. I usually prefer my sun-golds straight up and unadulterated, but roasting them to put in pastas or salads elevates those dishes to an entirely different level. It takes twenty pounds of fresh tomatoes to make one pound of oven-dried tomatoes, but even having a few on hand to throw into pastas or salads makes it worth doing.

The best part? It’s child’s play.  Cut each tomato in half,  put each half side by side on a cookie sheet, and roast in a 250-degree oven for 2-3 hours, or until dried (but not completely shriveled). Ideally, you want the tomatoes to retain some of their juices, start to shrivel up and be a bit caramelized before you take them out of the oven.

Okay, the tomatoes are out of the oven. Now what?

If you want to use them straight out of the oven, simply add a couple of handfuls to pasta with garlic, basil, hot pepper flakes and Parmesan.

Preparing the tomatoes for storage is hassle-free. Throw them (gently) in a freezer bag, write the date on the bag with a magic marker, and store in the freezer where they will be waiting on a cold winter’s night when you’re dreaming of summertime. Though they won’t taste as fabulous as fresh, it’s surprising how much sweetness they retain. In addition to using in a pasta, you can also puree the tomatoes into a lovely tomato soup or make a pasta sauce for lasagna or manicotti.

If you’ve decided not to roast these little gems, and instead figure you can just snack on them until the bowl is empty, please heed this admonition. No matter the size or the type of tomato, there is one unwavering rule — NEVER put them in the refrigerator. Storing a tomato under 55 degrees will zap its flavor. If you have a big batch and they are going to rot, eat them quickly. Make a tomato sauce or salsa. Give them away to your friends or neighbors. Just DO NOT put them in the refrigerator. I know you’ve all heard me say this before, but they really should be enjoyed the way nature intended.

Watermelon and Tomato Salad

Combining watermelon and tomato is all the rage, but it does sound like an odd partnership, doesn’t it? Well, don’t make any judgments until you’ve tried it, because it’s truly awesome. Sweet, tart, crisp, juicy and, above all,…fresh. And after a month’s worth of caprese salads, it’s time to change things up a bit.

Here’s an easy way to start the flavor parade.

Cut up equal parts watermelon and tomato chunks (halved cherry tomatoes are a visually appealing substitute). Let sit in a bowl for a bit and drain the juices. Add minced scallions, chopped mint and basil, feta and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Minced or sliced jalapenos will give it an extra kick, if desired. Toss and dig in!

Now THIS is summer in a bowl.

Roasting Tomatoes

You simply can’t let  all those ripe tomatoes sitting on your kitchen counter go to waste!

If you grow your own tomatoes, you may be feeling a bit overwhelmed by the seemingly endless supply in your garden. Or perhaps you bought too many at the farmer’s market. Since the season is so short, why not extend your enjoyment of these juicy fruits by freezing them?

Many people make tomato sauce to can or freeze, but the simplest way to store tomatoes for later use is to roast them.

Cut each tomato into 4 wedges and place on a cookie sheet or jelly roll pan (I think I’m showing my age). Drizzle lightly with olive oil and sea salt and gently mix to coat each tomato piece. Put into a pre-heated 250 oven, close the door and walk away…..for hours. The great thing about roasting tomatoes is that there is no set cooking time. If you forget about them for 5-6 hours, you’ll end up with oven-dried tomatoes, but would that be so bad? Ideally, you want the tomatoes to retain some of their juices, start to shrivel up and be a bit caramelized, about 2-3 hours.

Okay, the tomatoes are out of the oven. Now what?

If  you can’t resist using the tomatoes straight out of the oven, simply add them to pasta with garlic, basil, hot pepper flakes and Parmesan.

Preparing the tomatoes for storage is hassle-free. Simply put them in a freezer bag, and throw in the freezer where they will be waiting on a cold winter’s night when you’re dreaming of summertime. Though they won’t taste as fabulous as fresh, you could puree the tomatoes into a lovely tomato soup, or make a pasta sauce for lasagna or manicotti.

You can thank me in February.

Farmer’s Market bounty

Farmers’ Markets have their full complement of produce this month, so hopefully this will inspire you to be creative with your favorite fruits and vegetables.

–Make a summery salad of watermelon chunks and cherry tomatoes with feta or goat cheese, topped off with chopped mint and pistachios, and tossed with red vinegar and oil. It’s an unusual combination, but surprisingly refreshing. (Use the leftover watermelon to blend up killer margaritas or gazpacho!)

– Steam fresh green beans and mix with a warm dressing of sautéed chopped red onions or shallots, Dijon mustard, dill, balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

– Slice a French baguette lengthwise and spread with basil pesto. Pile on fresh slices of mozzarella, tomato and a fistful of basil or arugula. Have plenty of napkins handy!

– Corn is at its peak right now. Instead of preparing it in the traditional style, try rubbing each cob with olive oil and grilling it; the flavor will be incredible. Or, cut the kernels off the cob and make a salsa — put the corn in a bowl, add chopped red onion, red or green peppers and basil or cilantro. Squirt with lime, add a splash of red vinegar and oil and a bit of chile powder and cumin. Spice it up with jalapeno if you like the heat and cherry tomato halves if you can’t resist an extra taste of summer. Stir and spoon over a piece of grilled chicken or fish for a simple and colorful seasonal dish.

– Take advantage of the abundance of mint to make a pesto to serve with lamb. Start with a basic pesto recipe –- replace half of the basil with mint, and the other half with Italian parsley. Then substitute walnuts for the pine nuts to enjoy a delicious alternative to mint jelly. And to make the meal even more special, ask the butcher to bone and butterfly the lamb so it can be grilled. Mint pesto is also great with corn. After taking the kernels off the cob, toss with the pesto, a touch of lime and some feta cheese.

The great thing about using summer produce is that you are limited only by your own imagination, so get thee to a farmer’s market and start creating!

Friday Food Critics 8/21

Tune in on Friday to hear the Food Critics, on KCUR’s Walt Bodine Show at 10:00 AM. That’s  89.3 FM, or you can listen on your computer at http://www.kcur.org/waltbodine.html.IMG_0290

The second half discussion will be about fresh fruit–where to find the best local fruit as well as what menus around town are using summer fruit to maximum effect. Though I am not one of the panelists this week,  fresh fruit is one of my favorite foods, so I want to add my own list here.

Several restaurants have  great fruit dishes on the menu, and not just for dessert! Not surprisingly, these are the same restaurants that buy much of their produce from local farmers and purveyors. 1924 Main serves a wonderful watermelon salad, often side by side with tomatoes (an unexpectedly delicious combination), as well as peaches with pork. Room 39 is currently featuring peaches in their salads, and I recently had tasty grilled shrimp on chunks of watermelon and feta at Zest in Mission Farms. If watemelon gazpacho is one of the featured soups when you’re dining at Trezo Mare in Briarcliff Village, give it a try. It’s refreshing and has a touch of very appealing sweetness.

For a tasty dessert using fresh fruit, don’t miss the pies at The Farmhouse in River Market. They are exceptional.

Favorite Farmer’s Markets:

  • Downtown Overland Park–2 blocks West of Metcalf between 79th and 80th, Wednesday  and Saturday mornings.
  • Brookside Market–63rd and Wornall, Saturday mornings, featuring organic produce and hormone/antibiotic-free, humanely-raised meats and free-range eggs.
  • Lee’s Summit–2nd and Douglas, Wednesday and Saturday mornings.

A tip to help decide which vendors to buy from–look behind the tables to the truck. If there are stacks of cardboard boxes with “homegrown tomatoes” or peaches stamped on them, move on. You want to find a farmer that picked his produce the day before and brought it in baskets. And seek out misshapen, ugly tomatoes,  not pretty and perfect ones. They are the most flavorful and probably haven’t been treated with pesticides.

It’s always better to buy local. It’s better for our economy, the environment and, if it’s organic, our  health. But if I can’t get to a farmer’s market on a Wednesday or Saturday, I go to Cosentino’s Brookside Market. They are very particular about where the fruit comes from and how it’s packaged to ensure proper ripeness and quality.003

By the way, though typically thought of as a vegetable, the tomato is botanically a member of the fruit family. However, in 1893, as vegetables and fruits were subject to different import duties, the Supreme Court was asked to rule on the tomato’s classification. Because the tomato was commonly eaten as a vegetable, the Court unanimously decided to give it that designation. This was undoubtedly one of the juiciest decisions in the Court’s history!

Tomato Time Two

IMG_0247This season’s crop of tomatoes will be gone well before I’ve had my fill,  so I’ll try to include them in at least part of every dinner I serve for the next few weeks.

For a striking presentation, spread a variety of heirloom tomato slices (yellow, orange and purple, not just red) on a platter, sprinkle with cut cherry tomatoes, goat or blue cheese crumbles and leaves of basil (a common theme at this time of year). Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and oil and season with salt and pepper.

An old favorite among the Silver Palate crowd, the tomato and Brie pasta dish is a winner, exploding with an array of flavors on the tongue, from the soft, melted texture of the cheese to the powerful bite of the raw garlic. The earlier in the day you make the sauce, the deeper and more flavorful the result. Chop lots of garlic (8 cloves is not too many!) and several shallots, and put them in a big serving bowl. Add a half-cup of olive oil, cover with saran wrap and set aside. An hour or so before you want to eat, halve dozens of cherry tomatoes and add them to the bowl along with torn basil leaves and bite-sized pieces of Brie cheese. At dinnertime, cook a batch of your favorite pasta and toss with the room-temperature sauce. Serve with freshly grated Parmesan at the table.

Bruschetta is a terrific party food and it’s fun to offer your guests a choice. (When their mouths are full, it won’t even matter if they know the proper Italian pronunciation of this appetizer.) Toast or grill slices of pain de compagne (Farm to Market makes a French Farm bread that works beautifully and is available in most grocery stores) that have been brushed with olive oil. Spread with mashed roasted garlic cloves and oven-roasted tomatoes. Or try one with pesto and fresh mozzarella. Warm in a 350-degree oven until the cheese melts, and add a halved cherry tomato on top before serving.

Tomato Time

IMG_0242Heinz seems proud to boast of 57 varieties of ketchup, but did you realize that there are actually 10,000 varieties of tomatoes? My favorite is the Sungold, a tiny, orange sphere of heaven. Popping them in my mouth like grapes, they burst with summer and a profound sweetness not found in common cherry red tomatoes. While most recipe books and magazines focus on large, beefy tomatoes, which now grow in a myriad of colors and sizes, the cherry tomato always seems to be the less favored relative. The month of August is the perfect time to pay homage to these little jewels.

No matter the size or the type of tomato, there is one unwavering rule — NEVER put any of them in the refrigerator. Storing a tomato under 55 degrees will zap its flavor. If you have a big batch and they are going to rot, eat them quickly. Make a tomato sauce, salsa or gazpacho. Give them away to your friends or neighbors. Just DO NOT put them in the refrigerator.

To make a cherry tomato even sweeter, try drying them in the oven to imitate the sun-dried version found in the store. Cut in half, (horizontally, not through the stem), put each half side by side on a cookie sheet, and roast in a 200-degree oven for 5-6 hours, or until dried (but not completely shriveled). It takes twenty pounds of fresh tomatoes to make one pound of oven-dried tomatoes, but even having a few on hand to throw into pastas or salads makes it worth the effort.

The best way to eat a cherry tomato is, of course, “straight up”, freshly picked from the vine and warmed by the sun. If one isn’t enough, which it certainly isn’t for me, try one of the other 10,000 varieties!