I ate the last of my garden tomatoes on the fifth of November. Now, that may not seem so extraordinary if you live in Alabama, and if you live in western MA that is very unusual. We had our first frost at my house on November 2. We also had our second and third immediately following.
These last tomatoes were Lambert’s General Grant, a fairly rare heirloom variety, large and red, well formed, with very good taste, much like the old Jersey tomatoes. Now this wasn’t a tomato I picked fully green and left on the window sill or in a paper bag to ripen. It was a tomato picked with a fair amount of ripeness, showing plenty of color, and it kept for several weeks. Which means I picked it in early October, already an aberration for growing tomatoes in Zone 5. Normally we can expect a frost here around September 22. In recent years we’ve gotten as far as Oct 6 or 11. For the past thirty years I’ve been paying attention it is only recently that first frosts have occurred so late. Surely this November frost must be a record. I don’t know if this is another example of global warming, and many gardeners have observed and speculated upon this. It is the latest frost I’ve seen in forty gardening years.
We had several different frost warnings after the beginning of October, so I picked several batches of tomatoes that were close to ripening, only to have the frost pass us by. Along with General Grant I was still picking Trucker’s Favorite, Indian Moon, Eva Purple Ball, and a couple of Russian Blacks that were still hanging on plus lots of paste tomatoes. Indian Moon is my favorite orange tomato, eight ounce size, fairly globular, supposedly of Navajo Indian origin, and very tasty for an orange tomato. Earl of Edgecomb is similar. I’ve heard that Indian Moon is now available commercially. Look for it.
All through October I was eating more-or-less vine ripened tomatoes along with accumulating bowlfuls of paste tomatoes. I had to keep a close watch on all the varieties as soon some would begin to mold or collapse from the inside with rot. Generally however most of them kept well for weeks at room temperature, especially the paste tomatoes. I’m always amazed how long tomatoes can keep if unblemished. This was simply a waiting game of percentages. I wanted to keep eating fresh tomatoes throughout October, and in doing so I lost some to rot and gained a long season of eating pleasures. My unproven theory here is that since we had a very dry year for our region of the Northeast, verging on drought for most of the summer, and the tomatoes had less moisture, they were able to be more rot resistant.
In any case, many of the paste types will keep fresh much longer due to their higher solids content and lower moisture content, which is why they are more efficient to use when making tomato sauce. As usual I was growing a few odd and rare varieties. One was Purple Pear, a medium size pink pear, Northampton Italian plum, a long tapering “carrot type” tomato – in this case from Northampton, MA. These are typically late ripening, very meaty with very few seeds and sometimes green unripe shoulders. The last paste variety I grew was one which I suspect may have been selected from the carrot-type tomatoes but is much fatter and a little less elongated, called Berkshire Polish. These tomatoes literally came over “on the boat” in someone’s grandfather’s pockets from Poland early in the century. Of course it was at least the second transatlantic trip for that variety, having originated somewhere in the Americas. Imagine the value those seeds had to be considered valuable enough to carry with you on the long journey in steerage. That’s why they call them heirlooms.
#1 Lazy preparation method
After six weeks or so of tomato harvesting, eating, and cooking I confess to getting a bit lazy in my tomato preparations. I find it very humorous when interviewers ask me “what’s you favorite tomato recipe? And I offer to give them one that’s not in my book. “well honestly it’s a few slices of fresh tomato drizzled with a bit of olive oil or mayonnaise, maybe a sprinkle of salt.”
So in October I just sliced tomatoes and sprinkled a few pieces of coarse salt on each tomato slice and let it sit for a half hour or so until the salt dissolved. I like using Celtic salt or a new one I just discovered, a Northwest alder smoked salt, black in appearance. Frankly not much of the smokiness came through. We can get a bit obsessed with numerous salt variations and subtle tastes; now we’ve got red and pink, black and grey and I’m sure some others I’ve missed. Well those dissolved chunks of salt gave great splashes of saltiness as you progressed through each tomato slice.
#2 Lazy preparation method
Every week or so I would go through my bowls of paste tomatoes and pick out those dead ripe tomatoes that were clearly going to turn into mush sooner than later. Not really having enough time for making something as elaborate as a fine tomato sauce I quickly cut them in half, or occasionally thirds if the tomatoes were fat enough and quickly packed them on to a cookie sheet, cut side up, poured a little olive oil on them, a little chopped garlic, sprinkled wild thyme, including a couple of stems, a scattering of coarse salt, and a few twists of the pepper mill. Time permitting a couple of tablespoons of white wine. (no, no not that drab stuff they sell called cooking wine, just any ordinary non-bulk drinking wine. No no not the stuff in the box) You could also scatter some chopped onion or shallot. I never got that far. One time I sprinkled a small amount of organic brown sugar. Frankly not necessary as the roasting already brings out a nice sweet flavor.
I put the oven on 350. If not 350 maybe 425 for a while and 50 or 90 minutes later they were done. Sometimes not having 90 minutes I cooked them for 30 minutes and left them until the next day and finished them off. They didn’t start fermenting and just patiently waitied for me to attend to them.
Once done I’d throw the lot of them into the food processor for a half a minute or so, leaving a bit of coarseness-- and voila roasted tomato sauce. Oh and if you don’t like this sacrilegious approach, you could put half or all of the sauce through a food mill . if the sauce is still a bit watery you can slow simmer it until you have driven off the excess moisture.
This makes a beautiful medium red colored sauce with wonderful taste and is a great base for a more seasoned Italian sauce, additions to stew or as is for pizza or pasta.
#3 Lazy preparation method
One day my over roasted tomatoes cooked a little longer and really started shriveling. I turned the heat down really low, to 150 and let them slow roast for another 12 hours or so until they were slightly moist around the edges and essentially dry. Be careful not burn them. Its easy to go too far in an oven as they dry. If this sounds too hard to judge their readiness then just roast them for a while as above, and then put them in a food dehydrator. Seasoned dried tomatoes are much better than plain dried ones.
Those got packed tightly into a jar, covered generously with olive oil and there they sit in the cupboard.
There’s still one more fat Berkshire Polish sitting in a wooden bowl along with a few Northampton plums in the bucket. Maybe I’ll cook it up with a bit of venison sausage.
LD-H is an ethnobotanist, life coach, and author of Tomato: A Fresh from the Vine Cookbook and president of Botanicalposters.com, where he and his wife just published a luscious Heirloom Tomato Poster.