Friday, October 5, 2007

Tomato Time

The growing season this year has been similar to last: a rainy early spring, followed by a dry, sunny, endless summer (it’s in the 80s today) that has spilled over into fall. The farm stands are absolutely bursting with a colorful display of produce that has a schizophrenic, what-season-is-this-anyway quality: is it summer? fall? The corn and tomatoes sit next to the pumpkins and acorn squash. The difference, which tells us where we are headed, is the price.
Overflowing baskets and boxes of tomatoes, ranging from a half-peck to a bushel, are a fabulous bargain right now. I bought this beautiful box of mixed heirlooms—German Stripes, Cherokee Purples, Green Zebras, and others--for $5.00. How is that possible? For the farmer, it’s too many tomatoes, too little time (to sell them before they are compost). The $5.00 tomatoes, though still nice, need to be used now. Fortunately, I am ready and willing. I take out a few of the best for slicing and serving with a thick transparent dressing. The rest I do with what I do every year at this time: I make soup base for the freezer. And, this year, since it’s so impossibly balmy and even humid, I make one last batch of gazpacho andaluz, that positively inspired cool purée of summer.
The nature of these soups, like the nature of summer, is free-form and casual. It is a sense of proportion, rather than fixed quantities, that gives them their characteristic, and reliable, taste. Year after year, they always taste the same, although I doubt I ever make the same amount twice, and never measure a thing. I even leave things out. So that is my way of saying, don’t worry; use what you have, and it will turn out beautifully. I’ve tried, though, to provide general guidelines. Note that the type of tomatoes you use will determine the color of the final product; my heirlooms, with their green tinges, produced a browner soup than all red tomatoes would.
Naturally, you can preserve your tomatoes whole for a later day. As always, I prefer freezing to processing. Blanch them in boiling water for a minute or so until the skins begin to split or separate; peel them, and pack them into quart jars or containers, pressing them down gently to remove as much air space as possible while retaining their shape. Cover and seal, and place in the freezer. I have also frozen tomatoes whole in Ziploc® bags or large containers with no treatment whatsoever (freeze separately on a sheet pan first); if you have the room and are in a rush, this is fine for relatively short periods. You can then skin them, or use them in dishes that will be strained, when the time comes. One benefit of freezing this way is that the skins begin to pop on their own while frozen, so you can usually pull them off under running water, without blanching.

Gazpacho Andaluz

I fill an 8-cup food processor bowl about ¾ full with tomatoes, then to the top line with other ingredients. It is more or less in the following quantities.

4 or 5 cups tomatoes, cut into large pieces
1 large red or green pepper (I prefer red), seeded and cut into chunks
1-1 ½ large peeled cucumber, seeded and cut into 1” slices
2 large cloves garlic, peeled
2 or 3 slices fresh, quality French or similar bread, torn into large pieces
4-5 T extra virgin olive oil
3-4 T wine vinegar (red, white, or balsamic)
¼ cup warm water

Blend everything in the food processor until completely pureed. Start with the lower amount of oil and vinegar; if you are using balsamic, use a light one and use the smaller amount. I often use white balsamic. Also, avoid the temptation to use more garlic; in this case, less is more. Taste and correct for seasoning, adding salt and more oil and/or vinegar as you like. Put a sieve over a large bowl and pour in the contents of the food processor. Strain, pressing down with a wooden spoon and scraping the sieve bottom frequently. The soup should have nice body, but be completely smooth. Cover and refrigerate, and serve cold. This soup is rarely served garnished, but you can chop a little additional cucumber and pepper for the top if you want. It will keep for several days, but the emulsion will begin to break down and begin to liquefy a bit. Whisk it well before serving.

Spiced Tomato Soup

Again, I don’t really measure. I am after the “idea” of the soup shown in this old recipe, handwritten in the back of a 1919 preserving book that I have in my collection (Janet McKenzie Hill’s Canning, Preserving, and Jelly Making, published in Boston), and the recipe for Homemade Tomato Soup in Marcia Adams’s phenomenal cookbook, Cooking from Quilt Country. I have made both following the recipes exactly, and they are quite similar. I take many shortcuts from both of these, and generally make perhaps half the amount called for in both, and don't fuss over the vegetable amounts. I never bother to core the tomatoes as it’s all to be strained anyway, and sometimes use celery seed or leave out the peppers if I don’t have celery and peppers on hand and don’t feel like going out for them. It seems to make little difference. And I do not process, but freeze. Over time, I have gravitated to a version closer to this handwritten one; the Adams recipe calls for flour, and I don’t use it. I add brown sugar to taste, starting off with half a cup and going on from there, and enough butter (at least a stick) to hold it together.

When serving, I add less milk than called for, keeping the soup red and concentrated in tomato flavor; I usually float a pat of butter and/or a little cream on top or, for company, a tiny corn or cheese fritter with a sprinkling of chopped chive (the photo shows the very last of last year’s batch, which I had for my lunch the day I made this year’s). The most important thing to do is heat the soup very slowly after it is thawed. It may look broken down and watery, but will come gradually back together as you heat it if you do not rush it. This is a very nice thing to have on hand for the winter.

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