The Tomato in Winter: A Comfort to Anticipate

Yes, I know. Winter? Hear me out. It’s high summer in the United States, a time when vegetables and fruits evoke adjectives like glut, plethora, cornucopia, fleeting. The tomatoes have arrived in Northern California, in all their multicolored heirloom glory. The market I frequent has bins overflowing with a multiplicity of sizes and colors. Shoppers load up greedily, furtively popping smaller tomatoes into their mouths.Now is the time to gorge: tomatoes morning, noon, and night, for all too soon–note that fleeting up there–August will give way to September’s lesser specimens, the peppers will come in, a small if colorful consolation, then we’ll be hard back into October’s orange squashes, turnips, and greens. Tomato junkies had best get their fixes now.

Of course there are ways around the tomato in winter. The first is acceptance of a Lenten abstinence, a starved seasonal waiting practiced by Chef Alice Waters and her locavore devotees. Oh, we cry, we love winter’s root vegetables, the chard and rutabagas and those enormous red kuri squashes. We love winter’s deep winey stews loaded with hearty tranches of beef. We can wait, thank you very much, for the summer tomato. No poor quality tomatoes from faraway lands when we could be eating local greens from California’s Central Valley.

The second is to blithely ignore the above and buy fresh tomatoes year-round, no matter their locale. Americans once employed this thinking when purchasing cars. We spent much, expected little, and gave nary a thought to gasoline prices. The winter tomato is much like the American cars of yore: much money, poor quality. And if you live where I do, Dutch, Chilean, or Israeli tomatoes will earn you admonishing glances in the checkout line. These tomatoes are labeled with country of origin, and of great interest to fellow shoppers, for whom competitive basket investigation is great, condescending sport.

The third method of avoiding tomato withdrawal is to purchase regular canned tomatoes. Organic canned tomatoes may be had, along with fancy Italian San Marzanos, which are pricey but tasty.

The fourth and final method is both the best and most work-intensive: home preservation. While food luminaries David Tanis and Barbara Kingsolver freeze tomatoes whole, last summer’s attempt left me with sodden, frosty fruits suitable only for the stewpot. An alternative is canning, something I practice with a passion bordering on lunacy. For three weekends every summer I take delivery of 20 pound boxes of Roma tomatoes from Full Belly Farm. These weekends involved burned fingers, a kitchen resembling a crime scene, and a year’s supply of canned tomatoes that leave commercial canned goods in the dust. Once you’ve canned your own, there’s no going back.

Should you wish to can tomatoes, consult Eugenia Bone’s peerless Well-Preserved. Bone explains the hows and whys of canning with clarity and humor, disarming even the most terrified novice (i.e., me). Besides sound instruction in canning, smoking, and freezing seasonal produce, Well-Preserved is filled with recipes utilizing your preserved goodies.

But suppose you don’t want to buy tomatoes from across the planet and prefer avoiding commercially canned foods. The very idea of canning exhausts you. Yet you are a hedonist: you want tomatoes, calendar be damned.

I humbly offer the oven-roasted tomato.

In the spirit of complete fairness, as I was writing this article, a piece on oven-drying tomatoes appeared on the Food 52 blog. I realized the recipe is slightly different, and that Cara Eisenpress’s take on dried tomatoes, while lovely, isn’t intended to get you over winter’s hump. Mine is. My suggestion is try both.You can never have too many tomatoes.

Go out and buy as many Roma tomatoes as you think your oven can hold on two baking sheets. If Romas are not available in your area, look for “paste” tomatoes, that is, fleshy, drier varieties. This is not the place for heirlooms, which contain too much water.

My oven, which is approximately 23 inches wide, or a little over 56 centimeters, will hold about four pounds of Romas, sliced. If you are considering a weekend project, buy eight pounds and do this over two days.

The idea is to oven dry enough tomatoes to either get you through the worst of things—November, when the holidays descend like a guillotine, December, a month writer Anne Lamott called a month of Mondays, January, hideous month of hangovers and botched resolutions, through February, when even global warming doesn’t stop the worst weather. The truth is, oven tomatoes are so easy to prepare and so wonderfully delicious that you should aim to make as many as your think your freezer will hold, then hope they last a decent interval. I have never made enough to get me past January, though this year I hope to beat my own record. And yes, I canned more tomatoes than I will publicly admit.

To oven dry tomatoes, prepare two 11×17 baking sheets by lining them with baking parchment or tinfoil. If your baking sheets are nonstick, you can skip this step, but lining them makes cleanup easier. Now slice your tomatoes in half, pole to pole. With your fingers or a small knife, remove the seed pockets. Place the tomato on the baking tray. Repeat until all your tomatoes are sliced. They can sit snugly side-by-side, but don’t pile them atop each other.

Sprinkle the trays with olive oil. The amount is really up to you, but don’t soak the tomatoes so much they cannot dry. I’m talking three or four teaspoons. Sprinkle on some salt. You can slice up some garlic cloves and tuck them into the tomatoes, a wonderful addition, but it must be admitted that garlic freezes poorly. You can always add sliced garlic, lightly sautéed or roasted, when you serve the tomatoes.

Put the trays on the lower racks of your oven, then turn the oven to its lowest temperature. That’s 170 Fahrenheit degrees for me, which means eight to ten hours in the oven. I often do this before going to bed. The smell while drying, a rich essence of tomato, will drive you mad if you’re awake.

After eight hours or so, your tomatoes will be wrinkly. Don’t wait until they are tomato chips—you can eat them this way, but reconstitution in oil will be necessary. That’s not what we’re after here. You want chewy, with some residual moisture.

Remove your tomatoes from the oven. Taste one, then stick a finger into the olive oil, and sample that. Now you know why you went to this effort, and should try to do so until tomato season ends. Get a plastic freezer bag with a zipper top. Stand it on end on a heatproof surface. Pick the baking paper or foil up carefully, forming a “U” shape. Slide one side down into the bag, allowing the tomatoes and oil to run down into the bag.

This can take a few minutes. Some of the tomatoes might stick—just gently nudge them free with you fingers or a spatula. Repeat with the second tray. When the tomatoes have cooled, which will happen fairly quickly, shake the tomatoes down the bag’s bottom, then roll the bag into a tight log. Seal the bag and toss it in the freezer. Remember, these are for winter. Return to eating fresh tomatoes until October rolls around.

The next time you’re invited to a dinner party (or maybe you’re the type who hosts them…), bring a bag of oven tomatoes along. Many are the ways to serve these: with that roasted garlic, goat cheese, mozzarella cheese, a splosh of good balsamic vinegar, naked on toasts, in a salad. People attack these, and once the plate is emptied, will demand the recipe.

If, like me, you are a social recluse, eat your oven tomatoes in sandwiches, pasta, stews, homemade pizzas, or, my personal favorite, on a bagel with cream cheese and lox. (Certified, sustainable salmon, of course.) As you eat these wonders, pat yourself on the back. Not only are you politically and environmentally correct, you are having your tomatoes in winter.

Given the vagaries of global warming (i.e., will even be a winter?) and the upcoming American presidential election, striking fear and rage in the hearts of many, the tomato in winter is consolation. Granted, it’s small consolation, but these days we must take our comforts where we can.


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