Archive for Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Italian tomatoes terrific in sauces

July 28, 2004

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It's tough when your best critic confronts you at the breakfast table. Mine frequently delivers one-liners from behind the newspaper, and he recently let me know what he thought of my prognostication earlier this year, that we were in for a drier than average gardening season.

"The next time you predict a drought, I'm buying flood insurance," he said.

Point taken. I did write several months back that the charts and graphs on the National Weather Service Web site showed no indication of substantial rainfall this spring. When I planted my garden, I dutifully laid out my soaker hoses, which I think I turned on once in early June. I couldn't be happier to be wrong.

Great weather

As it happens, northeast Kansas had intermittent rainfall during the early part of the season, which kept the vegetable gardens happy. So far in July, we've had about 10 inches of rain and the forecast indicates the possibility of more rain later this week.

The really interesting thing about the rain we have received this month is that I have not had a single split tomato or melon after a storm. That's because the soil already has been moist when it rained. If plants are thirsty when we get a big rain, they will greedily siphon in as much water as possible and their skins will split. When they are well-watered, they take a pass.

This year's weather has been kind to the tomato crop in other ways as well. With temperatures that have remained in the 80s, for the most part, fruit has set easily and bugs have been at a minimum. Despite the wet weather, we've had nice breezes that have dried the plants off quickly and have kept tomato plant diseases at bay.

In a drier year, grasshoppers like to munch on tomatoes, but this year they are leaving the fruit alone. I also haven't seen a single blister beetle or hornworm.

A thicker sauce

In addition to a nice crop of slicing tomatoes, we also have had an ample supply of Italian tomatoes. Also called plum tomatoes, these are the fruit of choice for making sauces and pastes. I also like them on salads. Roma is the most common variety, although there are others.

They differ from regular tomatoes not only by shape and size but also because they have thicker, meatier walls and contain fewer seeds and less liquid. When they cook down, they make a thick sauce that sits on top of the pasta, rather than running through it.

I also find that the flavor of most Italian tomatoes is less acidic. The sauce may even have a distinctive sweet edge to it.

When transforming Italian tomatoes into a sauce, or using them in cooking, the major issue will be removing the skins. Basically, there are three options. You can peel the tomatoes with a knife or you can blanch the tomatoes and slide them out of their skins before cooking. Or, you can cook them down and use a slotted spoon to remove the skins after they have separated. When I'm making a sauce, I generally opt for No. 3, which is less hassle.

Because of their meatier texture and the fact that the liquid is in the walls of the tomato and not swimming in the cavity, Italian tomatoes make a slightly different salsa. The recipe below, from "The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook," is an example.

Uncooked, the other ingredients work alongside the tomatoes, rather than swimming in them. Cooked, for just five minutes, the flavors will merge but the tomatoes still will be recognizable.

Right now, this recipe can be made entirely with locally grown ingredients.

Salsa Cruda

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8 plum tomatoes

1/2 cup diced red onion

1 to 3 jalapeno chiles, seeded and minced

1 to 2 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt

2 to 3 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

Core, seed and dice the tomatoes. Place them in a bowl and add the remaining ingredients; stir to mix.

If desired, place salsa in a saucepan and simmer for 5 minutes to set the flavors.

Makes about 2 cups.

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