Those Crazy November Tomatoes

Text and photos by Kerri Conan

Maybe you are lucky enough to get local vine-ripe tomatoes in autumn. In early-freeze zones (like where I live, in Kansas), the bounty of summer would have been replaced weeks ago with hardy roots and squashes. Except this year: As of last Saturday, all sorts of heirloom tomatoes still dotted the landscape. In my excitement, I’ve been greedy.

With shortened days and less intense light, November fruit in mid-country latitudes tend to be starchier and potentially mealier than the juicy July tomatoes. They can also have a sour, almost fermented taste. And of course they look pretty beat up. All you have to do is coddle them a bit. Literally.

For salads and mayo-smeared sandwiches (with or without bacon) late tomatoes benefit from macerating. To dodge rotted bits, I cut them in wedges or chunks—or use halved cherry toms—and toss them with balsamic vinegar. My rule is white balsamic for yellow or orange tomatoes and traditional for red but I’ve also broken both rules or even happily succeeded with orange juice. Since the idea is to soften and sweeten, I don’t add salt or olive oil until right before using or serving. Herbs are always a bonus; the ones that are still alive in our garden respond to the diminished sun and heat by being tender, small-leafed and mild.

Thick-skinned cherry tomatoes—like these Juliets also known as baby Romas—are perfect for stir-fries, like this combination of mustard greens and young ginger. I halve them in whichever direction my mood dictates and add them at the very last moment so they warm and release juice without shedding their skin. Their sourness is a welcome balance to the sharp vegetables.

And when the tomatoes are extra long on starch and sort of bland, I turn them into homemade paste. If the seeds look dark or the gel around them is green, squeeze them out first. Then puree them in a food processor (expect little bits to remain) or blender (this yields more of a thick juice). You can cook the puree simply in olive oil until concentrated. Or use it as the thickener for a sofrito-style paste of aromatics. Here I caramelized onions, garlic, and more of that same young ginger in a mixture of sunflower and sesame oils until caramelized, bloomed some curry powder into the mix, and built in the tomato puree, cooking and stirring until it started to stick. Eventually it became a spicy chicken, vegetable, and brown rice soup, one in which the tomatoes faded into a haunting memory, as they will soon in Kansas.

Posted in Produce

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