By Matt Jennings, Contributor
This time of year, when the mist settles into the pasture in the morning, the ravens begin to call from their hemlock boughs and the warm, still afternoon sun cuts through the cool petrichor of late summer rain, I turn to tomatoes.
Growing fat by the full sun of day and swelling with natural sugars as they protect themselves from the cool nights of September and—if we are lucky—October, in New England, the best tomatoes come at the end of the season.
These tender, supple fruits are commonly mistaken for mid-summer’s bounty. But truly, any real New Englander will tell you the best tomatoes come later in the season as they are forced to push through those first cool nights. Similar to how profound a warm cherry tomato ripening in the sun will taste when sliced in half and sprinkled with flake salt, so, too. is the experience of a September or October “late season” tomato, baked into a tarte tatin, nestled into a crumbly tomato pie, turned into a savory jam, cut into thick slabs and flopped onto a sandwich or even as the nest for some freshly scrambled eggs for breakfast.
Farmers from other regions across the country, particularly warm weather environs, will tell you that growing “proper” tomatoes in New England is a fool’s errand. I could not disagree more. I have been fortunate to have had some incredible tomatoes all over the world, and perhaps it’s nostalgia, but the best tomatoes I’ve ever had, have always been here, in this harshest of environments for this native ingredient of South America.
Selective breeding and special attention to heirloom breeds in particular has certainly helped New Englanders obtain those varieties that are best suited for our typically rocky soil and chilly nights. These special breeds may have desirable qualities like the fact they don’t crack and split as frequently or are known to have greater amounts of natural glucose and fructose, making the meats sweeter and more juicy. And, due to the long growing period required to get tomatoes to peak ripeness (60 to 80 days), we New Englanders have to begin these nightshades in greenhouses or from ‘starts’ instead of from seed. But the results are worth the extra work. In fact, I venture to say that because of the extra work, tomatoes in this region are more special, valued and celebrated.
Tomato development goes through several stages. First, the fruit grows in size until it reaches the full size, which is called the mature green stage. It takes about 40 to 50 days for the fruit to go from fruit set to the mature green stage. Once the fruit reaches the mature green stage, a change in fruit color will take place so it can take on its characteristic red, pink, yellow or orange color.
Tomato ripening is controlled by temperatures, genetic makeup and natural presence of ethylene gas. While the optimum temperature range for ripening is from 68 to 77 degrees, optimum flavor occurs once picked, before they are soft, and when left at ambient temperatures—roughly 60-65 degrees. You guessed it: precisely end of summer and early shoulder season in New England.
Chefs like me will plead with you never to refrigerate your tomatoes. There is no need if they are picked at the perfect time and left to finish ripening on your counter. Refrigerating these beauties will only make your tomatoes mealy—and nobody needs that!
Shoulder season, my most favorite time of the year, is when we have the greatest bounty of New England produce. The aforementioned thin-skinned and tender tomatoes are still coming onto the vine, while pumpkins, butternut squash, Brussels sprouts and other late-season lovelies surround them in the garden. This surely is the greatest time to be a gardener in the Northeast. Our late summer/early fall bounty is sure to impress even the most discerning warm-climate farmer.
So, friends, I encourage you to celebrate the tomato this week. With local corn and peppers in high availability, think about whipping up a big batch of New England succotash, sweat some onions and drizzle some local cream into a pot and make that first batch of creamy tomato soup and save all the cracked or bruised candidates for a big batch of sticky tomato jam, to nestle deep in your pantry for a burst of summer when the snow swirls and the thick slabs of Backdoor Bread call for a noble companion.
Behold, the New England tomato! With our growing season fleeting and fierce, we surely have a greater appreciation than most for this gorgeous summer specimen. And tell your friends in California that, while they might have tomatoes year-round, we know how to pay this fruit the greatest respect, as our reverence comes from this narrow window on our calendar, and so we never take the great tomato for granted.
For some other great tomato recipes, check out Matt Jennings’ book: Homegrown: Cooking From My New England Roots. He is a chef and restaurant consultant who lives in Charlotte.
Creamy Tomato Soup
Makes 6 servings
3 tablespoons good olive oil
1 1/2 cups chopped red onions (2 onions)
2 carrots, unpeeled and chopped
1 tablespoon minced garlic (3 cloves)
4 pounds fresh garden tomatoes, coarsely chopped (5 large)
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/4 cup packed chopped fresh basil leaves, plus julienned basil leaves, for garnish
3 cups chicken or vegetable stock, preferably homemade
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup heavy cream
Croutons, for garnish
Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-low heat. Add the onions and carrots and sauté for about 10 minutes, until very tender. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, sugar, tomato paste, basil, chicken stock, salt and pepper and stir well. Bring the soup to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer, uncovered, for 30 to 40 minutes, until the tomatoes are very tender.
Add the cream to the soup and process it through a food mill into a bowl, discarding only the dry pulp that’s left. Reheat the soup over low heat just until hot and serve with julienned basil leaves and/or croutons.
Tomato Tart with Cornmeal Crust
Makes 6 Servings
For the crust:
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
1/2 cup cornmeal (white or yellow)
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes, plus more for pan
1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk
3-4 tablespoons ice water
Grease the bottom of a 9-inch round tart pan with removable rim; set aside.
Make the crust: In a medium-size bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal and salt. Sprinkle the butter over the dry ingredients and work it in with a pastry cutter or your fingertips until the mixture looks like wet sand, with pea-sized bits of butter remaining. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs with 3 tablespoons of the ice water; then add to the flour mixture and stir with a fork until the dough begins to hold together. If needed, add an extra tablespoon of water.
Turn the dough out onto a floured counter and knead four times. Press into a disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate at least 30 minutes, or up to 1 day.
Preheat your oven to 425°. On a floured surface, roll the dough out to a 12-inch circle; then transfer to the tart pan, pushing the dough into the corners and letting it drape over the sides. Run your rolling pin over the edge of the pan to trim off the excess crust. Then prick the bottom of the crust all over with a fork, line it with foil, and top with dried beans or pie weights to keep the dough from puffing up as it bakes.
Par-bake the crust until just set, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the oven, remove the foil and weights.
For the filling:
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 pounds tomatoes, sliced thin (preferably assorted heirloom varieties)
1 small red onion, thinly sliced crosswise
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound Asiago or local cheddar cheese, shredded (see headnote)
1/2 bunch (about 4) scallions, thinly sliced
Spread the bottom of the hot crust with the mustard. In a large bowl, toss the tomato and onion slices with the olive oil, salt, pepper, and mustard. Sprinkle a little cheese on the bottom of the tart; then arrange the tomato and onion slices in overlapping concentric circles. Top with the rest of the shredded cheese, and sprinkle with the sliced scallions. Bake until the cheese is lightly browned and bubbling, about 55 minutes.