Tips, ideas, and recipes for making the most of tomato season
Before we get started here, I’m going to admit something that is near sacrilegious in the local food community: I eat tomatoes and love them, all year round. My preferred winter tomatoes are of the cherry or grape variety, sometimes grown in local greenhouses but not always. I make liberal use of canned tomatoes and even nonlocal, nonseasonal supermarket tomatoes in the dead of winter.
However, this does not diminish my enthusiasm for local tomatoes at the height of the tomato season which is, not coincidentally, right about now!
Inch-thick slices of beefsteak tomatoes showered with flakey salt and olive oil? I eat this as an entree. If at all possible, I’ll pour tuna tonnato over them. Heirloom tomatoes on white bread with lots and lots of mayonnaise? Make mine a double. Raw tomato sauce on some sort of unjustifiably expensive fresh pasta? I’ll eat that for dinner every other night in August and September–it’s still cheaper than going out.
And even though I will persist in putting somewhat mealy and too-firm tomato slices on my sandwiches as the local options disappear, I still relish living in the now of every worn-out summer tomato cliche. And so should you while we all can. Here’s everything you need to know about maximizing this year’s crop.
How to sort tomatoes
There are thousands of varieties of heirloom tomatoes being cultivated around the world, but there are some categories you’re likely to encounter at the American farmers market.
- Beefsteak: These are big, juicy tomatoes ideal for slicing into a BLT. A single slab will be as big as your slice of bread.
- Green Zebra: As the name implies, these medium-sized tomatoes have white stripe-like striations on pale green flesh.
- Purple Cherokee: Like the green zebra, the purple tomato is loved mainly for its striking good looks. Use them to make a salad you’ll Instagram.
- Sungold: This tiny tomato is cheerful to behold and delightful to pop in your mouth while you put the rest of your haul away.
- Cherry tomatoes: They look like the ones you buy in a plastic clamshell in the winter, but the in-season ones are sweet, savory and full of iconic tomato flavor.
- Sauce tomatoes: Think San Marzano and Roma. These do make good sauces and purees, but you can use them any old way you like tomatoes.
- Miscellaneous Heirloom: If you see a basket labeled heirloom tomatoes that don’t fit into these categories, ask your farmer what they are and try some.
How to buy tomatoes
For all types of tomatoes, you want ones that seem heavy for their size, a quality that signifies juiciness. Try to avoid soft spots and damaged tomatoes, but some heirloom varieties do have some cracking that tends not to affect flavor. They don’t need to look perfect or entirely blemish-free to taste incredible.
How to store tomatoes
Once you’ve brought your tomatoes home, you face a decision. To refrigerate or not to refrigerate? Ripe summer tomatoes can spoil rather quickly, so unless I’m eating them the very day I bought them, I keep them in the refrigerator. This defies conventional wisdom but will buy you more days to eat peak-season tomatoes. If you care to really go down the rabbit hole on this question, I suggest you read more about it over at Serious Eats.
How to grow tomatoes
True tomato lovers will likely want to grow their own at some point. Certain tomatoes work well even in a small container garden or window box, so they are a popular first project for wannabe gardeners. You’ll want to plant them in the sunniest possible spot to maximize your harvest. Choose your seeds over the cold weather months and plant them in the spring. You can learn more about how to plant tomatoes here and how to support your plants once they get growing here.
How to eat tomatoes
Of course, the most important thing to know about enjoying summer tomatoes is how to eat them. If you want to do something more elaborate than salt and olive oil or the basic BLT, we’ve got a few ideas. Here are some of our favorite ways to celebrate an edible seasonal icon.
The Italians are famous for their tradition of making use of every last kitchen scrap, and there are few better examples than panzanella. The salad combines stale or dried out bread with tons of tomatoes. The juice of the tomato brings the bread back to life and the whole becomes much more than the sum of its parts. Try this straightforward recipe, and use your nicest olive oil.
Whole grain salads make a lovely addition to any cookout or picnic. This recipe combines chewy farro, smoked mozzarella, mint, and tomatoes for an easy, flavorful salad that is hearty enough to be the main dish. You can vary the grain (try barley), the cheese (maybe goat?), and the herbs (how about some basil?), but don’t mess with the tomatoes.
The only thing better than a fat slice of buttery quiche is quiche made with plenty of heirloom tomatoes. Big round tomato slices make a splashy presentation in this recipe. It would be an impressive centerpiece for weekend brunch.
How about a refreshing cold, savory soup? This zingy gazpacho recipe features a simple technique that ensures a silky smooth texture that really lets the tomato’s essence shine through. Just make sure to load up on the garnishes to make this light soup more of a meal.
If you can get your hands on fresh field peas and tomatoes at the same time, this recipe for will let you show them off together. It calls for lady peas (a specific type of fresh Southern field pea) but any fresh or even cooked-from-dried legume will be a good partner for those prized tomatoes.
One of the best ways to save the season is to make plenty of marinara sauce while tomatoes are everywhere and then freeze it. Try this recipe and enjoy it now over pasta, but make sure you save some for when you need that taste of summer in January.
Maximally ripe heirloom tomatoes are really just one firm squeeze away from dissolving into an elixir that, with just a few other ingredients, becomes tomato basil spooning sauce. You’ll want to put it on everything from grilled meats to cheese to bread. Or perhaps you’ll simply spoon it right into your mouth.
Give tomato sauce a Persian twist with this recipe. It’s savory, sweet, and sour–a perfect backdrop for spiced beef or lamb meatballs. Pomegranate molasses and dried lime bring tart complexity to the sweetness of the tomato. Serve with rice pilaf or fresh flatbread for soaking up all that sauce.