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What should you do with tomatoes from your garden?

Fresh tomatoes can be used in so many recipes. What are you in the mood for? See pictures of international tomato recipes.
©iStockphoto.com/Zibedik

There's nothing like a fresh, homegrown tomato to brighten a green salad or elevate a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich to gourmet status. Tomatoes are the basic ingredient in lots of classic recipes and provide the thick, luscious zip in dipping sauces and condiments like ketchup that taste like summer in a jar. Imagine those tortilla chips without salsa, or that linguini without a thick, rich marinara sauce to breathe life into those limp noodles. Tomatoes are the No. 1 vegetable crop for backyard gardeners, and there's a lot more you can do with those precious red globes than just slice them onto your grilled burgers.

Although tomatoes require very little preparation other than a good washing in cold water when sliced or diced fresh into salad, tacos or stir fry, if you're after rich a tomato base for your recipes, you'll probably want to cook them into a sauce, puree or paste. Making your own tomato sauce, pico de gallo or stewed tomatoes is a wonderful way to use the bounty from your garden to create wholesome, flexible tomato-based dishes for cool autumn comfort foods like lasagna and stew. Most cooked tomato recipes require blanching, peeling and seeding tomatoes before using them. The prep necessary isn't quite as simple as slicing and dicing fresh veggies into a salad, but it goes fast if you have a plan.

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Tomatoes are robust vegetables, well, fruits actually, and can produce a big yield from a single plant. Although you can use any tomato variety for cooking, plum or Roma tomatoes are considered the meatiest, with a good ratio of flesh to seeds and liquid. When you're harvesting tomatoes, choose the ripest and best specimens you can find. Avoid tomatoes with brown spots, split skins or obvious signs of insect activity. Select tomatoes that feel heavy for their size and have smooth, tight, shiny skins. Remember, you'll be using a number of tomatoes in a single recipe, and one bad 'mater can spoil the batch if you're not careful. If you're fortunate enough to have a number of tomato varieties in your garden, mix it up a little. From Better Boys to Early Girls, tomatoes have subtle differences in flavor and texture, and a little experimentation may yield the best chunky salsa or barbecue sauce you've ever tasted.

Peeling a ripe tomato may seem like a chore, but a quick dip in boiling water will loosen the skin from a tomato's flesh in less than a minute, making it easy to slip it off like a shiny overcoat. Once you have a large pot of boiling water on the stove, you can typically peel and seed more than a dozen tomatoes in less time than it takes to harvest them from the plants. Have a large slotted spoon or spider standing by to immerse and retrieve the tomatoes from the hot water a few at a time. A dunking for 40 to 60 seconds per batch should be plenty. If the tomato skins aren't splitting as part of the dunking process, make them easier to remove by cutting a small X at the top or base each tomato before dropping them in water. To keep the tomato meat as fresh as possible, give hot tomatoes a quick bath in ice water to stop the cooking process. You can then remove the seeds using your thumb or a teaspoon.

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Preparing homemade spaghetti sauce from your own homegrown tomatoes is one of the unexpected delights of being a backyard gardener. Tomatoes are rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants like lycopene. What could be more wholesome than a big plate of spaghetti topped with sauce from tomatoes you picked a few hours ago? Even prepared tomato sauces taste more vibrant when you add a little fresh tomato to them. Growing vegetables in your garden can be a great bargain, too. It's a time-honored way to stretch your food dollar, and tomatoes are an easy crop to grow, harvest and use in recipes.

Preparing Tomatoes for Sauce

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Five pounds of tomatoes will yield approximately 12 cups of sauce. Roma tomatoes (also called paste or plum tomatoes) work best, but any tomato variety will do. To prepare tomatoes, peel, core and seed them. When they're cool enough to handle, squeeze them in a couple of lengths of cheesecloth to remove the excess liquid. Process the remaining pulp through a food processor or blender until smooth. Refrigerate the puree for a couple of hours, and then drain off any excess clear liquid. At this point, you have a good foundation for spaghetti sauce and many other tomato-rich dishes like barbecue sauce or ketchup.

You may remember your grandmother cooking her red sauce for long hours on the back stove burner. That was mostly to thicken it by evaporating the excess water. If you squeeze out much of the excess moisture before you cook your tomato mixture, you'll be able to keep cooking time to a couple of hours at a light simmer. This is long enough to create rich flavor but still retain some fresh garden goodness. To avoid a metallic tasting sauce, use a non-reactive pan like enamel or tempered glass to cook all of your tomato-based dishes.

Putting Spaghetti Flavor in Fresh Tomato Sauce

It's the seasonings that give tomato-based spaghetti sauces their distinctive flavor and aroma. You'll find lots of pre-blended spaghetti seasoning mixes on the market, but most use conventional Italian spices like oregano, garlic and basil. Many also add onion and bay leaf. If you love the taste of sweet spaghetti sauce, look for seasonings that include ingredients like brown sugar or molasses. If you discover that your homemade sauce has more of a sharp, acidic taste than you'd like, add a tablespoon of cream Sherry for every quart of sauce (or to taste). It will help tame the bite.

For a perfect blend of flavors, try adding some of these popular ingredients to homemade spaghetti sauce too:

  • garlic (fresh minced, paste or powdered)
  • caramelized onion
  • sautéed bell pepper
  • carrot (shredded)
  • mushrooms
  • oregano
  • basil
  • thyme
  • olive oil
  • burgundy
  • bay leaf
  • Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • paprika
  • fennel seed
  • anchovy paste

Putting It All Together

Since there are so many spaghetti sauce recipes around, it's easy to see that savvy cooks are experts at refining tomato dishes to suit their family's tastes. When you're combining ingredients for your own homemade spaghetti, add onions, oil, wine, bay leaf and garlic when you put the sauce on to simmer. Wait until the last half hour of cooking to add most of the spices and other ingredients. This will keep the spices vibrant while giving the initial ingredients time to release their flavors.

For the best results, add precooked meat during the first 20 minutes of cooking time. A couple of good choices are meatballs made from ground brisket and breadcrumbs, and savory Italian sausage cut into one-inch pieces. Even though meat is always a welcome addition, homemade spaghetti sauce is tasty and filling even without it.

Whether you plan on using your entire crop of tomatoes or only a few, these hearty pasta dishes are delicious, easy to prepare and will help you create some welcoming aromas and flavors in your kitchen during those long fall evenings:

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Tomatoes are the star of this dish!
Tomatoes are the star of this dish!
©iStockphoto.com/HaywardGaude

Tomatoes were originally brought to Europe from the Americas, and the hearty, acidic sauce made from these fruits helped recipes prepared with them to resist spoiling. What started as a dish served on ships as a convenience became more widely known as a sauce in the "sailor style" around Naples, Italy, in the mid-16th century.

This seafarer's staple was often made with onions, garlic and other spices, and probably looked and tasted similar to what we normally refer to in the United States as spaghetti sauce. Although traditional marinara sauce seldom contains meat, it's thick, rich and hearty nonetheless.

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Like all good tomato-based sauces, marinara made from fresh, ripe, garden tomatoes should be prepared by peeling, and seeding the tomatoes, trimming out the stem ends and squeezing out as much moisture as possible. Where cooks on sailing vessels may have been limited in the ingredients they added to their marinara sauces, modern versions often contain ingredients like:

Because creating a flavorful sauce is so important, use your best tomatoes and cook the sauce relatively quickly. Simmering a slightly chunky sauce for a half-hour to 40 minutes should be enough. If the mixture looks too thin, keep simmering to evaporate the excess liquid. If you're in a hurry, add a little tomato paste as a thickener. In some circles, this is considered a cheat unworthy of the serious cook, so just hide the can if you're having guests over. Serve marinara sauce hot over linguini with crusty Italian bread and a dipping-quality olive oil. Chilled marinara makes a very tasty dipping sauce for fried foods like cheese sticks, fried zucchini and tempura mushrooms.

If you're not sure how to prepare your summer tomato windfall, you can always use part-fresh and part-prepared tomatoes in your recipes. Where tomatoes are concerned, it's all good.

We love these marinara and other tomato-based recipes because they're special enough to serve when you're entertaining but easy enough to prepare on family night. Oh, and the great flavor is cooked right in:

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Salsa is the ultimate dipping sauce. It's a mixture of garden-fresh ingredients that illustrates the reason why regional foods are extraordinary. It blends flavors so expertly that the result is a unique and satisfying treat for your taste buds. Even better, when all you have to do is step outside your kitchen door for fresh, ripe ingredients, your salsa is sure to be a winner. In fact, you may be growing many traditional salsa ingredients in your garden right now.

Served in a small bowl with tortilla chips, salsa is a fresh relish that often has a tomato base. Like marinara, salsa is at its best when you make it using meaty, ripe tomatoes that have been peeled and seeded. With salsa, though, you don't have to be careful to remove the excess moisture. This is one recipe in which a little extra liquid is a good thing.

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Chop six or seven prepared fresh tomatoes and combine them with a chopped red onion, a couple of jalapeno peppers, chopped scallions, bell pepper and cilantro to taste. Include the juice of a lime and some salt and pepper. Chill thoroughly before serving. This is a basic salsa any senór or senórita will recognize.

If you want to get fancy, there are lots of other ingredients you can add to tomato salsa to give it an exotic flavor or crunchier consistency. You can increase the heat or leave out the hot peppers for a mild but flavorful accompaniment to taco night with the kids. When you're a youngster, veggies always taste better on the end of a chip.

Using a blend of hot peppers can make homemade salsa a fun and interesting experience for the grownups, too. Different peppers pile on the heat at different locations on the tongue, so the result is a blended burn that's unexpected but not necessarily overpowering.

If you want to walk on the wild side, consider adding some of these ingredients to your homemade salsa:

  • serrano peppers
  • paprika peppers
  • tabasco peppers (or sauce)
  • habanero peppers (for the serious heat lover)
  • smoked jalapenos (chipotle chiles)
  • tomatillos (a veggie in the tomato family)
  • olive oil
  • chili powder
  • cumin
  • orange zest
  • lemon pepper
  • red wine vinegar
  • soy sauce (just a dash)

Once tomato season in the garden is over, you can still make salsa using a canned tomato base. To create interest, add mango, diced oranges, jicama and other ingredients for a relish that will complement your meal even though your vegetable patch is buried under a foot of snow. These recipes will get you started:

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You don't have to forego delcious tomato dishes just because they're out of season.
You don't have to forego delcious tomato dishes just because they're out of season.
©iStockphoto.com/samotrebizan

Storing a season of vegetables from the garden for later use can be fun but hectic. When you're looking at piles of potatoes, baskets of tomatoes and enough hot peppers to start a forest fire, it can seem overwhelming. Harvest time is a great time to experiment with new recipes and take advantage of all those fresh ingredients. When the bounty starts taking over your countertops as you're trying to get everything indoors before the first hard frost, consider these methods for preserving your tomatoes:

  • Maintaining - When you want to preserve your fresh tomatoes for as long as possible or ripen green tomatoes, remember to keep them at room temperature or just slightly cooler. A ripe tomato will stay viable for up to a week at room temperature in a spot that's out of direct sunlight. You can extend the life of a ripe tomato by refrigerating it, but wait as long as possible to do it because tomatoes stop ripening for good once they're refrigerated.
  • Drying - Dried tomatoes don't have to be sun-dried to be tasty. Once you remove all the water, what's left is crammed full of flavor. You can dry sliced tomatoes in the oven, in a dehydrator or under a screen outdoors in the sun. After they're dry, reconstitute them for use in recipes, or grind them into a concentrated tomato seasoning for soups and stews. All you need is some time, patience and a little salt. Five pounds of tomatoes will yield about two cups of dried tomatoes. Store dried tomatoes in a plastic bag away from direct sunlight.
  • Canning - Although canning isn't as popular as it used to be, it's a great way to preserve tomato-based dishes over the winter. Your secret-recipe barbecue sauce, marinara sauce and green tomato chutney will all last for months when properly canned. The process isn't as difficult or time consuming as it used to be, either. New style pressure canners are making traditional canning a lost art that has some real appeal for modern cooks who don't want to spend all day watching a pot boil.
  • Freezing - When you have a huge tomato harvest, freeze some for use over the winter months. Freezer bags make for reliable storage blanched tomatoes, whole tomatoes or your fresh tomato-based recipes like spaghetti sauce. If you're not sure how you want to use your tomatoes later, peel and seed a batch, process the pulp in a blender or food processor and freeze the basic sauce in ice cube trays. Once frozen, transfer the cubes to plastic bags. You can add a cube or two to your soups, slow cooked stews, canned tomato products and other prepared sauces. A hint of garden goodness will enhance most of your winter recipes, and this is an easy way to do it.
  • Ripening - When you want to fast-ripen green tomatoes, stick them in a bag together with a ripe apple or banana. Apples and bananas release ethylene gas, a natural ripening agent. Most vegetable gardeners have to deal with season-end green tomatoes. If a tomato has a light green color and feels slightly soft, you may still be able to ripen it artificially. If it's very green and hard, it may be too immature to ripen and good candidate for the compost pile. (Very green tomatoes are usually not ripe enough for use in fried-green tomato recipes.)

With so much going for them, it's no wonder tomatoes are a favorite of cooks, vegetable gardeners and foodies everywhere. Whether you grow new cultivars or stick to the old standbys, dried, stewed or thickened into a rich paste, garden tomatoes and the dishes you make from them will be a welcome addition to your family table this season.

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