If you had asked me when I was a kid what I thought of tomatoes, that’s probably the word I would have offered—or “gross” maybe, or “disgusting” when I was a little older. Actually, you probably wouldn’t have had to ask. If a tomato, or slice or dice thereof, was anywhere in my vicinity, I would declare the judgment unsolicited, most likely accompanied by a gagging sound effect or hands-at-my-throat choking gesture.
When I was in high school and first heard George Carlin’s bit about tomatoes not looking like they’re fully developed yet, I laughed with the overblown hilarity reserved for the most fanatical of partisans.
At an extended family Thanksgiving dinner one year, I was pressed into service slicing tomatoes. One of my aunts paused to watch for a second before commenting icily that I didn’t know how to slice tomatoes. I think I smiled tightly and said, “Nope,” while I snarled internally: “I sure as shit don’t, and I can’t believe I’m touching this slimy disgusting thing, how can you people put them in your mouths??”
Then came salsa.
In my late twenties, I discovered the zippy charm of a good fresh salsa, redolent with onion and cilantro, laced with the hot crunch of jalapeno or serrano pepper: so addictive with salty tortilla chips. It was good, too, over burritos, tacos, or beans with rice: easy-to-prepare meatless staples I relied on as I entered into live-in arrangements with, then engagement and marriage to, a vegetarian (who has since lapsed…but his meat-eating hasn’t changed my relationship with fresh salsa).
Still, I always diced the tomatoes very, very small. A tomato was an object of suspicion, ever worthy of cautious handling. I never allowed a bit of tomato to pass my lips unaccompanied.
These days, I wouldn’t say I particularly like tomatoes, and I still refuse to eat them on their own. If I see someone pop a naked cherry tomato into their mouth, I cringe involuntarily. But I keep fresh tomatoes on hand for cooking, and I’ve come to appreciate them in salad, provided they’re well chopped up.
I grow them—or try to do so; our high elevation isn’t conducive to timely ripening—because they’re so versatile as an ingredient. I even have a couple of recipes that feature them in starring roles.
Roma tomatoes are still probably available in your farmer’s market or, perhaps, in your garden. They’re popular as a paste tomato, but the meaty flesh makes terrific gazpacho. If the weather’s still as hot where you are as it is here in Colorado right now, give this no-cook recipe a try.
Even if you don’t particularly like tomatoes, you might like this.
(from José Andrés’ Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America; I’ve included my comments and adaptations in italics)
2 pounds (about 10) plum tomatoes (if you use a less meaty tomato variety, skip the water while blending; be aware that this recipe will not redeem hard, mealy, or insipid tomatoes).
½ pound (about 1) cucumber
3 ounces (about ½) green bell pepper (I like a little kick, so usually use something with some heat; poblanos have the perfect combo of bite and flavor, but make the color of the soup a little murky; cubano peppers, if you can get them, work well)
1 garlic clove, peeled (if you don’t like living with raw garlic flavor in you mouth, heat the garlic in some olive oil for a few minutes to de-fang it)
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar (this is worth seeking out; red wine vinegar will serve in a pinch, but sherry vinegar is a magic elixir: trust me)
¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil (if you have the conviction, go for it, but I’ve never used anywhere near this much; start with ¼ cup and use more if you think it needs more richness)
2 teaspoons salt (start with 1 teaspoon, add more to taste)
Core the tomatoes, peel and de-seed the cucumber and pepper, chop everything in rough chunks, and put it in the blender with the garlic, sherry vinegar, salt, and up to a half cup of water. Blend smooth. Adjust the vinegar, oil, or salt levels to taste. Chill for at least 30 minutes.
That’s it. Tasty and remarkably filling, what with all that fiber bound up in some nice rich olive oil. The original recipe calls for straining, but I never bother; there’s also a very fussy garnish protocol in the original, but the whole point of this, to me, is how easy it is.
The gazpacho keeps for a day or two; if it tastes flat, mix in a few drops of sherry vinegar and it will perk right up. It might sound crazy, but I love making this for road trips: put it in a mason jar to sip on as you drive. It’s flavorful and filling enough that it will keep you out of the chip bag.
If gazpacho season has passed where you are, fear not. Here’s another recipe from Andres’ book that’s perfect for fall. Lay in some more plum tomatoes and make a big batch of this for the freezer.
Romesco sauce, in case you haven’t had it before, is WAY better than ketchup. Have it on burgers, with steak, or with egg-based quiche/torta/tortilla recipes. Serve it with grilled veggies and the vegetarians and vegans in your life will swoon.
This is kind of an idiot’s version of molé: much easier to make but very complex, and with some crossover of ingredients. Having said that, this isn’t a particularly simple recipe, so give yourself time to lay in the ingredients plan to make it on a cool day when you don’t mind running the oven. It’s worth the effort: you’ll be able to pull some summer out of the freezer come winter.
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil (Spanish), plus extra for coating the vegetables (again: works fine with less)
1 red bell pepper
6 ripe plum tomatoes
1 head garlic, halved, papery skin removed
1 Spanish onion
3 ñora chili peppers (or other dried sweet pepper)
¼ cup blanched almonds
1 oz. white bread, crust removed
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon Spanish sweet paprika (I also like to add a pinch of smoked paprika for flavor/heat)
½ tablespoon salt
Heat oven to 350 degrees; brush olive oil on the fresh pepper, tomatoes, garlic, and onion, place them in a roasting pan, and roast until the veggies are soft, about 25 minutes.
While the vegetables are roasting, soak the ñora chilies in hot water for about 15 minutes. Strain, and remove the seeds. Place the chilies in a blender and puree until smooth. (You can sieve the puree, but I’ve never done so.)
Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a small sauté pan over low heat. Brown the almonds slightly, about 1 minute; remove. Raise the heat to medium and add the bread; cook until it’s nicely browned, about 30 seconds on each side. Remove and set aside.
Add the pureed chili to the pan and cook for about 30 seconds, then remove the pan from the heat.
Once the vegetables are out of the oven and cool enough to handle, peel them, and seed the bell pepper and tomatoes. Place the roasted vegetables in a blender or food processor and add the almonds, toasted bread, pureed chili, vinegar, paprika and the remaining 7 tablespoons of oil. Blend until it forms a thick sauce. Add salt to taste. Serve at room temperature.
To freeze: I measure out 1 cup portions, pour them into plastic containers, and freeze. To save space, you can pop the frozen pucks out of the containers, wrap in waxed paper, label and store in zip-top bags. You should plan on refreshing the sauce with a dash of sherry vinegar when you thaw it.