“There ain’t nothing better in life than true love and a homegrown tomato.” – Anonymous
We tomato lovers all know how much personal joy and anticipation the purchase of fresh, sun-ripened tomatoes from a farm stand or farmers market brings to our lives. The only thing better is picking those warm red tomatoes off our own vines in the garden on a hot Southern summer afternoon. Sometimes, of course, when we’re having a tomato craving, we buy them at the store, and there it can be the luck of the draw as far as taste goes, unless your local store purchases from local farmers, too. (If they do, say thank you!)
Unfortunately, some grocery store tomatoes lack an important quality in tomatoes: flavor. This is said to be because they’re picked days before they’ve ripened, tossed into a cold storage truck, and sent on their way across the country to various grocery stores. The problem with this, according to scientists, is that there are enzymes in tomatoes that develop the tomatoes’ flavor as they ripen, but picking and chilling halts that process. This is also why home growers are advised not to place their own tomatoes in the fridge, as a rule.
Well, good news: There are solutions. Here are some tips for keeping your tomatoes fresh longer and increasing the flavor of chilled tomatoes.
1. According to scientist Jinhe Bai, if you have too many tomatoes and want to refrigerate the fully-ripe tomatoes to keep them from spoiling, immerse them in 125-degree-Fahrenheit water for five minutes first, then let them cool to room temperature. They can then be refrigerated, Bai says, retaining their flavor and freshness longer. Always bring them to room temperature again before eating for fullest, sweetest flavor.
2. According to the food geniuses at America’s Test Kitchen, tomatoes off the vine quickly begin to rot by the entry of airborne bacteria at the stem end of the fruit. There are two ways to keep bacteria from entering as easily through the stem end, they say, thereby extending the tomato’s life. First, store them at room temperature on a completely flat surface with the stem end down, so that air cannot easily reach it. Most of us store them in bowls on the counter, soon finding a drippy, messy tomato amongst the fresh ones. Spreading them into a single layer will help that issue! Don’t have enough space to spread out all those tomatoes? Then try number 3...
3. Place a piece of tape on the stem end, sealing it off from air exposure. The test kitchen folks say that the tomatoes will keep at least a week this way, as opposed to a couple of days without it. What a simple solution!
Now that we know how to extend the life of our fresh tomatoes, let’s talk about the best part: eating them!
I will tell you right now, my favorite way to eat fresh tomatoes involves fresh bread, salt and pepper, and Duke’s Mayonnaise. This was the most inspired recipe my dad ever taught me, I think, and that says a lot, because he has always been quite a cook! His shrimp Creole is the stuff dreams are made of, but his summer tomato and Duke’s mayo sandwich recipe surpassed even that, in my opinion.
Well, after I get my fill of those glorious sandwiches, there many are other ways I like to use the beautiful produce that are just about as wonderful. For instance, my unique ratatouille.
I developed this recipe for Southern-style ratatouille to take advantage of not only fresh tomatoes, but also of fresh squash, onions, and more! Ratatouille is a French vegetable stew, which traditionally features eggplant, green bell pepper, onion, tomatoes, and zucchini, along with herbs. In my recipe, I’ve added a Southern twist by including green tomatoes and yellow crookneck squash. The pickled green tomatoes add a hint of zing that no one else’s ratatouille has; it really wakes up the flavor!
I also used red bell pepper instead of green to heighten the sweetness a bit. Sometimes ratatouille can meld into a single flavor, but this one manages to hit several fabulous flavor notes that I think you’ll appreciate as much as I do.
by Stephanie Hill-Frazier
• 1 small eggplant, peeled and and cubed into small dice
• Milk, enough to cover cubed eggplant
• 1 large or two smaller yellow squash, peeled (for larger ones) and chopped
• 1 medium sweet white onion, chopped
• 1 small red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
• 1 small green tomato, peeled, diced small
• Red wine vinegar
• 2 large cloves of garlic, minced, or two teaspoons jarred minced garlic
• Salt and pepper
• 3 medium tomatoes, cut in half
• Sliced mushrooms (optional)
• 1/4 cup olive oil
• 2-3 stems thyme
• 1 bay leaf
• 3 stems parsley leaves
1. Make the pickled green tomatoes: place the diced green tomato in a bowl, and cover with the vinegar. Soak in vinegar for the entire time you’re cooking, a minimum of 30 minutes.
2. Prep the eggplant: place the diced eggplant into a medium mixing bowl, and sprinkle with a teaspoon of salt. Cover eggplant with milk, and allow to soak at least 30 minutes. This step is crucial, as the eggplant pieces are like sponges and need to absorb this liquid in order to be creamy, delicious, and less likely to scorch.
3. In your largest skillet or a Dutch oven, pour in 1/4 cup olive oil, and heat over medium to medium-high heat. When hot, add onion, and saute for 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until golden. If they seem to be getting too dark, lower heat a bit and continue stirring.
4. Add garlic to the onions, and saute for two more minutes.
5. Drop in the eggplant, bell pepper, yellow squash, and mushrooms. Stir in, allowing to cook for ten minutes while you prepare tomatoes. Add another tablespoon oil if pan is too dry.
6. Tomatoes will become a flavorful pulp in this recipe (or skip this step and just peel and chop them.) Cut tomatoes in half, and use a box grater to scrape them into a bowl. Discard the skins. The three tomatoes will make a beautiful, flavorful pink pulp that will flavor every vegetable in the ratatouille.
7. Stir in the tomato pulp, and then add herbs. Tie stems together with kitchen string to make an easy-to-remove bouquet garni, or simply drop the herbs in and be careful to remove the stems before serving.
8. Simmer the stew for 15 to 20 minutes over low heat. During last five minutes before serving, drain the pickled green tomatoes, then add them to the pan. Stir in, allowing to warm.
Top with grated Parmesan cheese, if desired.
Serve this fantastic stew alongside grilled fish, chicken or shrimp, a juicy burger or steak (perfect for dad's Father's Day dinner!), or just about anything you can think of.
Ratatouille also makes a great cold appetizer, served with warm baguette toasts as a topping. It can be used to make fantastic tacos, as well, paired with fish or shrimp, perhaps. The ideas are practically endless, aren't they?
I hope you enjoy this recipe, adding to it the things that are most abundant in your garden. No need to let produce go to waste when you can make a simple, flavorful stew like this one. Check out whatsouthernfolkseat.com for even more vegetable recipes you can try all summer long.
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is "Mama Steph." She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three young adult sons who have spent innumerable hours picking tomatoes in the garden with her. You can find more of her recipes at whatsouthernfolkseat.com and at Facebook.com/whatsouthernfolkseat.