Our basil plants have been the saving grace of our garden this year. Poor, first-year soil? Check. Drought? Check. Heat wave? Check. Rampant insects? Check. This summer has felt like the...
The first tomatoes of the season are sacred. Spoken for. They are thinly sliced, dressed with salt and pepper and maybe olive oil at the most, and eaten in reverent silence. As there are a few more tomatoes to be had, the tomato sandwich recurs. White bread, mayonnaise, tomato, salt and pepper. And then July and August arrive, and we are spoiled for choice.
It is this time of year, and this is the only time of year, that you can hardly give tomatoes away. Gardens are bursting with ripe, red fruit, the markets are piled high with them, and restaurant menus everywhere bow to the mighty tomato. Dozens of varieties of heirlooms perch on their meaty shoulders on market tables. Perfect red, golden, striped green, pink, purplish black--all just a bit different and all ripe at once.
Tomatoes do seem to be feast or famine. In winter, I think we all know not even to bother with them. There is no honor in a hothouse tomato, and you are paying for tomatoey water when you buy one. But in high summer, the winding, stretching plants produce the real thing, and lots of it.
This is a recipe for the day that a mound of riper than ripe tomatoes sits on your kitchen counter, and you need more than just a way to savor them. You need a way to use a lot of them. Beyond canning, there are plenty of things to do with tomato excess, and one of my favorite basic methods for reducing a flock of tomatoes down to a manageable amount is roasting.
I just realized that my last two posts have been about roasting vegetables. While I may be overstating my case a bit, I really do believe that, in general, the only way to improve upon a peak season vegetable is to roast it. The same goes for tomatoes. Roasting them condenses their sugar content, accentuates their flavor, and cuts down on the copious amount of water they exude during cooking.
Last year, to cope with a glut of Roma tomatoes, we split them in half, roasted them until nicely caramelized, and froze them in zip-top bags. During the winter, they made a perfect addition to soups, stews, and braises. It was essentially tomato concentrate, but without a lot of salt and other preservatives.
For this recipe, I used the roasting principle, but to a different end. Instead of using meaty Romas, I simply used whatever tomatoes were ripest, regardless of variety, and I only roasted them for an hour to begin the caramelization process without reducing the tomatoes to next to nothing. The resulting soup was unctuous, flavorful, and richly red. I served it warm but found the leftovers to be delicious cold. The dollop of pesto is optional, but it comes highly recommended, especially if you have a few basil plants and can make your own from scratch.
Preheat the oven to 400˚F. Line a roasting pan with foil. This will make cleanup a breeze. Wash and dry:
4 pounds assorted ripe tomatoes
Trim any bruised sections, and remove the stem scar. Quarter the tomatoes (if you are using smaller tomatoes, simply halve them) and place them in the roasting pan. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper, and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Roast for one hour.
After roasting, the tomatoes should be showing signs of reducing in volume, but they will still be very juicy, and there is likely to be a lot of tomato juice in the bottom of the roasting pan.
In a Dutch oven, heat over medium heat:
2 tablespoons olive oil
Add and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes:
1 leek, halved lengthwise, rinsed to remove any grit, and finely sliced
1 small red bell pepper, minced
Add and sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes:
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
(1 sprig summer savory)
Add the roasted tomatoes and their juices and bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, for an hour, or until the soup is starting to thicken. Using an immersion blender, food processor, or blender, blend the soup until very smooth and add seasoning to taste. I found that the soup needed no sugar, and very little salt and pepper. If you use more acidic tomatoes, you may find that a little sugar is needed. Serve with a dollop of pesto (see recipe below).
From the 2006 edition of the Joy of Cooking
Pesto can be made in advance. If freezing, do so in ice cube trays for convenient pesto portions, or freeze flat in a zip-top bag. If refrigerating, smooth the top of the pesto and cover generously with olive oil to prevent oxidization and unattractive (but harmless) browning. This is also excellent made with walnuts, almonds, or hazelnuts instead of pine nuts, which are exorbitantly expensive.
Makes 1 cup
Combine in a food processor and process to a rough paste:
2 cups loosely packed basil leaves
1/2 cup grated parmesan
1/3 cup pine nuts
2 medium garlic cloves, peeled
With the machine running, slowly add:
1/2 cup olive oil, or as needed
If the pesto seems dry (it should be a thick paste), add a little more olive oil. Season to taste with:
Salt and black pepper
Use immediately or store as above.