Tomatoes Are Like Summer Days - Never Enough

'Tomatoes are the elixir of summer,' writes Anna Thomas, author of "The New Vegetarian Epicure."

"I love them red and heavy, warm in my hand from the sun that ripened them. I never tire of them. I eat them in salads and pastas, soups and sandwiches, salsas and risottos. And the best way of all - standing in the garden, biting into a sun-baked tomato that I have just picked, letting the juice run between my fingers."

Garden or no garden, who can't relate to Ms. Thomas's passion for fresh tomatoes?

Consult any cookbook, and you're likely to find plenty of praise for the tomato, which, by the way, is one of the best-selling foods in the world.

And no wonder, the tomato is by far the most popular vegetable grown in home gardens (though it technically is a fruit).

Thousands of varieties - from the Celebrity and Early Girl to the Sweet 100 and the Sugar Lump - as well as a recent interest in heirlooms have kept tomato lovers' interest as intense as the flavor they savor.

There are clubs, newsletters, festivals, Internet sites, seed specialists, and countless home growers and professional farmers devoted to this versatile vegetable that traveled from the lower Andes to the Mediterranean in the 16th century to become Italy's prized pomo d'oro.

Here in the Garden State, tomatoes are teeming. As harvest comes to a close, vines and baskets are overflowing. So are sandwiches, salads, soup pots, and saucepans. Still, there never seem to be enough.

A friend mentioned recently that he had eaten open-faced, tomato-cucumber-basil-mayonnaise sandwiches for breakfast and lunch for the past three consecutive days.

In his book "In Praise of Tomatoes," Steven Shepherd recounts a year in his life as a home tomato grower in San Diego. His Aug. 25 entry begins:

"If truly we are what we eat, then we have become tomatoes. Or, as my wife says, 'Tomatoes R Us.' Despite the vines' growing emancipation, the fruits themselves are ripening faster than we can pick, eat, or give them away. Though we mightily try...." That day he picked 41 tomatoes - red, yellow, large, and small.

If chefs could relate just one tip about tomatoes, it would be: Eat them in season. The difference in flavor between in-season fresh and the cottony winter tomatoes (commercially gassed from green to pink) is monumental.

"Vine ripened in the sun, late-summer tomatoes are incomparable," writes Deborah Madison in "The Greens Cook Book," "especially when they are from your backyard, a local farm, or a farmer's market ...."

Who would disagree?

Fresh Tomato Soup

'This is my favorite tomato soup,' writes Marian Morash in 'The Victory Garden Cookbook.' 'Absolutely ripe tomatoes are essential.'

4 lbs. ripe tomatoes

3 Tablespoons oil

2 cups chopped onions

1 cup chopped leeks

1 cup sliced carrots

1 clove garlic, chopped

1/2 teaspoon sugar

2 Tablespoons flour

6 sprigs parsley

2 sprigs fresh lovage or a celery stalk with leaves

8 cups chicken broth

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Plain croutons

Peel, seed, and roughly chop tomatoes. You should have approximately 6 cups. In a large saucepan, heat oil and saut the onions and leeks until wilted and golden. Add 2 cups of the tomatoes, the carrots, garlic, and sugar, and cook together, stirring, until the moisture has evaporated and the mixture is thick. The cooking time varies, from 10 to 25 minutes, depending upon the moisture of the tomatoes. Whisk in flour and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring, to cook flour and make smooth. Tie together the parsley and lovage or celery and add to saucepan. Add remaining tomatoes, and 3 cups of the broth. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes to release the tomato juices and thicken slightly. Add the remaining broth; simmer for 20 minutes. Remove the parsley and lovage and lightly process soup in a food processor or put through a food mill. I like the soup to have some texture. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with croutons.

Makes 2-1/2 to 3 quarts.

- From 'The Victory Garden Cookbook,' by Marian Morash (Knopf, 1982)

Fall Freezer Tomato Sauce

6 to 7 lbs. tomatoes

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 cups finely chopped onions

1/2 cup chopped carrots

1-1/2 cups finely chopped celery

1 cup finely chopped green peppers

5 to 6 cloves garlic, chopped

1/2 cup chicken or beef broth

1 cup tomato paste

2 bay leaves

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1/4 cup chopped fresh basil or 1 tablespoon dried

1 tablespoon freshly chopped thyme or 1-1/2 teaspoon dried

1 teaspoon oregano

Peel, seed, and chop the tomatoes: you should end up with 9 to 10 cups. Heat oil, and saut the onions and carrots until the onions are golden and wilted. Add celery and green peppers, cook for 2 to 3 minutes, add the garlic, and cook 30 seconds. Add beef broth, tomatoes, tomato paste, and bay leaves, and season with salt and pepper.

Bring the broth to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the herbs and simmer 5 minutes longer. Lightly process the sauce so it still has some texture (or blend it to a smooth sauce if you prefer.) If you don't have a processor put the sauce through a food mill or mash it. Place the sauce in a bowl set in ice water so that it will cool quickly. When it falls to room temperature fill freezer containers, cover, and chill in refrigerator before freezing. Makes about 6 pints. Note: you can omit the tomato paste if you like. If so, simmer longer to concentrate the flavor.

- From 'The Victory Garden Cookbook,' by Marian Morash (Knopf, 1982)

Tomato, Bermuda Onion, Fresh Mozzarella and Basil Salad

3 lbs. ripe tomatoes,thickly sliced

1 medium red onion, thinly sliced

1 cup fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped

6 to 8 ounces fresh mozzarella, thickly sliced

1/4 to 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

4 to 6 tablespoons balsamic Salt and ground black pepper, to taste

Sprigs of fresh basil

On a large platter, layer the tomatoes, onions, and basil as you would a lasagna. Top with the mozzarella. Drizzle with oil and sprinkle with balsamic vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Garnish with sprigs of basil.

Serves 4.

- Adapted from 'Tomatoes: A Country Garden Cookbook,' by Jesse Cool (Collins Publishers San Francisco, 1994)

Spicy Raw Tomato Sauce with Mixed Herbs and Garlic

to serve over pasta

'Hot red pepper flakes and garlic give this simple summer sauce its punch.' writes Jack Bishop, author of 'Pasta e Verdura.' 'Wait for "high" tomato season to make this sauce, which depends on perfectly ripe tomatoes. Choose a variety of fresh herbs, including oregano, marjoram, basil, mint, and thyme. This sauce is fairly juicy so serve plenty of bread.'

4 to 6 medium ripe tomatoes

1/4 cup olive oil

2 medium cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes or to taste

1 cup tightly packed mixed fresh herbs

1 lb. pasta

Grated Parmesan cheese

Bring 4 quarts of salted water to a boil in a large pot for cooking the pasta.

Core and cut the tomatoes into 1/2-inch cubes. (Drain a little, if you wish.) Toss the tomatoes with the oil, garlic, salt, and hot red pepper flakes in a bowl large enough to hold the cooked pasta.

Wash and dry the herbs. Keep small leaves whole and tear larger leaves (especially basil) into several pieces. Stir the herbs into the tomato mixture. Taste for salt and hot pepper and adjust seasonings if necessary.

While preparing the sauce, cook and drain the pasta. Toss the hot pasta with the tomato sauce. Mix well and transfer portions to pasta bowls. Serve immediately.

Top with Parmesan (and extra pepper flakes, if you're feeling adventurous.)

- Adapted from 'Pasta e Verdura: 140 Vegetable Sauces for Spaghetti, Fusilli, Rigatoni, and all other Noodles,' by Jack Bishop (HarperCollins, 1996)

Tomato Tips

* Look for fruit that has deep color, and is slightly soft - but not mushy. Plum tomatoes will be firmer.

* Don't refrigerate tomatoes, unless they're overly ripe. Temperatures below 50 degrees F. make tomatoes bland and mealy.

* Not quite ripe? Put tomatoes on a countertop for a few days. A sunny window sill is not necessary.

* Ripe tomatoes placed on a counter will keep for a few days at room temperature, but not much longer.

* Avoid aluminum or copper pots when cooking tomatoes; the acidity tends to discolor the sauce and the pot.

* Tomatoes can be frozen whole or sliced and placed in plastic bags. However, many people say home-canned or canned tomatoes imported from Italy can be more flavorful.

* Stewed tomatos and sauces freeze well. After cooking, cool, transfer to freezer containers, then freeze.

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