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Foraging for Flavor: Time for tomatoes

As we all know, the weather was a little weird this summer. My poor tomatoes are confused! With the constant humidity of July's rain, it seemed I was conquering one blight only to encounter an infestation of pests. Cool evenings in early August slowed what had been a vigorous early summer harvest.

Since temperatures have warmed, the vines have grown exponentially. Beautiful (albeit smaller) tomatoes are sprouting. It seems as if my plants know they must expend every last bit of its energy to ensure reproduction. That is after all, what a fruiting plant does: it sends out beautiful flowers and fruits, all in an effort to ensure its DNA will live on into the next generation.

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Every year my family savors our tomato harvest, knowing with each ephemeral bite that the fresh, bold, sweet and juicy taste of a summer tomato will soon be impossible to replicate. Of course, the best tomatoes are found in your own yard, patio or garden. If you can't grow your own, visit your closest farmer's market to find a plethora of shapes, sizes and varieties of tomatoes, which you can make endless use of. For many, shopping the boxes of tomatoes at the farmer's market can be intimidating. Here are the main varieties of tomatoes to look for, and their uses. Visit

to find some other fun tomato recipes you might not expect (honeyed tomato butter is awesome on corn!)

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Red tomatoes are those you may be most familiar with, and are generally used for eating raw alone or in salads. These tomatoes (all tomatoes really) are packed with vitamin C, potassium, fiber and vitamin A in the form of health promoting beta-carotene. Tomatoes are also a source of lycopene, which research suggests may play a role in the fight against cancer, especially prostate cancer.

Early summer varieties such as "Early Girl" are small, compact and nicely round, their size and shape indicative of their late May/June harvest. Medium reds follow in July, while the main crop of reds peaks in August. At the peak of their growing season, main crop reds are large, round, juicy, sweet and packed with nutrition. Common varieties include Better Boy, Celebrity, and Burpees's Big Girl. Extra large late season reds, including Supersteak and Beefmaster are the huge, sometimes misshapen or scarred varieties that are awesome on sandwiches or in stacked salads. My husband loves these particularly on BLT's, where one thick slice can cover an entire piece of bread.

Yellow or orange varieties of tomatoes taste sweeter than red varieties because they contain a higher sugar content. This year I planted Golden Boys and Jubilees, which are beautiful, perfect in shape and absolutely delicious. Pink tomatoes are sweet like the yellows, with Brandywine being the most common. These are large and rough, but so juicy and tasty.

Paste tomatoes have fewer sides, thicker, meatier walls and less water. This means they make a thicker sauce in less cooking time. Paste tomatoes include Roma and San Marzano, both prized for sauces, canning or preserving whole.

Small fruited or salad tomatoes grow prodigiously in clusters, their tiny sweet juiciness a wonderful pop in the mouth. Common types found for growing or at the farmer's market include Yellow Pear (my favorite), Super Sweet 100 or Sweet Million.

Heirloom tomato varieties are now widely available and hugely popular. Heirlooms are grown from seeds that have not been hybridized or modified in any way, so their flavor profiles and growth patterns showcase heritage taste and shapes.

Ripening, storage

Fresh garden tomatoes should not be stored in the refrigerator. Unfortunately, refrigeration renders them tasteless and turns the flesh to a mealy mush. Refrigeration also slows ripening of tomatoes. Similarly, tomatoes stored at very hot temperatures begin to turn mealy, lose their flavor and deteriorate. Store your fruits at room temperature away from direct sunlight, which hastens ripening.

Preparation

Peeling: To peel tomatoes, blanch by dropping them into boiling water for about 30 seconds, or longer for firm tomatoes, then plunge into a bowl of ice water until cool enough to handle. Skin will pull away easily if the tomatoes have been blanched long enough.

Seeding: To seed tomatoes, cut the fruit in half horizontally. Holding a half in the palm of your hand, squeeze out the jelly-like juice and seeds over a strainer and scoop out remaining seeds with your fingertip. Do not throw away the juice, sieve it and use it in another recipe or drink it.

Freezing: Tomatoes keep their fabulous fresh flavor when frozen, but they become mushy in texture and are best used over the winter in soups, sauces or stews. To freeze tomatoes, wash well then remove the stems and cut out the core. Leave the tomatoes whole or quarter them. Lay them out on a wax or parchment paper lined cookie sheet and freeze. Once they are thoroughly frozen, pack them into quart sized freezer bags. The skin comes off easily when they are thawed, but it you have time, it's nice to blanch and remove the skin before freezing.

Tomato Confit

Use in sauces, as a garnish, with scrambled or baked eggs, omelets or frittatas. Puree to use as a sauce. Serve on a platter with good bread or crackers and goat cheese or feta. Bake at 400° with whole shrimp and feta crumbles garnished with fresh lemon.

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Cut ripe round, cherry or paste garden tomatoes in half. Core and remove as many seeds as possible, but don't worry if some remain. Spread them in the dish or pan on top of the herbs so they fit together snugly.

Randomly scatter several sprigs of basil, oregano and marjoram and 5-8 cloves of peeled and lightly smashed garlic over the tomatoes.

Sprinkle with sea salt or kosher salt and coarsely ground pepper.

Pour a generous amount of good quality olive oil over all the tomatoes.

Bake at 250° for about 2 hours, or at 350° for about 50 minutes to an hour. The tomatoes are done when they are lightly browned on top and completely tender. Remove from pan and pack into jars covered with olive oil. Refrigerate or freeze. Be sure to save the oil from the dish: it is delicious tossed with pasta or used in a vinaigrette.

Tomato Salad

Be sure to purchase a variety of types of local (not hothouse) heirloom tomatoes. Use as many tomatoes as you need. This recipe can be a small dish for just one, or a large plattered salad for a full house.

Slice the tomatoes carefully so the rounds show off the color and texture of the interesting interior of the fruit. Arrange the tomatoes on a platter, larger rounds on the bottom, smaller rounds lightly layered on top. Be sure to alternate colors or types to make the presentation pretty. Sprinkle with sea salt and cracked pepper. Drizzle generously with the basil oil.

Infused Basil Oil

By Michel Richard from Happy in the Kitchen

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1/2 cup grapeseed oil

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1 cup firmly packed basil leaves

Cook oil and basil in a small heavy saucepan over medium-high heat until oil begins to bubble. Reduce heat to medium and cook until leaves are crisp, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer mixture to a blender and blend until smooth (use caution when blending hot liquids). Strain through a fine-mesh sieve lined with a double layer of rinsed and squeezed cheesecloth. Oil keeps, covered and chilled, one week.

Salsa Cruda: Raw Tomato Sauce

Common in Italy, this recipe requires choosing tomatoes that are juicy and sweet when eaten raw. A variety of colorful tomatoes is especially nice. I recommend seeding the tomatoes, an easy task. There's no need to peel.

2 lbs ripe heirloom tomatoes, seeded and diced

½ cup very good quality extra virgin olive oil

1 TB garlic, minced (or less according to taste)

1 TB finely minced fresh basil

2 tsp finely minced fresh oregano or parsley leaves

1 tsp finely minced fresh thyme (no woody bits, only leaves)

1 tsp finely minced mint (optional)

½ cup drained black or green olives, or capers

½ tsp red pepper flakes

Sea salt and ground black pepper

1 lb pasta

Cook the pasta to al dente (slightly firm), drain and return to the cooking pot.

While the pasta cooks combine oil, garlic, herbs and pepper flakes in a medium bowl. Add the diced tomatoes and mix well.

Mix the raw tomato sauce into the pasta (which shouldn't sit for more than 5-10 minutes, or the garlic overpowers the fresh tomatoes). Serve immediately.

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