Late-blooming tomatoes: unexpected, but welcome


IT IS ALWAYS HARD to say goodbye to the garden, even after years like this one, when your crops have not lived up to your expectations. Recently in this space I admitted that this year's tomato crop was a failure. This admission generated two reactions. Sensitive souls offered condolences for my loss and confessed they too had suffered a disappointing summer. Others, however, greeted news of my failed crop with the announcement that their tomato crop was the best in years. I told the second group, the braggarts, that their flourishing crops were proof that they were much more adept than I at slinging the fertilizer. I might have used another word for fertilizer.

The boasters weren't the only forces that disagreed with my analysis that it was a lousy year for tomatoes. My own garden turned against me. A few days after I had disparaged my plants as puny producers, they suddenly delivered a dozen fat, red tomatoes. This was about double their output for the last three weeks of August.

Moreover, this fruit had good flavor. The late crop was the revenge of the belittled tomatoes. Just when I had given up hope tasting home-grown goodness and had put away most of my tomato-handling kitchen gear, I was up to my elbows in garden produce.

So to give them a fitting farewell, I turned those luscious suckers into soup. I cut them up, sprinkled some herbs on them and roasted them for a couple of hours. Then I pureed them and added them to chicken stock.

The herbs, basil and oregano, also came from the garden. I had picked them several weeks ago, wrapped them in plastic bags and kept them down with the lettuce in the bottom of the refrigerator.

The basil has shown few signs of aging. The leaves were still green and supple. The oregano, however, was brittle and stiff. As I chopped the herbs up, I vowed to try to age like basil, not oregano.

The soup recipe, which I found in the recently released paperback version of "Patricia Wells at Home in Provence" (Fireside, 1999), called for pureeing roasted tomatoes in a food processor, then mixing them with homemade chicken stock.

I don't make much homemade stock. I never seem to have the three hours or so it takes to simmer the bones, the vegetables and the herbs. Instead I cheat. I use canned stock. But this time I livened up the canned stuff, using tricks recommended by Mark Bittman, a skilled cook and author. I added a carrot, an onion and a clove of garlic to two cans of chicken stock and let the entire mixture come to a boil, then let it simmer uncovered for 20 minutes.

Eventually I added the juiced-up stock to the pureed tomatoes and closed the garden season with a fine-tasting farewell.

Roasted Tomatoes With Fresh Herbs

Serves 4

2 pounds fresh tomatoes, plum if you have them

fine sea salt to taste

4 tablespoons finely chopped herb leaves, such as basil, savory, parsley and thyme

about 1 quart chicken stock

pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 275 degrees.

Trim and discard the stem of tomatoes. Cut plum tomatoes in half, lengthwise. If using others, cut them into thick, 3-inch-long slices. Arrange the tomatoes, cut side up, on a baking sheet. Sprinkle lightly with salt and half of the herbs.

Place in the oven and bake, until the tomatoes are nearly dried and shriveled, about 2 hours. Check from time to time. The tomatoes should be flexible, not brittle, with most of their juices gone.

Remove tomatoes from oven, let them cool slightly, then puree in a food processor.

Meanwhile pour the stock into a large pot and bring to boil over high heat. Add the tomatoes and stir to blend. Lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes, allowing the flavors to mingle. Add salt and pepper according to taste. Serve in warm, shallow bowls and sprinkle with remaining chopped herbs.

-- From "Patricia Wells at Home in Provence" (Fireside, 1999)

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