If it's August, it must be prime time for tomatoes


MOST OF THE year, I would say there is no such thing as having too many homegrown tomatoes. But lately I am having my doubts. This is August, the month when gardeners become tomato slaves.

In the morning, I hurry to my garden to gather the ripe tomatoes before the birds, the bugs and some unidentified but increasing tall and hungry critters feast on my fruit.

The afternoon often finds me caked with garden mud, cleaning and sorting the harvest. I separate the "leakers," tomatoes so ripe their skins have burst, from those with solid, smooth coverings.

The evening is devoted to cooking projects. The other night, for instance, I had to polish off a pile of the ripe cherry tomatoes, so I split them, put them on a baking sheet, then brushed them with olive oil and stuck them in a 250-degree oven to roast for two hours.

Every time any family member ventures near the kitchen table, I treat it as a tomato-eating opportunity. Virtually every dish, at every meal, is accompanied by the refrain, "Don't you want some tomatoes with that?"

At breakfast, the scrambled eggs come with sliced tomatoes; they are mandatory. Lunch options range from "leakers" stuffed with tuna to "leakers" and cottage cheese, to a variety of dripping sandwiches -- the pinnacle being the BLT -- all served with thick slabs or slices of beefsteak or Brandywines or the occasional big boy.

The evening meals begin with appetizers, the cherry tomatoes roasted the prior evening. The preferred vegetable course is sliced tomatoes. Eggplant Parmesan, a toothsome mixture of eggplant slices, parmesan cheese and rivers of red sauce made from fresh tomatoes, is also acceptable.

If a salmon fillet shows up around suppertime, it will be covered with about a tablespoon each of basil, mint, oregano, sage, capers and mounds of chopped tomatoes, sealed in foil and then baked in a 325-degree oven for 40 minutes to 50 minutes. The result is a delightful mixture of garden flavors that makes even store-bought salmon taste fresh.

If meat or pasta is on the menu, chances are excellent that it will be helped along with a homemade tomato sauce. Sauce-making is my August avocation. Following the advice in the old slogan for Dr Pepper, I do it at "10, 2 and 4" o'clock.

Sauce-making is a long way from fun, but it is easier since I found a way to avoid the drudgery of peeling and seeding each tomato. The trick is run the tomatoes through a food mill. This is a device that looks like a pan with a mesh strainer on its bottom and has a mashing mechanism in its middle. The food mill does the seeding and skinning, trapping these components in the strainer. The hardest part of the sauce-making task becomes cleaning out the strainer by running it under a stream of water.

Other people probably figured out this sauce-making shortcut a long time ago, but I was clued into it last year when I read about it in Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating From America's Farmers' Markets by Deborah Madison (Broadway Books, June 2002, $39.95).

Moreover, instead of canning the sauce, a laborious undertaking, I follow Madison's advice and put the sauce in a sealed freezer bag and chill it on the floor of the freezer. Once a bag of sauce is frozen, its flat shape makes it easy to store in the tight quarters of the family fridge.

The glut of August tomatoes and my servitude to the fruit are the result of enthusiastic plantings in April. In the spring, when the air is cool, the wind is full of promise and tomato seedlings are sold on virtually every street corner, it is dangerously easy to succumb to the notion of putting an extra plant or two in the ground. I succumbed often. I ended up with something close to 20 tomato plants sprawling over my rented garden plot in Druid Hill Park.

True to form, the garden delivered little until I left town on vacation. As soon as my car crossed the state line, tomatoes stared ripening. They came in like a summer thunderstorm, a deluge of hybrids and heirlooms, some the size of quarters, a few as big as a Windy City softball. When I got back to the garden about a week later, I had to use a wheelbarrow to carry out the harvest.

Since then, it has been a race between me and Mother Nature to see which of us will claim the ripe tomatoes. Bugs circle them, birds peck at them and four-legged critters have been standing on their hind legs, chowing down, or up, on the ripe bottoms of my tomatoes.

Each trip to the garden brings more ripe fruit and more evidence that these creatures are growing, which proves, I guess, that eating tomatoes makes you taller.

Now as the air is heavy with humidity and mosquitoes, I lug the harvest home, push the fruit on my tomato-tired family and start making sauce.

So it goes in August, the heavy tomato time.

Deborah Madison's Fresh Tomato Sauce

Makes about 2 1/2 cups

3 pounds ripe tomatoes, cored, quartered

3 tablespoons chopped basil or 1 tablespoon chopped marjoram

salt and freshly milled black pepper

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or butter

Put tomatoes in a heavy pan with the basil. Cover and cook over medium-high heat. The tomatoes should yield their juices right away, but keep an eye on the pot to make sure the pan isn't dry. You don't want the tomatoes to scorch.

When the tomatoes have broken down after about 10 minutes, pass them through a food mill. If you want the sauce to be thicker, return it to the pot and cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until it is as thick as you want. Season with salt and pepper and stir in the oil.

To freeze, pour about 2 cups of cooled sauce in a freezer bag, zip it shut and place it on the bottom of the freezer until the sauce hardens. Then it can be stored, vertically, like an envelope in the freezer.

Per 1/4 -cup serving: 46 calories; 1 gram protein; 3 grams fat; 0 grams saturated fat; 5 grams carbohydrate; 2 grams fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 6 milligrams sodium

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