There are plenty of tomatoes filling the shelves of large grocery stores throughout the winter. But they lack a certain perfume capable of triggering not only bliss, but also a sense of seasonality and nostalgia of summers past. This is especially true in New York where our tomatoes are shipped from Florida, California and Mexico during our winter hibernation. And though I love a nice Mexican culinary treat as much as the next girl, I prefer to wait for the true season to indulge. Thankfully this year’s tomatoes are beginning to blush and are ready to be chomped, popped and reduced. Their winter imposters will not be missed.
As mentioned in last summer’s article, Summer Sweetness, tomatoes are a staple in my summer culinary repertoire, one worth waiting for to obtain perfection. Winter tomatoes tend to be uniform, bland, and scentless, dotting the fluorescent aisles with their mediocre pale hue. Since tomatoes enjoy sunbathing as much as we do and require thawed ground, pollination and heat to prosper, the “substitute” tomatoes filling supermarkets in winter are picked just at the threshold of maturity. In order to withstand their rough transporting from afar and slow down the softening process, tomatoes are harvested while they’re still green and seemingly far from the first signs of ripeness. Naturally, they ripen unevenly, disturbing the uniformity required for store-ready standards.
So they get a little help from technology. Many fruits naturally produce a plant hormone called ethylene, which is responsible for ripening among other necessary plant functions. Most commercial tomatoes are put in large chambers where they are exposed to petroleum-derived ethylene gas for up to 48 hours. Yup, that’s right. Gassed tomatoes. While their color seems ripe, their flavor never fully evolves. Though the health effects of such tomato nuking are still debated, there is no denying that the tasteless flesh of commercial tomatoes is far inferior to their fresh, local competition. I boycott out of the simple principle of freshness.
I’m sorry if I ruined the never-ending cycle of store-bought tomatoes for you. And if you, too, now feel the need to wait until summer to eat them. But take heart! There are ways to beat the industrialized tomato system that don’t require fancy tools. All you need is a few quart containers, a freezer and some good tomatoes.
If I could shower in sugo di pomodoro and still be accepted by family and friends, I would. Fortunately for those around me, I save the sauce for my grilled white fish, herbed polenta and fresh pasta. I make large pots of pomodoro sauce (recipe below) each summer to freeze for months to come. Unlike traditional Italian tomato canning, you don’t need canning equipment and you can leave the skins on. You can put it on anything since it is meatier and thicker than a traditional tomato sauce.
I know my tomato snobbery game is so on point. But by now it’s no secret that good ingredients will yield good eats. So take advantage of the shiny ruby treats at your famers market while you can. You’ll thank me when your ‘maters are as saucy as a salsa dancer.
Fresh Tomato Basil Sauce
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 fresh bunch of basil
About 6 pounds fresh tomatoes, any variety will do, halved or roughly chopped
Just a pinch of sugar
3 Tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over low-medium heat.
Add chopped onions and a pinch of salt. Sauté for 8-10 minutes, stirring frequently until the onions become soft and translucent.
Add minced garlic and sauté for another 2-3 minutes.
Add fresh tomatoes, pinch of sugar, and raise heat to medium-high and let simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the basil and one more tablespoon of olive oil, stir and remove from heat.
Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Let the sauce cool fully. Ladle into plastic quart containers, leaving about 1 inch of space. Cover and freeze for up to 3 months.