So, it started in February.
No, not Coronavirus panic – something far more positive. This year’s tomato growing project.
I decided to start early. Very early. February early. And as per usual I over-sowed varieties because I was worried some wouldn’t germinate, then tonnes of them did, then there were seedlings everywhere in the house and I thought I’d gone too early, then there were baby plants in their next-size-up pots everywhere, then the greenhouse was stuffed, then there was furlough and thankfully staying sane by potting on and finding places to put what felt like two thousand tomato plants of every colour, size and shape variety you could want.
And now it’s nearly that day of late summer when you can just detect autumn is in the air but summer hasn’t quite had enough, you’re worrying about being inundated with green tomato chutney and suddenly you’ve gone from dying for that first fruit of summer and worrying the neighbours by shouting “come on ripen would you!” at completely indifferent plants to standing in the garden cursing and muttering “oh dear god I can’t make any more tomato sauce because I haven’t got the freezer space”.
Autumn is very definitely not far away. There is just that hint of it on the occasional breeze, some of the leaves on the trees are starting to embrace coppery tones and people are trying to cram in that last couple of summer barbecues every times there’s a sunny day.
But, despite not being much of a sun worshipping type, I’m not done with summer quite yet. And while tomatoes are still ripening out in the plant jungle outside, I’m looking for ways not only to stock the freezer with that gorgeous hit of summer flavour you can only get with homegrown tomatoes and different varieties by making soups and sauces what feels like every other day, I’m also looking for ways to enhance that bright, energetic flavour of summer tomatoes as much as I can while the sun is still coming out to play on a semi-regular basis and the temperatures are balmy.
(Because, let’s face it, before we know it it’s going to be chucking it down 90% of the time and memories of sunbathing will be enough to reduce us all to tears, so we might as well make the very most of it while we have it).
The obvious way to do that is to intensify that flavour by reducing it – but I don’t live on the side of a beautiful mountain in Italy with blinding sunshine beating down on me all day to sun-dry fresh produce. I live on a residential street in Northamptonshire, it’s nearly September and the only thing leaving a tray of freshly-sliced baby tomatoes outside for a few hours is going to achieve here is wasted tomatoes covered in bugs and otherwise still looking exactly how they did in the first place.
I do, however, have a fan oven. And if you can’t have the real thing, sometimes you just have to cheat.
(I prefer to call it “being resourceful”, but whatever. Necessity, or in this case a lack of a sunny mountainside, is the mother of invention, right?)
This is a great one for tomatoes that are on the vine but maybe have had a hit too many of rain and have split a little, or are slightly imperfect, or if – somehow – you’re just sick to the back teeth of tomato salad at this point.
You can of course use shop-bought – but nothing will make up for something that was on a plant minutes before you started the process, so if you’ve never tried to grow your own tomatoes and want to give it a try next season, there are some great heavy-cropping cherry varieties out there and a lot of them don’t take up too much space – Cherry Falls has been my best cropper this year, and that’s what are in the photos for this recipe.
- 300g cherry tomatoes, fresh and halved – or however many your crop / shop haul allows, spread on a silicon baking sheet or baking paper on a large baking tray. If the fruit has splits from overwatering, slice along the split so they maintain uniform halved shape
- Seasoning – make it your own, but I use a gentle sprinkling of Maldon Sea Salt, fresh ground black pepper and a shake of dried Oregano
- Olive oil, both on the baking sheet of choice and drizzled over the sliced fruit (you can afford to be generous, because you’re not going to waste this – trust me
- 6-8 garlic cloves – skin on is fine – scattered amongst the tomatoes (make sure each gets a little olive oil drizzle)
Yes, that’s it.
Pre-heat oven to 140 degrees, place tray in and leave. And then develop some serious patience, because the kitchen is going to smell great but you’re going to have to wait a while for these.
Depending on the size of the fruit – and I always use cherry varieties for this – you’re looking at a couple of hours or maybe a little more… what you’re looking for is them to have shrunk in size, reduced in moisture and be just a little bit gnarly to look at – and because there’s inevitably going to be size varieties with home-grown produce, some will vary from others.
Use the roasted garlic cloves for a spread or in a salad dressing, or the base for a sauce or stew – they’ll pop right out of the skins and be soft and beautifully sweet, rather than the usual sharper flavour you get when they’re freshly chopped.
The resulting tomatoes are something between a roasted and a sun-dried tomato but miles better than you can ever get out of a shop-bought jar or sachet. They have the softness of roasted fruit rather than the sometimes over-dried sundried product texture, but an intensified flavour of sunshine, summer and food that’s just damn good for you. In fact they have an emphasised sweetness that’s so gloriously full of itself that it’s bordering on the indecent.
And whatever you do (yes this justifies both bold AND underline, so listen up because this is important!) – don’t waste the residual olive oil mixed with the tomato juices – mopping up these with a little bread as the tray emerges from the oven is truly, ridiculously gorgeous, or at the very least just make sure you pour it over the tomatoes as they cool in a bowl. Wasting it would be a travesty.
Whatever you like! Eat as they come. Throw in a salad, have as a snack, chop and make into salsas, spread over fresh bread with some tapenade, match with goats cheese and basil or blue cheese and rosemary and focaccia, preserve in a jar filled with good olive oil that will become the base for kicking future dressings into the next gear flavour-wise, cook with pasta or chicken …you cannot go wrong here. Not even I can, and that’s impressive in itself. Whatever you do though, embrace the end of summer while we have it, and if you love tomatoes then please give this method a try.
Food aside, this is a perfect post to introduce someone who I hope will be a regular contributor to The Food Waffle – my best friend of all time, the ridiculously talented and in all ways utterly lovely illustrator, Emily Russell-Rhymes.
Not satisfied by being qualified in Equine Science, a former online digital editor, being one half of the loveliest couple you could meet, owning the world’s most Instagrammable microdog, being the best mate I could ask for, knowing how to milk a cow and being one of the nicest people who ever lived, she’s also an utterly brilliant artist whose work is going to popping up here a lot! One day there’ll be a cookery book between us even if I have to publish it myself, more because she deserves it than I do. So look out for more of her awesome work around here and news on upcoming projects will be popping up on a contributors page soon. In the mean time, check out more of her fantastic portfolio at https://www.emilyrussellrhymes.com/ and if this you think she can help with a project you have in mind please get in touch!