Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Tomatoes rock.

Tomato carpet at the now defunct Emo's on Red River - Austin, Texas. © Ryan Schierling
My mother always describes eating fresh tomatoes out of a childhood, long-ago family garden – plucked ripe from the vine, warm from the sun, juices dripping down her chin on the first bite. I imagine it is what tomatoes were always supposed to taste like... killer.

Grocery store tomatoes are a sad affair, no matter how organic or fresh. Compared to home-grown, they are typically a little mealy, a little dry, lackluster and lacking in fresh-picked, sun-ripened flavor. When we buy tomatoes outside of our Central Texas growing season – which is to say, November through March – they're usually used for making salsa or tomato jam. The little actual tomato flavor they've got is augmented by other, bolder ingredients. But when it's summertime in Austin – which is to say, April through October – we have two garden plots that are a cage-match tomato free-for-all.

The larger varieties don't usually fare so well. They split before they're ripe, they are susceptible to leaf-footed bugs, and we've found that crafty mockingbirds abscond with bits and pieces of them as soon as they're soft enough to poke a beak in. Sweet little cherry and grape tomatoes are prolific and quick to grow, the medium-sized orange ones do well, and small heirloom varietals have been very successful. We stick with the tried-and-trues, and use them to their tomato-ey fullest while we've got them.

While I never developed my mom's love of eating an apple-sized tomato like, well... an apple, I do pluck the smaller ones and pop them into my mouth like candy. They are warm, sweet, with just enough acidity and honest-to-goodness old-timey tomato flavor. We don't adulterate too much with garden-fresh, we just honor what we've got and hope for a little bit more summer.

These dishes are not complicated. They're just tomatoes and enough supplemental ingredients to take advantage of everything delicious that fresh tomatoes bring to the table, and we make them often enough that it's time to write them down. For us, for you, for my mom... who still loves eating a big, juicy, freshly-picked tomato from the vine.

(L) Caprese salad. (R) BLT sandwich with tomato jam. © Ryan Schierling
Caprese salad

16 ounces fresh tomatoes, sliced
8 ounces fresh mozzarella sliced
Balsamic vinegar
olive oil
a few leaves of fresh basil, chiffonaded
salt and pepper

Arrange tomatoes, mozzarella and basil in any manner that's visually pleasing to you. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. 

You know how to make a BLT. You might not know how to make tomato jam. This sandwich is assembled with sourdough toast, mayonnaise, green leaf or romaine lettuce, crisp bacon, sliced tomatoes, a little salt and pepper, and a liberal application of tomato jam. It is crunchy in all the right ways, juicy in all the best ways, and is packed with tomatoes two ways. It's my summertime sandwich. 

Tomato jam

5-6 medium tomatoes, roughly chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
2 good pinches of salt
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

In a non-reactive saucepan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil over med-low and toss in the chopped tomatoes. Add garlic, brown sugar, vinegar, salt and red pepper flakes. Simmer over low heat until reduced by 1/2. Add a bit of water and stir well. Continue to reduce until the tomatoes have broken down completely. I usually add a bit of water every 20 minutes or so, stir, and let reduce again. It seems like it takes about 1 1/2 hours to get the tomato consistency and flavor that I like. Sugar, or vinegar, can be added if the jam is not sweet enough, or tart enough. It's really up to your taste to find the balance, but it should have the consistency of a good jammy jam.

Julie's got an old recipe that's not much more than oil-and-vinegar marinated tomatoes with a little bit of garlic and fresh herbs, but it's a fantastic summer dinner when you don't want four burners on the stove going. We occasionally use thinly-sliced garlic instead of minced, and the fresh herbs are entirely interchangeable – the latest version got basil and thyme, instead of the original parsley and thyme. You can add thinly-sliced shallots to the garlic, or use white wine vinegar instead of cider vinegar. Just make sure to use the freshest, best tomatoes you have and this dish will never disappoint.

Linguine with marinated tomatoes. © Ryan Schierling
Marinated tomato linguine

2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, minced
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
2 large ripe tomatoes, chopped, or enough smaller tomatoes to equal 3 cups
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil

Heat 1/4 cup oil in small frying pan and add garlic. Remove from heat and don’t allow garlic to brown. Leave garlic in oil to marinate for at least 2 hours. Combine garlic oil with other ingredients and add salt and fresh ground pepper to taste. Let stand for 1 hour for flavor to develop. Adjust seasonings as required.

Cook enough spaghetti or linguini for two in well-salted water. Drain pasta and dress with remaining 1/4 cup olive oil. Add other ingredients and toss and serve.


  1. I know they're ubiquitous in this city, all y'all need to run a food trailer!

    And as I just received some real SF sourdough, will attempt the jam for dinner tonight. YUM!

  2. The tomato jam is great on breakfast sandwiches as well. English muffin or biscuit, jam, sausage patty (or Morningstar faux if you're partial), fried egg and a couple basil leaves. Mmm hmm. As for running a food trailer, we'll leave that to the professionals... but thank you for the vote of confidence!


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