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Cooking with Tomatoes out of Season


David Ross
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A few years ago, for the most part, I stopped buying tomatoes "out of season." In other words, I quit buying tomatoes if they weren't grown locally during Mother Nature's natural growth cycle. While I am sure that the Producer's and Marketing Teams will tell us that tomatoes harvested in January are at the "peak of their flavor," is a tomato picked weeks in advance in preparation for a 3,000 mile journey really compare to the flavor of a local tomato in season?

Sure, I tried the "tomatoes on the vine," the "salad" tomatoes, the "hydroponic" tomatoes and the "organic" tomatoes and while some of them had passable flavor, they never compared to the local tomatoes I buy in August. (I may buy a Roma tomato or two in December to slice and add to salad, but that's it).

Right now we still have the remnants of last week's snow and a new dusting is expected tonight. Fresh, local tomatoes won't show up in our markets for at least 4 months around the end of June and the crop will last through mid-September. I gladly cook with quality canned tomatoes during the dormant months. (Just last week I made a delicious braised veal dish with canned San Marzano tomatoes).

It begs the question; have you ever found a tomato "out of season" that compares to a fresh, local tomato "in season?"

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No. And please don't get me started, or I might talk about how I've never found a hothouse tomato even in season that tastes like a field tomato, or a field tomato overbred to be perfect size, shape, color, shelf life, pest-resistant that tastes like...a tomato--which may be irregular, gets bug, and rots, but won't be 90% pulp like their perfect, boob-job sisters.

Phew. I feel better.

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Last year I found two local farmer's who grow incredibly flavorful tomatoes--tasted like the ones my Father grew years ago in his backyard garden. And I have to laugh at the tag "hydroponically grown." In other words, a tomato grown indoors in a greenhouse, not in dirt, and feed a "diet" of infused water. What do they taste like. Weak tomato water.

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I do not use tomatoes often in cooked preps. For salsas I have found a canned brand that works for me. I must confess that I am addicted to fresh tomato and have sadly been exploring the out of season options this year in a vain attempt to get joy out of my "No Knead" bread and mayo with a semblance of tomato. So far the hot house on the vine have been at least not mushy and had some acidity to them so they are reminding me of why I need to aggressively grow enough of my own this year. One plant has been started that may not survive upcoming frost. I have little sunny space so I am co-opting space from non gardening friends and trying to ensure a good 2011 crop.

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It begs the question; have you ever found a tomato "out of season" that compares to a fresh, local tomato "in season?"

No idea. I too don't eat any fruit/veg out of season. All my fruit/veg comes form the farmers' market. Slim pickings at the moment but a lot to look forward to.

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In answer to the question, NO--absolutely not. Winter tomatoes are a poor imitation of real tomatoes.

I generally don't buy tomatoes, I grow my own, and freeze and can enough for the winter. Once in a while in the off season I will buy grape tomatoes for salad--they aren't great, but they have more tomato flavor than the larger ones.

Edited by sparrowgrass (log)
sparrowgrass
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In answer to the question, NO--absolutely not. Winter tomatoes are a poor imitation of real tomatoes.

I generally don't buy tomatoes, I grow my own, and freeze and can enough for the winter. Once in a while in the off season I will buy grape tomatoes for salad--they aren't great, but they have more tomato flavor than the larger ones.

I agree.plant your own, and freeze for winter...(check date of last frost)I never buyfresh from grocers

Bud

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Canned tomatoes are indeed the way to go when fresh aren't in season. For cooking stuff like sauces, I use canned all year around for the most part. Store bought tomatoes are getting better than the once were but still lack fresh locally grown by a long shot. The best eating tomatoes from the store that I have found are the cherry tomatoes in a mesh bag with the brand Nature Sweet. Even then they aren't always as good as other times.

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The best eating tomatoes from the store that I have found are the cherry tomatoes in a mesh bag with the brand Nature Sweet. Even then they aren't always as good as other times.

Yes, those little Nature Sweet tomatoes are very, very good. We eat a lot of salads at our house, and that's what we put into them in the wintertime.

Also slice them (although it can get a little tedious) for BLTs, insalata caprese, bruschetta, fresh salsas and fresh pasta sauces and other applications wherein one absolutely requires a fresh tomato. Just don't want to wait 8 months for a BLT.

Those little Nature Sweet bursts of flavor fill the bill just fine.

Edited by Jaymes (log)

I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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It begs the question; have you ever found a tomato "out of season" that compares to a fresh, local tomato "in season?"

How interesting. I just blogged about this last night.

I am going to have to be the voice of decent from the majority on this one.

I do a little greenhouse gardening in the winter, exclusively for personal consumption, and the main crop in my little 12x20 hothouse is tomatoes.

I plant the exact same varieties as I grow in the garden in the summer and they are planted in beds in the exact same soil as in my vegetable garden (which is about a dozen steps away). They get the same water from our well and the same sun shines on them (even if more indirectly and for shorter periods of time then in the summer)

.

tomato02.JPG

Yesterday's harvest

The yields aren't huge (and neither are the individual fruits) but I'm kept in vine-ripened deep red tomatoes all winter long and they are every bit as good as the ones from the garden in August.

tomato03.JPG

Just as good as in summer

So what exactly is "In Season"? I think of the greenhouse as a "season extender" with almost identical conditions to my garden in summer (~95F during the day, ~50F at night and very low humidity most of the time). Apparently the tomatoes can't noticeably tell the difference so who am I to argue?

No, I can't imagine finding good tomatoes commercially available off-season anywhere but, if you can grow your own, it is not an impossibility to eat and cook with them year 'round.

The Big Cheese

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I have to speak up for the Compari tomatoes I have been buying in February and March for the past few years here in CT. I too grow tomatoes in the summer and the fresh picked ones just can't be beat, but the Comparis are the next best thing to me. I do not cook with them, but enjoy them in a salad or sliced in half, sprinkled with a little sea salt to start a meal. They have really brought winter tomatoes into a new reality in my mind.

HC

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I've found some excellent tomatoes in winter, especially if you look at the cherry or what ever cute name small ones. Tasty, sweet, juicy. Mostly come from Mexico, which really is just a day or so away, meaning they probably did not travel or sit around longer than what you find at the market.

Actually, if you ask around at the market, you'd be surprised how many grow their tomatoes in hot houses! I'd say the majority at our farmer's market come that way, not from a happy field somewhere. And they taste mighty good! After all, the hothouse just provides a mostly consistent and "perfect" climate, no matter what's going on outside. And I guess it keeps the produce cleaner too.

I just recently read an article (I think in Edible East Bay) about how they are trying to breed taste back into tomatoes, into the varieties that you find in the super market all year long. Once bred for durability and long shelf life, now they're trying to get them to taste better - and no, not by genetic lab play, by breeding the old fashioned way. It was an interesting read, also about what makes a good tomato taste like a good tomato, unfortunately I can't find it online and probably threw the magazine out.

People complained for years about the bad tomatoes, seems the industry is finally listening!

Oh, and I believe those "still on the vine" or "ripened on the vine" are just sales gimmicks, they still have to pick them on the early side so they don't turn to mush during transport.

Great if you have a local farmer who does grow them outside and picks them that morning for sale, but just from a logistics point of view, I somewhat would consider that the exception. Our market opens at 8, I'm sure the vendors are there at least an hour early, plus an hour or so drive, they'd have to get up mighty early to pick with flash lights...

I do not buy the somewhat pale regular round tomatoes at the store though, and for cooking I pretty much always use canned unless I had the time to make my own sauce (which I freeze). There are several good brands out there, Muir Glenn organic is one I like. The real imported San Marzano tomatoes are great too, but a bit pricey, so it depends what I need them for. (Note that the San Marzano brand is grown in California, not in Italy! They are good, but not the same thing.)

For salads, salsas, I only use fresh, I'm not a fan of cooked salsas. For pasta sauce I usually use canned, there's a lot of garlic, onion, spices etc going in there and I doubt it would make much of a difference in the end (these are quick dinner things only) and once my in laws garden yields way too much for them to handle we make a big pot of sauce or two, pack and freeze. Mainly because I can't let them go to waste :-)

"And don't forget music - music in the kitchen is an essential ingredient!"

- Thomas Keller

Diablo Kitchen, my food blog

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I don't buy out-of-season tomatoes either, with a couple of exceptions. One is the Compari tomato and the other is the Komatu. I'm quite happy with either of them. Other than that, I use canned and my brand of choice of canned tomato here in Canada is Aylmer. They actually taste like tomatoes.

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OliverB. Tomatoes will continue to ripen after picked if they aren't refrigerated. Once they get too cold they stop ripening on their own. The ghastly tasting were picked green and shipped, then gassed to make them turn red. Tomatoes still on the vine will ripen on their own. They aren't gassed and they don't taste awful. Not nearly as good as summer, locally grown do, but still they are an improvement over many other kinds and not just a sales gimmick.

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I found the article, it's actually in the Dec issue of Saveur magazine. Called The Tomato Trials you can find it on page 46 in that issue (#134). I can't find it online, but a library should carry the magazine.

Basically what they're trying to do is find which volatiles combine to "make" a good tomato taste, then breed new plants that make these cobination(s). They even use very old and practically inedible tomato plants for this, kind of taking a new breed and crossing it with it's great great great great grandparent if you will.

Interesting read, and hopefully they'll come up with something that will improve store bought tomatoes to something better all year round, I sure would not complain :-)

"And don't forget music - music in the kitchen is an essential ingredient!"

- Thomas Keller

Diablo Kitchen, my food blog

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Yep, have to agree with some of you. The Camparis, the Nature Sweets and the TJ-branded grape-shaped ones called "Splendid Little Tomatoes" are quite excellent in the winter, and I usually buy them when I want fresh tomatoes. Which is usually for using raw, not in cooked applications. For cooked, especially long cooked, dishes, even in the summer, I'll use canned. Usually S&W or Hunt's. The fire-roasted for Mexican dishes.

ElsieD, Trader Joe's just stared carrying the Komatus, and I've been tempted. I'll have to give them a try based on your review.

--Roberta--

"Let's slip out of these wet clothes, and into a dry Martini" - Robert Benchley

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An interesting point that hasnt been raised is this. During the Harvard Lecture series, Grant Achtaz mentioned about if you were given an amazing fresh out of the garden tomato, and then given a nasty old Hothouse tomato, but were given something to smell while eating it (in this case freshly cut grass). Could you still notice a massive difference in taste? Its something that Im fascinated with, as we eat more with our nose than our mouth, and yet theres a very small number of chefs doing anything gastronomically on that level.

Just a thought.

alexP

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It's certainly an interesting thought, I bet you could make a piece of bland white toast with a bit of salt and vitamin C powder on it taste like a tomato, if you also add the volatiles. Or like something completely different, from steak to chocolate. Of the many volatiles in "good tomato" one supposedly smells like Juicy Fruit gum, the other like roses. According to the article "tomato" consists of a combination of 15 to 20 volatiles, and they're now trying to breed tomatoes that have the high damage resistance of "industrial" tomatoes but also contain these volatiles to make them taste great.

You're absolutely right with your statement that we eat more with nose (and I'd probably throw eyes in as well) than with our mouth/tongue. The best food on the planet tastes bland if you have a cold with stuffed up nose, and great food can taste awful if there's a smell in the house that doesn't belong.

Just try a sip of warm/hot water while you hold your nose over a steaming pot of coffee, I bet it'll taste like coffee. Maybe not great coffee, but coffee still :laugh:

At Alinea they play with this, putting those smoke etc inflated pillows under your plate, I think Heston Blumenthal played with it too, and I know that some stores blow "fresh baked bread" smells etc in the air to get you in the door. The later is a bit questionable IMO, but playing with smells and food combos could be a fun project, even if you just use it as a party gag :-)

"And don't forget music - music in the kitchen is an essential ingredient!"

- Thomas Keller

Diablo Kitchen, my food blog

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I think there are 3 categories of Things To Do With Tomatoes :

1. Cooked applications - salsas, sauces, soups, stews, etc. Canned tomatoes work better for most of these than fresh, imho.

2. Tomatoes as a supporting player - in green salads, chopped for a sprinkle on a pasta dish, that sort of thing. I agree with others in this thread that my preference is good quality cherry tomatoes, or compari tomatoes from Costco. The good cherry tomatoes smell like, or at least remind me of tomatoes ripening on the vine in the summer sun.

3. Tomatoes as the star - BLTs (or sliced into any sandwich), caprese salad, sliced with sea salt, etc. I don't do these out of season. It's not worth it.

This works for me. I'm not a purist, except where I think it really counts.

"Nothing you could cook will ever be as good as the $2.99 all-you-can-eat pizza buffet." - my EX (wonder why he's an ex?)

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