How Do You Get That Delicious Fresh Tomato Taste in the Middle of the Winter?



When I was a kid living in Westhampton Beach, my mother insisted on a weekly trip to Mrs. Olish’s farm stand in Eastport for tomatoes. It was a 25 minute round-trip car ride, and there were other places to get local tomatoes in town, but for my mother only Olish tomatoes would do. I thought my mother was nuts, quite frankly, until I grew up, moved to the city, ate my first grocery store tomato and almost cried from the tasteless slice of whatever was supposedly passing for a tomato on my plate. It was around this time that Seinfeld aired the now-famous “Hamptons Tomato” episode (filmed at the Amagansett farm stand, now owned by Eli Zabar). Even as I was laughing my head off, I wondered how viewers across the country could even get the joke. They did, apparently, because the fame of the Hamptons tomato has only grown since George Costanza obsessed over them.

These days, it’s not always easy to find an authentic, local-variety tomato on the East End anymore (watch out for New Jersey tomatoes at certain farm stands). Blight nearly wiped out many tomato crops the last couple of years, and some farm stands have resorted to planting commercial seeds whose fruit is uniform in shape and color but lackluster in taste. Thankfully, this year has yielded a bumper crop of local variety and heirlooms in my own garden and at several local farms, and this mild, sunny September has additionally provided me with a countertop’s worth of various tomatoes from two friends’ gardens. In addition, an enormous cherry tomato plant seeded itself in the middle of my south-facing front path and is still yielding bowlfuls of perfect, dark red juicy little fruit.

But what to do with all these different varieties and sizes of tomatoes, besides gorge on tomato salads for days on end? I can them, of course. This year, I decided to alter my canning plan to make it simpler to carry out, and simpler to use the tomatoes later. I used a mix of any and every tomato I could get my hands on, cut them up into one to two inch pieces with the skins on, then threw them into a pot on a low to medium flame and stirred and mashed a bit until they started to bubble and steam and smell like cooked tomatoes. As I stirred, I took a fork and picked out the skins that naturally fell off the fruit. Whatever bits of skin were left, stayed. I left the seeds in, too, and I didn’t add salt or sugar.  I canned them into medium-sized jars (no bigger than 16 ounces), which will enable me to use the tomatoes in a variety of ways later without waste.

One of the best things about eating tomatoes is to eat them fresh, such as freshly chopped with pasta, basil and olives. In the winter, this can be an impossible dream. But surely, I wondered, there must be some way to translate that fresh tomato taste through my canned tomatoes? To answer this nagging question, I turned to my friend Elaine Mir, co-owner, with her husband chef Christian Mir, of Stone Creek Inn in East Quogue, and connoisseur of all things delicious. Elaine gave me the most delicious and easy tomato recipe I’ve ever tried, posted below. I am already feeling less anxious about those tomato-less winter days ahead.

Stone Creek Tomato Dip
2 cups of blended room-temperature tomatoes (fresh or home-canned), in food processor or blender
4 tablespoons fine, extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
Loaf of Blue Duck Bakery tuscan bread or baguette
Olive oil for basting

Blend pureed tomatoes, olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper until mixed and smooth (but not juiced). Slice bread into oval shapes and baste lightly with olive oil, then grill on both sides. If grill is closed up for the season, use grill pan on stove or cast iron pan to toast. Put tomato dip into bowl and serve with grilled bread for dipping. Note: tomatoes may also be warmed slightly before blending, if room temperature is below 70°F.