If a Tree Falls in the Forest
by Michael Ballon
One of the oldest philosophical conundrums is the question, "If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make any noise?" I have jokingly asked my farmer friends a variation on that question:" If a tomato ripens after Labor Day, and no one is there to eat it, does it matter? That question is asked out of my frustration that the bounty of the gardens often comes too late. It seems like that on the first warm day of spring people are clamoring for basil and heirloom tomatoes, even though they are months away. As the Berkshires gears up for the summer on Memorial Day weekend, the excitement and anticipation is in the air, yet there really isn't much local produce around, unless you count radishes, which I don't. I have beseeched my farmer friends to go out into the fields and give those tomatoes a good pep talk, so we might have them sooner.
The corollary of this happens in the fall. Tomatoes which have been slow to ripen, and melons which are just coming into their own, are often at their peak in the early weeks of September, when the crowds of visitors have significantly diminished. Farmers from whom I have been buying large quantities of vegetables all summer long call or email offering me their harvest, and I have to explain that it's a quieter time of year, and I don't need as much. The tomatoes may be the best of the season, but there are fewer people here to eat them.
There are a couple of ways to extend the season. Generally by the end of the season basil is starting to seed, and farmers are harvesting the last of the plants for the year. This is the time to buy a large quantity of basil and puree it for either pesto, or to just puree in oil. Pureed basil lasts for months in the fridge, and retains a lot of flavor. When the ground is covered in snow, there is nothing like throwing some of your own pesto on some pasta to bask in the glow of summer.
Canning tomatoes is a labor intensive effort, but tomatoes can be slow roasted and dried in an oven to help preserve them. Dying tomatoes in an oven very slowly over many hours evaporates much of the water, which both preserves them and concentrates their flavor. A convection oven is ideal for this, because the circulating air helps dry out the tomatoes. The result is not nearly as dry as commercial sun dried tomatoes, but you do get a rich tasting tomato which has more pulp and less liquid. The addition of olive oil and herbs adds a lot of flavor. It is best to cook them in the oven overnight, so as not to warm your house during the day, as they require about 8 hours at a very low temperature. Once dried, these tomatoes will last another 10 days in the refrigerator, but they don't last forever, like canned ones. They can be enjoyed as is, in salads or sandwiches, or pureed.
These are some of the ways to extend the late season harvest, so that when a tomato falls in the garden, some one is there to eat it.
Oven Roasted Tomatoes
12 ripe tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon whole peppercorns
a few sprigs fresh thyme
2 cloves garlic, sliced into thin slivers
1/2 cup olive oil
1. Cut the tomatoes in half, scoop out the seeds, and place cut side down in a glass or stainless steel baking pan.
2. Pour the olive oil into the pan, and add the peppercorns, thyme, and garlic slivers.
3. Turn your oven as low as it can be set, ideally to 150 or 175. Bake the tomatoes for about 8 hours.
4. Pour off the olive oil and reserve for later use in dressing, and store the tomatoes in the refrigerator for later use.