Cherry tomatoes are ripe for the picking

Tomato Tarts (puff pastry, caramelized onion, pesto and cherry tomatoes). BY JACK CLEMONS
July 28, 2014

As the summer sunshine continues, so does the tomato harvest. At last week’s Historic Lewes Farmers Market, table after table showcased elegant pyramids and brimming baskets of glistening fruit. In colors ranging from deep purple through traditional rosy hues to golden yellow, the varieties were too numerous to list.

I collected a few pounds of the little beauties, limiting my selections to the delightful assortment of cherry and grape tomatoes, instead of their larger cousins. Once home, they were spread out in a single layer on paper towels, stem side down; washing would wait until just before we used them (or popped them into our mouths).

The affection many of us have for tomatoes is a recent development in this country. Although cultivated by the Aztecs and Incas for hundreds of years, the plant only found its way to Europe when early explorers returned home from the Americas with samples. Tomato plants were then brought back to the New World by European settlers.

Tomatl in the Aztec language became tomate in 17th century English and ultimately tomato. These fruits were yellow (not the familiar red of today’s varieties) and were called pomi d’oro or golden apple in Spanish and Italian. But, tomatoes were believed to be poisonous because of their resemblance to members of the deadly nightshade species. The tomato was valued only for its ornamental, not culinary use.

Urban legend, transcribed from a farm journal of the time, holds that tomatoes were avoided as food in the United States until the early 1800s. Col. Robert Gibbon Johnson proclaimed from the courthouse steps in Salem, N.J., that he would eat a basket of tomatoes and promised he would survive. Indeed, he did, and the tomato went on to become one of the most popular foods in this country.

There are countless uses for tomatoes, from sauces to condiments, served fresh, cooked and canned. The high acidity in tomatoes allows them to be canned successfully, from the familiar Campbell’s soup to preserved heirlooms. This same acidity can sometimes be troublesome in dishes featuring tomatoes, something easily tamed with a pinch of sugar.

When selecting tomatoes, choose firm, smooth specimens with no blemishes or bruises. If the variety is supposed to be a red color, avoid any with yellow around the stem, as this may indicate incomplete ripening. To cut tomatoes, reach for a serrated knife; a flat-edged knife (unless perfectly sharp) may squash and bruise the tomato.

Now, back to our array of cherry tomatoes. As a change of pace, we decided to roast them for use in three different dishes: added to a stovetop tomato sauce, crushed into topping for bruschetta and atop a savory tart. Roasting requires a slow oven, some olive oil and a jelly roll pan (or other baking pan with sides; a cookie sheet would send you chasing tomatoes around the kitchen).

The basic recipe doesn’t call for anything more than a sprinkle of salt and pepper, but you can always add sliced garlic cloves or onions to the pan. While the tomatoes roast, they’ll wrinkle and collapse as their flavor is concentrated. Once they’ve spent an hour or so in the oven, you’re ready to stir them into tomato sauce or spread them on toasted bread rounds. Be sure to freeze any leftovers, so you can add the signature flavor of summer to another dish.

If you’re interested in assembling an elegant appetizer, consider the puff pastry tart in the photo. Basil pesto is whisked into ricotta cheese to partly fill the baked pastry shells. The next layer is caramelized onion, followed by the roasted tomatoes. The combination of textures (tender, flaky, creamy, crunchy) and flavors (sweet, salty, bright, sharp) in each mouthful makes this a delicious first course or light luncheon dish.

And, if you’d like to showcase your favorite tomato recipe, consider entering the HLFM Tomato Festival Recipe Contest (judging is at the market Saturday, Aug. 9, see the website for entry form:

Basil Pesto

4 C fresh basil leaves
1/2 C olive oil
6 peeled garlic cloves
1/2 C pine nuts
1 t salt
1 T grated Parmesan cheese

Place half the basil in the bowl of a food processor and add olive oil. Pulse into a puree. Add pine nuts and puree. Add remaining basil and pulse into a runny paste. Season with salt and cheese. Yield: 1 C of pesto sauce.

Roasted Cherry Tomatoes

2 lbs rinsed cherry tomatoes
1 T olive oil
salt & pepper

Preheat oven to 275 F. Line a rimmed baking pan with aluminum foil. Place tomatoes in the pan and add olive oil. Shake the pan to roll tomatoes through the oil until all have been coated. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast until shriveled, about 1 hour.

Caramelized Onions

4 yellow onions
2 T butter
1/2 t granulated brown sugar

Thinly slice onions and place in a skillet with butter over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring often to separate rings. When onions have completely softened and begin to turn slightly golden, sprinkle with sugar. Continue cooking until caramel in color, total time about 1 hour.

Cherry Tomato Tarts

1 package frozen puff pastry shells
2/3 C ricotta cheese
1/3 C basil pesto
1/2 C caramelized onions
1 lb roasted cherry tomatoes

Cook the puff pastry shells according to the package directions, including removal of the center circle after baking. Place cooked shells on a serving dish. Whisk together pesto and ricotta cheese until combined. Place a generous spoonful of the cheese mixture in each cup. Top with onions and tomatoes. Yield: 6 servings.