This is usually the time of year that corn and tomatoes are at their best, plentiful and delicious. I do not tire of eating either of them, the raw corn that turns up in delicate salads, providing a bed for seared striped bass or a red and fragrant slab of beefsteak smeared with mayo on white toast.
This year, while the corn is excellent, I have yet to try an outstanding tomato. Once again, the weather has not been helpful to local tomato crops, nor has the reappearance of tomato blight. It is not as bad as in seasons past, but it has been detected at some farms in Riverhead.
I have been searching for good tomatoes for weeks. I scour the farm stands and farmer’s markets. There are plenty of pretty heirlooms, baskets of Sun Golds, and currants. My friend Mitch served some beautiful, coarsely chopped, brilliantly red tomatoes on top of crostinis the other night and I asked him where he got them. “Blankety-blanks farm stand at the corner of Thing-a-ma-jig and Whatchamacallit Lane,” he told me. I made a beeline the next day only to be confronted by a shelf of pale, uniformly sized, perfectly-shaped, obviously commercially-grown-who-knows-where tomatoes. Turns out he got them somewhere else. Dang. My hunt continues. In the meantime, I thought it would be helpful to figure out ways to coax maximum flavor out of the not-so-perfect tomatoes I’ve come across this season.
Whether bicolor, white, or yellow, our corn is sweet and crisp and needs only a whisper of steaming or boiling. This is the only time of year that I use butter with alacrity.
You can be sure that most of the farm stands are selling the freshest, just-picked corn, but it is useful to be observant of how they are displaying it. If the pile of corn is sitting out in the sun and the husks are shriveling up, steer clear. The best places will have an umbrella or some other kind of shade for the fragile ears, or perhaps some burlap covering them. Try to cook your corn within hours of purchase or, at the very least, within two days. If you want to savor this summer delicacy in the dreary months of winter, do what I do: When you find your favorite corn, buy dozens of ears, blanch them, pare the kernels off the cob, and freeze in plastic bags. When defrosted they will be a smidge watery, but that summery sweet flavor will still be intact. This is perfect for chowders or sauteed with onions and peppers.
Back to less-than-perfect tomato rescue. One way to coax more flavor out of them is to peel, slice, and very lightly salt them. The easiest way to peel them is to pour boiling water over them for about 20 seconds or dunk them in a pot of boiling water for same amount of time. The skin will slip right off. If you want to get all pinkies-in-the-air about it, seeding the tomato slices will also help. From there all you need are a few drops of a mildly acidic vinegar like fig balsamic or a high-quality sherry vinegar. Drizzle some olive oil over them and you will have made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
If the tomatoes are particularly sad, I add chopped garlic or generous slices of Vidalia onion, sliced avocado, and plenty of fresh black pepper. Another method is to slow roast the tomatoes. You can do this with Roma plum tomatoes, grape or cherry tomatoes, or halved larger tomatoes. This tactic is good when you are serving the tomatoes as more of a relish with roast chicken, steak, or fish.
David Falkowski, who is best known for his mushrooms, has been selling a wonderful variety of heirlooms this season. Mortgage Lifters, Green Zebras, and Purple Russians make up a nice colorful platter with different flavors from sweet to tangy to musky.
A lot of farmers and gardeners have been using copper spray as a preventative measure in an attempt to stop blight. Sounds scary, but it is a safe, organic method. Just be sure to rinse your tomatoes well before eating. If you are growing your own, keep your eyes peeled for the telltale signs of blight: dark concentric spots (brown to black), a quarter to half-inch in diameter, form on lower leaves and stems. Early blight is marked by rings. Fruit can also be affected; spots often begin near the stem and the lower leaves turn yellow and drop off.
While this is not the worst year we’ve had for tomatoes, it is certainly not one of the best. Let’s make the most of it and get creative with some tricks to coax the maximum flavor from our Solanum lycopersicums.