Pickings are good for big bounty of Valley-grown tomatoes

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For nearly three months now I’ve watched my small seedlings grow into tall sturdy plants. I put cages around them to support them and hoped their fruit would be plentiful. I’ve watched as their flowers turned to little green spheres and grew larger each day.

Now the time has come; my tomatoes are red and ready for picking.

I look forward to this time of year for many reasons, but mostly for the arrival of local tomatoes. And not just any tomato, but the big, juicy, irregularly shaped, sun-ripened sweetness of the heirloom tomato. I’ve said it before, but it still rings true: there is no comparing them to the store-bought variety, which were cross-bred to ripen uniformly red, without any green around the stem. My heirloom beauties were grown for flavor and enjoyment.

Tomatoes are thought to have originated in Peru around 500 BC, but resembled more of a green cherry tomato than the tomatoes we now know and love. The Aztecs of central Mexico were the first to domesticate the tomato, which they called tomatl, meaning “swelling fruit.” The tomato then spread across the globe with the help of explorers Hernán Cortés and Christopher Columbus.

Tomatoes are known to have many health-serving benefits, including offering protection against types of cancer, neurodegenerative diseases and sunburns. With their high amounts of antioxidants, they also reduce cardiovascular risk associated with Type 2 diabetes.

Plus, they are just plain delicious, contributing to our daily intake of vegetables, which most Americans are dangerously short on.

This year has been a bountiful one in the Walla Walla Valley for tomatoes, farmers and gardeners I know tell me. This is good both for the farmers and the consumer, with a lot of tomatoes for eating, cooking and putting away for winter.

I bought a case of organic heirlooms from Welcome Table Farm and have been enjoying them at every meal, including snack time.

Simply cut and sprinkled with salt is my favorite mid-day answer to a grumbly stomach.

At mealtimes, I’ve been sampling the tried and true Italian caprese salad, cold Spanish gazpacho soup and corn-tomato-pepper salad. I’ve also been giving some new recipes a try: tomato-ricotta tart, tomato-melon salad with basil and balsamic, lamb and rice stuffed tomatoes, and tomatoes with ginger, lemon and chili.

Wanting to use them up before they go soft, I’ve started researching ways to store these beauties for winter. I’m thinking of making roasted tomato sauce, roasted tomato ketchup and salsa.

If I’m lucky enough, I’ll go through this case quickly, and be able to get some more before the season is finished. And I still have my backyard tomatoes to enjoy! How blessed we are.

With such a broad selection of tomato recipes out there, even the most well-versed connoisseurs will find something to get excited about. And maybe, just maybe, those people who swear they don’t like the tomato will find someway to enjoy this delicious, savory vegetable.

Head to the market and pick up some tomatoes while they are still in season, and maybe pick up an extra case for storing for the winter. Come the dreary, gray and cold winter months, I’ll be so glad I did.

Melissa Davis is a local chef with a bachelor’s degree in nutrition. Contact her at jadenluna@gmail.com. More of her writing is at www.melissadavisfood.wordpress.com.

Roasted Tomato Sauce

  • 2 lbs tomatoes, halved
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • fresh basil

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place chopped and halved tomatoes and garlic cloves on a baking sheet. Drizzle olive oil over tomatoes and toss. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Bake at 325 degrees for 1 to 1½ hours, or when they start to dry out and brown around the edges. Place roasted tomatoes and garlic in blender or food processor. Add basil and process until you’ve reached desired consistency. Salt and pepper to taste. Will keep in the fridge for up to a month, freeze for up to 6 months or process in a water bath to store on the shelf.

Tomato Ricotta Tart

  • 2 cups fresh breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 cup whole-milk ricotta
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan, grated
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
  • salt and pepper
  • 11/2 pounds beefsteak or heirloom tomatoes, thinly sliced

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a 9-inch springform pan, toss breadcrumbs with olive oil; press evenly into bottom. In a bowl, whisk ricotta with Parmesan, eggs and basil; season generously with salt and pepper. Spread over crust. Arrange tomatoes on top. Brush with olive oil. Bake until tomatoes are almost dry, 35 to 45 minutes; let cool. Unmold. Serve warm or at room temperature.

My Favorite Gazpacho

  • 6 ripe tomatoes, medium sized
  • 1 red onion or 2 shallots
  • 1 cucumber
  • 1 sweet red bell pepper
  • dash of red wine vinegar
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Wash and roughly chop all vegetables. Combine all ingredients in a blender and process until semi-smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste, and maybe a dash of red chili flakes for the adventurous.

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