Top | Kitchen Limbo

You say tomato, I say chutney

(article, Carrie Floyd)


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Giving up out-of-season tomatoes has been a slow progression, but progress it is. There are two very good reasons to do it: high price and poor taste. I confess, though, that sometimes I still want a tomato — no matter how bad it is — on a sandwich or in a burger. But lately I’ve been rethinking this, asking myself: What is it about the tomato that makes it a key player in a dish?

Three words: Juicy, tangy, and sweet.

The question that follows is this: What else is juicy, tangy, and sweet that might stand in, if not perfectly, at least acceptably?

When it comes to sandwiches, roasted red peppers — from a jar, packed in brine — often make a fine substitute. They keep the sliced turkey or roast beef from being too dry, and add a little zing to an otherwise plain veggie sandwich. 

A couple of local Portland restaurants have addressed the tomato issue with condiments. At the Bijou Cafe, the hamburgers — a toothsome layering of beef, cheddar, and grilled onions — are served with a tomato-jalapeño chutney; the sweet-hot combo is addictive in itself. (I created a similar version that we can all make at home.) At Grand Central Bakery, where they make delicious sandwiches on fresh-baked bread, roast turkey gets paired with cranberry chutney, while tomato relish graces the toasted cheese. 

When changing any habit, sometimes you have to rethink the original model to come up with a new one. If I make the tacos of my childhood with bowls of chopped tomatoes, shredded lettuce, and grated cheese set out on the table to add to tortillas and meat, leaving out the tomatoes feels like something is missing. But if I make Chipotle Chicken Tacos, and cook the chicken with canned tomatoes and spices, the meat itself is saucy and tomato-y enough that I don’t miss tomatoes as a garnish.

[%image blt float=left width=300 caption="Bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches are summer food."] 

But is there a substitute for BLTs? Or is it better to wait until summer, maximizing both the anticipation and the sublime in that classic combo? Tomato ketchup undoubtedly has it roots in preserving sweet tomato flavor all year round. Is it ever a substitute for the real McCoy? Would you eat in on a BLT?

 I think if you’re going to wait until summer for a BLT, it’s perfectly OK to call French fries and ketchup a winter food.

Tomato-less salads are easy enough to handle; there are so many good combinations of fruits and vegetables that switching ingredients by the season isn’t really a sacrifice. In summer, a salad of romaine with fresh tomatoes, bacon, and blue-cheese dressing is terrific. Equally good, in winter, is a salad of mixed greens with blue cheese, spiced pecans, and apples. 

Thankfully, there are canned tomatoes to ease the transition from warm- to cold-weather cooking. Soups, stews, and pasta sauces are all friends of canned tomatoes, and easier, too, to prepare. Not having to peel and seed pounds of tomatoes for spaghetti sauce is one of the reasons I rely on canned tomatoes year-round. 

Though I’ve seen recipes for cooking tomatoes long and slow to concentrate the flavor, it’s not for me. The idea of devoting six hours or more to a pan of canned or cherry tomatoes, cooked at a low heat, seems like a waste of fuel. It’s one thing to cook a large hunk of otherwise-tough meat for several hours, for a meal that serves many, but tomatoes to top a pizza or stir into pasta? I’ll just wait for summer when the tomatoes are not so needy. One minute to slice, the next minute to eat, badda boom, badda bing!

Sun-dried tomatoes, the darling of the 1980s, make an excellent understudy to fresh tomatoes. Twenty years ago they showed up in everything — tortas, tarts, stratas, frittatas — and through over-exposure developed a tawdry reputation. Moderation, I tell you, is the key, and there is still a place for sun-dried tomatoes in my lexicon. 

Added to an olive tapenade sun-dried tomatoes make for a simple sauce over fish or a sassy topping for crostini. For an easy appetizer, place a round of goat cheese in a heat-proof dish, drizzle with a little olive oil and a couple of tablespoons of slivered sun-dried tomatoes, and place in a medium-hot oven; when warm, serve with sliced bread. 

Cherry tomatoes I admit to sometimes purchasing in cooler months, but less and less. Occasionally I buy them to put on burritos, although I've found that with a good salsa I don't miss them. Sometimes I want them for Greek salad, but given the lively combination of red onion, kalamata olives, and feta cheese, cherry tomatoes from Mexico seem more like an extra than a leading player. Recently I made the same salad without tomatoes and, to my surprise, did not find it wanting. 

Don't get me wrong; come summer, I'll add them to the salad willy-nilly, when they're bursting with juice and flavor.

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Where winter tomatoes are concerned, it’s time to think outside the box, the bin, the produce aisle. Look deep into your wallet and think, "What else could I buy for $3.99 a pound that actually tastes good?" 

The more I learn about the hidden costs of produce, the less inclined I am to buy it when it's been shipped from another country, or even across the country — especially when there's such an excellent variety of produce at the store, as well as high-quality preserved foods. Given all the good products available, we don’t have to dry or can tomatoes in the summer, much less roast and preserve red peppers. All we have to do is teach the old dog a few new tricks. 

Also on Culinate: Columns on tomatoes and GMOs and summer vegetables.

p(bio). Carrie Floyd* is the Culinate food editor.


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