For those of us who love good tomatoes, not the kind that look pretty but have no taste, winters can be pretty frustrating. Although canned or frozen tomatoes can be used in pretty much any cooked dish, they don’t give you that great, earthy taste of summer. I have found a few ways to get pretty good tomato flavor, even on the coldest, snowiest day, using fresh cherry tomatoes, preferably organic. Perhaps because of the smaller size, they simply don’t seem to be as lacking in either flavor or texture as their “full-sized” cousins. And it may just be my imagination, but it seems to me that grape tomatoes are the best choice of those available in the winter.
Here are three of my favorite ways to enjoy fresh cherry tomatoes in the dead of winter (or any time of year when good, fresh, local tomatoes aren’t an option).
Oven-roasted cherry tomatoes.
Roasting is one of the easiest and most delicious ways to prepare tomatoes with great, deep flavor, and there are lots of variations to try. Start with a pint or two of tomatoes, some decent olive oil, some good salt (I like Maldon for a little crunch), and pepper tossed together in a roasting pan or tray. Then choose an oven temperature and use a little creativity to get the results you want. Here are a few options:
- For something similar to sun-dried tomatoes, slow-roast them at 225 degrees for up to 3 hours. You’ll find a great description of this approach and ideas about how to use slow-roasted tomatoes in Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan, one of my favorite recent cookbooks. Although many know Greenspan primarily for her baking cookbooks, this volume leaves no doubt that her skills aren’t limited to the oven.
- For tomatoes that retain more shape and moisture, roast them at a higher temperature for a shorter period of time. Roasting at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes will give you lots of deep flavor, while roasting at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or more will yield a “gentler” but still tasty result.
- Vary the flavor with your choice of herbs or seasoning. Whole sprigs of fresh rosemary or thyme work well, while dried oregano or torn or shredded leaves of basil tossed with the tomatoes will give you a more traditional Italian flavor. Garlic can add great flavor, but you’ll need to take care that it doesn’t burn. To enhance caramelization, toss in a little sugar.
Tomatoes roasted at a higher temperature for a shorter time are great as a side dish, while any variation is great with eggs (stirred into a scramble or folded into an omelet or frittata) or served with roasted meat or chicken.
Cook’s Note: Don’t waste your best extra virgin olive oil in this recipe. The high heat will diminish the great flavor for which you’ve paid a premium, so use your best EVOO in salad dressings and to drizzle on finished dishes and keep a less expensive one on hand for roasting.
This one is as easy as it comes. Toss the tomatoes, whole or halved, with thin strips (chiffonade) of fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. If you want, you can add a splash of good vinegar (preferably red wine or balsamic) or some fresh lemon zest for a little brightness. If basil is too pricey this time of year or unavailable, many other green herbs are fine substitutes. Another option is to toss the tomatoes with pesto and/or with some fresh mozzarella.
For best flavor, let your tomatoes sit on the counter for an hour or so before eating. These are great as a snack or side dish or tossed in a salad.
Cook’s Note: Because refrigerating tomatoes destroys their flavor and texture, make only enough of this salad to consume the day it is made. Also, make a mental note now to take advantage of the glut of late summer basil at farmers’ market to turn into pesto to freeze for cold, winter days when a sunny taste of summer is especially welcome. My favorite recipe is in Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking; she tells you specifically how to get the best results if you’re going to freeze your pesto
While roasting cherry tomatoes deepens their flavor, sautéeing them in a pan is quick and easy and retains fresh taste. You can use butter or olive oil for this one, or a combination of the two. Any number of herbs work well in this dish. Oregano and basil are most traditional, but dill, l’herbes de Provence, savory, or marjoram are also good. For a “south of the border” flavor try adding a little chile and cumin.
For more complexity of flavor, sauté chopped onions, shallots, and/or garlic in the oil before adding the tomatoes, or stir in a little cream at the end of the cooking time for richness. These are great spooned on top of chicken, steaks, pork chops, or fish, tossed with pasta, or used in just about any dish that calls for canned tomatoes.
Cook’s Note: The last time I made these, I used smoked olive oil, a product I’d never tried before, and I was blown away by the flavor it added. I bought mine at Williams-Sonoma and have seen it offered by Amazon and Open Sky, but it’s also available on-line directly from the producers, The Smoked Olive.