It is not tomato season. I know this both in my brain and in my heart, and yet I refuse to act accordingly. Even though I fully know better, I still succumbed (just last night) to the siren song of a purple-y, lumpy, beautifully heavy heirloom.
It was, as one would expect, not great. It wasn’t the worst tomato I had ever eaten, but it did not approach the sweet and meaty glory of a fresh-picked, height-of-season tomato.
You might think this taught me an important lesson, but it’s one I simply refuse to learn, and I know I will buy at least one, if not several more subpar, not-quite-in-season tomatoes, because that’s what I do every year.
Tomato-based pasta sauce can either be incredibly simple or very involved. Whether you're making Marcella Hazan's three-ingredient sauce or a loaded-up bolognese, it's all about creating that perfect balance of flavours. Tasting, tweaking and tasting again is key, as is having a little lineup of extras you can toss in to bring that special something.
I don’t know why I’m like this. Maybe it’s because I love disappointment, or maybe it’s because I don’t truly believe I deserve to be happy, but the reason doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that I know it’s going to happen, and that I have strategies for dealing with bland love apples.
If they’re watery and taste or cardboard
If you are dealing with a piece of fruit that is a tomato in appearance only, a fair amount of manipulation is needed to make eating it a pleasant experience. Heat is your strongest ally here, as cooking them down removes water, concentrates their flavour, and — if you apply enough heat — brings about a whole slew of flavorful compounds through the Maillard reaction.
If you have a ton (or like 2kg) of disappointing tomatoes, just toss them — washed but whole — into a pressure cooker for three minutes with a cup of wine and a couple of pinches of salt. Run the obliterated tomatoes through a food mill, then let the pulp simmer or slow cook (leaving any lid off) until it reduces down to a sweet and vibrant sauce, then doctor as needed.
If you have just 1kg of tomatoes that truly taste of mealy sadness, consider roasting them with garlic before combining them with Italian sausage for something a little heartier. If you don’t feel like pasta (never experienced that emotion), roast them along with peppers for a spicy, vibrant salsa.
If they’re just plain lacklustre
Like the heirloom I ate last night, not all off-season tomatoes are truly terrible. Some of them just need a little help, and though you can’t hack your way to a nature-made, perfect tomato, you can season and/or (gently) heat your way to a sweeter, more intensely flavoured version of an underwhelming one.
Just sprinkle a slice or two with table sugar and sodium chloride, let ‘em hang out on a wire rack for about 10 minutes to let the solutes remove some of the water, then re-season with a little more of each, plus a pinch of monosodium glutamate.
You can also take a low and slow, very lazy route, and leave bland-arse tomatoes in a hot (but not on) oven overnight, Nigella-style, for juicy, sweet and flavorful gems that are way better than their former watery selves.
Will you be so satisfied that you forget about perfect summer tomatoes? No. But you’ll forgive yourself for your purchasing error, and then you’ll make the same mistake all over again.