Tomatoes are some of summer’s best treats. While they’re available all year round in grocery stores, the short window that they’re in season here in New England is by far the best they taste. You’ve only got a few weeks, so how do you capitalize on the bounty of tomatoes at farmer’s markets here in the Boston area? We checked in with our friend Sarah Voiland at Red Fire Farm for her tips on making the most of tomato season.
JAC: Let’s talk tomatoes. Most of us are used to seeing them year-round at the grocery store, but now’s the time to hit the farmer’s market to get some while they’re in season. What’s the difference between off-season tomatoes and what we can find locally right now?
Sarah: Since starting farming, I pretty much don’t eat tomatoes out of season anymore. What you can get from a locally vine-ripened tomato is worth the wait. The mealy, bland winter tomatoes look pretty, but that’s not where it’s at! I want a tomato with some juice and flavor. Most tomatoes in stores are varieties not built for flavor, but built to travel long distances and ripen on the trucks. So they’re harvested green and don’t have well-developed flavor profiles, and that’s why you often get the grainy texture issues.
When you grow the tomato in the ground (as opposed to hydroponically) and let it ripen fully on the vine, you can get the best flavor – but you then have a tender fruit prone to bruising and cracking that just can’t travel well. That’s why buying tomatoes from local stands is your best bet for flavor. In late July in Massachusetts you will start to see the first field-ripened tomatoes coming to stands – cherry tomatoes and early red slicers. As you get into August and beyond, more of the heirlooms ripen.
JAC: How long does tomato season last in New England?
Sarah: Once it gets going in late July, tomato season will be with us until the fall frost, which comes around early to late October. Some recent years in our area have had shorter seasons because of the now prevalent Late Blight disease that kills off tomato plants, so we are never quite sure how long they will be abundant anymore.
JAC: What kinds of tomatoes will we see? Any recommendations for varieties that are tougher to come by, that we should purchase if we ever see?
Sarah: The breadth of variety of tomatoes is truly astounding. At Red Fire Farm, we grow over 150 types, and that’s just a selection of what’s out there. You can find tomatoes in a rainbow of colors from yellow and green to purple and chocolatey brown. We have field and taste tested them every year and over time picked out our favorites. Some of the best for taste are Green Zebra, a little green tomato with green striations and a yellow blush when ripe. Brandywine, which is a pink beefsteak type, has beautiful color and a depth of flavors that kind of take you traveling. Sungold Cherry Tomatoes ripen to a bright golden orange and have an excellence balance of bright and tang. Matt’s Wild Cherry Tomatoes are little cherries, almost the size of currants. They were found growing wild along a trail in Mexico and now they win contests for flavor in Massachusetts! There are many kinds and all are worth trying if you love tomatoes.
JAC: Do you have any recommendations on which kinds are best for which uses?
Sarah: For tomato basil salads, my favorite thing to do is get a rainbow of colors and sizes, then slice them up and arrange them together, sprinkle a few whole cherry tomatoes on there. Then you can taste each one and enjoy the beauty.
If you’re making sauce, there is a whole class of tomatoes that are bred just for that purpose, to have more flesh and fewer seeds for cooking down into a thicker sauce. They are often called paste, saucing or plum tomatoes. Look for varieties like Plum Regal, Amish Paste or Federle. We have a recipe for how to make big batches of canned tomato sauce here on our recipes page: http://redfirefarm.com/recipes/preserves.html
At the farm, we grow a couple tomato varieties that are especially perfect for stuffing, and you’ll find that they have empty chambers in the middle like a pepper. Cherry tomatoes are very easy to add to salads and keep on hand for snacks. For sandwiches, I like a tomato that can be the feature, so I look for a variety with a lot of flavor and a good-sized slice. Striped German, a later season type, is so big you can cut one slice and It will cover the bread!
JAC: Many of us are going to run out and buy a boatload of tomatoes before they’re gone for the season. What are your recommendations for storing them fresh so they last longer, and do you have any recommendations for preserving them if we over-buy?
Tomatoes should never be refrigerated – they lose flavor and change texture when chilled. Store out of the sun in a coolish spot, ideally 55 degrees, though kitchen counters are fine. There are a plethora of ways to save your tomatoes for future eating, from making sauces to freeze or can, to roasting them in the oven. Roasting is one of my favorite methods of preserving – you slice them about ¾ inch thick, brush with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and roast in the oven at 325 degrees until the edges start to caramelize. Then freeze. If you have no time and a bunch of tomatoes about to go past, you can stick them whole in the freezer and thaw to make sauce later.
JAC: I hear that Red Fire Farms celebrates these fleeting gems with a Tomato Festival each summer. Can you give us some information about that?
Every August in the peak of tomato season we hold a tasting of over 100 varieties of organic tomatoes. A big farm festival has built up around that core idea, with chef demos of recipes, workshops on making sauce and other skills, wild edible walks, a 5K fun run through the farm fields, tons of vendors with things like roasted sweet corn and wood-fired pizza, live music, Pick Your Own tomatoes and more. This year we have Erin McKeown and Her Fine Parade Coming to Play.
The festival will be held on Saturday, August 2 from 12-6 pm. Read more on our website at http://redfirefarm.com/news/tomatofestival.html
Runners and walkers can register for the 5K through the farm fields here: http://redfireform.com/formstack.com/forms/tomato_trot_5k_registration_form
For making sauce and salsa in bigger batches, we offer bulk orders and half bushels of tomatoes in late August here: http://redfirefarm.com/farmers_markets/bulkorders.html
We hope to see you out at the farm in peak tomato season!