Cream of the Tomatoes

For me, this is one of the prettiest sights of fall: the perfectly blanched canning tomato, so ripe that after just a dip in boiling water the skin blows back from the intact red bulb like tissue paper. This is severe nerdery, I know, but seeing this tomato epidermis makes me grab my phone and fumble a quick pic with my slippery, red-smeared thumb.

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I can tomatoes every fall, some years in greater volume than others. Due to some serious crop failure in my garden this year–the tomato blight was pretty indiscriminate among all of my sixteen tomato plants, taking prisoners of them all–I only put up sixteen jars, and half of those were pints. I do it out of love–mixed with a little buried Midwestern country-lady guilt–not necessity. The truth is, there’s no way these few jars will last this recipe-testing family of three through the winter.

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This was pretty much the thick of it. Did I mention that eighteen jars took me three days?

Even with my own tomatoes, my goal is to replicate the canned whole romas, which are by and large my winter go-to.

Some people just indiscriminately toss any old can into the cart, but I have learned from my many (many!) mistakes in cooking, and I know that the brand matters. One of my first chef mentors said it best: every ingredient you add to the pot should first taste good on its own.

So when I was invited to check out the harvest of my favorite canned tomatoes, at Red Gold in Indiana, I went and watched with a gardener’s and home cook’s curiosity.

Here’s what I found. In canned tomatoes you look for the same thing you look for in the home-grown: ripeness. It should be red from shoulder to tip. When you pour the can into a bowl you should be able to crush them to a pulp with a few quick squashes. Good tomatoes, like these, have no powers of resistance against the crush, and no yellow shoulders.

The thing that some people don’t realize about the southern Midwest is that it’s HOT. Really hot. My sister-in-law Sarah lives just a few miles from the Red Gold headquarters, and I know that their climate is positively equatorial compared to ours–hot enough to send her packing north to the lakes up here for the month of July. If there’s a place in America whose intense sun can ripen tomatoes as effectively as the hot sun of Sicily, this is it.

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The tomato farmer grabbed a single plant and shook, and all of the red tomato ornaments fell from the upended tree in a cascade of soft thumps. They were thunderously ripe.

We went to the processing facility, where a large percentage of the Midwestern tomato harvest hit the decks.

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But it was in the tasting room that I saw what I was looking for, and why I make a big deal about choosing canned tomatoes, the thing that we nerdy home cooks look for, that smooth tomato epidermis. Turns out, my instincts were right. Most of the flavor, and the lycopene, live right under the skin. I love it when flavor and health line up like that.

Back home, with Indiana on my mind, I made a recipe that I came up with a few years back, after Sarah had her second baby. Out of nostalgia for our hometown, I felt a need to send her a hotdish–because where we’re from, that’s just what you do. Hotdish being logistically difficult to ship across the country, I sent her soup instead. Bags and bags of soup, frozen flat into planks and shipped quick.

This minestrone–sweet and tart from the tomatoes, spiked with smoked paprika and bacon, yet full of lots of wintry vegetables–was her favorite of them all. Maybe because like so many of my vegetable recipes, it’s not quite vegetarian?

 

Sarah’s Winter Minestrone

Using your largest, widest-bottomed pot gives the vegetables space to soften and sweat out their juices. In this case, the right pot really does make the soup.

8 ounces bacon, cut into dice (pancetta is okay, too)

2 tablespoons butter

1 onion, diced

1 red pepper, diced

2 carrots, peeled and diced

2 stalks celery, diced

1 turnip (or 1/2 rutabaga), diced

1 1/2 teaspoons salt, plus to taste

5 garlic cloves, sliced crosswise

freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 teaspoons sweet paprika

1 28-ounce can whole roma tomatoes (preferably Red Gold), crushed

handful of kale, diced

1/2 cup white wine

4 cups chicken stock

3 bay leaves

2 teaspoons minced rosemary (1 tablespoon dried)

water to cover

pinch of cayenne

squeeze of lemon (about 1/4 lemon)

 

Heat a wide-bottomed, high-sided pot over medium head and add the bacon. Cook, stirring, until it shrinks and turns brown on the edges. Remove the bacon from the pot with a slotted spoon and pour out all but two tablespoons of the fat.

Add the butter to the pan, along with the diced onion, red pepper, carrot, celery, and turnip. Season it with 1 teaspoon of salt and lots of pepper and cook over medium heat until the vegetable edges round off, about 25 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another five minutes.

Add both paprikas and cook until the aroma hits you. Pour the tomatoes into a bowl and crush with your hands to a rough puree. Add the tomatoes and kale, and cook until the kale wilts. Add the white wine and cook five minutes, until it cooks off a bit. Add the chicken stock, bay leaves, rosemary, and enough water to come up even with the vegetables, and another 1/2 teaspoon salt, or enough for the soup to taste seasoned. Cook until the vegetables are fully tender and the soup tastes rich and full, 20 to 30 minutes longer. Return the bacon to the pot.

Add a pinch of cayenne and a squirt of lemon to brighten the flavors, and serve.

 

Thanks to the Red Gold family–and it really is a family–for the trip, the tour, and the Hoosier Cream Pie!

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