more than one way to skin a tomato

The first time I tried to peel and core a (small!) quantity of cherry tomatoes, it wasn’t too long before I wanted to flay myself. It is a fussy job no matter how you slice it, but if the little suckers are  slightly too green or slightly too ripe it is damn near impossible — either the skins refuse to let go or the fruit turns to mush in your fingers. And yet this morning I found myself contentedly peeling a pile of cherries for the summer’s third batch of tomato preserves.

This is the season of tomatoes, the most valuable currency of the kitchen. I bring in way more multicolored beauties than I can consume, but I’m always reluctant to downgrade them from fresh to — well, anything else. Every day or so I’ll dry a few pans of halved cherries in the oven, but at least as many are reserved for consumption in their unadulterated form. I pile them up on every available surface, believing somehow that I need to hold on to that Brandywine, this bowl of Persimmons, or risk fresh tomato bankruptcy — never mind that the garden’s economy is showing no signs of slowing.

Yesterday I came to my senses and decided it was time to clear the countertops. I began the day by sorting — perfect, medium-sized specimens would be preserved whole in a ginger-lemon syrup, smaller ones would be oven-dried, and the random remains would be sauce.

These plans involved peeling everything but the babies destined for the oven, a task that turns out to be not as tedious as it once seemed. It helps when you have gained a measure of skill through practice. But more than that, it is an aesthetically pleasing process, bordering on the erotic. After a quick dip in boiling water, the damp, soft skins slip off like a negligee, revealing the delicate flesh beneath — veiny, translucent little orbs that seem lit from within.

I once came across a note in a cookbook that suggested drying tomato skins in the oven and using them as a seasoning. At the time I thought this to be a ridiculous idea. But looking at the sunset-colored pile of discarded vestments, I couldn’t resist.

Even pleasant pursuits can be exhausting, so when I reached the bottom of the preserves pile, I took a little break before attacking the lumpier beasts destined for the saucepot.  Slicing up cherries for drying is quick work; after a few hours in a low oven they would dry to leathery coins that could be packed away for a winter’s day.

So, with the oven humming and a pile of sugar slowly melting over the preserves-to-be, I turned to the sauce tomatoes. Their flesh folded into irregular crevasses and weird growths, as well as the occasional dark spot that needed to be excised — nothing sexy about any of that. I wielded my paring knife like a butcher and did my best to contain the gore.

I find it hard to get too excited about tomato sauce, actually, but after a busy summer of canning I’ve already got more ketchup, salsa, and tomato jam than I know what to do with. So for this project I thought more in terms of soup base — something I could add to, say, a bag of lentils for a quick winter meal.

I started with the typical mélange of onions, carrots, celery, plus a stalk of lovage. (Lovage is my new discovery of the season — it looks a little bit like celery, tastes a little bit like celery, but it also carries the distinctive flavor of, well, lovage. It really doesn’t taste like anything else that I can identify, but boy does it add an intoxicating aroma to a bubbling sauce.) Next, some garlic pounded with coriander, followed by a couple of zucchini, and finally the tomatoes and some oregano.

Preserves were the last job: the pretty little globes with which I began my day went  over the flame with their sugar syrup, plus sliced lemons, ginger and a few cloves. It is a recipe that takes more patience than skill: the idea is to reduce the liquid to gel stage without allowing the tomatoes to fall apart.

And that was that — 14+ pounds of tomatoes reduced to six luminous jars of preserves, about a cup of dried tomatoes, the beginnings of four pots of soup. And the experiment with the peels? Um… I got distracted and burned them.

I stepped outside with the remains and the breeze carried them east to settle on the garden from whence they came. Which is where they were headed anyway, I guess. The path they took happened to be a little less messy than traveling through my gut and septic system. But whether progress begins with a holy unveiling or sloppy scalping, whether they seep into the muck or are borne aloft on the wind, all tomatoes get themselves back to the garden… somehow.

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