Scrolling Facebook last month, I stopped on an ad from Growtopia Farms: “Sauce tomatoes are ready! $15 for 25 lb. box — that’s $0.60 a pound.” It included a phone number. I texted and got the address.
Next thing I knew, it was a blazing hot Friday afternoon and I was standing in front of a metal farm shed beside a tomato field off a country road south of Swedesboro, N.J.
Steve Vazquez, an affable retired Air Force sergeant, ambled over with two boxes. He and business partner Kris Wilson farm 60 acres of roma plum tomatoes — some picked green for fast-food chains that will turn them into salsa, and some allowed to ripen into crimson perfection and picked that morning for locals.
Loading my car, I asked myself the question I should have asked at the outset: What the heck am I going to do with 50 pounds of tomatoes?
What if I handed over bags of them to people I know, with an assignment? Show me what you make with them.
I recruited two colleagues (critic Craig LaBan and editorial assistant Sherelle McZeal), three chefs (Josiah Richmond of Royal Cafe Narberth, Eddie Konrad of Messina Social Club, and Todd Butler of Vegan-ish), and one food-industry insider (Abbe Stern of Too Good to Go, whose mission is reducing food waste).
I told them I wanted ideas, not necessarily refined recipes. The easier, the better.
Speaking of easy: I knew that the first thing I’d do is thickly slice one of them, lay out two slices of white bread, get out a bottle of Duke’s mayo (if you know, you know) and add a shake of kosher salt, and make a sandwich. It didn’t matter that these plums were smaller than the beefsteaks I love. They had a gentle give, meaning they were ready to burst with a similar meaty juiciness. For a moment, I could feel like a tot, sitting at my mom’s kitchen table trying to keep a slippery slice of tomato from falling out of our family’s go-to summer sandwich.
Since these were sauce tomatoes, I rounded up my 9-year-old twins, clamped the hand-crank strainer to the kitchen counter, and put them to work peeling and seeding them.
They got about 4 pounds of pulp in the bowl and only a few ounces on the floor before vanishing.
I fired up a large, heavy pot with two tablespoons of olive oil, added two small chopped onions and a few minced garlic cloves, and let them soften, sprinkling in a teaspoon of black pepper and a teaspoon of salt. (Amounts here are not critical, by the way.) I added a half cup of white wine, let the slurry reduce for a few minutes, and dumped in the tomato pulp with a few sprigs of basil.
I set the pot uncovered on low heat for about three hours, stirring occasionally, before canning the sauce in Mason jars.
I wasn’t the only nostalgist for this assignment. When I rang Sherelle McZeal’s doorbell, she eyeballed the tomatoes and decided to make the same simple salad that her grandmother used to serve the family when she was little. (Clearly, this was a more healthful tomato dish than my sandwich.)
McZeal peeled and sliced a cucumber, sliced a red onion into rings, splashed on rice vinegar, and shook on black pepper. She and her mother shared this. Leftovers can be chilled, and may taste even better the next day once the ingredients marinate.
I figured that Craig LaBan, who is as proficient in the kitchen as anyone I know (professional or otherwise), would go all fancy when I dropped off his bag.
I figured wrong.
“The midsummer’s heat, paired with a bowl of perfectly ripe tomatoes and crunchy cukes from the Rittenhouse Farmers’ Market, instantly made me crave a bowl of well-chilled gazpacho,” he wrote in his notes to me.
“So I turned to this tried-and-true recipe from Julia Moskin on the NYT Cooking app called ‘Best Gazpacho,’ which is so easy and perfectly balanced it truly lives up to its name.
“Finding the right peppers — Cubanelles or Anaheims — are key to the flavor balance, as well as a smart pinch of cumin I added at the suggestion of one commenter. I also loved that this recipe skips the common addition of bread to keep it gluten-free, using sherry vinegar and good olive oil to create an emulsion that deepens the orange color and magnifies the flavor when you drizzle them in while the blender blades are still whirring.
“Chill in a pitcher overnight, then drink from a mug or bowl swirled with more good peppery olive oil and a spoonful of the gazpacho’s primary ingredients diced into a crunchy garnish.”
I was mighty impressed with Todd Butler’s contribution to my pot luck: cumin-scented roasted tomatoes on seeded bread. Like his food at Vegan-ish, this concoction is plant-based and looks refined.
“This was basically a mash-up of the things my daughter, Aria, likes to eat, on toast,” Butler told me. The 8-year-old enjoys garlic hummus and Southern succotash-style ingredients like fresh corn, black beans, and burnt tomatoes. And so he began to riff.
Butler slow-roasted the tomatoes, drizzled with olive oil, in cupcake tins for two hours at 200 degrees, and assembled the sandwiches.
Eddie Konrad, however, decided to put his tomatoes into a pasta dish on the $95-a-head tasting menu at Messina. Forget any notions of simplicity.
Konrad used the tomatoes to make a puree with shallots, garlic, kombu, and vermouth, which became the sauce. He used a tomato powder for the pasta to make it bright red. The topping started with basil seeds soaked in basil vinegar to create little bits of acid. He tossed in raw, shaved shishitos right at the end before adding ricotta salata.
“The idea,” he said, “was a very summery tomato-on-tomato umami-driven pasta.”
Josiah Richmond also put his dish on Royal Cafe Narberth’s menu. It’s a salad of arugula, Jersey tomatoes and peaches, and burrata with balsamic reduction and slivered toasted almonds on top.
“It screams ‘summer, fresh, local,’ ” said Richmond, who enjoyed the sweet creaminess of the fruit, the smoothness of the burrata, the bitter snap of the arugula, and the crunch of almonds.
Abbe Stern’s go-to dish for August is a tomato galette, which she usually prepares with heirlooms. But when life gives you romas, you adapt. She also prefers Asiago cheese, but since her Whole Foods store didn’t have it, she subbed cheddar, shredded from a block.
» READ MORE: Recipe? Click here for our tomato galette.
She sliced tomatoes, salted them, and left them to drain for five minutes alongside sliced garlic. She rolled out a pastry dough, sprinkled cheese in the middle, and laid the tomatoes and garlic on top, leaving about 1½ inches at the edge. She folded the border dough inward and baked the galette for an hour at 400 degrees. Diced chives and lemon zest were the finishing touches.
”It’s great when you have some time and want to something rustic but easy,” Stern said. “There is some labor behind it, so it feels like you’re really making something, but it’s also forgiving and versatile so it’s not too much of a gamble and can be made sweet or savory.” It’s also the perfect dish for entertaining. She toted the plum-tomato galette to a dinner party. “Not to toot the ol’ horn, but when another guest saw it and said, ‘All I brought were flavored seltzers,’ it made me feel like I brought a stunner.”
Vazquez and Wilson said they will have tomatoes ($15 for 25 pounds) till the end of September. Text or call: 856-449-7856.