The two things I most dread about the fall are the shorter hours of daylight and the end of tomato season. I wait all year for native tomatoes to ripen, not in my own garden, but in some farmer’s acreage nearby. I decided years ago not to grow my own because that would take the fun out of my summerlong quest to find the best ones around. My car does a screeching turn at any farmers’ market sign and I buy so many of the beautiful red fruits that you’d think I was feeding a family of 10.
I’m making ratatouille and another French classic that’s not as well known: Provencal tian, which involves layers of thinly sliced tomatoes, zucchini, and yellow squash baked together. Fresh tomatoes go into simple fish stews with Atlantic hake (part of the codfish family, but less well-known than cod) and skillets full of vegetables with corn kernels and plenty of herbs. They’re also halved, brushed with olive oil, and grilled flat sides down until they soften but don’t collapse. And best of all, they’re the topping for open-faced tomato sandwiches on whole-grain toast, with a generous smear of Hellman’s mayo (the taste of my childhood), a sprinkle of salt and pepper, and sometimes a drizzle of olive oil. If I lived in a warm climate, that would be my lunch every day. Here it’s my lunch until early fall.
I gave up canning and pickling and freezing a decade ago, when I thought nothing of putting up a bushel of this or that on a September weekend. But I still want summer tomatoes in the freezer. I save them for the darkest days of winter when they bring sunshine to my kitchen. Not in sandwiches, of course, because frozen tomatoes can only be used in cooked dishes, but to pots of minestrone or bean soups or braised whole chicken.
There is a way to freeze tomatoes in which you hardly lift a pinkie — without coring or cutting them, spread them in a rimmed pan of any sort in one layer, freeze until solid, then pack in plastic freezer zipper bags. In the industry, this is known as Individually Quick Frozen or IQF, and it’s the reason frozen peas and blueberries pour out of the bag. When you want to use them, remove what you want, let them sit on the counter for 45 minutes, then core, peel with a paring knife to guide you, and chop.
If you’re looking for a more intense taste, roast the tomatoes briefly first. Halve them, pack tightly in a baking dish, sprinkle with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and tuck a few basil leaves here and there for flavor. Roast in a 500-degree oven, uncovered, for 20 minutes, or until the skins start to shrivel. Cover with foil and leave to cool. Then pull off the skins and pack the tomatoes into zipper bags.
One of the secrets to freezing produce is to make bags that sit flat so you can stack them and they won’t take up much space.
Tomato coulis is a thin puree of tomatoes that’s also ideal for the freezer. Core and cut them into big pieces. At this point, you can simmer them for 15 minutes with salt, pepper, and a few basil leaves and push the mixture through a strainer. Or you can skip the simmer, puree them in a blender, and skip the straining too. In either case, stand a freezer bag in a pitcher and fill the bag halfway. Squeeze out as much air as possible, seal the zipper, and lay the bags flat on a tray for freezing. When they’re solid, stack them. Use coulis in long-simmered soups.
More tips: Many farm stands give you a good price on half-bushels of tomatoes, which isn’t that much fruit when you get it home and spread them on the kitchen counter. If you can find plum tomatoes, they’re pulpier than the big rounds and ideal for cooking, especially for sauces. Farm stands might also offer tomato “seconds,” those with blemishes. Cut them away and the rest of the orb should be fine.
Of all the canning and freezing projects you might be admiring with envy on Instagram, tomatoes are the easiest. Try the one where you freeze them whole. There’s little to do and it’s so satisfying. Every time you open the freezer door, you’ll see the red rounds tucked in for the winter. It’s a beautiful sight.