A Taste of Summer Sunshine

by Maryjane Mojer
Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm

“There are only two things that money can’t buy, and that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.”

— Guy Clark

While the rest of New England is heading for orchards and loading up bags and baskets with apples and maple syrup, year-round and fall residents of Nantucket know the true gift of fall. October first brings Family Scalloping, but even before that, those in the know wait for that first announcement that Pick Your Own tomatoes is on the calendar.

My job is mostly inside, but a few times a year I get to stand in the middle of this spectacular field and say hello to friends that I haven’t seen over the summer and people that I’ve gotten to know because of this job, to see our incredibly hard working, smart, and diverse field crew in action (and our customers getting a chance to say hello to them!), greet relatives (saw about fourteen this time), and chat about recipes.

For me, (family and grands aside) it doesn’t get a lot sweeter than that. After a day in the tomatoes, I float home from the farm, dusty from the field, sweaty and sun-kissed, tired and parched, but with a heart and soul full of gratitude. No tomatoes, mind you, but a whole lot of happiness.

Traditionally, we hold the first Pick Your Own Tomato Day at Bartlett’s Farm on the Saturday of Labor Day Weekend. As with all things on a farm, it is weather dependent. Mother Nature was particularly cooperative this year, and the weather was perfect. Well over 5,000 pounds of tomatoes were

picked by a couple of hundred dedicated home cooks and a few appreciative and very hard-working chefs. The second Saturday, we had fewer pickers, but a lot of repeat customers. We are planning on at least one more, but we’ll see what the storms swirling around in the Atlantic have in mind for us.

I’m not sure if it’s the intense heat we’ve had, but this year’s crop has been sweet and juicy with deep, intense flavors. Because of this, the first week’s pickers, with all of their plans and good intentions, seemed to eat most of their loot before they could plunge, pare, or cook a single tomato.

Most of the PYO pickers have a plan when they get off the tomato shuttle. One had already sliced up all of his onions, garlic, and peppers and had huge pots of water on his stove so he could blanch and peel as soon as he got home. I believe he picked about 400 pounds. That’s a lot of blanching, and he promised he’d drop off a jar this week.

One veteran picker had planned her week’s menus around her haul. tomato pie, marinara, bolognese, caprese salad, along with roasting and freezing the rest. The crew from Ventuno was with me in the field from beginning to end, breaking all single picking records with a solid 1,200 pounds plus—farm-to-table for sure.

It’s easy to tell the experienced pickers from the newbies. Those who have picked before will bring resealable bags or plastic containers with lids for the cherry and grape tomatoes, multiple bags for the larger ones, (to prevent squishing) smaller bags or containers for the delicate heirlooms, and a friend or two to help haul.

It’s just fine to come out, enjoy the tractor ride to the field and pick a tomato or two…in fact, I dare ya to try. There have been very few who, once they are in the field and facing a mountain of beautiful, ripe fruit, can stop at one or two. A few have tried, and, admittedly, a few have succeeded. Very few.

If you are coming out for the first time, do a little prep work ahead of time and come with a bit of a plan. The plan could be picking a bunch of tomatoes to share with family and friends, or recreating your grandmother’s Sunday Gravy, but a plan is helpful. Tomatoes that are this luscious and ripe won’t last long on your counter, so get all of your ingredients, jars, pots and pans ready ahead of time. Fruit flies are amazing, obnoxious critters and will show up if there is the slightest blemish or bruise. The sooner you process your tomatoes, the less likely they are to appear. If they do, a bowl of cider vinegar, covered in plastic wrap, with several holes poked in the top will help keep them at bay.

Clear off your counters, empty your dishwasher, get your favorite cooking playlist ready. Peel your garlic, chop your herbs, get organized.

If you’re planning on roasting and freezing (or just plain freezing) clear out your freezer.

Two of the tomatoes we grow vie for most popular. The honey sweet, orange yellow Sun Golds are easy to spot and fun to pick. Romas or plum tomatoes are also popular, particularly for sauces and roasting.

Recipes for tomatoes can be tremendously time consuming, ingredient heavy, and complicated. Start simple and build your repertoire over time. It’s heartbreaking to find that you’ve made a huge effort, put time and money into a big beautiful pot of something only to have it fall flat. Begin with small batches of tried and true recipes and go from there.

I’m a believer that there is no such thing as too many tomato sandwiches, so save some to enjoy while they last.

For freezing without cooking, simply wash and dry, core, bag, and freeze. This very simple method is a great way to save tomatoes to add to soups and stews.

Roasting is my favorite method. I like to use an assortment of tomatoes. Spray your pan well as these sweet orbs can become very sticky when slow cooked over a long period. Roast all of your cherry and grape tomatoes together, with the usual accouterments: olive oil, salt, pepper, rosemary, thyme. I prefer to add my basil fresh after everything has cooled down a bit. If you’d like to add garlic, simply cut the top off of a few heads of garlic, drizzle with oil and nestle on the pan. No need to peel all of the cloves when you can just squeeze the fragrant paste out after they are cooked. Use 425 degrees for approximately 45 minutes until they’re soft, browned, and swimming in a sea of their own goodness.

We’ve also had very good luck dehydrating whole cherry tomatoes. It takes a few days, but once they are completely dry, pack them into clean jars and cover them with olive oil. I tuck the jars into my fridge and use them as needed. The bonus is the beautiful tomato-flavored olive oil thats left behind once you’ve used all of the fruit for a bruschetta, pizza topping, on an antipasto platter, or tossed in a salad.

However you choose to use, preserve, or present your tomato creation, a taste of summer and a memory of the heat and sunshine can make a cold winter day a little bit sweeter.

Cheers!