There are two words that make me die inside: seasonal and local.
Invoked like a mantra on menus, healthy-living listicles and grocery displays, they’re well-intentioned but have come to represent eating vegetables as a lifestyle statement rather than something you do because they’re delicious. These two words slam the door on people who don’t have access to local produce or who want to enjoy a lime in their gin and tonic in February.
This is not the time to be slamming doors. According to the Agriculture Department, 52 percent of the vegetables Americans eat are tomatoes and potatoes, mostly in the form of French fries, potato chips, ketchup and tomato sauce on pizza. We eat about half of the daily recommended allowance of fruits and vegetables, according to government estimates.
Don’t panic: As the chef of a vegetarian restaurant, I think eating local is great, and it’s wonderful to support your local farmers. But I think you do that by creating demand for vegetables rather than by location-shaming shoppers.
The fact is, we live in a post-seasonal world. The vast majority of our fruits and vegetables come to us on trucks and planes from faraway farms, and everything is always in season somewhere. Make your peace with it. Technology has birthed an endless stream of horrors, like 24-hour cable news and people crossing the street while texting, but it’s also given us the ability to enjoy an orange any time of the year, and that’s a beautiful thing.
If there’s one vegetable that people feel most passionate about eating only in season, it’s tomatoes. I even take my tomato dish off the menu when the weather turns cold. But even tomatoes don’t have to be eaten in season to taste good. You just have to approach them the right way.
When I crave tomatoes between November and March, it’s time to make tomato confit, or as I like to call it, A Big Mess of Winter Tomatoes. I buy a couple of pounds of tomatoes, cover them in olive oil, then roast them until they have golden spots and have collapsed a bit. Not only do I wind up with tomato-flavored olive oil that’s absolutely delicious, but I’ve also got quarts of flavorful tomatoes that I can serve on pasta, on toast with whipped feta, on bagels with cream cheese. I can turn them into a delicious tomato soup, or into a coconut curry sauce for fish, tofu or rice.
So forget what you’ve been told about what vegetables to eat when. Winter tomatoes exist, and if you approach them differently than you’d approach summer tomatoes, they can blast even the strongest seasonal affective disorder to shards.
Amanda Cohen is the chef of the New York vegetarian restaurant Dirt Candy and the author of “Dirt Candy: A Cookbook.”
More ideas for tomatoes out of season
▪ Small grape tomatoes often have more flavor than larger slicing tomatoes that were picked green.
▪ Coax a little more flavor from out-of-season salad tomatoes: Slice them, sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon each salt and sugar, then let them stand about 10 minutes before adding them to a salad.
▪ Whole canned tomatoes usually have more flavor than diced or minced tomatoes.
▪ A little acidity, such as a drizzle of balsamic or sherry vinegar or a teaspoon of pineapple juice, will brighten the flavor.
Roasted Winter Tomatoes
2 1/2 pounds tomatoes (any kind)
5 garlic cloves, peeled
2 slices peeled ginger, about 1/8-inch thick
2 to 3 sprigs fresh basil
5 to 6 cups extra-virgin olive oil
Heat oven to 250 degrees. If using larger tomatoes, such as beefsteak or plum tomatoes, slice them in half; if using cherry tomatoes, leave them whole.
Combine tomatoes, garlic, ginger and basil in a 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Add enough olive oil to cover. Transfer to oven and bake for 2 hours, until the tomatoes have started to collapse and have a few brown spots.
Remove from oven and cool. Drain the oil and refrigerate up to 2 weeks. You can use it as you would any normal olive oil. Refrigerate the tomatoes up to 1 week or freeze in resealable bags for several months.
Yield: 2 to 3 quarts (about 10 cups).
Roasted Tomato-Coconut Sauce
1/4 cup reserved tomato oil from roasted tomatoes (or plain extra-virgin olive oil)
1/2 cup chopped onions
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Zest of 1 lemon, plus 1/4 cup freshly squeezed juice
4 cups roughly chopped roasted tomatoes
1 (13.5-ounce) can coconut milk
Salt, to taste
In a medium pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add onion, garlic and ginger and cook, stirring, until the onions are translucent, about 3 minutes. Stir in red pepper flakes and lemon zest, then add tomatoes and coconut milk.
Reduce heat to low and cook until mixture just begins to simmer. Immediately remove from heat and season with lemon juice and salt to taste. Serve over fish, tofu or rice. (If you’re cooking tofu, press it between two plates for a half-hour first to get the water out.)
Yield: About 6 cups
Roasted Tomatoes and Whipped Feta on Toast
8 ounces feta cheese
6 tablespoons heavy cream
1 loaf of your favorite bread (about 1 pound)
Zest of 1 grapefruit, plus 1 tablespoon grapefruit juice
1/2 tablespoon tomato oil, from roasted tomatoes
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
2 cups wild arugula or torn chicory
1/2 cup torn parsley or mint
4 cups roasted tomatoes, roughly chopped if large
Salt and pepper to taste
Press the feta for an hour: Take a stack of plates, wrap the feta in a dish towel, put it on the bottom plate, and put the rest of the stack on top of it.
Purée the pressed feta in a food processor until smooth. Combine the feta and heavy cream in a bowl and mix it by hand until it’s smooth and creamy. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Slice bread into 1/2-inch-thick pieces. Toast in the oven or toaster just until heated; you want it crispy and warm, but no color. (Note: To enhance the toast, drizzle some more tomato oil over each slab of bread and sprinkle it with salt before toasting, then rub with a cut garlic clove after it’s toasted.)
In a large bowl, place grapefruit juice, tomato oil, garlic, arugula and herbs; toss to combine. Add more oil and grapefruit juice if desired.
Spread the whipped feta on the toast, then put down a layer of greens. Top with a layer of tomatoes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, sprinkle the grapefruit zest on top, and serve.
Yield: 5 to 6 large toasts