In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hollywood produced four movies about zombie tomatoes. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! spawned the sequels Return of the Killer Tomatoes!, Killer Tomatoes Strike Back!, and my personal favorite, Killer Tomatoes Eat France. The plots of these movies were thinly veiled attempts to tap-dance around the idea that, deep down inside, tomatoes can be relentless.
To the farmers market customer who just paid $3.50 for a splotched, cracked heirloom, the idea of running away from tomatoes may seem quaint. You might even clench an imaginary paring knife as you feel yourself mouthing the challenge, "Come at me, bro."
But I have a friend, a vendor at my local farmers market who is so aggressively grumpy that they call him Mr. Sunshine. His gift for tomatoes borders on the supernatural. He brings stacks of boxes each week, flush with sports car-red tomato fruits, and sells them at a price that's hard to refuse, giving zero fucks about the grumblings of other growers. At the end of market, rather than load his tomatoes back in the truck, he drops the price even further.
There's nothing like a 20-pound box of tomatoes, ripening in your kitchen, to make you feel the weight of the ticking clock, or the inadequacy of your tomato-processing skills.
Spoiler alert: I've solved the riddle of what to do with all those tomatoes, but before I share my oven-roasted tomato preserve recipe, let me share a little more about my grumpy farmer friend's supernatural tomato plants.
In spring, Mr. Sunshine seeds his tomato plants in tiny pots, and transplants them small. He sells the rest at market — or, I should say, he brings them to market in their yellow and withered glory reminiscent of Mr. Sunshine himself. I used to wonder why he brought the sorry-looking plants to market at all, until he gave me one. Since then I've begun to understand the success of his tomato patch.
I put down my plant next to a bunch of flower pots, intending to plant it in the garden when I got around to it. But thanks to its underwhelming stature, putting this little thing in the ground wasn't a priority. Eventually, I forgot about it.
As weeks passed and June turned to July, the little plant got almost no water. Weeds grew around the area, and I eventually went in with the weed whacker, dug out the pots and pruned the little plant from 15 to 5 inches tall. No leaves, just a faded green stump with a severed end. That it had any green at all was a miracle.
Moved, I planted the tomato. As if a nob was turned on a dimmer light, the faded green trunk immediately turned a few shades brighter. I know it can be risky to anthropomorphize one's tomato plant, but it looked hungry, pissed and motivated. Within days it sported burley little buds. They sprouted leaves and flowered, producing a single fruit that now hangs close to the main trunk, turning yellow.
The lesson: Never underestimate a tomato plant. Especially one to which voodoo has clearly been applied.
Luckily, I've developed an easy way of dealing with any amount of tomatoes. I make an oven-roasted tomato sauce that can incorporate a variety of garden vegetables in moderation. It's so versatile and satisfying that even with Mr. Sunshine practically paying me to take away his tomatoes, there's no such thing as too many. I call this concoction. . .
Vegetables (onions, garlic, zucchini, sweet peppers, carrots, eggplant)
Cut large tomatoes in half to speed the process, but you can leave small and even medium ones whole. Lay them on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt, drizzle with olive oil, and bake at 350 degrees.
While that's happening, prepare your veggies. Slice the onions, peel the garlic, grate the carrots, chop the peppers and zucchini — my last batch I used small zucchini that still had flowers, which I included in the sauce. You can include any combination of these ingredients, but they must not amount to more than 25 percent of the total amount of materials, with tomatoes being the 75 percent majority.
When the tomatoes have begun to cook down, filling the pan with dilute tomato juice that simmers around the collapsing orbs, gently add the vegetables, folding them in. Continue cooking another 30 minutes.
I don't add any herbs or spices, because I like the sauce to stay uncommitted. If, when the time comes, you wish to make a pasta sauce, adding some oregano and red wine will get you there.
Turn off the oven and allow the sauce to cool with the oven. Transfer contents of the tray(s) to a large mixing bowl and puree with an immersion blender (alternatively, use a blender or food processor).
Transfer the sauce to quart-sized freezer bags.
When it's time to use your sauce, customize it however necessary, adding garlic, vodka, Italian seasonings, or whatever you need to get it where you want to go. It is a tomato-flavored blank slate onto which you can paint any design you can imagine.
You can also use this product as a stealth ingredient. I add a hit of it to my bone broth, and to my coconut curry, and my green chile stew. Though none of these are dishes that make you think tomato sauce, they do usually contain tomatoes, and the sauce does the job.
It just goes to show: tomatoes are everywhere, but don't be afraid of them.