Tomato season is my favorite time of year. Even the bitterest dog days of August are sweetened by Long Island’s profusion of ripe, juicy orbs. The local crop goes way beyond red — heirloom hues range from red to pink, orange to yellow, green to purple, and all sorts of motley combinations.
You can group tomatoes into two broad categories: eating and cooking. The latter include plum tomatoes, such as the Roma, whose high pulp-to-juice ratio makes them ideal for sauces. But we’re concerned here with eating tomatoes, gloriously juicy and with a flavor that’s only diminished by cooking.
Many of the most delicious eating tomatoes are so-called heirlooms. The tomatoes you see in the supermarket are the result of hybridization, the deliberate manipulation of traits to produce a plant that, in the case of tomatoes, has an attractive color, even shape and travels well. This is done through traditional means; there are no genetically modified tomatoes on the market. But heirloom varieties all date from before 1940. There are probably 1,000 varieties, and each has its own name and story.
The best places to buy heirloom tomatoes are at farms and farmers markets. For a complete list of Long Island’s weekly farmers markets, go to newsday.com/farmersmarkets.
On the North Fork, Southold is a peerless destination for heirloom hunters. The Friday market at North Fork Table & Inn features tomatoes from heirloom-tomato specialist Invincible Summer Farms and from MarGene Organic Farms. Less than a mile east is KK’s The Farm, where Ira Haspel carries on the biodynamic agriculture pioneered by his wife, KK (widely regarded as “the tomato whisperer”), who died in 2014. Sang Lee Farms in nearby Peconic is also a great source. On the South Fork, tomatoes are terrific at Balsam Farms and Quail Hill Farm (both in Amagansett), Open Minded Organics in Bridgehampton and Green Thumb in Water Mill.
When selecting tomatoes, look for ones that give off a distinct tomatoey aroma. Depending on the variety, they may be tautly firm or give slightly, but there should be no bruises or soft spots. Don’t worry about seams, discoloration or bumps. That perfectly smooth, round and evenly hued tomato has been bred for looks, not taste. Don’t buy a tomato expecting it to ripen once you get it home. It may get softer, but its flavor won’t improve.
If you are planning to use the tomatoes within the next day or so (and if your house is air-conditioned), store them on the counter. Unless they are cherry tomatoes, don’t stack them on top of or next to one another. Your goal in storing tomatoes is to maximize air flow around them and to minimize the amount of pressure against them. I store them in a shallow basket stem-end down, so the tomato’s weight is evenly distributed around its crown. For more than a few days’ storage, place them in the refrigerator, but bring them to room temperature before using them.
What to do with this bodacious bounty? As little as possible. My own preference is for a tomato sandwich with exactly four ingredients: tomato, bread, mayonnaise, salt. Anyone following @erica_marcus on Instagram knows that this is my August office lunch of choice.
Take good, American-style closegrained white sandwich bread, such as Arnold or Pepperidge Farm, and toast it lightly. Spread two slices thinly but surely with real mayonnaise. Using a serrated knife, cut the tomato as thin as you can and pile half of it on a slice of bread. Sprinkle with salt and then pile on the rest of the tomato. Use more salt, and then top with the second slice of bread. (Thinly slicing the tomato is key here so you can easily bite through the sandwich without taking half the tomatoes with you.)
Here are some more ideas from local tomato buffs:
At her Invincible Summer Farms in Southold, Stephanie Gaylor grows hundreds of varieties of tomatoes every year. Most are what Gaylor describes as “rare, unique and endangered heirloom” varieties that you won’t find anywhere else. In addition to selling 30 to 40 varieties at the Friday market at North Fork Table & Inn in Southold, she also sells heirloom seeds and offers a tomato subscription that guarantees each member five pounds of tomatoes every week (details at invinciblesummerfarms.com). For Gaylor’s go-to sandwich, she selects a big heirloom — favorites include Cuor di Albenga and Ladino di Pannocchia — slices it thick and lays it on a section of ciabatta. Hellmann’s mayo is a must, a comparable slab of fresh mozzarella is an option, and salt and pepper need not apply.
As if running Off the Block Kitchen & Meats in Sayville wasn’t enough, butcher-chef-restaurateur Stephen Rizzo has also been tending a small plot of land at nearby Binder Farms. Melons, cucumbers, peppers, eggplants, carrots, radishes have all been making the 300-yard journey up Montauk Highway from farm to kitchen, and right now tomatoes are the star of the show. Rizzo makes an open-faced tomato sandwich on ciabatta with a Parmesan wafer, arugula salad, tomato and basil. $10 at 501 Montauk Hwy., Sayville; 631-573-6655, offtheblockmeats.com.
Since it opened in early 2015, North Fork Roasting Co. in Southold has expanded its menu far beyond coffee and pastries. Jess Dunne, who owns the coffee shop with Jennilee Morris, crafts breakfast and lunch items with as much local produce as possible. One of Long Island’s best sources for tomatoes, KK’s The Farm, is less than a mile down the road, and without even leaving Southold, Dunne can avail herself of the harvest at The Farm Beyond and Deep Roots Farm. Tomatoes play a supporting role in one of Dunne’s star sandwiches: a salmon BLT made with Satur Farms greens (all the way from Cutchogue), baked salmon, thick bacon, dill aioli and heirloom tomatoes. $11 at North Fork Roasting Co., 55795 Rte. 25, Southold; 631-876-5450, noforoastingco.com.
For more than two decades, Kevin Penner made good use of local farm tomatoes at the East End kitchens he ran — Della Femina and 1770 House among them. Now he’s been cooking in a private kitchen in Bridgehampton, and the farthest he has to travel for tomatoes is a few yards to the garden where his favorite varieties for serving raw include Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Black Krim, Cherokee Purple and Matt’s Wild Cherry. Bread and tomatoes don’t only add up to a great sandwich: Penner often tosses up a panzanella, the Italian salad based on stale bread and ripe tomatoes.
6 cups tightly packed 1-inch cubes of day-old rustic bread (a crusty, chewy loaf, not soft “white bread”)
1 cup good extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 pounds heirloom tomatoes
2 medium Kirby cucumbers (about 8 ounces)
1 small red onion
1⁄3 cup red wine vinegar
Handful of basil leaves
1. Toss bread with 1⁄3 cup olive oil and toast at 400 degrees until crisp and starting to color, about 10 minutes. Cool.
2. Cut tomatoes into 1-inch cubes and transfer, with their juices, to a large bowl. Add 2 teaspoons salt, mix well and set aside for 10 minutes.
3. Peel and seed the cucumbers, dice and add to bowl. Quarter the onion, then slice thinly and add to bowl.
4. Add the bread to the vegetables in the bowl, add the vinegar, the rest of the olive oil and a generous grinding of pepper, and toss continuously for a few minutes to make sure everything is well mixed. Garnish with snipped basil leaves and a drizzle of additional oil. Makes 6 to 8 servings.