Ah, Summer. The season when Mother Nature throws her doors open with abandon and encourages gardens to thrive and produce. In my Western North Carolina area, harvesters race to claim every ripe fruit and vegetable before Autumn ushers in cooler temperatures, slows plant productivity and reminds us of cold days to come. By mid-September, vines are withering, leaves yellowing and blossoms disappearing. The last of Summer’s fresh foods are as precious as those early season treats and, while eggplants, okra, beans and squash are missed, no fruit or vegetable passing is mourned as much as the heirloom tomato.
Aptly dubbed “love apples,” heirloom tomatoes, with their colorful skins, juicy flesh and incredible flavors, inspire a Summer flood of Instagram photographs and sandwich competitions, complete with the venerable Duke’s vs Hellman’s mayonnaise debate. Even when space and time limit gardeners, it is rare to find a home without at least one tomato plant growing in a sunny spot or a large container. Natural acidity makes tomatoes easy to can and home cooks employ a variety of other preservation techniques, in hopes of extending that fresh tomato flavor to another season.
My love affair with heirloom tomatoes began after a 2008 blight wiped out an entire crop of hybrid tomato plants. Witnessing tall, healthy vines, heavy with large green fruit, wither and die within a couple of days, was a devastating experience. In an attempt to prevent future such loss, I decided to try heirloom tomatoes and, eight years later, these vigorous plants consistently impress with abundant yield and incomparable flavor. After growing over one hundred varieties, Heart & Sole Gardens annually hosts about twenty varieties and each is a family favorite.
An unexpected bonus to growing heirloom tomatoes was discovering how 2009’s harvest pulled special memories from my childhood. As my grandmother’s garden helper, I lugged baskets of her beautiful tomatoes from a large garden to her backyard picnic table, where we filled huge metal tubs with fresh well water and washed each orb before carrying the harvest to Granny’s kitchen for processing. I remember how our hands touched under the cold water as we scrubbed knobby pink slicing tomatoes, baseball sized yellows, tiny red cherries and many other varieties. In the intervening years, I forgot how beautiful and delicious Granny’s tomatoes were, but when some of those same plants produced in my own garden, they opened portals to special memories and when yellow pear cherry tomatoes ripened, I recalled how Granny joked they were “little jugs.”
Recently, I sorrowfully strolled through rows of tall cages, some only holding brown vines and assorted weeds, and recalled the days I filled baskets with Cream Sausage, a white paste tomato that makes rich soup, Great White, Chocolate Stripes, Green Zebra and Ralph Triplett’s Pineapples, a perfect combination for platters of fresh sandwich slices, and rainbows of cherry tomatoes, now beautifully pickled in Mason jars. Gathering the last fruits, many blemished, is a bittersweet task, but knowing they will be the last fresh tomato flavor of the season makes it necessary to honor them in special ways.
With an extremely short shelf life, end-of-season heirloom tomatoes often end up in a roasting pan. Garlic cloves, quartered sweet onions and fresh herbs nestle among the colorful array and when the whole mixture is soft and fragrant, I often use it for soup, especially lovely on one of the first cool evenings when Autumn’s whisper is in the air. Although few soups are as soul-satisfying as heirloom tomato, the recipe below includes a nod to French onion soup’s cheese topping, which is reason enough for some to love that particular dish. Rather than adding crusty bread or croutons, freeze leftover cornbread for the crumb base or make a fresh cake.
Roasted tomato soup and hot cornbread? Certainly gets my vote for fine dining at home!
In a 400 degree oven, roast three to five pounds fresh heirloom tomatoes, along with a quartered, peeled sweet onion, four garlic cloves and a handful of fresh herbs. Oregano, garlic chives, thyme and parsley are good choices, but remove woody stems, like thyme sprigs, after roasting. Optional: add sliced whole peppers (mild or hot) to the roasting pan. Drizzle about 1/3 cup olive oil over the mixture and top with several grinds of black pepper and a generous sprinkling of coarse sea salt.
Remove from oven when all fruit and vegetables are soft, about an hour and fifteen minutes.
Pour mixture into a large bowl and stir in 1/2 cup dry red wine. Blend with immersion blender until smooth.
Add chicken or vegetable stock if you like a thinner soup or a bit of heavy cream for richness. Season with salt and pepper, if needed. Heat, but do not boil, soup in a pot.
In a medium bowl, combine 1/4 cup cornbread crumbs, 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan and 2 tablespoons fresh basil, shredded.
Ladle soup into individual serving bowls and top with a thin slice of fresh Mozzarella cheese. Ideally, the cheese should cover as much of the soup as possible. Top with the crumb/cheese/herb mixture.
Place bowls on a baking sheet and bake at 300 degrees for ten minutes. Turn oven to broil until the crust is golden.
Garnish with fresh basil.