In Season: Too many (little) tomatoes? Here’s help

Cherry tomatoes, like these seen at Fremont Community Garden in Sacramento on July 22, are flavorful, versatile and growing well in our area despite the drought.
Cherry tomatoes, like these seen at Fremont Community Garden in Sacramento on July 22, are flavorful, versatile and growing well in our area despite the drought.

They’re the first to ripen and the last to quit. Easy to grow and outrageously prolific, cherry tomatoes reward backyard gardeners with flavorful fresh tomato goodness in bite-size packages.

But what do you do with too many little tomatoes? Pretty much anything you do with their big brother slicers.

Besides their obvious role as healthful snack food (nobody eats just one), cherry tomatoes can do a lot more in the kitchen. They can make a rich sauce or snappy salsa, add pop to salads and pasta, or put zest into casseroles and quiches. Their flavor is intense and remarkably sweet, which appeals to American taste buds. That sweetness carries over to whatever you make with these versatile favorites.

Like full-size tomatoes, hybrid and heirloom cherry varieties come in a wide range of colors, shapes and sizes. By the way, it’s worth noting that not all little tomatoes are called “cherry” or are even that small. They can be classified as grape, plum, berry or pear as well as cherry. The smallest varieties are not much bigger than a pea. The largest look like golf balls.

In addition to basic red, these sweet snacking tomatoes also can be yellow, orange, pink, black, green or striped – just like their big boy cousins.

But due to their diminutive size, cherry tomatoes remain prolific even in times of drought when vines bearing large slicing tomatoes may feel more stress and stop bearing. It probably has to do with cherry tomatoes’ genetics; these varieties trace back to wild currant-size tomatoes in Mexico. Selective breeding produced the many varieties we enjoy today.

In particular, one variety of cherry tomato stands out for its excellent sweetness and flavor. Sungold, a perennial winner of Sacramento-area tomato taste tests, was introduced to American gardeners in 1992 by British mail order house Thompson & Morgan. Weighing in at about a half-ounce each, these bright orange-gold minis were marketed as “the sweetest tomato ever.” Many gardeners agree.

Sungold plants certainly are prolific; one 7-foot vine can produce thousands of tomatoes.

Other cherry tomatoes also are notoriously free with their bounty. Sweet Million lives up to its name, producing bushels of tiny tomatoes. Sweet 100 grows in long, grapelike scarlet clusters with 100 or more marble-size tomatoes in each bunch. Juliet, an elongated and meaty mini-plum or Roma, earned All-American honors for its disease resistance and reliability; great fresh in salads, Juliet also makes a fantastic sauce or salsa.

While it can make your inner gardener feel very successful, a big harvest can be challenging to cooks. Embrace that bounty and start making the most of little tomatoes.

Thread some on a skewer, brush lightly with oil and grill alongside any main entree. They take only a few minutes, and the heat intensifies their flavor. Cherry tomatoes are especially good grilled on rosemary skewers.

Roast them in the same pan with roasts, chicken or fish. Cut the tomatoes in half if you wish, toss with a little olive oil, season to taste and add to the roasting dish the last 15 to 20 minutes.

Roasted, grilled or fresh, cherry tomatoes make a wonderful addition to salsa. They have more tomato “meat” and less juice than their larger counterparts, which makes the salsa less watery.

Take advantage of their mouth-popping size and turn them into cherry “bombs,” an always popular appetizer. With a paring knife or small melon baller, hollow out the tomato and fill with cream cheese or other favorite filling.

Little tomatoes can be classified as grape, plum, berry or pear as well as cherry.

Cherry tomatoes freeze easily (imagine bags of cold red marbles). Those frozen tomatoes can be turned into granita (after all, cherry tomatoes are considered a berry or fruit); combine with raspberries for an intriguing combination. Or pop them in the blender with vodka and seasoning for a chilly bloody Mary. They also can be defrosted for use in cooked dishes.

They dry fast, too; dehydrated cherry tomatoes turn out like fat red raisins. Dried cherry tomatoes can be preserved in olive oil and herbs, then used in salads or antipasto. They’re delicious on bruschetta.

Cherry tomatoes make a thick and slightly sweet tomato sauce, with or without peeling or seeding. It’s simple: Cut the tomatoes in half. In a large pan, sauté them in a little melted butter or olive oil (1 tablespoon per pound of tomatoes). Add salt, to taste. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cover, stirring occasionally. The tomatoes will soften completely in 10 to 15 minutes. Uncover and let the sauce cook down a little more, stirring to break up the tomatoes. To finish the sauce, transfer the cooked tomatoes to a blender or food processor and process for a few seconds. Even with peels and seeds, the sauce will be smooth and creamy. It can be used fresh or frozen for later use.

Of course, cherry tomatoes can be used in any dish that calls for chopped tomatoes. They can even squeeze together on a BLT (although a few might tumble out of the bread).

Remember: Cherry tomatoes have one big advantage over larger tomatoes. They’re a portable snack food – no knife or napkin necessary. Grab a handful and enjoy!

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Crustless cherry tomato and goat cheese tiny tarts

These tiny, two-bite tarts are perfect picnic fare. With the crust-making step taken out of the equation, they come together in no time. Recipe from Ellise Pierce, the Cowgirl Chef.

1 tablespoon butter (to grease the muffin tins)

1/3 cup all-purpose flour, plus a bit more for dusting the muffin tins

3 large eggs

2 cups whole milk

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

10 ounces cherry tomatoes, halved

About 3 ounces goat cheese (I used 1/2 teaspoon per mini muffin tin)

1 teaspoon fresh thyme

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and butter and flour the mini muffin tin.

Whisk the flour, eggs, milk, salt and pepper together in a medium bowl. Put 2 tomato halves in each tin, about 1/2 teaspoon of goat cheese (in crumbles, if you can), and pour the egg mixture over each one. Bake for 45 minutes, or until set. Eat warm or at room temperature.

Per tart: 36 calories, 2 grams fat, 2 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 25 milligrams cholesterol, 44 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 55 percent of calories from fat.

Makes about 30 mini muffin-size tarts

Cherry tomato pico de gallo

Makes enough for 8 to 10 tacos.

10 ounces cherry tomatoes, quartered

2 green onions, chopped

Handful of cilantro, chopped

1 jalapeño, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, minced

Juice of 1 or 2 limes

Sea salt and pepper

Toss everything together in a bowl and taste, adjusting seasonings if necessary. Let rest at room temperature. Toss and taste again right before serving.

Per serving, based on 8: 13 calories; trace fat; 3 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; no cholesterol; 6 milligrams sodium; 1 gram dietary fiber; 10 percent of calories from fat.

Cherry tomato gratin for one

Although this is best in the summertime, when tomatoes are at their peak, it’s equally good other times of the year because these tomatoes get a chance to slowly roast, thus bringing out their inherent sweetness.

1/3 cup bread crumbs

2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, grated

1/4 teaspoon herbes de Provence

Pinch sea salt

Pinch pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

16 cherry tomatoes, halved

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, mix the bread crumbs, cheese, herbes de Provence, salt and pepper.

Drizzle 1 tablespoon olive oil in a 6-inch-by-7-inch casserole dish, and arrange the tomatoes, insides-up, as many as you can fit. Evenly sprinkle the bread crumb mixture on top and drizzle with remaining olive oil. Bake for 30 minutes, or until crusty and brown on top.

Note: If you can’t find a dish exactly this size, no worries. This is a very forgiving recipe – just use whatever you can that’s small, and put enough tomatoes in the bottom to fill the dish.

Per serving: 458 calories; 32 grams fat; 33 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams protein; 8 milligrams cholesterol; 628 milligrams sodium; 2 grams dietary fiber; 63 percent of calories from fat.

Serves 1

Garlicky shrimp with tomatoes

Serve with a green salad, a light grain such as couscous and good crusty bread for mopping up the sauce. To clean shrimp, run a paring knife along the back and pull out the thin gray vein. Recipe from Gretchen McKay for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for dipping

4 to 5 cloves garlic, thinly sliced crosswise

2 shallots, thinly sliced crosswise

1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved

1 pound large shrimp (about 16), cleaned and shells removed

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or 1 guindilla chili pepper, chopped

2 to 3 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, plus more sprigs for garnish

1/2 to 1 cup dry white wine

Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In large skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and shallots and sauté, stirring occasionally, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes and sauté, stirring occasionally, until beginning to soften, 3 to 4 minutes.

Add shrimp, red pepper flakes and thyme and sauté, stirring and tossing occasionally, until shrimp are completely pink, about 3 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Add white wine and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer until liquid is reduced by half, about 2 minutes. Taste and season with additional salt and pepper.

Arrange shrimp on a warm platter or in a bowl, drizzle with olive oil and garnish with thyme.

Serves 4

Oven-dried cherry tomatoes in olive oil

Serve as snacks or appetizers, use in salads, pastas and more including the oil. Adapted by The Washington Post from a recipe by chef Michael Friedman.

Make ahead: The tomatoes need to dry in the oven for 2 hours, and they need to marinate in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour and up to 1 month.

1 pound mixed bite-size tomatoes, such as grape or cherry tomatoes, varying in size and color

1 tablespoon kosher salt

2 sprigs fresh thyme

2 sprigs fresh oregano

1 3-inch sprig rosemary

6 basil leaves

1 1/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

Rinse the tomatoes in cold water, then dry them with paper towels. Use a serrated knife to cut each one in half and place in bowl. Toss with the salt until evenly coated. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Spread the tomatoes on it.

Dry for 1 hour in the oven, then rotate the baking sheet from front to back and dry for 1 more hour. The tomatoes should look slightly dehydrated but still have a bit of moisture. Think tomato raisins.

Cool completely. Transfer the oven-dried tomatoes and the herbs to a sterilized pint jar. Fill with the oil, making sure the tomatoes and herbs are submerged. They will be loosely packed. Seal and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 1 month.

Serves 2

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