How do we love tomatoes? Let us count the ways

This tomato salsa from Suzanne Ashworth of Del Rio Botanical uses spineless nopales (cactus leaves) as well as cilantro, peppers and onions.
This tomato salsa from Suzanne Ashworth of Del Rio Botanical uses spineless nopales (cactus leaves) as well as cilantro, peppers and onions.

Sacramento must be tomato heaven. Where else do they grow like weeds? Or have such flavor and diversity – and provoke intense local pride?

Like wine grapes and Napa, tomatoes are synonymous with our valley and, obsessively, our favorite fruit of the vine. We’ve gone way beyond basic paste tomatoes or “canners,” the processing tomatoes that represent more than 95 percent of California’s commercial harvest. We want that special variety that makes our taste buds shout for joy.

But which one? Every Sacramentan has her or his favorite tomato, to eat and/or to grow. And we all grow them (or wish we did), even if it’s just a lonely cherry tomato plant in a pot on a patio.

For most growers (pros or hobbyists), this has been a challenging but ultimately satisfying tomato season. And for folks with no green thumb, local farmers markets overflow with the summer’s bounty.

What to do with that delicious crop? We turned to several local experts to get their takes on all things tomato:

Farmer Fred Hoffman

The popular radio host and lifetime master gardener grew 27 tomato varieties this summer.

Favorite tomato to eat fresh: “This year, it has to be the Dwarf Tasmanian Chocolate; sweet, juicy, flavorful, great colors … and early, too! Historically, it has been Dr. Wyche’s Yellow, a beefsteak heirloom.”

Favorite tomato to grow: “Has to be the Sungold and Sweet Million cherry tomatoes. Prolific throughout the season, and very munchable while working in the garden.”

Favorite fresh tomato recipe: Roasted tomatoes, for now and later. “The aroma of these roasted tomatoes adds a great sensory bonus to any slow cooker recipe.”

Milt Whaley

A former Bee journalist, he became a gourmet tomato grower (at his Singing Frog Farm) for local farmers markets.

Favorite tomato to eat fresh: “Candy Sweet Icicle. These are small and I eat them in the garden, which is probably where I consume most of my raw tomatoes.”

Favorite tomato to grow: “If I had to pick one reliable tomato, over the years, it’s got to be the Jaune Flammé (French for ‘yellow flame’). Early producer and last to die off from the frost. Great fresh, roasted, dried or cooked into a sauce. Wonderful flavor, complex profile, with a slight tartness.”

Favorite fresh tomato recipe: BBT – bacon, basil and tomato sandwich. “We stopped using the ‘L’ a couple of years ago after substituting basil once when we didn’t have lettuce. Everyone loves basil better. It adds a deep richness to the flavor. I like mine on rye bread.”

Suzanne Ashworth

As owner of Del Rio Botanical in West Sacramento, she grows gourmet produce for many local restaurants.

Favorite tomato to eat fresh: Golden Queen.

Favorite tomato to grow: “The most reliable to grow is Eva Purple Ball.”

Favorite fresh tomato recipe: “The fresh salsa recipe I like to prepare is equal parts tomato, pepper, onion and a bit of Luther Burbank spineless nopales.”

Dan Vierria

The retired Sacramento Bee garden writer is a UC certified master gardener and a self-described “tomatohead.”

Favorite tomato to eat fresh: Cherokee Purple, Green Doctors.

Favorite tomato to grow: Juliet, a cherry tomato shaped liked a small Roma.

Favorite fresh tomato recipe: Garden-grown gazpacho.

Debbie Arrington

A longtime gardener and home cook, The Bee’s garden writer grows about a dozen varieties each summer.

Favorite tomato to eat fresh: Lemon Boy. “Love the sweet flavor and yellow color.”

Favorite tomato to grow: Big Boy. “Prolific, versatile and meaty.”

Favorite fresh tomato recipe: Fresh tomato sauce. “No peeling necessary; just pulse it for a few seconds in the food processor.”

Kathy Morrison

A Bee features copy editor and Carmichael community gardener, she shares her tomato starts with Bee staff.

Favorite tomato to eat fresh: Robeson. A black heirloom with an amazing depth of flavor, but it’s finicky about weather.

Favorite tomato to grow: Juliet. “So prolific, so reliable.”

Favorite fresh tomato recipe: Tomato cobbler.

Lori Korleski Richardson

A former Bee staffer and food blogger, she’s a community gardener and creative cook.

Favorite tomato to eat fresh: Kellogg’s Breakfast tomato.

Favorite tomato to grow: Juliet.

Favorite fresh tomato recipe: Lori K’s garden gazpacho.

Video: Tips for how to safely can tomatoes
Video: Easy way to peel tomatoes

Botanically, tomatoes are a fruit or berry. But under law, they’re a vegetable, thanks to an 1893 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

More than 25,000 named varieties of tomatoes exist, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. About 3,000 varieties are in active cultivation.

Tomatoes rank as the most popular backyard crop, grown in 93 percent of American vegetable gardens.

Tomato cobbler

Prep time: 50 minutes

Cook time: 1 hour 10 minutes

Serves 6 to 8

Kathy Morrison: The original recipe was given to me by former Bee staffer Dixie Reid, with a note: “Kathy, you may be the only person in the county who will grow enough tomatoes for this dish.” It’s adapted from a Martha Stewart recipe, which uses all cherry tomatoes. However, I use about half full-size tomatoes, cut into quarters, and half cherry tomatoes. You get more juiciness that way. It’s a showstopper for dinner.

For filling:

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 medium onions, slivered or chopped

4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

3 pounds tomatoes, either all cherry tomatoes, or a mix of large and small (core larger tomatoes and cut into quarters)

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

For biscuit topping:

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

Coarse salt

1 stick (8 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1 cup grated cheese (Cheddar, Gruyere or Monterey jack), plus 1 tablespoon for sprinkling

1 1/2 cups heavy cream, plus more for brushing

Butter, for baking dish

Make the filling: Heat oil in a large, high-sided skillet over medium heat. Cook onions, stirring occasionally, until caramelized, about 25 minutes. Add garlic, and cook until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Let cool.

Toss onion mixture, tomatoes, flour and red pepper flakes with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and some pepper.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Make the biscuit topping: Whisk together the flour, baking powder and 1 teaspoon salt in a bowl. Cut in butter with a pastry cutter or rub in with your fingers until small clumps form. Stir in cheese, then add cream, stirring with a fork to combine until the dough forms. (Dough will be slightly sticky.)

Transfer tomato mixture to a lightly buttered 2 1/2-quart baking dish (at least 2 inches deep). Spoon clumps of biscuit dough over top in a circle, leaving center open. (Depending on the shape of your dish, you may not need all the dough; bake the rest as biscuits.) Brush dough with cream, and sprinkle with remaining 1 tablespoon cheese. Bake until the tomatoes are bubbling in the center and biscuits are golden brown, about 50 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack. Let cool 20 minutes before serving.

Roasted tomatoes

This recipe from Sacramento radio host Farmer Fred Hoffman and his wife, Jeanne, can be adapted to any size tomato or amount available for roasting. The roasted tomatoes can be used in sauces and other recipes. They also can be frozen or canned for later use.

Fresh tomatoes

Parchment paper

Olive oil

Cut fresh tomatoes into equally thick slices, about 1/4-inch to 1/2-inch thick; no peeling necessary! Cherry tomatoes can be cut in half.

Place cut tomatoes in a single layer on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.

Drizzle with olive oil.

Bake for 90 minutes to 2 hours at 300 degrees F (250 degrees if your oven goes that low). If roasting on two trays simultaneously on upper and lower racks, switch them half way through. Check for doneness at 90 minutes; go longer if necessary. The tomatoes will shrink, but should still look somewhat meaty when done.

Freeze in small batches or can them (hot water processing method) in pint or quart jars.

Crockpot tortellini with roasted tomatoes

Serves 4

The aroma of roasted tomatoes makes this slow-cooker recipe a family favorite, says Farmer Fred Hoffman.

One 9-ounce package cheese or spinach tortellini

2 cups roasted tomatoes

2 cups tomato pasta sauce (divided)

One 10- to 16-ounce package chopped frozen mixed winter vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, etc.)

3 tablespoons fresh basil

2 tablespoons garlic and herb seasoning

2 tablespoons Italian seasoning

In a slow cooker, pour 1 cup of tomato pasta sauce into the bottom. Sprinkle on one-third of the basil and seasonings. Add uncooked tortellini, spread evenly over pasta sauce.

Add roasted tomatoes. Sprinkle on one-third of the basil and seasoning mix over tomatoes. Add mixed vegetables.

Pour 1 cup of tomato pasta sauce over the vegetables. Sprinkle on top the remaining basil and seasoning. Cover and cook on the low setting, about 4 hours. Serve with grated Parmesan cheese (optional).

Tomato-cactus salsa

Makes about 2 cups

This recipe comes courtesy of Suzanne Ashworth of Del Rio Botanical in West Sacramento. Luther Burbank spineless nopales are a staple in her farm’s community-supported agriculture boxes for subscribers. These spineless nopales or cactus leaves also are available at some farmers markets or produce stands. Canned nopales, which may be substituted, are available in supermarkets in the Hispanic foods section.

2 fresh ripe full-size tomatoes, diced

2 or 3 hot peppers, stemmed and seeded, finely diced

1/2 onion, peeled and diced,

1 nopal (cactus leaf), spines removed and diced

1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, chopped

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon chili flakes

Salt and pepper to taste

In a non-reactive bowl, mix diced tomatoes, peppers, onion and cactus. Let stand for a few minutes, then drain.

Add cilantro, lemon juice and chili flakes; stir gently. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Chill until to ready to serve.

Fresh tomato sauce

Makes about 2 cups

This flexible recipe from Debbie Arrington can be doubled or tripled and works with all sorts of tomatoes, even cherries. Freeze some for later. For a smoother sauce, peel tomatoes first. Otherwise, leave the peels on and save some work. This sauce is great straight on pasta or polenta, or can be used as an ingredient in anything that calls for tomato sauce. The real tomato taste shines through.

2 tablespoons butter or olive oil

1 pound fresh tomatoes, roughly chopped (about 3 cups)

Salt and pepper to taste

In a large heavy skillet or Dutch oven, melt butter or heat oil. Add tomatoes. Sprinkle with a little salt, about 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon. Over medium heat, bring tomatoes to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Cover and reduce heat. Cook for about 5 to 10 minutes or until tomatoes are soft and mushy.

If tomatoes look too watery, cook uncovered for a few more minutes to simmer off some of that excess moisture. Remove tomatoes from heat and let cool slightly.

Transfer tomatoes to a food processor and pulse gently for a few seconds, until smooth.

Serve with pasta or polenta.

Note: Sauce may be made ahead and kept in the refrigerator for 3 days before use. Sauce also may be frozen or canned (hot water processing method) for later use.

Garden-grown gazpacho

Serves 6

From Dan Vierria, UCCE Sacramento County master gardener and retired Bee home and garden writer. A refreshing cold summer soup, gazpacho not only showcases tomatoes, but other seasonal vegetables and herbs from the garden or farmers market. If you’re on a gluten-free diet, leave the bread out. The soup won’t have the authentic texture without bread, but will still taste great! There’s no need to peel and seed the tomatoes because they’re tossed into a blender, but some will opt for the extra work.

This recipe was adapted from Rick Mahan’s gazpacho. Mahan is chef/owner of The Waterboy and OneSpeed Pizza.

3 pounds cored and quartered red, vine-ripened tomatoes

1/2 cup roughly chopped bell pepper (yellow peppers add color)

1 pound peeled and roughly chopped cucumber

1/2 loaf of good quality, day-old bread (crust removed)

1/2 cup Italian (flat-leaf) parsley leaves

1/2 cup roughly chopped sweet onion

1 tablespoon fresh oregano (or 1 teaspoon dried oregano)

4 tablespoons sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar

6 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons sweet paprika

Basil leaves for garnish

Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients, purée in batches. Strain if you like a thicker gazpacho.

Chill and serve. Garnish each serving with fresh basil chiffonade.

Lori K’s garden gazpacho

Prep time: About 15 minutes

Serves 3 or 4

Note: I like seeds and skins. Add more prep time, and some tomato juice, if you want to remove both.

2 pounds ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped

1 medium red bell pepper, roughly chopped

1 large, young lemon cucumber, roughly chopped

½ red onion, roughly chopped

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Two ½-inch slices french bread or 1 slice ciabatta, torn up

A few basil leaves and/or parsley

1 small fresh jalapeño, seeded and roughly chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

Salt and black pepper

1 avocado, quartered and thinly sliced into fans (optional)

1 tablespoon sherry (optional)

Put the tomatoes, bell pepper, cucumber, onion, olive oil, bread, parsley and/or basil, jalapeño and garlic in a blender; season with salt and pepper. Process until smooth, adding up to ½ cup water if necessary.

Taste and adjust the seasoning. Refrigerate for up to a few hours before serving or serve immediately. Float the sherry on top and/or garnish with avocado fans, if desired.