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Make the most out of diminutive tomatoes

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.

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.

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, saute 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.

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