Beware! Books and articles that tell you to plunge a tomato into a pot of boiling water for 30—60 seconds are wrong. Left in its bath for more than 15 seconds, your tomato will become mushy. Best is a 5-10 second dip; occasionally, a stubborn tomato will require 15 seconds, but only rarely. Even better is a quick scorching of the skins over a gas flame, the tomato stuck on the tines of a fork. Turn the fork quickly so that the flesh doesn't begin to cook; it takes about five to fifteen seconds per tomato, depending on size. A water bath will dilute the flavor of the tomato slightly; the flame will intensify the taste.
With either method, set the tomatoes aside until they are cool enough to handle; the skins will pull away easily. Do not put tomatoes in a cold water bath to cool them; it will only serve to further dilute the flavor. A well-grown, properly ripened tomato may not need extra help; its skin should come off easily pulled by the blade of a sharp knife, though the process is a little slower than the water-dip or direct flame methods. To encourage the skin to loosen, rub the tomato with the dull edge of a knife and then peel it. You may also peel certain varieties of tomatoes—firm fleshed Romas, especially—using a standard vegetable peeler.
To seed a fresh tomato, peeled or unpeeled, is simple. Cut it in half horizontally—that is, through its equator—hold the tomato over a bowl, cut side down, and gently squeeze out the seeds and gel, coaxing them out with your finger if necessary.
To drain watery tomatoes, seed them, chop them coarsely, place them in a strainer and let them drain for 10—15 minutes. The addition of a bit of salt will speed up the release of liquid but is not absolutely necessary.
To purée fresh or canned tomatoes, use a food mill rather than a food processor or blender. In one step, you will get a smooth, dense purée with the seeds and skins removed. If you purée in a blender or processor, you must then strain your sauce, which will be slightly foamy because the blades of either machine incorporate air. Never purée fresh tomatoes in this way; an unacceptable amount of foam is created.
Follow similar guidelines when cooking with canned tomatoes. It does not take long to make a simple, flavorful sauce or soup from good quality canned tomatoes. To make a rich, meaty sauce with great depth of flavor, lengthy cooking over extremely low heat is necessary. Reliable recipes will recommend suitable cooking times, but be skeptical of those that call for an hour or so of simmering. That's too long for lighter sauces, yet doesn't allow enough time for the development of richer flavors.
Like fresh tomatoes, canned whole tomatoes should have their stem ends removed and they should be seeded. This can be done quickly with a small, sharp knife or with your fingers. Simply pull away the hard stem end and squeeze out the seeds and discard them. Passing the tomatoes through a food mill is an efficient way to separate the seeds, though the ends must be removed and the tomatoes broken up by hand first.
Copyright 1996 by Michele Anna Jordan, author of The Good Cook's Book of Tomatoes. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.
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