Cooking Up Tomatoes with a Southern Twist, + a Recipe for Sungold Tomato Sauce

Here we are at the height of tomato season, and fast approaching one of the biggest holiday weekends of the year. I know I’ll be including tomatoes in my Labor Day cookout-sliced tomatoes for burgers come to mind-but I found some surprising new ways to prepare this celebrated summer ingredient in a new cookbook called, appropriately, Tomatoes, by Miriam Rubin (University of North Carolina Press, 2013). This compact book is from the Savor the South series, and it takes a deliciously Southern approach to tomato cookery. Excuse me, Tomato Cobbler? Yum! The array of luscious recipes that Rubin has gathered in her book got me excited, so I asked her to tell me more about cooking with one of our most beloved ingredients, the tomato.

In the book, you talk about how and when a tomato “becomes Southern.” What does this mean?

There are certain heirloom tomatoes that grow well in the south, such as Cherokee Purple and German Johnson, for starters. But what it really means is that they are given a southern touch, stewed with okra, dredged in cornmeal and fried, simmered with bacon drippings and thickened with flour for tomato gravy, but most iconically (and so deliciously), slathered with mayonnaise (the brand is a matter of much dispute) salted well and slapped between two slices of soft white bread. Then eaten over the kitchen sink, because it’s drippy!

There is a chapter in the book called Main Dishes, Pies, Casseroles, and Cobblers. Wow! The idea of crusty, flaky baked goods made with tomatoes is irresistible. Is this a particularly Southern way of using tomatoes? What in the name of deliciousness is a “tomato cobbler?”

Well, we can assume that something wonderful, such as a pork tenderloin and green tomato stew is made even better when put under a biscuit, and when I think biscuit I think south, where quickly made breads and pastry toppings are an art form. There’s a recipe I adapted from one by Edna Lewis: Baked Tomatoes with Crusty Bread that’s a riff on a church supper favorite. My Tomato Cobbler is a vegetarian main dish of simmered tomatoes and frying peppers with a soft cobbler topping made from corn kernels and cornmeal. It’s pretty wonderful to eat and gorgeous to look at.

In the book, you include some historical tidbits about tomatoes. Can you explain how they came to North America?

Tomatoes came from South America, traveled to Central America where they were eaten by the Mayans and other Mesoamerican peoples who also cultivated them. The Spanish carried them to Europe after the Conquest, and then they spread to Italy and the Mediterranean. Tomatoes returned to the United States with settlers, explorers and colonists and in the pockets of immigrants, and, it is assumed, traveled up from the Caribbean.

Many of us get stuck cooking tomatoes the same way year after year. How can people expand their tomato repertoire?

Well, in the book I offer recipes from soups to salads to casseroles; there’s a cake, a savory and a sweet pie and preserves. So there’s lots to choose from. Sauces are not just a red tomato sauce, but a Sungold Tomato Sauce, a Green Tomato Pasta Sauce from Abruzzo, and a Jalapeno Tomato Gravy. If you grow your own tomatoes or are interested in putting some by, there are plenty of choices for saving the harvest.

And even if you don’t “grow your own” or want to preserve the season’s bounty, there are lots of new and classic ways to prepare and adore this favorite fruit. Yes, it’s a fruit, that’s most-often used as a vegetable.

Your book is part of the Savor the South series. What is the series all about?

These are single-subject books, each focusing on an iconic Southern ingredient. My topic, gloriously, is tomatoes, which I grow and have written about in my cooking and gardening column, “Miriam’s Garden” which runs seasonally in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Other books in the series are on Pecans, Peaches, Okra, Biscuits, Buttermilk and Bourbon.

But the recipes in all our books are not just southern, they span the globe. I include a recipe for Matbucha, a popular tomato dip/salad that’s served throughout Israel. I have my twist on Italian Caprese salad, and a yummy roasted tomato tapenade as well.

You keep a vast vegetable garden at your home in Pennsylvania. Did you test these recipes using your own tomatoes?

I grew nearly every tomato myself. There’s nothing like your own tomatoes, the freshest, vine-ripened most fragrant and juicy! When the season started to slow down, I “borrowed” tomatoes from my neighbors and a local farm. So all grown within 5 miles of here, and most right out the side door and through the garden gate!

Could you share one of your favorite tomato recipes with us?

The recipe I’m sharing is a fun one! Sungold Tomato Sauce. It’s sweet and spicy with a touch of mint and I love it on small whole-wheat pasta. If you can’t get enough Sungolds, you can also add some larger yellow or orange tomatoes. But what you need is that pop of sweet-tart flavor that’s the trademark of a Sungold.

Sungold Tomato Sauce

From TOMATOES: a Savor the South®cookbook by Miriam Rubin. Copyright © 2013 by Miriam Rubin.  Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press.

Sungold cherry tomatoes, the tangerine-hued, juicy-sweet pops of flavor, are tops on everyone’s list. They’re also easy to grow, but be sure you have the space because the prolific plant can reach over six feet tall. My newspaper editor’s young son, Jesse, loves them, and like a deer, he will eat a plant bare. This sauce is on the thin side, so it is best tossed with a spoonable pasta, such as elbows or orzo, and served in bowls. Whole wheat pasta is especially good. Maybe cook some tiny peas or thin pieces of asparagus with the pasta for a minute before it’s drained.

Makes 4-5 servings, enough for 1 pound of pasta

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 4 cups halved Sungold cherry tomatoes
  • 8 small, crisp yellow tomatoes, such as Yellow Perfection or yellow pear tomatoes (1 pound), halved or quartered (about 3 cups)
  • 3⁄4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1⁄4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 tablespoons chopped mint

Heat the olive oil in a large, deep, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, oregano, and crushed red pepper and cook, stirring, until the garlic is fragrant, 2-3 minutes. Add the Sungold tomatoes, yellow tomatoes, and salt; bring to a boil. Reduce the heat slightly. Cook, stirring and mashing the tomatoes with a spoon, until they are very soft and have cooked down, about 10 minutes.

Put the sauce through a food mill suspended over a narrow pot or press it through a fine-mesh strainer, leaving only the skins and seeds behind. Reheat to serve, stir in the parsley and mint, and taste for seasoning.

Photos: Miriam Rubin.

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