Now that it’s worth considering the tomato again (seasonwise), consider this: Many typical recipe directions begin, “Peel the tomatoes. Cut them in half crosswise and squeeze out and discard the seeds and liquid.”
That’s not quite as grotesque as gnawing on the little fleshy parts of artichoke leaves and discarding the heart (something I’ve witnessed as an innocent bystander), but it is pretty misguided. The gelatinous fluid in which the seeds are suspended is delicious and has a wonderful texture.
Just ask Jose Andres, who has been known to serve it on its own as tomato “caviar.” The caviar term isn’t so far-fetched, either: Fish roe and tomato seeds both contain the germs of a next generation.
Anyway, there’s good tomato flavor in this material, and it is a shame to throw it away. If you’re eating tomatoes raw, that isn’t typically done anyway; if you’re cooking them, what you do with the gelatinous interior will depend on how much moisture you want.
In a sauce or other dish that’s cooked for a while, the excess water will boil away, so you may as well use everything but the stem (and, perhaps, the skin). But if you want a quickly sauteed fresh tomato dressing for, say, pasta, the flesh will fall apart by the time the liquid has evaporated, so you would be well advised to remove the seeds and surrounding liquid, along perhaps with some of the “septa” — the walls of the seed compartments. But you would definitely not throw any of those elements away.
The simplest thing to do is use them in a vegetable broth, but I’ve begun to make them into an intense essence of tomato, which has many applications. It’s the kind of thing that, if you had it in a restaurant, you’d ooh and aah and never quite figure out how they had prepared it. And it takes hardly any time or technique.
Last time I made it, I peeled seven or eight lovely ripe tomatoes from the farmers market. (I don’t know the variety — nor did, sigh, the non-farm kid who sold them to me — but they had red/orange and yellow stripes and ran about two inches across.) I quartered them and, with my fingers, slid everything but the “fillets” — the outer flesh — into a small stainless steel saucepan. I added a couple slices of garlic, a little thyme, two or three mint leaves, a sprinkle of salt and three tablespoons of good olive oil. I cooked this slowly for five, six, seven minutes, then used a sturdy spoon to press and scrape it through a fine-mesh sieve.
The result was a rich, rust-colored sauce — or sauce base — thick enough that, when it was stirred, the olive oil did not separate out. It had the look and feel of an emulsion or one of those bisque bases you make from lobster or crayfish shells. Its tomato flavor was extraordinarily deep, but because it had not been cooked for long, it remained fresh-tasting and bright-acidic. Depending on the tomatoes, you may wish to add a few crystals of sugar, but try not to.
That day, I added it to a quick saute of the tomato fillets, olives, garlic and herbs; the essence returned all that flavor to the dish without drowning it in liquid or overcooking the tomatoes. This was one powerful spaghetti sauce. The essence itself is great on pasta — just a slick is all you need — or smeared on grilled bread for an open-faced sandwich or canape, which could be topped with fresh mozzarella or tomato.
You can drizzle the essence on fried eggs or an omelet. It also can serve as the basis of a paella-type rice dish; add it to the pan after you’ve cooked your onions, etc., and just before adding the liquid and rice; it is a fine substitute for the more authentic sofrito on which such dishes are traditionally built. It can, of course, be frozen, but it will keep in a cold fridge for the better part of a week.
Now all I need to do is figure out what to call it. “Essence” isn’t bad, but it doesn’t really tell the story. Any ideas?