On many food-related subjects, my inner grumpy old man is not to be heeded. He believes, for example, that everything was better years ago, including foodstuffs that were never great to begin with. He is still angry that Wendy’s Frosties now come in vanilla. “When I was a boy, Frosties came in one flavor, Barely Perceptible Chocolate, and we liked it!” he tells young people, who ignore him and continue playing Candy Crush on their phones.
I keep my grumpy old man in check by reminding him that we are lucky to have food at all. That usually works, since he remembers the Great Depression, when people were so hungry they ate pickled tumbleweeds and probably would have eaten John Steinbeck if they could have caught him.
On the issue of tomatoes, though, the grumpy old man cannot be silenced. The year-round tomatoes, with no softness, no scent, hard from having been bred to survive long-distance shipping, do not deserve to be called tomatoes. “Get off my lawn!” I want to yell at them. I would support legislation requiring stores selling off-season tomatoes to give them a different name. Impostoes, perhaps?
We can get the true tomato — the red, dripping, luscious fragrant beauty — during these weeks of August, when gardens start popping them out like mad and farmers markets offer an orgy of heirlooms. I’ve been waiting to make tomato sandwiches — August is when tomatoes are good enough to dance the lead in a sandwich, rather than being consigned to the mealy chorus — but also to start putting them into drinks.
You’ll understand my surprise, then, when paging through award-winning mixologist Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s terrific new “The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique,” to find the following in the “Tomato Juice” section: “Oh, to know the joy of a Bloody Mary made with . . . well, no, not with fresh tomato juice. . . . A truly ripe one is so luscious and intensely flavorful when you eat it out of hand, but once you process it into a puree and then extract the juice, it becomes vegetal, weak, and weirdly frothy.” He advises juicing canned tomatoes instead.
Befuddled, I called Todd Thrasher, general manager, sommelier and “liquid savant” at Restaurant Eve, PX and others. I called Thrasher because his tomato-water bloody mary, a clear, pinkish drink that comes close to capturing the essence of a summer tomato, is a drink I look forward to every year during tomato season, which is the only time he makes it.
I had barely gotten the words, “Jeffrey Morgenthaler says it’s better to juice canned tomatoes than fresh ones . . .” out of my mouth before Thrasher’s own inner grumpy old man cut me off.
“Jeffrey Morgenthaler is a dummy,” he said. “I’ll say it to his face! He is a dear friend, but I think he’s been spending too much time in the Pacific Northwest rather than the Mid-Atlantic. If I can get fresh tomatoes? No way I use canned. But then I’m also from St. Leonard, Maryland, where tomatoes and corn are king.”
As a member of the media, driven to find and pump up conflict wherever I can, I began envisioning a click-bait headline: “Embattled Celebrity Mixologists Brawl Over Tomato Juice. You Won’t Believe What Happened Next.”
What happened next was I rang Morgenthaler and tattled that Thrasher had called him a dummy. “I bet he used a better term than that,” he laughed, before defending the Pacific Northwest’s tomatoes. “It does actually get hot out here sometimes.”
Morgenthaler says his book aims to provide a range of technique options, from the quick-and-dirty to more intensive culinary approaches. He does talk about the method of roasting fresh tomatoes to puree and juice, he notes, “but if you want to whip up a bloody mary, roasting a bunch of tomatoes in the morning for an hour and then waiting for them to cool is a little tough.”
I see his point. Plus, roasting fresh tomatoes intensifies the sugars and the savory, umami quality, much like what’s done to canned tomatoes already. When I tested, I was surprised to find the fresh juice didn’t have a huge advantage — at least not in a traditional bloody mary, where citrus, horseradish and Worcestershire complicate the flavor of the root fruit. (Throw in the five-pound buffet of seafood-veg-pork belly-grilled cheese garnishes propped on many bloody marys these days, and who’s going to notice a difference in the base?)
But once you leave Mary’s soupy world, fresh summer tomatoes have advantages. Morgenthaler used to muddle cherry tomatoes into a tomato daiquiri, and Thrasher tends to use more tomato “water,” obtained by gently straining chopped tomatoes through a fine mesh bag, a slow process that leads to a thinner, clear solution rather than the gloppy texture bloody marys can get.
Bryan Tetorakis, bar chef at Rogue 24 and Gypsy Soul likes this approach, which can cut down on the frothy factor Morgenthaler mentions. Clarifying the juice — a topic worth a column all its own — also does the trick, and in Tetorakis’s Alley Paint, he uses a tomato shrub to keep the freshness and flavor but lose the froth.
He has a soft spot for tomatoes, which he says can work with almost any spirit. “Rye has a pepperiness that goes with tomatoes, gin has the botanicals that make a really refreshing combination, aquavit has black pepper, caraway, star anise — all of them go great. Vodka, obviously, doesn’t taste like anything, so it goes great. Mezcals, with that smokiness, even tequilas that have that peppery grapefruit note to them go well; think of a New Zealand sauvignon blanc.”
I may use Morgenthaler’s approach for bloody marys come winter, when impostoes are all we can get. For now, though, you’ll find me and my grumpy old man ogling the market tomatoes, grudgingly admitting that right now, the world isn’t that bad. Even if the kids do need to pull up their pants.
Allan is a Takoma Park writer and editor; her Spirits column appears every few weeks. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.