Tomatoes are such variable little things. You can do just about anything with them. But January tomatoes are about the most uninspiring tomatoes there are, except maybe February tomatoes. I see them en masse and it’s like a pinprick in my balloon. Pink, unpleasant handfuls; inside they’re as mealy as watermelon and tasteless besides. Choosing which ones to take and which ones to leave behind is no choice at all.
In this place, if I tried to eat local and seasonal, I would starve for a fair amount of the year. So I release anything similar to locavore guilt until May and I do what I can with what I can get. And I don’t see a point in raw winter tomatoes when a few hours in the oven takes them past edible into pretty damn good.
Once again, this is not a recipe. It’s trial-and-error all the way, because you never know what you’re going to get inside those winter tomatoes. These are plain old romas, ripened on the counter for a few days after purchase, with all the seeds and some of the cores removed, halved and tossed with olive oil, black pepper, and gray salt. You can peel them beforehand if you like, but I never do. There’s also one gigantic shallot in eight pieces, each chunk nestled in a tomato so that it can soak up some olive oil too. Only a little bit of oil is required—this looks glossier than it is because of the harsh winter light coming in through my only decent window. These particular tomatoes were heavy, but they didn’t have much in the way of seeds and such inside. I throw them on parchment just to aid cleanup.
You can go two ways with this: slow-roasted tomatoes, which put them in the oven for eight to twelve hours at very low heat (200° or so), which results in a consistency closer to a sun-dried tomato. They’re incredibly sweet and will last for a long time if you store them in a jar of olive oil in your fridge. You can use them to intensify tomato sauces, strew slices of them over pizza, or chop them up to top a side of broccoli or green beans, just to start. But most often, I just put them in for half an hour at 350° and then drop the temperature to 300° for 1.5 to 2.5 hours more. After the first 1.5 hours, you have to be a little vigilant and keep your eye on them so that they don’t get too dry—remember how I said you never know what you’re going to get? But until that time, you can walk away and do something you’ve been putting off. Call someone you meant to call before the holidays. Send some snail mail. Figure out what you’re going to put in that bare spot on the wall.
So, what are you going to do with these when they’re done? Anything you feel like. They are amazing just by themselves if you like tomatoes. Plunk one on top of a dull chicken breast or fish filet, serve a few as a side dish with kale and garlic. Steep them with the shallot bits in some broth with a few stems of thyme and then puree it with a blender (if you hate bits of tomato skin in your soup, peel them before cooking for this preparation, but it doesn’t bother me). Personally, I don’t think they add much to my spaghetti sauces, but those are already flavor-intense; your mileage may vary. And don’t feel like you have to use them while they’re hot. If you put them in the fridge, they’ll last for a few days. Two of them on a rice cake with hummus and baby arugula is a great lunch. They’ll even make cold cuts in a wrap into something to crave. All this for about five minutes of prep work. You’ll still be sad when tomato season ends next fall, but everything will be all right. We’ll just call it Tomato Season II. Sequels are never as good as the original, but the best ones have their own charms.