The Waiting Is The Hardest Part

Late tomato season ranks among the most intense and fulfilling stretches of the gardening year, especially since those glorious fruits are accompanied in force by their nightshade cousins: peppers, eggplants, tomatillos, and husk cherries. I can never grow enough tomatoes to get us through a whole year—I’d have to dedicate half the garden to them—so I always order a bunch from my man Jay, the tomato whisperer, who first turned me on to blue beech tomatoes back in the day. They’re prolific, dense, meaty, and above all their seeds aren’t bitter. This last attribute may seem insignificant, but it’s a big part of why I love them so.

See, after they’ve been cooked, either by simple boiling for unflavored purée or roasting for a thick, savory sauce or smoking for my trademark salsa, the fibrous detritus stranded against the sieve after a vigorous food milling still holds a great deal of flavor. Because they’re not bitter, those seeds and skins furnish one of my favorite and most-used seasonings. I take the wet, matted mess out of the food mill and pat it flat on a silpat (on a baking sheet) and put it in the oven at roughly 150˚ with the convection fan running. Once the top is dry, I flip it over until the whole sheet is brittle. (Sometimes the center will stay wet after the edges have gotten crunchy; just flip what you can and agitate the wet stuff so more hot wind hits it and dries it out). Once it’s all dry, I blitz it in the food processor to make a fine powder. And because there’s no bitterness, it’s magnificent. Recent tomatoey ministrations have yielded two distinct powders.

The first is what I call Pizza Salt: the skins and seeds from roasted tomatoes pushed through the mill along with the copious roasted garlic and shallots and herbs (all homegrown) that roasted along with them, then blitzed with salt to make a rich and savory seasoning. It honestly tastes like pizza, so I thought the best vehicle for its maiden voyage would be fat slices of yellow brandywine tomato. Perfect tomatoes don’t require much seasoning; more than a pinch of salt risks diminishing their majesty. This pizza salt enhances everything you love about a perfect tomato without obscuring any of its glory, boosting the umami and adding a little herbal complexity. It also kills on burrata, as the photo clearly shows, and will enliven any permutation of melted cheese/tomato/bread that the impending colder weather necessitates.

The second is the happy byproduct of two different processes: chili vinegar and smoked salsa. I make the vinegar by fermenting hot chilies in apple cider for a year, then straining the liquid. The solids purée to a vivid vermillion paste, which I then sieve to remove the skins and seeds. I season the paste with a little salt and its a pretty killer hot sauce by itself, but this year I went further. When I make my smoked salsa, I always set the food mill over one bowl for a few seconds before moving it to a second bowl for milling. The first one catches some of the watery liquid and helps the salsa get nice and thick. I used to season the liquid to make a hot sauce, but this time around I added it to the fermented chili purée. There was exactly a liter of each, and they enhance each other famously, resulting in a sauce that’s funky, sour, and smoky on top of its alluring heat (which is moderate; I used Espelette and hinkelhatz chilies in the mash). I also added a small amount of maple syrup to balance it, to elevate the mid-palate between the deep funk and bright acidity. It’s glorious and goes on everything.

So this sauce produces skins and seeds with two very different flavors: the smoky and the sour. I dehydrate them both together and grind them to powder (without salt) and I must say that the powder might be better than the sauce. It’s pretty hot (the seeds and membranes are where chilies hold most of their spank, after all) and the twin whiffs of vinegar and smoke elevate it to a pretty rarified place. I added a fat pinch to a nasturtium flower beurre blanc I was poaching scallops in and it threw the quiet richness of the dish into sharp relief. The pleasure is enhanced by the knowledge that this powder is made from the sort of byproduct that usually gets composted; A year might seem like a long time to wait for such wonders, but keep in mind that I’m about to fill another big jar with chilies and cider to get next year’s batch going while I enjoy this one. So once you make it through that first year, you never run out.

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  1. Carla Beaudet
    October 4

    “I’m about to fill another big jar with chilies and cider” Hmmm…so you have been adding the chilies to (presumably hard) cider and letting that turn into vinegar rather than adding the chilies to cider that has already gone over into vinegar?

    • Peter
      October 5

      I add the chilies to sweet, non-alcoholic cider that I get from a nearby biodynamic farm; it’s unpasteurized so all the wild yeasts are still alive. It ferments to vinegar with the chilies in there.

  2. October 4

    I came across your blog via Rachel Roddy’s instagram post where she mentions you. So far, I’ve only just read a couple of your posts and will probably read some more. I liked your ranting the internet; my hates are everything ‘inspiring’ and ‘authentic’. Also, your ‘humble’. As for the photos, I’m on your side completely: too manufactured too be convincing. How do you as a painter relate to this? Is painting as an artform going to die? Is it going to be overriden by ‘fake’ photography? Hope not.

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