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Stewed tomatoes are delicious hot, cold, or at room temperature. This makes them convenient to have on hand during a hurricane—or whenever you’ve been too greedy at a farm stand and consequently find yourself on the home front with lots (and lots) of tomatoes turning soft-ripe at precisely the same moment.

Botanically speaking, tomatoes are tropical berries that originated in South America, but, when stewed, they make a great example of why we treat them as a vegetable rather than a fruit. Ripe tomatoes contain large amounts of glutamic acid and sulfur compounds—both more common to meats than to fruits—and enough acid to balance rich flavors and textures. That is why tomatoes get along so companionably with nutty, unctuous okra when simmered together, for instance, or why a fresh tomato salad works so well with a grilled steak or a gutsy blue-cheese dressing.

Using a mix of different varieties adds depth and complexity to stewed tomatoes, and large, thin-skinned heirlooms are generally the easiest to peel. As far as seasonings go, consider salt and freshly ground black pepper a given. Beyond that, there are any number of variations. Some people start off with finely chopped onion sweated in butter; others jazz things up with chopped herbs, green bell pepper, or garlic; still others add fresh breadcrumbs to thicken, or sweeten the pot with sugar.

Personally, I do not like to veer off into spaghetti sauce territory, and staking out a moral position on whether to add sugar is, as so many moral positions are, impractical. It depends on the tomatoes—what variety, how hot and sunny it was while they were on the vine, their degree of ripeness—you get the picture. Sometimes a judicious pinch or two of brown sugar is just what’s required to mellow acidity that’s a little on the harsh side. And if those tomatoes aren’t acidic enough? Forgo lemon or lime juice for the more interesting tang of Sherry vinegar.

If I decide to go the embellishment route, my go-to ingredient is fresh ginger. I discovered what its pungent warmth can do for tomatoes while collaborating on a cookbook with chef Floyd Cardoz of Tabla restaurant (r.i.p.) and the forthcoming North End Grill, and now the combination of flavors feels like something I grew up with.

This past Saturday, however, when I was in full hurricane-prep mode, there was just one small problem: I’d used up all of our fresh ginger while making ginger beer the day before, and hadn’t thought to buy any more. By this point, every supermarket in our neighborhood was closed; the entire city was waiting for Irene to swagger into town. I didn’t regret the homemade brew—we were going to kick-start the evening with a round of Dark and Stormies—but drat. I felt thwarted.

I opened the kitchen cabinet and stared. High up on the baking shelf was the glint of a bright yellow tin of Reed’s crystallized ginger*. In no time, it was down on the counter, among the neatly stacked emergency rations**. I roughly chopped a couple of the spicy, sugary nuggets and stirred them into the tomatoes once they were gently bubbling away. Oh, nice. Not too sweet. Soon, I recklessly added a few more. Yes.

Tomatoes Irene (Stewed Tomatoes with Crystallized Ginger)

Serves 4

If you have fresh ginger on hand, by all means use it. Peel it first, of course, and mince it. I usually add it to half a medium onion that’s been finely diced and cooked in butter or olive oil (heretical, but healthier for some) until soft but not brown. Stir the ginger around until fragrant, which takes mere seconds, then add the tomatoes. This time around, with no fresh ginger on hand, I skipped the onion and simply stirred the crystallized ginger into the simmering tomatoes.

About 2 pounds soft-ripe tomatoes

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 to 3 tablespoons crystallized ginger, roughly chopped

1. Put the tomatoes in a large bowl and cover them with boiling water. Let them sit 2 to 3 minutes, then transfer them to a colander and run cold water over them. When they are cool enough to fool with, peel with a sharp paring knife. (This method works with peaches, too.)

2. If you are at all accident-prone or are wearing your best white T-shirt, donning an apron for this step is a smart idea. Set a fine-mesh sieve over a bowl. Working over it, quarter each tomato and scoop the seeds into the sieve with your fingers. Put the tomato flesh into the bowl, which should already be collecting dribbles of pale, watery juices. Sneak a taste—they are full of flavor.

3. Add the tomatoes and their juices to a pot and season with salt and pepper. Bring the tomatoes to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat until the tomatoes find a slow, gentle simmer. Partially cover the pot and let the tomatoes cook until they move beyond tender to become lush and velvety. This should take about an hour. About 30 minutes into the process, add about 2 tablespoons of the chopped crystallized ginger. After the tomatoes are cooked but still hot, taste them (careful!) and tinker with the seasoning. You will probably want more salt and pepper, as well as a little more ginger.

* Crystallized ginger, available at supermarkets and natural foods stores, is a pantry staple in our kitchen; we tend to buy Reed’s brand because it’s easy to find in New York City and stays fresh in its tin for ages. Like stem ginger in syrup, the confection is made by cooking pieces of peeled fresh ginger  in a sugar syrup to tenderize the fibrous flesh and temper its pungent heat. Stem ginger is bottled in the syrup; crystallized ginger is dried, then covered in coarse sugar.

** I was trained early and well, and know not to face a hurricane without supplies that include graham crackers, a tinned ham, and little pots of Vienna sausages. Sam snapped open a lid before I could stop him. “Dear god, they’re en gelée,” he said, awestruck. “Did you, um, buy any vegetables?” I pointed to the pot of flat green romano beans working on the stove and the sweet potatoes, ready for the oven. Things were under control.


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