Red Ripe Tomatoes…Get ‘em while you can! This time of year I love tomatoes on and in everything. The deep intense red of a plump bulging tomato simply screams “summer” to me! Unfortunately my early spring challenge of trying to keep deer from dining on my roses made me realize that the effort put into a vegetable garden would likely only benefit those I was trying to keep away. Luckily I can easily drop into Polk’s Fresh Market here in Savannah’s historic district to stock up on vine ripe tomatoes.
When I was a chef at the Disney Institute at Walt Disney World, my friend and co-worker Christina Tenney made the most amazing soups. As Saucier she was responsible for all of our homemade soups, stocks, and sauces for both the restaurant and banquets. My favorite was her Smoked Tomato Bisque. She would smoke the tomatoes in a our large commercial smoker. When she taught a soup class for me a couple of years ago she adjusted the recipe to make use of a nifty item called a “smoker bag” which is a double-lined foil pouch with very fine wood chips between the two layers of foil. The inside of the bag has tiny pin-pricks that allow the smoke to fill the interior. You simply place your food inside, fold over the ends and place on the bottom of the oven, on the grill, or even on a campfire. I’ve carried them in my retail line-up the past couple of years but time got away from me this year and I didn’t get them ordered before I needed them for a class where I was doing the smoked tomato bisque. I had to find a suitable replacement….quickly!
If you have a smoker at home or a smoking box for your grill you have the answer easily at hand. If you’ve never smoked vegetables I highly recommend it. The flavor is incomparable and can take a basic soup/sauce to new heights. If you’ve smoked herbs, that’s not what I’m talking about…probably best to keep those details off the record.
A makeshift stovetop or oven smoker can be made by using a deep roasting pan (disposable foil even better so it can be discarded when done) and placing the food on a rack so that it’s elevated above the soaked wood chips that are placed in the bottom of the pan (on a sheet of foil if not using a disposable pan). After putting the food into the pan, cover tightly with foil and place over a stovetop burner on “high” until smoke can be seen coming from the edge of the foil when lifted slightly. Turn the heat down to about medium so it’s high enough to keep the chips smoking without cooking the food too quickly. This works fine if you can keep it on the stovetop the entire time. I needed to smoke my tomatoes in the oven to free up burner space and the problem I encountered with the wood chips in the oven was that there wasn’t enough direct heat (even when the pan was on the floor of the oven) to keep the chips smoking heavily.
My next best alternative seemed to be those thin wood “papers” that are designed to wrap around food for grilling and infusing the flavor of the wood. The thin nature would make it easy to get them smoking and they should smolder easier than the irregular shape of wood chips. Should I wrap them around the tomatoes or just put the tomatoes on a rack above them, much the same as the method described above?There was no other option than to test both methods and compare:
Unfortunately as soon as I got back from the store I realized I forgot to pick up some disposable aluminum pans. I lined both pans with foil to prevent the smoldering of the wood from discoloring and affecting the pans.
In both cases the thin wood sheets were soaked in water for 30 minutes. In the first pan (at top of photo) I placed the wood “paper” in the bottom and place a cooling rack on top to elevate the tomatoes above the wood. The tomato was cut into quarters and placed cut side down to absorb maximum aroma from the wood.
In the second pan (bottom of photo) I simply wrapped the wood paper “wrapper” around the quartered tomatoes and placed them seam side down on the foil-lined pan. The pans were covered tightly with foil, except for a small corner space left open to observe the level of smoke before putting it in the oven.
The pan was put on the burner which was turned to “high”. When smoke started wafting out of the pan (be certain it’s smoke as initially steam will be generated from the moisture being heated), I covered it tightly and put it on the bottom of the oven that had been preheated to 500 degrees F. If you have a convection oven, make sure you use it in “standard” mode and place the pan on the bottom (if the element is hidden) or on the lowest rack (if the element is visible in bottom of the oven). Both pans were smoked at 500 degrees in the same oven for 15 minutes.
When the time was up, the pans were removed and allowed to cool while still covered. Once they cooled it was time uncover the results and taste test!
The tomatoes that had been wrapped in the wood paper sheet were cooked but the wood sheet had barely darkened, much less smoldered. The tomatoes had very little smoke flavor. (Top of photo)
The tomatoes that had been placed on the rack over the sheet that was placed underneath them had lots of great flavor! The sheet had darkened and had noticeable signs of smoldering and smoking which was obvious by the flavor of the tomatoes themselves. (Bottom of photo)
If you’re wanting to smoke vegetables and you don’t have a smoker or grill with a wood chip box, then my first choice would be the “smoker bags” that I initially described. They can usually be found in grill and barbecue specific stores and in the past I’ve found them in the grilling section of Lowe’s and even the meat department of Piggly Wiggly grocery store. Unfortunately this year they were nowhere to be found.
If you can’t find “smoker bags” then go with the thin wood papers used for wrapping around food for grilling. Place the sheet flat in the bottom of the pan and smoke as directed above by starting on the stove and then finishing on the floor of a preheated 500 F. degree oven.