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The dead of winter is a rough time for fresh produce. And while most fruits and vegetables aren’t at their peak right now, cold-season tomatoes are just about the worst. As a rule, if a recipe calls for fresh tomatoes, I’m skipping it this time of year. But recently I was talking about that with Mark Ladner, the understated genius chef of New York City’s Del Posto, and he had some great tips for how to make winter tomatoes taste delicious, and also some brilliant, unexpected substitutions in a couple of classic fresh tomato dishes. Try these ideas, and we promise, you won’t miss summer nearly as much:
Dehydrated tomatoes: Ladner calls this process “raisin-ating,” and he loves to do it with cherry tomatoes. Just toss the whole cherry tomatoes in olive oil and set them in the oven at its lowest setting, until they’re wrinkled but still plump. This concentrates the tomatoes’ otherwise bland flavor, making them taste like they’ve ripened in the hot sun. “The flesh is tanned and dried,” says Ladner, “but they’re whole so you still get that juicy burst when you eat them.” Once dehydrated, the tomatoes keep well refrigerated in olive oil.
Canned tomatoes: “I think people underestimate the quality of really good canned or jarred tomatoes,” says Ladner. His highest praise goes to the piennolo tomatoes from Mount Vesuvius. “They’re so extraordinarily delicious, we use them year-round.”
Tomato powder: Ladner turns to this secret chef ingredient when he has tomatoes that just aren’t as good as they should be. “It's not a primary ingredient, but it’s so concentrated it can elevate fresh tomatoes that aren’t at their peak—kind of like doubling down on them.” The easiest way to use it is just to sprinkle it on top.
Mango BLT: “This is something I learned from Jim Lahey,” says Ladner of the dough whiz behind Sullivan Street Bakery. Since a winter tomato can’t hold its own on a BLT, Lahey swapped in ripe fresh mango instead. “I remember it being really good, and having a difficult time being able to discern it wasn’t a tomato.”
Persimmon Caprese: The iconic Italian three-color salad made from tomato, mozzarella and basil is all but out of the question in January—until now. Ladner swaps wan winter tomatoes with incredibly ripe Hachiya persimmons. The salad is so good you may end up feeling nostalgic for it come summer, when all you have available are incredibly ripe tomatoes.