All About Tomatoes
With recipes for:
- Salsa Cruda, Italian Style
- Tomato and Bread Salad
- Roasted Tomato Salsa
- Pasta with Cherry Tomatoes and Pesto
In 1993, Vince Staten wrote a book entitled "Can You Trust a Tomato in January?" Staten’s book, which isn’t just about tomatoes but why things are they way they are (or aren’t) in supermarkets, makes a very important point. He says, "There’s a price to pay for year-round produce: taste. The apples and tomatoes of today aren’t as tasty as they were thirty or forty years ago. They’ve been bred for looks and long hauls in trucks and boats. And for mass-market tastes, that means a blander tasting product."
I agree, Vince. But I also think another reason is that 40 years ago, nobody expected tomatoes in January. They waited until summer, got their fill, and that was it until next summer.
For those who wanted the taste of those delicious summer tomatoes in winter, there was canning. My mother used to can over 200 quarts of tomatoes every summer, just for our family of six (seven when Grandpa stayed with us) and the many more who came over for Mom’s famous spaghetti sauce.
Granted, few have the time to can today. But does that mean the only alternative is a tomato that looks like a pink tennis ball - and tastes like one? I don’t think so. If you’ve got to have tomatoes in a cooking recipe, buy canned tomatoes that are full of flavor because they were picked and packed when ripe. And if you’re making a salad in January and want something to go with all that green, instead of adding tomatoes, try sliced radishes, grated red cabbage, thinly sliced red onions, shredded carrots, radicchio leaves, pomegranate seeds, sliced Fuyu persimmons, or red bell pepper rings.
First cultivated around 700 AD, the tomato is native to northwest South America, somewhere in the area of what is now Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. The name is derived from the Aztec word xtomatle.
The tomato got two kinds of reception when it was brought back from the New World in the years following Columbus’ voyage. In north and central Europe, the tomato was viewed with suspicion as a poisonous member of the nightshade family (along with potatoes and peppers), so it was mainly grown as an ornamental plant. In southern Europe and the Mediterranean, however, it flourished. As Elizabeth Rozin notes in "Blue Corn and Chocolate," "...everywhere that the olive and olive oil were entrenched, the tomato established itself in the kitchen gardens of the common folk..."
The tomato returned to the New World, Rozin goes on to say, in the form of sauces that were adopted in Mexico and other parts of the Americas. However, eating raw tomatoes was still considered dicey (though the French called it the love apple). Thomas Jefferson, who was introduced to tomatoes while in Italy, allegedly ate a fresh one near his home in Virginia on a dare in 1819. He lived.
It was the invention of ketchup, a spicy tomato condiment created in America from an English formula, that got mainstream Americans hooked on the tomato in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Still, it wasn’t until the mid to late 19th century that Americans in any great numbers considered using tomatoes raw in such things as salads.
The influx of Italian immigrants from southern Italy, and returning World War II GIs who had tasted the forbidden fruit in many forms in southern Europe, firmly established the importance of the tomato in American cuisine.
It’s hard to imagine a state where tomatoes aren’t grown, but the major commercial states are Florida and California. Florida is responsible for 50% of the domestic crop, about $1.5 billion in annual sales. Mexico imports a huge number of tomatoes into the United States.
The major commercial varieties in Florida are Sunny, Solar Set, Bonita, Agriset and BHN-26. The top California varieties are the Shady Lady, Merced, Olympic, Sunbolt and Sunbrite. But, as the 1995 Produce Availability & Merchandising Guide notes, tomatoes are "sold by types rather than by varieties." Whether field, stake or pole-grown, these types are described as mature-green, vine pink or vine ripe, plum or roma, cherry, greenhouse and hydroponic.
The workhorse of the mainstream tomato market is the slicing or beefsteak
tomato. It is made to be sliced for sandwiches or cut into wedges for salads.
The major commercial tomatoes in this group are either picked mature green, meaning fully green, or during the next three stages of development up until they reach 30 percent but no more than 60 percent red or pink (called vine pink). Mature green tomatoes are "gassed" with ethylene gas to ripen them, whereas the vine pink are already sufficiently ripened.
Roma or plum tomatoes are considered sauce tomatoes because their thick skin, meaty pulp and lack of juice is more conducive to making sauce. They can come in yellow or red varieties, but red is by far the most common. Despite their use in sauces, they can still be used fresh and are often seen sliced with fresh mozzarella cheese and basil leaves.
Cherry tomatoes are about the size of a large cherry and can be red or yellow, though again, red is the main color. Mostly used for salads, they can also be hollowed and stuffed or sliced and sautéed. Sweet 100s are a particular type of cherry tomato that has exceptional flavor and sweetness.
Pear-shaped tomatoes look like tear drops and come in yellow and red, though more yellow than red. Use them like cherry tomatoes, though in general they tend to be sweeter than cherry tomatoes.
There are enough specialty varieties of tomatoes to warrant books on their own. The best way to find them is to frequent local farmer’s markets where farmers are more likely to experiment with obscure tomatoes like the green striped, yellow, and orange.
As noted, tomatoes are, regrettably, a year round vegetable. Florida’s crop runs from October through June while California’s runs from May through December. Domestic peak supplies occur from May to July. The Mexican production is concentrated from January through April.
I think my friend Janet Fletcher has the right piece of advice for selecting good tomatoes. "Tomatoes should smell like tomatoes. If they have no aroma, put them back." Some of the best tomatoes I’ve every eaten were butt ugly but had a fabulous tomato aroma. On the other hand, some real beauties smelled as if they had just been removed from a hermetically sealed room.
Because good tomatoes are fragile and seasonal, frequent local farmers markets for the best ones. Buy them at different stages of development so they don’t all ripen at once. For example, buy a few dead ripe ones you’ll use that night, a few others that will be ready in a day or two, and maybe a few more that will be ready in three or four days.
Avoid tomatoes with leathery dark patches. This is blossom end rot caused by drought following a period of rainy weather.
Unless you’ve just arrived from one of Jupiter’s moons, you should know by now that tomatoes should never be refrigerated until or unless they a) have been cooked, b) have been cut or put into a raw dish like a salsa, or c) are fully ripe and would spoil if left further at room temperature. But make sure you bring the uncooked tomatoes to room temperature before consuming them to get as much flavor out of them as possible.
The ideal temperature for holding and ripening tomatoes is between 62 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit with relatively high humidity. That means kitchen countertops and places where you keep other non-refrigerated fresh food. Keep the stem end up. Don’t put them on a sunny windowsill to hasten ripening. Instead, put tomatoes in a sealed paper bag with or without ethylene producing fruit such as bananas. Depending on how unripe they were to begin with, the tomatoes may take up to five days to ripen. Ripe tomatoes will hold at room temperature for two or three days.
One medium tomato (148 grams, about 5 ounces) contains 35 calories, 7 grams of carbohydrates, 1 gram each of protein and dietary fiber, .5 grams of fat, 20% of the Daily Value (formerly RDA) for vitamin A, 40% for vitamin C, and 2% each for calcium and iron. Tomatoes are also a good source of folic acid and potassium.
According to Jean Carper’s "Food-Your Miracle Medicine," tomatoes
are a "major source of lycopene, an awesome antioxidant and anticancer
agent that intervenes in devastating chain reactions of oxygen free radical
molecules." In addition, tomatoes have been shown to be helpful in reducing
the incidence of pancreatic and cervical cancers.
Some people believe that tomatoes, as well as other members of the nightshade family, contribute to arthritis, but this is not a proven theory.
A pound of tomatoes (about 3 medium, 8 plum, 25 to 30 cherry) will yield about 2 cups, chopped.
To core a tomato, use the tip of a sharp paring knife to make a shallow cut all round the stem end, then pop out the core. Slicing should be done with a serrated knife or a very sharp non-serrated knife. Or, failing both, prick the skin with the tip of the knife to get a slice going. Then follow through with the blade. Cut lengthwise (from stem to blossom end) rather than widthwise to retain more juice.
To dice a tomato, first slice the tomato. Take half of the slices and, with a flat slice on the cutting surface, cut them into strips. Then cut crosswise into dice. Repeat with the other half of slices.
To peel a tomato, drop in boiling water about 15 to 20 seconds (longer if you’re doing several tomatoes at one time or the tomatoes are very firm). Then run under cold water or plunge into a bowl of ice water until cool, about 5 minutes. The skin will slip away easily. (Some people make a small x opposite the stem end before putting into hot water to facilitate removing the peel.)
Seeding tomatoes is usually done more for aesthetic reasons than flavor. In fact, some nutrition is lost when seeds are removed. Nonetheless, to seed, halve the tomato horizontally. Then hold each half over a strainer sitting on a bowl. Squeeze, and the seeds will be trapped in the strainer.
When cooking with tomatoes, avoid aluminum pots because they give tomatoes a bitter flavor. If the tomatoes you’re cooking with aren’t especially sweet, add a healthy pinch of sugar. And don’t hold back on the salt; tomatoes need a healthy dose of it to bring out flavor. When using tomatoes in a salad, add them at the end so their juices won’t make the salad soggy.
For stuffed tomatoes, try to find single serving sizes. Then cut a slice off the top at the stem end and scoop out seeds and pulp with a grapefruit spoon. Invert on paper towels to let excess moisture drain out. If the tomatoes are large, halve them horizontally and follow the same the process.
Broiling, grilling and oven roasting can add more flavor to out-of-season or otherwise insipid tomatoes. Cook, turning until nicely blistered and charred.
Seasonings that go especially well with tomatoes are garlic, olive oil, basil, dill, oregano, and parsley. For a low-calorie tomato salad, try splashing sliced tomatoes with a good-quality balsamic vinegar instead of olive oil.
There is nothing that brings out the flavor of ripe, locally grown tomatoes more than an uncooked pasta sauce. Some versions call for peeling the tomatoes, but I prefer to simply core them and squeeze out some of the seeds. To my way of thinking, this sauce needs no cheese. But you may want to have some Parmesan around for guests to gently add.
2 pounds ripe, locally grown tomatoes
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
2 large cloves garlic, smashed but left whole
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 pound pasta of your choice
1)Core the tomatoes and squeeze out some of the seeds and juice. (You'll still have some seeds left, but that's OK.) Slice, then chop the tomatoes into medium dice. Put in a small mixing bowl.
2)Add the remaining ingredients except for the pasta. Stir, cover and let sit at room temperature 1 hour. Taste for basil, salt, pepper and garlic. The garlic flavor should be noticeable but subtle. Remove the cloves and discard. (The sauce can sit for a few more hours at room temperature if need be, but do not refrigerate.)
3)Heat water for pasta. Cook pasta until al dente and drain well. Put tomato sauce in a serving bowl and toss with pasta.
Serves 6 as a first course, 4 as an entree.
Sam's Cooking Tip: To prevent the garlic from overpowering the dish, leave the cloves whole but smash them with the side of the knife to release their flavor. This allows the flavor to permeate gradually. Taste at one-hour intervals and remove the garlic when the garlic flavor is just where you like it.
Italians may be known for pasta, but they live on bread, especially Tuscans. Leftover bread gets transformed into wonderful dishes like this one.
1 1/4 pounds ripe tomatoes
2 1/2 tablespoons each balsamic vinegar and olive oil
3 tablespoons chicken stock
Black pepper to taste
1 garlic clove, peeled
1 loaf country Italian or French bread with firm texture (about 3/4 pound)
1/3 cup coarsely chopped celery leaves
1 cup sweet red onions, thinly sliced
1/2 cup basil leaves cut into thin strips
2 tablespoons capers, well drained
1) Core tomatoes, halve lengthwise and cut into wedges no more than 3/8-inch wide. Toss with a teaspoon of salt in a large bowl. Set aside at room temperature 30 to 60 minutes.
2)In a small bowl combine vinegar, olive oil, chicken stock and pepper. Crush the garlic clove with the side of a knife but leave whole. Add to the dressing. Stir and set aside.
3)Cut bread into bite-size cubes or break apart with your hands for a more rustic look. Add bread to tomatoes and toss well. Add celery leaves, onions and basil to bread/tomato mixture. Remove garlic from dressing, stir well and pour over salad. Toss well. Let stand 30 to 60 minutes at room temperature.
4)Check salad and adjust seasoning as needed. Sprinkle with capers and serve.
Sam’s Cooking Tip: Salting the tomatoes ahead of time draws out the moisture and helps to create a more flavorful dressing without a lot of oil.
No dish brings together the summer bounty better than gazpacho. This version has corn, which adds a special texture that my wife Mary and I love.
2 ears corn on the cob
2 pounds ripe tomatoes
3 Kirby cucumbers
1 medium sweet red or Vidalia onion, coarsely chopped
1 2/3 cups or more spicy V-8 Juice (or other tomato juice that is seasoned liberally with hot sauce)
11/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 basil leaves
Salt and pepper
1)Put a few quarts of water on to boil. Drop the corn on the cob in boiling water and cook about 3 or 4 minutes. (If the corn is very fresh and the kernels small, you can eliminate this step.) Cool and slice off kernels. Set aside. Keep water at a boil.
2) Make an x in the bottom of the tomatoes and drop into the boiling water for 15 seconds and drain. Refresh tomatoes under cool water, peel, core and chop coarsely. Set aside.
3)Peel and coarsely chop two of the cucumbers. Put them into a food processor. Trim the third cucumber and cut into small dice, unpeeled. Set it aside.
4)Put onion in the food processor and pulse with cucumber. When coarsely pureed, add tomato and pulse until desired consistency. Put in a bowl and add 1 2/3 cups V-8 Juice. Add more if you want a thinner soup.
5)Toast cumin in a skillet over low heat until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Grind in a spice grinder or by hand in a mortar and pestle. Add to soup. Stack basil leaves, roll cigar-style and cut crosswise into strips. Add to soup.
6) Add diced cucumbers and corn to soup along with salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate 1 hour or more. Adjust seasoning as desired.
Freshly made salsa beats the stuff in cans and jars every time, not only for flavor but for price as well. Despite the number of jalapeno peppers, this salsa isn’t particularly hot. In fact, you may want to roast a fourth pepper and add it at the end if you want the salsa even spicier.
4 large, ripe but still firm tomatoes
3 jalapeno peppers
1 medium red onion, quartered
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro, or more to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
1)Put vegetables on a sheet pan in a 500-degree oven, or on a charcoal or gas grill over medium heat. Cook until nicely charred and blistered. (They will char more on the grill. They will take about 30 minutes in the oven, less on the grill.)
2)Core, but don’t peel the tomatoes. Peel, stem and seed the peppers. Remove the skin from the onion and peel the garlic.
3)Put the onion and garlic in a food processor, or puree, but not too smooth. Add tomatoes and peppers and pulse until you achieve the texture you desire.
4)Pour into a bowl, add cilantro and salt and pepper. Let sit an hour for flavors to meld and temperature to cool.
Makes about 4 cups.
Sam’s Cooking Tip: Grilling and roasting add a pleasing flavor to tomatoes and other in-season vegetables. But these cooking methods also give a flavor boost to tomatoes when they’re not in season.
Pasta with pesto made with local basil and tomatoes is one of summer’s ultimate treats. Try to get Sweet 100s or a similar flavorful and sweet cherry tomato. But take care not to oversauce the pasta, which Americans have a tendency to do. You want a nice balance of pesto, pasta, and tomatoes.
1 large clove garlic
1 tablespoon toasted pine nuts
3 cups fresh basil leaves
Salt to taste
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan and Pecorino cheeses, mixed
1 pound cooked short pasta such as penne
1 cup halved, small cherry tomatoes such as Sweet 100s
Additional grated cheese for passing (optional)
1)Put a pot with 4 quarts of water and 2 teaspoons salt on to boil.
2)Meanwhile, with the motor of a food processor running, drop garlic and pine nuts down the feed tube. When pureed, push down the sides and add basil, salt and oil. Puree. Add cheese and pulse just until mixed. (This may also be done in a blender or with a mortar and pestle.) Put pesto in a small bowl. You should have about 3/4 cup pesto.
3)Cook pasta according to package directions until firm but tender, about 10 minutes. Drain pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking water.
4)Put pasta in a large mixing bowl. Add between half and two-thirds of the pesto and toss, adding just enough of the cooking water to make an even sauce. Add tomatoes, toss again and serve. Pass around additional grated cheese if desired.
Serves 4 as a main course, 6 as an appetizer.
Sam’s Cooking Tip: Seek out locally grown basil for more intense flavor. And make sure it’s dry before you chop it or it will blacken.