Eberhard Muller is a tomato fanatic. The former chef Lutèce, Le Bernardin, and Bayard owns, with his wife Paulette Satur, Satur Farms, on Long Island’s North Fork. Muller says, “When we eat tomatoes, we don’t eat anywhere else except home. I pick them right before I eat. It’s fantastic.”
How many kinds of tomatoes does Muller have to choose from? “Way too many,” Satur says. “In the past we’ve tried 50 to 60 varieties but this year we whittled it down to 25.” These heirloom varieties have endearing names like Green Zebra, Costoluto Genovese, Aunt Ruby’s German Green and Paul Robeson. More importantly, they have much more flavor than those pink tennis balls that most supermarkets sell.
While few of us can avail ourselves of Muller’s cornucopia, farmer’s markets, specialty stores and even many supermarkets are flush with locally grown tomatoes from mid July through September and beyond in many cases. And thanks to the profusion of heirloom varieties—grown from seed that has produced the same variety of tomato at least as far back as 1940—our favorite warm weather vegetable now comes in more shapes, sizes, and colors than ever.
Tomatoes generally fall into three categories: cherry, plum and beefsteak. Those in the cherry family, which includes grape and pear tomatoes, are smallest. Cherry tomatoes can be as big as a golf ball or as small as a marble, though normally they are somewhere in between. Colors can be shades of red, green, orange or yellow, though red predominates. Sweet 100 and Sun Gold are two cherry tomatoes highly-regarded for exceptional flavor and sweetness.
Pear-shaped tomatoes look like tear drops and come in yellow and red. Grape tomatoes look very much like grapes, especially the Green Grape variety, which remains green when ripe. Santa Sweets are a year-round grape tomato. Grape tomatoes have a much higher sugar content than most other tomatoes.
Roma, plum or paste tomatoes are medium size and oblong with thick skin, meaty pulp, and lack of juice, which makes them ideal for sauces, though they can be eaten fresh or oven dried. Romas come in yellow or the more common red variety. San Marzano is a legendary Italian plum tomato from the city of the same name near Naples.
The most common summer tomato is the beefsteak, a big, round tomato made to be sliced for sandwiches or cut into wedges for salads, though it can also be used for cooking. There are so many beefsteak varieties, it’s impossible to name them all. One of the most esteemed is the pinkish-red Brandywine. “It has a classic tomato flavor, rich and meaty,” says Patricia Rossi, garden director at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center in Santa Rosa, CA.
The purple-pink Purple Cherokee, said to have originated from the Cherokee Nation over a century ago, “may be the sweetest tomato there is,” according to Muller. “It’s like an overripe plum but it still has great acidity.”
So called black tomatoes such as the Purple Cherokee, Paul Robeson, Black from Tula, and Black Krim, have a smoky flavor that makes them ideal for BLTs, says Rossi, who puts them on foccacia with apple wood smoked-bacon and arugula or basil leaves.
The Green Zebra is a tweener. Larger than a cherry but smaller than a beefsteak, this green-striped tomato is a favorite of aficionados like Rossi and Muller. “It’s a good salad tomato because it has a sweet-tart zing,” Rossi says. Muller likes its tomato-apricot flavor and the fact that it stays firm even when ripe.
When choosing locally grown tomatoes, don’t look for fashion model beauty. In fact, some of the best tasting tomatoes are downright ugly. Tomatoes should be firm but have some give. Most of all, they should smell like tomatoes. If you’re at a farmer’s market and see a tomato you like, ask for a taste.
I like to buy tomatoes at different stages of ripeness so they will be available through the week. To ripen them, leave them on the kitchen counter in a well ventilated area, not on a window sill. Never refrigerate tomatoes unless they are cut and will not be consumed within a few hours. Temperatures under 52 degrees rob tomatoes of their flavor.
As with so many other ingredients, the better the tomato the less you want to muck it up. To slices of a perfect beefsteak, says Muller, “just add a few slices of mozzarella, some fresh basil, olive oil and sherry or balsamic vinegar and call it a day.” (This classic insalata Caprese, also demands absolutely fresh mozzarella.)
Cyndicy (sic) Coudray, culinary director of DeLoach Vineyards, makes a somewhat more involved salad by stacking slices of different colored tomatoes with tapenade spread in between the layers and topped by a basil vinaigrette. Coudray also likes to use red wine in vinaigrettes instead of vinegar. “Red wine is more friendly to tomatoes than vinegar,” she says.
Speaking of things that are friendly to tomatoes, almost nothing beats good salt, ideally sea salt and perhaps even fleur de sel, the most delicate sea salt. Basil is the king of tomato herbs but chives, chervil, dill, tarragon, mint and cilantro are also worth using. Muller likes flat, Italian parsley on tomato bread salad, a wonderful way to use up stale bread and ripe tomatoes.
Bruschetta, the tomato topped grilled bread, has become so popular, the topping is routinely available in jars in supermarkets. (Many people think that bruschetta is the topping. In fact, bruschetta refers to the grilled bread, which can have a variety of toppings or none at all.) And don’t forget tomato salsa for chips and Tex-Mex dishes. Freshly made salsa with cilantro and minced jalapeno beats anything from a jar.
Randy Ullom, winemaster for Kendall-Jackson, says that in matching wines with tomatoes at the KJ tomato festival, he noticed that the lighter the tomato (yellow, gold or light green) the lighter the wine, as in Sauvignon Blanc. Darker tomatoes such as those black varieties, can handle heavier wines, such as Merlot.
I’ve found that Italian whites such as Orvieto and Verdicchio work well too. As for reds, I prefer lower acid reds like those from Southern Italy rather than, say Chianti. Muller likes Riesling Spätlese wines with tomatoes.
Ripe or overripe tomatoes are perfect for cold tomato soups, the most famous of which is gazpacho. Gazpacho is perhaps the most forgiving and friendly soup because almost anything can go into it. For example, I love to add fresh corn kernels in mine. Muller puts in arugula.
Here is an adaptation of Eberhard Muller’s gazpacho recipe.
- 2-1/2 to 3 pounds ripe tomatoes (preferably multicolored Heirloom varieties),roughly chopped
- 1 each, red and yellow bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and roughly chopped
- 1 cucumber, peeled with some green skin remaining, roughly chopped
- 1 jalapeno pepper, stemmed, seeded and minced
- 1/2 cup Sherry vinegar
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 6 ounces arugula, cleaned, stemmed, and roughly chopped
- 1 bunch parsley, leaves only
- 1 spring mint, leaves only
- 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- About 3/4 cup club soda or seltzer
1)Combine the tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumber, and jalapeno in a large bowl. Add the sherry vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Marinate 3 to 5 hours in the refrigerator.
2)Mix in the arugula, mint and olive oil. In batches, coarsely puree the mixture in a food processor and return to the bowl. Adjust thickness as desired with club soda or seltzer. Adjust seasoning as needed. Serve chilled. Serves 8.
More on tomatoes
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.
More importantly than any (perhaps all) of the above is that tomatoes are a major source of lycopene. This antioxidant fights free radicals, which disrupt cells and promote diseases, in particular a variety of cancers. Lycopene seems to be most effective when tomatoes are cooked and eaten with some fat.
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. A pound of tomatoes (about 3 medium, 8 plum, 25 to 30 cherry) will yield about 2 cups, chopped.
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 health pinch of sugar. And don’t hold back on the salt. Tomatoes need a health 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 lower calorie tomato salad, try splashing sliced tomatoes with a good-quality balsamic vinegar instead of olive oil.
SALSA CRUDA – ITALIAN STYLE
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.
BREAD AND TOMATO SALAD
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
- 21/2 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. Serves 4.
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.
ROASTED TOMATO SALSA
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 CHERRY TOMATOES AND PESTO
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 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.