A Passion for Summer Tomatoes

California Heirloom Tomatoes

California Heirloom Tomatoes

Where would we be without our favorite summer fruit? How many other fruits or vegetables have a song written about them?

Native to the Americas, at one time feared as poisonous due to its family ties (nightshades), the tomato is now one of the most popular of foods. Quick, how many things can you think of which feature tomatoes?

Starting with just ketchup, pizza, and spaghetti, think about how popular the tomato is. So many foods and dishes use tomatoes, in either in a starring or supporting role. Not bad considering it wasn’t until the late 1700s that tomatoes began to find their way into the dining room in any quantity.

I came to tomatoes late in life. With the exception of ketchup, tomatoes were a nuisance to my childhood self, something to pull out of sandwiches, dodge around in salads, that sort of thing. It wasn’t until college when I tasted my first homegrown, fully ripe, slightly misshapen tomato that I figured out what the fuss was about. I now love tomatoes, as long as they are fully ripe and grown in the right conditions, which seems to eliminate all grocery store tomatoes. For me, it just seems the ones at the big chain stores are always pale imitations of, or worse, insults, to the tomato. Frankly, if making pasta sauce and forced to choose between canned tomatoes and “fresh” grocery store tomatoes, I’ll take the cans thank you. Look for San Marzano brand or plum tomatoes, without corn syrup, and with a minimum of anything else for that matter. These tomatoes make an excellent sauce. Different than fresh, but excellent none the less.

There are lots of articles about tomatoes describing the types and how best to use them. Following are a few of my thoughts (by no means exhaustive) on choosing and using tomatoes. Remember this – tomatoes are a fruit! When selecting them, thinking “fruit” may help you choose better.

  • When selecting tomatoes, look for ones that feel heavy for their size, with a tight skin that doesn’t wrinkle as you run a finger lightly over the skin.
  • Look for skin that is unblemished, neither spotted nor sunburned, and avoid tomatoes that are white and almost leathery on the bottom. These sat on the ground as they grew and may be uneven in flavor.
  • Some scarring around “cracks” is okay, you just cut these out. Some folks say that these signs of stress yield a sweeter tomato, a theory I fully intend to test this summer.
  • Use your nose — give the tomatoes a sniff at the stem end. Smell like a tomato? Good bet it will taste like one as well.
  • Use your hands to gently check that the tomato is not rock hard. If it is, it is probably not ripe.

When buying tomatoes, also consider what you want to do with them. Some are better suited to cooking and some are best raw. Tomatoes are a balance of acid and sweetness, with various other elements that give each type its character.

  • For long cooking, I like a more acidic tomato with the right amount of natural sugar to balance it. For salads, I try to pair the tomato with the accompanying ingredients.
  • For light lettuces and delicate sprouts, I’d use a less acidic, fruitier tomato. For assertive greens like mizuna, arugula, and spinach, I like a stronger flavored tomato. These are also the tomatoes for pairing with cheese. The way to learn this pairing is, of course, through tasting. Assemble a few tomatoes, a few varieties of lettuce and salad dressings, and taste away.

I find tomatoes can balance a dish in the same way that salt or sugar or an acid like vinegar or lemon juice does. Case in point: the BLT. Without tomatoes you just have some crunchy and fatty bits together. Put the tomatoes in and the acid of the tomato offsets the richness of the bacon, and the sweetness points up the sweetness of the bacon at the same time it acts as a counterpoint to the faint bitterness found in lettuces.

Now a word about tomatoes in sandwiches – I find that thin slices of tomato are best in BLTs, or in most sandwiches. Thinly sliced and interleaved with the bacon allows the tomato to work with the bacon to cut the fattiness. It also keeps the big thick slices from pulling out of the sandwich and causing all the rest of the sandwich to fall out as well. I also think you get a better flavor this way. With the thick slices, the acid of the tomato can sometimes be quite pronounced.

One of the simplest ways I know to enjoy tomatoes is this quick and very traditional Mediterranean snack. I first made this when inspired by a description I read in a book by Lawrence Durrell,  if I recall correctly. I have since seen it in many other places.

TOMATO BREAD
Grill or toast a thick slice of coarse sturdy bread. Rub with a clove of garlic that has been sliced to present a flat surface. Rub the bread with a tomato that has been sliced in half through the “equator” and has had the seeds knocked out. The bread will absorb the tomato! Drizzle with good olive oil and sprinkle a few grains of coarse salt (my favorite is Maldon salt for this) and eat immediately. This is not a dish that can sit around for any length of time – excellent on hot afternoons with a glass of chilled dry wine.

HOW TO SKIN TOMATOES
Many recipes call for peeled and seeded tomatoes. To do this, bring a pot of water to the boil, get a bowl with ice water ready, cut a little “x” at the bottom of the tomato and pop it into the boiling water for 10-15 seconds. Immediately dunk it into the ice water to arrest the cooking and then slip off the skin. You might need a paring knife to help. Be sure not to leave the tomatoes in the hot water too long or you run the risk of cooking them. To seed them, the easiest method is to slice the tomato across the equator and then shake the seeds loose over the sink, and use a fingertip or skinny wooden spoon tip to get at the stragglers.

SLOW ROASTED CARAMELIZED TOMATOES
Peel tomatoes (plum or other meaty red tomatoes with a bit of acid) and halve through the stem, then seed. I usually make this with at least 8 tomatoes as the recipe takes some time and the end result is really good and will keep in the frig for a day or two.

On a non-stick mat or parchment paper that has been lightly oiled, place the tomato halves so there is space between them and they are flat side down. Lightly brush with neutral flavored oil such as grapeseed, and sprinkle with a pinch of sugar (about 1/8 teaspoon) per tomato. Sprinkle with a little kosher salt and some fresh ground black pepper, and a few leaves of thyme, and bake in an oven at low heat (150°F) for 2-3 hours (or more) until the tomatoes are dry and look candied. This can sometimes take longer, but pay attention and avoid burning.

Once you have done this it will seem very easy. You can play with the seasoning: add more sugar, or use reduced balsamic vinegar, eliminate sugar, etc. These slow roasted tomatoes are very surprising and drive home the fact that tomatoes are a fruit! They can be used to accompany meats, served with toasts as a starter, go with a tart or tangy soft
cheese, or if you want to throw someone for a loop, serve them with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.

What are those two things money supposedly can’t buy? Love and homegrown tomatoes. Well, they may not be “homegrown” at the farmers market, but they might as well be!

You’ll find tomatoes at Molino Creek Farm, Borba Farm, Thomas Farm, Route 1 and Munak Ranch.

RECIPES: Fried Green Tomatoes, How to Peel and Seed Tomatoes and Make Tomato Filets, Tomato Mozzarella Tart with Basil Garlic Crust, Gazpacho, Fresh Calamari Salad, Salsa Mexicana, Roasted Tomato and Mint Salsa, French Tomato Onion Tart, Classic Tuscan Marinara, Garlic Tomato, Fresh Mozzarella Bruschetta