Like its nightshade relatives, the eggplant and potato, it was once thought to be poisonous. The French named it pomme d’amour (love apple) and considered it an aphrodisiac. Really a fruit, it’s called a vegetable. Call the tomato what you want. I call it delicious. Or is it?
We’ve always known, just never knew why, those uniformly red and perfectly shaped tomatoes we find in the supermarket are tasteless, adding little more than color to our salsas, sandwiches and sauces. Now scientists have finally figured it out: in breeding tomatoes to harvest more easily and ripen evenly, growers have unwittingly disabled a gene that gives tomatoes their sweetness.
Plant breeders and scientists can’t take all the blame, however. We consumers want nice-looking, affordable tomatoes year-round. Now we want our flavor back, and, oh yes, could you make them disease resistant too? Breeders are taking notice.
In the meantime what’s a cook to do? Choose heirloom tomatoes – agribusiness hasn’t messed with their genes – and look for those pesky “green shoulders.” Consumers need to change their expectations. Lack of uniformity in color and shape – you know, what we’ve all been brainwashed into avoiding? – that’s what we need to look for now. Find heirlooms in local farmers markets, or grow them yourself.
Fullerton resident Carolyn Dymond has been growing tomato plants successfully for years. Her secret is burying the plant deep – 1/2 to 3/4 of the plant, leaves and all – to get a good root system. “Once you’ve tasted your own home grown, you’ll never settle for the supermarket variety,” she assured me.
“Our soil is clay, so it is essential to prepare the ground,” she advised. “Use half soil and half potting mix.” Carolyn plants her tomatoes in partial sun, spacing them three to four feet apart and recommends Miracle Gro® fertilizer. “Don’t water on a schedule,” she cautioned. “Wait until the soil is dry.” And avoid chemical bug spray. Carolyn prefers to pick off any green tomato worms as she sees them. “You have to stare at a tomato plant,” she quipped.
When I asked her for a tomato recipe, she winced. “The best recipe is to pick them and eat them. You want the simplest thing you can do with your ingredients.”
Right. It’s summertime and the livin’ is easy. With heirloom tomatoes in season, what could be easier than slice and eat? Oh, you wanted a recipe? Sprinkle with a little salt.
Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame has built her career on her commitment to using the finest and freshest seasonal ingredients that are produced sustainably and locally. Her book In the Green Kitchen (Clarkson Potter) is a technique manual with recipes – she’d rather teach you to fish than give you a fish. When the ingredients come out of the ground in all their deliciousness, not much is needed to enhance them.
Summer entertaining should be this easy – let the ingredients speak for themselves without the cook getting in the way! A rustic summer salad combines luscious heirlooms with hearty toasted French bread, mozzarella and kalamata olives. Pair tomatoes with silky avocados for an unbeatable summer dip. And tomatoes for breakfast? Why not? Try them with the perfect poached egg.
Tuscan Tomato Salad (Panzanella)
Yield: 8 side-dish servings
½ cup good-quality extra virgin olive oil
½ cup good-quality red wine vinegar
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons drained capers
1 tablespoon minced anchovy fillets
1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 hothouse cucumber, quartered lengthwise, then cut crosswise into chunks
1 red onion, halved and thinly sliced
1 each red and yellow bell pepper, cut into ¾-inch chunks
8 ounces water-packed buffalo mozzarella cheese, drained and cut into ½-inch cubes
2 cups fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves (not chopped)
1 cup fresh basil leaves, torn into pieces
½ cup pitted kalamata olives, cut in half
4 heirloom tomatoes (about 1¼ pounds), cut into chunks
½ loaf day-old crusty French bread, cut into 1-inch cubes (about 4 cups), toasted
1 Combine oil, vinegar, lemon juice, capers, anchovies, garlic, salt and pepper in glass jar. Shake dressing vigorously.
2 Combine cucumber, onion, bell peppers, mozzarella, parsley, basil and olives in large bowl. Add tomatoes and half the dressing; toss to coat. Add toasted bread and toss with enough of remaining dressing to coat. Let stand until bread absorbs some of vinaigrette, tossing occasionally, about 10 minutes. Add more dressing as desired.
Source: Simply Zov by Zov Karamardian (Zov’s Publishing)
Avocado Salsa with Tomatoes and Scallions
Yield: 10 to 12 servings
3 ripe avocados, preferably Hass
2 ripe medium tomatoes, seeded and chopped
½ cup thinly sliced scallions
½ cup coarsely chopped cilantro
¼ cup fresh lime juice
1½ teaspoons seeded and minced fresh jalapeño pepper
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
½ teaspoon salt
1 Cut avocados in half lengthwise and discard pits. Using large spoon or avocado peeler, scoop out flesh. Cut into 3/8-inch dice. To reduce discoloration, place avocado in bowl. Fill bowl with cold water; lift out avocado with slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
2 In medium bowl, combine avocados, tomatoes, scallions, cilantro, lime juice, jalapeño, garlic and salt. Toss gently.
3 Transfer to serving dish and serve at once, or cover with plastic wrap pressed directly onto surface and refrigerate up to 4 hours.
Source: Great Party Dips (Wiley) by Peggy Fallon
Poached Eggs with Tomato and Herb Bruschetta
A breakfast dish from Chef Angelo Garro combines tomatoes and the perfect poached egg.
Dice ripe tomatoes and macerate with peeled clove of garlic cut in half and some chopped parsley and oregano; moisten with olive oil and splash of vinegar; season with salt and pepper. Toast slices of crusty bread, top with tomatoes and their juices (remove garlic pieces first), and set warm eggs of top of tomatoes. Finish eggs with salt, a drizzle of red wine vinegar and olive oil and chopped oregano.
Poaching an egg: Fill a shallow heavy-bottomed pan with 2 to 3 inches of water and bring to a simmer. Lower heat to just under boiling, with no bubbles breaking the surface. Salt water and, if you like, add splash of vinegar. Carefully crack fresh egg into small cup or bowl. (Angelo’s trick: Put egg into water 10 seconds to set white before cracking egg into bowl.) Hold bowl or cup at water level and slide egg in. Depending on size and temperature, cook egg 3 to 5 minutes at which point white is opaque and just set, but yolk is still soft. To test for doneness, use slotted spoon to lift egg out of water and gently press with your finger to feel if white has set. When egg is done, remove and drain for a moment on a clean dishtowel before serving.
Source: In the Green Kitchen by Alice Waters