Ahhh, tomatoes. Red and juicy, sweet and plump, tomatoes are the sine qua non of my kitchen. Asked to choose between cream or tomato sauce, tomatoes would lure me every time.
Originally named Pomme d’Amour (Love Apple in French) tomatoes have had a love affair with culture and cuisine for thousands of years. They are believed to have originated in Mexico and were taken back to Europe on the explorers ships around the 1500’s. Italy especially developed affinity to the fruit and it has become synonymous with Italian cooking ever since.
Tomato is a fruit, not a vegetables (botanical classification) but fundamentally it is thought of and treated as a vegetable. There are many tomato varieties, only few of which reach our markets and kitchens. The commonly seen varieties are globe tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, Roma tomatoes, beefsteak tomatoes, Campari tomatoes as well as a variety of heirloom tomatoes. They come in an array of shapes, colours and sizes. I like mixing red, yellow and orange tomatoes in salads or pasta and love the shades that heirloom tomatoes bring, from purple to green to a whole spectrum of reds and oranges. It’s a good idea to get to know the varieties, as some of them are better for kitchen purposes than other. Meaty plum tomatoes are good for roasting and sauces, juicy globe and beefsteak tomatoes are good for soups, salads, tartines, paninis and sandwiches. There are other varieties that you can explore at your leisure. Tomatoes are at their best in the summer, especially when they are allowed to ripen on the vine. There is nothing like a true vine ripened, sweet tomato.
When selecting tomatoes choose the best ripened, fragrant, heavy and smooth skinned tomatoes that you can find. Don’t pick any with bruises or cuts as they may have picked up bacteria or contamination on their way to the market. It’s tough out there for a beautiful tomato. Looks is not always an indication of good flavor though. Scientific intervention, early picking and artificial means of ripening can make the tomatoes look great but lacking in flavor. Source them out from a reliable vendor and buy them in season.
If you find them vine ripened and still warm from the morning sun, enjoy them right away. Otherwise, once you bring them home leave them in a bowl on the counter and allow them to compose themselves for a couple of days. Never, I repeat, never store them in the fridge. The cold temperature makes them mealy and flat and renders them inedible for all intents and purposes.
If you can, look for heirloom tomatoes mentioned above. These are irregularly shaped specimen that look a little weird but when in good condition, offer incredible flavours. Heirloom tomatoes descend from ancient varieties. Each is genetically unique and a wide variety of specimen is usually sold together at the markets. Their colours would be green, orange, red, yellow etc. Their asymmetrical shapes (beautiful in my opinion) make wonderful tomato salads, simply sliced, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with a special salt.
There is also a huge industry of greenhouse tomatoes that make tomatoes available all year round. Some are grown hydroponically in nutrient solutions under artificial light. These tomatoes are uniform in shape, size and colour. Although they can taste sweet all I can say that these tomatoes have not been kissed by the sun.
What to do when no fresh tomatoes are available? I tend to buy a lot of tomatoes at the end of the summer, when cases of red, glistening tomatoes are offered at the farmers markets. I take them home, arrange them individually on baking sheets a couple of inches apart and place them in the deep freezer until they are solidly frozen. Once frozen (it takes a couple of days) I place then in freezer plastic bags, a few to a bag and return them to the freezer for a long winter nap to be called upon when pasta sauce or tomato soup is on the menu.
If you don’t have the freezer room for such an adventure you can purchase canned tomatoes, the next best alternative to having your own. My favourite canned tomatoes are the San Marzano DOP tomatoes from San Marzano, Italy. They are packed with good flavour and you won’t regret the little extra work in having to source them. Most Italian grocers and specialty stores such as William Sonoma carry them.
And don’t forget the sun dried tomatoes that you can buy dried or packed in water or oil. These have intense tomato flavour and are a wonderful kitchen item to have on hand. You can add them to soups, chop into a spread or add to other cooked foods that require a tomato touch etc. I tend to roast my own plum or Roma tomatoes and keep them either packed in oil in the fridge or frozen in a small freezer bags. I uses these just like I would sun dried tomatoes.
However you use them, this summer have a kitchen affair with a vine ripened, sun kissed tomato. I am sure you won’t regret it.