You Say To-may-toe

By Catherine McNulty

July 30, 2012 4 min read

Red tomatoes -- they fill the produce aisle of the grocery, regardless of season. These stalwarts of the supermarket are a little bland, maybe not quite ripe and a tad mealy, but generally, they're good enough. If this is what you're used to in a tomato, hie thee to a farmers market and prepare to have your mind blown.

At their peak, locally grown tomatoes are the harbingers of everything wonderful about summer. Luscious and juicy, sweet and tart, they smell like the sun and earth and are just begging to be eaten. What's the best way to enjoy this bounty? Keep it simple and let the tomatoes do the talking.

Peak tomatoes pair well with other seasonal produce. Try them out in a peach salsa: Simply cut up and seed a few fresh tomatoes and a peach or two. Add some lime juice, some salt and either a jalapeno or a habanero pepper for some heat. Serve with chips or grilled flatbread. It's the perfect snack for lounging around or an excellent topping for grilled fish.

Seeding tomatoes means taking the seeds out before you use the tomatoes in your cooking. The easiest way to do this is to quarter the tomatoes and scoop out the seeds with a knife, a spoon or your (very clean) fingers. Seed your tomatoes when you don't want the end result to be too soupy.

Another easy way to enjoy tomatoes is as bruschetta. Toast or grill hearty bread, such as sourdough. In a bowl, toss a few cut and seeded tomatoes with some oil, salt and pepper. This is the fun part: Add whatever catches your fancy. Shallots, minced garlic and shredded basil? Classic. Feta and diced olives? Divine. Mangoes and hot peppers? Spicy and sweet. There's no right or wrong recipe; experiment away!

As long as you've got the bread out, you might as well make a BLT. If you have access to really good mozzarella, a classic caprese salad is the perfect lunch. Or saute the tomatoes in oil with shallots or onions and garlic, and toss it with pasta. The key to enjoying fresh tomatoes is simplicity.

You probably will notice tomatoes labeled "heirloom" or "heritage" at the farmers market. This means that the tomatoes lack a genetic mutation that keeps the flesh the uniform red you find at the supermarket. Heirloom tomatoes come in a plethora of colors, and there are tons of different varieties of tomatoes, so sample as many as you can to find out which you like best. Some will be sweeter, and some will be juicier; all will be worth trying out.

As you do with all fruits and veggies, wash your tomatoes before eating them. Make sure you dry them thoroughly, and don't keep them in the fridge. That will make your tomatoes mealy, and who wants a mealy tomato? Fruits and veggies bought at the farmers market are picked at the peak of their ripeness, which means they will taste better but have a shorter shelf life. So make sure you buy only what you can use within a few days, or else you pay to watch your produce rot.

So now you know where to get great tomatoes and what to do with them, but it doesn't answer this question: Tomato -- fruit or vegetable?

Tomatoes are a study in contradiction; biologically, they are a fruit, but socially, they mostly hang out with vegetables. The United States Supreme Court even got in on the action in 1893 and ruled that for customs purposes, the tomato would be classified as a vegetable (Nix v. Hedden). Yes, the justices were mostly interested in being able to uphold a tariff act and collect taxes, but still, how impressive is it that this common fruit caused a judicial ruling that still affects us more than 100 years later?

Tomatoes are one of the most popular foods in the world; each year, more than 130 million tons are produced. Be sure to get your fill while the crop is ripe.

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