18 Ways to Make the Most of Your High-Season Haul
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
I had never intentionally eaten a raw tomato before my first trip to Italy. My parents decided that the day after my high school graduation was the perfect time to pack up the family and head there.
I lost out on the craziness of the post-graduation parties, but I gained a new gastronomic love. It took me a while to get totally cool with that exchange, but I did fall hard for those Italian tomatoes. They were so wonderfully red and ripe that I finally was able to make the connection between the fresh fruit and the slow-cooked marinara I'd always loved.
From that point on, I became obsessed with tomatoes.
I've been back to Italy many times since, including for a couple of long-term culinary apprenticeships, and I've learned quite a few tomato tips and tricks. The Italians treat tomatoes reverentially, gently and often with a nod to tradition.
My tomato lessons also continued in restaurant kitchens back in the States. Lacking the same sort of history with tomatoes, we Americans tend to push the fruit into more varied preparations. So I will share with you 18 of the insider tips I have learned from both worlds. Many are open to debate -- as with most popular ingredients, everyone has his own opinion -- but they should help get you situated for another tomato season.
1. Handle tomatoes before purchase: Once, you could tell a lot about a tomato from its color. These days, many farmers pick tomatoes early and treat them with ethylene, a gas naturally produced in many fruits, which ensures that the green specimens turn bright red by the time they get to market.
A tomato's feel may offer more valuable clues to its worthiness. The fruit should be full and heavy for its size, neither too hard nor too ripe (overly ripe ones often get mashed before making it to your kitchen), with no cracks or softened, bruised spots. Market vendors may be wary of customers pawing their wares (I learned that lesson the hard way in Italy), so ask for permission and then, if necessary, stick your hand into a plastic bag and use it as a glove for your examinations.
2. Try slightly firm, greenish tomatoes in salads: The Italians and many Europeans prefer the texture and tang of less-mature tomatoes in salads. I never understood why until I tried them and began to appreciate their nuanced, vegetal notes and pleasant toothiness. If your garden overflows with unripe green tomatoes at the end of the season, pickle them or bread and fry them Southern style.
3. Pair the tomato variety (and its cost) with the preparation: Romas (or plum tomatoes) hold up well to slow cooking. They have more solids and less water, so they form thick sauces. Heirlooms shine in salads and raw preparations, where their delicate flavor, full texture and considerable expense can be appreciated. Large, round tomatoes such as Beefsteaks and Early Girls are good in salads, though they're also fine pureed in sauces or soups. Diminutive tomatoes (such as cherry, grape and pear) show their versatility in salads, sautes and grilled skewers.
4. Hang on to the season: Though the tomato harvest holds steady through September, restaurant menus and the back-to-school pull often prematurely turn our attention to warming fall fare and that season's gourds and root vegetables. The local tomato season is too short not to keep enjoying them up until chilly temperatures arrive. Remember, nine months and a long winter will pass before you get your hands on another ripe, local tomato, so get your fix now.
5. Store tomatoes at room temperature and keep an eye on them: As noted food scientist Harold McGee explains in "On Food and Cooking" (Scribner, 2004), refrigeration slows some of the flavor-building enzyme activity in tomatoes. Chilling can also cause tomatoes' texture to become mealy.
So set them out on the counter until it's time to eat them; there, they should be fine for a couple of days and sometimes up to a week. In the heat of summer, the kitchen can be a warm place, so check the fruit daily to make sure it hasn't split (attracting mold or fruit flies) or become bruised and sour. Eat overly ripe tomatoes, or puree them into a sauce or gazpacho.