Even though I’ve been discussing seasonal vegetables, the next subject of this blog will not, in fact, be a vegetable, but a berry.
That’s right. Not only is the tomato a fruit, but it’s actually a berry. It’s all about how the tomato plant is pollinated and how the plant grows and where the seeds develop. There’s lots of information available about the botanical classification of the tomato, but let’s just agree that it’s a berry and get on with some of the basics of using the tomato in cooking.
Walk through a store or farmers’ market that has a wide variety of tomatoes available, and the colors and sizes will amaze you. There are the typical round tomatoes that we’re so familiar with, and smaller tomatoes like the cherry tomato and the even smaller grape tomato, and heirloom tomatoes and Roma or plum tomatoes that are more oblong in shape. The colors vary from bright yellow to all shades of red and orange and green and almost purple. Some seem to have almost no flavor or aroma, and others smell like they came from the garden a few minutes ago. There are canned tomatoes that have been puréed or chopped or fire-roasted or imported.
Heirloom tomatoes have been cultivated from seeds passed down from generation to generation, to protect a certain size or color or shape. There are commercially produced heirlooms, and family heirlooms (the family saves the seeds from that year’s crop and carefully preserves them for planting next year). There are also heirlooms that have been created by combining varieties. There are so many names, colors, and tastes of heirloom tomatoes – you’ll have to try a few. Some people feel that the deeper darker colored varieties taste better. It’s a matter of personal preference. However, if you can find heirloom tomatoes that are certified as “dry-farmed”, there’s a good chance they will taste delicious. Dry-farming is a way of controlling the way the tomato is watered, which allows for more flavorful development.
The standard round grocery-store tomato is available in loose bins, or still on the vine. Tomatoes are carefully monitored while they’re ripening. After they cross a certain ripening point (determined by the percentage of green unripe-ness or ratio of green to red) the vine is cut with the tomatoes still on it or the tomatoes are picked. They’re timed to be red when they reach the market. But they were all picked green and some were artificially ripened. The only way to harvest a ripe tomato that had time to properly ripen on the vine is to grow it yourself, or to buy from a farm stand that you trust. Sometimes I think that the tomatoes on the vine smell and taste better than the hothouse ones, but that might be my imagination. It’s hard to buy a flavorful ordinary supermarket tomato. Tomatoes on the vine look more appealing to consumers but often the taste is no better than the cheaper loose type. Look for seasonal, local tomatoes and it will be worth it!
Roma, or plum, tomatoes are the oblong ones, and usually less expensive than other varieties. They often have fewer seeds than the large round ones.
San Marzano tomatoes are a protected type of Roma tomatoes that grow in one location in Italy, in volcanic soil. You may see some tomatoes marketed as “San Marzano style” or “Italian style” but only the true San Marzano tomato may be called San Marzano, and here in America they are only sold in cans, never in jars. There will be wording on the can that certifies that they are authentic (the can label will say D.O.P. which is an Italian certification of authenticity). San Marzano tomatoes have been cultivated to have more flesh, arguably a better taste, and fewer seeds and the gelatinous material that surrounds the seeds. There are almost endless discussions online about whether it’s worth it to pay more for authentic San Marzano tomatoes (they can be expensive).
Canned traditional tomatoes often have additives like citric acid which can make them a little more acidic than fresh tomatoes. Try to find tomatoes with as few additives as possible. Skip the canned tomatoes that include basil and onion and garlic.
Now, about those tomato skins and seeds: to peel a tomato, simply make a small x (just about a half-inch long) in the skin with a sharp knife. Drop the tomato into boiling water for about 45 seconds, and then remove it to a bowl of ice water. The skin will slip off easily when the tomato is cool enough to handle.
There’s a lot of debate about removing seeds. Some people believe that the seeds are flavorful. Here’s my opinion: If you are making a chili, or a tortilla soup, or a dish with lots of chopped vegetables and herbs, then the seeds won’t really matter. If you are slicing tomatoes to put on a sandwich or chopping tomatoes for a fresh salsa or a salad, then the seeds will tend to make the final product watery. To remove the seeds when you want to keep the nice shape of the tomato, slice the tomato in half, and use a small melon baller or a round spoon (even a grapefruit spoon) to just slide those seeds out and the gelatinous membrane that surrounds them. To remove the seeds when you’re going to end up chopping the tomato or when you’re going to throw it in a sauce, and the shape isn’t too important, just slice enough of the top of the tomato off to reveal the seeds, hold the tomato upside down over the sink and just gently squeeze. The seeds will fall out (you may need to coax them a little with your finger or a small spoon). If you’re making a very pure tomato sauce, removing the seeds is more for looks than anything else.
Bottom line: remove the seeds from tomatoes to keep fresh salsas, salads and sandwiches from getting watery and soggy and when you want the final product to look smooth and simple. Don’t bother removing them for making chili, chunky soups, or casseroles.
Roasting tomatoes is a great way to bring out a whole new depth of flavor. Simply lay whole or halved tomatoes on parchment paper and drizzle with a little olive oil and salt. Roast at 425 degrees until they turn a deep color and become tender. One of my favorite simple meals is a lightly toasted piece of Italian artisan bread, covered with roasted tomatoes and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Roasted tomatoes are great on pizza, and they can be made into a delicious sauce.
To make a simple marinara sauce, inspired by the great chef Marcella Hazan, whose sauce is the standard for all marina sauces, an onion is sautéed in olive oil, and canned San Marzano (or a similar style) tomatoes are crushed by hand and simmered with the onion and a little butter. (I use a sharp paring knife to just nick off the slightest tip of the canned tomatoes where the stem was, simply because that part bugs me and I think it will never become tender. That’s just a personal quirk of mine.) If you plan to use this as a pizza sauce, some fresh oregano leaves can be added at the beginning. For a meat sauce, after the onions have been sautéed, add a pound of ground beef and brown it thoroughly before proceeding with the tomato step. If you want to use fresh tomatoes, use about 4 pounds of seeded and peeled tomatoes, and cook the sauce until the tomatoes are very tender.
Here’s the recipe:
Simple Marinara Sauce
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 28-ounce cans of good quality tomatoes
4 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
10 basil leaves, roughly torn or finely sliced (your choice)
In a saucepan, sauté the onion in the olive oil over medium heat until the onion is golden and tender. Meanwhile, crush the tomatoes with your hands in a separate bowl. Add the tomatoes and butter to the pan, along with the salt, bring to a simmer, and cook gently for about 45 minutes (10 minutes if you’re in a rush, up to 2 hours for maximum flavor). Add basil and taste for salt at the end of the cooking time.
Now is a good to talk about the herb rule. If the herb has a tough stem (like rosemary, or oregano or thyme; their stems are woody) they can be added at the beginning of the cooking time (even if it’s going to be a long cook time). Herbs like parsley and basil and cilantro, with stems that are grassy and bendable, should be added near the end of the cooking time.
So try some new tomato varieties this week, and enjoy these delicious berries!