Pomme d'Amour, Love Apples, Pomodori -
They're All Tomatoes to Me
Copyright © 1999 Tarla Fallgatter. All rights reserved.
As February 14 (Valentine's Day) fast approaches, I begin to think of romantic dinners for two. What better ingredient to use than the "love apple"? It's red, delicious and juicy, and can be prepared in so many innovative ways. Just think -- you could make a fresh hot tomato soup, a cold gazpacho soup, a salad of fresh tomatoes, a pasta dish either using tomato pasta or adding thin fresh tomato slices to whatever sauce you choose, a grilled shrimp and roasted tomato stew, or even stuff a whole hollowed-out beefsteak tomato with...a diced heirloom tomato salad! Whatever you serve will surely looklove-ly.
What Is a Tomato?
A tomato is the fruit of the tomato plant, a vine that in its wild state is robust and hearty, a resilient perennial that can grow as tall as a telephone pole or as wide as a row of Cadillacs and has an indefinite life span. Because the tomato develops from an ovary, it is, scientifically speaking, a fruit, although we think of it as a vegetable, which is how it functions on our table -- in salads, soups and main courses, in savory sauces and side dishes. Only occasionally, and with very limited success, does the tomato turn up in desserts. Thus it is a vegetable, functionally as well as legally, as the Supreme court affirmed in a well-known 1893 decision.
The tomato plant is a member of the nightshade, or Solanaceae, family, making it a cousin of the eggplant, the red pepper, the potato, the ground cherry, the tomatillo, and the highly toxic belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade. The fruits of the tomato plant grow in a variety of shapes, but each is made up of smooth, satiny skin surrounding meaty flesh that softens as the tomato ripens, with pockets (known as locules) filled with seeds surrounded by a thick gel. A well-grown tomato is always tart and always sweet, both in varying degrees, depending on the specific variety, climate, method of cultivation and time of harvest. Tomatoes left to ripen on the vine have a higher percentage of sugar than do those that are picked green, which fail to develop their full flavor.
For general culinary purposes, the primary distinctions between tomatoes are size, color, structure and texture, with each category better suited to certain types of culinary uses than others. Look at the inside of tomatoes when you slice them. Do they have lots of seeds and juice, but only a few meaty ridges? Or are there several ridges and only a few seed cavities? The irregular-shaped Roma is a meaty type, with only two or three cavities. The large European type is meaty as well, making it easy to scoop out the seeds while leaving a firm shell for stuffing. Meaty types are good for making thick sauce and, if large, the firm shells are good for stuffing. The juicier types are good for salad and in combination with other vegetables, such as ratatouille, a provincial French vegetable dish combining zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes and onions.
Currant tomatoes, tiny jewels that are either red or yellow, are best eaten right off the vine or used as garnish. Cherry tomatoes, which come in a wide spectrum of colors from white, pink, and pale yellow to bright orange and deep red, are best raw in salads and salsas, grilled on skewers, or cooked simply as a side dish. Certain varieties of cherry tomatoes -- the larger ones that have a low percentage of water -- are delicious dried. Plum tomatoes, with several varieties in different colors, are well suited for sauces, soups, stews, jams, chutneys and, and because of their dense flesh, for drying. Slicing tomatoes include everything from the intensely flavored stupice, about two to two and a half inches in diameter, to the often enormous beefsteak and oxheart tomatoes, heirloom varieties currently enjoying a renewed popularity. Though ideal for their stated purpose, slicing, they also play their part in salsas, sauces and soups quite well, although they frequently need draining or longer cooking because of their high water content.
As specialty growers revive heirloom varieties -- obtained through specialty seed catalogs -- tomatoes with unique characteristics are becoming available, like the Valencia, a deep-orange slicer that holds its shape when it is cooked, and the yellow ruffle, a nearly hollow tomato that doesn't offer much taste but is ideal for stuffing. The increasingly available Green Grape cherry tomato, green when ripe, is delicious. Unlike their earliest relatives, which were largely ignored or shunned as food, tomatoes today have endless, delicious uses.
Green tomatoes are unripened tomatoes, not a separate type. They are excellent used in pickles and relishes, and may be pan-fried and accompanied with caviar and sour cream. Yellow and pink tomatoes, on the other hand, are separate strains. Pink tomatoes are much like red tomatoes, except their skin is clear (red tomatoes have skin with a yellowish hue). Yellow tomatoes come in sizes ranging from pear and plum to large round ones. Try serving the pear or plum types in clusters as you would grapes, or use them whole in dishes calling for cooked tomatoes. Large yellow tomatoes are beautiful sliced in combination with red tomatoes and mozzarella cheese.
Peeling, Seeding and Juicing
To peel, seed and juice a tomato, first cut out the stems. Next, cut a small, shallow "x" in the bottom side of the tomato. Plunge the tomatoes into boiling water just long enough for the skin to loosen, 15 to 30 seconds. Quickly transfer the tomatoes to a bowl of ice water. Peel the skin. Cut the tomatoes in half crosswise and squeeze out the seeds and juice.
Where Did They Come From?
The exact origin of tomatoes remains a mystery but there is reason to believe that the original tomato came from Peru. Called tomatl,it was taken to Mexico by migrating Peruvians. It found its way to Italy via the explorations of Christopher Columbus. Tomatoes were taken back to Europe along with silver and gold, and they were grown on the continent as a pretty curiosity.
The original tomato was probably yellow-fleshed, given that theItalians referred to it as pomo d'oro, meaning "apple of gold." Leave it to them to marry the tomato with pasta, a combination that would eventually influence cuisine around the world.
The French, with their passion for food and romantic notions, took it a step further. They incorrectly translated the word aspomo d'amore, meaning "apple of love." It was shipped to England under that same name, and became an extremely desirable commodity of the powerful and wealthy. Rumor was that the tomato was quite an aphrodisiac. Historians have recorded Sir Walter Raleigh giving Queen Elizabeth a nice, big, juicy tomato as a gesture of his affection.
When the early settlers came to the New World, they brought tomato seeds. Whether it was due to the Puritan ethic (the "love apple") or the fact that the settlers landed in chilly New England, the tomato was not grown to be eaten until the late 1800s.
Southeast Asians were first introduced to the tomato around the middle of the 17th century, and North Americans by the late 18th century, but it wasn't until Henry J. Heinz bottled tomato catsup in 1876 that this vegetable gained widespread acceptance in the United States. Today tomatoes, along with potatoes and lettuce, are the top-grossing vegetables in the United States, but they are still not well accepted in many parts of Asia.
Tomatoes are a summer crop. In California, sun-ripened tomatoes are grown from June through late October. Elsewhere, the temperature and the amount of sunlight determine when varieties are available from nearby farms and gardens.
Imported tomatoes are available year-round. When out of season, they typically lack taste and texture. Most are picked while still green, then ripened upon delivery after being gassed with ethylene. Their red skins seduce cooks into thinking their flavor might match their vibrant color.
Choose tomatoes that have bright, shiny skins. There should be no evidence of mold on either the blossom or the stem end. Discoloring and bruising can affect the texture of the flesh. If you buy greenish tomatoes, they must be ripened in a warm, sunny place, but the flavor will not be as good as that of vine-ripened tomatoes. In general, avoid broken skins and overly soft tomatoes unless you are making a sauce. The softest, ripest ones can be the best for tomato sauces or juice.
Canned Versus Fresh
I recommend using fresh tomatoes only during the months they are in season, grown locally and, most importantly, fully vine-ripened. If tomatoes are out of season I suggest using canned, whole tomatoes as well as prepared sauces. Canned tomatoes are typically processed at the height of the season, when they are most flavorful. Keep in mind that you usually get what you pay for. A few extra pennies for a quality canned product, especially if it is organic, is well worth the added expense.
Do not store tomatoes in the refrigerator unless they are near spoilage or have broken skins, as the cold affects their flavor. If for some reason you must refrigerate them, be sure to allow them to warm to room temperature before serving them on salads or appetizers.
Place unripe tomatoes, not touching, on a sunny windowsill or in a warm spot. Store ripe ones in a well-ventilated basket or bowl, and check daily for spoilage or moisture leaks. Remove any overripe tomatoes with broken skins.
Tomatoes can differ dramatically in size, water content and flavor. The first and most important thing you must do is taste, touch and get to know the tomato. If it is full of natural sugars and acids, go lightly on your seasoning, and give center stage to the tomato itself. If it lacks flavor, you might want to go a little more heavily on spices, herbs and all seasoning. When preparing a cooked sauce, if the tomato isn't imparting the zip you expect, try using brown sugar, red wine, strong olive oil, lemon juice or balsamic vinegar as flavor enhancers. Do not use aluminum or copper pots when cooking with tomatoes, as the acid in the tomato creates a reaction that will discolor the sauce and the pot.
When sun drying tomatoes, begin with the best tomatoes you can find. The flavors and aromas of the fresh tomatoes will be intensified in the sun-dried product. There are two methods to achieve this. The first is oven drying. To oven dry tomatoes, wash, core and cut them into quarter-inch slices and place on a ventilated rack in an oven heated to 150° F for approximately six to eight hours, depending upon the size of the tomato slices. The second method is sun drying. To sun dry tomatoes, wash, core and cut them into quarter-inch slices and place on screens or well-ventilated racks in a very hot, sunny spot. Cover lightly with cheesecloth to protect from insect infestation, and turn the tomato slices daily. It should take approximately three days to sun dry the tomatoes. If you live in an area that has cool nights, be sure to bring them inside to avoid moisture.
With either method, tomatoes are sun dried when most of the moisture is removed and the texture becomes somewhat leathery. They should taste intense and sweet. Less moisture means less chance of spoilage, so moister sun-dried tomatoes that have not been treated with preservatives should be kept in airtight containers or in the freezer. For safety's sake, freeze all sun-dried tomatoes for at least 48 hours. This will kill any visually undetectable insect larvae in the sun-dried tomatoes. Sun-dried tomatoes will last up to six months.
Tomato concasse:Concasse is the simple process of coarsely chopping a vegetable. To make tomato concasse, peel, seed and coarsely chop ripe tomato flesh. Season with salt and use as a simple sauce for pasta or vegetables. Tomato concasse is often used as a base for more complex sauces.
Tomato coulis: Coulis is a classic French term for chopped tomato pulp that is salted and drained over a colander to extract as much water as possible. The tomato flavor is intensified through this process. Typically it is then pureed into a slightly chunky sauce. Use it as a simple sauce, hot or cold, or season with fresh herbs, spices, salt or pepper. Coulis freezes well and, like concasse, is perfect on its own or as a base for more complicated sauces and stews.
Tomato paste: Basically, tomato paste is whole tomatoes that are simmered slowly (with the optional addition of celery or onions) until very thick. Strain through a food mill or fine sieve, then return to the stove and cook over low heat, stirring constantly to the consistency of a thick, concentrated paste. Add to soups or sauces to impart a depth of flavor.
Tomato puree: the liquid obtained from mature red tomatoes or from the residue of tomatoes prepared for canning or juice. The liquid is concentrated, but not to the same degree as the tomato paste.
Tomato sauce: tomato puree to which seasonings (especially salt, pepper, dried garlic and dried onions) have been added.
Stewed tomatoes: chunks of tomatoes seasoned with a variety of herbs and spices. Commercially, this is one of the most popular canned tomato products in the United States.
Sun-dried tomatoes: tomatoes that have been sliced and set in the hot sun long enough, generally two or three days, for their water to evaporate. Although these are virtually unavailable commercially, many products on the shelf, as well as recipe and menu items, read "sun-dried tomatoes." Chances are they're not.
Tomato salsa: The Spanish word salsa translates as "sauce" in English. Mexican-style salsas can be hot or cold. Typical ingredients in a tomato salsa are ripe tomato pulp, chopped red or green onions, cilantro and chilies. Adding lime juice, avocado, cucumber, garlic or ground cumin will transform an ordinary tomato salsa into your own creation.
Catsup: Today, to be called "catsup," a product must contain tomatoes, vinegar and sugar; it must be labeled "artificial" if the sugar is omitted. Most catsup also contains onions, salt and spices (most commonly allspice, black pepper, cinnamon, cassia, cloves, cayenne pepper, ginger, mustard and paprika).
Conventional: product grown under conditions adhering to federal Food and Drug Administration guidelines. These guidelines permit the use of chemical amendments and pesticides approved for use in the United States.
Heirloom: varieties of tomatoes that have been grown for 50 years or more, and that are open-pollinated. These pure varieties reproduce the same flavor and consistency year in and year out, and have an "old-fashioned" tomato taste that many people think hybrid varieties lack.
Hybrid: plants that are produced by cross-parenting plants differing in more than one gene. In tomatoes, hybridization is aimed at increasing flavor, productivity and disease resistance. Seeds of hybrid tomatoes must, by law, be labeled as such on seed packets.
Hydroponic: tomatoes grown in water to which nutrients are added; not grown in soil. Hydroponic tomatoes are typically grown in greenhouses.
Organic: no synthetic chemicals used to amend the soil or to treat the plant. Strict specifications established by state governments and organizations set the guidelines for what is classified as organic.
Tomatoes are low in carbohydrates and contain no fat. One cup of chopped tomatoes is approximately 50 calories, provides up to 60 percent of the adult daily requirements for vitamin C and is loaded with vitamin A. Tomatoes are also high in calcium and potassium. However, cooking them will diminish the vitamin and mineral content.
Ace 55 and Marvel Stripe: good examples of a beefsteak tomato, that is, any large, pumpkin-shaped, irregularly sized tomato. One of the most common commercially grown tomatoes. Use on sandwiches, salads and for cooking.
Early Girl and Dona: slicer tomatoes, that is, any uniformly shaped tomato that would allow you to cut a maximum of even slices out of it. Meaty, rich, juicy flavor. Good all-around tomato for raw use or in cooking.
Red Currant: tiny, quarter-inch, grape-sized tomatoes that grow in loose clusters and are often marketed when still on the vine. Crunchy, sweet and fruity. Fresh eating only.
Roma: improved paste tomato with fuller flavor. Bright red, thick walls with few seeds. Perfect for canning, catsup and sauces.
Sweet 100: grown in large clusters, low-acid, cherry-sized red tomatoes with mouthwatering sweet and juicy flavor. Best for salads or appetizers.
Yellow Pear: small, one- to one-and-a-half-inch, clear yellow, mild-flavored, pear-shaped tomato, available in both yellow and red. Good for salads and pickling.
Tomatillo: Some say this was the first tomato, originating in central America. Others say it isn't a tomato at all, but, because of its seed pattern, a member of the gooseberry family. Although tomatillos can ripen to yellow, they are generally used while still green, in sauces and as a thickener in many Mexican recipes. Their semitart flavor produces a unique, refreshing salsa.
Here is my favorite fresh tomato salad using as many varieties as you can find:
Arugula and Tomato Salad with Shaved Asiago Cheese
2 red beefsteak tomatoes, cut in 1/4" slices
2 yellow beefsteak tomatoes, cut in 1/4" slices
1C yellow miniature plum tomatoes, stems removed (1/2C cut in half lengthwise)
1C red miniature plum tomatoes, stems removed (1/2C cut in half lengthwise)
1/2C red sweet 100s or red currant tomatoes, stems removed
1/2C yellow sweet 100s or yellow currant tomatoes, stems removed
3 red Roma tomatoes, each cut into 4-6 wedges
3 yellow Roma tomatoes, each cut into 4-6 wedges
2 large bunches arugula, large stems removed
1/2C shaved asiago cheese
1 bunch fresh basil, large stems removed, cut in thin julienne strips
freshly ground pepper
1/3C balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp. Meaux grainy mustard
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/3 + 1/6C extra virgin olive oil
For the vinaigrette: Whisk all ingredients except the oil together in a bowl. Gradually whisk in the oil, little by little.
Arrange the arugula on a large platter. Toss the Roma red and yellow tomato wedges with 1 Tbsp. of the dressing. Toss the miniature plum tomatoes together with 2 Tbsp. of the dressing. Overlap the red and yellow beefsteak tomato slices around the outside of the platter. Sprinkle the miniature plum tomatoes in a ring underneath the beefsteak slices. Next, form a layer of the Roma tomato wedges in a ring beneath the miniature plum tomatoes. Finally place the sweet 100s in the center. Drizzle the dressing over the tomatoes. Sprinkle with basil, sprinkle with the cheese and grind some additional fresh pepper over the salad.
Makes: 8-10 servings
Americans devour more than twelve million tons of tomatoes annually, averaging per person about 18 pounds of fresh tomatoes and almost 70 pounds in processed forms. The United States is the largest commercial producer of tomatoes, harvesting about 16 percent of the world's total. As might be expected, somewhere between 25 and 40 million Americans grow tomatoes in their gardens.
In addition, America imports about 400,000 tons of tomatoes, mainly from Mexico. The value to the American farmers of the tomato production is more than one and a half billion dollars annually. The retain market for fresh tomatoes averages about five billion dollars, and additional billions are generated through transporting and processing them.
If you have a craving for a wonderful watercress and tomato salad with shaved Parmesan cheese go to Troquet at 3333 Bristol, Suite 3001, Costa Mesa, California 92626 (telephone: 714-508-6865). This delightful French bistro is in South Coast Plaza on the third floor near Nordstrom, and serves incredibly delicious French fare almost too beautiful to eat!
Tarla Fallgatter is a well-known Orange County caterer, chef, teacher, restaurant consultant and kitchen tool manufacturer. She trained at Paris' Cordon Bleu, La Varenne, and Ecole Lenotre cooking schools, and was the first foreign woman to cook in the kitchens of Maxim's. She has traveled to over 60 countries throughout the world, "sampling" the local cuisine. She markets her "Tarla" all-copper rolling pin in fine cookware shops.