Tomato season recently kicked off here in New England – a sign that we are in the mid to late stages of summer. Technically a fruit, tomatoes are treated as a vegetable for cooking purposes. There exist more than 5,000 varieties globally and we are increasingly seeing heirloom tomatoes available at markets here in New England.
One of the most popular items in home gardens, tomatoes are relatively easy to cultivate. When my father was young, growing up during WWII, he helped out with the family Victory Garden. Years later, I think that part of the reason why we always had a vegetable garden when I was growing up was this legacy of a war-time emphasis on self sustainability. Plus, nothing tastes quite like your own produce! Right now, my father is harvesting his annual crop of tomatoes. My contribution to the gardening effort (besides being a reluctant weeder) was usually something experimental – in different years, I tried growing peanuts and popcorn. My odd flights of fancy aside, tomatoes and lettuce always were and continue to be the backbone of the family garden.
For many, the tomato is almost a dietary staple. However, this was not always the case. Tomatoes originally come from South America and made the journey to Europe in the 16th century. But, it was not until the mid 1700s that they became widely popularized. Initially, if you can believe it, tomatoes were thought to be poisonous and were only grown for ornamental purposes!
In Chez Panisse Vegetables, Alice Waters reports that experts recommend ripening tomatoes at home. Ideally, you should get tomatoes just as they are beginning to change in color from orange to red. It is then advisable to keep them at home for 4-5 days at temperatures ranging from 59-70°F. Although it is picturesque to leave them on a windowsill, this is not recommended – instead, store the tomatoes upside-down and exposed to regular indoor light. The reason for doing this? It helps to bring out the best flavor in a tomato – both its acid and its sugar content. Apparently, if a tomato is left on the vine to ripen, both its sugar and acid content decrease, negatively affecting flavor.
Tomatoes are used in so many dishes: fresh, dried and cooked. One of the easiest and most classic dishes, however, has to be Caprese Salad which puts the tomato front and center. The simplest version of the salad involves tomatoes, mozzarella (or burrata) and leaves of basil. Sliced and drizzled with a bit of olive oil and/or vinegar and sprinkled with some salt and pepper, it’s hard to improve on this classic. However, if you are looking for a little variation, additional ingredients can include some finely sliced onion, croutons (plain or garlic), olives or grilled eggplant!
Mary is a baker and cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.