It is safe to say that tomatoes are one of the most sought after fruits of the summer. There is nearly a fetishization that occurs when it is in season: each tomato-lover has his or her own specific preference of preparation and variety, so farmer’s markets explode with all shapes, colors, and sizes of these sweet, tangy, and versatile berries to satiate the masses. It hasn’t always been like this; as with any popular item, there is more irony than consistency with its history.
In the beginning (well, maybe more like 500 BCE), the tomato was cultivated by the Aztec people of central Mexico, who called it the tomatl (“swelling fruit”) in their native Nahuatl dialect. After becoming a staple in the diets of mesoamerican folk, the fruit became a major player in the great Columbian-exchange, where many ingredients indigenous to the Americas were introduced to Eurasia and Africa, and vice versa. This is why we associate tomatoes with Italian cuisine, hot chilis with the palates of Southeast Asia, and potatoes with the Irish. Say what you want about mass-murdering Christopher Columbus, he certainly paved the way to make global cuisine much more interesting and diverse.
Initially the Europeans were wary of the tomato, and Italians were by no means outliers in the ambivalence shared on the continent for the funky-looking imports from the New World. They even had a dubious name for the tomato: pomo di moro, or rather, “fruit of the moors.” If you know anything about Italian history or have read Othello, you’ll immediately recognize this was not an act of particularly positive branding. Of course, they eventually shed any prejudices surrounding the tasty red orbs, and these days Americans would consider pasta al pomodoro to be nearly synonymous with Italian cuisine.
The greatest irony concerning tomatoes in cuisine though, is that when they make their way back to the Americas during English colonization, most people considered them to be poisonous and would have nothing to do with them. It was not a completely unfounded fear: tomatoes belong to the solanaceae family, and is therefore a distant cousin of deadly nightshade. When you take a boat across the Atlantic without the convenience of modern medicine and watch most of your family die, you can’t exactly go out on a limb to increase the trendiness of your diet in an effort to impress your dinner guests. However, if you happen to be a land-wealthy Virginian with over a hundred slaves in your employ, have increased the size of the United States by more than double, and recently won your reelection to the White House, by all means, go ahead! In 1806 the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson served tomatoes to a group of dinner guests with much pomp and circumstance...and general discomfort; his guests were obviously terrified, though Jefferson was quoted saying “you have to just trust me on this one, I’m the president.” Everyone survived, and now Americans are obsessed with tomatoes. The end.
When working with tomatoes, it is advantageous to use each variety in the way that most appropriately suits them. Some are better eaten raw, some are better for salsas and tomato sauce. In general, we find that cherry tomatoes are across the board the best to consume raw. They are consistently sweet, and there is nothing better than squeezing a little tomato between your teeth and feeling it burst inside your mouth, filling it with tangy juice. If you are to alter them, splitting them in half and marinating them with salt, a little vinegar or citrus juice, and fresh herbs will make a delicious salad. We’ve even taken a blowtorch and charred the outside briefly, leaving the inside raw, yet slightly warmed. This is a great condiment for fish tacos or pizza.
One way to make an awesome tomato sauce from your plum tomatoes is to stick the guys under the broiler. Split them in half, coat them with a little oil and put them on a cookie sheet before getting them into your oven with the broiler set on high. If you line the pan with foil, you’ll also avoid making a mess! You can then blend these with basil for tomato sauce that goes well with pizza and pasta alike.
Another great way to utilize tomatoes in their cooked form is preparing them when they are green. We all know about fried green tomatoes, but making a jam from them is an awesome condiment for hot dogs and burgers. Dice up about one pound of green tomatoes, and add them to a pan with a little oil. Slowly cook them on a low setting until they have reduced to a syrupy paste. At this point, you could add a little mustard seed and honey, letting the tangy, tart green tomato jam do the rest of the work. This is a great end-of-season dish, as there is not enough heat in the late summer/early fall to allow tomatoes to ripen properly.
Finally, the most important thing to remember about tomatoes whether you are cooking them, eating them raw as a snack or on a sandwich, or making jars upon jars of sauce is storage. Do not put them in the fridge. This will ruin both texture and flavor. When selecting tomatoes, try to get a few at separate stages of ripeness, so that you can let them sit out on your counter and let them all gradually ripen in succession. Keep them away from other heavy ethylene producers such as onions, cucumbers, and melons as well for optimal shelf-life. If you want to expedite ripeness, simply put them in a paper bag overnight, which traps and concentrates the ethylene.
Happy tomato season!