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September 17, 2013 at 5:15 AMComments: 5 Faves: 1

Ingredient Spotlight: Tomato 101

By Erin Froehlich More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the Gastronomics Blog Series

It’s finally here! This brief border between summer and fall is the time of year my tastebuds fantasize about for the rest of it.  Salty, tangy, sweet, and umami - though countless recipes demand the flavor profile they offer, you needn’t do a thing to enjoy them. Pick one fresh from the vine and still warm from the midday sun. Take a sniff; then take a bite. The Michigan tomato season is in full swing!

“Ok. We get it. You’re a tomato fan, but why all the fuss? What do you mean ‘short time?’ My grocery store has tomatoes year-round!”

Yeah, I’ll admit it – I’m not above purchasing tomatoes out of season, but that’s only because I’m a desperate tomato fiend. The winter grocery tomato is, unfortunately, about as much like my home-grown summer tomatoes as a fishstick is similar to a slice of sushi-grade salmon. If you’ve never tasted a tomato that didn’t come from the store and happen to be among the many tomato haters out there, I strongly urge you to try the real deal, but I can’t blame you. Decades of business-driven tomato farming emphasizing quantity, weight, ship-ability, and long growing seasons over quality, nutrition, and taste have taken an even harder toll on tomatoes than the average grocery store fruit or veggie.  

Dr. Harry Klee, professor of Horticulture Sciences talking on NPR’s “Science Friday.” 

“…if you look at something like a banana, there's one compound that really is the predominant odor that gives it that banana flavor. That's just not the case with tomatoes. They're much more complicated. You almost have, essentially orchestra that has to come together and all play together in order to make that tomato flavor…

… [Unfortunately,] commercial tomatoes produce very large amounts of fruit at the same time, and the plant can't keep up with that. It can only fix so much light and turn it into sugar… [as a result,] you dilute out the flavor.”

Add the unnatural, nutrient-deficient sandy Florida soil most US tomatoes are grown in, the laundry list of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides required for growing there, and the practice of picking well before they’re ripe, and you’ve got the recipe for the lackluster, cardboard tomato.

Fortunately, there is some good news: 1) Big business is finally (pushed by the demands of today’s wiser consumer) beginning to address this issue, using heirloom and wild tomato genetics to create a flavorful, yet productive tomato, and 2) the local, heirloom tomato is available in abundance today.

Run, don’t walk to your local farmer’s market and pick yourself up a bunch before it’s too late!

Tomato 101

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Peak Season: June – September

The Best Tomatoes Are: Firm, vibrantly colored, and especially fragrant. Avoid non-organic tomatoes like the plague. Because of their thin skin, tomatoes are number one of the list of most pesticide-polluted produce!

Store Them: Out of the fridge! Cold temps turn tomatoes grainy.

Rich In Nutrients: Vitamin C, Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Potassium, Molybdenum, Manganese, Fiber, Vitamin B6, Folate, Antioxidants

Studies Show: The more tomatoes you eat, the lower your risk of cancer – especially cooked tomatoes in which lycopene is more readily available. 7 to 10 servings of tomatoes per week can reduce your risk of heart disease by about 30%.  Drinking one glass of low-sodium tomato juice a day reduces blood platelet aggregation and reduces inflammation.

Varieties: Though environment and care factors into their taste and the thousands of varieties of tomatoes on the market each have their own unique flavor characteristics, the following generalizations are good places to start from when selecting a tomato:

Tomato Flavor Guide

Great Tomato Picks: Black: Cherokee Purple, White: White Queen, Yellow: Hugh’s, Orange: Pineapple, Pink: Brandywine, Red: Scarlet Red, Green: Green Zebra

Let’s Get Cooking!

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Herbed Goat Cheese and Cherry Tomato Tarte Tatin

A “tarte tatin” is a tart in which fruit are caramelized with some sort of sugar and fat in a pan, then covered in the pan with pastry, baked in the oven, and finally flipped over onto a platter at completion. Traditionally, tarte tatins are made with apples, however, as Natalie Ward of Food Blog and the Dog showed me, tomatoes make for a fun savory substitution.

The fruit I chose were predominantly these beautiful black cherry tomatoes I bought at the farmer’s market, dotted with little red cherry tomatoes for contrast, and paired with roasted garlic, goat cheese crumbles, and tons of fresh oregano from my garden.  My sugar - a mix of honey and black cherry juice reduction. My fat - olive oil. I used puff pastry for my crust both because of its convenience, and because I love the buttery flavor and lightness it offers.

You’ll Need:

  • Apr. 2 Cups Cherry Tomatoes (I used Black and Red Cherry) or enough to snuggly cover a pan
  • 2 Cups Black Cherry Juice
  • 1 Can Puff Pastry Biscuits
  • 3.5 oz Goat Cheese Crumbles
  • 1 Cup Fresh Oregano (chopped)
  • Handful of Panko Breadcrumbs
  • 2 Tbsp Honey
  • 1 Clove Roasted Elephant Garlic (or 3 small cloves)
  • 1 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • Sea Salt and Cracked Black Pepper
  • Chopped Fresh Parsley

Step 1: Pour 2 cups cherry juice in a stock pot on high. We’re reducing it down – removing water, and leaving behind a thicker, more flavorful cherry sauce. Stirring helps speed to process along. You’ll know it’s pretty much reduced as far as it can go, when it begin frothing up with lots of bubbles. Take it off the heat. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Step 2: In a medium-sized, oven-safe pan (read: no Teflon or plastic handles!), arrange cherry tomatoes to cover as much of the pan as possible. Pour olive oil, 2 tbsp cherry juice reduction, and 2 tbsp honey over the top. Cook over medium heat for a few minutes.

Step 3: On a piece of parchment paper, arrange 7 puff pastry biscuit together in a honey comb formation. Cut the remaining biscuit into 6 even pieces and arrange in gaps around the edges. Roll with a rolling pin until pieces are securely fused.

Step 4: Add one chopped clove of roasted elephant garlic and chopped oregano evenly over the top of tomatoes.  Add goat cheese crumbles. Salt and pepper the mixture to your liking. Add a handful of panko bread crumbs to help soak up any excess liquid. Cover the pan evenly with your sheet of puff pastry, CAREFULLY tucking edges inside of the pan.

Step 5: Transfer pan to oven to bake for 30 minutes. Once elapsed, remove and let cool for ten minutes. Use a butter knife around the edge to prevent sticking. Holding a plate securely over the top of the pan, flip the entire thing over and give the pan one more quick tap to ensure release. Remove pan. Voila! Top with chopped fresh parsley and cut to serve.

Quick-Pickled Cherry Tomatoes

While most people think cucumber when they hear “pickle,” virtually any vegetable can be used to yummy effect. Think of it this way – a veggie with vinaigrette on the inside! Reds still burst with juice, while greens offer a firmer texture. But regardless of the type you choose, pickling adds a tangy marinated flavor to cherry tomatoes. I made these with a cocktail in mind, but they make an interesting substitution anywhere a traditional cucumber pickle would typically be used!

PS: People will be wowed when you tell them you make your own pickles, but you’ll be wowed by how easy it is to do! Try experimenting with different veggies.  Also - a pretty glass jar filled with homemade pickles makes a great addition to a gift basket.

You’ll Need:

  • 2 Cups Cherry Tomatoes
  • 2 ½ Cups Apple Cider Vinegar
  • 1 ½ Cups Water
  • 1/3 Cup Sugar
  • 1 Tbsp Sea Salt
  • 2 Tbsp Celery Salt
  • 2 Tbsp Black Peppercorns
  • 2 Tbsp Mustard Seeds
  • 5 Garlic Cloves
  • 3 Bay Leaves
  • 2 Habeneros

Step 1: Bring all ingredients besides water and tomatoes to a boil. Then lower heat and simmer for 5 minutes.

Step 2: Fill your chosen container with tomatoes, pour the vinegar mixture over the top of them and add water.

Step 3: Allow container to cool to room temperature before refrigerating. Refrigerate for 24 hours before serving.

Tomato Leaves and Stalks

When I first decided to focus on tomatoes, one of the ideas I found most exciting was the use of tomato leaves and stalks. While many people (myself included, up until quite recently) mistakenly believe these to be poisonous, it turns out that’s not the case. The confusion arises from the fact that tomatoes are related to potatoes which do, in fact, have solanine, a poisonous alkaloid, in their leaves.  And yet…

Harold McGee, The New York Times

“’…it’s a chemical gaffe to attribute tomato toxicity to solanine.’ Dr. Mendel Friedman of the federal Department of Agriculture, who has studied potato and tomato alkaloids for two decades, wrote in an e-mail message that commercial tomatoes contain tomatine. ‘Solanine,’ he added, ‘is a potato alkaloid. There are significant quantities of tomatine in green tomato fruits, which people have long eaten fried and pickled. And tomatine appears to be a relatively benign alkaloid.’”

If you’ve never been around a tomato plant, ask a gardener friend: tomato leaves smell incredible – even more tomatoey than the fruit itself.  So when I heard that I could use them to cook with, I couldn’t wait. I ran home and cut a bunch for a pesto. I didn’t want a lot of competing flavor in the first go. Just tomato leaf, olive oil, and salt. The result? Good, but nowhere near the greatness I had been anticipating. It tasted more like arugula than tomato. What went wrong? Turns out I wasn’t the only one at a loss.

Chef Mark Mendez of Spanish restaurant, Uva, relayed his own tomato leaf experience on ChicagoReader.com.

Mark Mendez speaking to Julia Thiel for Chicago Reader.com

“You get that smell; it's a really intense tomatoey smell. Which is why I think it might work to infuse a sauce, but something about—I mean, I ate 'em. I tried putting salt on them, and just—nothing… I don't want to go off, sound like some kind of cerebral freak, but I wanted the essence of the tomato...’” so rather than be defeated, Mendez got creative using tomato leaves AND stalks to infuse a liquid. Finally, he said, success. “I think you get that really clean tomato essence… It tastes really good to me.”

The volatile oil of tomato leaves turns out to be more fragile than the raw fragrance would lead you to believe. Luckily, tomato stems hold more liquid and thus, more volatile oils and flavor. For good measure, crushing them prior to infusion in a liquid – a broth, a juice, a sauce, a dressing, or even an alcoholic beverage- helps frees up the liquid inside and improves the flavoring potential.

Tomato Lover’s Mary

For my tweak on the classic Bloody Mary cocktail, I was able to include all the tomato ingredients I hoped to feature in this article. Sweet, meaty sundried tomatoes take my go-to Bloody Mary base – V8 (I haven’t tried a Bloody Mary mix I prefer to it yet!) – to a whole new, super-rich, tomatoey level, tomato stalks and leaves add an herby freshness to the vodka I infused, and my rainbow skewer of green, yellow, orange, red, and purple cherry tomatoes add pleasant salt and a playful air to the drink.

You’ll Need:

  •  6 Cups Spicy V8
  • 1 Cup Vodka (or to taste)
  • Tomato Stems and Leaves
  •  4 Tbsp Delallo Sundried Tomato Bruschetta
  • Pickled Cherry Tomatoes – Green, Yellow, Orange, Red and Purple
  • 1 Tbsp Celery Salt
  • 2 Tsp Black Pepper
  • Ice
  • Bamboo Skewers
  • Optional: Smokey Chipotle Tabasco Sauce to Taste

Step 1: Prepare Quick-Pickled Cherry Tomatoes using the recipe above. Cut and rinse a few tomato stems with leaves attached, and place them in your vodka bottle – the more the merrier! Leave out of the fridge overnight, then into the freezer in the morning.

Step 2: Drain oil from 4 tbsp of your sundried tomatoes and place in your food processor. Add just enough (shaken!) V8 to blend, and mix until paste consistency is achieved. Add 6 cups V8, 1 tbsp celery salt, 2 tsp black pepper, and 1 cup infused vodka and blend again.

Step 3: Skewer pickled cherry tomatoes – green first, then yellow, then orange, then red, then purple. Serve in glass with ice. Pour Bloody Mary over the top.  Offer hot sauce to those who like it spicy and enjoy!

PHOTO CREDIT

Chiot’s Run@flickr

SOURCES

The New York Times: [The Curious Cook] Accused, Yes, But Probably Not a Killer

Chicago Reader: Key Ingredient: Tomato Leaves

Food.com: Kitchen Dictionary: tomato

The Seattle Times: A guide to tomatoes and the best use for each type

NPR: How Industrial Farming 'Destroyed' The Tasty Tomato

NPR: What's The Secret To Great Tomato Flavor?

About.com: [Local Foods] Tomato Varieties by Color

Organic Gardening: The Best Varieties for Tomato Lovers

Tomato Headquarters: Heirloom Tomato Varieties: Flavor Profiles Related to Color

World's Healthiest Foods: Tomatoes

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5 Comments

  • I don't like tomatoes, but my mother grows them and literally adds them to every salad that she makes. She would vouch that all you just posted was entirely true, because of how the perfect tomato tastes. She grows them in her backyard, and she knows the times they are peaked at perfection. I agree that tomatoes are great, I don't entirely like them but I do find myself indulging in salsas and ketchup fully realizing they are a tomato product. However, I hope someday I can get over my dislike for tomatoes, because they have so many recipes.

  • Thanks for the table/infographic on the different colors of tomatoes and what they mean. I've been growing basil all summer and have a neighbor growing tomatoes. I may have to ask if they're up for a trade.

  • Tomatoes and basil may just be my favorite summer combo! I like to wrap cubes of fresh mozzarella with basil leaves and sometimes dip them in balsamic reduction. Mini caprese bites! :)

  • Colleen - Don't feel bad! I know a lot of people that don't like them. If you want to expand your tomato dish repertoire, I'd peak at the ingredients in the tomato sauces and salsas you like. A basic salsa has onions, garlic, citrus juice, and chili peppers. Try pairing tomatoes with one or a few of these and see if you can taste the same yummy flavor characteristics that you enjoy in salsa.

  • I once ate spaghetti for every meal for ten days straight. It was the greatest 30 consecutive meal span in my life. And it was all made possible by the tomato.

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