A fruit--oh yes, it's a fruit--but in the United States we treat the tomato like a vegetable. Thomas Jefferson grew tomatoes at Monticello back in 1781, but they didn't really start to become popular here until after the Civil War. Now the tomato is the third most popular vegetable in the United States--after potatoes and lettuce.
Once called the Peruvian apple, the tomato is a member of the nightshade family. It originated in South America, and our name for it comes from the ancient Nahuatl name tomatl. The French called it the love apple, and the Italians named it the golden apple because the first tomatoes were small yellow fruits. After the early Spanish explorers sent seeds to Naples, the Italians went crazy for tomatoes, and the rest--all the way down to pasta and pizza sauce--is history.
A really good tomato is sweet, tender, juicy, and except for the yellow varieties, a deep rich red color. When you get one of those hard tomatoes that tastes like cardboard, you've got one of the hybrids that started coming onto the market in the 1950's, when the businessmen and scientists got together and produced a tomato that could be shipped from one coasts to the other without bruising. Unfortunately, at the same time they also bred out all the flavor.
A great tomato is worth looking for. And the way you handle it at home is almost as important as what you choose in the first place. The three most important rules to remember about tomatoes are:
- Never refrigerate!
- Never refrigerate!
- Never refrigerate!
Refrigerating kills the flavor, the nutrients, the texture. It just kills the tomato--period.
There must be a thousand varieties of tomatoes. Some of the more popular are Burpee Big Boy, Early Beefsteak, Rutgers (after the university that produced the seed), Ramapo, Fireball, and Jet Star. Many people think that Beefsteak got its name because it's big, but Big Boy is the really big one. The Beefsteak is so named because it doesn't have the hard, greenish-white core most tomatoes have. A ripe Beefsteak will be solid red and edible all the way through, like a good steak that's solid red meat.
Unless you live in a really cold climate, the best tomatoes you can buy will be at your local farm stand, when tomatoes are in season in your area. That's true for most produce, but it's doubly true for tomatoes. About half the tomatoes shipped and sold in the United States come from Florida. They are the ones you find in the store in the winter. They're hard, they're thick, they never turn red, and they have no taste. A few winter tomatoes come out of Mexico and California, as well as from Holland, Belgium, and Israel. There are also more and more hydroponic tomatoes on the market.
I may be biased, but I think that in season the Jersey tomato is the best around--maybe because of the soil. The truth is, any local tomato, picked ripe, is going to be good. In the summertime, in season, buy local tomatoes.
In the winter I think Israelis beat out the rest, with hydroponics a close second. Israeli tomatoes are grown in greenhouses, picked ripe, and then shipped by air. For that reason they're very expensive. If you have to have a good tomato in the dead of winter, choose an Israeli one. Hydroponics grown in the U.S. are also excellent.
Mexican tomatoes are a little better than most of the other winter varieties here because they're usually picked by hand and are a little riper when they come off the vine. Most tomatoes in the U.S. are shipped green because ripe tomatoes are just too fragile for machine picking.
California tomatoes, which usually arrive in the late spring, have a thick wall and are very solid inside. A lot of people like them because they're easy to slice, but I don't think they're any better than Florida tomatoes. They look better and ripen more easily, but they're very dry.
Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with a Florida tomato in Florida. Or a California tomato in California. The problem isn't the source--it's that the tomatoes are picked green, gassed with ethylene to make them turn more or less red, then refrigerated and shipped. Even if the tomatoes are picked ripe, they're refrigerated before they're shipped, and that's the final insult.
Most plum tomatoes sold here are an Italian variety called Roma. Plum tomatoes are available year round now, and if your choice in the winter is between a plum tomato and the usual California and Florida varieties, take a plum tomato. They'll have a better flavor. The best time for plum tomatoes, however, is in the late summer and early fall. Local ones are usually available in August and September.
Although plum tomatoes are good raw in salads, they are great for sauce. Late plum tomatoes are the best for sauce, they're the ones that have been on the vine the longest, and they're really ripe.
Like other tomatoes, local cherry tomatoes, picked ripe, are going to be the best. Look for small ones. One local variety, called Tiny Tim, is not much bigger than your fingernail, and it's as sweet as sugar.
In the winter cherry tomatoes from Israel again are your best bet. Picked ripe, they're very small and very sweet. The Israelis have also produced a "baby tomato" that's a little smaller than a golf ball. It has excellent flavor too. Your next best bet is Mexican cherry tomatoes, which again are picked a little later and a little riper. I don't recommend cherry tomatoes from California. They tend to be too watery and mushy.
When choosing cherry tomatoes, look for a good red color--avoid those that look orange. Also check to see if the stems are still on. If the stems are missing, chances are those tomatoes have been sitting around too long.
Yellow tomatoes are low-acid tomatoes that still retain their unique tomato flavor and texture. The yellow tomato is a deep, bright yellow color--almost school-bus yellow. It is usually medium to large, round, and very smoothly shaped, with a thin skin, thick meat, and solid seed pockets. The juice is very thick. Yellow tomatoes go well in salads and are especially tasty and beautiful in an all-tomato salad or platter that combines both red and yellow varieties. Yellow tomatoes aren't grown in large commercial quantities here, but a few come out of Florida and California, and Holland exports them as well. Holland has developed an excellent acid-free yellow tomato that is very tasty and, like other produce from Holland, consistently high in quality. The California varieties are what they call genitori seeds, which means that the seeds have been passed on from one farmer to the next, one generation to the next, and although some are shipped, most stay in the area. The local crop usually appears in late August and early September, but they may stay in season as late as November.
There is a beautiful yellow tomato that's quite small--about the same size as a cherry tomato but pear-shaped. They have become very popular among those who've been lucky enough to discover them at local farm stands. They're sold in pint cartons, and straight off the farm they're super sweet.
Tomatoes come in scores of different varieties, colors, and markings--striped, purple, even white--but these are found almost exclusively in season, from local sources like farm markets or markets that carry specialty produce. Again, if you want to see a wider variety where you shop, ask for what you want and help create a customer demand.
Local Tomatoes: Depending on the local climate, from July through September, with the peak in late July and August
Florida Tomatoes: October to July, with the peak from December through May
California Tomatoes: May to December, with the peak from June through October
Imports: Usually year round, with the peak usually from January through April
Ripening and Storing
Tomatoes are considered "vine ripe" by the industry if they have developed a little color "break"--that is, a small yellow or reddish patch of color on the skin or a starburst of yellow at the blossom end. If the tomato has a color break or the starburst, you'll be able to ripen it at home.
Don't ripen tomatoes on the windowsill. Never put them in the sun to ripen. Just put them out on the counter, stem end up, in a relatively cool place--not right next to the stove or the dishwasher. Put on a little Frank Sinatra music if you want them to ripen fast. If you want them to ripen faster--well, you can always put on the Stones. Never, ever refrigerate--not even after the tomato is ripe. If you've got too many ripe tomatoes, make a salad or a raw tomato sauce for pasta. Or make a cooked sauce, freeze it, and you'll have something nice for the winter.
We have all kinds of upscale restaurants, and there is a lot of interest in complicated cuisines, but sometimes it's the really simple things that give you the most pleasure. When I was a kid, I had to help my father sell produce out of the back of his truck. At lunchtime he'd stop at some little store and buy a loaf of Italian bread. Then we'd find a place where we could pull off to the side of the road. He'd put down a piece of cardboard for a cutting board, slice the bread, cut up a tomato and an onion, and make tomato sandwiches.
Sometimes when I come home from the store and I'm too bushed to prepare or even eat a full meal, I'll make myself a tomato sandwich. Food brings back memories. You can sit down with the most ordinary things on your mind and eat something good and it will bring back memories - things you haven't thought about in years. Even memories that might not start out being so good seem to improve as time goes by. At the time I hated peddling fruits and vegetables out of that truck with Pop, but now I wish I had the time to pull off to the side of the road they way we did then. We don't have the luxury of slowing down - everything is geared to working and being productive. Produce, produce, produce. Wouldn't I love to be able to take my son and go sit by the side of the road and have a tomato sandwich? With the perfect ripe red tomato and good bread, there's nothing' better.
Baked Spinach Stuffed Tomatoes
Fresh Plum Tomato Sauce
Jersey Tomato Salad Italiano
Pop's Tomato Sandwich
Other recipes from Produce Pete.