Totally Ripe

Love apple, wolf peach, heirloom–whatever you call it, a tomato is more than just a tomato

By Heather Irwin

About this time of year, things go from the sublime to the ridiculous when it comes to tomatoes. What starts as a sweet trickle quickly becomes a flood, covering kitchen counters and sagging windowsills as August veers warmly into September. Well-meaning neighbors foist pounds and pounds of surplus tomatoes upon each other. Graciously accepting the bounty, we’re all secretly wondering, “What the hell am I gonna do with all these tomatoes?”

First off, know your fruit. You can’t fully appreciate the tomato until you understand its seedy past. The tomato, which is actually a fruit, was first cultivated in South America, slowly creeping its way north through Mexico to what is now the United States. Seeds of the tomato made their way back across the ocean to Europe on the ships of Spanish explorers, where they were given a pretty cold reception.

A friendly member of the nightshade family, the tomato was thought to be not only poisonous but crazy-making, as in causing strange fits of amour and paroxysms of lust. The French hailed it as a “love apple,” but the Spanish and Italians found a way to make it into a staple of home cooking. Slowly, other Europeans realized that the tomato, or “wolf peach,” as it was called by the English, was pretty darn tasty.

Eventually, the Cajuns brought the whole thing full circle, introducing the tomato into their everyday cooking. From the Bayous to Boston, the craze caught on, and tomatoes were no longer shunned and ostracized as fruits of evil.

Until recently, a green tomato was pretty much an unripe red tomato. But walking the stalls of the farmer’s market, one sees that there are as many colors as there are varieties–red, black, orange, yellow and various shades and stripes in between. This food-fad du jour, the heirloom, refers to any tomato seed that can be traced back more than 50 years, including exotic styles ranging from the dark purplish Black Prince to the creamy white and zebra-striped varieties. At twice the price of nonheirlooms, do they taste any different? Maybe.

Aficionados say the lighter-colored fruits can be sweeter and less acidic, as with the difference between tangy green and sweeter orange peppers–subtle, but there. Sample for yourself when Kendall-Jackson Winery, which grows some 175 varieties of heirlooms in its demonstration gardens, celebrates the fruit’s diversity with its eighth annual fest-feast on Saturday, Sept. 11.

When doing more than just eating a tomato straight off the vine, it’s important to buy the right fruit for the job. If you’re going to can or make sauces, use canning tomatoes. They are often smaller, like Romas, and have less juice. They’ll yield a thicker, more concentrated sauce. Use small, intensely flavored cherry tomatoes for tossing into green salads. Heirlooms, with their unusual shapes and striking colors, make the most attractive presentation for such plates as insalata caprese, a fresh dish of mozzarella and tomatoes.

The best way to pick a tomato, according to chef and author Janet Fletcher, is to use your nose as a guide. A good tomato will smell like, well, a tomato. The flesh should be slightly firm, but yield to a gentle touch. If you’re putting your finger through it, it’s probably a little overripe–and if it bounces off the floor with nary a scratch, set it on the counter to ripen for a few days.

Never, and I mean never, put a tomato in the fridge. As with strawberries, the cold temperature destroys all flavor and you end up with a gooey, flavorless blob. Peak season will stretch until the first frost, but the heat of late August and September seem to yield the best of the bunch. Stay away from the comfort zone of big-name grocery stores and buy the freshest locally grown tomatoes you can find.

Once you’ve got a ripe line of tomatoes out the kitchen door, here are some of my favorite ways to get through pounds of tomatoes in no time.

Canning your own sauce is easier than it sounds and results in summer in a bottle. Halve the tomatoes and simmer them, skins on, until they’re soft. Add a healthy dose of olive oil and chopped garlic as they’re softening up. Once they’re nice and mushy, put the whole kit and caboodle through a food mill to strain out the skins and seeds. Voila! You’ve got a great little starter sauce. If you’re canning, be sure to read the USDA guidelines to make sure you do it right.

Uncooked tomato sauce requires only that you seed and chop the tomatoes, add garlic, basil, salt and pepper, and throw over hot pasta. Think of it as Sicilian salsa.

Everything is better with vodka, including tomato sauce. Start with a simple sauce, then pump it up with rosemary, garlic, several tablespoons of vodka and a healthy dose of cream for a killer penne sauce.

Insalata caprese is the ultimate throw-it-on-the-table, late-summer salad. Slice up heirloom tomatoes of varying colors, add fresh mozzarella (Bellafiore at Whole Foods is the absolute best), extra virgin olive oil (I like the locally distributed Spectrum brand), salt, pepper and a little balsamic vinegar.

Tomato soup is the ultimate comfort food. Use puréed heirlooms or rich San Marzanos to create a tasty base, then add fresh orange juice and cream for a luscious manna you’ll crave all winter.

To dry the fruit, slice any type of tomato into halves or quarters and put them in the oven at 200 degrees for several hours (up to eight, but watch them) until they are concentrated down and shriveled. You can store them for several weeks in the fridge and rehydrate or chop them dry for salads and snacks.

Create a stunning savory tart using a butter and parmesan crust, lots of cheese and top with thin slices of heirloom tomatoes. The key to a drip-free pie is to cook the slices slightly in the oven first to remove some of the water. Fresh tomatoes are also perfect on pizza and focaccia with fresh olive oil and lots of salt.

It’s not hard to find a sweet plate of ‘maters anywhere in the North Bay these days. Most are served naked, as with insalata caprese or simply with a dab of olive oil. Underwood Bistro offers an heirloom tomato soup that’s unique, and insiders say Soda Rock Farms has some of the best-tasting tomatoes around.

But if it’s heirlooms you’re after, the dizzying array at Kendall-Jackson should more than satisfy the late-summer lust of the so well-named love apple.

Kendall-Jackson’s eighth annual heirloom tomato festival is slated for Saturday, Sept. 11, 11am-4pm. Some 45 food booths will be on tap as well as music by Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers. Wine, uh huh. Kendall-Jackson Winery, 5007 Fulton Road, Santa Rosa. $55. 800.769.3649.

From the September 8-14, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

Previous articleSwirl ‘n’ Spit
Next articleSonoma County Book Fair
Sonoma County Library