Tomatoes: Eat Fresh in Summer, Canned in Winter
Eating fresh tomatoes in January? Only if you live in Australia, people.
Tomatoes are the perfect argument for the importance of seasonality. It is a summer fruit and the difference in taste (and mealiness, or lack thereof) is obvious when you compare a summer version with a winter one. Europeans use fresh tomatoes in abundance during the summer and simply conserve the surplus for use in the winter. Plus, tomatoes actually lower your body temperature–more proof that a Caprese salad (tomato, mozzarella, basil) should only be consumed in the heat. (Though if I’m really desperate for a tomato hit in winter, I buy the cherry ones that don’t have enough flesh to detect mealiness).
Of course, you’ll see “ripe tomatoes” all year round in the supermarket, but–Debbie Downer here–they’re picked green, halfway around the world, and ripened with ethylene gas. Or, as Gourmet magazine reported in March 2009 (for which the author, Barry Estabrook, won a James Beard award), there is a very good chance that your winter tomatoes come from South Florida, where illegal immigrants are treated as virtual slaves. Shortly after the article was published, Florida Governor Charlie Crist pledged to meet with tomato picker representatives to improve conditions.
Season: July to October
FRESH In a regular supermarket, our go-to tomatoes are the medium-size, round ones on the vine for their pleasant, just-picked taste. Plum and beefsteak tomatoes can have a diluted flavor, but plum work especially well for concassé
(see below) because they don’t contain a lot of excess juice. Heirloom varieties are always fun to experiment with if you can find them. Cherry tomatoes are great for salads or omelettes. Never refrigerate tomatoes.
CANNED Italians swear by the canned plum tomatoes from the San Marzano (Naples) area of Italy, mostly for its sweetness. But buyer beware: if the label says “San Marzano,” read the label carefully to make sure. A prominent brand has started putting “product of U.S.A.” in small print. While misleading, it’s not surprising since San Marzano tomatoes are a regulated product with a finite production that must have the DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) emblem on its label. LTBB highly recommends Casa Barone Vesuvius Tomatoes. For a domestic canned tomato, we love Muir Glen. It has a sweet and hearty taste, and makes a great substitute for Italian imports. Note that canned tomatoes usually have an expiration date.
FRESH I like to slice them, drizzle them with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar, sprinkle a little salt, and add some torn basil leaves for a great summer snack—this goes particularly well with steak since the acidity of the tomato helps digestion. You can also simply cut tomatoes in half, drain any liquid, prepare a filling with some chopped garlic, a couple anchovies and/or a few capers, maybe some red pepper flakes, bread crumbs, Parmesan, salt, pepper, oregano (or basil, parsley, thyme…), and drizzle with olive oil and set to roast in the oven at 300˚ for 45 minutes.
A fun way to utilize tomatoes while avoiding the bitter seeds and excess liquid is
to chop it as “concassé”—a fancy French term for, well, chopping something, but essentially you cut away the seeds and excess liquid (some people like to peel
the tomato first, but we don’t find it necessary). Simply cut a tomato in fourths lengthwise, scoop out the flesh with your knife (the flesh can be used for a sauce later if you’re really being efficient), then cut the remaining outer flesh lengthwise into 2 to 4 strips depending on its width and then cut them crosswise to produce small squares. This is ideal for pico de gallo or bruschetta (pronounced bru-SKE-tta, by the way)—that Freschetta pizza brand (pronounced Fre-she-tta) has led us down a dark path! Otherwise, toss the concassé over salad or in scrambled eggs or wherever it looks good.
What’s the deal with tomato paste?
A pungent bang for your buck, and good to use when you need to avoid the excess liquid that comes with conserved tomatoes. The traditional method, in southern Italy, is made by spreading the reduced tomato sauce onto wooden or terracotta boards to dry in the sun (hence the concentrated flavor). Go for tomato paste in tubes (rather those cans that can sit open in the refrigerator) as it lasts much longer.