Tomatoes have had a love-me, love-me-not sort of history. Thousands of years ago the fruit grew wild in its native Peru, where no one gave it much notice. It was some time before the Aztecs, in what is now present-day Mexico, tamed the plant, and named it too: tomatl.
Generations later the conquistadors took tomato seeds back home to Spain. The fruit was greeted with enthusiasm by the Spanish (Italians too) but rejected in England and throughout much of the rest of Europe. There was talk that tomatoes were poisonous. The plants were pretty enough, so they were grown for ornamental purposes. But in gardens throughout the continent, the red ripe fruit withered on the vine.
Who could have predicted the love affair the world has with tomatoes today? It is the most popular of all fruits, ahead of bananas and apples. Yes, as a botanical matter the tomato is a fruit, although we eat it with entrees and savory foods. The United States Supreme Court weighed in on the matter, declaring, for trade purposes, that the tomato is a vegetable.
A good tomato is a gift for home cooks. How fortunate we are now, during August, when local farm and garden tomatoes hang heavy on the vine, red, ripe and ready for the kitchen! Juicy ones, firm, but tender. Fragrant ones releasing their musty perfume. Thin-skinned and even ugly, but tasting of sun and summer. What a far cry from the pale anemic, cottony-texture tomatoes of cold winter months, with their too-perfectly rounded shapes and too-thick skins.
There’s so much we can do with a ripe tomato. Eat it out of hand, sprinkled with a hint of kosher salt. Chop it up with fresh basil and a bit of garlic, then spoon it onto garlic toasts, a fine Bruschetta! Slice one and serve it with fresh mozzarella cheese, drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil. All simple pleasures.
Or make a quick salsa to enhance a burger; all you need is a chopped tomato paired with scallions or some chopped sweet onion and a sprinkling of chopped fresh herbs (oregano, dill, thyme, basil, marjoram). You could add hot chile peppers if you wish.
Or, tuck some chopped tomato and crumbled feta cheese into an omelet or frittata.
Or create a salad: combine chopped tomatoes with chunks of avocado and olives and dress the ingredients with olive oil and lime juice. Or mix chopped tomatoes with diced fresh cucumber and chopped red onion to make an Israeli salad – chick peas, olives or feta cheese would make delicious additions.
None of these needs much preparation or cooking.
If you have a garden or live near a farmer’s market and see baskets of tomatoes on sale, as you’re apt to do at the end of the month, or your neighbor comes by with extras as gifts, and you find yourself almost overloaded with the fruit, there are fabulous recipes for these as well. Prepare a fresh sauce for pasta. Or a potful of ratatouille to serve with fish for dinner. You could even make your own ketchup, an especially fun-filled treat for cooking with children. Try the three recipes here. Included are instructions on how to peel tomatoes (see the recipe for Fresh Tomato Sauce).
Ronnie Fein has been a freelance food and lifestyle writer since 1980. She currently writes regular features for the food and community sections of daily newspapers and has written articles for Newsday, Cook’s Illustrated, Consumer’s Digest, Connecticut magazine, and many other publications. She operates the Ronnie Fein School of Creative Cooking in Stamford, Connecticut and is the author of three cookbooks, the most recent is
Hip Kosher (DaCapo, 2008).
Fresh Tomato Sauce
10 large summer tomatoes
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large clove garlic, chopped
1/3 cup packed fresh basil
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Heat a large pot of water. When it comes to a boil, add the tomatoes. Cook for 20 seconds. Drain the tomatoes under cold water. Pierce each tomato near the stem end with the tip of a sharp knife and pull back to remove the skin. Cut the tomatoes in half crosswise and squeeze out the seeds. Cut around the stem area and discard. Chop the tomatoes into chunks and set aside. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 3-4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook briefly. Add the tomatoes, basil and salt and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 15-30 minutes, or until it has reached the desired consistency. Serve as is or puree using an immersion blender or in a blender or food processor. Makes enough for one pound of pasta.
1 medium eggplant, peeled and cut into cubes
3 medium zucchini, cut into chunks
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 large sweet onions, chopped
1 large green bell pepper, deseeded and chopped
2 large cloves garlic, chopped
5-6 large tomatoes, peeled, deseeded and chopped
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1-1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves (or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme)
freshly ground black pepper to taste
Place the eggplant and zucchini pieces in a large colander, sprinkle them with salt and let rest for 30 minutes. Wipe the vegetables dry with paper towels. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan or soup pot over medium heat. Add the onions and bell pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3-4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Add the tomatoes and cook for another 8 minutes. Add the eggplant, zucchini, parsley, basil and thyme. Cook for another 25-30 minutes or until the vegetables are tender and the flavors have blended. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. Makes 6-8 servings
8 pounds ripe tomatoes, cut into quarters
4 medium onions, finely chopped
2 cups white vinegar
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons celery salt
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
3-inch cinnamon stick
2 dried red chili peppers, optional
1 tablespoon mustard seed
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon whole cloves
Place the tomatoes and onions in a large saucepan and cook, partially covered, over medium heat for about 30-35 minutes or until the vegetables are very tender. Strain the vegetables through a sieve, reserving the juices (about 12 cups) and pressing down to extract as much juice as possible. Wash the pan and pour in the reserved juice. Stir in the white and brown sugars, celery salt, nutmeg, ginger and allspice. Place the cinnamon stick, chili peppers, if used, mustard seeds, whole peppercorns and whole cloves in some cheesecloth, tie the cheesecloth and add this to the pan. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook for about 2 to 2-1/2 hours, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is very thick. Remove the cheesecloth packet. Pour the ketchup into containers and keep refrigerated (or seal in jars prepared according to manufacturer’s instructions). Makes about 1-1/2 quarts