A brief education on tomatoes

We love tomatoes. As a nation, we are probably only second to Italy in our worship of the squishy red orbs. But we really don’t know much about them. My tomato education began when I was visiting the old, original Caputo’s Market in Maywood some years ago.

At the time, Caputo’s did not sell fresh tomatoes in the winter unless they could procure some Italian imports form Sicily or San Marzano, Mr. Caputo informed me when I asked for tomatoes, as if I were blind. I was haplessly standing in front of a staggering display of canned tomatoes when I asked.

“Wadda you think?” he asked. “That the cooks up on Taylor Street are making gravy with those green tennis balls?”

My next question was: “Can’t we get San Marzano tomatoes from Florida or California?”

“Nah,” he said. “Then, they wouldn’t be San Marzanos, would they?”

I began to think differently then about the various shapes, tastes and textures of the enormous group of fruits we collectively call tomatoes.

Apart from the fact there are big beefsteak tomatoes, salad tomatoes, cherry, plum and grape tomatoes, as well as many shapes between, there are colors, such as red, orange, green, brown, white and striped. Each color has its own unique flavor profile and each shape has a different texture, in both the flesh and the skin.

The first cherry tomatoes I grew 40 years ago were Sweet 100s: a candy sweet morsel with flesh that would shatter if you looked at it cross-eyed. Now, there are crack-resistant cherry tomatoes with skin so sturdy you could bounce one from a wall. This trait makes them well-suited for things such as roasting, which I do frequently. I also prefer them for Panzanella (Italian bread salad), bruschetta and pasta with fresh tomatoes.

We love the tomatoes that are either brown or green when ripe. Evergreen has a very bright, yet sweet flavor that just sings in salads. Black Krim tastes similar to a really good beefsteak with a slightly salted flavor. I find most yellow and white tomatoes to be insipid and use them only for color.

While most people like tomatoes to be round and perfectly uniform in color, there is growing interest in heirloom tomatoes, which are often just plain ugly. The open-pollinated plants produce fruits that have cracks, green shoulders, cat facing on the blossom end and, sometimes, deep ridges. It doesn’t mean they aren’t tasty, but you do lose some of the fruit to the paring knife. These plants produce less fruit, too.

The biggest hurdle in understanding tomatoes is in accepting they weren’t meant to be grown here. They come from volcanic soils in mountainous regions of South America, where the temperatures are perfect for pollination, the humidity doesn’t spoil the pollen and the breezes gently shake that nice dry pollen onto other flowers. We usually can say it was a good year for tomatoes if we don’t lose the whole crop.

When we see those lovely tomatoes at the farmers’ market and they want $5 per pound for them, remember what you invested last time you tried to grow them at home. The $64 tomato isn’t just the name of an amusing gardening book; it’s darn close to accurate. But, oh! When we do bite into that sun-warmed, juicy red fruit, there is nothing like it.

So, eat them home grown when you can get them, but embrace them canned, sun dried and, yes, grown in a hot house, too.

3 boneless skinless chicken breasts

3 to 4 cloves garlic, crushed

1 large shallot, finely chopped

1 cup sundried tomatoes in oil

Fresh thyme, basil and marjoram, chopped finely, about 1 tablespoon

Precook the noodles until tender and drain them, cover and set aside. Cut each chicken breast into two cutlets (have the meat cutter do this if you wish) and salt and pepper them. Saute them in the butter, in a stainless steel pan, until they are golden browned and cooked through. Do not overcook. Transfer them to a plate. In the drippings, saute the garlic and shallots. Add the wine to deglaze the pan and scrape up all the browned bits. Add the tomatoes and the cream, the herbs and simmer for a few minutes until slightly thickened. Serve the cutlets over the noodles and cover with the tomato cream.

8 ounces cheddar cheese, shredded

2 cups halved cherry tomatoes

4 ounces Bacon or chorizo, optional

If using, cook the bacon or chorizo, crumble and set aside. Shred the cheese and prepare the tomatoes by halving them and sprinkling them with salt and pepper. Let them drain on paper towels. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut the puff pastry into squares that will sit lightly in your muffin tin (keeping in mind all muffin tins are different, so use yours to determine the size of the squares) and press them very lightly into the tin.

Fill each cavity lightly with the cheese and seasoned tomatoes. Add the meat if you are using it. Bake until the cheese is melted and bubbly and the pastry is golden browned.

1 ½ cups chopped or halved cherry tomatoes or salad tomatoes

1/3 cup red onion, finely minced

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Fresh basil, chopped finely

Combine and allow to sit for an hour. Serve at room temperature over garlic toasts.


1/2 pound Barilla spaghetti

2 pounds ripe tomatoes, chopped (About 4 to 5 cups. I use Campari during the winter.)

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/3 cup shredded Italian cheese (I used Asiago and Parmesan.)

Cook the pasta and reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking water before draining. Chop the tomatoes, and measure out all ingredients. In a large skillet, melt the butter, and over low heat, cook the garlic and anchovies until the anchovies completely melt and the garlic is soft, about four minutes.

Add the tomatoes, thyme, sugar, salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until a sauce forms, about 10 minutes. Add the drained spaghetti, the reserved cooking water, add the cheese and toss with a fork to combine. Serve hot, with extra cheese if desired.

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