The season is here. Despite the fact I can buy them at the grocery store year around, for much of the year I hesitate to do so. Admittedly, the quality of out-of-season tomatoes has improved of late. But, one bite of a perfectly ripe tomato straight from the garden reminds me that there is no substitute. It’s now wonder that in this country, they are the most popular vegetable—or fruit if you’re a purist—grown in the home garden. In Wisconsin, their season is all too brief.
Most of us know by now that tomatoes originated in the Americas, specifically Peru where they were the edible green fruit of a wild herbaceous plant. The Aztecs probably cultivated the first tomatoes which are believed to have been small and yellow. These were then introduced to both Europe and the Caribbean by the Conquistadors. Today, they are popular the world over.
Since tomatoes are part of the nightshade family and a relative of deadly belladonna, they were not widely consumed in this country until well into the 18thcentury. Their stems and leaves do indeed contain an alkaloid, tomatine, which is toxic. However, green tomatoes also contain a significant amount of tomatine and people have consumed them fried and pickled for years without any adverse effects. Some more adventurous chefs are now experimenting with the use of young tomato leaves (both fresh and dried) in cooking.
One of the great things about tomatoes is they come in so many different sizes, shapes and colors. Certainly, the trendiest are the heirloom varieties—ones that are open-pollinated rather than hybrids. An heirloom tomato is a variety passed down through several generations of a family because of its outstanding flavor. Most tomatoes at the supermarket are hybrids, bred for bigger yields, shipping durability and maximum shelf life.
The worse thing that can happen to a fresh tomato is to be refrigerated. It will it make it watery and mushy. Always store them at room temperature in a single layer, stem side down, on paper toweling or clean paper. The best way to ripen tomatoes is to put them in a paper bag.
I know there are a lot of people who for whatever reason don’t like tomatoes. It’s my opinion that is because they confuse them with those waxy, salmon-colored, mealy slices that too frequently show up with sandwiches. Regardless, this should please them: Tomatina, the world’s largest tomato fight! Each year 20,000-50,000 tourists gather in the streets of Buñol, Spain on the last Wednesday of August to splatter each other with over-ripe tomatoes.
For everyone else, here are my Best of Madison places for tomatoes. Eat up.
Heirloom Tomato Dinner. Harvest
, August 23 (reservations required).
Next Best Place to Buy Tomatoes
. In season, the Willy Street Coop
always has a good quantity of locally grown tomatoes, including heirloom varieties.
Best Tomato Sandwich
. I did a blog not too long ago about BLTs and a reader rightly took me to task for leaving out the BLFT—fried green tomato with bacon, lettuce and garlic mayo—at Alchemy Café
Best Tomato Soup
. Tomato bisque with crème fraiche and chives at Liliana’s
is just enough comfort without being bland.
Best Tomato Salad
panzanilla—a traditional Tuscan bread and tomato salad— is much anticipated and a personal favorite. You’ll find it on their late summer menu beginning August 18.
. This simple combination of red tomato slices, fresh basil and bufala mozzarella dressed with extra virgin olive oil is a mainstay at most Italian restaurants. It’s authentically made and simply squisita at Osteria Papavero
Spaghetti with Uncooked Tomato Sauce
1½ pounds fine ripe tomatoes
1/3 cup best quality extra virgin Italian olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 heads of garlic, peeled and cloves separated
10 sprigs of Italian parsley (leaves only), minced
9 fresh basil leaves, torn into thirds
8 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
1 pound thin spaghetti
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Bring a large saucepan full half full of water to a rapid boil. Dip each tomato into the boiling water for a few seconds, then carefully peel. Cut the peeled tomatoes into quarters and press out their seeds and discard. Dice the tomato flesh and set aside in a strainer or colander to drain.
Heat the oil and 1 tablespoon butter in a heavy saucepan or skillet over low heat. When the butter has completely melted, add the garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft.
Use a slotted spoon to remove the garlic cloves from the pan and add the parsley and basil. Reduce heat to very low and keep warm.
Bring a large part of salted water to a boil. Add the spaghetti and cook until al dente. Remove the pasta to a colander to drain.
Add the remaining butter and drained tomatoes to the sauce and stir until the butter is completely melted. In a large heated bowl, toss the drained spaghetti with the sauce and salt and pepper. Serve at once on heated plates. Pass around the grated Parmesan.