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Juicy, Ripe Tomatoes

For the best tomato flavor, grow your own or shop at a farmstand

Fine Cooking Issue 52
Photo: Scott Phillips
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The flavor of a juicy, ripe tomato still warm from the sun is the essence of summer. And the chances of capturing that true vine-ripened flavor are always better the closer to your kitchen a tomato is grown. But if you can’t grow your own, you’re not out of luck; you can find home-grown quality at farmstands and farmers’ markets in your area. Just don’t expect to get it at the grocery store, where the varieties you’ll find have been bred for the long haul, with qualities like thick skin and uniform shape often winning out over good flavor.

I find three types of tomato indispensable: beefsteaks, slicers, and cherries. I love big, juicy beefsteaks for sandwiches and platters of sliced tomatoes. My favorites: the fabulous ‘Brandywine,’ a large, lumpy, pinkish-red heirloom, and the hybrid ‘Big Beef,’ for its generous yield and great flavor, thanks to a good balance of sugars and acids. When a big, fat beefsteak is just too much tomato, I go for a midsize slicing tomato like ‘Carmello’ or ‘Dona.’ And for snacking, salads, garnishes, and grilling, my favorite cherry tomatoes are ‘Sweet Chelsea,’ a (relatively) large red, and ‘Sungold,’ a deep orange cherry with very sweet flavor. Seeds for most of these tomatoes are available from John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds and White Flower Farm.

Delicious ways to use fresh tomatoes

When tomato season arrives, I can’t wait to slice a few and eat them just drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt, or tucked into a juicy, drippy tomato sandwich. When those cravings are satisfied, I move on to other preparations, like Pasta with Tomatoes, Gorgonzola & Basil, or one of my favorite ideas below.

For a beautiful salad platter, slice up different-colored tomatoes. Drizzle with a vinaigrette made with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, a spoonful of pesto, and salt and pepper. For a party, alternate the tomatoes with slices of fresh mozzarella, set out sliced toasted bread, and let guests build their own appetizers.

Make my favorite variation on a BLT: bacon, arugula, tomato, and avocado. To gild the lily, spread on softened blue cheese or fresh goat cheese.

For an authentic bruschetta, grill or toast a slice of country bread, brush lightly with olive oil, and rub a peeled clove of garlic over the surface of the bread. Cut a medium-size ripe tomato in half horizontally and rub one half of the tomato onto the bread until the tomato flesh is thoroughly massaged into the toast. Top with basil.

Stir up a cool, tangy gazpacho from finely diced tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, and sweet peppers. Season with salt, pepper, minced garlic, and herbs. Add some minced jalapeño and lime juice or red-wine vinegar for spunk, and round out the flavors with a little olive oil. Refrigerate for at least an hour before serving.

Slow-roast beefsteak tomatoes. Cut the tops from tomatoes and gently squeeze out the juice and seeds. Set the tomatoes upright in a shallow baking dish, drizzle with olive oil, and season with minced garlic, salt, pepper, and minced herbs like rosemary, thyme, or parsley. Roast at 325°F until the tomatoes are soft and have collapsed. Serve as a savory side dish, or roast further until they’re drier and use them as a topping for crostini or pizza.

Simmer up some fresh tomato soup. Sweat diced onion, celery, and fennel in a little oil. Add cut-up tomatoes and chicken, beef, or vegetable broth, cover, and simmer until tender. Pass the soup through a food mill or blend and strain, and then reheat. Enrich with a bit of butter and stir in minced chives, dill, or fennel leaf.

Use cherry tomatoes to brighten a bread salad. They hold up well. Combine 2 cups halved cherry tomatoes with two cucumbers, one sweet pepper and one onion, all diced, and toss with about 2/3 cup well-seasoned vinaigrette. About 20 minutes before serving, add about 4 cups cubed day-old country bread or lightly toasted pita, torn into pieces, and toss well. Toss again just before serving.

Make an elegant, rich-tasting tomato sauce. Sweat diced onion, carrots, and celery in butter. Add cut-up tomatoes, salt, and pepper and simmer until soft enough to pass through a food mill. Reheat with a touch of cream, and then use it to top cheese-filled ravioli or tortellini.

Garnish grilled fish with a tiny dice of tomato. Gently seed tomatoes and dice the flesh into tiny, even cubes. Drizzle a tablespoon of dark green, fruity olive oil onto a warm dinner plate, strew a couple of tablespoons of tomato dice over the oil, and arrange a piece of grilled fish on top.

Dress up breakfast with sautéed tomatoes. When the bacon or sausage is done, add thick tomato slices (or halves, cut side down) to the pan. Cook just until blistered and warm, and serve with sunny-side-up eggs, toast, and coffee.

Fry or pickle end-of-season green tomatoes. Dip sliced green tomatoes in beaten egg, dredge in cornmeal, and fry until tender throughout and crisp on the outside. Or brine fat wedges of green tomato in vinegar seasoned with salt, dill, and garlic, just like dill pickles.

Tips for handling tomatoes

Peeling. I usually don’t bother to peel tomatoes, but if I must, this is the method I prefer: Stick a fork into the stem end and rotate the tomato over the flame on a gas stove briefly, until the skin begins to split. When it’s cool enough to handle, you can peel the skin off easily.

Grating. If you need tomato pulp without the skin, try this: Cut the fruit in half horizontally and grate its flesh on the large holes of a grater. The tomato is quickly reduced to a thick purée and the skin is left behind.

Seeding. Very juicy tomatoes may make a dish too watery. To reduce the juiciness, hold the tomato over a bowl, squeeze it gently, and work out the seeds with your fingers. Use the juice in a vinaigrette.

Slicing and coring. A serrated knife works best on stubborn tomato skin. To remove the core, use a sharp paring knife to carve a V-shape around it, or scoop it out with a handy gadget called a tomato shark.

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