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Juicy Tomatoes to Savor and Cook

Fine Cooking Issue 28
Photos: Scott Phillips
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If I had to name the quintessential pleasure of high summer, it would be tomatoes—fresh, ripe, and brimming with flavor. At farmers’ markets, you’ll see all sorts of varieties in a range of rich colors to enjoy in the kitchen and at the table, from red Roma plum tomatoes for sauces to dappled Big Rainbows for salads and sandwiches, to Yellow Pear cherry tomatoes for just eating out of hand.

From candy-sized cherries to fist-sized globes

Tomato sizes range from tiny cherries to giant beefsteaks almost the size of a grapefruit. As for shapes, you’ll see smooth globes, lobed scallops, oblongs, and clusters of tiny round or pear shapes. Flavors go from the big, spicy punch that comes from the concentrated sugar-to-acid ratio of a Brandywine to more subtle creamy-smooth varieties with floral, fruity, or earthy overtones, such as a Persimmon.

Yellow Pear is a charming, petite old favorite; its clusters of sunny teardrops are hard to resist. Yellow Pears are low in acid and mild tasting. Kids love them.
Roma plums have thick, meaty walls. The classic sauce tomato, Roma is less juicy than slicing varieties; it cooks down readily for sauces and tomato paste.

Choose glossy, heavy fruit

At the market, look for plump, glossy fruit that feel heavy for their size. A ripe tomato should feel pliant but not mushy, with no soft spots or cracks. Stem calyxes, if they’re still attached, should be fresh and green, never shriveled or tired-looking.

Older and heirloom varieties often ripen from the bottom (the blossom end) to the top (the shoulders), so don’t be put off if the shoulders still show a little green. If the body feels heavy, is fully colored and smooth with just a little give to it, the tomato is ripe. Don’t shy away from pleated or multi-shouldered tomatoes like the Persimmon, either—these irregular shapes are what make many old- fashioned varieties distinctive.

Persimmon tomato is a succulent, juicy heirloom. The flavor is sweet and delicate, with a wonderfully flowery aroma. Persimmon’s dense flesh has a custardy texture.

Beefsteaks, cherries, sauce tomatoes, and slicers There’s luscious flavor in every tomato variety that grows in summer. The hundreds of varieties can be roughly grouped into four categories. Beefsteaks are very large, juicy tomatoes that can be either globe-shaped or lobed. They’re delicious fresh-eating tomatoes, and they’re great for sandwiches and grilling. Cherry tomatoes are small (up to an inch in diameter) and they grow in clusters. They’re great for snacks and salads. Sauce tomatoes can be oblong, oval, or sausage-shaped. Sauce tomatoes earn their  name because they’re meatier, less juicy tomatoes wellsuited to cooking down into sauces and soups. Slicers are multipurpose, fresh-eating tomatoes, great for just about anything. Many slicers are globe shaped, although you will run across shouldered, irregularly shaped examples, too.

Big Rainbow is shot through with rose-red: slice it thickly and you’ll see a marvelous marbled pattern.
Big Rainbow tomato is fruity, mild, and sweet, with a custardy texture.

Heirlooms, old favorites, and hybrids

Heirlooms are varieties lovingly passed on by gardeners and saved for the next growing season. This process has helped maintain older varieties, especially those that grow well in a certain region or that have great flavor. Heirlooms are open-pollinated varieties that don’t need human intervention to reproduce their varietal qualities. They’re not in commercial production, and they’re at least forty years old.

Old varieties are often old favorites or home garden varieties that were once sold by seed companies but are often hard to find today because they’re no longer in commercial production.

Hybrids are varieties that have been crossbred by hand for traits such as productivity and resistance to disease.

Red Brandywine has especially tender, meaty flesh. The flavor is full and luscious— both tart and sweet, with a spicy finish. When you find Brandywines at their peak, enjoy them soon; they don’t keep well once fully ripe.
Yellow Brandywine is a heavy, thin-skinned heirloom with the same well-balanced, rich flavor as a Red Brandywine. Eat them fully ripe and sliced to show off their meaty flesh and exquisite flavor.

Storing tomatoes

While many of us were taught to store ripe tomatoes in the refrigerator, cold really mutes their sweetness and flavor. I like to keep different colored ripe tomatoes in a big bowl on my kitchen counter, where their tempting beauty shows off summer’s bounty. Buy a few different kinds for a good mix of colors and flavors. If you must store tomatoes in the fridge, be sure to bring them back to room temperature before you eat them.

Firebirds are full of juice and aroma, with soft flesh; they’re a fruity, earthytasting tomato with lots of substance. They’re fine for eating out of hand, but use them quickly, as they’re not good keepers.
White Wonder is an heirloom that’s over a century old. Its mellow flavor is fruity, earthy, and mild; the flesh is soft. White Wonders vary from globes to slightly flattened fruits.

Sweet 100s are among the sweetest of all tomatoes, with juicy texture and beautiful deep red color. These little nuggets are beautiful in salads and great for snacks. Sweet 100s are also delicious dried.
Sungolds are fruity-tasting cherry tomatoes that are juicy, thin-skinned, and full of spicy-rich flavor. Try mixing a basketful of these with Sweet 100s for an eye-catching combination that looks and tastes like garden candy.

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