Tomato season: recipes for the versatile fruit

BY MARGI LENGA KAHN

Whether we say tomato, tomahhto, love apple, or pomme d’amour, and whether we think of a tomato as a vegetable, a berry, or a fruit (which it is), we all relish its arrival in our gardens and farmers markets in the coming month.

This fruit, as it is botanically classified, is in season from late June through September. There are hundreds of varieties of tomatoes, the most familiar being the oval plum (or roma) tomato, the round tomato, and the smaller cherry and grape tomatoes. Though all are delicious, each has unique qualities that make it the perfect choice for its own array of culinary dishes.

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Plum tomatoes, sometimes called Italian tomatoes, are meaty and thick-skinned. They are less juicy than their counterparts and work best cooked in a sauce, chopped fine in a relish or salsa, or layered on a pizza crust, where their firm texture and lack of moisture will add delicious flavors without making the crust soggy. The most celebrated plum tomatoes are those grown in San Marzano, a town just outside of Naples, Italy. San Marzano tomatoes are only imported to the United States in cans. They are sold under a number of different labels, all of which will specify “San Marzano.” I recommend using them only when local fresh plum tomatoes are out of season.

The round tomato, the one most of us think of for slicing, probably has the most number of varieties. These tomatoes vary in color, size, and flavor. Most important, they taste nothing like the varieties available at your local supermarket off season. Whether they come from your garden or a farmer’s markets, all varieties are juicy, aromatic, and bursting with flavor.

Included in this category are the so-called heirloom tomatoes. Though usually blemished and irregular in shape, heirlooms come in a beautiful array of colors and vary slightly in flavor. All of these round tomatoes can be cooked, especially if you have a surplus or they are on the verge of going bad. Keep in mind that the sauce you make with these tomatoes will be relatively thin, since they are much juicier and less fleshy than plum tomatoes. If need be, you can thicken the sauce with a few tablespoons of tomato paste.

The larger cherry tomatoes and the smaller grape tomatoes are ideal for use in salads. They pack a lot of flavor into a small bite, and the yellow and red varieties add a jeweled appearance to a simple green lettuce salad. Because these smaller tomatoes are so plump and juicy, many people prefer cutting them in half before serving them so as to avoid “tomato squirt.” They are also great tossed in olive oil and coarse kosher salt, oven-roasted quickly in a hot oven, and tossed with some warm pasta and fresh herbs or spooned onto a crusty chunk of bread.

Nutritionally, tomatoes shine. They contain lycopene, an antioxidant believed to promote overall health. Lycopene has been linked to the protection against cancers such as prostate, breast, colorectal, lung, and pancreatic. Tomatoes also contain lots of calcium and vitamin C, and one medium tomato has only 25 calories.

Choose your tomatoes by color, feel, and smell. The area around the stem should smell garden fresh. The lack of aroma signals a tomato with little or no flavor. It is best to purchase tomatoes that are vine-ripened. Contrary to myth, setting a tomato on a sunny windowsill will not complete the ripening. Instead, the tomato will become soft and the flavor will be diminished. If you need to ripen tomatoes, place them in a brown paper bag and set them in a dark spot at room temperature for 3-4 days. Tomatoes should always be stored at room temperature. Refrigerated tomatoes become pulpy and lose that fresh, just-picked flavor.

Here are two recipes to get you ready for tomato season. But remember, a great tomato can require almost no preparation. There is nothing quite like the flavor sensation of biting into a fresh picked vine-ripened tomato, or cutting it in half and sprinkling it with a pinch of salt. Or, as my husband prefers, simply layering tomato slices on a piece of warm rye bread toast. Bon appetite.

Mediterranean Tomato Salad

Salad:

1/2 lb. feta cheese

1 tbsp. each fresh chopped oregano, mint, thyme, basil, and chives

1 lb. mixed yellow and orange cherry or grape tomatoes, halved

1/2 English cucumber, sliced horizontally in half and cut into 1/2-inch slices

2 large handfuls arugula

Additional chopped herbs for garnishing

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Dressing:

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 medium shallot, minced

1 tsp. lemon zest

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Crumble feta cheese into a medium bowl. Add all the herbs and mix until thoroughly distributed. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature for 30 minutes. To make the dressing, combine the lemon juice, shallot, and lemon zest in a small bowl. Slowly whisk in the olive oil. Adjust seasoning by adding salt and pepper. Cover and set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine tomatoes and cucumbers.

Spread the arugula out across a round or rectangular lipped-platter or dinner plate. Toss the tomatoes and cucumber with all but two tablespoons of the dressing. Pour the tomato mixture on top of the arugula. Top the tomatoes with the cheese mixture and drizzle the remaining two tablespoons of dressing over the cheese. Sprinkle with chopped herbs and freshly ground black pepper.

Makes 4-6 servings.

Roasted Veggie Pasta

1 lb. zucchini, stems removed and sliced into 1-inch diagonal pieces

4 garlic cloves, whole and skins left on

1 lb. tomatoes, stems removed

1/3 cup olive oil, divided

Coarse kosher salt

1 lb. penne pasta

1/2 cup basil, leaves stacked, rolled and sliced thin (chiffonade)

1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

Fresh ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place zucchini slices, whole tomatoes, and whole garlic cloves on a baking sheet with sides. Lightly sprinkle with olive oil and coarse kosher salt. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until tomato skins have begun to wrinkle. Place baking sheet on a rack to cool.

When tomatoes are cool enough to handle, slip skins off of tomatoes and discard. Coarsely chop tomatoes and place into a large serving bowl. Add zucchini and any juices from the pan.

Remove skins from garlic and mash in a small bowl with remaining olive oil. Reserve.

Boil a large pot of water. Add 1 tsp salt. Add pasta and cook according to package directions. Before draining pasta, reserve 1/2 cup of pasta water. Drain pasta and place in large bowl with tomatoes and zucchini. Toss mixture. Add 1/4 cup reserved pasta water to garlic/olive oil mixture and stir to combine. Add to pasta bowl and toss, along with basil chiffonade. If pasta seems too dry, drizzle in some of the reserved pasta water and/or additional olive oil. Toss pasta with parmesan cheese and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper.

Makes 4-6 servings.

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