Ode to Tomato

An homage to a once misunderstood vegetable


Published: Saturday, January 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, August 24, 2004 at 10:18 a.m.

The tomato's history is checkered, clouded by confusion and innuendo.

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Tomatoes are a staple in the world's classic cuisines, which rely on its rich, intense flavor to perk up salads and sauces.

Chad Surmick/NYTRNG

One French botanist nicknamed it the wolf peach, while an Italian botanist called it mala insana, or unhealthy fruit, after it was brought to Europe from South America in the early 16th century.

Even today, people are still confused about whether the tomato is a fruit or a vegetable - botanically it's a fruit, yet we cook and eat it like a vegetable, which is why the U.S. Supreme Court officially proclaimed it a vegetable in 1893.

Now a success story, the tomato has put its juicy past behind it and has become a staple in the world's classic cuisines, which rely on its rich, intense flavor to perk up salads and sauces.

And there are health benefits, too. A Japanese study published recently in the British Journal of Nutrition found tomatoes show promise in preventing arterial blood clotting, which can lead to heart disease and strokes. The researchers fed tomato extracts to mice and measured for blood clot formation, called thrombosis. The study concluded that the ''daily intake of an anti-thrombotic diet may offer a convenient and effective way of prevention.''

So as backyard gardeners and growers pick the luscious, vine-ripened globes, it's appropriate to pay homage to the ingredient that has given us so many delicious dishes, from pasta alla puttanesca to ratatouille, and is healthful as well.

In the Spanish village of Bunol, the locals pay tribute to the tomato on the last Wednesday of August during La Tomatina, an annual five-day party that culminates with a huge tomato fight in the town square.

Here in the United States, the festivities are much more subdued. There are tomato festivals and chefs who incorporate local heirloom tomatoes into their menus, pairing them with wild salmon, artisan cheeses, olives and other ingredients that complement, but don't overwhelm, the tomato's unique flavor.

At Feast in Santa Rosa, Calif., chef/owner Jessie McQuarrie serves an Heirloom Tomato Salad that uses three kinds of tomatoes, three different ways - Romas in the dressing, beefsteaks sliced on the plate and cherry tomatoes as a garnish. A slice of grilled bread, feta, assoorted greens, olives and homemade basil oil round out the plate.

Chef Jeff Reilly of The Duck Club at the Bodega Bay (Calif.) Lodge and Spa offers up an award-winning recipe for tomato chutney - sweet, hot and spicy, with plenty of acidity from the vinegar to ''back it up.''

''People love sweet as long as it's backed up by balance,'' Reilly said. ''That's what tomatoes are all about - sweetness, with a lot of acid.''

You can substitute sherry wine vinegar for the Banyuls vinegar in the vinaigrette for this salad from McQuarrie. You can also substitute basil oil with an artisan extra virgin olive oil. ''Building the salad in this manner helps layer the flavors and ensures that each bite is properly dressed for an elegant plated salad,'' McQuarrie writes. ''However, you could easily ... make a great tossed salad as well.''

HEIRLOOM TOMATO SALAD

4-5 heirloom tomatoes, of all colors

1 basket mixed baby tomatoes, cut in half

1 bunch basil, sliced into thin strips

8 ounces goat feta cheese, crumbled

8 ounces of assorted greens

1 cup assorted gourmet olives, chopped

4 slices good quality, artisan bread (pugliese works well)

Garlic oil, to taste (see below)

Sea salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste

Basil infused olive oil

Banyuls vinaigrette (recipe follows)

Core tomatoes, slice in half lengthwise, then cut the halves into half-inch-thick slices. Lay out on a plate and season with sea salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste.

Cut bread into half-inch-thick slices and brush with garlic oil. Toast under broiler, on grill, or in toaster oven.

Arrange a few tomato slices on plate and top with bread. Drizzle with a little vinaigrette. Top with a few more tomato slices and another drizzle of vinaigrette. Sprinkle with crumbled feta and olives.

Dress baby tomatoes lightly with vinaigrette in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the baby tomatoes over salad. In the same bowl, add greens and toss with the residual dressing, adding more if necessary. Season with salt and pepper. Top the tomatoes with a little pile of greens. Drizzle with basil oil (or olive oil) and sprinkle with fresh basil. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.

To make garlic oil: Put 1 cup of olive oil and 4 cloves garlic, shaved as thin as possible, in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer, then take off heat and let cool. Store leftover in covered container in refrigerator for up to a week.

BANYULS VINAIGRETTE

4 Roma tomatoes

2 tablespoons minced garlic

2 tablespoons minced shallots

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

Sea salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste

1 1/2 cups Banyuls vinegar or sherry wine vinegar

2 1/2 cups olive oil

Bring four cups water to a boil. Core tomatoes and make a cross-hatch slice on the top of the tomato. Add to water for 20-30 seconds. Take out of water and plunge into ice water. Take out of ice water and peel. Cut in half and shake out the seeds.

Put tomatoes and remaining ingredients (except oil) in a blender and blend until smooth. Next, slowly stream in oil. Thin with a little warm water or vinegar if necessary.

Makes 4 cups.

Jeff Reilly from The Duck Club in Bodega Bay, Calif., won an award for this Tomato Ginger Chutney, which goes well with pork tenderloin or with crab cakes.

TOMATO GINGER CHUTNEY

1/2 gallon tomatoes, peeled, diced and drained of juice

2 tablespoons minced garlic

3 tablespoons grated fresh ginger

2 teaspoons chili flakes

1 1/3 cup sugar

2 cups apple cider vinegar

2 teaspoons cumin

2 teaspoons Kosher salt

1/3 bunch cilantro, chopped

Simmer tomatoes, garlic, ginger and chili flakes on medium heat until dry. Add sugar, vinegar, cumin and salt and reduce until thickened. Add cilantro and simmer for 2 minutes. Can be kept refrigerated for up to one month.

Makes 1 quart.

''At Pike Place Market in Seattle, there's a stand that offers wonderful salmon sandwiches,'' Michele Anna Jordan writes in ''The BLT Cookbook.'' ''I've used that sandwich as inspiration for a BLT with salmon.'' The salmon belly is the thinnest part of a filet.

THE BSLT

1/3 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons minced fresh basil

2 garlic cloves, crushed and minced

Black pepper in a mill

Kosher salt

4 slices bacon, cut in half crosswise

4 pieces fresh wild salmon belly (see note below)

4 soft rolls

2 ripe slicing tomatoes, cored and sliced

8 inner butter lettuce leaves, torn into bite-size pieces

In a small bowl, combine the mayonnaise, basil and garlic. Season very generously with black pepper, taste, and season with salt if needed. Cover and set aside.

Fry the bacon until it is crisp and transfer onto a brown paper bag to drain. Heat a nonstick sauté pan over medium heat, season the salmon on both sides with salt and pepper, sauté it for 3 minutes, turn, and sauté for 2 minutes more. Remove from the heat.

Quickly toast the rolls until golden brown. Spread mayonnaise on the bottom half of each roll. Arrange 3 slices of tomatoes on top, season lightly with salt, set two pieces of bacon on the tomatoes and put the salmon on top of the bacon. Add some of the lettuce and cover with the top half of the roll. Serve the sandwiches immediately.

Makes 4 sandwiches.

Randy Lewis of Kendall-Jackson Winery Estates in Sonoma County was invited last year to cook an all-tomato dinner at the James Beard House in New York. He paired Kendall-Jackson wines with eight courses, including a lamb bacon BLT and a chocolate-dipped Golden Roma tomato.

For this grilled salad, Lewis likes to use dark purple heirloom varieties like Paul Robeson and Black from Tula.

GRILLED EGGPLANT AND TOMATO SALAD

4 slender eggplants, sliced crosswise into 1/2-inch thick slices

4 large tomatoes, preferably dark purple or black varieties, sliced crosswise into 1/2-inch slices

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon drained capers, chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1/2 teaspoon finely grated fresh orange zest

1/2 cup fresh basil leaves

Season the eggplant and tomato slices with salt and pepper. Using the half-cup of olive oil, brush both sides of the eggplant and tomato slices with oil, then sprinkle the dried oregano over.

Grill the tomato slices for about 1 minute per side, or until they are charred but still hold their shape.

Transfer to a platter. Grill the eggplant slices for 5 minutes per side, or until lightly charred and tender.

In a bowl, combine the capers, balsamic vinegar, orange zest and the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil.

Season with salt and pepper to taste.

To assemble, overlap alternating slices of eggplant and tomato on a large platter. Tear basil and scatter it over the salad. Drizzle with the caper dressing and serve.

Makes 6-8 servings.

(Diane Peterson writes for The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, Calif.)

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