Monday, April 7, 2008

An elegy for the tomato

Although pretty, the plum tomatoes I received from the co-op last week were somewhat anemic in taste. Doesn't that seem to be the case with all tomatoes these days? When I was a kid, my family would buy these huge beefsteak tomatoes in the summer with which we would make tomato, mozzarella and basil salads all season long. The tomatoes were deep red and juicy and absolutely delicious--they were, of course, great with the cheese and herbs, but all they really needed was a bit of salt and they were good to go. I haven't had a good commercial tomato like that in years. The ones that are available at the supermarket nowadays are a sickly pale shade of orange--not even red--and they're weak in flavor and usually mealy in texture, too. Luckily in the past year or so heirloom tomatoes have become all the rage, and they're reliably tasty. They're not commonly available in supermarkets, though, and they're more expensive. Since when is the tomato a luxury product?

I've come to depend on a few reliable methods for getting good tomato taste into my cooking even when what's available in stores leaves much to be desired. In soups, sauces and stews I almost always use canned tomatoes, preferably from San Marzano or elsewhere in Italy. They're full of flavor and cook down nicely in long-simmering dishes. I like to get the whole, peeled ones so that I can break them up with my hands--I prefer the texture to the large chunks you get from a can of already-diced tomatoes. For salads and salsas, I use grape tomatoes almost exclusively. They're tiny and sweet and, I've found, are the only product that comes close to approximating the flavor that ordinary tomatoes used to have. And when I end up with supermarket (or, in this case, co-op) tomatoes that just don't taste too good, I slow-roast them.

Roasting is pretty much my favorite method for cooking vegetables (I know that tomatoes are biologically a fruit, but you catch my drift). It draws out their sweetness and concentrates their flavor, and is super easy, too--once the vegetables are in the oven, all you have to do is stir them around every once in a while. So when I found those plum tomatoes to be sub-par, I used a favorite recipe (more of a method, really) and slow-roasted them.

All you do is halve the tomatoes, toss them with olive oil, salt, pepper, and any dried herb (I used oregano), and bake them in a 200° oven for 4-6 hours. Yes, it's a very long time, and what this does is produce an incredibly soft, intensely flavorful tomato that can be used in a myriad of ways. One application that comes to mind immediately? Pile them on a rare burger covered in melted blue cheese. The combination of the sweet tomatoes with the pungent cheese is pretty incredible (can you say umami?) Or you could make yourself a BET (ha): bacon, a fried egg, and the roasted tomatoes on toast. You could gild the lily by adding mayonnaise, if that's your thing (personally, I don't care for the stuff), but you won't even really need it--the creamy softness of the runny egg yolk will bind things together quite nicely. Finally, you can do what I did, and enjoy the tomatoes on some crusty baguette topped with manchego cheese. Yum.


Gideon said...

this is a good post. it's really sad that it's so impossible to find good tomatoes nowadays. sometimes farmer's markets have good ones, but even those aren't always reliable. what the puff?

Xiaoxi said...

SO TRUE. That hydroponic tomato I had at your parents' house last summer was the most memorable tomato of my life. I still think about it occasionally. Every time I eat a tomato now I think "damn. not as good as that hydroponic one."

Anonymous said...

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