Love juicy, ripe, sweet tomatoes with their right-off-the-farm flavor? Want to avoid the dreaded cardboard tomato — the ones that are too firm, thick-skinned and tasteless?
This is the height of tomato season in South Florida and the best time to buy (and eat) them.
I met with tomato experts across the state to find how to shop for, store and cook with those delicious love apples.
My first thought: How do I know what to look for when I go to a market?
It helps to know the source of the tomato. It should be local: Besides leaving a large carbon footprint, tomatoes that are trucked or flown in from other states or countries (Mexico and Canada are big producers) lose many of their nutrients on the long trek to our grocery stores.
Ask where the tomato is from, or look for stickers on some tomatoes that say Redland Raised or Fresh From Florida, letting you know they’re from around here. (And while farmers markets are often your best bet for finding locally grown tomatoes, that is not always the case. Ask.)
Also, look for vine-ripened tomatoes. This means they ripen on their own, on the vine, and do not need to be gassed to aid in ripening.
You want to pick out well-shaped tomatoes with smooth skins and no soft spots or leaking juice. They should also have a sweet tomato fragrance near the stem. You might ask the produce manager to suggest the best choice for that day, as new arrivals often get placed on display along with older ones.
Many of us have an emotional attachment to and flavor memory of our favorite childhood tomatoes. Thankfully, farmers today grow all kinds of varieties. Try many to know which you like. Some tomatoes are very sweet, others have more of an acidic punch.
Store tomatoes in a cool, dry place, but not the refrigerator. Tomatoes stored below 55 degrees tend to lose texture and flavor, becoming mealy faster than they would if stored on the counter.
Unripe tomatoes can be left on a counter exposed to some sunlight; ripe tomatoes should be kept away from direct sunlight.
You can freeze whole tomatoes and peel them after thawing. Only freeze tomatoes that you plan on cooking; they will be too soft after thawing to eat raw.
Before serving, wash tomatoes under cool running water and pat dry.
Consider what kind of tomato will work best for the recipes you’re making. The most common tomatoes are red round (the round ones found in most markets); roma (plum tomatoes); cherry and grape; yellow (less acid than red); and heirloom.
▪ Red Rounds
Round, everyday eating tomatoes. Use them in salads, sliced on sandwiches or on their own.
Tony DiMare of DiMare Fresh Homestead recommends thick-cut slices. “You can appreciate the flavor more,” he said. “I like to drizzle the slices with balsamic vinegar and olive oil and sprinkle them with a little Gorgonzola cheese.”
Plum tomatoes, sometimes called Italian tomatoes. They are used for canning and producing tomato paste. Since they have less water content and more pulp than red rounds, they’re perfect for making tomato sauce. They hold their shape, have few seeds and work well sliced on pizzas (their lower water content means they won’t make the crust soggy.)
▪ Grape and Cherry
Good in salads, as part of a crudités platter or just to eat as a snack.
Grape tomatoes are small, oval-shaped and have a high sugar content. They have a thick skin and last longer than cherry tomatoes. They come in red, yellow and orange colors.
Cherry tomatoes are larger, round and have thinner skins than grape tomatoes. They are a good shape to hollow out and stuff. They also come in red, yellow and orange.
Farmers have grown hundreds of varieties with names like Cherokee Purple, Caspian Pink and Brandywine for generations, without genetic modifications or hybrid breeding. To many, the flavor and aesthetic appeal of heirloom tomatoes are favorable to commercial varieties. But be ready to use them quickly: They have thinner skins and are more perishable than heartier supermarket tomatoes. Teena Borek of Teena’s Pride in Homestead prefers to cut up several different kinds of heirlooms and serve them tossed with arugula, olive oil and balsamic.
Three important points to remember for great tomatoes:
▪ Buy local.
▪ Buy in season.
▪ Don’t refrigerate.
Teena Borek is the owner of Teena’s Pride farm in Homestead. Her farm is open to the public the first Sunday of the month through May, from 1-4 p.m., and runs a CSA program, or community-supported agriculture. teenaspride.com.
Reggie Brown is the manager of the Florida Tomato Committee, which helps promote the state’s tomato industry. floridatomatoes.org.
Justin Timineri is a certified executive chef and culinary ambassador representing Fresh From Florida. freshfromflorida.com.
Tony DiMare is vice president of DiMare Fresh in Homestead. His family has been selling tomatoes for more than 80 years. dimarefresh.com.
Mark Barineau is responsible for research and development at Lipman Farms in Immokalee. lipmanproduce.com.
TOMATO AND CORN SALSA
1 cup frozen corn kernels
1 cup diced Roma tomatoes
2 tablespoons diced onion
1 tablespoon diced jalapeño pepper
3 tablespoons fresh cilantro
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon lime juice
Place corn in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave on high for 2 minutes to defrost. Mix tomatoes, onion, jalapeño pepper and cilantro with the corn. Add the ground cumin and salt and pepper to taste. Add lime juice and toss well. Makes 2 servings.
Source: Linda Gassenheimer for Dinner in Minutes.
Florida Flatbread with Tomato and Sweet Bell Peppers
1 tablespoon olive oil
5 crushed garlic cloves
2 medium or 1 large baked flatbread or pizza crust
2 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded
1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated
2 medium Red Round or Roma tomatoes, sliced thin
Seas salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup fresh basil, hand torn
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Spread olive oil and garlic evenly over the flatbread. Evenly distribute 3/4 of the two cheeses over the flatbread. Evenly distribute the bell pepper and tomato slices over the cheese. Add remaining cheese to the top of the flatbread. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Blake flatbread on a cookie sheet for 7 to 10 minutes until cheese is melted and bubbly. Remove from oven and garnish with basil. Serve warm. Serves 4.
Source: Chef Justin Timineri.
Tomato Linguine Sauté
2 pounds ripe Red Round tomatoes
3 crushed garlic cloves
1/2 cup olive oil
1 lemon, zest and juice
1 pound whole-wheat linguine
1/2 bunch fresh basil, hand torn
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
Kosher salt and freshly ground black
Wash and rinse tomatoes. Dry, core and cut in half. Use a spoon to remove most of the seeds and coarsely chop. Add chopped tomatoes to a colander, sprinkle with a few pinches of salt and let them sit so they can release some of their water (about half an hour). This can be done ahead.
Combine drained tomatoes, olive oil, lemon zest, lemon juice and garlic in a large sauté pan. Heat over low heat to warm the mixture, not cook it. Bring a large saucepan filled with water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook 10 to 12 minutes. Drain and add to a large bowl. Spoon tomato mixture on top. Add the basil and parmesan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm. Serves 4.
Source: Chef Justin Timineri.