Tomatoes

ummer brings with it a plethora of fresh foods for the taking, including one of the most recognizable, the tomato. (Photo by Katherine Larson)

summer brings with it a plethora of fresh foods for the taking, including one of the most recognizable, the tomato. (Photo by Katherine Larson)

by Katherine Larson

Driving through Negaunee a few summers ago, I stopped at the Jackson Mine Farmers Market to see what delicious vegetables I might find. The market wouldn’t open until 4 p.m., but that was okay; I could stroll around for half an hour, admiring the produce while I waited.

But what was all that commotion down at the end of the row? A rugby scrum?

It was a surge of hungry shoppers, jostling around the one farmer whose tomatoes were ripe enough to sell. The market manager stood by, protecting him from the massed tomato lust. Eventually our fundamental U.P. niceness prevailed and we formed a semblance of a line.

At five past four, alas, the person in front of me bought the last three tomatoes. She left with a half-apologetic, half-triumphant shrug and I vowed to come earlier the next Wednesday.

1608 ATT3 Tomatoes Imperfect vegetables 2

Tomatoes fall into two categories: store-bought and fresh—fresh meaning straight from your own garden or from your local farmers’ market. Only the fresh ones are worth eating, because only they offer the superlative combination of flavor, aroma and juiciness that justify America’s love affair with this glorious vegetable.

Vegetable? Botanically speaking, tomatoes are really a fruit. But we mostly think of them as vegetables anyway, though a tomato pie can be a mighty fine treat.

Tomatoes have been nourishing happy eaters for centuries, starting in the coastal highlands of western South America—Peru, Ecuador, northern Chile. As wild tomatoes migrated north, the Central American Mayans domesticated them and then the Aztecs adopted them, bringing tomatoes into Mexico.

Then came the Spanish conquistadors. Along with their obsession with gold, they were intensely curious about the myriad plants that they found in the conquered lands. Soon seeds, seedlings, even mature plants were spreading across the globe in Spanish ships. Within a few decades, by 1540, tomatoes were being cultivated in Mediterranean countries and eaten with gusto by Spaniards, Italians and French.

Wait a minute, you are saying. Didn’t you hear somewhere that Europeans refused to eat tomatoes because they worried that tomatoes were poisonous?

You did hear it somewhere; it’s a pervasive legend. It’s also false, according to Andrew Smith’s massively researched and dauntingly footnoted book The Tomato in America. It would be fair to categorize Smith as a man with a bee in his bonnet. From the book jacket we learn that he “began writing about tomatoes as a hobby in 1987. Since that time he has examined more than 50,000 books, journals, and other works in search of the tomato’s heritage.”

Fifty thousand! That’s more than fills the entire Ishpeming Carnegie Public Library!

Smith took this massive quantity of tomato-related information and packed it densely into his book. A few tidbits give the flavor:

Early physicians thought that tomatoes were particularly beneficial in curing “Fits of the Mother.” (Whatever those may be…)

Tomatoes were growing in a number of the original 13 colonies by the late 1600s. (Thus, the legend that Thomas Jefferson introduced the tomato here in the 1800s is, well, wrong.)

While southerners embraced the tomato early on, northerners were initially warier. In 1820, for example, tomatoes were grown as ornaments in Rhode Island gardens, but only visiting southerners ate them. Writes Smith, “Later they became missiles in the hands of small boys.”

About that same time, two quacks developed competing “tomato pills” which, they each asserted, would cure all manner of ailments from indigestion to syphilis. Each loudly and correctly proclaimed that the others’ pills were fraudulent and, after both made many millions of dollars, they ended up putting each other out of business.

When a United States senator died in 1836, the inventory of his estate included, as a particularly valuable item in his larder, 18 bottles of tomato ketchup.

Tomatoes were given a big boost by the Civil War, as Union forces were fed vast quantities of canned tomatoes and, not infrequently, rebel forces ate captured Union supplies. Per Smith, “By the end of the war, empty tomato cans were found everywhere.”

In 1984, 12 million tomato seeds were sent into space, where they remained for six years until retrieved by space shuttle. When, however, they were offered to teachers to grow in classrooms, public furor—apparently influenced by the cult film Attack of the Killer Tomatoes—ensued.

And so on. A dogged researcher in pursuit of tomato trivia can learn a lot from Smith’s tome.

For the rest of us, though, we’ve been waiting in line at the farmers market long enough, and it’s time to eat!

When tomatoes are fully ripe and really fresh, it’s hard to beat a simple raw tomato with a little olive oil. Or salt. Or both. Or a tomato sandwich, with good bread, quality butter and some salt. Or with a little balsamic vinegar, and/or some fresh basil, and/or some fresh mozzarella. Or out of your hand when you’re standing in the garden, sun on your shoulders, juice dribbling down your chin.

But eventually we do want to use tomatoes in a way that amounts to a whole meal. Though, heck, it’s August, and who’s interested in spending hours in a hot kitchen? Here are a couple of ideas for tomato dishes that feed you well while leaving plenty of time for whatever outdoor activity suits your fancy.

For both of them, start with a lot of truly fresh and flavorful tomatoes—say, a pound per person. A mix of colors and sizes adds pizzazz.

A big handful of fresh basil will also be needed. Basil goes with tomatoes like ham goes with eggs, or cheese goes with macaroni, or jelly goes with peanut butter. It’s a perfect pairing; both ingredients taste good alone but better together.

The mention of macaroni leads me to the first of these two tomato recipes: hot pasta with uncooked tomatoes.

Put a big pot of salted water on to boil for the pasta. While it’s heating up, get busy with a knife. Cut tiny tomatoes in half, smaller tomatoes in quarters, larger tomatoes in bite-sized pieces. Sweep everything (including the juices that leaked out while you were cutting) into a large serving bowl.

More knife work: dice up a fresh onion and add it to the bowl. A minced-up clove of garlic is nice too, for those who like it. Then add a big slosh of high-quality olive oil, perhaps a quarter of a cup or more, and a big grind or two of black pepper.

Water boiling yet? For two pounds of tomatoes you’ll want no more than half a pound of pasta; more pasta needs more tomatoes. I like to use rotini because it’s tidy to eat (no twirling up long strands) while the pasta’s twists do a good job of scooping up the sauce and delivering it to my mouth. Other shapes work well too, if that’s what your pantry contains.

As the pasta boils, chop up the basil so it’s ready when you need it.

The pasta is done! Quickly strain it, then plop the hot noodles straight onto the waiting raw vegetables and give everything a good stir. The heat from the noodles will slightly wilt and soften the onions while helping the tomatoes’ rich flavor open up.

Add the basil, crumble a handful of good feta or chèvre over the bowl, give it another stir, and there you are. A whole meal in one dish, fragrant with summer’s best aromas.

But if it’s a really hot day, one of those rare unpleasantnesses when the humidity is high and the sky glares like brass and you can’t bear the thought of boiling water, try this refreshing meal instead.

You start, again, with a big batch of fresh tomatoes. This time, cut tiny ones in half but slice larger ones. If you’re feeling ambitious, lay them out in an attractive array on a platter.

Now you need a blender or food processor. Into its bowl, put about a quarter of a cup of mayonnaise, that handful of basil we discussed a while back, a couple of teaspoons of drained capers, the juice of half a lemon, one or more fat garlic cloves, a sprinkle of salt and a grind of pepper, and the key ingredient, fish—best of all, about a quarter of a pound of smoked Lake Superior trout (skin and bones removed), but in a pinch a can of good tuna in olive oil, drained.

Those who love anchovies will add a few fillets to the blender. Those who hate them won’t. Those who live with anchovy-haters might consider sneaking the fillets into the blender secretly; most people won’t notice, and anchovies do add welcome depth and complexity to the sauce. Anchovies or not, whir it all together into a purée.

This amount of sauce will feed four adequately or two lavishly. Ladle it over the big platter of tomatoes, offer your guests more black pepper and a bit more sliced basil for garnish, and carve up a hearty loaf of crunchy bread. (A slice of cold roast chicken is a nice addition if your guests are extra-hearty eaters.)

You’ll enjoy this meal even more while sitting on a picnic bench overlooking Lake Superior, imagining its cool depths and watching the sky gradually deepen to purple. Summer is here and summer is lovely, but the glories of autumn aren’t that far away. Relish tomatoes while you can.

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