Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Heirloom Tomatoes

Do you say To-may-to or To mah-to? I know, who cares as long as you have big gorgeous red ripe tomatoes all summer! It is thought that our beloved tomato is not a vegetable, but rather a huge berry that is apparently from Peru, originally, working its way north, onto the Yucatan peninsula then to North America. I had heard that Columbus took the tomato back to the Mediterranean region, but it seems that is not the case. The earliest mention of the tomato in European literature is found in a piece written by Matthiolus in 1544. He described tomatoes, or as they were called in Italy, pomi d'oro (golden apple), and wrote that they were "eaten in Italy with oil, salt and pepper". This provides evidence that the first tomatoes to reach the Old World were a yellow variety, and that they were introduced via the Mediterranean. Red tomatoes were said to be introduced to Italy by two Catholic priests many years later.

According to Women’s Health magazine, today the tomato is summer’s number one power food; it can be dressed up or down and is perfect for every occasion. And, as in previous recent years, the heirloom tomato is the only one to plant. When you hear the word “heirloom”, do you immediately think “antique”? When you are talking heirloom tomatoes, you are indeed talking antiques. They are tomatoes that come from an original family line that dates back many years. Heirloom tomatoes are so ugly, they are beautiful!
Those perfectly shaped tomatoes, uniformly colored a bright red, which you buy at your supermarket are actually hybrids, made by crossing two or more types of tomatoes. This makes them disease resistant and hardier, but has destroyed their wonderful flavor. Is there anything more disappointing than a hot house tomato?

Okay enough of the history….

The Italians have definitely made the tomato their own. Is there another cuisine that immediately brings the tomato to mind? I don’t think so. Southern Italy and Sicily have the perfect climate for growing bumper crops of pomodoro. As in 1544, they still eat their tomatoes with oil, salt and pepper, but they also add fresh basil and fresh mozzarella. This salad is known as Insalata Caprese. To my way of thinking, it is the perfect salad, gloriously simple.. It does require perfect ingredients, however: Sun-ripened tomatoes and basil, good Mozzarella, from buffalo (not bison) milk if possible, and excellent olive oil. Food fit for a king!

If you have never tried it, do it as soon as you find some heirloom tomatoes!

2 pounds ripe tomatoes, sliced, seeded, and drained
A fresh mozzarella (buffalo milk if possible) weighing about a pound, diced.
Fresh basil leaves, hand-shredded (8-10 or to taste)
1/4 cup olive oil, or to taste
Pepper and salt (if necessary)

Slice the tomatoes into rounds and put them on 6 plates; slice the mozzarella into rounds and lay them over the tomatoes. Season with the olive oil, basil, origano, and a little salt and pepper. Serves 6-8.

I suppose I should give you an Italian Tomato Sauce recipe, but to be honest, I make mine from canned Italian Plum Tomatoes.

I have told you about my trip to Sicily several times in the last year and a half. I have mentioned my day in Trapani and the salt pans on Sicily’s westernmost tip, and the perfect salt. But Trapani also has a tomato recipe they are well known for. It is called

Salamureci - A Sicilian Chilled Tomato Soup

1 1/3 pounds (600 g) ripe tomatoes, chopped and drained
A bunch of parsley, shredded
1/2 pound (200 g) day-old Italian bread, cubed
2 cloves garlic
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste, hopefully Trapani salt!

Grind the garlic in a mortar with a pinch of salt and distribute the mixture in 4 bowls; if you prefer less garlic simply rub the bottoms of the bowls with a cut clove. Add the tomatoes to the bowls, season them with salt, pepper, and basil, and let them sit for about 10 minutes. Add chilled water to cover, season the "soup" with a little olive oil, and serve it with the cubes of bread.
It is delightfully refreshing on a hot day!

Next I have an appetizer recipe for you,

Tomato and Goat Cheese Tarts

1 package puff pastry (17.3 ounces/2 sheets) defrosted
Good olive oil
4 cups thinly sliced yellow onions (2 large onions)
3 large garlic cloves, cut into thin slivers
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons dry white wine
2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme leaves
4 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan, plus 2 ounces shaved with a vegetable peeler
4 ounces garlic-and-herb goat cheese (recommended: Montrachet)
1 large tomato, cut into 4 (1/4-inch-thick) slices
3 tablespoons julienned basil leaves

Unfold a sheet of puff pastry on a lightly floured surface and roll it lightly to an 11 by 11-inch square. Using a 6-inch wide saucer or other round object as a guide, cut 2 circles from the sheet of puff pastry, discarding the scraps. Repeat with the second pastry sheet to make 4 circles in all. Place the pastry circles on 2 sheet pans lined with parchment paper and refrigerate until ready to use.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium to low heat and add the onions and garlic. Saute for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onions are limp and there is almost no moisture remaining in the skillet. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, the wine, and thyme and continue to cook for another 10 minutes, until the onions are lightly browned. Remove from the heat.
Using a sharp paring knife, score a 1/4-inch-wide border around each pastry circle. Prick the pastry inside the score lines with the tines of a fork and sprinkle a tablespoon of grated Parmesan on each round, staying inside the scored border.
Place 1/4 of the onion mixture on each circle, again staying within the scored edge. Crumble 1 ounce of goat cheese on top of the onions. Place a slice of tomato in the center of each tart. Brush the tomato lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with basil, salt, and pepper. Finally, scatter 4 or 5 shards of Parmesan on each tart.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the pastry is golden brown. The bottom sheet pan may need an extra few minutes in the oven. Serve hot or warm.

Here is a recipe from the good old USA, just in time for the 4th!

This Tomato Relish Recipe is sweet and tangy and will go great with a wide range of burgers. Try this tomato relish recipe if you don’t want a relish that is too spicy.

Ingredients for 8 servings:
6 cups of fresh chopped tomatoes
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped green pepper
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup white vinegar
2 teaspoons of celery seeds
2 teaspoons of salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

To prepare the tomatoes peel them by soaking them in boiling water for a couple of minutes, the skin should peel off easier. Remove the seeds and chop them.
Combine the sugar, vinegar, celery seeds, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Stir until the sugar is dissolved.
Now add the chopped tomatoes, onion and green pepper. Store the relish in an airtight container in the refrigerator overnight.

Now, for my final recipe, and my favorite.....my Tomato Sandwich.

Pepperidge Farm Extra Thin Sliced Bread
Salt and Pepper

As with most things in life, simplicity makes for perfection....
Toast 2 slices of bread for each sandwich you want to prepare. As soon as it pops up in the toaster, liberally spread them with butter. Next spread them with mayonnaise. Salt and pepper gently.
Slice the tomato as thin or as thick as you like, me, I like it medium. Place slice between the two pieces of toast. Cut in half and sit down to the perfect Tomato Sandwich! Ahhhh, simplicity!

Happy 4th of July!

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Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy
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