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Tomato tips and tasty recipes


"Did Grandpa grow these tomatoes?" they would ask, their little arms folded resolutely over their salad plates. They may have been only 3 and 5 years old, but my daughters were already confirmed lovers of homegrown tomatoes.

"Are you sure these aren't the yucky tomatoes from the market?" they would demand. Blindfolded, they could tell the difference.

Few folks would disagree. Homegrown, vine-ripened tomatoes taste better than store-bought. According to the February issue of Well-Living Magazine, a survey done by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that measured consumer satisfaction with 31 common grocery items reported that commercially grown fresh tomatoes rated dead last.

Eye appeal rather than taste seems to be the criterion for judging commercially grown tomatoes. The USDA standards are based on size, color and texture -- no mention of taste. More often than not, store-bought tomatoes are picked hard-as-a-rock green so that they will survive shipping and storage.

When you buy them, don't refrigerate these salmon-colored beauties. Instead, place them in indirect sunlight for two to five days until they are red-ripe.

But even at best, they can't measure up to a vine-ripened tomato still warm from the heat of the sun.

Sliced, quartered or diced, tomatoes picked fresh from your back yard will enhance your summertime meals. Here are some quick serving tips and recipes:

* For a simple salad, alternate slices of red and yellow tomatoes on a serving platter. Drizzle on balsamic vinegar, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish with shredded fresh basil.

* Hollow out cherry tomatoes with the small end of a melon-baller (a device for scooping out melons in spherical shapes). Fill with cream cheese that has been whipped with minced fresh tarragon (alternatives: fresh dill or basil) and minced proscuitto (a dry-cured Italian ham).

* Make tabbouleh by soaking fine bulgur (cracked wheat) according to package directions until fluffy. Squeeze out water and stir in plenty of chopped, seeded tomatoes, fresh chopped mint, olive oil and lemon juice.

* Make a quick topping for grilled fish or chicken by combining seeded and chopped tomatoes, chopped red bell peppers, chopped onion and quartered fresh mushrooms. Saute until cooked through and liquid from mushrooms has evaporated. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Make bacon and tomato sandwiches--heavy on the tomatoes and light on the bacon. Add sliced avocado if desired.

Onion and Fresh Tomato Tarts

6 tablespoons olive oil

8 cups very thinly sliced Spanish onions (about 2 pounds)

All-purpose flour, for dusting work surface

8 ounces frozen puff pastry, defrosted according to package directions

4 to 6 vine-ripened plum tomatoes (or medium-sized tomato of choice)

Garnish: sprigs of fresh thyme

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet or jelly-roll pan with parchment paper.

Heat olive oil in a large non-stick pan or skillet using medium-high heat. Add onions and cook to a deep golden brown, stirring often to prevent burning (this will take approximately 30 to 40 minutes); set aside.

Dust clean work surface with flour. Roll out puff pastry to a thickness of one-eighth-inch. Cut out four 4 1/2 -inch circles and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet.

Place a four-inch tartlett tin in center of each circle of pastry. Place another baking sheet on top. This is done so that as the puff pastry bakes, it creates a large "cup," which you will later stuff with the browned onions.

Bake pastry in preheated 400-degree oven for 15 minutes or until golden brown.

Place cooked puff pastry shells on individual serving plates. Divide onions and place on top of pastry, spreading to cover the bottom. Overlap thin layers of tomatoes in a circular pattern around top of onions.

Garnish with fresh thyme and serve immediately.

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