In the RED Tomatoes: The first few are precious, but the next thousand challenge the culinary imagination.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

You've waited all year for this moment.

Through the winter, while your garden patch slumbered under a quilt of pine straw. Through the spring, when it finally got warm enough to plant a feathery sprout that would surely never get big enough to hold up a butterfly, much less a full-grown Best Boy.

You tapped your knife and loosened the lid on the mayonnaise jar while the yellow blooms appeared and slowly swelled into green Ping-Pong balls.

And then -- is that a patch of red, peeking from the tangle of summer growth? The tomatoes are here, the tomatoes are here!

So you have your few weeks of bliss. The cholesterol splurge, when you allow yourself one perfect tomato sandwich smeared so heavily with mayonnaise that you have to lean over the sink to eat it. The forget-fat weekend when you buy a package of bacon just to revel in a few real BLTs.

But once the initial thrill is gone, tomatoes begin hanging around like weekend guests on a Monday, pressuring you, piling up in the windowsills and along the counters until you've eaten so many salads you can hear lettuce shredding in your sleep.

But before you start hurling tomatoes over the hedges to cope with the bounty, take a moment to reflect on that red water balloon in your hand. That's what it is, you know. About 94 percent of that tomato is water. That's why it cooks down so nicely into sauces and juices.

As to the rest, there's a little bit of sugar in there -- about 5 percent to 6 percent, in the form of glucose and fructose -- and plenty of acid. That means there's a lot of vitamin C -- about 21.6 milligrams in a 4-ounce tomato, or about 40 percent of the recommended daily allowance. There are about 2 grams of fiber, about the same as a slice of whole wheat bread. There's some calcium -- 9 milligrams -- and some potassium -- 255 milligrams. And you get all that for only about 25 calories.

All in all, that's a nice deal, nutritionally speaking.

But how many fruits/vegetables/berries (pick one -- the argument over how to classify a tomato has been going on more than a century) can boast of a whole chapter in history? To reach its comfortable niche in today's cooking, the tomato traveled all around the world.

It originated in South America as a member of the nightshade family, where it was a cousin of eggplants, Irish potatoes and peppers from sweet to hot. Spanish explorers may have picked it up there and taken it home, where it spread to other countries around the Mediterranean.

In those days, according to legend, the tomato wasn't even eaten in Europe. Because of its relation to the deadly nightshade, people thought tomatoes were poison and just grew them as pretty shrubs. But a few adventurous souls gave the tomato a nibble and lived. Then the French got in the act, decided anything that red and voluptuous must surely be an aphrodisiac and dubbed it "pomme d'amour" -- the love apple.

Then the Spanish jumped back in, took the tomato with them to their colonies in the Caribbean, Florida, California and Texas, and the whole thing started working its way back into the New World again.

All of which really just leaves one question: Why is a tomato red? We asked a few scientists and botanists and got lots of long mumbling about a color compound called lycopene and words like antioxidants and chlorophyll. But we finally got the real answer from Colen Wyatt, a tomato breeder with the Petoseed Co. of Woodlawn, Calif.:

"Because they knew spaghetti was going to be white."

There you have it.

This recipe is from "The Kitchen Garden Cookbook," by Sylvia Thompson (Bantam, 1995).

Scalloped tomatoes and corn

Makes about 8 servings

nonstick cooking spray

3 large ears white corn

1 teaspoon dried or 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced

2 cups fresh whole wheat bread crumbs (4 to 8 slices bread)

2 medium onions, chopped

1/2 green pepper, seeded and diced

1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

4 to 6 medium tomatoes (2 pounds), sliced 1/4 inch thick

2 tablespoons mild olive oil

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly spray 9- or 10-inch square baking dish with cooking spray. Cut kernels from corn; set aside. Stir rosemary into bread crumbs; set aside.

Over medium-high heat, saute onions and pepper in hot, dry nonstick skillet until softened, stirring frequently, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in parsley, corn, salt and pepper.

Spread 1/3 of bread crumbs in baking dish. Top with layer of tomato slices, trimming to fit as needed, then top tomatoes with half of vegetable mixture. Repeat layers, using remainder of vegetable mixture. Finish with final layer of bread crumbs and top with remaining tomato slices. Drizzle with olive oil. Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until heated through. Serve hot or warm.

If you've never tried green tomatoes, this rich quiche, from "Tomato Imperative!" by Sharon Nimtz and Ruth Cousineau (Little, Brown and Co., 1994), is a revelation: They are tart and crispy, a perfect match with smooth cheese and earthy leeks.

Green tomato quiche

Makes 8 to 10 servings

1 recipe Italian butter pastry (directions below)

4 ounces or 3 slices thick-cut bacon, cut in 1/4 -inch strips

2 cups coarsely chopped leeks or spring onions, washed well

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

1 teaspoon salt, divided

L 8 ounces (1 large or 2 medium) green tomatoes, sliced thinly

pepper to taste

1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk

3/4 cup heavy cream

1 cup (3 ounces) shredded Gruyere cheese, divided

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Roll out crust and fit into 10-inch tart pan. Line with foil and weight with dry beans or rice. Bake about 7 minutes, until set. Carefully remove foil, prick crust with fork, and bake 10 minutes, until bottom is lightly browned. Let cool while you make filling. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees.

Fry bacon pieces until almost crisp, remove from pan and drain on paper towel. Discard all but 1 tablespoon fat from pan. Add leeks or spring onions, thyme, 1/2 teaspoon salt and bacon. Cover and cook over low heat about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes in a layer and a few grinds of pepper. Cover and allow mixture to sweat over low heat about 5 minutes. Uncover, remove from heat and let vegetables cool slightly.

Lightly beat egg and yolk together with cream and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Sprinkle half the cheese over pie crust, add vegetables and pour egg mixture over. Top with remaining cheese and bake 25 to 30 minutes or until custard is set. Cool 5 minutes and serve warm.

Italian butter pastry: In food processor with metal blade, combine 1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, 1 tablespoon sugar and 1/2 teaspoon salt and pulse to blend. Add 10 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut in pieces. Pulse until mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Pour 1/3 cup very cold water into bowl. Process just until dough begins to come together. Gather dough into ball, wrap in waxed paper or plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour.

Also from "Tomato Imperative!":

Tomato upside-down corn bread

Makes 10 wedges

TOPPING:

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 teaspoon dried or 1 tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped, divided

2 cloves minced garlic

2 large ripe tomatoes, cored and thinly sliced

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

BATTER:

1 cup yellow cornmeal

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, or to taste

1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced

1 clove minced garlic

1 small onion, minced

1/2 cup grated Cheddar cheese

1 egg

1 cup milk

1/3 cup vegetable oil

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Place 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat. When heated, add oil. Sprinkle with half the oregano and 2 cloves minced garlic (adjust heat so garlic doesn't brown), then arrange tomatoes in a spiral of overlapping slices to cover bottom of pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium-low and heat tomatoes while you prepare batter.

Combine cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and pepper in mixing bowl. Add jalapeno, garlic, onion, remaining oregano and cheese and toss. In small bowl, whisk together egg, milk and oil and stir into dry ingredients.

Remove skillet from heat and carefully dot batter over tomatoes, smoothing and filling without disturbing them. Place in oven and bake 30 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.

Using as many pot holders as necessary, carefully place large plate over skillet and flip. Let pan rest over bread on plate for 15 minutes before serving. Remove pan, replacing any topping that sticks to it, and serve at once.

Roma rings

These rings make a colorful and unusual appetizer, but make sure you keep them very cold while serving so the cream cheese filling stays firm. The ingredient list looks long, but many items are things you probably have on hand and you can omit or add virtually anything to suit your taste. This is from "The Tomato Cookbook," by Roy F. Guste Jr. (Pelican Publishing, 1995).

Roma tomato rings stuffed with cream cheese

Makes about 2 to 3 dozen

3/4 cup cream cheese, softened

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce, or to taste

1 teaspoon bell pepper, minced

1 teaspoon celery, minced

1 teaspoon green onion, minced

1 teaspoon pimiento, minced

1 teaspoon parsley, minced

1 teaspoon capers, minced

1 teaspoon green olives, minced

1 teaspoon anchovy paste

6 to 8 ripe Roma (or plum) tomatoes

additional capers, pimiento or olive slices for garnish (optional)

In bowl, thoroughly combine cream cheese and all other ingredients except tomatoes. Cover and chill in refrigerator.

Cut out stems from tomatoes and use handle of long teaspoon to scrape seeds out of chambers, keeping tomato's interior ribs intact. Discard seeds.

Stir cream cheese mixture to loosen it a bit and spoon into pastry bag fitted with filling tip. (If you don't have a pastry bag, you can fill tomatoes using teaspoon.) Before filling tomatoes, empty any liquid that has pooled inside them. Then fill using spoon or pastry bag, making sure tomatoes are completely full and there are no air pockets. Cover and refrigerate.

Just before serving, slice tomatoes into 1/2 -inch-thick rounds using a very sharp knife dipped in water. Garnish each slice if desired with caper, pimiento or olive slice.

Tuscan bread

This traditional Tuscan bread and vegetable salad, from "Vegetables on the Side," by Sallie Y. Williams (Macmillan, 1995), has many variations. If you don't have any stale Italian bread, place several slices on the counter 8 hours or overnight to dry out.

Panzanella

Makes 6 to 8 servings

4 (1-inch-thick) slices stale Italian sourdough bread

3 large ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped

1 large cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded and coarsely chopped

6 to 8 green onions, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced

2 cloves minced garlic

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus additional for serving

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil or oregano (optional)

Soak bread in ice water 30 seconds to 1 minute. Squeeze out as much water as possible and tear wet bread into bite-size pieces.

In large salad bowl, toss bread with tomatoes, cucumber, green onions and garlic. Sprinkle salad with vinegar. Pour 1/3 cup olive oil over all and toss. Season well with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with basil or oregano if using. Let salad stand at least 1 hour and up to 4 hours. The bread should soak up the juices from the tomatoes, along with the oil. Toss again just before serving.

Serve with additional olive oil and pass a pepper mill with the salad.

This variation on cold tomato salad from "Tomato Imperative!" gets a sweet touch from the brown sugar and balsamic vinegar.

Marinated red onion and tomato salad

Makes 6 servings

1/2 to 1 cup sliced red onion

4 large ripe tomatoes (about 1 1/2 pounds), cored and cut in quarters or eighths

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1/2 teaspoon salt

freshly ground pepper

1/4 cup good, fruity olive oil

1 tablespoon minced fresh basil

Toss all ingredients together in large glass bowl. Cover and let marinate several hours at room temperature, tossing occasionally to blend flavors.

Refrigerate leftovers.

Easy sauce

You want no-cook, no-fuss? Throw this sauce together and let it sit 30 minutes, then serve it over cooked pasta or just put out a bowl with crusty bread to sop up the juices. Customize it with the optional additions or anything else that strikes your fancy. It's from "The Enchanted Broccoli Forest," by Mollie Katzen (1995, Ten Speed Press).

Marinated tomato sauce

Makes 6 to 8 servings

2 to 3 pounds ripe tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 large clove garlic, minced

3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 to 2 tablespoons red wine or balsamic vinegar

12 to 15 leaves fresh basil, minced

freshly ground black pepper

OPTIONAL ADDITIONS:

1/2 pound fresh mozzarella, in small cubes

1/2 cup or so Nicoise olives

1/2 cup finely minced red onion

1/2 cup minced fresh parsley

1 to 2 tablespoons minced anchovies

1 to 2 tablespoons capers

3 to 4 tablespoons lightly toasted pine nuts

Peel, core and seed tomatoes. (Peeling and seeding isn't necessary if using small tomatoes.) Coarsely chop them and place in medium-large bowl. Add remaining ingredients and stir gently. Cover and let marinate at room temperature at least 30 minutes. Refrigerate until serving time, then serve at room temperature.

Movie food

OK, OK, thanks to Hollywood, fried green tomatoes are pretty much a requirement in summer. Most recipes break down into schools: cracker crumbs vs. cornmeal, fried in vegetable oil vs. browned in butter. We combined versions from "Tomato Imperative!" and "The Tomato Cookbook," to get the best of all worlds.

Fried green tomatoes

(Makes about 4 servings)

4 medium unripe tomatoes, just tinged with pink

2 eggs

2 tablespoons milk

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon salt

freshly ground pepper

1 cup crushed saltine cracker crumbs

2 to 4 tablespoons olive oil

2 to 4 tablespoons butter

Lemon wedges (optional)

These are best hot, so wait until just before serving to make them. Cut tomatoes into thick slices, discarding ends. In shallow bowl, beat eggs lightly with milk, cayenne pepper, salt and pepper. Place cracker crumbs in second bowl.

In heavy skillet, combine 2 tablespoons each olive oil and butter over medium-high heat until butter is melted. Dip 4 or 5 tomato slices in egg mixture, then in cracker crumbs, patting to coat completely with crumbs. Place in hot oil-butter mixture. Adjusting heat to keep butter from getting too brown, fry until tomato slices are golden brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels and repeat with remaining tomato slices, adding more butter and oil if necessary or starting over with a new batch if it gets too browned.

Serve tomatoes hot with lemon wedges.

Anyway you slice it ...

We all know the No. 1 tomato rule: Never refrigerate one until it is completely ripe, and maybe not even then. Nothing kills tomato flavor like cold. Now that we have that straight, let's move on to a few other tomato basics:

* To peel a tomato, drop it in boiling water, count to 20, then fish it out. Drop it in ice water or just rinse it under cold running water until it is cool. The skin will peel off easily. Or pierce a tomato with a large cooking fork and hold it over a gas flame, turning continuously, for 30 seconds or so, just until the skin starts to split.

* Seed tomatoes by slicing them in half horizontally (think of it as a globe and cut through the equator) and, squeezing gently, brush off the seeds and jelly. Use your finger or a spoon handle to coax out stragglers.

* Think "north to south" when slicing a tomato. Use a serrated knife and slice from the stem end to the blossom end, and you'll get slices that will hold their shape better and seep less juice.

* To dry tomatoes, slice Roma or plum tomatoes in half, gently squeeze out the seeds and juice and lay them on racks set over pans. Place the pans in the oven on its lowest temperature -- in a gas oven, the pilot light may be sufficient -- and prop the door open an inch or two to let moisture escape (a wooden spoon handle works well). After several hours, remove dry ones, leaving the rest to continue drying (it may take overnight). If the tomatoes are completely dry, they can be stored in a jar in a cool, dark place; if you're not sure, store in the freezer. Or layer the tomatoes with fresh herbs, cover with olive oil and refrigerate.

* Tomatoes, particularly Romas, also freeze well. Skin Romas and pack them whole into zip-type plastic bags to use throughout the winter. Or skin, seed and chop larger tomatoes, cook down into tomato sauce and freeze in resealable plastic bags.

Pub Date: 8/28/96

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
37°