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You say tomato

May 11, 2009 - Jenn Lucas
Cooked or raw fresh or canned, the culinary possibilities of tomatoes are almost endless. The backbone of Italian cooking, the tomato is probably one of the most versatile vegetables, sorry fruits, out there. Whether being enjoyed fresh from the garden with a little salt or in a zesty, slow-cooked marinara, tomatoes, especially this time of year, are a cheap, sweet treat that can be modified to fit even the most finicky pallet.

Available year round, tomatoes are now hitting their peak in Florida. There are hundreds of types of tomatoes, from the flavorful heirlooms varieties to the almost bland Roma. But the softball-sized beefsteak, the most commonly found variety in the area, is a subtle-tasting variety that can adapt nicely to most dishes.

I was thrilled when I moved down south and found tomato slices as a side dish in a number of restaurants. My mom and grandmother would serve them as a side, but I never saw it as an option on a menu until I dined at Rib City. Though most places serve the tomatoes naked, one place, Jimmy’s Pink Cadillac near the beach, spices it up with olive oil, salt, pepper and Italian seasoning. I wait patiently for Sunday mornings (off-season, of course) to head to Jimmy’s wonderfully-priced brunch buffet and make a bee line past the tempting roasts, breakfast items and pastries to fill up my plate with tomatoes — then if I have room left, head on to the other tempting items.

But back to the tomato.

One of the biggest problems when trying to cook with tomatoes is that pesky skin. No matter how long or slow one may cook them, the skin always remains tough and can ruin a pasta sauce. The best way to get around this problem is using canned tomatoes. Picked at the peak of perfection, canned tomatoes and already skinned and are every bit as good as fresh ones for cooking. Most companies even do more work for you. I recently tried a fire-roasted can of tomatoes, which yielded a deep flavor to some chili I threw together. I try to stay away though from the flavored varieties, like garlic or basil, finding it’s much easier and tastier to add flavoring while cooking. If you absolutely must use fresh tomatoes for a cooked dish, the best way to alleviate the peel problem is to poach the tomato in simmering water for 10 minutes or so and the peels will come right off.

For enjoying fresh tomatoes, the possibilities are almost endless. They can be chopped and used in salsa (see recipe below), brushetta, or a tomato salad. They can be sliced and added to any sandwich or used as a sandwich itself (try tomato, American cheese and mayo on white bread). And what would a BLT by without the “T.”

Tomatoes make a great pizza topping or can be the star when used to make a cool gazpacho. They are used for a base in countless soups, stews and chili and tomato juice is a tasty, healthy drink on its own or used to bite the hair of the dog in a bloody mary. Another recipe I picked over the years involves cold whole-wheat pasta mixed with chopped tomatoes, basil, balsamic vinegarette and some shaved Parm – that’s a good dinner when the temperature outside just doesn’t lend itself to cooking.

Nutrition Lycopene, a seemingly new nutritional buzz word, has become synonymous with tomatoes. So much so, one of America’s best-selling ketchup brands, Heinz, even changed its bottle’s logo from a pickle to a tomato. Besides providing this nutrient that has been proven in helping prevent some cancers, tomatoes deliver a juicy punch in addition to keeping your body healthy. Tomatoes are also a good source of source of vitamin C.

Now is the time best time to buy a bushel of beefsteaks and start dreaming up your own tomato dreams. Or just sit back on your lanai with a saltshaker and just enjoy the freshness of a garden gem.

Homemade Salsa

You can adjust the recipe to make as little or as much as you need – this version makes about two cups. Also, feel free to adjust the amount of jalapenos (or use the seeds and rib, which contain most of the pepper’s heat) based on your preferences. I would label this version as “mild” if I were to sell it.

4 beefsteak tomatoes

1 clove of garlic, minced

1 sweet onion (Florida sweet onion is best if you can find it)

2 jalapenos, seeds and ribs removed

Handful of cilantro

Juice of one lime

Salt

Pepper

Chop tomatoes, onion, cilantro and jalapenos. Mix in minced garlic. Squeeze lime juice over mixture, season with salt and pepper. Place the salsa in the fridge for at least two hours to let the flavors develop. Enjoy with tortilla chips, on a baked potato or even over eggs.

 
 

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