Tomatoes are an obsession for many people, and we're heading right into tomato season. I plan to feature a few favorite tomato recipes in the coming weeks (including the best salsa ever) so I thought I'd get a little head start now. Print this recipe and pull it out the first time you see local tomatoes at the market.
The more I thought about this post, the more I realized that I have a lot to say about tomatoes. The Lawyer and I had a community garden plot for years where we grew almost 30 different varieties of tomatoes, mostly heirloom varieties. We read tomato catalogs. We attended tomato tastings at a local hobby farm. We deliberately grew every color of tomato available to see how they tasted. So, you can see why I consider myself somewhat of a tomato expert. Here are a few of the things I learned along the way.
1. Heirloom tomatoes taste best. They look funny, they're fussy to grow, and they don't transport well so you'll only find them at local farmers markets. But the taste is far superior to the nice round, red tomatoes that were engineered to look good and transport over distances. Be aware that not all tomatoes at a farmers market are heirlooms. Heirlooms are almost always labeled as such and have funny names like Green Zebra and Mortgage Lifter. If in doubt, ask. They're probably going to be more expensive than non-heirloom varieties because they're not nearly as prolific (one heirloom vine may produce 5-6 tomatoes compared to 20-30 on a normal tomato plant) but they're SO worth it.
2. The darker the heirloom tomato, the better the taste. Green, orange, pink, yellow and striped tomatoes look cool but they don't have much taste. Deep red and black tomatoes taste best. (Black tomatoes aren't really black but they're darker than red tomatoes - see below).
3. Heirloom tomatoes need to be eaten as soon as they're ripe because they can over-ripen quickly. By the way, did you know that you should never refrigerate a tomato? It ruins the taste and texture. That goes for any tomatoes, not just heirlooms.
4. The reason why a lot of recipes specify Roma tomatoes is beause they have less water/seeds and more meat than regular tomatoes so they aren't as watery in a sauce or salsa. But they don't have the best flavor for eating raw.
So what are the very best tomato varieties in terms of taste? In my humble opinion, three stand out. Two black tomato varieties - Purple Cherokee and Black Russian - are excellent. I think the picture above was a Black Russian I found last year at the farmers market. But the holy grail for many tomato fanatics (including me) is Brandywine - a very large, deep red, lumpy variety that's quite difficult to grow and just about the least prolific variety that exists. I've always had fond memories of fresh tomatoes that a neighbor used to bring over when I was a kid. The taste seemed so spectacular in my memory compared to anything I've had since then, that I wondered if I was remembering it wrong. Then we grew Brandywine and with the first bite I knew it was the exact same taste as in my childhood. I guess that food memories can lie dormant for a long time and then be recalled with clarity, much like aromas or music, when you encounter them again.
If you're at a farmers market and happen to see any of these three varieties, buy them immediately and go straight home and eat them. These are not the type of tomatoes you make into salsa or spaghetti sauce, these are premium eating tomatoes. Or put them on a sandwich. How's that for a segue?
Tomato olive melts are a lot like tuna melts but with olive spread instead of tuna. This is one of my oldest recipes (I have no idea where I found it) and it was originally called "Crostini" and positioned as an appetizer. The crunchy toasted bread contrasts with the rich olive spread, oozy cheese, and fresh tomatoes to make a classic combination. We liked them so much that we decided they could be a light meal - just add a green salad on the side. Or add an egg on the top and they would make a fabulous breakfast. If you wanted to serve them as an appetizer just use smaller bread or cut them in half. Any way you serve them, they're absolutely delicious and simple enough that each element really stands out, which is why they need the best tomatoes you can find.
One last thought about olive spread. The original recipe called it "olivada". I've also seen it labeled "bruschetta", "olive pate", and "tapenade". Basically it's finely chopped kalamata olives with olive oil and a little vinegar. You can also find green olive or even artichoke varieties. They're in jars in the olive section of your store.
* * click here for a printable recipe * *
Tomato Olive Melts
Makes 16 pieces
16 slices ½” thick Italian bread
¼ cup olive oil
1/3 black olive tapenade (paste)
½ lb. fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into 16 ¼” thick slices
½ lb. fresh tomatoes, cut into 16 ¼” slices
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 400d. Brush one side of the bread slices with some of the olive oil and arrange on a baking sheet oiled side up. Bake until lightly browned and crusty, about 4 minutes.
Spread the olive tapenade on each toast, cover each with a slice of mozzarella and top with a slice of tomato. Brush the tomatoes with the remaining olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake until the cheese is melted, about 8 to 10 minutes. Serve at once.