Aug 5, 2009

You say tomato, I say pomodoro

Nothing says summer quite like ripe, juicy tomatoes. As the warm season hits full swing in the northern hemisphere, the farmer's markets are overflowing with them and my recipe imagination goes skyrocketing.

And so I chop and slice my way to bliss for bruschetta topped with fine tomato salad & basil; beefsteak tomatoes sliced in alternate layers of milky Bufala mozzarella; halved, raw cherry tomatoes tossed with steaming pasta and a dollop of pesto; saucy pizza; Greek salad; tomatoes au gratin; Mexican pico de gallo salsa; 700 different pasta dressings; piquant Bloody Marys; soups... the combinations are boundless.

Let me take you on a walk through my virtual tomato orchard. Bring a sun hat. And a large basket.

Image copyright David Besa

Pomodori {poh MOH doh ree}
Like the potato, bell pepper and eggplant, the tomato is a member of the nightshade family. Although the U.S. Supreme Court declared them a vegetable in 1893, tomatoes are actually a fruit. think about it: they are sweet and grow on a vine. They’re in season from May through October, with some variation depending on location.

The Aztecs called the tasty red fruit xitomatl, meaning 'plump thing with a navel,' which is such a sxy and appopriate name. Later it gained the designation of tomatl by other Mesoamerican peoples. By the time Columbus arrived to the New World, the tomato had made its way up from Peru into Central America and Mexico. The conquistadores carried plants back home from Mexico, but it took some time for pomodori to be accepted in Europe because it was thought that – like various other members of the nightshade family – they were poisonous. Some tomato advocates, however, claimed the fruit had aphrodisiac powers, so tomatoes were also horribly shunned by the Puritans. The Italian name is the fusion of the archaic term "pomo" for apple, and "d’oro," golden. A gilded apple. So as it turns out that the Apple of Discord, star of the epic Judgement of Paris that led to the Trojan War, was nothing but a ripe brandywine.

Thousands of tomato varieties are available today - ranging widely in size, shape and color. You may have only tasted glossy red tomatoes, but the sweet summer orbs come in all shades of crimson, white, yellow, pink, orange, green when fully mature, striped, mottled, fuzzy, brown and shiny deep purple.

Images copyright Gary Ibsen, tomato expert, monger & lover

The larger types of tomatoes include heirloom and beefsteak. Heirloom varieties are very special because their cultivators have saved the seeds and passed them down through generations. They come in a range of measurements and trendy colors too — from the size of a marble to that of a grapefruit, from round to egg-shaped to apple and heart-shaped.

Among the most commonly marketed tomatoes in Italy are the Plum tomatoes (also called "Italian Plums" or “Paste tomatoes”) red or yellow and egg-shaped; they have fewer seeds than other cultivars, making them ideal for sauces.

San Marzano, known abroad as Roma tomatoes, are oblong red or green tomatoes. Also vastly used in the canning industry.

The small Sicilian Pachino variety is olive shaped. Sized 1 inch in diameter and can be red or yellow-gold in color. The distinctive tiny tail-like tip at the bottom and its terrific taste are Pachinos’ trademark.

The Vesuvian tomato is slightly larger than the cherry tomato and resembles a tiny egg. These toothsome tomatoes are grown on the slopes of the Campanian volcano and are among the most delicious tomatoes I have ever tasted.

Another curious tomato cultivar is the Tomate à Farcir, which is hollow on the inside.
Most Italian produce markets sell several other flavorful and larger heirloom tomato varieties. Among the most interesting, the Cuore di Toro, (cousins of the famed oxhearts) literally “bull hearts” due to their size and heart shape. The skin of these large fruits is coral color and very tender, the firm flesh inside has very few seeds and is extremely sweet and best eaten raw.

Striped brandywine-type Pantano tomatoes have an orangey skin with green shoulder stripes. This fruit’s bi-color flesh is a brilliant red with a green center.

tomatoes, similar in shape to purple Calabash pleated tomatoes, have a bright red tough skin and tender flesh, and are shaped and ribbed like a miniature pumpkin. Having a sweet, rich, complex – almost addictive – taste, they are the best fruits to be used for the true Italian fresh tomato sauce recipe.

The most succulent, flavorful tomatoes are those that are “vine-ripened,” usually only available in local produce markets. Unfortunately, these are very perishable, which is why supermarkets almost always carry tomatoes that have been picked green and then ripened with ethylene gas or in special warming rooms. Such tomatoes will never have the texture, aroma and taste of the vine-ripened fruit.
Like when a styrofoam-esque production industry standard shows up on a menu. That for me is the kiss of death for any restaurant. Take one of the worlds most loved foods, and you serve the public something that only barely resembles the real thing? That tells me that the person buying the produce and designing the menu does not think that I, the consumer am worth a few cents more.

As we pick the warm, heavy fruits off the vine, let me tell you some nutrition facts. A medium-sized tomato contains no fat and 3 grams of sugar. They’re an excellent source of antioxidant vitamins A and C, and a good source of potassium, folate, vitamin B6 and thiamin, and contain appreciable amounts of iron and phosphorus. A medium tomato has about as much fiber as a slice of whole-wheat bread, and only about 35 calories. Many nutritionists promote tomatoes because of their high lycopene content. Lycopene is an antioxidant that studies have linked to helping reduce heart disease and cancer risks.

Back to the kitchen, it's getting too hot outside. You begin washing the dirt off the tomatoes. I'll get the chopping board and my good knife out.

I typically buy Casalini heirlooms for sauces, and funky colored tomatoes for special dishes; Pachino or cherry tomatoes by the pint to dip in hummus or slice and toss in a salad. The smaller varieties also work well for vegetable skewers or threaded with white meats for delicious kebabs. Gazpacho is another household favorite, but make sure you use plum tomatoes to have less seeds to deal with.

While roaming your farmer's market for tomatoes, be sure to choose firm, smooth and brightly colored ones without blemishes and bruises. Tomatoes store best at room temperature for several days; your refrigerator’s cold temperature kills the flavor and creates a mealy texture. Never set an unripe pomodoro in the sun either. To ripen up unready tomatoes, simply place them in a paper bag, punch a few small holes in the bag and drop in an apple. Let it sit for several days at room temperature (65° to 75°F). The ethylene gas emitted from the apple will help ripen the tomato.

A few tomato recipes to try:

If you're still curious about tomatoes after reading this, here are some fun links
  • Read an interesting article on heirloom tomatoes here.
  • Find comprehensive and practical on-line information on breeding tomatoes here.
  • Snatch all the tips, info and photos you need to grow your own tomatoes here and here.
  • Learn how to grow tomatoes upside-down here and here.

Tomato Trivia: Every August approximately 40,000 Spaniards gather in Buñol near Valencia to throw one hundred metric tons of over-ripe tomatoes at each other in the annual Tomatina festival. I can just see the bewilderment on the faces of the bare-chested tourists caught in the crossfire. Italy has a similar ancient food fight sister to Tomatina in its yearly Battaglia degli Aranci during the Ivrea carnival, where the ammo is constituted uniquely of ripe oranges.


  1. I'm so jealous! Look at all those beauitful tomatoes. On the way home from work yesterday I bought a few tomatoes, a ball of mozzarella, a loaf of ciabatta, and a bunch of basil. I put together the most delicious sandwich when I got home... adding some olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

  2. what a delicious post!
    Love reading the, learn new things every day! Thanks~
    ps: continue to enjoy the summer & have a delicious day...

  3. tomato sandwiches are a staple of my summer. Although being in the massive tomato battle...that could become a staple as well.

  4. Wow - what a fabulous and comprehensive guide to tomatoes. I loved all the photos and commentary.

  5. I will eat tomatoes every day if I can find decent ones. I planted some heirlooms this year but the yield has been pitiful. I will try the farmers market this afternoon. Fingers crossed.

  6. I love vine-ripened tomatoes best and, yes, they are so nutritious too! Something of a super food!

    Such a lovely & informative post!

    xxxLOL LOLA:)
    PS Thanks so much for the lovely comment at my place. Glad you enjoyed the fun!

  7. What a feast for all the senses. Thanks for the history, the links, the recipes, the rich treatment you provided. Who is the maestra now?

  8. Who knew pomodori could be so fascinating?! You have made a convert of me with this most informative and colourful post! Mille grazie.

  9. It's so weird - I just left a blog with a tomato pie recipe. I guess that means I should share it...
    thanks for the fabulous information and glorious photos :)

  10. What beautiful looking tomatoes .. ahem, I mean Pomodori!

    I even read it all the way to the end :)I love love love eating them - in Caprese, as a Pasta Sauce, on pizza ... mmm ...

    When I first arrived in Italy, I'm surprised to see that there were so many varieties myself :-)

    Just wondering if you have any recommendation on the farmers market there?

  11. I just went to the market this morning and bought some lovely tomatoes.

    I should make some bruschetta this weekend.

  12. Just look at those wonderful are blessed to have in the UK we would be lucky to find them like that..

    They look like tomatoes and I bet they taste and smell like tomatoes should..!! That is why I love Italy and French markets so much..normal looking fruit and veggies!!

  13. Aaah, now there's another sexy fruit. But unfortunately many of the tomatoes one buys here, although they look delicious, are usually completely tasteless because they've been sent over to England from all over the world in refridgerated containers. To pick a tomato warm from the sun and bite into it is an ambrosial delight. Like figs. Figs need to be sun blessed, too.

    Pablo Neruda's poem, Oda al Tomate, says it all, don't you think?

  14. Wait, let me like tomatoes? ;-)

  15. Oh, Lola, I so completely loved this post. You are just a master of the blogging world. ;-)

    BTW... I had your raspberry tart last night, only with blueberries (and I think I cut the butter in half). It was a huge hit. Grazie for the recipe!

  16. Hello Eleonora, I'm here with Claudia, who is so enthusiastic about your blog she had to show it to me the minute I returned from vacation. I must say that we are both drooling over your recipes and fabulous photographs. You do indeed have a fantastic blog! I started a blog about two months ago so I'm still learning. However, if you feel like taking a peek, here's the link:
    Baci e a presto, Celeste
    Eli, I saw it on facebook and it is amazing! I promise I'll write more on my own when I'm back in Madrid at the beginning of September, big kiss, Claudia

  17. What an incredibly saucy tomato post ! I think I'm ready to go take a bath in cool tomato juice after that, it's surely good for the skin ?!? And what gorgeous photos of all these bulging, blushing fruits of the vine... I was practically panting by the time I got to the tomato fight... My goodness, stringing together such a long, intricate, detailed post with all those pictures can only be qualified as a labor of love, because god knows it's not easy to do all the page layout... bravissimo, bravissimo tomato !!!
    ;-D LOL

    PS loved your piece about peaches just below... juicy !

  18. Hello, just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your wonderful post, thank you - I'm really loving your blog too !

  19. Hi Lol

    yes the ones on the vine from the Farmers' Markets outshine all the others, except perhaps the ones I am growing on my deck in pots...

    thanks for the full brimming tomatoey post

    Happy days

  20. I loved this post - I linked to it today. Thank you :)

  21. Hello Lola,
    I'm still catching up on all the posts I've missed from being away from blogging for a month. You outdid yourself with this tomato post! I can smell them. I absolutely love the smell of tomatos on the vine. Wishing you a happy weekend.

  22. Mmmmm.....tomatoes.

    Thank goodness you post info and photos of healthy foods. Otherwise, instead of going to my garden and harvesting fresh veggies inspired by you, I would be feasting on cookies other no-no's.


  23. I think I am even more in love with tomatos now! Beautiful photos.

  24. What a fantastic post about one of my favorite foods. The last picture says it all.

  25. Oh I'd love to throw a few tomatoes at someone - now let me see! - loved the post, Lola as ever. But 100 metric tons!!
    You are always getting covered in fruit or vegetable juice!! ~ your big fan with the flashing lights, Eddie x

  26. I absolutely LOVE tomatoes, and this writing and photos are enticingly mouth-watering! YUM!

  27. I've never seen so many variety of tomatoes in my life like I am now. Lovely pictures!

  28. Great photos and great ode! Check out
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  29. Love, love, love this tomato post and all the photography. You are my kind of girl :)