Saturday, May 26, 2007

In Praise of early season Italian Tomatoes


Costoluto Fiorentino, San Marzano, Sardinian Dulcore or majore, these are just a few of my favorite things!
With unusually hot temperatures this past week, my mind started trotting out my simpler renditions of summer meals. Returning home from the market the other day, it was just too hot to have much of anything else other than a simple tomato salad. Making my way thru the market I kept finding different offerings of tomatoes to tempt me, so I gave in and just kept adding on a few more. I ended up with a nice combination, that when cut up and mixed together with fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil, balsamic or herbed vinegar,and add a pinch of salt, there is not much to compare to this divine treat. Refreshing and satisfying. This time of year I am always looking for the last of the Sardinian varieties of tomatoes. These small round somewhat green little gems are just such a nice blend of sweetness with an edge of tart, that I mourn them when they're finished for the season. Once the summer rolls on the gigantic "Cuore di Bue"( heart of the ox ) tomato varieties dominate the season which is fine, as they are wonderfully delicious as well. It's just that in the late winter and spring, there is such a variety of smaller tasty tomatoes from further south whose subtlety of flavor makes then worth seeking them out. I started noticing that tomatoes in the markets here were always greener than what usually passed my tomato ripeness gauge for purchasing. I found that Italians generally eat their tomatoes on the green to firmer side than what I was use to selecting. Once they hit the fully ripened stage, they are considered way past their prime salad time and ready to become passata, food milled tomato sauce. It took me awhile to acclimatize my taste buds as I conjured up the flavors of my childhood summers of eating enormously juicy "big boy and girl" varieties of beefsteak tomatoes right off the vine apples. We had an ivy covered screened in back porch that housed the extra refrigerator which for part of the summer became almost exclusively the tomato refrigerator and cool refuge from the muggy heat of a southern summer day.
I started to take on a new level of appreciation for greener tomatoes as the texture is interesting and all the flavor is still there even when green and firm. Green tomatoes used to mean the fried variety type, but here I started to select tomatoes on a whole new level of interest. It just took my brain a while to catch up with the shift of awareness. I was so conditioned to by passing tomatoes in the super markets as they were hard, and tasteless that I had almost given up on eating fresh tomatoes except for a few short weeks in the summer when we finally started getting ripe tomatoes in the Colorado high country from the western slopes of Colorado where the sun is kind to the fruit and produce and lucky I felt when they found their way to my kitchen. My "aha" moment came to me when I had first arrived in Europe to work a few years ago and I was living in a hotel in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia. I was making my way around the salad bar buffet in the hotel and debating on whether to try the tomatoes or not. Having worked in banqueting for the masses, at high altitude(9,000-1o,000 ft) for 12 years, I was conditioned not to expect much from the salad bar, let alone the tomatoes. Nothing compared to my childhood vegetables. I selected a few tomato slices with trepidation as I don't like to waste food, but tasteless tomatoes leave me cold, way cold. That heady tomato aroma and and first bite into luscious juicy goodness, surprised, thrilled and transported me back to a place where the vegetables were flavorful and plentiful. I almost cried out in surprise with joy. I knew then and there that I wouldn't be able to live with out easy access to food that tastes genuine. I went back for more, more and well, yes, just a few more. So when you're shopping around your farmer's market this summer, try to find some Italian varieties of tomatoes or at least some heirloom varieties and pick a few greener than what you might think you would normally and have a go. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.
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