Friday, August 19, 2005

You say 'tomato,' I say 'great'

Food for Thought by Gregory Foley


Gregory Foley

What's not to like about tomatoes? The sight of plump, red tomatoes hanging on the vine, ripe for picking, conjures up a world of possibilities. They're not only robust and colorful, they are astoundingly versatile.

They can be eaten raw, stewed, sautéed, baked, broiled or slow-cooked into savory sauces. In preparation, they can be sliced, diced, stuffed, dried or crushed, or even puréed for soups.

The tomato is a fruit, although most cultures tend to treat it as a vegetable. It is believed to have originated on the west coast of South America—it was once called the Peruvian apple. Over time, it migrated to Central America, where Mayan and other cultures used it in their cooking. Eventually, it was cultivated in southern Mexico, and the round, beefy tomatoes we know today started to evolve.

The Spanish, after conquering parts of the New World, introduced the tomato to the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and Asia proper. They also brought it to Europe, where cultivation began in the 1500s, when it slowly, over decades and centuries, started to make its way into dishes across the continent. The French called it the "love apple," while the Italians called it "pomodoro," or "golden apple," because the first tomatoes there were small, yellow fruits.

Today, a seemingly endless variety of tomatoes are eaten around the world. They are particularly prevalent in the cuisines of Italy and other Mediterranean countries. Most people are familiar with the varieties of globe tomatoes, the large fruits perfect for slicing, but cherry, plum and yellow tomatoes are also used widely.

Large, everyday red tomatoes are very good cooked but are considered best when sliced or cut up for summer salads. Cherry tomatoes, small and round, come in both red and yellow varieties, with red considered the more flavorful of the two. Plum tomatoes are sturdy and impart a rich, robust flavor, making them ideal for cooking, as in sauces. The majority of plum tomatoes sold in the United States are an Italian variety called Roma.

The tomato is an acidic food that marries well with just about anything, from cheese, bread and pasta to meats, herbs and vegetables. A plate of sliced tomatoes with fresh mozzarella and basil makes an untouchable summer appetizer. And cooked, tomatoes can take the driver's seat—as with a simple marinara sauce—or can be employed as an enhancement, as with a classic ratatouille.

Tomatoes are not only tasty, they are high in lycopene, an antioxidant that is believed to help fight off a variety of ailments, including prostate cancer.

Buying top-quality tomatoes can be a challenge. They are best when purchased fresh from farm stands or markets that sell local produce. They should be firm but not hard. The skin should be deeply colored, tight and unblemished. Once in hand, they must be treated with care and stored properly; refrigeration will, essentially, kill them.

The number of tomato recipes in circulation just might exceed the number of stars in the night sky. When I'm challenged to produce a tomato dish that few have ever tried, I use this recipe for a classic tomato crisp, a tasty side dish that is an evolution of scalloped potatoes.

Tomato Crisp

1 9-by-13-by-2 pan
4 Tbs. butter
1 loaf French bread, sliced 1/4-inch thick
About 2.5 pounds tomatoes, thinly sliced
6 Tbs. olive oil
1 tsp. salt
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1 Tbs. sugar
1 tsp. pepper
1 English muffin, lightly toasted and crumbled
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Combine the salt, parsley, sugar and pepper into a seasoning mix. Line the bottom of the pan with half of the bread slices. Cover with half of the tomato slices and half of the oil and seasonings. Layer the second half of bread, tomatoes, oil and seasonings. Dot with the butter. Mix the finely crumbled muffin and cheese, preferably in a food processor. Sprinkle the mixture on top of the tomatoes.

Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 45 minutes. Cover lightly with foil to prevent over-browning and bake an additional 15 minutes. Serves 6 to 8.

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