The story of tomatoes is somewhat of an American love story.
You know me as pure warm-weather joy. You know that when you eat me whole like a fruit (that’s what I am!), I’ll burst all over your shirt if you don’t slurp carefully. What you might not know is that while I feel like an ancient human pleasure, I spread through the world only in the past few centuries, embedding myself in cuisines from Armenia to Nigeria. And the origin story that led me to you is especially twisting.
Let’s start in what is now Italy, in the 17th century. I was transported there from Mexico by the Spaniards, having traveled to the Middle East and North Africa before racing up the peninsula. Italy was just a puzzle of disparate states then. By the time the nation was forming in the 1860s, I had blossomed into a symbol of unification: the red in the Italian flag that would sit alongside basil (green) and mozzarella (white) in any number of patriotic dishes, from caprese salad to pizza margherita.
Millions of Italians then streamed across the Atlantic, fleeing poverty in Naples and Sicily, and I went with them. In the home country, every little corner of Italy had its signature cooking style. But in America, these differences got all mixed up. Few of the dishes you call Italian—spaghetti with meatballs, chicken Parm, Sunday gravy—were traditions in Italy. They arose instead from the creative minds and hands of these immigrants making do with what they had in their new home. And what brought it together into a single splatter was yours truly, mostly in the form of red sauce.
This culinary bonding wouldn’t have been possible without my canned form. I’m far too seasonal and perishable to supply so many stockpots of sauce year-round without preservation. Once the 1930s rolled in, California was canning more of me than were being imported from Italy. In 1914, a northern Italian teenager named Boiardi arrived and quickly established himself as a successful restaurateur in Cleveland. But he discovered that canning his tomato puree and selling it bundled with dried spaghetti and a canister of cheese was the real meal ticket. Chef “Boyardee” became one of America’s first celebrity chefs.
I am good for more than just your taste buds. Your skin benefits from my abundant lycopene, the carotenoid that gives me my red color. (People whose diets are high in lycopene are actually thought to be a smidge more protected from the sun’s UV rays.) Your eyes feast on my lutein, a retina-supporting antioxidant. You may have heard that tomatoes and my nightshade brethren are bad for rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune disorders, but no studies have established such a connection, and in fact, doctors recommend a diet high in the nutrients that we “shady” fruits offer.
How can you enjoy me at my best? Some basics: Tomatoes that are fleshier—such as those oblong plum tomatoes you’ll find at the supermarket—are better for making sauce, while tomatoes that are seedier—such as the round, medium-sized Jersey and beefsteak varieties—are better for eating raw. That assumes I’m in season and truly ripe. And let me put it to you straight: It’s not worth bothering with most tomatoes off-season.
See, just after I’ve hit my moment of flavorful perfection, the downward spiral is precipitous: I go from ready to rotten practically overnight. This, of course, is terrible for large-scale agriculture and shipping, so big farmers typically breed me for robustness, not flavor, and pick me early so I can withstand long journeys by truck, train, and boat. They expose me to ethylene gas to turn my green-pink color red, but that does little for how I taste. That said, if it’s wintertime and you’re hard up for a “love apple,” as I’m called in some languages, cherry and grape tomatoes tend to be better options. They’re less prone to breaking down or being damaged under their own weight during shipping. They also have a higher ratio of seed jelly to flesh, which means more flavor, even when I’m underripe.
There are tricks for improving a mediocre tomato. Halve me and roast me in a low-temp oven, 300 degrees or so, to remove moisture and concentrate any flavor that is there. This can work for salsa or in a tomato sauce. You can also try dicing me and using a fine mesh strainer to extract my excess water, concentrating the tomatoey flavor left behind to improve your guac.
A summer me picked locally and close to my prime avoids all that rigmarole. Heirloom varieties will remind you that I am sometimes purple, yellow, orange, whitish-yellow, or even green when fully ripe, and can be egg-shaped, heart-shaped, or elongated with ridges that make me look as pleated as a dress. Once at home, store me stem-side down, since moisture loss (which hastens rot) happens via my stem. Conventional wisdom is to never refrigerate a tomato, but I would offer a different edict: Do not refrigerate an underripe tomato. A fully ripe one is far better off in the fridge, where it will hold decay at bay longer than it would on your countertop. Give me a few minutes to warm back up before eating—you won’t regret it, even if your shirt suffers a little seedy summertime juice.
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Cut or tear ½ pound rustic crust-on bread into 1.5-inch pieces. Arrange in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and toast in a 325°F oven, turning occasionally, until dried and crispy throughout. In a large salad bowl, toss bread with 1.5 pounds diced tomatoes and their juices (use any kind except fleshy sauce tomatoes, such as plum), 2 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar, ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, a handful of torn basil leaves, and half of a medium red onion, thinly sliced. If desired, add peeled and sliced cucumbers. Season with salt and pepper.