The Good Cook's Book of Tomatoes is the sequel to Michele Anna Jordan's book, The Good Cook's Book of Mustard. As with all the books in this series, Michele not only expresses her passion for the topic, but details the background and nature of each food. This is tomato season, and we are pleased to share our appreciation for the summer's bounty with Michele's definitive look at this most versatile ingredient, including a whole range of recipes to further inspire you.
by Michele Anna Jordan
Can anyone deny the compelling pleasure of a summer tomato plucked right from the vine, still warm from the sun, eaten right there in the garden? Oblivious to spurts of seeds and dripping juices, we are at one with nature as we devour our juicy morsel. Has anything ever tasted better?
Perhaps because tomatoes are the most stubborn agricultural product, they are also one of the most esteemed. The tomato refuses to bend to our will, and thus a well-grown tomato bursting with flavor remains evocative of its season like few other fruits or vegetables.
There is enthusiastic consensus about what constitutes a good tomato. It is heavy in the hand with a pleasing, pungent aroma. Its thin skin comes off easily should we peel it. If we cut it, it yields willingly beneath a sharp blade, without pressure or sawing. Once sliced, its flesh shines and small seed pockets glisten with thick gel. It feels silky to the tongue and tastes both sweet and acidic. Our tomato offers uncomplicated sensual pleasure and gastronomic satisfaction. For most people in the United States, it has become astonishingly hard to come by. Consumers' single greatest culinary lament is over the difficulty of finding tomatoes "like they used to taste", tomatoes of what is usually called backyard quality.
There is little disagreement as to how to achieve a perfect tomato: grow them yourself. Follow a few simple rules and end up with a daunting abundance of great tomatoes, much to your neighbors' delight. Everyone agrees that tomatoes must ripen on their vines; that they should be eaten soon after picking, and that they must not be refrigerated. Backyard gardeners achieve success with ease and satisfaction. Why then, has a good tomato become so hard to come by in a store? It is the very act of getting the little thing to the store at a price consumers will pay that has diminished the pleasure the tomato once offered. For decades, scientists and farmers have experimented endlessly to find a commercial tomato that will deliver backyard flavor. Success has been limited, in spite of the ultimately simple solution to the dilemma: Let the tomatoes ripen on the vine.
Yet commercial tomatoes continue to be picked green. They never really ripen but simply turn red with the application of ethylene gas. The abuse is increased, not that it makes much difference, during refrigerated transportation and cold storage which renders the flesh mealy. The result is an insult to both the fruit itself and the person eating it. Farmers markets are increasingly available in all parts of the country, offering beautiful, flavorful tomatoes in season, but the majority of Americans still rely on major markets for most of their shopping. Nearly every supermarket in the country features mounds of pale, mushy tomatoes. Why do they continue to sell in such numbers? Are those of us with tastebuds that recall the tomato's true pleasure really in such small numbers? Is it our distance from the seasons, the fact that we refuse to accept the fresh tomato as a seasonal creature, that we demand it in January just as we crave it in July? Everyone complains, but still those suspect tomatoes sell.
Here's my advice: Understand the nature of the tomato as a seasonal creature. Grow it or buy it at farmers markets, celebrate it, but as the days grow cold and the true tomato disappears, shun the substitutes that appear in the marketplace. Look instead to your pantry shelves and preserved tomatoes, and let the fire of longing build until finally, there it will be next summer, the true tomato, tasting all the better because we've had to wait so long. A tomato belongs to summer, and I say let's leave it there and preserve what we can in our freezers, dehydrators, and canning kettles to warm us through the winter months.
Copyright 1996 by Michele Anna Jordan, author of The Good Cook's Book of Tomatoes. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Check out Michele Anna Jordan's latest book: The World Is a Kitchen: Cooking Your Way Through Culture
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