Tomatoes - A Southern Summer Staple For me, big red juicy tomatoes mark the summer season like few other vegetables. As many of you know, my family farmed in the Mississippi Delta for many decades. On the farm growing up, we always had land set aside for growing southern staples for the family, the employees and the surrounding community. The rich soil of the Mississippi Delta is a perfect environment for beautiful tomatoes. Each year from July through September they were a part of breakfast, lunch and dinner. Tomato season is something I look forward to every year. I know I’m not alone. I have a childhood friend that lives out West that says tomatoes are one of the things that he misses most about home. That’s a pretty strong sentiment that speaks volumes about the quality of our Southern produce and its importance in our lives whether we realize it or not. But are tomatoes a vegetable or are they a fruit? Both actually. You see, botanically they are a fruit (or more accurately a berry) as they contain seeds. But nutritionally they are a vegetable. In the culinary world, they are certainly treated as a vegetable and used in savory dishes. I mean have you ever heard of tomato ice cream or chocolate dipped tomatoes? Now I have made a pretty good tomato sorbet if I do say so myself. But I serve it as a compliment to a savory dish and not as a dessert. Probably the most widely grown fruit/vegetable in the world, there are over 7000 varieties of tomatoes with new hybrids being introduced constantly. Tomatoes come in all shapes, sizes and colors. But this is after centuries of cultivation throughout the world. Tomatoes started out much smaller and yellow in color. Like the potato, the tomato is thought to have originated in South America, and been discovered by Spanish explorers who almost certainly introduced them to Europe. Tomatoes and potatoes share other characteristics as well. They are both members of the nightshade family and as such were originally distrusted by 16th century Europeans. Indeed the leaves of both plants are poisonous. Of course both have long since been embraced around the world for their sensational taste and nutritional quality. One other interesting and little known factoid is that both contain nicotine as do all members of the nightshade family like green peppers, eggplants and of course, tobacco. Maybe that’s why they’re so popular. But many people are avoiding tomatoes this summer because of the salmonella outbreak. At press time, the Centers for Disease Control has reported 1065 cases in 42 states since April of this year. I hate to even think about how much money has been plowed under this season. After all, the USA is second only to China in tomato production putting out 11 million tons a year. But here in the Mid-South we are lucky. Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas are NOT associated with the outbreak and our tomatoes have been deemed safe by the governmental powers that be. Yet another argument for supporting local farmers. For up-to-date information on this outbreak you can go to www.fda.gov/oc/opacom/hottopics/tomatoes.html. Not only is it the longest domain name in the history of the world-wide web, but is also a very informative site that is much more straight forward than its’ name would suggest. The bottom line is that there is absolutely no reason for any of us to miss out on one of summer’s healthiest and most delicious treats.
Tomatoes are very nutritious. Although exact nutritional breakdown varies with variety, in general tomatoes are composed of 93-95% water, have very few calories and negligible fat. They are an excellent source of Vitamins A, C and K, and, when eaten raw, they are an excellent source of Vitamin E. Tomatoes also contain Potassium, Calcium and many other beneficial minerals. The fiber content is typically 1.5 %. But the nutrient that has gotten the most buzz for tomatoes in recent years is Lycopene. Lycopene is a carotenoid shown to have extraordinary antioxidant properties that may help reduce many cancers as well as heart disease. In order to get the most lycopene out of tomatoes, you must eat the skin. You also need to eat a little fat with your lycopene as it is a fat-soluble nutrient. So go ahead and eat that slice of buffalo mozzarella with your tomato and calories be damned! For good measure, drizzle it with some good olive oil, too. Going organic also helps. I know of at least one study that has shown that organic ketchup (my all-time favorite condiment) contains 3 times as much lycopene as regular leading brands. It would seem to me that the same rationale would apply to all tomato products. Nothing earth shattering here, just another argument to buy and use fresh organic food. It tastes better and is better for you. If you must buy canned tomato products, I do recommend buying products made in the USA. Not only will you leave a smaller environmental footprint, but also it is safer. Not all foreign countries have as strict a standard for lead content in packaging. This is especially important when you consider the acid content in tomatoes. It is just as important to avoid cooking acidic foods like tomatoes in aluminum as they will leach this metal into your food. Not good. This acidic quality is what makes tomatoes ideal for pairing with and bringing out the flavor of other food. Food 101: For example, the Caprese is a classic salad in which the creaminess of the cheese is complimented by the acidity of the tomato and the floral quality of the basil. Their natural acidity also makes tomatoes the perfect candidates for preserving by canning as sauce, paste or chutney. While all tomatoes contain acid, the degree of acidity is determined by variety. Let’s talk about varieties. As I mentioned earlier, there are thousands of varieties of tomatoes as hybrids are constantly being introduced. Hybrid tomatoes are scientifically bred from at least two parent tomatoes, which possess desirable characteristics such as disease resistance and color with the aim of producing a tomato that combines both features. “Heirloom” tomatoes have become very popular in the past few years. “Heirloom” is a loosely used term that refers to varieties that have been 1) passed down in families for generations; 2) openpollinated varieties introduced before 1940; or 3) varieties than have been in circulation for more than 50 years. Unlike hybrids, the seeds produced from heirloom tomatoes will produce the same fruiting characteristics of the parent plant. These old varieties have unique genetic traits and are resistant to pests and disease. For the past few decades, we have lost many small family farms in this country and with them many varieties of heirloom plants. This is a dangerous trend because we are losing genetic diversity with each variety that disappears. It’s genetic diversity that protects us from devastating crop failures due to epidemics and pest infestations. Does the Irish potato famine ring a bell? We can all do our part to fight this genetic erosion by supporting small local farms that practice good stewardship of the earth. Or try growing your own. I’m talking about food here. This year Cindy and I have tried “Tigerella” for the first time.
Tigerella is a visually gorgeous fruit. It has greenish-yellow and orange stripes on a dark red background, which is largely lost on ripening. We are also growing a few cherry varieties. I was really excited about the “Italian Ice” which is a hybrid that is supposed to go from green to white and be very sweet. Ours have not turned white yet. Patience is not my greatest virtue. The “Black Pearl” plant has done better. Also a cherry, it was our first plant to produce and it is quite prolific. Very satisfying. The “Chadwick” is an heirloom cherry that is a bright red with a tangy flavor. We don’t have the room or the time to grow enough tomatoes to support the restaurant so 2-3 times a week I visit Miss Clara of Peach World out at the farmers market at the agricenter. Miss Clara and her husband Wayne have a 123-acre farm about an hour from Memphis. About 10 of those acres are planted with 60,000 tomato plants. Peach World grows five different varieties, but Miss Clara says her favorites are “Brandywines” and “Bradleys” because they remind her of childhood when she would eat them right off of the vine like an apple. The “Brandywine” was developed here in America by Amish farmers in the latter half of the 19th century. They are large, reddish-pink in color and noted for their succulent rich flavor. It has a good balance of sweetness and acidity. The “Bradley” is a local favorite released in 1961 at the University of Arkansas. They usually ripen at the same time making them good candidates for canning and freezing. I think the best way to appreciate tomatoes at the peak of freshness is with a little salt and pepper-no cooking required. But canning at the end of the season is the best way to preserve that little taste of summer to enjoy in countless ways throughout the year. Home canning is very easy and inexpensive to do, but it is important to follow a few basic rules to ensure food safety. There are plenty of books and websites devoted to this subject, but a few basics include using a deep enough saucepot with a rack to keep jars at least ½ inch above the pot bottom, and a tight-fitting cover. The canner should be deep enough so that the rim is at least 4-inches above the tops of the jars and large enough that the jars do not touch the sides or one another. When canning tomatoes, use only firm ripe ones. Overripe fruit lose acidity as they mature and acid balance is very important when canning. Tomatoes can be canned safely at the temperature of boiling water (212-degrees F). Use only tempered glass jars specifically made for home canning. Use only the lids that come with the jars. Each package of caps and jars should come with directions for their proper use. Do not re-use the caps. Buy new each time. I would not keep home canned foods for more than a year. When shopping for tomatoes, look for tomatoes without bruises. That is not to say you should look for flawless tomatoes. As a matter of act, a good rule of thumb when choosing heirlooms is “the uglier, the better.” Miss Clara really said it best, “Tomatoes are like people. The ones that are perfect on the outside are not always the sweetest. It’s really what’s on the inside that counts.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Tomato Sauce Tomato sauce is one of the five mother sauces. The others are béchamel, espagnole, velouté and hollandaise. These are the basic sauces that have been
manipulated with various ingredients to make literally thousands of other sauces. If you can make a really good tomato sauce, you will be a star in the kitchen. While this recipe is involved, especially if you make your own stock, it is certainly worth the effort. Your sauce is only as good as your stock.
Ingredients: 1.25 oz. salt pork (rather than fat), diced small 1.5 oz. dice carrots 1.5 oz. dice onion 1 bay leaf + 1 sprig of thyme 1.25 oz. all purpose flour .5 oz unsalted butter pinch of salt and pepper .25 oz sugar 2.5 lbs. fresh tomatoes or 1 qt. canned .5 qts. White stock (chicken stock may be substituted) 1 clove crushed garlic
Melt the butter over medium-high heat in a heavy bottom saucepan. Fry pork until it is nearly melted. Add carrots and onions. Cook, stirring the vegetables occasionally for about 5 minutes. Add the flour and cook until the flour begins to brown. Add tomatoes and the white stock and mix together well. Set to boil. When a boil is reached, add seasonings and garlic clove. Cover and place in a pre-heated 300-degree oven. Cook for 90 minutes, stirring occasionally. Strain sauce into another pot and bring the strained sauce back to a boil. Makes one quart.
2 lbs. veal bones (preferably knuckle bones) Fresh veal trimmings 1 uncooked fowl skeleton 3 oz. carrots 1.5 oz. clove-studded onion 1.75 qts. cold water 1.5 oz. leeks (white part only) .5 Tablespoon Black Peppercorns Bouquet garni (parsley, bay leaf and thyme)
Break up veal bones if possible, place in large pot and cover with cold water. Bring it to about 180 degrees and strain to blanch the bones. Cover bones again with cold water and heat to a simmer. Skim the impurities and then add the remaining ingredients. Continue to cook at a low simmer. Skim off the impurities often. Strain stock into another saucepan and add meat trimmings, vegetables and carcass, adding water if necessary to keep at 1.5-2 qts. Simmer for 3 hours, skimming as necessary. In my opinion, smell is the best indicator that a stock is ready. Strain through a fine mesh strainer and refrigerate until ready to use.
Fried Green Tomatoes
I like to serve my FGTs with a good crab or shrimp salad and remoulade sauce.have also served them as part of a vertical BLT salad at Stella.
4 green tomatoes sliced ¼” – ½” thick 1 cup each of Japanese bread crumbs, cornflour and all purpose flour, combined 4 eggs 1 cup milk ½ cup water
Whisk together eggs, milk and water in a medium bowl. Dip tomato slices in the breadcrumb mixture, and then into the wet mixture then back into the dry mixture. Make sure that tomatoes are well coated. Deep fry or pan fry tomatoes at 350-degrees until they are golden brown - about 2 minutes per side.
Tip: During the dipping process, keep one hand wet and one hand dry so that your hands don’t get battered.