Since my last column highlighting the “wolf peach” or Solanum lycopersicum was more than a decade ago, it’s time to highlight the versatility of the love apple or everyday tomato. Though it goes by several aliases, tomato is derived from the Aztec tomatl or “the swelling fruit.” When you think about it, a tomato does seem a little like a fruit swollen with liquid seeds, described by the late George Carlin as “still in the larval stage,” due to the gelatinous appearance of the seeds.
And yes, because a tomato is simply an “ovary” for seeds, it is classified botanically as a fruit.
As Simple As It Gets
There are fewer culinary delights than a vine ripened tomato adorned simply with a little sea salt and a splash of extra virgin olive oil or a couple of drops of aceto balsamico. Of course, it’s simpler said than done, as vine ripened tomatoes are truly “swelling fruits,” as described by the Aztecs, making transportation a little sketchy. So unless you’re growing your own crop, most of the tomatoes you consume are picked before optimum ripeness, including those heirloom variety at your local farmer’s market, as even those farmers have to transport their fragile crops.
However, even those heirloom varieties picked early and sold at farmer’s markets or even your neighborhood supermarket are leagues above your average run-of-the-mill supermarket tomatoes that were mainly bred for easy transport, usually without any consideration for flavor characteristics. A good alternative to the heirloom variety of tomatoes are the grape, cherry or miniature varieties, as their smaller size makes them less prone to rupture and they are sweeter than the average supermarket tomato.
Solar Powered Tomatoes
Though most of the dried varieties of tomato go by the generic name, sun-dried tomatoes, I’m pretty sure that most are not dried for hours in the sun. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the last rays of sunshine seen by the tomato was when it was still on the vine, and that the drying occurs in large commercial dehydrators. While drying concentrates the flavors in tomatoes, it also changes the flavor to a cross between tomato and raisin … if there is such a thing.
While the flavor does change a little, it still imparts a tomato flavor, albeit a little richer flavor. And instead of trying to create my own, I simply purchase those large bottles from the big box stores with the dried tomatoes soaked in olive oil. After shaking off as much oil as possible, I blitz the dried tomatoes in a food processor to create a finely minced dried tomato “paste.” Sometimes I simply spread the dried tomato “paste” with cream cheese on a bagel for a simply vegetarian bagel sandwich. Sometimes I’ll blitz the dried tomatoes with Niçoise olives, capers and a little anchovy paste for a tomato tapenade as a spicier sandwich or bagel spread. Or sometimes, I’ll simply mix the tomato “paste” with Worcestershire sauce and mayonnaise for a spiced mayo with sandwiches (it’s great with smoked brisket sandwiches).
Not Quite Dried Tomatoes
Many years ago, while sampling the Menu Dégustation at La Mer in the Halekulani hotel, one dish included a piece of tomato confit. It was a bite sized piece of tomato that simply appeared to be skinned and seeded, but the flavor was a food epiphany. Imagine the sweet flavor of the best vine ripened tomato magnified five to tenfold, and of course I had to try to re-create it! But how? Confit usually refers to a protein cooked in its own fat at very low temperatures. Tomatoes don’t have fat, or at least very little fat, mainly in the seeds. I could have asked La Mer’s chef at the time but he only spoke French … and probably wouldn’t have divulged his secret anyway. Then I finally came across a recipe by that French Laundry master, Thomas Keller. After peeling then halving Roma tomatoes lengthwise, he simply added a little salt, fresh thyme and olive oil and baked them no higher than 250 degrees for several hours. OK, it’s not the same as that first experience at La Mer, but it’s still pretty tasty and perfect for a variation of the traditional Caprese salad with tomato, mozzarella and basil. Except, I serve mine on crostini with basil pesto and these low-and-slow roasted tomatoes.
Tomato Cocktail, Anyone?
Several years ago, a good friend hosted a dinner featuring tomatoes in every course. The one caveat was that no guest was allowed to bring any food to the dinner. Share a bottle of wine? Fine, but no food.
So I created my Tomato Water Martini. Hey, it’s not food, it’s a cocktail. I first purchased several pounds of heirloom tomatoes and roughly chopped them, then added it to a food processor. I then added a little smoked salt and several fresh basil leaves and then blitzed it to a puree. I then placed a fine mesh strainer over a large bowl and poured the puree in the strainer, covered it with plastic wrap and refrigerated it overnight to let the liquids strain out of the solids. This refrigerated tomato “water” was then mixed with Square One basil-infused vodka, two parts tomato water and one part vodka. I adorned a shot glass with a fresh cherry tomato and basil leaf. Hey, I didn’t bring any food …
Of course, I also made a tomato tapenade palmier using my recipe for tomato tapenade and spread it over a sheet of puff pastry (purchased in the freezer section of a supermarket then thawed in the refrigerator) and gently rolled each side until they met in the middle. After using a scant bit of egg wash to make sure the two rolled section sealed in the middle, cut across into one-fourth inch slices and baked until golden brown. Yes, this is food, but I explained to the host that it wasn’t meant to serve with his culinary creations for the evening but was simply a “chef’s snack” while he finalized his dinner prep.
And lastly, I also made a Spiced Tomato Cake to serve after dinner. But once again, I argued that it wasn’t food. It was dessert which is distinctly in its own class. For instance, when you were a child and you mother told you to finish your food at dinner, if you reached for that “Twinkie” or Little Debbie snack, she would have slapped you upside your head! “That’s not food, that’s dessert?” So, I rested my case …
Tomato Spice Cake
2 and 1/4 cups cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1 cup Italian stewed tomatoes reduced to sauce
1/2 cup grated carrot with moisture squeezed out
1 cup granulated sugar
9 slices of dried tomato rehydrated by simmering in equal parts of sugar and water for 15 to 25 minutes
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease and flour an 8” or 9” square cake pan. Mix the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl then add stewed tomatoes and grated carrots to dry ingredients and mix until well incorporated. Add eggs to mixture one at a time beating well after each addition then stir in granulated sugar and mix until just combined. Pour into the greased and floured cake pan and bake for 35 to 40 minutes. Cut into thirds — nine equal squares then garnish each piece with the candied dried tomato slice.
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.