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Tomato Trivia & Tips

Did you know the tomato was once called the "Apple of Paradise"? I fully understand the reason why since one of the most tempting treats in life is a ripe, just plucked from the vine and still warm from the sun, summer garden tomato.

Add just a sprinkling of sea salt and I'm in heaven. This, in my opinion, is truly one of life's simplest pleasures. Of course, there's no need to wait until this fruit of paradise ripens to enjoy it, because there's always fried green tomatoes or a baked green tomato pie to delight the taste buds!

There's almost an endless variety of tomatoes available to us, from the tiniest cherry tomatoes to giant beefsteaks, to even a pear-shaped yellow tomato. Tomatoes are rich in vitamins A and C, calcium and iron, with homegrown tomatoes having nearly twice as much of these nutrients as commercially-grown tomatoes. Studies have also found tomatoes to be rich in an anti-oxidant called lycopene, a compound that protects cells from oxidants that have been linked to cancer.

So what can you do with a bounty harvest of summer garden tomatoes other than canning them? Here are 10 delicious ideas suggested by Laurann Claridge, renowned chef and Food Talk columnist for the Houston Chronicle, that are practically guaranteed to please the tomato lover in all of us.

1. For a Rustic Tomato Sauce: chop Roma or Plum tomatoes--skin, seeds and all--toss with lots of extra virgin olive oil, fresh chopped garlic, sea salt, and freshly ground pepper. Cook over medium heat until the tomatoes have broken down and softened quite a bit, about 10 minutes. Toss with hot cooked pasta and fresh basil. Serve with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, if desired.

2. Make the Classic Summer Soup: Gazpacho: Use copious amounts of tomatoes along with garlic, a yellow bell pepper, an onion chopped, cucumber, some wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and tomato juice. Leave some vegetables chunky and purée others with tomato juice. Serve with crostini, toasted bread slices spread with butter, olive oil and rubbed with garlic.

3. Start off the Meal with a Crostini: Grill thick slices of sourdough bread or a rustic country loaf then brush with extra virgin olive oil. Meanwhile, toss chopped fresh Roma tomatoes with minced kalamata olives and fresh oregano. Season with freshly ground pepper and, if you desire, fresh or roasted garlic, finely chopped. Serve atop grilled bread.

4. Slice a Ripe Beefsteak Tomato: Into pieces about 1/3-inch thick, season with fleur de sel (a gray tinged sea salt available at gourmet stores) and freshly ground black pepper. Top with homemade blue cheese dressing.

5. Vary the Classic BLT: Using challah or brioche bread thickly slice then toast bread. Layer with mayonnaise, (flavored with basil, garlic or red pepper if you wish) seasoned tomatoes and applewood smoked bacon. Or try sourdough bread, toasted and layered with mayo, bacon, butter lettuce, seasoned tomatoes, and avocados. (Of course, by seasoned I mean seasoned to taste with salt -- preferably sea salt -- and freshly ground black pepper.)

6. Of Course, We Can't Forget the Classic Tomato Meal: A grilled cheese sandwich made with gooey melted American cheese and served along side a steaming cup of fresh tomato soup.

7. Speaking of Tomato Soup: Making that standby cream of tomato soup is a cinch. Start by cooking down Roma tomatoes, skin, seeds and all with some chopped yellow onions and a lump of unsalted butter. Cook 10 to 15 minutes depending on the amount of tomatoes you're cooking. Add heavy cream or half-and-half. If you need to thin it out add vegetable or chicken stock. Season to taste with salt, freshly ground pepper and, if desired, a pinch of sugar. Purée then strain soup. Last, if desired add freshly torn basil or mint leaves.

8. Make Salsa: Chop garden fresh red, yellow, and even orange hued tomatoes. Then add finely minced red onion, jalapeño peppers to taste, fresh squeezed lime juice and fresh chopped cilantro leaves to tomato mixture. Season with salt and pepper and serve with warm tortilla chips or alongside grilled fish fillets.

9. Make a Cool Pasta Salad: Cook pasta, drain, and while it's still very warm toss with chopped and seeded Roma tomatoes, olives and crumbled ricotta salata cheese. Add extra virgin olive oil and red wine or balsamic vinegar to taste. Season with salt and pepper. Cool then serve.

10. Oven Dried Tomatoes: If you have more tomatoes on your hands than you can ever possibly eat stockpile some for a rainy day by oven drying them. Start with plum or Roma tomatoes, cored and cut in half lengthwise. Sprinkle them, cut side up with kosher salt. Let sit 1 hour. Then bake the tomatoes in a preheated 250°F (120°C) oven for 5 to 6 hours or until they are almost dry yet still slightly soft and plump. To store layer in a jar or freezer bag with extra virgin olive oil and refrigerate or freeze.

Top Tomato Tips:

To enjoy fresh tomatoes at their peak of flavor, use when fully ripe. Ripe tomatoes should be completely red, reddish-orange or even a bright yellow, depending on variety. They will have a sweet, subtle aroma and will give slightly to gentle palm pressure.

When purchasing, select tomatoes at various degrees of ripeness and store them at room temperature stem-side down in a basket or bowl on your kitchen counter or table. The tomatoes will continue to ripen, improving both their flavor and texture. Use the ripest fruit first, just as your do with bananas and avocados.

Never refrigerate a tomato that is not fully red or ripe! Cold temperatures destroy flavor and stop the ripening process. Once fully ripe, a tomato can be refrigerated, but only for a few days; any longer results in flavor deterioration.

To hasten ripening, place fresh tomatoes in a brown paper bag with an apple. The apple gives off a natural gas called ethylene. This gas speeds up the ripening process.

Recipes using fresh tomatoes:

Article by Hope Cantil. Copyright © Hope Cantil; property of

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