Highlights of Tomatoes
I wanted to write this week about tomatoes because most people tell me they like to add tomatoes to their salad. When I was younger, I used to watch NBC- New York and there was a segment on the news where a man would come on and talk about different types of produce. His name was "Produce Pete" and every week or so, he would pick a fruit or vegetable and talk about it. He would tell the audience how to pick out that particular produce (what to look for, how to tell if it was ripe, etc) and general information and tips on the produce. I loved it. I thought it was so cool and informative (OK- writing this now, I realize how nerdy I truly am that I think a produce segment is cool). It inspired me to do something similar. I realize the dressing is what really puts a salad over the edge from good to extraordinary, but if you are starting off with mediocre produce, well, the result isn't going to be a fabulous salad. Let's get to know a little bit more about tomatoes this week.
In doing my research for this article, I have come to learn that there are over 20,000 different varieties of tomatoes in the world! The USDA ranks the United States as second top producer of the world's tomatoes- just after China and of the tomatoes we produce, about 90% are used in processed tomato products (ketchup and salsa for examples). 1
According to Megan Splawn, an author for the website Kitchen, you want to "Look for tomatoes that have a deep, consistent coloring. Yellow or green patches on red tomatoes are an indicator that the tomatoes were ripened off the vine — a practice of tomato growers who pick green tomatoes, which are easier to pack and ship but may compromise flavor." Ms. Splawn also advises to pick up the tomato and notice the weight- it should feel heavy for its size and should have a sweet, earthy smell. 2 In addition, the skin should be smooth, and the tomatoes plump and free of bruises, deep cracks and blemishes.
Fully ripe tomatoes are soft and yield to the touch; buy them only if you plan to use them immediately. Overripe tomatoes, provided they are not moldy or rotting, are perfect for making sauce, and even briefly cooking fresh tomatoes releases their lycopene. Choose whatever size tomatoes are appropriate for your intended use.3 One article I read said that size has no bearing on flavor, texture, or quality, however I disagree with that because I personally find the grape tomatoes to be a little bit sweeter than the larger varieties or cherry. 3 Some of the various types of tomatoes include Beefsteak, Cherry, Current, Grape, Heirloom, Plum (aka Roma or Italian), pear (aka Teardrop). Any variety can be used in salads, either cut up if large, or used whole if small.
The red varieties of tomatoes contain a substance called lycopene (you may have heard of it), but the yellow or other colored tomatoes do not have it. Lycopene is a phytochemical found in red fruits and vegetables and is a type of antioxidant and a carotenoid. It is thought to have various health benefits such as protection against types of cancers and heart disease, although I believe more clinical testing needs to be done on this to say with absolute certainty this is the case. Tomatoes are also high in vitamin C, beta carotein (which forms vitamin A in your body), B vitamins, potassium, and contain small amounts of calcium and vitamin K. 4
Tomatoes should be stored at room temperature, as cold inhibits ripening as well as diminishes the taste! Stem side up or stem side down? I've seen different websites recommend different storage variations, but American's Test Kitchen website does a good job of addressing that question: "You might have heard not to store tomatoes upside-down because the “shoulders” (the area around the stem scar) are delicate and susceptible to bruising. If you’re worried about that, America’s Test Kitchen has a solution: Place a piece of tape over the stem scar. They found it worked as well as storing tomatoes upside down." 5
I personally like to use grape tomatoes in my salads- in particular the red and yellow varieties. The yellow tend to have a "mellower" taste in my opinion to the red, but both are delicious and can provide a colorful contrast to the green leaves of spinach or arugula. My family and I like that they are bite size and my son Nicholas and I tend to just snack on them plain.
The location of where tomatoes are grown is another indicator of quality. As expected, California is the top producer of tomatoes, but my home state of New Jersey makes the top 10 list of tomato producers (if you are curious to see the list, see source number 6). I am lucky, because locally grown tomatoes tend to be vine ripened which means they can be less expensive and often taste better. Whatever variety of tomato you like to use either plain, in cooking or in your salad, I hope these tips will help you in making your selection.