First, let’s talk about what makes a really great tomato (or any other ingredient).
We often think of cooking as a process of adding flavor to simple ingredients, to render them more delicious. But when it comes to flavor, the “cooking” really begins in the farmer’s field, with the genetic makeup of the plant.
Some tomatoes can have an incredible amount of flavor. I’ve eaten tomatoes that teased my senses with suggestions of rose petals, fresh grass, citrus, green apple, even vanilla.
Others, not so much. A typical supermarket tomato may look large and red, but it can taste like a watermelon rind.
That’s because typical supermarket tomatoes are bred for yield, shelf appeal, and transportability—that’s what makes commercial sense. Consumer demand for tomatoes is year-round, so what do you do in mid-winter New England? You ask Florida to grow rock-hard tomatoes for you. At the altar of commerce, flavor is the first sacrifice.
But you may have heard the terms “local” and “in-season.” They may sound like buzzwords, but we are talking about something very real here: the difference between those two tomatoes.
A local tomato does not have to travel very far—usually a couple hundred miles at most—to the nearest farmer’s market. That means the farmer can prioritize juicy flavor over durability.
And in order to not come from very far, it has to be summertime in your region—tomatoes are not designed for winter (though greenhouses are changing that). The perfect tomato is most reliably found in-season.
Now that you know what those words mean, where do you find a tomato that fits the bill?
Try a farmer’s market. LocalHarvest.org has an exhaustive list of ones all over the USA. Or, if your area has a Whole Foods, Wegman’s, etc, they should have quality tomatoes!
Once you’re there, peruse the stalls. Look for bright, deep colors—but don’t just limit yourself to red. There are yellows, greens, deep burgandys, and almost blacks. There are also gnarled looking heirlooms with their funny pits and crags. Don’t judge based on appearances alone—those can be the tastiest of all.
Also, don’t be afraid to handle the tomatoes—but gently! Use your fingertips to lightly press the tomato to check its juiciness. It should feel firm—neither rock-hard nor squishy. And use your nose to smell the tomato. They should smell like a garden.
Just this once, let price be no deterrent. A good tomato can cost as much as $4. But consider how much you pay for an appetizer at a mediocre restaurant. A good tomato will transcend all that.
Now that you’ve taken your perfect tomato home (taking great care not to squish it), let’s eat it!
You will need a knife, cutting board, and some kind of serving equipment. The rest is entirely up to you. Just remember to keep it simple, and to go slowly.
Today we have a special guest here to show us how it’s done: Nikki Sylianteng, who has perfected the art of eating carefully. Watch the video to see how she does it.
Nikki’s favorite way to enjoy tomatoes is with a couple dashes of fish sauce. If you have that in your cupboard, try it! Otherwise, here are some other seasoning suggestions:
Again, the key is to keep it simple and really let the flavor of the tomato shine.
Some tips for maximum enjoyment of your perfect tomato: