I adore tomatoes. So this weekend, I was in heaven when I bought a big container of them at the local farmers’ market. I’ve already used half of the tomatoes, in salads and on sandwiches. They’re incredibly delicious and healthy - full of Vitamin C and not a bad source of Vitamin A - and they weren’t expensive.
Here are my 6 tips for finding and enjoying great tomatoes at reasonable prices :
- Buy in season. Summer is tomato season in the mid-Atlantic US. Of course, the time and length of the season varies, depending on which region you live in. Don’t bother with out-of-season tomatoes, unless you are looking for paperweights or table art.
- Buy local, preferably at farmers’ markets. I almost never buy tomatoes at grocery stores anymore. Why? Besides the considerable problems with tomato farmworkers’ condition and pay, I have a self-interested reason too – the taste. Mass-produced tomatoes are as durable as rubber balls and no more tasty. If you want to know why, check out Barry Estabrook’s superb book, Tomatoland. Typically, grocery store tomatoes are raised on industrial-size farms. They have been bred for durability and ease of packing for their long journeys to market, sprayed with chemicals, and marketed without regard to their taste – or lack thereof. I’d rather buy from a farmer or vendor who has raised the crop for taste, minimized or eliminated the pesticides, and transported it a relatively short distance.
- Don’t judge a tomato by its cover. Some of the best-tasting tomatoes are not perfectly round or even symmetrical. The better test (than how it looks) is how the tomato smells. A wonderful, fragrant “tomatoey” smell portends a delicious taste. If the tomato has no smell, it is not likely to taste like much.
- Save money by finding a farmer/vendor who will sell you “seconds” that don’t look perfect, but will taste just fine. My pal Anthony from Hickory Farms helps me to stretch my food dollars and I help him by buying vegetables that some shoppers won’t buy because of their appearance and small blemishes. This weekend, he sold me a combination of unblemished, top-grade tomatoes at full price and a bunch at discount that have small defects I can cut away. I use the seconds for recipes that use chopped or cooked tomatoes.
- Keep tomatoes in a cool place, but not refrigerated. (They lose aroma if refrigerated.) If you do have to refrigerate them, bring them to room temperature before using them. Do not pile them in a bowl – it leads to mold and soft spots. Instead, store them spread out on a platter.
- Let fabulous tomatoes shine. There are many ways to take advantage of beautiful, ripe tomatoes, without going to much fuss. They should be the stars of the show. One of my simple tomato-centered favorites is a tomato salad, plain (just oil, vinegar, a bit of chopped basil and salt and pepper) or with fresh mozzarella slices.
On Wednesday, we’ll do a quick tomato-based salad that my Romanian-born grandfather called Greek salad. Happy eating!