General Description: The tomato (Lycopersicon lycopersicum) is a member of the nightshade family. The tomato is native to the Americas and was cultivated by the Aztecs and Incas as early as a.d. 700. Tomatoes were unknown outside of the New World until the Spanish brought them back to Europe in the 16th century. The English word “tomato” comes from the original Aztec name, tomatl. Tomatoes once enjoyed a reputation as a powerful aphrodisiac, especially in France, while people in other countries believed them to be deadly poisonous.

Tomatoes come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. Many famed local tomato varieties (like Jersey tomatoes) require tender loving care. Because of their thin skins and plentiful juices, they are prone to splitting and bruising. Sometimes you’ll notice “cat-facing,” dark streaks radiating from the stem end of the tomato, a result of cold mornings.

Tomatoes were the first genetically engineered food approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Scientists have altered the ripening gene in tomato seeds named “Flavr Savrs.” These tomatoes ripen on the vine longer and remain firm enough to ship cross-country.

Old-fashioned (or heirloom) tomatoes are open-pollinated varieties that self-fertilize. If you save seeds of an open-pollinated variety, the plants you get will vary, but they’ll all be basically similar. These old varieties are the product of natural and human selection.

Some heirloom tomatoes to look for are brilliant yellow Taxi tomatoes, green grape tomatoes, fuzzy, pink-blushed peach tomatoes, red and orange-streaked pineapple or tigerella tomatoes, green and red-striped Mr. Stripy’s, and the green-skinned, green-fleshed Evergreen tomato. The White Queen reigns as the best white tomato while the Black Krim, actually a brownish purple, is an old variety from Crimea. Pink Brandywine, red Brandywine, and Amish paste tomato are old Pennsylvania varieties. Sicilian plums have dense flesh, ideal for homemade tomato paste. Red and yellow currant tomatoes are tiny and ruby or golden, and make cherry tomatoes look big. Sweet 100s are a cherry tomato that grows in cascading clusters of sweet fruit. Yellow tomatoes are lower in acid than red, making them more digestible for people with acid intolerance.

Modern tomato varieties, such as the Burpee Big Boy, came about through controlled laboratory experimentation and manipulation of plant genetics. These plant hybrids won’t self-fertilize. (If you save and plant their seeds, you’ll get a mixed bag of results.) Beefsteak tomatoes are large and oblate, and weigh more than 1 pound so that one can cut big, thick, juicy slices the size and color of a steak.

Hothouse tomatoes now represent nearly one-fourth of the retail fresh tomato market in the U.S. Canada has led the development of the hothouse tomato industry. Israel and the Netherlands are also major exporters of hothouse tomatoes, often sold in bunches still on the vine.

Season: Tomatoes are available year-round. However, locally grown vine-ripened tomatoes are in season from July until October.

Purchase: Look for firm, fully colored, plump tomatoes.

Avoid: Pale, unripe, spotted, or refrigerator-chilled tomatoes will be unpalatable.

Storage: Tomatoes are vulnerable and must be treated gently. Ripen tomatoes by sitting them stem-side down. Because this is the last part of the tomato to ripen, it can best support the weight of a ripe tomato without collapsing. Don’t refrigerate tomatoes.


  1. Gently wash the tomato in cool water.
  2. Remove the core when dicing or slicing.

Note: You do not have to do much to prepare a tomato. You don’t have to peel thin-skinned round tomatoes, but plum tomatoes have thick skins that can be unpleasant unless peeled. To peel, drop them whole into a large pot of boiling water. Check after two minutes. The tomatoes are ready when the skin slides easily over their flesh. Remove the tomatoes from the pot, drop into a large bowl of ice water to stop the cooking, and then slip off their skins. The riper the tomato, the easier it is to peel.

Serving Suggestions: Oven-roast plum tomatoes by splitting them lengthwise, combining with olive oil, garlic, oregano, basil, thyme, kosher salt, and black pepper, then baking at 225°F for 4 to 5 hours or until shriveled and semidry, and add to pasta, sandwiches, and eggs. Add sliced tomatoes to sandwiches or hamburgers. Add tomato wedges to vegetable salads. Cook tomatoes into tomato sauces or tomato jam.

*Flavor Affinities: Basil, blue cheese, cucumbers, feta, fish, garlic, leeks, mint, mozzarella, onion, oregano, pasta, poultry, ricotta, shellfish, stir-fries, veal.

from Quirk Books: