Each January, we find ourselves looking at the pitiful excuse for tomatoes in the produce section of the supermarket, and pining for the plump, juicy treasures still warm from the mid-day sun sliced and sandwiched between two slices of bread. Since their cultivation by the Aztecs and Incas as early as 700 A.D. and their introduction to Europe during the 16th century, tomatoes are one of the world’s most popular ingredients.
However, many people are unaware how good they can actually be for us. Tomatoes are low in calories and packed with health-promoting nutrients such as vitamins A and C, potassium and the super anti-oxidant called lycopene. Lycopene is a carotenoid that supports heart health by reducing the tendency of blood to form clots and promotes healthy cholesterol levels. It's also been found to be a potent hedge against many kinds of cancer. Tomatoes are so incredibly versatile making them crazy easy to incorporate into almost any meal. Here are our top ten:
1. Toss them: Simply toss fresh cherry tomatoes in a salad with fresh crisp lettuces and toss with your favorite dressing. Or, set a pot of water on the stove to cook pasta and place a sauté pan over medium heat. Toss cherry tomatoes in the pan and allow them to slowing cook until they “melt.” Add torn basil, a crushed garlic clove, salt and coarsely ground black pepper and simmer until pasta is cooked and drained. Pour this simple sauce over the pasta and toss. Don’t forget the grated Parmesan cheese.
2. Slice them: There are few things better on the entire planet than a fresh caprese salad! Freshly sliced tomatoes layered with fresh mozzarella and just-picked basil leaves; nirvana. Lactose intolerant? No worries… try a Japanese chilled tofu dish called hi-yayakko. Alternate slices of tomato and best-quality sliced tofu, firm or soft. Make a dressing of olive oil, soy sauce, seasoned rice wine vinegar, ginger, garlic and a touch of sugar to taste then top with slivered green onions.
3. Chop them: Coarsely chop tomatoes into a mixing bowl, salt them well with about one full pinch per cup and let them macerate for 20 minutes. If you don’t care about seeds and skins, you will end up with firmer, more flavorful tomato dice and a lot of delicious juice waiting to saturate any ingredients you mix with the tomatoes. Add a bit of garlic and fresh herbs and, Presto! – Bruschetta!
4. Grate them: This is my favorite tomato trick of all time. Cut the tomato in half through the equator, pluck out the seeds with your fingers and grate the cut side against the large holes in a box grater set over a bowl. You will end up with a bowlful of gorgeous tomato flesh and a naked skin in your palm within seconds. What do you do with it? I like to keep going with other vegetables and grate cucumbers, peppers and a little onion for a quick, coarse-textured gazpacho that you season with oil, vinegar, salt and fresh herbs.
5. Strain them: Blanch four large tomatoes in boiling water to easily remove skins. Once cooled and peeled, coarsely chop tomatoes in a food processor with a couple of teaspoons of salt. Pour into the chopped tomatoes over several thicknesses of folded cheesecloth in a sieve and drain the excess liquid from the pulp (reserving the liquid.) Use the pulp to make a quick tomato sauce for pizza, pasta or meatloaf. If you’re an epicurean, use the reserved tomato water in a refreshing agua fresca or to make an amazing tomato martini.
6. Juice them: Blanch the tomatoes as above and pureed the peeled tomatoes in a food processor along with a rib of celery, several mini peeled carrots and a bit of chopped onion. Heat the juice until just boiling in a sauce pan and simmer for about 20 minutes. Season the juice with a pinch of sugar and salt to taste. If you prefer a smoother juice, you can strain the puree through a sieve before using it to make the best Bloody Mary ever!
7. Cream them: Start by sautéing a chopped onion in butter in a pot. Add a couple of cloves of minced garlic and four to five big tomatoes that have been chopped. Add a spoonful of tomato paste and three to four cups of chicken or vegetable stock. Add two spoonfuls of raw rice. Bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes, until rice is cooked. Puree in the blender, strain the skins through a sieve and reheat in a saucepan with salt, pepper and a healthy glug of cream or half-and-half. Serve this amazing tomato bisque with garlic bread or a classic grilled cheese sandwich.
8. Freeze them: Remember that tomato pulp from above? Good, now throw four cups of it into the blender with a half cup of cilantro leaves, the juice of a couple of limes and a squirt of your favorite hot sauce. Pour the resulting goop over a cookie sheet and place it in the freezer. Every 20 minutes or so, scrape the frozen edges to the center of the pan with a fork. When you have nothing but red flakes of crystallized ice, you have spicy tomato granita. Place in a covered container and freeze until ready to eat. This makes a fancy and unexpected appetizer or dessert.
9. Roast them: Cut the tomatoes in half through the equator and place cut side up in a 13-by-9-inch baking pan. Sprinkle the top with chopped garlic and any herbs you like along with salt and a generous drizzle of olive oil. Bake at 325 degrees F for about two hours, watching to make sure they’re not drying out too quickly. If they’re still very juicy, turn up the heat to 400 and cook for a few more minutes until the juices start to caramelize. Pull the skins off with your fingers and use them as is or mash with a spoon to a nice tomato paste consistency before using.
10. Preserve them: Just like the many other fruits of summer, tomatoes make a wonderful jam. Combine about a pound and a half of good ripe tomatoes (coarsely chopped), one jalapeno or other pepper that has been stemmed, seeded and minced, a cup of sugar, juice of two limes, a tablespoon of grated ginger, a teaspoon of salt and of ground cumin, a big pinch of cinnamon and a small pinch of ground cloves in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring often. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, about 1 hour 15 minutes until the mixture has the consistency of thick jam, Taste and adjust seasoning, and then cool and refrigerate until ready to use; this will keep at least a week. This jam can be canning and processed in a water bath and preserved for months.