When my partner and I were discussing moving in together, he told me of a family tradition. If someone in or close to the family was moving, they would be gifted flour and salt. This was practiced by his grandmother and later his mother, because as two staple ingredients, it was believed that flour and salt were also the ingredients to start a home.
When we did finally move in together, my partner and I received no such gifts. However, at our housewarming, his mum gave us two grape tomato starter plants. And let me tell you. I. WAS. ECSTATIC. For tomatoes — glorious in their red glow and so daring, albeit sometimes confusing, with their blurred stance between fruit and vegetable — which had suddenly been entrusted to me to make flourish, are absolutely my favourite thing. And not even a few of my fav-ou-rite things but the favourite. Did you get all that?
Whew! Okay, now that I’ve caught my breath, allow me to rephrase. I like tomatoes enough — they’re tasty in sandwiches and pretty good in salads, but I’d probably never touch them on a veggie tray. What I love are their transformed selves; slow roasted in a low-temperature oven to the point of collapse where they’re almost as spreadable as butter.
But raw tomatoes? They’re just okay.
(Photo by Vincent Lee)
Upon receiving our housewarming gift, my excitement stemmed from the vision of the day I would get to pop those little red jewels in the oven (and subsequently pop each one into my mouth like candy). And so I started to grow tomatoes.
I planted the starters in large pots and placed them in the sunniest spot I could find. I watered them frequently and bought cages to support their teetering height of over four feet. When little green bulbs started to bubble up I photographed them like a proud parent.
There were hard times too, like the tragic day my partner walked out to see a squirrel running away with a tomato in its mouth. Upon further inspection we discovered a total of eight ripe tomatoes (half of our bounty at the time!) has succumbed to a buck-toothed death. That was a hard blow. But I promised myself to never make such an amateurish mistake again. When the next round of tomatoes are ripe, I told myself, I’ll pick them in time.
But then something interesting happened. As I salvaged the remaining tomatoes and brought them indoors, I decided to eat one in its raw form. And I was surprised. Pleasantly surprised. Because the more I chewed the more I realized this was not some bland bite, but a perfect pearl bursting with both sweet and umami flavours — flavours that I had only associated with a slow roast.
(And YES, I said umami. Just ask Hiroshi Osaki, and Chef Ivan Orkin of Ivan Ramen.)
The notion of eating local is nothing new to me. Support your farmers, your community, your environment — that’s all easy enough to understand. But I don’t think I had really grasped the impact eating locally has on flavour.
There I was, waxing lyrical about my love for a slow roasted tomato and my dissatisfaction for the same produce in the raw. But suddenly I was blown away by the taste of an uncooked local tomato (and I mean, as local as local can come — from my backyard).
As someone who claims to love this fruit so much, I began asking myself: do I really know how to eat a tomato?
So I’ve put some thought into it. I’ve done my due diligence and found the three best way to prepare different types of tomatoes: Local, Out of Season, and Canned.
(Photo from Bon Appetit)
The heart of summer, from July to September, is when you’ll find tomatoes in their prime. The best way to enjoy a seasonal tomato and experience its exceptional flavour is in the raw.
Andy Baraghani from Bon Appetit suggests enjoying fresh tomatoes on a crusty slice of bread topped with garlic mayo, and sprinkled with chopped chives, sesame seeds, and flaky sea salt. YES PLEASE!
(Photo from Smitten Kitchen)
The top two leading producers of tomatoes are China and India. Industrial agriculture makes it possible to buy tomatoes all year round, but traveling so far means tomatoes must be harvested prematurely, sacrificing their taste.
Slow-roasting is a great way to intensify the flavour of watery tomatoes. Deb Perelman from Smitten Kitchen cooks her tomatoes for three hours at a low temperature, giving them a bright taste without the addition of salt or vinegar.
(Photo from The Kitchn)
It’s always handy to keep a couple cans of tomatoes on your shelves to make fast and mouth-watering sauces (like this plant-based bolognese). While there are many brands of canned tomatoes to choose from, I generally go for crushed Roma tomatoes from Italy with no added salt.
Buying tomatoes in a can may not look pretty, but don’t be fooled. You get the most tomato-y tomato flavour since the fruits are harvested when they’re ripe and preserved in the can. Get ready to dig in.