Tomato Tasting

This post originally appeared in the Bloomington Herald Times on August 24, 2005

"Wow, this is amazing," I heard one woman say at the tomato
tasting at last Saturday’s farmer’s market. "It tastes just like
fruit."

"It is fruit," her male companion replied. She looked blank.
"It is?"

Yes, it is. Technically, if not legally (but that’s another story), the
tomato is a fruit. Tough to imagine, maybe, staring at the hard, anemic balls
of blandness the supermarkets sell, but not at all difficult to get your head
around at the tasting, where there were 20 or more juicy, colorful and fragrant
varieties on display and where exclamations like "This one tastes just
like melon!" rang out from curious tasters.

Supported by Bloomington Parks andRecreation and
Slow Food Bloomington (slowfoodbloomington.org), and organized by Robin Hobson
and Kim Johnson, the tasting offered more than 150 pounds of tomatoes, all
grown by local farmers and available for sale at the market. The variety was
astounding (although a mere sampling of the hundreds that are available.)

There were Prudens purples and Cherokee purples – both deep wine-colored
red with green shoulders, rich and sweet. The Mr. Stripeys and German stripes
were gorgeous – red fading to orange, looking like summer sunsets when you
sliced them, and tasting and vibrant as the Burbank slicers,  brandywines, Boxcar Willies,
Cuostralees, and oxheart Ukrainians. Among the nearly seedless tomatoes, great
for making sauce, were Italian pastes, golden Romas, banana legs, and San
Marzanos. There were tomatoes that are green when ripe – green zebra (my own
favorite, acidy and delicious) and Aunt Ruby’s German green (among the
prettiest, a beautiful green with a hint of rose in the center of the slice.)

And then the ones that were in categories of their own: Soldacki slicers
(pink and meaty), peach tomatoes (with a downy skin like a, well, like a peach,
and Jaune flammes (a deep orange, very sweet.)

All these stupendous tomatoes were heirlooms – open-pollinated varieties
that have been bred for flavor, pure and simple, and not for shelf-life or
good-looks or any other commercial concerns. It’s an irony that, while all
tomatoes used to be heirlooms (they are those "old fashioned"
tomatoes so many of us remember from our youth), these days, with our palates
bored to death by the unfortunate effects of hybridization, we need to be
reeducated about how good a tomato can be.

So Saturday’s tasting was kind of like tomato school. About 2,500 to
3,000 "students" lined up over the course of the hot and muggy
morning to get a lesson in tomato appreciation. For some tasters, heirlooms
were old-hat familiar, for others they were a novelty; for almost all they were
a pleasure. Some picked tiny wedges of tomato up with toothpicks, savoring each
one and trying to settle on a favorite; others just scooped them lavishly onto
their plates with a spoon, merging them into a multicolored salad.

Not everyone was convinced, however. One young girl, the daughter of one
of the farmers at the market whose tomatoes were featured at the tasting, came
up to get a sampler plate for her mom. Urged to try them herself, she shook her
head. "No," she said unequivocally, "I hate tomatoes."
Clever tomato-tasters tried to trick her – asking her how she felt about ketchup.
She was unmoved – ketchup was fine but no tomatoes for her. She loaded up the
plate for her mom and ran off.

So that got us started talking about all the varieties of ketchups there
are too, but that’s something better left for a future column.

Next week, Food Fare partner Jennifer Piurek will tell us what should
fill our Labor Day picnic basket.
 

Tomato Pizza

I ran this recipe with a tomato column a couple of years ago, and it’s
still my favorite way to eat great tomatoes (outside of a classic tomato
sandwich), so here it is again. This pizza is very simple. There is no sauce,
just the juices released from the tomatoes. The pure and perfect taste of
summer.

Basic pizza dough. Use your favorite recipe or about 2 pounds of
purchased dough, or two large or four to six individual-sized prebaked crusts)

Vegetable oil for brushing if using a pizza pan instead of a pizza stone

Cornmeal for dusting, if using a pizza peel to insert and remove pizza
from oven

Olive oil, preferably extra virgin, for brushing crust and drizzling on
top

3 cups freshly shredded high quality mozzarella (about 12 ounces)

3 pounds vine-ripened tomatoes, preferably red, orange, yellow and green
striped varieties, peeled if desired, and sliced

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Fresh herbs such as basil or dill, chopped

Prepare dough, set aside to rise, and preheat oven to 500 degrees. If
using purchased dough or crusts, set aside.

Brush a pizza screen or a ventilated pizza pan with vegetable oil or
dust a pizza peel with cornmeal; set aside.

On a floured surface, roll out the dough and shape it. You will be
making two largish-sized pizzas. Place crusts on the prepared screen, pan or
peel.

Brush the raw dough or the prebaked crust all over with olive oil, then
top with the cheese, leaving a 1/2-inch border around the edges. Distribute the
tomatoes over the cheese, sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste, and drizzle
evenly with olive oil.

Transfer the pie to the preheated oven and bake until the crust is crisp
and the cheese and tomatoes are bubbly, about eight minutes for prebaked
crusts, or 10 to 15 minutes for fresh dough. (Watch this – ours are always done
sooner!)

Remove from the oven to a cutting tray or board and lightly brush the
edges of the crust with olive oil. Garnish with chopped herbs. Slice and serve
immediately.

Makes four to six main course servings, or eight to 10 appetizer
servings.

From James McNair’s Vegetarian Pizza.

San Francisco

: Chronicle Books, 1993. 

Local heirloom tomato growers

The selection of tomatoes at the tasting was great, and all will be
available at the Saturday morning market for the next few weeks from the
following farmers:

• Ernie Biltz

• Aaron Zeis of

Center

Valley

Organic Farm

• Anthony Blondin of Sun Circle Farm

• Jono Navota

• Ervin Stoll

• Melissa Evard of One Sky Organic Farm

• Bruce McCallister of

Goose
  Creek

Farm

• Marcia Veldman of Meadowlark Organic Farm (only at the Farmers Market
in the Bloomingfoods Parking Lot on Wednesdays)

• Amy Countryman of Deer Heart Woods

• Theresa Birtles of Heartland Family Farm

• Jeff and Liz Padgett

• Don Dunkerly

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