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A tomato a day (at least)

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

You've probably been seeing a lot of red lately. Not because you've been blinded by rage or experiencing optical troubles (at least, I hope not), but because it's officially tomato season.

Instagram is flooded with crimson-tinted pictures of the juicy fruit, tossed into salads or arranged onto toast in perfect slices. Restaurants are serving specials starring the savory skins and sweet pulp. And, best of all, farmers' markets from California to Italy are filled to the bursting with tomatoes of all varieties — from little, oval-shaped datterini to fat, lumpy, pale green and red cuori di bue.

It's a great time for me to be taking my second culinary course, Tradition of Italian Food 1, which of course has an entire class dedicated to the history and use of Italy's favorite fruit: il pomodoro (the tomato).

Did you know that tomatoes are often treated like vegetables instead of fruit not only because of their low sugar content (3%), but also because of their high percentage of glutamic acid (0.3%)? That's the amino acid responsible for the super-savory umami flavor in things like meat, mushrooms and soy sauce — and it's the reason why tomatoes taste so flippin' good with beef and pork in pasta Bolognese.

The tomato can also lend different flavors to dishes based on which parts of the fruit you use. If you want a full-on, intense tomato flavor in a tomato sauce, for example, you should use the whole fruit — green pith and all — for sweet, acidic and herbaceous notes.

The pappa al pomodoro, Tuscan bread soup, we made in class on tomato day

If you're making a sweeter, tomato-based soup like pappa al pomodoro, you can leave out the skins, jelly and pith and use only the flesh for a smoother flavor. I was also surprised to learn that you can use tomatoes' liquidy, seed-filled "jelly" in place of vinegar in a dressing, since the jelly is the most acidic part of the fruit.

Even more interesting than the anatomy of the versatile tomato, though, is its sheer abundance in the soils of the world. The fruit has origins in southern North, Central and South America, but it now has hundreds of varieties in Italy alone. That's a lot of tomatoes, which means that we should all make it our annual summer mission to sample as many varieties as we can, determine our favorites and spread the word.

My loot from a Saturday-morning trip to Mercato Centrale

So, many recent mornings, with a fistful of not that many euros and a mind dancing with essential Italian shopping phrases (like "un mezzo chilo di pomodori, per favore"), I've charged off to several Florentine markets in search of unfamiliar tomatoes. Here are my findings:

Florentine tomatoes

My favorite: Fiorentina. Slightly lumpy in a perfect-looking way, medium-size Florentine tomatoes are a favorite of my teacher, Chef Lorenzo, and I understood why at first bite. They're sweet, juicy and beautiful when sliced, which means that salt, olive oil and basil are really all you need to enjoy them.

Canestrino tomatoes

A fun one: Cuori di bue ("beef heart"). Nearly the size of a bulging cow's heart, these knobbly, bottom-heavy, multi-colored pomodori add a striking visual element to any tomato dish, especially when they're sliced into thick rounds or wedges. Flavor-wise, they're more savory than Florentine tomatoes, and I think they'd taste great in just about any sandwich or salad. I'd compare them to canestrino tomatoes, pictured above.

Piccadilly tomatoes

Interesting! Cherry/piccadilly/datterini. Though the word "cherry" might make you think of pie, tiny tomatoes are generally more tart than sugary. This makes sense; they're all skin and seeds. They're not my favorite to eat fresh, but they're tasty when cooked down a bit for a quick pasta sauce or in recipes like eggs in purgatory.

Whichever variety you try, there is one non-negotiable rule in the realm of tomato eating: The fruit must be salted. Salt will draw out the tomato's natural flavors and make it taste more tomato-y than anything else will. Also, a good drizzle of olive oil never hurts. Oh, and go buy them at a farmers market! It's fun, it's a great opportunity to learn about tomatoes and other produce, and who knows what those grocery-store tomatoes have been through.

While I'm still searching for my favorite types of tomatoes, I've pretty much nailed down my favorite way to consume them. My inner healthy girl knows that I need only good tomatoes, olive oil and salt to feel satisfied, but my inner glutton has lived long enough to know that everything is better with bread and cheese. A non-recipe recipe for you:

I stink and forgot which type of tomato this was, but it's one of the lumpy ones pictured in my Mercato Centrale loot photo!

Tomato toast with cheese, basil and olive oil

--Your favorite tomato, sliced into hearty inch-thick medallions

--A thick and hearty slice of your favorite bread (In Italy, I'm partial to pillowy, olive-oily focaccia or classically Florentine schiacciata bread, but if I were back in the states I'd definitely use sourdough.)

--A few big spoonfuls of spreadable cheese, such as ricotta or burrata

--A couple big pinches of salt

--A generous drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil

--A few fresh basil leaves

Toast the bread until it has just crisped up on the outside but is still soft on the inside. When it's almost done, spread the cheese generously onto the bread and put it back in the oven to allow the cheese to get nice and gooey. Meanwhile, salt and oil the tomatoes. Put them on the cheesy bread. Top with basil. Add a bit more salt and oil if needed. Enjoy and wonder why you'd ever eat anything else.

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