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,
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.
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
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
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
• Anthony Blondin of Sun Circle Farm
• Jono Navota
• Ervin Stoll
• Melissa Evard of One Sky Organic Farm
• Bruce McCallister of Goose
• 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