August is tomato time in Sussex County

August 18, 2023

It’s prime time for tomatoes. Vine-ripened beauties are piled high at farmers markets, roadside stands and grocery-store aisles. Instead of the desiccated, cardboard-like texture of tomatoes we find the rest of the year, this is the best time to enjoy the true taste of fresh tomatoes. This may also be a good time to address some of the myths and rumors about this summer favorite.

First of all, tomatoes are not poisonous, despite their botanical name, Lycopersicon, which translates to “wolf peach,” or poison in a pretty package. Another reason they were viewed with suspicion is their membership in the nightshade family, which contains many poisonous plants along with edible ones like eggplant, peppers and potatoes. The primary reason they may have been considered dangerous is because the eating utensils made in the 16th century were pewter alloy. The highly acidic tomatoes would leach the poisonous lead from plates and flatware.

Another curious characteristic ascribed to the tomato is its reputation as an aphrodisiac, which is offered as the reason why it was shunned by the Puritans. The original Italian phrase for tomato was “pomme de Maure” or “apple of the Moors,” most likely because it was imported to Europe from the New World by the Spanish (sometimes referred to as the Moorish). This may also explain the romantic connection, as the similar-sounding French phrase is “pomme d’amour” or apple of love. 

In addition to the debate about the correct pronunciation for the word (according to the song, “you say toh-may-toh, I say toh-mah-toh”) we also have the fruit versus vegetable debate. From a botanical point of view, a fruit is the part of the plant that has edible (often succulent) fleshy material covering its seeds. Vegetables are defined from an agricultural perspective as plants cultivated for food. Technically, tomatoes are both or either, depending upon the context. Legally, however, the tomato is classified as a vegetable, thanks to an 1893 Supreme Court ruling to clarify import tariffs (importers had claimed it was a fruit to avoid paying taxes).  

Now that you’re fully versed in tomato lore, here are some recipe ideas. A quick tomato salad is one of our favorites. Simply slice, halve or quarter any type of freshly picked tomato (I like to mix up the colors and varieties in the photo), and place the pieces in a colander with a generous sprinkle of salt. While the tomatoes sit for 10 or 15 minutes, the salt helps concentrate their flavor. To serve, scatter the tomatoes on a serving plate, and sprinkle with basil, sliced shallots, a drizzle of Balsamic vinaigrette and freshly ground pepper.

Ever since Campbells started canning condensed soup, tomato has been one of the top sellers. In the middle of summer, it’s challenging to consider a bowl of soup, unless it’s cold. I’ve included a recipe for chilled tomato basil soup as an alternative to the ubiquitous gazpacho found on many summer menus. The extra sweetness in this soup comes from the carrots, while basil adds the ideal flavor balance. Be sure to add a tomato dish to your next summer menu. 

Fresh Tomato Salad

1 lb mixed tomatoes
1/4 t kosher salt
1 sliced shallot
6 basil leaves
1 t fresh oregano leaves
1 T Balsamic vinegar
3 T olive oil
1 T lemon juice

Slice the tomatoes in half or into quarters to form bite-sized pieces. Place tomatoes in a colander and sprinkle with salt. Allow to rest for 10 to 15 minutes. Arrange tomatoes on a serving platter and toss shallot slices on them. Stack the basil leaves, roll them up and thinly slice (chiffonade), then sprinkle over the tomatoes. In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk together the oregano, vinegar, oil and lemon juice. Drizzle dressing over tomatoes and finish with freshly ground black pepper; garnish with basil sprigs.

Chilled Tomato Basil Soup

3 T olive oil
3 chopped carrots
1 chopped onion
4 C vegetable broth
1 t fresh thyme
1/4 t paprika
1 C tomato juice
3 lbs peeled, chopped tomatoes
1/2 C basil leaves
salt & pepper, to taste
basil ribbons for garnish
Balsamic vinegar for garnish

In a large soup pot, heat the olive oil, and sauté the carrots and onion for about 5 minutes. Stir in the broth, thyme and paprika; bring to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the tomato juice, chopped tomatoes and 1/2 C basil. Simmer over medium-low heat until thickened, about 35 to 45 minutes. Remove from heat and purée the soup in a food processor or with an immersion blender.  Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper; refrigerate the soup overnight. To serve, garnish with basil ribbons and a drizzle of Balsamic vinegar. Yield: 6 to 8 servings. 

Tomato & Corn Salad

2 C fresh corn kernels
2 large ripe tomatoes
5 sliced scallions
3 T chopped cilantro
1/4 C olive oil
3 T rice wine vinegar
juice of 1 lime
salt & pepper

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Place corn in a steamer basket, set over the water, cover and steam for 3 minutes. Core and seed the tomatoes; chop into bite-size pieces. Combine corn, tomatoes, scallions and cilantro in a serving bowl. Whisk together oil, vinegar and lime juice; pour over vegetables and toss to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Yield: 4 servings.


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