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Late… but Luscious: Tomato Season at Last!

Fat, juicy red “slicers,” jewel-colored lumpy-bumpy heirlooms and sweet, pop-in-your-mouth cherry tomatoes are finally ripening in fields and gardens around the Bay Area. Delayed by this year’s cold, wet weather, tomatoes were slow to grow, then flooded in the fields. Growers replanted, giving a late start to our July-to-October season.

Now that they’re finally here, nothing beats freshly picked, sun-warmed tomatoes brought directly to the table, sliced thick and placed on fresh bread with mayonnaise and sprinkling of salt and pepper. In a word: perfection! I keep baskets full of these lovelies, all shapes, sizes and colors on my kitchen counters and chop, slice and mix them according to my mood. With my trusty stock of extra virgin olive oil, good-quality balsamic vinegar, fresh basil, garlic, parmesan, salt and pepper, I can conjure up fabulous eats in a flash.  Just think brilliant, multi-colored tomato-basil bruschetta with a glass of cool white wine, salads filled with fresh vegetables and herbs and savory tarts that become art—the possibilities are endless.

Did you know that tomatoes are native to western South America, and still grow wild in the area that we know as Peru today? It is thought that birds carried their seeds to Mexico where the Aztecs named them “Nahuatl (round and plump), and began cultivating them around 700 A.D.

Eight hundreds later, Spanish conqueror Hernando Cortéz discovered tomatoes growing in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán (later named Mexico City). Cortéz shipped seeds home to Spain, where some Europeans feared them poisonous, due to their distant connection to the deadly nightshade family. Tomatoes were grown strictly as ornamental plants until some brave or ignorant soul sampled one, found it tasty and lived to tell about it. As their acceptance and popularity grew, tomatoes became an important ingredient in European cuisines.

We can thank early settlers for bringing tomato seeds to the New World. History tells us that President Thomas Jefferson, a master gardener, grew tomatoes at his famed Virginia estate. Today tomatoes are important crops in California and Florida.

How to select tomatoes:

1. Choose firm, plump, fully colored tomatoes with tight skins for best flavor and nutrition.

2. Reject tomatoes with blemishes, breaks, bruises, wrinkled skins or mold.

3. Sniff the blossom end for a deep tomato scent. If lacking, don’t expect much flavor.

4. Heirlooms, unlike other tomatoes, should not be firm to the touch, but rather should yield to gentle pressure. Buy only what you can eat in a day or two as they have thin skins and spoil more quickly than thick-skinned, mass-market varieties.

5. Most important never, never, never store tomatoes in the refrigerator. They won’t turn into gremlins after midnight, but will lose significant flavor and texture when stored at temperatures under 50 degrees.

And my personal tip: when shopping at farmer’s markets, be vigilant that you deal only with local growers and their representatives. Some markets allow outside independent vendors that fill up their trucks at central produce markets, then sell their products labeled as farm fresh. Almost always, you are getting the same mass-market produce you’d get at a grocery chain—not the premium, locally grown treasures you’d expect from an authentic farm stand.

I discovered and confirmed this practice several years ago when I bought very early-season, expensive heirlooms at a famer’s market, then found the exact same tomatoes at my local grocery that afternoon. With a little research, I soon discovered that the only available heirlooms were coming from Mexican hot houses, not local farms. Who knew? I was angry and disappointed but much wiser.

Happy eating and enjoy a long, delicious season.

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