by Sarah Lagrotteria
Tomatoes are one fruit, yes, fruit, that tend to appear consistently on kitchen tables, regardless of the season. But now that the days are hot, tomatoes are at their peak, and the best of the bunch are showing up at markets and restaurants around the city. Americans love their tomatoes fresh in salads and sandwiches, simmered in soups and sautéed fresh in pasta. Canned tomatoes are of course, also popular, particularly for pastas, but it is the fresh fruit that is a regular item on grocery lists throughout the countries.
Supermarkets reflect American’s want of this antioxidant-rich, cancer-fighting fruit; produce aisles are stocked year round with large beefsteak and tiny grape or cherry tomatoes. But the tomato growing season is actually fairly short, and the tomatoes we find mid-winter are greenhouse grown, and often lacking the sun-ripened taste that make late summer tomatoes, just like summer nectarines and figs, so sweet. Chances are, many people who buy tomatoes year round at the grocery store have never eaten a just-ripened, farm-fresh tomato.
Now that tomato season is officially upon us, we at Babbo thought we would share some of the names of our favorite tomato suppliers, as well as a bit of tomato history. Now is the time to reacquaint ourselves with just how good a tomato can be.
Though now associated with American farm fields and Italian gardens, South American Indians living in the Andes Mountains originally cultivated tomatoes. Spanish explorers introduced the tomato to Europeans in the 16th Century. While France, Italy and Spain eagerly incorporated the new fruit into their cuisines, the English and the Americans were wary; believing tomatoes to be poisonous until the 19th Century. Today, tomatoes are cultivated around the world, and hundreds of varieties exist. At Babbo, we predominantly use Heirloom and Sungold tomatoes.
We buy our Heirloom tomatoes from Guy Jones at Blooming Hills Farm in upstate New York. The name ‘heirloom’ refers to the fact the tomatoes are not bred for a certain appearance or longevity. In other words, these are the same irregularly shaped, brightly colored tomatoes that our grandparents and great-grandparents would have eaten, not a strain that was developed in a lab for longevity. As a result, heirloom tomatoes are wonderfully flavorful, should be eaten soon after being picked, and may have an extremely odd shape. The emphasis here is on taste, not shelf-life.
Tim Stark of Eckerton Hills Farms in Pennsylvania also grows beautiful heirloom tomatoes that can be found at the Union Square Greenmarket.
At Babbo, we also use Sungold tomatoes, which we purchase from Cherry Lane Farms of Roadstown in Bridgeton, NJ. Sungold tomatoes, like cherry or grape tomatoes, are one of the smaller tomato varieties. Sungold tomatoes are particularly sweet, even occasionally called “dessert tomatoes.” They grow to be the size and shape of cherries, and need direct, full-on sunlight to develop into varying shades of orange and gold. They add sweetness to a fish dish and are wonderful in salads.