Italian pasta sauce, tomato soup, chutney, stuffed tomatoes, bruschetta... tomato is a key flavour in many, many recipes. Tomatoes are a round, typically red vegetable fruit with firm, mildly sour flesh and edible seeds. They vary in size and shape from small cherry tomatoes, to oval-shaped plum tomatoes, to big slicing or beef tomatoes, such as Marmande, Jack Hawkins, Alicante and Brandywine. Thanks to our rediscovery of heirloom tomato varieties and the development of new varieties, tomatoes can be seen hanging from their trusses in various shades of yellow, orange, green, brown, pink, purple, black, white or stripy.
Tomatoes are also available canned and sun-dried. Canned tomatoes often come from Italy where the strong sun has ripened flavoursome varieties. You will get more flavour from good-quality canned tomatoes than from pallid fresh ones. Sun-dried tomatoes are dehydrated tomatoes with a chewy texture and intensely savoury flavour. They can be eaten as antipasti, added to sandwiches, or chopped finely and added to salads.
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So often thought of as a summer vegetable fruit, tomatoes actually improve as the summer progresses, so tomatoes bought at the beginning of autumn will have a most intense flavour. The flavour depends largely upon the variety and how the fruit has been grown and ripened: some cheap imported tomatoes are grown under polytunnels, picked under-ripe, then artificially ripened with ethylene gas, a plant hormone. Sun-warmed tomatoes picked straight from the vine are arguably the ideal way to enjoy tomatoes. Tomatoes are available to buy on and off the vine from supermarkets and farmers' markets.
When choosing tomatoes, pick them up, feel them and smell them. Choose tomatoes that feel heavy for their size; they are more likely to be bursting with juices. Tomatoes with no smell will probably have no flavour, so opt for those with a pleasant aroma (although the aroma released by tomatoes on the vine are usually due more to the vine than the tomatoes themselves).
Sun-dried tomatoes are available from some supermarkets and Italian delicatessens.
Get more flavour from tomatoes by removing the plastic packaging and leaving them in a fruit bowl in a sunny spot to 'breathe' and ripen. Never put them in the fridge as this will diminish their flavour and damage their texture. Tomatoes do not withstand freezing very well. Use under-ripe, green tomatoes for making chutney and over-ripe tomatoes to make soups or sauces - these can then be frozen for up to six months.
Tomatoes marry well with all sorts of other flavours. High in glutamic acid, which creates the so-called fifth taste 'umami' (loosely translated as 'savoury'), they enhance meat and fish dishes. Garlic and onion add to its deeply savoury nature while basil, thyme, oregano and mint all work their own aromatic magic. Peppers, aubergines and potatoes hail from the same family as the tomato and complement each other well.
For maximum flavour, it's better to leave both the skin and the seeds and surrounding jelly intact, as this is where much of the flavour is stored. If cooking them, use the whole lot and then sieve out the skin and pips after cooking.
Some recipes call for skinned and de-seeded tomatoes. To prepare tomatoes in this way, use a sharp knife to make a small cross in the bottom of each tomato, place in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Leave for 15-30 seconds, drain and refresh in cold water. Use you fingers to peel away the skin (it should pull away easily) then quarter the tomatoes and push out the seeds.
An easy way to improve indifferent tomatoes is to oven-dry them. Halve the tomatoes, sprinkle with salt, sugar and pepper and dry them in a low oven (100C/200F/Gas ½) for 2-4 hours to intensify the flavour. Turn the oven off and leave the tomatoes overnight.