Most vegetables are better bought fresh. But with tomatoes this is no certainty. The general run-of-the-mill store-bought tomatoes are fit for no culinary purpose. They are bred to resist bruising during shipping. Period. Interestingly, even premium 'vine ripened' tomatoes arrive at the supermarket well shy of ripe. At least they are not green. And, if left in a bright window for two or three days, these premium tomatoes will be perfectly suited for salads and sandwiches. I have lived near enough to real tomato plants to enjoy tomatoes that can be thickly sliced and eaten off the plate with a little mayonnaise or balsamic vinegar and olive oil. And these can only be had if you grow them yourself or get them from a farm stand. Truth is, most of the best tomato-based foods involve cooked tomatoes.
It's ketchup and spaghetti sauce that prove that the cooked tomato is frequently better than the uncooked one. Part of this because the flavor is in the pulp. The seeds, matter surrounding the seeds, and skin are there for the tomatoe's convenience, not for flavor. Tomato paste is used in ketchup and spaghetti sauce; and it is a distillation or concentration of the ripe tomato flavor. It is basically tomato pulp cooked down to remove a large portion of the water. Nothing but pure, thick tomato flavor is left. And so it makes sense that the powerful anti-oxidant lycopene is so highly concentrated in cooked tomato preparations - especially in those made with tomato paste.
Here are some strategies for using tomatoes effectively in recipes.
I note that there are two kinds of tomato sauces. One is made slowly, usually from canned tomatoes and paste. This is the kind we are familiar with. It is pervasive, and good versions of it are available cheaply in jars. The second is made very quickly from garden fresh tomatoes. Start by cutting open a pound of tomato, squeezing out and discarding the seeds, chopping the rest coarsely. Saute any vegetables you want in the sauce that will not be tomatoes - onion and garlic. Remove these, and preheat the pan coated with olive oil until it is just a few degrees shy of the smoke point. Add the tomatoes stir frequently until done, which will be maybe three to five minutes. Add the other veggies and some fresh basil. Toss. Serve on pasta.
This sauce has a 'smell of the garden' that is very subtle but very enjoyable. It is somewhat redolent of roses. Cook the sauce a minute too long and this smell is gone. The whole thing doesn't take ten minutes; it can be made while the pasta is cooking.
Cooking intensifies tomato flavor; but drying does so much more. The dried tomato is an object of rare culinary intensity and deserves to be used much more widely. In the grand scheme of cooking ingredients, though, the dried tomato is a newcomer, so most of the great recipes remain to be invented.
Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.