I have a precise memory of my grandmother bending to her tomatoes on a late summer afternoon in her New Jersey garden, of how gently she set each one in the basket at her feet like a precious egg.
Some were sun split, others furrowed and tinged with green. Through the season, we ate tomatoes every night, sliced and dabbed with "good" mayonnaise (Hellmann's) and scattered with chopped parsley and basil or simmered into a lush thick pasta sauce redolent with garlic. She taught me to avoid tomatoes after the first frost because living without I could better appreciate their arrival the next year.
Right now, local tomatoes are at their peak. In our farmers markets and co-ops you'll find literally hundreds of varieties in a rainbow of colors — red, orange, yellow, white, pink, purple, black, green and striped — grown from heirloom seeds for taste. The term "heirloom" refers to the way the seeds have been preserved and sustained, not the particular varieties of seeds. Here's a quick guide to what you'll find.
Slicers such as Beefsteak, Brandywine, Green Zebra, Cherokee Purple and Black Krim are big, beefy, juicy and relatively mild tomatoes. They're best sliced and served on their own in a puddle of sharp vinaigrette, tossed into salads, and layered on bruschetta and sandwiches.
Plum tomatoes such as San Marzano, Amish Paste and the ribbed Costoluto Genovese are thick and meaty, high in acid and packed with flavor, great for soups and sauces.
Cherry tomatoes and the diminutive and pretty red, gold, pear-shaped varieties explode with snappy, bright, tart-sweet flavor. They're great for snacking, and fabulous when roasted with a little olive oil on a sheet pan until they split.
When shopping, a pound of tomatoes will yield about 1 ½ cups of chopped tomatoes and serve about four to six people. The best tomatoes are sun-ripened, so resist the ones that are not fully ripe (they'll be pale and hard). When you get the tomatoes home, do not refrigerate. Store them in a cool dark corner or in the cupboard. Refrigerate the tomatoes once they've been sliced and use right away — they don't keep long.
Older cookbooks advise peeling, juicing and seeding tomatoes because these were considered an impediment to flavor and texture. But we now know that much of a tomato's character resides in the jell surrounding the seeds. I hardly ever bother to peel tomatoes, preferring the rough texture in a sauce or a baked dish. But peeling is an easy matter of dunking the tomato in boiling water for a few seconds, then removing the skin with a sharp knife. Eat tomatoes fresh or cook them well. There's really no in between.
Fresh local tomatoes power our summer meals, from drippy BLT sandwiches and simple salads to hearty ratatouilles and creamy soups. And as with summer, I just can't get enough of such good things.
Caprese Salad With Shrimp
Note: This classy salad couldn't be easier. Here we've added shrimp and slices of young seedless cucumbers; sliced peppers and blanched green beans would work nicely, too. Vary the cheeses, subbing out fresh chèvre for the mozzarella and toss in a few black olives for fun. Arrange the components separately, and encourage diners to plate their own. From Beth Dooley.
• 1 to 1 1/2 lb. mixed slicer and cherry tomatoes
• 3 young, thin seedless cucumbers
• 1/2 lb. fresh mozzarella, balls or cubed
• 1/2 lb. cooked shrimp
• 1 bunch basil leaves
• 1/4 c. fresh lemon juice
• 1 tsp. Dijon mustard
• 1/2 c. extra-virgin olive oil
• Coarsely ground black pepper
• Flaky sea salt
• Pinch red pepper flakes
Slice the larger tomatoes into wheels and wedges and arrange on a platter and scatter with the cherry tomatoes. Slice the cucumbers in half horizontally, then into wedges and arrange next to the tomatoes. Put the mozzarella and the shrimp into separate bowls.
Finely chop 6 to 8 basil leaves (about 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons) and turn into a small bowl. Whisk in lemon juice and mustard, then whisk in the olive oil. Drizzle over the tomatoes and pour the rest into a serving bowl. Sprinkle the components with pepper and salt and garnish the mozzarella with the red pepper flakes. Serve and encourage diners to build their own plates.
Serves 4 to 6.
Note: This classic French dish of summer vegetables requires some time in the oven. It tastes even better the next day, served warm or at room temperature. Most recipes call for cooking each of the vegetables separately before combining them in the baking dish. But it works nicely, if not quite as prettily, to pile them all together and bake everything at once. From Beth Dooley.
• 1 1/2 lb. tomatoes, mixed slicer, plum and cherry
• 4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
• 1/2 c. chopped flat-leaf parsley
• 10 large basil leaves, torn
• 1 small eggplant (1 lb.), cut into 1-in. cubes
• 1 large onion, quartered lengthwise and thinly sliced
• 1 large (1/2 lb.) zucchini, cut into 1-in. pieces
• 1/4 c. extra-virgin olive oil
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper
• 1/4 c. grated Parmesan cheese, optional
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Slice the larger tomatoes into quarters, then into 1- to 2-inch pieces and turn them, along with the cherry tomatoes, into a bowl. Add the garlic, parsley, basil, eggplant, onion, zucchini and enough of the olive oil to generously coat. Season with the salt and pepper.
Transfer the vegetables into a 2- to 2 1/2-quart casserole dish, and drizzle with any remaining oil. Cover the dish with a lid or aluminum foil. Bake until the vegetables are very tender, about 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Remove the lid and continue baking until the juices have evaporated, another 15 to 20 minutes. Scatter the cheese over the vegetables and return to bake until bubbly and browned. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Tex-Mex Tomato, Corn and Squash Skillet
Serves 4 to 6.
Note: Serve this summer medley in low bowls with plenty of crusty bread to sop up the goodness or as a bed for grilled chicken or pork. From Beth Dooley.
• 2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
• 2 cloves garlic, minced
• 2 large slicer or plum tomatoes (about 1 to 1 1/2 lb.), halved and chopped
• 1 lb. zucchini, cut into 1/2-in. pieces
• 1 c. fresh corn kernels (about 1 to 2 ears)
• 1/2 c. shredded Cheddar cheese, or more to taste
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
• Crusty bread
Heat the oil in a 10- to 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, tomatoes and zucchini and continue cooking, stirring, until the tomatoes have released all their juices and the zucchini is very tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to a simmer, add the corn, and stir in the cheese. Season with the salt and pepper. Cover and continue simmering until the cheese is melted, about 1 to 2 minutes. Serve in bowls with crusty bread.
Beth Dooley is the author of "The Perennial Kitchen." Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.